Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the shape of the music world has been dramatically different in 2020. Gigs remain largely much out of the question for now, festivals have taken an enforced fallow year, and the doors of our favourite clubs and pubs have all been bolted shut for the year to protect from the spread of the virus.
NME’s People of the Year looks a little different this year, too. Ordinarily, it might’ve been crammed full of stand-out headliners, the magical by-chance moments that came to define a festival, and nimble orchestrators of the sets that brought thousands together into a flailing mass. But in 2020, it’s a celebration of the people who made a tough time that bit more bearable – and many of them used their platforms to challenge systemic racism, manage the tolls of lockdown, combat child poverty and arts funding, and the fight against the virus itself.
For the rest of this week, we’ll be rounding up the highlights from one of the weirdest years in living memory, and revisiting some of the biggest and best moments that gave us some much-needed respite. Check back later in the week for our favourite tracks, albums, films and TV shows of the year – all lovingly voted for and compiled by Team NME. Here are the people we couldn’t have done it without…
El Hunt, Staff Writer
It’s been hard for emerging artists to make any headway in 2020, with gigs off the cards and crucial slots during festival season a complete wasteland. You have to wonder if that lack of communal moments is why the intimate, brilliant songwriting of Londoner Arlo Parks acted as a crux for many during lockdown’s most difficult periods.
In June, a breakout performance during BBC One’s replacement Glastonbury coverage in June showcased a star whose greatest strength was vulnerability. Her empathetic anthem ‘Black Dog’ – and its simply devastating lyrics – acted as a soothing balm in the year from hell. Parks’ message was clear: keep moving forward, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how often it may dim.
During what could have been a downtime, Parks won praise for her stunning rendition of Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Moon Song’, nabbed her debut NME cover and completed work on her upcoming debut album, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’. It wasn’t the traditional rise to fame for a burgeoning artist, but Parks’ can-do spirit offered a reminder of the power of kindness.
Why 2020 belongs to her: As the sun set on Worthy Farm, her beautiful performance during Glastonbury’s cancelled 50th weekender was a tear-jerking reminder of the power songwriters like herself can yield. Thomas Smith
Daisy May Cooper
The endless drudgery of lockdown-related isolation has been a recurring feature of this year – and throughout the entire thing, This Country star and co-writer Daisy May Cooper has kept spirits high. Early on, the actor spurred on a bored nation with a series of strange and erotic dances to famous TV theme tunes ranging from Come Dine With Me to I’m a Celeb… – both disturbing and bizarrely stirring.
And from there, the japes continued. After challenging the nation to support a variety of impressive items using nothing but their own boobs, Cooper upped the ante even further, letting us all share in the journey of a heartbreaking love affair with a mysterious US sea captain who kept messaging her on Instagram. The tale escalated to the point that Cooper claimed she was flying to visit him at his army camp in Afghanistan. And now she’s easily the shining star of the absurdist gameshow Taskmaster, where you’ll find her ranting about hippos, seducing security guards, and devouring as much watermelon as possible within a single minute. In a year when we all needed a laugh more than ever, Daisy May Cooper stepped up to deliver the side-splitting goods, time after hilarious time.
Why 2020 belongs to her: When Daisy May Cooper’s romance with the possibly-fake sea captain – and her fierce rivalry with his other love interest Kate Thornton – reached the pages of the Metro, she well and truly peaked. El Hunt
It was hardly a surprise when, in November, it was announced that The Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund was one of the key financial backers for the development of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. Of course she was! The sky-high wig-toting, rhinestone-wearing, larger-than-life country icon has quite the history of philanthropy: since the mid-1980s, her charitable efforts have included countless telethons and years of tireless work with the Dollywood Foundation, a worldwide literacy initiative funded entirely by her profits. But it took for a widely-reported $1 million donation to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s promising research programme for us to truly realise that the Nashville legend has always been there when the world needed her most.
