Like everything in 2020, my music consumption this year went sideways. That is to say, I went down a lot of weird rabbit holes. In spring, right after the lockdown, I started working on a master emo playlist and accidentally got super into Coheed & Cambria and then spent March-August listening to pretty much nothing but their records. I also have a running playlist called “1000 Songs” which is more than 1000 songs but is my effort to compile a massive playlist where I can hit shuffle and every track kills. I put that one on a lot too. Late in the year I decided I wanted to listen to every album from the 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die book because that seemed like a great idea (and I’m only 20 albums in and it has been a tremendous amount of fun).
Mostly though, I found myself working in my shop or making dinner not knowing what to put on so I’d just listen to a podcast. Or I’d put on John Prine, whose death this year at the hands of COVID still hits me right in the gut (listening to his final recording, “I Remember Everything” is a recipe for tears). Which is to say my 2020 new music consumption wasn’t particularly adventurous.
7. Taylor Swift - folklore/evermoreRoughly ten years ago Taylor Swift released her single “You Belong With Me” and up until that point I had never hated a song more than that one. It rang 1000% hollow. What does this popular girl know about wearing t-shirts? For many years Taylor Swift remained a persona non grata. And then I had kids, and my wife started listening to Taylor Swift, and slowly but surely my mask of music snob hate began to crumble. Earlier this year we watched the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, and I realized that while I was growing out of my hate Taylor Swift was maturing into one of her genre’s best songwriters. It takes a minute for Swift to let her guard down in that doc, but when she does you see that she has a tireless work ethic and a deep commitment to doing whatever the hell she wants.
That commitment to doing whatever the hell she wants is on full display on her two quarantine albums: folklore and evermore. This isn’t a case of an album and a b-sides album, but two fully fleshed out and distinct records that are equally excellent. Does the National’s Aaron Dessner being on board as producer help me get on board? Certainly, but what really won me over with these albums is the songs. I questioned whether it was Stockholm Syndrome, since we listened to this almost exclusively in Jenny’s car on family trips because it was something everyone could agree on. But no, I don’t think it’s that. Watching The Long Pond Sessions doc on Disney+ cemented my original suspicion that Taylor Swift was in Thanos mode. Fully locked in, fully committed, and making music that feels like it will last a lifetime. Her ability to balance pure fiction with emotional truth is impeccable. And here I am swooning over T-swift, if 2009 KJHK Music Director Ian could see me now! I was such a hater back then. It was cool to hate. It was fun to hate. I mean, obviously it wasn’t, but I relished in it because I was young and stupid. And now I’m older, and slightly less stupid, and more open minded to music at least. Still stuck in my indie rock ruts but willing to admit I’m wrong. So that’s progress at least.
6. Pinegrove - Marigold
There’s something so cozy about Pinegrove’s music. One of my strongest associations with them is driving home from work in a blizzard with Cardinal playing on the stereo. While the group hasn’t quite hit the highs of that record, the subsequent two albums are far from sophomore slump territory. Marigold in particular is intimate and lovely and earnest and just a damn fine record.
5. Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM
Oh, look at that, another great punk rock record from Jeff Rosenstock. Mercifully I feel like I had more time to digest this one than I did with Worry and POST- which came in such quick succession. NO DREAM and AJJ’s Good Luck Everybody were the perfect soundtrack albums for the hellscape of Trumpian America, and while NO DREAM is certainly less defeated, it’s just as angry and willing to express that with pure exuberance.
4. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman
Obsessively listening to an album of reworked folk standards for comfort was not on my list of things to do for 2020, and yet here we are. The Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson and Tony Award winner Anais Mitchell’s voices find new places to haunt in these old songs and make them feel as relevant as anything. Of all the year’s albums, this one was my go-to when I couldn’t think of anything else to listen to and wanted an album to swim around in.
3. The Mountain Goats - Songs for Pierre Chuvin/ Getting Into Knives
The lockdown was bound to produce some records that wouldn’t exist otherwise. With Taylor Swift, we saw her release two of the most immaculately produced and best written albums of her career. From John Darnielle, we saw him return to the boombox days for an album of songs about...the waning days of European paganism. Ok. I’ll follow JD to the ends of the earth so this was no big sell, but the songs on Songs for Pierre Chuvin are the sort of songs that made me fall in love with the Mountain Goats in the first place. There’s a freedom to these tracks that you don’t really get from his latter day studio recordings (which, as I’ll get to in a minute, are still great just different). There’s a raw verve that allows you to see his soul a little clearer. I’m no purist, i.e. one of those OG Mountain Goats fans who think he jumped the shark when he signed to 4AD and started recording the albums in proper studios, but this is one of those albums that fully sustained me in those early days of the quarantine.
