This is not the biggest problem in the world to have, but keeping up with great new music was definitely harder than usual. I haven’t had a huge amount of alone time to try out new songs, and my “end of year” wrap-up report from Spotify had a lot more to do with what my kids were listening to than anything I put on. Out of my 100 most listened to songs, like half are from the Bubble Guppies, which is all down to my youngest getting up an hour or so before wake-up time and listening to songs on a smart speaker.)
But looking back at this odd year, there was a lot of great music floating around, all of it great news to someone in his mid-forties who’s trying desperately not to get stuck in my musical ways. Here are a few favorites I found or that found me in 2020.
Same caveats as last year: I’m choosing here as a fan, not as a reviewer; these choices are in no particular order; and I’m not trying to round up the year in music, just share some of my year in music. If you like any of these songs, or know of any you think I’d like, get in touch!
“On My Own” by Shamir
This would have been my choice for song of the summer, if we’d had a normal summer. The song rocks and grooves at once, as Shamir reckons with love, breakups and the pressure to have somebody. This self-described old soul has lived through a lot in the last few years, not all of it easy, so hearing Shamir sing “I refuse to fucking suffer/Just to feel whole” means a lot.
“Sweet” by Porridge Radio
On the album “Every Bad,” this four-piece from the UK combines some of the simmering menace of early PJ Harvey with the energy of Life Without Buildings and that ethereal, anthemic quality that I love about Ian Sweet, but without ever sounding like they’re repeating anyone else. Dana Margolin is a fantastic singer who can make a line like “thank you for making me happy” (in the equally wonderful opening track, “Born Confused”) sound anything but happy; here, she alternates between hushed whispers and furious shouting, anger simmering beneath the surface and roaring out at just the right (or wrong?) time. That she’s singing about being sweet makes the moment all the more complex, and compelling.
“Wasted” by Tomberlin
Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s 2018 debut “At Weddings” was a jaw-dropper, full of heavy emotions, haunting vocals and gorgeous acoustic playing. “Wasted,” from Tomberlin’s 2020 EP “Projections,” appears to pick up this way, with a carefully picked out chord sequence and a difficult question – “How come you only say I’m cute when you’re wasted?” – but then… a drum part! And just like that, Tomberlin expands her sound in a fascinating new way. The EP is full of this spirit of exploration and discovery; plus, the video for “Wasted,” in which Tomberlin is hanging out at the park and on a bike ride with two girls who may or may not know she’s there, is my favorite of the year.
I Remember Everything” by John Prine
I read an interview once where Amanda Shires told a story about a fan who met John Prine in the 80s and then again in the 90s, at which point Prine said “I remember meeting you.” His superpower for observing and remembering made for so many great details in his decades of classic songs. Prine’s final recording, which became his first number one song not long after his passing in April, is full of these perfect observations; he reflects on the whos, whats and wheres of his life, from “every song I ever sang on a guitar out of tune” to “pools of butterflies that slipped right through the net.” If one has to have a last song, one can’t do much better than this.
“Sue’s” by Throwing Muses
Any year where there’s a new Throwing Muses album can’t be all bad. “Sun Racket” is a subtle record, full of textures and emotions without ever getting as loud as their self-titled barnburner from 2003, or as quiet as 2013’s “Purgatory/Paradise.” “Sue’s” is the closer, and it’s a joy to hear Kristin Hersh’s shimmering guitar lead locking in with Bernard Georges’s bass and David Narcizo’s drums like this again. And Hersh’s lyrics are as evocative as ever, as she sings about “a heaven hell made.”
“Ibitlan” by Mdou Moctar
It’s a treat when a guitarist as talented as Mdou Moctar plugs in at all, but to hear him play on a song this good is extra special. The Niger-based Tuareg virtuoso says “Ibitlan” is a love song, but it’s also a scorcher, a little like a version of Hendrix’s ferocious “Ezy Ryder” arranged by Ali Farka Toure.
“Care” by beebadoobie
So what if it was released in 2020, this is the greatest 90s song ever written. Beatrice Laus, aka beebadoobie, clearly cares about writing hooks that can hold up to any song written in any decade. The chorus will echo in my head for decades, along with the sentiment that leads into it: “I don’t want your sympathy/Stop saying you give a shit/Because you don’t really care.”
