A quote from Brian Block, who has been voting in this Poll for many years, in response to my not-too-excited reaction to Letter To You in this year’s Pop Music Abstract:
“Because you’re a Springsteen fan, I think you’re missing the point of why so many of us are so taken by Letter To You. I hadn’t liked an album of his since Born in the U.S.A., and even there, the repetitiousness of the arrangements made those songs less than the words and tunes deserved. Letter To You is him noticing ‘Wait a second: our music was much more interesting in the 1970s, when I let my very talented band run loose. What if we tried to sound like that again?’ Of course, it’s a great idea! An easy idea, but we didn’t think they would ever have it! Abandoning the terrible ideas of the Reagan and post-Reagan era: if only the world would catch up in more areas than Springsteen records.”
Brian’s objection to my assessment of Letter To You reminds me that I was always miscast as a Springsteen correspondent. Although I count the Boss among my favorite recording artists, my view of his catalog is idiosyncratic: I prefer his ‘80s albums to his ‘70s albums. Not by a little, either. Springsteen in the ‘70s was a great bandleader and a wonderful live attraction, but he hadn’t eluded the long shadows cast by his influences: Dylan, certainly, but also the Stones and the Animals, and a bunch of other man-rock bands. His solution to every aesthetic problem he faced was to go over the top, as far as he could, and assert his own virility and lean hard on what we now call masculine imperatives.
Springsteen in the ‘80s was incomparable. Through the traditional language of rock he delivered a critique of Middle American consciousness and the institutions at the dark heart of the country — the factory, the dysfunctional family, the prison, the church — that’s still resounding in Nashville, Los Angeles, and every college town in the country. The conceptual work he began on The River took the shape of a desperado’s diary on Nebraska, a recidivist’s confession on the even more desolate Born In The U.S.A., and a husband’s exhausted prayer on Tunnel Of Love. To listen to those albums in the proper spirit is to confront America.
In order to become the songwriter he was always meant to be, he needed to redefine his relationship with his band. The Boss had to stop thinking about what he was doing as a form of theater, and begin imagining himself as a correspondent instead — a kind of emotional journalist, transmuting national pain into poetry for the masses. That meant using the band as an instrument, which, when you think about it like that, isn’t a very nice way to treat some of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history. But it had to be done, and do it he did. He bypassed arena rock and Dylanesque fever-dreams altogether (at least in the studio) and went all the way back to Chuck Berry and the rock take on the American Dream. He turned over some of those rotting planks, and took a good long look at what struggled out of the mud.
This is not a popular take on Bruce Springsteen, and I still have the disgruntled letters from readers to prove it. The far more common line on the Boss is that the ‘70s records were life-giving, the wildly exciting, cathartic, optimistic, interminable concerts were the point, and he only stumbled when he matched his songs with synthetic ‘80s production. I find those ‘80s arrangements a much better match for the stark, distraught subject matter of his best songs, and wish only that some of the better tracks on Darkness could have been recorded in the style of his ‘80s albums. And I think that in spite of the ecstatic reception of Springsteen’s nostalgia move on Letter To You, 2020 did quite a bit more to advance my argument than it did to disprove it. This was a big year for Springsteen, but not for the reasons that the fist-pumpers in General Admission at the Izod Center think. Other, far younger artists cemented the legacy of the Boss by recording insta-classics indebted to his ‘80s records. 2020 showed why Springsteen still matters deeply: not because of “Born To Run”, which will always belong to 1975, but because of the music he made that remains salient to the ugly present.
Consider, for instance, our Poll winner. Phoebe Bridgers’s two most visible influences are Elliott Smith, who she sings about on “Punisher”, and Conor Oberst, who she actually recorded an album with. But the actual writing on Punisher (and Stranger In The Alps) reminds me more of ‘80s Springsteen: the recursive symbolism in the lyrics, the sturdy folk melodies warped by the metamorphic pressure of contemporary pop, the stark-eyed view of America as a place of constant conflict, the pad-like synthesizers and occasional lonesome electronic sounds meant to connote vast, wide-open spaces and a backdrop for emotional desolation. After my first listen to Punisher, I told Hilary that I’d just heard the best Springsteen album since Devils & Dust.
