Here we are. The last list in this series — 31 uncategorized favorites from 2020. I’m not a big Baskin Robbins person or anything; that’s just the number I ended up with after shuffling between lists and writing as much as I could over the last few months to pay tribute to the music that mattered to me this year. That makes 87 blurbs and 13,083 words across eight posts. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found something new to put in your ears, or a perspective that opened up new avenues of enjoyment. And I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but if you made one of the albums below, thank you for making a difficult year significantly better. I’ll close with an excerpt from the intro to Amanda Petrusich’s year-end list, which communicated this specific sense of gratitude so beautifully:
I’ve always believed that some amount of optimism, conscious or unconscious, is inherent to the art-making impulse—that to dedicate oneself to something as difficult and thankless as creative work, one has to believe that the world is still good enough and open enough to be transformed, even briefly, by beauty. The musicians who managed to hold onto that feeling—to go on believing in the essential decency of humankind and the various ways in which art can elevate us—kept me afloat through some strange days.
John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground
This is another one where anticipation runs high. How high? So high that my very first act after gaining consciousness on Tuesday morning was checking the Black Mesa Records site to see if the preorder was available. You know you’re excited for an album to be announced when you literally can’t and don’t wait for the announcement to go out.
Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I cut way back on TV watching in 2020, and the last hour or two of my night is now typically spent at my desk instead of the couch. Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s music writing. Lately I’ve been squinting at runout lettering while retroactively building my Discogs collection. (Currently working my way through my Beach Boys and Beatles sections. Send help.) One fun side effect of this shift is that I’m usually at my laptop at midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, which means I can listen immediately to new albums I’m especially excited about. I’ve never forget my Fetch the Bolt Cutters midnight listening party. It was momentous. It was fun. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. No reviews to bounce what I was hearing off of. No worrying over which vinyl pressing I’d get my hands on. Just me and a new set of mind-meltingly good songs by one of the most brilliant musicians of our time.
Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound
If there were ever a chorus to keep in the front of your brain in order to maintain sanity during a global pandemic, it would have to be:
Grey skies, they don’t scare me
I find them unnecessary
There’s no tellin’ when the bad’s gonna come around
And it’ll come around no doubt
It’s like a badly needed pat on the back from a friend who’s reassuring you without bullshitting you. And Kate Bollinger’s gift for phrasing means the words slide through your consciousness so gracefully the toxic parts of your psychology don’t have a chance to play defense.
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman
I called this a “perfect album” on Instagram and I stand by that 100%. It was very rewarding seeing this get as many Grammy nods as it did. So stunning. It’s not just that they’ve given new life to old songs; I hear something in the combination of vocals by Anaïs Mitchell and Eric D. Johnson — a space they carve out that’s not old or new but separate from time, and endlessly inviting. The rare instant classic that will continue to grow on you, no matter how much you love it right away.
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
“Garden Song” is my song of the year. The experience of hearing the first verse for the first time was wild. I was already blown away by how gracefully she incorporates the idea of killing and burying a skinhead neighbor — like one does — but then I got to “I grew up here till it all went up in flames / Except the notches in the doorframe” and did one of those blinking-while-shaking-your-head-slightly double-takes, like “Well hello there, One of the Greatest Song Lyrics of All Time. Nice to meet you…” That line is totally transcendent — the layers go on and on, from the the words themselves and the way they’re delivered to the exquisite connection between their literal and figurative truths and the bittersweet irony you’re left with. I’m in awe.
True story: I was listening to this on a run and passed by a house with a raised garden bed with prop feet sticking up out of the dirt. A glitch in the matrix, if I’ve ever seen one.
Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven
Back in July, I wrote a few words about “Hard to Be Anywhere,” a song from Closest Thing to Heaven that means a lot to me:
It’s an incredibly moving song, and it’s no exaggeration to say I needed to hear it right now. The start of the chorus certainly hits home, no pun intended:
It’s hard to be in the right place for the right thing all the time
The more connected we all are electronically, the more it can feel like you’re never where you’re supposed to be… Even now, at a time when my family is swimming in, ahem, quality time, that sense of togetherness is short-circuited by the strange shape of this situation — limitations on where you can go and what you can do, daily risk assessment, constant stress, and the fortunate-yet-crazy-making task of folding parenting into working from home. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether “the right place” is at my laptop, being the work version of myself, or in our backyard, pushing the kids on the saucer-shaped swing I hung from a sturdy branch of our maple tree near the start of this mess.
Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways
My relationship with Bob Dylan’s music changed significantly this year, mainly owing to a fantastic limited-run Aquarium Drunkard radio show called Pretty Good Stuff. Run by central Virginia’s own Bob Dylan scholar James Adams, the show compiled bootleg live cuts from various points in Dylan’s career, and I found myself totally transfixed by Adams’ combination of keen curation and intriguing narration. Dylan is famous for being unknowable, but Pretty Good Stuff made the mystery seem so much more approachable than it had in the past.
Case in point: The first time I heard “Murder Most Foul,” I couldn’t get past the absurdity of it — the way the lyrics seemed to drift, the length… It felt like something it was easier to set aside than to contend with. After several hours of Pretty Good Stuff, and several more spins of “Murder Most Foul,” I’m convinced it’s totally groundbreaking. If you consider things like melody, narrative, and form to be elements that help ground music in a listener’s expectations, this song is like grabbing a big bundle of balloons and floating off into the stratosphere. It’s also deeply romantic, in the non-sexy sense, such that it reminds me of the love for early rock and roll that my father maintained late into his life. There’s something in this fever dream of a song that I think I could stand to be reminded of, and even though I can’t exactly put my finger on it, I know I’ll keep coming back to try to find it.
Fleet Foxes — Shore
Another Glitch-in-the-Matrix moment, and I swear this is true: I was about to start writing a blurb about how I feel like I’ve only started scratching the surface of this album’s wonderfulness, and how I’m looking forward to getting to know it even better when my physical copy arrives early next year, and Mrs. YHT walked into the room and handed me a postcard she’d just retrieved from the mailbox. On the front was a pretty design made of two shades of blue, in the bottom left corner were the words “Fleet Foxes,” and in the bottom right is the word “Shore.” On the back was a message from Robin Pecknold thanking me for my pre-order, and for my patience. Really. That happened. At this point, it seems abundantly clear that we’re all living in a simulation, and that whoever’s in charge of the simulation is drunk. That or Robin Pecknold is just really thoughtful. One of the two.
Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death
I cracked open my copy of this album on a chilly December morning — one where I was feeling especially low. Imagine you’re out getting ice cream, and there’s not much of your flavor left, yet the person doing the scooping reaches way down in the tub and scrapes together a perfectly shaped confection that makes your day. That’s what Fear of Death did on that December morning; the bright sound and wry gallows humor scooped a soul that was stuck to the bottom of its container and made it feel new again. (Coffee also helped.) To truly beat this analogy into the ground, I’d compare the countrified opening of “Let It Be” to the moment when you’re finally handed your cone and pure joy floods in. I hadn’t heard this upbeat version of the Beatles classic for a month or two, and when it kicked in, I felt such gratitude for the fact that this album exists.
Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof
I owe Lilly Hiatt, big-time. Walking Proof was my first curbside pickup purchase — the first album I bought from a store here in Richmond after the pandemic took hold. In a very real sense, this album got me out of my house at a time when I was profoundly freaked out, and it was such comfort knowing there was a way I could safely patronize record stores again. Not unlike the album’s color-your-own insert art, Walking Proof helped me start repainting a map of the outside world that had turned grey and ominous in early March. It did the same for the household throughout the year, as the brightness of Hiatt’s songwriting changed the mood in the house for the better every time I put it on the turntable.
Horse Lords — The Common Task
You often see music described as experimental, but not many bands feel as connected to the scientific method as Horse Lords. They take a mathematical approach to elements like time and tone, and while that may sound dry or clinical, The Common Task is a wildly fun and energizing album. I would typically put this on around 4 p.m., when I needed a musical boost to get me through to the end of the day. In fact, it’s about that time as I’m typing this, and I’m going to go spin it again right this minute.
