We all know what kind of year it’s been. The sane among us have been wearing masks and trying to keep away from others as much as we can. I’ve personally pretty much only left the house somewhere between five and ten times since March. Unless you count starting the car and driving it around the block so the battery won’t die every few days “leaving the house.”
As rough as it’s been on many of us, it’s also resulted in a BIG year for music. Nobody’s touring, so a lot of folks decided to record instead. A lot of cool music came out this year, and I had fun narrowing it down to my ten favorites. As usual I have no idea what metrics I used for this list. There are some things that came out this year that seemed like no-brainers that didn’t make it on the list at all and some that don’t seem like they’d make my list that were locks from moment one. It’s a gut instinct more than anything else. So here’s what my gut told me. I’ll do the full list right up front for those who don’t want to read any further, but there’ll be plenty of “further” if that’s your thing, of course. 🙂
Derek’s Top Ten of 2020:
- Taylor Swift – Folklore/Evermore (Tie)
- Rufus Wainwright – Unfollow the Rules
- Jason Isbell – Reunions
- Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
- Drive-By Truckers – The New OK
- Michael Manring – Small Moments
- The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin
- Pearl Jam – Gigaton
- The Lees of Memory – Moon Shot
…and yet I’m going to talk about them in reverse order, starting with The Lees of Memory – “Moon Shot.”
I’m new to this band. My brother mentioned them to me on an episode of my podcast and I decided to check them out and really dug their sound. They’re a rock band, but with a kinda Beatles vibe to their song structure and chord constructions. This album has a very “up” feeling to it, and it’s a lot of fun. I wasn’t really even expecting it to make the list, but I just kept coming back to it and kept digging it, so it snuck in at #10.
In at #9 is something a little more predictable for one of my lists…
I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan, and it’s unfair how long we had to wait for a new album after “Lightning Bolt.” “Gigaton” seemed to take forever to come out. And then, as I’m on record about in several places, the first single came and…I hated it. “Dance of the Clairvoyants” deeply disappointed me and I wasn’t just put off by it…I was angry. It was a Talking Heads song. It had a drum machine in it. (I’m STILL damn skippy that it’s a drum machine, despite most people saying otherwise.) It wasn’t a ROCK song. I was baffled. And then they put out “Super Blood Wolf Moon” and ridiculous title aside, it felt a lot more like home. And when the album came out, I even thought the song I didn’t like worked in the context of the rest of the album. So it made the list.
I’m not going to lie to you. This won’t ever be my favorite Pearl Jam album. If the last thing you liked was “Vitalogy” or even “Backspacer” this one might not be the one that brings you back. But mostly, for me, it’s just nice to have a new Pearl Jam album again, and there’s plenty to dig into on this one.
Which brings us to a pretty hard left turn from there, with The Mountain Goats’ first of two releases this year, “Songs for Pierre Chuvin.” If there was any doubt that The Mountain Goats are less of a band than they are just a guy (John Darnielle) then this album goes some way in clearing that up. Recorded in isolation on an old boom-box and converted to digital, what we have here is less of an album and more of a demo tape. This is the kind of thing I used to record at home to give to my band to learn the songs. Just a guy and a guitar. That’s sort of my favorite thing in the world.
At the time I read about who Pierre Chuvin is, but I’ve retained none of it. You can Google that for yourself. I just liked the album. And actually it’s less that I liked the album than it is that I liked what it represents. It was the first thing this year that I bumped into that was produced with isolation/quarantine in mind. And I thought it captured where we were (or are…or SHOULD be…) really well and it connected with me on that level pretty deeply. I haven’t listened to it too much. If you asked me to sing one of the songs now, I probably couldn’t. But the TONE of the album was so perfect for 2020, it just had to make my list.
The Mountain Goats, of course, also put out an album called “Getting into Knives” within the last couple of months as well. It’s good too. But “Chuvin” was the lock for the list. “Knives” is more of a traditional Mountain Goats album, if that’s more your thing. And that IS my thing…but this thing is MORE my thing. Thing.
And speaking of isolation…
Michael Manring also released an album perfect for isolation. He’s a bass player–and one of THE bass players, to me. One of my primary influences, even though I know I will never play like him. When I first heard his album “Thonk” in the mid-90s it completely changed the way I viewed the instrument and I have been a fan ever since. With “Small Moments,” Manring presents a series of bass solos. Just a guy alone with his bass. And each track is unique and engaging–there’s no fatigue that settles in. It’s a great listen every time–and I’ve listened to it a lot.
