2020: Music is therapy

It goes without saying that 2020 was a dumpster fire, except this year we were homeless, living inside that dumpster when it caught fire. Quite possibly we provided the spark that caused the blaze, or maybe it was some inept jackass tossing his — because of course it was a he — cigarette into the primed tinder of our world. Or perhaps it was the flaming lithium-ion battery from his Tesla, crashed while he dozed in Autopilot mode. However it happened, we all suffered this year.

In 24 years of owning a guitar of some form, I’ve never managed to progress beyond a few simple chords, and never combined them in a fluid enough manner to call it music. Perhaps because of this, my fascination and attachment to music has been profoundly entwined with my daily life. A day without some focused listening is usually a day owned by my depression, my anxiety, or mental exhaustion. With 2020 being so taxing, I have leaned upon music to an unprecedented level.

I started the year telling myself I would do a better job buying the music I enjoy, redirecting my funds from streaming providers — who provide a fraction of a cent to the musicians — instead to those musicians in a more profitable format. In my younger days, I did this by attending live shows, maybe purchasing albums or merchandise directly from the artists. As my health has declined with my age, this became untenable, but I kept the concept of direct from the artist as the ideal, and with the snowjob that is streaming robbing artists, I knew I needed to buy more albums vs repeated streams. I’m not generally into the sort of artists that pull a massive profit either way (though I will admit Taylor Swift’s Evermore is much better than I expected from a pop princess), and knowing more and more independent artists as time goes on, every last cent counts.

With the complete evaporation of live gigs due to the pandemic, the bands I love (and many others I’d discover this year) have struggled to support themselves. In an inspired move, Bandcamp started their Bandcamp Friday program, where they waived their portion of fees on every sale made the first Friday of each month. This has been a huge boon for artists on their platform (which, if you haven’t checked it out, is fantastic for both digital and physical music and merch):

[…Just] as amazing is that since the pandemic hit in March, fans have bought more than $75 million worth of music and merch directly from artists and labels, and to date, fans have paid artists over half a billion(!) dollars on Bandcamp.

Support Artists Impacted by the Covid-19 Pandemic, Bandcamp Daily

This is great for a good marketplace service (sorry, I work in tech and will always see some part of the business side of things), and they clearly care about artists in a way close to my own heart.

And I bought a lot of music this year. Maybe it’s partly retail therapy, but I’ve spent so much time with the music that I developed another side hobby: Hi-Fi. My old turntable was always cheap, and with increased play time, I knew I needed an upgrade. Then I needed a better pre-amp. And a receiver. And… and… okay, I reigned myself in and didn’t over-spend, but long story short, I’ve been listening like I’ve never listened before. And I credit my mental survival on this music, especially albums released, discovered, or even just re-inhabited by my headspace this year.

Loma – Don’t Shy Away

Subpop, 23 October 2020

I’ve been a fan of Shearwater for quite a while, and I somehow managed to stumble across Loma without realizing it was a project between Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg and fellow Austin artists, Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski. I kind of felt like this album was my secret dark headspace, like the mood of 2020 as an anxious depressive struggling to hold on to purpose, and yet… somehow still hopeful. I recently shared the album with a friend, who to my surprise echoed the sentiment independently. Somehow in the darkness you can get to a place of comfort and manage to push forward without despair.

Juana Molina – ANRMAL

Crammed Discs, 23 Oct 2020

Best live album of 2020

With the lockdown and shuttering of live music, heaps of live albums have come out this year, both to keep the feeling of live music around, but also inevitably as artists search the back catalogue for something else to offer for purchase (see the 7 live albums released this year by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard). I purchased a lot of these albums… some times because they were highly anticipated (see KGatLW’s Chunky Shrapnel, which was a glorious bit of packaging for a less than thrilling album of compiled portions of live sets), and other times because you could name your own price (such as Mogwai’s digital-only release, 2018). Loads of great live recordings came out, but Juana Molina’s rocked-up set at the NRMAL festival in Mexico kept me coming back. Molina plays with sound in such interesting and often uncomfortable ways, and hearing her playing live rock versions of her songs is both a departure and still perfectly in check with her experimental style.

Something For Kate – The Modern Medieval

EMI, 20 Nov 2020

My most anticipated album of 2020

I am perhaps one of the biggest Something for Kate nerds in the United States. I make this bold assertion in that I have never met a person in the States who is both 1) not Aussie and 2) has heard of the band. I know there are others (forums, Facebook posts) but we’re unfortunately few and far between for a band that commercially peaked in the early 2000s in a market that is roughly the same size as Texas. I own rare releases and every album. I pre-ordered the deluxe package. You know the type.

