Welcome to a whopper of a mixtape. If you've been living under the rock 2020 dropped on all of us back in March and spent the last nine months finding comfort in the sounds of your childhood (hell, even 2019), we have some good news for you: As crappy as this year has been for anyone with a shred of empathy, the jams were ample. When the news cycle had us at a loss for words, we found quiet songs to speak for us. When we wanted to smile without looking at our phones, buoyant distractions abounded. If racism, xenophobia and sociopathic behavior made us want to scream, Black musicians found astonishingly inventive ways of saying "um, did you just start paying attention?" And since we're still stuck in this storm for the foreseeable future, we present to you a silver linings playlist: 100 songs that gave us life when we needed it most. (Find our 50 Best Albums list here.)
If there's one thing City Girls know how to do, it's stay with a bag. The Miami-hailing rap duo have always prioritized the almighty dollar in their rhymes, but in this economy especially, City Girls' exorbitant entrepreneurial anthem "Jobs" is reminding us all to diversify our sources of income. Did you start your Etsy shop or OnlyFans this year? Figure out how to make money off a hobby? Learn a new skill to save some coins? This song is yours to belt and bounce to. Matter fact, I'm surprised JT and Yung Miami haven't copyrighted "Nasty but classy, Birkin bag me" yet. —Sidney Madden
"A Hero's Death"
Any other year, it'd be steeped in irony, a deadpan poke at our frailties and frivolities, but here in 2020, "A Hero's Death" strips away our protective cloak of cynicism and trashes our attempts to appear unfazed. Sincerity is indeed currency, which is why 20 years from now, "A Hero's Death" will still resonate. It's a meditation on the love we have for our people and the value of our own self-care, bundled up in an addictive sucker punch of a track with biting hooks, Buzzcocks-esque harmonies and an elegantly chaotic, cathartic precision illuminating the simple beauty of the chorus. —Gini Mascorro (KXT 91.7)
Moses Boyd (feat. Joe Armon-Jones)
"2 Far Gone"
This highlight from Moses Boyd's Dark Matter is captivating: Boyd's drumbeat keeps driving, while the song's R&B core anchors jazzy adornments and syncopated eighth notes. Ezra Collective keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones' dexterity inspires a jazz-infused musical atmosphere of peace, a fundamentally beautiful feeling where unity prevails. —Suraya Mohamed
Disclosure (feat. slowthai & Aminé)
Nothing on pop radio went this hard in 2020. Clocking in at an indefatigable 133 beats per minute, Disclosure's "My High" is a return to the Brothers Lawrence's 2013 heights, when Settle dominated British airwaves. The track's breathless percussion resembles U.K. funky on amphetamines, with the treble and bass trying to outdo each other for a solid 5 minutes. American rapper Aminé stars as a tweaked version of Kendrick Lamar in "Don't Kill My Vibe" mode. —Otis Hart
"Living Life" is inspired by Paul McCartney's part in The Beatles song "A Day in the Life." It's the portion of the song about the mundane, everyday aspects of life. Here, Dre Babinski, a.k.a. Steady Holiday, sings, "The door opens / A woman stumbles in / Her dress is covered in her daughter's meal / She has to laugh / This is living life / This is who I am tonight." With a glorious and contagious refrain, Steady Holiday celebrates humanity in all its ordinary and wonderful ways. —Bob Boilen
"Walk Until I Ride"
From the moment that she emerged as a teenaged blues phenom in the late '90s, Shemekia Copeland sounded like she wasn't about to let herself get pushed around. That's still the case two decades later, following her continual, roots-minded expansion of the song styles and sonic settings in her repertoire. "Walk Until I Ride" is her chance to summon the righteous determination of down-home, civil rights-era soul. She sings as someone refusing to be defined or diminished by denial of the most basic services on the basis of race and class, her voice flaring with dignified defiance and vigorous vibrato. —Jewly Hight (WNXP 91.ONE)
Freddie Gibbs / The Alchemist (feat. Rick Ross)
With more than a decade in the game, a steady run of unstoppable releases and seemingly insurmountable life obstacles, the Gary, Ind., emcee is dead set on becoming the greatest rapper alive. So it may come as a surprise that he only just added "Grammy-nominated" to his resume this year (then again, maybe not, given the award show's track record). Alfredo, his collaborative project with The Alchemist, was the album I couldn't escape in 2020 and its best track is a four-minute movie on wax featuring a call for revolution, a run-in with the law, and hip-hop's biggest boss, with media personality Scottie Beam serving as the song's muse. —Bobby Carter