My only complaint about “Small Moments” is that it has thusfar been available ONLY as a download. I NEED a physical copy of this, but it might not ever come. On release-day, I directly asked Michael if there would be a CD copy coming. (Note – I do not personally know Michael Manring. He’s just very good at replying to fans on his Facebook page.) At the time he said he hoped/thought so, but that at the time it wasn’t possible to make it happen because of things being shut down for COVID. (This was back when the country was actually TRYING to flatten the curve.) But so far, it’s still only a download. Maybe someday. I hope so…
I’m also still waiting for my physical copy of #6 – Drive-By Truckers – “The New OK.” It hasn’t shipped yet, even though I’ve had my preorder in for months. They sent out an e-mail saying there was a problem with shipping and they’re working to get them out. They did it right. But this also isn’t the first time that’s happened to me with this band, and the last couple times they *didn’t* have a pandemic to blame. (What did indie bands blame shit on before pandemics?) Nevertheless, I like this album a lot. I did get my download copy.
DBT has been one of my favorite bands since 2004. I’ve got all their albums, rare stuff, autographed copies, etc etc… They released an album in January called “The Unravelling” that’s pretty great too. (Although, bafflingly the title-track of “The Unravelling” isn’t on that album, but IS on “The New OK. Whatever.) “The New OK” came a few months later as a follow-up, and more or less a capstone on a three album cycle that started with “American Band” (the strongest of the three). The last few albums have been focused tightly on addressing the times we live in, particularly zeroing in on the problems created by Donald Trump. In recent years the band has labeled themselves “The Dance Band of the Resistance.”
Of the two albums that came out this year, this one’s way more fun. All the rock stuff seemed to end up here. And there’s a fun cover of the RAMONES’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” that I enjoyed a lot. (I used to cover that song myself in a band called Uncle Dick, which longtime blog-readers will remember also included my brother Dave.) In uncertain times, it’s just good to still have DBT here, doing stuff, keeping us honest and angry.
But if it’s honesty you want, Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” comes in at #5 and is about as honest as it gets.
I’ve been a Boss fan for a long time, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him bare (bear?–which-ever is correct) his soul like this before. I’ve read that some of these songs were written (but not used) in the earliest parts of his career. And some were written very recently. Maybe that’s why this album feels so deep and rich, and why it seems like a man giving you a window into the full depth of his experience.
I don’t even know what to say about it. All I know is the first time I listened to it I wrote a one-word review, and that word was “Wow.” No exclamation point. No caps. Just a simple statement. Wow. If you’ve ever liked Springsteen, you need to hear this album. It feels like it’s ALL been leading to here for him.
And I can say much the same for #4…
I’ve loved Alanis for a long time. So have you. She’s one of those artists people just love. Although maybe you only loved “Jagged Little Pill” while I kept collecting stuff. That’s okay. But it might be about time you checked in on her and found out how she’s doing now. And she seems to be doing great.
If the only other album of Morissette’s that you’ve heard is “Jagged Little Pill” this will seem like a jarring transition. There’s no pensively asking about movie-theatre blowjobs on this one. No screaming. Nothing ironic. Just a woman who is at a place in her life where she’s learned some stuff and she’s willing to share it with us. But that’s not to say the album is devoid of passion or fire. There’s plenty here. It’s just in a different form.
The standout track is of course the lead single “Ablaze.” A song written for Alanis’ children, it’s a look into love and protection that you don’t get out of many singers. You’ve probably seen her performance of the song on Jimmy Fallon by now. But if you haven’t, look it up. She did the song remotely (as is the custom these days) and performed holding her daughter in her arms, with her daughter talking to her, asking her questions, squirming, and so on the whole time. It’s adorable. She’s made an “official” video for the song since then…but I don’t care what she says, the Fallon performance is the official version to me. Just the core strength it must’ve taken to sing at full voice with a 4-year-old balanced on her hip? Give her the Oscar.
If this album were JUST that song, it’d still be on my list. But it’s much more. She goes deep on this one, and you walk away feeling like you know her better. It’s great.
