My Top Tunes (and Albums) of 2020
Living in a pandemic has obviously been a drag, but I prefer to focus on the year’s good things. One of the advantages of being old is that the idea of staying home at night doesn’t seem so tragic, a development I never thought possible. With no hockey to play, I cycled and managed to ride over 7,000 km, a total I never thought possible. And with more time and fewer distractions, I finished the first draft of my book; I even handed it in four days early, an accomplishment I never thought possible. (Klondikers: Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge and How a Nation Fell on Love with Hockey will be out in the fall*.)
The year also brought lots of music—and plenty of time to listen to it. So here’s my annual look at what I enjoyed the most (you can listen on Spotify):
Phoebe Bridgers is so good. This time she’s here not because of yet another side project, but for Punisher, her second solo album. Last year, her duet with Matt Berninger made my round-up. And the lead singer of the National also put out a solo album. I believe Serpentine Prison is highly underrated and I hope more people will eventually realize how good it is.
There were other returnees, which either suggests admirable consistency on their part or that I need to be more adventurous. Waxahatchee is back with Saint Cloud. Jason Isbell, among the best American songwriters these days, returns with Reunions. Sufjan Stevens makes another appearance with The Ascension. And Anna Burch follows up 2018’s Quit the Curse with If You’re Dreaming, which is much quieter, but still excellent.
Speaking of returns, I was a big fan of a couple of Clem Snide records in the early 2000s but hadn’t heard them in ages. Turns out they hadn’t released anything in ten years. But they’re back with Forever Just Beyond and I’m glad they are. Meanwhile, Kathleen Edwards left music for a while to open a coffee shop in Stittsville, not far from Ottawa. Seems like a smart move given how terrific Total Freedom is.
A couple of artists did make debuts on my list: Soccer Mommy with color theory and Squirrel Flower with I Was Born Swimming.
Aside from those ten albums, the year also provided a lot of fabulous songs. Many artists did covers in 2020. Of course, covers can be risky: some are so faithful to the original that they seem pointless; some are simply ill-advised. But with so many covers, it wasn’t hard to find good ones.
Along with an impressive album of originals, Bartees Strange recorded an EP of the National songs, including “Lemonworld.” He did this after seeing the band in Washington, D.C., and realizing he was one of only few people of colour in the crowd.
My favourite cover of all time may be Nick Lowe’s version of “Poor Side of Town,” and he’s served up another fine one with “A Quiet Place.” His marketing material describes the original as “a forgotten gem of the ’60s.” Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters, who did it first, have been forgotten, too.
Other worthy covers included Nick Cave’s lovely interpretation of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” and Orville Peck giving “Smalltown Boy,” Bronski Beat’s ‘80s pop hit, some country twang. Peck also put out an EP called Show Pony, which includes “Drive Me, Crazy.” Another song from an EP that I’ve included on the playlist is “Texas Sun” by Khruangbin and Leon Bridges.
But some of the year’s best songs were on albums that didn’t seem uniformly good to me. Maybe I’m just an old crank but I miss the days when we listened to whole albums. It didn’t have to be a concept album, just eight to twelve strong songs. Something like Edwards’s Total Freedom may not have any song-of-the-year candidates, but it’s excellent throughout and I’m happy to listen to all of it. On the other hand, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, regulars in past year-end roundups, put out Temple and while title track is amazing, I didn’t love the whole album. Same goes for Perfume Genius’s “On the Floor,” Fiona Apple’s “Shameika,” Jeff Tweedy’s “Gwendolyn,” Isobel Campbell’s “The National Bird of India,” and Adrianne Lenker’s “anything” (I love all of Big Thief’s albums, but her solo stuff lacks a little energy for my tastes).
Anyway, have a listen to the playlist and feel free to wonder why you care about what some old geezer thinks about new music.
* Update Jan. 14, 2021: My publisher has changed the subtitle from Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge and How Canada Fell on Love with Hockey to Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge and How a Nation Fell on Love with Hockey]]