Yves Jarvis — Sundry Rock Song Stock
I loved this interview Yves Jarvis did with Jason P. Woodbury for the Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions podcast. That conversation spent a fair amount of time on Jarvis’ creative process, and it made evident that the talented Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer harbors a rare and highly intuitive artistic integrity, one that pushes him into territory that’s unbound by typical conventions of form and songwriting. He’s a true original, as you’ll hear immediately if you give Sundry Rock Song Stock a listen.
Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas
One of my weirdest musical memories of 2020 is contained on this album. My family spent an afternoon in Hampton, VA, attempting a socially distanced beach day fairly early in the summer, when it wasn’t all that clear how distanced was distanced enough. I was incredibly anxious, to the point where I was getting on everyone else’s nerves, and at one point I stayed in my beach chair while the rest of the family went down to the water to enjoy themselves. I didn’t have headphones, but I put on Lianne La Havas’ version of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” anyway, holding my phone up to my ear so I could hear it over the sound of wind and waves and other people having a great time. I won’t say I was comforted — more validated in my discomfort. Despite the fact that the song mentions fish and the ocean, it’s not exactly something you’d put on your fun in the sun playlist. Its lyrics talk about a devotion so intense you fall off the side of the earth, hit bottom, and disappear, and listening to “Weird Fishes” in that setting did feel a little like a disappearing act. I won’t say I ended up having fun afterward; it was a stressful experience. But good music is big enough to absorb something like that and keep you coming back, and I’ve returned to Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album many times throughout the year. (Thankfully in the comfort of home.)
Adrianne Lenker — songs and instrumentals
I mentioned that I enjoyed not having reviews in mind when listening to Fetch the Bold Cutters — I had the opposite experience with songs and instrumentals. Philip Sherburne’s review for Pitchfork points out something I’d missed, which was that by listening to this album from start to finish and thinking about one side of a vinyl pressing at a time, you’re witnessing a disappearing act. The first side is the most layered/produced, the second is more stripped down while still featuring words and singing, the third features just Adrianne Lenker’s guitar throughout, and on the final side, guitar gives way to wind chimes, and then the silence that follows the album’s conclusion. I’m a big fan of trying to put yourself in the artist’s shoes when it comes to why songs are presented the way they are, and I love the idea that Lenker had this idea of vanishing in mind. It’s made the album an even more rewarding listen.
Also rewarding? This profile of Lenker penned by Amanda Petrusich. In truth, “rewarding” is a dramatic undersell; I’m not sure I’ve read a more compelling and meaningful profile in my life.
Blake Mills — Mutable Set
The fact that Mutable Set rarely operates above a whisper makes it easy to underestimate, but don’t be fooled — as far as melody, harmony, and overall musicianship go, there’s a riot going on. I don’t know enough theory to pick up on the subtleties just by listening, but I did follow along with some Instagram live sessions Mills did around the time the album was released — sessions that essentially amounted to high-level guitar classes where he calmly and quietly walked through the complex chords he used. The techniques, the rationales, the implications. His mastery is astonishing, but not flashy in the slightest. He’s fiercely disinterested in making the same record twice, yet Mutable Set sounds more like him than anything else he’s made. Maybe it’s a type of innovation via interpolation. What I do know is that if Blake Mills is whispering, it’s worth listening extra closely to what he has to say.
Mink’s Miracle Medicine — Thumbs Up Angel
I’ve never managed to get a set of Spotify Wrapped stats that seemed accurate. For years, I shared an account with a brother-in-law more interested in metal than I am, so that would result in some hilariously disjointed results. Then there’s the Frozen factor; “Into the Unknown” was my song of the year in 2020 for reasons that will be immediately clear to anyone with a six-year-old. But the other big factor this year was Bandcamp — the fact that I started downloading music again, and that I spent as much time listening to those downloaded songs as I did Spotify, especially when they were singles made available before the release date of something I’d preordered. Thumbs Up Angel is a great example. I snagged this near the end of October’s Bandcamp Friday, then spent the rest of that evening listening to nothing else but “Spots on the Sun” and “Watch the Horses Run” over and over and over, marveling at how great they both are. And I spent part of the following day doing the same thing. I may not have stats that reflect the great Mink’s Miracle Medicine binge of 2020, but it happened, and it was glorious.
