During a time of unprecedented isolation, we’ve all found ourselves turning to music for solace. It seems kind of a miracle we got to hear any new music at all in 2020, with artists facing more challenges than ever due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, we thought we’d kick off our 2020 Year in Review by asking some of the artists we’ve featured in our Artist Spotlight series this year to tell us about the songs that helped them get through these strange, difficult months – any one song, old or new, that they found themselves returning to time and time again or that offered some hope in the midst of uncertainty. It’s an eclectic batch of tracks ranging from William Basinksi to Lana Del Rey to Astrud Gilberto, but what’s most inspiring is how they all seem to relate to one another in some shape or form. As a way of saying goodbye to 2020, here are the picks from 21 artists including Arlo Parks, Johanna Warren, Holly Humberstone, Samia, Jordan Klassen, and more.
Arlo Parks: ‘You’re Too Precious’ by James Blake
The song that has been soothing me this year is ‘You’re Too Precious’ by James Blake. The piano is devastatingly gentle and the instrumentation blossoms into something both warm and intricate over the course of the song. My favourite lyric is “I’d take the calls you don’t want to, I’d take the hair in your food” – this list of simple sacrifices creates an atmosphere of genuine, pure love. I first heard this song at 3am in my bedroom, it transported me instantly, I felt tranquil and hopeful for the future. This song makes me feel like James Blake is sitting beside me, letting me know everything is going to be okay – it’s a masterpiece of intimacy.
Holly Humberstone: ‘Garden Song’ by Phoebe Bridgers
I discovered this song earlier this year before corona had properly hit and I couldn’t stop listening to it for weeks. When the album [Punisher] dropped mid-lockdown I was reminded of it and had another phase of being completely obsessed with the song. There’s something really comforting about the intensely personal lyrics, it almost sounds like an unfiltered train of thought. I also read somewhere that the male voice you can hear in the choruses is her tour bus driver which is so cool. ‘Garden Song’ along with all the others on the album really saved me during lockdown, I’m such a huge fan of hers and it just felt so familiar when everything else going on was confusing and strange.
Katie Malco: ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ by Caroline Polachek
Obviously it’s been a difficult year for everyone – and I’ve definitely really struggled at times to find some form of relief from it all. I think it gets to the point where you become numb even to things that used to cheer you up, like certain films, shows or podcasts or whatever. So I had already heard Caroline Polachek’s album earlier in the year and really enjoyed it, but this song came on shuffle one day whilst I was walking about and it made me wanna break into a spontaneous dance in the middle of the street. It’s such a huge tune. And I hadn’t felt like that for SO LONG, I had forgotten what it was like to find some bloody joy in this covid ridden hell hole. I’ve listened to it so often during the course of the year, I’m totally addicted to it. I also loved Squirrel Flower’s cover of it.
Martha Skye Murphy: ‘Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop’ by William Basinski
This song (and the album it’s taken from, Basinski’s latest LP Lamentations) is conducive for dreaming, praying, listening, focusing, sleeping, working, writing, floating, whatever. The operatic melancholic rotation of loops slowly evolving and adapting, moving towards an ending point of diminishing relevance, sort of reflects this year for me. The whole record is beautiful, his work is timeless and grounding. We’re all just floating, which is numbing sometimes, calming and invigorating at others. As the refrain spirals up and down with each repetition shifting slightly, you circle around yourself finding new thought paths. When Basinski finds these loops he says it’s like locating an ‘eternal perfection … you can’t tell the beginning from the end’, which is sort of how I’ve felt about this odd year. Beautiful things, perfection even, have arisen from a fucked up world that keeps spinning as we slowly destroy it, like the disintegrating tape thread on repeat.
Carla J. Easton: ‘Nobody Sees Me Like You Do’ by Yoko Ono feat. The Apples In Stereo
You know how you can revisit an album from long ago and it can feel like seeing an old friend for the first time in ages? And when you meet that old friend, it’s like you’ve never been apart. In a strange year, I revisited a lot of my record collection that had been gathering dust. One of them was Yes, I’m A Witch, an album by Yoko Ono featuring collaborations with the likes of Peaches, Le Tigre, The Polyphonic Spree and more. I quickly fell back in love with the song ‘Nobody Sees Me Like You Do’ featuring The Apples In Stereo, a reimagining of the song that originally appeared on her Season of Glass album with the, now, infamous front cover – a photo of John Lennon’s blood stained glasses and an unfinished glass of water. The Apples In Stereo version bursts through like a much needed ray of sunshine, all bells and whistles, an almost Spector like production. “No one can see me like you do, no one can see you like I do” – such a simple yet universally identifiable statement for the chorus – delivered in the wonderful vocal way that Yoko does so well – like a lullaby full of power, naive yet simultaneously strong. I sent this to a lot of friends this year, and walked the streets of Glasgow with it blasting through my headphones, my own personal soundtrack. It’s important to see each other and be seen. Especially in 2020.
