And even though albums are still considered to be the form of peak musical artistry, there’s nothing quite like the rush from a compact, three-ish-minute package of perfect sounds.
Some of 2020’s defining singles were actually released in late 2019: Roddy Ricch’s iconic smash hit, “The Box;” Doja Cat’s technicolor bop, “Say So;” and The Weeknd’s ode to a-ha and addictive love, “Blinding Lights.”
But this calendar year has still managed to yield worthy chart-toppers, piercing album deep cuts, and fan-favorite tracklist gems.
The 12 best songs released in 2020 so far are listed below in chronological order.
SEE ALSO: The 14 best albums of 2020, so far
DON’T MISS: The 34 best music videos of 2020 (so far), ranked
“3am” is the bratty, punkish pop-rock song that Halsey was born to make.
Much like its tender younger sister, “Clementine” — another of Halsey’s god-tier songs — “3am” succeeds because it doesn’t shy away from her perceived blemishes. In fact, she almost delights in spooling them out, wrapping the tendrils around herself like a protective scarf.
“3am” is an exhilarating adrenaline rush of pride, regret, petulance, and grandeur.
The production, complementarily, is equal parts glitchy and pristine: It sounds simultaneously like late ’90s kitsch rock, mid ’00s pop, and modern grit.
Listening to this song feels like being drunkenly crumpled on your bedroom floor, craving attention, your nerves on fire, all while you know you should be asleep. Anyone who’s had that experience, even once, will feel Halsey’s burst of energy on “3am” crash straight through their chest.
“Breathe Deeper” sums up the cathartic power of Tame Impala’s newest album.
Listening to “Breathe Deeper” sparks the exact same sensation as receiving a reassuring hug or (I imagine) swaying under glittering lights at a party in the ’70s.
“If you think I couldn’t hold my own, believe me, I can,” Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker declares over a gleaming piano line. “If you need someone to carry on, believe me, I can. If you think no one is feeling what you’re feeling, I am.”
“Breathe Deeper” is a pure moment of complete confidence on “The Slow Rush” and an instantly classic Tame Impala song — which is to say, a spotless product of funky musical brilliance.
The titular track of The Weeknd’s newest album, “After Hours,” is also its sprawling, riveting centerpiece.
“After Hours” is equal parts lyrics, production, and performance, like a very sad musical. The 14-song tracklist is designed to be experienced as a complete body of work.
Most of its songs, then, lose some power when you isolate them. There are a few exceptions, including the shrewdly chosen lead singles, “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights.”
But it’s the titular track that truly captures the immersive, sinister charm of this album.
The Weeknd is at his best when he’s breaking the rules, or ignoring them completely — so a six-minute odyssey with a glitchy structure is just the right concoction. You get lost inside of it.
The song’s production is immediately reminiscent of “Trilogy,” The Weeknd’s shadowy roots and — for many fans, including me — his greatest work to date. “After Hours” gleams like his best pop, but never feels overthought or overproduced.
In addition to being a whole bop, Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” is a glorious blow against toxic masculinity.
The entirety of “YHLQMDLG” is sharp and joyful, but “Yo Perreo Sola” is the album’s greatest triumph. It embodies Bad Bunny’s ability to incorporate meaningful, relevant themes into music that’s too fun to turn off — and therefore forces you to pay attention.
“Yo Perreo Sola,” which loosely translates to “I Twerk Alone,” addresses sexual harassment, largely from the perspective of an empowered woman on the dance floor.
Bad Bunny himself also chimes in, chastising his less evolved peers: “She’ll call you if she needs you,” he sings. “But for now, she’s alone.”
The performance illustrates how men can show up, how to gracefully step aside and give female perspectives a platform — as well as the uselessness of that very binary we often cling to.
“I wrote it from the perspective of a woman. I wanted a woman’s voice to sing it — ‘yo perreo sola’ — because it doesn’t mean the same thing when a man sings it,” he explained to Rolling Stone. “But I do feel like that woman sometimes.”
“XS” by Rina Sawayama is an anti-capitalism pop-rock masterpiece.
As I wrote when I named “Sawayama” one of the year’s most essential albums, “XS” is its brightest highlight.
The single is a flawless blend of Britney Spears at her peak, the pop maximalism of Kim Petras, the electric guitar riffs of Evanescence, the garish allure of Paris Hilton’s mansion in “The Bling Ring,” the irresistibly shallow “Buddha’s Delight” from “Music and Lyrics,” and the shrewd, half-sincere anti-materialism of Lorde’s “Royals.”
And if you never thought those flavors could be thrown into a blender together and result in a deliciously pink pop confection, then you haven’t listened to enough of Sawayama’s music.
“You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” is peak Grimes.
Grimes’ latest album “Miss Anthropocene” is a lot of chaotic doom-worship, but “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” sheds the noise for an understated, silken warning.
Much like Grimes’ magnum opus, 2012’s “Oblivion,” it marries celestial mumbles, grungy guitar patterns, and fatalistic lyrics. It’s a song for the end of the world, and 2020 is its perfect stage.
