March 7, 2021

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‘All that mattered was survival’: the songs that got us through 2020 | Music

13 min read

When it came to lockdown comfort listening, there was something particularly appealing about lush symphonic soul made by artists such as Teddy Pendergrass and the Delfonics. But there was one record I reached for repeatedly: Black Moses by Isaac Hayes, and particularly the tracks arranged by Dale Warren. Their version of Burt Bacharach’s (They Long to Be) Close to You is an epic, spinning the original classic into a nine-minute dose of saccharine soul. But their cover of Going in Circles, another Warren exercise in expansion, is their masterpiece, reimagining the Friends of Distinction original as a seven-minute arrangement with stirring strings and beatific backing vocals that builds into a story about lost love that transcends the genre’s usual parameters. A perfect, if slightly meta, balm for the repetitive lockdown blues. Lanre Bakare

Events in 2020 left me revisiting albums from my past more than usual. I suppose I was after a cravenly nostalgic wallow, stuff that recalled less complicated or trying times. But nothing hauled from the dustier corners of my collection had quite the effect on me that Daniel Avery’s tribute to his friend and sometime DJ partner Andrew Weatherall – released as a B-side in September – did. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful, simple piece of music – a high keyboard line that vaguely recalls Orbital’s 1991 chillout classic Belfast; atmospheric synths wafting in the background, their chords changing the track’s mood from melancholy to wistful to gently uplifting – and it created a kind of cool, reflective stillness as it played. Listening to it felt meditative – four minutes with the pause button mercifully on. I only wish it was longer, and that it had come out earlier in the year. Alexis Petridis

Hardship is no stranger to Lady Gaga or Ariana Grande. Together the pop survivors mustered an early dose of club candy to inoculate the soul against Covid-19. The night Rain on Me was released, I was months into solo lockdown and dealing with a dread of the unknown like the one you have as a teenager, except the future is even less guaranteed. The track’s relentless elation set me free. My only regret was that there was no club beyond Zoom in which to celebrate. Even without a dancefloor, Rain on Me shoots down depression like a confetti cannon at a funeral: “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive!” they harmonised. All that mattered in that moment was survival. Eve Barlow

Snoop Dogg – Did Somebody Say?

Snoop Dogg: Did Somebody Say? – video

Outside of the obvious, for me 2020 has been defined by two things: TV and takeaway. So it makes sense that the song that healed me was Tha Shiznit hitmaker Snoop Dogg’s velvet-soft reworking of takeaway overlord Just Eat’s earworm jingle, a one minute G-funk masterpiece that rivalled only Stephen Mulhern for ITV ubiquity. Its arrival in May coincided with the collapsing of time, when weeks were rapidly blurring into one existential crisis after the other. Suddenly a weekend takeaway felt monumental: an excuse to step away from Zoom or to stop doom-scrolling. Having, say, a delivery of “chicken wings to the crib” also meant a scrap of interaction with someone outside your bubble, plus that all important, always positive text: “Your KFC order will be with you around 6.38pm.” Momentary bliss. Michael Cragg

For such a historically significant year, 2020 has felt oddly flat and textureless. Once I’d acclimatised to the ambient dread, a numbness pervaded, and I caught myself picking fights with my boyfriend just to feel something. Then, in October, Jane McDonald dropped a covers album so deranged that listening to it felt like a colonic for the brain, flushing out all niggling anxieties and replacing them with pure wonderment. Her rendition of Jai Ho! is so chaotic that the effect is disorientating; the first time I heard it I was overcome by a sensation of weightlessness, as if I were floating outside of time and space. It’s the musical equivalent of ayahuasca, a 3-min 45-sec holiday from reality, and a balm for the broken spirit. Joe Stone

‘A healing balm’ … Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/the Guardian

For teary catharsis from the claustrophobia of this year, few have cleared out my hanky drawer quite like the music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland. I could have picked any number of his magical incantations that have been reissued recently, but it’s this song, from his debut self-titled album in 1970, that has helped ease the dull ache of being stuck indoors by spiriting my imagination away. It’s a dainty dance of guitar, piano, flute and strings, like the Von Trapps coming over the mountain, though Glenn-Copeland’s low rumble balances the fairytale folk with the breezy resignation that someone, or something, is slipping away from them, much like 2020 has felt. For me, it’s been a healing balm for this year’s dreary acquiescence. Kate Hutchinson

