Top 100 Songs of 2020

It goes without saying that 2020 turned out to be a year for the record books on so many levels. It started out well enough, but quickly went to hell beginning in March as the Covid-19 virus spread throughout the world, causing a global pandemic that resulted in a shut down of many countries’ economies, and nearly 1.8 million deaths as I write this at the end of the year. One of the hardest-hit sectors has been the music industry, particularly live music, which in these days of unlimited streaming, most musicians count on to make a living and promote their music. On the plus side – if there was one – many musicians had more time to write and record new music, blessing us with some really stellar works. The Rolling Stones used the lockdown to put out their previously-written but timely “Living in a Ghost Town”, their first new single in four years, while AC/DC thrilled fans with their surprise release of Power Up, their first new album in six years. The Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney also released new albums.

Like with every year, in 2020 we had to say goodbye to far too many legendary musicians – something that seems to be happening with greater frequency as music icons we grew up with pass away primarily due to having reached old age. Some of the notable passings included Bill Withers, Little Richard, Peter Green, Eddie Van Halen, Spencer Davis, Neil Peart, Kenny Rogers, Helen Reddy, Bonnie Pointer, Mac Davis, Ennio Morricone, Johnny Nash, Jerry Jeff Walker and Chad Stuart (of Chad & Jeremy). Sadly, we also lost John Prine, Charley Pride and Trini Lopez due to complications from Covid-19.

As a music blogger, I receive a lot of submissions from artists, PR reps and labels wanting me to review their music. I also follow a large number of music blogs, where I learn about music, and as a result, end up listening to a tremendous amount of new music over the course of a year. That said, I know I’ve heard only a fraction of all the singles and albums released in 2020. Some of the standout albums I had the pleasure of hearing were Taylor Swift’s Folklore, Run the Jewels’ RTJ4, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, The Killers’ Imploding the Mirage, Tame Impala’s Slow Rush, Fontaines D.C.’s A Hero’s Death, Fleet Foxes’ Shore, Two Feet’s Pink, Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III, Bryde’s The Volume of Things, Kidsmoke’s A Vision in the Dark, Surrija’s brilliant eponymous album Surrija, and MISSIO’s Can You Feel the Sun. (The albums I reviewed are highlighted in blue, and if you click on those titles it will take you to my review.)

One of my favorite music genres is Dream Pop & Rock, which seems to be undergoing a major surge in recent years. The genre was well-represented in 2020 by numerous stellar songs, including “Are You Bored Yet?” by Wallows ft. Clairo, “Can I Call You Tonight?” by Dayglow, “White Lies & Palm Trees” by The Lovepools, “Lost in Yesterday” and “Is It True” by Tame Impala, “Can I Believe You” by Fleet Foxes, “Downs” by Roadkeeper, “Fire For You” by Cannons, and the entire aforementioned album by Kidsmoke. 

Obviously, my list of the Top 100 Songs of 2020 includes only songs I know. I’m certain there are likely other great ones that should be on this list, except that I’ve never heard them. Still, among the thousands of songs I did hear in 2020, there were many outstanding ones, and it frustrates me to have to cull my favorites down to only 100, omitting scores of tracks I really like and wanted to include. Furthermore, a song at #40 isn’t necessarily better than one at #60, but I had to rank them somehow.

Our music tastes are very subjective, so it’s guaranteed that not a single person reading this will agree with my song choices or their rankings. My list contains my favorite songs of the year, not necessarily songs that were ‘popular’ or influential. I’m now late middle-aged, so my song picks are going to reflect that, though I do still have my guilty pleasures.

Many bloggers and critics list songs in the year they were released, while Billboard and other charts generally place them in the year they were ‘hits,’ which is what I prefer. Many of the songs on this list were released in 2020, however, a number of them were released in 2019. Absofacto’s “Dissolve” was originally released in 2015, but didn’t chart until 2019. Because there are always a few songs that overlap from one year to the next, like Billboard, I include those songs on lists for both years if they spent enough time on the charts in each year. I always wrestle with how to rank them, as well as whether to list them in only one year or two. For example, Two Feet’s “You?” was #1 during the final week of 2019, and the first four weeks of 2020, so it would seem only fair to include it on the lists for both years. That song ranked #18 on my Top 100 of 2019, and ranks #3 on this year’s list. I suppose that at the end of the day it’s all silliness, but this is the way I choose to do it. The songs in this Top 100 that also appeared in my Top 100 Songs of 2019 are indicated with an asterisk *.

