From psychedelic bossa nova to 'kung fu-Appalachian' folk-rock, the music defying real and conceptual borders

Music, even more than other art forms, can feel simultaneously intimate and shared; it happens in your head and all around you at the same time. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the albums that resonate most from the past year are those that speak to isolation and trauma by asserting the value of connecting with other people, even when they aren’t standing right there.

Compilation albums are a natural way to get everyone together in a virtual space, singing back and forth across your headphones. One great example from 2020 is the visual album A Home Unfamiliar which features 30 artists from Austin riffing on and bouncing off each other’s ideas in an exquisite corpse round robin to raise money for local food banks. Rappers and electronic musicians and singer-songwriters and rock stars and soul belters and video artists pick up the last notes and images from someone somewhere else, and turn it into their own thing, with a time limit of 48 hours to write their songs. Bassist Felix Pacheco creates a Latin reggae groove, which percussionist TaSzlin Muerte samples for his synth dance track; then singer-songwriter Sabrina Ellis picks up the key of B from the end of Muerte’s song to write a simple guitar ballad to a fly circling in the room. The project is sweet, virtuosic, and defiantly joyful.

That’s a vibe that also fits Saving for a Custom Van, a lengthy, heartfelt tribute to songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who died of COVID early in the pandemic at the age of 52. The album collects songs from his work with Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, as well as many of his compositions for television and film. Schlesinger’s insistently catchy, dreamy melodies are presented by the indie rock contributors with straightforward enthusiasm and care; it’s an almost unendurably bright album of mourning. That sun-drenched grief only seems more painful and more pointed as the pandemic drags on. When Ben Lee and Sarah Silverman sing those perfect harmonies on “Way Back Into Love,” the childlike, pop yearning is sweet, but you can’t help but sense a hefty dose of bitterness when you look up and see the country, nearly a year into the pandemic that claimed Schlesinger’s life, still permeated with anger and death.

“If you mixed Tom Zé and Flying Lotus in a day glo brain blender, you might get something like this—a music whose queerness is defiance.”

Negro Leo’s wonderfully idiosyncratic Desejo de Lacrar is also a project for the dead and for those at risk. The title means “desire to seal,” and is taken from Brazilian LGBTQ slang, where “to seal” is “to act insolent and revolted.” The album is an act of protest against the homophobia and fascism of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and the queer and Black people the regime targets. Leo channels Brazil’s tropicalia tradition to create a mélange of woozy, wiggy melodies that waver and dissolve, refusing to be trapped in boring sober song structures. Bits of bossa nova crack and blurt around electronic blips, psychedelic washes, or abortive free-jazz ooze. If you mixed Tom Zé and Flying Lotus in a day glo brain blender, you might get something like this—a music whose queerness is defiance.

Our Reflection Adorned by Newly Formed Stars, by electronic music project Turning Jewels to Water, was originally conceived as a kind of historical exploration. Indian drummer Ravish Momin and Haitian drummer Val Jeanty wrote the title track as a tribute to the Siddis, a group of Indians of East African origin who are believed to have come to the subcontinent in the 600s AD. Though racism has led to much of their history being forgotten, they ruled over a substantial territory in India. The title track and video celebrate the mixing of Black and Indian traditions through Momin and Jeanty’s futuristic, electronic blending of Black and Indian spirituality and beats.

In that same world-hopping vein, “Swirl in the Waters” features D.C.-based Iranian singer and drummer Kamyar Arsani, while “Crushed Petals and Stones Fall On My Drum” is a collaboration with South African percussionist and musician Mpho Molikeng. There’s also a techno-ish remix of the track by Shanghai producer Laughing Ears. World music is often stereotyped as tradition-bound, backwards looking, and geographically anchored in one region. But Turning Jewels to Water mixes rhythms and technology from across the globe, defying both conceptual barriers and travel restrictions.

Abigail Washburn has also dedicated her career to traversing borders. An Appalachian banjo-player, she’s been fascinated with Chinese music for years, performing with zither-player Wu Fei and others in the “kung fu-Appalachian avant-garde folk-rock” group The Wu Force since 2011. Wu and Washburn’s self-titled collaboration (Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn), recorded before the pandemic forced all musicians to record apart, fuses Chinese and American folk songs so they sound like they spring from a single roots tradition. The opening track, “Water is Wide / Wusuli Boat Song” is impressively seamless, with Wu’s keening wrapping around Washburn’s yodel like an embrace. Washburn sings:

“The water is wide
and I can’t cross over
and neither have I wings to fly
give me a boat that can carry two
and we shall row
my child and I.”
And Wu responds in Chinese:

“The Wusuli River with the Nanai natives:
Mountains are green, and the water is blue.
Fish are jumping, and waves are flying.
Old mother rocks her baby on the prow of the boat.”

It’s a painful wish for connection in a world split apart. The peaceful imagery and the blend of languages seems to promise that, despite politicians’ efforts to separate and stigmatize, and even though we’re mostly stuck at home waiting for the worst, the water is maybe less wide than we fear. Collaborating across cultures—and across these cultures in particular, right now—is an inspiring expression of faith in music, and in the people who make it, and listen to it. It gives you hope for 2021, and beyond.