Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty … is to reflect the times.” Many of the musicians whose songs grace our 2020 and 2021 playlists expertly performed that duty. These playlists were curated by four faculty members from the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, shared in a two-part series (one for each year). The scholars also comment on trends taking shape in the world of music during these times of tumult.


Arturo O’Farrill, professor of global jazz studies and the school of music’s associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion:

2020 was a year in which you saw a lot of artists grow consciences. Sometimes, as jazz musicians, we’re not welcome to have political opinions.

I don’t believe in the construct of an expert music maker; if you have an instrument lying by your side, play it every day. Specialization keeps people from experiencing great things, so please pick up your flute, your tap shoes or whatever. Just do it. In the end, it makes the world a better place.

“Four Questions” by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra featuring Cornel West

[The song] is challenging socially, politically and musically, because the Latin jazz on it doesn’t sound like Tito Puente sounds. The presence of Cornel West is polarizing in some circles, but the truth matters, and he spoke the truth. The country is going through an incredible change, and you’ll see that reflected not just in the messaging in jazz, but in the way people interact. We’re breaking down walls of gender in jazz — we’re breaking down walls in all kinds of ways and especially in the world of Latin jazz. We’re now seeing not just Cuban jazz but Peruvian jazz, and the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy. So all kinds of walls are breaking, and I couldn’t be happier, because I think jazz is revolutionary music.

“This Is America” by Childish Gambino

[Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino] is a genius. If you’re hip to [his TV series] Atlanta, you know there’s no end to this man’s talents. This song, in particular, took on a very dear and important reality, and when I say, “dear,” I mean, because it hurts. It hurts to see violence in America. It hurts to see violence against Black people, against people of color.

But somehow, [Gambino] took this message of great horror and made it something that also communicated how distant we are from the hurt. The message of that piece is that we should not be distant from that hurt. The message of that tune is beautiful, because it’s [saying], “Hey, look at this. Let’s face ourselves. This is America.”

“Stand!” and “Family Affair” by Sly and the Family Stone

I’m amazed at the band’s sociopolitical and musical brilliance. It’s important that every student stands — and stands strong, stands fierce and stands proud. No matter who you are, your identity matters, and I think that that’s the messaging in “Stand!”

“Family Affair” has a very potent message, too, because it speaks to the idea that we are responsible for one another. It speaks to the idea that no matter [your] race, ethnicity, identity, sexual preference and gender, you’re responsible for everyone, and everyone’s responsible for everyone else.


Travis J. Cross, chair of the music department, professor of music and wind ensemble conductor, contributed the following three songs to this 2020 playlist:

“Hope” by Jason Robert Brown

“All by Myself” by Céline Dion

“Go Back Home” by Audra McDonald


Natasha Pasternak, songwriting lecturer in the music industry program:

We needed music in 2020 more than ever before. People wanted to feel the comfort of music that they know and their memories of it.

“Suspirium” by Thom Yorke

In 2018, I bought tickets to Thom Yorke’s small-venue solo show in San Francisco. If you wonder what it would be like to be inside Thom Yorke’s mind, this show was it: He was all over the place for an hour and a half.

At the end of the show, he sat down at the piano and played [“Suspirium,”] and everyone froze. By the end of it, I had tears rolling down my face, and I looked around, and everyone was crying. This is a moment I’ll never forget: this beautiful, spiritual moment with music and him and the audience. We just sort of became one being. I chose this song to represent that longing to have that kind of moment again with live music. This COVID experience has also forced us to become like one, and a lot of people have [realized] that we’re not so separate and that we have to work as one community.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan

I wanted a song to mark this weird theme of history repeating. This [song] is something my mom listened to during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, and now I’m listening to it with the same sort of stuff going on around me. I found that extremely draining and depressing; I thought we were changing things. I wanted to mark that idea of how we all thought we were moving forward, but this process is actually not linear.

“Goodbye Before Hello” by Julie Fader

“Go Slowly” by Radiohead

The past year has been kind of this weird dystopia, and if there’s one thing Radiohead does well, it’s dystopia. For me, [this song] was about comfort — something comforting me through the process. There’s definitely despair in there, but it’s like a warm blanket of despair.


Eileen Strempel, inaugural dean of UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music:

2020 challenged us not only with the pandemic, but also with elemental questions about our society, our communities and how we often fail each other.

“Four Questions” by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra featuring Cornel West

I found inspiration in our beloved colleague Arturo O’Farrill and his Grammy-winning recording with Cornel West.

Part I, Scene 6: Gethsemane: Bekha Adonai Khasiti (In You, Lord, I Take Refuge) (Miryam, Narrator, Yeshua) — Richard Danielpour (UCLA Chamber Singers, Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, Falletta)

In the year of the pandemic, I particularly found comfort in the mezzo-soprano’s aria “In You, Lord, I Take Refuge,” written by our talented faculty member, composer Richard Danielpour. His “The Passion of Yeshua” was nominated for a Grammy for the choral performance contributed by our very own UCLA Chamber Singers, with UCLA’s James K. Bass [director of choral studies at the school of music] as chorus master.

This article and playlist for 2020 are the first entry of a two-part series. Check back next week for the article and playlist featuring song selections for 2021.