Of course, if you’re looking for songs that are maybe borderline TOO self-revelatory, there are few artists who do that as well as Jason Isbell. It’s no surprise to anyone to find “Reunions” on my top ten list. Of course it was going to be here. Some of you *might* be surprised it isn’t at #1, but you definitely expected it to be here, assuming you knew it was out. I adore Isbell. And he keeps giving me new reasons to.
I must admit I didn’t warm to this album right away. I think isolation had something to do with that, because now it feels like an old friend. But on my first listen I thought, “It’s fine…but just fine.” It’s funny how your opinion can change. I think what started turning me around on it was that Isbell released a download only version of the album that’s just he and his wife Amanda Shires playing/singing the songs from the album on their own. (Isbell has been releasing AWESOME stuff during this time of no-touring, including some great archival stuff. Google his Bandcamp page.) I listened to that a few times in a row, then walked away from the album a while and when I circled back to it, those songs were part of my life.
There’s not a sleeper on it. Maybe I was just in a mood on the first listen. Probably. I do that. A lot.
An album that I fell in love with IMMEDIATELY is in at #2 with the new one from Rufus Wainwright – “Unfollow the Rules.”
If we’ve spent any time together talking about music since 2008, there’s a good chance I’ve tried to evangelize to you about Rufus Wainwright. I’ve introduced a LOT of people to his music, and it’s always a pleasure to do so. (I’ve rarely had anyone tell me he’s not their cup of tea. He seems to speak to everyone.) So when I heard he was putting out his first real album since 2012 I was very excited. (Wainwright spent the intervening 8 years writing and producing largely operatic music, which is an ongoing passion for him. “Rules” is his return to popular music.)
“Unfollow the Rules” is exactly the piano and vocal driven, not pop-enough-to-be-pop, not-rock-enough-to-be-rock, not-folk-enough-to-be-folk, not-anything-enough-to-be-anything-other-than-RUFUS type of music I’ve always loved from him. This album shows off his voice particularly beautifully. The title track sweeps from the lowest low of his range–so low he’s almost bottoming out–to the very peak of his high-range, with such grace and passion that you can’t help buy stop whatever you’re doing and just purely LISTEN.
The album was delayed in release, of course. When the country still cared that their actions might kill people, it got literally STUCK in a warehouse with Rufus unable to release it on time. And it was one of the few occasions where I was sad to see it happen, but where EVERY MOMENT was worth the wait and just made it better. In the meantime (and pretty much ever since) Rufus has been treating his fans to wonderful performances from his Instagram page, both of new songs and old. When in times of enforced quarantine, Rufus has been providing (for free) videos of him playing “Quarantunes.” He sits at his piano or with a guitar and plays songs from his back-catalogue, or sometimes a cover, and it’s always wonderful. And of course he’s done some streaming gigs as well that have been great.
In a time where everything sucks, Rufus Wainwright is a gift.
Which brings us to #1–it’s a tie between two “sister albums” that were produced and released during the pandemic and seemed to both come like bolts out of a blue sky… I’m speaking of course of Taylor Swift’s two most recent releases: “Folklore” and “Evermore.”
I know. I was surprised too. I didn’t own any Taylor Swift before I picked up “Folklore” on a whim, and now it’s at #1 on my list, alongside its follow up from a few months later in “Evermore.” And yeah, sure…it’s cheating to have a tie at first place…but in this case I think it’s pretty legitimate. These are companion pieces. They flow directly into one another. I know that in the future, when I listen to one, I will immediately listen to the other. They’re very literally tied. So…shut up.
“Folklore” presents a very different Taylor Swift than what you’re probably expecting when you hear her name. (And “Evermore” amplifies it.) The last time I checked in on Taylor, I streamed “1989” and decided I preferred the Ryan Adams version. (Sidebar: I have not listened to the new Ryan Adams album that is streaming. I am uncertain if I am still a fan based on recent allegations, but if it seems he’s done the work and is on the right path, I may reconsider.) But on these two albums, gone is the catchy but saccharine tone of “Shake it Off” or the pitchy, weird, just plain “ugh” vibe of “Bad Blood.”
These albums come from someone who grew up with her audience. She’s not writing pop songs for teenagers anymore–or at least not right now. She’s writing songs for the people who were there when she sang her first pop-country single, who’ve realized that pop-country is bullshit, and want something real. So she gave them something real. (She says “fuck” and everything!) If her 2008 fan is still listening, they’ve actually experienced heartbreak by now, and they needed songs that sounded like Taylor has too. These do that. But they also don’t take any shit. Kanye would get his ass kicked if he interrupted THIS Taylor. (And I would then mail her all of my money in a box.)
