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Heavy Rotation: Public Radio's Most Popular Songs Of 2020

"The Steps" by HAIM lands at No. 9 on public radio's most-played songs of 2020.
Reto Schmid
"The Steps" by HAIM lands at No. 9 on public radio's most-played songs of 2020.

To celebrate the end of this godforsaken year, we are publishing a special edition of Heavy Rotation — our popular, monthly series that features songs public radio can't stop playing. This list of songs is ranked by total plays across various NPR Member stations across the country. Even in a pandemic, public radio endures: Here are the most popular 30 songs from 2020.

You can stream this playlist via Spotify or Apple Music.

30. Low Cut Connie, "Private Lives"

The title track, and one of many highlights on Low Cut Connie's 2020 album, was one of the last songs frontman Adam Weiner wrote for the album. It pulls the sprawling 17-song LP about the private and public lives we lead into a cohesive whole. The song is about the different identities we play in everyday life. "TT's a nanny, but she moves a little weed on the side," sings Weiner, about the duality of the modern-day persona. —Bruce Warren, WXPN

29. Nada Surf, "So Much Love"

Nada Surf burst on the scene 20 years ago and have been creating low-key wonderful music ever since. "So Much Love" is one of those songs that reminds us to appreciate the little things in life. The song avoids being overly sentimental thanks to singer-lyricist Matthew Caws' warm, straightforward approach. "So Much Love" is a song that can lift your spirits at a time when many spirits are in desperate need of lifting. —Benji McPhail, The Colorado Sound

28. Beyoncé, "Black Parade"

"Being Black is your activism. Black excellence is a form of protest. Black joy is your right." In the waning hours of Juneteeth, amidst a year of uncertainty and unrest, Beyoncé released "Black Parade," an anthem of power and pride, a cathartic celebration of the beauty of Blackness and womanhood, a musical benefit with proceeds supporting more than 200 Black-owned small businesses across the world. Receiving the most nominations at the 63rd Grammy Awards (including song of the year and record of the year), "Black Parade" reinforces Beyoncé's status as a cultural icon whose sound and story encourages the best in us all. --Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier

27. Thundercat, "Black Qualls"

When Rolling Stone called him "the jazz fusion genius behind Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly," they sold the bassist and vocalist short. The man called Stephen Bruner on his tax return has plenty of funk in his arsenal, too. But that's not all; the hints of reggae, hip-hop and contemporary R&B here suggest his musicianship is like that of, say, Lin Manuel Miranda's — possessed of exhaustive idiomatic fluency. His partnership with Gen-Z guitarist Steve Lacy, oft-sampled '80s R&B vocalist Steve Arrington, and the similarly infinitely versatile Childish Gambino speaks to an aversion to classification and a commitment to trans-generational music. —Matt Silver, WRTI

26. Black Pumas, "Fire"

The Grammys have been criticized for getting it wrong and overlooking amazing musicians to award popular artists who possess good marketing. But this year, they actually got it right when they nominated Black Pumas for album of the year, record of the year, and best American roots performance. And one song exemplifies why this Austin-based psychedelic soul band deserves these nominations: "Fire." The mix of horns and the amazing guitar with the piercing, soulful voice of Eric Burton is simply hypnotic. During the slightly more than four minutes of this song, you just might (briefly) forget about how horrible this year was. —Tarik Moody, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee

25. Childish Gambino, "Algorhythm"

"Algorhythm" by Childish Gambino dropped right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit American shores. Its post-modern message — lamenting society's addiction to constant digital communication — proved prophetic, as so many of us began to quell quarantine-induced pangs of isolation with increased screen time. Between Web 1.0 bleeps and glitches and an irresistible hook cribbed from Zhané's 1993 hit "Hey Mr. DJ," Gambino posits what part of our humanity we might be giving up when we surrender to "the algorhythm." —Ayana Contreras, Vocalo

24. Pearl Jam, "Dance Of The Clairvoyants"

"Dance of the Clairvoyants" may have provided one of the year's biggest stylistic surprises. On the lead track from Gigaton — the band's first studio album in seven years — Pearl Jam reaches back to its cerebral rock foundations while taking a dauntless step forward. Eddie Vedder punctuates the philosophical, creating a bedrock of mysticism over covertly jubilant funk and electronic rhythms. —Michelle Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge

23. Katie Pruitt, "Expectations"

Although Expectations is the debut album from Nashville-based artist Katie Pruitt, it brims with an emotional maturity typical of a late-career offering from a veteran artist. On the title track, Pruitt uses her signature cadence and grit to craft a soaring anthem about eschewing societal norms and living one's truth. —Desiré Moses, WNRN

