December 22, 2020

Best of 2020


It goes without saying that 2020 has been rough and I won’t elaborate on that topic. However, the significant silver lining is MUSIC. It has been a phenomenal year in that regard (also, Boba Fett!). 

As the word “unprecedented” has been used by all of us in a more negative way this year than ever in the past, I would say that 2020 is unprecedented in the massive amounts of high-quality music recorded and released this year. Comparing two random years in music is an impossible task, but as I review my year-end lists, it is hard to find a year in the last dozen or so that comes close to the depth of 2020.

Despite prioritizing buying music directly from artists and labels (and especially this year through "Bandcamp Days"), I have somewhat joined the dark side when it comes to streaming services. While I will continue to unabashedly promote Bandcamp as the best, and really the only digital music service actually operating in a way to serve artists, I did subscribe to Apple Music this year.

I subscribed primarily for my family (wife and two kids also with iPhones), but I will admit I have enjoyed the benefits. It makes it far easier to preview music, and having access to lyrics was an unplanned surprise. The plan that I will do my best to hold both myself and my family members accountable to: if you stream a song or album three times, and plan to continue to do so, then either buy a physical copy, or support the artist financially in another way. Ideally that would be attending a concert (whenever those resume), but in the meantime buying merch directly from the artist is the best route. For me this is typically buying vinyl records.

Preaching the gospel of supporting artists continues to be a central them of this blog. Despite the fact that I now rarely post here, I do constantly discuss and promote music on Instagram and Twitter. 

I began writing this post on December 3. Early that morning I saw this tweet:
And then the night before I saw this:
Both of these are in response to the flurry of “Spotify Wrapped” social media images shared prolifically by musicians and fans alike the first week in December. While I understand the fun behind it, I wish there were a better way. Sharing what music you listen to is in theory a great way to help the creators, but in the case of Spotify, the musicians are only getting literal pennies.

Subscribing to streaming services is inevitable because it’s so easy, and most people don’t have the time to curate a library of digital music; nor the interest in having shelves full of records, CDs, and cassettes. My solution is this: subscribe to whatever service you prefer, but then use your “Spotify Wrapped” or the equivalent to help you make decisions about what concerts you are going to attend, t-shirts you are going to buy, or for independent artists, just send them some money through PayPal.

My use of Apple Music is not without significant frustration. Most notably, merging my 17-year-old detailed, curated, massive iTunes database of MP3s with the Apple Music streaming service. I have a copy of my database that I do not "sync", and I do not use iTunes match. However, even something as simple as sharing playlists is more challenging than it should be (as if I have a a song in my database that I ripped from a CD or bought digitally years ago, and even if it is also in the Apple Music library, it won't appear on a shared playlist unless I remove my original copy and replace it with a new Apple Music version of the song). I will occasionally do the work to create shared playlists though, as I think playlists are maybe the single best benefit of Spotify and Apple Music (and I continue to mourn the lack of playlists on Bandcamp). With this in mind, I did create a best of 2020 Apple Music playlist: 


(Note the playlist was created as a cohesive album [that starts quiet and ends loud], and is not in order of my favorite albums as seen below.)

As I write these year-end lists, I will commit to only including albums I have purchased full copies of (and not simply streamed). Most of the time this means vinyl, but my budget has limits and so sometimes that album purchase is only digital, or in the rare case, a CD or cassette.

Top 20 LPs of 2020:

1. Taylor Swift- folklore 
Hometown: West Reading, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Apple Music

This is, simply, the pinnacle quarantine release. No one, including Taylor Swift herself knew that she would release an album this year. And these past two weeks have thrown me off completely in writing about this album, because Taylor Swift released ANOTHER 2020 LP, evermore. For now, I am going to consider evermore a 2021 release, as I am so positively overwhelmed by the existence of both albums, it is hard to know what to do with them. Long-term, I may think of them like a double album in the vein of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

In the Disney+ special about folklore, Swift explains that in May she began writing songs, and it unexpectedly became a new album that was not a part of her plan (and typically her plan is thought out and long-term). Now we know that her songwriting sessions actually led to two albums, for a total of 34 songs. 34 new songs in one year! (Quick thought on this--it is REALLY hard to compare that many songs from one artist to only 8 or 9 from another. Seven of my top 20 albums as seen here have 8 or 9 songs, and despite preferring quality to quantity, 8 definitely is not enough.)

