25. Porridge Radio: “Sweet” [Secretly Canadian]

Dana Margolin dares you to fall in love with her on “Sweet.” The Porridge Radio frontwoman sings out each word in a steady voice shot through with a growing rage and frustration. Behind her, brittle guitar notes ring out like the ticking of a bomb set to go off. When it does, it blows in a cascade of furious post-punk guitars and shouts, a wave of sound that fills up every inch of the speakers. It’s through this build-up of tension and release that Porridge Radio finds its power, their music making your pulse quicken and slow just as easily.

“Sweet” is a song that issues a direct challenge, like being stared down into making the first risky move. The sense of darkness and drama is like diving into and exploring an ominous cave, where you don’t know what you’ll find. It could either be a prized treasure or the end of the road. Margolin’s voice spells out the same choice between risk or reward with an inner monologue that’s either honestly open or committed to destruction. You’ll want to listen again and again to try and find out. The words “I am charming, I am sweet” have never held such a sense of danger before. – Joe Marvilli

24. Phoebe Bridgers: “Garden Song” [Dead Oceans]

2020 is the year of Phoebe Bridgers. And although the year might not have been what the singer-songwriter imagined it to be, with four GRAMMY nominations attributed to her sophomore release Punisher, Bridgers, alongside key figures like Fiona Apple and Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, has shown that women are at the forefront of rock.

But Bridgers’ likeability isn’t just laden by her fragile, whisper-like melodies, as these voices seem to come a dime a dozen. It’s her ability to synthesize personal and universal experiences that seem the most seminal—the most contemporary. As seen in “Garden Song,” a gentle, finger-picked track baked in subtle distortion, Bridgers ducks underneath dead dreams, futile fantasies, and droll distractions that cloud her vision— “And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life”— to eventually find a path that leads to a slow, but steady sense of growth.

Time and time again, Bridgers effortlessly captures the newfangled vignettes of our current zeitgeist. Sometimes you hate your partner’s mom, sometimes you’re a little gay, sometimes you realize you’re in love while you’re getting high in a 7-11 parking lot—that’s modernism, bitch. For what seems like the first time in a long time, the stories of rock and roll are more nuanced and more relatable than ever. And not only is Bridgers a new, female voice for rock, but she is a new, and necessary, voice for contemporary storytelling. – Sam Small

23. Lucinda Williams: “Good Souls” [Highway 20/Thirty Tigers]

Much of the debate about hip hop in the last five years revolves around the decline of lyricism. In many of the biggest and best rap songs, you can’t understand a thing the artist is saying, meaning that technical virtuosity as a rubric to measure the song is off the table. Never mind that in rock ‘n’ roll, comprehensibility has never been a virtue. It should be understood in both genres that a mush-mouthed delivery is a sign of confidence rather than the other way around. You trust the audience to find the meaning, even if it’s not word-for-word, and hope the lyrics that do come through are compelling enough for the listener to want to do the rest of the work on their own.

Such is the case with “Good Souls,” the closer of Lucinda Williams’ marvelous Good Souls Better Angels from this year. Even if all you hear is her voice occasionally flare into a “help me!,” you can feel in every drop of emotion that falls from her ragged voice that this is a prayer. It’s one of the most masterful rock ‘n’ roll vocal performances in many a moon, its simple two-chord backing allowing her voice free reign to curl and twist and retract into itself and then break free at exactly the right moments. “Good Souls” has the feel of a transmission directly from the artist’s heart to the microphone without having to pass through the troublesome barrier of intelligibility. – Daniel Bromfield

22. Shamir: “On My Own” [Self-Released]

For a proud Scorpio, a little bit of ego takes you a long way. Though more self-confident than self-indulgent, “On My Own” consolidates power firmly in the ‘self’ as a way to evolve. Shamir, who saw much press following Northtown and Ratchet, possibly felt a bit abandoned when many fans failed to follow him into a phase with more strings and less synths. Why else lead your comeback album with a loner anthem? Because, as he points out, it’s his poppiest single in a minute, and he knows the attention it’ll grab.