That was before the surprise release of the Folklore/Evermore monster, which wasn’t greeted with copious references to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘80s records, and I wish I knew why. Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift’s most prominent collaborator for the past few cycles, is a Springsteen fanatic who drags all of his pop productions into the swamps of Jersey; check out that outro on “Paper Rings” if you’re hungry for a nice helping of Turnpike grease. Steel Train, his old band, was an attempt to harmonize his Boss obsessions with the prevailing style on the Warped Tour; eventually he gave up on that and just imitated Springsteen. Justin Vernon has always made his affection for ‘80s man-rock apparent (and what was For Emma if not an Upper Midwest stab at Nebraska-like insularity?) Then there are the dudes from the National, who’ve been pinching from Springsteen for two decades, and hiding what they’d stolen in the bushes behind the conservatory. I see you, dudes from the National. You can’t fool me.
This was the crew that made the music for Folklore and Evermore; a bunch of Springsteen nuts. Actually, that’s to sell it short. It’s more accurate to say that these are contemporary popular musicians who learned basic skills via osmosis from Springsteen records, and whose own records ooze essence of Boss. Then there’s the principal herself, who has always been vocal about her profound admiration for Bruce Springsteen (he’s returned the favor). Taylor Swift has switched genres, but even as she has, she’s never made anything more than small modifications in her basic approach: harmonically and melodically, she’s still very much the same songwriter who gave us “Picture To Burn” and “I’m Only Me When I’m With You”. Her frame of reference from her emergence has always been ‘80s mainstream radio. Which is funny, since she was born in ’89, but there it is.
I may be a little older than Taylor Swift. I remember purchasing Bruce Springsteen cassettes upon their release in the mid-‘80s. The thing that struck me the most about those albums – even more than the sound, which was evocative, and the performances, which were thunderously intense – was the Boss’s use of intertextuality. This was what distinguished him from his peers, even those who, like Paul Simon, were very good at writing lyrics. On his ‘80s albums, Springsteen made hay out of recurring lines and patterns of discourse, and called across the years from one set to another. One narrator says “I’ve got debts no honest man can pay”; a few songs later, another narrator in a completely different circumstance says the same thing, and you’re meant to feel the resonance between the two stories. People in one song may or may not be physically related to people in the next, but they’re conceptually related – they’re inhabitants of the same sociopolitical universe, linked by Springsteen’s masterful use of motif. On Born In The U.S.A., character after character is detained, arrested, incarcerated, handcuffed to the bumper of the state trooper’s Ford. The repetition and association is how the Boss makes his points. He pulls you into a world of echoes.
Since Tunnel Of Love, many other songwriters and album-makers have tried their hands at Bruce-style intertextuality. Some have even done it well. But no major commercial artist has ever dedicated themselves to callbacks and mirrors and echoes and lyrical shadows with the assiduousness, or effectiveness, of Taylor Swift in 2020. What’s more, she (and her producers) did it exactly like Springsteen did it in ‘80s: emphasizing certain lines, subtly underscoring elements of repetition, abridging the story here and there for dramatic effect, introducing dopplegangers, inviting the listener to imagine relationships between her characters, investing the stories with specificity via scene-setting detail, playing evenly on the heartstrings and the puzzle-solving impulse among listeners who she knew damn well were hanging on every syllable. Like Springsteen once did, Taylor Swift made the most of the attention she knew she commanded. She had different arguments to make. Nevertheless, she could not have run the ‘80s Springsteen playbook any better than she did, and when she did, she generated many effects familiar to me: a glimpse of a haunted universe, filled with figures who’d been rendered spectral by the mistakes they’d made. Scary stories suitable for scary times, brought to life by artists of acute sensitivity and formidable expressive power.
