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The music that got these Bostonians through 2020

YolaWilly Sanjuan/Invision/AP

If music is what feelings sound like, then here’s hoping you had more than your share of music in your life this year. Because we were all up in our feelings.

Whether it was that one certain song, a beloved old album as comforting as mashed potatoes, or a playlist that matched your frustration or lifted you out of it, you probably had a few musical go-tos specific to 2020. One guy I know immersed himself in the transcendental kind of jazz. As questions go, “why?” got a good workout this year, and the spiritual descendants of John Coltrane would like some answers.


We asked a few notable Bostonians about the music that mattered most to them this year. The only truth is music, said Jack Kerouac. In an unreal year, man, did we ever need it.

Joyce Linehan, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of policy, co-owner of Ashmont Records

I started the year infatuated with Yola’s “Walk Through Fire.” Her version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is better than Elton’s, and I am prepared to debate anyone on that fact. I spent a lot of time with Vashti Bunyan, who I hadn’t really known before beyond one song. And because it was such a year of sadness and loss, I spent a fair amount of time with musicians I love who died this year — Norma Tanega, Charley Pride, Helen Reddy, Mac Davis, Bill Withers, Betty Wright, and Emitt Rhodes.

Tajon Buchanan, midfielder for the New England Revolution

I listened to Lil Tjay’s music before every game. In a lot of his songs, he talks about trusting the grind and following your dreams. For me, I connect with that message — that a lot of people will doubt you, but you can’t let that break you.

Matt Smith, managing director, Club Passim


One of my favorite playlists this year was the PEAR (Passim Emergency Artist Relief) Fund playlist. Artists singing songs of hope to help each other through this mess of a year. Some with an earnest touch, others with a sense of humor — it felt like a real community, all there for each other.

Gloria EstefanAndrew Burton

Richard Blanco, 2013 Presidential Inaugural Poet, author of “How to Love a Country”

I’ve been shuffling through some of my favorite hits by Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Celia Cruz, and other Latinx oldies. They’ve helped to ground me in the musical poetry of my culture and rejuvenate my spirits. Plus, there’s nothing like shaking my booty to a great conga or salsa song to get me out of my mind and into my body — to feel alive in the joy of the moment, the “right now,” and ease my anxieties about the future.

Jake Brennan, musician, host and creator of “Disgraceland”

Low Cut Connie’s “Private Lives.” Singer/songwriter/soulman Adam Weiner is in peak form. Perfectly captures the anxiety of 2020 as well as the hope and optimism that is at the core of the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll. This album made countless year-end best-of lists, and for good reason.

Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior climate analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

The kids brought so much music into the house, most notably Phoebe Bridgers. But I did lean hard on two very different songs. Even though I have no idea what Justin Vernon is trying to say, “Naeem” is a song that captures that sense of reckoning, anguish, and consequence, as well as a hint of hope. I’ve listened to it throughout 2020 when I need to expel some anger and anguish — so, hundreds of times. On the flip side, I’m not ashamed to say I played Harry Styles’s “Sunflower, Vol. 6” about a hundred times, too, for that opposite vibe of a day at the beach.


Randy NewmanJordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Tim Riley, NPR critic, rock music historian, Emerson College professor

I am so cheered by Randy Newman’s “Stay Away,” his COVID ditty about quarantine intimacy. It hasn’t received nearly enough praise. A cup of cheer from a wise cynic.

Norah Piehl, executive director, Boston Book Festival

An album I found myself returning to this year was “Light Chasers,” an elaborate, orchestral concept album released in 2010 by the band Cloud Cult. Their courageous, affirmative lyrics gave me strength then, and again this year. A couple weeks ago, Cloud Cult marked the decade since the album’s release with a concert (virtual, of course!) and played the whole album front to back. I will remember that as a moment of calm and hope amid all the chaos of 2020.

Gregory Hoyt, actor and improviser (“J. Edgar,” “Patriots Day”), Sam Adams’s “Your Cousin From Boston”

Normally I’m a pretty big hip-hop guy, but this year everything flipped on its head. I left LA back in March to ride out the pandemic in rural Texas. Colter Wall’s “Imaginary Appalachia” is an incredible album from start to finish, but the song that first hooked me was “Living on the Sand.” The loneliness of his voice and his simple song structure and storytelling abilities hit home with me. Like so many of us, I spent much of the year missing my family, friends, and life as we know it, and so I often felt like I was living on sand.



Casandra McIntyre, oncology nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital

I’ve always driven like a race car driver and have resolved many times to become more Zen. With reduced traffic during lockdown, I was finally able to achieve this goal, and “Clair de Lune” by Debussy was the soundtrack. I would focus my eye on all that moved gracefully to the music: pigeons fluttering in their clusters, seagulls soaring high above, flags wafting perfectly to the music. My 15-year-old son, Harry, a sophomore at Boston Arts Academy in jazz piano, decided to learn to play “Clair de Lune” as a gift to me during the long quarantine — one of the treasures I will hold dear from this tragic year.