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  • Writer's pictureBailey Elizabeth Rogers

My Mixtape: 20 Best Songs of 2020

Well, well. 2020 was one hell of a year. A historic year. A shitty year. A challenging year. A sad year. A lonely year. A year that completely crippled the live music scene. And because of that, almost nowhere were all these things felt as deeply as in the music industry. Concerts were canceled, beloved independent venues were forced to close their doors forever, and many who work in the business are still struggling to pay bills and stay afloat. But, despite all of this, some really incredible music was released during this time. Over the course of the year I listened to hundreds of new releases. Some from artists or bands I've been listening to for years, and some from ones that were new discoveries. And as a whole, it was a beautiful playlist. But, even after taking in more new music over the course of 12 months than any other year, choosing my 20 best songs was the easiest it has ever been. And as I thought about the songs that struck me this year, I heard a theme. I'm calling 2020, The Year of The Protest Song And The Pedal Steel. And come on, you've got to love some pedal steel.

With music representing a variety of genres, by artists ranging from local St. Louis singer/songwriter Travis Teel Page to global pop sensation Taylor Swift, and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, this group of songs is as diverse as the voices behind them. Some are from albums that had been in the works for quite some time, while others were written and immediately released in response to current events, and the political and social unrest that was unfolding around us. Each song relies heavily on its beautifully crafted lyrics, while also having at least one other element that makes it stand out. That makes it special. That hit me hard, and earned it a spot in my Top 20. To set the tone, I have begun my list with an incredibly moving, and increasingly important, spoken word piece. This is separate from the Top 20, and I see it as this collection's "overture" or "prologue". It is an exceptional piece of art, and I felt very strongly that it needed to be recognized and shared. Following that, we dive right in. It's important to note that the first 10 songs are ranked in order, while the remaining 10 are not. Each song has a write up that touches on why it was chosen, and highlights lyrics that I feel stand out as particularly exceptional. We've got a runner up towards the end that's a song I felt had to be recognized, but was a new version of a song released a couple years back, so it didn't count for top 20. To finish everything off we have my choice for "Best Cover Of The Year", which actually ended in a tie. Both picks are absolutely beautiful interpretations of their respective songs. So, this was my year through headphones. The voices, lyrics, and music that got me and many others through a year that tested everyone. Beautifully written, passionately performed, and flawlessly produced, these are 20 songs from 2020 that will stand the test of time.


Spoken Word Intro

Both Sides

Forest Blakk feat. Kamilah Marshall


Top 20

1. 20 Dollar Bill (For George Floyd)

Tom Prasada-Rao

feat. The Fox Run Five

It took only one listen for me to know that this honest and emotion filled ballad from folk icon Tom Prasada-Rao would be my choice for song of the year. Using the story of George Floyd, Tom eloquently speaks of the injustices that are ever present in our country, and does it with both grace and restraint. His calming presence helps to really emphasize that while Floyd's murder makes us angry, and understandably so, that isn't what this song is about. It's about honoring the memory and value of a man whose life was tragically taken, all because of a $20 bill. Originally written and shared as a solo acoustic song, Tom invited his fellow members of The Fox Run 5 to join him in creating this final version. The collaboration turned out brilliantly, and the added depth, texture, and dimension bring new life to the song, taking what was already incredible to the next level. The backing vocals are an especially powerful addition, as well as the masterful work by Matt Nakoa on electric guitar. Not only does he shine with a solo mid-song, but plays the melody that acts as the driving force throughout. Overall, this is the perfect song. A perfect, unforgettable song for what will go down in history as one of the most unforgettable years this country has ever seen.