Johanna Warren: ‘She Moves On’ by Paul Simon
Rhythm of the Saints will forever hold a seat of honor in my heart because my late great friend and bandmate JP and I used to listen to it on many a stoned evening, fantasizing about one day making something of that scope and vision. This year I’ve found myself singing one line in particular from this one song over and over again, whilst making pancakes or pacing in circles around my room: “You have underestimated my power.”
Samia: ‘New Music’ by Another Michael
I heard one of the early demos of ‘New Music’ by Another Michael early last year while we were on tour and listened to it every day for a month. It kind of got buried in my dropbox after that and I screamed when it came out this year – it’s relatable and painful in the most complicated way but he manages to epitomize the sentiment so plainly. He just says, “I’m kinda new”. I’ve found so much comfort in it this year and have been sharing it with everyone I can.
More Eaze: ‘Healer’ by Iceblink
There’s been so much music new and old that has comforted and inspired me during this confusing and difficult year but one song I keep coming back to is ‘Healer’ by Iceblink. Iceblink’s Carpet Cocoon album was released in early 2020 and it’s truly wild how different things were during that time both personally and globally. I loved this track when I heard it during that time period and it filled with me a sense of calm and optimism for the ensuing year. Obviously, the year turned out quite differently but I’ve come back to ‘Healer’ and Carpet Cocoon as a whole again and again. Those initial reactions to this track remain unchanged but I also have felt my response to this music grow and blossom over time. Now, ‘Healer’ makes me feel an almost romantic swoon as its lilting classical guitar figures melt into saxophone melodies. Instantly, I’m hit with a wistful nostalgia for a time that hasn’t happened yet and memories that haven’t been created – memories that were perhaps even delayed or changed due to massive societal shifts of this last year. It’s hard to fully articulate the emotions that are conjured up by this minimal and beautiful piece but I know that I’ll keep returning to it long after 2020.
Daniela Andrade: ‘TRISTEZA’ by Astrud Gilberto
This song has gotten me through so much of this year and last. I remember when I came across it for the first time it stopped me in my tracks. I like how the lyrics contrast the instrumentation to a comical degree but also how effortlessly Astrud sings every word. After having stumbled upon it I went and deep dove into everything Astrud had ever done from live performances to her evolving fashion. It continues to be a song I associate with a sense of curiosity and a real swell of emotions.
Xelli Island: ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ by Lana Del Rey
I re-fell in love with this track recently after being obsessed with the entire album when it came out, last year. You know when a song feels like it was written just for you? Lyrics and all? Well, I think Lana wrote this one for me. This year has been difficult for obvious reasons but I was swept up in an intense romance for most of it. It was truly one of the strangest and most complicated relationships of my life and I’m still in the middle of processing the end of it. I put this song on during my walk today and felt so much better after listening to it. Her lyrics are a true inspiration for me. The rawness, melodies, and vulnerability of this song are unmatched.
Charlotte Cornfield: ‘Changerr’ by Cedric Noel
The song ‘Changerr’ by Cedric Noel has been very near and dear to me this year. I have been a fan of Cedric’s music for a long time, but I started listening to the album Nothing Forever, Everything this summer while my partner and I were in Montreal for a couple of months. The beautiful arrangements and lush vocals of this track feel like a warm hug, and the lyrics really resonate with me. I feel like anyone going through a personal change with the backdrop of this pandemic could really relate to this song. It feels anthemic.
Dasychira: ‘Trees Make Seeds’ by Yoko Kano
While in Hollywood lockdown, realms of fantasy become more tangible to me than everyday life. I constantly returned to my favorite anime short films to find creative inspiration. One film that left a big imprint on me is Kōji Morimoto’s Noiseman Sound Insect (1997), which tells the story of a synthetic mutant creature named Noiseman that splits people’s souls into fish-like beings, leaving only crystals behind (representing music). Noiseman goes on a rampage of terror, and after eventually getting captured in its own spirit-vacuum trap, the camera pans across a dystopian megalopolis to a dazed group of friends staring at the sky as Yoko Kano’s ‘Trees Make Seeds’ plays. She sings in a sweet, child-like voice:
trees make seeds
and worms eat seeds
and bigger worms eat worms
Despite perceived understandings of “reality” – natural states of being move forward ceaselessly. The song, which was never officially released, captures the endless nature of the life cycle, and reminds me that harmony always triumphs over noise. There is noise everywhere around us, but when we take a moment to clear away the cobwebs before our eyes, a utopia of possibility exists.
