NPR Music's 25 Favorite Songs Of 2020 (So Far)
Songs don't necessarily mean something different now than they did before this roller coaster of a year started clicking down its one-way track, but you'll forgive us if we act like they do. Perhaps it's just that our needs over the first six months of 2020 have been more intense, but the songs to which we've turned have met them. These rallying cries, these tiny vacations, these serotonin infusions, these distillations of pain and strength and comfort, confirm the power and flexibility of this form. Our examples here, from voices across spectrums of generation and genre, include everything from a one-minute reorientation of collective priorities to an epic historical framing of our nation's response to horrific acts.
These 25 picks, in alphabetical order below, belong to all of us, but each one is the favorite of a single member of our team. You can listen to a playlist of them at Apple Music or Spotify, and find our favorite albums of the first half of 2020 here.
Bad Bunny "Safaera" (feat. Jowell & Randy x Ñengo Flow)
Bad Bunny dropped YHLQMDLG on the eve of a global pandemic, as if to presage the coming months of isolation and its side effect of looking to nostalgia for comfort. Produced by genre veteran Tainy and mixed by DJ Orma in the style of live DJ megamixes at early aughts marquesina parties, and with assists from foundational artists like Ñengo Flow and provocateur kings Jowell & Randy, "Safaera" is quite simply a horny masterpiece (whose raunchiest lyric has terrorized and delighted Latinx parents all over TikTok).
"Safaera" is the holy relic in Bad Bunny's pilgrimage to the heart of reggaetón — to the golden era before its mass adoption, whitewashing, and sanitization. (He obliquely referred to discrimination against the genre in his belated response in support of the movement for Black lives, but neglected to recognize the roots of this discrimination in anti-Blackness against a genre pioneered by Black artists, and widely criminalized along racial and socioeconomic lines.) In a concentrated five minutes, "Safaera" supercuts beat and tempo changes with samples of throwbacks like Alexis & Fido's "El Tiburón," the tumbi riff from Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," and more in its recreation of a sweaty, sacred space of uninhibited perreo. —Stefanie Fernández
Rafiq Bhatia "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (feat. Cécile McLorin Salvant)
Best known to some as the guitarist for the band Son Lux, Rafiq Bhatia has a gift for turning expectations inside out. In his hands, the guitar sounds less like a melodic tool of rock bands (though he can shred when he wants to) and more like a mythical beast, coaxing out growls and roars and gurgling shrieks instead of notes. He takes the same approach to his EP Standards Vol. 1, reworking and warping jazz standards almost beyond the point of recognition. On his version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," sung by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bhatia turns the ballad made famous by Roberta Flack into something deep and dark and haunting. He bends McLorin Salvant's voice in and out of tune, and backs it with the sparest arrangements, built on sounds you can't quite place. Is that an organ? A prepared piano? Who knows? But it's absolutely arresting. —Robin Hilton
Phoebe Bridgers "I Know The End"
Punisher concludes with "I Know The End," a mini-thesis on the songcraft of Phoebe Bridgers. Lyrically, the six-minute song synthesizes allusions of Americana ("There's no place like my room"), fragile metaphors ("When I call you, you come home / A bird in your teeth") and her one-two punch of poetic specificity, crystallizing fluid emotions by sneaking them onto lists of real places and things ("A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of God"). Musically, Bridgers wraps the four phases of her career so far into this one song, as woozy folk melts into driving rock and arena-sized orchestrations until finally, she's conducting an apocalyptic symphony. She sets it spinning, the melody repeating, building in intensity, a tornado of pain and fear; when she screams, there's nothing musical about it. With a new project every few months, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when Bridgers ascended from "up-and-coming talent" to one of the most vital songwriters working today, but "I Know The End" argues that certain things, once set in motion, always come to pass. —Cyrena Touros
Christine and the Queens "People, I've been sad"
