When confronted with the idea of staying home and in isolation for the majority of 2020, many people had a simple question: “What am I supposed to do now?” And this year, LGBTQ artists repeatedly answered: “Listen to this.”
When the world was sent spinning into a global shutdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, many artists began rapid-fire recording and releasing music to help fill the void that was left in the wake. Queer artists were no exception — whether it was Rina Sawayama’s breakthrough melding of every genre under the sun, Troye Sivan’s retro-inspired take on ’80s pop, or queer artists remixing masterful hits from the likes of Dua Lipa or Tegan and Sara, LGBTQ artists got creative when the chips were down, giving fans news tracks to take their mind off of the bleak reality unfolding outside their windows.
As we blissfully prepare to depart from 2020, let’s take a look back at Billboard’s picks for the 25 songs by LGBTQ artists that helped make this year manageable:
Adam Lambert, “Velvet”
“I think it’s time for a throwback,” Adam Lambert declares in the opening verse to “Velvet” — and if you’re still with Mr. Lambert at this disco-glam point in his career, chances are pretty good you might agree. “Velvet” does that thing all of Lambert’s best recent jams have done, of evoking bygone eras of glorious musical decadence with grooves still suitable for modern dancefloors. Like Chromeo, but with a welcome hint of coy transgression, clear in cleverly winking lyrics like, “Think I found someone to get lost in/ Cut from the same cloth as me.” — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Alma, “LA Money”
Have U Seen Alma? Because the Finnish pop phenom has been killing it. Honesty and badassery collide on “LA Money,” a raw and real ballad about the trappings of fame and success. “There are so many people who want something from me, but they don’t really care about me,” Alma told Billboard this year of the highlight from her debut album. “I think it was just from that feeling of, ‘Please see me as me, not just as something for you to sell.’” – GAB GINSBERG
Billy Porter, “For What It’s Worth”
Before the 2020 election actually took place, queer people in America were looking down the barrel of a dark future in this country. So, Billy Porter decided to inject some much-needed hope with a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth.” Though the lyrics remained largely unchanged (save for Porter’s smart addition of a refrain calling for “change”), Porter’s passionate voice conveyed exactly what we needed to hear — turmoil has happened before, it will happen again, and it’s up to us to actually make a difference. – STEPHEN DAW
The Blessed Madonna & Dua Lipa feat. Missy Elliott and Madonna, “Levitating”
The diva power of the ‘80s blesses this “Levitating” remix that defies gravity and time with its futuristic bass treatment courtesy of The Blessed Madonna. Her DJ Midas touch takes listeners on a different, electro-house ride with an increased BPM, esteemed voyagers Madonna and Missy Elliott, who bring along frisky complementary verses, and Daft Punk vocoder backing vocals for the finale. The cross-generational collaboration opens up every at-home dance floor but leaves everyone hovering over it in a trance. — HERAN MAMO
Chaz Cardigan, “Everything’s Wrong”
“Everything’s all wrong, and I’ve never been better.” That certainly wasn’t a message we were expecting to hear in 2020, but it was a welcome one. Chaz Cardigan’s infectiously earnest single embraced woozy synths and pounding guitars — to let everyone know that sometimes, going through a rough patch is the best thing that can happen to you. Rock bottom has never sounded so fun. – S.D.
Dorian Electra, “My Agenda (feat. Village People & Pussy Riot)
What happens when you take a gender-fluid up-and-coming pop star, a Russian political activist punk band and one of the most popular novelty disco groups of all time and place them all on one song? As “My Agenda” proved, you get a queer anthem. Dorian Electra’s techno-EDM-dance-pop banger takes Pussy Riot and the Village People in its stride for a truly wild ride where they all confirm every homophobe’s fear — yes, there is a gay agenda, and yes, they’re here to spread it far and wide. – S.D.
