The 25 Best Songs of 2020 (So Far)

While this year has not, by any standards, been “good,” the music has been powerful. As it has throughout history, music has this year served as a remedy to our stress, a reason to dance, an excuse to smile (or cry) and a response to those in power who may try to get in the way. As the U.S. is gripped by protests and a pandemic, there are a million ways we could introduce this list—or we could just redirect your attention to something more important altogether. But we at Paste believe that music is complimentary to the fight for justice, including the important work of the Black Lives Matter movement. Music is a vehicle for protest, and it doesn’t just serve one purpose. These are the songs that have moved and shook us this year, for whatever reason. These are the stories and battle cries and breakdowns and jam sessions that have inspired during a year that has very often felt hopeless. Here are the best songs of 2020 so far.

Listen to our Best Songs of 2020 (So Far) playlist on Spotify right here.

25. Hailey Whitters: “Janice At The Hotel Bar”

Your new favorite country singer/songwriter is here. Hailey Whitters can make the everyday feel monumental and vice versa, and her song “Janice At The Hotel Bar,” from her February album The Dream, recounts a spontaneous heart-to-heart with a Boomer at the bar downstairs. The mysterious Janice, who prefers pharmacy “face cream” advises splurging on the good coffee and staying off pills, except for the Pill. It has too many good one-liners to list, but ”’All men are babies and that’s just how they roll’” might just take the cake. Whitters’ music has so much heart, and this song is another delightful entry to her young career. —Ellen Johnson

24. Disq: “Daily Routine”

“Daily Routine” is a searing power-pop cut with a healthy dose of gnarled guitars. It’s the perfect fusion of Disq’s pop sensibilities and punchy live shows. It’s also packed with the kind of youthful angst and much-needed antics that characterize the current millennial experience. Lead singer Isaac deBroux-Slone shares his worries about “wasting time,” “daily needs,” “computer screens,” and the kind of insecurities that plague most of us: “I’m in prison but I think this place was built by me.” —Lizzie Manno

23. Leon Bridges & Khruangbin: “Texas Sun”

Leon Bridges and Khruangbin first crossed paths as the result of a joint tour in 2018, and discovered they had a similar laid-back musical ethos. Texas Sun was the instrumental trio’s first foray into writing with a vocalist, and results on the title track are cozy and seamless. “We try not to have too much of an intention, because it gets in the way of what the music wants to do,” says Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee. “If you just let the music do what it’s supposed to do, it will reveal itself. We tried to take that same approach with Leon. For us, it was opening up our world to have another person in it. But all of it feels like Texas to me.” —Amanda Gersten

22. Thundercat: “Dragonball Durag”

“Baby girl, how do I look in my durag?” Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) asks on track nine of his new album It Is What It Is. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more earworm-y line than this one in 2020—you’ll go to sleep hearing it and wake up with it, too. The line’s goofy, easily quotable nature aside, Bruner’s delivery is impeccable—he breezes through the middle phrase as if it’s one word, and then ascends with soulful beauty on “durag.” The song is a reflection of his easy-going humor and eccentric musicianship as it mentions his love of comic books and cats (“I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”) and also rests on exuberant grooves. —Lizzie Manno

21. Scott Hardware: “Joy”

The gorgeous, piano-led “Joy” is marked by regal art-pop and Scott Hardware’s thoughtfully stitched lyricism. It has that satisfyingly cinematic feeling where the whole world is ahead of you—a gentle breeze caresses your face as you’re seconds anyway from stumbling into a stranger who could change your life. It’s sensitive and vulnerable, yet dramatic and awe-inspiring. —Lizzie Manno

20. Run The Jewels: “ooh la la”

El-P’s first verse on “ooh la la” is meticulously rhythmic as he fires off internal rhymes and sharp wordplay, and its best line (“When we talk, we Kalashnikov, keep us in your thoughts”) likens his rapid delivery to an automatic rifle while also tipping his hat to the ridiculous, empty statements provided by politicians after rampant gun violence. —Lizzie Manno

