Top of The Bops - My Five Favorite 'Pop Songs' of 2020
This'll be the eighth year that I have put together year-end lists for this site.
Even within the first year of the site, by December 2013, I can go back now and see hints of my flirtation with pop music—including songs by both Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake on the list of my favorite songs of the year. The following year, already sinking into a job-induced depression and an overwhelming feeling, I wrote about the songs that had the most impact on me during the year—one of them being a tune I deemed as being pure pop perfection.
Making these lists, after a certain point, is daunting. It starts out as a fun idea, or an exciting one, and that feeling can remain throughout, yes, but there are also times where revisiting music from the last 12 months becomes more laborious than you might anticipate, and it borders on becoming a chore, or, at the very least, a lot less fun when it's just an idea, or a bunch of songs jotted down on a post-it note, or in a playlist on my computer.
The very idea of putting together a list of my 20 favorite songs of the year, with any number of them being 'pop' songs is just simply too much. That's too many songs to rank accurately and articulately write about. And really, I am uncertain if I could name 20 songs that I would feel confident in putting on a list like that.
For 2020, after some initial deliberation, I successfully made a list of 15 songs—five of them being 'pop' songs, or bops, or bangers, or whatever you want to call them; the other 10 are inherently not 'pop' songs, and as you could anticipate, are mostly the songs that were most upsetting to me this year—sad white people music, et. al.
Here are the Top of The Bops for 2020:
“Need Your Love,” the second single released in advance of Swimmer, and one of the tunes Gaby had picked to discuss during our podcast recording session, owes a lot to both the soft, or ‘yacht,’ rock of the 1980s as well as the disco movement of the decade prior. From their appearance on the album sleeve, down to the crisp, warm production values throughout the album (but especially noticeable on this song), Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley seem like they are broadcasting from a different era entirely.
Built around tight percussion, a thick, rumbling bass line, and vivacious piano bursts, “Need Your Love” walks a fascinating tightrope between a frenetic, post-disco shuffle, which, seemingly without any effort at all, naturally slides into something slow and smoldering during its swooning refrain, complete with a sweeping string accompaniment.
Lyrically, Moore and Riley don’t always write their own romance into Tennis’ material; in the case of “Need Your Love,” the tight musicianship exudes the electricity of their creative partnership, however, the lyrics are surprisingly biting, another fascinating element to the song. Dressed up in the feverish rhythm of the song, it’s easy to miss the intent of lyrics like, “I hope you’re happy—I hope you’re pleased,” “I need your tough like I need a bolt of lightning…,” and, “You’ve got more poison than sugar.” But even with as detrimental as the love described in the song is, Moore concedes by the end of the chorus that she simply cannot escape her antagonist.
For someone like me, who legitimately enjoys meticulous detail to production, “Need Your Love” is a dream—specifically the technique used on the drum tracking, as well as the way all of the elements come subtly tumbling together by the end of the song; but most of all, it’s a song that is undeniably catchy and fun, from the moment it begins with the jolt of the bass drums and hi-hat, to the dreamy, glistening conclusion.
4- “Crowded Room,” by Selena Gomez featuring 6lack
The expression itself—a ‘crowded room’—at this point in the year, 12 months after the song’s release, seems like a foreign concept. And it’s wild to think about, really, where I was at the beginning of this year, and that this song—buried within the second half of the Selena Gomez album Rare—was released within this calendar year. It isn’t even a year old yet. But this has been literally the longest year, and things that happened in January and February seem like they could not have possibly occurred in 2020.
I spent roughly a week with Rare, letting it gestate as I often do with albums, sitting down to write something sprawling and verbose about the record, and at year’s end, Rare is, as I had suspected at the time, not a record I would return to, and it is still very much what I had determined it to be in January—pop music as colorful, fleeting escapism with a few moments of reflective clarity throughout.
However, the slinking, restrained bounce of “Crowded Room” is something that has stuck with me since my initial listen.
“Crowded Room,” you could say, is not a traditional ‘bop,’ and it almost moves too slowly to be considered a ‘banger.’ It is certainly not a ‘top down, speakers up’ kind of pop song; however, it is infectiously written and damn near seductive in its execution—the elements that make it so memorable, even after a year that has been as long as this one has. It is also one of the least bombastic songs on Rare, so that reservation with which it unfolds already makes it standout among the rest of the album, in terms of production and arranging alone.
Apparently based around a demo track submitted to Gomez by singer Bebe Rexha (who receives a writing credit on the song) “Crowded Room,” and I hesitate to say is an example of how to make a song memorable through simplicity, but it’s an example of how not to overdo something—borderline skeletal in its instrumentation, there are these very noticeable silences in between the programed handclaps and the somewhat jaunty, though very deliberately paced keyboard progression that begins the song, and save for a few additional layers that appear as “Crowded Room” continues, there is little variation.
