In compiling my “Best 50 Tracks of 2020” list, I am reminded of just how remarkable so many of the backing tracks on records seem to be these days. As digital music-making tools become ever more sophisticated, affordable and ubiquitous, there are seemingly legions of talented producers and deejays out there who employ these tools to create brilliant, shiny, catchy tracks. I lead off my essay with this observation for a specific reason: In the past, there were also a lot of great sounding tracks—probably far fewer than today, because the technology was not as readily available—but those tracks never achieved prominence unless they were married to a strong song. In other words, fresh beats were necessary, but not sufficient. You still needed some combination of a strong melody and/or lyric to actually have a hit. Not in 2020. I’ll circle back to this point, so please stick with me here.
In last year’s essay, I discussed the ever-evolving functions of popular music, noting that music has historically served such functions as “To move the plot along in a musical, to stir the idealism of a crowd at a protest rally, to add emotion to a film scene, to dance to, to soothe, to sell a product, to liven up a video game, etc.” Over the past few years, it became clear that a new function had arisen: Music as the soundtrack to “memes, videos, viral stunts, what have you.” And in those cases, the audience got to be a part of the product. In 2020, that function was largely expressed on TikTok. And the audience wasn’t just part of the product, it was the star.
Remarkably, the use of pop songs on TikTok is not limited to the main hook of a song, or even to a section of the lyrics. Any part of a song—the 2nd verse, the instrumental break after the chorus, anything at all—can serve as a popular TikTok sound. With increasing frequency in 2020, these popular TikTok sounds translated into big mainstream successes.
And that brings me back to the original point I was tying to make about the centrality of hooky electronic tracks to modern pop. While just about all the best records of the year have, as their basis, absolutely awesome instrumental tracks, in 2020 it was often sufficient to release a hooky instrumental track and then see that track pop up as a viral sound on TikTok. No top-line melody or vocals needed.
Now, TikTok has the ability to popularize a piece of music in ways that are faster and more global than any previous means of transmission. Hit TikTok sounds can become instantly ubiquitous; suddenly everybody is dancing to the same beat—literally.
But to take that track wider—to get it on the bigger DSP playlists or maybe even pop radio—a “real” song is still necessary, and so 2020 found TikTok instrumental tracks morphing actual songs—with lyrics nd top-line melodies—that the “mainstream” gatekeepers couldn’t dismiss.
Undoubtedly the most successful example of this musical journey in 2020 was “Laxed—Siren Beat”, by New Zealand’s Jawsh 685. An extremely catchy sunshine reggae-ish instrumental, it became a viral TikTok sensation early in the year. Then, American R&B singer Jason Derulo jumped on the track without authorization, teasing the TikTok crowd with his vocal recording “Savage Love (Laxed—Siren Beat)”. After some legal wrangling, Derulo’s version obtained a proper release and began its climb at pop radio and the pop DSP playlists. And then, timed perfectly to put it over the top, Derulo’s reworking of the track was itself remixed, this time with additional vocals contributed by the Korean boy band BTS. All of this cross-continental pollination resulted in a Billboard Hot 100 number one–and may well have paved the way for how many more future hits will be gestated.
I vastly prefer the original Jaswh 685 instrumental to the Derulo remix, and it does appear on my top 50 list. However, my number one song of the year is a multi-genre mixture of a different sort—“Be Like That” by country singer Kane Brown, featuring rapper/singer Swae Lee and pop/R&B star Khalid. While it’s tempting to refer to “Be Like That” as a country/hip-hop/R&B hybrid, the truth is, it’s a pure pop record. Kane Brown has been overtly flirting with pop for a while, and the only thing remotely country about this record is Browns vocal inflection. Not surprisingly, it’s the first Kane Brown hit to NOT chart on country radio. Regardless of what genre it is, “Be Like That” is a terrific record.
Of course, the top spot on my list could easily have gone to Childish Gambino, SAYGRACE, or even Crimmy Banks’ self-released “Read Reciept”, which Spotify kindly informed me was my most listened-to track this year. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll remember 2020 as “the year of Crimmy Banks,” but who am I to argue with the data?
As for 2021, look for the type of song snippets now associated with TikTok and Instagram to be used in all sorts of new ways, as the notion of “music as a feature” takes hold in the industry. Photo sharing apps, dating apps, keyboards, messaging, etc. etc. will increasingly incorporate music clips, as the the biz looks for a new growth areas once streaming revenue plateaus. One might not have predicted that 2020 would prominently feature popularizing dissected sections of instrumental tracks, only to see them rebuilt as Top 40 hits after a visit to the plastic surgeon. As always, the forms and functions of pop music continue to evolve.
Here are my 50 Favorite Tracks of 2020. As always, I do not feature tracks on our S-Curve label within my Top 50 list, but down at the end of the playlist (after the Jawsh 685 record) you’ll find ten of the best tracks that S-Curve had to offer this year, including AJR’s monster hit “Bang!”, Conkarah’s massive TikTok sound-turned-pop-hit “Banana” and much more.
Below my list, you’ll find another Spotify playlist with the (far superior) Best Of 2020 choices of Abigail Sylvor Greenberg. I hope you enjoy that list, as well!
Here’s to a better 2021 for us all,