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

Introduction

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.

We’ll Grow Stronger Making Room and Sharing Space: 2019 In Review

It’s the end of the year and the end of the decade (more on the latter in this post). It’s the time for me to reflect on the year and think too much about lists. Some things will never change.

Music I Worked On This Year

My Favorite Albums of 2019

I’ve had a one-sentence review of my number one album, Breakup Season by Future Teens, in my head for a few months: If I had heard this when I was seventeen, I might have been a better person. That sounds hyperbolic, but I haven’t been able to shake the idea. I know I could have used this album as a teenager. It’s so honest and introspective about heartbreak and sadness and dealing with those emotions in healthy ways. I’m so happy that a band like Future Teens exists. I’m jealous of the kid that hears Breakup Season this year and connects to it like I connected to The Upsides. Future Teens will be that kid’s first favorite band, the soundtrack to their formative years, their inspirations and role models. I keep likening this album to The Upsides, probably the single most influential album on my past ten years. It feels like a torch-passing at the end of the decade, and it’s all the more apt because I saw Future Teens open for the Wonder Years in October.

The rest of my list feels as varied as my year, spanning genre and scope from emo debuts to the biggest pop artist in the world. As always, I think there’s a lot to love on this list, so pick something and give it a spin.

  1. Future Teens – Breakup Season
  2. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
  3. Pedro the Lion – Phoenix
  4. The Menzingers – Hello Exile
  5. The Mountain Goats – In League With Dragons
  6. Jimmy Eat World – Surviving
  7. Taylor Swift – Lover
  8. Origami Angel – Somewhere City
  9. The Get Up Kids – Problems
  10. Telethon – Hard Pop
  11. Proper. – I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better
  12. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – Routine Maintenance
  13. Ceres – We Are a Team
  14. Oso Oso – Basking In the Glow
  15. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
  16. The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature
  17. Somos – Prison On a Hill
  18. Dave Hause – Kick
  19. American Football – LP3
  20. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
  21. Junius Paul – Ism
  22. The Maine – You Are OK
  23. Nervus – Tough Crowd
  24. Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows
  25. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

My Favorite EPs of 2019

  1. Better Love – All I Ever Wanted Is To Be Where You Are
  2. Mineral – One Day When We Are Young
  3. Ruston Kelly – Dirt Emo, Volume 1
  4. Rat Tally – When You Wake Up
  5. Bosley Jr – No More

My Favorite Songs of 2019

Here’s a playlist on Apple Music and Spotify of songs I loved this year. It’s vaguely in order (at least the top ten or so).

My Favorite Shows of 2019

I went to 63 shows this year, 35 of which I played. Here were my favorites. These were all great, but the John K. Samson show is a contender for my all-time favorite performance. He doesn’t tour much, so make it a priority to see him if you have the chance.

  1. John K. Samson and Christine Fellows – 11/23 at Beat Kitchen
  2. The Wonder Years, Future Teens – 10/20 at Metro
  3. Ruston Kelly – 11/1 at Thalia Hall
  4. Mineral – 1/24 at Lincoln Hall
  5. Pedro the Lion – 5/18 at The Castle Theater
  6. Jacob Sigman, Jetty Bones – 3/29 at Beat Kitchen
  7. The Sidekicks, Adult Mom – 7/7 at Subterranean
  8. Spanish Love Songs – 5/19 at Cobra Lounge
  9. Los Campesinos! – 7/6 at West Fest
  10. We Were Promised Jetpacks – 7/13 at Bottom Lounge

My Favorite Podcasts of 2019

Two Headed Girl is the best new podcast I listened to this year. It’s a chronicle of gender dysphoria, transitioning, and marriage. Hosts Alex and Matthew Cox are unflinching in their honesty with each other about their lives, health, and feelings. It’s kind of amazing that they recorded all of this and are willing to share such a personal journey with the world.

Elsewhere in the podcast world, two of my favorite long-running podcasts hit new highs in 2019. On episode 102 of Reconcilable Differences, “Preparing the Way,” John Siracusa buys a refrigerator. The two-hour chronicle of this harrowing adventure is everything I love about the podcast format. And The Watch, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s twice weekly talk about movies and TV, transitioned from purely critique to a behind the scenes look at making a TV show as Andy called in from the set and editing room of his upcoming show, Briarpatch.

