- 2020 was peppered with career highlights from beloved artists like Taylor Swift ("August," "Tolerate It"), Halsey ("3am"), and BTS ("Black Swan").
- But other artists — including Justin Bieber ("Yummy," "Running Over"), 6ix9ine ("Gooba"), Katy Perry ("Smile"), and Tory Lanez ("Money Over Fallouts") — released some of the worst songs in recent memory.
- Insider rounded up the 10 best and 10 worst of the year, with each batch listed in chronological order.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
The musical merits of 2020 have been widely discussed, debated, and dissected — but the other end of the spectrum cannot be ignored.
Many beloved artists released career-topping songs this year, from stirring ballads to pop bangers. But music lovers were also subjected to singles that were boring, cringeworthy, or even downright offensive.
Keep reading for Insider's roundup of 2020's highs and lows in chronological order, starting with the very best.
Click here to see our full ranking of the year's 30 best songs.
"Black Swan" is BTS' greatest artistic triumph to date.
BTS scored two No. 1 hits this year with "Dynamite" and "Life Goes On."
But "Black Swan," released way back in January, remains the group's most fascinating single yet.
The lush, theatrical song sees the septet grappling with self-doubt and fear. And this contrast, between production and lyrical delivery, is stunning. It manages to communicate a hard-won, emotional triumph that transcends language or even musical taste.
Halsey's "3am" pulses with both brilliance and petulance.
Halsey's pouty vocal delivery, self-aware lyricism, and affinity for emo rock flourishes make "3am" the most thrilling song on "Manic" — her most honest and arguably best album yet.
Halsey doesn't sacrifice moonlit confessionals and late-night attention cravings to achieve a more pop-friendly sheen. Rather, she embraces those jagged edges.
"3am" is full of deceptively simple couplets, like, "My insecurities are hurting me / Someone please come and flirt with me," sneakily capturing an entire facet of the human experience in one breath.
"People, I've Been Sad" by Christine and the Queens is sparkly, sophisticated, and painfully relatable.
Héloïse Letissier, known professionally as Christine and the Queens, covers the entire spectrum of loss and loneliness in just a few simple stanzas. Sad, gone, and missing out — "you know the feeling."
Letissier's pain — and, by extension, ours — is transformed into a shimmering vision of acceptance and solidarity.
"XS" by Rina Sawayama is a sarcastic stroke of genius.
"XS" manages to be both catchy and damning. Rina Sawayama sings about impossibly heavy fare like overconsumption and human extinction, but somehow coaxes you to sing along.
The irresistible production reflects the ingenious lyrics. Both indict the listener for buying in.
"'XS' is a song that mocks capitalism in a sinking world," she explained in a statement. "We're all hypocrites because we are all capitalists, and it's a trap that I don't see us getting out of. I wanted to reflect the chaos of this post-truth climate change denying world in the metal guitar stabs that flare up like an underlying zit between the 2000s R&B beat that reminds you of a time when everything was alright."
"Heavy Balloon" is the centerpiece of Fiona Apple's extraordinary album.
"Fetch the Bolt Cutters" is best consumed as a whole, but "Heavy Balloon" is a standout moment of catharsis and triumph. The chorus is so good that I want to get a tattoo of strawberries, peas, and beans on my chest.
The song is about depression, yes, but it's also about defying depression. Apple doesn't scratch and claw her way out; she swells and erupts. She clamors for her own salvation. It's anti-graceful by design.
Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé are a perfect, inimitable pair on "Savage Remix."
The inventor of the "Name a more iconic duo, I'll wait" meme must have been a time traveler, because it was surely invented for Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé.
This is one of those rare times that an excellent song was remixed and actually improved.
In fact, "Savage Remix" works so incredibly well because neither woman is trying to out-rap or out-sing her counterpart (As Beyoncé herself says, "I'm a bad bitch, she's a savage, no comparison here").
"Rain on Me" by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande is a therapeutic banger.
"Rain on Me" is an impeccable pop song — but it's also an ode to sisterhood and resilience.
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande are two women who have been through a lot. They can handle a bit of rain. But they've also described making "Rain on Me" as a bonding, healing experience.
The song is distinctly unselfish, with each artist and her prodigious voice gleefully making space for the other.
"Save Myself" is a captivating piece of storytelling.
After the runaway success of "Moral of the Story" — Ashe's breakout hit, wherein she calmly takes stock of a disastrous divorce — the glorious immaturity of "Save Myself" hits even harder.
