The Albums of 2020

I still pay attention to album releases every Friday. There’s a Release Radar playlist on Spotify that populates first thing in the morning every fifth day of the week and that’s based on things in my library already. It’s very useful, but there are too many singles–many of them acoustic and remixed versions of songs already in my library–for it to be the go-to source for album releases.

NPR Music limits its Friday updates to albums, and the range of what it shares every week is impressively broad. If you have a lane, they’re sure to spend at least some time in it each week. But not enough. So I also check in every Friday with the reviews page of American Songwriter magazine. Landon and Marcus and Jeff are sure to send me things too.

2020 gave me a bunch of albums that I chose to stash in my “2020 Albums” playlist (below), but two albums dominated my attention disproportionately, and they’re not by artists I could have told you a year ago I would fall for: Sarah Siskind and Taylor Swift.

I had never heard of Siskind before “Modern Appalachia” came out in April. She’s spent most of her career writing songs for other artists to record and touring with headliners like Bon Iver as a backing vocalist. But the first time in played it, “Modern Appalachia” sunk it’s hooks into my ears. There is a gravity to it that felt so comforting during days that felt like they were floating away and out of control. Take a listen and see if you don’t agree (“Punk Rock Girl” is the song of the year for me).

Of course I’d heard of Taylor Swift before “folklore,” but I’m 44, so … no. I couldn’t turn it off. The songs on “folklore” are so good. “August,” “This Is Me Trying,” and “Illicit Affairs” are standouts, and I anticipated them every time I played the album, but the songs preceding and following my favorites refused to be skipped. It’s infectious without being earwormy. I played it more than anything else all year, which is telling; it wasn’t released til the year was half over.

There’s gold on this albums list (honorable mention to Ivan & Alyosha, Hailey Whittiers, Beach Bunny, Jason Isbell, William Prince, and Dave Hause’s terrific EP of Patty Griffin covers). But nothing commanded my attention like Siskind and Swift in 2020.

The Roughly 30 Songs That Got Me Through 2020

More than previous years, music in 2020 had to cut through a persistent fog of fear and anxiety, restlessness, guilt and loss. I spent some time last night curating this list of songs that, for me, did that. I listened to some of them dozens of times and others of them less. There are clusters from a couple of albums I spent a disproportionate amount of time with, and I feel no shame including them all. There is a punch in these songs the year requires.

Closing Time

“Closing time. Open all the doors and let you out into the world.”

That Semisonic single was released in March of 1998, spring of my senior year in college. From the first time those introductory piano notes trickled through my dorm room stereo I knew what the song was about: me and my impending graduation.

“Closing time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

How could it not be? For 20 years now that song has conjured vivid recollections both of that dorm room and of that supercharged feeling of anxiety mixed with anticipation that visits you in threshold seasons of life change.

“Closing time. Time for you to go out to the places you will be from.”

Except yesterday I heard the songwriter, Dan Wilson, explain its composition, and, of course, a 22 year old undergrad features nowhere in that explanation. I texted a friend: “He doesn’t seem to realize that his song is actually about college graduation.” In fact, compared to what’s really behind the words and the production, my private meaning feels petty and insignificant. It’s really lovely. You should listen to it.

“Closing time. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

A reminder for anyone who makes things of meaning for an audience: people are making their own meaning out of your work.

Spotify Wrapped

Spotify puts together a year-end presentation for you about the music (and, now, podcasts) you listened to the most since January. I simply love this. I find it an aid for reflecting on the past year. Spotify Wrapper for 2019 tells me that:

There was a lot going on in the world. I listened to over 8,000 minutes of podcasts, most of them to do with news or politics. That can’t be healthy.

Seeing a band live correlates with lots of time in their catalog. The Mountain Goats show I saw in May and the New Pornographers show I saw this fall had that effect in particular.

Hit Parade, the podcast, has a meaningful effect on the music I listen to. The 30 year retrospective about Rhythm Nation 1814 made that album one of my top listens for the year.

I love this little gift every December. It tells me the truth about myself, at least based on listening data.

It Was That Kind of Year, Lucy Dacus Edition

I had never heard Lucy Dacus before “Addictions” was released as a single off her March 2 album, Historian (Matador). Her 2016 debut went right by me, so the restrained voice I was hearing, backed by this subtly grinding lead guitar and hippity-skippity percussion (and were those horns?) was an utter novelty. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s solid.” tells me that I played “Addictions” 30 times in 2018, one of over 150 times I played a song off Historian in my kitchen, in my car, or on the train. I couldn’t stop.