Punisher was one of the year’s best-reviewed albums. Folklore and Evermore were chart-toppers. These albums extend Springsteen’s influence and signature songwriting techniques into the second decade of the new millennium, just as Springsteen extended the techniques of Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie into the final decades of the last one. That’s the great relay race, and he’s still right in the middle of it, with his hand on the trailing half of the baton, and Taylor Swift’s hand on the leading half. Yet we’ve been missing this – and part of that, I’m afraid, is the Boss’s own fault. Because he can’t let go of the ‘70s (and because he can’t break the arena-rock habit) he continues to be identified with the music he made before he reached full artistic maturity.
Many of those early albums are fantastic, particularly The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle, and they deserve to be celebrated. Nevertheless they aren’t the ones that establish Springsteen’s centrality to the present moment and the many moments to come, and I think a comparison to Tom Petty might be helpful. Everybody knows and loves the music that Tom Petty made in the late 1970s with the Heartbreakers. But nobody would ever try to argue that those singles are as tightly-knit into the story of pop as the ones he made once he shook free of the confines of his band, and the theatrical demands of arena-rock in general, and defined who he could be on his own terms. I believe that Springsteen did his legacy no favors by releasing Letter To You, even as I acknowledge that he’s setting us up for a heck of a nostalgia tour. And if in thirty years, Taylor Swift chooses to align herself and her artistic identity with “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” rather than the material on Folklore, she’ll have made the same mistake.
* * * * * * * * *
Whew, that took awhile. Okay – let’s move through the miscellaneous categories quickly, and then I’ll drop in some of the observations and predictions you sent me. Not everybody who contributes a ballot contributes commentary, but I appreciate those of you who do. The essay questions on the exam are always the tricky ones.
For the first time ever, Taylor Swift picked up significant support in the Best Singing category. I remember when it wasn’t just the dude from “Mean” who said she was no good in the booth. I always thought that was a silly position to take, and I’m glad I never hear it anymore. Brad Luen put it like this: “It’s grossly unfair that on top of everything else, she’s become the best indie rock singer since Jenny Lewis, but it turns out that savvy plus near-unlimited money does in fact make your dreams come true.” Anyway, the winner by plurality was Fiona Apple, who also won in 2012 for her performances on Idler Wheel. Awards season; the season of awards.
Some votes for Juice WRLD and Open Mike Eagle, but this was the year that Freddie Gibbs finally outpaced Killer Mike and Run The Jewels in the Best Rapping category. Freddie becomes the first straight-up gangsta rapper to take the top prize in our Poll. I’m glad to see that you all recognize that violent imagery and murderous rage is just another part of showbiz. I think.
Laura Marling skidded to 22nd place on the Poll, and didn’t place any singles on the list, either. But five voters did tap her for Best Songwriting, and I reckon she’d be happy to make that exchange. Interestingly, only one of those five Marling voters gave any points to Song For Our Daughter. Seems like you were more impressed with Laura Marling’s writing than you were with her execution, which is a complete reversal from the MySpace days when listeners were losing their minds over her vocal resemblance to Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson, but were justifiably leery of such stuff as “You Crawled Out Of The Sea.”
Phoebe Bridgers took the Best Lyrics category handily. I have never seen older rock guys embrace a young female artist more firmly, or immediately, than they’ve embraced Phoebe. That includes reactions to Liz Phair and Joanna Newsom, and it goes way, way beyond this Poll. Phoebe Bridgers seems designed to speak directly to the unconscious fears of the ‘70s soft-rock audience: that unnerving sense that Los Angeles represents the end of a long road westward for European civilization, and life in laid-back California is just an easygoing prelude to global cataclysm. This isn’t meant to be a damning criticism in any way; I dig Jackson Browne, too.
Most respondents didn’t bother to vote in the Best Album Cover category, which is a shame, because there were some very good ones this year. Given all the votes for The Slow Rush elsewhere on ballots, I’d have thought that Tame Impala would win this category by a, er, sandslide. The cover image is an actual photograph, by the way: they actually flew to a remote part of Namibia to get a shot of an interior half-eaten by the desert. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Pink Floyd would have done in their heyday. Roger Waters wouldn’t have been satisfied with an artist’s rendition; to make his point about inexorable deterioration, he would have insisted on documentary realism. I appreciate the effort.