Finally, I’ll recommend Michael Lewis’s Against the Rules, a meticulously researched exploration of societal rules and the people who make and enforce them. Unlike the long-running conversational shows I typically like, the tight format and high production value make Against the Rules feel more like an audio book.

My Favorite Books of 2019

As usual, I read very few new releases this year, but the few I did read were fantastic: Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest poetry collection, A Fortune For Your Disaster, Mark Z. Danielewski’s children’s book for all ages, The Little Blue Kite, and Mischa Pearlman’s One Day When We Are Young, a retrospective on the emo band Mineral and a companion piece to their first new music in over twenty years.

The best book I read this year, regardless of release date, was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

My Favorite Television of 2019

I started 2019 with the vague goal of “keeping up” with TV, but I quickly realized that’s impossible. There’s just too much great TV. With that in mind, I just want to highlight a few of my favorite shows of the year, all remarkable for very different reasons, which also happen to be short and digestible.

Fleabag – Season 2

A tour de force of emotion and energy, every episode left me thinking that writer / producer / star Phoebe Waller-Bridge might be the most talented person alive.

Watchmen

Every frame of this show is immaculate. I’m a longtime defender of the endings of Lost and The Leftovers so I had confidence in Damon Lindelof and his team to pull this sequel/remix, and my expectations were still far exceeded.

When They See Us

Ava Duvernay’s docu-drama about the Central Park Five is a heart-wrenching examination of injustice. The opening sequence alone is worth the price of a Netflix subscription.

Chernobyl

A different kind of bleak docu-drama, set on the opposite side of the world as When They See Us, Chernobyl is equal parts moving, gruesome, frustrating, and deeply sad.

And I can’t leave the TV section without giving a shout to Baby Yoda on The Mandalorian, constant cause of delighted squeals (both Liesi’s and mine) every time he’s on screen.

My Favorite Movies of 2019

As always, I’m very behind on movies at the end of year, but Knives Out is a masterpiece.

  1. Knives Out
  2. Marriage Story
  3. The Irishman
  4. Booksmart
  5. Midsommar
  6. The Report
  7. Toy Story 4
  8. Us
  9. Dolemite Is My Name
  10. High Life

Next Year

I haven’t made a formal new year’s resolution in quite a few years, but I do have some plans for 2020.

  • Pelafina will be releasing a new EP in the next couple months. More on that very soon.

  • The Long Way Home are deep in the process of recording our next album. That will hopefully be out later in the spring.

  • I didn’t make a single blog post this year, and I want to change that. I don’t have a clear structure in mind, but I just want to write more.

  • I’m going to listen to more jazz.

Like a Rock Stuck Skipping On a Great Lake: 2018 In Review

I never know how to sum up a year in a paragraph. I don’t think it’s really possible, when a year is so big and somehow goes by so fast, to capture everything that was significant in my little corner of the world. But I’ll always try.

Before the traditional lists, I want to highlight one very important moment from 2018. Liesi and I got married and it was the happiest day of my life. To every friend and family member who helped out in any way, thanks for making it so special. I appreciate it more than I can ever say.

And it turns out I’ll actually dance if I’m making the playlist.

Music I Worked On This Year

My Favorite Albums of 2018

  1. Spanish Love Songs – Schmaltz
  2. The Sidekicks – Happiness Hours
  3. The Wonder Years – Sister Cities
  4. Brian Fallon – Sleepwalkers
  5. Ruston Kelly – Dying Star
  6. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
  7. Death Cab For Cutie – Thank You For Today
  8. Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness – Upside Down Flowers
  9. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
  10. Lucy Dacus – Historian
  11. Joyce Manor – Million Dollars To Kill Me
  12. Fall Out Boy – Mania
  13. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
  14. Foxing – Nearer My God
  15. Camp Cope – How To Socialize and Make Friends
  16. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
  17. Jeff Rosenstock – Post
  18. Retirement Party – Somewhat Literate
  19. All Get Out – No Bouquet
  20. Coheed and Cambria – Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures

My Favorite EPs of 2018

  1. Better Love – We Were Younger and Less Put Together
  2. Clear Eyes Fanzine – Season One, Episodes 1-6
  3. The Flips – Exactly Where I Should Be
  4. Boygenius – Boygenius
  5. mewithoutYou – [untitled]

My Favorite Songs of 2018

Playlist on Apple Music and Spotify

The playlist only includes 49 of my 50 favorite songs because “Coming Up For Air” by Clear Eyes Fanzine isn’t on streaming services, but it is on Bandcamp.