Every song on it is a gem. Elements emerge and then recede, and songs grow inside other songs (the title reference to “Night Shift” doesn’t come until three minutes and 20 seconds into the song, and it’s, like, a whole new thing. The second repetition of it knocks you off your chair). “Nonbeliever” is probably my favorite song of 2018, and its late-verse echo, “everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out” feels like my year’s tagline. For my church music friends, “Pillar of Truth” even has a nod to that ubiquitous praise chorus, “Sanctuary.” I try to avoid hyperbole, but LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT HISTORIAN IS PERFECT.

That’s it, then. The year in music for 2018 ends with the album that dominated what I listened to all year. Here’s to more great music in 2019. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.

It Was That Kind of Year, Pop Edition

My grown up music wheelhouse is the folk, Americana, and even country of lyrical crooners and brooders. But pop music is my DNA. Synthesizers are in my blood, and big, dramatic vocal hooks are in my bones. Blame it on the top 40 radio countdowns I devoted my weeknights to in junior high.

Here are three albums from 2018 that brought out the aspiring pop star in me.

Death Cab for Cutie fans will resist a “pop” label, but the band is on a major label and gets played on commercial radio. Also (and this didn’t really register for me until I saw them live last month), their gig is shot through with the distortion and despair of mid 80’s new wave that dominated pop radio in the early 80’s. There’s New Order in there, for sure.

Thank You for Today (Atlantic) marks the second consecutive Death Cab album that I’ve flipped for after ignoring their first nine. I think their sound has solidified (or something). Kintsugi was full of heavy guitar riffs, and the vocal distortion was dialed back, and I loved it–all of it. Thank You . . .relies quite heavily on distortion, by contrast, and is more synth-heavy. But the songs are all expertly crafted, lyrically insightful, and deeply enjoyable with repeated listens. “Gold Rush” and “You Moved Away” are the ones I love the most. “60 & Punk” is exactly how to close an album.

Chvrches are Scottish, which puts them even more squarely in the center of my musical panoply. Del Amitri, Frightened Rabbit, The Proclaimers: the Scots do poetic, melodic, angst better than anyone. And while Chvrches, an electronic duo, don’t naturally fit with their guitar strumming countrymen on any kind of list, what they do tickles the same spot, at least for me.

Love Is Dead (Glassnote) is Chvrches third major studio album. It does what its predecessors did, so much so that it took me months to really get around to it. What I mean is that listening to and loving a Chvrches album doesn’t feel like discovery. It’s the leftover pizza you’re saving in the fridge as you experiment with that risotto recipe in the cookbook you got for Christmas. You know it’s going to be satisfying, so you can wait for it.

If you like layered synthesizers and sweeping choruses, Love Is Dead is for you. Start with the refrain-fueled “Never Say Die” and then move to “Graves,” which will make you wonder what you’re doing with your life (“You can look away/while they’re dancing on our graves/but I will stop at nothing”).

In 2014 I fell hard for TV En Francais, a pop rock album by a duo from Claremont, CA (where I was living) called We Are Scientists. They made another album in 2016, but my life was too garbled up with a move to spend any time with it. So when they started releasing singles from a new album in 2018, I made sure to add them to my library. Then the album was released in late April.

I remember taking the scenic route to work that morning to enjoy the early summer Chicago sun and spin all 31 minutes of Megaplex (100% Records). Song after song got added to my “2018 Radio” playlist–songs I want to keep. These soaring choruses and lead guitar riffs, these synthesizers and . . . wait for it . . . claptracks! It starts with the lead track, “One In, One Out,” and marches straight through “Notes In A Bottle” (the guitar solo on that song is 10 bars of Def Leppard-worthy goodness) all the way “Properties of Perception” at the end. When it’s over you naturally start it all over again.

Alright, there’s one more of these music of the year posts to go. It only has one album on it, the one that stood out, out, out for me as the biggest musical revelation of the year. Look for that on Monday.

It Was That Kind of Year, Soulful Americana Edition

2018 produced some really great edgy Americana albums from acts like Neko Case and Will Hoge. But there were also a handful of releases you would generally call “Americana” with less edge and more soul. Here are the four I spent the most time with.