For Best Album Title, D.P.K. voted for Chris Crack’s White People Love Algorithms. But do they? Guess I’ll have to see what Google tells me about that. Anyway, the winner, by a nose over Fetch The Bolt Cutters, was Poppy’s I Disagree. Not finished being disagreeable, she followed that up with an EP called I Disagree (More); this pre-dated Evermore by at least a month. Phoebe Bridgers would later tweet her intention to release Punishermore (it was a joke). It’s all derived from Pottermore, I imagine. One day we’re going to add up all the cues we’ve taken from J.K. Rowling over the past two and a half decades, and it’s going to be enough to fill up a Room of Requirement.
Here’s Tom Snow on Elizabeth Cook, his nominee for Most Welcome Surprise: “Evidently this woman has been singing at the Opry for two decades, but this is closer to Kula Shaker than Roseanne Cash. Overdriven vox, tight-but-not-uptight backing band, and lyrics that sound like they’ve been written by someone with some actual Life Experiences.” In addition to traditionalist country-rocking, she’s a radio host, and she does a fishing show called Upstream on something called The Circle Network. Yeah, I’m not tuning in to that, either. I’m all for breaching cultural divides, but there are limits to how far into the Kentucky hills I’m willing to go. But the Aftermath album is worthy of your attention, and you don’t even have to mine any coal to get it.
I was a little surprised to see votes for Lady Gaga in the Biggest Disappointment category. I thought she made a sure-footed return to the disco on Chromatica, but I can see how it might have struck some of you as safe, or automatic, or exhausting in its predictability. She was never a pioneer – she always looked a hundred times weirder than she sounded. Almost a decade after “Born This Way”, should she still be ripping off Madonna?
Fiona Apple won Most Overrated by a landslide, garnering some votes from Poll respondents who put Fetch The Bolt Cutters in their Top Tens anyway. I get it, but it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for 10 out of 10; it’s pretty clear she wasn’t even shooting for a perfect score. The album is, among other things, a passionate argument against the very notion of flawlessness. To accuse it of perfection was the meanest thing the critics could have done.
A couple of you breezed through Purple Noon, the latest by Washed Out, and you probably didn’t realize that there was music playing. But your Crummy Album You Listened To A Bunch Anyway was None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, the Streets comeback. You’re Mike Skinner loyalists; if he’s got something to say, you’ll let him say it, and that includes sexist cracks and soused pub humor. Anna Howe even evinced disappointment in the verb tense error in the album title. I don’t think that was pedantic. Mike’s a word man. He ought to know better.
Opinion was sharply divided on The Strokes: same as it ever was, right? It’s still 2000, coke-binge sunglasses and hoop earrings are in, and there are twin towers casting shadows on Vesey Street. Some of you wanted them to stop bugging you, and some of you evinced surprise about how much you enjoyed The New Abnormal. The former whipping boys of the Manhattan garage-rock revival took Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking and Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot BetterThan You Initially Thought It Was. Interestingly, Julian Casablancas thematizes this on the record: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” he sings on “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” articulating the lament of every aging white guy who feels socially stuck. Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe we’re all wrong. Maybe a pandemic is no time to find out.
Now, what sort of monster would vote for McCartney III for Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy? I’m not going to name names, but I’m ashamed of you people. After all Paul has done for you, the least you can do is rock out to “Lavatory Lil” a time or two.
There was no consensus in the Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like category, but I count a few votes for Moses Sumney and Yves Tumor. They’re both making daring music, but it isn’t exactly user-friendly stuff. Funky as he is, Yves Tumor can be awfully abrasive. Moses Sumney seems disinclined to hammer his sonic and formal experiments into the recognizable shapes of pop songs. Maybe he never will. That’s his prerogative, but it’s worth remembering that the artists whose experiments reshaped the sound of modern music – Kanye, Prince, Joni Mitchell, James Brown George Clinton – started out earthbound, and pushed into the stratosphere from there. The wilderness is an inhospitable place to begin.
