You don’t need us to remind you of all the reasons 2020 sucked, so instead, let’s revisit all the ways in which it was great — yes, we’re talking about pop songs, from the underrated gems to the radio mainstays, and everything in between.
Despite everything, this one was a banner year for pop music. Established genre queens like Ari, Gaga and Miley returned with new albums, artists who have teetered on the verge for years now finally broke out (Rina Sawayama; Doja Cat), and newcomers like 0171 caught our ears from the get-go. We gobbled up all of these offerings like our lives depended on it… and in some cases, our lives truly did depend on staying home and staying safe! (While putting on the latest Harry Styles, of course.)
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As we look forward to 2021, we’ll gladly wave much of this year goodbye. First, however, we need to highlight the pop art that was born out of such a difficult period, and to appreciate the music that helped us get through times of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Without further ado, here are Billboard staffers’ picks for the 30 best pop songs of 2020, in alphabetical order by artist name.
We might be living in 2020, but London duo 0171 is living in 3020; futuristic doesn’t begin to cover the sort of concoctions that Joe Bedell-Brill and Georgie Hoare have cooked up recently. Take “Follow,” where staccato beats, melodic piano and stop-go vocals (“Vacation, vibration/ I’m happy when it kills me/ The vivid life, five stars/ She smiles, and I’ll go far”) swirl together in a euphoric tornado. Mad props to 0171’s mad scientist pop chops, and we can’t wait to see what they brew up next. — GAB GINSBERG
Aly & AJ, “Attack of Panic”
History will look kindly upon Aly & AJ’s impressive post-Disney output, which continued in 2020 with “Attack of Panic.” The slithering slice of electronica answered the question, “What would it sound like if Aly & AJ sounded like a cross between Nine Inch Nails and Grimes?”, with a resounding “Amazing!” — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Ariana Grande, “Positions”
In less than a decade, Ariana Grande has gone from hopeful hitmaker to unassailable purveyor of pop prowess, nailing the sound of the moment while pointing to the industry’s next step. “Positions” is perfectly, well, positioned as her quarantine sex jam: With a skittering beat, finger-picked guitar and a few woozy strings for good measure, this is the sound of making the most out of the least, and keeping things interesting even as the world grinds to a halt. — JOE LYNCH
Ava Max, “Kings & Queens”
There is nothing subtle about this over-the-top power-pop dynamo, from chess metaphors to pounding electric guitars, and that’s just how Ava Max likes it. “You might think I’m weak without a sword/ But if I had one, it’d be bigger than yours,” she cheekily boasts over riotously fun beats. The track sounds straight out of the hair-metal ’80s, but it’s also deceptively heartfelt, as Max assures her fellow queens that they’re never alone — with or without a king. — KATIE ATKINSON
Bebe Rexha feat. Doja Cat, “Baby I’m Jealous”
Yes, Virginia, there is a formula for a flawless bop: one part Bebe Rexha vocals, one part Doja Cat sassiness, and a dash of Justin Tranter’s powerful pen. (Oh, and the remix can include a little bit of Dominican superstar Natti Natasha, as a treat.) “Baby I’m Jealous” is simply too big to fail — and best of luck attempting to get that guitar-driven chorus out of your head. — G.G.
Benee feat. Gus Dapperton, “Supalonely”
New Zealand upstart Benee is gradually and deservedly gaining international recognition. Much of it is thanks to her TikTok-aided breakout hit “Supalonely,” an unflinching assessment of post-breakup sadness that feels reassuring — if not borderline happy — thanks to its candid assessment of the singer’s emotional state, even as she grapples with the reality of being “a lonely bitch.” With her knack for melody and candor, Benee’s future is far brighter than her self-deprecating assessment of life on “Supalonely.” — J. Lynch
Billie Eilish, “Therefore I Am”
Why tell someone to kick rocks when you can get downright philosophical with them? Billie Eilish’s existentialist kiss-off “Therefore I Am” does more than beat back her detractors — it questions their very existence. Fused with the same glitchy, DIY production that earned her and brother Finneas five Grammys for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, “Therefore I Am” picks up right where Eilish left off, and throws a digitized middle finger up to anyone who dares question her place in pop stardom. — STEPHEN DAW
Blackpink, “How You Like That”
The most popular K-pop girl group in the world ushered in their long-awaited debut album with “How You Like That,” a thrillingly bombastic lead single that fuses pop, trap and hip-hop with regal horn blasts and a braggadocious hook. The bilingual bop’s grandiose music video accumulated more than 86.3 million in its first 24 hours, breaking the YouTube record, and helped earn Jennie, Lisa, Rose and Jisoo their then-highest entry on the Billboard Hot 100, with a No. 33 debut. — GLENN ROWLEY
As if it were written in the stars, BTS lit up 2020 with their historic English-language single, which marked the first song by an all-South Korean group to blast in atop the Hot 100. Between its breezy disco elements, seven undeniably talented vocalists, and — don’t forget — “a little funk and soul,” “Dynamite” has every piece of the hit-making puzzle. The uplifting summer staple has easily kept the Saturday night fever going through the rest of the year. — RANIA ANIFTOS
Camila Cabello feat. DaBaby, “My Oh My”
This saucy, reggaeton-influenced single from Camila Cabello’s Romance album divulges her insatiable desire for a bad boy, with DaBaby cast in the role. While fellow album cut “First Man” appoints Cabello’s father as the most pivotal man in her life, “My Oh My” confirms every parent’s fear that their little girl is sneaking out to meet up with a mystery guy. And who could resist that beguiling bassline? — HERAN MAMO
Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”
How lucky we are to be alive at the same time as Christine and the Queens is. In 2014, we witnessed the birth of a French icon, and while six years has passed swiftly, every moment in between has been pure beauty. In 2020, Chris gave us the stirring single “People, I’ve Been Sad,” easily the centerpiece of her surprise La Vita Nuova EP, and which marks another robust entry in her marvelous repertoire. — G.G.