22. Michael Franti & Spearhead, "I Got You"

"We can dance like nobody is watching": Michael Franti's infectious groove is unmistakable. From the opening chords to the percolating rhythm, it's easy to get caught up in the positivity that he exudes — just watch the video. When you are feeling down, drop the needle on a Michael Franti record, and you'll start smiling, dancing, and soon, the world might appear a little bit better. Give it a try. —Chris Wienk, WEXT

21. Sonny Landreth, "Blacktop Run"

Super-hero guitarist Sonny Landreth sings that the wind at his back can be "like the friend I need / to keep pushing me" ... which must be an easily relatable sentiment with musicians (and music lovers) who weren't able to travel this year. A perfect driving song, "Blacktop Run" unfolds quickly with Landreth's resonator guitar securely fastened to a meditative beat that feels like setting the cruise control to soak up the scenery. —Adam Harris, Mountain Stage

20. Tennis, "Need Your Love"

On first blush, "Need Your Love" is characteristic of the chic vintage pop we've come to know and adore from Tennis. But digging through the song's meticulous tonal and tempo shifts, you'll uncover the duo's most complex song to date. Alaina Moore's voice glides over mercurial reflections of destructive relationships and the pains of liberating from them — catharsis at its catchiest. —Michelle Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge

19. Devon Gilfillian, "Unchained"

With 2020 constantly setting up one hurdle after another, it's not surprising that one of this year's best tracks is about finding strength and overcoming life's obstacles. The soulful, anthemic and inspiring "Unchained" deals with setbacks and growth, and the powerful video follows Devon's younger brother, Ryan, through a day in his life, after being left disabled from the waist down due to a car accident. —Kyle Smith, WYEP

18. Laura Marling, "Held Down"

If there's a song that can be categorized "shoegazey folk," it's "Held Down," a song Marling told Apple Music was "about two people trying to figure out how to not let themselves get in the way of each other." With an unadorned and wistful chord structure, there's plenty of spellbinding beauty to be heard here. —Bruce Warren, WXPN

17. Lianne La Havas, "Can't Fight"

Songs describing break ups are nothing new. If done well, they can last for generations. But songs showcasing the struggles about the in-between time, when relationships start to fray, is a tightrope. On "Can't Fight," Lianne La Havas manages to carry us across that tightrope, ensuring we don't fall into an abyss of melancholy or dread. Or even worse, clichés. Her lyrics, hooks and grooves — reminiscent of Prince — keep us centered and hopeful. —Ian Stewart, VPM

16. Perfume Genius, "On The Floor"

The torment of longing and desire bordering on obsession and fixation drive the narrative of Perfume Genius' "On the Floor." As with many of the greatest pop songs, this dark undercurrent is obscured by sugar sweet melodies and hooks galore, but in this song, the torment is reinforced by the propulsive, churning, grind of the groove and Mike Hadreas' lilting vocals, making it irresistible. —Kevin Cole, KEXP

15. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, "Be Afraid"

Jason Isbell came out swinging in 2020 with a handful of public radio hits, but this was the most popular of the bunch. "Be Afraid" opens with relentless guitar before launching into Isbell's inspirational piece of advice: "Be very afraid / Do it anyway." —Benji McPhail, The Colorado Sound

14. Nicole Atkins, "Domino"

Nicole Atkins gave us a 2020 pick-me-up with "Domino." Although her pre-pandemic lyrics — "I don't wanna play safe and sound, when the world comes tumbling, tumbling down" — now leave themselves open to a different interpretation, the band's rhythm section still has an undeniable groove that merges modern disco with funk. It's perfect for any stay-at-home dance party. —Amy Miller, KXT

13. Mt. Joy, "Strangers"

Sophomore releases that follow great debuts are often met with unforgiving fans. Thankfully, Mt. Joy got their second album, Rearrange Us, right, building on the songwriting, playing, and production qualities of their debut. Case in point is "Strangers," a breakup-heartbreak song that is optimistic, loose and nostalgic, with a memorable, sharp hook. —Bruce Warren, WXPN

12. EOB, "Shangri-La"

Ed O'Brien, the unsung hero and guitarist from Radiohead, began work on his first solo album by moving to Brazil in 2013. The single "Shangri-La" starts out as a quirky, spacey cut. It's filled with pleasing electro beats, hand shakers, quirky loops, and a familiar wispy vocal style that eventually transforms into a full-on memorable rocker. It might be one of the best opening tracks on a 2020 album, and definitely one of this year's top singles. —Kyle Smith, WYEP

11. Khruangbin & Leon Bridges, "Texas Sun"

"Texas Sun" is a dream match-up between two Lone Star State heavyweights: Leon Bridges and Khruangbin. On the laid-back track, the psych-rock trio's stoner-y instrumentation picks up a country twang courtesy of a swaying slide-guitar melody. Khruangbin typically prioritizes vintage vibes over strong vocals, but Bridges' confident, pleasantly husky voice complements them with its richness. It's a perfect song for rolling down the windows and hitting the big, open highway. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED

