This year in Jewish music brought us Jack Black singing the Passover classic “Chad Gadya” and Daveed Diggs rapping about how Donald Trump is a white supremacist. Because, Jewish artists contain multitudes. The Almas for music dive into all ends of the Jewish music spectrum, from the Haim sisters to Nissim Black. Here are the Almas for music in 5780, celebrating Jewish identities, deli tours, and viral TikTok dances.
These music awards are all in loving memory of Adam Schlesinger, an incredibly talented Jewish musician we lost this year to COVID-19. May his memory be a blessing.
The Best Musicians
Breakout Jewish Artist (U.S.)
Doja Cat was suddenly everywhere this year. Doja Cat, whose real name is Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini, made waves with a viral song “Mooo!” in 2008, but it wasn’t until her song “Say So” went viral on TikTok that she truly broke through to mainstream attention.
The Black Jewish rapper has already dealt with a fair share of controversies that we certainly don’t condone — from participating in racist chatrooms to tweeting a gay slur for which she since apologized — but she’s also literally making history: Her #1 hit in May made her the second Jewish woman to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 21st Century and the first Black Jewish woman to ever hit #1 on the Billboard 100. A breakout year indeed.
Breakout Jewish Artist (Israel)
Ethiopian Israeli teenager Eden Alene was poised to have a big moment this year, representing Israel in the Eurovision song contest. Instead, as we know, Eurovision was cancelled — along with every other world event — as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world. We’re no Eurovision, but we are happy to crown Eden a breakout artist for her infectious bop “Feker Libi” (sung in Amharic, Hebrew, English, and Arabic).
Eden will be able to compete in next year’s Eurovision, just not with this song. We can’t wait to see what she does!
Best Jewish Band
Haim takes the top prize this year. The Jewish sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana released their third album, Women in Music Pt. III, to critical praise and were set to embark on a deli tour (!) to promote it (which, you guessed it, was cancelled by the pandemic). Still, the sisters used their platform to speak about Black Lives Matter, teach Zoom dance classes, and dish about their bat mitzvahs.
As for Women in Music Pt. III, it’s a near perfect album: mood, personal, and atmospheric. From the opening saxophone on the first track “Los Angeles” to the guitars on the last track “FUBT,” each song is meticulously crafted and wraps you up in emotion while making you feel less alone.
As Pitchfork wrote in their review (an unprecedented 8.6!), “It’s Haim as we haven’t quite heard them before: not just eminently proficient musicians, entertainers, and ‘women in music,’ but full of flaws and contradictions, becoming something much greater.” Amen.
Best Jewish Rapper
Even though Nissim Black has been active as a rapper since 2006, his February 2020 single “Mothaland Bounce” served as a re-introduction of sorts: He’s Black, Jewish, from Seattle, living in Jerusalem, and “Hitler’s worst nightmare” (arguably the best lyric in the entire song).
Making and releasing “Mothaland Bounce” was a big risk for Black, whose music in the last decade has been aimed at a primarily Jewish audience. “I’m very shocked at how much this song has been shared, how well received it was,” Black told Alma in February. “In terms of the Jewish world, it was a big risk; a lot of them are religious.” Black was worried they wouldn’t understand a song where the influences are very clearly Black culture and Black history. Yet, the risk was worth it, cementing Black as a force to be reckoned with as a Jewish rapper.
Best Jewish Singer-Songwriter
Adam Melchor’s sophomore EP Summer Camp came out right at the beginning of quarantine: It is dreamy, folksy, and his voice sounds like a lullaby. The six songs were recorded by the Jewish and Ecuadorian singer-songwriter over the course of three days and do indeed make you wish you were at summer camp (you know, if that’s your thing).
The Best Music
Tair Haim, one of the three sisters that make up the band A-WA, released a new solo single this year called “Mitbashelet Leat” that’s a powerful ode to Mizrahi women. As Hannah Aliza Goldman wrote on Alma, “The first 20 seconds of the video tell you all you need to know about her bold solo statement. The Yemenite Arabic phrase ‘Kheli ya hali‘ repeats over a powerful drum beat, while the camera pans over luxurious red and gold carpets until we see Tair, decked out in a resplendent gown, jewelry, and headdress. It couldn’t be more clear — Tair’s Yemenite pride isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay.”
Goldman goes on to write that in the video, “Tair’s embrace of an old-school Mizrahi aesthetic suggests that her music is rooted in the past as much as it innovates in the present. Her feminism nods to something more ancient, celebrating the jewelry and customs of her foremothers.” We haven’t been able to stop listening to the track since its debut.