And those fans who flocked back realized instantly what they’d missed in those years between “On The Regular” and now. Shamir’s countertenor is as expressive as ever, soft yet assured against the indie-style guitars that emerged in his more recent material. These strings fill the start of each verse in a languid, wistful fashion, setting a lonely scene with the vocalist at its lonely center. Midway through each verse, they bottom out, as if their unhurried tones are interrupted by the guitarist’s epiphany. Perhaps they are: “Maybe I deserve a little more” he speculates, opening the floodgates to new realizations.

This new clarity reflects in the song’s quiet contentment rather than an exalted jubilation; Shamir doesn’t “mind” living on his own, not quite that he revels in it. He now understands companionship and solitude each come with their respective blessings and hurdles. So, “On My Own” is less of a kiss-off, more of a farewell to partners, fans or genres that no longer suit him. “I don’t care to feel like I belong / But you always did” he sings as he leaves you in the rearview, onwards to new experiences and still able to appreciate the ones that brought him here. – Mick Jacobs

21. clipping.: “Enlacing” [Sub Pop]

Of all the horrors sprawling across the clipping. album Visions of Bodies Being Burned, none were as impactful as “Enlacing.” While most of the album’s songs are stories concerning some unfortunate soul encountering otherworldly creatures, on this track the listener is the victim. But in this story, the listener is falling victim to their own sense of hopelessness. Set to the backdrop of a bad trip, Daveed Diggs narrates a descent into mental anguish over some of the darkest and most cavernous production heard all year.

While the album pushed the sonic limits of what could be considered rap music, “Enlacing” comfortably resides within the camp of dark psychedelic hip hop. With its echoing vocal samples and trap hi-hats, it evokes the soundtrack to a house party from Hell. Diggs’ verses detailing one realizing their own life’s worth (or lack thereof) juxtaposed with the pseudo-party anthem hook Get your ass down to the floor makes for a track that feels like having a bad dream on LSD that you struggle to wake up from.

Their new album marks an exceptional achievement in pushing the rap landscape forward, and “Enlacing” serves as a grand finale for it all. But where most finales represent the high point of the narrative, this song is an emotional low point. In fact, it’s not just a low point; it’s a bottomless pit. – Thomas Stremfel

20. Wye Oak: “AEIUO” [Merge]

Never afraid of taking chances, Wye Oak’s “AEIOU” is one of the biggest they could take, recording with the Brooklyn Youth Choir. The song deals with the inadequacy of language, it is a direct rebuke at the now outgoing administration and their attempts to marginalize people who didn’t fit within their mold of what was acceptable in the societal constructs they wanted to create. Using music as a way to change society is nothing new but doing it within a choral framework offers a radically new approach.

Jenn Wasner’s bouncy guitar phrase and the highly rhythmic drumming of Andy Stack serve as the background for the track which grows joyously loud while highlighting the inability of words to define who we are as people. We are far more than what those words represent, and the use of the choir not only establishes that, it affirms that people are far more than words can represent. The song surges toward a climax that illustrates just how far Wye Oak has grown as a band. It is a brave band that steps outside their comfort zone to create something this radically different yet it’s just one more step in the evolution of Wye Oak. – Bob Fish

19. Fiona Apple: “Under the Table” [Epic]

There are some fires even the fanciest of wines can’t put out. So Fiona Apple explains to an unidentified man on “Under the Table,” a Fetch the Bolt Cutters highlight that recounts the kind of lavish, A-list dinner party where “you’re [not] supposed to call somebody out.” There was “lots of expensive wine” and even more “bragging about things I wouldn’t brag about,” she said about the track’s inspiration in a Vulture feature. “So I called the guy out. And may have messed the dinner up a little bit.” Whoops!

“Under the Table” is a song from, and about, a woman refusing to be silenced. “You can pout”, she sings with just the right amount of condescension, “but don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you shush me”. Throughout this jaunty show tune, Apple turns antiquated feminine politeness on its head with the album’s most inventive couplet: “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me”.

