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Dazed tracks of the year 2020

The 20 best tracks of 2020

From Megan Thee Stallion to Pop Smoke, Rina Sawayama and Bree Runway, we look back on our favourite songs of the year

The best tracks we heard this year offered respite from the pandemic, tapped into both the anger and the optimism of the Black Lives Matter protests, and reminded us of the physical spaces we were missing. We are desperate to hear these songs out when we can, whether that’s spun in a nightclub, thrashed out in a sweaty venue, beamed through stadium speakers, or in the afternoon sun at a festival. But until that day, here are Dazed’s 20 best tracks of 2020.


Anonymity is back in vogue! RMR (pronounced ‘rumour’) burst on to the scene wearing a balaclava on his head (which he still hasn’t taken off) and toting a self-released banger, “Rascal”. The track itself is odd enough as a country-rap piano ballad, but it’s the video that tips it over into full-blown surrealism, RMR singing an a capella lifted from country band Rascal Flatts’ hit “These Days” while surrounded by heavily-armed men and sporting an Yves Saint Laurent bulletproof vest. It feels as though it could have been directed by Harmony Korine, and although a country trap banger feels like it shouldn’t work, we’re all living in a post-“Old Town Road” world now. For all its novelty vibe, though, there’s something more serious behind the lyrics of “Rascal”, and the song would go on to have a second life in 2020, with its central refrain “fuck the boys in blue” gaining extra weight as protests – which RMR joined – took over America as a result of police brutality. (Thomas Gorton)


If you’re wondering why a remix of a decade-old Russian cereal advert has made our 2020 tracks of the year list – honestly, same. But hear me out. Known on TikTok as “Mi Pan Su Sus”, the ten-second track went viral in July when it was used as the soundtrack to a soothing, red-lensed clip of a llama dancing in the desert. A little digging (or, if you’re from Russia, a simple trip down memory lane) uncovered the source of the song’s mysterious lyrics: a 2010 Russian advert for the Kellogg’s cereal, Miel Pops. The song was rebirthed when TikTok user @chernaya.princessa (AKA Rozalia) had her two-month old acoustic version remixed and played for dancing characters in the online game, Roblox. For all this unwieldy backstory, “Mi Pan Su Sus” is an undeniable earworm, proving more capable of permeating the brains of everybody, even those not on TikTok, than many traditional hits this year. Expect a few record label marketing teams to be taking note. With several unknown contributors, the short track illustrates the fractured ways we consumed music – anonymously, often context-free, via social media – in 2020, for better or worse. Plus, watching a llama dance freely in a desert to a club banger helps us imagine our future post-pandemic – and do not @ me, because 17.6 million people agree. (Brit Dawson)


Everything about Hayley Williams’ first solo single rings with hard-fought restraint. Opening with a sharp intake of breath, the track presses each new musical element deep into the mix as soon as it’s introduced, imitating the rage that the Paramore frontwoman has been pushing down physically and lyrically – even the word ‘simmer’ threatens to break its banks with each taut utterance. You can imagine that, as the lead singer of Paramore and one of a very few recognisable women in a super-masc scene, Williams has plenty to rage about, and here she taps into a primal anger when, menacingly quiet, she wonders why she couldn’t protect herself “from a fucker like that man” as she would have done for a daughter. It’s a reminder that no slight or wrong goes unnoticed, and a promise of retribution that will be as careful and precise as the control she’s exerted over herself. Chillingly excellent. (Kate Solomon)


Even after 11 weeks of ubiquity at the start of 2020, when it occupied the number-one spot on the US charts, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” has firmly held its own as one of the songs of the year. Like all good pop songs worth their salt, the story goes that “The Box” was recorded in 15 minutes, and the “ee-oo” that opens the song over an orchestral sample does sound at first like a studio mistake. Yet the result of this short moment of creativity is something completely infectious, showcasing the 22-year-old Compton-born artist’s incredible versatility as a singer and a rapper, his voice moving breezily through styles in the space of three-and-a-half minutes. For such a smash hit, 30 Roc’s production is surprisingly sparse and eerie, with 808s at the front and icy melodies at the back, letting Ricch’s voice take centre stage. (Thomas Gorton)