I can't think of a time when I've leaned on a song as much, or as regularly, as I've found myself needing "People, I've been sad" in the spring and summer of 2020. Probably back during high school's never-ending hormonal gauntlet run. Released way back in the before-times of February, it's less a declaration of emotional status from flung-open balcony doors than an intimate confirmation that, yep, as you probably suspected, friends, things have not been great. From the moment Christine sings its opening line and title phrase, a feeling of catharsis binds "People," bringing truth into light simply by speaking it out loud. I've had more than one conversation over phone or video app where the ringing of "People" in my ears probably made it feel a little easier to admit that trying to get through everything had, in fact, been getting me down. This singer, who has been making crafty, off-kilter pop about life at a slant for half a decade, has never made a song quite so plain, so ready to catch you when you fall. —Jacob Ganz
Deep Sea Diver "Stop Pretending"
"Honey, I don't pretend to understand / Why everything's falling apart." The feeling is there before Jessica Dobson gets around to singing it, telegraphed in guitar bends that read as full-body heaves and an overdriven breakbeat that shreds the edges of the mix. It is there in the sound of her voice, which crackles at the top of its range like a vintage amp on a farewell tour. Still, when that hook finally arrives, it does so with a wallop — and lands a little harder on each repeat, letting panic and resignation trade off gut punches. Dobson dropped an alternate version of the song a month later, which transplants her vocal into a strawberry field of mallets and Mellotrons. But it's the original vision, released just as the bloom of spring greeted a nation trapped indoors, that best distills the bracing unease of its moment. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
SAULT's moving new album, UNTITLED (Black Is), embodies the superhuman resilience Black people develop while living in the shadow of state-devised discrimination and indiscriminate death. And what better way to demonstrate that fearlessness than thriving amid flames? "I will always rise / In wildfires," sings SAULT's anonymous vocalist over an indefatigable bassline reminiscent of your favorite Northern Soul song. It's a promise that we've seen fulfilled across America and around the world in 2020, not in the burning of communities but in spite of them. That collective response is perhaps why the members of SAULT prefer to remain nameless and faceless, steadfastly declining all requests for interviews despite the fame that might be (and should be) forthcoming. This is music written for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and anyone who's spent a second thinking, "that could have been me." —Otis Hart
Bob Dylan "Murder Most Foul"
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Only a month before, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan recorded one of his most prescient songs, "The Times They Are a-Changin'." Fifty-seven years later, Dylan has released his longest song, one that looks back on the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. What's fascinating is his use of cultural references to portray the times. There are movie references, pop culture references, and nods to more than 70 songs mentioned in this nearly 17-minute tale - a tale held together with some precision, violin, piano and barely a melody. Still, for those who are too young to know, it's a portrait of a time that invites investigation and for those who remember, it likely to spark memories. The times are still a-changin'. —Bob Boilen
Aretha Franklin "Never Gonna Break My Faith"
"Never Gonna Break My Faith" was originally released as a duet with Mary J. Blige for the soundtrack to the film Bobby (2006). Written by Bryan Adams, Eliot Kennedy, and Andrea Remanda, the song won a Golden Globe Award and was later collected on an album of Franklin duets, Jewels in the Crown. It was easy to miss in the fragmented group of duets, soundtracks and guest appearances of her later recording years. This new version, released on Juneteenth, drops Blige's part and features Franklin singing the entire song, backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem, and the result is thrilling. Franklin's masterful, defiant vocal performance reflects the tenacity of her faith in God and commitment to the fight for justice for Black people: "Truth and liberty are mine to live." A marching song for 2020. —Lauren Onkey
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist "Scottie Beam (feat. Rick Ross)"