Sometimes the law Is the devils’ last straw//

The future unfulfilled//

Like the dream they killed//

For a $20 bill

2. Legacy of Sadness

Ron Pope

Blown away after just one listen, I didn't think I could be more impressed by Ron Pope's "Legacy of Sadness". Yet, I was. With each listen I heard something new. Something that impressed me even more. And so, I have a lot to say about this song. The brilliantly composed instrumentals, lyrics rich with poetic imagery, and dynamic and emotive performances, all come together to create an absolute masterpiece. The attention to detail in the composition is impeccable. From the subtle addition of the upright bass in the background of the second chorus, to the sparse usage and careful placement of the pedal steel, to the choice of which individual lines of the chorus to add vocal harmonies to, there's nothing in this song that was written or decided upon without purpose or intent. Full of emotion, a flawless string section, beautiful harmonies, and poetic lyrics, "When I get to California, I will kiss her poison lips// And reach the logical conclusion, then I'll turn and run again", the bridge is among the best I've ever heard. The instrumental outro, accompanied at the beginning by Pope's soaring "yeah's" and "ah's", sounds like a war cry of sorts. The strings shine, as does a killer banjo line, and the drums/percussion, which grow with intensity as the song approaches the end. Evident from the first verse on is Pope's talent as a lyricist. Painting pictures with lines such as, "Wildflowers grow along the fence line// In this 'better keep the meter running' life// Beautiful and purple in the sunlight// Trying to put down roots cause it's their right", he also breathes life into emotion through his words, like "it is easier for me to count my blessings// than to cry for every single thing we've lost". In this song about your personal roots, the history of where your family came from, and your relationship with both, Ron Pope has done everything right, creating what may be his best work in his almost 20 year career.


I know some may say they're weeds but I'm not bothered//

Nothing delicate like that lasts very long//

Just 'cause you were not invited to the party//

Don't mean you can't dance when they put on your song

3. Brave

Ruston Kelly

Overflowing with honesty and raw emotion, no other song released in 2020 came close to hitting me as hard as "Brave" did. In this deeply personal soliloquy, Ruston Kelly confronts his own mortality and reflects on the legacy he hopes to leave behind once he's gone. With nothing but a guitar and Kelly's voice, the song finds its strength in simplicity and vulnerability. His breathy vocals sound like a whisper at times, as though he is exposing his innermost thoughts and feelings. And while Kelly is not one to stray from wearing his heart on his sleeve, "I hope my Momma called me brave in my weakest times", feels like the deepest and most personal thing he has ever shared, and to me speaks volumes about who he must be as a person. Through the restraint, emotion, and beauty in this song, Ruston Kelly clearly proves that he needs nothing more than his voice, guitar, and words to craft the perfect song.


And so I hope before I go//

I get to see my garden grow//

Tall and purposed

4. A Beautiful Noise

Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile

Co-written by a group of female industry powerhouses, including Alicia Keys, Brandy Carlile, Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, Hillary Lindsey, and others, this song was born out of Live Nation's desire to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment ahead of the 2020 election. Addressing the importance and power behind using your voice, it is not only about reminding people to vote, but about how necessary it is to speak out against the injustices present in our country today. With brilliantly written lyrics such as, "I have a voice// And I let it speak for the ones who aren't yet really free", "I will not let silence win// When I see all the pain our people are in", and "When you're all alone, it's a quiet breeze// But when you band together, it's a choir// Of thunder and rain" this point is really driven home. The choice to use no instrumentation other than stripped down piano accompaniment is incredibly successful, allowing the words and emotion in the raw vocals of Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile to really shine. Vocally, Keys and Carlile compliment each other, and their harmonies are stunning. The most powerful piece of the song is arguably the very end, where in harmonize they sing the final line "I have a voice" acapella. Hammering home the simplicity of the song's message, this demonstrates the beauty created when multiple voices unite.


I have a voice//

Started out as a whisper//

Turned into a scream//

Made a beautiful noise//

Shoulder to shoulder marching in the streets

5. Bottom Of A Heartbreak


When the announcement was made that Bo Rinehart was leaving NEEDTOBREATHE, like many, I questioned the band's ability to exist without him. Considered by many to be the best songwriter in the group, Bo was musically gifted, and a large part of the band's signature harmonies. But, the release of their first album as a trio silenced the skeptics. This song, a cinematic masterpiece about navigating the familiar pain of heartbreak, is among the most obvious proof that NTB is a force to be reckoned with, a rock & roll powerhouse - with or without Bo. Leading the way with his vocals, Bear starts out with a smoother tone, and as the music goes on, his signature rawness steadily creeps in. He ultimately amplifies the grittiness, truly making the listener feel the pain behind the words he is singing. With emotion and energy that builds throughout, the show stopping moment comes in the form of an explosive instrumental break, centered around a roaring electric guitar solo. Not one for the spotlight, Seth Bolt surprisingly steps up and absolutely nails it, playing with a sense of confidence and skill that gives you the impression he owned it all along. Will we miss Bo? Absolutely. But this is the new NTB and they've proven they are here to stay.