Fletcher with Kito, “Bitter”
A moody mid-tempo slice of heartbreak pop with skittering 808s and same-sex pronouns, “Bitter” is a relatable song about the emotional whiplash involved in trying to move on: “I don’t give a fuck…yeah, I do,” Fletcher cops at one point in the song, which boasts a beautifully dark, drunk-on-regrets chorus. – JOSEPH LYNCH
Gia Woods, “Sabotage”
Gia Woods confronted all of her inner demons on her fabulous Cut Season album — but none cut quite as deep as standout “Sabotage.” A deep-club mix with Woods’ signature, breathy vocals lightly brushing over the ground-shaking bass, “Sabotage” takes Woods’ sound to a new level, as she battles for control over her inner saboteur. “Hand on my mouth ’till I drag me to hell/ There’s no saving me,” she wails on the pre-chorus, her voice shaking. “‘Cause I just come back around.” – S.D.
Hayley Kiyoko, “L.O.V.E. Me”
A highlight from January’s I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit EP, Kiyoko’s “L.O.V.E. Me” fairly literally spells out the reciprocity the singer-songwriter expects from her relationship, over a skipping beat with an infectious hiccuping vocal hook. “I’m working through my issues,” she acknowledges in the song’s chorus — but that doesn’t mean she’s content to play the wall while doing so, going on to insist, “Yeah, I’m gonna kiss you in front of everybody that wants to be your honey.” – A.U.
Isaac Dunbar, “Makeup Drawer”
Pop wunderkind Isaac Dunbar decided that he was done editing himself in early 2020. “Makeup Drawer,” the standout single off of his major label debut EP Isaac’s Insects, is a passionate kiss-off to internalized homophobia, where the star finally emerges in a fully-realized femme form. Beauty standards, body shame, disapproval — Dunbar shrugs it all off, singing “I hope you have a real fun time” to his detractors, before strutting off to the sound of a truly infectious breakout pop song. – S.D.
Janelle Monae, “Turntables”
Just because she is out of her album cycle following the Grammy-nominated Dirty Computer in 2018, that doesn’t mean that Janelle Monae was about to sit out an important election year like 2020. “Turntables” doesn’t pull any punches as Monae raps “America, you a lie” on the single for Amazon film All In: The Fight For Democracy. With a thumping beat and the kind of swagger only she could muster, Monae confidently declares that she’s “kicking out the old regime.” – TAYLOR MIMS
Kim Petras, “Party Till I Die”
Halloween was clearly a wash this pandemic-stricken autumn, so Kim Petras wisely delayed the final chapter of her Turn Off the Lights series spooktacular until 2021. But it couldn’t be all tricks and no treats for her fans this October, so she granted us the gleaming “Party Till I Die” — a blacklit electro-pop jam with lyrics that could be read either as Black Eyed Peas schlock or a very serious cry for help, depending on the level of desperation in Petras’ voice at any point. Either way, Petras assures us she’ll be equally glamorous in death: “I’ll still be in Vetements… all designer drugs all up in my system.” — A.U.
King Princess, “Only Time Makes It Human”
Ah, clinging on to a lost love. We’ve all been there, but King Princess makes it fun with the dance-y “Only Time Makes It Human.” “It’s not that I wanna suffer / But thinking of her keeps me going,” she seals the hook, figuratively and literally trying to shake off an ex. While she admittedly hasn’t moved on yet, the upbeat melody gives us hope that time will truly heal all wounds. – RANIA ANIFTOS
L Devine, “Boring People”
English singer-songwriter L Devine (born Olivia Rebecca Devine) gave us this knockout single at the top of the year, and we still haven’t tired of it yet. The grunge-pop track is about being sick of the same old routine, and ??? months into this pandemic, it becomes more of an anthem by the day: “Wake up to the same nine to five/ Drinking coffee, fight off the night/ ‘Cause we, boring people/ Boring lives.” Anyone else ready for 2021? – G.G.
Madame Gandhi, “After You”
If the introspective, haunted “After You” sounds like a follow-up song to Madame Gandhi’s 2016 single “Her,” there’s a reason for that – it was originally an Amazon Music exclusive from 2017, now available to the wider world. We’re all the better for it: with a jazz fusion-y instrumental break and Gandhi demonstrating she can croon for the lovelorn when she’s not turning up for the revolution, “After You” is a gem. – J.L.