My Favorite Shows of 2018

  1. The Bad Plus – Nightshop – 12/6
  2. All Get Out – The House Cafe – 5/17
  3. Spanish Love Songs – Subterranean (Downstairs) – 4/14
  4. Counting Crows – Hollywood Casino Amphitheater – 9/8
  5. Lorde – Rosemont Arena – 3/27
  6. The Wonder Years – Sister Cities Pop Up Shop – 3/30

My Favorite Movies of 2018

  1. Annihilation
  2. Hereditary
  3. Minding the Gap
  4. Roma
  5. A Quiet Place
  6. Game Night
  7. Black Panther
  8. The Incredibles 2
  9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

My Favorite TV Shows of 2018

  1. Killing Eve
  2. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  3. GLOW
  4. Atlanta
  5. The Little Drummer Girl
  6. Castle Rock
  7. The Good Place
  8. The Haunting of Hill House
  9. Counterpart
  10. Patriot

Other Highlights

The best book I read this year was They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib.

I spent a stupid amount of time playing The Binding of Isaac on Nintendo Switch.

My favorite podcast episode of the year is a tie between Roderick On the Line, Ep. 315: “The Slow Desctruction of Bueno” and Do By Friday, Ep. 109: “Bee. Wasp. Hornet.”

As always, thanks for reading. See you next year.

Souvenirs of Happiness In the Moment: Reflections On 2017

Some milestones and accomplishments from this year:

Movies About Animals released our first full-length album, Two Decades and Change, in January. I tend to be pretty critical of my own work even after it’s finished, but I wouldn’t change anything about this album. I’ve only grown more proud of it in the last eleven months. We also released a companion EP called Spare Change, with some B-sides and acoustic songs as a bit of a cap on the Two Decades era.

Pelafina had a very busy year. We played 29 shows, including two out-of-state weekends, and released a split with The Flips, a re-recorded and re-mixed version of Pelafina 64, and a single called “Skin.” These songs are particularly special because in addition to writing, I also recorded and mixed all of them myself. The rest of band has been more supportive and encouraging than I could have hoped for while I use our songs to learn the ropes of music production and engineering.

City Mouth played a handful of shows in 2017, but much of the year was spent writing and recording a new EP called Hollows, which will be out early next year. It will be my last release as a member of the band, which still feels strange to say after four years writing and touring with Matt and the rest of the gang, but I’m so excited to see where the new lineup goes (I’ve heard some demos and of course they’re great).

On a more general note, 2017 marked a decade of playing live music. Years To Come played our first official show in September of 2007 at the Coffeehouse in Normal, following a test run in my parents’ basement over the summer, and I’ve played over 300 shows with at least a dozen groups since. If you’ve been there from the beginning, or if you saw me play for the first time this month, thank you.

Outside of music, there were two big personal events I wanted to mention in this year-end wrap up.

On a chilly February night at the Logan Square monument, I asked Liesi to marry me. I was nervous and shaking and probably cried a little bit. I was convinced that the ring was somehow defective and that the diamond would fall off as we walked around the neighborhood afterwards. But mostly I was just happy.

Later, in the summer, my grandma Childers passed away. Her funeral was the first I’d ever been to. My mom asked me to read a poem. I was definitely nervous and definitely cried a lot, caught up in the memories of driving four hours to her old house, of the shag carpet and Beanie Babies, the smell of home-cooked food in a kitchen with a floor so sloped I could race my Matchbox cars, the first time I watched the Star Wars. And later, moving her up to Bloomington after her eyes and ears started to fail her, visiting her often (but never often enough) at her assisted living apartment, watching my mom give so much time and effort and love to make sure grandma was comfortable and healthy and always knew when the Cubs were on. I’ll always aspire to be as loving and generous and kind as she was. I hope I can be.

