An arrangement of the cover art for the songs discussed herein. (Tyler Kinzy)
An arrangement of the cover art for the songs discussed herein.

Tyler Kinzy

Our favorite songs of 2020

December 31, 2020

The music industry—like most things in 2020—is winding down its most bizarre year in recent memory. But even during a time when life as we knew it came to a grinding halt, artists still managed to create millions of new songs to the tune of billions of listener streams. (At least some of all that quarantine free time had to go towards music.) As we count down the days to the long-overdue end of 2020, here are our picks for the song of the year.

“walking in the snow” by Run The Jewels

Late May into early June put America’s most harrowing flaws on full display. From a pandemic disproportionately ravaging marginalized communities to widening economic inequality to incessant police violence, anger towards institutions serving the white ruling class continued to mount. Enter hardcore hip hop duo Run The Jewels. El-P and Killer Mike released their latest album, RTJ4, June 3, just nine days after the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests.

“F*** it, why wait,” the album announcement read. “The world is infested with b******* so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.”

The sixth track, “walking in the snow,” certainly fits the description. El-P brings his A-game in terms of meticulous production, as he begins with a menacing guitar riff from Little Shalimar before weaving in a swirling string arrangement and buzzing synth lines that lurk underneath the thumping bass beat. The song is shrouded in ominous undercurrents fitting for its lyrical content.

“Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group,” El-P warns in the opening verse. “So when that cage is done with them and you still poor, it come for you.”

It’s Killer Mike’s second verse, however, that cements “walking in the snow” as a powerful time capsule of 2020. He unfurls 40 unapologetically fiery bars of commentary on issues ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline (“They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores/And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest”) to performative activism (“And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV/The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”). Midway through the verse, he gasps out the final words of his “And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’” couplet, an especially chilling moment in the immediate aftermath of the Floyd killing.

Until you learn that the entire verse was recorded months before Floyd’s death. “walking in the snow” isn’t a reaction to any isolated event; it’s a scathing indictment of this country’s structural underpinnings. Nothing that El-P and Killer Mike rap about is new, and none of it is going to change just because ostensibly ‘woke’ liberals voted the Evil Orange Man™ out of office. 

“All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves,” Killer Mike proclaims. “Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.”

“I’m Ready” by Jaden Smith

In the middle of November, PlayStation came out with their new Ps5 and there’s no question about why the Ps5 and its games received so much hype. The Ps5 features a wide variety of games, but the most popular game of them all? Marvel’s Spider-man: Miles Morales.

Starting with the game’s storyline, and ending with the background music, the coders killed it on this game, hiring a small pop-up artist named Jaden Smith. His song, which features him combining singing and rapping, plays while swinging through the buildings in Morales’s home city of Manhattan.

The song starts off slowly talking about “swinging through the kingdom in the night” and how “Pete told me I was next.” The artist is referring to the part of the game where the original spider-man leaves on a work trip and gives Miles Morales, the other spider-man, the responsibility of protecting Manhattan.

As the song rhythm picks up, Smiths sings “I got somethin’ to prove to show to the world.” This and the line “They think I’m way too young to stand up for the ones I love” refers to when a super villain named “Rhino” ridicules Morales as they fight. “You are too young to do any real damage,” the villain says. These lines portray the artist’s beliefs and  Morales’s insecurities. According to Smith, Morales feels like the shoes he has to fill, the original Spider-Man’s shoes, are too big and that he is too young and inexperienced to protect the city he loves by himself.

The verse after, the song launches into full speed with an “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready” showing that later on in the game, Morales builds confidence and believes he believes in himself that he can take on the world and protect the ones he loves.

“I’m ready to take on the world,” Smith sings. “You can’t stop me now.” This last line inspires me and makes me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to which is what makes it my #1 song.