Amos Lee’s My New Moon (Dualtone) has some absolute gems on it, like “Louisville,” “Crooked,” and the first single released from the album, “No More Darkness, No More Light.” It’s on the strength of those three records that I recommend this album, but the other eight on the album don’t disappoint. In the end it’s a smidge uneven, but My New Moon is my favorite Amos Lee project since his 2005 debut.

I am the only Freddy and Francine fan I know. Honestly, nobody else I talk about music with knows them, and the ones who do aren’t all that enthused, with the random exception of my wife’s best friend, who lives in France. After a hiatus that included a breakup, my favorite LA-based romantic/musical duo got back together and made a new album. Barely. Moonless Night (self-released) is six songs stuffed in a 21 minute package, short enough for me to listen to it twice all the way through on my morning commute the morning it was released.

“Hail Me A Cab” is one of my favorite songs of the year. It’s mournful and beautiful, and it balances the more playful side of the album on songs like “Sweet on You.” You won’t regret at least checking this album out.

Lake Street Dive made my EP list already, but their real contribution to the year in music was Free Yourself Up (Nonesuch Records), the LP they put out in early May. It is absolutely crammed with the kind of funky folk appeal the band has been known for since their 2010 self-titled debut Signature Sounds, or, for most people, since they released the single “Bad Self Portraits” off their 2014 follow up.

Landon doesn’t go for the “Bonnie Riatt” vibe, but I honestly can’t get enough of it. The songwriting is self-aware and elevated by a certain honesty about the way of things in romantic relationships (“Good Kisser” and “Dude”). And still, the earnest notes of ballads like “Musta Been Something” and “I Can Change” just ache with longing. Rachel Price sings like nobody’s business, too.

“Evenutally” is a Tame Impala song that the duo Lucius covered on Nudes (Mom+Pop), and that I played so much in the car and in the kitchen that my 10 year-old daughter now sings it without even realizing she’s doing it.

Nudes is the most interesting project on this list, because it was recorded over two days and includes a bunch of stuff that the quartet has made centerpieces of their live shows, including their own songs and covers like “Eventually.” I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t blown away when it came out in the spring, but songs from it kept finding their way into my rotation, and by the end of the year I had to include it. “Right Down The Line” and a Roger Waters collaboration, “Goodnight, Irene” are the real standouts.

It Was That Kind of Year, Edgy Americana Edition

The Year in Music on Christmas Eve? You betcha.

Today I give you five albums from 2018 that appealed to my country receptors. I don’t know what brought it on, but I endured a major country music phase in high school, and those years left behind a serious sensitivity for twang, particularly twang tinged with indignation. I haven’t stomached commercial country music since the mid 90’s, but every year I go loopy for a few steel guitar, rockabilly, whiskey-soaked crooner acts.

This year that soft spot found albums by four acts I’d heard before and one I hadn’t. Three of them have the same distribution agency.

The Black Lillies are a band I knew from their 2013 album Runaway Freeway Blues, a Grand Ol’ Opry style country collection that I liked a lot in certain moods. I couldn’t really find the mood for their followup to it, but I heard rumors about a sort of Black Lillies reboot in 2018, so I jumped on Stranger to Me (Attack Monkey Productions/Thirty Tigers) the day it came out. 

The reboot essentially trades swoon for muscle. Trish Gene Brady and her sultry vocals are gone, and the songs on Stranger to Me are driven by electric, not steel, guitars. They’re louder and edgier, although there’s still space, as on “Ten Years,” for an organ, and Cruz Contreras’s voice is all country. You mostly feel the reboot on songs like “Weighting,” when Sam Quinn is singing.

It’s a solid collection. I like the reboot, both what it kept and what it added.

Neko Case made an album in 2018 too. That’s always a good sign. She hasn’t done that since 2013. This one she produced herself.

Neko Case is one of the busiest musicians working today, what with her recording and touring with collaborations like The New Pornographers and 2017’s case/lang/viers, so a self-produced solo album creates a ton of expectations. Hell-On (Anti-Records) does not disappoint.

She’s just such a terrific songwriter. “Last Lion of Albion” is like nothing you’ve ever heard (she did a Song Exploder for it that’s great listening), and the title track contains the lyric, “God is a lusty tire fire.” The songs on the album are vocally delicate, too, like “Halls of Sarah” and “Sleep All Summer,” a lovely collaboration with Eric Bachman).

More than any other album released in 2018, Hell-On rewards repeated listening. There are layers here, guys.

