Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images
In 2020, there were many ways to understand the year in music; this week, we're considering four. Even more than "mindfulness" or "self-care," "chill" has morphed into a context-flattening buzzword, not quite a genre of music but certainly a tool used to categorize it, especially as a beacon of calm in your streaming app of choice. Still, it might be just the right term for the palliative care so many of us have spent the months indoors desperately self-administering, by way of whatever meditative media we could find. The musicians who massaged our temples for us took more than one approach: some immersive soundscapes, some acoustic lullabies, one wild pop-punk experiment. We couldn't conquer the year's chaos on our own, and on some days it conquered us — but in our better moments, we could at least try our hardest to chill. Here are some of the songs and albums that helped.
Gia Margaret, "no sleep no dream"
The shaky, high-frequency drone that opens "no sleep no dream" sounds like a transmission beamed in from the outer reaches of our solar system, but in less than two minutes, Gia Margaret's careful piano melody — the weight and realness of the movement of keys captured in the recording — reels the listener back to Earth, down to the soft lapping of waves against a shore. It's a song that centers the soul, a song that generates a tranquility not so easily shaken once it's found. —Cyrena Touros
Jess Williamson (feat. Hand Habits), "Pictures of Flowers"
What song was in your head in the first days of our new normal? This graceful lament from LA canyon chanteuse Jess Williamson grows from the ground of "Fade into You" by Mazzy Star, itself an elegy since the February death of that band's founder David Roback. Williamson and her remotely recorded foil, Meg Duffy of Hand Habits, tether that classic's floating ennui to particulars of this year, as Williamson sings of dashed plans and hemmed-in wandering and Duffy wraps guitar lines around her like a weighted blanket, a gentle restraint. —Ann Powers
In a year filled with short and painful jolts of information, I found myself reaching for records with a different sense of time. On Peel, Nairobi-based producer Joseph Kamaru, who records as KMRU, creates oscillating ambient music of unhurried change. Individual tracks evoke otherworldly imagery personal to each listener, like faces seen in clouds — a suspended boulder straining against a steel cable as it rocks back and forth, say, or a sleeping cyborg's mechanical respiration. Taken as a 75-minute whole, Peel is an invitation to stretch out, slow down, and experience the present, the only moment we'll ever have. —Mark Richardson
Westerman, "The Line"
Glamour — now at a premium, now more erotic than ever — lingers woefully in our distant future. A long braise in the music of Westerman is a satisfying stopgap. With a voice like ganache on a double boiler and a tone as tony as Roxy Music's swan songs on Avalon, "The Line" feels restorative because of its woozy decadence — a lot like nudity against a pima sheet set, crème liqueur on ice, or squashing an expensive macaron between two fingers out of boredom. Anyone who misses the pang of being glanced at in a dim room should take note. —Mina Tavakoli
Bad Bunny, "Trellas"
Amid the unexpected emo rap and rock-infused trap of his genre-defying surprise album El Último Tour Del Mundo, Bad Bunny manages to challenge his growing fanbase with a few wondrous moments of quietude. A tender, albeit quirky ballad produced by MAG with dreamy guitar from Mick Coogan (a veteran of the reverb-soaked indie pop label Cascine), "Trellas" finds the Latin superstar searching the skies for cosmic love. Lyrically, he fantasizes about interstellar dating and extraterrestrial sex, singing earnestly from his earthbound vantage point. Recorded during quarantine, the song reflects an almost meditative calm, a rare achievement in unprecedentedly chaotic times. —Gary Suarez
Sam Sweeney, "Steppy Downs Road (Unearth Repeat)"
This perfect fiddle instrumental conjures an idyllic British countryside before the age of electricity, when times were simpler, anxiety wasn't a word ... and the average lifespan was 31 years. You know, the good old days. —Otis Hart
Lomelda, "Hannah Sun"
In a soft voice over strummed guitar, Hannah Read mentions miles traveled: She's in Chicago and Atlanta; on a Spanish sidewalk, then in an Alaskan airport. But the true subject of "Hannah Sun" is empathy, collapsing the distance not between places but between people, even between versions of ourselves. As the song ends, Read repeats its last line, "Hannah, do no harm," like a mantra — an apt reminder for a year where risk felt omnipresent and kindness seemed the only reasonable goal. —Marissa Lorusso
Clarice Jensen, The experience of repetition as death
With The experience of repetition as death, cellist Clarice Jensen has created an album that's both deep repose and call to action. With its radiant, soaring, sometimes terrifying loops of sound, it has provided, for me, not just an inviting space to clear the mind, but also a place for the mind to focus, confronting the demons that were the year 2020. —Tom Huizenga
Laraaji, Sun Piano
When I wasn't hitting repeat on the first few seconds of Kylie Minogue's "Magic," a piano riff so luxuriously filtered it sounds like a steel drum corps, I got my dopamine this year from a musician with a starker take on the instrument. Though as wordless and pleasant as the deep-focus playlists it likely landed on, Sun Piano isn't background music: Laraaji recorded this set of solo improvisations in a church, and the hard, smooth surfaces of the space magnify the attack of the keys and the jazz in the artist's fingers. It's the kind of beauty you can't just let wash over you — you have to sit with it, reckon with it, let it remind you where you are. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Lửa (with Phayam), สวัสดี Hibiscus
Fire is often seen as chaos, but in its flames is pure creation. Lửa, a Vietnamese musician whose name translates as "fire," makes ambient music that responds to the environment around him. สวัสดี Hibiscus was one of many albums he released on the label CHO OYU this year, but in this collaboration with Thai multi-instrumentalist Phayam, gentle melodies shift like secrets whispered through the jungle canopy. —Lars Gotrich
Sylvan Esso, "Frequency"
The warm hum of the electronic compositions of Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn is like home to me, as are the delicately dialed-in harmonies that make "Frequency" a hypnotic and easy listen. The frequency in question is an ambiguous love, intangible and effervescent — the radio waves of a favorite song, a warm stripe of sun in the winter, the magnetizing forces between ourselves and the things we yearn to hold more closely. —Emma Bowers
Dylan Henner, The Invention of the Human
For some time now, we've all been caught in the turn of a page, a feeling that's intensifying as the dawn of a new year creeps up the horizon. But it's not all bad: Time spent in between-spaces, in the gravity-free float of transition, can be fortifying if embraced and kept at an arm's length. Throughout its runtime, Dylan Henner's The Invention of the Human is a beautiful example of this sort of healthy idling, but "The Peach Tree Next Door Grew Over Our Fence" is maybe its most peaceful moment. —Andrew Flanagan
Josiah Hughes, "Damn It"
Blink-155, a podcast devoted to Blink-182, marked its final episode by curating a covers compilation dedicated exclusively to the early hit "Dammit." They're all fun and kooky in their own ways, but this seven-minute version by podcast co-host Josiah Hughes stands out by loosening the original tense teen frustrations to a more knowing pace, comfortable with how much growing up (and, by extension, life) can suck. —Andrew Limbong
The Microphones, "Microphones In 2020"
In a year when time seemed to lose all meaning, it's only right to take comfort in a song that unfurls to album length. Recording as Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum has spent the last few years reflecting on death and its aftermath, in songs that could be punishingly sad and profoundly beautiful. But here, Elverum delves further into his past by returning to an old moniker, The Microphones, and spinning a hypnotic 45-minute reflection that transcends and upends mere nostalgia. A late-night drive in song form, "Microphones in 2020" feels vast and lived-in, with an eye trained on the infinite. —Stephen Thompson