For previous years’ Top 100 lists, I wrote little pieces for each of the top 20 songs, as well as embedded their YouTube videos, then simply listed the remaining 80. That always left me feeling a little bad for those 80 songs, as it made them seem like afterthoughts, which was certainly not the case. For this year’s list, partly out of fairness, and partly to save myself huge amounts of time, effort and stress, I’ve decided to forego with the individual descriptions and videos, and simply list the entire 100 songs.

As always, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for this list, which is included at the end of the post. Hopefully you’ll find some of your own personal favorites on it. Let me know what songs were your favorites of 2020.

  1. BLINDING LIGHTS – The Weeknd
  2. LEVEL OF CONCERN – twenty øne piløts
  3. YOU? – Two Feet *
  4. CAUTION – The Killers
  5. HALLUCINOGENICS – Matt Maeson
  6. FEEL YOU – My Morning Jacket
  7. EVERYTHING I WANTED – Billie Eilish
  8. HELL N BACK – Bakar
  9. DON’T START NOW – Dua Lipa
  10. MARIA – Two Feet
  11. BLACK & WHITE LOVE – Beating Hearts Club
  12. MIGHT BE RIGHT – White Reaper *
  13. ARE YOU BORED YET? – Wallows featuring Clairo
  14. IS IT TRUE – Tame Impala
  15. DOWNS – Roadkeeper
  16. HOW WILL I REST IN PEACE IF I’M BURIED BY A HIGHWAY?// – Kenny Hoopla
  17. CAN I CALL YOU TONIGHT? – Dayglow
  18. WHITE LIES & PALM TREES – The Lovepools *
  19. MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING – The Killers
  20. IF NOT FOR THE FIRE – The Million Reasons
  21. IT’S YOU – The Frontier
  22. LOST IN YESTERDAY – Tame Impala
  23. MARIPOSA – Peach Tree Rascals
  24. CAN I BELIEVE YOU – Fleet Foxes
  25. MONSTERS – All Time Low featuring blackbear
  26. BLOODY VALENTINE – Machine Gun Kelly
  27. NOVOCAINE – The Unlikely Candidates *
  28. BLACK MADONNA – Cage the Elephant
  29. USED TO LIKE – Neon Trees
  30. WARS – Of Monsters and Men
  31. CARDIGAN – Taylor Swift
  32. ORPHANS – Coldplay
  33. LEMON DROP – Absofacto
  34. THE BEST – AWOLNATION
  35. DISSOLVE – Absofacto *
  36. HONEYBEE – The Head and the Heart
  37. ADORE YOU – Harry Styles
  38. YOUR LOVE (DÉJÀ VU) – Glass Animals
  39. VISITOR – Of Monsters and Men
  40. MOOD – 24kGoldn featuring iann dior
  41. DELETER – Grouplove
  42. PSYCH FILM – Strangely Alright
  43. SOMEONE ELSE – Rezz & Grabbitz
  44. A HERO’S DEATH – Fontaines D.C.
  45. DANCE OF THE CLAIRVOYANTS – Pearl Jam
  46. BAD DECISIONS – The Strokes
  47. LOVE YOU FOR A LONG TIME – Maggie Rogers
  48. THE RUNNER – Foals
  49. VIRUS – Vanity Fear
  50. REWARD – Paul Iwan *
  51. THINK I’M CRAZY – Two Feet
  52. SHINE A LITTLE LIGHT – Black Keys
  53. 2ALL – Catfish and the Bottlemen
  54. VAN HORN – Saint Motel
  55. LIFE IN THE CITY – The Lumineers
  56. IDENTICAL – Phoenix
  57. GIANTS – Dermot Kennedy
  58. FIRE – Black Pumas
  59. LAY YOUR HEAD ON ME – Major Lazer featuring Marcus Mumford & Diplo
  60. OH YEAH! – Green Day
  61. UNEVENTFUL DAYS – Beck
  62. COME & GO – Juice WRLD & Marshmello
  63. BLIND LEADING THE BLIND – Mumford & Sons
  64. HOODIE UP – MISSIO
  65. HERO – Michael Kiwanuka
  66. PARADISE – Creeper
  67. WATERMELON SUGAR – Harry Styles
  68. UNCHAINED – Devon Gilfillian
  69. EXPECTATIONS – Katie Pruitt
  70. FIRE FOR YOU – Cannons
  71. HEAVEN IS HEART – Jaded Jane
  72. TEXAS SUN – Khruangbin featuring Leon Bridges
  73. OVER AND OVER – Amongst Liars
  74. HONEY – King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
  75. LIVING IN A GHOST TOWN – The Rolling Stones
  76. HOW WE LIVE – Mandalan featuring Cadence XYZ
  77. MY FUTURE – Billie Eilish
  78. STRANGERS – Mt. Joy
  79. NOT OK! – Chaz Cardigan
  80. MARINERS APARTMENT COMPLEX – Lana Del Rey
  81. LETTER TO YOU – Bruce Springsteen
  82. HOLD ON – Noah Reid
  83. BE AFRAID – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  84. FAULT LINES – Callum Pitt
  85. LET’S FALL IN LOVE FOR THE NIGHT – FINNEAS
  86. ME & YOU TOGETHER SONG – The 1975
  87. HALF YOUR AGE – Joywave
  88. SERAFINA – BAMBARA
  89. COLORS – Black Pumas
  90. THE LET GO – Elle King
  91. SWIMMING CLOSER – HAZY
  92. REAL LONG TIME – White Reaper
  93. NOTHING LOVE – Surrija, Albert Chiang, Christine Tavolacci & Matt Chamberlain
  94. MAN ON THE MOON – The Common View
  95. DO YOU FEEL THAT? – Ronnie the Bear
  96. RAINBOW RECORDS – Oceanography
  97. BURN THE VISION – Amongst Liars
  98. ZEN – X Ambassadors, K.Flay & grandson
  99. ROSE TINTED EYES – Seprona
  100. SKIN – The Ocean Beneath & Fran Minney