The second album on this list distributed by Thirty Tigers is Parker Milsap’s Other Arrangements (Oklahoma Records/Thirty Tigers), the countriest of country albums you’ll find here.

I fell hard for this guy in 2014. “Truck Stop Gospel” was one of my favorite songs of the year. He was back in 2016, but The Very Last Day didn’t do a ton for me. Other Arrangements, though, did a lot.

These songs are driven by Milsap’s scratchy vocals and lead guitar (the album art tells the story, really). Strings are employed sparingly and effectively. “Your Water” and “Gotta Get to You” are my favorites.

From the most country to the least, then. Pinegrove are an five man band from Montclair, New Jersey whose songs refer to ampersands and amulets with vocals you shouldn’t like but can’t resist. Their debut LP, Cardinal, was one of my favorite albums of in 2016, so I was ready for a follow up. Skylight (self released) was what I was waiting for.

There’s a story here, too, having to do with the band’s lead singer and songwriter being accused of sexual misconduct, disappearing for awhile, and then facing the music. Quinn Moreland at Paste explained it all helpfully in his review of Skylight. It’s why the album was self-released and why the proceeds from all the sales are going to charity.

The songs on Skylight are shorter than you want them to be (11 songs in 30 minutes?), and they hit a certain emo/pop nerve, even while being awash in a twangy soundscape. “Lush” is the word I’m looking for. “Rings” and “Angelina” are my favorites.

To Will Hoge, Skylight is long by about a minute. His quick-and-dirty 2018 album My American Dream (EDLO Records/Thirty Tigers) is the last one on this collection and is only 29 minutes long.

This guy has been recording albums since 2001, but I hadn’t heard any of them until now. I read a review on American Songwriter and added it to my Spotify library but didn’t get around to playing it until “Nikki’s A Republican Now” came up during a shuffle of my entire song library. I was like, “Who is that?” and I played the whole album that minute.

28 minutes later I canonized it in the 2018 albums list. I mean, if you’re looking for a collection of angry foot-stomping protest songs, you can hardly do better. “Thoughts And Prayers” is the center of gravity, and the song that birthed the project. Hoge wrote it in response to that phrase’s gross usage by political leaders after yet another school shooting (Parkland). Then he let loose on income disparity, racism, and xenophobia, to name but a few social ills.

It Was That Kind of Year, Punk(ish) Edition

The Year in Music rolls on with the first full-length albums I’m keeping from 2018. They’re both from pop-friendly punk acts that have never really tracked with me before.

My friend Jeff sent me a Smoking Popes song in mid-October with a note that they’re a punk band he’d sort of lost track of. I’m sure I’d heard the name and been turned off. But I played it, because I turn away no music recommendations. It was catchy and edgy and had a conscience. I was hooked.

Into The Agony came out on October 12th on Asian Man Records. The first time I played it, I kept expecting the next song to be the one that put me off it. It never happened. “Simmer Down” is aggressive but relatable. “When You Want Something” is nearly beautiful. “Get Happy” is a Judy Garland song, for Pete’s sake. “No Tomorrow Tonight” is a bit schlocky. But then “Little Lump of Coal” and “Melting America” are the punk-infused protest songs the day calls for. Count me a fan.


There are two songs from Bayside’s 2016 album, Vacancy on my song list from that year. Beyond that, the band hadn’t really registered with me in the 14 years they’ve been putting out albums (and it turns out that Vacancy was itself a repackaging of one of their earlier albums). They’re as far out on a punk limb as I go, and that’s not very far.

Acoustic, Volume 2 came out in late September on Hopeless Records. “It Don’t Exist” was actually released as a single first, and I played it a bunch of times. I took the artist to be some new-on-the-scene folk/Americana act. It wasn’t until “Sick, Sick, Sick” that I figured out who I was actually hearing: an album of acoustic versions of old Bayside songs I’d never caught the first time around. I was kind of blown away by the revelation and sent “Sick, Sick, Sick” to Landon alongside its 2011 original with the question, “How can these be by the same band?”

I read a quote from singer Anthony Raneri about Acoustic . . .: “This album is strictly for the fans.” I hate to tell Raneri he’s wrong though, at least in my case. I became strangely devoted to this album on its own terms and not as an outpouring of years-long loyalty; I’ve still not heard the original versions of some of these songs. It’s just great. It’s how to do a reinterpretation of your own work: your fans will love it, and you’ll make some new ones at the same time.