“Cardigan” by Taylor Swift

If you had a ‘surprise album by Taylor Swift’ on your quarantine bucket list, you can check it off, because seemingly out of nowhere July 23 singer-songwriter Taylor Swift announced her album “Folklore” was being released at midnight July 24. Part two of this surprise came December 11 at midnight when she released another album, “Evermore.” “Cardigan” was amongst her top hits from these albums and climbed its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with 34 million streams.

My family and I have gone on a lot of road trips and, more often than not, we are taking long drives to and from Potosi, Mo. Being in the car as the fourth kid with two parents, two dogs and a cat can be a little overwhelming. Music is the best way for me to tune the craziness out and just focus on the long twisting, turning roads while trying not to get carsick. Personally, I have spent a lot of time in the car during quarantine, which means I have had a countless amount of hours to listen to music, specifically Swift’s song ‘Cardigan’ which is often on repeat.

Listening to “Cardigan” helps you realize a journey through the happy and through the hard that Swift has persevered through fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, fighting for her personal rights in a sexual assault trial and fighting her way through the numberous amounts of hating celebrities, like Katy Perry, Kayne West and many of her ex-lovers. A journey through the happy and the hard is a journey that everyone will have to go through.

“Be that strong girl that everyone knew would make it through the worst, be that fearless girl, the one who would dare to do anything, be that independent girl who didn’t need a man; be that girl who never backed down,” Swift said on TaylorSwift.com

In the music video that premiered July 23, Swift travels through a magical piano from an old brown room to an enchanted forest, and from the forest to an ocean in a terrible storm. After finding her way through the storm to her piano – her source of music and happiness – she is relieved to travel back to her room where there is a cardigan waiting for her to warm and comfort her.

“Real Love still happens sometimes. It’s not just something we make up when we’re nine. I have to believe that. You do too,” Swift said in a Tweet to Selena Gomez April 13, 2009

While Easter may come once a year, Swift has mastered the skill of embedding Easter eggs in her music. Since the release of one of her newer albums, Folklore, fans have tried to figure out if the lyrics in her new songs were clues regarding her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. Conspiracies about whether ‘“Cardigan” is written to represent the beginning or the end of their relationship have dominated fan’s thoughts since late July.

“And when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed, you put me on and said I was your favorite,” Swift sings. “A friend to all is a friend to none; chase two girls, lose the one. When you are young, they assume you know nothing.”

Having a mystery enclosed in her songs is so intriguing. Whether it’s about either a fictional universe or Swift’s personal life, fans continue trying to unravel the mystery as she keeps dropping hints. Then another whole album drops and fans dig deeper. “Cardigan” especially makes fans think and research and gather information they know about ‘Swifty.’ Could this be just the tip of the iceberg? In an interview with StyleCaster writer Jenzia Burgos, Swift revealed her motivations for the song “Cardigan.”

“The song is about a lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently within our memories. Why it leaves such an indelible mark,” Swift said.

“Afterthought” by Joji

I’ve become a small Joji fan over the summer. After he released his long awaited album NectarAfterthought quickly became one of my favorites off the track. “Afterthought” makes me feel relaxed and is the perfect beat to play during homework, or during anything you don’t want to play loud music. The addition of singer and artist Benee in the song adds the female perspective to the story, and she’s someone who’s become sort of a breakout artist this year as well. Joji and Benee’s voices harmonize to create a story that describes the aftermath of a messy relationship. Joji reflects on how they ended the relationship, and wonders if the partner thinks about him too. I love music that can create a meaningful story yet still be catchy and simple, which is an element Joji incorporates perfectly in this song. It’s a hit in my book.

“Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish

“Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish is my favorite song of this year because I am a huge fan of her and any music she puts out. She makes me feel powerful and comfortable with myself when I listen. Billie’s music is always catchy and I can listen to it, no matter the mood I’m in. This song specifically focuses on calling out her body shamers. She is letting them know that she does not care what people say or think about her body; it’s her’s and no one else’s. The line “Get my pretty name out of your mouth”, signifies that she may see what you are saying about her, but she doesn’t care and will continue to be herself the way she wants to. That’s my favorite line out of the whole song because I see it as, my name is too pretty for someone to just say it whenever or however they want.

