This year in music may well go down as the year of the isolation song: confined under stay-at-home orders, artists around the world have shared their cooped-up feelings as the seasons march on. But even the songs released before the pandemic changed the daily pace hit in a different way as they echo around the confines of our more socially distant context. In another summer, Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” would be a party hit; now, it’s a bittersweet anthem for an alternate universe. Christine and the Queens’ “People, I’ve been sad” might have floated under the radar; now, its title alone is a refrain for our time. Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage Remix” might have ushered in a sweaty, fun-loving summer; now, it’s a recollection of past joys. Either way, these songs are a reminder that art—and especially music—can be both a mirror and an escape, depending on how we choose to interpret it.
Bad Bunny, “Yo Perreo Sola”
It wasn’t all that long ago that pop stars were supposed to avoid politics or other controversial causes for fear that they might alienate certain fanbases. Bad Bunny is practically the poster child for a new generation of stars rewriting those rules. As the Puerto Rican singer and rapper’s star has risen, he’s only become more subversive and outspoken, railing against the Puerto Rico governor and questioning norms surrounding gender and sexuality.
In his single “Yo Perreo Sola,” Bad Bunny writes from the perspective of a woman who wants to go to the club and dance alone, unbothered by men. In the song’s music video, he cross-dresses in several eye-popping outfits—red dresses, thigh-high boots, manicured fingernails—as he twerks on a masculine version of himself to the song’s vicious drop. It’s one of the most joyous—and effortlessly transgressive—cultural artifacts of 2020.—Andrew R. Chow
Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve been sad”
A simple refrain—”People, I’ve been sad”—takes on new levels of meaning in the capable hands of France’s Heloise Letissier, stage name Christine and the Queens. Her synth-pop approach on this ultimate age-of-isolation track is heavy with sadness, but also intense with yearning. “It’s true that people, I’ve been gone,” she states baldly: “It’s true that, people, I’ve been missing out.” In her past work, including on 2018’s Chris, she explored the dissolving edges of her identity over muscular pop. Here, the excavation is internal, as she switches between English and French. It feels like she’s trying to claw her way up and out of the loneliness, but it’s a process.—Raisa Bruner
Dixie Chicks, “Julianna Calm Down”
The second single off the Dixie Chicks’ much-anticipated delayed comeback album Gaslighter, “Julianna Calm Down” might be called a tender dirge, with its dense, unhurried organ, chiming underneath lyrics calling out the names of female friends and family. But it’s also a chin-up anthem: “Just put on your best shoes, and strut the f-ck around like you’ve got nothing to lose!” the country trio sings once the song loosens up and adds in a bluegrass twang. The phrase “calm down” is often perceived as belittling, especially when spoken to a woman. But the Dixie Chicks have turned that negativity on its head, creating a moment of sisterly triumph and freedom instead. As each instrument comes in, the song grows in strength and beauty, cresting with celebratory guitar plucks that might just be sparkling notes of independence.—Raisa Bruner
Gorillaz & Slowthai, “Momentary Bliss”
Gorillaz may be 15 years past its commercial peak: “Feel Good Inc.” was a worldwide phenomenon in 2005. But then again, the virtual band was way ahead of its time in its genre fluidity, self-mythology, digital focus and internalization of hip-hop cadences and culture. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s brainchild has converted so seamlessly to the current global online era. All four of their songs this year, released as part of their rolling audiovisual project Song Machine, have been excellent, and spotlighted varying artists and musicians’ cultures from around the world.
The best of the lot is “Momentary Bliss,” a collaboration with the trendsetting British rapper Slowthai. While the Gorillaz’ signature guitar fuzz remains present, the group also shrewdly finds the connective tissue between an earlier era of British punk and the current rap scene dominating that country. Over a beat that could be moshed to by skinheads and grime fans alike, Slowthai and Albarn bark an earnest and unforgettable mantra: “It makes me sick to think you ain’t happy in your skin.” A trippy animation-live action hybrid music video only reinforces the song’s strengths.—Andrew R. Chow
Guapdad, Denzel Curry, Wiz Khalifa, Rona Raps #3
The lockdown era has seen several rap artists unexpectedly rise in stature to become cultural nerve centers, including D-Nice (spinning to first ladies during Club Quarantine) and Torey Lanez (gleefully howling over his raunchy Quarantine Radio). Guapdad 4000, an Oakland rapper, has likewise become an ascendant rap hub for his series Rona Raps. The series doesn’t have any gimmicks or special effects: it simply recreates the street corner or lunch table cypher for social distancing, allowing rappers like Joey Badass, Lil Yachty and Buddy to collaborate and prove their lyrical mettle from the safety of their homes.
