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12 Best Songs of 2020 (So Far)
I mean, looking back, it was foolish to think 2020 would be any less exhausting and terrifying than the years that came before. The world is still on fire, plus now there’s a pandemic to freak out about, and the knowledge that two of your most embarrassing grandpas will be debating each other on television and Twitter until November at the very earliest. It is enough to make you want to hibernate, or at least drink yourself into a semi-functional stupor.
But there is a better way. So far, though it’s been a terrible year for things like serenity and stability, it’s been a great one for music. Artists young and old have stepped up to the job of addressing our general malaise, while others have done the equally important work of making us want to dance and/or have sex. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” goeth the olde saying from English poet William Congreve, and though we may only now be learning how savage a breast can get, I’ll be damned if ol’ Bill isn’t all the way right. Here are a few of the year’s best songs so far. Follow along as we update this list and our own Spotify playlist throughout the rest of the year. Apply liberally to the affected area.
The Orielles “Space Samba (Disco Volador Theme)”
The title of this English indie band’s second album Disco Volador translates to Disco Flying, I guess, and though it may not make sense on the page, put on this track and tell me you’re not out of your chair within fifteen seconds. There are hints of early ‘90s rave-inflected Britpop in here, put through a Stereolab filter and aimed for the dancefloor. The Orielles ask “Can you re-align the boundaries of my sensory home,” and while I have no idea what that even means, I lean toward yes. —Dave Holmes
Jensen McRae — “White Boy”
Over a lush, Mazzy Star-esque groove, 22-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter McRae takes us to a college party where an African-American woman finds herself code-switching for a charming white guy: “Twirl my hair, watch my voice jump the octave/I don’t like who I am for you, white boy.” She’s described her sound as “Tracy Chapman writing music for Adele while studying for the vocab section of the SAT,” and with an equally frank and stunning second single “Wolves” just out, we think she is poised to be massive. —Dave Holmes
Clem Snide — “Roger Ebert”
Eef Barzelay brings his indie-country band Clem Snide back after a five-year hiatus, and if it seems strange to be doing that with a song about Roger Ebert’s dying words (“This is all an elaborate hoax”), Clem Snide never did play it safe. It’s a soothing meditation on the mysteries of life, the perfect sonic cushion to ease our increasingly chaotic day-to-day. —Dave Holmes
Jason Isbell — “Be Afraid”
“Be afraid, be very afraid, but do it anyway”: The exact right message at the exact right moment. With the first single from his upcoming Reunions album, the alt-country firebrand makes the case for speaking your mind, especially if your voice is shaking. “We don’t take requests, we won’t shut up and sing/Tell the truth enough, you’ll find it rhymes with everything.” And for Isbell, it’s not just talk: on March 3rd, he did a Super Tuesday fundraiser for Alabama Senatorial candidate Doug Jones. He’s been overdue for a breakout, and this might just be the track that does it. —Dave Holmes
Christine and the Queens — “People, I’ve Been Sad”
Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier is direct on her first new single of 2020. “People, I’ve been sad,” she says carefully, slowly. Over a simmering synth beat, she demands you to listen as she voices her own struggles. In a time when we see a cry for help on social media elicit nothing a hit on the like button, or a quick comment of support, “People, I’ve Been Sad” asks us to truly connect emotionally. There’s space in this song—in the dialed back production, between each word—begging you to react, to truly share this experience. It’s a powerful reminder to be open, to listen, and to really meet people as individuals with feelings and not as fleeting moments on your timeline. — Matt Miller
Tame Impala — “Breathe Deeper”
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately excited for a new Tame Impala album. I’ve loved every previous album and seen each tour, but over the years, my excitement, undeservedly, faded. Kevin Parker’s crowds had grown more bro-y with each passing year, as his shows embraced a more pulsing club mentality. It’s unfair, I know, but I was worried about what Parker had coming next. It turns out, on The Slow Rush, the musical mastermind at once embraced the future and the past, all at once. “Breathe Deeper” is a perfect example, as it blurs a ‘70s funk jam with lush synth breakdowns and a tumbling drum beat. What’s most astonishing is that he’s able to take each of these parts and blend them into a package for the modern festival circuit. I’ll be fist pumping right next to the bros this summer. — Matt Miller