Despite evermore being great, folklore is far better. folklore is more realized; a more immersive and stunning experience. folklore is the album I always hoped Taylor Swift would release, but never actually thought she would. I was late appreciating her music, with Red being the first Swift album I bought (digital only). What I found most appealing from her initially, besides the music being fun, catchy, and different than most of my collection, was that Swift writes all her own tunes and is CEO of her own corporation. 

1989 was the first time I took Swift really seriously stylistically--obviously that album was a major step and huge risk (not enough can be said about the fact that the album cover only shows the lower half of her face). While really enjoying Reputation and Lover, neither came close to 1989 for me. The pop is fun, but I still found so much of it childish. Taylor has grown up, and her music speaks to me like never before.

folklore is far and away my favorite album from Swift. Obviously I am an indie-folk fan in general, looking over the the rest of my top 10 below. I didn't know how much I needed folklore during COVID, and I have listened to it an insane amount (since it's release on July 24, if you add up all the minutes I have listened to all other music, that may not equal the number of minutes I have listened to folklore.

I enjoy folklore so much as a whole, I almost never skip around, and it wasn't until this month that I finally claimed a favorite song from the album ("Illicit Affairs"--oh, that last line). The Aaron Dessner-Taylor Swift collaboration is one of the highlights of 2020, and I have become far more interested in his music because of it. 

In reading an interview with Dessner this week, some questions I had about the timeline and process of the two Swift albums were answered. I wondered initially if maybe all 34 songs were recorded prior to folklore being released. They weren't, and in the case of both albums, a song or two were written and recorded and tagged on only days before the album was released to the public. evermore was birthed during the filming of the Disney+ special, as Swift was writing with Dessner while they were filming. Unlike folklore, that was recorded almost entirely remotely, evermore was tracked in Dessner's studio.

2. Fiona Apple- Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Hometown: New York City
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Apple Music

When I first heard this album I assumed it would be my album of the year. We don't get Fiona Apple music very often, so when it drops I am sure to pay attention. I didn't like The Idler Wheel... much, so I had tempered my expectations for this one--but Fetch the Bolt Cutters blew me away. The percussion is aggressive and wild, and the album as a whole is intense.

3. Haim- Women in Music Pt. III

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Apple Music

This is my first Haim vinyl purchase, which is a clue to the level of my previous fandom. I enjoyed their first two albums enough to buy them on CD, but excitement for this one built early as they released a variety of singles and a digital EP of what would become album tracks. I heard "Hallelujah" over a year ago, at the time my favorite song Haim had written. This was the perfect summer album, and another long one rich and full of 16 terrific songs.

4. Waxahatchee- Saint Cloud
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Like Fiona Apple and Haim, Waxahatchee was once in the running (in my head) for my album of the year. With a March release date, it was the first great album of 2020, and could not have come at a better time. It was released as quarantine began, and was a light in the darkness. While I will probably always prefer the edgier and more rocking previous album Out in the Storm, this is quintessential Katie Crutchfield. Originally being from Alabama, this Americana album captures Crutchfield's roots and features her strongest songwriting. Four of my top six albums this year were given Grammy nominations, and it is sad and inexplicable that Waxahatchee was not included in that bunch.

5. The Beths- Jump Rope Gazers
Hometown: Auckland, New Zealand
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

I first heard the Beths in 2018, but I didn't listen to their debut Future Me Hates Me enough to buy it or appreciate it. This time around the New Zealand band impressed me though, taking it to the next level with stronger songwriting and dynamics. They are still aggressive much of the time, but when they quiet down they are at their peak: the title track, "Do You Want Me Now" and "You Are a Beam of Light" are three of my favorite songs of the year.

