Welcome to 2021, or as I prefer to call it, #TwentyRipAndRun! Let’s talk about 2020. When people reflect on last year, I bet the focus will be on the tragedy: hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions more changed forever, plus the substantial cultural loss caused by countless venues and restaurants closing. What may be forgotten was how weird it was to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. How the uncertainty of a new normal made March seem 100 days long… And then the whole summer seem to be like two weeks. Being home all the time was (and still is) really messed up, even for homebodies like me. Music should be the media least impacted at all by the pandemic, but my listening habits still changed. When I’m home all the time – not in an office, not commuting, not going to shows – it turns out I listen to music less. When it’s just as easy to watch E.R. clips on YouTube, I get a lot less cool. So I’m looking forward to that vaccine and things getting better.
Brasstracks – Golden Ticket
Caribou – Suddenly
Kelly Lee Owns – Inner Song
M!R!M – The Visionary
Mura Masa – R.Y.C.
As is almost always the case, you’d be correct in assuming I basically threw a dart at a board to pick my #10 album. It takes a lot of effort to get down to a top 15, but then filling out the top spots usually isn’t super hard. It’s when I get to the bottom of the list that things get tricky again, because I have to start making the decision about who lives, who dies, who tells your story. There are two kinda lame reasons Soccer Mommy had an edge: 1) color theory came out in February so I’ve just had more time to listen to it and 2) I’ve liked Soccer Mommy since their first album and the five honorable mentions are all new to me. That said, I wouldn’t have kept listening to color theory for nearly a year if I didn’t really like it. Also, I enjoyed that Soccer Mommy was one of the groups to do a quarantine thing, in this case, getting other artists to cover songs. SASAMI’s cover of “Toxicity” by System of a Down is a thing of surprising beauty, recapturing the inexplicable joy the AV Club Undercover series used to bring.
The Beths seem like they’re having a lot of fun. When their album Jump Rope Gazers came out, they live streamed a house party which would seem wildly inappropriate if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re in New Zealand where people and the government actually got together and squashed the pandemic. Also, if you’re curious what a jump rope gazer is, I’ve got bad news for you: I don’t know. But I do know this is a joyous, harmony-heavy rock album which is just what the doctor ordered. Disclaimer: doctors have actually ordered you stay home, where masks when you go out, and wash you goddamn hands.
At this point, I’m gonna have to come up with something more insightful to say than Frances Quinlan’s voice is magic. Uh… I really like her cover of Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero”? It probably helps that Likewise was another before-times release, so it became almost nostalgic as the year went on. It feels like an album that rewards repeat listens, which is something I’d be embarrassed to write if it wasn’t for the fact that Pitchfork said the same thing. I don’t know, it seems like a lot of slingers (my cool way of saying “lead singers”) put out solo albums last year. What puts Quinlan ahead of the likes of Adrianne Lenker and Laura Jane Grace? Man, all I’ve got is that her voice is magic.
I wanted to make sure as mellow a year 2020 was that there was a fair amount of chill music represented, and Nicolas Godin’s sophomore effort was maybe the most chill album I listened to last year. I’m beginning to notice a troubling trend… maybe it had an unfair advantage because it came out way back in January. Nicolas Godin – one half of Air, the group that did the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides – is known for laying it on pretty heavy with his vocoders, “What Makes Me Think About You” is testament to that. But that style allows the Frenchman to take a simplistic approach to lyrics that compliments his minimal production, altogether creating a warming effect that I can’t quite explain. Concrete and Glass, despite it’s harsh sounding name, is one of the most comfortable albums to put on that I found all of last year.
After releasing her debut album, Phoebe Bridgers went on to form two supergroups, boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, seemingly cementing her in permanent contention for my annual year-end lists for the foreseeable future. Her return to solo music was certainly welcome, as her emo-ish indie rock was a hot commodity in this gloomy year. This is fun, will I work a pandemic reference into every single one of these? Yeesh, I’m such a hack… Hey, so Stranger in the Alps had a ghost on the cover and Punisher has a skeleton, what monster do you think she’ll use on album three? Punisher is also one of two albums to reference Elliott Smith on this list. The other one? Well, you’ll just have to keep reading to find out. (It’s Fleet Foxes in case I forget to write that part).
So, Destroyer. I’m not sure what I need to add that Colin didn’t already say. “The Raven” was the first song I loved this year, I even talked about it on The Pick. Um… Here’s a funny quote I found on Wikipedia about why Dan Bejar named his band Destroyer: “I was actually so out of it I didn’t know that there was a Kiss record called Destroyer because I didn’t know anything about Kiss. I still don’t know anything about them. I just thought it was a cool rock-and-roll name, and I was kind of blown away that it hadn’t been taken already. I was like, ‘I have to use this because it’s so weird that no one’s used it before.'” Haha.
Is “Don’t Wanna” the undisputed #1 summer jam of 2020? Eh, I can think of some competition so I guess I shouldn’t call it “undisputed.” Still, at this point there are few things as exciting to me as seeing that these three sisters have a new walking somewhere music video. This album rules simply because the songs are fun to listen to. Also, HAIM must have had a pretty good year! I hope. They also show up on my next pick. Plus, they’re in the music video for “Dragonball Durag” by Thundercat, in which he tries to seduce all three of them with hilarious results. They even made a funny cooking video with their mom! They’re the best!
OK, the universe wins, I finally ended up putting Taylor Swift on a list (top five, even). All it took was her collaborating with Big Red Machine’s Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon and eschewing her pop pedigree in favor of making something downright folky. Which was genius, she pivoted to cottagecore just as everyone got way into sewing bread and baking masks. That ol’ Swifty, she knows what she’s doing. To prove I actually liked these, and am not just trying to fit in with my poppier colleagues, I will now tell you what I thought the best parts were. Between the two, folklore is probably my favorite. I think the tracks I like most are “mirrorball,” “august,” and “evermore.” That is all.
I’d say that I feel lucky the gap between Fleet Foxes albums was a lot shorter this time, but by all accounts, luck had nothing to do with it. Forced into quarantine by the pandemic, Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold wrote the entirety of Shore while sheltering in place and went on to produce the album by himself, as the rest of the band where unable to join him in New York during lockdown. (As a tantalizing aside, the rumor I’ve heard is that a 24-track expanded version of Shore with songs from the rest of band is in the works). That dedication was worth it, as I don’t think I’ve been as obsessed with a Fleet Foxes album since the first one. It’s soothing and cathartic and distinct from their previous works, while still seemingly like it belongs with them. Did I like it a lot? Sure.
In a year without live music, WITH was a lifeline. Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, embarked on a brief tour in November 2019. They recruited a bunch of talented musicians, including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, to expand their typically intimate sound into something much more lavish. Fortunately, they recorded it and put it out for all of us to enjoy. WITH really, really worked for me. Songs I already liked took on a new life (“Rewind”) while others I hadn’t paid much attention to before became new favorites (“Wolf”). There’s even an adorable concert film you can just watch on YouTube. According to my Apple Music Replay, I listened to 48 hours of Sylvan Esso in 2020, and despite their new album Free Love also being pretty good (it’s where the featured image came from), I’m certain almost all of that time was spent on WITH. Let’s hope, someday when this whole situation has resolved, Sylvan Esso try this thing again, and it comes remotely close to Seattle.