As Rolling Stone’s Claire Shaffer described so gracefully, “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” sounds like “goth Kacey Musgraves,” which I can only imagine was intended as a tremendous compliment.
Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” is the shiniest gem on an album full of pop bangers.
Truthfully, I did not fully appreciate the brilliance of “Levitating” when I first listened to “Future Nostalgia.”
But as time went by — and I continued to listen to “Future Nostalgia” every single day — the song, uh, levitated to the top of my favorability ranking.
Aside from “Don’t Start Now,” which I previously listed as one of 2019’s best songs, “Levitating” is easily the album’s most enchanting track and one of Lipa’s best ever.
It’s nearly impossible to make a song so sugary, so upbeat, so unabashed with the use of the pet name “sugar-boo,” that doesn’t grow annoying over time — but actually gets better and better with every listen.
“Heavy Balloon” is one of the most powerful, purgative moments on Fiona Apple’s best album.
Fiona Apple’s magnum opus, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” is an album that demands your attention. As such, it’s not packaged to be picked apart, nor is it designed to make you comfortable.
It’s difficult (and often even painful) to sing along with Apple’s lyrics, which indict the patriarchy and all of its symptoms: female-specific trauma, abuse, double standards, oppressive perfectionism, rape.
But if there’s one song that can be isolated — added to a playlist, perhaps, without feeling like Apple interrupted your momentum to punch you in the face — it’s “Heavy Balloon.”
The song is about depression, yes, but it’s also about defying depression. Apple doesn’t scratch and claw her way out; she swells and erupts. She clamors for her own salvation. It’s anti-graceful by design.
And while you bellow along with her triumphant chorus — “I spread like strawberries! I climb like peas and beans! I’ve been sucking it in so long that I’m busting at the seams!” — it feels like you’re punching your own demons in the face instead, almost like an exorcism.
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix,” featuring Beyoncé, is a blinding display of chemistry and star power.
Megan Thee Stallion didn’t need Beyoncé to make “Savage” a hit. But this is one of those rare times that an excellent song was remixed and actually improved.
In fact, “Savage Remix” works so incredibly well because neither woman is trying to out-rap or out-sing her counterpart (“I’m a bad bitch, she’s a savage, no comparison here,” Beyoncé purrs).
Instead, they create a smoothie of energies that goes down like a shot of absinthe. Their teamwork feels both natural and intoxicating.
“Together, the pair are an unstoppable force of Houston bravado and empowerment that will boost your serotonin levels just enough to have hope for a world beyond this pandemic,” Brittany Spanos wrote for Rolling Stone.
“Unlike most pop remixes of the past couple years, Beyoncé goes above and beyond to make this one powerful: She serves up three total verses along with a wealth of angelic, whisper-y runs that feel like diva ASMR,” she continues.
“As overpowering as Beyoncé’s presence can be, though, this remix doesn’t lose a single ounce of Megan’s spark. That’s the true mark of a real-deal savage.”
“Do It” by Chloe x Halle is exactly the kind of new-decade energy we deserved from 2020.
Aided by the songwriting prowess of Victoria Monét, Ariana Grande’s most frequent co-writer, and Scott Storch, who produced some of Beyoncé’s earliest gems, Chloe x Halle managed to deliver their most irresistible, body-friendly song to date.
It’s simply impossible to listen to “Do It” without bobbing your head or waving your hips — and it’s tough to imagine any other singers being able to bottle this precise energy, at once sultry and electric and ethereal.
When Chloe trills, “Yeah, I beat my face / Movin’ fast ’cause the Uber on the way,” she sounds more like the ageless patron saint of Going Out than a 22-year-old using youthful jargon on Twitter.
Ideally, we’d all be dancing to this song during a sweaty night on the town, melting into the crowd at a barely-lit bar. We’ll have to wait to live the kind of evening that the Bailey sisters describe, guiding us like guardian angels.
But that time will come. “Do It” has the juice to stand the test of time, and it’ll certainly soundtrack many magical and debaucherous memories for many years to come.
“Party 4 U” shows a softer, gentler side of Charli XCX — without sacrificing her knack for extraterrestrial electro-pop.
In our first-listen review of “How I’m Feeling Now,” Insider’s music editor Courteney Larocca proclaimed (with “near-complete certainty”) that “Party 4 U” is Charli XCX’s “greatest song of all time.”
“You know when you’re at a dying house party around 4 a.m.,” she wrote, “when most everyone’s either left or asleep on the floor, and you’re either mindlessly braiding your best friend’s hair or snuggling into your partner in the corner? This is the song that’s playing.”
I agreed, writing: “I don’t know exactly how to justify this metaphor, but it’s the image that kept coming to my mind, so here it is: She sounds like an alien at a chill house party, unbothered and draped in silk.”
“Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is easily one of The 1975’s best songs to date.
“Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is the clear standout on an otherwise strong yet meandering album.
“Notes on a Conditional Form” has many bright spots, but could’ve used some pruning; conversely, there isn’t one single thing I would change about this song. It’s truly delightful from start to finish, from the pitched-up Temptations sample to the jumbled jazzy outro.
