American Songwriter: Our Top 20 Songs of 2020

No matter what adjectives are used in the future, 2020 is going to go down as one of the worst years in modern history. A generation that grew up never knowing a day without the internet will most certainly believe it is the worst the world has ever known.

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What positives happened in this year were mostly in the music industry as almost everything else was put on pause.

As with our Albums of the Year list, the team at American Songwriter took the nominations of our favorites by polling our staff and compiling the list.

The answers came in impressively diverse with a range from mainstream to discovery opportunities. Take a look at our selections — which are in no particular order — and maybe meet your new favorite artist.

Bob Dylan | Murder Most Foul  (Listen | Buy)

In which Dylan sums up how the world was somehow bent askew with the Kennedy assassination. it’s practically spoken-word, only hints of a melody and murmurous instrumentation occasionally coming to the fore. Reminiscent of “Desolation Row,” only this one hurts more somehow because he doesn’t rearrange their faces and give them all another name.

The Flaming Lips | Dinosaurs on the Mountain (Listen | Buy)

By July, quarantine fatigue had well set in, making “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” the perfect summer release. With his usual esoteric lyrical style, frontman Wayne Coyne expresses a wish that the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct, making it seem like some kind of twisted, wistful metaphor for the current human condition. The song’s soothing but psychedelic folk rock music adds to the surreal vibe. The accompanying video, featuring the band members playing in protective bubbles, perfectly sums up the isolation of this  pandemic-riddled year.

The Buckleys | Money (Listen | Buy)

In a year where depression and despair were the world’s soup du jour, The Buckleys made their first step forward with something built entirely on fun. If sunshine had a soundtrack, this would be it. Led by Sarah Buckley’s infectious vocals, “Money” was a rare bright spot in a doom and gloom year and for just a moment, can make you feel like the world is normal again.

Hailey Whitters | Janice at the Hotel Bar (Listen | Buy)

Janice at the Hotel Bar” (co-written with Lori McKenna) primes with generational advice, depicting an 80-year-old grandmother offering wisdom as hand-me-downs to her granddaughter about what it means to be a woman in a world that really hasn’t changed all that much. The crux, perhaps the entire amazing record, comes with the hook’s final line: “Well, go on and make a good living, girl, don’t forget / To make a good life.

Erik Dylan | JJ’s Market (Listen | Buy)

The kind of song you would hear at a songwriter round and Springsteen-esqe in its delivery, Erik Dylan memorializes a Nashville institution lost in the name of ‘progress.’ Absolutely nailing the fact that Nashville has become a city so busy trying to grow it doesn’t care that it’s eating its own heart, “JJ’s Market” is Dylan’s acknowledgement that Nashville has sounded the death knell for the true troubadours who still think Music Row is what it used to be.

Public Enemy | State of the Union (STFU) (Listen | Buy)

“State of the Union” penetrates the core of the former U.S. administration, and the state of the future for black Americans. Revolted by the former president’s St. John’s Church photo shoot during the D.C. protests, neglecting of police violence against blacks, and his claims of making Juneteenth (June 19) famous, Public Enemy hit hard with Don’t say nothin’, don’t think nothin’ / Make America great again, the middle just love it / When he wanna talk, walk y’all straight to them ovens / Human beings of color, yeah we be sufferin’—never mentioning the president by name, only as “operation 45” or a “nazi cult 45 gestapo.”

The Chicks | Gaslighter (Listen | Buy)

The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) released the fiery, triumphant title track off their latest album on March 4, two days before President Trump declared, in official White House remarks about COVID-19, “I don’t think people are panicking… It’ll go away.” Needless to say, people were rightfully panicking, and COVID-19 did not go away. So even though “Gaslighter” was actually written about Natalie Maines’ soured relationship with her ex-husband Adrian Pasdar, it’s hard not to think of Trump when Maines belts, “Gaslighter, denier / Doin’ anything to get your ass farther.” The song is a prescient, stadium-worthy anthem for 2020, and one of the most invigorating singalongs of the year.

Dark Tranquility | Phantom Days (Listen | Buy)

“Phantom Days” is melodic death metal at its finest. It is a big song with outstanding atmosphere. The weight of the sound is only outshined by the heaviness of the lyrics that draw on living and coping with loss. It is one part brutality and one part humanity and definitely one to put on repeat. 

Lady Gaga | Rain on Me (Listen | Buy)

Gaga has the uncanny, almost superhuman ability to produce a song that can fill up a sweaty dance floor at 3 am with heart-pounding sound — maybe the best example is thesingle, “Rain on Me” — while at the same time, if you examine her verses, she will have your heart welling up with emotion.