Like locked-down people the world over, I took up a few new hobbies in 2020: amateur epidemiology, amateur immunology, amateur statistical analysis and amateur pandemic-response planning. These are brain-melting pastimes for brain-melting times – if I’ve relied on music for one thing this year, it’s been to drown out my rational mind for a moment. Luckily, this track – a sparkling, saccharine love song adorned with glinting synths, airhorn blasts and a belching bass line – has the power to override almost all conscious thought. Between the in-joke lyrics (Harle wrote the original for his girlfriend; AG Cook named this remix after Harle’s cat) and anonymous chipmunk vocals, Aquarius is not a song that encourages deep meditation, or even basic analysis. Instead, it is mindlessly euphoric, irresistibly groovy and utterly un-serious. I can’t think of anything further removed from analysing local Covid hospital admission data. Rachel Aroesti

Zenta and Ryosuke Horii – 24-Hour Cinderella (Yakuza 0 OST)

Yakuza 0: 24-Hour Cinderella – video

Just as video games have been my escape during this hellish year, the gangsters of Yakuza 0 escape the violence of their 1980s Tokyo mafioso by living in gaudy karaoke bars. It’s there that traumatised protagonist Goro Majima momentarily breaks out of his cage and into an anthemic pop idol number, declaring an ecstatic, undying love for a sweetheart he can never be with. He fantasises himself leading a glamorous, silver-suited male dance posse, rollerskating in sync, while voice actor Hidenari Ugaki’s love-drunk delivery offers more heart than any professional singer would dare. Its euphoria is bittersweet, revealing the pinnacles and pitfalls of being able to pretend. Tayyab Amin

At the start of the first lockdown I was listening to the National’s 2010 opus High Violet again. It struck me how this song from a decade ago chimed with the pandemic. The chorus – “I’m afraid of everyone” – summed up the sudden fear of a killer virus and the knowledge that even friends and family could become a threat. I have an eight-year old boy, so the line “With my kid on my shoulders I try not to hurt anybody I like” hit home, too, capturing the awareness that we could also potentially harm others. Several months on, contrary to vocalist Matt Berninger’s assertion that “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” vaccines are on the way, but Afraid of Everyone is still my go-to musical reminder of the ongoing need for social distancing. The hymnal music has a quiet, stolid determination of the kind that we’ve all had to tap into as we struggle, individually and collectively, to live through this. Dave Simpson

It’s been hard to focus on anything this year, so a song that revels in blankness feels especially powerful. The late Houston producer DJ Screw pioneered a rap sound based on slowing things down, and although this track is a lighters-in-the-air ode to exorcising demons via the numbing effects of drinking from a double cup, it also offers an escape from the hyperactive pace of 2020’s news cycle. It’s like a cerebral massage: an intellectual reset and reminder that sometimes clearing your brain of all thoughts can be a vital act of self-care. Thomas Hobbs

‘A seasonal spell’ ... Dolly Parton in 1977.
‘A seasonal spell’ … Dolly Parton in 1977. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Light of a Clear Blue Morning is usually a seasonal spell for me. I replay it like a mantra to ward off Edinburgh’s dark, dreich winter days, using Dolly’s golden optimism to remind me that the earth keeps turning. In 2020, I’ve needed it daily. At the start of the song she’s imagining that optimism, with a steadying drum beat that feels like a gentle rub on the back. By the last chorus there’s a gospel choir, tambourines, jazzy piano runs and total conviction: she feels certain there’s a clear sky coming, and I can just about feel it, too. Katie Hawthorne

