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The Songs That Defined 2020

Even as the world came to a crashing halt, the music played on. As the year comes to a close, we look back at the songs that defined 2020.

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Best Songs 2020
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Even as the world came to a crashing halt in early March, the music played on. Despite a global shutdown, artists continued to create, providing a soundtrack that both offered an alternative to an endless cycle of news, or spoke to it directly. The year was a mixed bag of cathartic pop jams that had you dancing along at home, to powerful anthems that gave voice to a movement, and old classics that returned to the charts, driven by a mix of nostalgia and the need for something familiar during very unfamiliar times. As the year comes to a close, we look back at the songs that defined 2020.

Avenue Beat: ‘F2020’

One of the sleeper hits of the year was by a little-known pop trio called Avenue Beat, who crafted the perfect pandemic earworm with “F__k 2020” or “F2020.” After unceremoniously dropping the song on TikTok, the song blew up and created a viral sensation. Simple yet effective, the minimal bop was the perfect soundtrack to our collective fatigue. – Laura Stavropoulos

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Martha & The Vandellas: ‘Dancing In The Streets’

Written by Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter, Martha & The Vandellas’ 1964 smash, “Dancing In The Street” shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. Though its lyrics weren’t overtly political, this Motown classic chimed with the mood of society at a time when equality and the fight for Civil Rights were headline news. In 2020, however, when it was more necessary than ever to proclaim how much Black Lives Matter, this song’s message of hope and inclusivity sang louder and prouder than ever before. – Tim Peacock

Kendrick Lamar: ‘Alright’

Kendrick Lamar didn’t write “Alright” to be an anthem, he poured his own experience coming from a systematically targeted community into a song that happened to resonate with the thousands of people protesting the incessant killing of Black individuals at the hands of police officers. Hopeful and helpless, the song echoed at protests supporting Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and more in 2015 and again following the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020. Little has changed, hundreds more Black lives have been lost and the sanguine chant of “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright” continues to echo. – Larisha Paul

Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going On’

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On, was a groundbreaking collection of soulful songs and meaningful, social commentary and its title track was a response to the unrest of the 60s, including riots and police brutality. But the song’s plea for people to embrace their humanity and unite still resonated deeply in 2020, amid a deeply-divided America. From Black Lives Matter marches to voter registration benefits, Gaye’s powerful song was regularly called to mind. – Sophie Smith

The Rolling Stones: ‘Living In a Ghost Town’

The Stones surprised many, perhaps even including themselves, with a flurry of activity as lockdown engulfed us all. In April, Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Ronnie were each filmed at home playing a collective “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for the all-star One World: Together at Home concert. Within weeks, they were offering this brand new single, started during 2019 album sessions and completed in isolation when its lyrical message became too poignant to hold it back. – Paul Sexton

R.E.M: ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’

2020 had its fair share of new music, but it also resurfaced older hits that took on fresh relevance during what can only be described as “trying times.” One of which was R.E.M’s delightfully sardonic 1987 hit, which returned to the charts 33 years later. Cultural references aside, Michael Stipe’s stream of consciousness feels like it was written yesterday, as he counts down a litany of stressors that sum up just an average day’s news cycle. – Laura Stavropoulos

Public Enemy: ‘The Grid’

The debate as to whether technology has encroached too far on society rages on, but it’s undeniable that technology has helped keep us together during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy had their say on the matter on their hard-hitting Def Jam comeback, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? From it, “The Grid” discussed society after a technological collapse and it came with a brilliant promo video depicting Chuck D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, Sen Dog, Flavor Flav and funk legend George Clinton sharing a call together on Boom: a parody of the video conference service, Zoom. – Tim Peacock

The Weeknd: ‘Blinding Lights’

Often weighed down by the automatic categorization as an R&B artist that Black pop musicians have historically faced, The Weeknd has been inching closer and closer to full-fledged pop stardom since the release of his debut mixtape House of Balloons. His fourth album, After Hours, was the disruption he’d been waiting for, and it all began with the takeover of 2020s biggest song: “Blinding Lights.” The glimmering 80s pop single has resided in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for 42 weeks and inspired one of the biggest dance trends on TikTok since its inception with over 1.1 million videos soundtracked by the single. – Larisha Paul

BTS: ‘Dynamite’

With its infectious, disco-inspired beats and joyful hooks, BTS’s “Dynamite” gave the world a much-needed dose of positivity this summer. The single, which marked the K-pop stars’ first English-language song, was eagerly embraced by fans and critics alike – debuting at the top of Billboard Hot 100 and scoring the group their first Grammy nomination. In addition to becoming the group’s first No.1 single in the US, the record-breaking summer anthem also secured BTS as the first all-South Korean act to top the Hot 100. Meanwhile, the colorful visual for “Dynamite” was streamed over 101.1 million times on its first day, breaking YouTube’s record for the most views in 24 hours. – Sophie Smith