19. Moses Sumney: “Cut Me”

Lyrics aren’t the only vehicle for Sumney’s evasion of classification on his dazzling double album græ. Sonically, græ is one zigzag after another. “Cut Me,” for example, pairs his crystalline falsetto with a bleary horn arrangement, an army of synths and a bassline plucked straight from the songbook of ’60s soul. —Ben Salmon

18. Megan Thee Stallion & Beyoncé: “Savage Remix”

The crowning jewel of quarantine collabs features Bey’s return! The pop superstar raps on this fortified remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s hit song “Savage,” which has found popularity on TikTok, particularly, thanks to a really catchy choreographed dance that went viral. Hearing these two Texas queens together just feels so right. I am so here for these two queens from “H-Town, goin’ down” singing each other’s praises. Here’s hoping it’s not the last time we hear Megan and Beyoncé on a song together. —Ellen Johnson

17. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “Letting You Go”

“Being your daddy comes natural / The roses just know how to grow,” Jason Isbell sings on “Letting You Go,” the final song on Isbell’s and the 400 Unit’s excellent new album Reunions, which releases a series of timely social outcries alongside intimate personal narratives. Last year, 400 Unit member and Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires sang on the lovely (but heartbreaking if you let it be) song “My Only Child,” from her supergroup The Highwomen’s self-titled album. It’s Isbell’s turn to express parental devotion on the equally beautiful “Letting You Go,” which tracks their daughter Mercy’s life from the moment she’s brought home from the hospital to her predicted first heartbreak down the road. Isbell has always had a flair for the tender, but only recently have those gentle, quiet feelings been focused on the fatherly kind. “Letting You Go” is sure to devastate any father who hears it, but even for those of us who aren’t parents, the song lands like a sweet ode to the finite nature of time and growing up. It’s a comfort to know Isbell will be there to sing about all stages of life, including the “hard part”: letting go of the ones you love. —Ellen Johnson

16. Angelica Garcia: “Jícama”

Just in case “Jícama,” Angelica Garcia’s anthem to the feeling of otherness in white America, feels too short at a minute and 25 seconds, you’re in luck: “Jícama” is the rare song with an edited version that’s twice as long. In either configuration, the song, from her album Cha Cha Palace, is a sharp celebration of cultural duality as Garcia embraces her distinctive American-ness while holding fast to her Mexican and Salvadoran heritage. It’s a bare-bones track, with a repeating keyboard figure, digital handclaps and the occasional cymbal crash as Garcia engages in a call-and-response with herself. She hammers her point home at the end when she sings, “I’ve been trying to tell you, but you just don’t see / Like you, I was born in this country.” —Eric R. Danton

15. Kelly Lee Owens: “Melt!”

The world is burning. Figuratively in the sense that fascism’s veil has been lifted to more Americans than ever before, and literally in the sense that horrendous fires continue to ravage Australia and the Amazon. Kelly Lee Owens’ “Melt!” couldn’t be a more appropriate song for these terrors. It’s a techno banger as caustic as her unexpectedly abrasive 2019 single “Let It Go,” and it compresses samples of glaciers melting and rollerskates darting across thin ice into a dancefloor dose of existential and climate dread. Unlike the dream-pop-meets-techno stylings of Owens’ woefully underrated 2017 self-titled debut, “Melt!” stabs rather than strokes, a thrasher as suited for the club as for scoring Blue Planet’s heart-rending walrus-death scene. It’s the first and most incisive taste of Owens’ upcoming sophomore LP Inner Sound, and more than narrating hell on earth, it sounds like it. —Max Freedman

14. Bright Eyes: “Persona Non Grata”

Conor Oberst has a way of always sticking to his guns while simultaneously folding in interesting new sonic elements whenever he gets the chance. As for “Persona Non Grata,” a hearty indie-folk song that runs on keys and steady drums, the bagpipes are the most unexpected surprise—but a nice one nonetheless. The pipes give the song an anthemic feel as Oberst spits his familiarly sad and smart verses. It’s an expectedly wonderful return from a group who rarely trip. —Ellen Johnson