“Club Zero” by The Go Go’s
This was maybe the most pleasant surprise of the year in music: The Go Go’s, who haven’t put out any new music since a 2001 reunion album, put out a single to accompany a new documentary about their career. I grew up when the Go Go’s were most active, and they were often treated as a novelty – the all-girl band (and yes, the attitude at the time was on “girl”) – rather than on their considerable musical talents. Now, looking at a world where all-woman guitar bands rock all over the world, the Go Go’s drop this wonderfully catchy power pop single, declare “zero fucks given” and proclaim themselves “the new MVPs of the 21st Century.” Works for me.
“Suite Pour L’invisible” by Ana Roxanne
For part of this year my house set up a “quiet hour” where we would put on ambient music and we all did things quietly (ok, tried to, but you get the idea). I put this song by California-based ambient artist Ana Roxanne on my “Quiet Hour” playlist, but instead of helping me become more quietly productive, it kept pushing me to transcend time and space. Which actually turned out better. So, thanks.
“Beaten Down” by Sharon Van Etten
I was going to try not to repeat any of the artists I had in last year’s list, and last year Sharon Van Etten put out her challenging and wonderful album “Remind Me Tomorrow.” But then she dropped this single in February, and the refrain about a big old heart taking on more than it can bear sure felt like a song for our time, didn’t it?
“Hard On Everyone” by Kathleen Edwards
In case you hadn’t been keeping up: Kathleen Edwards walked away from the music business and opened up a coffee shop (with the amazing name of Quitters Coffee!) in Ontario. Then she walked back in to music and put out “Total Freedom,” picking up right where she’d left off. It’s hard to pick one song to highlight here, but I keep coming back to “Hard On Everyone,” where she paints a picture of a relationship that’s so suffocating for the singer, that even their house can see it for what it is: “Everything in this house is afraid/What wouldn’t be under your weight?”
“Bittersweet” by Lianne La Havas
There isn’t much that brings me more joy than stumbling upon a brilliant album for the first time, and Lianne La Havas’s self-titled record brought me a lot of joy. It’s a song cycle about the thrill of finding a new love, then feeling it fall apart and pulling yourself back together; “Bittersweet” is the opening track and serves as a kind of overture for the rest of the narrative. La Havas is a strong enough singer that she could just coast on her expressive voice, but she never does; nor does the band’s tight playing ever go too far (or not far enough). The groove is just right, the mood is just right, the playing and singing is spot on. And it stays that way through the whole album!
“Just For You” by Courtney Barnett
There isn’t a bad mood in the world that couldn’t be lifted a little by Courtney Barnett’s contribution to the tribute album for Australian singer-songwriter Kev Carmody. He’s described the song as “a love song that I’ve directed at everybody, for everybody,” and Barnett taps right into that feeling in every note she sings and plays. To paraphrase the lyrics, the song may not state anything new, but to hear it definitely makes it feels like it’s for you.
“Hell For Certain” by Gwenifer Raymond
The shorthand on Gwenifer Raymond is that she’s a Welsh John Fahey, and on “Hell For Certain” you can certainly hear the same frenetic fingerpicking and offbeat chording that I love about “The Legend of Blind Joe Death.” Raymond is no throwback, though; her playing may be rooted in the greats but she’s also breaking her own ground, as you can hear in the aptly-named whirlwind of a song that is “Hell For Certain.”
“Anyone Can Play Guitar” by Midwife
You might categorize as shoegaze or dreampop. Midwife, the alter ego of Denver musician Madeline Johnston, calls it “heaven metal,” and that’s as good a description as any. This slow-burner proves its title half right: anyone can play guitar, but not always this good.
“I Know The End” by Phoebe Bridgers
I can’t say anything about Phoebe Bridgers and her magnificent second record, “Punisher,” that hasn’t already been said better, so I’ll just point to how this song led to one of my favorite moments of the year, when she and her band put on their concert for the NPR Tiny Desk in a green-screened Oval Office, Bridgers dressed as a president, her bandmates in dark suits and sunglasses like Secret Service agents. They got to this song and turned off the illusion, going back to being themselves, and when they got to the big buildup at the end of the song, where she sings “The end is here,” you saw clips sent in by friends and fans who were all singing and drumming and dancing along. Then, Bridgers and her chorus got to the real end: “The end is AAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!” they screamed, and if you watched the livestream of the concert, the commenters in the chat room were all typing AAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!! too. It was the collective scream we all needed this year, to just let out every big feeling at once, with people who were letting it all out too.
And in that moment, Phoebe Bridgers became the president of the United States.