It's that familiar pain staring in my face//

It's a different ghost, but it haunts the same

6. Betty

Taylor Swift

12 years after "Love Story", "Betty" finds a seasoned Taylor Swift revisiting young love, her country roots, and the incredibly effective final chorus key change, in this instrumentally rich and complex song. The intricacies and nuance in each individual guitar line (acoustic, high string, electric, lap steel, pedal steel), how they play off of each other, and the amount of dimension they create, are real standouts. This is especially prominent leading up to, and throughout, the final chorus, as additional instrumental layers kick in to create an orchestral swell that carries to the end of the song. Brilliantly produced, and mixed to perfection, this song is among the best of the best in Swift's catalogue.


If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?//

Will it patch your broken wings

7. Last Man Standing

Bruce Springsteen

Written after the death of the only other living member of his first band The Castiles, Bruce Springsteen's "Last Man Standing'' is a nostalgic reflection on the most formative years of his career. Through lyrics that reference specific moments and experiences from those early years, and wisdom gained from a life on the road, he fondly looks at the past through the eyes of a rock n' roller who has seen it all. Two lines that do this especially well are, "Out of school and out of work// Thrift store jeans and flannel shirts" and "Lights come up at the Legion Hall// Pool cues go back up on the wall". The E Street Band absolutely shines, delivering what may be the closest thing to their signature sound since the album "The Rising". Max Weinberg and Jake Clemons especially stand out, with Clemons taking on two sax solos that would have made his uncle incredibly proud. This song may not find its way to the mainstream, but for die hard fans it is sure to be an essential part of the Springsteen catalogue for many years to come.


You pack your guitar and have one last beer//

With just the ringing in your ears

8. Why Even Try

Colony House

With a song that explores the internal monologue of an individual plagued by self doubt, Colony House puts to music the questions and fears that live inside the minds of so many of us. Along with thought provoking and introspective lyrics like "Everyone fears that they're not enough// I'm just afraid that it's permanent// that I'm permanently broken// permanently broken" and "Wouldn't I like to disagree// but I'm dancing with the fire and the fire keeps burning me", the song utilizes different tempos and dynamics to take you on a multi-layered journey through life. One that sees the narrative flip in the end, as you find and embrace the hope you had been missing for so long. A beautiful combo of piano and guitar opens the song, with both continuing on to shine throughout as more instruments are added. The song's brightest moment can be found in the bridge and the 40 or so seconds following it, where the combination of powerful lyrics, an emotionally moving instrumental build, and soaring lead and group backing vocals create a cinematic feeling and sound. With this song, Colony House paints a picture of a struggle that so many people face, helping to remind us all that we are not alone.


Fragile hearts in these fragile times//

often break before they ever find//

There's hope inside of these shadowlands//

Written in the sky and stone and printed on our hands

9. Hope You Do

Travis Teel Page & the Capitol Club

In a message to his family about how he hopes they will remember him when he's gone, Travis Teel Page brings to life the pain he endures as a young father and husband facing a potentially terminal diagnosis. As he bares his soul through brutally honest lyrics and emotion filled vocals, you'll find yourself reaching for tissues. When he sings "and your girls will wonder why// You just can't look 'em in the eye// And just say I love you all your life// Cause words got round// Dad's gonna die", you're bound to shed a tear or two. Adding to the mood are the haunting sound of the pedal steel, and gently flowing poetic string lines. The subtle word shift in the second to last chorus, where "the Ozark hills" becomes "my Ozark hills", shows that even the smallest elements of a song can affect the entire piece. With this exceptional song, Travis has again proven that he is a hidden gem tucked away in the St. Louis music scene, and arguably one of the best singer/songwriters you've probably never heard of.


