It’s been a traumatic 12 months. On March 13, 2020—one year ago today—we shared a TGC playlist called Songs of Comfort for Anxious Souls to offer a “soundtrack of hope and worship in a world of fear.” We added songs to the playlist over subsequent weeks and months, as the pandemic worsened when we hoped it would end. It quickly became the most popular playlist TGC ever curated.
Music—and the arts more broadly—are vital in times of crisis. I know it has been for me this year. On days when my mind struggled to grasp what was happening in the headlines, my heart was buoyed by music. Sometimes beauty makes sense when little else does.
Sometimes beauty makes sense when little else does.
This year I have been so grateful that our creator God made us in his image, to be creators too. Thank God we have the ability to make meaning in a chaotic world. Thank God we can create beauty as a testament to hope in a world of fear, and resurrection in a world of death.
Since the world changed last March, musical artists have beautifully captured many moods and themes (lament, fear, isolation, loneliness, disappointment, hope). Earlier I created a YouTube playlist with more than 30 of my favorite musical expressions released in the last 12 months. Below are some month-by-month highlights on YouTube that marked this “unprecedented” moment of meaning-making.
As we process the grief of the last year and look forward with renewed hope to the post-pandemic future, maybe these songs will bless you too.
March 2020: Jonathan Ogden, ‘Worship Session – 30/03/20’
Whether in his solo work or as part of Rivers & Robots, Jonathan Ogden is one of Christian music’s most formidable talents—and his improvisational worship sets (from his home in the UK) were such a blessing to me during the pandemic. This one in particular, from the first few weeks of lockdown, was bracingly beautiful. I wept through stretches of it. As Jonathan cries out to God, alone with his music and prayers, he captures the neediness and fear that drove so many of us to our knees in the surreal first weeks of the pandemic. Check out his new singles from his forthcoming acoustic EP, Songs From Home.
April 2020: Madison Cunningham, ‘The Age of Worry’
There were lots of covers in 2020 that fit the moment well (I also loved Drew and Ellie Holcomb’s “kitchen cover” of “Home,” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros). But my favorite cover of the year was Madison Cunningham’s taken on John Mayer’s “The Age of Worry.” Her acoustic version of the song brilliantly reinterpreted Mayer’s original for the heightened worry, anxiety, and isolation of our pandemic world. “Rage in the age of worry” is perhaps the most apt song lyric for representing 2020. Be sure to also watch Madison’s lovely performance, with Liz Vice, at TGC’s 2020 Advent concert.
May 2020: Josh Garrels, ‘Fear Thou Not’
In late May, Josh Garrels released an album of hymns and worship songs—and it was the musical comfort food I needed. Peace to All Who Enter Here was a quintessential quarantine album—with various musicians recording parts independently while sheltering in place in their homes. Highlights on the album include covers of “Wash Me Clean” (A Boy and His Kite), “Steadfast” (Sandra McCracken), “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” as well as originals like “Fear Thou Not” (watch video below)—Josh’s stunning musical setting to Isaiah 41:10.
June 2020: Ondara, ‘Lockdown On Date-Night Tuesday’
Kenyan-born, Dylan-esque, Minneapolis-dwelling folk troubadour Ondara may have created the definitive quarantine album in Folk N’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation (he’ll have to fight Taylor Swift for that title). With only an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and plenty of harrowing headlines for inspiration, Ondara wrote and recorded the album during the pandemic’s initial months. Songs include “From Six Feet Away,” “Isolation Depression Syndrome,” and a fitting tribute to love in the ruins: “Lockdown On Date-Night Tuesday” (watch video below).
July 2020: Antoine Bradford, ‘Trust in You’
Antoine Bradford’s “Trust in You” was an anthem I returned to again and again this last year. Amid the wobbly uncertainty and anxiety of all things 2020—pandemic, protests, politics—Antoine’s beautifully simple song was orienting. The chorus—which was featured in TGC’s Night of Lament for Racial Justice—captures the wisdom of building your life on God: the only immovable, unshakeable foundation in the world. “When I trust in you,” Antoine sings, “I do the thing I was made to do / To live a life that fully rests in you / And all your promises for me.”
August 2020: Shane & Shane, ‘As the Deer’
In other years, Shane & Shane’s album of nostalgic ’90s youth-group songs, Vintage, could have felt ironic or gimmicky. But in 2020 it felt sincere and needed. In a world that was falling apart, these throwback worship songs were a great comfort—both in the way they evoked simpler times, but also in how they bore witness to the God who is always worthy of worship, no matter what disaster the world currently endures. Their version of “As the Deer” is a personal favorite. Be sure to also watch Shane & Shane’s performances on TGC’s 2020 ‘Songs of Hope’ Advent concert.
