2020: the year of escapism

In a year full of limitations, music became a lifeline and a way to transport people.

In a year full of limitations, music became a lifeline and a way to transport people

Music provides stress relief, can help ease pain and is an ideal form of escapism. In a year like this, music was not only a balm — it was a necessity. (Photo by Norbert Kundrak; graphic by CBC Music)

The countdown to a new year normally starts in December, but 2020 was different. 

Anger, fear and grief reigned over this year and the immense weight of world events — from the COVID-19 pandemic to protests demanding justice over police brutality and the killings of Black and Indigenous people — threatened to crush us. To a certain extent, the idea of calling a particular year a "dumpster fire" creeps up annually, but never has that sentiment felt more universal than now. So, yes, the cries over wanting a year to be over have been louder and more urgent than in previous years. And we promise, 2020 is coming to an end soon, but 2021 unfortunately holds its own uncertainties, too. 

The idea of escaping, not just 2020 but physically and mentally, has been palpable. With travelling practically becoming obsolete and social distancing fracturing our ability to connect with one another, a lot of people were forced to find new ways of transporting themselves, of finding joy, of exploring. Entertainment, and especially music, is a tried and true solution. 

Music provides stress relief, can help ease pain in some cases, and is an ideal getaway when literal vacations are taken off the table. Whether it's the comfort of old classics or the thrill of discovering and trying something new, the commiseration of sad songs or the boost of energy from upbeat numbers — music was a balm and also a necessity. 

Below, the CBC Music team broke down the various ways music helped us escape this year.

1. We took cover from 2020

One thing no longer seemed all that important this year: the pressure to keep up — to stay on top of the most recent headlines, the latest TV series, the most forward fashions and, yes, even the newest music. It's OK to be out of the loop, we told ourselves

By cutting ourselves that extra bit of slack, we also increased our appetite for the familiar, for past favourites — musical comfort food — and artists responded in 2020 by serving up a whole smorgasbord of nostalgic cover songs.

Christine and the Queens covered Bruce Sprinsteen's "I'm on Fire," Aurora shared her take on Alanis Morissette's "Thank U," and Dizzy released a four-song EP called Basement Covers that includes songs by Britney Spears, the National and this Talking Heads classic from 1983:

Art of Time Ensemble continued this trend, perhaps unwittingly, with a new album. Ain't got Long had been conceived well before the word COVID entered our vocabulary, but its assortment of covers aligned perfectly with our pandemically heightened nostalgic yearnings.

The album features Jonathan Goldsmith's elaborate arrangements of favourites from decades past — songs by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead as well as Jane Siberry, whose ode to resilience, "Calling all Angels," is especially poignant for anyone struggling through these worrisome times. Gregory Hoskins pours his soul into it.

We don't always look back on the past through sepia-toned lenses though. Sometimes it beckons to us with sparkling neon technicolour, as is the case with 2020's most fabulous musical expression of nostalgia, Kylie Minogue's Disco, a 16-song celebration of the genre's heyday.

Rather than update the disco sound, the timeless pop star faithfully recreates it, with heavy synthesizer bass lines, strings, horns, hand claps and even laser-beam effects. "Tomorrow don't matter/ we'll make the night last forever," she sings in the chorus of lead single "Magic," articulating the escapist's mantra. If it doesn't transport you from the doldrums of 2020 back to a dance floor in 1979, nothing will.

Early in the pandemic, a music therapist explained to us that it's perfectly healthy to play a familiar old song and have a good cry, and that's fine up to a point. But what a relief it will be to rid ourselves of COVID-19 concerns and get back to living in the musical now. — Robert Rowat 

2. We immersed ourselves in nostalgia

It makes sense to want to experience new things, watch new shows and listen to new music. But this year, nostalgia caught us with our guard down, and in order to move forward, we ended up looking back more than ever. 

For me, it hit hard this summer while driving. The right song came on at the right time: "Right Above It," by Lil Wayne, featuring Drake, released way back in 2010 before Drake was even Drake famous. 

