Sean H presents: Top 100 songs of 2020
Editor’s note: Sean Huncherick helped us get Tuned Up off the ground way back when, and he’s been a good friend and steadfast supporter over the years. He’s also a regular attender of Tuned Up favorite Audiofeed Festival. It’s our pleasure to share his highlights of 2020:
It’s been a long, bizarre year. Songs that sound like they’ve been pulled straight from the ‘80s and ‘90s are dominating charts, Taylor Swift reached a new audience of sad dads, a generation raised on Madonna were scandalized to hear a woman sing about her genitalia, and we entered a long period of COVID-19 recordings that already come across as time capsules of the year everyone tried to make sourdough bread. Even without tours or festivals, music served as an escape in the times when we needed it most. Return the favor by buying records from your favorite artists and packing out every show as soon as you safely can in 2021. Until then, enjoy this list of my top 100 songs of 2020.
100. Chaila – Denise Chaila
99. Eugene – Arlo Park
98. Safaera – Bad Bunny, Jowell & Randy, Ñengo Flow
97. Scratchcard Lanyard – Dry Cleaning
96. Cue Synthesizer – Destroyer
95. POP – Lil Uzi Vert
94. will i get cancelled if i write a song called, “if you were a man, you’d be so cancelled” – illuminati hotties
93. Taken Away – Moodymann, Amp Fiddler
92. Blinding Lights – The Weekend
91. 4 American Dollars – U.S. Girls
90. Ain’t Nice – Viagra Boys
89. Please Don’t Make Me Cry – Lianne La Havas
88. War – IDLES
87. Boomer – Bartees Strange
86. The Bigger Picture – Lil Baby
85. Psych Ward – Okay Kaya
84. Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor – Aly & AJ
83. The Dissolution of Mind and Matter – …And Oceans
82. Twisted – Johanna Warren
81. Fit N Full – Samia
80. Sweet – Porridge Radio
79. Point the Finger – Body Count, Riley Gale
78. Starting Over – Chris Stapleton
77. Tin King – Ultraista
76. Zero Gravitas Chamber – Napalm Death
75. I Walk Alone with Acid – Pale Blue
74. Savage Remix – Megan Thee Stallion, Beyoncé
73. F2020 – Avenue Beat
72. Lost in Yesterday – Tame Impala
71. Family Still – Told Slant
70. Caution – The Killers
69. WAP – Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion
68. What’s Your Pleasure? – Jessie Ware
67. 3am – Halsey
66. Forgotten Days – Pallbearer
65. Onyeka (Baby) – Burna Boy
64. oh GOD – Orla Gartland
63. Ordinary Talk – Half Waif
62. Natalie Don’t – RAYE
61. One More Second – Matt Berninger
60. Black Like Me – Mickey Guyton
59. Horrible Person – Caitlin Pasko
58. Pigeons – Bill Callahan
57. Gaslighter – The Chicks
56. Lifetime – Romy
55. The Neverending Story – Jay Electronica
54. P*$$Y Fairy (OTW) – Jhené Aiko
53. Freeze Tag – Dinner Party, Phoelix
52. Care – beabadoobee
51. I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev) – Ka
50. Ohms – Deftones
49. By Myself – Maya Hawke
48. I’ll Be Your Girl at the End of the World – Emmaline
47. I Fell In Love – Helado Negro, Xenia Rubinos
46. FANCY – Amaarae
45. Can’t Do Much – Waxahatchee
44. Out of Time – Joan As Police Woman
43. Lost in the Country – Trace Mountains
42. 1984 – Trey Pearson
41. Eso Que Tu Haces – Lido Pimienta
40. STFU! – Rina Sawayama
39. Scottie Beam – Freddie Gibbs, The Alchemist, Rick Ross
38. Ancestral Recall – Emma Ruth Rundle, Thou
37. Rare Thing – Frances Quinlan, Hop Along
36. Waves – Hum
35. Look Over Your Shoulder – Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar
34. Overseas – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
33. Fearless – SAULT
32. Fucking Speed and Darkness – Midnight
31. 25 in Barcelona – JP Saxe
30. Guilty Conscience – 070 Shake
29. Simmer – Hayley Williams
28. The Steps – HAIM
27. The Ascension – Sufjan Stevens
26. i see america – Joy Oladokun
25. Must Be Fine – Miel
24. IPHONE – Rico Nasty
23. JU$T – Run the Jewels, Pharrell Williams, Zack De La Rocha
22. Me in 20 Years – Moses Sumney
21. If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) – The 1975
20. Close – Sweater Curse
The melody and lyrics of Sweater Curse’s ”Close” could have been written as a sentimental piano ballad, but they feel more at home with power chords and a soaring chorus meant to be shouted, whether at a show or alone on a long drive staring out the window and remembering a childhood best friend. Attempting to patch a strained friendship has never sounded more fun.