John Moreland — LP5
The cover art and title of LP5 may fly under the radar, its impact is anything but ordinary. His songwriting is so sharp, singular, and affecting — to the point that it feels like we can go ahead and save a best-albums list spot for any full-length he releases.
The Mountain Goats — Getting Into Knives
So much of what I said about John Moreland applies to John Darnielle. According to Wikipedia, Getting into Knives is the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album, and I’m amazed at the consistency with which Darnielle’s writing draws me in. He’s got such a gift for building imagined narrative spaces, and I love how he changes the scope from project to project; sometimes the album itself represents a narrative universe like with Beat the Champ or Goths, and other times he gives individual songs more space to form worlds of their own. My favorite in that respect on Getting into Knives is “Picture of My Dress,” which grew out of a tweet by poet Maggie Smith.
Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II
I’m wildly impressed and inspired by the versatility Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes of Irreversible Entanglements exhibit. So many styles are represented on Heritage of the Invisible II, from free jazz to soul to Afro-Caribbean — it’s like getting to explore parallel universes within the same timeline. I’m not sure I’d ever seen “imagination” among the instruments in a set of liner notes, but it’s entirely fitting here.
Nadia Reid — Out of My Province
I almost put this on my RVA list, because the in-town ties run deep on Out of My Province. The Spacebomb House Band, an illustrious list of additional Richmond instrumentalists, production from Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, engineering from Adrian Olsen… all in support of stunning songwriting — conversational and incisive, inviting and arresting. Reid’s voice comes through so clearly on Out of My Province — sonically, narratively, and artistically. A triumph all around.
Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
Should this have been on the Blasts from the Past list? I certainly would have guessed that’s where this would end up, but what Makaya McCraven has done feels so fresh and… well, there’s no way to avoid saying it… new. The source material itself — Scott-Heron’s inimitable voice — is made new by McCraven’s knack for sonic recontextualization via the editing process. (Fans of McCraven’s work on the International Anthem label know all about that.) And We’re New Again is so colorfully rendered, with such caring attention to detail, that I hear new things each time I listen. What an achievement this is. McCraven is one of the most thrilling musicians to follow right now, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline
Another brilliant builder of narrative spaces is Andy Shauf, and his imagined dive bar, The Neon Skyline, is absolutely bursting with life. I’d love to know more about Shauf’s process — how his personality sketches start, and how he fills them with such uncanny detail. Just as I eagerly ate up both novels John Darnielle has written, I would be first in line for a copy of anything Shauf decided to pen down the road.
A snippet of a post I published in June:
The hardest thing about making a mix in honor of Bandcamp’s June 6 event was deciding which track from God Bless Bob Ross to include. The whole thing is stellar. I ended up going with “honeydipper,” which is intoxicatingly propulsive and wildly inventive in how it builds and releases its kinetic energy.
Sturgill Simpson — Cuttin’ Grass – Vol.1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
Yes. Just… yes. The album art, the sound, the playing, the line of sight into Simpson’s songwriting… Happy camper over here. And Vol. 2 kicks (gr)ass in all the same ways.
Skyway Man — The World Only Ends When You Die
Weird story, fitting for an album about death: I was listening to this while sitting in my car outside Walgreen’s waiting to get a drive-thru COVID test when I saw a tweet calling the presidential election for Joe Biden. It wasn’t a news source I was familiar with, but I figured those would follow suit shortly thereafter, and during the 20-minute ride home after my test, I thought I was enjoying my first real taste of the post-45 era. The air felt lighter and clearer, and The World Only Ends When You Die was a great companion for that delightful (albeit illusory) experience. The real call didn’t come until a day later, when I was visiting my mom in Norfolk. We’d taken my daughter out for a run/bike ride around my old neighborhood, and someone stringing Christmas lights shouted down from the top of the ladder, “Did you hear? They called Pennsylvania!” It felt like a movie scene — something from 100 years ago. So much better than a tweet in the Walgreen’s drive-thru. We celebrated by letting my daughter stay up late to watch the acceptance speeches (she decided immediately that she wanted to visit Vice President Harris), and on the drive back to Richmond the next morning, I listened to The World Only Ends in full, the air feeling nice and light once again.
