The music that got a few 20-somethings through 2020: Dolly, rap and everything in between
We are each 23 years old (well, one of us is almost 23) and fresh from the Jesuit university cocoon. It took two decades and a crowd of mentors to raise us, and now we are spreading our wings into a post-grad life domineered by...Covid? We spent half of the year at home with our families and have somehow by incomprehensible grace been given the opportunity to spend eleven months with America Media. Here our youth is relegated to the safe walls of a New York apartment. During pandemic the world has not seemed quite as much like an oyster as it perhaps used to, and music, for us, has been a genuine lifeline. It lifts us from loneliness and worry into a space where possibility and relief still exist. We are lucky in this age to have 24/7 access to the sounds that sustain our sanity. From three 20-somethings, here are the musical selections that have helped us to remember and thank 2020. We hope they will bring you some life, too.
Thank you, God, for Beyonce. This is a prayer I could repeat every year. Nominated nine times for the 2020 Grammys, Beyonce’s career tally has now hit a whopping 79 (!!). She is the second-most nominated artist in the history of the awards. (She falls behind only Quincy Jones and her husband Jay-Z, who are tied for the top spot with 80.)
The powerful witness of Beyonce and other Black women in the arts is a gift.
Queen Bey released her visual album "Black is King" on Disney+ in July, which combines powerful storytelling, gorgeous visuals, sorely needed cultural representation and a great beat. The African diaspora and Black identity are sensitively, artistically, unapologetically represented. I challenge you to watch the video for "Brown Skin Girl" and not feel the power of Black beauty. (Hint: It is impossible.) The powerful witness of Beyonce and other Black women in the arts is a gift.
I knew who Dolly Parton was before this year. (It reveals my age when I admit that my first memories of her are from her stint as a guest star on “Hannah Montana.”) It was this year, though, that I came to appreciate her as more than a big blonde hairdo and some Southern charm, more even than her 60-plus year career. This was the year that Dolly Parton saved the world.
Well, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement. But Ms. Parton’s $1 million donation in honor of a physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center partially funded the Moderna vaccine, which trials suggest is almost 95 percent effective at preventing the coronavirus and which is in its early stages of rollout. Hearing this news brought me back to her classic songs.
When I look back on 2020 and all the things that went wrong, it will be songs like “Jolene,” “9 to 5,” “Two Doors Down” and “Islands in the Stream” that remind me of car rides to nowhere in particular, leisurely meals with family, and dance parties with my fellow O’Hare Fellows in my first New York City apartment. In other words, a few of the things this year that actually went right.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You”
My old soul, for one, can’t resist that funny need for nostalgia that Springsteen’s songwriting always seems to satisfy. “Letter to You,” released in October, responds to the indescribable loss and the hunger for spiritual fulfillment that we have collectively felt in 2020. His writing about the loss of friends and the struggle to move on with life in the wake of that speaks to us profoundly.
My old soul can’t resist that funny need for nostalgia that Springsteen’s songwriting always seems to satisfy.
As it often does, Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing makes its way into his lyrics. In an interview with Apple Music about the themes on the album, he spoke about his faith: “Those little three-minute records and the 180-second character studies that came through pop music were like these little meditations and little prayers for me,” said Springsteen. “And that’s what I turned them into. And my faith came in and filled those songs and gave them a spiritual dimension. It’s an essential part of your life.” Spiritual imagery brought down to earth is a great treasure in Springsteen’s work, helping us find opportunities for companionship and reflection in the darkest of times.
Leslie Odom Jr.’s “The Christmas Album”
Now that Christmas (Day) has come and gone, this may be more of a recommendation to hold on to for next December. (Though, for Catholics, the Christmas season still has a couple of more days to go.) “The Christmas Album” does what all the best Christmas albums ought to do: It mixes sentimentality with great vocals and fresh approaches, making for a spirit-lifting listening experience.
You may know Leslie Odom Jr. for his Tony Award-winning turn as Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical "Hamilton," but the wide variety of genres he masters on this album alone suggests he can do pretty much anything. Mr. Odom himself is not even the only treasure gracing the album: He has duet partners on some of the most memorable songs. Particularly special are the Mzansi Youth Choir’s South African influence on Little Drummer Boy and the beautiful harmonies that Mr. Odom’s wife Nicolette Robinson lays down on Ma’oz Tzur, a traditional Hanukkah song.
He “saw love move heaven and earth.”
