LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2020

After posting my favorite songs of 2020, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums of the year. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from: 2011, 2012, 2013201420152016, 20172018 and 2019.

Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each (except where noted).

20. Anjimile – Giver Taker (“Baby No More”)

19. Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom (“Glenfern”)

18. Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (“Ooh LA LA”)

17. Bartees Strange – Live Forever (“Stone Meadows”)

16. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (“Posthumous Forgiveness”)

15. Square Loop – Mom Come Pick Me Up (Full Album)

14. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (“Murder Most Foul”)

13. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (“Letter to You”)

12. Bully – SUGAREGG (“Prism”)

11. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy (“Cameo”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2020:

10. beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers

Everything about beabadoobee, the stage name of London-based guitarist Bea Kristi, screams the sound, aesthetic and feel of a decade she missed being alive in by about 6 months. Her debut, the highly-anticipated Fake It Flowers, culls from the best of women-driven ‘90s alt-rock. Songs like lead single “Care”, frantic rockers “Worth It” and “Together” and dreamy jams “Further Away” and “Horen Sarrison” show the songwriting range she’s acquired already. Kristi’s also branched out beyond her main influence, as shown on lo-fi acoustic wonder “How Was Your Day?”, recalling Kimya Dawson’s iconic Juno soundtrack. She’s the latest in an incredible group of young women artists with great years ahead.

9. Soccer Mommy – color theory

Sophie Allison’s arc to date as the leader of Soccer Mommy has shown nothing but promise. Clean, my 5th-favorite album of 2018, displayed her budding talent as a lyricist and guitarist within the constructs of poppy alternative rock. But color theory, her sophomore effort, is more polished, more mature, more comfortable and more accomplished. Thoughtful jams like “night swimming,” “crawling in my skin,” “lucy” and “circle the drain” show Allison’s natural progression in all things, including a really fun melodic guitar sound throughout. Released in February, color theory was poised to push Soccer Mommy into a massive year before touring stopped. I hope for better success for Allison and her bandmates in 2021 and beyond.  

8. Barely Civil – I’ll Figure This Out

On their second full-length album, the four young dudes in Milwaukee-based emo outfit Barely Civil manage to sound both exuberantly youthful and wise beyond their years. Led by the throaty wails of singer Connor Erickson, the band hits new highs thanks to standout tracks like the intricate “North Newhall,” all-out rocker “I Woke Up Laughing”, and near-perfect post-punk rager “Box For My Organs.” It’s the kind of stuff that most successful bands can build upon for big followings in this genre. The guys in Barely Civil are the kind who’ll need live music to come back to really have a chance to grow: here’s hoping I’ll Figure This Out is just the start of a positive trajectory.

7. Haim – Women In Music, Pt. III

On the cover of Women in Music Pt. III, the Haim sisters find themselves flanked on all sides by dozens of dangling pieces of phallic-shaped meat. Yes, it’s a metaphor, and not a terribly subtle one. But on their third album, the lack of subtlety is a feature and not a bug. The best thing about Women in Music Pt. III is that it isn’t just one thing; it finds Haim branching off in unique ways at a level of completeness they hadn’t reached before. There’s breezy ‘70s Laurel Canyon canon, ‘90s-style hip hop/R&B stuff I’m sure they grew up listening to, dancy rhythms and, on the seminal “The Steps” everything in one. There’s no need for subtlety when you’re as good as Haim, and I know they can keep getting better.

6. Taylor Swift – folklore

Taylor Swift has proven herself well beyond that of a crossover pop star, but a genius-level artist. This was punctuated in 2020 by the arrival of her surprise 8th album, folklore, recorded in quarantine. Of particular interest to me: roughly half the songs on the album are produced and co-written by Aaron Dessner, who happens to be a musical force behind one of the most important bands of my life. The result is a work of astounding beauty, quiet grace and emotional resonance. Late-album wonder “betty” is the best thing, in my estimation, Swift has ever done, a story song about a teenager trying to win back his love. The key-change/transition at around the 4-minute mark of “betty” is as close to perfection as music can come. As of this writing, I’m devouring evermore, her surprise follow-up to this surprise album. What Swift is doing now is bigger than making two excellent albums in a year. She’s a singer-songwriter with a prominent place in the folklore of popular music. She’s not Joni. She’s not Carole. She’s Taylor. And that matters.

5. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

It’s been 23 years since Fiona Apple got up on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and declared that the world was bullshit. All these years later, the world sadly is still bullshit. On the bright side, Apple’s become one of the most important, uncompromising and influential of her or any era, and when she makes a statement, people listen. They certainly did this year with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album that lives up to its sky-high critical hype. Recalling Tom Waits at his most experimental, Apple goes in wildly innovative directions, ones you can’t predict. You’ve seen the same adjectives all year to describe this record: visceral, raw, uninhibited. I’m here to tell you none of them really work. It’s almost like Fetch the Bolt Cutters needs its own language. I’m not sure what you can really say for things like the primary refrain in “For Her” (“You raped me in the same bed / That your daughter was born in”), the reliance on found objects for percussion, how her voice cracks at the end of “I Want You to Love Me”, how she emphasizes the curse when she sings “I resent you presenting your life / Like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay.” You have to really listen to it to understand. And you should.

4. Dogleg – Melee

No band got more screwed by the pandemic than Dogleg. The Detroit hardcore group sat on their debut album, Melee, for most of 2019, and planned to release it alongside an anticipated performance at SXSW in March. That turned out to be the first thing canceled in 2020, and Dogleg lost out on sharing their huge emo-inspired post-punk sound with a bigger audience. But no misfortune diminishes Melee’s power. In league with Celebration Rock, it goes so fucking hard from the first minute. It’s raw and organized at the same time, with heart-on-your-sleeve precision that defies their years. (They also parodied Clerks in the “Wartortle” video, another sure way to win me over.) Their polish allows lead singer and guitarist Alex Stoitsiadis to yell lyrics like “Will you be the fire or the wind?”, “I’m so tired of waiting around / To find something I’ve already got,” and “If I remember everything / Just to lose another day / No way, this to you I pray,” and have it all feel completely earned and without irony. It’s even so right for the album’s superlative closer “Ender” to finish on a string quartet and not feel out of place. Hopefully these ensuing years are better for Dogleg, because Melee is as promising a start as any band could have.

3. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

After the release of Jeff Rosenstock’s fourth full-length solo album, NO DREAM, in May, I became a Rosenstock believer. His hyper-self aware style, brash singing voice, and hard-charging guitars over a bevy of punkish hooks at different speeds make him stand out in a year of standouts. My very first thought going through my initial listen of NO DREAM: “I wish this was what Weezer and Green Day were actually trying to sound like in 2020.” Despite a sound consistent with the last 40 years of punk rock, NO DREAM is a thought-provoking look at the world from Rosenstock’s unique perspective, asking big questions about life and the world in 2020. These include songs that express anger at the absurdity of our politics in “Scram!”, that go HAM on immigration critics in the title track, that make us crack up in the too-funny-to-make-up “AIRBNB,” and that describe how hard it can be to change on several songs including “Old Crap.” It all comes to a head on the superb finale “Ohio Tpke,” ostensibly a song about being on the road, but with so much more underneath. It goes in several distinct movements covering all the musical avenues Rosenstock explores on the record. The refrain at the end highlights conflicting, familiar feelings: “I miss coming home to you / I hate coming home / I hate leaving home,” before concluding with some solo piano lines, a beautiful, poignant ending to a great record. NO DREAM is a celebration, the kind that was there whenever needed this year.

