Full disclosure: the late start on Listmas and then the long gap between this year’s deep diving posts wasn’t because of last time’s piece. It’s because I’ve dragged my feet for
two three months getting to this one.
There are multiple reasons for this. For one, keeping up with the Billboard horserace last year felt sillier than ever. Amidst everything else going on–pandemic updates, racial justice upheaval, CNN alerts when a tenth of a percentage point in an Iowan county might shift, and any personal crises that came along or were exacerbated by all of the above–nothing felt goofier than going, “Huh, I wonder if this is the week ‘Levitating’ cracks the top ten.” And even when you did manage to tear yourself away to the charts, there were times where eyeing the Hot 100 felt emphatically not goofy. Not that you’d know anything was up by listening to “Say So” or “Savage”, but in hindsight, the race between the two last spring was a competition between one song with an emerging problematic artist and her post-cancellation producer, and another song whose lead artist was later shot by another artist in the same year. That’s the kind of heat 2020 had.
Another thing, too, is that pop music never really figured itself out last year. We had a mix of songs that refused to ever go away (see: “Blinding Lights,” “Don’t Start Now”), and a bunch of number ones that disappeared on impact; there’s a one hit wonder, and then there’s a song like the Travis Scott featuring Young Thug and M.I.A. joint “Franchise” that only exists for the next 30 seconds because I just reminded you it ever existed at all. Against those two extremes, 2020 was the year we dove into what TikTok could mean for pop. For instance, this song by the young man with the D-1 point guard haircut is called “Blueberry Faygo.” It and a slew of songs like it–chirpy numbers that are more rap than not, but get most of their sauce from a melodic hook and dreamy instrumental flourishes–blew up because of kinda flailing if memorable enough dances on the video app, with “Blueberry Faygo” getting big enough to place at #27 on the year-ender. For the record, that’s 40 places above *checks notes* Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and infinitely above anything Taylor Swift released, or any singles from an Ariana Grande album cycle.
But the reason I dragged my feet on this list specifically is that I…had trouble getting my bearings on this one. Even though the year involved more headphones than concerts, I could still find true north on my favorite albums and songs for 2020, because the way I engage with Gorillaz or Yves Tumor didn’t fundamentally change. The same can’t be said for pop music, where so much of the draw is communal; it’s kind of hard to assess “The Woo” without hearing it through bar speakers as someone asks “Is that 50 Cent?” or if people at a club would actually go for “Tootsie Slide.” I got there eventually, and I stand by this year’s offering as much as any I’ve done, but it was a much longer road here for sure.
And, in the interest of navigating that distance, we’re going to do an abbreviated best/worst here. This list follows the same rules as always (had to peak in 2020 [mostly], no repeats from my picks in years past, limited to the year-end Hot 100) with the added rule that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is automatically DQ’d since the math suggests we’re just going to live with it every year now. While this list is less blurb-heavy than I’d usually go, everything would appear here and in the same order as usual. Let’s begin with the worst hits and a few dishonorable mentions:
On the bubble:
Drake – “Tootsie Slide”
Luke Combs – “Lovin’ On You”
Kane Brown ft. Swae Lee and Khalid – “Be Like That”
Gabby Barrett ft. Charlie Puth – “I Hope”
Dishonorable Mention: 24kGoldn ft. iann dior – “Mood” (#47)
An incessantly annoying song that would have missed the cut entirely if not for the lyric “We play games of love to avoid the depression”
10. Lewis Capaldi – “Before You Go” (#21)
It’s just not as deep as it thinks it is, and Capaldi’s voice sounds like a tension headache. Weirdly has the opposite problem of “Someone You Loved:” that song tried to sound transcendent over a fairly routine experience, while “Before You Go” feels underthought for its subject matter of a friend’s suicide.
9. Maroon 5 – “Memories” (#8)
I almost left “Memories” off the list because, hey, Maroon 5 turning in imitation brand Post Malone is like trying if you squint at it, but the mawkishness and pervasiveness of the crowd noise here is too grating.
8. JP Saxe ft. Julia Michaels – “If the World Was Ending” (#56)
“If the World Was Ending” is an uninteresting song in uninteresting ways–just a soggy, twee ballad whose drama is unearned to the point of being laughable. It’s honestly a chore to listen through. Next.