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #3: “Stressed Out” by twenty øne piløts

Song #3 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Stressed Out” by twenty øne piløts. It’s the highest-ranking of their six songs on this list (“Tear in My Heart” was #7, “Ride” #19, “Heathens” #61, “Jumpsuit” #67 and “Chlorine” #87), and is also now one of my favorite songs of all time. Released in November 2015 as the fourth single from their spectacular album Blurryface, the song became a massive hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs, Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Alternative charts, where it spent 12 weeks on top. It peaked at #2 on the Hot 100.

For those who’ve been living under a rock, twenty øne piløts is a duo from Columbus, Ohio consisting of the ridiculously talented vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun. Incorporating a wildly eclectic mix of genres – including hip hop, rap, alternative rock, pop, reggae, ska, psychedelia, electronica, new wave, folk and funk – and employing a vast array of instruments and synth sounds too numerous to mention, they create music that’s complex, innovative, exciting and totally original. With their unique sound, not to mention Joseph’s distinctively quirky vocals, they sound like no other act, and their music is immediately recognizable.

Blurryface is a loose concept album named after a fictional character called Blurryface, who Joseph said “represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around, are insecure about”, namely, our doubts, fears and self-loathing. Joseph wore black paint on his hands and neck during their live shows and music videos for the album, almost apologizing: “Very dramatic, I know, but it helps me get into that character.”

“Stressed Out” was written by Joseph and produced by renowned musician and producer Mike Elizondo, who’s worked with such diverse artists as 50 Cent, Eminem, Carrie Underwood, Fiona Apple, Mastodon, and Ry Cooder, among others. Elizondo was a bit perplexed during the song’s production. In an interview with Billboard, he recalled: “At the time I heard the song, I had no idea what Blurryface was, [and I was] kind of scratching my head going, ‘Dude, uh, what’s Blurryface?’” Well, it’s a brilliant alternative rap-rock song about facing the burdens and responsibility of adulthood while longing for the simplicity and safety of one’s childhood, as well as touching on the insecurities of being a musician. I love the droning, deep bass-driven groove, spooky synths, discordant piano keys, Dun’s pounding drums, and Joseph’s monotone vocals that convey the angst and uncertainty expressed in the clever lyrics.

