Cindy Rodriguez: Hey, Takeaway listeners. I'm Cindy Rodriguez in for Tanzina with you till Thursday. For the second half of the show, we're talking about the most interesting music of 2020 and what to look forward to this year because let's be honest, during the quarantine era, music has been a hugely important coping tool for so many of us. Whether it was Instagram live battles or virtual shows or album releases, or maybe just learning the bagpipes after all these years, music has definitely helped. You told us about the music that helped you survive 2020.
Speaker 2: I've been listening to a lot of the Grateful Dead this year. While some of it is uplifting and cheerful, they also deal with themes of death and putting an interesting grateful twist on it. That's been my band during COVID 2020.
Dana: Hey, Takeaway crew. This is Dana Smart in the South Bay region of the Greater Los Angeles area. 2020 allowed me to reconnect with my vinyl collection in a way that I haven't been able to do in years, most of which are rare '60s and '70s soul, which is the thing that elevates me and keeps me going.
Speaker 4: For me, Billie Eilish really was the best music that helped me through this COVID quarantine.
Speaker 4: Her voice and the music that her and her brother play are very soothing and calming for me. The fact that I'm a 60-year-old woman that tries to keep up on today's music and is not always successful in finding new music that I like, I was very, very thrilled to have discovered Billie Eilish.
Jonas: Hi, this is Jonas Nahum calling from Santa Fe, New Mexico. I really would like to recognize Trey Anastasio. The guitarist-singer and songwriter for the band, Phish would put on streaming shows every Tuesday night. They called it Dinner and a Movie and it included a recipe to make at home, and then a show starting at around 6:30. These shows were great for my friends and I to reconnect. We would text and communicate during the shows. I never missed one.
Colette: Hi, this is Colette O'Connor from Halifax, Mass. It was a tough year. I lost my dad and I just started writing music this year that reflected all that. Not to say that I didn't appreciate all the YouTubers and all the Facebook livers and all the people that were sharing music, but I just went into my own guts and pulled out to music. I guess just that process helped get me through the year. Hey, hoping 2021 is better and not quite so gut-wrenching.
Ed: Ed Curtin in Portland, Oregon. One song that has gotten me through this year is You Set the Scene by Arthur Lee and his band, Love, a 1967 song in the album Forever Changes. My college roommate at Fordham in the Bronx introduced me to it in 1970. Even before Larry died this January, I shared it with him, as cancer took his wife. The lyrics speak to the strength and resilience we all hope we can muster during this pandemic.
Cindy: 2020 changed the music scene in an unprecedented way. Concerts and live shows were canceled. As we just heard, music helped people survive and process the grief, the anxiety, and the loneliness of the pandemic. Let's dissect that a little bit and talk about what worked and what we may see in 2021 as the industry continues to cope. Joining me is John Schaefer, host of WNYC's New Sounds. John, welcome back to The Takeaway.
John Schaefer: Hi, Cindy, how are you?
Cindy: I'm Good. Okay, John. We know the pandemic changed things in a million different ways, but let's narrow this down. When it comes to music, what was the biggest impact on the music industry?
John: I think 2020 saw a complete reversal of a trend that had been going on in the music industry for a couple of decades, which was the sudden return of the primacy of the recording, the recorded sound, after years of the live experience taking over for many musicians. With the advent of digital technology and streaming, it was more and more important for musicians to be out there playing live. That was where you made your living as a musician unless you were in the top of the 1% of people like Adele and Taylor Swift and Beyonce who could make a living by selling records.
Suddenly in 2020, without that possibility of going out and touring and selling tickets and selling merch, suddenly it was all about getting your sound out there and in front of people and finding a way to connect with your audience and to connect with a potentially larger set of eyeballs and ears through the medium that you had available to you, which was again technology, but being used in a very, very different way. Really Cindy, a sea change.
Cindy: John, artists really thrive though on that live performance because you're really getting energy from the people that are right in front of you. To be recording, alone in your fancy, not so fancy home, whatever the case may be can be difficult. Who was best at it.
John: That answer is a complicated one because the industry as a whole got better at it as the year went along. Early in March, for example, when the lockdown began, it was just chaos. It was just concerts being rescheduled in the hope that they could eventually take place and then being canceled time and time again. Finally, just people realizing, "Okay, this isn't going to happen. It took a little while for the industry as a whole to figure out what to do next. I can remember very early on in April, hosting an event for Carnegie Hall online with the multiple Grammy award-winning singer, Angélique Kidjo, who is from Benin in West Africa.
I was in my Brooklyn home, she was in her Paris home and we had a live performance from guest singer Baaba Maal in Dakar, Senegal. All of this was happening. This was April. This is early in the game and it worked. By the end of the year, what you saw were multi-camera shoots in high definition sound in actual theaters and concert halls that were being streamed in ways that allowed people in different time zones to tune in at 7:00 or 8:00 PM in their evening. It became pretty sophisticated.
I think the people who did it most successfully from a financial standpoint are the bands who were able to afford to do that kind of production, who had a theater or a record label behind them who would go that way. On the other hand, the people who did it most successfully from an artistic standpoint might've been the people for whom this sort of intimate music-making person at home with a guitar in their bedroom, that that was key to their music-making anyway. I'll give you an example, The Mountain Goats. When The Mountain Goats began in the '90s, it was just John Darnielle and a beat-up old boombox.