Mickey Guyton | Black Like Me (Listen | Buy)

“If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be black like me,” sings Mickey Guyton. The Grammy Award-nominated “Black Like Me” captures both the tragedy of 2020 and the beauty she’s been able to find within herself. Foot stomps and hand claps ring like a deafening alarm around her, and her delivery, one full of centuries of oppression against Black men and women, is towering and drenched in urgency. “I’m proud to be Black like me,” she later belts. Despite it all, Guyton proudly stands her ground with a song for the ages.

Black Pumas | Colors (Listen | Buy)

This song covers all the bases for a brilliant record. Not only is the production amazing but the subject matter is also incredibly timely. The duo blurs genre lines seamlessly and put themselves on the map through this song. 

John Prine | I Remember Everything (Listen | Buy)

Prescient though it might have been, the gratitude and grace of what became the iconic songwriter’s final song is a reminder how powerful small things are if we cherish them in our hearts. A gravelly voice, worn by chemo and life, it added a knowing tenderness that gripped the throat and held you in your most vulnerable moments.

The Killers | Caution (Listen | Buy)

The Killers released the exultant lead single, “Caution,” from the new record in March. To call the track epic might be an understatement. On it, Flowers achieves a vocal clarity and brightness perhaps only ever matched by “Pretty Woman” troubadour, Roy Orbison. While Brandon Flowers had the idea and lyrics for the new wave, narrative song about a small town for more than five years, it wasn’t until recently that he felt right laying it down in permanence.

Rapsody | 12 Problems (Listen | Buy)

Rapsody’s prowess as a rapper and emcee have been known to those who’ve been paying attention since the early days of her career almost ten years ago, but when she flipped Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” she showed how fearless her words and how visceral her bars truly can be. Venturing into the protests that punctuated this year, she slammed police brutality, the prison industrial complex and more, with her voice sharing her sorrow about it all too. The song was released as part of a Roc Nation social justice charity compilation, Reprise, but it stood solidly on its own as a testament to an artist who’s constantly thinking about the world around her and how she keeps her fans doing so too. 

The Dirty Knobs with Mike Campbell | Fuck That Guy (Listen | Buy)

With a rocking pocket, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers electric guitarist puts his Gainesville twang on a tangy New Orleans shuffle that infectiously skewers every selfish jerk one could possibly encounter. As America’s new ballerism becomes our natural pose, this could be the evolved – or even just basic manners – citizen’s national anthem. Big, big fun – and the video’s awesome, too.

Tyler Childers | Long Violent History (Listen | Buy)

The 29-year-old Kentucky native speaks directly to his people —calling out to the hills and down into the hollers of Appalachia with a message he knows some don’t want to hear. Humbly he asked his white rural listeners to consider a shift in mindset. He draws comparisons to unite our humanity as Americans, flipping narratives, encouraging an empathetic journey in fellow citizens’ shoes.

Perfume Genius | Describe (Listen | Buy)

In many respects, Perfume Genius’ songs are the sonic equivalent of pillow talk. Listening to them, it feels like your ear is right next to his whispering lips. Perfume Genius’ music is dramatic — and at times beautifully off-kilter — has much to do with his growing up knowing he was different from most of the people around him and that the difference posed a threat. Describe is a perfect summation of all things Perfume Genius.

Phoebe Bridgers | Garden Song (Listen | Buy)

Bridgers’ humor manifests in a variety of ways. On Punisher, it showed up in little moments, like the line in “Garden Song” where she mentions that a doctor told her that her resentment was getting smaller. “The doctor at the end of ‘Garden Song’ with her hands over my liver is a true story,” Bridgers told the world. While it may not be as easy for others to write a Phoebe Bridgers-quality song just from getting an initial line or two on the page, perhaps the lesson to be learned here lies less in Bridgers’ methods and more in her attitude.

Taylor Swift | the last great american dynasty (Listen | Buy)

“The Last Great American Dynasty” fills in the shoes of Rebekah West Harkness, “a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.” The subject once owned the beachfront estate in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, that Swift purchased in 2013 for $17 million. Harkness was a divorcée who married William Hale Harkness, an heir to Standard Oil Company.  Lyrics of a champagne-filled pool are backed by the book written in 1988, six years after her passing that noted she cleaned her pool with Dom Pérignon. According to Swift’s research, after a feud with a neighbor, Harkness dyed their dog “key lime green.”

Tame Impala | Breathe Deeper (Listen | Buy)

Tame Impale worked in more rhythmic playing, including harder hits with a more distinct application. While he says this showed up throughout the entire work, it might be most obvious on the song “Breathe Deeper,” a track perfect for a New York City B-boy breakdance routine. Four records in, he has some perspective on a career that began in earnest some 25 years ago. Maintaining a sense of appreciation is important for the capable artist, especially as time passes and he ages. Always keeping a sense of his own mortality in the back of his mind, Parker, in his music, thinks about what it will be like to look back on a given time or experience and wonder how will it feel viscerally, in hindsight.

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