Let’s just get it out of the way now, 2020 sucked. Except when it came to music, TV, books and film. As always in life, the arts kept us breathing, when certainly those in power seemed to have no interest in doing so.
So let’s get right to it. Was there one or two records this year that stood out like the releases from Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish did in 2019? Depends on what day you’re asking (or were all the days the same). Depends on my mood. At any time one of the record topped it, only to be pushed to second place the next day. So, instead of a top ten albums in order of preference, I resent simply the ten best albums of 2020, in order of their release date.
Soccer Mommy – “Color Theory” – It was mid-January when Sophie Allison’s new record was released. The world seemed an okay place, except for perhaps in Allison’s world. Behind the sparkling guitars was a darkness haunting the story telling. In ten songs she captured the pain of isolation and longing. There isn’t a weak beat on this record. And in a way it set up what was to come brilliantly.
Torres – “Silver Tongue” – On the last day of January came a new record from Torres, whom we had recently seen open for Superchunk on their acoustic “Foolish” tour. I have loved Mackenzie Scott’s guitar playing since the release of her first record, many years back, and was anxiously awaiting this first album on Merge after she was rudely dropped from 4AD. And with “Silver Tongue” she takes it to another level completely. This is a driving record that will put you into a trance, and “Good Grief” is the guitar song of the year. Scott’s pain is palpable throughout, the anger of her voice dueling with her six string virtuosity. Listen to this record on vinyl at the loudest volume you can endure. It’s the closest you’ll come to a live concert this year. Fuck, yes!
Lucinda Williams – “Good Souls Better Angels” – Late February. Few singer/songwriters are better than Lucinda Williams when motivated, and Lucinda was angry. Hell, we hadn’t even gotten to Covid-19 yet. This was all Trump. A pissed-off calling out that harkened back to the days of “Essence” genius. She sang what so many of us were feeling in that boozy brawl of a voice that is unlike anything else in the world. This was the sort of album you put on as therapy. There are other people out there as angry as I am.
S.G. Goodman – “Old Time Feeling” – Early March, I was in Nashville for the Seniors A Dogumentary world premiere, the next night I’d be seeing Lucy Dacus on the Opry, and the night after that Archers of Loaf. Then I’d head home, and stay there. The vibe of this record is one of the things that helped me through. A bluesy old-school country feel without any hokiness. There an authenticity here, heartfelt Americana, by way of Kentucky. You can almost feel the ghosts of Patsy Cline drinking whiskey with Karen Dalton grooving to Goodman. Love this record.
Waxahatchee – “Saint Cloud” – Late March brough us Katie Crutchfield’s best album since her 2012 debut “American Weekend.” An album about healing in a time when the breaking of this country’s soul was still hitting its peak, this is the record that for anyone listening at that point in time saw the light at the end of the proverbial Trump tunnel. Hopeful but not overly optimistic, it has shades of mid-60s Dylan, and that’s about as high a compliment I can think of to give any record. Crutchfield nails it on this one.
Phoebe Bridgers – “Punisher” – Mid-June brought us a simply perfect album, Bridger’s second, and it any single album had pushed through to top this list, this would have been it. This is an album so vast and beautiful, so intimate, yet at times brash and poppy, Bridgers has created a record where there are no songs to skip. And even picking the example to post here. In my head everyone must know “Kyoto” by this point because it was simply the best pop song of the year. “Graceland Too” makes my mind explode. “Halloween” breaks my heart. There’s no place to start, because there’s no place to stop. It’s just fucking brilliant. And for anyone whose seen her numerous “live” appearances and performances since the pandemic began, you realize, Bridgers is the performer we need right now. She never fails to bring a smile. And what could be better than that?
The Chicks – “Gaslighter” – Mid-July brought us the angriest album of the year. And while sure, Natalie Maines and company were pissed at Trump, it was her ex-husband who really set the album on fire. After a 14 year hiatus, the band dropped the Dixie, and the hammer. Brutally honest, to the point where Maines’ ex tried to block its release, “Gaslighter” is about buying into the lies of someone who should have your best interests at heart. We certainly could all relate. Their video to “March March” was also the best music video of the year.
Taylor Swift – “Folklore”/”Evermore”/”Folklore: the Long Pond Studio Sessions” – A week later Swift took over. She did in one year what most musicians aspire to in perhaps their lifetime. A truly stunning album, followed by a live reimagining of that album, followed by a starker equally brilliant record. And for those of you who just view Swift as some vacuous pop princess, you’re missing out on one of the great songwriters and story tellers of our time. Put on any song from one of these three collections and be whisked away into tales of a teenage love triangle gone wrong, a mansion of broken dreams, heartbreak, desire, revenge. And gone is the slick dance/pop production of her last few outings, replaced instead by the simplest of arrangements. These are timeless records, put one on from start to finish and you’ll be swept away.
Lydia Loveless – “Daughter” – Late September brought the long awaited fifth album from one of my favorite singers of all time. And while the voice and (most of) the band remains the same, its Loveless song writing abilities that truly shines here. Lyrically as good if not better than anything she’s done, the album focuses on giving yourself a long hard look in the eye and moving on, despite the pain involved. It’s a record that grows on your with every listen, and the one not only Loveless needed to make, but the one we needed to hear.