“It’s all confused and beautiful,” begins this piece, inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Over slow-building string loops, genius rap maverick Mike Ladd weaves vignettes from his Massachusetts upbringing with that of children growing up in the shadow of the Himalayas, the mundane and the spiritual colliding poignantly, before the spectre of police brutality – the “off-duty demons in denim” – arises, threatening to cut short these Black and brown lives. The track darkens, as Ladd imagines divine forces delivering justice, “the Himalayan stones” melting and “somehow drown[ing] the right people”. There’s anger in Ladd’s vision, true, but also powerful, acrid poetry and, at its conclusion, a necessary sliver of hope. In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light countless further acts of police brutality – and weathered further violence – Ladd’s ability to draw something beautiful from such darkness, and hold on to the hope for justice, had me returning to this track again and again. Stevie Chick

The pandemic provided far too many opportunities for me to torture myself with memories of past misdeeds and romantic failures. That’s why, when Taylor Swift released Folklore in July, I was so drawn to the song August. Telling the story of an illicit and fated summer fling, it’s a sun-dappled and sepia-toned track that fuses the beauty of an André Aciman novel with the melodrama of Nicholas Sparks. I’d revisit the past through Swift’s lens of cosy yet melancholic nostalgia, recalling the heady feeling of knees touching and drunken kisses. Such wistfulness was a surprising comfort at time when the loneliness accentuated by the pandemic threatened to swallow me whole. Alim Kheraj

Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over

Crowded House: Don’t Dream It’s Over – video

There is a Māori phrase, widely used in New Zealand, that I often found myself reaching for this year: Kia kaha, meaning “be strong, keep going”. At my lowest moments, when I felt further away than ever from my friends and family there, I clung to Don’t Dream It’s Over. The pandemic gave new meaning to its famously ambiguous lyrics expressing resolve in the face of an unclear threat – not denying “the battle ahead” but not giving up, either. As New Zealand emerged from lockdown and England braced to go back in, I heard in Don’t Dream It’s Over a comforting message from home: we know it won’t win. Elle Hunt

Some distance from the upbeat incarnation of Haim I danced to while pleasantly hammered at Glastonbury 2017, the trio’s latest album, Women in Music Part III, was fuelled by death, depression and Este Haim’s diabetes-induced burnout. However, the Haim sisters haven’t lost their fun streak, as 3AM evidenced. In a year where hookup culture felt like a relic, socially distanced dates were duds and ghosting was back on the menu (stories on application) this synth-fuelled paean to booty calls and people who leave your head spinning, even briefly, felt wonderfully nostalgic. One day I will kiss a stranger again (maybe in 2022? 23?) but until then, 3AM will have to do. Hannah J Davies

In a year where the phrase “oh my god” was so often uttered gravely, perhaps while doom-scrolling the latest Trump or coronavirus news, I found it so bracing to hear it spoken in a different context by MNEK. His repeat exclamation in one of the year’s biggest and best pop songs, as if fanning himself, is just as disbelieving, but focused on a dizzying rush of attraction: a reminder of lighter feelings from the before times. The main melody, rising up like a question and down like an answer, was also comforting in its sheer stability. He and producer Joel Corry seemed to go about their business in a world unencumbered by anything except lust, and for less than three minutes, you could also pretend that was the most of your problems. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

‘It just sounded like joy’ ... David Bowie in 1977.
‘It just sounded like joy’ … David Bowie in 1977. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Four months into long Covid, everything seemed hopeless; none of the things I usually enjoyed gave me any pleasure. When David Bowie’s legendary Glastonbury set went up on iPlayer, I was in equal parts thrilled – seeing him in Vienna in 2003 is the high-water mark by which I judge all other concerts – and afraid of watching it: what if, like everything else, it left me cold? But then he opened with Wild Is the Wind, and everything felt OK. What followed was months’ worth of emotions at once: excitement, grief, delight, relief. By the time “Heroes” came on, I was in floods of (good) tears. It’s not even my favourite Bowie song – my tastes lean more towards Low – but, despite the all-important quote marks around the title, there is something heroic about the way the guitar soars in, about the epic crescendo of his voice. At that moment, it just sounded like joy. Kathryn Bromwich