And now, some lists:

My Favorite Albums of 2017

  1. The Menzingers – After the Party
  2. Bleachers – Gone Now
  3. Sincere Engineer – Rhombithian
  4. Paramore – After Laughter
  5. Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother
  6. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
  7. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In the Alps
  8. Day At the Fair – The Epilogue
  9. Nervous Dater – Don’t Be a Stranger
  10. Lorde – Melodrama
  11. Waxahatchee – Out In the Storm
  12. Converge – The Dusk In Us
  13. Forfeit – Perennial
  14. Emperor X – Oversleepers International
  15. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
  16. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
  17. Oso Oso – The Yunahon Mixtape
  18. The Mountain Goats – Goths
  19. Sundressed – A Little Less Put Together
  20. Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

My Favorite EPs of 2017

  1. The Wonder Years – Burst and Decay
  2. Retirement Party – Strictly Speaking
  3. Jetty Bones – Old Women
  4. Lincoln – A Constant State of Ohio
  5. Baggage – The Good That Never Comes

My Favorite Movies of 2017

  1. Get Out
  2. Coco
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Dunkirk
  5. Lady Bird
  6. A Ghost Story
  7. Columbus
  8. The Big Sick
  9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  10. Logan Lucky

My Favorite TV Series of 2017

  1. The Leftovers
  2. Fargo
  3. Mr. Robot
  4. The Good Place
  5. Stranger Things

That list is specifically about TV that aired for the first time this year. If I was including back catalog, my favorite TV experience this year was watching all of Gilmore Girls with Liesi.

My Favorite Books Read In 2017 (any release year applicable)

  1. Wolf In White Van – John Darnielle
  2. Kanye West Owes Me $300 – Jensen Karp
  3. The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood – Mark Z. Danielewski
  4. The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
  5. The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

My Favorite Live Shows of 2017

  1. Regina Spektor – Chicago Theater – 3/24
  2. John K. Samson – City Winery – 10/23
  3. Paramore – Riot Fest – 9/17
  4. The Wonder Years / Laura Stevenson / Jetty Bones – Bottom Lounge – 9/25
  5. The 1975 / Jimmy Eat World / Bleachers – 5/20

Video Games

Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 dominated my gaming time this year. In fact, I hardly played anything else. But my favorite game of 2017 was not a big Nintendo franchise – it was a small, reflective, narrative game called What Remains of Edith Finch. I played it in one sitting a couple months ago and have thought about it nearly every day since. Don’t read too much about it beforehand, just download it an immerse yourself.

Podcasts

By far my favorite podcast episode this year: Roderick On the Line, Ep. 269: “Yelling At the Radio”

Conclusion

I don’t expect you listen to or watch everything on these lists (although I do recommend all of it). I don’t even expect you to read this far. But if you did, thank you. I hope you had a good year. See you in 2018.

Finally, here’s my favorite song of the year.

All In Our File, My Fellow Traveler: 2016 In Review

I started 2016 in a recording studio and I’ll end it on a stage (specifically, Double Door in Wicker Park). Those are fitting bookends for my busiest and most productive music year yet, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, however, the biggest change in my life this year: After two years in the city, I moved out to the suburbs. Liesi and I got a place together in Villa Park and adopted the best little cat named Jazz. It has been a great seven months so far, and I look forward to many, many more.

The Cubs won the World Series this year. While I’m not a Cubs fan myself and I don’t follow the sport closely anymore, these were the most exciting games I’ve ever watched, and I’m so happy that my friends and family, especially my grandmother, got to see their favorite team on top.

A couple more non-music things:

  • Favorite book I read this year (including non-2016 releases because I don’t keep up with new books outside of my favorite authors): Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Favorite movie of the year (with the caveat that I haven’t seen many of the big late fall/early winter releases): Arrival

I went to 90 shows in 2016, the most of any year yet. My favorite was a seated Conor Oberst performance at the beautiful Thalia Hall in Chicago. His setlist included all ten songs on his raw, sparsely arranged new album, Ruminations. True to the recordings, Oberst switched between acoustic guitar and piano and had a baritone guitarist as the sole backing musician.

My Favorite Shows I Attended In 2016

  1. Conor Oberst – Thalia Hall – 11/27
  2. Thursday – Double Door – 9/17
  3. Copeland – Double Door – 12/1
  4. The Junior Varsity – Castle Theater – 9/1
  5. LCD Soundsystem – Lollapalooza – 7/31
  6. Julien Baker – Lincoln Hall – 4/14
  7. Bruce Springsteen – Bradley Center – 3/3
  8. Against Me! – The Metro – 6/19
  9. Ben Folds – Summerfest – 7/9
  10. The Sidekicks – Wicker Park Fest – 7/23

Of the 90 shows I attended, I played at 55 of those, also a record for me. All of my bands got great opportunities this year, but the highlight was Movies About Animals opening for The Junior Varsity at the Castle Theater in Bloomington. The Junior Varsity was a cornerstone of my early interest in music, and I usually cite Wide Eyed as the first album that made me care more about guitar playing than lyrics.

