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, EP Edition

It’s the next installment of the year in music, this blog’s annual exercise in working out its author’s need to categorize and share the songs and albums from the previous 12 months the he liked. It’s not for everyone. But you might find something useful.

Today, EPs. EP stands for “Extended Play,” and it refers to a release that isn’t long enough to be considered an album, or “Long Play” (LP). They’re cheaper to produce, and many release LPs before an album. Increasingly, it seems like established acts are releasing EPs though, often in the same year that they release an LP. Both The Decemberists and Lake Street Dive did that this year, presumably in order to publish music they recorded for, but did not ultimately include on, their albums.

There were four EPs that I spent a lot of time with this year. One I’m sure you’ve heard. One I’ve already mentioned. Let’s start with that one.

Freak Yourself Out was released by Lake Street Dive in late November. Because I saw the band about a month earlier, I had heard most of it already. Frankly, if I hadn’t I don’t think it would have registered with me. Still, “Daryl” and “Angioplast” showcase the band’s delightful versatility.

Brett Dennen released two EPs in 2018, and I considered listing them together as an LP. Taken together they’re a solid collection of the folk singer/songwriter’s uptempo turn, but by themselves they kind of make individual statements. They are Dennen’s first recordings for Downtown Records, home to Cold War Kids and David Gray. I’ve known of Dennen for about a decade, but I haven’t loved anything he’s done until these. In particular “Already Gone,” and “Live in The Moment” are total earworms. “Jenny and Jill” has just the loveliest, loveliest harmonic chorus.

Finally, the one I’m sure you’ve heard. In late October, Matador Records released boygenius, a self-titled six-track collection from a female indie rocker supergroup nobody saw coming. Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker who have both recorded for Matador, teamed up with Phoebe Bridgers, whose debut album last year on Dead Oceans was one of my yearly favorites. The result is just stunning, vocally, rhythmically, and lyrically. No doubt, boygenius is one of the best things to happen in 2018 music. There are only six songs, so they’re all standouts. But “Me & My Dog” and “Stay Down” will stay with you.

These Are The 10 Songs from 2018 That I’d Take with Me To A Deserted Island

It’s great that Spotify automatically generates a list of the 100 songs I listened to most during the year. I’m also happy with the big list of songs I compiled myself, the one that has practically every 2018 release I heard and liked. But, as with all of life, hard choices are ultimately required, and they cannot be avoided.

Here, then, is my hard call on the ten songs I’m taking with me into 2019, listed, not ranked. Each inclusion represents a decision. There are lots of songs denied a spot on this list that I listened to more, but that I decided were not as good, not as important to me, as the 10 left.

Listening to music is rewarding. Reading about music is less so. Here you go then.

My Favorite Lyrics of 2018

I’ve already posted here about my “Your Top Songs of 2018” list from Spotify as well as the “2018 Radio” playlist I’ve spent the year assembling. Today’s post is about lyrics.

The difference between a good song and a great one can be that one lyric that just stays with you. These are the lyrics from songs released this year that kept me coming back to their songs.

Some of them are tucked neatly into verses, and some of them are the chorus. They’re written for the ear and for melody, not for print. They’re still pretty great in print though.

Here’s to the writers.

“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit I had a coughing fit.” Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift.”

“It’s nothing elegant in being a drunk. It’s nothing righteous being 60 and punk.” Death Cab for Cutie, “60 & Punk.”

“The only gun control that she supports is using both hands.” Will Hoge, “Nikki’s A Republican Now.”

“If I only see what I can see, I know it isn’t there, and if I only need what I can keep, I know it isn’t fair.” Chvrches, “Graves.”

“You could give an aspirin the headache of its life.” The Wombats, “Turn.”

“And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Turns out that I’m crooked too.” Amos Lee, “Crooked.”

“I’m just calling ‘cause I’m used to it. You’ll pick up ‘cause you’re not a quitter.” Lucy Dacus, “Addictions.”

“You would dirty me up just to get yourself clean.” Lake Street Dive, “Good Kisser.”

“Punish him for the life he chose, but forgive the past that he did not” Dawes, “Crack The Case.”

“She cleaned my clock but it’s ticking still” Amos Lee, “Louisville.”

“I never been to Burning Man. But I love Modesto. That’s my jam.” Brett Dennen, “Live In The Moment.”

“My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes. My body might have some good news.” David Bazan, “My Body.”

“I’ll wait in museums while you take all day to see ‘em. Matt & Kim, “Happy If You’re Happy.”

“I feel my bankroll tight in my pocket, I’m gonna pay ‘em when they bill me.” Parker Milsap, “Gotta Get To You.”

“I can’t keep a secret from the guy at the store downstairs.” Titus Andronicus, “Above The Bodega (Local Business).”

“Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring; that’s bad luck.” Neko Case, “Bad Luck.”

“I picked a good day for a recreational Percoset.” Pistol Annies, “Best Years of My Life.”

“Did someone really say that the world is flat in 2017?” Shovels and Rope, “Great, America (2017).”

“You deal in unspoken debts: no kindness without wanting something back.” Lucy Dacus, “Nonbeliever.”

“Don’t try to go another round. Stay down.” Dawes, “Stay Down.”

“But if you need to make a martyr you got to take away the man.” Phosphorescent, “Christmas Down Under.”

“If the grass is greener then I’m colorblind.” Freddy and Francine, “Ain’t No Way.”