The Getting By That Gets Right Underneath You: 2021 In Review


This year may as well have started on March 30th when I drove to Pontiac to get my first vaccine dose. Everything before that (and, to be honest, a lot after that) just feels like endless extra innings of 2020. The year also kind of feels like it ended after Thanksgiving with the spread of the Omicron variant and another round of uncertainty, caution, and fear. I’m trying hard to push back against the tidal wave of “everything is terrible” and focus on the best moments. I felt utterly alive and in the moment on stage at Nightshop in July when Pelafina played our first show back. I went to Riot Fest in September and hugged friends I hadn’t seen in two years. I turned 30 in October. I was able to celebrate the holidays with families that are happy and healthy.

Music I Worked On This Year

It’s been tough getting back into the rhythm of writing, recording, and releasing new music, so this section is pretty short this time. Lots more in the works for 2022 though, including a new Pelafina single very early in the year.

My Favorite Albums of 2021

I had a harder time than usual making this list. There was no runaway favorite album, no artist that completely dominated my listening (besides maybe Taylor Swift, but I’m deeming Red (Taylor’s Version) ineligible for this list), but what I ended up with actually feels like a good summary of my listening habits this year.

I did less digging and discovering than usual. There are only a few debut albums on this list, and one of them was of course the most ubiquitous and inescapable release of the year. I was delighted to see some left turns and exciting, vibrant work from established band eight or nine albums deep in their careers.

I also put together a Spotify playlist with my favorite songs from each of these releases, as well as a bunch of singles and tracks from other albums that didn’t quite make a the cut.

  1. The Killers – Pressure Machine
  2. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
  3. You, Me, and Everyone We Know – Something Heavy
  4. Adjy – The Idyll Opus (I-VI)
  5. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Illusory Walls
  6. Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt
  7. Telethon – Swim Out Past the Breakers
  8. Dan Campbell – Other People’s Lives
  9. Every Time I Die – Radical
  10. Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night
  11. Dave Hause – Blood Harmony
  12. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
  13. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
  14. Origami Angel – Gami Gang
  15. The Wallflowers – Exit Wounds
  16. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy
  17. Porter Robinson – Nurture
  18. Monobody – Comma
  19. The Dirty Nil – Fuck Art
  20. Parting – Unmake Me

A few EPs I loved:

  • Future Teens – Deliberately Alive
  • Counting Crows – Butter Miracle: Suite One
  • Camp Trash – Downtiming
  • Brett Conlin and the Midnight Miles – Brett Conlin and the Midnight Miles

My Favorite Live Shows of 2021

I played or went to 31 shows this year, and nearly every one felt like a celebration of live music, of how lucky we are be able to share art and community again after the past two years. It may have been a short-lived celebration, with case numbers rising again and tours for next year already getting canceled, but I’m hoping for the best.

  1. Titus Andronicus – 11/12 at Subterranean
  2. Spanish Love Songs – 9/3 at Beat Kitchen
  3. The Mountain Goats – 8/24 at Space
  4. The Killers – 12/7 at Aragon Ballroom
  5. Signals Midwest – 12/17 at Burlington

My Favorite Movies of 2021

All the usual caveats about not yet having the chance to see all of the new releases aside, I don’t see anything topping Dune as my favorite movie of the year. It’s a true accomplishment of science fiction filmmaking.

  1. Dune
  2. Inside
  3. The Last Duel
  4. The Power of the Dog
  5. King Richard
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah
  7. No Time To Die
  8. No Sudden Move
  9. Summer of Soul
  10. Luca

My Favorite TV Shows of 2021

It sure feels like I watched less TV this year than I have in the decade and change since I discovered Dexter (and binge-watching) during finals week of my freshman year of college. Maybe it was a slight shift in entertainment priorities. Maybe it was due to most of my reliable favorites taking the year off. Regardless, what I did watch was really great.

  1. Midnight Mass
  2. Succession (Season 3)
  3. Squid Game (Season 1)
  4. What We Do In the Shadows (Season 3)
  5. Loki (Season 1)

Honorable Mention (only because the entire season hasn’t aired yet): Station Eleven

My Favorite Books of 2021

I hardly ever end up with new releases among my favorite books list at the end of a year. My book backlog is so long that only new releases from my favorite authors jump to the top. However, I set a goal in 2021 to read more non-fiction and ended up reading more new books than usual as a result. These were my favorite reads of the year, in no particular order and not limited to new releases.

  • Punks In Peoria: Making a Scene In the American Heartland by Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett
  • Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner
  • The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross
  • Killers of the Flower Moon: Listening To the Twentieth Century by David Grann
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Next Year

  • A new Long Way Home album (I swear it’s actually happening this time)
  • A new Pelafina song in January and hopefully another release later in the year

Jeff Schaller and the Long Way Home – ‘Reckless Life’

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the rest of the Long Way Home (besides Liesi) and even longer since we’ve rehearsed as a full band, but we spent the past few months working remotely on an acoustic EP. Jeff wrote these songs over the past tumultuous year, and I think they’re some of his best – incisive, political, and memorable. Give it a listen and get ready to hear loud versions of these when it’s safe to play shows again.