“Baby it’s just me and you,” Gomez sings repeatedly, hypnotically, in the song’s refrain. “Just us two, even in a crowded room,” she continues, in a somewhat playful, or flirtatious way, mixed with a contrast of confidence and uncertainty, and maybe just a little bit of newfound lust. And that’s why it works—the swirling refrain lodges itself in your head, both the melody, and the use of Gomez’s repetition of the lyrics once it arrives at that refrain. Gomez, a modern day pop music vocalist, doesn’t make as heavy use of Auto-Tune as some of her peers, also knows, at least in this case, the range and limitations of her voice, keeping things in a lower, talk/sing range during the song’s verses, then heading into higher, breathier territory for what the song’s lyrics deem to be the ‘pre-chorus’—“So won’t you call me in the morning if you feel the same…”
Even with the sparsity and purposeful repetition to “Crowded Room,” lyrically, it does a surprisingly impressive job of creating a brief, evocative image of two people making a connection—whether deeper or simply superficial is never really explored—across a crowded room, and with the way Gomez and her stable of producers allow the song’s legitimate groove run the show, the listener is pulled into this crowded room with Gomez. The nervousness, hopefulness, and excitement that comes from a new relationship is palpable, and the listener watches intently as this connection is made, and this possible romance unfolds, across a crowded room.
3. “In A Stranger’s Arms” by Léon
Released a full eight months in advance of Léon’s sophomore album, Apart, “In A Stranger’s Arms” might not be as grand or bombastic as some of her other material is, but it—tender, pensive, and bittersweet—no less impactful, and in some cases might just be more impactful, and it shows what a thoughtful, vividly lyrical songwriter Leon, born Lotta Lindgren, can be.
There is a very good possibility that I would not have been introduced to Léon at all if hadn’t been for a short, breakroom conversation with a former co-worker1, who I would later discover was making it her mission to tell everyone she could about Léon; I had been pointed in the direction of Lindgren’s 2019 self-titled debut mere weeks before “In A Stranger’s Arms” was issued—a single appearing on her Spotify page, relatively free of context.
A kaleidoscopic, all too brief look at the aftermath of a breakup, the terrifying freedom that comes with that, and the desire to learn to love again, “In A Stranger’s Arms” is built around a quickly plucked acoustic guitar progression that more or less lasts the entirety of the song, creating a rhythm that, at times, is rollicking, and serves as a point of contrast to Lindgren’s dissection of heartbreak and the conflicting emotions that come along with it.
“Weeks go so slow, we haven’t spoken one word,” she begins. “Been an endless summer,” a line, written long before the pandemic summer of 2020, hits a lot differently after the last nine months, and how some of us have had to re-learn how to process the passing of time. Later, in the song’s second verse, the lines that resonated the most with me—“Spending money on things I don’t need…I’m smoking again—I know how much you’d hate it, but you ain’t here to tell me.”
That spirit, though, is juxtaposed against lyrics like “I learned to live alone; my home is not a home—no I don’t feel it on my own,” as well as the song’s sing-a-long ready refrain. “In A Stranger’s Arms” could easily have been written and structured to blast off to enormous heights the way, say, her 2019 single “You and I” does, but smartly, Lindgren plays this one close to the chest—the restraint shown in the instrumentation working in tandem with the self-reflection in the lyrics. With each verse and run through the refrain, a few more musical elements are introduced, including a muted drum beat underneath it all, deep bass line, shimmering synths, and the appearance of an additional guitar line, strummed, with a gauzy effect applied to it.
“Call everyone I know, ‘cause I go off when I’m alone,” Lindgren confesses, playfully and desperately in the song’s first verse. “Just get me drunk and hold me in the sun,” she then asks. Released at a time with the hope of winter receding, and reflecting on it now, with a pandemic winter having not officially even begun, “In A Stranger’s Arms” is warm, technicolor snapshot of a moment when a Venn diagram of emotions converge, forming something undeniably beautiful in the center.
2. “Comeback,” by Carly Rae Jepsen
It says a lot about an artist when a collection of material cut from an album, and released a year later, is as good, and if not better, at times, than the original album itself. I hesitate to say that there are two kinds of, or styles of, songs on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Side B; as a whole, it steers itself away from emotional balladry, and leans heavily into the kind of high energy, brightly colored, wildly fun pop music she has built her post-“Call Me Maybe” career out of.
The album’s centerpiece, the pensive, slow burning “Heartbeat,” is great, but it is not a bop, or a banger; the ferocious, dance floor-ready oscillation of “Stay Away,”2 is also great—it is a bop and an absolute banger, but there is a song buried near the end of Dedicated Side Be that finds the space between the emotion of a ballad and the undeniable groove of a banger—the Jack Antonoff assisted “Comeback.”
