WXPN Best of 2020: How The Menzingers, Samia, and Bilal used quarantine to collaborate, create, and reimagine - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

As the year winds down, we’re continuing our look back at the music of these past twelve months with an ongoing series of XPN Best of 2020 deep dives. Today, The Key’s Emily Herbein reflects on the year’s best quarantine collaborations.

During the first half of the pandemic, it should have been pretty evident that if any new music was coming out, it was either directly related to quarantine, or spurred by the theme of isolation. Thankfully, I think that trend ran its course by the summer and artists began recalibrating their focus toward writing about more internal themes, or this widespread collective grief we all feel. Some artists aren’t writing about quarantine at all, but for whatever reason, this lockdown has given us some really incredible music that likely wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Samia’s debut LP, The Baby, dropped earlier this year, and she’s now having artists like Philly’s own The Districts and DC’s Bartees Strange reimagine every track. Though the full album is yet to be released, Samia has put out the following reimagined singles: “Is There Something In The Movies?” by Briston Maroney, “Pool” by Bartees Strange, “Stellate” by The Districts, and “Waverly” by Anjimile. Though the Brooklyn-based singer most definitely has the reach to collaborate with these artists outside of the pandemic, it feels like a project that could only happen because of it. With her exceptional storytelling skills, collaborators like Maroney have said that they “really enjoyed the opportunity to retell this story in an attempt to show my appreciation as a listener for Samia’s willingness to share her experiences with us all.”

The Menzingers reworked their 2019 LP, Hello Exile, into an acoustic medley of isolation tracks with meanings that hit even harder. They appropriately titled it From Exile, and released it in September. On the project, producer Will Yip, who engineered Hello Exile as well, said, “Definitely the silver lining during the COVID creative era is that bands are kind of forced to be creative in the way that they approach writing and collaborating rather than not doing anything at all. I’ve seen a lot of bands, from Circa Survive to The Menzingers, a lot of bands that are proactive firsthand on how they can still get together virtually to make music. And it was so tough because there’s definitely a special energy when we’re able to get together in a room.”

The album listens like a love letter to a life you used to live. It’s mournful in all the right places, and forces both hope and nostalgia. Standout tracks like “Anna” have subtle lyrical changes that make you feel like you’ve lived the exact moment singer Greg Barnett is missing. From Exile also expertly touches on the unknown that has embodied this entire year.

Singer Tom May explained the rationale behind certain purposeful changes in order to emphasize that feeling: “That kind of that longing for the earlier, happier times, even though they may be remembered incorrectly, the kind of nostalgia that existed for them. And now we’ve gotten to a situation where we literally can’t have them, no matter what, because of the current circumstances. And we kind of rewrote the structure of the songs and the way they sound sonically is now kind of a little bit more clear and comes forward. And it’s missing the high rock kind of energy which may have made it a little happier sounding, so now it just becomes dismal by default.”

Bilal was quite literally inspired by quarantine and released a compilation album, VOYAGE-19, which features knockout collaborators like Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, and Madison McFerrin for one expansive, remote project. Tracked with 30 different artists from 30 different locations via a livestream session, Bilial hoped to encapsulate the massively overwhelming feelings that have defined this last year.

The title, VOYAGE-19, describes 2020 as this seemingly never-ending journey that we’re all taking together in order to get through the pandemic. The closing track, “Voyage To A New World,” features Erykah Badu reciting a poem with these lines: “In the new world, we’ll make a better day / No stress, no more wars going, no more hate politics / I’ll be waiting for the day.” I don’t know if there’s any better way to sum up the feeling of optimism that we’re all desperately trying to cling to.

Regarding the project, Bilal’s team at HighBreed music wrote: “[The artists] reminisced, laughed, wrote, recorded, produced, and mixed a brand new song each day. Viewers enjoyed rare access to the traditionally private world of song creation and album production – for free.”

The VOYAGE-19 project certainly exists because of quarantine, and it could likely have been completed otherwise, but it feels even more meaningful when you consider Bilal’s reach. That sense of connection has been imperative to this year, and Bilal and their team captured it beautifully.

This year, artists have been tested time and time again, and the result has been stunning projects like these that showcase versatility, uncharted musicality, and the drive to not give up in the face of this huge adversity. Philly artists and beyond have showcased their refusal to quit or give in to burnout — and thankfully, we have music that adeptly represents this incredibly weird moment in time.

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