In April, I went on my third tour with City Mouth. We hit new cities around the midwest, got to hang out with Whale Bones again, and made some great friends in our tourmates, Old Fox Road. I’m looking forward to doing a lot more of that in the near future.

My newest band, Pelafina, played our first shows and released our debut EP, Pelafina 64. It was my first experience recording and mixing on my own, and I can’t wait to do more of that with Pelafina and eventually others as well.

I’m not sure how many new albums I listened to in 2016 (maybe I should keep track of that next year), but it felt like there was something new and interesting coming out every week. From the smallest indie bands to the biggest pop stars, every scene and genre seemed to have standout releases, and my own lists are just a miniscule sample of what’s out there.

My pick for album of the year isn’t much of a surprise. John K. Samson has been my favorite songwriter since I discovered the Weakerthans in high school. Like Springsteen writing about New Jersey, Samson is a master at giving his songs a sense of place. The settings on Winter Wheat range from bustling cities to rural dive bars, TV studios to recovery centers, all the forgotten corners of Samson’s native Canada. He even ventures across the Atlantic Ocean for "Fellow Traveler," which takes place in England. In relatively few lines, Samson manages to make each location feel lived in and loved by an ensemble of characters as vividly realized as that of any novel or film. On Winter Wheat the spotlight turns to struggling grad students, eccentric outsiders, beautifully personified trees, of course, a cat named Virtute. It’s a deep and rewarding listen for both fans of the Weakerthans and newcomers to Samson’s work.

Unlike last year, I did decide to rank this list, but the numbering feels arbitrary after the top three, and I can wholeheartedly recommend everything on these lists to just about anyone.

My Favorite Albums of 2016

  1. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat
  2. The Hotelier – Goodness
  3. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
  4. Pinegrove – Cardinal
  5. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry
  6. Camp Cope – Camp Cope
  7. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
  8. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
  9. Touche Amore – Stage Four
  10. All Get Out – Nobody Likes a Quitter
  11. Brian Fallon – Painkillers
  12. Joyce Manor – Cody
  13. Butch Walker – Stay Gold
  14. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
  15. Empty Houses – Daydream
  16. Anthony Jay Sanders – I Will Be the One Who Goes
  17. Drive-by Truckers – American Band
  18. Balance and Composure – Light We Made
  19. Mitski – Puberty 2
  20. Yellowcard – Yellowcard

A few bands who released really solid EPs this year deserve honorable mentions. These are all midwest bands, some local and some from a little further out, who are making this a really exciting time and place to be involved in the music scene.

  • Hot Mulligan – Opportunities
  • Kayak Jones – Memoir
  • Classic Schmosby – Part 1: Makeshift Happiness
  • Everyone Leaves – The Lonely End
  • Short Handed – Peace of Mind

My Favorite Songs of 2016

  1. Mitski – "Your Best American Girl"
  2. The Menzingers – "Lookers"
  3. John K. Sampson – "Virtute At Rest"
  4. The 1975 – "Paris"
  5. Pinegrove – "Old Friends"
  6. Chance the Rapper – "Same Drugs"
  7. The Hotelier – "Two Deliverances"
  8. Butch Walker – "Wilder In the Heart"
  9. Brian Fallon – "Red Lights"
  10. Conor Oberst – "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out"
  11. Touche Amore – "Flowers and You"
  12. David Bowie – "I Can’t Give Everything Away"
  13. Jimmy Eat World – "You Are Free"
  14. Joyce Manor – "Fake ID"
  15. Modern Baseball – "Just Another Face"

"Challenge" by Anthony Sanders gets an honorable mention since he still hasn’t released a studio version, but I listened to the live recordings more than anything else this year. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a song that speaks so strongly to my own experiences and emotions about choosing not to drink.

So what’s to come in 2017? As I write this, I’m listening to the masters of the full-length album that Movies About Animals spent all year recording. It’s my favorite record that I’ve ever been a part of, and it will be out in January. Pelafina’s EP will be getting a reissue in January as well, with some of the recording touched up and a new mixing and mastering job. City Mouth is almost done writing a new EP that should be out in the first half of the year. Between all of my bands, I’m playing fifteen shows in the first two months of 2017 (hopefully this winter is a mild one). As always, keep an eye on this page for upcoming dates.