Fleetwood Mac: ‘Dreams’

It was only a matter of time before the kids got ahold of Fleetwood Mac. The song was already bubbling up on social media before its breakout moment on TikTok, thanks to skateboarder Nathan Apodaca and his carefree moment with a bottle of Ocean Spray. From its laidback drum loop to Stevie Nicks’ emotive crooning, the 1977 single is at its core, a folk-inspired dance track, ripe or reinvention during each ensuing decade. – Laura Stavropoulos

Dua Lipa: ‘Don’t Start Now’

If Dua Lipa’s prominence as an unyielding force in pop music wasn’t made clear after the three punch knock-out of her hits “New Rules,” “One Kiss,” and “Electricity,” the nonstop party of her sophomore album Future Nostalgia has cemented her place at the top. The album’s lead single, “Don’t Start Now,” is a disco dream and an anthem of resilience. The promise of shedding the weight of hard times and coming out on the other side stronger than when you entered is the best mindset to carry forward as we leave behind a year as tumultuous as this one. – Larisha Paul

Radio 1 Live Lounge All Stars: ‘Times Like These’

Like so many songs, Foo Fighters’ 2002 track assumed new poignancy in the COVID-19 era. This slow, acoustic treatment featured a swathe of British and international stars including Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Rita Ora and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, raising money for BBC Children in Need and Comic Relief and topping the UK chart in the spring. Dave Grohl, who was on it, said he had to “fight back tears” when he heard of the campaign. – Paul Sexton

The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Quite probably the only global smash hit with a lyric referencing Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” was the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1980 and later picked up a Grammy Award. Its subject matter concerned a schoolgirl’s crush on her teacher, but the song’s title and chorus refrain sounded eerily apt in 2020 when COVID-19 literally forced society apart. To underline the point that we all need to socially distance, LA-based producer Dave Aude worked up a special new remix in conjunction with Sting. – Tim Peacock

Billie Eilish: ‘My Future’

Everyone experienced some period of reflection during lockdown, and Billie Eilish was no exception. After canceling her world tour in March, the artist hunkered down in Los Angeles, where she wrote and recorded “my future” with her brother and collaborator, FINNEAS. Released this summer, the song marked her first new music since her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Bond theme, “No Time to Die.” Beginning as a bluesy, mellow ballad, in which Eilish sings about ending a relationship, the song picks up into an airy, upbeat ode to self-empowerment, and hope for things to come. It was the uplifting, meditative anthem that we all needed – a reminder to be kind to ourselves, to put ourselves first, and to focus on the future. – Sophie Smith

YG: ‘FDT’ (featuring Nipsey Hussle)

One of the most defining moments of the interminably long year was the protests that erupted over the summer in the wake of the George Floyd killing. As the nation proclaimed Black Lives Matter, there was also music that propelled the movement including YG and Nipsey Hussle’s prescient anthem ‘FDT’ or ‘F__k Donald Trump.’ Released before his election in 2016, the song became a rallying cry in the streets over the summer and a celebratory anthem after his loss was declared in November. – Laura Stavropoulos

The 1975: ‘Love It If We Made It’

The 1975 stitched together the lyrics of “Love It If We Made It” using newspaper headlines and direct quotes from political figures reflecting the state of the world at the time of the song’s writing. Two years following its release, society faces these same ills in one shape or another: politicians continue to place individual needs over that of the people they’re meant to represent, budding young musicians continue to pass away at incredibly young ages, and the threat of misinformation has grown larger. The conclusion the band reached is simply that “modernity has failed us,” although there’s a newfound urgency and uncertainty in lead singer Matty Healy’s voice as he repeats: “I’d love it if we made it.” – Larisha Paul

Luke Combs: ‘Six Feet Apart’

Everything Luke Combs touches turns to gold at the very least, but like every artist in 2020, he was sitting at home climbing the walls because he couldn’t hit the road. So he and friends Brent Cobb and Rob Snyder came up with this song, one of many with the virus in its crosshairs. His post-virus plans, he told us in song, will include drinking with his buddies, catching a movie, watching a ball game, and over-washing his hands. – Paul Sexton

Haim: ‘Summer Girl’

Issued as a single prior to the release of Haim’s acclaimed Women In Music Pt.IIi, “Summer Girl” was a dreamy pop confection with an irresistible groove which interpolated a section of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and had all the hallmarks of a hit. Written in response to producer/Danielle Haim’s boyfriend, Ariel Rechtshaid’s cancer diagnosis, the lyric was penned from a personal standpoint, but the song’s positive vibe and hope-filled lines such as “I see it in your face, I’m relief” had a global appeal and shone some much-needed light into the darkness of 2020. – Tim Peacock