19. Long Violent History – Tyler Childers
Without being condescending or preaching, Tyler Childers reaches listeners who would otherwise immediately shut out opposing views on race and police brutality. The anachronism of an old-time Appalachian string waltz with lyrics on a painfully contemporary matter serves as a reminder that themes of the song are just as much a part of the country’s long-violent history as what’s in textbooks.
18. Reminders – Touché Amoré
Of all that the year took away, what I miss most are the nights spent in packed music venues screaming through songs with strangers as if we were best friends. Going to shows is a therapeutic experience that can’t be replicated over live streamed concerts, old videos, or Zoom calls, but if anything captures the life-giving energy of stage dives and dance floors, it’s “Reminders.” There’s hope coming, and sometimes we need to shout it out to be reminded of it.
17. People, I’ve been sad – Christine and the Queens
“People I’ve been sad” is the song I’ve seen included the most often in the best of 2020 lists, and it doesn’t take much thought to figure out why. It’s a song that offered the cry session(s) everyone needed and reflects the loneliness of both a breakup and months of social distancing. It’s the soundtrack to days spent entirely alone indoors after waking up at 11:00 a.m., attempting to make banana bread, and binge-watching a trashy Netflix show. It’s an admission that it’s OK to feel down, but also proves that you’d sound a whole lot cooler being sad in French.
16. claws – Charli XCX
The standout track from Charli XCX’s quarantine release, “claws” maximizes every second of its 2:29 minute runtime with a glitched hyperactivity reminiscent of producer Dylan Brady’s 100 gecs. The end result leaves the impression of chewing bubblegum soaked in battery acid…but, like, in a good way.
15. RASCAL – RMR
After the initial comedic shock of RMR’s bizarre trap homage to the Rascal Flatt’s “Bless the Broken Road” comes the realization that it’s a genuinely brilliant song and even better music video. The juxtaposition of ski masks and drug deals with an earnest piano ballad never comes across as a mockery, but as a genuine appreciation of—and talent—for country music…scamming hoes and all.
14. dominique – Ela Minus
“Today I woke up at 7 p.m. / my brain feels like it’s going to break / I haven’t seen anyone in a couple of days / I am afraid I forgot how to talk to anyone else / that’s not myself”
Within that first line of “dominique,” the Brooklyn-based electronic artist Ela Minus depicts a scene that could just as easily represent a depressive episode, long studio session, or weeks of quarantine. It’s the anthem for days of poor eating habits because, despite the newly freed nights and weekends, you still didn’t have the energy to make something more complicated than cereal and wine for dinner. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Minus’ chilled electronic beats and matter of fact lyrics keep the mood from negativity and instead find a sense of comfort in the dark.
13. Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan
I don’t believe that anyone other than possibly Bob Dylan understands the meaning of his nearly 17-minute ode to the Kennedy assassination and American music. Not knowing doesn’t make the song any less intriguing or, with Fiona Apple’s accompaniment on the piano, any less captivating.
12. Living Life – Steady Holiday
Steady Holiday’s “Living Life” reimagines the mundane—waiting in line at the grocery store, a visit with friends, connections brought by music—as peaceful daydreams before exploding into a celebratory keyboard crescendo. It’s a reminder of ordinary life’s brilliance—a point most poignant in a year when even routine moments became noticeable as they were restricted.
11. the 1 – Taylor Swift
Of all the unpredictable turns in 2020, the idea that Taylor Swift would drop two critically acclaimed indie records is perhaps the best surprise in a year of wrong turns. There isn’t a shortage of fitting Swift songs to pick from for this list. “invisible string” combines her talent for pop hooks with smooth storytelling and brilliantly mixed staccato notes. “No Body, No Crime” turns a short story into a giddy “Goodbye Earl”-esque true crime story, and sad dad duets with both Justin Verner and Matt Berninger bring out the best in all parties. But it’s the opening track of folklore that sticks with me as a standout track ushering in a new era of Swift from the moment she announces she’s on some new shit.