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think

My name’s ‘Blurryface’ and I care what you think
My name’s ‘Blurryface’ and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out (oh)
Wish we could turn back time (oh), to the good old days (oh)
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

We’re stressed out

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it
Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I’d probably only sell one

It’d be to my brother, ’cause we have the same nose
Same clothes homegrown a stone’s throw from a creek we used to roam
But it would remind us of when nothing really mattered
Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter

My name’s ‘Blurryface’ and I care what you think
My name’s ‘Blurryface’ and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out (oh)
Wish we could turn back time (oh), to the good old days (oh)
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”
Yeah

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”
Yeah

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out (oh)
Wish we could turn back time (oh), to the good old days (oh)
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money
Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money
We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”
Yeah

The delightful video was directed by Mark Eshelman, and filmed primarily at drummer Josh Dun’s childhood home and the surrounding neighborhood in Columbus. It portrays Joseph and Dun as both children at play and young adults grappling with the onset of adulthood, their parents and siblings looking on in bemused disapproval. It’s been streamed more than 2.1 billion times.

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #7: “Tear In My Heart” by twenty øne piløts

The song at #7 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Tear In My Heart” by twenty øne piløts. It’s one of six songs by them on this list, more than any other artist or band, and they’re my current favorite music act. Although the talented duo, consisting of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, had been putting out music since 2009, it was this song that introduced me to them in April 2015. I instantly loved it and became a huge fan, bingeing on their back catalog of music, especially their brilliant album Vessel.

“Tear in my Heart” was the second single from their phenomenal fourth album Blurryface, which I think is one of the greatest albums of the decade, and also ranks among my all-time favorites. The song peaked at only #82 on the Billboard Hot 100, but reached #2 on the Alternative chart, where it also ended up as the #6 song of 2015. It spent four weeks at #1 on my Weekly Top 30, and was my favorite song of 2015.

The delightful song of love was inspired by Joseph’s marriage to his wife Jenna a month earlier. Not only do I adore the song’s unusual stop-start arrangement, lively melody, colorful instrumentation, and Joseph’s wonderfully quirky vocals, I also love the endearing lyrics about the contradictory emotions of joy and agony that often come from romantic love: “The songs on the radio are okay. But my taste in music is your face! And it takes a song to come around to show you how. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m alive. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m on fire. She’s the tear in my heart. Take me higher than I’ve ever been!

The humorous video shows Joseph and Dun performing the song in L.A.’s Chinatown, with the people around him barely paying attention. Eventually, the surrounding buildings begin crumbling as Joseph notices Jenna in a group of people, and follows her down an alley and into a restaurant. She sings to him the opening lyrics of the song: “Sometimes you’ve got to bleed and know that you’re alive and have a soul“, to which he responds: “but it takes someone to come around to show you how“, whereupon she starts beating him until he’s bleeding. The video ends with them kissing.

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #19: “Ride” by twenty øne piløts

My favorite duo twenty øne piløts are back with “Ride“, their fourth song on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s (“Chlorine” ranks at #87, “Jumpsuit” at #67 and “Heathens” at #61). It’s also the first of three songs from their spectacular fourth album Blurryface that will dominate the remainder of this list. Released in May 2015, Blurryface is one of the greatest albums of the decade in my opinion, and ranks among my all-time favorites. I had the CD in my car stereo, and played it every time I went anywhere for months on end, turning multiple friends onto it as well. It’s of such high caliber that literally every track could be a hit song and, in fact, in 2018 it became the first album in the digital era to have every track receive a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. It spent 279 weeks on the Billboard 200 Album chart – nearly five and a half years.

“Ride” was the fourth album cut to be released as a single. It’s a wildly upbeat alternative hip hop song with strong reggae elements, and features their signature lively mix of instruments, including piano, organ, guitar and bass. Josh Dun’s power drums are fantastic, and I love Tyler Joseph’s extraordinary vocals that go from earnest to rapping to falsetto to impassioned wails. He’s a really talented rapper, with an ability to deliver lyrics in a hard, staccato-style of fast-paced rapping that only a handful of artists like Eminem are good at.