13. The Strokes: “Bad Decisions”

“Bad Decisions” is a slick rocker built around an anthemic, New Order-esque guitar riff. The retro infomercial-style “Bad Decisions” video, directed by Andrew Donoho, sends The Strokes back to the ’70s scene Julian Casablancas’ lyrics set (“Dropped down the lights, I’m sitting with you / Moscow 1972”), imagining a world in which anyone can order their own cloned iteration of the band, customizing The Strokes’ looks and personalities to fit their exact specifications. —Scott Russell

12. Dixie Chicks: “Gaslighter”

If they didn’t already have enough of these already, “Gaslighter,” the lead single and title track from the Dixie Chicks’ forthcoming album, is another anthem for women scorned. Seventeen years after they were shunned from the country music institution (and popular music at large, at least for a while), this single is almost too good to be true. It’s a revenge track, a breakup song and a souped-up, banjo-featuring country banger all in one. “You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” they sing. Not only are they chastising a low-down scoundrel for getting himself into this mess, but they’re also calling him (and everyone in the music industry who ostracized them all those years ago) out with guns blazing: “You made your bed and then your bed caught fire.” It’s the same spirit of “Goodbye Earl,” but with a post-#MeToo edge. The song arrives with a punchy music video à la the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opening credits, full of gussied-up black-and-white footage, edited internet memes and plenty of pink power. —Ellen Johnson

11. Ben Seretan: “Am I Doing Right By You?”

On his first album in almost four years, New York singer/songwriter Ben Seretan makes stirring folk-rock with an impressive level of dynamism. The album highlight, “Am I Doing Right By You?” features layers of clamorous guitars and busy horns, but there are also bare passages that give way to Seretan’s hushed, introspective vocals. It’s an unpredictable thunderstorm—complete serenity one minute and ground-shaking bluster the next. With each listen, another sprinkle of intriguing, atmospheric sounds pours out, but its vast emotional capacity remains a constant. —Lizzie Manno

10. Gum Country: “Somewhere”

“Somewhere” merges ’90s noise rock and twee pop, and it will give you that same euphoric tingle you felt after falling in love with your first underground jangle pop band. Nimble guitar riffs swarm around Garvin’s subtle, sweet vocals, and it captures everything great about fuzzy rock and good-natured, classic indie-pop. The scratchy footage of the band in a warehouse only further emphasizes their grunge-y, throwback glory as it looks like a Breeders or Sonic Youth video you would’ve seen endlessly on MTV back in the day. —Lizzie Manno

9. Yves Tumor: “Gospel For A New Century”

Listening to Heaven To A Tortured Mind will make you question your own memories of Yves Tumor, because they’ve never sounded more immediate, more relatable or more desirously messy. Their trademark filth and trickster persona are still present, though they’ve graduated from demon to the devil himself. Album opener “Gospel For A New Century” is their most straightforward song to date, a playful horn-based rock song that channels the individual iconoclasms of Prince and Marilyn Manson. The Isamaya Ffrench-directed video offers the perfect visual for the familiar archetype Tumor plays throughout the album—a cloven-hoofed devil with diabolical cheekbones, not unlike Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness from Legend, with a legion of Soul Train-ready devils marching behind them. —Austin Jones

8. U.S. Girls: “4 American Dollars”

“4 American Dollars” scintillates with the groove of ’70s pop, dipped in Meg Remy’s signature irony and scathing wit. Its accompanying video (dir. Emily Pelstring and Remy) is stark in color, as many multi-colored lips dance around the screen and show hidden dollars, slot machines and mirrors hidden within their mouths. By the end, a bunch of green-screened dancers exit the backdrop, now hopping in their green morph suits. Like any good U.S. Girls track, “4 American Dollars” contends subliminally with societal pressures and the complexities of life, doing so with a razor-sharp tongue and eschewing eye-roll-worthy obviousness. —Austin Jones