Everybody votes in the Worst Song Of The Year category. It’s a neat place to vent; about “Death Bed”, for instance (“the second-worst thing to go viral in 2020,” that’s Brad Luen again), or Asher Angel’s “Do U Wanna?” Justin Bieber put out about forty chart toppers in 2020, and quarantine meant that you didn’t have to hear any of them. Or maybe you did: he certainly took his lumps here. But you didn’t hate anything more than you hated Eric Clapton and Van Morrison for making awkward interventions in the global discussion by singing clumsy protest songs about lockdowns and masking. Regardless of their past glories, neither of those guys have ever been able to read a room.
There isn’t usually consensus about the Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat. This year, there was, and it goes like this: body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. Body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. And so on. I can’t really disagree, but perversely, irritation just makes my admiration for Megan Thee Stallion increase. The entire Good News was a throwback to the glory days when hip-hop beats were made from cheap drum machines and airhorns and car alarms, and the producers and rhymers didn’t care at all if they annoyed the fuck out of you. In fact, they rather wanted to. In this era of artfully muffled kick drums and every song sounding like Drake featuring Drake, it was refreshing to find a rapper who cared enough to pester me.
On this Poll, Bob Dylan gets the praise, and his acolyte Bruce Springsteen is generally relegated to the negative categories. This year, their roles were reversed. Unless I’m miscounting, the Boss didn’t get a single vote in the Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire, which is a first for him. Dylan, on the other hand, was subjected to a thorough examination of his expiration date. That, too, is a first. Oh, and Oliver Lyons bucked the Morrissey-apologetic trend I wrote about two days ago. He voted for Moz in this category, and wrote with such vehemence that I feel the need to quote him here: “Like, come ON! My man has been trash for the better part of two decades now and has destroyed almost all the goodwill his early work endeared to sensitive white men. I can barely describe his most recent songs as even ‘phoning it in’. Even the cover art for his last several albums look like made them himself in a cracked version of Photoshop. Stop singing and go join whatever the British equivalent of Fox News is until you die of Covid. Fucking asshole.”
Jack Harlow is this year’s Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning. I rather liked “What’s Poppin’”, but I didn’t bother to check out anything else he did, so I guess I concur that he’s inessential.
Finally, and somewhat grudgingly, you’ve decided that Taylor Swift is the artist who Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2030. You’re resigned to reality: she’s just going to keep coming at you, relentlessly, like the Space Invaders. At this point, I’m not even sure what tectonic event would be sufficient to slow her down. The financial crisis and the fights with her label didn’t stop her. Scandal didn’t lay a glove on her. Global catastrophe only seems to have quickened her pace. I guess it’s always possible that she could lose interest, but anybody who has seen her in concert knows that she loves pop too much to give it up for long. When she sings along to the other nominees’s performances during awards shows, that’s no bullshit – she really does know all the words. One of the main things that separates a star from a flash in the pan is the star’s true belief in the enduring value of what she’s doing, no matter how frivolous it may seem in the moment: she came to rock, and rock and roll is here to stay. In this context, the title of Evermore is a kind of promise. The road stretches farther than what we can see. No matter how uncertain the future, no matter how dark the forest gets, she’ll be there to hang some fairy lights for us.
OK, allow me to turn the floor over to you. Thank you, friends.
* * * * * * * * *
Ben Krieger: The Killers were the only band that mattered to me in a year that felt like something out of the Book of Job. I needed a record that swung for the fences, and they delivered. AC/DC delivered as well, as did Carl Stone in his own way. I know I missed out on a lot of great records, or gave others (Fetch the Bolt Cutters) a lazy pass and then was done with them. I just didn’t care about music this year. I listened to my own projects, pain-numbing ambient albums, and the Killers and that’s pretty much all I remember. I threw myself into marches and bike protests and taking over the Williamsburg Bridge. For me, pop music failed to rise to the challenge of 2020. And if to drive the point home, Prince came back from the dead with a gazillion bonus discs of Sign of the Times material that put everyone to shame. I blasted that from my bike, and Beethoven on the way to work and Curtis Mayfield on the way home. I don’t even care enough about 2020 music to complain at the whole “locked-in-my-apartment” shtick. I just want to rise from the ashes of this year and forget it.