On the third installment, Guapdad, Wiz Khalifa, and Denzel Curry take turns flowing over Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It,” a 1995 rap classic that has taken on ominous undertones after being remixed in the Us trailer. While all three impress, Curry emerges as the clear winner by drolly narrating his quarantine routine, which includes ski masks (both the garment and the rapper), eating takeout, watching Donnie Brasco on Netflix, and most importantly, avoiding his friends: “I tell them there’s no love/ I don’t want to dap, clap you up/ And there’s no hug.”—Andrew R. Chow
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me”
Two pop stars at the peak of their powers. An emotional dance-floor anthem. Plenty of lines with double meanings that point to both their personal struggles and some of the universal pains brought on by the pandemic. The second single off of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica hits all the right notes as both a dance-pop smash and a rallying cry for fans in need. “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive” may have sounded hyperbolic if it had come out in a different context. But here we are, and here are Gaga and Ariana sharing their talents, with the former comfortably inhabiting her more theatrical Chromatica persona, while the latter takes a detour from her recent trap-pop lane to shine as a vocalist. Add in the delightfully old-school music video—hordes of dancers, glitter makeup, fun outfits—and it truly feels as though they’re providing a pop-culture service.—Raisa Bruner
Mac Miller, “Good News”
The first single released after rapper Mac Miller’s death in 2018, “Good News” is meditative at its core, a bittersweet reflection only made more poignant by context. Posthumous releases are difficult to assess, but “Good News” certainly feels true to his spirit: an emotional open book packaged in deceptively pretty production. “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side,” he sings, his gentle voice floating from singing to rapping. “So tired of being so tired/ Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?” Miller was an artist known for struggling with his demons through his music. With its simple melody and lyrics that hint at sadness, “Good News” feels like both an omen and a balm. It’s our good fortune that Miller left behind songs like this one—a gentle benediction.—Raisa Bruner
Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyonce, “Savage Remix”
Before Beyoncé turned it into “Savage Remix,” Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” was a steamy jam off her latest album Suga. It had even kicked off a popular dance challenge. But adding fellow Houston artist Beyoncé was a major power move, not only because of her star status, but also because of the witty, confident energy that Beyoncé brings to the track. Beyoncé’s nimble rapping, full of trend-setting lyrics, is counterbalanced by melodic vocals. The original “Savage” had all of Megan Thee Stallion’s signature intensity going for it; the Beyoncé-boosted remix gave it levels.—Raisa Bruner
Phoebe Bridgers, “Garden Song”
One of California singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’s foremost abilities is her world-building: she can create startlingly vivid scenes with just a few turns of poetic phrase. Such is the case with “Garden Song,” the debut single off her second album, Punisher. On it, Bridgers sings of a house burned down except for “the notches in the door frame; a dreamscape that includes a “dorm room like a hedge maze”; a magical garden that may or may not be haunted. She saves her most affecting lyric for the end of the song, singing, “I have everything I ever wanted”—which, in Bridgers’ throat, sounds not like a declaration of achievement, but a harrowing existential crisis.—Andrew R. Chow
Sarah Jarosz, “Johnny”
Over the last decade, the Americana singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz has built up a consistently mesmerizing body of work, both through her solo material as well as with the progressive folk supergroup I’m With Her. “Johnny,” one of her strongest songs to date, tells the story of an unlucky traveller returning home. But while the verses are full of anxiety, the chorus explodes with arresting harmonies and thematic catharsis, during which Jarosz cries: “an open heart looks like a lot like the wilderness.”—Andrew R. Chow