This song is really a song for those to build their confidence and to feel good about themselves. It’s upbeat sound and catchy phrases such as “I think therefore I am” states that not only should a person think they are the baddest of them all, they should know they are the baddest of them all. You can dance to it while loving yourself all in one, just like Billie did in the music video.Her positivity and authenticity in the song make it my favorite song of the year.

“Hurricane” by Anson Seabra

Many articles include “TikTok star” somewhere in singer-songwriter Anson Seabra’s title, giving the impression that he’s all about the views and the likes. Such is not the case. He uses social media as a vehicle to show his fans the songwriting process, both on TikTok and Instagram Live where he performs covers and plays around with new notes and lyrics. “There is nothing I want more” than having Seabra perform what seems like a personal concert as I lie cozy under my covers at 11 p.m.

Hurricane” might technically fall under an acoustic indie pop love ballad genre, but it’s about more than a lost lover. First of all, he has next to no instruments or background vocals to hide his voice behind, which is a risky move as it’s still part of the pop genre, but he rocks it. His voice is the entire tone of the song. Yes, you wouldn’t party to this song. Yes, it might initially cause your friends’ concern when they see you listening to it in the middle of the night on their Spotify Friends Activity. Yes, you listen to them when you’re sad. But despite the depressing lyrics, they make you feel better. He sings like an actual baby angel. Close your eyes and listen to him, just him, and I swear you will feel like you are being swaddled and held and no harm will come to you.

In his pre-chorus he sings, “And even when the wind would roar / You were such a perfect storm.” “Hurricane” isn’t really about a lost love. It’s about the duality of something that hurts you, but you love it anyway. It’s about reckoning with your spiraling thoughts. It could be about failing, and knowing you’ve learned, but still feeling like you’re not worth it. It could be about how 2020 has been absolutely awful in every conceivable fashion, but still contained some of your happiest memories. Whatever feelings his lyrics bring up, his voice immediately tells you everything is going to be okay. This is just what we all needed in 2020: someone to tell us it’s going to be okay.

“Be like that” by Kane Brown (ft. Swae Lee, Khalid)

Personally, my music taste has always been all over the place. I always say I like a little bit of everything, but one song that really stuck with me this year was “Be like that.”  Written by American Music Award (AMA) winner Kane Brown,featuring American rapper Swae Lee and American singer-songwriter and AMA winner Khalid, “Be like that” is the third single in Brown’s EP “Mixtape vol. 1” and is a mix of both modern country and pop music.

In an article from Billboard, Brown says the song is about “all the different feelings you can have in a relationship, and trying not to overthink it. When it gets tough, you want to be on your own, but then you miss the person a second later,” Brown said. “I think it’s something everyone goes through.”

Even if it’s not in a relationship, I’m sure everyone has experienced fighting with someone close to them and wanting to confide in the person even though the two of you are fighting. I think the relatability of this is one of the reasons why I like the song so much.

Before their verse in the song, each of the artists sings the chorus with those who sung the verse(s) prior. The entire song is a comparison between good and bad times in relationships, demonstrated with lines like “I might be better on my own/ I hate you blowin’ up my phone” but followed immediately by, “but I’m not myself the night you’re gone/ There ain’t no way I’m movin’ on/ I’m not afraid I need you bad/ Sometimes it be like that.”

“Be like That” is a  unique and relatable combination of two genres that more people should take time to listen to. It’s great beat and emotional lyrics make it my favorite song of 2020.

“BOOTS” by Hardy

Arguably one of the greatest lyrical artists of the modern country era, on May 1 Michael Hardy released the single “BOOTS” in preparation for his debut album “A ROCK” which released  Sep. 4. The song describes a breakup involving two angry lovers. “That look on your face says you don’t want me no more,” Hardy sings “There’s no use in talking and this time you mean it.” The arguments progress to the point of one person being kicked out, but he was prepared to leave as he awoke in his boots that morning.The soul and passion in Hardy’s voice combined with the usage of the electric guitar and steady drum beat will allow you to either scream this song in the car or cry to it at night, making it the perfect song for 2020.