It's a song I didn't listen to that much when it came out, but when those opening horns hit, at that moment, on that road, there was no way to fight it. That only led further down a wormhole of 2010s rap, a period in time when we were all, well, only 10 years younger, but everything felt right. A time when music was played in bars or house parties, places where people gathered together much fewer than six feet apart, close talking, leaning on each other, sharing air space, with no hand sanitizer in sight. 

Nostalgia is a way to express grief for a past that's now gone, like sharing a fond memory of a departed friend or family member at a wake. Except the loss is less physical and more internal. The very essence of time is that it passes, and yet, when enough of it is gone, we mourn it. But COVID-19 has sped that process up, in an instant making it possible to mourn a moment much more recent, whether it be one decade ago, one summer ago, or even just the beginning of this year. 

In a study tracking the effects of COVID-19 on entertainment choices, more than half of respondents said they found comfort in revisiting old television shows and music they enjoyed when they were young. 

In 2020, we didn't need a smooth pitch to sell us on the idea of nostalgia; we just needed the few opening notes of a song.- Jesse Kinos-Goodin, CBC Music

In another study titled "Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Trigger Nostalgia?," data was collected for almost 17 trillion plays of songs on Spotify in six European countries. The study concluded that, while music consumption itself is down, nostalgia significantly affected our music choices during the pandemic. 

But we don't need to look to studies to know this. Just look at the outsized reaction to Nathan Apodaca, a.k.a. Doggface, an Idaho man who uploaded a video to his TikTok account, just like any other video he uploaded to the platform previously on a regular basis. But when he posted a video of himself skateboarding down the road, without a care in the world, drinking Cranberry juice and lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac's 1977 song "Dreams," it went viral. Like a mass-produced Proust madeleine, it was a trigger for everyone who saw it, myself included, to go down that winding road, cranberry juice in hand, drinking up every last drop of nostalgia. "Dreams" was subsequently streamed enough times to re-enter the Billboard charts for the first time in more than 40 years, and Fleetwood Mac's album, Rumours, hit the Top 20 again. 

It wasn't the only old song to rise on the charts again, it was just the biggest. Nelly Furtado's 2006 song "Promiscuous Girl" became a TikTok meme, eventually re-entering Billboard's Global 200 chart for four weeks this year, while two teens hilariously discovering Phil Collins' "In the air Tonight" was enough to drive the 1981 hit back up to crack the Top 10 of Billboard's hot rock and alternative songs chart.

Mad Men's Don Draper once told a boardroom of Kodak executives that "in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means 'the pain from an old wound.' It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone." In 2020, we didn't need a smooth pitch to sell us on the idea of nostalgia; we just needed the few opening notes of a song.  — Jesse Kinos-Goodin

3. We built a dance floor at home

Dancing away the blues is a common prescription for people who are feeling down, and it's a piece of advice that many took to heart this year. Without commutes to work, gyms to frequent, and dance floors to occupy, we needed new ways to stretch our bodies and avoid the slump into stagnancy. The solution: energetic, uptempo songs. 

As singer Raye told BBC: "Tempo, pace, escapism: Music that draws you out of the reality of what is going on right now; and transports you to somewhere more positive and uplifting." 

Some of 2020's biggest hits on the Billboard charts support this idea. Singles like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande's "Rain on Me," Doja Cat's "Say So," BTS's "Dynamite" and the Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" are all bright bursts of serotonin, songs with relatively high beats per minute that we could turn up and dance around to in our own homes. Even tracks that aren't as lyrically cheerful have been deemed acceptable sad bangers. 

This rise in joyful tunes can also explain the endurance of disco-inspired songs, from Jessie Ware's sexy release, What's Your Pleasure?, to the unmistakably bass-bumpin' hits by Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue, Roisin Murphy and Rhye.

And while not happier nor faster, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's smash hit "WAP" can also fit into this category. Anchored by a sample of Frank Ski's "Whores in This House," "WAP" is a celebration of pleasure and sexuality, a stomping track that empowers women's bodies again in a time when it's easy to forget and stop caring for our bodies. 

