It’s that time again! The annual entry where I look back at the previous year as one of six people nationwide who still prefers compact discs to digital. I don’t splurge too much because it’s increasingly tougher for new music to catch my ear as I grow older and more finicky, and as my favorite acts of yesteryear die, stop recording, or turn toward musical directions that take them beyond my zones of interest. That usually means missing out on what the majority loves, thus further dragging me down the long plummet into total irrelevance. Story of my life.
Even in 2020, though, I tried my best to keep abreast of the latest in album-sized tune collections and found a handful of artists and labels releasing new distractions and rays of hope amid the pandemic. It took until September before I finally spent a dime on new music, but the feeling was one of relief that at least one aspect of life had found a way to proceed as normal, or a close approximation under duress.
The following list, then, comprises all the CDs that I acquired last year that were 2020 releases. None were bad, but we’re not into 5-way ties here on MCC, so somebody has to give. Curiously, the longest one clocks in at 42 minutes; the shortest barely saunters past the half-hour mark. I’ve never been one to complain about getting the most bang for my buck out of every CD, so I can deal with it. Part of me is pretty okay with bloated 70-minute albums being a thing of the past if it means we’re hearing more finesse than filler.
On with the countdown!
5. Eels, Earth to Dora. When last we left Mark Everett in 2018, I described his oeuvre thusly: “As with the better Eels albums of old, his raspy melancholy holds a peculiar allure for the ponderous introverted listener even on low-speed settings, but interspersed between those musings are a few interludes of deceptively jaunty ditties that could pass for pop summer singles if that was a thing he cared about anymore.” The band’s thirteenth studio album, written before the pandemic, feels less obligated than ever to impress imaginary A&R men with a “single”. The first several tracks embrace a cautions optimism before giving way to an Act Two of calm tones belying darker conflicts. “The Gentle Souls” at least takes ownership of his relationship sins but expresses no regrets until the separate follow-up “Of Unsent Letters”. Eventually our unreliable narrator perks up for a few parting thoughts straining for uplift amid the usual tinkly pianos, soothing strings, and selectively jangled guitars, but it requires quite the about-face to get there. Even the most defensive thoughts are rendered as amiable ambient car rides, somehow ponderous and twee at once.
Sample track: best video off any of these five albums is “Are We Alright Again” with its unfair advantage of special guest Jon Hamm, who’s listening on headphones to thoughts of post-disaster recovery of a sort, while blissfully unaware of looters’ shenanigans ensuing behind him. That whimsical irony perfectly encapsulates the undermined hopes each of us took turns ruing throughout 2020, but Hamm’s blindsided ignorance looks cooler than ours ever did.
4. Brian Fallon, Local Honey. The Gaslight Anthem frontman’s third solo outing was released in March just as the pandemic turned into a national steamroller, but feels recorded during a retreat into a secluded corner as dusty as yours or mine. Eight solemn tracks run a lean 31 minutes and explore tentative steps through or away from painful memories of former flames, rooted once again in his usual neo-Springsteen vibe. He lacks the geographic specificity of prime Springsteen but echoes the workingman’s yearning for solace and strength in earnest acoustic vibes while nursing his still-tender wounds. Same problem for me here as with the Eels: subtle artistry aside, I feel like I’m not yet old enough to favor mostly slow albums. Not that I’m a dance-floor fiend (you’ve seen photos of me, right?), but even in my late 40s melodic quietude has to be five times craftier to hold my attention, so I’m left wondering if maybe I’ll love this album a bit more someday. Hopefully I don’t have to experience some deeper regrets first?
Sample track: in a year when Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” became an internet retro anthem of choice, it’s perhaps audacious to begin a ballad, “My name is Jolene, but I hate that song.” Thus are we introduced to the narrator of “Vincent”, reimagining Parton’s hottie competitor with a broken interior life marred by her own unspoken agonies, including a physically abusive boyfriend, the titular white knight she cheats on him with, and one final, violent act that means she’ll never see either of them again. It’s a disturbing reminder sometimes our pretty archrivals are more scarred than we are, and it’s a bitter shout-out to anyone who’s ever shared a name with something they couldn’t relate to on any level whatsoever.