Antonoff, responsible for the coyly sensual “Want You in My Room,” from Dedicated, is credited as producing and co-writing two tracks on its companion album, including the bombastic, and ableist, opening track, “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” and “Comeback,” where he is billed as a featured artist under his Bleachers moniker.
Constructed around a bouncing, warm synthesizer that couples perfectly with skittering percussive programming (both of which are unrelenting throughout the song), Jepsen and Antonoff find the place where bittersweet self-reflection, realization, and empowerment all overlap, swirling together into something that is surprisingly heartfelt, infectious, but most importantly, is fun. “Comeback” is a gigantic song—you don’t just want to sing-a-long, but you what to shout, off-key, at the top of your lungs, while driving around with the song on full blast coming from your car’s stereo. And the very enormity of the song doesn’t mask or distract completely from the introspection Jepsen works into the lyrics, but it does take just a moment for the weight of the song, lyrically, to set in, and to fully understand and appreciate the way both elements can complement one another while still slightly contrasting.
That contrast is mirrored in the song’s opening line—“I’m at a war with myself,” Jepsen sings over the song’s relentless rhythm; and, much like the album’s actual ballad, “Heartbeat,” here, she explores the uncertainty of just how much of herself to reveal to someone. “We go back to my place. I take my makeup off—show you my best disguise,” she continues. The tumultuous give and take of the relationship she is outlining returns in the song’s second verse: “All those traveling years, ’til we said our goodbye. And I show up at your place—you don’t even ask me why.” And as the wall of synthesizers continues to grow with the emotion of the song, occasionally exploding around her, by the end, “Comeback” is about an attempt at making as much peace as you can with the past, as well as with yourself within the moment—“I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I believe I was thinking ‘bout making a comeback—back to me.”
Rarely is pop music so gorgeous, emotionally stirring, and fun all in the same instance, but Jepsen, who continually proves herself to be a master of her craft, pulls it off and makes it look absolutely effortless in the process.
1. “Cool” by Dua Lipa
Of all the bops and bangers that make up Dua Lipa’s astoundingly energetic and fun sophomore album Future Nostalgia, “Cool” was, from the moment I first heard it, destined to be my summertime jam for 2020—unfortunately, it was also destined to be the summertime jam for the summer that never was.
A blistering, simmering, bold, and exciting blend of throwback synth-pop, funk, and R&B, organically swirled together within a shimmering, neon drenched atmosphere, the song readies itself to blast off during its smoldering verses, shifts gears dramatically in what the annotation on Genius dubs the ‘pre-chorus,’ and then, as you’d expect, absolutely soars when it hits the enormous, memorable refrain.
The song itself, like so much of Future Nostalgia, and like literally every pop song out there, is about romance—here, Lipa carefully explores the beginning of a new, very sexually charged relationship (“We’ve been up all god damn night,” she states bluntly in the song’s first verse.) The thing that makes “Cool” interesting, or at least sets its apart is the way she expresses the trepidation she is feeling. “Baby I could see us in the real life,” she coos before the refrain hits and she confesses that this person has her losing all her cool—and hints that she knows the relationship might not have the longevity that she’d like it to by stating plainly, “I guess we’re ready for the summer.”
The thing that made “Cool” stand out from the rest of Future Nostalgia, and the thing that made it the clear frontrunner for the ‘Top Bop’ of 2020, even back in March, was the palpable care-free feeling Lipa has packed into the song. For three and a half minutes, she makes it completely okay to let go of everything, and allow yourself—she encourages you, in sense—to become lost in a moment with her, which is what a good pop song should do.
Yes, you can begin to dissect the literal elements that make the song what it is, like the tightly wound bass slaps that come in during the refrain, or the low rumble and finger snaps that arrive right on time as she sings, “And the color of the sky’s looking nice-o-nice—you know, you know, you know,” as “Cool” counts itself down for lift off—but before any of those technical elements that I so often get caught up when writing about music, there’s the feeling.
The feeling that comes over you the first time you hear the song, and every fucking subsequent time after that.
Nine months after the fact, the moment I hear those rolling synths during the intro to “Cool,” I still feel the jolt of excitement I experienced the first time I heard it, and I return to that care-free feeling Lipa wants me to, even as slightly bittersweet it is now tinged because for a song that had us all ready for the summer, all we have, as the song careens toward its sweeping, sudden conclusion, is that summer feeling we’d imagined for ourselves.
1- Shout out to Madeline, who I would have as a guest on an episode of the current (Winter 2020) season of the Podcast.
2- The thing that I absolutely love about “Stay Away” is how it repurposes and reinterprets the lyrics from the song sequentially coming before it on Dedicated Side B, “Felt This Way.” That song is much more tender in comparison; it’s fun and all, and very swoony, but nowhere near the all out banger that “Stay Away” is.