• Sam Jennings

The Best Music of 2020, Pt. I

(In which complete appraisal of the downs and ups of a miserable year is abandoned, indefinitely).

There was an inordinate amount of good music this year, plague notwithstanding. And far be it from me to do too much soothsaying about what it all means (since we’re all at best half-blind when it comes to trends, portentous forecasts, and sea changes, “now more than ever”), still I’ve had the impulse to cohere several scattered thoughts about what 2020 gave us. This is not a list, no cohesive summary, just a rambling tour through the albums and songs I heard that struck me somehow as truly great. This being a “serious” “Arts + Culture” site, I’ll try to steer it on occasion into important questions like “What?” “Why?” and “Who made suck so much ass?”

There were two clear masterpieces (yes, that wishy-washy word) to hit my ears this year: one obvious, the other much less known. The obvious was Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, released at the beginning of the year to almost de facto praise, AOTY-or-some-such-critical masturbation, and a heinous 10.0 rating from Condé Nast—I mean Pitchfork. Heinous, not because it doesn’t deserve its reputation as a great work by a pop genius (c’est vrai; das ist wahr; no argument here) but because even in slathering Fiona with praise to perfection, Pitchfork only perfected its own patent formula—turning a beautiful flowering object of art into an emblem of its own status, in whose bed is buried the bones of all exegesis and critical thought. That 10.0 was awarded by P4K to itself, by itself, for having the forethought to declare the first “perfect” album of the next decade.

But despair not, good reader, the album remains wonderful, boundless, and full of a sense of enormous creativity further unshackling itself. Fiona Apple is the Titan everyone says she is, and a powerful conceptualizer to boot. If you’ve listened to it, you’ve got your opinion, and it’s as good as mine. I’ll leave off with what a friend recently said quite perceptively: in some important way, FtBC is not completely music. It is, of course, but it pushes into other areas. It’s theater of a sort: a Brechtian one-woman-show, beamed to us by way of her house (which is a vital part of the recording itself) in the middle of collective isolation. I’ll be turning it over in my head for a long time.

So on to the second masterpiece and (to me) likely the finest album released this year: The Soft Pink Truth’s woefully overlooked Shall We Go On Sinning So that Grace May Increase? Nothing else in 2020 truly sounded—dare I say it—as new as that record did. Of course, there are signposts one might recognize: being the year’s album which most reduces me to critical hash, I’m still buzzing with ideas of genre mélanges, extolling its “healing” and “meditative” powers (very key to passing as important to certain anxious audiences), comparing it to modern classical works both minimal and maximal, to former fusions of house and ambient from Aphex Twin onward, and wondering generally what it means for the conglomerate state of electronic music. But still, it’s the most impressive kind of wholistic “accomplishment,” entirely of apiece with itself. It’s best listened to in one uninterrupted sitting: then it’s something like an electric symphony, the way Jamie xx’s In Colour (or Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city) was: you feel like you are getting every available shade of a central thematic prism, examined from all angles and emotional degrees, in a connected stream of almost magically unified ideas. The color of the album’s front is all-important: the clear movements of this maroon music, sifting through voices and a million different instruments (real or not) over the stops and starts of its beats, are refracting a light through a crystal—throwing up images of a traveling, busy, ultra-modern Heart as it patiently buzzes itself through a melancholy technological forest. If we had all day, I’d concoct an entire essay only on the way a few perfect wordless voices emerge on “We,” the album’s second track; the picture it paints of the human instrument moaning, Nah-Nah-Nah-ing its way out from below the vague swimming sands of all the too-muchness of the electronic world. It would be worth that poetry, despite being so complete in itself.

Shall We Go On Sinning… is, then, a perfect kind of prelude to some of the themes I’ll take up with the rest of this piece. The first being that the increasingly omnivorous undercurrent of pop music is not waning, either in its pursuit of mass genre combinations, or in its need to plunder the past. These have long seemed like the twin antipodes of artistic limitation in our moment: with little sense of an imaginable “future” to project ourselves toward (or, rather, to project back onto ourselves as Subjects), we seem to only be able to nudge ourselves forward by throwing together those things which have not been heard side-by-side before, or else returning to very specific sounds of the past, to further refine them. What’s so interesting to me is why. Every choice made by an artist contains many more conscious and unconscious choices—of what to make and what not to make—when they sit down to create. And every journey to the past contains a specific kernel of importance: the importance it still carries for the present, for the artist, for their audience. In 2020, something subtle, which before was only building and simmering, shifted

Take Soccer Mommy’s latest LP, Color Theory. Sophie Allison made the outright best singer-songwriter album of the past decade with Clean, but here she took her evocation of a 90s soft-alt-rock sound to an even more literal plane. The album is excellent, yet none of it mattered after “Circle the Drain,” which felt like something remarkable and distinct when it arrived last spring. Melancholy on the inside, shimmery on the outside, it was still unmistakably a retro piece of Y2K pop, clearly indebted to the shuffling, sunny midtempo rock-ish numbers that ate up the radio in the late 90s and early 00s. It transcended even evocation—aside from a slight sheen that would have been impossible then, it sounded exactly like the era. Any question as to whether Allison wanted to be considered in terms of Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette, or the production duo Matrix (amid many such touchstones of the time) was gone. But we’ve had a thousand artists go the direct retro route in recent years (including those who actually reach the Top 40)—what made the song so remarkable was how totally Allison had eclipsed the exact era she was copying: put this song on the radio in 1999 and it would have been the best song on the radio in 1999. This is not an overstatement. It’s lyrically tight, melodically impeccable, perfectly paced, far sturdier than most current Billboard hits, let alone those twenty years ago; it supersedes even the thing of which is it a simulacrum.