That lyric eventually becomes a feminist mantra, sometimes at the forefront atop bouncy piano runs and gurgling bass tones, other times in the background as a pesky reminder. “Under the Table” is ultimately a joyous taunt. Some nudge, pinch, ahem, interruption – and yes, kick under the table – can’t and won’t shut Fiona Apple up. – Peter Tabakis

18. Waxahatchee: “Lilacs” [Merge]

In this hellish year, who hasn’t had a day like Katie Crutchfield? “I wake up feeling nothing.” But in a world that had grown more virtual with Zoom gatherings and social distancing, Waxahatchee understands that our only chance at sustenance in these parlous times is to get back in touch with the earth. After all, she took her stage name from a creek in her home state of Alabama. Such is the appeal of Americana and folk music; however dependent any music is on electronic reproduction and distribution, there’s nothing like going back to one’s musical roots, and with lightly amplified guitars, a catchy melody and the earthy voice of a gravelly riverbed, Crutchfield gets back in touch with the cycle of nature: “And the lilacs drank the water/ And the lilacs die/ And the lilacs drank the water/ Marking in the slow, slow, slow passage of time.” And in this time when we reflect more on mortality, she too is aware of the ephemerality of it all: ”If I’m a broken record/ Write it in the dust, babe.” We are all of us fleeting, but what gets us through it all? Nothing any more complicated than another human: “I won’t end up anywhere good without you.” If there’s a way out of this unprecedented chaos, that’s it. — Pat Padua

17. Christine and the Queens: “People, I’ve Been Sad” [Because Music]

Released in February, “People, I’ve Been Sad” came to sum up a global mood. Héloïse Letissier, the French singer-songwriter behind Christine and the Queens, may have written the lead track from the La Vita Nuova EP in reaction to her mother’s death. In the wake of lockdown, however, it came to represent the isolation many people felt as they were separated from loved ones.

The title, which is also the song’s refrain, could easily come across as needy. Yet over the 80s influenced synth-pop for which she’s become known, the sentiment has a directness and emotional honesty to which the listener can relate.

Written during the same period she produced second album Chris (2018), it has parallels with some of that release’s quieter moments. There’s nonetheless a reflectiveness and ennui to its call and response vocals, which are in both English and French, and in its use of space.

Its mood is all the starker when contrasted with her last barnstorming single, which saw her team up with Charli XCX on “Gone” (2019). A track whose very appeal was its lack of subtlety, it’s replaced here with quiet understatement as she seemingly laments a lost year with the words, “It’s true that, people, I’ve been missing out.– Susan Darlington

16. Moses Sumney: “Cut Me” [Jagjaguwar]

Why is it that the slow opening tumble of synthesized bassline in Moses Sumney’s “Cut Me,” released just a handful of months ago, already seems iconic? Perhaps it has something to do with the way its rubbery texture carries us through the song’s explorations of pain’s pleasures, the way it seems the perfect, playful companion to Sumney’s never-more-gorgeous falsetto. Or maybe it’s the way that bassline briefly cuts out at the bridge only to return, short of breath and pulsing with excitement, in the song’s fantasia of a conclusion, where the baroque orchestration (of piano, voice, synths, horns and drums) starts to spin beautifully out of control. Really it’s both, the switch a recognition of negative thrill, the aliveness in that one lost breath before the drop.

Its video, released just a handful of days into the first phase of quarantine and directed by Sumney himself, perfectly illustrates the song’s joyful unease. In it, Sumney and a couple other slick dancers (Emara Neymour-Jackson and Malachi Middleton) prance their way through hospital corridors and drop it low on casket and ambulance roof alike. These are sites of nightmare and death, absolutely paralyzing, so how can we but marvel at the thriving in their midst? “Cut Me” elicits awe through biting honesty, as profane and holy a gesture as any masochistic kiss. – Jeff Heinzl