With anger and remorse being driving factors in breakups, Hardy is able to hone in on these feelings as he accepts his choices in an effort to move on. “Fell asleep in my boots last night,” Hardy sings. “Had a feeling I’d run out of warnings. Girl, I couldn’t have been more right.”

The constant time changes in the song hook the listener in immediately, having them think it’ll be a sappy breakup song then as the tempo gradually increases turning it into quite literally a rock song. With everything going on in the world these days a song to help deal with adversity is what any music lover needs and in this album Hardy provides.

“illicit affairs” by Taylor Swift

The master of the breakup song has outdone herself. Released as the 10th track on Taylor Swift’s eight studio album, “folklore,” “illicit affairs”  defines every emotion intrinsic to a love that failed–and I am forever grateful.

On the surface, the song is about a girl entering into a forbidden love and finding herself unable to stop. However, through her lyrics, Swift takes us on a familiar journey of unrequited and unanswered love. With a delicate melody to start the song, Swift’s lyrics are set against a backdrop of classical acoustic. She sings a familiar song to her beloved, promising that “for you I would ruin myself/a million little times.”

The spark of affection “born from just one single glance” reminds us all the precarious nature of love, a familiar theme in Swift’s work. Swift defines the peak of romance and her affair when she sings the heartbreaking lines “you showed me colors you know/I can’t see with anyone else,” and “You taught me a secret language/I can’t speak with anyone else.” These lyrics, the notion of unseen colors and secret languages, are the peak of emotional entrapment and the closest I’ve ever read to describing love.

She cuts into her loving and wistful tone as she explains her affliction was a mere  “dwindling, mercurial high/A drug that only worked/The first few hundred times.” As the song falls, Swift too falls out of love and into a state of self-realization. Her emotional journey is set against twinkling and ethereal instrumentals that are sure to never overshadow her voice. Swift rehashes the details that made her fall into love. The affectionate nicknames that led to her entrapment are eviscerated as she painfully pleads “Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby.” Her emotional trauma manifests in her painstaking realization that her relationship has broken; “They show their truth one single time/But they lie, and they lie, and they lie.”

The tale of heartbreak and self-realization Swift tells is one no one’s immune to. She describes the most visceral of human emotions as love and hate come to a head in just a little more than three minutes. Simply put, “illicit affairs” is the most emotionally raw and relatable song of the year. What makes this song timeless, however, is the themes she explores. Feelings of lost love are invincible to the constraints of time, making “illicit affairs” a song that can be cried to even 50 years in the future. With a single song, Swift has made us all into the “godforsaken mess” she sings about.

“Moral of the Story” by Ashe feat. Niall Horan

In 2019, when I first heard Ashe’s second EP “Moral of the Story: Chapter 1,” she immediately became one of my favorite artists. This summer, I fell in love with the title track “Moral of the Story” all over again when Ashe released a remix as a duet with former One Direction member Niall Horan.

Reflecting on a recent divorce, she sings “in the end it’s better for me, that’s the moral of the story.” She looks at her past with maturity and reinforces the message that life is full of difficulties, but everything you learn from those journeys allows you to blossom into the best version of yourself. Throughout this pandemic, I have had a lot of time to reflect on what truly matters to me. While this year has not been convenient nor favorable due to the immense tragedy that has come, the silver lining, which this song reinforces, is that every struggle I have encountered has helped shape the person that I am today; that’s the moral of the story.