3. Sad13, Haunted Painting. From time to time the AV Club offers a sneak previews of forthcoming albums, and with nearly every such list I’m lucky if I recognize one-fourth of the artists they spotlight. Last time I clicked on every video in their list, the standout track was “Hysterical”, a robust cyclone of rat-a-tatting drums encircling a virtual orchestra of zipping guitars, light xylophone (or glockenspiel? whichever), and ironically smiling hooks spitting in the face of some idiot oppressor who just needs to get out. I knew neither the name Sadie Dupuis nor her band Speedy Ortiz (a Love and Rockets reference!) before picking this up, and I’m extremely wary of overly digitized production methods, but the free sample rose above the data streams and lured me in for more. Real instruments or their admirable simulacra chase alt-rock edginess and layered symphonics often within the same three-minute span, reassuring me as I gaze upon the old Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb cassettes on my shelves that it really is okay to make music with today’s computers despite my allergic reactions to every Imagine Dragons single ever.
Sample track: you’d think I’d head straight for the loudest guitars, but the Sad13 alignment chart landed me on “Ghost (of a Good Time)“, a bouncy electropop ode to the hardcore shut-ins who aren’t hiding from a virus or an increasingly volatile humankind, so much as they’re embracing the self-curated pleasures of home and avoiding the potential disappointment of trying and failing to recapture the party-hearty glory days of tediously unbridled youth. I was never the partying kind by any definition, but rejection of knee-jerk nostalgia is pretty on-brand for me in my less bamboozled moments.
2. Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project. Remember when everyone thought “Beds Are Burning” was their only song ever, and listeners who moved beyond it would make faces at the intensely Aussie names, places, and politics in all their other songs that might as well have been SF stories from alien planets? I used to dig them anyway (1990’s Blue Sky Mining was in extreme heavy rotation in all my college-era tape players) and couldn’t believe eighteen years had flown by since their last studio album. Though billed as a “short album” (still longer than Brian Fallon’s by two minutes), this very special, even more intensely Australian reunion is a benefit gig with proceeds going to “organizations which seek to elevate the Uluru Statement from the Heart in particular and indigenous reconciliation more broadly.” The Statement in question originates from the eponymous 2017 conference, comprises the entirety of the album cover as shown above, and is vocalized in full as a four-minute song intro, set to a Jonny Greenwood-esque rock score so listeners don’t dismiss it as skippable a cappella and truly listen to what’s being communicated instead of letting their mind drift to wonder what if King Missile had ever gone deeply earnest.
The band invited guests as well, First Nations and indigenous musicians who are most likely strangers to anyone who’s stayed unplugged from the Down Under scene ever since Michael Hutchence died and Colin Hay stopped recording novelty hits. Old fans will feel the familiar solid rhythms like no time has passed, though the straight-up rocker “Gadigal Land” and the plaintive demands of “Change the Date” will each send listeners a-Googlin’ for context, unless they’re happy merely to nod along in uninformed sympathy. For sample track purposes, the opener “First Nation” sets the high bar for the rest of the set list and offers up a platform for two co-vocalists, native pop star Jessica Mauboy (a veteran of Eurovision and Australian Idol) and rapper Tasman Keith out of New South Wales, both of whose works I’ll need to go check out on my own without waiting for the AV Club to point me at them.
1. Bob Mould, Blue Hearts. For years I’ve considered Mould my all-time favorite musician. His last three albums were listenable, not mind-blowing in their increasingly monotone wall-of-sound deluges that used to do it for me every time. I began wondering if perhaps I should revisit my labeling. Then 2020 came along and set Mould off.
