The Best of 2020

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.

Worst Reissue:

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.)

Best Documentary: 

“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:

Thankfully two of my films, “Pizza A Love Story” and “Seniors A Dogumentary,” were released on DVD and streaming platforms everywhere, and have garnered a lot of love from viewers.  

“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!

The Best of 2018

Okay, this was a weird year for me.

First off, too many of my friends made kick-ass amazing records.

And then, even as the months passed, I would find myself in a battle with myself as to what was my favorite album of 2018.  There was only one thing that never changed, my favorite song of this year.  In fact, maybe it was the year of the songs, as so many truly stood out, while sometimes the albums from whence they came fell a little short.

I don’t know.  But I am changing things up this year.  Going to start the listing with songs, and then bring on the albums, but the albums won’t have any specific order, and honestly as I write this now on December 26that 6:15 PM, I’m not even sure how many albums will make the list.  So, I’ll be as surprised as you.

Best Song of 2018

Uh-Huh from Jade Bird – This UK singer/songwriter, who released one great EP last year, and a couple of singles this year, delivers the perfect song: short, fast, angry and so to the fucking point.  When she turns up the growl at the 31 second mark, I am a complete goner.  The song gave me goosebumps on that first listen, it gives me goosebumps now.  As good a song as any you’re likely to hear . . . ever.

Runners Up for Best Song of 2018

Make Me Feel – Janelle Monae – Though Prince passed in April of 2017, his spirit was certainly alive in protégé Monae’s funky ode to a subject so close to the Purple One’s heart. If Jade hadn’t growled, this would have been song of the year.  So close. So damn good.

 

The Way She Looks At You – Sarah Shook – Released back in November, one week after What it Takes: film en douze tableaux, the documentary I made on the band was also released, came a track from the Years sessions.  A three-four alt-country classic about realizing what you thought you had perhaps wasn’t yours after all.  Fucking beautiful.  And so authentic I can hear Patsy Cline singing it.

 

Venice Bitch/Mariners Apartment Complex – Lana Del Rey – I love Lana Del Rey.  And when she dropped these two songs earlier in the year I was immediately drawn to Mariner’s, but as the weeks passed something about the almost 10-minue long Venice Bitch started taking hold.  There’s a vibe, a seduction, a play of words, I can’t explain it, and the old punk in me is disappointed.  But fuck him.  Like I said, I love Lana Del Rey.

 

 

Plastic Hamburgers – Fantastic Negrito – THIS is how you sound like Led Zeppelin without sounding like an ass.

 

The (14, it would seem, though one’s an EP) Best Albums of 2018, in alphabetical order:

 

Bottle It In – Kurt Vile – I’ve never placed another Vile album on any best of list because I never truly loved any of his albums. There were a few good songs, but mostly I felt a lot of filler.  Not here. This is all brilliant vibe, a perfect album for long drives in the middle of the night.

 

Boygenius – Boygenius – Technically an EP, but since no one truly understand the art of the EP any more, I’ll let it hang with the long players.  Six perfect songs from a supergroup made up of three of the most talented singer/songwriters on the planet at the moment.

 

Clean – Soccer Mommy – This album honestly almost squeeked past all the rest.  Probably my most played record of the year.  Angst, guitars, most angst. It’s as if everything good about alt power pop from the 90s were still alive and well.

 

Fall Into the Sun – Swearin’ – It feels as if one or the other Crutchfield sister is on this list every year.  This year it’s Allison’s turn.  Just a great fun power punk record with crunch guitars and mostly great lyrics.

 

History of Panic – The Shellye Valauskas Experience – This was the great power pop record of the year.  A collection of songs that stick in your head, but you’re okay with that.  They’re like good friends you want to have a beer with who always make you smile.

 

I Don’t Run – Hinds – You either like this band, or they annoy the crap out of you. I actually love them, and this is their best record.  One that I might even risk playing for other people.  (Maybe.)

 

Kiss Yr Frenemies – Illuminati Hotties – A perfect noise pop record.  And that is my favorite musical subgenre.  Not a weak moment.  And those fucking guitars!

 

No Recover – Eric Bachmann – Speaking of noise pop, the leader of my all-time favorite band put out a record this year that was pretty much the complete opposite.  And though Eric insists all of these songs are about the apocalypse, this is a liltingly beautiful collection, which Bachmann breaking your heart, if not with his guitar, then with his gentle whisper of a voice.

 

Not Tonight – John Howie Jr. – Earlier this year we took the Grand Ole Opry tour, and of course I looked up and listened to a number of artist that I had never really explored, Porter Wagoner being one.  And in a nutshell he’s who I was reminded of when I first heard Howie’s album.  This is about as old time country as it gets.

And for the hell of it, and because I know most of you have never heard him, a little Porter Wagoner.  C’mon, listen and expand your horizons.

 

Something – Something Young – Long story short, over the summer one of my co-editors told me her boyfriend put out a record and I should give it a listen.  To “be nice” I of course did, never expecting this self-released record from a high school senior would become one of my most listened to albums of the year. It’s the 90s indie rock record that’s somehow missing from your collection.  Fuck, it’s good!

 

Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett – At the time of it’s release this would have been my most likely choice for best album of the year.  But while I still love it, I don’t feel I love it as much.  Still a great collection, but I’m not sure why it hasn’t aged well.  Perhaps it’s me.