15. Jessie Ware: “Spotlight” [Virgin EMI]

2020 didn’t have much going for it, but nu-disco was thriving this year aided in large part by Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Kylie Minogue’s DISCO. But no disco offering this year was quite as sophisticated as Jessie Ware’s “Spotlight” from her seminal fourth studio album What’s Your Pleasure?, whose own house influences were a delightful throwback to the days when Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer were the reigning disco divas. While modern pop listeners have come to expect the limiting confines of the three-minute radio single, this slow-burning track in particular is the kind of expertly crafted, mature pop that listeners have come to expect from Ware, but with an elegant and alluring nod to the legions of female disco artists who came before her. Ware has the tendency to add a soulful touch to everything she touches and this song is no exception—from the understated, sultry vocals to the low-key pulsing beats, making an homage to a past era sound so fresh and current is a grand achievement on every scale. If 2020 had a version of Sylvester’s “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” Ware’s “Spotlight” would surely be it. – Jeffrey Davies

14. The Chicks: “Gaslighter” [Sony Music]

Election years breed proselytizing – and, yes, a fair bit of preaching to the choir. And 2020, in terms of its reelection High Noon-ery, mirrored 2004, that once-quagmired cycle in which The Chicks, nee Dixie, offered some side-handed shade about George W. Bush and his “coalition of the willing” waging war in Iraq. (In hindsight, the comments seem pretty tame; at the time, many on the righteous right shouted “treason!”)

It’s only appropriate that The Chicks return in ‘20 after a 14-year hiatus with a furious little single that seemed minted for the current moment. The catch: it ain’t about Trump. While Natalie Maines, the trio’s blonde-buzzed frontwoman, might be taking jabs at El Presidente, a.k.a. The Lamest Duck, with the video’s flashy imagery (faux Nazi regalia) and the occasional lyric (“Gaslighter, denier/ Doin’ anything to get your ass farther/ Gaslighter, big timer/ Repeating all of the mistakes of your father”), the song is really a classic breakup tune in a long tradition – and it is a particularly vicious one at that.

Maines lashes out at her ex-husband, Adrian Pasdar, and their tumultuous divorce (“You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” is one little jab at the chin) while the song’s bizarrely chirpy chorus loops earworms in your head, courtesy of the band and producer/hit-maker Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde). The Chicks rolled out this little joint with all sorts of Election Year noise and do an incredible job at building faux-political narratives out of the shrieks of personal demons. Leave it to The Chicks to come up with an anthem for a broken year – a piece about a union, connotations intended, utterly dissolved and broken beyond repair. – Justin Vellucci

13. Megan Thee Stallion: “Savage Remix” [1501 Certified/300]

Every adjective drops with the weight of a work boot on the neck: “classy, bougie, ratchet… sassy, moody, nasty.” “Savage” already had one of the great rap hooks of the year before Megan Thee Stallion’s fellow Houstonian Beyoncé swooped in to bless it, her aah-has and mm-hmms making those house-like chords in the background sound that much more pillowy and plush as the inevitability of Megan’s lyrics cuts through the fog. Bey is like cashmere, Megan is like steel, and it’s some of the most intriguing anti-chemistry since Drake and Future went on a nihilistic shopping spree five years ago.

Beyoncé has gone out of her way to associate her voice and image with the highest echelons of the American VIP section. (Her capitalist fantasy is a little easier to stomach when you know that proceeds from the “Savage” remix go to Bread of Life, a Houston charity the singer’s been partial to for years.) Getting Beyoncé on a remix is a great way for an artist to signal to the world that they’ve joined the upper ranks of pop; Bey blesses Megan while remaining a legend. The Queen could’ve simply hopped on “Savage” and collected a feature credit and a bag of money without doing much work. But “Savage (Remix)” is the rare event-remix that reimagines the original from the inside out, turning a song about one artist’s indomitable power into a collision of two immovable objects. – Daniel Bromfield

12. Fiona Apple: “Shameika” [Epic]

A few months ago, Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly tracked down Shameika Stepney, a former schoolmate of Fiona Apple and the namesake of her song “Shameika.” In Pelly’s interview, Stepney herself comes across like a character you’d encounter in one of Apple’s songs—radiant and self-assured and warm, someone who had been bruised but not broken by her own experiences as a girl. (She has a musical history, too, rapping in several Harlem collectives as a teenager and collaborating with the likes of Kurupt and Blackstreet, and has recorded a few tracks under the name Dollface.) School was an unpleasant environment for both women—Apple was bullied, and Stepney dealt with racism from peers and faculty—though the two outcasts were never close; Apple only remembers one interaction with Stepney, when the elder girl invited her to sit with her at lunch one day and told her that she had potential. But Stepney’s words stayed with Apple, and gave her strength when she needed it. “Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend,” would sing three decades later, “but she got through to me and I’ll never see her again.

