After diving into the songs that sustained them through 2020, four faculty experts from the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music provide a playlist that will serve as the soundtrack to a hope-filled 2021. The scholars also comment on trends taking shape in the world of music.

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

“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” by Steely Dan

This song is about reassurance. It’s not an empty kind of optimism. It’s about [the idea that] there are people around you who’ve got your back — people you might not even know.

“Shorcito” by Alain Pérez

Alain Pérez is kind of Cuba’s Prince — he plays bass, guitar, keyboards, congas and timbales and writes all his own music. “Shorcito” is really about elegance and style and the age-old dance of the sexes. But in a way, it’s a very pro-feminine piece of music, because the women are in control, which I think is obvious [laughs]. It’s about beauty and enjoying beauty, and it’s also about Cuban timba, this music that is so powerful. And if you can’t dance, then you’d better check your pulse, because this music is too deep for you to sit still. Or at least tap your fingers, do something, move your head. But Alain Pérez is, to me — and I’m a Prince freak — the Latino equivalent of Prince.

“Ruby, My Dear” by Thelonious Monk

In some ways, Thelonious Monk — this performance, in particular — has the weight of the world. The song has African rhythmic code, European sophistication and new-world creativity. It’s an innovative piece. He’s a composer, a performer and an improviser, and all of it is done because of the sheer force of his personality.

He was an incredibly strange and wondrous human being who was committed to his vision and his identity, so I think the lesson of “Ruby, My Dear,” and of Thelonious Monk, is that nothing can stop you from being who you are. Nothing: no identity, no national identity, no racial identity, no musical encampment. If you are true to yourself, you have something powerful and valuable to give.

There’s a wonderful film produced by Clint Eastwood about Monk. It’s called Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. It’s a really marvelous film, because it has some incredible historic footage, and if you look at Monk, you can see a true original. We laugh because sometimes I play films of Monk for my classes of classical musicians learning to improvise. Their jaws drop, not because of technical mastery or aesthetic mastery — it’s just the sheer force of being true to who you are, and that’s the lesson of Monk.


Travis J. Cross, chair of the music department, professor of music and wind ensemble conductor, contributed the following three songs to this 2021 playlist:

“Light” from Next to Normal (original Broadway cast recording)

“Of Our New Day Begun” by Omar Thomas, performed by the Western Kentucky University Wind Ensemble

“Dynamite” by BTS

Natasha Pasternak, songwriting lecturer in the music industry program:

The way the industry was before maybe wasn’t the most efficient, and parts of it weren’t great, but we accepted them because that’s how it’s always been. This time, there’s a chance to look at the industry in a new way and figure out the things that weren’t working and how we can make those better.

Record labels created genres so they could categorize music, [but] that shouldn’t be defining how we consume it, see it or hear it. For listeners, music has the power to change lives. If you’re feeling down, putting on a record that makes you feel good does make you feel good. It’s simple but amazing. Music is always there for you, to change your day around and make you feel or make you dance or whatever it is. If you make music, make music about what’s happening right now. It’s our job as artists to be a reflection of the times, as Nina Simone said.

“Can I” by Sanjana

Sanjana was one of my students at UCLA. We got to workshop this song while she was taking my class, and I just love that it evolved in such a beautiful way. There’s a very soothing, kind of hopeful vibe of “can we get this going?” It felt really lighthearted.

“Hunting Season” by Hands & Teeth

I started going through my Canadian playlist with all of my Canadian buds and Canadian artists I really like, and I came across my song [Pasternak is a member of Hands & Teeth]. I thought it was fitting for 2021, because all of us are feeling like, “I can’t wait to meet you, I can’t wait to go out and party, I can’t wait to date” — all the things that we’re supposed to do when we’re in college or in our 20s, 30s and 40s. It’s a song that I would play when everyone can go back to hanging out and meeting strangers and going to parties again. It’s a party song!

“Hard Time” by Jeremie Albino

“Long Time Running (Live)” by Miss Emily

This song is actually not her song. It’s by a band called The Tragically Hip — the holy grail of the music industry in Canada. They came out in the ’80s and ’90s, and everyone expected them to blow up in the States, but they never really did.

That song is really well-known in Canada. My best friend, Miss Emily, who’s an insane vocalist, decided to cover it live — just her vocals and bass. I felt like it was suitable, because it’s been a long time running — it just feels like we’ve been going through this [pandemic] for so long. But once we come out of it, it’s going to be worth the wait.

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

From Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, the “Credo” and “Et resurrexit”

These two choruses from Bach’s Mass represent a profound conveyance of belief and ebullient reemergence. I am making the conscious choice of choosing to embrace the hope embodied in this time of vaccines.