September 2020: The Porter’s Gate, ‘Instrument of Peace’
The Porter’s Gate released two albums that met the moment of 2020: Justice Songs and Lament Songs. So much injustice was exposed this last year. So much lament was expressed. Worship should engage these realities, and The Porter’s Gate showed us how it can be done. Some of my favorites from these timely recordings include “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” “The Zacchaeus Song” (feat. Sandra McCracken and Paul Zach), “Wake Up Jesus” (feat. Liz Vice), and the Francis of Assisi–inspired prayer, “Instrument of Peace” (watch below).
October 2020: Justin Bieber, ‘Lonely’
On one level this Justin Bieber song—performed in October on Saturday Night Live—is autobiographical, specifically about the artist’s loneliness as a child celebrity who has lived in a fishbowl for most of his life. But the vulnerability of Bieber’s isolation is also a metaphor for what many of us felt in the long months of social distancing. We can “have it all” on paper, but if we’re cut off from meaningful and nourishing relationships (“nobody to call”), it’s hard to keep going. In a year when the pandemic made the loneliness crisis even worse, Bieber’s “Lonely” spoke to the scattered masses.
November 2020: Keith & Kristyn Getty, Matt Boswell Jordan Kauflin, Matt Merker, and Matt Papa, ‘Christ Our Hope in Life and Death’
The Gettys released a well-timed, instant classic with this modern hymn, which takes its inspiration from the first article in the Heidelberg Catechism. The rousing song was released early in the pandemic and then performed later in the year at the virtual Sing! Conference (watch below). Few lyrics this year were as true and hope-filled as those in this song: “Who holds our days within his hand? What comes, apart from his command? And what will keep us to the end? The love of Christ, in which we stand.” It wasn’t the only great song released this year inspired by the Heidelberg Catechism. Tenielle Neda’s “What Is My Hope?” is also wonderful.
December 2020: Fleet Foxes, ‘Can I Believe You’
Fleet Foxes released a stunning new album, Shore, on the fall equinox (September 22). The band performed a quarantine concert (in a church, with a choir!) on the winter solstice. Their music very literally engages the changing of the seasons, and it hit the spot for me this year. Watch their December performance—from St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn—for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s a good example of the spiritual cross-pressures of our secular age. It’s a non-religious song performed with decidedly religious stylings—an expression of secular spiritual longing within (literally) a sanctuary space of Christian transcendence.
January 2021: Chris Renzema, ‘Let the Ground Rest’
With the turn of the calendar year from 2020 to 2021, many of us hoped for a better year (even if the pandemic was worse than ever). Chris Renzema’s “Let the Ground Rest”—though released last April as part of the album of the same name—was a fitting track for this new-year season. It’s a song about patience, waiting, and seasons. “Don’t you find it strange,” Chris sings, “That God he made four seasons / And only one spring.” It’s a reminder, as this long winter begins to thaw, that there’s purpose to what goes on beneath the ground, even when all seems barren and bleak: “I watched him plant a seed then let the ground rest / So child oh believe, ‘cause I promise there’s a harvest.”
February 2021: Madison Cunningham, ‘Broken Harvest’
Prompted by NPR’s Song Project to write an original song on the pandemic-inspired theme of “dreams deferred,” Madison Cunningham came up with the exquisite “Broken Harvest,” which for my money is the best overall song to come out of this long, awful year. Inspired by The Little House on the Prairie, it’s a song about artists as farmers whose harvests were destroyed by the “hail storm” of COVID-19. But it’s also a tune that resonates universally—for all of us had plans that were scrapped or deferred in the last year. The heart of the song is its climactic repetition of the phrase “All things fade away,” a haunting reminder of life’s fragility, which may be the truest takeaway of all from the last year.
Bonus: Poor Bishop Hooper’s EveryPsalm project
Undoubtedly, the music that spoke to my soul most consistently over the last year was the EveryPsalm collection of Psalm-based songs by Poor Bishop Hooper. With a new psalm set to music each week, the growing collection has made it (as of today) through Psalm 63. You should check them all out, but a couple of my favorites are Psalm 1 (watch below), Psalm 2, Psalm 23, Psalm 33, Psalm 34, and Psalm 51. Put this music on in your home and just let is play for days. Surround yourself with the music of God’s Word.