“Shameika” is one of the best songs on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which is to say it’s one of the absolute best songs Apple has ever written. Piano and drums tumble over each other with gleeful abandon, and every now and then a harsh, metallic sound, like a fiddle strung with cheese wire, slices through the clamor. Apple’s voice feels similarly untamed, whether she’s shrieking just before the bridge or bleating “I’m a good ma-a-a-an in a storm”; singing about windblown sidewalks and torrential downpours and Hurricane Gloria in excelsis Deo, it’s fitting to liken her to a force of nature. But “Shameika” never loses sight of the young girl at the center of the storm, nor the classmate who saw her potential. The song already told a deeply affecting tale of the things we take with us from our childhoods. Now, in light of Stepney and Apple’s reunion (and their new track “Shameika Said”), it feels like only the first chapter of an exciting new story. – Jacob Nierenberg

11. Fiona Apple: “Newspaper” [Epic]

In 2020, Fiona Apple finally returned with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a fierce, deliberately-built piece of capital-A Art made by a woman creating music exactly how she wants to. Conceived in isolation, before doing so was compulsory, and released in the godawful first months of our collective exiles, Apple’s fifth record spoke directly to us in ways made more powerful entirely because it wasn’t already en vogue to demand “Fetch the bolt cutters/ I’ve been down here too long” and “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.”

Smack dab in the middle of everything is “Newspaper,” which goes for the jugular on an issue that applies to, statistically-speaking, very few of us: a fucked-up, one-sided obsession with the “other woman.” One song later she’d declare that “And no love is like any other love/ So, it would be insane to make a comparison with you,” but here she’ll entertain a far less healthy outlook on the current lover of an old ex. She doesn’t fucking care about him – she clearly hates the man, openly wondering how he’s lying to her. But the woman is the real object of obsession, falling in love with her from afar because she knows, intimately, the damage he’s causing. “I watched him walk over you/ Talk over you/ Be mean to you/ It makes me feel close to you.”

This angle is, frankly, fascinating. She develops a warped trauma bond, and her processing of it drips with acid and confusion: “It’s not what it’s supposed to do.” Her delivery is also commanding and near-hypnotic, and the resulting atmosphere is addicting. It’s impossible not to hang on every syllable Apple spits out. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been where she is: she ensnares you in a trap constructed to ensure you’ll feel every warped emotion that comes from it. – Holly Hazelwood

10. Yves Tumor: “Gospel for A New Century” [Warp]

No one expected Yves Tumor to drop the grimiest, sexiest, most bangin’ rock album of 2020. Having dived into an array of genres including noise rock and ambient electronic on their first three records, experimentalist Sean Bowie now plays the role of the new decade’s biggest stadium rock star with their most accessible album to date, Heaven to A Tortured Mind. It’s a neo-psychedelic opus oozing with soul, and it opens with the thrashing lead single “Gospel for A New Century.” A slick bass line underlies brassy horns and a broken record drum beat as Bowie begs “Come and light my fire, baby.” The song descends from a steady groove to a crashing chaos in its final minute, yearning for carnal release.

