Hear Us Out: 2020 Saw Musicians Making the Most of Their Most Challenging Year

2020 was unbearable for musicians and fans alike, but these artists persevered

December 30, 2020 5:50 am
2020 music
In a year without live music, artists found other ways to cope.
Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Jamie McCarthy/Aaron J. Thornton/Amanda Edwards, Getty Images

This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month. Or, in this case, the past year.

When we launched this column back in March, none of us had any idea that we’d be spending the remainder of the year using it to highlight how musicians were coping with the fallout from a pandemic that continues to rage on to this day. At times, we felt like a broken record, bringing more bad news about independent venues or beloved record stores closing or yet another legendary musician succumbing to the virus. There are still plenty of question marks as we head into 2021: how quickly will the vaccine be distributed? Is a return to live music by this summer feasible? Will Van Morrison and Eric Clapton ever shut up?

Still, despite all the setbacks and devastation, the music world gave us reason to be hopeful this year. We saw artists speak out for change (both within the industry and the world as a whole) and advocate for social justice. We watched them adapt to the curveball thrown at them by COVID-19 by embracing live-streams and at-home performances, with some even writing and recording new albums entirely in isolation. And of course, the songs themselves offered us comfort and catharsis during the most tumultuous, difficult year in modern history.

We’re hoping, of course, that things will settle down a bit in 2021 and this column can step away from the doom-and-gloom for a while. But first, we’re taking one last look at the year in music and (hopefully) closing the book on this nightmare year by recapping the biggest storylines of 2020 and most notable releases from the past month.

The “Quarantine Album” Became a Thing

Back in the early days of the pandemic, before any of us had any idea how long we’d be stuck inside our homes, many posts on social media circulated urging people to use the time in isolation to take up a fun hobby like baking bread or reminding them that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. It turns out most of us would spend the majority of our time in quarantine doom-scrolling on Twitter or trying to keep it together on Zoom happy hours instead. But many artists used the unexpected time off the road to do what they do best — write and record an album — and many of those so-called “quarantine albums” turned out to be some of the year’s best.

Can you imagine how much more awful the year would have been if we didn’t have Jeff Tweedy’s excellent Love Is The King or Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters to get us through it? Or if Taylor Swift had decided to stick to a normal album release schedule and wait to release folklore and evermore? What if Paul McCartney had decided to just sit around and count his money instead of writing and playing every instrument on McCartney III? It’s a small comfort in a year that was rough for musicians and fans alike, but the art made in isolation this year provided some much-needed distraction and comfort when we needed it the most.

Independent Venues Asked for Help — And Finally Got It at the 11th Hour

If you’ve followed this column at all over the past nine months, you’ve no doubt heard about the plight of America’s independent music venues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve chronicled the efforts of groups like the National Independent Venue Association as they rallied Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide financial relief to venues that have had to remain shuttered for the better part of a year. The government dragged its feet, and for a long time it looked like all hope was lost, but just this past Sunday, the relief bill signed by the president ensured that $15 billion will go these venues who so desperately need it.

Dave Grohl hailed the victory on the Foo Fighters’ Twitter account, writing, “The preservation of America’s smaller, independent venues is not only crucial to the millions of [concert-goers] whose lives are bettered by experiencing their favorite artists in the flesh, but to the future of music itself, as it gives the next generation of young musicians a place to cut their teeth, hone their craft and grow into the voices of tomorrow.”

“The absence of live music this year has left us all longing for that communal feeling of connection, one that is best felt when joined in a song,” he continued. “The Save Our Stages Act brings us one step closer to sharing that feeling again, one that I hope we can all experience again very soon. Every day we’re one step closer. See you there, Dave.”

A Big Year for Female Artists

2020 was undoubtedly bleak, but the success of female artists was a rare bright spot this year. Megan Thee Stallion enjoyed a breakout year, putting out her debut album, dropping the delightfully raunchy song of the summer with Cardi B, earning some Grammy nominations and speaking out about important issues like domestic violence and justice for Breonna Taylor. Taylor Swift dominated and made approximately a gajillion dollars by surprise-releasing folklore and evermore, while Fiona Apple returned with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her first new album in eight years and found herself atop nearly every year-end best-of list.

Mickey Guyton earned herself some much-deserved attention in the country world with her poignant single “Black Like Me,” and for the first time in history, all the Grammy nominees for Best Rock Performance are women. There’s still a long way to go when it comes to representation and recognition for women in music, but this year felt like a step in the right direction.

Recommended Reads

Here at InsideHook this December, we wondered whether we’ll ever really be able to understand Frank Zappa, revealed what we learned about John Lennon from crime writer James Patterson, and put together a playlist of the 30 saddest Christmas songs to help get you through this bummer of a holiday season. (As always, you can find all of our music coverage here.)

But beyond our own output, there were plenty of great music-related pieces worth a read this month: Rolling Stone offered a look at how the Save Our Stages Act went from “an industry Hail Mary” to a reality; the New York Times spoke to Steve Earle about the painful process of recording a tribute album for his late son, Justin Townes Earle, who died of a drug overdose earlier this year; and Billboard examined how Interscope Records wound up the top label of 2020.

Key December Album Releases

Paul McCartney, McCartney III

If you were expecting McCartney III to pick up right where 1980’s delightfully weird, synth-heavy McCartney II left off, you were wrong. There’s still some of that enduring goofy experimentation on tracks like the eight-minute centerpiece “Deep Deep Feeling,” but for the most part, Macca’s latest sees him doing what he does best: delivering simple, damn-good love songs and lovely piano ballads with the occasional straightforward rocker peppered in. It’s still absolutely worth a listen, and it’s hard not to feel a little wistful for warmer days when he sings, “When winter comes, and food is scarce/We’ll warn our toes to stay indoors” as we head into January, the harshest part of winter.

Taylor Swift, evermore

When Taylor Swift announced she was releasing another surprise album to celebrate her birthday this month, it was easy to assume that evermore would essentially be a collection of folklore outtakes cobbled together. But evermore is its own cohesive work, and while it features many of the same collaborators and vibes as its predecessor, it stands on its own. The National’s Matt Berninger lends his vocals on “coney island,” while Swift gets an assist from the Haim sisters on the excellent “Goodbye Earl”-inspired revenge track “no body, no crime.”

The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You

The Australian electronic group’s follow-up to 2016’s Wildflower features a star-studded list of guest collaborators that includes Blood Orange, MGMT, Johnny Marr, Mick Jones, Neneh Cherry, Jamie xx, Leon Bridges, Kurt Vile, Karen O, Perry Farrell and Wayne Coyne. Yet it never feels like any of them are competing for attention on the album, whose concept is rooted in death, life and the celestial world. It’s a big record that tackles some lofty ideas, but miraculously it never winds up feeling bloated.

Songs You Need to Hear

Normally, we use this space to highlight the month’s best singles, but since this is the final Hear Us Out column of 2020, we’re going out with a bang: we put together a playlist of our 100 favorite songs of the year below. You can read more about them, as well as find out what our 20 favorite albums of 2020 were, here.

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