As always, if you come to my shows, listen to my records, support anything I do in any way, including just reading what I write here, there’s no way I can thank you enough.

See you next year.

2015: A Year In Review

In 2015 I…

  • Attended 82 shows. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite, but highlights included Laura Stevenson’s solo acoustic set at the Abbey Pub, Hostage Calm’s farewell tour, Jason Isbell at the Chicago Symphony Center, and every time I saw the Menzingers because that band is unstoppable.
  • Performed at 40 of those shows. The venues ranged from the tiniest of basements and a high school cafeteria to Chicago’s Thalia Hall, the biggest and most beautiful place I’ve ever played. If you came to any of these, thank you.
  • Toured and released an EP with City Mouth. I couldn’t be more proud of what we accomplished as a band this year. Listen to Tell Me I’m Alright here and be on the lookout for a lot more from us in 2016.
  • Read 30 books. Only two of those (Volumes 1 and 2 of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar) were released this year. The best book I read in 2015 was The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
  • Watched 62 movies. Fourteen of those were 2015 releases, my favorites of which were Mad Max: Fury RoadInside Out, and Spotlight. An honorable mention goes to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens for giving the most fun theater experience of my life.
  • Saw the west coast. Liesi and I spent a week in Oregon and Washington in May. We hiked some beautiful trails, walked through the former World’s Fair grounds in Spokane, and took a picture in front of the Goonies house. I can’t wait to go back.

I don’t have a proper resolution for 2016, but I hope to release more music and tour again. I hope to keep growing and pushing myself towards new experiences. I hope I come a little closer to fully appreciating the life I have and the opportunities I’ve been given.

But for now, let’s play “This Year as loud as we can and celebrate.

I Blur All This Hurt Into Sound: My Favorite Albums of 2015

I almost decided not to make a list this year. It would be the first time in a decade of considering myself a serious music fan and occasional amateur critic that I didn’t cap the year with a retrospective post about my favorite albums, songs, and more. Every time I opened up my “All 2015” playlist in iTunes, I felt hopelessly behind on new music. There was too much there, and at the same time there wasn’t enough. I was more conscious than ever of what I wasn’t listening to. There’s just no way to give every critically and culturally significant album a fair shake in one year, but that’s okay (and if I’m being honest, I can’t complain – I spent a precious half hour of my life listening to the Lil Bub album). In the end, I decided that it was still worth it to take a little time at the end of the year to collect my thoughts on a few of my favorite releases. I’m not going to pretend this is a definitive best-of list. It’s just ten records I loved this year, and I hope you love them too.

My Favorite Albums of 2015

Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us

I like to call Beach Slang “the best band in the world.” I know it’s a ridiculous statement, but when I’m immersed in this album, I genuinely believe it. It’s an urgent, electrifying ode to the present tense, to the importance of being alive right now.

mewithoutYou – Pale Horses

While the band is in top form as always, Aaron Weiss’s lyrics are the true highlight – a beautiful tapestry of religious philosophy, literary allusions, and personal anecdotes in which the intimate and the apocalyptic are addressed in equal measure.

Desaparecidos – Payola

Political firebrand has always been my favorite of Conor Oberst’s many modes, and his biting indictments of Wall Street executives, racist cops, and more on Payola are an ideal match for the band’s raucous guitar work.

Laura Stevenson – Cocksure

Wheel is a tough record to follow. Cocksure lacks the gravitas of Stevenson’s 2013 masterpiece, but it charts new territory as her most rock and roll album yet while maintaining the wordplay that makes her songwriting so great.

The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven

I have more negative things to say about No Closer To Heaven than any other album on this list. The muddy mix buries the vocals in a wash of guitars and cymbals. The three-act structure makes for strong theme building, but the divisions between the acts are so sharp that I wish it had been a series of three EPs. And I won’t even start on Jason Butler’s guest spot. Despite all that, I still listened to this album more than anything else this year. The guitar and drum work is great, and Dan Campbell remains the best vocalist and lyricist in the scene.

The Island of Misfit Toys – I Made You Something

I recently watched The Island of Misfit Toys play this album in full for the release show at Lincoln Hall. I’ve never seen a band more visibly proud and triumphant on stage. It was a joyful experience.

The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Harmlessness

Harmlessness is sprawling in the best way, expanding outward from emo in all directions and taking cues from post-rock, folk, and elsewhere. It also has the best drum sound I’ve heard all year.

Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?

Jeff Rosenstock may have retired the Bomb the Music Industry! name, but We Cool?“ still feels like a natural successor to Adults! and Vacation.

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

My growing interest in country music is almost entirely due to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. The same vivid storytelling that drew me into that album returns on Something More Than Free, and Isbell’s stellar backing band takes a more prominent role without upstaging the songwriting.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett is the only artist on my list that I hadn’t listened to before 2015. I think it was the title that initially caught my attention, but her clever lyrics and crunchy guitar riffs kept the album in rotation throughout the year.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some of my favorite songs from albums that almost made this list.

  • Noah Gundersen – “Topless Dancer”
  • Dawes – “All Your Favorite Bands”
  • Butch Walker – “21+”
  • Sorority Noise – “Using”
  • Tobias Jesso Jr. – “Hollywood”
  • Speedy Ortiz – “The Graduates”

Happiness Is In the Doing, In the Making: My Favorite Albums of 2014

I’ve had a hard time boiling my year in music down to a couple paragraphs. It’s not because I don’t feel as strongly about the albums on this list as I have in years past – the opposite, in fact. I think this year saw some of the most powerful pieces of art to come out of the punk/emo world in years. And it’s not because I didn’t have awesome musical experiences in 2014. I went on my first tour, released my first full-length album, and I saw Jimmy Eat World play “23” on my twenty-third birthday. It really doesn’t get better than that.

What I realized in the process of making this list was that my 2014 was defined less by what I was listening to and more by what I did. This was a better year than the one before it because I made it that way. I forced myself to step out of my comfort zone, to take chances, to have new experiences. Some of those were small, like eating new kinds of food that I wouldn’t have touched in the past, and others were much, much bigger, like the aforementioned first tour, a nine day trek around the midwest with City Mouth and Mighty Ships. Most importantly, 2014 was the year I finally left my hometown. Moving to Chicago has been the biggest step I’ve taken in adult life so far and huge source of personal growth. Compared to this time last year, I’m more confident, I’m happier, and I’m downright excited about what’s to come.

Albums:

  1. The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace Is There
  2. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
  3. Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland
  4. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
  5. Copeland – Ixora
  6. Fireworks – Oh, Common Life
  7. Bleachers – Strange Desire
  8. Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – You Will Eventually Be Forgotten
  9. Hostage Calm – Die On Stage
  10. La Dispute – Rooms of the House
  11. Antarctigo Vespucci – Soulmate Stuff
  12. The Menzingers – Rented World
  13. Seahaven – Reverie Lagoon (Music For Escapism Only)
  14. Braid – No Coast
  15. Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness – Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness
  16. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
  17. You Blew It! – Keep Doing What You’re Doing
  18. Restorations – LP3
  19. Noah Gundersen – Ledges
  20. Chris Farren – Like a Gift From God Or Whatever

EPs:

  1. Beach Slang – Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?
  2. AM Taxi – King of the Pond
  3. Beach Slang – Cheap Thrills On a Dead End Street
  4. The Appreciation Post – Slip Away
  5. Hailey, It Happens – Under the Brilliant Lights

Shows:

  1. Mineral – Double Door – 9/13
  2. The Wonder Years – Castle Theatre – 10/1
  3. Beach Slang – Township – 10/10
  4. Guster – World’s Largest Block Party – 9/13
  5. Jimmy Eat World – Castle Theatre – 10/11

Singing About the Midwest and Shaking Hands: My 2012 End of the Year List

Music is important. That was the idea I kept coming back to while I was in the process of making my end of the year list for 2012. I was thinking about my own music, and how important and even essential the creative process feels to me, and I was thinking about my peers (and, in increasing numbers, friends) who get in vans and take their music as far as they can. I was thinking about the three million or so copies of "Some Nights" that Fun. sold this year, and how strange it feels that at least three million people besides myself found enough value in that song to spend money on it. I was thinking about Ghost Key shows in coffee shops and pizza places and how Austin O’Brien pouring his heart into those songs convinced me to take a chance on a genre of music to which I hadn’t previously given much thought. I was thinking about a Joie de Vivre show in Kyle Rotta’s living room where my PA wasn’t powerful enough to make the vocals audible, but that it hardly mattered anyway because everyone there was singing so loud, and I was thinking about a Wonder Years show in the middle of the afternoon in Chicago where Rachel Branson and I got to watch a record that we loved and bonded over and wrote letters about to each other performed from front to back. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe it was raw emotion of the whole thing, but there are parts of that set that I swear I have no memory of because I was so focused on that moment, and as the last notes of "And Now I’m Nothing" rang out, I knew I might never feel anything like that again.