I've waited for the pairing of Freddie Gibbs and Rick Ross on record for a long time and the result is everything I'd hoped for. Over an opulent instrumental courtesy of The Alchemist, Gibbs repeats a line that has inadvertently taken on new life during the racial justice protests around the world: "The revolution is the genocide / Yeah, my execution might be televised." —Bobby Carter
Mickey Guyton "Black Like Me"
Coming from Mickey Guyton, one of country-pop's most persistently unappreciated voices, "Black Like Me" is exactly the song that a mainstream country world uncomfortable with acknowledging the ongoing realities of racism needs right now. In her appeal for empathy, she makes persuasive use of the language of the class-conscious country storytelling tradition, describing with conversational intimacy the pain of being looked down on and of watching a parent doing self-sacrificial labor to provide a stable life. Summoning urgency during the chorus's anthemic build, "Black Like Me" testifies to the taunting unattainability of the American dream under racism. But Guyton's vocal performance refuses to be diminished, showcasing stirring modulations in tone and intensity and agile ornamentation that she has too seldom had the opportunity to use.—Jewly Hight
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit "Letting You Go"
I've always felt conflicted about including a traditional father-daughter dance at my wedding – turns out, I simply hadn't heard the right song yet. When the pandemic forced my fiancé and I to postpone our late March wedding, my dad and I were still searching for a mutually-agreeable track. It was a few weeks into lockdown, separated from family, that I first heard "Letting You Go," the closing cut on Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's outstanding Reunions. I wept on first listen – and immediately called home. "Letting You Go" is an intimate parent-child portrait with a chorus that aches with each listen ("It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going / The hard part is letting you go"). I know I won't be the only bride that turns to this track (wedding date still TBD). But that's no matter – I'm simply grateful this will soundtrack the moment whenever it does happen. —Lyndsey McKenna
Terrace Martin & Denzel Curry "Pig Feet" (feat. Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt)
Producer and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin told NPR in 2016, "So my thing is I want to do soothing music to soothe the times of what's going on. We all know what's going on with society and with murders, and it's bad times. ... Cause when you wake up from my records, you gotta get up and turn on CNN and go through a whole 'nother type of head trip all day, man. And that s*** is scary." Four years later, it's no surprise to turn on the TV and see chilling footage of George Floyd killed by a police officer or Ahmaud Arbery gunned down by two white men. But perhaps what is shocking is the scale of protests and civil unrest elevated to a level this country hasn't seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Today, Martin's music is anything but soothing. The intense and fiery "Pig Feet," released just one week after Floyd's killing, set the standard for music made in this moment. Martin, rapper Denzel Curry and Kamasi Washington's bleating saxophone improvisation affirm the anger of these explosive times. The song starts with gunshots and vocalist Britney Thomas shouting, "They shot him / Oh my God / He didn't have a gun," a reminder of the repulsive social norm that a black man holding a weapon justifies a police shooting. The outrage and frustration in the lyrics match the video footage of protests and protestors pushing hard against authority.
Later in the song, we hear Thomas again, with rappers G Perico and Daylyt:
Stop f*****' screamin', what happened? (Oh God, they shot him)
They killed the homie? (They shot him, the f*****' police shot him)
The police? (Oh my God)
The police killed him? (Oh no, no)
They just killed the homie, cuz (Oh my God)
The video ends with almost three minutes of silence while hundreds of names of Black people killed by the police slowly scroll on screen. Remember their names. —Suraya Mohamed
Megan Thee Stallion "Savage Remix" (feat. Beyoncé)
We all knew it was coming. When Megan Thee Stallion captioned her black-and-white photo booth flick with Beyonce and Blue "Happy 2020!" back in January, it was the first sign we were in for the supernova song mashup Megan had worked for and spoken into existence herself. As a Southern rap collab spurred by the Hotties and BeyHive alike, "Savage Remix" rescontructs of one of Meg's hardest tracks with new verses and spicy adlibs to tantalize even more. Months later, Megan has her own "Savage" dance challenge, her first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 and gets to cross Big B off her bucket list of dream collaborators. —Sidney Madden