7. Harry Styles – “Watermelon Sugar” (#20)
This song sounds like waiting in line at CVS. It’s baffling that someone as generally affable and dynamic as Styles would fire off a single as tremendously repetitive and fucking boring as “Watermelon Sugar.”
6. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani – “Nobody by You” (#52)
How does a real life couple that’s been together for years have all the chemistry of two noble gases?
5. Justin Bieber – “Yummy” (#58)
I feel like this would have been a bigger story if pop music occupied more space in the public conscious last year, but Justin Bieber’s 2020 output was fucking awful. He’s routinely sucked before, but at least he could broken clock his way into a “Sorry” or “Cold Water.” Miserable dreck like “Yummy” is awful even before you get to the part were he sings about wanting his wife to make his toes curl.
4. Jack Harlow ft. DaBaby, Tory Lanez, and Lil Wayne – “WHAT’S POPPIN” (#13)
A pair of just fine performances from DaBaby and Lil Wayne are what hold “WHAT’S POPPIN” from climbing even higher on the list thanks to how flatly unlikable Harlow and Lanez are here. Harlow goes word for word bar for bar aping Post Malone’s whole thing from “White Iverson” without any of the charm (who the hell thinks a New Balance deal is a flex?) while Lanez confuses a choppy monotone for going hard. Between those two and a dull beat, there’s nothing to hold onto here.
3. Justin Bieber ft. Quavo – “Intentions” (#17)
“Intentions” actually sounds better than “Yummy,” however:
“Heart full of equity, you’re an asset”
“Picture perfect you don’t need no filter”
“Shoutout your mom and dad for makin’ you”
“Triple threat, you a boss, you a bae, you a beast”
“Don’t need a sponsor, nope, you’re the brand now”
“You’re my rock, my Colorado”
2. Blackbear – “hot girl bummer” (#26)
In the annals of shitty pop, there are songs like “Intentions” that are awful because they’re too insipid and clunky to do much else, and then there’s your actually noxious stuff like “hot girl bummer.” Last time he was here, Blackbear was ripping off “do rei me,” and now he’s upped the ante by jacking someone else’s viral phrase for his own bullshit. Obviously, “hot girl bummer” wasn’t recorded during the pandemic, but as a backdrop (the song peaked in the true “other shit is going on, who gives a fuck?” era of late March of last year), it underlines how full of shit Blackbear’s boilerplate LA partying lyrics are. “Hot girl bummer” is the sound of “welcome to my twisted mind” if that twisted mind’s only two thoughts were “fucking bitches, man” and “i’m so sad.” Of course her friends hate you. Everybody hates you. She hates you.
1. Jawsh 685 and Jason “Rumtugtugger” DeRulo – “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat” (#35)
This song shouldn’t exist.
Literally, Jason Derulo took this song to release while still working with Jawsh 685 behind the scenes to clear up the rights issue because the spine of “Savage Love,” is, like so many Jason DeRulo hits, a wholesale lift of a sample grafted onto absolutely shitbird nothing of a song. The two of them got things worked out, and a BTS remix bumped “Savage Love” to number 1 for a week, but at no point has this ever sounded like a completed song. Instead, “Savage Love” has the worst possible combination of sounding both grating and undercooked: that hook just clubs you over the head, the pre-chorus sticks out like a sore thumb, the bridge is a vocalized mess, and all of it is sloppy enough that you notice these things. And it’s not that DeRulo is incapable of decent vocals, but this sounds slapped together. I’m not saying every song big off the Tok is bad (I couldn’t find list space for it, but I mentioned “Blueberry Faygo” up top for a reason), but a lead-from-behind cash-in effort to capitalize on TikTok virality like “Savage Love” is a fitting worst hit for 2020.
And now, for a switch-up to the best hits. Here’s what I got the most into from last year.
On the bubble:
Jhene Aiko – “PU$$Y Fairy (OTW)”
Selena Gomez – “Lose You to Love Me”
Surfaces – “Sunday Best”
Surf Mesa ft. Emilee – “ily”
Honorable Mention: The Weeknd – “Heartless” (#28)
It technically peaked in 2019, so I couldn’t justify putting it any higher on the list, but Metro went lights out on this beat. The stretch from about 0:47 to 1:47 is probably my most listened-to minute of pop for 2020.
