When loneliness, despair, boredom, and a disruption of all we know sets in…well, at least we have music. And boy, did we need it in 2020.
When the pandemic became real for most of us in early March, we quickly realized that our lives would be severely disrupted, at least in the short term. But amidst all the uncertainty, from the very beginning, Israel’s musical artists were there to entertain us, to reassure us, to comfort us, and to brighten our spirits.
If ever the world needed music, 2020 was the time.
All year long, Israel’s music community came together to help us cope. From televised concerts performed with no audience to living room jam-sessions…from star-studded collaborations to virtual Zoom performances…Israeli music has preserved joy at a time when joy was sometimes hard to find.
By March 24, I could tell that this was an exciting time in Israeli music. So I took to Facebook Live to share the most exciting Israeli music of the day, and a new daily show was born. In addition to our popular Israeli music podcast, “My Israeli Music Live” now airs Monday through Friday at 3:30 pm Eastern time on Facebook, and our “regulars” are having a ball connecting with Israel and its music on a daily basis.
So we’ve had the opportunity to soak in Israel’s best new releases all year long, and it’s been a lifeline for many during the difficult days of fear and isolation. Watching from afar in New Jersey, I’d like to share some of my picks for the Israeli music that has defined 2020 for our English-speaking Israeli music community.
1. Israeli Song of the Year: Katan Aleinu
Nine months into the pandemic, there was promise of a light at the end of the tunnel…but that light still seemed pretty distant. Israelis were frustrated by the possibility of yet another lockdown and the economic and social woes that would result. Music to the rescue! In November, rapper Static (Liraz Russo) and his longtime producer Jordi (Yarden Peleg) wrote an anthem of strength and unity during this difficult time, and brought along lots of friends to help sing it. An all-star cast of 40 Israeli superstars joined voices to offer a glimmer of hope through song…and we can’t stop listening and smiling.
2. Israeli Music Video of the Year: HaMizrach HaTichon
It was May, many of us were getting used to the “new normal”, and travel had ground to a halt. The airline industry was hurting, and airports around the world had become ghost towns. But what world Jew doesn’t instantly recognize Ben Gurion Airport? Our country’s beloved welcome station served as the perfect playground for Ivri Lider in the video for his new song “HaMizrach HaTichon” (The Middle East). Ivri, along with a strange (and angry, and flexible) cone-headed woman, pranced through the desolate airport while yearning for better days. For those of us who miss landing in our beloved homeland, this video was playing on repeat for weeks.
Those Blissful Pre-Pandemic Days
3. Shlomo Artzi – Kol Mah Shetirtzeh
As the new decade began, the world was full of promise and excitement, and we enjoyed some of the most interesting songs of the year. On January 7, the great Shlomo Artzi released “Kol Ma SheTirtzeh” (Everything You Want), a song filled with positivity and optimism. I remember hearing this song on an early morning walk through Modiin in a trip to Israel this past January, feeling on the top of the world. “Everything you want, you will have / everything you want is in the palm of your hand / just agree to be open to it…”
4. Static and Ben-El Tavori – Further Up
2020 was the year Static and Ben-El took major leaps forward in their quest for world domination. On January 10, the boys teamed up with hop/hop superstar Pitbull on “Further Up” – an exciting collaboration that brought them on a whirlwind promotional tour of New York City in February. With stops on “Good Morning America”, “Live with Kelly and Ryan”, and, of course, “Israel Hour Radio”, Static and Ben-El received the nationwide exposure they needed, and then some. Next up? After some fun Hebrew releases (“Habib Albi”, “Kapit Achat Shel Tov”, “Kubiyot”), they released “Shake Ya Boom Boom” with the BLACK EYED PEAS on October 30. Whoa…
5. Hanan Ben Ari – Im Tirtzi
A dozen-plus people crowded in a small elevator? Watching today, it almost seems unfathomable. But back on February 27, it was just plain fun. So was Hanan Ben Ari’s new song, “Im Tirtzi” (If You Want) – a joyous song that dominated the Israeli music charts throughout most of 2020. It was just the kind of happy song we needed this year.