The lyrics speak to uncertainties and anxieties over the meaning of life, with references to thinking about death, which Tyler Joseph raps about at high speed: “‘I’d die for you,’ that’s easy to say / We have a list of people that we would take a bullet for them, a bullet for you, a bullet for everybody in this room / But I don’t seem to see many bullets comin’ through / See many bullets comin’ through / Metaphorically, I’m the man / But literally, I don’t know what I’d do / ‘I’d live for you,’ an’ that’s hard to do / Even harder to say when you know it’s not true.” At the end, he concludes “I’ve been thinking too much, help me.”

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #61: “Heathens” by twenty øne piløts

The song at #61 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is the superb “Heathens” by twenty øne piløts. The third of their six songs on this countdown, it was written and recorded for the Suicide Squad film soundtrack. The dark song is in the style of rap rock, with a haunting arrangement set to a slow hip hop beat. The mournful piano keys, rough scratching sounds, Tyler Joseph’s monotone vocals, and a mysterious disembodied voice chanting “watch it” contrast with the dramatic, sweeping orchestration, creating a menacing sense of foreboding.

The lyrics speak to not making snap judgements about people you don’t know, and to be more sensitive to others, as we all have hidden issues. “We don’t deal with outsiders very well. They say newcomers have a certain smell. You have trust issues, not to mention, they say they can smell your intentions. You’re lovin’ on the freakshow sitting next to you. You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you. You’ll think ‘How did I get here, sitting next to you?’ But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget.”

The song was a big hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it spent four weeks at that spot, held down by the inferior Chainsmokers/Halsey hit “Closer”. However, it reached #1 on the Alternative and Rock charts, as well as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The video for the song has been streamed more than one and a half billion times.

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #67: “Jumpsuit” by twenty øne piløts

The song at #67 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Jumpsuit” by my current favorite band twenty øne piløts, and is one of six songs by them on this list. For those who somehow are not familiar with them, they’re a couple of hyper-talented guys from Columbus, Ohio, consisting of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, who make brilliant alternative electronic rock & hip hop. Released in July 2018, “Jumpsuit” was the lead single from their fifth studio album Trench. Like their previous album BlurryfaceTrench is a concept album that explores similar themes of mental health, suicide, and self-doubt. The album was co-written and produced by MUTEMATH front man Paul Meany.

Specifically, Trench tells the saga of the fictional evil city of Dema and surrounding valley known as Trench ruled by nine bishops, referred to as “Nico and the Niners”, as described in the similarly-titled track from the album. The bishops impose the religious cult of Vialism upon their citizens, and they do everything in their power to prevent them from leaving the walled city. Because they are unable to see the color yellow, the only way to escape is by wearing a yellow garment. Tyler Joseph’s alter ego is a character named Clancy, whose escape attempt is described in “Jumpsuit”.

The song is a metaphor for the struggle with mental illness, with the evil city of Dema representing mental illness, and the bishops representing the internal struggles of a person suffering from mental illness. Given its subject matter, “Jumpsuit” is one of their darker and more melodically complex songs. It opens with Joseph’s altered vocals shouting “cover me“, referring to his jumpsuit. As the song progresses, the music alternates between barrages of Joseph’s heavy bass guitar riffs and Josh Dun’s pounding drums, and soothing interludes of hushed vocals, lush synths and haunting piano. Joseph’s vocals gradually build to a goosebump-inducing crescendo towards the end as he desperately wails “Jumpsuit, jumpsuit cover me!

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #87: “Chlorine” by twenty one pilots

The song at #87 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Chlorine” by twenty one pilots. For those who’ve been living under a rock, twenty one pilots is a duo consisting of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, and as far as I’m concerned, they can do no wrong when it comes to making music. I love every one of their songs, and they’re one of my favorite bands of all time. This is the first (or last, actually) of their six songs on this list, the most of any artist.