The music video is equally evocative, featuring a ram horned Bowie and a cast of beautiful Guillermo del Toro abominations contorting in a hazy, laser beamed light show. The scene, like the song, is a sensual abandonment of inhibition that honors the glam rock greats in its unabashed expression. Such a release is why we turned to music during this year of pent-up rage and energy, and stadiums around the world will be waiting for Yves Tumor to come and light our fire. – Aaron Paskin

9. Bob Dylan: “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” [Columbia]

After spending the better part of a decade exploring the American songbook, Bob Dylan finally decided to get back to contributing to it with one of the strongest collections of songs in his long, legendary career. “Murder Most Foul,” his epic, impressionistic tour through the last half-century of rotten history, may have been the biggest statement on Rough and Rowdy Ways, but perhaps the greatest showcase for Dylan’s twilight-period mastery of the song-as-tale is “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Pitched at a lazy, rafting-down-the-Mississippi tempo, the track is classic Dylan, at once nakedly first-person and carefully obscured. “I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track / Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” he sings in his latest act of self-mythologizing, but as the twanging guitars of the band roll on with sunned sluggishness, Dylan simply observes the sights around him while gently ruminating on achievements and regrets. This is the sound of a man who is so far past the need to please or account for himself that a lifetime of hiding in plain sight has now become irrelevant. Hardly anyone has ever or will ever know the real Robert Zimmerman, but as he takes us on a stroll here to literally smell the flowers, it feels at long last that we get enough of a glimpse of the real man to be content with our image of him. -Jake Cole

8. Sevdaliza: “Joanna” [Twisted Elegance]

From the opening notes of “Joanna” — plucked guitar, pale washes of synth, and Sevdaliza’s tremulous voice — the listener is haunted. Hair stands up on the back of the neck, there is the feel of someone standing just over one’s shoulder. The lyrics underscore the sensation with almost comical melodrama: “Evil personified/ She preys on the dead…” But the melodrama is warranted. The song, Sevdaliza has explained, is about the all-encompassing sensation of unrequited love, and anyone who has ever felt a longing for someone who doesn’t return their affection will comprehend the metaphor. “Joanna” is not the object of desire here, but unrequited love in a woman’s form, clinging to a lover who is breaking under her embrace. “Joanna, please stop loving me/ I am too sensitive…/ Please stop ruining me,” the singer begs, but by the end of the song the sinuous melody is in the blood, and we, too, feel Joanna’s dangerous touch. Accented with a light hand by synthesizer, delicate piano motifs and processed vocals, Sevdaliza’s honeyed alto winds in complementary patterns to twining strings. Plenty of quiet and exceptional production (by Dutch producer Mucky, with Sevdaliza) provides space for the song to shine. – Valerie Polichar

7. Adrianne Lenker: “anything” [4AD]

Hear enough whispery singer-songwriters, and they start to sound the same after a while. This is why Adrianne Lenker’s solo work – separate but not unrelated to her work in Big Thief – is so astounding. Despite the similarity in the base elements, no one else sounds like this.

On “anything,” Lenker – amidst a delicate arrangement of acoustic guitar and egg-shaker – tells the story of a relationship found and lost in her inimitable style. On the surface, there is nothing in the song that hasn’t been done before. The first verse paints an impressionistic picture of Lenker and her girlfriend in happier times – “Mango in your mouth juice dripping/ Shoulder of your shirtsleeve slipping” before later verses unravel the hidden tensions and outward conflict that bring the relationship to its close. And yet, the song is unlike the one’s it bears a passing resemblance to. This comes down to Lenker’s idiosyncrasies. Her use of consonance and rhyme in the verses gives way to the assonance and repeated phrasings of the chorus, where she manages – through her ghostly annunciation and intonation – to rhyme “looking” with “again.”

The chorus is about not saying words at all, but simply being with the person the song is addressed to – touching her, sleeping next to her and looking at her. It’s about the ways we connect with people in silence. So, when Lenker addresses her lover by name for the first time late in the song, singing, “You held me the whole way through/ When I couldn’t say the words like you/ I was scared Indigo but I wanted to/ I was scared Indigo but I wanted to,” the name and the repeated phrasing creates a synthesis between verse and chorus that arrives like a revelation, achieving a subtle complexity that few artists, singer-songwriter or otherwise, rarely achieve. – Ian Maxton

6. Bob Dylan: “Murder Most Foul” [Columbia]

After eight years away from original songwriting, Bob Dylan returned with a single containing enough words to make up for that decade. That song, “Murder Most Foul,” comes with a Shakespearean title and probably a record-setting number of references. As Dylan’s interest in patching together allusions and loving thefts has grown, it would have made sense if he had simply gone for pastiche. Instead, though, each reference builds on others, sometimes building a short run and sometimes pointing back to earlier in the song. With that manner of work, Dylan pulls essential elements of his art together not just for a Joycean game, but in order to compile a commentary on the second half of the 20th century.