As promised by its title, “Unveiled” delivers a reveal: a newly energised and determined Flohio, one who is playing no games. Until about a week before its release, Bermondsey’s finest MC had planned to name her debut mixtape after “Unveiled”, but decided to use a lyric from the song instead: No Panic, No Pain. This steadfast mantra is at the core of the song. Produced by American duo Take a Daytrip, the track is a hyper and hopeful reflection on the past, present, and future as Flohio details her ascent so far (“Used to be sad, that shit never did last”) and her unshakeable ambition and energy for what’s next. (“More life, more cake, more hype, more rage,” she affirms.) (Natty Kasambala)


In March of this year, a number of surprising things happened to me, loosely in this order: I interviewed a group of teens who have amassed stratospheric global fame on TikTok; I went on a weekend away, then, approximately 24 hours into the trip, I became violently ill with what I didn’t yet realise was coronavirus. None of these events surprised me as much as the fact that a week later, five days into isolating in my 4x4m bedroom, I appeared to have memorised both the lyrics and the viral TikTok dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”. Because the interview with the TikTokers was the last normal thing I’d done, I grew obsessed with their lives and soon found myself in a “Savage”-soundtracked hellhole. I hummed it as I disinfected my door handles. The self-appointed neighbourhood DJ played it every morning. My oldest friend went micro-viral with a “Savage”-themed video that didn’t even feature the song! “Savage” is that magic ticket, a song that is timeless and yet speaks the language of its time – as, I believe, all the best pop music does. Some of it was good timing, too: mouthing “classy, bougie, ratchet” while on the weekly outing to the big Sainsburys was a welcome bit of escapism. Plus, it brought a part of our old world – where you could hear a song ad nauseum and then go to a sweaty club and rejoice when it came on – into the new one. Nothing this year could be taken for certain, except for Megan Thee Stallion. (Zsofia Paulikovics)


Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon is heavy with the weight of potential. The viral hit “What You Know Bout Love” is not typical of the Brooklyn drill sound Smoke made his name with before he died, but it’s a genre-mixing crossover that deserved to make him a star. Updating a smooth sample of Ginuwine’s “Differences” found in a YouTube deep-dive, Smoke delivers a sensitive confession of catching feelings despite yourself. “Look, baby, I said I ain’t gon’ front,” he raps, tripping slightly over the words, “you got my heart beating so fast to words I can’t pronounce.” It’s an endearing chink in the armour of his initial cockiness. His distinctive growl softened and more melodic, Smoke speaks straight to a generation raised on 90s R&B expectations of romance, searching for connection in a time when sending nudes is considered a love language. To paraphrase several tweets, slogan t-shirts, and unattributed Instagram quotes: if the love doesn’t feel like 90s R&B (by way of Pop Smoke), I don’t want it. (Vanessa Hsieh)


Miley Cyrus is known for her unpredictable approach to artistic image, but on her new album Plastic Hearts – with electric guitar, smudged eyeliner and 70s mullet in tow – the pop chameleon might have found her best guise yet. In October, Cyrus’s soul-bearing cover of The Cranberries’ entrancing political hit “Zombie” for the Save Our Stages virtual fundraiser went viral, and has lived on in our minds since. Cyrus’s raw talent was always at its most undeniable in her covers, whether reimagining “Jolene” or “Lilac Wine”, and her take on “Zombie” is no different, from her rich southern tone to her raspy conviction at the song’s peaks, all backed up by a full-bodied thrashing band and conversational guitar riffs. An intoxicating take on an alt-rock staple. (Natty Kasambala)


Thanks to a little track called “WAP” released the same day, Kali Uchis and Rico Nasty’s “Aquí Yo Mando” kind of flew under the radar this summer. But with its slick, sexy trap bassline, Kali’s breathy vocals sung entirely in Spanish and an acerbic verse from Nasty, it was no less of a bop – and with Uchis demanding “You do everything I say / if you’re with me, only I call the shots,” it was no less sexuallly charged. “Aquí Yo Mando” hammered home the indisputable truth that women were in charge when it came to music in 2020. Like the man lying motionless in a pool of blood in the track’s Y2K-indebted video, we were entirely at their mercy – and, tbh, we wouldn’t have it any other way. (Emma Elizabeth Davidson)


London duo Jockstrap’s “Acid” is a whimsical little waltz, all plinky-plonk pianos, lusciously orchestrated strings and music-hall rhythms. It would almost sound at home on an old BBC radio play, if only there weren’t so many things that were just off about it. A sense of unease creeps out from the song’s erratic arrangement, Taylor Skye’s screwy production and lead vocalist Georgia Ellery’s lyrics, where she delivers unnerving words like “What if you were to kill me off, or worse, yourself?” and incantations of “Gas and blood, and blood and blood” with a soft and woozy voice. A real trip. (Selim Bulut)