Taylor Swift: ‘Cardigan’

As one social media user astutely pointed out, the US got more Taylor Swift albums than stimulus checks during a global pandemic this year. If any artist truly blossomed during quarantine it was Taylor Swift. The master of making the personal feel universal, Swift delivered two excellently crafted folk-pop albums this year – Folklore and Evermore – including the intimate single, ‘cardigan’ that made us all want to curl up in our cottage-core bunkers for the rest of the year. – Laura Stavropoulos

Dame Vera Lynn: ‘We’ll Meet Again’

Named a national hero some 80 years ago, “Forces’ Sweetheart” Vera Lynn passed away this summer at the age of 103 and produced an outpouring of affection that was all the more heightened by the state of global emergency in which the news was received. Her signature song from World War II, with its message to “keep smiling through,” thus reached yet another new generation and, even with her sad passing, galvanized a nation once again. – Paul Sexton

Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande: ‘Rain on Me’

A week before she dropped her highly-anticipated album, Chromatica, Lady Gaga gifted fans with her second single, “Rain on Me,” featuring Ariana Grande. Equal parts cathartic and jubilant, the dancefloor duet was a partnership made in pop heaven, while its theme of celebrating resilience amid hardships resonated more than ever this year. – Sophie Smith

BLACKPINK: ‘How You Like That’

The writing’s been on the wall for years, but 2020 was really the year that K-pop conquered America. Unless you’re been riding out quarantine in a wifi-less bomb shelter, you couldn’t miss the slick, trap-infused sound of the industrial pop complex that is K-pop and specifically BLACKPINK. Along with BTS’ disco-fied crossover hit “Dynamite,” BLACKPINK’s global smash “How You Like That” blared out of car stereos and your local CVS in equal measure. But it was also unlike anything else on the charts. From its rap hooks to beat drops and Bollywood-inspired breakdowns, it’s really multiple songs in one, perfect for when your fanbase extends to most of the planet. – Laura Stavropoulos

Roddy Ricch: ‘The Box’

Roddy Ricch opened “The Box” with the sound of a creaking door before barreling through three minutes of melodic verses that would become one of the biggest records of 2020. The jittering “EEE ER” was added after the Compton rapper knocked the track out in half an hour at 6 in the morning, an afterthought that took on a life of its own on TikTok where it was used in over 3.8 million videos on the app. “The Box” was not only Ricch’s first No.1 hit, but also the longest-running No.1 of the year. – Larisha Paul

Mickey Guyton: ‘Heaven Down Here’

As one of the few, prominent Black figures in country music, rising star Mickey Guyton has been an important voice this year. The fearless singer-songwriter hasn’t shied away from speaking her truth, even when it means addressing difficult topics. Written amid a year of extreme upheaval and division, “Heaven Down Here” offers fans a healing message of hope. Its accompanying video incorporates a timely collection of visuals – from Black Lives Matter marches and political rallies to tireless frontline workers. – Sophie Smith

Michael Ball featuring the NHS Voices of Care Choir and Captain Tom Moore: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

At the beginning of the year, Tom Moore was “merely” a former British Army officer, aged 99. By April, he was a national hero, walking laps of his garden, with his frame, to raise money for NHS Charities Together. The sum realized was over £32 million ($43m) and he became the UK’s beacon of positivity in the darkest days of the pandemic. After turning 100, he was knighted in May, and his voice appeared on this chart-topping version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein staple. – Paul Sexton

Celeste: ‘I Can See the Change’

With a high-profile nod from the BBC and a BRIT Rising Star Award, British soul-singer Celeste entered 2020 as one of the most promising new artists. One year on, she certainly hasn’t disappointed – releasing a trove of singles that showcase her sublime voice including “I Can See the Change,” a collaboration with FINNEAS, who was mesmerized by her performance at the BRITS. While the ballad was written ahead of the summer’s reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, its poignant message of hope and change resonated more than ever with the artist and her fans. – Sophie Smith

Cardi B (featuring Megan Thee Stallion): ‘WAP’

It was the pearl-clutching anthem of the year and gave us the kind of watercooler moment to (virtually) gather around and discuss…and discuss we did. In a genre that loves to pit women against one another, ‘WAP’ brought together two of the biggest female MCs of the moment – Cardi B and Megan The Stallion – for an exuberant and raunchy celebration of womanhood. And we’ll never think about macaroni the same way again. – Laura Stavropoulos

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