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NPR Music's Best Live Sessions of 2020

Chicago singer Jamila Woods performed "Eartha" for a KCRW Live Session.
Monica Schipper
Getty Images for Panorama
Chicago singer Jamila Woods performed "Eartha" for a KCRW Live Session.

It was a tough year for live music, but NPR's Member stations across the country managed to produce some great radio sessions before and during the pandemic. Here are the best of the bunch, featuring studio performances, home recordings and socially-distanced outdoor sets. For more live sessions from your favorite public radio stations, visit our Live Sessions section.

Alsarah & the Nubatones, "Soukura"

Alsarah & The Nubatones are a Brooklyn-based band with roots in East Africa. Lead singer Alsarah describes their style as "East African retro-pop." —Adam Harris, Mountain Stage

Anjimile, "Baby No More"

Anjimile is a Boston-based queer and trans songmaker, raised in the suburbs of Richardson, Texas. As a first-generation Malawian-American, their experiences with racism, homophobia and xenophobia in the deep south helped to form the basis of their politics and music. —Stacy Buchanan, GBH

Archers of Loaf, "Raleigh Days"

One of the most loved bands from the 1990s indie rock scene, Archers of Loaf played their first new song in 20 years during a soundcheck at Cat's Cradle. —Brian Burns, WUNC Music

Arlo Parks, "Hurt"

Only 20 years old and already one of 2020's most promising breakthrough acts, London-based singer and songwriter Arlo Parks is now busy winning the hearts of stateside music lovers, and with this performance of her gateway track "Hurt," prepare to fall in love. —Amy Miller, KXT

Beau Roberson, "Hallelujah Moment"

Recorded in the green room at Tulsa's timeless honky tonk, the Cain's Ballroom, early in the pandemic, "Hallelujah Moment" is a song off Beau Roberson's upcoming album, to be released on Tulsa nonprofit Horton Records. Longtime friend and fellow musician Jesse Aycock accompanies him on guitar. —Julie Watson, Live From Cain's

Cary Morin, "Jug In The Water"

Cary Morin is one of Colorado's great treasures and has been described as one of the best pickers on the scene today. His music is characterized as Native Americana, with healthy doses of blues, bluegrass, jazz, reggae and folk. Colorado Sound listeners voted him their No. 4 all-time favorite Colorado artist in a recent poll. His just-released album Dockside Saints will show the rest of the country what Colorado already knows. —Benji McPhail, The Colorado Sound

Heartless Bastards, "Revolution"

With a title like "Revolution," one would assume Heartless Bastards' songwriter Erika Wennerstrom was writing a political song. But that's not quite the case: "It's about loving your fellow man and if that's a political stance then I'd think about what side of that you're on. To me, the most important message I could put out in the world was a reminder to love each other and that starts with ourselves." —Deidre Gott, KUTX

Jamila Woods, "Eartha"

Before heading home to Chicago at the end of her tour as things started to shut down due to the pandemic, Jamila Woods brought her band to KCRW and performed a powerful track from her latest release, Legacy! Legacy! --Anne Litt, KCRW

Katie Pruitt, "My Mind's a Ship (That's Going Down)"

Pruitt was a WMOT artist to watch last year, and she sure made good on the prediction. She possesses a soaring, nuanced and expressive voice, and writes with devastating honesty. —Jessie Scott, WMOT Roots Radio

MAITA, "Japanese Waitress"

Portland's MAITA performed music from the band's stunning debut album in this opbmusic Live Session at Type Foundry Studio, including the song "Japanese Waitress," which is about the casually soul-crushing work of the service industry. It was also the surreal final day for the studio; while the band set up, people perused vintage amps and racks of studio gear on sale. —David Christensen, opbumusic

Neoma, "Real"

Neoma plays a song that topped the Ecuadorian charts on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Denver. —Bruce Trujillo, Indie 102.3

Peter CottonTale, "Do Your Thing" / "Forever Always" / "Pray For Real" / "When I Get There" (Medley)

Chicago producer Peter CottonTale's live performance of songs from his album Catch came in the midst of the George Floyd protests and carries the powerful emotions Chicago continues to feel about the Movement for Black Lives. —Seamus Doheny, VOCALO

Soccer Mommy, "Circle the Drain"

Focusing on her own mental health and reflecting on her mother's struggle with a serious illness, Sophie Allison's writing on her album Color Theory concentrated on what weighed on her mind while she was on tour, far from her Nashville home and her family. The album is structured thematically into blue, yellow and grey passages, frankly addresses depression, self-doubt and death. But it's not a morose album; instead, Allison juxtaposes bright melodies with darker lyrics. —Eric Gottlieb, WFUV

The Bad Plus, "Hurricane Birds"

"Hurricane Birds" was filmed at the storied Bijou Theatre in Knoxville. We were gifted the opportunity to premiere it courtesy of a unique collaboration with the folks at the Big Ears Festival and the acclaimed trio The Bad Plus, featuring drummer Dave King, bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Orrin Evans. —J. Michael Harrison, WRTI

The New Pornographers, "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile"

Touring on In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, The New Pornographers performed rousing renditions of their gleaming pop tunes live in The Bridge studios. —Michelle Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge

Tyler Childers, "All Your'n"

Though his music is sometimes called Americana, Tyler Childers rejects that label. "I don't know what it's called, but I've been calling it country," he said during his visit to World Cafe in January. Watch his performance of "All Your'n," recorded during the studio session. —Rich McKie, WXPN

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