Obviously, 2020 was a year bursting with problems we wished would disappear. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the toilet seat challenge, there were many things I wished I could banish for good. Fortunately, Jeff Parker's song, "Go Away," from his February release, Suite for Max Brown, provided the sweet escape I craved. Alongside Makaya McCraven on drums and Paul Bryan on bass, Parker used electric guitar, sampler and chants of "go away" to create an immersive and mesmerizing, Afrobeat-influenced anthem. It's a cosmic journey that reveals more depth with each listen. —Nikki Birch
"Local Radio" channels the fist-pumping rhythms of The Go-Go's and joyful bounce of '80s-era R.E.M. with the alternating power chords and muted-palm chug of early Weezer. In other words, it's perfect. Add a few finely rendered reflections on millennial burnout and early adulthood existentialism, sung in unison, and you've got the year's best party anthem for heavy thinkers. "I wanted more, I wanted more than I was getting," the group sings, before later adding, "I took the job and what I got was just some paid-off credit." It's both a celebration of youthful ambition and an elegy for the spark that once kept it alive. (Disclosure: My colleague, NPR Music editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen, is the drummer of this D.C. band. He played no role in its selection for this list.) —Robin Hilton
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou
Never thought I'd see the day when sludge-metal maestros Thou would co-write a Gothic cathedral-shaking, hard-rock radio unit-shifter, but after 2020, you take confounding surprises like this one as a blessing. Uplifted by a soaring-eagle riff, "Ancestral Recall" neither leans on Thou's extreme doom or Emma Ruth Rundle's post-rock gloom; instead, it discovers a third stream somewhere between Soundgarden and Stevie Nicks, rendering the song's existential crisis a defiant triumph. —Lars Gotrich
In October, the xx's Romy Madley Croft shared a playlist with a to-the-point title: "Emotional Music to Dance To." Bookended by "Lifetime," her debut solo single, and a remix of the song by Planningtorock, it's a guide to a microgenre (featuring Robyn, Christine and the Queens, and King Princess) meant to elevate your heart rate while activating your tear ducts. Written and recorded in lockdown, "Lifetime" is a worthy addition to the crying-on-the-dancefloor canon: radiant with day-glo energy, pulsing with end-of-night abandon, it articulates a promise to be there that's aware of the limitations of such words. —Lyndsey McKenna
When I first heard "Eugene," it felt like a spiritual successor to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You." Both songs share soft, comforting vocals with an undercurrent of emotional stress and heartache caused by someone close. While "Fade Into You" is informed by '90s alternative music, "Eugene" is infused with the R&B of Corrine Bailey Rae and Aaliyah. That combination makes "Eugene" one of the best songs of 2020 and turns Arlo Parks into an artist to watch in 2021. —Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee)
Helado Negro (feat. Xenia Rubinos)
"I Fell In Love"
It's always cool when your favorite artists collaborate in a way that reflects their individual creative energies. "I Fell In Love" has the immediate sonic identity of Helado Negro's work: ethereal instrumentation creates a dreamlike bed for Roberto Lange's whispered vocals. This time Alt.Latino fave Xenia Rubinos adds a sultry vocal that made me think "of course she would sing on this" as soon as I heard it. The two of them harmonizing on the chorus at the end is one of the most beautiful things I heard all year. Four minutes, two voices and just a handful of words softly sung, but it's enough to make you wish for a full album out of this collaboration. —Felix Contreras
"Both Of Us"
I imagine ghosts danced to "Both Of Us" in empty nightclubs. After all, this is a house track born from the spirits of genre forefathers, of voices ethereal yet familiar, of cultural logics upended and re-formed and of soul fibers that move and shake and pull us toward each other in ancient rhythm. When time slows in the song's third act, Jayda G bottles up the low end, leaving only handclaps, drums and her own haunting voice for what feels like an eternity. Then, her world pours back in. Back to normal, and this time, everything's a little brighter. —Mano Sundaresan