Watch No Evil: Us

I’ve probably listened to thousands of hours of podcasts, but this is the first time I’ve recorded one. I joined Matt Mason and Zach Siegel on their horror movie podcast, Watch No Evil, for a very fun discussion of Jordan Peele’s Us, a movie I liked on release and genuinely loved after revisiting it. Check it out here.

Add It All Up To An Impossible Sum: 2020 In Review


There’s a Wonder Years lyric that keeps popping up in my running playlist at slightly too fitting moments: "I’ve been acting like I’m strong, but the truth is I’ve been losing ground to a hospital too crowded, to a summer winding down." Those lines aren’t about this pandemic, although they are about grief and loss, feelings that most of us have probably grown all too familiar with over the past nine months, even those of us who haven’t lost family members. I’ve spent more of this year sad and angry than I’ve let on to friends and family. I’ve been lamenting the things I love that may never go back to the way they were before – it’s hard to yell punk rock songs in tiny venues when those venues close for good because they got no support from the government during a crisis. I’ve been furious at Republican leaders in government, from Trump on down to state and local officials, for ignoring and then flouting the advice of scientists, turning public health into a partisan issue during a time of extraordinary polarization while this pandemic disproportionately affects people who were already marginalized. I’m furious at every single person who put "personal freedom" or whatever bullshit reason they have for not wearing a mask above the health of everyone else. We could have beaten this, and instead we had a year of needless suffering on an unprecedented scale.

This is a down way to start my annual year-in-review, but it’s been a down year.

Even in such a bad year, I know I’ve been extremely privileged. My family has stayed healthy. I have a job that has allowed me to work from home full-time and support Liesi through some big career changes. I’m alright. I’m adapting. I’m trying hard not to beat myself up about not writing a record or a novel or something.

Despite [gestures broadly] all of this, I still couldn’t end the year without making a bunch of lists. I am a creature of habit.

Music I Worked On This Year

I did actually release some music I’m really proud of this year, although most of this feels like it happened a decade ago.

  • Pelafina – Familiar Places – Guitar, keyboard
  • Pelafina – TS – Guitar, keyboard, recording, mixing, mastering
  • Jeff Schaller and the Long Way Home – "Pulse of Summer" – Guitar, recording, mixing, mastering
  • Jeff Schaller and the Long Way Home – Two Decades and Change (Deluxe Edition) – Guitar, recording (tracks 11-16, 20), mixing and mastering (tracks 11-15, 20)
  • Bosley Jr. – Appreciation Post – Recording, mixing
  • Dead Are the Gods – Dead Are the Gods – Recording, mixing, mastering
  • Apocalypse Quest – CPAC Now – Recording, mixing, mastering
  • Watch No Evil Podcast – "Theme Song" – Bass, percussion, keyboard, recording, mixing, mastering

My Favorite Albums of 2020

First, Some Honorable Mentions
  • Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
  • Beach Bunny – Honeymoon
  • Bright Eyes Down In the Weeds Where the World Once Was
  • The Chicks – Gaslighter
  • Cinema Stare – Hum and the Glow
  • City Mouth – Coping Machine
  • Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Reunions
  • Ruston Kelly – Shape and Destroy
  • The Killers – Imploding the Mirage
  • Jeff Parker – Suite For Max Brown
  • Frances Quinlan – Likewise
  • Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream
  • Bartees Strange – Live Forever
  • Touché Amore – Lament
The Top Ten
  1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
    I fell in love with this album in a restaurant parking lot at sunset while waiting for a curbside pickup order. That’s 2020, I guess.
  2. Dogleg – Melee
    High on the list of things to do once a sufficient amount of the country is vaccinated and bands can safely tour again: Scream along to “Prom Hell” and “Kawasaki Backflip” in the smallest, most crowded room possible.
  3. Caspian – On Circles
    This is everything I want a post-rock album to be. Not much else to say here. Best if played very loud.
  4. The Mountain Goats – Songs For Pierre Chuvin
    One of the early pandemic projects, listening to Songs For Pierre Chuvin now takes me back to the strange time in early spring when this all felt temporary. There’s a wonderful feeling of no rules and no pressure here: We’re stuck at home for a few weeks, so why not make a lo-fi album about pagans in the late classical period?
  5. Taylor Swift – Folklore / Evermore
    It’s a bit of a cheat to combine two albums on this list, but this is my place and I make the rules. Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner tapped into some really impressive creative energy even when they were working remotely, and the surprise announcements and release days for these albums were a source of genuine joy in a year when such joys have been tough to come by.
  6. Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You
    The E Street Band sounds gloriously live and alive as Springsteen mines his early bar band days for both inspiration (“Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing”) and actual songs (“If I Was the Priest,” finally recorded and released after nearly fifty years, is a highlight). I’ll always be a sucker for a lyric about turning a Fender Twin all the way up and burning the house down.
  7. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
    Until Saint Cloud, I hadn’t loved any of Katie Crutchfield’s work since 2012’s American Weekend. This album is gem after gem, and I’m thrilled to no longer be an “old stuff is better” guy about Waxahatchee.
  8. Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else
    I love incisive, insightful lyrics and I love emo trumpet. There’s a lot of both on South Somewhere Else. The title track, which reflects on how growing up white and liberal in a college town begets a sense of distance from racist, oppressive systems. In a year that has found me considering my own privilege more than ever, this song was always in the back of my mind.
  9. Maxwell Stern – Impossible Sum
    The new solo album from Signals Midwest vocalist Maxwell Stern came along in September, and I played it more than anything else as the weather cooled off. Somewhere between The Weakerthans, Limbeck, and later-era Promise Ring (seriously, listen to that uncanny Davey Von Bohlen impression on “Born At the End of a Year”), Impossible Sum feels like a warm hoodie in the crisp autumn air.
  10. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
    A lot of year end features will probably mention how remarkable it is that Spanish Love Songs’ Brave Faces Everyone was recorded and released in the Before Times, pre-pandemic. “I woke up and didn’t feel better, don’t know why I act surprised,” vocalist Dylan Slocum sings on one song, and another features a call and response chorus of “It won’t be this bleak forever. Yeah, right,” a sentiment I’ve wrestled with a lot recently. But the resonance of these songs didn’t depend on a large-scale national tragedy. This is an album about the systems that keep people struggling and keep people down, systems that have been in place for years and will continue to be in place far into the future unless we work diligently to change them and look out for each other in the meantime. It’s a record about fighting those systems with empathy. The kind of radical empathy that Brave Faces Everyone imagines was necessary in February and is even more necessary now. I just wish I could have had the experience of yelling these lines in a room full of friends and strangers. The tour date I was supposed to see was canceled a day before it was scheduled. It will be all the more cathartic when we can yell together again. I can’t think of a better way to end this than to quote the lines that I’ve come back to more than any other this year: “We don’t have to fix everything at once. We were never broken. Life’s just very long. Brave faces, everyone.”

