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Highlighting the best music of 2020, a year many live performances were silenced


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Judy Woodruff: As with many things this past year, the typical live music scene was silenced.

But there were creative attempts to provide entertainment and a salve for the soul, breaking out all over. Recording artists put out new music that offered a wide range of options.

In his final look at the best of 2020 series, Jeffrey Brown checks in on what new works dropped that you can enjoy.

It's all part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Postponed festivals, canceled concerts, shuttered clubs, economic pain for musicians everywhere, in so many ways, 2020 was the year the live music died, or almost died.

But artists across all genres have used creative techniques to reach audiences. Orchestras like the National Symphony delivered performances from home, allowing audiences to tune in remotely. Country music legend Garth Brooks managed to crash Facebook Live during his virtual concert in late March.

The star-studded two-hour global concert One World: Together at Home, organized by the World Health Organization and Lady Gaga in April, brought in 21 million virtual viewers and more than $200 million for relief efforts.

It's a time where unconventional events have taken center stage.

Craig Jenkins: The lack of an ability to put things on, on the scale that we used to has changed everything.

Jeffrey Brown: Craig Jenkins is a music critic for "New York Magazine."

Just tell us about some of the interesting things you saw.

Craig Jenkins: One of my favorites was the Erykah Badu's concert series. She had a quarantine concert series where you could pay like a dollar or two or three, and vote on songs that she would perform.

I enjoyed "Two Minutes to Late Night," this a sort of, like, heavy metal, punk rock talk show that does these performances where they get artists together from different bands and they cover classics.

I really enjoyed the Verzuz with Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight.

Jeffrey Brown: Verzuz, a livestreamed Webcast featuring big names facing off against one another in song, all in good fun, was one pandemic-based phenomenon, attracting millions of homebound fans.

But seclusion became its own story in 2020.

Ann Powers is an NPR music critic and correspondent.

Ann Powers: Well, livestreaming has become a normal part of a music lover's life now, whether you are an opera fan and you're watching huge, beautiful productions from the Metropolitan Opera which were prerecorded, or you like your local singer-songwriter who is getting on a platform like StageIt every Friday night or Facebook and playing a few songs, chatting with fans.

Jeffrey Brown: And so-called quarantine albums captured the moment.

Pop icon Taylor Swift surprised fans with not one, but two records made in isolation. And there were many more.

Ann Powers: Fiona Apple, her album "Fetch the Bolt Cutters," what a powerful statement. She made it in her house with a small group of musicians banging and clanging on the walls. And I think it captures that feeling of being creative even in a situation where you're confined. We all related to that.

Jeffrey Brown: Artists also responded to calls for racial and social justice.

Beyonce's "Black Parade" was nominated for song and record of the year. One month later, she surprised fans with her Disney+ visual album, "Black Is King," hailed as a celebration of black empowerment.

Other standouts included H.E.R.'s "I Can't Breathe," Lil Baby's "The Bigger Picture" released weeks after the killing of George Floyd, and Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin's "Sweeter."

One thing that hasn't changed, the emergence of new artists.

Ann Powers: The breakout star this year was Bad Bunny. What a personality, a true shape-shifter, recently just had the first Spanish-language number one on Billboard in recent history. And I love Bad Bunny. He's like the David Bowie of Latin pop.


Jeffrey Brown: And if you hadn't heard the name Megan Thee Stallion, well, now you have. She earned four Grammy nominations this year for best new artist, record, rap song and rap performance.

CRAIG JENKINS: Her song "Savage" incredible, the Beyonce remix, awesome, the song "WAP" with Cardi B, definitely one of the hits of the year that makes me wish that there were any kind of clubs open.

Jeffrey Brown: But even in a year without live performance, says Ann Powers, there was a lot to bop to.

I think you said this in one of your NPR pieces, the year of dancing alone, right, dancing at home?


Ann Powers: Yes.

And there was a lot of great dance music, from Dua Lipa, to Jessie Ware released a beautiful album called "What's Your Pleasure," to the art disco queen Roisin Murphy with her album "Roisin Machine." There's lots for you to have a dance party in your house.

Jeffrey Brown: For international artists, grabbing the attention of U.S. fans came with its own hurdles.

Craig Jenkins: I really enjoy the BTS single "Dynamite."

Jeffrey Brown: With their world tour postponed, South Korean pop sensation BTS released its first all-English single in August.

Craig Jenkins: It's hard to make that stuff, and it's hard to make it sound smooth. And really excited to hear you know what they do in the future.

So, yes, the field is wide open right now, it feels like.

Jeffrey Brown: In a hectic year, the absence of live music brought special attention to records challenging the new normal.

Ann Powers: The English collective Sault had the best record of the year. They actually released two records. And this, again -- we were talking about protest music. It's this amalgam of funk and hip-hop and jazz, and really captures the moment of change that we're living in.

The young rocker Phoebe Bridgers, she has just come into her own with her album "Punisher." And that was another highlight of the year.

Jeffrey Brown: How about best albums of the year? What are your picks?

Craig Jenkins: I enjoyed the Mac Miller album, the posthumous record "Circles." It's bittersweet when you see someone sort of take a left turn start to really understand their artistry in a better way, and then you don't get any more.

This singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker, who is from the band Big Thief, she is a great indie rock singer-songwriter who snuck off into the woods. She had a breakup, and she was trying to clear her mind. And, instead, she just started making this beautiful music. And it ended up being one of the greater albums of the year.

Jeffrey Brown: But, for many musicians, 2020 has been dire. According to a survey from Music Workers Alliance, roughly three-quarters of musicians and deejays have lost more than 75 percent of their income during the pandemic.

Some help is on the way, including $15 billion in dedicated funding to performance venues in the new COVID-19 relief bill.

Ann Powers: I do think that people wants to be around other people, other bodies, absorbing music. Maybe there's a greater awareness of musicians as creating something that is -- that we need to support, and not just appreciate.

Jeffrey Brown: Support will be necessary. With vaccines starting to be distributed, there is hope that, by the summer, we can hear the music again live and in person, with concerts and festivals back on.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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