10. Billie Eilish – “everything i wanted” (#18)
Another one with a delicately crafted beat, and Eilish’s vocals are great. The quieter, more constructed thump of “everything i wanted” feels like a welcome reprieve after WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP…and knowing how much sad girl Spotify-core is out there, I respect the degree of difficulty in making a song like this memorable.
9. BTS – “Dynamite” (#38)
“Dynamite” is just a sturdily constructed pop song that’s readily sing-alongable and has time for a key change, and sometimes that’s all you really need. As our pop drifts closer to abstraction, wedding jams in the making like “Dynamite” are only going to burn brighter.
8. SAINt JHN ft. Imanbek – “Roses – Imanbek Remix” (#19)
I MISS DANCE CLUBS SO MUCH.
7. Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyonce – “Savage (Remix)” (#15)
The “Savage” remix is the rare remix that only exists to put the original song over the popularity edge that actually improves upon the OG release. Megan crackles with the triumph that comes with getting Beyonce to feature on your track, and Bey herself is no slouch here; I’ve seen her appearance on the “Savage” remix called her best effort since Lemonade, and I’m inclined to agree. You can’t hear the hook without her ab-libs after you’ve spun this remix.
6. Benee ft. Gus Dapperton – “Supalonely” (#84)
Same sort of argument I made for “Dynamite” applies here, but we’re praising a slick bassline and strings instead of a key change. Trust me, there’s hours of pastel lo-fi YouTube detritus out there that doesn’t do what “Supalonely” does nearly as well or as memorably, the actual groove and bounce here are impeccable.
5. Harry Styles – “Adore You” (#6)
Shouthout Harry Styles for doing the same year worst/best doubleheader. A song that falls a little short of Taylor Swift’s “Style” but a head above 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood” in the “sweaty, New Wave-tinged sex jam” hierarchy, “Adore You” feels like a rare “a-ha” moment for Styles, where everything he wants to be connects with what he is.
4. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP” (#24)
“WAP” succeeds on a bunch of levels as a high profile rap collab, an execution of clever sampling and speaker-destroying bass, and [extremely music writer trying to sound relevant voice] an empowerment anthem for an underserved base coming from our most necessary voices. It’s also just really fuckin’ funny. Cardi and Megan talk great rap shit on “WAP” with cartoonishly over the top lines like “Pussy A1, just like his credit” and Megan gleefully rapping about switching her wig so her dude feels like he’s cheating. Having a boxing bell punctuate “Never lost a fight but I’m looking for a beating” feels like some shit Ludacris would have done in the early ‘00s. I love it.
3. Juice WRLD – “Wishing Well” (#92)
“Wishing Well” is absolutely gutting. This ballad from Juice WRLD’s posthumous release is impossible to separate from his untimely death and overdose (“Let’s be real, if it wasn’t for the pills I wouldn’t be here/but if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here/I just told y’all my secret/It’s tearing me to pieces” hits like a truck), and Juice sells the hell out of every single word. This is one I hadn’t heard before putting the list together; it hits me like a truck every time.
2. Lady Gaga ft. Ariana Grande – “Rain On Me” (#48)
I mentioned this when I wrote about Chromatica, but I don’t think any pop album got screwed by COVID like this one, because I hear this song and just imagine it soaring in a public setting. The beat is dramatic in all the right ways for a pair of pop theater kids like Gaga and Grande (I mean, look at this), and while the song’s message is as old as “I Will Survive,” it sounds hard-earned in their hands. Grande tends to be stiff in her collaborations, but her and Gaga have chemistry born from really becoming close during recording, and you can feel that shine through for “Rain On Me.” I hope this one makes the rounds once public parties are safer.
1. The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights” (#1)
I could make any number of arguments for “Blinding Lights,” so I’m going to make two quick ones. The first is that it reminds me of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” in that it sounds from the first listen like it’s a song that should have always existed. The second is that I am writing this 472 days after it came out, and I’m still somehow not sick of this song. It’s that good.