It sounds like the early recordings were recorded straight to cassette on this boombox, it was very much a part of the sound. In March, as his tour, that was supposed to take place for a new album shut down, John Darnielle found himself at home, and he got out the boombox and he made a record.
After years of the band becoming a steady, reliably rocking quartet, suddenly there he was with this beautiful boombox again.
Cindy: He was recording himself on the boombox?
John: Absolutely, yes.
John: Going back to the very, very earliest sound of his band, The Mountain Goats, he did a bunch of songs inspired by this totally obscure, and out-of-print book by a French writer named Pierre Chuvin, all about the persecution of pagans by the early Christians, and the album was called Songs for Pierre Chuvin, and I just thought that this was a brilliant example of using the technology that was available to him to make a meaningful musical statement.
Cindy: Okay, John, that's new music, but TikTok has spurred some old songs back to the top of the charts, like Fleetwood Mac's, Dreams.
Why has the pandemic been a moment for this kind of rediscovery?
John: When you have troubled times, people naturally begin to retreat to the things that they know and love. On TikTok, there's a lot of new music, so when you do hear something like Fleetwood Mac on TikTok, there's that spark of recognition and a little hit of dopamine in the brain as the brain relaxes and says, "I know this."
Cindy: The racial justice uprisings, as we all know, were a very important and a very huge part of 2020, and a lot of music came out of it, including A Few Words for the Firing Squad by Run the Jewels.
John: Yes, Run the Jewels is the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, and this was their fourth collaboration. Like the first three, it was released for free. You could buy the physical copy, but the digital copies were available for free, and Run the Jewels had some ideas of where you could put the money that you had saved by not buying their new record. They had a whole series of charities, most of which were involved with social justice and racial equality. Those themes are heard throughout this record, which is simply called RTJ4.
Cindy: John, while we're on the topic of social justice, can you tell us a little bit about Jake Blunt?
John: Yes. Very interesting to find that theme in this music because Jake Blunt, he's a member of the organization called Bluegrass Pride, which is an LGBTQ subset of the Bluegrass community. Jake himself doesn't really play a whole lot of Bluegrass, he plays even older music, especially the music of his own heritage, which is the African-American community of Southeastern United States, the Georgia Sea Islands and places like that.
John: He takes these songs, some of them 100, 150 years old, and sometimes he changes the gender. He plays up the interesting mix of racial roles and some of the variants of the more popular songs for example, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is a pretty well-known song and there's some very tight tweaking of the lyrics just in a very subversive way to make you hear an old song in a new way.
Move Daniel, and this is a song that originally was recorded probably about 40 years ago by the Macintosh County Shouters who, when they made that recording were in their 80s. They were the children and grandchildren of slaves.
Cindy: Wow, incredible.
John: Yes, it's a direct musical lineage from the time of slavery to our time at which it wasn't that long ago. Jake Blunt overdubbing his vocals, his banjo, his fiddle, gives us a really wonderful collection of songs, and this one, Moved Daniel is one of my favorites.
Cindy: Very soulful. I really like that. I'm going to have to listen to the whole thing once I get a chance. John, within the pandemic, we have another global crisis, which is climate change. The climate change also inspired music for 2020. Can you talk about that?
John: Yes. Well, I think a lot of artists realize that as much as the pandemic was front of mind for people in 2020, there was a pre-existing and longer-lasting and perhaps more existential threat to all of us, which is climate change, and so there were quite a few recordings that came out during 2020 that tackled this issue, and one that struck me was by a London-based violinist named Galya Bisengalieva.
Galya is originally from Kazakhstan in Central Asia, although as I say, she lives and works in London. In Central Asia, when I was a kid, you could look at a map of that area of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and see a huge body of water known as the Aral Sea. It was the fourth-largest lake on earth. That was in the 1960s. By the 1990s, it had lost about 90% of its water and it had left behind instead of an Aral Sea, what they call the Aralkum, which means Aral Desert. Aralkum is the name of Galya Bisengalieva's record.
It's her violin electronics, occasional uses of wordless voices, all accompanied by this spectacular drone footage of this Aral Desert there in Central Asia. You watch this, you can see it on YouTube and you think, "Wow, that's beautiful," until you realize, "I shouldn't be seeing any of this, this is supposed to be underwater." It was an ecological environmental and economic catastrophe for that part of the world, and that is the subject of this really striking record by Galya Bisengalieva.
Cindy: John, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us. John Schaefer is host of WNYC's New Sounds, a show about discovering new music available as a podcast as well. John, thank you so much.
John: Thank you, Cindy.
Sula: In 2021, I'm looking forward to spending quality time with McCartney III by Paul McCartney, and Lookin' for Paradise by Bill Schachter. Happy New Year Takeaway. Sula [unintelligible 00:19:05] Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Speaker 9: If there's a song that I've listened to every day this year, it would be Breakthrough by Blake McGrath. It's definitely a song fitting for this year. The lyric, "when life seems impossible, know that you will survive," is probably my favorite.
Jack: Hey, this is Jack Holland calling from Boston, Massachusetts to share that the song that helped me cope more than any other song this year was an old tune from the band Orleans called Let There Be Music which I discovered through my Zoom-based music listening group.
I created it because I wanted people to have the opportunity to experience the joy of music together during these difficult times.
[00:21:11] [END OF AUDIO]
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