Ranking the Best in a Year of Worsts

From losing Kobe Bryant & Pop Smoke to COVID-19, it’s impossible for us to rank the best without acknowledging what 2020 has brought us.

2020 end of year essay lead image
Complex Original

2020 end-of-year essay lead image

2020 end of year essay lead image

The 2020s started off on an awful foot, with the seismic losses of Kobe Bryant and Pop Smoke. Many thought that things couldn’t feel more surreal than they did in February. Then COVID-19 happened. 

The NBA suspended its season on April 11, after Jazz center Rudy Gobert became infected with the novel coronavirus. Within the hour, Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife Rita had tested positive for it. The illness that we were just learning about quickly upended our entire way of life—and things haven’t been the same since. Quarantine emptied the streets, but systemic racism filled them back up months later, as the entire world protested in peaceful and not-so-peaceful manners. 

The start of this decade has been defined by disruption. It’s impossible for us to rank the best music, movies, and sneakers of the year without acknowledging that our idea of “normal” has been reshaped by what many have called a pair of pandemics: the newly corrosive coronavirus and the scourge of racism. There are over 1.4 million reported deaths from COVID-19, with 267,000-plus in the United States. Unemployment rose to levels outpacing those of the Great Recession. In most states, offices are closed. Concerts take place virtually, while sports are played in bubbles. Black people continue to be killed by agents of the state.

Our end-of-year lists weren’t compiled in a vacuum. We know that quarantine, and worldwide social unrest, altered how we engaged with entertainment or made purchases. There was no chance for a song critics were lukewarm on to win them over during a live performance. Would-be club hits like “WAP” and “Runnin” haven’t even been played in most clubs. Those who’ve been fortunate enough to cop sought-after sneakers haven’t actually been able to wear them out much. Still, there were moments of resonance. Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” spoke for the resistance at the perfect moment. Series and films like The Queen’s Gambit, Tenet, and Charm City Kings arrived at a perilous moment and had to be taken into account. Art is a reflection of the times, and that’s certainly been true in 2020.

Would-be club hits like “WAP” and “Runnin” haven’t even been played in most clubs.

“Everyday life” took on a whole new meaning in March. Since December 2019, Americans had heard murmurs about the toll the coronavirus was taking in Asia, but for reasons that included poor leadership and American individualism, we didn’t take the threat seriously until it was too late.  Those whispers rapidly turned into a deafening silence in usually bustling hubs like New York’s Times Square and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard as the nation locked down. Quarantine life has literally put us on our ass.  But if humanity will do one thing, it’s recalibrate and make the most of life. Some people and businesses innovated through this forced solitude. 

D-Nice became the most important DJ in America for a couple of months with his Club Quarantine streams, which set off a wave for other DJs to start their own livestream sets. Similarly, promoters began setting up livestream concerts featuring artists all over the world.  

Quarantine replaced the local bar with Zoom. Netflix took advantage of our thirst for something compelling to watch with shows like Tiger King, which dominated the timeline and introduced new characters to the pop culture lexicon. OnlyFans made plenty of sex workers rich—at least until already-rich celebs joined the platform and shifted its dynamics. The still-beta Clubhouse app is fulfilling some people’s desire for conversation. And, of course, Swizz Beats and Timbaland turned an IG Live beat battle into a cultural phenomenon with Verzuz, which has given us everything from Erykah Badu and Jill Scott cleansing our IG feed to the recent Jeezy-vs.-Gucci frenemy event.  

But these sources of entertainment offered only temporary solace. There was worldwide unrest after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. State-sanctioned violence is nothing new, but those divorced from their routines by quarantine were forced to recognize that instances of police brutality aren’t anomalous—the police system is inherently brutal. 

Americans took to the streets to confront the establishment and demand racial equality. We called for states, and the federal government, to defund the police. Resistors in Minnesota set fire to the city’s 3rd Police Precinct, as well as a local Target—and redistributed the goods inside.

The music industry responded to the discussions with a #BlackoutDay in solidarity with the movement to protect Black lives, but that wasn’t enough. Black people demanded that artists reciprocate their support by amplifying (and funding) their fight. This summer, lines were drawn between those who used their voice to advance the cause and those who stayed silent. Songs like Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” and the star-studded “Pig Feet” captured our frustrations and sorrows. Drake and The Weeknd, among others, donated hefty sums to bail funds and anti-police organizations, while Kanye West also offered to pay for George Floyd’s daughter’s college tuition. Artists including Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Rick Ross, Wale, and more participated in peaceful protests. Noname, Cardi B, and Chance the Rapper are just a few who stepped up and expressed solidarity with protesters who chanted, “No justice, no peace.”

Up until recently, defunding the police was a fringe conversation. But thanks to radical activists, and the celebrities who magnified their voices, reallocating police budgets to social services has become a more widely accepted idea, which, in theory, bodes well for the future. It was inspiring to see a groundswell of grassroots activists shake up the country to the point that no celebrity could merely ride the fence on social justice. This summer, and the ongoing protests, made one hopeful for how much more the movement can achieve. That’s progress—but it’s not enough. 

This summer, and the ongoing protests, made one hopeful for how much more the movement can achieve. That’s progress—but it’s not enough. 

Black capitalism isn’t the answer. After an embarrassing election season of unqualified entertainers helping Donald Trump’s cause (which today centers around reversing the vote through seemingly hopeless litigation), it will be interesting to see how fans engage with celebrities in the 2020s, as more people reckon with the reality that billionaires, capitalism, and consumerism—realities that stars uphold—are at the root of our oppression. That tug-of-war was a factor in our lists, from our stomach to even listen to certain artists to mulling the authenticity of their pro-Black content. Are certain pieces a genuine expression or pandering? It matters now more than ever.

The past year has been a winding road of disruption from innovators and resistors. Our lives have shifted in a way that none of us have ever experienced, but our alone time made so many of us reflect on what “normal” is and has been and what we can do as a collective to create a better world once things “open back up.” 

That disruption colored the way we experienced entertainment and inarguably affected how some of this year’s lists shook out. At this rate, December promises to have at least a couple of moments that would have been worthy of mentioning here, or would have shifted some of our lists. But we can’t see the future. We can only be grateful enough to still be here for today.

Latest in Music