The Grim Reaper’s 2020 Playlist
We lost a whole world of music

When I first set out to compile a playlist of musicians who passed in 2020, I knew it would be a bigger task than usual, given the number of COVID-related deaths around the world. But I had no earthly idea what a can of worms I was opening.

It turns out there are a lot of working musicians out there, and it is of course normal in any year to lose many of them. Even if 2020 hadn’t brought with it a worldwide pandemic, this list would have been long. Once I started going down the rabbit hole, I discovered among the departed the names of countless famous musical figures from other parts of the world, a vast number of which were unfamiliar to me. Reading about these folks, it turns out many of them are cultural icons in their corners of the globe — and I felt obliged to include more than a few.

I’m talking Indian playback singers, Serbian folkies, French jazz guitarists, Israeli chanteuses, Romanian prog rockers, Japanese acid jazzbos, Dutch noise artists, Chinese pop stars, on and on. All of these and more are in this elephantine playlist.

There are also songs by artists who are still alive, but specifically recordings featuring a key member of the group who has died. This includes Patti Smith Group (RIP Ivan Kral), Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band (RIP Alto Reed) and numerous others.

But this thing could have been much longer, too; I left out many classical musicians simply because it’s difficult to showcase an individual’s work in the context of a huge symphony — and the pieces tend to be lengthy, as well. Likewise there are a couple of outlier rock acts and rappers who didn’t make the list simply due to the fact that all of their available material was too abrasive or thoroughly explicit for a playlist of this nature. (For those with delicate sensibilities: There are a couple PG-13 tracks sprinkled throughout.) And then there were some artists whose work is simply not on Spotify.

Had this list truly included every single musician listed on Wikipedia as having died in 2020, it would have been at least 500 songs long. This roughly-curated version totals a mere 377 songs and takes 20 hours, 31 minutes to play end to end.

Another unexpected side effect of compiling this list is a sort of melancholic numbness that descended on me somewhere around February 17. (The playlist is arranged in the order of the deaths of the corresponding musicians.) Reading an endless roll call of the newly dead, with perfunctory descriptions of who they are and their causes of death… It gets heavy pretty fast.

English folk singer-songwriter and peace activist, 92, COVID-19
American scientist, 37, shot
British rapper, 47, complications from COVID-19
Dutch actor, 75, suicide
American politician, 54, COVID-19
Belgian art dealer, 51, heart attack
South African doctor and human rights activist, 68, COVID-19
French teacher, 47, beheaded
Russian-Kazakh Olympic wrestler, 42, COVID-19

This year in Turkey, where the government has imprisoned members of the revolutionary band Grup Yorum and prohibited them from performing, two members of that band died as a result of a hunger strike. That puts them on this grim playlist twice, a dubious honor shared by only two other bands — UFO and the Left Banke.

Besides the obvious COVID deaths, I was saddened to see so many suicides, a lot of which were listed with the methodology of the act — gunshot, hanging, overdose. Much cancer, as one might expect. A surprising amount of Lewy body dementia, too.

As for just who was dying, it was, naturally, all over the map — but there seemed to me to be a few statistical anomalies. For one, a lot of bass players died this year. And I mean concert double bassists, jazz guys, heavy rockers — so many bass players. An inordinate number of Indian movie singers and veterans of the Eurovision Song Contest. Multiple chess masters, too, and strangely, at least two competitive players of the ancient Chinese game Go. Oh, and Catholic prelates by the barrel.

None of this is intended to trivialize the passing of these folks, please understand. I merely wish to illustrate how badly I underestimated the simple task of putting together what I thought would be a garden variety end-of-year playlist of the departed. This is meant entirely to honor and pay tribute to those whose life work has so enriched our own, at this hour when their singing and playing have ceased forever.

I hope you’ll take as much time as you need to work through this epic song session. I discovered several really wonderful artists and songs that I would likely never have come across otherwise, and I bet you will too.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, I most sincerely wish you the best in 2021 and forever after. Here’s hoping it’s filled with dear hearts and sweet, sweet music.

*There is a nearly 100% chance I missed some musician you love. I was going cross-eyed staring at the monitor and the omission was almost certainly unintentional.

About Michael Carmody

Michael Carmody is a Gen-X musician living and working on the Great Plains.

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