Best Song with a Trump Dig
clipping., the experimental rap group featuring Jewish rapper Daveed Diggs, released “Chapter 319” on Juneteenth 2020. Diggs, alongside clipping.’s other members Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, wrote the song after spending weeks protesting with Black Lives Matter. George Floyd, murdered in Minneapolis, was a member of the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.) in Houston, where he was known as Big Floyd. “Chapter 319” samples Big Floyd himself, who raps the introduction before Diggs takes over for the eight-minute song.
Every lyric in “Chapter 319” is, simply, a masterpiece. “This march is not a one-off / This march is not the misaimed warning shot / This march a foot in yo fucking throat to choke out the whole assumption that you are here to protect us.” However, TikTok teens picked up on one specific couplet from the pre-chorus: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist, full stop / If you vote for him again you’re a white supremacist, full stop.” This line went fully viral — and for that, we are grateful.
Best Posthumus Album
Jewish American rapper Mac Miller died in 2018 at only 26 years old. It’s a tragic story for so many reasons, one of which is that it’s clear from the sound of his posthumous album Circles, released in January 2020, that his musical ingenuity was only getting started.
Circles takes Miller’s unique blend of vulnerable lyrics, meditative beats, and a gruff but soulful voice to new levels, with beautiful (and heartbreaking) reflections on the very struggles that would eventually lead to his death. But more than anything, it reminds us of the enduring legacy of this nice Jewish rapper. As Arielle Kaplan wrote in Alma, “He was a nice fucking dude who elevated minority voices and battled his demons publicly through music, all with a smile on his face. And I think that rare ability to unify people of all backgrounds through song radiates the most important Jewish value: tikkun olam.”
Mac, your memory is definitely for a blessing.
Best Jack Antonoff Production
After much debate, the best Jack Antonoff production from this year goes to Taylor Swift’s eighth album, Folklore. Antonoff, a Jewish songwriter and producer, has worked on everything from Lana Del Ray to the Chicks to Lorde, making him one of our era’s defining figures in pop music. Swift wrote that Antonoff is basically “musical family” at this point (this is the fourth album they’ve worked on together).
Antonoff worked on six tracks on the album, including co-writing “mirrorball,” “august,” “this is me trying,” and “illicit affairs.”
On his Instagram, Antonoff wrote, “feels almost a shock that this all was even real. sending tracks back and forth. laura recording taylor’s vocals in another room in CA – me patched in from NY. maybe it was conditions that we had to make it under but i’ve never heard taylor sing better in my life / write better. all of it. recorded these songs in just a few takes. most of them full takes and not comped. sending her tracks for august and mirrorball and hearing what she would send back are moments that are mind blowing to me thinking back to the first time we did this on out of the woods — the feeling is the same, heaven.” We are grateful for their collaboration, because what else would we have listened to for all of August?!
Honorable mention: Gaslighter by the Chicks. Because duh.
The Best Performances
Best Music Video
Yes, Nissim Black already won Best Rapper, but he’s going to take this one too for the music video for “Mothaland Bounce” because it is just that good.
The video pays homage to Black’s past and present; the visuals are inspired by one of his favorite films, Coming to America. (In the iconic Eddie Murphy film, Murphy arrives in America from a wealthy, fictional African nation of Zamunda.) The video ends with Black in a barbershop, where the barber asks him to take off his hat — when he does, he reveals a kippah underneath. The barber goes, “Another one?!” It’s funny, Jewish, and pays homage to the barbershop scenes in Coming to America.
There’s also three groups of dancers who represent the different aspects of Black. As he explained to Alma, “The African dancers represent the slaves that came here to America, which is our past. And then, you have the street dancers, the urban aspect.” The video depicts these two groups as facing off against each other, representing Black “trying to figure out what I was.” But then, lastly, Hasidic dancers show up near the end. “What brought peace for me was Judaism,” Black explains, “so the Hasidic guy, he comes to break up the two things, and he brings shalom. It was all very telling of who I was.”
A music video that’s that meaningful and that fun to watch? Iconic.
Best Musical Performance
For one night and one night only, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was live in concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. The concert was staged in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Andrew Lloyd Weber hit musical, but it gave us something much more important: Jewish actor Noah Galvin as Joseph in denim cutoffs and a pink kippah. Essentially, the Joseph of our dreams.
As Galvin wrote on Instagram after the evening, “I got to live my gay Jew fantasy tonight in a theater I never thought I’d have the opportunity to perform in. And it was perfect.” Release the entire footage, Lincoln Center!!!
Best Tiny Desk Performance
Jenny Lewis playing “Rabbit Hole,” “Do Si Do,” and “Just One Of The Guys” is one of our most-played YouTube videos of this year. Plus that velvet starry dress!? We need it, yesterday.
Best Tiny Desk (From Home) Performance
And in a completely different vibe, Lenny Kravitz playing a tiny desk concert from his home in the Bahamas was the perfect quarantine escapist content we needed.
