Music Notes: 12 of the best songs of 2020

Megan Thee Stallion and Bruce Springsteen had memorable songs in 2020.
Megan Thee Stallion and Bruce Springsteen had memorable songs in 2020.

Credit: Victoria Will/AP File (Megan Thee Stallion); Rob DeMartin (Bruce Springsteen)

Credit: Victoria Will/AP File (Megan Thee Stallion); Rob DeMartin (Bruce Springsteen)

This year’s memorable tunes stem from Springsteen to Megan Thee Stallion, and more.

Normally, as we prepare to turn the calendar to January, I would be writing about the top concerts of the past 52 weeks.

For (my version of) fun, I looked back at the first review I wrote in 2020 — Celine Dion at State Farm Arena — and had to laugh at the now-audacity of my final sentence: “It’s obviously too early to christen the best concert of the year, but Dion is already a contender.”

Yeah, well, congrats, Celine, because the competition following was rather sparse.

So instead of a concert list, I focused on a dozen songs deserving of year-end accolades, because who among us didn’t have time to listen to music the past several months?

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites as we bid an emphatic farewell to 2020.

Banners, “Someone to You”: Originally released in 2017, the song made a modest showing on the rock charts before fading into the abyss. But thanks to pandemic-shuttered TikTok-ing teens, the anthem with an urgent pulse and message of longing for closeness reignited the Liverpool export’s profile.

Machine Gun Kelly, “Bloody Valentine”: The former rapper found his niche with a detour that sounds as if Green Day and The Killers rumbled in an alley. The faux British accent is a bit much, but that isn’t enough to negate the compact joy of this earworm.

Doja Cat, “Say So”: The fizziest song Gwen Stefani and Dallas Austin never made.

Bruce Springsteen, “Ghosts”: With an opening blast of guitar and Springsteen’s grated voice reminding us with unfettered boldness on the chorus, “I’m alive,” this is a stack of E Street Band comfort and nostalgia in a year when it was needed most. “Count the band in and then kick into overdrive…by the end of the set, we leave no one alive” — the Springsteen creed in action.

Run the Jewels, “Ooh La La”: Killer Mike and El-P spout penetrating lyrics about class divisions and capitalism while the spongy beat propels their sardonic words. And isn’t it time a current song name-dropped Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Jeru the Damaja?

BTS, “Dynamite”: The first song by the K-pop superstars recorded fully in English is, of course, brilliant marketing. But if the song didn’t pop with personality nor possess such an irresistible candy-coated hook, we wouldn’t be talking about it as one of the best of the year.

Taylor Swift, “Willow”: Ethereal vocals, a gently chugging backbeat and lyrics that veer from graceful to whimsical (“Life was a willow and it bent right to your whim…I come back stronger than a ’90s trend”), the first single from Swift’s new “Evermore” album is a wink and a nod to how much she’s learned from the songwriting of Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell.

Bon Jovi, “The Story of Love”: Many of the songs on the band’s “2020” album overreached in earnestness, but with this circular ballad, Jon Bon Jovi’s storytelling instincts are incisive and his words tenderhearted. All of it is couched in a beautifully gauzy melody and the “Layla”-ish guitar solo tacked on at the end punctuates the song with a wistful coda.

The Chicks, “Gaslighter”: Despite being released during a polarizing political year in which gaslighting was a frequently bandied term, the banjo-flecked song is actually a not-really-veiled account of the dissolution of singer Natalie Maines’ marriage. The girls’ always-sublime harmonies are a splendid contrast to the scathing kiss-off (“Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat…save your tired stories for your new someone else”).

Megan Thee Stallion, “Savage”: Dripping with attitude and stocked with a simple, head-nodding beat, the first No. 1 hit for the feisty Houston hip-hop personality with the nimble flow is a club anthem for the ages. She’ll forever be that…well, you know.

Miley Cyrus, “Midnight Sky”: Shimmering like a disco ball in Studio 57, this sleek, galloping production showcases not only Cyrus’ affection for classic rock (its hook is so similar to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” that she invited the Fleetwood Mac goddess to join her on a remake), but also Cyrus’ own astute pop instincts and muscular voice.

Wolfgang Van Halen/Mammoth WVH, “Distance”: Written before father Eddie’s devastating death in October, the younger Van Halen offers a paean to loss that is universally relatable. With heartfelt vocals, a layered chorus and stinging guitar, Wolfgang’s initial public outing ensures not only is his own career bright, but Dad is looking down with one of those sideways grins.

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