Ashe's lyrics are knifelike; deceptively simple, yet sharp and cutting. She details her refusal to recognize red flags; fumes that she squandered her youth for an unworthy man.
Contrasted with her fairylike voice, the effect is intoxicating. She even lets out a primal howl in the bridge, noises crashing around her like a palace that lost its foundation.
"August" by Taylor Swift is a perfect song.
"So what makes this Taylor Swift's best album? It isn't just 'August,'" Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone's resident Swift scholar, previously wrote about "Folklore."
"It's the way the songs keep giving up new secrets the longer you live with them," he continued, before circling back: "But more than anything, it's the giddy moment at the end of 'August,' when it sounds like the song is over, and you think she's finally going to drive away with her head held high, but she circles back for just one more 'Get in the car!' OK, fine — maybe it is 'August.'"
Swift's "Tolerate It" is a heartbreaking masterpiece.
"Tolerate It" was released less than one month ago and it's already one of my favorite Swift songs of all time. It hurts me in ways I had forgotten I could be hurt.
The song's quiet, simmering passion is poignant enough. I can see the narrator as clearly as I might see an actor onstage: glancing up from her book to watch her partner read, polishing plates in the kitchen, setting the table for a romantic dinner. You can feel her slowly going mad.
But in classic Swiftian fashion, she does not settle for the subtle genius, crafting a crescendo-like bridge that falls into the ferocious final chorus.
"What would you do if I / Break free and leave us in ruins? / Took this dagger in me and removed it? / Gain the weight of you and lose it / Believe me, I could do it," she cries out, making her pain more palpable than ever.
But the fury isn't enough to defeat the devotion. "Tolerate It" ends with retreat and quiet resignation: "I sit and watch you." It's the kind of emotional kill shot that Swift does better than anyone else.
Justin Bieber releasing "Yummy" was the first sign that 2020 would be an awful year.
If "Yummy" was the best Justin Bieber could come up with — for his post-"Purpose" comeback single, no less — we should've known that we were in for 12 months of pure struggle.
Any song that hinges on the phrase "Yeah you got that / Yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy" is a song better left unheard.
And "Yummy" was a bad song that just kept getting worse.
There was the "Summer Walker Remix," which rudely dragged Summer Walker into this mess. Then, there was the "Country Remix," which was just mortifying. And Bieber's shameless promotional tactics did not exactly sow confidence.
"Unaccommodating" by Eminem, featuring Young M.A., is lyrically appalling.
Eminem has never been one for sensitivity, but most everyone agreed that "Unaccommodating" took it too far.
In the second track on his surprise album, "Music to be Murdered By," Eminem compares himself to terrorists like Osama Bin Laden and Salman Ramadan Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people at Ariana Grande's 2017 Manchester concert. Many of the victims were children.
"I'm contemplating yelling 'bombs away' on the game / Like I'm outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting," he raps.
He previously made light of the deadly attack during a freestyle battle back in 2018, during which he also referenced "an Islamic regime." You'd think if Eminem was going to write a set of lyrics so deeply grotesque and cruel, he could at least be original.
"Unaccommodating" also includes such lyrical gems as "Real, real, real, murder, murder, murder, kill, kill, kill" and a line that uses the R-word.
After a career ripe with violent lyrics and controversy, the 48-year-old rapper still thinks it's cool and edgy to be proudly indifferent to the suffering of others.
Bieber's "Running Over" is vandalized by Lil Dicky.
"Running Over" is the eighth track on "Changes," a profoundly repetitive album with no real standout moments.
As he does throughout the tracklist, Bieber presents a desperate (and somewhat toxic) vision of love, mostly by stringing together half-baked lyrics that awkwardly rhyme words like "personality," "tragedy," and "anatomy."
For the most part, this song is much of the same — until the third verse, helmed by Lil Dicky, who drags the song from "eh" to "worst of the year" territory.
Lil Dicky's verse is full of lazy punchlines like "Post intercourse when you walk by (Ass, ass, ass) / More buns than a Shop Rite (Woah)." If it's supposed to be funny or endearing, it isn't. It's just cringeworthy.
6ix9ine is a bad rapper and "Gooba" is a bad song.
6ix9ine was furious that "Gooba" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it's frankly a disgrace that it landed on the chart at all.
