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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- The Wonder Years – Burst and Decay (Volume II)
- Lemondrop – Shut Up Move On
- The Dangerous Summer – All That Is Left of the Blue Sky
- Soul Glo – Songs To Yeet At the Sun
- 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.
- Origami Angel – 1/16 at Beat Kitchen
- Limbeck – 2/29 at HVAC Pub
- Telethon – 2/6 at Gman Tavern
- Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness – 10/3 at Boomers Stadium (drive-in show)
- 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.
- Sound of Metal
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Palm Springs
- The Vast of Night
- American Utopia
- First Cow
- Da 5 Bloods
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- 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.
- The Queen’s Gambit
- Mrs. America
- Small Axe
- Better Call Saul (Season 5)
- What We Do In the Shadows (Season 2)
- I’ll Be Gone In the Dark
- Search Party (Season 3)
- The Mandalorian (Season 2)
- 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.
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.