Noname "Song 33"
Every song ain't for everybody. But Noname's "Song 33" has everybody saying her name. She released it on the heels of a tone-deaf single that found J. Cole choosing the worst moment in history — with the Black Lives Matter movement reaching a crescendo — to police this Black woman's tone. In one minute and nine seconds, Noname makes short order of Cole's ego trip: "Wow, look at him go / He really 'bout to write about me when the world is in smokes?" But she's more focused on toppling the patriarchy, police, prisons and Amazon-driven capitalism than targeting phony rappers. This is a coming-of-age protest anthem for the social media age, a rebuttal of politics as usual for celebrities politicking per usual. Over a haunting Madlib beat, Noname holds space for all the victims whose names remain unsaid — from the abduction and murder of 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin "Toyin" Salau to the alarming rate of black trans women being killed across the country. Because anything else would be a distraction. —Rodney Carmichael
Perfume Genius "On the Floor"
Like many of the best songs about infatuation, "On The Floor" is a shimmering dream, its yearning undercut with desperation. "A crush can really live on its own, separate from you and the person you are pining for," Perfume Genius's Mike Hadreas said of the song. "The fantasy feels like its own world." Taken together with its sun-drenched, dirt-covered video, "On The Floor" feels like a momentary escape into an alternate universe the size of one lovesick crush. —Marissa Lorusso
Lido Pimienta "Nada" (feat. Li Saumet)
My colleague Stefanie Ferndandez called Lido Piemineta's Miss Colombia "a masterpiece" and I would strongly agree. Every track is a high-water mark in a career that includes a Polaris Prize. "Nada" is a multi-layered meditation on the fearlessness of women in Latin America who face sometimes insurmountable social constricts. Bomba Estereo's Li Saumet is the perfect voice to bring home the power of the message. Make sure to watch the video; its harsh truths are devastating. —Felix Contreras
Quelle Chris & Chris Keys "Living Happy" (feat. Joseph Chilliams & Cavalier)
Arriving at the top of Quelle Chris and Chris Key's wonderful collaborative album Innocent Country 2, "Living Happy" opens with a spoken word intro about dying and riding a wave of light all the way to the spirit world. The trio of Quelle Chris, Joseph Chilliams and Cavalier share reflective, life-affirming bars over Chris Keys's gorgeous piano-driven instrumental. For all of it's talk about life, death and the often painful art of just getting by, the song's chorus is the real killer. Delivered amidst a cloud of beautifully stacked vocal harmonies, it crystalizes the song's message of joy and resilience by calling out the names of popular Black social dances: "Bust a juke, hit the jit / Cabbage patch, Bankhead / Butterfly, Tootsie Roll / Lean wit' it, rock wit' it / Do the jerk, hit the whoa." —John Morrison (WXPN)
Run The Jewels "a few words for the firing squad (radiation)"
Foreboding as a thunderhead, eerie as a midnight sun, "A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)" summons all the cinematic sweep of Run the Jewels' riveting RTJ4. Lyrically it's a feat of compression, as El-P and Killer Mike reflect on the cards stacked against them, the evolution of their motives and the consequences of their actions. The emotional palette is unruly, nearly overwhelming — tenderness, grief, defiance, bitter irony — but by rooting every utterance in the personal, both MCs keep the narrative free of confusion. And the tensile string arrangements, along with Cochemea Gastelum's wailing tenor saxophone, amplify a feeling that the stakes couldn't possibly be higher, for Run the Jewels and for the rest of us. This is the sound of a dawning reckoning, and the capstone to an album extraordinarily in tune with our time. — Nate Chinen, WBGO
Run The Jewels "walking in the snow"
"Walking In The Snow" was actually written long before the murder of George Floyd. Somehow, that makes the moment when it all slows and Killer Mike wheezes "I can't breathe" even more chilling. It's a reminder that the horrors we've seen have happened over and over again, and Run The Jewels's lyrics take on the system that perpetuates them - including a line that made me literally stop what I was doing and gave me chills when I first heard it: "Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state." —Raina Douris (World Cafe)