Best Instagram Live Series
Okay pals, fair warning here: We are giving this award to ourselves — but really, it goes to all the beautiful musicians who graced our Instagram page this summer for “LIVE FROM ALMA.” Back in March, when we didn’t know the next time we’d be able to enjoy things like concerts again (still waiting on that…), Alma launched our very own live music series from the comfort of our own Instagram feed.
We were blessed with intimate performances from all sorts of Jewish musicians on the rise, from soulful singer-songwriter Lowen to the Israeli electronica artist DOV to Alex Blue, the Mexican Jewish YouTuber who rebranded herself this year.
Best Netflix Concert Special
Ben Platt’s Netflix special, filmed at Radio City Music Hall last year, was magnificent — and super Jewish. As Deanna Schwartz wrote in Alma, “Obviously, I knew Ben Platt was Jewish. But I didn’t expect every other sentence spoken during his concert to be about him being Jewish — and I certainly didn’t expect for it to make me feel so at home.” He spoke about JSwipe, Camp Ramah, his Hebrew name, and more, making the Jewish viewers feel seen in a way that doesn’t typically happen in such a mainstream special. Thank you, Ben.
Best Performance in a Jewish Deli
Fun fact: Back when they were kids, the Haim sisters played their first-ever show at Canter’s, the most famous Jewish deli in Los Angeles. They were paid in matzah ball soup. To launch their third album, Women in Music Pt. III, they planned to tour delis across the country. And then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. After a few delays, Haim finally premiered their album — in a livestream from Canter’s, naturally:
Bonus? The performance wasn’t just an album launch — but a fundraiser for the Bail Project, a non-profit dedicated to preventing incarceration and assisting bail payment.
Best Appearance in a Jewish Deli
BTS, the ridiculously popular South Korean boy band, took over The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in February to promote their new album, Map of the Soul: 7. As part of this takeover, they performed in Grand Central, played games on the subway, and, most importantly, visited the iconic New York Jewish institution: Katz’s Deli. It’s a delight:
Best Netflix Cameo by a Jewish Musician
We were just overjoyed to see former Eurovision winner Netta in the Eurovision movie, in this sing-along scene:
Best Retelling of the Story of Moses
In Beyoncé’s stunning visual album Black Is King, she translates the story of The Lion King into the human world. But while Black Is King may be a retelling of The Lion King on the surface, it also tells the story of Moses. The film/visual album begins with a basket in turbulent waters. Later in the film, we see Beyoncé place a baby into the basket.
As critic Salamishah Tillet wrote in The New York Times: “That baby was never just a baby, and this story was never really simply the human version of Simba’s journey into manhood, much less kingship. On the surface, this river bed scene is an update of that Old Testament story in which Jochebed, the mother of Moses, placed him in the Nile River to protect him from being killed. But, the waters here also invoke the Middle Passage, with each ripple break recalling the fateful journey in which New World slavery, and America itself, was born.
“Moses has always loomed large among African-Americans seeking freedom. It is why Harriet Tubman sang the spiritual ‘Go Down, Moses’ as a code to identify herself to those enslaved people who wanted to go with her to the Promised Land. And while Black Is King shares those 19th-century aspirations of equality and Black dignity, it, in our age of Black Lives Matter, knows it has to resort to mythmaking since racial justice remains as firm as the shifting sands that backdrop so much of this visual album.”
The Best Actually Jewish Music
Best Original Hanukkah Songs
The 12-track, 35-minute album Hanukkah+ dropped on November 22, 2019, and we’ve been obsessed ever since. Music supervisor Randall Poster put the album together, inspired by the band Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah concerts. “With the collision of these artists and songs, I tried to create a spiritual reflection of one of the three big Jewish holidays,” Poster said. “How do you make something where each song is part of a whole? I built it piece by piece, artist by artist.”
Best Cover of Chad Gadya
Did you know you needed Jack Black covering the classic Passover tune “Chad Gadya”? No. But did he record it? Yes. Was it also randomly included in the Hanukkah+ album? Yes. Is it a Hanukkah song? Nope. Is it amazing? Yes. Is there a weirdly animated version? You betcha:
Best Cover of Ocho Kandikelas
This past winter, Idina Menzel released a Christmas album. And no, it’s not exactly novel for a Jewish person to write Christmas music (it’s a thing!!) This is actually Menzel’s second holiday album — the first, Holiday Wishes, came out in 2014. At the time, she said, “I know I’m Jewish. But a lot of famous Jewish people have written Christmas songs, so I’m going to try out some of their songs on the album. I’m glad I’m not singing about Jesus.”
On the album are two Hanukkah tracks, including an amazing cover of the Ladino Hanukkah song, “Ocho Kandelikas.” The song’s title translates to “Eight Little Candles,” and it was written by Flory Jagoda, a Sephardic composer, in 1983. Menzel calls it a “sexy Hanukkah song”!!! Listen: