1. “I Know the End,” Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers’s “I Know The End” is a Trojan Horse of a song: What starts out as a trademark Bridgers track — soft-spoken, poetic and introspective — transforms into a cathartic beast of noise. This shift in momentum arrives by the third verse, weaving a strange tapestry of American life and esoteric self-searching. The change is unsettling, but the crescendo of sound and energy carries the audience toward a dramatic explosion of something –– of everything –– in its climax. “I Know The End” feels like a combination of different songs, moments and expressions. It’s strange, it’s weird — but it works, just as alluring and deceptive as the Trojans.
In her song commentary, Bridgers describes “I Know The End” as the middle-ground between Purgatory and the end of the world. The result is a bombastic song that captures both the freedom and the uncanny of an apocalypse. It feels repetitive and over-done to compare this song to the past year, when everything and absolutely nothing can be equally ascribed to the year 2020.
Yet, “I Know The End” earns this comparison –– if there’s a song that captures the extreme highs and lows of the past twelve months, it’s this one. It’s all at once apocalyptic, dream-like, vulnerable and chaotic –– with a primal release of fear and victory to signal The End (of the world, of the year, of the song).
At the end of the day, it’s a good song, a fun song and, despite the weird and the strange, a soon-to-be favorite on repeat.
— Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer
2. “Volcano,” Eartheater
“Volcano” sits on the peak of Eartheater’s latest album, Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin. It begins as a call to the listener, pulling you under her tide and forcing you to listen. Yet, at the same time, the song works not as a force of destruction, but rather a warning in the distance from a lifeguard not to go too deep in the water. The song pays attention to the smallest details — the layering of vocals or the lyrics and the infatuation with a grain of salt. Eartheater calls to the downfalls of your passion also being your job, emphasizing the feeling of needing to be “ahead” while also feeling yourself becoming so overwhelmed with your work that it turns to obsession:
“I’m obsessed with this grain of salt / I’m fixated on a grain of sand / I’m yearning for a speck of sugar / I guess Ill take what I can”
The piano swimming across the track nestles itself between the vocals of Eartheater and the undercurrent sounds of the track, creating a sound that at once feels like staring at waves and watching a volcano erupt. Perhaps lava are waves, too.
— Katy Trame, Daily Arts Writer
3. “WAP,” Cardi B
I can only imagine that Cardi B went into making “WAP” thinking, “what if we made a song that literally could not have a clean version?”
Arguably the two most prominent female rappers of our time, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion collaborated to create the ho-anthem that the deprived people of 2020 desperately needed. Their powerful vocal delivery combined with the absolutely raunchy NSFW lyrics create a fun, compelling and sexy track that lodges itself deep into any listener’s mind.
The beat itself is nothing special: The fat 808s and the steady ostinato of “there’s some whores in this house” in the background provide a solid enough groove, but the meat of the song is the two rappers’ clever, sensual lyrics.
“WAP” is a celebration of pleasure, libido and kinks: It is unapologetic, rude and self-indulgent, which makes it such a fun listen. “WAP” had everyone in quarantine on their feet, well maybe except for Ben Shapiro.
— Jason Zhang, Daily Arts Writer
4. “gold rush,” Taylor Swift
While many of the songs off folklore and evermore became viral hits, like “cardigan,” “the 1,” “willow” and “no body no crime,” one song that surfaced as a personal top hit was “gold rush” of evermore. The song, written with help from Taylor’s close friend and collaborator Jack Antonoff, tells the story of an unrequited love and the possibilities of what a relationship could have been if they were together. “Gold rush” is an example of not only the impeccable production value and lyricism of Swift’s two most recent albums, but also her unbelievable ability to write a story.
Antonoff’s mark is evident in the chorus of the song: There are actually many similarities between the bridge of “gold rush” and Lorde’s “Green Light,” which Antonoff also produced. Both tracks present a sense of building tension and rising octaves that aren’t actually happening but are achieved through pulsing instrumentals and different pacing between lyrics.
Antonoff’s touch is tangible in so many of the songs on folklore and evermore, but “gold rush” is a song that takes his and Swift’s artistic compatibility to the next level.
— Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer
5. “On the Floor,” Perfume Genius
“On The Floor” is the physical frustration of an obsessive desire, the movement forward and backward of seeing your crush everywhere you look, then reeling yourself back in, left with only a hum of sickness in your chest. Perfume Genius uses a bright, vintage pop sound to bring the physicality of a murderous crush to life, but his lyrics detail a darker, abusive underside — the disgusting, unshakable, socially constructed lesson that there should be shame and fear surrounding who you desire.
It’s a fucked combinatory feeling that Perfume Genius, also known as Michael Alden Hadreas, brings light to. He stirs the flutter and fuss inside, igniting the hands-across-your-chest, head-to-the-sky dancing, but his lyrics acknowledge constriction.
The physicality of the song comes as no surprise — Hadreas is a craftsman of sound-body connection. In 2019, he collaborated with The YC Dance Company in a modern dance performance called “The Sun Still Burns Here” (in which he not only danced but also soundtracked). “On The Floor” is the pop anthem of the year. It’s not only a musical accomplishment, but a somatic one.
— Samantha Cantie, Daily Arts Writer
6. “Gaslighter,” The Chicks
The Chicks’ return last March could not have been more timely. Their fiery anthem “Gaslighter” chronicles the beginning of lead singer Natalie Maines’s ugly divorce with an ex who “lie-lie-lie-lie-lied.” Of course, this behavior resembles that of a certain former president — giving The Chicks’ admonishments several meanings.
