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A Year of Loss and Music Discovery

In 2020, the idea of unearthing new music seemed difficult. But one internet radio station helped us ground ourselves.

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Lovers Rock is the second and most affecting film in director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series, which surveys life in the West Indian communities that took root in postwar London. Of the five films, Lovers Rock is also the least focused on narrative, choosing instead to tell its story through place: McQueen constructs a council flat, down to the sweating wallpaper, that people palpably lived inside. It’s about a dance—the dance. Gorgeous, hopeful, bright, and burning away in their best, and maybe only going-out clothes, the film builds to a breathless a cappella sequence in which the partygoers belt a shimmering chorus that, without the underlying music, sounded indescribably mournful. Not only had I never seen anything like it, I had never heard Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” before, and so I fully assumed the role of a too-young McQueen, who tagged along to parties like this one in the ’80s, absorbed by a sensate experience that was forbidden to me. It was beautiful and sad. No matter what happens with the vaccine, it will be so long before any of us can—with a clear conscience—experience a spontaneous moment of community like this again.

Music has been comforting to me in the endless today of 2020, and I’ve resented it. Not the act of listening to music itself, but the chore of plying the day’s monotony with sound. What album could both take me back and not make me think about what we’ve lost? What song could both describe where we are and whisk me away from here? How can I manufacture a different mood? Genuine, transportive moments of discovery were as hard as ever to come by, and the only thing that mattered. When a lack of space—mental, physical, and emotional—conspired to sap me of the urgency to search these moments out in 2020, there was always NTS Radio.

Founded in the London borough of Hackney in 2011, NTS is an online radio station with studios both in London and Los Angeles, streaming music from all over the globe at all hours of the day. The world of NTS is vast and worthy of exploration. The station’s hosts are many, their tastes as diffuse as their backgrounds—some are recording artists, some clothing designers, others are comedians, some are just enthusiasts. Truly anything goes. Occasionally, when I open the app on my phone, I’m assaulted by the claustrophobic, hysteric sounds of “Virtua Mima” by the late Satoshi Kon, who wrestled with themes of alienation and loss in his work. Other times, it’s Irish avant-pop artist Maria Somerville broadcasting from Galway, filling up a pool of disembodied, echo-y ambient music and leggy post-punk for me to drift in. Perhaps it’s Atlanta rapper Yung Baby Tate scooping up the jagged pieces of a day I just can’t seem to rescue on my own with an hour of her personal selections, starting with a favorite from her latest EP— this one’s for you to “bounce back.” When I needed a new crop of aggressive regional rap to jolt me from bed, or to make a mountain of dishes seem smaller, there was Hit a Lick radio. So much of what saved us from ourselves this year was neither new, nor popular, nor influential. Sometimes, it simply needed to be a surprise.

Kyle Ng’s Brain Dead Radio brought quite a few. Some recent Shazams from the show, whose host owns a lifestyle brand of the same name: “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t,” a sweeping 2016 rock song about acceptance from Mothers, an experimental folk band from Athens, Georgia; and “Comme ça,” an effervescent French electronic pop record from by Domenique Dumont, which just sounds like acceptance. If I felt I was attempting to Shazam songs often enough, I could favorite a host or an episode for later. The urgency briefly returned for a song or two at a time, even if it was somewhat wasted—although tracklists are not always there when the programs air, they are often provided later.

On her monthly show The Windmills of Your Mind, Taylor Rowley softly rattles off the encyclopedic information of the last round of songs she’s just played, in the tradition of late-night student-run radio. The idea is to create a connection between you and the music by patiently explaining her own—at the top of the hour was a discarded demo from American vocal duo the Carpenters, whom Rowley had recently been on a podcast to discuss; what she played was maybe the saddest Christmas song ever written by “Ruth,” a mysterious woman that Rowley can’t learn more about. It’s illuminating to hear what drives people to Boolean searches, the obscurities they care about, what moves them. In that sense, NTS Radio is the ideal tool for a year that was largely spent coping and burrowing deeper into our niches.

How could we come to consensus in a year when the online world became the real one? How could we determine what was worth documenting or what was “the best” when “good” was a designation we bestowed upon anything that made us feel more like ourselves? For DJ Bempah and JK of Scary Things, the margins are hardly worth defining. On the show, which deals primarily with black U.K. music, they give new songs an arbitrary score out of five, accompanying them with hilariously simple explanations. “Loading,” a new addicting single from West London drill rapper Central Cee wasn’t deserving of the full five marks because Cee, by his own admission, isn’t yet in his bag: He’s loading.

Ed Baile, a music supervisor for Small Axe, said the music of Lovers Rock had a specific aim: to “make people who are in the garden go into the living room.” The partygoers’ eyes widen when they hear the opening notes of “Kung Fu Fighting,” they pound on the walls when the alarm sounds at the beginning of the “Kunta Kinte Dub.” Without the physical context, without movement, there is only what music is supposed to do, and for each of us, at any given time, that can mean a very different thing.

To wit, the actual song of the year, for me, was one that sparked a vital realization: The greatest gospel songs are simple love songs, and the most honest ones articulate faith as marching deliberately forward, into total darkness. “How Great Thou Art” by the Sensational Saints is an audacious song and it is an old one. It’s the standard hymn sung to the tune of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which sours the penitently joyous tone of it, laying bare the struggle. What could be a greater act of bravery, of sacrifice, than loving fully, unreservedly, when the sole promise of doing so is experiencing the same joy and misery life dispenses at random? As the story goes, on Discogs, the group was plucked from a pool room, a clothing store, and a literal shop window. The lead singer’s voice searches for meaning in the suffering, or rather, seems to lose and find it constantly. It swells and quakes and splits when he screeches “lemme tell ya how GRAY-eat” as the song winds down, with massive bitterness and relief. I wanted what he’d found, I was grateful that I’d discovered this arrangement.