Another continued trend that also tapped into our physicality was TikTok dance challenges. The social media app became a pastime for many who wanted to hop on and recreate viral dances to songs by the Weeknd ("Blinding Lights"), Megan Thee Stallion ("Savage") and Drake (the made-for-TikTok "Toosie Slide"). For 60 seconds at a time, people either found solace in watching clips of people performing, often at home, or committing to learning intricate choreography the way we once did with the Macarena — except much more difficult for novices. 

Whether you're blasting these songs to mentally transport yourself to another place, or to physically be in the moment and be in your body, our upbeat playlists were a refuge from what felt like an endless, melancholic march of bad news surrounding us. — Melody Lau 

4. We found solace in the 'soothe' sayers 

Sometimes escaping doesn't mean running away; instead, sinking deeply into your own space and mind are exactly what you need. And while meditation apps like Calm and Headspace have dominated the landscape for years now, recently partnering with big names like Sam Smith and John Legend for original, Zen-like music, 2020 has given us some excellent original music for floating away, or floating inward.

Joshua Van Tassel is in the business of creating universes, and we really got swept away by his September 2020 release, Dance Music Volume II: More Songs for Slow Motion. Using the Ondea — a "contemporary recreation of the famed French synthesizer the Ondes Martenot," according to the press release — along with piano, vibraphone, field recordings, electronics and the Venuti String Quartet (whose member Drew Jurecka recently worked on Dua Lipa's Grammy-nominated album, Future Nostalgia), the Toronto-based Van Tassel created a rich, expansive sequel to his first volume of Dance Music, which he made as a gift for his wife to use in her sessions as a craniosacral therapist. 

Plus, Van Tassel has a holiday addition under the name Double Tooth, his duo with Robbie Grunwald: All I Want for Christmas (is my Double Tooth), featuring three traditional songs in an absolutely non-traditional, instrumental manner. 

For listeners of Jean-Michel Blais and Alexandra Streliski, fellow Quebec artist Louis-Etienne Santais is a name to remember. The post-minimalist pianist/composer is one-half of the duo Fjord, and also plays with Ghostly Kisses (whose haunting dream pop you can check out via The Intro). This year he released a gorgeous collection of solo piano tracks called Reflection I, and his gentle, engrossing playing is a salve to any loud brain.

Fans of Brooklyn band Big Thief may already be wise to singer Adrianne Lenker's solo work, but her 2020 output took a particularly vulnerable, introspective turn with songs, an album of hushed folksongs, and instrumentals, made up of two guitar tracks, one running 21 minutes, the other 16. Lenker recorded the albums in a cabin in the Berkshires among the Western Massachusetts mountains, processing a breakup and holing up in isolation during the pandemic. If you're not sure where to start, hit play on "mostly chimes" to feel a gentle breeze on your face, birdsong in your ears. 

Danish composer Agnes Obel released another stunning album this year, just as the pandemic was beginning. Titled Myopia, the album is perfectly haunting and moody. And Toronto-based composer and cellist Michael Peter Olsen, who has worked with Drake (on Views), Arcade Fire (on Funeral), k-os (on Joyful Rebellion) and many others, released his first solo tracks this year: "Mayday" and "Cloud Parade," the latter of which he explains "journeys through late 19th-century classical influences." The singles are precursors to his debut solo album, Yearning Flow, due out early 2021.

And if you missed Lizzo's meditation and mantra via Instagram just two days after the World Health Organization officially called COVID-19 a pandemic, may we suggest calling it up? Sometimes you need a guiding hand to calm the mind, and who better to provide that than Lizzo and Sasha Flute. — Holly Gordon

5. We travelled the world (through music)

Most people have nothing left to explore in their apartments. They've stared into the crevices of the baseboards, responded to work emails from their toilets for a change of scenery, and found unexpected joy in the reach of a new vacuum — seriously, who hasn't wept at the small, perfect grace of a new appliance? 

On a personal note, I'm grateful and ridiculously lucky. I have a home, and I'm safe, and not everybody has that. (But they should.) Yet, despite being unofficially locked down all year, it somehow felt possible to travel and that's all thanks to some of the best music to come out of Canada this year. 