2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Coming into 2020, the music world knew a lot about Phoebe Bridgers. Her debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, was a solid folk-inspired, pop-tinged outing. High-profile collaborations followed, including with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in Boygenuis, as well as Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center, among many others. She was supposed to open for the 1975 this summer. Then, 2020 happened, which sucked for basically everyone except Phoebe Bridgers, who thanks to numerous things seemingly overnight went from quirky indie music star to full-fledged Internet celebrity. Truthfully none of it would have happened without this year’s Punisher being a great album. And, it is, showcasing all her talents in an amazing transformation from Stranger. Most of these songs are sonically quiet, but pack every ounce of emotional wallop in a genre she seems to have created out of whole cloth. She’s on another planet as a lyricist right now; Bridgers maintains an otherworldly knack of writing songs that sound like she’s just having a conversation with you while signing in her near-perfect voice. Her band is totally in tune with the intimate, ethereal nature of what she’s going for throughout Punisher. There’s her imagined conversation with Elliott Smith’s on the title track, her breezy tour diary on “Kyoto,” the overarching guitar and strings combos of “Chinese Satellite”, the frantic rushes of “I See You” and the glorious folksy Boygenuis reunion of “Graceland Too.” It ends with my favorite song of 2020, “I Know the End”, a cacophony of apocalypse in a year that always felt like one. The end may be here for 2020, but Phoebe Bridgers is just getting started.

1. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

It’s been such a rewarding journey to watch Katie Crutchfield go from virtual unknown in the crowded early 2010s indie rock scene to what she finally became in 2020: a beloved artist, with the widespread respect she’s always deserved. When I ranked Waxahatchee’s knockout Out in the Storm my 4th-favorite album of 2017, I wrote: “Perhaps my favorite development in indie rock these last few years has been watching Katie Crutchfield grow into an elite songwriter.” It’s little surprise, then, that Crutchfield would kick off a new decade with the best album in a wildly stacked year for new music with Saint Cloud. Her opus arrived on March 27, right when we were making sense of our new normal. From that moment, and through all the moments since, Saint Cloud has been a salve for the many wounds of 2020. It’s a confessional statement, one that leaves behind most of Crutchfield’s grungy guitar past for soft, folksy Americana recalling Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and the late, great John Prine. Crutchfield did, after all, name her act after the creek in Alabama near where she grew up. Saint Cloud’s songs aren’t necessarily about her hometown: it’s about her choice to get sober, and all that comes along with it. It’s a nakedly honest record, with songs like “War” showing her internal struggle (“I’m in a war with myself / It’s got nothing to do with you”), or grappling with mortality on “Ruby Falls” and the title track, or trying to be healed on “Fire”, or my favorite, “Can’t Do Much,” a straightforward ditty about the hopefulness and hopelessness of love. All along, Crutchfield and her bandmates perfectly command the tender yet powerful sound they’ve cultivated. It’s beyond special to see an artist, especially one you’ve admired for years, put it all together. That’s what I got in Saint Cloud.

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LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2020

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you my favorites of the year starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2020.

Before I get into the songs, I want to do something a little different this year and share some thoughts about music in 2020.

I don’t think I need to rehash the awfulness of 2020 at this point. Thankfully, notable exceptions to the awfulness persist. In 2020 we have seen the best of humanity, neighbors helping neighbors, acts of incredible selflessness and heroism in the face of the worst public health crisis in a century. Many people woke up to the realities of race relations for the first time. And, we as a country rejected our worst impulses and decided to reinstall moral leadership at our highest levels (well, at least 51.3% of the country did, but a win is a win).

While decidedly not as important as any of that, we also had a soundtrack for the year that rivaled any in recent memory. Right around the time the pandemic stopped our lives cold in March, a string of albums appeared representing the best of artists we know and love, and ones we’ve discovered just this year.

Music didn’t heal the world in 2020. But, it was there, when we needed it most. That’s all we can ask for.

The pace of amazing new releases slowed down a little bit in the second half, but I’m grateful to all the artists who elected not to wait until things “get back to normal” (whatever that means) to put out their new music. Artists pulled through in a year where it would have been so easy to despair.