NIIKA: ‘WMWAS’ by Laik
This is a track created by my dear friend Laik from Australia, who is, coincidentally, one of the most prolific and talented musicians I have the honor of knowing personally. She released it in late August, and I first listened while I was taking a little vacation in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. I was floored. It was like the melody of the air in that place had seeped into my headphones, and I felt like I was being caressed by gently running water. Laik’s voice is a buttery stunner, and the arrangement is *divine*. I had this song on repeat for weeks after I first heard it. I think that what I’ve been seeking during quarantine are things that are simply beautiful. I’m finding that music that is overly intellectual or technically focused just isn’t doing it for me in this, the season of constant oversight of numbers, statistics, projections, and calculations. I crave simplicity, deliciousness, and closeness. This song is all of those things, and still keenly clever somehow. I can’t wait until she’s touring the world so everyone can cry as much as I have at her shows.
Sophie Jamieson: ‘Every Atom’ by Lanterns on the Lake
This is one of the most grounding songs I’ve heard in a long time. It’s like running back to your mum for a comforting hug. However it’s comfort that comes from reality, an album that acknowledges the scars and rifts and ugliness of our current world, and knows that we have the power to make it better, if we try. It’s a song that brings it all back to the hugeness of the personal, and the beauty of hope in humanity.
Jordan Klassen: ‘Woven Song’ by Ólafur Arnalds
Summer in my province of British Columbia was surprisingly beautiful given the current circumstances. We were gifted with a lot of sun, and just enough rain to keep everything green through the heat. But August came to a close and a hard truth set in – we were in for years of Covid, not months. The rain returned. For me it was an existential low point. Right at that time Ólafur Arnalds released this track from his new record and it was a bit of a balm for me. It’s delicate and hopeful but there’s pain there too. I think it will always remind me of this time, biking through the orange and red streets of Autumn Vancouver and finding a bit of peace amidst a lot of chaos.
Laura Fell: ‘Mary’ by Big Thief
A song that’s been especially significant to me in 2020 is an old song on a record I really dove headfirst back into at the start of lockdown – ‘Mary’ by Big Thief, off of their record Capacity. It’s such a touching song – I’m always very moved when I listen to it, and come away from it with a sense of stillness and peace, which I think are experiences we’ve all been seeking more and more of in these unsettling, surreal times with the pandemic.
Siv Jakobsen: ‘Tribute’ by Lizzie Reid
‘Tribute’ by Lizzie Reid is a song that I’ve kept coming back to again and again over the last few months. It’s incredibly sparse and beautiful, and has made me rediscover just how powerful a guitar and voice can be on their own, without any bells and whistles added. Discovering new artists has been a source of comfort for me this year, and Lizzie Reid’s music is a real gem of a find.
Blanche: ‘Steal‘ by Maribou State feat. Holly Walker
I’ve been listening to this song a lot during the lockdown, dreaming of the summer. It made me feel good to dance to it, to imagine me and my friends dancing to it under the sun. I knew it was coming; I had planned my holidays and this song brought me closer to them, it got me dreaming about them, made me realise there was other things coming – it comforted me.
I could also dream about maybe dancing to this song with a summer love or something. I don’t know, it just helped me dream about my holidays which made me feel really good in a time where I didn’t how to get out, when it would end and when nothing could really comfort me.
Patricia Lalor: ‘Bodysnatchers’ by Radiohead
I don’t know how I couldn’t have picked a Radiohead song for this year since I was genuinely obsessed. When lockdown started Radiohead started posting a live concert that they played in the past on to YouTube at 7:00pm every Thursday, so every Thursday my mom and I sat down at the kitchen table next to the computer and watched these 1 – 2 hour long Radiohead concerts. In Rainbows is truly amazing, I was so obsessed that at night I would sit in the bathroom and listen to ‘Bodysnatchers’ so I wouldn’t wake my sister while she slept in our room. Radiohead really made lockdown good!
PYNKIE: ‘Say Goodbye’ by Hiroshi Sato
If I had to pick one song that sums up 2020 for me, I’d have to go with ‘Say Goodbye’ by Hiroshi Sato! I finally discovered this artist/album this year and love the whole damn thing! But that song in particular is just perfect. It’s very feel-good, which takes my mind off all the horrible stuff 2020 had to offer, and I love listening while driving or walking. It’s the perfect song for “saying goodbye” to this horrendous year, lol!
Julia-Sophie: ‘Jupiter 4’ by Sharon Van Etten
Toward a future place, surreal, an unknown world, she draws me in, droning synth plays with a favourite drum machine. There’s no escaping the darkness, yet our lives are sweet and our feet don’t touch the ground. Vulnerable but still, she makes me believe that eternal love is possible. With her next to me, I start life again. I am strong. I am warm. I make new decisions. I change and make movies in my head, maybe not with everything that I have, but I can love, so it’s okay. With this song, I can be otherworldly. Promise me you will stay with me. Be gentle. Life and love is rising. Thank you Sharon Van Etten for your art. All year, you have reminded me to breathe.