Things that often go unsaid//

Come in form of tears you'll shed

10. Funeral For My Past

Liz Longley

In this song about personal redemption, coming to terms with your darkness, and letting go of the past, nothing stands out more than the amount of power behind the lyrics, instrumentation, and vocal dynamics of one of the best bridges written this year. With gospel choir type vocals behind her, and emotive vocals, Liz Longley sings, "I could not help but tremble// I could not help but cry// There was something holy about it// just watching it die// Right there as I stood// right before my eyes// Up from the ashes// Up from the ashes// my phoenix did rise". With great control and dynamic, she jumps beautifully between chest voice and head voice, maintaining power in both. Leading the instrumentation and shining brightly, especially right before and during the bridge, is the drum beat. Also standing out is the electric guitar in the instrumental break that immediately follows. At the end of the song, with a more restrained vocal and almost completely acapella, she sings "So come gather round// what will you lay to rest?// Whatever kills you slowly// don't give it one more breath// Let it go, let it be, let it rest here in peace// Lay it down at the funeral for your past today". With her choice to flip the lyrics to being about the listener and not her, Longley creates a real connection with her fans. By using her music to encourage others to believe that they too can put their past and demons behind them, Longley does what we need more artists to do; use their platform for good.


So deep it never haunts me//

Gone forever and always//

I held a funeral for my past today

11. Better Than We Found It

Maren Morris

One set of lyrics was all it took for this protest song by Maren Morris to earn a spot on my list. Without any direct references, Maren uses just four lines to brilliantly paint a picture that's representative of one of our Country's largest problems; "over and under and above the law// my neighbor's in danger, who does he call?// when the wolf's at the door all covered in blue//shouldn't we try something new?". As she looks inward and reflects, she raises many questions regarding her role in a society full of hate and division, the same questions that so many of us are asking ourselves, or should be asking ourselves, in 2020. At the heart of the melody is an acoustic guitar line that follows the dynamics of the song, with a beautiful picking pattern in the verse, and more forceful strumming in the chorus. Other musical standouts include subtle harmonies, and a very brief but impactful harmonica lick in the instrumental break. Beautifully crafted and full of emotion, this song's main message can be summed up with these simple words Morris practically whispers in the bridge; "America, America//we're better than this".


America, America//

Divided we fall//

America, America//

God save us all//

From ourselves//

And the hell that we built for our kids

12. Walk Me Home

Brian Dunne feat. Caroline Spence

With a way with words, and a sophisticated sense of personal understanding and reflection beyond his 31 years, Brian Dunne is one of the most underrated songwriters of his generation. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Walk Me Home", a song about the incredibly deep and intense desire for human connection. With lyrics that read more like poetry than song, Dunne's writing is the real showstopper. The other major standout is his delicate fingerpicking guitar, which shines as the accompaniment in verse one, and beautifully compliments the other acoustic and electric guitar parts that kick in throughout the remainder of the song. Rounding out the highlights are the backing vocals and harmonies from Caroline Spence. Whether you gravitate more towards lyrics or the melody, this song's beauty can't be missed.


There's not a light in the sky//

And you can almost feel the anger in the motherless night//

As the gunshots in the projects accrue//

And I won't hesitate to take a bullet for you

13. Be Afraid

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

In a song written as a call to action for his peers, Jason Isbell challenges his fellow artists to push past fear and use their voices to speak out about the different issues plaguing our country today. Widely known as an unapologetically outspoken liberal in the mostly quiet and conservative country music scene, he wrote this song with that community in mind. Specifically, those who share his beliefs but are afraid to take a stand because country artists aren't supposed to rock the boat. A believer in the truth and speaking for those whose voices have been silenced or ignored, Isbell feels it is, in a way, an artist's duty to use the platform and voice they have been given for good. With lyrics like, "And we don't take requests// We won't shut up and sing// Tell the truth enough// You'll find it rhymes with everything" the song's success leans heavily on Isbell's brilliance as a lyricist. Through imagery he paints a vivid picture of his views on this subject, as well as the message he is trying to spread. With a driving drum beat, guitars that utilize effects and distortion, and a full out arena rock chorus, Jason and his band The 400 Unit have brought the "wall of sound" to this southern/Americana rock classic, that's heavily rooted in good old fashioned rock n' roll.