Doja Cat, “Boss Bitch”
While it could be easy to overlook, considering the chart-topping success that came immediately after it in the form of the behemoth “Say So,” nothing announced the imminent world domination of one Amala Dlamini quite as appropriately as “Boss Bitch.” Recorded for the soundtrack of DC superhero flick Birds of Prey, the unrelenting single finds Doja Cat throwing a giant middle finger at all the haters, doubters and enemies waiting in the wings for her to choke — all with the kind of sassiness that would make Harley Quinn cackle in approval. — G.R.
Dua Lipa, “Levitating”
On Future Nostalgia’s most sparkling single, Dua Lipa perfectly captures the otherworldliness of new love, when it truly feels like you’re floating into outer space because things are so exciting and different. But in spite of the song’s overall cosmic vibe, the straightforward pre-chorus brings it right down to earth (“You want me, I want you baby”), removing all the guesswork from a will-they-or-won’t-they crush and taking it straight to the skies. — K.A.
Glass Animals, “Your Love (Deja Vu)”
U.K. rulebreakers Glass Animals let loose their third album Dreamland this year, and while the whole thing is a very delicious pie, you will want to pay special attention to one particular slice. Second single “Your Love (Deja Vu)” is every F-word in the book: frantic, fervent, frenzied, and freakin’ fantastic. Or, as frontman Dave Bayley puts it, it’s a “conflicted booty-call anthem.” Did we mention it’s a “favorite”? — G.G.
Grae, “Permanent Maniac”
Toronto singer-songwriter Grae’s “Permanent Maniac” is the type of pop song that hooks you within the first seven seconds, its durable synth-rock arrangement supporting a resigned harmony. The rest of the single is just as arresting, especially when considering that it’s a love letter to The Cure’s Robert Smith. — J. Lipshutz
Harry Styles, “Adore You”
We have a feeling Harry Styles doesn’t typically have to beg quite so hard for someone to accept his affection, but he makes for a believable lovesick puppy in this jaunty third single from Fine Line. “Just let me adore you” is such a sweetly simple request, and the impossibly smooth backing guitars really make it seem like walking through fire for someone is just, you know, a casual offer. — K.A.
Justin Bieber feat. Quavo, “Intentions”
On this slinky earworm, Bieber and Migos’ Quavo only have eyes for their women (Hailey Baldwin and Saweetie), and their love obviously comes with no filter. The bouncy arpeggiated melody frames the pop star’s intentions with a playful demeanor, while the music video reveals a charitable component: Bieber raised $200,000 for the Alexandria House in L.A. to support women and children struggling with homelessness. — H.M.
Katy Perry, “Daisies”
Katy Perry’s “Daisies” is a subtle masterclass in crafting a song that’s simultaneously inspiring and moribund. “Told them your dreams and they all started laughing/ I guess you’re out of your mind ’til it actually happens” is accompanied by a furiously strumming guitar that swells the spirit, but the idea of doing everything you can against the odds until your inevitable death is… well, realistic, but not the optimistic hedonism we’re used to from pop stars. And honestly? We’re here – six feet under – for it. — J. Lynch
K/DA feat. Madison Beer & Kim Petras, “Villain”
Sometimes, it’s best to simply own what you are. For League of Legends’ virtual girl group K/DA, that means taking back your title as a “straight up villain.” Joined by pop princesses Madison Beer and Kim Petras to give voice to the demonic character Evelynn, K/DA boasts their pitch-perfect production yet again, this time to seduce the listener into a state of calm before delivering their killing blow. — S.D.