“Chlorine” is the third single from their monumental fifth album Trench, and was released in January 2019. Trench is a concept album that tells the saga of the fictional evil city of Dema ruled by nine bishops, referred to as “Nico and the Niners”. The song was co-written by Joseph and MUTEMATH front man Paul Meany, who produced Trench, and whose voice we hear in the opening lines. Like many of the tracks on Trench, the song has a complex melodic structure, and shows a growing maturity in twenty one pilots’ sound and music style. I love the sweeping, spacey synths, Dun’s sharp percussion and Joseph’s haunting layered vocals. The wonderful little twinkling piano riff adds a somewhat menacing vibe to the track.

The lyrics address how creativity can cleanse dark impulses, but also cause pain. The small, white alien-like creature in the video is “Ned”, who the band stated represents “this idea of creativity and trying to take care of it and trying to please it… or appease it.” It’s a dark and stunning song, and Joseph’s plaintive vocals in the final chorus are exquisite as he laments “I’m so sorry I forgot you. Let me catch you up to speed. I’ve been tested like the ends of a weathered flag that’s by the sea. Can you build my house with pieces? I’m just a chemical.”

EML’s Favorite Albums – twenty one pilots: “Blurryface”

Blurryface is my favorite album of the past 10 years, and twenty one pilots is my current favorite band. I love them, and their music brings out the 25-year-old still lurking inside my decrepit old body. I saw them in concert in St. Louis with my sister in August 2016, and the two of us were quite literally the oldest people there who were not chaperoning their children or grandchildren!

Formed in 2009 and based in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, twenty one pilots consists of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun (who joined the band in 2011 after two of the previous founding members left). Incorporating a ridiculously eclectic mix of genres – including hip hop, rap, alternative rock, pop, reggae, ska, psychedelia, electronica, new wave, folk and funk – and employing a vast array of instruments and synth sounds too numerous to mention, they create music that’s complex, innovative, exciting and totally original. With their unique sound, not to mention Joseph’s distinctively quirky vocals, they sound like no other act, and their music is immediately recognizable.

Released in May 2015, Blurryface was the band’s fourth studio album. Although they’d been putting out music since 2009, it wasn’t until April 2015 that I learned of them, when I first heard their single “Tear in My Heart”. It was love at first listen, and I quickly became a huge fan. I downloaded Blurryface on iTunes as soon as it was released, and also binged on their back catalog of music, especially their brilliant 2013 album Vessel. I burned Blurryface onto a CD, put it into my car stereo, and played it every time I went anywhere for months, turning many friends onto it as well.

The album is named after a fictional character called Blurryface, who Joseph said “represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around, are insecure about”, namely, our doubts, fears and self-loathing. Joseph wore black paint on his hands and neck during their live shows and music videos for the album, almost apologizing: “Very dramatic, I know, but it helps me get into that character.” The album is of such high caliber that every one of its 14 tracks could be a hit song, and in fact, in 2018 it became the first album in the digital era to have every track receive a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. It spent 276 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 Album chart, peaking at #1. It finally dropped off the chart three weeks ago, but then re-entered the following week, and as I write this, it’s enjoying its 278th week on the chart.

Although I love every song on the album, I’ll discuss my favorites to keep this write-up from becoming tedious. The first is “Tear in my Heart”, the second single released from the album and, as I stated earlier, my introduction to twenty one pilots. It’s a delightful song of love inspired by Joseph’s marriage to his wife Jenna a month earlier. Not only do I adore the song’s exuberant arrangement, arresting stop and start melody, colorful instrumentation, and Joseph’s wonderful plaintive vocals, I also love the endearing lyrics about the contradictory emotions of joy and agony that often come from romantic love: “The songs on the radio are okay. But my taste in music is your face! And it takes a song to come around to show you how. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m alive. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m on fire. She’s the tear in my heart. Take me higher than I’ve ever been!”

The video shows Joseph and Dun performing the song in L.A.’s Chinatown, with the people around him barely paying attention. Eventually, the surrounding buildings begin crumbling as Joseph notices Jenna in a group of people, and follows her down an alley and into a restaurant. She sings to him the opening lyrics of the song: “Sometimes you’ve got to bleed to know, that you’re alive and have a soul“, to which he responds: “but it takes someone to come around to show you how“, whereupon she starts beating him until he’s bleeding. The video ends with them kissing.