6. Phoebe Bridgers- Punisher

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

This was potentially my most anticipated album of 2020, and while it is of course terrific (and seemingly the consensus #1 album of the year around the world), I was actually disappointed by it. Honestly I greatly prefer Bridgers' debut Stranger in the Alps. Punisher sounds great, and "Chinese Satellite" and "Graceland Too" (which could have been on the boygenius EP) are standouts, but as a whole I think Stranger has a significantly stronger group of songs.

7. Katie Malco- Failures
Hometown: Northampton, United Kingdom
Format purchased: Vinyl 
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

First album on my list from an artist I had never even heard of prior to this year. Katie Malco released a couple of EPs six-plus years ago, but this is her debut, and it's phenomenal. At times she is heavily Pedro the Lion influenced, and the song "Let's Go to War" is essentially a sequel to the Bazan song "Hard to Be." She is at her best when she's the quietest, for example with the song "Fractures."

8. Stay Inside- Viewing

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Another debut comes in next, with the perfect band name for 2020. While I spent most of the year listening to singer-songwriter music, this was the first and best heavy album I got into. It is all over the place stylistically though, and isn't always hard.

9. The Casket Lottery- Short Songs for End Times

Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri
Format purchased: Vinyl (ships in 2021)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

I was really late to the party with the Casket Lottery, and it wasn't until 2020 that I listened to a full Casket Lottery album. I was aware of them in the late 90's, and have some CD comps from that time with their tunes. Somehow I never got into them though, and Furnace Fest 2020 (now rescheduled for Sept. 2021--I'll be there!) is what spurred me on to listen to their old work. I wasn't even aware this album was in the pipeline, so I was pleasantly surprised when it dropped. I don't have the best perspective because of my late listening, but I find this to be the best album they have ever put out.

10. The Innocence Mission- See You Tomorrow

Hometown: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

The Innocence Mission has amazingly been putting out terrific music for over 30 years, and I have been buying their releases for 25 of those years. While I felt like the quality was waning in the 2000's, over the last 5 years Karen and Don Peris have recorded some of their top work. It's hard to rank all their countless albums, but this is near the top. Now if someone would just get the rights to issue my favorite two Innocence Mission albums, 1995's Glow and 1999's Birds of My Neighborhood--on wax.

11. Mountain Time- Music for Looking Animals
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

While I love Chris Simpson and all of his music, quite honestly everything he has done since The Gloria Record disbanded has disappointed me. Simpson remains one of my favorite lyricists of all time, but his solo work (primarily under the moniker Zookeeper) never grabbed me. Until this! Now using the name Mountain Time, Simpson has definitely hit his stride with the folk-rock. Unlike the last Zookeeper album, which was stripped down, Music For Looking Animals is layered with tons of instruments and a full sound. While I might be more excited about the image of all five members of The Gloria Record on Zoom Simpson put on Instagram recently, this album is great. I may never like Simpson's solo work as much as Mineral or TGR, but that doesn't mean it's not good.

12. Black Bra- Black Bra

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Format purchased: Vinyl 
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Potentially the most obscure album in my top 20, Black Bra is the new band from Beth Cameron of Forget Cassettes. She has a new group of band members and collaborators, and with the exception of the opening song, "I Was A Young Girl', the rest of the album is less aggressive and more atmospheric than her past work. Writing this short paragraph is reminding me that I need to spend much more time with this album in 2021.

13. Nada Surf- Never Not Together
Hometown: New York City
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Despite being a big Nada Surf fan now for 17 years (I discovered them with Let Go in 2003), even I have a hard time telling their songs and albums apart. Many of their songs and albums blend together as the band rarely experiments and the guitar-bass-drums instrumental rarely wavers. Thankfully, Never Not Together is an exception, and the band's best work since 2008's Lucky.