The album ends with an original song that calls upon both the message of Christmas and Mr. Odom’s joy at the birth of his own daughter. You will be both smiling and misty-eyed as you hear that beautiful voice sing about how he “saw love move heaven and earth.”
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple
After seven years of whatever it is that Fiona Apple does inside that glorious expanse of rolling mind and unencumbered physicality, she released her fifth studio album. A public unbinding, rattle, bark and warble. Scream! A prolonged caress of just the right piano keys. An album sometimes entirely built on voice and drums.
With Fiona Apple: No need for any bolts, anymore.
A holiness howls there in the notes, spaces and verses of this poet-singer’s masterwork. The album got a perfect score of 10 from Pitchfork—the first Pitchfork 10 in a decade; “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” they said, is “the definition of uncompromising." When things seem to be, as she sings, “forcing all forms of life inside of me to retreat underground,” so “relentless like the teeth of a rat,” there is medicine in a record that holds space for our assailable and light-grasping humanity: “I spread like strawberries/ I climb like peas and beans.” No need for any bolts, anymore.
“Remember Me” and others by Fawn Wood
During the horror of this pandemic year, videos sprang up on social media of Indigenous people across the continent dancing for the healing and comfort of all those sick and affected. A montage of their respective dances was set to Fawn Wood’s 2015 “Remember Me,” a song that reverberates steadily in chant and vibrato like a stabilizing wind.
The high voice of this Cree and Salish singer from Alberta, Canada haunts with its loveliness and power. Wood’s track record as a whole resounds with trilling shouts, rises and falls that pulse atop mesmerizing drumbeats.
“Lockdown” by Anderson .Paak
With this single, R&B artist and rapper Anderson .Paak brought the June streets to our ears. These were the streets that grieved and raged against the American legacy of brutal racism that George Floyd’s murder was only unveiling once again. It’s funky, crooning slap-bass activist rap with jazzy undertones that belong in a hip low-lit restaurant, overlaid by .Paak’s one-of-a-kind velvety rasp.
Contemplate this most bloody question: “And won't you tell me 'bout the lootin'? What’s that really all about? ‘Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.”
“You should've been downtown/ The people are risin'” Paak rolls like a prophet; a bounce that pounds, a beat under the thousands of feet that rally through tear gas and the fear of another potential death, the bitterest pow of rubber bullets.
You’ll have to sink your head into your hands to contemplate this most bloody question: “And won't you tell me 'bout the lootin'? What’s that really all about? ‘Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.”
“~how i’m feeling~” by Lauv
If you want to do a temperature and morale check on young people, listen to “~how i’m feeling~” by Lauv. His songs “Sad Forever” and “Modern Loneliness” capture, in a completely danceable pop melancholy, the often very complicated abyss that today’s youth faces in the universe of our skulls. We are telling our mamas that we love them (and that we know it is complicated to have us as children). We are struggling with mental health and watching our friends struggle with theirs too. We are noticing the invisible, lovely things other people might not notice (or think we don’t notice because we’re “always on our phones”). The song “For Now,” a mellow guitar tune about sending love through a screen, shows that this album has something for everyone in this pandemic.
We are struggling with mental health and watching our friends struggle with theirs too.
Becky G and Rauw Alejandro
America recently published a reflection on the revelation of reggaeton. The dembow, with its ancestry in Jamaican dancehall, slides back and forth with a beat that both curls and pinballs through the shoulder blades (and wrists, and hips, and ankles). Good luck staying still.
Becky G is still flourishing with her 2019 record “MALA SANTA.” The song “TE SUPERÉ” shows off how her beautifully syrupy vocals can combine and thrill with the raw beats of latin club music. She even crossed what is for her an uncharacteristic horizon into country to accompany Chiquis for a cover of Dolly Parton's “Jolene.” Rooted in the horn-happy, heavy-stepping style of cumbia, it is not reggaeton, but it is amazing.
Rauw Alejandro released his “Afrodisíaco” album, on which “Reloj” syncopates to perfect urban nightscape, hip-snaking, strobe light timing. “Tattoo” is lighter, sweeter, swingier, the midday blue-sky and roses shade of reggaeton.
“Dreamland” by COIN
If you want an indie-pop-alt-rock partial meditation on Ecclesiastes, look no further than the song “Cemetery.” “Made a fortune selling real estate/ Golden lions waited at the gate/ He was lonely, but it all looked great/ Never made time for the family/ But he is the richest man in the cemetery.” Wowza!