And if your words add up to nothing, then you're making a choice//

To sing a cover when we need a battle cry

14. Commander In Chief

Demi Lovato

Calling out Donald Trump and questioning his motives and character, Demi Lovato proves that she is a fearless songwriter, unafraid to honestly take on even the most polarizing topics. Highlighted by emotionally charged vocals, beautifully powerful lyrics, and the haunting gospel choir backing vocals, this is a song full of words that so desperately needed to be spoken. Included in the chorus are timely lyrics that simultaneously refer to the two biggest crises our Country is currently facing. The lines "We're in a state of crisis//people are dying" and "commander in chief//how does it feel to still be able to breathe", are clear references to both racially driven police killings and the COVID-19 pandemic. In a song about a president who will mostly be remembered as a white supremacist who denied the existence of racial injustice, attacked those who spoke out against it, and cost 400,000+ Americans their lives because he ignored and mismanaged the government's response to coronavirus, these words couldn't be more perfect.


Won't give up, stand our ground//

We'll be in the streets while you're bunkering down

15. Pulse Of A Nation

Will Champlin

Will Champlin's vocals and lyrics are the star of the show in “Pulse of A Nation”, a song about working together to heal and reunite our country. A multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, piano, banjo, and drums, I’ve always thought his strongest instrument was his voice, which rings true in this song. Champlin’s rich vocal tone has depth, and flows beautifully from note to note. His control is incredible, moving with ease from powerful and forceful vocals to smooth and restrained ones. The gospel/soul undertones in his voice work well in this song, especially when he is joined by the church choir like backing vocals. Also showcased is his gorgeous falsetto, and how effortlessly he is able to transition into it. Another standout is the upright bass. Coming in at the first chorus and continuing throughout, the deep tone adds a nice element of texture to the instrumentals. Lyrically, the song conveys its very important message through absolutely beautiful, yet powerful words. From “we could burn the pages out from history// and weave the common colors and find peace” to “put the wounds of this madness// in the hands of forgiveness// find a heartbeat one day”, and others, you’re guaranteed to get goosebumps. With this song, Champlin delivers a moving and timely piece that years from now will help future generations understand the state of America in 2020.


Between young hearts and old souls//

Coming to the crossroads//

Lost the love and lost the beat//

But now it’s time to find it once again

16. Do What You Can

Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles

In this very literal depiction of life during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, Bon Jovi wrote what might be the ultimate anthem for the spring of 2020. With lyrics made up of historic facts, and real life situations and experiences, this song could have easily become nothing more than a history lesson set to music, or a depressing reminder of the reality everyone was desperate to escape. Instead, its lyrics offer up comfort and hope for the days ahead, and the upbeat melody has you tapping your foot or dancing along. The instrumentation leans heavily country, and features various stand out fiddle lines, no more so than in verse three. In addition, the vocal chops of special guest Jennifer Nettles add depth and dimension, and help make this one of the most powerful story songs of 2020.


I saw a Red Cross on the Hudson//

They turned off the Broadway lights//

Another ambulance screams by

17. My Truth

The Wild Feathers

In this song about finding one's truth, Country/Americana rockers The Wild Feathers put their own stamp on the classic power ballad. Bookended by two different, yet impressive guitar parts, the song's success is found in the musical composition, which takes the listener on a journey that starts off as acoustic folk/Americana, and ends as full out country rock. Opening with only an acoustic guitar and electric slide guitar accompanying the lead vocals, the interplay is absolutely beautiful. To no surprise, the band's signature harmonies shine throughout the entire song, the rich piano line adds texture to the instrumentation, particularly during the outro, and a second electric guitar builds in intensity as the song goes on. Towards the end both guitars take on solos in the final instrumental break. With one more forward in the mix, they pull off a great southern/country rock flavored duel. Produced entirely by the band themselves, The Wild Feathers have said this song is far more authentic and representative of the sound they want to have as a group than anything they've ever released. In my mind, that bodes well for their career going forward, and is a real boost for the genre. With more songs like this, the band's future is bright, and so is the future of the Americana and country rock scene.