Dua Lipa — “Physical”
I’d dare you not to dance upon hearing the latest single from Dua Lipa, but there’s simply no fun in the impossible. With a chunky, chugging synth line and a shout-your-heart-out chorus—“Come on! Let’s get physical!” she exclaims, in her smokey lower register—the 24-year-old Brit’s idolized ’80s touchstones are obvious. That doesn’t mean they don’t still surprise, especially in how well they’re executed. Echoes of that era are all over the current pop charts, but with just one album under her belt (her second, dubbed Future Nostalgia, arrives this year), few are doing it better than Dua Lipa. “Physical” is her flashiest, finest entry yet—and it’s almost worrisome to think she’s just getting started. — Madison Vain
J Hus — “Big Conspiracy”
“They wanna judge me from what they heard I do / It’s a big conspiracy,” J Hus sings on the title track of his sophomore album. It comes two years after he served a brief sentence for carrying a knife in a shopping center in East London. (He was stopped because a police officer said he smelled of cannabis.) The track, with references to Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and a system that’s set up to explicitly work against him, is an introspective look at a world that is conspiring to bring the rapper down. That he does this over a soulful beat, with jazzy guitar chords, adds to the contemplative nature of the song—and stands in stark contrast to the narrative that the media is trying to thread. — Matt Miller
Grimes — “Delete Forever”
I’m constantly astonished by the range and scope of Grimes’s music. Often, it can be alien—an otherworldly creation all her own. Her latest album further establishes her as a pop star of the future. There are dystopian club bangers, near-ambient techno, and soaring sci-fi synth ballads. But the most surprising song on a set full of pure creative energy stuns in its normality. “Delete Forever,” is an earnest, strumming (with banjo of all things) acoustic track, like Grimes’s version of the token acoustic song from an early Green Day album. Written the night that Lil Peep died, the song, musically and production-wise, doesn’t hide its fantastic songwriting beneath overly lofty ideas. It’s an earnest meditation on the opioid crisis; straightforward, beautiful, and powerful in its simplicity. — Matt Miller
The Lone Bellow — “Martingales”
Certainly, you’ve heard the news: things are bad. Things are exhausting. Divisive. Polarizing. They’re bogged down by lies and inspired by hate. Respite can be hard to find in 2020, a year that’s only seen two months but feels ten times longer. As such, our salves and escapes deserve extra credit, not to mention a few more spins on the turntable. One of mine arrived late on The Lone Bellow’s February LP, Half Moon Light in the form of “Martingales.” “If yesterday is too heavy,” lead singer Zach Williams pleads, with his full-throated, rasp-lined instrument, propped up over warm acoustics by his bandmates’ harmonies, “put it down.” Put it down. After just a few listens, you’ll certainly find sweet, cathartic release. — Madison Vain
Andy Shauf — “Neon Skyline”
Andy Shauf’s songs are charming tales of everyday life. The vibes are good, like a friend telling a random little anecdote over a beer after work. It’s laid back, it’s harmless, it’s casually relatable. On Neon Skyline, every song works as one linear narrative, and its title track sets the scene and the characters, and establishes the laidback attitude that defines the set. It’s perhaps the least pretentious concept album you’ll find—and by the end of this opening track, Shauf has already made a great friend out of you. Just sit back and enjoy what he has to tell you. — Matt Miller
Little Big Town — “Next to You”
Revolutions come at every decibel. In the case of Little Big Town, one of the most transgressive acts in Nashville, they arrive softly, wrapped in honeyed, four-part harmonies. Since their song “Girl Crush,” off 2014’s truly excellent Pain Killer LP, broke out, igniting a debate about whether or not it promoted pro-gay content—“I want to taste her lips/ Yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” Karen Fairchild sings, soaked by jealousy—the act has embraced its ability to transform from the mainstream’s center. Last year’s “The Daughters” rejects traditional expectations of women, wonderfully, wishing a new dawn for the world’s young girls. “I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father,” they sing, brazenly, “I’m just looking for a God for the daughters.” It’s a theme that ebbs and flows throughout their ninth album, Nightfall. (Songs like “Sugar Coat” are absolutely must-listen fare.) But few acts know better when to push and when to pull back, and one of their finest moments arrives here, as they recede towards simpler concepts. An ode to the safety found in familiar, physical connection, it’s an undeniable witness to everything this foursome does well musically. — Madison Vain
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.