Getting Into Knives is the studio album, and I’m still pretty surprised we got this one in 2020 as well given how quickly it’s coming on the heels of In League With Dragons. That’s some Bob Pollard pacing right there (but still at a manageable enough clip that I can get to all of them without feeling overwhelmed). I don’t love every new Mountain Goats record, but they’re almost always good enough to make my year end list because JD is just that damn good and the funny thing is that I usually get into them eventually. Like Transcendental Youth, which I only really came around on last year. Or Goths, which I found myself listening to a lot in February. Getting Into Knives has more of an immediate appeal to me, and it’s one I’m still discovering and loving more every time I listen.
2. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
I’ve been a marginal Waxahatchee fan since her 2013 breakout sophomore LP Cerulean Salt, and while I enjoyed the indie rock throwback vibe of that album’s two follow-ups--Ivy Tripp and Out of the Storm–Saint Cloud feels like the album where Waxahatchee becomes Waxahatchee and Katie Crutchfield fully realizes the songwriting potential she showed on Cerulean Salt’s best tracks. Despite being borne out of personal struggle, it’s an album that feels warm and lived in, always begging for another listen.
1.Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher/ AJJ - Good Luck Everybody
I’m too tired to do the hand wringing display of which album takes the top spot this year. Both of these albums are phenomenal, and each of them served a distinct purpose in “using music to cope with the horrors around me” strategy in 2020. Where Bridger’s Punisher is an achingly brilliant examination of the internal, AJJ’s Good Luck Everybody is a furiously hopeless screed against the external (and the grief caused by the Trump administration). My line was that if Biden won, Punisher won, and if Trump won, Good Luck Everybody won, but seeing the fallout it’s clear that nobody won. We are stuck with the cult of Trumpism for the foreseeable future and have to live amongst this flock of conspiracy theory believing marks, fools, and idiots. It’s cruel and unusual, but what are you gonna do about it? Good luck everybody.
Punisher was my most anticipated album of the year. I have regaled at length my discovery of Phoebe Bridgers. How I initially thought she was some sort of Aimee Mann-esque journeywoman finally getting her big break with 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. I didn’t really listen to that album until 2018 when it became clear that had I been paying attention (and not buried in grad school work) it clearly would have been my Album of the Year. It was in my Top 10 of the Decade, and it is highly likely that Punisher will be in the Top 5 of the Decade next time around. When I found out that Phoebe Bridgers was not a 30-something troubadour and was in fact a mid-20s baby, it made her songs that much more phenomenal. To quote the Smiths (I roll this out everytime I listen to Bridgers), “How can someone so young sing words so sad?” She’s a young artist with what feels like a lifetime of experience, and a gift for sharing that experience with the rest of the world. Punisher tackles all of the big internal struggles, and some of the external ones as well. It’s an album that is both a masterpiece, and yet it doesn’t feel like we have even seen Bridgers’ best work yet because it’s a given that she is only going to continue blowing our minds for years to come.
Good Luck Everybody was my opium in the leadup to the election. Now that it’s over--despite what Donald Trump tries to tell you in his tyrannical attempts to dismantle American democracy--things feel slightly less depressing. Still horrifically depressing mind you, but less hopeless. AJJ’s latest captures that hopelessness in raw fashion. It’s a cry from the bottom of a well. A tribute to trying to muster the courage to face another day in a world that seeks to out-cruel itself day after day. “This is the golden age of dickotry/Probably the last golden age of anything,” Sean Bonnette sings in the era defining “Normalization Blues.” Bonnette’s Live From Quarantine were required viewing for me in those final weeks in October, and they’re still required viewing in these final weeks of 2020. AJJ has long been a favorite of mine--Christmas Island topped my Best of 2014 list and their records are routinely in my Top 10--but this is the one that I absolutely couldn’t live without. Sometimes you need someone to tell you it’s gonna be ok, and sometimes you just need to know that other people feel as horrible as you do about the horrible things happening in the world. Good Luck Everybody is a perfect artifact for 2020, and the fact that it was recorded pre-COVID makes it feel almost prescient.
My Favorite Songs of 2020
As a rule, the songs list is usually more fun than the albums list for me. Throughout the back half of the year it’s my go-to anytime I need to put some music on. Sometimes I’ll read about a band and throw a song on there, seeing if it catches me when it eventually comes up on shuffle. It’s how indie rock dads keep things spicy.
10. Destroyer - "Cue Synthesizer" (Have We Met)
9. Christian Lee Hutson - “Get the Old Band Back Together” (Beginners)
8. John K. Samson - “Millenium For All”
7. Bill Callahan - “The Mackenzies” (Gold Record)
6. Phoebe Bridgers - “Kyoto” (Punisher)
5. Matt Berninger - “One More Second” (Serpentine Prison)
4. AJJ - “Normalization Blues” (Good Luck Everybody)
3. Waxahatchee - “Arkadelphia” (Saint Cloud)
2. Perfume Genius - “Describe” (Set My Heart on Fire Immediately)
1.Jeff Rosenstock - “Scram!” (NO DREAM)