The song orbits around the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, not only marking an end to Camelot and some sort of imagined US innocence, but noting the start of a culture period marked by both disarray and beauty. Dylan reflects on the media saturation of the Zapruder film even as he begins a litany of memorable media artifacts (hosted, it seems, by Wolfman Jack). Each foray into songs or films eventually returns to Kennedy’s thoughts about Marilyn Monroe, Jack Ruby, the brothers that never arrive or something else. Dylan weaves in too much wordplay to keep track of. All the while, his band maintains an elegaic atmosphere for a man and a time, trading the musical focus from piano to organ to violin. The sounds support the complex lyrical work while resisting any potential dryness in a 17-minute monologue. With its sweep of pop culture history, stunning use of language and emotional core, “Murder Most Foul” stands as a major achievement even for a songwriter of Dylan’s stature. – Justin Cober-Lake

5. Sufjan Stevens: “America” [Asmathic Kitty]

The significance of “America” for Sufjan Stevens resonates both at a personal and artistic level. Here’s the poster boy for patriotic indie folk revealing his disillusionment with his country, through a recontextualization of his electronic sensibilities. Not since 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit has indietronica come through so prominently in Stevens’ style. There’s certainly an affinity for textural exploration on the 12-and-a-half-minute journey of “America,” but this time around Stevens finds a way to maintain his songwriting chops and iconic voice after replacing guitars and banjos with various keyboards.

Synthetic ambience notwithstanding, this is the most raw and unfiltered Stevens has ever been in a song. In contrast to the more idealistic nature of his initial output, this album brings forth his feelings about the United States after four years of Donald Trump. He’s clearly tired of trying to comfort people with recollections of a romanticized history. Though not a theological song in nature, his lyrics draw interesting parallels between patriotism and religiosity. His words come as an urge to leave behind blind devotion and call out the powers that be for what they are and what they’ve done.

Stevens made a point to credit the exact synthesizer equipment he used on this and every song on The Ascension, which shows how much attention to detail went into the arrangement. “America” should be used as a reference for the countless indie-folk projects trying synths on for size, as it’s clear that Stevens harnessed this new instrumentation as a genuine extension of his artistry. – Max Heilman

4. Perfume Genius: “On the Floor” [Matador]

“On the Floor” doesn’t have time for platitudes. On the second single from the intimate Set My Heart on Fire Immediately all Perfume Genius strives for is encapsulating the raw sensation of unrealized attraction. The funky guitar licks and grooves evoke a dance rooted deep in the subconscious. Perfume Genius channels the primal feelings of attraction into a Prince-indebted funk romp so violent you can feel every vein in his body fuming with hormones.

“On the Floor “is a rush of images frolicking in the brain unbound by reality nor logistics nor rationale, instead propelled by the buzzing and bubbling of butterflies stirred by a crush. The muse of the piece is anonymous because, like all fantasies, “On the Floor” is a little selfish. It’s not about the dynamic of the relationship; instead Perfume Genius pens a tale depicting a reverie. It’s just beyond his grasp, flooding the realms of his imagination. The more mystery to the madness the better because it divorces the possibility that if this were true it could vanish.