Across social media, a flurry of profound gratitude swept towards her, with calls for Parton to run for office, be tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize or knighted (all three options sound A-OK to us). This year-defining moment is one of many examples from an illustrious career that ultimately begs the question: Where would we all be if it wasn’t for the awe-inspiring music, life lessons and worldly generosity of Dolly Parton?
Why 2020 belongs to her: Alongside her monumental vaccine-funding achievement, Parton has also been incredibly vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement. In September, she mic-dropped in an interview with Billboard: “Of course Black lives matter. Do you think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” Exactly, Dolly. Sophie Williams
2020 was the year John Boyega said enough is enough. Having watched his once-promising Star Wars leading role as Stormtrooper-defector Finn cut to support act over three films, and his voice silenced by an industry that expects obedience, the Peckham-born actor snapped – in a very public way. Eyes streaming and voice hoarse, he won support for a passionate address at an anti-racism demonstration in Hyde Park this past June. Recognising that his platform gave him a rare opportunity to help others, Boyega didn’t shirk that responsibility – as others might have. “I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this,” he said. “But fuck that.”
It’s a startling commitment when you consider he is just a few years into a job that has next to no fallback if it doesn’t pan out. Luckily, he was able to keep working – and a role in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe anthology turned into one of his best ever. He continues to shoot down trolls on Twitter – and has lined up parts in some of 2021’s most exciting movies. There’s clearly a lot more to come.
Why 2020 belongs to him: It’s difficult to make Star Wars feel like a stepping stone to greatness, but rebel hero Finn seems a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Alex Flood
On the extraordinary ‘walking in the snow’, which appears on Run The Jewels’ latest album ‘RTJ4’, Killer Mike raps, “You watch the cops choke out a man like me / ‘Til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’.” The song was recorded before George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May, died in exactly those circumstances; and was released amid the resulting renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter movement. Is Killer Mike a prophet? A soothsayer? No, he’s someone who’s been witnessing, documenting and tackling racism, prejudice and injustice throughout his entire career.
This was never more apparent than in May when, alongside the Mayor of Atlanta, the 45-year-old implored citizens of his hometown not to turn to violence during BLM protests: “It is your duty to not burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house, so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.” It was, as NME noted in Run The Jewels’ cover feature, a “heart-stopping” speech that spoke to Killer Mike’s endlessly admirable combination of activism, eloquence and charisma.
Why 2020 belongs to him: As he told NME in that cover story: “I was an organiser before I was a rapper, and I’m a mobiliser now that I am a rapper.” We need more Killer Mikes in the world. Jordan Bassett
Not been a classic year for the government really, has it? On a very, very long list of continuing omnishambles, one of the most outrageous was the decision to not help feed vulnerable children in the school holidays during an ongoing pandemic – despite having the ability and the means to do so. While Boris and his colleagues at the House of Commons continued to enjoy subsidised meals, the UK’s real Prime Minister, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, stepped up and campaigned tirelessly to ensure children throughout the UK received help when they most needed it most.
After the government refused to extend the Free School Meals programme into school holidays, Rashford started a petition which rallied the entire nation. All over the country, businesses fed children as a result of Rashford’s call out and his Twitter feed became a veritable joy scroll of people who came together to stop children going hungry. The result? It forced the government into not one but two U-turns, with the PM agreeing to fund an extra £400million of free school meals. And as if that wasn’t enough, the footballer has also just started a book club for children, so all young people, regardless of background, have the opportunity to read. What a hero.
Why 2020 belongs to him: Rashford brought hope and help to children and their families at a time when those in power failed them. He united a nation and showed just what people power can achieve. Elizabeth Aubrey
Mark Davyd and the Music Venue Trust
“People who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of people doing it”. You may have seen this quote being shared a lot this year by the Music Venue Trust with each victory announcement made on Twitter. Having spent six years fighting to save and spotlight the UK’s coveted grassroots music scene, the organisation proved itself in 2020 to be a national treasure. Since coronavirus first presented itself as a threat in the early months of the year, MVT took to fundraising, pressuring the government, spreading the word and providing painstaking individual support to help our beloved venues weather the storm of being forced to close while still having to pay rent.
