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The songs we turned to in 2020
Listening to music was one of the ways we weathered 2020’s many crises.
The songs or artists we played again and again brought comfort. They occupied our time while quarantining. They reflected the repeated calls for change. They drew us closer together, while we needed to stay apart. They were the cathartic scream you couldn’t let out indoors. They asked more questions than gave answers, unless it was about how we felt.
Navigating the stresses of 2020 meant actively looking for moments of joy. Maybe a song conjured up rosier times before the pandemic. Maybe that club classic got new life, even when clubs were closed. Maybe it was a folk singer quietly singing in your ear. Maybe it was a five-minute banger doubling as a short history of reggaetón.
Throughout the year, the PBS NewsHour asked 15 artists and authors which songs they kept turning to, and put their responses into a playlist. This isn’t so much of a best-of list as it is a mixtape to help remember this particular — and peculiar — time.
Help us expand our grab bag of moods on Spotify. Which song did you turn to this year and why? Tell us here.
Here’s a rundown of what you’ll hear.
“Sign o’ the Times” by Prince and “Rise Up” by Andra Day
Chef Marcus Samuelsson turned to Prince’s musical time capsule on what made the 1980s tumultuous, plus a “very positive chant” from Andra Day’s song “Rise Up.”
“Compared to What” by Roberta Flack
For poet Kevin Young, a 1969 Roberta Flack song asks crucial questions that resonate for 2020.
Flack “is really great at nailing the mood,” in asking all sorts of questions, Young said.
“Love Theme” by Ennio Morricone
Yo-Yo Ma reminds us of the importance of spreading love during tough times in his performance of Ennio Morricone’s “Love Theme.”
“During this pandemic, during all the things you have to go through with your family, your children and their education, the one thing we can dispense and offer is love,” Ma said.
“Ferry Cross The Mersey” by Gerry and The Pacemakers
Gloria Estefan has been listening to songs that felt like a warm hug this year, ones that let her know that everything’s all right.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple
For Natalie Maines of The Chicks, Fiona Apple’s latest album, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” helps to “take her mind off these times that we’re in.”
Maines said she doesn’t typically listen to music that speaks to the current moment because “I’m always looking for things to take my mind off of these times that we’re in.”
“Phone” by Lizzo
The one thing poet Claudia Rankine said she needs inside “this moment of terror and uncertainty”? Her phone — or Lizzo’s “Phone.”
“Her music is affirmative and upbeat, and it seems like that’s what I need,” Rankine said.
“Thinking of You” by Sister Sledge
“It keeps me smiling every time I play it,” D-Nice said.
Albums by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and Mavis Staples
Two of S.G. Goodman’s favorite albums are performed by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, as well as Mavis Staples. But it’s Staples’ “Change” that’s “really the song of the hour,” Goodman said.
“Steer Your Way” by Leonard Cohen
Month by month and day by day, author Daniel Nieh turns to the “timeless wisdom” of Leonard Cohen’s “Steer Your Way.”
“This is a song about agency,” said Nieh, who uses Cohen’s song to help combat his feelings of helplessness throughout 2020.
“Soave sia il vento,” from Act I of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”
John Lithgow flocked to Mozart because the composer found lightness in everything.
“Mozart was a great poet of that duality,” Lithgow said.
“American Tune” (from “The Concert in Central Park”) by Simon & Garfunkel
There’s one lyric in a Paul Simon song that author Dani Shapiro says lifts her up. In the live version of the song where you hear Simon & Garfunkel together, you can also hear the rapt audience.
“Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman
This year, music duo Louis York can’t stop talking about “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman.
“Tracy is a big influence for us, period, as Louis York. …Now those songs come into action. You realize they really were for a time like this,” Claude Kelly said.
“Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder
Author Tayari Jones has been playing Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” on repeat.
Jones said that although the song’s melodies and harmonies are calming, Wonder’s lyrics, like “Stop it please before it’s gone too far,” are urgent and speak to today’s moment.
“Tomorrow” by Barbra Streisand
You can bet your bottom dollar that Barbra Streisand’s “Tomorrow” helps Arthur Aviles look forward to the future.
“It has a wonderful naïveté to it, and a beautiful lyric, and a great sentiment,” Aviles said.
The PBS NewsHour’s Courtney Vinopal, Julia Griffin, Anne Davenport, Tori Partridge, Tim McPhillips, Erica Hendry, Molly Finnegan, Gretchen Frazee, Sam Lane, Jeffrey Brown, Amna Nawaz, Isabelle Di Rita, and Tommy Walters also contributed to this story.