Now, the question of why artists like Soccer Mommy are choosing this era to recreate is interesting. For many like Allison, the late 90s saw the last time that pop music seemed to look forward, seemed excited, leaked a kind of optimism about things into the general air, an insane century’s last intent at projecting an innocence it wasn’t going to be able to afford much longer. And note: the trickling transition of pop music all over from explicit 80s throwbacks to the late 90s/early aughts (Rina Sawayama—an artist somewhat lost on me, nevertheless strikes me as another of the year’s important examples) is also a pointed movement away from the current obsessive Reagan-era binge we’ve been undergoing for a while (remember that some are still waiting on the edge of their seats for a new season of Stranger Things). From a specifically American standpoint, this is roughly a movement from colorful plastic romance to a more “authentic,” or at least authentically weird, time in pop music. And “Circle the Drain” is certainly drenched in this yearning for authenticity—late-era MTV and the ubiquitous slow-mo breakbeat that shuffled a million songs through the last years of the decade. But Allison counterpoises this with a lyric that suggests just the opposite—everything in this song’s world is stagnation and dissociation, melancholy and anomie. It’s a restaging, sure, but it’s one that betrays a new self-awareness. Eternal recurrence is perhaps a rule, but what happens when it recurs entirely consciously? These particular issues may not be an entirely new development but for the ambitions of indie musicians everywhere, it signals rich possibilities.

Indie rock remains a relatively atavistic musical zone (amorphous, too). Its signifiers are largely other “indie” sounds of the past, and despite the brilliance of so many young bedroom phenoms and auteur projects, its audience remains more in thrall to the feeling of being in on something cool than any devotion to the music (with exceptions, of course). As such, the focus is often on a supremely calculated sincerity. Ironically, this makes out of indie rockers a virtue of what one might call increasingly clever modes of earnestness. But before this starts doubling up on itself in meta-musical circles let’s say, with some equanimity, that the best indie artists are still the ones who just do their thing anyways.

In Lomelda’s Hannah, for example, we see one of the best examples of a young musician in recent times working in that endearingly warbly voice and fuzzy, twee aesthetic very common to the DIY world, yet coming away with something that is simply too finely crafted and honest and humbly itself to be dismissed. It floats in on the same breeze as Frankie Cosmos, spends a day with Florist’s divine Emily Alone, and easily drifts over the heads of lesser softies like Hovvdy.

Its pair on the other side of the pond is Porridge Radio’s Every Bad, a tougher sound but similarly internal, a band all those dull Mercury Prize nominees should try more to be like. And there’s even a fine lesson therein, on the differences between Yank and Brit styles of authenticity. Where Lomelda’s self-referential and folky lope summons endless landscapes of middle America, Porridge Radio hop along through the last three or four decades of British rock and wring out a rigorously (sometimes theatrically) tune-ambivalent set of wry guitar songs evoking something like busy London streets. The highlight is “Lilac,” one of those self-help-courting anthems that crosses over into rare legitimacy: it’s the anthem of the year, bar none.

Elsewhere in indie world, Chicago's Dehd turned out Flower of Devotion, one of those instant semi-classics of nuts-and-bolts rock n’ roll that shows up every so often (in a lineage with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Best Coast’s Crazy for You—records that seem to pare it all back down to “Be My Baby” and “Crimson and Clover”). Waxahatchee gave us a lovely twangy thing with Saint Cloud, which reminded me of the best of Lucinda Williams. Lucky listeners may have also noted the debut of a little artist named Skullcrusher, from somewhere in California. Her brief self-titled EP, hinging on four short but flawless acoustic pop songs, seemed to grow steadily in importance for me over the year. I found it unbelievably moving—like the exact inverse of Taylor Swift’s new obsession with independent folk cred. It’s on the vanguard of the next fashion of sincerity, I think, given that these things must always come in competing waves—storms of posturing followed by lulls of earnest vulnerability. When that vulnerability feels less like a calculated choice and more a natural necessity of the artist’s self-conception, we are nearing firmer ground. And that leads me to the final grand indie albums of the year, and to two artists who barely seem to exist within the same confines as other indie acts, for differing reasons– Bully’s SUGAREGG and Adrienne Lenker’s Songs/Instrumentals.

Bully is to the emo bands of the aughts what Nirvana was to hair metal—real teeth baring, putting all those stupid fops on watch. If this was a just world, they’d be huge. As it stands, it’s good enough to have yet another album in which Alicia Bognanno does one of the most honestly difficult things a rock artist can do: make the same song every time, every album. Every one of her perfectly placed yelps, every riff, every transition is crafted like a damn wizard of 90s alt-rock bedazzled her punk tunes with his magic wand. Her music is crushing and it plainly fucking rocks like no one has in at least a decade.

This is not too dissimilar to Lenker, maybe the subtlest of songwriters right now—already a patron saint of wood-hewn folk music, she’s been doing something patiently profound by building up a repertoire of quietly similar songs, between Big Thief and her solo records. What it adds up to is a sort of bulwark against the assumptions of the digital world. Some critics clearly see this as a cocoon—these are probably people who cannot spend a moment in silence. The angel on Lenker’s shoulder is symbolic simplicity and I’m not sure there’s a devil on the other. “Purity” is a tough word to throw around, I know, but there’s a rare spiritual engine let loose in her music and she’s proved she can let the muse wriggle around for a while over the same concepts without getting tired or impoverished. If you listen to any artist’s music for the right response to isolation and plague, her Songs/Instrumentals should be the model. Listen to the rain, the birds, the floorboards creaking, the inside of her guitar, and you may wonder like me if there’s need for anything more than that.

PART II still to come…

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