“On the Floor” is raw and unapologetic in the way fantasies intrinsically are. Nonetheless it’s open in the same vein Perfume Genius has been charting over the past decade. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s reaffirmingly gay and in all this it conceals an arresting intimacy. – Colin Dempsey

3. Run the Jewels: “walking in the snow” [Jewel Runners/BMG]

“walking in the snow” feels familiar; it’s the sort of song that Run the Jewels have done in some form before; it’s arguably the archetypal Run the Jewels song. This isn’t to level criticism at the duo, though; how else are you supposed to respond when the situation you’ve been angrily screaming about for years just doesn’t change in the slightest. What’s different between “snow” and something like “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck” is the nature of Mike and El’s anger this time around. Whereas previous songs found the pair as strident political proselytisers, “walking in the snow” hits a raw nerve. El-P begins with fiery condemnations levied at Trump supporters, particularly those who claim Christianity as their own: “Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent/Kids in prison ain’t a sin?…What a disingenuous way to piss away existence.” Mike, though, makes things personal: in an uncomfortable verse, he invokes the death of Eric Garner to point out white hypocrisy about the murder of Black people by police over the years, targeting not just the people who support the police but also those whose activism on behalf of protecting Black lives is posting an angry Twitter thread and calling it a day. In any year, “walking in the snow” would have cut deep. However, when it came out only a few days after the murder of George Floyd, another instance of a Black man callously executed by police, it became a rallying cry for people all across the country who were fed up. – Kevin Korber

2. John Prine: “I Remember Everything” [Oh Boy Records]

It’s hard not to hear the late John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” as a hauntingly elegiac postscript from one of America’s greatest songwriters. The last original song he recorded before dying from complications associated with COVID-19, “I Remember Everything” was set to be part of a new record Prine and producer Dave Cobb were to begin work on this past summer. Released two months after his passing, “I Remember Everything” can’t help but be heard in the context of his death at the hands of a virus that has claimed a heartbreaking number of lives, wreaking havoc on a global scale and irreparably altering our world.

Yet rather than sounding maudlin or pitiable, Prine sounds content with his life, reflecting on moments both mundane and profound. From life on the road (“I remember every hotel room / And every song I ever sang / On a guitar out of tune”) to the night he met his wife, Fiona, and how she “…turned and smiled on me /…Your ocean eyes of blue,” to his then-current state of mind (the song itself was written in the latter half of 2018) (“Got no future in my happiness / Though regrets are very few”). It’s full of Prine’s inimitable way with words, creating vivid, poetic imagery (“Swimming pools of butterflies / That slipped right through the net” being a particularly choice example) through seemingly simple couplets.

In other words, “I Remember Everything” a prototypical John Prine song that could’ve found its way onto any one of his albums. That it ultimately ended up being his last recorded word and testament is all the more poignant given the affecting nature of the sentiments expressed throughout. In the immediate aftermath of his death, it’s hard not to hear “I Remember Everything” as a haunting reminder of our own mortality. But the song itself isn’t meant to be sad or moribund; rather it’s a celebration of a life lived well. We should all be so lucky to remember everything. – John Paul

1. Phoebe Bridgers: “I Know the End” [Dead Oceans]

One of Phoebe Bridgers’ greatest gifts is how she takes ordinary moments and everyday troubles and expands them into brilliant technicolor dreamscapes. On “I Know the End,” she turns not wanting to be on tour and her worry about the state of the world into an anti-fairytale, where it’s only three clicks to get back home. With a Wizard of Oz motif and gauzy music that sounds like a 1930s film reel, Bridgers knows that “There’s no place like my room” but getting off the road doesn’t solve her problems. All that’s left is to go forward, to leave each day behind “Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore.

But the song truly excels when the hazy atmosphere clears up, leaving Bridgers with her guitar chords and a world racing towards oblivion with no answers. As she gets swept up in a slow-building tornado and the intensity grows, she tries to find solace in the sky above, even if all she finds is a government drone. But as everything is blown away, all that’s left is her own thoughts, fears and anxieties. It’s only then that she lets out a glorious, terrified and purging scream.

This year, the world has felt closer to apocalypse than ever before. With our personal and global doomsday clocks counting down, all that we wanted to do was let out everything we felt in an unending scream. Bridgers brings that catharsis on “I Know the End,” but closes with a light chuckle, a temporary reprieve of the weight we’re under. That’s what Bridgers truly gave us this year – the chance to release our stress in a purifying shout and the relief that comes afterwards, even if it only lasts for a moment. – Joe Marvilli

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