Lido Pimienta's Miss Colombia is a "cynical love letter to Colombia" and a tribute to and celebration of Black and Indigenous resistance. Pimienta continues innovating and experimenting, crafting spacious electronic cumbia compositions as well as collaborating with Afro-Colombian band Sexteto Tabalá. It's a thrilling, vital album that's had me dancing in my heart since its release. 

Afro-Cuban musicians Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne, who record as Okan, released another stunning Latin jazz album that's basically a teleportation device in disguise. Espiral fuses their Afro-Cuban roots, history and culture into compositions that evoke a Havana that only Okan can convey. 

Congolese-born singer-songwriter Pierre Kwenders collaborated with Parisian electronic artist Clément Bazin on Classe Tendresse. Over four songs, the pair presents an ambitious intercontinental dance party exploring the life cycle of a man from birth to death. Just trying to map all the sonic influences, instruments and beats is several stamps in the passport, and that's before you even get to the remixes.

In a year that has sometimes felt achingly small and insular, these records have been welcome invitations outside ourselves, to think more broadly and feel more deeply and dream more vividly.- Andrea Warner, CBC Music

Pantayo's self-titled debut was a beat-driven blend of contemporary kulintang music and I still can't quite get over how cool and complex it is. It's such a bold album — eight songs that travel across R&B, pop, electronic-kulintang instrumental, feminist punk and more — and yet the throughline is so clear after one complete listen. It is unmistakably, uniquely Pantayo: a kulintang ensemble of queer, diasporic Fillipinas. 

And one of the most personal albums of 2020 was Witch Prophet's brilliant DNA Activation, a gorgeous collection of Ethio jazz/R&B/hip-hop/soul songs in English, Amharic and Tigrinya. The album is informed by Witch Prophet's Ethiopian and Eritrean roots, and inspired by her own family members, mythology and bible stories.


In a year that has sometimes felt achingly small and insular, these records have been welcome invitations outside ourselves, to think more broadly and feel more deeply and dream more vividly. Music isn't just a gift. It's a lifeline. — Andrea Warner

6. We entered a whole new (visual) world

Are you still watching? Yes, Netflix, yes, we are. And thanks for the reminder.

It's hard to say if we're spending more or less time in front of our screens than pre-pandemic, but it feels like more, as the four walls containing us have remained mostly unchanged. What is certain is that our appetite for stimulating visual content — distraction, transportation out of reality, vicarious living, whatever you want to call it — has shot through the roof of those four walls. 

Artists, who once executed grueling schedules of live music touring, knocking out a similar routine night after night, now have to consider other creative, but less connected (and lucrative), one-off avenues like Facebook or Instagram Live to find fans. Late-night talk show and awards show performances, usually frilly with elaborate stage sets and flashing lights, have taken things a few hundred steps forward, reallocating their performance and talent budgets to accommodate pyrotechnic, multimedia-inclusive remote performances that are not only exhaustive, logistical feats, but slight flexes over the old onstage model. The Weeknd, arguably the most successful artist of the year, has used his 2020 awards show performances to flaunt his creative genius and know-no-bounds attitude: he sang from the 100th floor of a skyscraper for the MTV VMAs and rented out a casual bridge (alongside Kenny G, naturally) to march across for his two-song AMAs medley.

The 2020 Juno Awards, which were set to take place in Saskatoon on March 15, were cancelled due to growing COVID-19 concerns, leading the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) to shift the awards handout to a virtual format on June 29. The performer list whittled down to four, each act was given creative liberty to play within the confines of this new normal — including Neon Dreams performing inside a papered, graffiti-covered room and Iskwē on lush forestland.

"Each artist's vision for their creative direction was the dominating theme within how the performance was developed," says Allan Reid, President & CEO, CARAS/The JUNO Awards. "We worked with each artist and group and their team individually to develop a brand new, and unique performance concept, which contributed to making our virtual show so impactful."

While it's impressive to watch artists expand their vision beyond the traditional performance model, that connection to humans — fans reaching out their hands, the energy of screaming throngs united under a stadium roof — cannot be replaced. But as is the case with all of 2020's twists and turns, we'll take what we can get, leave what doesn't work behind, and anxiously count the days until we can welcome back what once brought us together.

And until then, hand us the remote. — Jess Huddleston


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