Usual Magazine’s Favorite 20 Songs of 2020

From brilliant debuts to incredible comebacks, let's take a stroll down memory lane

Illustration by Natasha Remarchuk from Icons8

What a year it’s been! Below are my favorite songs of the year, in descending order. Odds are you know the end, but here are the songs that most resonated with me this year. You can listen to them over in our year-end playlist on Spotify.

What do you think of this list? Do you agree? Disagree? No opinion? Let me know!

20) Real Estate – Paper Cup

Real Estate‘s first single for their upcoming album The Real Thing came out way back on January 15th. It was a great blend between that Real Estate style we all know and love, along with some newer elements. The song features Sylan Esso’s Amelia Mearth on backing vocal duties. Oh, and its music video is as strange and uncomfortable as it is funny. A great track to start off the year!

19) Sorry – Right Round The Clock

I discovered Sorry randomly a few weeks ago and haven’t stopped listening to them since. Their debut album, “925,” was also released this year, and this particular track is the album opener. It perfectly introduces you to the band’s larger than life personality and unique musical arrangements. I don’t know why but I absolutely love when they sing, “put her in your move to make her real.” Not to mention the tongue-in-cheek reference to Tears for Fears. This is a great tune from an exciting new band.

18) Sufjan Stevens – Sugar

It’s hard to pick a single off of “The Ascension,” the eighth studio album from Sufjan Stevens, but this song is a great representation of the album’s catchy electronic sounds and somewhat surface-level lyrics. Although it doesn’t have the emotional depth you might expect from past Sufjan tracks, it’s still a great listen.

17) The Strokes – The Adults are Talking

Seven years after their previous studio album, New York’s The Strokes finally returned with “The New Abnormal,” an album that would go to reinstate this quintet as the true torchbearers of rock and roll. “The Adults are Talking” is the album’s opening track and its fourth single. In my opinion, it’s the most “Strokes” sounding track on the album, showing that the boys still got it.

16) Skullcrusher – Trace

Although her band name seems more fit for a heavy metal band, Helen Ballentine’s project seamlessly toes the line between emo and folk. 2020 saw the release of Skullcrusher’s debut EP and out of the four tracks, “Trace” was my favorite. Her lighter-than-air vocals and personal lyrics along with the inclusion of softly-picked banjo notes and piano gives this track a fresh uniqueness. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Skullcrusher. For now, we have her excellent self-titled EP.

15) Fleet Foxes – Sunblind

As a whole, Shore, Fleet Foxes’ fourth album, is one of the best albums of 2020. It’s a great experience, from start to finish, so removing a single track and setting it up as a “best-track” feels somewhat disingenuous, especially since the entire album is sequenced so perfectly. Regardless, this list would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a mention of Fleet Foxes. “Sunblind” captures a fresh optimism that hasn’t been heard in Fleet Foxes music since their second album, Helplessness Blues.

14) Nation of Language – Rush & Fever

I haven’t stopped listening to this song ever since I first discovered it. At first, I assumed it was yet another Matt Berninger project, but after some light googling, I found out the truth. Nation of Language has no connection to The National, only similar vocal stylings. Regardless, Nation of Language’s sound bolsters a fresh take on electronic-focused music. Although they clearly wear their influences on their sleeves, Nation of Language remains one of the most exciting new bands to release debut albums in 2020.

13) Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison

We already gushed about “Serpentine Prison” back when the album was released but its title track has been in near-constant rotation. His silly lyrics, the incredibly vocal melodies, and the soft instrumentals make this one of the best songs Berninger has ever written.

12) The Marías – bop it up!

The Marías released quite a few singles in 2020, with “bop it up!” being my favorite of the bunch. This track sees The Marías expanding their sound towards the R & B spectrum. It’s undoubtedly seductive, sexy, and catchy, basically what you’ve come to expect from The Marías, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you listen to it, make sure to bop it up!

11) Gorillaz – Désolé (ft. Fatoumata Diawara)

I was not expecting a new Gorillaz album so quickly after 2017’s The Now Now, but Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are always full of surprises. In their seventh studio album, Gorillaz enlisted some pretty huge names, from Elton John and Beck to JPEGMAFIA and EARTHGANG. This particular song, however, stood out to me due to its freshness and unique angle. If anything, Song Machine Vol. 1 proves that Gorillaz still have a lot to say and I can’t wait to listen to the subsequent volumes!