And I've been baptized in the water//

And stood up on a mountain high//

And it's so hard to know the difference//

Between the real thing and the lie

18. Be A Light

Thomas Rhett

feat. Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin, Keith Urban

Written in 2019, and released during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Thomas Rhett song is meant to be a reminder that you can always find light, even while living in the darkness. Featuring country icons Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Hillary Scott of Lady A, and Christian music star Chris Tomlin, the song could also be interpreted as being about the current upheaval in our country. With lyrics like "in a time full of war be peace", "In a place that needs a change, make a difference", and "When you do somebody wrong, make it right", Rhett has created a beautifully written rally cry. To my ears, the most moving part of the song comes with the final lyric, where almost all of the instruments are silenced and Rhett tips his cap to the fight against racism, singing "it's hard to live in color when you just see black and white//in a world full of hate be a light". To me, this message is even more powerful coming from someone like Rhett who, as the father of an adopted black daughter, is directly impacted by this issue. Musically, the group vocals are a major highlight, as are the strings, and the rock n' roll style electric guitar. With this incredibly timely song, Rhett challenges all of us to be better humans, and could wind up with a tune that represents 2020 in America for years to come.


In a race that you can't win, slow it down//

Yeah, you only get one go around//

Cause the finish line is six feet in the ground//

In a race you can't win, just slow it down

19. Soundtrack To A Life

Every Echo

With this song, Every Echo beautifully explores the ever present connection between life and music. The fledgling band formed by four industry veterans, uses simple, yet profound lyrics to share their belief that all of life's moments are songs, even those rooted in darkness and pain. "In the self doubt you find your voice" and "In the darkness we learned to sing", are two examples of the heartfelt one liners that so eloquently relay the band's message. The vocal tone and expression found in the voices of Taylor Carson and Emma Rowley bring a sense of sincerity to the song, and the harmonies a great deal of passion. In the end, the words and voices featured leave you with the desire to string together the moments that have played out in your lifetime, all in the hopes of building your own uniquely personal soundtrack.


Yeah, there's music in all the noise

20. I've Had Enough

Stephen Kellogg

As a self proclaimed "lover" who has steered clear of controversial topics almost his entire career, Stephen Kellogg could no longer keep quiet as the events of 2020 unfolded. Speaking through his music, SK eloquently shares with the world the feelings he has kept inside; he's had enough. Known by many for being a gifted storyteller and lyricist, Stephen carries on that tradition here. There are some beautiful lyrics, with multiple one liners that could stand on their own as profound quotes, like "I guess we're not alone in all this chaos we create". The heart of the song's message can be found and summed up in the lyric, "cause your faith is your faith unless your faith is a threat to someone else''. Helping to really highlight that line is the increased intensity in both Stephen's vocals and the backing vocals by former SK and The Sixers bandmate Boots Factor. The subtle use of both the pedal steel and harmonica add depth and texture, helping to make the instrumental composition fuller, more interesting, and more well rounded. With this song, Stephen has uncovered one of the only sides of himself that he had yet to share with fans. I'm looking forward to seeing what becomes of this newfound voice, and the songs that come out of it, because the world has not yet heard enough from this side of Kellogg's heart.


When it feels like Goliath is coming for us we anticipate the scars


Runner Up

Maybe It's Time


feat. Corey Taylor, Joe Elliott, Brantley Gilbert, Ivan Moody, Slash

Alternative, country rock, and hard rock all stars lend their voices to a powerful and passionate song that perfectly conveys the inner thoughts of an addict, and ends with all vocalists joining together for one final dynamic chorus that echoes the hope and strength found in community, and the sentiment that no one is alone in their fight.


And this was self-inflicted//

Yeah I was on a mission//

To ruin everything in life//

But now I'm so damn ready//

Just take my hand and steady//

And we will make it through the night


Best Cover


I Won't Back Down

Judah & The Lion

Crowded Table

Joshua Radin

While covers aren't a replacement for original music, it is often cool to see songs reimagined. To hear a band or artist adapt another's work to fit their style, and put their own stamp on it. Sometimes you find a cover that's better than the original, and other times one that is so different it becomes a whole new song. This year out of all the covers I heard there were two that stood out high above the rest; Judah & The Lion's take on Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's "I Won't Back Down" and Joshua Radin's version of "Crowded Table" by The Highwomen. In both cases the artists use their own strengths as musicians to create beautiful renditions of these songs. They are perfect examples of songs being given a new life when done by other artists.




Bailey Elizabeth


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