10. Soccer Mommy, "circle the drain"

Staying true to its name, Nashville-based Soccer Mommy's sophomore disc, color theory, uses the emotional associations of blue, yellow and grey to conjure up feelings and memories in the artist's own life. The result is a deeply personal but simultaneously universal collection of songs that harken back to flavors of '90s alt-rock. On the jangly standout track, "circle the drain," Sophie Allison sings, "Split open, watching my heart go round and around / Circle the drain, I'm going down," which is a sentiment that's all-too-familiar in the wake of 2020. —Desiré Moses, WNRN

9. HAIM, "The Steps"

The sisters of HAIM have a knack for crafting fresh rock music that masquerades as pop. Their musicality is unmatched and their approach always seems to be concerning the past and an eye toward the future. "The Steps," from their great 2020 release Women in Music, Pt. III, is a song we couldn't play enough on WFUV. —Russ Borris, WFUV

8. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, "Temple"

Written from the perspective of bandleader Thao Nguyen's mother, a Vietnam War refugee who resettled in the United States after the fall of Saigon, "Temple" is a vivid and highly personal retelling of familial tragedy, loss and perseverance. A dirty blues guitar riff kicks off the song before giving way to a sleek bass-driven dance beat, which Nguyen uses as the backbone to tell her story and remind us all of fundamental freedoms often taken for granted. —Jerad Walker, OPB

7. Waxahatchee, "Lilacs"

I think "Lilacs," like much of Saint Cloud, is about accepting who you are instead of changing and expecting someone else. In this case, the result is a rare, true expression of the self that you don't hear all that much on the radio. It's unapologetically Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee Creek, Alabama. "If I'm a broken record, write it in the dust, babe." —Justin Barney, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee

6. Caroline Rose, "Feel The Way I Want"

Caroline Rose has always played by her own rules. From her off-kilter stage banter to her affinity for the color red, she's made a name for herself over the past four years with her unique blend of musical prowess and humor. Her latest concept record, SUPERSTAR, is no exception; It's a character study of fame that's not lacking irony. On the synth-laden "Feel The Way I Want," Rose pivots firmly into pop territory, taking a wry look at the ups and downs of an artist's pursuit of success. —Desiré Moses, WNRN

5. Tame Impala, "Lost in Yesterday"

Issued as a single just after January's first week, "Lost in Yesterday" almost seemed to presage the mass destabilization and carpet-pull of certainty that would show up right after The Slow Rush came out. But given the melancholy and nostalgia heard across Tame Impala's discography, it came as no surprise to hear yet another effects-drenched record that masquerades with a sanguine pop-rock visage, obscuring those sneaky, sinister subtleties orchestrated by Impala's auteur, Kevin Parker. —Jack Anderson, KUTX

4. Chicano Batman, "Color my life"

This L.A. quartet's been venturing further and further away from the minimalist bilingual Latin psychedelia that defined their eponymous 2010 debut. And when they dropped their fourth LP, Invisible People, this past May, it became clear that Chicano Batman had found a comfy new cave of synth-heavy, indie pop-rock arrangements. They still keep their psych-funk roots on the sonar, with a seductive and liquid sound that both calms and pings, especially on "Color my life." —Jack Anderson, KUTX

3. Phoebe Bridgers, "Kyoto"

Phoebe Bridgers wrote "Kyoto" as a ballad, but turned it into a rock song. She wanted to make a video in Japan, but settled for a green screen performance. Like so much of 2020, we've had to quickly adapt to circumstances and diminished expectations. The sunny horn-driven '90s indie sound of "Kyoto" belies lyrics of distrust and anxiety. The song encapsulates that feeling of disappointed yet hopeful so well, and that's why it was one of WFUV's favorites this year. —Eric Gottlieb, WFUV

2. The Strokes, "Bad Decisions"

Helping us thrash out the angst of 2020, and cutting us some slack on adapting to life in the "new abnormal" (coincidentally, the title of The Strokes' April release), "Bad Decisions" was a taste of the energy and fervor we'd been sorely missing since 2013. And much to the joy of the Gen X'ers in the house, that loving nod to "Dancing With Myself" culminated in a songwriting credit for Billy Idol and guitarist Tony James. —Gini Mascorro, KXT

1. Nathaniel Rateliff, "And It's Still Alright"

Transitioning with grace is a lesson we have all confronted this year. Nathaniel Rateliff took a turn from the muscular R&B his Night Sweats are known for to bring us a sweet introspective moment on "And It's Still Alright." Of course, Rateliff could not have predicted that his internal musing zig would be matched by a once-in-a-lifetime societal zag, making this song even more of the moment. —Jessie Scott, WMOT

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.