Adam Copeland: I spent almost all of 2020 inside my house, trying to calm my anxious mind. Familiar music became a great comfort, and I found it really difficult to muster up enough courage to confront the reality of the moment. Some things backslid.
Mike C: I listened to more music in 2020 than any other year of my life. By probably a decent margin. But it was the year that I returned to passive curation as my dominant form of consumption for the first time since I was 12 or 13. Back then it was MTV and the radio. Now it’s DJ livestreams, which began in March-July as mostly Questlove, D-Nice and others on YouTube Live and Instagram. Since August it’s been almost exclusively on Twitch. And it’s changing my life. After 21 years of grinding it out locally, I’m actually beginning, in some corners, to “enter the chat” of the global DJ world. This is Chevy Chase in the motel pool with Christie Brinkley kind of stuff. A blindingly bright silver lining that’s been overwhelming all the darkness outside the walls of my one-bedroom with study.
Jonathan Andrew: In 2020, I leaned on music like never before. (And I am someone who cares about little other than music.) I bought new releases by my contemporary faves (as well as lots of live stuff on Bandcamp). I watched livestreams by music-making friends. I remote-recorded with collaborators. I made mixes on Spotify and shared them with my life mates. I rediscovered forgotten gems (hola, first Crash Test Dummies album!) and nestled in the bosom of all-time favorites (Forever Changes and Aqualung on repeat). I was reminded that Pavement’s Steve West is a heckuva drummer and that Peter Gabriel might have the best voice out of anyone. I remembered how much I love ‘80s Metallica. And I finally found a way to enjoy a record by Sonic Youth (Dirty, for those keeping score.) Music was a distraction, a thing to do, a way to connect, a balm. I am ever grateful that, through some cosmic accident, I found the thing I am about at a young age and have had the privilege to devote so much time and mental bandwidth to it, as both listener and music maker.
Enrique Lavin: There is too much fucking good music and I don’t have time to properly digest it. So for last couple of years, I’ve been leaping from decade to decade, genre to genre, continent to continent. An addict looking for the next hit, no matter the place or time. I probably heard more Fatboy Slim this year than I’ve heard since 1999. (He did a series of DJ sessions for Apple Music that I devoured – and then replayed.) Such a traumatic year. I bet I wasn’t alone digging into the mental catalogue looking for comfort music. For me, Beck, Manu Chao, Bob Marley, Bjork, Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Juana Molina, Flaming Lips, Lana Del Rey, late Beatles, all Jack White projects, Radiohead, Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin. I even revisited my high school sweethearts Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. Nicola Cruz and Lido Pimienta and other ZZKs were playing on regular rotation. Lots of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann. But I also took in a lot of hip-hop radio; found myself dipping into these on a regular basis: Clipping, Run The Jewels, Jurassic 5 and Chali2na – I remember playing Midnight Marauders for my kids more than twice last summer. Speaking of radio: I give plenty of money to KEXP. I think of my contributions as tips. If I need a fix, they’re there to satisfy the itch. For music discovery, KEXP is my go-to.
George Pasles: I can’t explain how reassuring it was when the Rolling Stones song “Living In A Ghost Town” was released in April. Sure, everything since Some Girls has been pretty much the same, but 1.) it represented a shared global experience of fear and loss, and 2.) showed life, even in some constrained form, was still continuing.
Michael Flannery: We’re going to hear more records that focus on making live shows into parties. Lady Gaga was prescient making a stadium record.
