As 2020 came to a close, we asked artists and authors about the songs that helped them survive a strange and devastating year.
We also posed that question to you, and compiled a playlist of 101 songs that you played over and over again this year. Some songs offered an escape. Some infused joy and despair.
A nurse in Colorado kicks off our playlist with the song “This Year” from The Mountain Goats, who offered a lyric she chanted often while on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19: “I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.”
Several people suggested songs from John Prine, whose poignant lyricism took on greater weight after the artist became one of the more than 323,000 people who died from the virus. Charley Pride, another star we lost, reminded us in his rich baritone to “Kiss an angel good mornin’.”
There was also no shortage of protest songs amid Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice, after police killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the span of about two months. In Noname’s “Song 33,” a track barely longer than a minute, the artist draws attention to the violence Black cis and trans women face, ending with the idea that there’s a “new vanguard,” a possible nod to Black women as both leaders and activists in the movement.
In “No One Knows,” French-Nigerian singer Aṣa leans into the unknown of the future, reminding us that tomorrow is “still a mystery.” And one reader, who suggested a Warren Zevon song, simply gave the following explanation: “It’s 2020.”
Here are readers’ explanations, lightly edited for clarity, behind just 14 songs on the playlist.
“This Year” by The Mountain Goats
The refrain makes the song — “I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.” As a nurse, watching in horror at our COVID lack of response, I can’t tell you how many times I was chanting this at work.
— Sarah Hall from Denver, Colorado
“People, I’ve been sad” by Christine and the Queens
My adult daughter sent me the “Colors” performance [Chris] did, and I was instantly affected. Her vulnerability and purest emotions are an inspiration for me while I deal with very intense life changes and loss. I consistently returned to Chris’ whole library of amazing music to experience all the range of feelings and growth this year has brought. I have not felt so connected to an artist in decades.
— Laura Foster-Neal from York, Maine
“Sometimes” by H.E.R.
It reflected the sense of loss I felt when I couldn’t pursue some of my plans and goals for this year because of the pandemic.
— Mariah Ferguson from Washington, D.C.
“White Flag” by Bishop Briggs
As a Black woman in America, 2020 scared me. First, I felt afraid. Next came anger. Finally, determination and resolution. I have every right to feel safe and respected and it’s up to me to demand that my rights not be violated, my voice not silenced, my heritage not ignored. I am an American. I am America.
— Lijia Lyles from Baldwin City, Kansas
“Somewhere the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
On top of COVID-19 and working remotely at a job I loved, I was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This song has always made me smile even though I can’t sing anymore.
— Cynthia Mendenhall from Boise, Idaho
“Black Parade” by Beyoncé
It’s a song about change — actual PROGRESS — and while maintaining an identity and hop[ing] for more. It’s light seen from the bottom of a well. The musicality is pure infectious optimism and feels like it’s coming from a community of musicians. It’s a lovely song.
— Victoria McTabby from Detroit, Michigan
“Gaslighter” by The Chicks
Their new album they released hit me hard this year because when I saw them live in 2016, I was getting over a rough break up. The song I chose speaks to me because my ex was a huge gaslighter and the album brought me a sense of closure to that relationship, though it ended four years ago. It helped with my PTSD. It helped me get through the year.
— Liam Sommers from Rhinelander, Wisconsin
“That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra
It just felt like life this year was a roller coaster. Up. Down. Spin. Happy. Nauseous. Hands up. Hold tight. Time of my life, but also might die. That song fit every day and every mood.
— Candice Garza from Midwest City, Oklahoma
“Summer’s End” by John Prine
The lyric “you don’t have to be all alone, just come on home” hits hard at a time when so many of us are feeling and experiencing such loneliness during this pandemic. But it also reminds us that when this is over, we can all “come one home.” We lost John Prine early on to COVID-19 and that fact makes this song all the more poignant.
— Eric Weiand from Freeport, Illinois
“Celeste” by Roger & Brian Eno
So often this year, I’ve needed calming and centering. I hear the first notes of this piece, close my eyes, and somehow I’m transported into a world of no tumult and chaos. Some days, I’d just like to be forever lost there.
— Kris Fernandez-Everett from Tampa, Florida
“Lonely House” by Leyla McCalla
“Lonely House” is Kurt Weill’s setting of Langston Hughes’ words. Why do we not know this song better than we do? Or perhaps I’m the only one who has missed it, but I love it for all those layers, and McCalla — personally and musically — adds to them in all sorts of meaningful ways. If the pandemic needed an anthem, this would be at the top of the list. “Funny with so many neighbors / How lonesome you can be.” Yup.
— Glen Herbert from Burlington, Ontario, Canada
“Up!” by Shania Twain
Rough year for so many. For me, I lost my significant other of 30+ years, had to move from a 4,500-square-foot home to a studio the size of my previous living room, watching my hard-earned savings dwindle each month to stay safe at home … I know things could be much worse and I am just grateful to have food security and a safe place to live right now. Can only go up from here. … Shania Twain made it through tough personal times … I can make it too.
— Julie Baker from Richland, Michigan
“The Fading” by Joan Shelley
Her beautiful singing and a song with lyrics of longing, loneliness, nostalgia, and desire to have hope when everything seems so hopeless.
— Melissa Wales from Athens, Ohio
“My S**t’s F****d Up” by Warren Zevon
— John Shay from Seattle, Washington