Deep Sea Diver
Deep Sea Diver's "Stop Pretending" was born from the band's Stay Home Stems series in which the band offered up bits of audio of potential songs to fans as a means to engage and collaborate, inspiring creativity and connection to help cope with the lockdown isolation. Alongside the song on Deep Sea Diver's Bandcamp page, singer Jessica Dobson posted, "I often write apocalyptic songs as way to enter a new world that juxtaposes despair with hope. I hope it can bring a little bit of light in a dark season." Indeed, out of pandemic fear and the depths of despair came this beautiful quarantine classic. —Kevin Cole (KEXP)
Lakecia Benjamin (feat. Marcus Strickland & Brandee Younger)
The Largo theme from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" sounds like a pentatonic 12-bar blues. The Czech composer's melody gained lyrics and became this song, one that improvisers now play as a modern black spiritual. Lakecia Benjamin joins an impressive list of interpreters that includes saxophonists Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. All those predecessors were associates of John and Alice Coltrane, the subjects of Benjamin's album Pursuance: The Coltranes. Mrs. Coltrane's transcendent version of "Going Home" from Lord of Lords provides some foundation, and you get that tug from harpist Brandee Younger's glissandi. Marcus Strickland adds a woody timbre on bass clarinet over a rolling pulse before Benjamin's alto sax goes full praise to bring it home. —Josh Jackson (WRTI)
Chucky73 & Fetti031
At 23 minutes, Bronx crew Sie7etr3's debut EP is a lightning round demonstration of the raw skill that fueled the group's exponential rise online. With spare production usually relying on one or two instrumental loops, each track by the duo of Chucky73 and Fetti031 makes room for their playful, distinctly Dominican wordplay and breakneck flow that established them as innovators in New York's Latin trap and drill scenes. "Dili," even in the EP's most familiar territory of a piano trap loop, hits like new. —Stefanie Fernández
What do we do with this one? Thanks to a "wait, what" music video destined to haunt the footnotes of viral marketing guides, there's no separating the song from the flak vest it arrived in, no way to imagine hearing it except at gunpoint. That the anonymous artist behind the balaclava can really sing feels almost like a taunt. We're fully through the looking glass that "Old Town Road" held up to the pop charts, so a masked singer flipping Rascal Flatts' frosted-tips version of the country ballad "Bless the Broken Road" into a hood anthem feels right on time. But there's an earnest edge in RMR's uncanny delivery that sells "Rascal" from its first few notes and lingers after you've closed the YouTube tab. Whatever his reasons are for doing all of this, the dude seems to mean it. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
I like to think that, right now, somewhere not too far away from where I sit, Clarice Jensen is playing her cello, refracting and coagulating its deep voice. I wish I lived next door. Jensen's music seems to leak out from under the woodwork and shift down from the ceiling like silk, omnidirectional and swaddling, but not exactly comforting. Across its 11 minutes, "Holy Mother" feels preparatory and prayerful, an appropriate posture in a plagued year. —Andrew Flanagan
"Long Violent History"
Well before this year, Tyler Childers established that he sings from the perspective of an Appalachian contrarian with a searching mind, and that he knows how to speak to the white, working-class, rural dwellers in his audience without condescension. He applied all of that to "Long Violent History," a shambling string band waltz that he stuck at the end of a brief collection of old-time fiddle tunes and paired with an explanatory YouTube video and a liner note essay from Dom Flemons for added context. Appealing to his own people's resourcefulness and fierce drive to survive, Childers urges a reckoning with the reality of Black lives under siege. "How many boys could they haul off this mountain, shoot full of holes, cuffed and laying in the streets," he presses in his strenuous, cutting vocal attack, "'til we come into town in a stark raving anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth?" —Jewly Hight (WNXP 91.ONE)