Now the world is no longer sleeping on Billie Eilish, where does she go? California’s primo purveyor of arch-pop angst made three attempts to answer that question this year, but “my future” was the best – a searching, mid-tempo ballad that subtly reinvented the star as a lounge-pop diva in the mould of Amy Winehouse circa Frank or even Corinne Bailey Rae. If that sounds like a backwards step, it wasn’t: Eilish sings with buttoned-up authority here, moving seamlessly from a lockdown lament to an epiphany that sparks and gutters as she contemplates the enforced alone-time of 2020: “I know supposedly I’m lonely now / Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone / but aren’t I someone?” Eilish would throw back to the black humour of her debut on her next single, “Therefore I Am”, but with its aura of hard-won positivity, “my future” resonated hardest with this most horribilis of annuses. Did we ever really doubt her? (Alex Denney)


If last year was all about “Gone”, Christine and the Queens’ introspective bop with Charli XCX about sadness and sexual tension, then this duet with Caroline Polachek is a worthy successor. “La vita nuova” takes its name from a poem by Dante Alighieri, which tells the story of the author’s love for a woman named Beatrice and the emotional toll of her early death. The song takes a similar approach, the dead lover’s role taken by one who leaves suddenly and never returns. “Heartbreaker,” Chris cries, “I never take your answer for sure.” It’s desperately defiant in its visuals, too. Translated to film, “La Vita Nuova” is a demonic disco – a queered-up answer to another of Dante’s works, “Inferno”. Polachek appears as a Beatrice-type figure, dressed in slinky Mugler, with Chris cast as a vampire who sinks her teeth into her neck. It’s an arresting vision of divine comedy that spans the width of human emotion. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)


On the standout track from her debut mixtape, 2000AND4EVA, Bree Runway collaborates with her musical “mommy”, the legendary Missy Elliott – a feat she claims to have manifested months before it happened. “ATM” is an infectious hip hop tune, the hook of which will occupy your brain every time you head to the cashpoint. Its bold beat, memorable one-liners and unparalleled energy are the perfect antidote to closed clubs, and the track is just one of many powerhouses on the London musician’s fiery, genre-bending record. (Brit Dawson)


Yves Tumor’s swirling sensory overload rarely made more sense than on “Gospel for a New Century”, a title that might sound pretentious if the Miami-born pop zelig didn’t have the chops to back it up. A monster mash-up of influences making great use of a 70s funk sample from South Korean singer Lee Son Ga, it’s a heavy slab of mutant soul with an unmistakable whiff of the debauched – think Isaac Hayes soundtracking a Hammer Horror-themed sequel to Shaft, and you’re somewhere close. Throw in a video from make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench starring Tumor as a Pan-like deity cavorting with a cast of underworld revellers, and you have the perfect introduction to the songwriter’s twisted new opus, Heaven to a Tortured Mind. Long live the new flesh! (Alex Denney)


“I Know the End” feels like the concluding scene of a really good movie, or at least a season finale – you could think of it as the closing credits of Phoebe BridgersPunisher. But that doesn’t really do credit to the way this song builds and swells and builds some more, or how, even when you thought things couldn’t possibly get more biblical, they somehow do. The lyrics are beautiful in their bathos and splendour, their specificity and their general-ness (“Slot machines / fear of God”, “creation myth... cracked lips”); the musical atmosphere brings together the earth-shaking energy of a thousand aging indie multi-instrumentalists. The overall effect: a car accelerating, and a landscape receding. And, in the closing moments, there’s even horns, the kind of horns you last heard when Sufjan Stevens was still making albums about American states. “I Know the End” is a song about nostalgia, then, but also new, and seismic, beginnings. Unlike the official video, which shot straight for the aesthetic of a Friday Night Lights/Stranger Things crossover episode, for me this track was best suited to the inherent contradiction of walking through the park and listening to music in the middle of a global pandemic – a feeling both extremely everyday and, in the wider picture, historic. No song better captured this strange irony of 2020 better; when Bridgers roars, “I guess the end is here”, you should know the “I guess” is all-important. (Claire Marie Healy)