The expanded digital version of Never Not Together is essential, which includes three new songs that are better than much of the original release. This album as a whole features Matthew Caws' positive, infectious songwriting, layers of strings, keys, and a choir of vocals. If someone new to the band asked me which Nada Surf album to listen to first, I would actually recommend this one.

14. Frances Quinlan- Likewise

Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

While I prefer Hop Along, this Frances Quinlan solo album is great and compliments her band's discography. More experimental, and at times electronic, but with her strong story-telling lyrics. Album ends with a cover of one of my fav Built to Spill songs, "Carry the Zero."
15. Hum- Inlet

Hometown: Champaign, Illinois
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp

I inexplicably barely listened to Hum until a few years ago when I FINALLY bought 1995's You'd Prefer An Astronaut. Inlet is only my second Hum album purchase, and I adore how insanely heavy it is. Since Billy Corgan seems to have gone away from the layer upon layer of guitars, I'm glad someone else is still rocking in that way!
16. Touché Amoré- Lament

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp

2020 is also the year I finally checked out Touché Amoré. I'm not sure why I waited, but there was definitely some kind of prejudice I had that prevented me from ever even exploring (maybe the band name?). Having Apple Music to stream and check our ALL their tunes definitely helped, but the song "Limelight", a collaboration with Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra, is what definitely pushed me over the edge into Touché Amoré fandom. I bought Lament and Stage Four digitally on Bandcamp, and I also have an order in for the Casket Lottery split 7", which I bundled with the upcoming Casket Lottery vinyl pressing of Short Songs for End Times.

17. Beach Bunny- Honeymoon

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Format purchased: Vinyl
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Perfect band name. I feel like I am on the beach when listening to this album. With that in mind, I haven't spun it much in 2020 as it hasn't really worked as a soundtrack for my year.
18. Lo Tom- LP2
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Format purchased: Digital on Kickstarter
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

This second full-length collaboration between Martin, Bazan, Walsh, and Many picks up where LP1 left off, this time adding keys. I would have liked to purchase this on wax, but that was only available on Kickstarter for nearly $40 including shipping. Considering I bought their first album on vinyl from Barsuk for less than half that, I went into a Twitter tantrum.
19. Sufjan Stevens- The Ascension
Hometown: New York City
Format purchased: Vinyl
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

I was browsing Rob Mitchum's spectacular Google Spreadsheet while writing this, and I noticed the genre for this album is "indietronica". I don't know if that is a joke or actual genre, but it is perfect. It also somewhat explains why this album is so low on my list. I love Sufjan, but greatly prefer his songs when he uses organic instrumentation.
20. Snarls- Burst
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp

This was a random Bandcamp Day purchase earlier in the year; had never even heard of the band. But one play of the song "Marbles" was enough for me as I needed to add some punk to my 2020 rotation.

Best Compilation of 2020


Top 5 EPs of 2020:
1. Starflyer 59- Miami

Hometown: Riverside, California
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp


2. The Beautiful Mistake- You're Not Broken. I Am

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp


3. Left Neglect- Children

Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp


4. Death Cab For Cutie- The Georgia EP

Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp

(This EP was only on sale for one day only, digitally on Bandcamp, as a fundraiser. However, I would be shocked if we do not see a widespread physical and digital streaming release in 2021.)


5. Gladie
(released three EPs and one LP in 2020)
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Digital on Bandcamp





Top 9 vinyl Reissues:

A couple of my potential top reissues of the year I don't have in hand yet. One, the Lost Dogs- Little Red Riding Hood has been shipped to me, but is caught in the USPS backlog. I missed that Kickstarter in 2019, but the extra copies finally went up for sale in November. Then a Kickstarter I did support is for Poor Old Lu's Sin, and it is running behind schedule due to COVID. I have the original white vinyl version of Sin, but I am super-excited about the reissue as it has been expanded to a double LP and was remastered from the original analog master tapes (and I ordered the pink!).