But oh damn was the wait worth it. The band have been around for just over 25 years, and as a complete stan I have to say they have become better with age. Paul’s singing range and confidence has exploded over the years, and the layers of hidden sonic gems in their albums have multiplied with each release. So take my word with the giant grain of salt being a long time fan earns me, but holy shit… this is easily their best release. And given the very, very slow release of four singles over the course of the year, I’ve had time to let this album marinate. I’ve really struggled to find fault in it, and well, I found one.

Bluebird is one of the most straight-ahead songs the band have ever written. And there is nothing wrong with that… it kind of feels like a Tom Petty song to me (I’ll circle back to Tom later) — simple and honest. Cool. But here’s what grates on me every time I hear it, and I swear this is literally the only thing that kills my goosebumps in the whole album: the backing vocalist not only competes with Paul’s vocals, but the mix allows her to overtake his. Now, if this was a duet, or a song "featuring…" another known quantity, this might have been more understandable. Inside Job is a duet between Paul and Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning, and it works (and they’ve adequately talked up each person’s part, and the dialog in the song). But Bluebird is like several past Something for Kate songs where they employ a lesser known Aussie artist to add higher register backing vocals (which I still don’t get, given Paul’s range, but whatever), and they are listed in the liner notes but not really highlighted. You might not even know they were there but there’s someone harmonizing with Paul. Except in Bluebird, the backing vocalist (Melbourne vocalist Mia Wray) is much higher in the mix, and there are some places where Paul’s vocals drop out in favor of hers. It’s puzzling and Wray’s tendency to use vocal fry would sound okay in her own songs, but it just feels out of place. Paul has recorded live acoustic versions with just his vocals and they sound so much better.

And that’s it. Literally my only quibble with the entire album. Totally worth the wait.

Khurangbin & Leon Bridges – Texas Sun

7 Feb 2020

Best EP

What happens when you combine an up-and-coming largely-instrumental band with an accomplished soul singer… and of course they’re all from Texas? You get the chillest, most buttery-smooth set of 4 songs that fly in the face of how utterly messed up this year has been. I genuinely hope they do more of this.

Tommy Guererro – Road to Knowhere

Too Good, 26 Oct 2018

Best not-from-2020 discovery of the year

I wrote about this album in my #perfect31 countdown on Instagram, and instead of rehashing it, I’ll let you go read that.

Nada Surf – Never Not Together

Barsuk Records, 7 Feb 2020

My Top Album of the Year

Once again, I gushed about this album in my #perfect31 post. It has since been re-released as a deluxe package with a few extra tracks (mostly acoustic or alternate-language versions), but the core album is impeccable.

Tom Petty – Wildflowers and All the Rest

Petty Legacy / Warner Records, 2020

Best Re-release

Wildflowers came out when I was a kid, at a time when I was transitioning away from "classic" rock into alternative as my main listening genre. It had some solid songs on it, but I was too busy getting into post-grunge and the like to really focus on it. But I loved older Tom Petty stuff.

I recall trying to play "Learning to Fly" around my wife once, and she cringed. "You don’t like Petty?!" I asked… she and I have very compatible taste. It’s how we met, really. "No… well, I liked Wildflowers… that was a great album," she replied.

When the album was re-released this year, I figured, oh okay, it’s got some demos, different versions, etc. Which it does. But it also has a back story. Tom brought a double album to Warner, and he was coming off a major addiction (heroin, I believe). The double album was swimming in his battles with addiction. Warner said no way to a double album… trim it down to a single album. He did so, and it was well received, but he was understandably pissed. Tom died a few years ago, and his estate wanted to release the album as he had intended it, all 25 tracks.

Now, this re-release of course has the expected aforementioned demos and whatnot, but if you listen to the first 25 tracks, that is the intended album. And it is fantastic. A tale of addiction fully realized.

I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME – Razzmatazz

Fearless, 2020

Pop surprise

Okay, so you may have heard this album or one of the tracks (“Leave Me Alone” was #1 on the US alternative radio charts as of 21 December 2020). And that’s not surprising. It’s catchy and laced with enough pop hooks to dig the old ear worm hooks into your brain. 

I wrote a long paragraph here about my history with the lead singer, Dallon, but realized it sounded like way too much name dropping. Long story short, it’s a long time coming, and I’m extremely proud. It’s a fantastic album.

The best of the rest

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Whisperhawk – Keepers of the Earth

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

Molly Tuttle – …But I’d Rather Be With You