6. Eden Alene – Feker Libi
Israeli Eurovision anticipation hit a fever pitch by March 4, with the release of Israel’s 2020 entry, “Feker Libi”. Eden Alene sang the upbeat song in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Amheric, and Israelis were excited about their chances for 2020. For good reason: the fun multicultural song penned by Idan Raichel and Doron Medalie, performed by a young, talented multicultural singer, offered an exciting combination for this year’s contest. Ultimately, the Eurovision was cancelled in 2020, and “Feker Libi” never had its true moment in the sun. Eden Alene will still represent Israel in Eurovision 2021, but a new song will be chosen for the contest.
The Coronavirus Takes Hold
7. Hanan Ben Ari – Ga’agu’im Livnei Adam
By late March, it was clear that we were in for a wild ride. Isolation had taken hold around the world, and it just felt…strange. But when this video dropped on March 26, the images simply took my breath away. Photos of the desolate, deserted streets of Israel brought the reality of the pandemic to a whole new level. Add Hanan Ben-Ari’s intense vocals and message, and this song packs a powerful wallop into a minute and 46 seconds. (March 26)
8. Ishay Ribo – Keter Melucha
It was April 1. Passover was approaching, and we were preparing for a very different seder experience than ever before. But in the meantime, we were adjusting to our new reality, we couldn’t believe what was happening, and we were scared. With his calming voice and inspirational lyrics, Ishay Ribo expressed perfectly what we were all thinking. “What, God, do you want us to learn from this?” he asked. “How do we distance – and come close – throughout this pain? How can we unite during this separation?” Funny, it’s now December and we’re still asking ourselves many of the same questions.
9. Elai Botner & Yaldei HaChutz – Nipagesh BaChalomot
Technology is amazing. It’s been a lifeline for many throughout this pandemic, connecting us to friends and family in a time when in-person gatherings are not feasible. It’s also allowed distant musicians to collaborate, almost as in normal times. We’ve seen so many fantastic virtual collaborations this year, but one of the most beautiful came from Elai Botner and Yaldei HaChutz. “Nipagesh BaChalomot” (We Will Meet In Our Dreams) is a sad yet beautiful reminder of our current reality, in which we cannot meet in person. In the meantime, however, we’ll have to settle for a sweet reunion in dreamland. (April 7)
10. Kelly Clarkson feat. Maya Buskila – Bo Nir’eh
One of the strangest Hebrew songs of the year came not from Israel, but from the United States. On April 16, international superstar Kelly Clarkson recorded a message of love and hope during dark times, called “I Dare You (To Love)”. She wanted, however, to spread her positive message around the world. And so, she collaborated with international singers and simultaneously released versions of the song in Arabic, French, Spanish, German…and Hebrew. Teaming up on the Israeli version with Maya Buskila, Kelly sings “Bo Nir’eh” in nearly-flawless Hebrew, and we say “Kol HaKavod”!
A Sense of Normalcy, In A World That’s Anything But
Of course, the year wasn’t all Coronavirus, all the time. The music industry released quite a few excellent songs this year that had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic, but still made us smile as we dealt with it.
11. Shlomi Shabbat – Yerushalayim
In May, Israelis faced the most meaningful days of the year WITHOUT the usual public gatherings. And so, Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and Yom Yerushalayim commemorations all moved online – though they were no less meaningful. This year’s observance of Jerusalem Day, for example, featured a gorgeous new song by Shlomi Shabbat, with breathtaking views of Israel’s capital city. For me, hearing contemporary Israeli artists sing of their love for the land never seems to get old. (May 20).
12. Ella-Lee – Zot Ani
With Eden Alene lighting up stages throughout Israel following her “HaKochav Haba” reality show victory, it was time for some of the other participants to shine. On June 2, Ella-Lee Lahav (this year’s runner up) released “Zot Ani” (It’s Me), an Israeli / K-Pop crossover. Teenage Ella-Lee was a huge K-Pop fan before appearing on the show, so it was fitting that her debut Hebrew single pay homage to the genre. 14 million YouTube views later, Ella-Lee and Hebrew K-Pop are here to stay.