Music has never been more important than it was this year – as a comforter, a salve, and escape. I’ve always adored Bernstein and Sondheim’s Somewhere from West Side Story. And never has it felt more appropriate than through the shitstorm of the pandemic and political populism: “We’ll find a new way of living / we’ll find a way of forgiving.” Often I listen to version after version of Somewhere – the soaring vibrato of Barbra Streisand, the macho pantomime of PJ Proby, the haunting purity of Cynthia Erivo. My favourite, though, is Tom Waits’s Somewhere from the 1978 album Blue Valentine. It’s the one I’ve returned to time and again this year. Nobody does loused-up love like Waits. There’s so much beauty here – the orchestral grandeur of the intro, Jack Sheldon’s plaintive trumpet at the end, Tom turning over the syllables slow as a spit roast, and, best of all, that growling lisp: “Thometime, thomeday, thomewhere …” Heaven in a hellish year. Simon Hattenstone

I have no idea how or when or where I first came across John Hiatt’s 1987 song Have a Little Faith In Me, but this spring it seemed to rise up out of my record collection and govern the days that followed. A raw, piano-led power ballad, there is something quite majestic in its earnestness, in the vault of Hiatt’s voice, in his promise to “catch you, fallin’ baby”. As the world seemed to gather pace and sorrow and uncertainty, Hiatt’s song came to embody not only the importance of belief in better days, but also the necessity of connection and openness and love. Laura Barton

Mary Mary – Shackles

Mary Mary: Shackles – video

In the heights of the first lockdown, I turned towards the blended tones of gospel-laced R&B. Shackles (Praise You) by American sisters Erica and Trecina Atkins-Campbell, known as Mary Mary, became the sermon that guided my mornings. Deeply rhythmic at its root and unashamed in its gratitude, Shackles drew precious flakes of joy from the grey days and relentless weeks. There was a comfort in its passages of prayer and celebration, a divine rhythm that found me on the mornings I needed them most. Their devotions brought me back to centre, cast light on the small blessings I had abandoned. It was a subtle signpost during that chaotic period, a reminder that in a spring where the country was staggered by the pandemic, being able to wake in good health and blast these harmonies from my iPhone was a moment to hold with care. Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The only way to get through this year with my sanity intact was to escape into memories. A friend posted this tune on their Instagram stories and it sparked some deep reminiscing, whisking me back to 2010, when life was pretty much the opposite to how it is now that I’m a father, I’m sober and I couldn’t go to a club even if I wanted to. This track also offered a soothing sense of hope, whether it was playing through my speakers or on the jukebox in my mind: “Each and every day, life goes on…” Marcus Barnes

I didn’t mind lockdown one at first: finally, total control; time to vanquish external temptation and distraction, surely the only things that had ever obstructed my pursuit of perfection. Within two weeks, longstanding self-destructive behaviours had roared back, reducing me to weepy fury that I, A Very Capable Woman, was flailing. Clearly, it wasn’t just lockdown that was the problem. Nor too little control, it transpired, but too much. I was sceptical that I could change, that these tendencies weren’t innate. Then one summer afternoon I was driving, listening to an album I had already heard dozens of times, and a line leapt out. “Fetch the bolt cutters,” she sang. “I’ve been in here too long.” I did; I got out. Laura Snapes

For me, few songs embody such pure and unadulterated joy. Throughout summer I drove through the Peak District playing this obnoxiously loud, snaking the twisty roads in sync with the gloriously flowing synth lines. Smalltown Boy’s endless euphoria filled a void and provided a vicarious experience: the closest taste to the kind of adrenaline-soaked release I would normally be experiencing, be it from the throb of a club speaker or those joyous squiffy moments at festivals when everything aligns and the intertwined power of music and friendship feels transcendent. Daniel Dylan Wray

Fittingly from Mariah’s Daydream album, this song is the perfect soundtrack to a period in which living out cute scenarios in my head has gone from idealistic quirk to necessary coping mechanism. The glittery punch of that Tom Tom Club sample hits along with Mariah’s gorgeous, flawless vocals – and suddenly you’re filled with the sweetness and butterflies of being loved-up, too, knowing the feeling might all be in your head but enjoying the ride regardless. Put short, in a year of stagnation and grief, Fantasy has been a much-needed jolt of joy, life and gooey second-hand crushes. Tara Joshi

• Let us know the song that got you through 2020 in the comments below – we’ll round up the best responses next week.

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