His fifth album as a power trio with bassist Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster was released weeks before he turned 60, yet it’s his loudest and angriest in years. Only one of its fourteen songs breaks the three-minute mark, but each packs a wallop into its lean, mean space. Some show his age, such as the two-minute old-man-yells-at-phones screed “Racing to the End” that calls out doom-scrolling addiction (“Every day I up the dosage / Medicine that makes me crazy”), reinforces it seconds later with the snide scolding of “Baby Needs a Cookie”, which fairly analogizes our fixations between social media and sugar and reflexively implies internet abstinence equals maturity. The theme extends into the anti-tech-reliance pride of “Password to My Soul” with faint echoes of Bad Religion in its condemnation of the machines that are draining us with our permission. If America ripped off Black Mirror, Mould has laid the groundwork for its buzzing season-one soundtrack.
All that instant connectivity and unfiltered interactivity has come at a high price mourned in other sonic klaxons, ruminating in harsh bursts on our ever-deepening societal divisions (“Next Generation”, “Forecast of Rain”, “When You Left”), each hearkening back to Hüsker Dü’s prophetic “Divide and Conquer”, which is referenced here in passing for the older fans who realize through their wrinkles and their middle-aged aches that the more things have changed, the more some in society have pulled every possible trick, stunt, lever, and trapdoor latch to force them to stay the same. I’m unclear how much was written pre-pandemic, but it was definitely before “unity” became the buzzword of the month and the latest Dulcinea for anyone who wants to heal our deepest emotional wounds through heavy magical wishing.
Mould looks about him for a means to rise above, as when “Siberian Butterfly” pounds away with all of Wurster’s might at every surrounded side, while the slightly upbeat sort-of love note “Everything to You” hopes maybe at least two can find unity despite the fractured community around them. As everything falls apart, so does he struggle to stay whole on the inside (“Little Pieces”), a conflict that eventually culminates in the downer of a closer, “The Ocean”, which in the tradition of his earliest solo-album finales (“Whichever Way the Wind Blows”, “Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace”) wallows in distortion as a defense mechanism, yet apologizes for so much tragedy on parade before drifting away: “Sorry you had to witness these inevitable events.” It’s hard to be the encouraging sixtysomething to all the youngsters out there when one has had a year like 2020. So far merely surviving it isn’t triumph enough; it needs to be exorcised.
Mould’s arguably punk-est album since maybe New Day Rising summons its mightiest fury in its first single, “American Crisis“. Just when you thought he might be too old to shred his vocal cords, Mould unleashes a warlike wail not heard on record since the early ’90s, excoriating the misery of history repeating itself. Mould agonizingly remembers the casualties incurred thirty years ago when America last tried ignoring a vicious new virus laying waste to large numbers while waiting for its own government to take it seriously. Some of his ire is targeted at groups with which I share a label. The confrontation is painful, but it’s hard to disagree with the accusations and the righteous vituperation given the empirical results at hand. At 60 you’d think Mould would’ve earned the right to shuffle off to his much-earned mellowed-out golden years like so many of his contemporaries and far more famous, chart-topping elders. If Blue Hearts is any indication, he’s far too conscientious to simply walk away from all this without saying something. And as many an unfiltered codger can tell you (I hope to be one someday myself), at his age he’s under no obligation to play nice about it.
…and that’s the chart. Special shout-out for two CDs of re-released materials, both worth checking out if you don’t already own their contents:
- A 30th-anniversary reissue of L7’s blistering debut Smell the Magic, a classic predecessor to the early-’90s riot-grrrl era in which women would form harder-than-nails rock bands and take a flamethrower to the patriarchy and its endless army of annoying aggro dudes. As it turns out, those are still a thing who’ve evolved precious little over the decades and for that matter the millennia, so defiant volume-11 oldies like “Shove” keep resonating today.
- Jack White and his former partner-in-rock Meg finally released their future contribution to big-box clearance bins, a best-of set with the in-jokey title My Sister Thanks You and I Thank You: The White Stripes Greatest Hits. All the catchy singles and viral videos and pre-rock genre throwbacks and homages to countless ’70s legends are here, along with some obscurities that were new to me because I never got around to acquiring their entire back catalog. Fans of 2020 trending topics will likely be excited this includes their cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”.
And that brings us to the far end of my limited scope of 2020 musical purchases. See you next year, assuming The Virus doesn’t mow me down, or every musician ever! Cheers!