Sonically, “Gaslighter” doesn’t pick up where the trio left off, but where their sound would have been if they hadn’t taken a 14-year hiatus: Still organic, but now even more shiny. They tapped high profile pop producer Jack Antonoff to balance this newfound gloss while maintaining Maines’s and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer’s signature harmonies. Antonoff’s fingerprints are present throughout the album Gaslighter as a whole, where the Lemonade adjacent tale that’s hinted at in “Gaslighter” comes to fruition.
“Boy I know exactly what you did on my boat,” Maines steams about a rendezvous that has to do with The Chicks’ “Becky with the good hair” motif — those infamous tights. Although the stripped-down bridge reveals a crumpled Maines — she admits “You broke me / Yeah I’m broken” — then militant drums reappear and the vulnerable moment’s up.
The Chicks rage on.
— Katie Beekman, Senior Arts Editor
7. Microphones in 2020, The Microphones
Is it cheating to put a one-song album on a song of the year list? Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m just thinking about it too much. Regardless of ultimately empty categorization, Microphones in 2020 is one of the best pieces of art in 2020.
How long does it take for someone to expound upon their life experience while also representing the complex maelstrom of meaning and meaninglessness of existence? For Phil Elverum, the answer is 44 minutes, seven of those being guitar strumming.
Elverum starts everything off with the words, “The true state of all things,” which acts as a powerful thesis statement for the entire song. Everything else falls into place after that. Elverum is able to convey the turbulent beauty of creating art as well as the indiscriminate significance that defines one’s childhood. He speaks of his personal reality and manages to unveil universal truths in the process. It’s often hard to forget that this is music, not a poetry audiobook with incredible background music.
Elverum didn’t write this with the knowledge of what 2020 would become, but he ended up typifying the human struggle for meaning in a time when meaning feels so elusive.
— Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
8. “Song 33,” Noname
2020 was far from uneventful for Chicago rapper, poet and activist Fatimah Warner, known professionally under the moniker Noname. Despite releasing only a minute and ten seconds of music over the course of the year, Noname’s lightning-paced track, “Song 33,” is charged with enough biting social commentary to prove the 29-year-old musician’s lyrical prowess is as strong as ever.
The single dropped two days after J. Cole’s release of “Snow on tha Bluff,” a track seemingly criticizing Noname’s “condescending” Twitter activism and past criticism of rappers on their silence regarding racial injustice. Informed by a past in spoken word, Noname eloquently delivers 41 lines in response to Cole’s qualms, all over an elegantly hazy Madlib beat.
She raps, “He really ‘bout to write about me when the world is in smokes? / When it’s people in trees? / When George was beggin’ for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe. / You thought to write about me?”
Noname points out that a tweet from a Black woman condemning industry complacency, but not the countless occurrences of anti-Black violence happening across the country, motivated Cole to write a diss-track. She calls attention to the veiled misogyny in Cole’s tone policing and the continual flood of public ridicule towards Black female activists, even from within the Black community itself.
While “Song 33” isn’t Noname’s most compositionally complex piece, it encapsulates an eternally relevant message about the necessity of a focus on the movement and not the individual. In “Song 33,” Noname is more than willing to poetically put her critics in their place, all while providing discerning reflections on racial inequality and gendered double-standards.
— Nora Lewis, Daily Arts Writer
9. “The Bigger Picture,” Lil Baby
If Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” became the anthem of the 2015 Black Lives Matter protests, Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” is the song of the 2020 Black Lives Matter resurgence.
While Lamar’s song follows bleak lyrics with a hopeful refrain, constituting the newly opened wounds of the time, Lil Baby’s performance on “The Bigger Picture” represents a movement that is worn down and vulnerable. Even though “The Bigger Picture” wasn’t chanted in the streets during demonstrations, its ability to encapsulate the deep frustration within the Black Lives Matter movement is immensely powerful.
“The Bigger Picture” is a personal account of Lil Baby’s shift from spectator to the eyewitness. He masterfully mixes lyrics, instrumentation and sampling to create a documentation of the unjust state of America today, and in doing so, the song encapsulates and presents Black trepidation to millions of Americans.
In a country full of injustice, mass revolutions made up of millions are being called to action to dismantle systems of oppression. Through his lyricism and mainstream reach, Lil Baby sends out the call, inciting others to answer.
If any song on this list will end up in the history books of the future, it will be this one.
— Kai Bartol, Daily Arts Writer
10. “The Eye,” Waxahatchee
A saving grace and reminder of sunshine, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud was much needed in this year of not being able to leave the house.
“The Eye” is my favorite track off the album for how well it strips away the listener’s setting, replacing it with a warm breeze and sun on your face akin to summer driving; it conveys the feeling that you’re going somewhere but don’t actually have anywhere you need to be.
The laid back, steady beat of the band is the root of this cradle of love that Waxahatchee has created, one woven with intricate lyrics and easy vocals, sung without any forcedness or rush. My favorite moment on the album comes in the lyrics, “Oh and you watch me like I’m a jet stream / A scientific cryptogram lit up behind the sunbeam.”
The tracks on this album generally sound pretty sparse — just her and her band — but on the words “lit up,” a whole chorus of Katie Crutchfield’s comes in just for a moment. I anticipate these two seconds every time I listen to “The Eye,” and they always make me smile. Just like the wonderful little moments of love this song praises, it is worth waiting for.
— Rosa Sofia Kaminski, Daily Arts Writer