Eric Slick — Wiseacre
From a post I wrote back in July about the first single to be released from Wiseacre:
Direct and indelible, the song represents an elegant marriage of form and function — a beat that shines via understatement, and a lyrical hook that elevates the elemental: “I’m a simple person / When it comes to down to it.” It’s an idea that expands as you spend more time with it, and it ends up (for me, at least) taking on an aspirational quality. There’s peace in being able to say those words with confidence, and getting there can involve lots of hard work.
Early in 2020, Slick started posting drum cover videos to his Instragram, and while there’s been plenty of complexity to marvel at, from Rush and Zappa to CAN and Outkast, my favorite clip of all might have been his take on Andy Shauf’s “The Magician.” In the caption, Slick described the song as “deceptively simple,” and he praised the album it’s on (The Party — a favorite of mine as well) in saying “you can hear the hours of rewriting to make it effortless.”
I hear that exact same magic in “When It Comes Down To It.” Take a listen below, and click here to pre-order Wiseacre.
Bartees Strange — Live Forever
As I did in October’s Bandcamp Friday post, I want to thank Steven Hyden for the recommendation here. It’s been so fun watching the accolades roll in for Live Forever from my cozy seat I snagged on the Bartees Bandwagon™ a few months ago. This album is a demonstration of a bold and broad artistic skill set, and it’s an invitation to connect with so many strands of your own musical universe. I also count this among the most versatile albums in terms of what I was doing when I spun it — cooking, puttering around in middle of the afternoon, running, hitting tennis balls against a wall… I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to listen to Live Forever.
Moses Sumney — græ
The level of artistry here is just astounding. The overall concept, the songs themselves, Moses Sumney’s voice, even the packaging for my physical copy… it’s all so next-level. Overwhelming, even. This is another album where it feels like the full picture will continue emerging over time, and I’m in no rush.
Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?
I mentioned in my live albums post that the list of bands I got to see perform this year is short but illustrious, and Sunwatchers is on that list. What a gift it was to see them live. Tons of energy, intensity, and complexity, and Oh Yeah? does a great job of bottling those traits. Did I mention it includes a 19-minute song called the “The Earthsized Thumb.” Can we all agree that’s just tautologically awesome?
William Tyler — Music from First Cow
I’d totally planned see this movie before I bought the soundtrack. That seemed like the right order of events — as if there were a “wrong” time to buy a William Tyler album. (There’s not.) Then I listened to Music from First Cow a third time, and a fourth time, and I feel hard for how beautiful, musically economical, and evocative these pieces are, and I started to develop the kind of emotional responses you might expect to have after actually having seen the film, like how “The Arrival” triggers the kind of nostalgia you feel when something’s not even over yet but you already miss it… I’m still going to see this movie, but I’m not waiting to but its soundtrack a moment longer.
Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud
Yielding my time to share this bit from Steven Hyden’s best of 2020 list for Uproxx:
In a year of so much chaos and tragedy and idiocy and fear, listening to Saint Cloud felt like hanging out with that friend who always manages to put things in perspective. No matter what happens today, the lilacs keep drinking the water, marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time.
More 2020 albums I enjoyed:
Anteloper — Tour Beats Vol. 1
Matt Berninger — Serpentine Prison
J.R. Bohannon/Ben Greenberg/Ryley Walker — For Michael Ripps
Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
The Budos Band — Long in the Tooth
Bill Callahan — Gold Record
Car Seat Headrest — Making a Door Less Open
Ian Chang — 属 Belonging
Tyler Childers — Long Violent History
Drive-By Truckers — The Unraveling
The Fearless Flyers — Tailwinds
Futurebirds — Teamwork
Lonnie Holley — National Freedom
Christian Lee Hutson — Beginners
Jason Isbell — Reunions
Pokey LaFarge — Rock Bottom Rhapsody
Roberto Carlos Lange — Kite Symphony, Four Variations
Hamilton Leithauser — The Loves Of Your Life
Kevin Morby — Sundowner
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk
Sylvan Esso — Free Love
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — Temple
Jeff Tweedy — Love Is The King
M. Ward — Migration Stories
Sven Wunder — Wabi Sabi