13. Noa Kirel – Million Dollar
Hmmm…just a couple of days after releasing her red-hot single “Million Dollar”, Noa Kirel announced that she signed a multi-million dollar recording contract with Atlantic Records in the USA. It was the largest recording contract ever singed by an Israeli outside of Israel. Coincidence? (June 9)
14. Narkis & Miri Mesika – Moshe
I’ve long been a big Miri Mesika fan, but I also wanted to include the music of Narkis in this list. I discovered her earlier this year, and was captivated by her smooth vocal style and captivating stage presence. It seems I’m not alone. Narkis has become a household name in Israeli music this year. Look for her star to shine even brighter in 2021. (June 24)
15. Omer Adam & Eden Ben Zaken – Kukuriku
Could we possibly we exclude Omer Adam and Eden Ben Zaken from this list? These two mega-stars kept their names on the Israeli music charts all year long. So when they joined forces to collaborate on a song, well, that’s major news in Israel. Kukuriku is fun, wacky, upbeat, and a fantastic diversion from the heaviness of 2020. (July 2)
16. Raviv Kaner – Resisim
When I first saw Raviv Kaner audition for “HaKochav Haba”, I was taken aback by his gruff personality and by the tattoos up and down his arms. Then I heard his story. Raviv lost a number of army buddies during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and had their faces tattooed on his arms to remind him of the horrors of war. Whoa. But when I heard him sing? Wow! His debut single recalls the painful memories he’s faced, while putting his powerful voice on full display. The song has enjoyed 14 weeks to date at #1 on the Galgalatz radio weekly countdown. (July 16)
17. Netta Barzilai – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
Throughout the pandemic, artists have found creative ways to keep in touch with their fans. The delightful Netta Barzilai, for example, has hosted several episodes of “Netta’s Office” on YouTube, in which she covers famous songs with nothing more than her voice and her looper thingamabomber. One of the funnest? Netta’s brilliant cover of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from “Mary Poppins”. Apparently some people in high places took note: Disney shared the video on its own Facebook page on September 2, exposing many, many new fans to the genius of Netta.
18. Various Artists – Ani V’ata
An all-star cover of perhaps the most famous Arik Einstein song of all time? Yes, please. Shlomi Shabbat, Idan Amedi, Yuval Dayan, Liran Danino, Guy V’yahel, Eden Alene, Sapir Saban and Odeya Azulay singing “Ani V’ata” is pure, feel-good magic, and just the kind of comfort food the world needed in 2020. (September 17)
Looking Toward the Future
19. Shiri Maimon – BaShana HaBa’ah
You’ve been mindlessly singing “BaShana HaBa’ah” your whole life…but when set against the backdrop of Rosh Hashana in a pandemic, and suddenly, the words take on a whole new meaning. The Ehud Manor classic was brilliantly covered by the great Shiri Maimon. She’d sound fantastic singing the phonebook…but “BaShana HaBa’ah”? THIS year? Chills.
20. Sarit Hadad – KsheHakol Yigamer
What are your plans for 2021? How has the pandemic changed your outlook on life? What will you do differently when life returns to normal? These are questions many of us have wrestled with over the past several months. But Sarit Hadad put it eloquently and beautifully in her song “KsheHakol Yigamer” (When It All Ends). Some resolutions: “I’ll never cook again…” “I’ll cancel my Netflix…” “I’ll never take anything for granted…” “I’ll never want anything again, just appreciate what I have…” Will we remember these lessons once we return to real life? Time will tell.
There you have it: the strangest year in modern history, as depicted in 20 Israeli songs. Did I miss any? What were your favorite Israeli tunes this year?
Remember…no matter what happens next, don’t stop singing. Al Tafsiku LaShir!