The prayer is less subtle, a slow-burn two-note electric metamorphosis that rises as the drums patter from The Deep to ask the Lord: are ya there?
The record is an easy, road trip sort of sound with windows of raw interludes that fall like prayers. “Oh, tell me if it's real,” repeats the song “Heaven Hearted” for a full minute until extraterrestrial piano keys drop in: “Rearrange me.” The prayer is less subtle in “Let It All Out (10:05),” a slow-burn two-note electric metamorphosis that rises as the drums patter from tehom—The Deep—to ask the Lord: are ya there?
“Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa
In 2017, when Dua Lipa released her self-titled debut album, it was clear that she was going places, but it has been the tremendous success of “Future Nostalgia” that made her stardom certain. As with many of the best artists of the past, Lipa’s success hinged on her ability to reinvent the old and transmogrify it into something brand new. Her 80s-inspired synth-pop was the mood booster we all needed when we were convinced that the world was going down the drain. “Physical” taught us the importance of keeping our energies up. “Levitating” brought us out of our boxed-in worlds. “Break My Heart” made us relive all those mishandled romances we couldn’t recreate during quarantine. She reminded us that there was more to life than staring at computer screens and working from home. Dua Lipa made us nostalgic for our future and the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Petals for Armor” by Hayley Williams
Freed from the constraints of Paramore, Hayley Williams creates a whole new soundscape of her own creation. While Paramore has made a very public pivot toward mainstream pop, Williams proves that, at least as a solo artist, she is capable of experimentation and evolution as both a musician and a lyricist. She brings everything from R&B to synth to her new album. “Petals for Armor” is the true successor to Paramore’s “Riot!” and “Brand New Eyes,” tackling many of the same themes of melancholy and bitterness that those albums did, in a more deliberate, mature way. Where “Riot!” shouted its woes, “Petals for Armor” is a confident, proud soliloquy. This is Williams growing up and telling us that, as an artist, she is here to stay. And it gives us all hope that the new Hayley Williams will bring to Paramore the newfound clarity that came with the success of her first solo outing.
Freed from the constraints of Paramore, Hayley Williams creates a whole new soundscape of her own creation.
“Punisher” by Phoebe Bridgers
From the beginning, “Punisher” draws you in and keeps you listening until you are curled-up in the fetal position. Phoebe Bridgers’ haunting voice, powerful despite its lower register, reminds you continuously of every past mistake you have ever committed and every person you have ever hurt. Her lyrics are so open to interpretation, yet cut so deeply, that they are akin to the works of modernist poets like William Carlos Williams. They are filled with vivid images that tell stories of all sorts, that spill forth emotions and memories you never knew you had.
This is all aided by the layered compositions of songs like “Kyoto,” “Chinese Satellite” and “ICU,” whose depth of instrumentation are rare to find in indie music. Bridgers manages to bring elements of rock, punk and even country to “Punisher,” creating a wondrous soundscape that defies definition. Phoebe Bridgers proves yet again her wonderful ability to create songs that are both incredibly specific yet applicable to all who listen to them.
Phoebe Bridgers’ haunting voice reminds you continuously of every past mistake you have ever committed and every person you have ever hurt.
“Folklore” and “Evermore” by Taylor Swift
Once again, Taylor Swift shows us why she is the artist that charts the course of the music industry. When we were stuck in the long summer, a summer filled with pandemic angst, intense loneliness and anxiety about the state of the country, Swift eased our pain with “Folklore.” It quickly became the definitive album of the pandemic.
In a departure from the way she usually releases her records, “Folklore” came with no singles to promote it, no huge tour and no fanfare. But it tapped into the collective subconscious like no other record in 2020. It came out at the perfect time and gave us the good cry we all needed. And then she did it a second time, releasing “Evermore” much in the same way, just shy of five months later, as if to prove that “Folklore” was no mere fluke.
That isn’t to say, of course, that the success of these two albums was just about timing. Swift’s greatest talent has always been her lyricism, and her unmatched songwriting was further emboldened by a newfound confidence in narrative storytelling. Her songs feature vivid characters: teenagers stuck in a love triangle, Gatsby-esque socialites defying expectation, murderers that she makes sympathetic.
It is this never-ending cycle of reinvention that ensures that Taylor Swift will always be on top of the charts, and it is exactly why she will be remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time. “Folklore” is unequivocally the best album of the year. No other artist even comes close.