10) Kero Kero Bonito – It’s Bugsnax!

Sometimes, we just need to believe that a world that’s as optimistic and fun as Kero Kero Bonito’s music exists. This track, which is a promotional song for a video game, is perhaps the most unexpected track of the year. Regardless, Sarah, Gus, and Jamie were able to bring back the jovial sounds from their earlier work into this song about an island where sentient snacks roam.

9) Adrianne Lenker – zombie girl

This cut from Adrianne Lenker’s second solo album is raw, unfiltered glory. It shows Lenker’s effortless ability to craft beautiful, heart-wrenching songs, further securing her status as one of the greatest singer-songwriters currently working.

8) Soccer Mommy – circle the drain 

Somehow, Soccer Mommy wrote and recorded a late 90s alt-rock ballad, and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it ever since I first heard it. Sophia Allison’s ingeniously catchy vocal melodies are unrivaled. Her entire color theory album is a substantial work of art, with “circle the drain” being its peak track.

7) Caribou – Never Come Back

This year, moniker-monger Dan Snaith returned with Suddenly, Caribou’s first new album in six years. The album’s lead single “Never Come Back” is an flowing dance track that makes you long for a summer where we weren’t relegated to the indoors.

6) Yves Tumor – Kerosene!

I don’t even know what to say about this song; it’s overwhelmingly unique and dizzyingly cool. There aren’t many musicians, if any, that sound like Yves Tumor. In this track, he collaborates with singer Diana Gordon. Their vocals weave together like smoke billowing out from a raging fire. Just listen to the song and you’ll know what I mean.

5) Arlo Park – Hurt

I discovered Arlo Parks the old fashioned way, by listening to the radio! This track was playing on NPR and I just had to find out more about it. Back when I first heard the song, I thought Arlo was singing “one heart’s so much forever,” but thankfully Google was able to help me find the actual correct lyrics and the song itself. Arlo Parks’ debut album will arrive early next year and I’m certain 2021 will be a huge year for her. For now, we have quite a few tracks from Arlo to tide us over.

4) Sylvan Esso – Ferris Wheel

This track would’ve been the perfect soundtrack to summer music festivals. Sadly, 2020 had other plans. Regardless, Sylvan Esso welcomed their third album with this brilliantly poppy, catchy, and danceable track. If you haven’t seen the Animal Crossing version of the “Ferris Wheel” music video, I highly recommend you check it out!

3) Moses Sumney – Bless Me

This cut from Moses Sumney’s second album, grae, is a beautiful representation of what makes Sumney Sumney. Incredible vocals, unique lyrics, and envelope-pushing instrumentation all come together to make this not only one of the most beautiful tracks off of grae but one of the most beautiful songs ever.

2) Drug Store Romeos – Frame of Reference

Drug Store Romeos are a new trio from Fleet, Hampshire and although they only have four tracks up on their Spotify, they’re already my favorite new band of 2020. I can’t wait to see what 2021 brings but for now, we have this perfect pop song. Clocking in at a brisk two minutes and 32 seconds, “Frame of Reference” never overstays its welcome but it welcomes repeat listens.

1) Phoebe Bridgers – I Know the End

Phoebe Bridgers might be the only person to have a great 2020. I already talked quite a bit about Punisher but it bears repeating, with her second album’s release, she solidified her status as the voice of this generation. The album’s closing track, “I Know the End,” is highly prescient of the world 2020 would come to be.

This song has it all. Listeners already know Phoebe’s great at writing personal, relatable lyrics but if Punisher showed us she’s so much more than that. For me, “I Know the End” is the song where everything comes together. It shows Phoebe at her most raw, as well as her most experimental. The track has everything from her boygenius bandmates, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, lending their vocals to trumpets that start off as you could’ve heard on Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” only to evolve into a sound more reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

I, for one, never expected to hear such sounds from a Phoebe Bridgers song. It just goes to show how much more she has up her sleeve.

That’s enough talk, it’s time to listen.

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