 

Warm – Jeff Tweedy – I’m a Wilco fanatic, and this might be Tweedy’s best collection of songs since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (or at least since The Whole Love).  It’s as if Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan had a son, and Paul Westerberg was his demented uncle who took him to a lot of shows he should have never gotten into.  Love this man.

 

What a Time to be Alive – Superchunk – One of my favorite bands of all time putting out quite possibly their most punk record. While not the freakin masterpiece of their last, I Hate Music, it’s an angry, timely, ode to our fucked up times. Send a copy to the White House.

 

Years – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – My feelings on this band are pretty damn obvious, as the are the subject of my last documentary and I directed the video below.  Love every song on this record.  It’s an alt-country masterpiece about loss and longing and holding onto the bottle for redemption.  And make sure to see them live, Shook and company will make you see God at the bottom of that empty glass.

 

The more observant of you might notice that this is where I usually list my best films of the year.  But I don’t think I’ve seen enough to give an honest opinion.  So I won’t even try to give a dishonest opinion. (Or course, those same observant folks might think I was not completely blown away by anything, yet, and of course you’d be correct.)  I’ll just skip to the next category.

 

BEST TV of 2018

There was so much, but one show stands out.  One show that makes me laugh, cry, keeps me on the edge of my seat, makes me pause it because I can’t hold back comments on how brilliant something (the fucking costume design) or someone (pick any of the cast members) is, turns me on (yes, she’s my TV crush), and makes me angry that there are only ten episodes in a season and I’ve just binge-watched them all, and now I have to wait another 11.9 months for more.  And that show is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  (I love you, Midge.)

 

BOOK OF THE YEAR:

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy – This is coming from someone who hates rock bios.  I DO NOT read them.  They almost always make me dislike the artist at hand, which defeats the purpose, because I was only reading the book because I was a fan.  Or they’re written by someone else who puts way too much of their own spin on the story, and I know it’s a bunch of bullshit anyway. Tweedy’s bio is different.  It’s very funny, but it’s also very sad.  So self-depricating, and honest.  It made me like him more than ever, and I didn’t think that was possible.  Read it and find a new best friend.

As for the rest of my 2018:

Tales of an impromptu music video, part one: We had a blizzard back in February.  At around 9:30 am when there was around a foot of snow on the ground, and the roads in the state were about to be officially declared off limits, I turned to my wife and said, I’m going to go out and shoot a music video.  She told me I was crazy and that she was not going to come and rescue me if I got stuck.  I have a Jeep.  Getting stuck was not an option.  So I called up Dean Falcone, whose partner in crime Shellye Valauskas had just released a beautiful new album.  I said, let’s go shoot a music video in the snow.  In the background I could hear Shellye say we were both crazy.  Dean replied, pick us up in an hour.  I said, bring cheap guitars.  And so we spent an hour in the frigid cold wind-whipped snow shooting this video.  I personally love it.  Hope you do too.  P.S. We did not get stuck, and the video was online by 3 PM that same day.

 

Tales of an impromptu music video, part two: a Thursday, later in the next month, I hear my friend Matthew Ryan is releasing an acoustic version of the album Hustle Up Starlings, for which I made the first music video which can watch here:

Now the issue was that this new acoustic record was going to be released the following Tuesday.  I immediately contacted Matt and asked him to send me the tracks. Upon hearing the acoustic version of Aviator I knew what had to be done: an acoustic version of the music video, with just singer and guitarist.  Well, the singer, Chloe, had become one of my go-to film editors after the first music video, so she immediately said yes.  And Carina, the guitarist, was just as quickly on board.  We filmed it in the same location as the original video on Sunday, and Matt had his music video, which was premiered sight-unseen by American Songwriter magazine on Tuesday.  I might love this video even more than the original.

 

As for my feature films

 Pizza, A Love Story– in the works for eleven years is done.  We’re running a final Kickstarter now for the sound mix and E&O insurance, and then we begin the film festival run.  You can find the Kickstarter here.

Normal Valid Lives– has it’s third, maybe fourth, editor, and is moving along. Perhaps the story, or my interviews, are a little too disturbing.

Where are you, Jay Bennett?– we hit the motherlode this year.  But I don’t want to tell you how or what.  Let’s just say we found the holy grail to make this film work. It will also double post-production time, but it will be worth it.

Seniors– we’re about half-way through editing.  Just filmed a few almost final interviews.  Our happy animal film is coming along.

And we’re figuring out right now what is coming next…

NHdocs 2018 was a blast.  Difficult, exhausting, but rewarding.  And it’s coming back for it’s 6thyear on May 30thfor 11 days of great films.

Thank you to all of the people who collaborate with me on my films, NHdocs, and other projects: Chloe, Brianna, Dean, Shellye, Lindsay, Jay, Fred, Colin, Charlotte, Charlie, Katherine, Tony, Sam, Max, Haley, Ed, Carina, Kathie, Scott, Diane, and another Scott, plus the amazing musicians and bands, and of course my harshest critic Kristine, whom I love with every inch of my being.  And yes, my four-pawed children Springsteen and Dylan. None of this would exist without you.

Be well, hug your dog, share a drink with people you love and respect, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, laugh, rock, play it loud, try not to let the political climate get you down, and be kind to everyone you meet (no matter what side of the aisle they’re on).