The pinnacle track on the album is “Stressed Out”, which is my favorite of all their songs, and now ranks among my favorite songs of all time. It’s a catchy and brilliant song with a relatively simple alternative rap-rock melody. The lyrics speak of facing the burdens and responsibility of adulthood, while longing for the simplicity and safety of one’s childhood: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days. When our mama sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.” The song also references the album’s title and Joseph’s alter-ego Blurryface, expressed in the lyric “My name’s Blurryface, and I care what you think.” I especially love the strong drumbeats, spacey synths and contemplative piano keys. The song was a massive hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs, Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Alternative charts, where it spent 12 weeks on top. The delightful video, which has been streamed more than 2.1 billion times, portrays Joseph and Dun as both children at play and young adults grappling with the onset of adulthood, their parents and siblings looking on in bemused disapproval.

“Ride” was the fifth album cut to be released as a single, and was also a big chart hit. It’s a deliriously upbeat alternative hip hop song with a strong reggae undercurrent, and I love Joseph’s extraordinary vocals that go from earnest to rapping to falsetto to impassioned wails. He’s a really talented rapper, with an ability to deliver lyrics in a hard, staccato style of fast-paced rapping that only a handful of artists like Eminem are good at. The lyrics speak to uncertainties and anxieties over the meaning of life, with references to thinking about death, which Joseph raps about at high speed: “‘I’d die for you,’ that’s easy to say / We have a list of people that we would take a bullet for them, a bullet for you, a bullet for everybody in this room / But I don’t seem to see many bullets comin’ through / See many bullets comin’ through / Metaphorically, I’m the man / But literally, I don’t know what I’d do / ‘I’d live for you,’ an’ that’s hard to do / Even harder to say when you know it’s not true.” At the end, he concludes “I’ve been thinking too much, help me.” Dun’s power drumming is amazing, and the organ is a nice touch as well.

“Tear in My Heart”, “Stressed Out” and “Ride” all rank in the top 20 of my 100 Best Songs of the 2010s.

The guys show their darker, edgier side on album opener “Heavydirtysoul” which was the sixth and final single released from Blurryface. A melodically complex song with harsh industrial synths, crushing drumbeats and Joseph’s frantic rapping, several critics named it the best track on the album. They typically opened their sets with this song for their tours promoting Blurryface.

“Lane Boy” is a perfect example of how they blend together an unorthodox mix of music styles like dubstep, hip hop, jungle, ska, EDM and rock to achieve a thoroughly original and melodically surprising sound. And Joseph’s rapping on this track is particularly mind-blowing. The song challenges the idea that artists should stay in a ‘lane’ or be defined by a particular style, sound or genre, and not stray or vary from that expected formula for fear they’ll alienate fans or confound music critics: “They say, ‘stay in your lane boy, lane boy,’ but we go where we want to / They think this thing is a highway, highway, but will they be alive tomorrow?

Another favorite is the beautiful track “Hometown”, which shows that the band is equally skilled at producing a more conventional EDM-styled song. I’m a big fan of this kind of electronic dance music, and the lush sweeping synths and driving beats are cinematic and glorious. The lyrics seem to address questions of faith, self-identity and depression: “Where we’re from, there’s no sun / Our hometown’s in the dark / Where we’re from, we’re no one / Our hometown’s in the dark.”

Album closer “Goner” is a melancholy song about defeating the darkness and fears represented by Blurryface once and for all. The track starts off with a gentle piano melody as Joseph plaintively sings “I’m a goner, somebody catch my breath / I wanna be known by you.” The music gradually builds with added percussion as he pleads “I’ve got two faces, Blurry’s the one I’m not / I need your help to take him out.” At the three-minute mark, the song erupts with explosive percussion and screaming synths as Joseph passionately wails “Don’t let me be / I’m a goner, somebody catch my breath!“, abruptly calming down at the very end and leaving us spent.

Twenty one pilots would go on to release an equally outstanding follow-up album Trench in 2018. A concept album about the saga of the fictional evil city of Dema ruled by nine bishops, Trench was produced by Paul Meany, front man of alternative rock band MUTEMATH (who opened for twenty one pilots on their Emotional Roadshow Tour), and reflected a somewhat more mature and even more complex sound for twenty one pilots. Nevertheless, Blurryface remains my favorite of their albums.