Maggie Lindemann, “Scissorhands”
Step aside “Pretty Girl,” “Scissorhands” has entered the chat. Maggie Lindemann found her pop-punk groove in 2020, and the ode to Johnny Depp’s character in the Tim Burton classic allowed the 22-year-old singer to show off the artistic growth since her 2015 debut. Her dulcet vocals tell the tale of loneliness in an intolerant society, bolstered by heavy guitars and exploding synths. Though the outcast theme suggests otherwise, “Scissorhands” feels like a space for Lindemann to truly express herself. – R.A.
Mykki Blanco ft. Falty DL & Devendra Banhart, “You Will Find It”
The gauzy, gorgeous ambient folk of “You Will Find It” is the aural equivalent of the sage Blanco talks about lighting up at the top of the song. Beyond merely soothing the listener, Blanco’s Falty DL and Devendra Banhart collab conveys a moment of unexpected clarity on a bright morning — but Mykki being Mykki, there’s more attitude here than on your typical blissed-out meditation jam. – J.L.
Orville Peck, “Summertime”
Orville Peck’s single “Summertime” dropped just in time for the weather and summertime flings to start heating up. The masked artist’s drawl sounds like a fading sunset as he laments the love and loss of youthful relationships. In a year where many people were stripped of adventures with loved ones, “Summertime” captures that longing and celebrates the freedom of falling for someone who’s love will only last a season. – T.M.
Rina Sawayama, “XS”
“Luxury and opulence,” served alongside Willy Wonka-level zaniness; that’s Rina Sawayama, one of 2020’s most exciting revelations. On “XS,” a downright explosive moment from her debut album Sawayama, the Japanese-British singer-songwriter employs wordplay and a wonderfully sarcastic commentary on consumerism: “Cartier set, Tesla Xs/ Calabasas, I deserve it!” We do not, however, deserve Rina. All hail the queen. – G.G.
Shea Diamond, “I Am America”
HBO’s documentary series We’re Here was one of the most honest, liberating depictions of queer struggle and joy in 2020, and that swirling ball of LGBTQ emotion is perfectly distilled in the thumping New Orleans-flavored stomp of Shea Diamond’s “I Am America,” a cheerful yet firm ode to resilience and refusing to be erased. – J.L.
Starrah, “How It Goes”
The prolific songwriter, who’s spawned hits for Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion, Rihanna, Drake, Travis Scott and more, pens her first solo release as the lead artist. The buoyant electro-pop track treads the rocky waters of a toxic relationship (“Take it slow love, don’t go rockin’ the boat”) where inevitable broken promises Starrah’s auto-tuned vocals denounce create hypnotic hiccups in the short and sweet number. – H.M.
Teddy Geiger, “Sharkbait”
Riding atop a cool surf rock-flavored bass line and singing as if she were in an underwater cavern, Teddy Geiger’s “Sharkbait” is a sweet-sour invite to a lover, asking them to join her on a romantic, probably doomed trip – be it to the moon, the ocean, or whatever other one-way ticket you got. But teddy<3 makes it sound so deliciously refreshing, you can’t help but throw caution to the wind and risk the wrath of Jaws. – J.L.
Tegan and Sara, “I Know I’m Not the Only One (Shura Remix)”
The only thing better than some new Tegan and Sara in 2020 is Tegan and Sara with a touch of British musician Shura. On the latter’s remix of 2019’s “I Know I’m Not The Only One” she takes the guitar-driven track about teenage mourning and transforms it into four minutes of beat-heavy electronic therapy for queer love. The twins’ words are drawn out into indistinct cries for a relationship that has forked with time. – T.M.
Troye Sivan, “In A Dream”
No one makes heartbreak sound as effortlessly catchy as Troye Sivan. His 2020 EP’s title track tackles the all-too-familiar feeling of parting ways with someone you love, only to find their face “still show up in a dream.” The brutal notion is complete with the pop star’s soaring vocals and glittery production, trying to convince his heart that even for just under four minutes, that it can get through the pain (or at least dance while trying). – R.A.
Wafia, “Good Things”
The retro lead single of Wafia’s Good Things EP is a playful kiss-off to her enemies that reignites the pep in her step after numerous falling outs. The Australian singer-songwriter reminds herself of the good things going on in her life, no matter who’s suddenly left it, in the infectious hook — lined with a punching bassline, striking synths, cowbells and claps. – H.M.