The rapper — sometimes known as Tekashi 6ix9ine, or by his real name, Daniel Hernandez — has somehow built a career on his rainbow aesthetics, asinine antics, and abrasive rapping, which is not to say he makes good music.
In keeping with his entire discography, "Gooba" is a deeply unpleasant listening experience. It's not catchy or clever. And it's certainly not good or interesting enough to distract from 6ix9ine's alleged history of domestic violence and pedophilia.
Tones And I strikes a condescending tone with "Ur So F**king Cool."
"Ur So F**king Cool" tries to be shrewd and perceptive like other beloved outsider anthems, including Lorde's "Royals" or perhaps Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy."
But instead, the lyrics mostly feel condescending and bitter. Tones And I indicts everyone around her for being fake and overly confident, but displays little self-awareness outside of a stubborn belief that she's not like other girls, or whatever.
Outside of the lyrics, the song itself is similarly grating. The dubstep-esque production feels outdated, and the vocals overwrought.
J. Cole missed the mark with "Snow On Tha Bluff."
J. Cole surprise-released "Snow On Tha Bluff" in June, apparently in response to Noname, a 28-year-old Chicago rapper who called out high-profile rappers for their silence following the murder of George Floyd.
So basically, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and a nationwide reckoning with racism, J. Cole decided he'd direct his ire towards a thoughtful and outspoken Black woman, who may or may not have vaguely criticized him.
"Snow On Tha Bluff" reeks of projection and misogyny. In accusing Noname of using a "queen tone" — acting "holier" than others, and not exercising enough "patience" when discussing social issues — Cole just comes off as defensive and insecure that she's smarter than him.
Katy Perry's "Smile" is unbearably corny.
"Smile" does not sound like the title track for a new album by Katy Perry, the same woman who brought us "Teenage Dream."
No, "Smile" sounds more like a close relative of "Baby Shark," or a single for the soundtrack of a children's movie — though that's hardly an excuse for poor quality, considering "Can't Stop the Feeling!" is a banger.
I can't imagine that any self-respecting adult would voluntarily listen to this song unless they were trying to entertain young kids at a clown-themed birthday party.
Tory Lanez's "Money Over Fallouts" is grossly exploitative and self-pitying.
"Money Over Fallouts" is ostensibly a response to Megan Thee Stallion, who named Tory Lanez as her assailant after she was shot in both her feet. Megan has since described the violent July incident as "the worst experience of my life." (Lanez's team has denied he shot her.)
The song opens Lanez's surprise fifth album with a montage of audio clips, including media coverage of Megan's assault — and even a snippet of Megan defending herself, after she was accused of lying about her own injuries.
The intro ends with two clips: "Guess who I believe? Megan," and "The best thing for Tory Lanez is, for real, he needs to just be gone."
I guess I'm supposed to go into this song feeling that Lanez has been maligned or something, but this is so grossly exploitative that it makes me even less inclined to hear his perspective.
"Money Over Fallouts" marked the first time Lanez had addressed the shooting in any way, and all he really offers is that Megan's team is trying to "frame" him. He spends the entire song begging for unearned pity. It's all Kehlani doesn't like me anymore, I'm 5'7" not 5'3" — all me me me, when yet another Black woman has been traumatized.
"Lil Pimp Big MAGA Steppin" by Lil Pump would be funny if it wasn't so embarrassing.
I can't imagine what compelled Lil Pump to fully simp for Donald Trump — especially after he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden — but I guess it's 2020 and this is just the kind of thing that happens now.
To be fair, I don't expect much from the "Gucci Gang" rapper, but "Big MAGA Steppin" is a new low. "F— a bad b—- send her back to ISIS" is an actual lyric he actually says.
"One Whole Day" by Dixie D'Amelio, featuring Wiz Khalifa, sounds like a parody of a real song.
"One Whole Day" has big "Friday" vibes, except it's not nearly as catchy as Rebecca Black's viral hit.
Also, 13-year-old Black didn't record "Friday" with any intention for it to be heard by the masses, whereas Dixie D'Amelio is a TikTok star with nearly 50 million followers. She clearly wants her music to be heard and taken seriously. "One Whole Day" even boasts a feature from Wiz Khalifa.
Keeping all that in mind, how is "One Whole Day" a real song?
The chorus literally sounds like a parody written by a goofy YouTuber, and it's even worse when you see it in print: "For one day, one day / I was really, really, really, really sad / For one day, one whole day / I missed you really, really, really, really bad." Eek.
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