The conversational lyrics bring a casual vibe which are accompanied by gentle piano chords, making the song agreeable to whatever mood I’m in. It brings the comfort of a warm hug from an old friend. The idea that your mistakes are just learning experiences brings a fairytale element to the song which is one reason I never get tired of it. In the newest version we are met with harmonies from Ashe and Niall which instantly lift the tone of the song, making it happier and more upbeat. Matching the 2020 narrative, Horan and Ashe recorded their parts separately and the song was put together and released before they ever met in person. Yet, their voices blend together seamlessly on the track.

“Some mistakes get made, that’s alright, that’s okay” is a phrase that every individual needs to hear at some point or another. Beyond its catchy tune, the message of this song is comforting during times when things seem to be constantly going awry beyond our control. No matter the situation you apply, this song can be relatable when we look to mistakes we’ve made years ago or even yesterday, and feel frustrated about how “blindsided” we’ve been. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, and be thankful for the ways we’ve grown and what we’ve learned.

“Starting Over” by Chris Stapleton

On Nov. 13, country artist, six time grammy winner, and Kentucky native Chris Stapleton released his emotion-packed album entitled Starting Over. The album includes the songs “Cold” and “Watch you Burn,” which offers listeners a visceral look at the inside of Stapleton’s mind in the aftermath of the Vegas shooting. However my favorite song is the most uplifting on the album, the title song “Starting Over,” which was released separately from the album on Aug. 28.

Although it was written in early spring, before many of us had even heard of COVID-19, “Starting Over,” is the perfect description of this year and what comes next. In an interview with Noel King on NPR’s Morning Edition, Stapleton talked about writing the song, “As you do with songs sometimes, you write ‘em and, pull it back out and you listen to it, and maybe it means something else in a different time, which is beautiful.”

“Starting Over,” describes Stapleton finding a fresh start with his wife as they leave their home to travel, taking risks and making home wherever they go. Stapleton cites the challenges that await them as he writes, “This might not be an easy time/ There’s rivers to cross and hills to climb/ Some days we might fall apart/ And some nights might feel cold and dark,” all the while knowing that they will ultimately be alright together.

The sound of the song is as sweet as the lyrics, with Morgane Stapleton, Stapleton’s wife and a musical talent in her own right––offering her smooth voice as the perfect contrast to Stapleton’s raw, gritty vocals. The two are backed by a guitar, a bass, and a little percussion, lending the whole song a simple and yet beautiful blend of sound in the chorus, “It don’t matter to me/ Wherever we are is where I wanna be/ And, honey, for once in our life/ Let’s take our chances and roll the dice/ I can be your lucky penny/ You can be my four leaf clover/ Starting over.”

I have no doubt that this song will still be a hit 50 years from now, as its folksy, intimate sound is one that many can enjoy for years to come. It is the ultimate road-trip anthem, at once cozy and carefree, the perfect companion to a long drive with the windows down.

“Here and Now” by Kenny Chesney

This year has left us with plenty of time to reflect, even if most of our quarantine was spent watching Netflix and catching up on sleep. As we reflected on all that we were missing due to the pandemic, we also missed what was happening in the present. Country singer-songwriter Kenny Chesney released his chart-topping hit, “Here and Now” in February, and the themes presented in the song of living in the moment and appreciating all that you have remained important all year. 

Chesney begins the up-beat song by taking a look back at his life: “Seen the skyline in New York City/ Fireflies in Tennessee,” but even above all of the places that he’s been, Chesney’s favorite place remains the titular phrase of his hit, “Here and Now”. Throughout the chorus, Chesney motivates his audience to stop waiting and start living. Chesney asks “Everybody’s waiting, but they’re waiting on what?” This simple question pointed out the myriad of excuses that people make to put off true “living.” We wait until the pandemic is over, until we get another year older, until the crazy, disaster of a year 2020 ends, when what we really should be doing is enjoying each day that we have. Chesney encourages us to “get to living/ ‘cause all we’ve got is/ Here and now.”With one final reminder, the song wraps up with a call to action: to enjoy the “Here and Now”. The perfect windows-down, music blasting, summer song: Chesney’s hit reminds us of the importance of living in the present. “Here and Now” encourages us to take advantage of each day we wake up, even if a global pandemic makes us feel like every day is Groundhog day, because “[there] ain’t no better time than/ Here and now”.