The #SaveOurVenues campaign was instrumental in pushing the government into action, raised millions of pounds and has prevented over 400 venues from being lost forever – though the work still continues. The UK’s live scene is the envy of the world, and now so IS the Music Venue Trust. Do not take IT for granted. When you’re back in that sweaty pit putting that first pint to your lips, you’ll have the MVT and its people-powered movement to thank.
Why 2020 belongs to them: When live music is safely allowed to return, it will have a home – as will countless breakthrough artists for years to come. Andrew Trendell
Megan Thee Stallion
In between outraging the prudes with ‘WAP’ and blazing a trail as one of the most exciting names in rap – landing her first NME cover in the process – Megan Thee Stallion has also weathered her fair share of difficulty this year. But despite having to recover very publically from the trauma of being shot in the foot – amid the ‘who shot Meg?’ social media frenzy that followed – she continuously proved why she’s such a pop cultural phenomenon.
Coining the ever-so-popular term ‘hot girl’ and promoting a sex-positive ethos that includes female independence and being the life of any party, Meg also became a huge advocate for supporting those who have been subjected to domestic violence and highlighted Black women’s plight. From her explicit public service announcements on her Instagram live streams to her #PROTECTBLACKWOMEN campaign with The New York Times, Thee Stallion has found a new calling in 2020: using her platform for social reform. And all while giving us endless bops to keep the hot girl summer going well into 2021.
Why 2020 belongs to them: Despite her ghastly injury, Megan Thee Stallion’s performances have been nothing but spectacular. But ultimately it was a Saturday Night Live performance of ‘Savage’ in October that stole the show. When she performed the Number One hit, the screen behind her read “Protect Black Women”. Kyann-Sian Williams
First introduced to us as the repressed-but-randy Tracey in E4’s hilarious Chewing Gum, Michaela Coel’s knack for nuance was always clear, but very few of us could have predicted the feat of televisual excellence that was 2020’s I May Destroy You.
Written, co-directed and produced by Coel, and starring her as the lead, the show unflinchingly tackled the complexities of rape and sexual consent, doing so with well-placed humour and nerve-holding discomfort to challenge persisting notions of the ‘good’ victim. It felt like perfect timing, too, coinciding with the years’ conversations about race, mental health provision and the #MeToo movement. This year, Coel brought us a show with deep care about its character’s histories, but also their futures, accompanied beautifully by a soundtrack chock-full of both nostalgic garage bangers and cutting-edge R&B.
Somewhere along the line, Coel also found time to lend her voice to Moses Sumney’s latest album ‘grae’, a sprawling exploration of the power of self-identification as a young Black creative. The two have had plenty in common this year – not least a blanket refusal to compromise their artistic vision to suit convention. With a show like I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel paved the way for countless others to follow.
Why 2020 belongs to her: By seeking multitudes, Coel has created a show to be believed in – so much so that she turned down a $1 million deal with Netflix when she learned she would not be able to retain her rights as its creator. What’s that if not the work of a serious boss? Jenessa Williams
In the middle of a global pandemic, Twitter often proved to be the darkest place around. Conspiracy theories, devastating news and endless screaming into the void – just a few reasons why one would reasonably choose to steer clear of the place.
But in the middle of the darkness emerged a Mancunian, mop-headed hero – The Charlatans‘ Tim Burgess. His album parties – in which fans worldwide would listen to records at the same time and share anecdotes throughout – proved to be a relentless saviour for our sanity, and a timely reminder that we have far more in common than the things that divide us. In Tim’s case, it was a chance for users to bond over their common love of genuinely brilliant records, paired with fascinating insights from the creators of said albums.
Members of Blur and Oasis and so many more were among those given the chance to explain the story behind their classics, and in doing so made Twitter feel like a far more pleasant place to be – at least for an hour a night. Long may these wholesome listening seshes continue.
Why 2020 belongs to him: In creating the album listening party, Tim was the person that reminded us of music’s unbridled healing power. At a time of global desperation, we’ve never needed it more. Nick Reilly