Inbal Segev, Marin Alsop & London Philharmonic Orchestra DANCE
Musically riffing off the poetry of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystic, British composer Anna Clyne has written perhaps her most ambitious and appealing work so far. It's hard to resist the gorgeous opening of DANCE, her new cello concerto performed with singular commitment by cellist Inbal Segev and conductor Marin Alsop. In music that evokes calm and open spaces, Segev floats long-lined melodies above warm, slowly shifting strings and tinted winds, reaching for her instrument's highest notes. It's a tender and wistful way into the five-movement work. What follows are sections, individual in their personalities, ranging from feisty and chaotic to loving and joyful. Clyne's orchestrations are keenly attentive to color and light, and she's fearless in filling the concerto with melodies of undisguised beauty. Some are folkish, others are regal. All linger in the ear, begging to be heard again. —Tom Huizenga
Wifigawd & Tony Seltzer "Ten Toes" (feat. The Khan & Wiki)
I grew up listening to rap the way a lot of kids have: digging into an external drive from an older cousin full of songs that made me feel seen and heard, songs that shrunk down a noisy, tangly world into digestible bits, and, most of all, songs that were just mind-blowingly cool. "Ten Toes" falls into the latter category: It's the coolest song I've heard all year. First, there's the perfect wave of an instrumental from super producer Tony Seltzer. Then we've got three underground kings flowing over it with divine grace. WifiGawd, the meditative bandleader, reports live from the trenches of Uptown D.C. in his finest Y-3 garments, sounding like a cloud. His sidekick is fellow District rapper The Khan, a bulldozer. And finally, an appearance from the future mayor of New York City, Wiki, painting frescoes and cataloging all the rappers he's sonned. The effect? Pure, psychedelic bliss. WifiGawd swears it's a dream. It just might be. —Mano Sundaresan
Hayley Williams "Why We Ever"
The past is ever-present. Petals for Armor, Hayley Williams' debut solo album, uncorks a bottled history with unsparing emotion, and it's in "Why We Ever" that, in order to glow, she faces her darkest moment. Like a see-through mirror that tells two stories, the song's split in half: warm Wurlitzer and gently-popped bass strings seek comfort in the softest of '90s R&B and pop, as Williams wanders through a loss of love, a loss of self. But through the other side, as a piano bench creeks with the heft of a body slumped over, she brings us into her present, repeating, "I just wanna talk about it / I know I freaked you out," still tethered to the past. That is a lonely place to live, but "Why We Ever" musically and psychically surrounds Williams with a loving support system, as the meditative groove grows louder in empathy. —Lars Gotrich
Lucinda Williams "Wakin' Up"
This real time description of a woman rising up and leaving an abuser builds energetically, fed by the fervor of Williams's vocal testifying and of Stuart Mathis's inflammatory guitar lines. Its resonance exceeds its subject matter to touch on the anxiety and simmering rage so prevalent in a year during which we're all waking up. —Ann Powers
Jonah Yano "shoes" (feat. Tatsuya Muraoka)
This is, fortunately and unfortunately, a once-in-a-lifetime song. Somewhere in Hiroshima, around 30 years ago, Tatsuya Muraoka recorded the shell of this buoyant-but-humid, sweet-but-low song, about buying his son a pair of Ultraman shoes. Decades later Jonah Yano, the recipient of those shoes, finished it, as a way to process the 15 years across which he'd been estranged from his father. There's a particularity to this kind of pain, which so many know so well; a forced-upon regret and a low-simmering unsurety, swirling uselessly around an empty hole. Between his father's original verses, in whispers, Yano hazily explores memory and causation, separation and resolution. What we get is a remarkably seamless, unrepeatable, magical mist of a piece. —Andrew Flanagan
Yumi Zouma "Cool for a Second"
In Yumi Zouma's "Cool for a Second," the New Zealand band's synth-swept dream-pop radiates softly, sweetly, irresistibly. But beneath the bright shimmer of a song that sometimes seems in danger of floating away entirely, singer Christie Simpson busily picks through the shrapnel of a relationship marked by late-night fights, long absences and little reminders of love's promise. —Stephen Thompson
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