My one criticism is that I could’ve done without Bon Iver guesting on it. I don’t like the guy’s voice and I’ve just never gotten into that band. But the songs he sings on are still GOOD songs. I just could’ve done without his parts. But if that’s all I’ve got to critique about an artist I wouldn’t have given the time of day even a year ago, then this is a MASSIVE win. I picked it up because I’d heard people talking about it being very different and I had a few bucks, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I’d probably bought worse this year alone right? Sure…but what I *didn’t* know was that I also wasn’t going to buy better.
Honorable Mentions: (I’ll be brief.)
Of course not everything I liked makes the tope ten. So here are a few more I liked that I would’ve felt bad not mentioning (bearing in mind I already touched on the other releases by DBT and the Mountain Goats above):
- Bob Dylan – “Rough and Rowdy Ways” – I had it at #9 and #10 at different times, and I kinda feel bad that it’s not in the top ten…but as much as I like it, I also know I’m not going to listen to it too much. It’s wonderful to have a new Dylan album, and it’s a GOOD Dylan album…but I’m reaching for “Blood on the Tracks,” y’know?
- …And You Will Know US By the Trail of Dead – “X: The Godless Void” – The “Dead’s” 10th album and it’s a good one. It feels like the era of the band I fell in love with in the first place, and honestly if I’d had this in the rotation just *slightly* more often and had been on a ToD kick, it’d probably be on the list. I expect to look back on this one and wonder what I was THINKING putting it in the honorable mentions.
- Bob Mould – “Blue Hearts” – It’s a Bob Mould album. It’s loud and you can’t really hear the vocals very well, and it’s just about perfect.
- Laura Marling – “Song for Our Daughter” – Marling is maybe a lesser known name, but I expect her to be a household one soon. As you might’ve guessed the music on this album is written with her daughter in mind and it’s just lovely.
- Guided By Voices – Three fucking albums… – Look…all three albums GBV released this year are great and I like them. But it’s getting exhausting. This is the SECOND year IN A ROW that they’ve put out three albums. They seem to think they’re the ONLY band–as do most of their fans. And that’s cool. I love that in concept. And the music IS great. But I need a minute.
- Childish Gambino – “3.15.20” – A digital only release that a lot of folks seem to have overlooked. I got into Mr. Gambino because I recently became a fan of his work as Donald Glover. I dug Donald as an actor, so decided to check out his pseudonym, and it turns out I dug it a lot.
- Spinning Coin – “Hyacinth” – Picked up this album on a whim because someone I know who works at a record store likes it and she’s generally got good taste. It’s got very Johnny Marr sounding guitars, so that’s a definite win to me.
- John Petrucci – “Terminal Velocity” – It’s a solo album from the guitarist in Dream Theater. That’s what it sounds like. (And I like it.)
- Max Richter – “Voices” – Richter is a new age, ambient artist. That’s usually music I put on in the background while I’m reading and isn’t a genre that’s very likely to find its way to my top ten. Which isn’t a knock…he writes beautiful stuff. And “Voices” is beautiful. HE has spoken word parts that speak (very left-leaningly) to the times we’re in and give real depth to his melodies on this one. But I will admit, I prefer his instrumental stuff.
- Neil Young – “Homegrown” and “The Times” – Neither album is eligible for the tope ten or they’d definitely be there. “Homegrown” is a release of an album he meant to make in the 70s (seriously) and just never put out. It’s finally out in the form it was always meant to be in, and I love it…but I can’t justify putting a 1975 performance on best of 2020 list. And “The Times” is Neil playing solo versions of some of his old songs during quarantine. Which is neat…but again, I couldn’t justify putting it on the top ten, no matter how much I like “Ohio.”
- Elvis Costello – “Hey Clockface” – I love Elvis Costello. I have EVERYTHING–and that’s a hell of a lot of stuff…but I absolutely don’t understand this album. I don’t even want to say I don’t LIKE it, because that would imply that I knew what he was going for. I need to spend more time with it, try to understand it, and see if it grows on me. I hope it does.
There’s plenty more I could write, but for god’s sake why? Most of you stopped reading at the end of the list. 🙂
If you stuck it out to the end, thanks. Kudos. Talk to you again soon.