Miley Cyrus – “Plastic Hearts” – I love Miley Cyrus. No pop star is more comfortable in their skin. She just doesn’t give a fuck what you think. In late November she turned her career around again with the release of a record that sounds like classic mid-80s rock, in a good way. “Plastic Hearts” is the perfect diversion for the mind-fuck that 2020 became. It’s a release, a fall back to a time when you could put on a good rock and roll record and not think seeing a friend might lead to your demise.
Most Disappointing Album of 2020:
Car Seat Headrest – “Making a Door Less Open” – The band was supposedly trying to make their Bowie album. They didn’t. A disappointing mess.
Best Single of 2020:
Archers of Loaf – “Raleigh Days” – I waited 20 years for this song, and it was worth it. Raucous and exhilarating, and clocking in at under two and a half minutes, my favorite band in the world took two decades off my life, and made me feel like I was sweating and moving in unison with hundreds of other fans at some dive bar in the East Village. The single most perfect moment of this mostly shit year.
Best Reissue (tie):
Wilco – “Summerteeth” – Arguably Wilco’s best album gets a treatment fit for a queen with this stunning reissue featuring outtakes, demos, live performances, all beautifully packaged. Blissful in every way.
Tom Petty – “Wildflowers & All The Rest” – The solo demo versions of one of Petty’s most loved records might be his greatest record of all. A treasure trove of song writing brilliance.
The Replacements – “Pleased To Meet Me” – You know I love this band, but for me this was a disappointment on every level. There was nothing here I needed to hear, not ever, not once. A beautifully remastered version of the original album on vinyl would have been much preferred. So bad it almost destroys the memory of one of the greatest albums ever made.
Musical Discovery of 2020:
Karen Dalton – I’m obsessed. And how she could have slipped past my radar is beyond me. The voice reminds me of Billie Holiday, but singing Americana. It brings me to my knees. Listen to this sample. You’ll either love it or not. (P.S. A great documentary on Dalton called “In My Own Time” is coming next year.)
“Miss Americana” – Part cinema verité, part “Fog of War,” Lana Wilson’s documentary on Taylor Swift ranks as one of the great rock docs of all time. Beautifully edited (and docs are ALL about editing), it tells the eye-opening story of the fame at Swift’s level, and how eventually she broke from the ranks of her many handlers and started running her career, her life, on her own terms. There are not many films that I look at and say, “I wish I made that film.” Well, this is one of them.
Best Narrative Feature:
“Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” – a filmmaking tour-de-force that had no equal this year. From the stark 16mm cinematography, to the performances from Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, Eliza Hittman’s portrayal of a teenage girl who travels from rural Pennsylvania to NYC so she can obtain an abortion is the sort of film which will define “independent filmmaking” for years to come. One of the best films of this century. The scene from which the film pulls its title will stay with you forever.
Best TV (tie):
“Normal People” – Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal will break your heart over and over again in what was easily the most perfect series in a year of amazing TV. This is what chemistry between actors should feel like. So damn good. I almost wish I had never seen it, so I can experience watching it again for the first time.
“I Am Not Okay With This” – Sophia Lillis is quickly becoming one of our greatest actresses with this wonderfully fucked up tale of a girl with some weird powers and the geeky boy who likes her. It’s seven very short episodes. Just watch it and thank me later.
Worst Thing I Watched All Year:
“Billie” – a completely pathetic documentary about Billie Holiday that seems more interested in her drug use, who she was sleeping with, and the woman who died before she could finish writing Holiday’s biography, than it does in Holiday’s voice. And the use of colorization on some classic old clips makes me want to bitch-slap the director. Everything that could be wrong about this is. The greatest singer of all time deserves much better.
As for the rest of my 2020:
“Where are you, Jay Bennett?” – my 6th rock doc is done. We are out to film festivals, and one way or another, we will be screening by early summer, at the latest, hopefully to a live audience.
I completed my first short film in years, “The Matchbox Man,” which is also out to film festivals. It will also premiere in very early summer.
“Factory,” our look at the crazy life behind the New Haven Clock Company building, is being edited. Though once things are safe, we still need to film a few additional interviews. Watch for a new trailer, edited by Sydni Frisch, coming in early January.
With the help of some amazing people (Katherine, Tony, Haley, Cassandra, Karyl, Ed, Sydni, Ken, Matt) we were able to pull off a miracle with the 7th edition of NHdocs, and actually present 16 live screenings, plus another 100 or so films online.
I did at least get to see Archers of Loaf back in March the week before the shutdown, in Nashville, a city I love. Ate a lot of Jeni’s ice cream too!
Kris and I cooked a lot. A real lot. Painted our deck, rearranged rooms, got rid of clutter, alphabetized CDs. Variations of what everyone else was doing.
Our dogs, Springsteen and Dylan, are both doing well.
And that’s it. This damn year is over. Be well, hug your dog, raise a drink (virtually) to the people you love and respect, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, laugh, rock, play it loud, believe that things will get better come January 20, and be kind to everyone you meet (no matter what side of the aisle they’re on).
Oh, and wear a damn mask!