Oliver Lyons (on the Worst Song Of The Year): Do I jump on the Bieber bandwagon and pick any number of the awful songs he put out this year? I honestly kind of respect that one song where in the video he dresses up as a coal mining man of the people and tries to get the MAGA chuds’ money by kinda doing a country song. I’m all for draining those monsters of what little material wealth they have.
Belinda Portman (Least Believable Perspective): The guy from the National on “Coney Island”, just because he sounds like he has no idea what he’s singing, why he’s singing it, where he is, who Taylor Swift is…etc.
Tom Snow (Album That Should Have Been Shorter): Everything that was longer than 39 minutes. If 2020 taught us nothing else, it was that many artists were capable of delivering a perfectly satisfying, fully realized LP that could still easily fit on one side of a 90-minute cassette.
Brian Block (in defense of Sufjan): I take Sufjan Stevens at face value, as an ambitious, sincere, geeky dilettante who’s making the music he genuinely wants to make. I loved Illinois. I mostly loved Age Of Adz even though it was willfully defying us to do so. Planetarium was soothing and my kids are happy to sleep to it and that’s worth appreciating. This year he gave us The Ascension, and there’s an incredible amount going on there; so many layers, so many creative choices, songs that evolve as they go. My kind of record! And I just keep wishing he’d thrown 3/4 of the layers out and figured out which parts were the good parts. Based on Carrie & Lowell, I have to admit he might have chosen dead wrong (by my lights). I keep wishing anyway.
Brad Luen (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “Toosie Slide”. At least the “Cupid Shuffle” gives clear instructions.
Marisol Fuentes (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): You must not have children! Otherwise you would know the answer is “Baby Shark”, and you would retire this question out of mercy.
Hilary Jane Englert (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “WAP”. I will be making no further comment at this time. I ask only that you respect my privacy and that of my family during this painful and difficult period.
Brian Block: How the hell did 1970s Laurel Canyon/ Fleetwood Mac soft rock become dominant again? I was discussing this with my friend Miles: he said it’s one of those twenty-year-cycle things. I said no it wasn’t. In the 1990s, there were major songwriters who *could* have gone that direction, but instead let punk shape their work into alternative rock (Alanis Morissette, Belly, Soul Asylum) or let Kate Bush inspire them to something a little weirder (Tori Amos, Paula Cole, even Sarah McLaughlin a little). Miles said, wait, but what about Elliott Smith, and the High Llamas, and Cardinal? And I was like “What about them?”. Eventually I realized we’d been talking past each other. He was saying “You could find this stuff in the ‘90s if you looked”. I was saying “For most of my time on earth, it had been incredibly easy to avoid the damn stuff, and suddenly it’s everywhere”. Major stars. Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrienne Lenker, now even Billie Eilish: they all have skill and talent, but they’re all infected. Why are these kids making this bloodless non-racket?
Brad Luen (major trends of 2020): Young women working out their identities through pop, which was kind of always what pop was for except the young women are writing the songs now.
Anna Howe (major trends of 2020): Songs that restore to the listener her best adolescent self, that return her to the kind of pure, hopeful, pained but unjaded erotic desire, that yearning for the kind of love and sex and freedom and play that the summer brings to a kid whose life is still organized around the school and the school year—(Taylor Swift, Front Bottoms, Troye Sivan, 2nd Grade, The Beths, Tyson Motsenbocker, the list goes on, as Nancy Pelosi might say). There’s always lots of nostalgia in pop music, but these songs felt somehow special to me last year, in their dramatization of not just youthful longing but excitement, expectation, faith. Maybe it was the quarantine and the social isolation, but so many of these representations of desire felt so real and powerful and joyful to me that I never found myself dismissing them (as I often do with nostalgia numbers) as just older people’s distorted memories. Among the responses to the Covid crisis (the empty houses, the Tik-Tok and social distancing jokes, the disaffection and loneliness stuff), this one was by far the most life-affirming, at least for me.
Brad Krumholz (major trends of 2020): Looking back on abusive relationships.
Dave Willis (major trends of 2020): Musicians and venues directly asking for financial support. And me giving.