10. Dragonball Durag – Thundercat
In a year of acclaimed songs on the isolation, longing, and loss that came with 2020, Thundercat lightens the mood with the grooviest song about a goofball trying to get laid. He does so with self-aware swagger reminding us that the king of modern funk is an absolute nerd—and he’s looking fly.
9. Lost One – Jazmine Sullivan
There comes a moment at the end of a relationship when both parties reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is nothing left to bridge the gap in a love that once brought life. “Lost One” captures that moment before healing as Jazmine Sullivan mourns the relationship with a heartbreaking plea for her partner to not move on after their love is through. Even listeners in ideal relationships can’t help but experience the regret seeping through her breaking voice.
8. Joy of Jesus – Stephanie Lambring
With country music as the medium, Stephanie Lambring has crafted a haunting take on the abuse and shame spoken from the same lips that preach salvation. It’s a song that shouldn’t be taken as a threat to faith, but as a warning from communities who no longer find hope within the walls they once visited every Sunday.
Rather than ending with a clear walk away from faith along the lines of post-Christian songwriters such as David Bazan and Noah Gunderson, “Joy of Jesus” concludes with a longing for the Jesus found in Hebrews 4:15. It’s a song that doesn’t provide answers, but encourages listeners to allow themselves to question—and in that questioning perhaps find peace.
7. Describe – Perfume Genius
When life is consumed by darkness, sometimes what we need is a reminder of what once brought meaning. In that sense, “Describe” is itself a story of overcoming the murkiness of depression to catch a glimpse of clarity. The song’s heavier, shoegaze-influenced sound is a stark move away from Perfume Genius’ previous baroque compositions, but Mike Hadreas’ vocals are as gentle as ever, wrestling through the distortion and, eventually, coming out on top.
6. I Want You to Love Me – Fiona Apple
Despite being the nearly unanimous critic’s choice for album of the year (and, likely, one of the top albums of the 2020s), Fetch the Bolt Cutters doesn’t have a clear standout track. “Shameika,” “Under the Table,” “Ladies,” “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” and “Heavy Balloons” have all made their way onto end of year lists from the most esteemed publications, but personally, it’s the album’s opening track, “I Want You To Love Me” that stands out as the highlight from an album of highlights.
5. Small Town Hypocrite – Caylee Hammack
From the first fingerpicked notes to the final sighed “hypocrite,” Caylee Hammack’s autobiographical “Small Town Hypocrite,” is an emotionally intense expression of regret. It’s a story of not realizing until years later that life choices led to a dead end, leaving the frustration and shame over what could have been. She’s healed, she’s moved on, but man she remembers the feeling of heartbreak and can express it with enough weight to move even the most stoic listeners.
4. circle the drain – Soccer Mommy
There’s an unnerving psychological response to hearing sad songs backed by bright, positive melodies. The juxtaposition seems to make both ingredients harder to ignore. When Sophie Allison’s confession that her mind is spiraling downward is supported with a bright, ‘90s guitar-driven pop rock, each verse brings both the weight of the depression and a bouncy, uplifting beat. It leaves the listener somewhere in the middle, hoping (or pretending) that everything is fine.
3. Physical – Dua Lipa
Dua Lipa doesn’t just invoke the sweat of ‘80s aerobics power pop, she perfects it. More than that, she manages to make it cool in 2020, even while echoing Olivia Newton-John now cliched lyric, “Come on! / Let’s get physical.” In 2020, the song was a soundtrack to home workouts and solo runs; in 2021, it’s going to be the song heard in every club.
2. anything – Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker may be the best folk songwriter in the music industry today and should be remembered alongside the likes of Joni Mitchell, Joan Boaz, and Bob Dylan for her tender reflections on love and heartbreak. Last year’s anxiety-driven “Not” (performed with Big Thief) is countered with a hypnotic calmness in “anything” as distortion is traded for fingerpicking and screams for whispers longing to be a part of an ex-lover’s life. No matter the dynamics, the intimacy of Lenker’s songwriting has never been more inescapable.
1. Kyoto – Phoebe Bridgers
There are two other songs from Punisher that could have topped my list as the best song of 2020, but it’s “Kyoto” that best captures the evolution of Phoebe Bridgers from sad girl guitar music to a leading voice in alternative rock. Originally written as a ballad, the full-bodied recorded version complete with brass and synthesizers is a delight to listen to, though lines like “I’m gonna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it” don’t come across any less genuine (or terrifying) when shouted over a full band. Given her track record, the song would have been a haunting slow song, but it’s made unforgettable through rock ‘n’ roll.