7. Christine and the Queens: “People, I’ve been sad”

Christine and the Queens’ latest album, Chris, saw Héloïse Letissier grow into one of the best and brightest pop stars. Its crisp, funk-laced pop was more than just highly danceable—its sensuality and subversion of gender roles were also incredibly inspiring. Still on a high, the French artist returned this year with a new EP, La vita nuova, and shared its lead single “People, I’ve been sad,” possibly her best track to date. After dishing out lines about social isolation, she reassures us “You know the feeling,” and when paired with a stylish, downtempo groove, she somehow makes an introspective, dejected moment feel glorious. Like many of her songs, she wrings out so much pleasure from her dramatic, playful delivery, and this one is no different—her bilingual vocals are alluring and graceful. —Lizzie Manno

6. Porridge Radio: “Sweet”

“Sweet,” which arrived with a Sam Hiscox-directed video, is filled with strange fixations and snarled displays of confidence. Their sinister guitar rapture meets Dana Margolin’s vigorous and tantalizing lead vocals, boiling over as she realizes that her long-held shame has finally been replaced with charm and conviction. Claiming victory over one’s nerves has rarely been spat with such powerful self-belief or backed with such melodic clamor. —Lizzie Manno

5. Perfume Genius: “Describe”

Mike Hadreas returned this year like you’ve never heard him before. “Describe,” finds Hadreas exploring all-new sonic territory, embodying Americana classics like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, with arena-filling slide guitars and roots-rock, blue-collar attitude. Of course, given who Hadreas has been as an artist so far, it feels intentionally iconoclastic, a play on masculine expectations and boundaries. The video opens with Hadreas taking a big, confrontational puff of a cigar, donning a dirty white tank top as he occupies a prairie farm. —Austin Jones

4. Fiona Apple: “Under The Table”

Wordplay? More like putting words to work.The definitive intro on “Under The Table” is one of Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ most telling lyrics. This entire song is full of lyrical prowess, but one of the most memorable lines declares, “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / To help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine.” Pardon the pun, but I’m shaking in my boots. In an even more brilliant couplet, she playfully sings, “I would beg to disagree / but begging disagrees with me” before adding, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up” on this protest of bored, stuffy dinner parties everywhere—and the people who drag you to them: “I told you I didn’t want to go to this dinner / You know that I don’t go for those ones that you bother about,” she sings casually, “So when they say something that makes me start to simmer / That fancy wine won’t put this fire out.” —Ellen Johnson

3. Soccer Mommy: “circle the drain”

The video accompanying this Soccer Mommy single, directed by Atiba Jefferson (American Football, Turnstile, TV On The Radio, Dinosaur Jr.), is reminiscent of Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, from its 4:3 aspect ratio and ‘90s VHS fuzziness to its California street-skate milieu. The visual is a sunny, carefree counterpoint to “circling the drain” itself, whose chipper jangle-pop sound belies the struggles of its singer: Allison sings about “a feeling that boils in my brain,” admitting that she’s tired of putting on a brave face to mask the slow but steady internal collapse that she feels powerless to prevent. —Scott Russell

2. Phoebe Bridgers: “Kyoto”

“Kyoto” followed the previous single released from Phoebe Bridgers’ forthcoming album Punisher, the somber “Garden Song.” Originally set to be filmed in Japan earlier this year, the global pandemic halted those production plans. But Bridgers opted to cheekily use a green screen in order to create a magical video, donning a skeleton-print onesie, gliding on electric train tracks and flying over the ocean. “This song is about impostor syndrome,” Bridgers says. “About being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, and playing my music to people who want to hear it, feeling like I’m living someone else’s life. —Natalia Keogan

1. Waxahatchee: “Lilacs”

Waxahatchee’s new album Saint Cloud was written in the wake of Katie Crutchfield deciding to get sober, which makes the album a self-examination—and even a letter of self-love and encouragement at times. “Lilacs” in particular conveys a grappling to come to terms with not being loved well enough, either by a significant other or oneself: “If I’m a broken record write it in the dust, babe / I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do / And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you / I need your love too.” —Natalia Keogan

Listen to our Best Songs of 2020 (So Far) playlist on Spotify right here.