“Rager teenager!” by Troye Sivan

Throughout 2020, I spent a lot of time alone, which I’m not complaining about. This means that I spent a lot of time listening to music. This is why it’s hard to choose just one song. With Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande both releasing new albums, I found myself drowning in new music. I looked hopefully to probably the greatest artist of all time, Lorde, but she remained silent as she has been since 2017.

Still, I am at no loss for new music. One of my burgeoning favorite artists, pop singer Troye Sivan, released a new album called “In a Dream,” Aug. 21. While there are many extremely catchy tracks on this album, “Rager teenager!” takes the cake. It is truly the ultimate 2020 ballad for a high school student.

The song starts with a short introduction of long, wailing notes that quickly transitions to Sivan singing directly to the titular “Rager teenager!” Sivan asks where they’ve been, to which the answer is, “Sleeping and spending nights wasting time.” A very accurate depiction of my year so far. The beat soon comes crashing in and Sivan transitions effortlessly into further verses and eventually his chorus.

Throughout the song, Sivan sings about all of the things he wishes he could do with his “rager teenager,” including going wild, singing loud, and losing himself in the crowd, all of which I wish I could be doing at a Troye Sivan concert right now.  Sivan’s description of all of the ways he wishes he could let loose with his rager teenager truly captures my experience this year. At 16, I’ve always dreamed of going and doing crazy things every weekend night, but instead I often find myself doing homework, tutoring, or watching TV with my friends. None of these I regret, but none of them include unleashing my wild side with a witty, mysterious rager teenager.

More than just recalling the good times he longs to repeat with his teenager, Sivan wonders, “Why you been acting like a stranger?” He speaks to the struggle of feeling like you’ve lost someone who you cherish so deeply, and realizing like they no longer want you. Sivan reflects on all of the things he wishes he could do with his rager teenager, had they not abandoned him. It all feels so very 2020.

With Sivan’s ability to input so much emotion and so much longing into his voice, along with the song’s steady beat and many instrumental facets that layer to create a completely unique song, he is able to craft a song that sounds nothing like the others on his album yet still fits right in. The most appealing verse of this masterpiece has to be, “Hey, my lil’ rager, teenager/ Trying to figure it out/ Living a season of screaming/ And turning it out.” It serves as inspiration that in this year of screaming, perhaps we can all find an inner rager teenager that can turn it out.

“Lockdown” by Anderson .Paak

During the initial wave of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic, Brandon Paak Anderson, operating under the stage name Anderson .Paak, decided to put his project “JEWELZ” on pause to, “absorb and take in what’s going on around us right now,” as he explained in an interview with Genius. “The lyrics just started coming, and we started writing [“Lockdown”] on the spot.”

Paak, a singer-songwriter, rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist, released “Lockdown” on Juneteenth, the national commemoration of slavery’s end. The song is a commentary on the intersection of the COVID-19 borne lockdown and the protests, more specifically, the police’s response to them.

The subdued jazzy melody allows the lyrics to take center stage. In his opening verse, Paak sings, “They opened up fire. Them bullets was flyin’/Who said it was a lockdown/god**** lie.” Throughout the song, Paak comments on the irony of police violence during the pandemic; the world is supposed to be indoors, safe from the pandemic, but instead, people of color are being killed in broad daylight.

Transitioning from singing to rapping, Paak continues, “Sicker than the COVID, how they did him on the ground,” a reference to the murder of George Floyd. He proceeds to facilitate the dialogue of a country reckoning with its anti-Black roots. “Oh, won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’ what’s that really all about?” he asks. “’Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels.”

All in all, “Lockdown” beautifully—but candidly—encapsulates a collective boiling over point. It’s a broadcast from the front lines, a vivid snapshot of our contemporary restlessness.

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