The 1975 frontman Matty Healy called “Tonight” the “anomaly” on the album, largely because it resulted from him “f—ing around.” But that may be the very source of its strength. The song doesn’t feel forced or overcooked, like some of the band’s more high-concept music.
It’s a reflection of late ’90s flavors and retro production flourishes, freed from Healy’s well-worn concern that he doesn’t dabble in “anything pastiche-y.”
Naturally, Healy’s incisive lyricism is still here (“Sunday’s nearly over, so I’ll just lie awake” is the best, most concise description of ambient dread that I’ve ever heard), so the song still cuts you a bit. But what is a song by The 1975 if it doesn’t steep you in existentialism?
The beauty of “Tonight” — much like many of the band’s best songs, including “The Sound” and “Girls” — is that you can dance while you panic.
Ashe’s “Save Myself” is an exquisite fusion of intimate songwriting, agile vocals, and grandiose production.
Back in May, Ashe allowed just one hint about her then-forthcoming single: “My ex-husband probably won’t like the song. Let’s just say that.”
Indeed, thanks to her breakout hit “Moral of the Story,” Ashe has been lauded for maturity and level-headedness in the face of heartbreak. But on “Save Myself,” she snarls, “Over being so mature / If only I was never yours.”
“Save Myself” is a captivating piece of storytelling. Ashe details her refusal to recognize red flags; fumes that she squandered her youth for an unworthy man. Contrasted with her fairylike voice, the effect is thrilling. She even lets out a primal howl in the bridge, noises crashing around her like a palace that lost its foundation.
Now, I’ve never been divorced, but this song gets me riled up.
Maybe it’s our country’s unfathomably bad state of affairs, but I’ll be damned if “One day, I’ll be good / Right now, I’m just mad” isn’t the most infuriatingly perfect couplet I’ve heard in a song all year.
It could also be that Ashe is a born songwriter and a compulsive truth-teller — a lethal combination, especially when you have something to say. Ashe has a lot to say, and I’m thankful that she isn’t holding back.
“The 1” is among the most relatable and stirring songs that Taylor Swift has ever released.
In terms of relatability, Taylor Swift has set a very high bar for herself; she built her career upon songs about unrequited crushes, high school jealousy, and Shakespearean daydreams.
Of course, Swift is no longer a teenager writing songs in her parents’ house — and you probably wouldn’t expect to see yourself in the musings of a 30-year-old multi-millionaire.
But as it turns out, Swift has spent quarantine pouring through old journals, reminiscing about lost loves, and pining for simpler times just like the rest of us.
As somebody who constantly worries that I feel things more intensely than an average person, who berates myself for dwelling on every rupture and mistake, “The 1” speaks to the deepest caverns of my soul.
It’s not an example of elaborate, textured lyricism, but the song’s power resides in those one-liners that feel so simple and so true: tender moments of insecurity like, “It’s another day waking up alone,” and “But we were something, don’t you think so?”
Here’s hoping Swift never quits digging up the grave another time.
Swift’s “August” is simply perfect.
Among many other musical talents, Swift has two primary strengths that set her apart from her peers: lyrics that feel like emotional knives and bridges that bring their songs to another level.
Not only does she deliver both with “August,” but she circles back to twist the blade.
The vast majority of Swift’s songs follow one reliable architecture: verse/chorus/second verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. And make no mistake: Both verses, the chorus, and the bridge in “August” are all spectacular.
But the song’s outro is what truly elevates “August” to god-tier status. Swift weaves recurring images and lyrics into the crescendo, mirroring the song’s themes of reminiscence and nostalgia. When the drum beats drop out, only to surge back moments later, Swift creates a perfect sonic metaphor for nostalgic waves of regret and cyclical games of “what if.”
“August” is poetic genius — not to mention a sheer joy to listen to. In terms of production, it’s fittingly warm, lush, and dreamy. This song epitomizes why Swift’s foray into alternative folk-pop was so very welcome.
“Pressure in My Palms” by Aminé combines sharp lyricism and heady production flourishes.
“Pressure in My Palms” is heavier and grungier than you may expect from ever-grinning, banana-loving Portland rapper Aminé.
Indeed, the production allows for a touch of gravity. But Aminé’s cheekiness and quick wit is very much still present, strongly recalling “Late Registration”-era Kanye West.
He flits between pop culture references — Britney Spears shaving her head, Ashton Kutcher’s MTV show “Punk’d,” Steve Harvey’s infamous Miss Universe mix-up, Winona Ryder’s shoplifting scandal — and, as Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce notes, he relishes the absurdity of each one.
Sharing a song with gritty British rapper Slowthai and “Norf Norf” icon Vince Staples certainly raised the stakes, but all three artists deliver bars that burst with energy, attitude, and personality.
With “Limbo” as a whole, but especially with “Pressure in My Palms,” Aminé illustrates a sort of garnished, high-spirited style that’s not just fun, but vitalizing.