Released just before coronavirus became a global mainstay, you might have had a brief chance to shake your ass at a club to “Physical”, the second single from Dua Lipa’s second album Future Nostalgia, before being sequestered in your home for the remainder of the year. Taking inspiration from the 80s and Flashdance, “Physical” lies somewhere between Olivia Newton-John’s song of the same name and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”. Lipa even nods to the OG “Physical” at the end of each chorus, chanting “Come on / Let’s get physical” between verses underpinned by dark disco beats and her velvet tones. In a year where contact has suddenly become taboo, it feels particularly thrilling to imagine this song being played in the environment it deserves: a club bustling with sweaty people dancing back-to-back. (Dominic Cadogan)


Celebrities post infographics about climate collapse on the same grid that they share photos from private jets. The rich drive past the homeless tents of Skid Row to their mansions in the millionaire zip codes of Calabasas. If brands aren’t encouraging you to consume more, they’re encouraging you to consume ethically – the important thing is that you’re still consuming. Rina Sawayama’s utterly enormous pop banger “XS” captures these extremes in its very foundation. On its surface, “XS” is inspired by the 00s radio-pop perfection of J-Lo, Britney, and the Pussycat Dolls, but every few bars this pristine veneer is ruptured by chaotic nu-metal guitars. As the song piles on the sonic excesses, Sawayama makes lyrical demands for more – and more and more and more – until there’s nothing left. It’s a satirical swipe at consumerism, but, as a perfect pop product, it’s an admission of its allure too. (Selim Bulut)


Just as William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague, so too did Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion give us their masterpiece during the current pandemic. “WAP” arrived just in time for Hot Girls facing a summer cooped up indoors, cockblocked by coronavirus: “There’s some whores in this house,” indeed. Hooked from that first rousing call, “WAP” and its attendant discourse became a 2020 mainstay, from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro inadvertently outing how dry he makes his wife to Debbie Harry considering the song within a well-established musical heritage of shock and transgression. Essays were written about its upending of gender roles (“I don’t cook, I don’t clean, let me tell you how I got this ring”), creatively graphic descriptions (“If he ate my ass he’s a bottom feeder”, “This punani Dasani”), and what this all meant for society. The SparkNotes version is that “WAP” has a magic mix of instantly quotable and memeable lines that spawned TikTok challenges and carried the track into Thanksgiving and even Christmas. Would we have been this obsessed if we hadn’t been bored in the house, in the house bored? I, for one, can’t wait to be yelling these bars on a club dancefloor whenever they finally reopen. (Vanessa Hsieh)


DJ Mag wrote of a “creative goldrush” happening right now on the UK drill scene, and no one embodies that restless spirit like Pa Salieu, the Gambian-British rapper teasing bashment, grime, dancehall, and trap into new forms on his mixtape debut, Send Them to Coventry. Not that Salieu fucks with labels all that much: “I’ve been pinned down for most of my life, so I’m not going to let it happen with something I enjoy,” he told Dazed in his recent cover story, and it’s not for nothing that A-list genre-agnostic FKA twigs hopped in a studio with him over the summer. There are weirder, more sonically adventurous cuts than “My Family” on the record, but nothing that goes quite so hard, Fanatix’s sparse beat setting the scene for a blistering, two-pronged attack from Salieu and London rapper BackRoad Gee. The two share a crackling chemistry together, Gee’s roughneck swagger serving as an ideal foil for Salieu’s more polished, versatile flow – simply, you never know how he’s going to ride a beat from one bar to the next. And despite all the gun-talk, there’s an embattled solidarity to the track that anyone who’s lived through the last nine months can surely relate to. (Alex Denney)


The tempo of Shygirl’s transcendent “FREAK” fits the rhythm of afters in east London perfectly. A squalid, woozy start feels like the slurring of time that comes with late nights and intoxicants, with a drop snapping you back into the room, guaranteed to send 2021’s dancefloors absolutely feral. The London rapper’s EP ALIAS introduced us to her four alter-egos, porny Bratz-type characters she calles the ‘bbz’. It’s no surprise that the avatar for “FREAK” is ‘Baddie’, oozing sex with no particular concern as to who it’s with. The song feels like a strut through a poorly lit warehouse rave, Baddie directing targets to a backroom as she intones, first blearily then with increasing urgency, “I’m a freak, yeah, I know / I know you like to hear me say it.” Do me right here on the floor, she begs, dissolving into a slow, sludgy tangle of sound. With Sega Bodega’s dank production pumping behind her, “Freak” revels in the mess and stench of random sexual encounters, a horny anthem for a year of forced abstinence. (Kate Solomon)