My Favorite EPs of 2020

  1. The Wonder Years – Burst and Decay (Volume II)
  2. Lemondrop – Shut Up Move On
  3. The Dangerous Summer – All That Is Left of the Blue Sky
  4. Soul Glo – Songs To Yeet At the Sun
  5. Alex Lahey – Between the Kitchen and the Living Room

My Favorite Songs of 2020

Here’s a Spotify playlist of a bunch of songs I loved this year, in no particular order. No Apple Music playlist this year because of a weird bug that prevents from adding certain songs to public playlists, but feel free to make your own.

My Favorite Live Shows of 2020

For obvious reasons, I spent very little time in music venues this year. I did manage to attend or play sixteen shows in the Before Times, as well as one drive-in show in October. These were my favorites.

  1. Origami Angel – 1/16 at Beat Kitchen
  2. Limbeck – 2/29 at HVAC Pub
  3. Telethon – 2/6 at Gman Tavern
  4. Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness – 10/3 at Boomers Stadium (drive-in show)
  5. Lemondrop – 2/15 at Loudhouse

My Favorite Movies of 2020

This part of the list always feels incomplete because so many movies aren’t easily available to watch within the calendar year. At this point in 2019, I still hadn’t seen Parasite, Little Women, or 1917, all of which I loved. That’s even more apparent this year, with so much getting delayed because of the pandemic. Regardless, here are the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

  1. Sound of Metal
  2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  3. Palm Springs
  4. The Vast of Night
  5. Host
  6. American Utopia
  7. Time
  8. First Cow
  9. Da 5 Bloods
  10. Dick Johnson Is Dead
  11. Possessor
  12. Mank
  13. The Trial of the Chicago 7
  14. Tenet
  15. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

My Favorite TV Shows of 2020

I watched a ton of TV this year (because what else was there to do), and nothing stood out like The Queen’s Gambit. It’s immaculately written, acted, and directed, propulsive and gripping at every moment no matter your opinion of chess as a sport.

  1. The Queen’s Gambit
  2. Mrs. America
  3. Small Axe
  4. Better Call Saul (Season 5)
  5. What We Do In the Shadows (Season 2)
  6. Devs
  7. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark
  8. Search Party (Season 3)
  9. The Mandalorian (Season 2)
  10. Lovecraft Country (Season 1)

My Favorite Books of 2020

I read 40 books this year, which is high for recent years, but again, I had a lot more time on my hands. As usual, only a couple were new releases, and both are highly recommended: Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, the successor to her Hyperbole and a Half blog, and Alex Trebek’s wonderful autobiography, The Answer Is… which I finished shortly before he passed away. Here are the rest of my favorite reads this year, in no particular order.

  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Update 12/23: Over the past couple days, I read Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown, and I’m immediately ready to say it’s best thing I’ve read this year. Using a screenplay format to display one’s life as a series of roles and performances, Yu examines the Asian American experience across the twentieth century. I want to take this back in time (a la Yu’s debut novel) and discuss it in my avant garde fiction class.

Next Year

It’s still pretty hard to know how excited to be about next year, even with a vaccine on the way. Plans still feel tenuous, but I have tickets to shows. I have demos for a Pelafina album. I have a Long Way Home record in progress. We still have a long, tough few months ahead of us, but I think we can do it.