Top 30 Songs for August 30-September 5, 2020

  1. BLACK & WHITE LOVE – Beating Hearts Club (2)
  2. HALLUCINOGENICS – Matt Maeson (1)
  3. HONEYBEE – The Head and the Heart (3)
  4. PSYCH FILM – Strangely Alright (4)
  5. SOMEONE ELSE – Rezz & Grabbitz (5)
  6. CARDIGAN – Taylor Swift (6)
  7. FIRE – Black Pumas (8)
  8. MONSTERS – All Time Low featuring blackbear (9)
  9. HEAVEN IS HEART – Jaded Jane (10)
  10. MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING – The Killers (11)
  11. HOW WILL I REST IN PEACE IF I’M BURIED BY A HIGHWAY?// – Kenny Hoopla (7)
  12. IT’S YOU – The Frontier (16)
  13. NOT OK! – Chaz Cardigan (12)
  14. SWIMMING CLOSER – HAZY (15)
  15. CAN I CALL YOU TONIGHT? – Dayglow (17)
  16. DOWNS – Roadkeeper (19)
  17. ZEN – X Ambassadors, K.Flay & grandson (20)
  18. HELL N BACK – Bakar (13) 21st week on list
  19. WATERMELON SUGAR – Harry Styles (21)
  20. FEEL YOU – My Morning Jacket (29)
  21. MY FUTURE – Billie Eilish (23)
  22. STRANGERS – Mt. Joy (14)
  23. BACK TO HIM – Soricah (26)
  24. HOODIE UP – MISSIO (27)
  25. I GOT YOU – Michael Franti & Spearhead (28)
  26. DON’T LET ME DOWN – Milky Chance featuring Jack Johnson (25)
  27. LEVEL OF CONCERN – twenty one pilots (24)
  28. IF NOT FOR THE FIRE – The Million Reasons (18) 22nd week on list
  29. IS IT TRUE – Tame Impala (N)
  30. REAL LONG TIME – White Reaper (30)

Top 30 Songs for August 23-29, 2020

  1. HALLUCINOGENICS – Matt Maeson (1)
  2. BLACK & WHITE LOVE – Beating Hearts Club (2)
  3. HONEYBEE – The Head and the Heart (4)
  4. PSYCH FILM – Strangely Alright (5)
  5. SOMEONE ELSE – Rezz & Grabbitz (6)
  6. CARDIGAN – Taylor Swift (7)
  7. HOW WILL I REST IN PEACE IF I’M BURIED BY A HIGHWAY?// – Kenny Hoopla (3)
  8. FIRE – Black Pumas (8)
  9. MONSTERS – All Time Low featuring blackbear (10)
  10. HEAVEN IS HEART – Jaded Jane (13)
  11. MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING – The Killers (19)
  12. NOT OK! – Chaz Cardigan (14)
  13. HELL N BACK – Bakar (11) 20th week on list
  14. STRANGERS – Mt. Joy (15)
  15. SWIMMING CLOSER – HAZY (16)
  16. IT’S YOU – The Frontier (17)
  17. CAN I CALL YOU TONIGHT? – Dayglow (20)
  18. IF NOT FOR THE FIRE – The Million Reasons (9) 21st week on list
  19. DOWNS – Roadkeeper (23)
  20. ZEN – X Ambassadors, K.Flay & grandson (24)
  21. WATERMELON SUGAR – Harry Styles (25)
  22. LIVING IN A GHOST TOWN – The Rolling Stones (12)
  23. MY FUTURE – Billie Eilish (26)
  24. LEVEL OF CONCERN – twenty one pilots (18)
  25. DON’T LET ME DOWN – Milky Chance featuring Jack Johnson (22)
  26. BACK TO HIM – Soricah (28)
  27. HOODIE UP – MISSIO (30)
  28. I GOT YOU – Michael Franti & Spearhead (N)
  29. FEEL YOU – My Morning Jacket (N)
  30. REAL LONG TIME – White Reaper (29)