But also knew that I had to keep looking. You can’t close yourself off and assume that nothing is ever going to be as good as it used to be. There are great new records being written every day. There is a burgeoning new scene to replace the one that felt so dead for the last few years. There is always something more to feel and experience and hope for. It’s a lesson I’m learning every day: "My best years may still be ahead of me."

This has been my 2012.

My Twenty Favorite Albums of 2012

  1. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
  2. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past
  3. Joie de Vivre – We’re All Better Than This
  4. The Tower and the Fool – How Long
  5. Fun. – Some Nights
  6. John K. Samson – Provincial
  7. Forever Came Calling – Contender
  8. Swear and Shake – Maple Ridge
  9. Hostage Calm – Please Remain Calm
  10. Daytrader – Twelve Years
  11. Basement – Colourmeinkindness
  12. With the Punches – Seams and Stitches
  13. Masked Intruder – Masked Intruder
  14. Mixtapes – Even On the Worst Nights
  15. Major League – Hard Feelings
  16. Make Do and Mend – Everything You Ever Loved
  17. Alex and the XO’s – North To the Future
  18. The Forecast – Everybody Left
  19. Sharks – No Gods
  20. Hold Tight! – Blizzard of ’96

Honorable Mention

  • No Trigger – Tycoon
  • Pentimento – Pentimento
  • Title Fight – Floral Green
  • Misser – Every Day I Tell Myself I’m Going To Be a Better Person
  • Handguns – Angst

My Five Favorite EPs of 2012

  1. Real Friends – Everyone That Dragged You Here
  2. The Swellers – Running Out of Places To Go
  3. The Menzingers – On the Possible Past
  4. The Wonder Years/Stay Ahead of the Weather – Punk Is Dead. Get a Job.
  5. Candy Hearts – The Best Ways To Disappear

Honorable Mention

  • I Call Fives – Someone That’s Not You
  • Dowsing/Parker – Dowsing/Parker

My Thirty Favorite Songs of 2012

  1. The Wonder Years – Me Vs. the Highway
  2. Fun. – Some Nights
  3. The Menzingers – Casey
  4. Real Friends – Home For Fall
  5. Joie de Vivre – High School Me Would Have Been Pumped
  6. The Tower and the Fool – Dive Bar
  7. The Gaslight Anthem – Biloxi Parish
  8. Daytrader – Letter To a Former Lover
  9. Swear and Shake – Marbles
  10. John K. Samson – When I Write My Master’s Thesis
  11. Hot Water Music – Drag My Body
  12. Parker – Make It Home Safely
  13. No Trigger – Maple Boy
  14. The Swellers – Running Out of Places To Go
  15. Hostage Calm – On Both Eyes
  16. Motion City Soundtrack – Timelines
  17. Sharks – Able Moving Hearts
  18. The Forecast – Everybody Left
  19. Close Only Counts – Carpet Doritos
  20. Make Do and Mend – Desert Lily
  21. Into It. Over It. – Don’t Let Me Cave In
  22. I Can See Mountains – Hey Man
  23. Candy Hearts – Miles and Interstates
  24. I Call Fives – Someone That’s Not You
  25. Alex and the XO’s – Meddling, Mellowing
  26. Late In the Playoffs – The Wayside
  27. Handguns – Long October
  28. Basement – Pine
  29. Forever Came Calling – Contender
  30. Hawthorne Heights – New Winter

Honorable Mention

  • Cheap Girls – Gone All Summer
  • Empires – Hard Times
  • With the Punches – Cags

The Five Best Shows I Attended In 2012

  1. The Wonder Years – The Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL – 3/17/2012 (Early show, Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing performed in full)
  2. Joie de Vivre – The Marilyn Mansion, Normal, IL – 10/15/2012
  3. Real Friends – The Step Back House, Normal, IL – 5/18/2012
  4. Swear and Shake – Tommy’s, Bloomington, IL – 10/4/2012
  5. The Front Bottoms – The Firehouse, Normal, IL – 11/9/2012
  6. The Story So Far – Bradley University Quad, Peoria, IL – 9/14/2012