If I compare my albums lists of 2019 and 2020 (coming soon), a maximum of 3 albums from 2019 would have cracked this year’s top 10. To me, in terms of overall quality, 2020 ranks with 2010, 2012 and 2016 as one of the best in recent memory. It’s been that incredible.

Weird added context to my lists this year: I’ve seen none of the songs on this list performed live, and I don’t believe I’ve seen any of the songs on any of my albums picks live either. Usually seeing this music in person colors my final assessment, but that simply wasn’t possible in 2020. It’s strange to think the final rundown might have been different because of that, but many strange things happened this year.

I haven’t let the loss of live music get me down personally because there are more important things in the world. The insane quality of new music this year has also helped. Live music will come back in due time, and when it does it will be great to see some of these songs in person.

Last thing before the songs: artists and venues are hurting right now. Many have basically lost everything, and I’m sad to think of what we might not get to see and hear because the pandemic bankrupted the music industry. Many venues have had to close their doors permanently, including ONCE Ballroom in Somerville where I saw Gang of Four a few years back. I’m hopeful (but not terribly optimistic) there will be federal movement to help this industry once the new administration takes over. But in the meantime, here are some organizations supporting artists and venues:

OK. Now, the songs. I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release in 2020 (be it on a single or an album). As always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Here are my favorite songs lists from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

I created Spotify and Apple Music playlists and embedded the Spotify playlist below (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums list later this month.

BONUS: My dad wrote a song for Thanksgiving, he is an amazingly talented artist and musician, please check it out.

JIM O’DONNELL – “WHEN YOUR HEART IS OLD”

25. HAYLEY WILLIAMS – “OVER YET”

24. BOB DYLAN – “GOODBYE JIMMY REED”

23. RUN THE JEWELS – “WALKING IN THE SNOW”

22. KATHLEEN EDWARDS – “HARD ON EVERYONE”

21. LOCAL NATIVES – “LOST”

20. FLEET FOXES – “JARA”

19. JULIEN BAKER – “FAITH HEALER”

18. SQUARE LOOP – “JULY 30”

17. BEACH BUNNY – “PROMISES”

16. BARTEES STRANGE – “BOOMER”

15. ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “FALLING THUNDER”

14. SOCCER MOMMY – “CIRCLE THE DRAIN”

13. BULLY – “WHERE TO START”

12. BEABADOOBEE – “CARE”

11. FIONA APPLE – “SHAMEIKA”

10. THE KILLERS – “MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING”

9. HAIM – “THE STEPS”

8. BARELY CIVIL – “BOX FOR MY ORGANS”

7. DOGLEG – “KAWASAKI BACKFLIP”

6. TAYLOR SWIFT – “BETTY”

5. TAME IMPALA – “BREATHE DEEPER”

4. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – “GHOSTS”

3. WAXAHATCHEE – “CAN’T DO MUCH”

2. JEFF ROSENSTOCK – “OHIO TPKE”

1. PHOEBE BRIDGERS – “I KNOW THE END”

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LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2020 So Far

It’s time for my annual July 1 mid-year favorite songs post!

One of the only good things about this awful year has been the embarrassment of new music riches. We’ve seen some amazing music years in the past (2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018 come to mind) but the sheer amount of incredible work in the first 6 months of 2020 rivals the full output of any of those years. That made getting this songs list down to 10 no easy task.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2020 so far as well as these Spotify and Apple Music playlists. The Spotify playlist is also embedded below. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

BEACH BUNNY – “PROMISES”

DOGLEG – “KAWASAKI BACKFLIP”

FIONA APPLE – “I WANT YOU TO LOVE ME”

HAIM – “THE STEPS”

JEFF ROSENSTOCK – “OHIO TPKE”

PHOEBE BRIDGERS – “I KNOW THE END”

ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “FALLING THUNDER”

SOCCER MOMMY – “CIRCLE THE DRAIN”

TAME IMPALA – “BREATHE DEEPER”

WAXAHATCHEE – “CAN’T DO MUCH”

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