Kim Petras, “Malibu”
If Nile Rodgers and the Beach Boys had collaborated on the theme song for a lightweight spring break comedy back in the day, this might’ve been the theme song. As it is, Petras’ “Malibu” is buoyed by sprightly funk-lite guitar riffage and her characteristically strong vocals, which inhabit the world of the song without overselling it. — J. Lynch
Kississippi, “Around Your Room”
Kississippi mastermind Zoe Reynolds has said “Around Your Room” is about feeling “hopelessly enamored” — a fitting description of its fizzy beauty, especially to anyone who knows how young love can have your emotions spinning higher and higher. In a just world, the sugary song would be routinely showcasing those feelings on top 40 radio. — J. Lipshutz
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me”
This superstar diva duet would have made a splash in any year, but that “I’d rather be dry but at least I’m alive” chorus hits especially hard in 2020, doesn’t it? Pair that well-timed sentiment with a ’90s house beat, Ariana Grande’s angelic vocal runs and Lady Gaga’s extraterrestrial spoken-word interludes, and “Rain on Me” is the nightclub banger that’s impatiently waiting for nightclubs to reopen. In the absence of dance floors, a suggestion: This song was made for listening/singing in the shower. — K.A.
Little Mix, “Sweet Melody”
The third single from Little Mix’s sixth studio album Confetti is undeniable. It’s the epitome of a pop song — catchy, personal and perfectly structured — and it offers a chance for Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Jesy Nelson to each bring a unique flair. Don’t sleep on the dance-heavy music video, either. And though the honor went to “Break Up Song,” do let the record show that “Sweet Melody” is lead single material. — G.G.
Mae Muller, “Dependent”
“Dependent” is a brilliantly-executed fusion of style and messaging, as the London pop artist takes a mathematical approach to her resistance to new romance — a relationship equates to the subtraction of independence, after all — but can’t help herself from swooning on the chorus, “Ooh-ooh, looks like I’m fallin’ in love,” unadulterated joy cracking through the fussiness. — J. Lipshutz
Miley Cyrus, “Midnight Sky”
This time, Miley Cyrus came in swinging on a disco ball with “Midnight Sky,” the title of which is a metaphor for the headspace Cyrus escaped to as an independent woman, following her divorce from actor Liam Hemsworth. The dreamy synth-pop-meets-arena-rock banger not only finds inspiration in Stevie Nicks’ 1982 hit “Edge of Seventeen,” but came together as one track for the official “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)” remix with Nicks. — H.M.
Rina Sawayama, “XS”
If she wanted to, Rina Sawayama could easily write and perform the hell out of a bratty, materialistic pop tune. But that simply wouldn’t suit her: Instead, we get “XS,” a frantic, wild pop-rock single, where the Japanese-British singer offers a scathing critique of late capitalism and consumerism. Truly, a lesson in economics has never sounded so fun. — S.D.
Selena Gomez, “Rare”
Bad luck for Selena Gomez, who decided to release the most patient, considered and nuanced single of her career — or at least since her last great underperformer — at a time when pop radio once again decided it was time to crank up the BPMs. Still, fans will recognize “Rare” as the ruby that it is, from its subtly jaunty bass to its drumming-on-the-kitchen-table percussion to its gently assured vocal delivery — one that doesn’t overpower you or claim to, but still knows that it’s special. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Simmy feat. Sino Msolo, “Ngihamba Nawe”
South African artist Simmy is known for her musical experimentation — which figures prominently on her recent album, Tugela Fairy (Made of Stars) — but when she locks in to a groove and her voice floats upward, as she does on the breathtaking “Ngihamba Nawe,” there aren’t many better simple pleasures that you’ll find in music released this year. — J. Lipshutz
Taylor Swift, “Cardigan”
One-third of the trio of songs from Folklore that tell the story of the love triangle between Betty, James and Augusta (or Augstina, Swift couldn’t decide), “Cardigan” completes the tale from the perspective of Betty looking back at her relationship with James. The Hot 100 topper, penned by Swift and Aaron Dessner, is delicately evocative of the memories of being young and in love; it’s both wistful and wise with its soft percussion and breathy vocals. — DENISE WARNER
The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
A hit that nobody besides the Recording Academy was able to avoid this year, “Blinding Lights” was the glimmering sound of the artist born Abel Tesfaye hitting the gas pedal on his ’80s neon noir fantasies and high-tailing it down the Vegas strip — with the rest of 2020 pop music doggedly on his trail, attempting in vein to catch up. No luck this year, but maybe they’ll get there by sometime in late 2021. Or not. — A.U.