Oliver Lyons (major trends of 2020): I no longer hear from self-righteous musicians about things like Patreon being “e-begging.” Curious, no?
Enrique Lavin (major trends of 2020): Sofa and garage YouTube concerts. Elevated NPR’s Tiny Desk format. Some of them worked. Mostly made one ache for live music in person.
Belinda Portman: I think we’ll be surprised at how many small and mid-sized venues re-open in NYC and the environs (obviously a good thing) and attempt to resume business as usual with very little innovation, new ideas, or changes to their business models (not so good).
Paula Carino: It is tragic what happened to live music venues this year, and at the same time, I do hope it puts an end, forever, to the “bar scene,” to shows at 1 AM on a Tuesday that I will never go to, to overpriced tickets, etc., and transform into something better, more egalitarian, more accessible to all.
Eugene Valdez: Not everybody practicing at home is posting progress reports on YouTube, but everybody who is practicing is getting better. Just wait. The shows to come are going to be great.
Kevin Dailey (on Ariana Grande and Positions): No one sings better than she does. The album crescendos beautifully into the title track, and her production team has been cranking out so many great hits over the years. I can honestly say I loved her 2018 “No Tears Left to Cry” without knowing she wrote it. Same was true for “Into You” from the year before. Along the way, she employs humor, honesty, and a deep longing and fragility. “Trippin’, fallin’ with no safety net” – hits me right in the gut. When the album finally peaks with “Positions”, I am absolutely hers. I never in a million years thought I would state emphatically: Ariana Grande’s songs own my heart. I don’t think I’m emotionally regressed. I think I just feel young again.
Tom Snow (On Folklore): A convincing Liz Phair impersonation, from the laid-back throatiness of her delivery to the carefully placed f-bombs. This being Taylor Swift, I’m not sure if the casual act is convincing, but the songs are certainly good enough. Oh, look, she just dropped another album this year as well. I suppose one can only make so much sourdough.
Hilary Jane Englert: (On Evermore): There’s quite a bit of Taylor Swift signature sophomoric diction and a painful number of mixed metaphors on Evermore. For some reason it all bugs me way more than the empty, nonsensical romantic poetry allusions on “The Lakes” (though that drove me nuts at first). She’s got a spell over me, that one. Eventually I forgive her everything.
Tom Snow (On Poppy’s I Disagree): Like the demonic love child of Mr. Bungle and Girls’ Generation, which, at first glance, might seem like she’s trying to ride in the slipstream of the latest Harley Quinn major motion picture release. But the songs are really good, and the backing band is really, really good. Not something I’d spin on a quiet, rainy Sunday afternoon, but this demands attention.
Tom Snow (On Good News): It’s “of a piece” with “W.A.P.,” though the album doesn’t quite reach the raunchy glory of the single, and a full-length becomes extremely tiring. Her producer’s incessant employment of her vocal quirk of saying “aaah” like there’s a tongue depressor (or, um, something) jammed into her throat becomes anxiety-triggering after a while.
Tom Snow (On Football Money): You listen to this and you realize that Pavement didn’t need to themselves so seriously.
George Pasles: (predictions for 2021): Terrible people twisting themselves in knots trying to describe liking Ariel Pink’s music.
Adam Copeland (predictions for 2021): I really hope the Wrens’ next record comes out. In 2021, we’re back to the heyday of JT and Britney with Disney stars feuding. Lin-Manuel Miranda will make something awful and aggressively neoliberal, and everyone will eat it up. Nu-metal makes a strong comeback on the heels of the success of Parler. TikTok charts begin to influence numbers to a point where all major artists begin to put parts in their songs that are exactly the right length and pattern to loop only 8 bars, perfectly, forever. I put out a song and it is a single byte of data, revolutionizing the record industry.
Brian Block (predictions for 2021): Might as well bring back analog synthesizers from 1968, treating every adjusted knob and switch as a leap into the sonic unknown. Its return would make just as much sense as all these girl James Taylors, but it also would be awesome.
Oliver Lyons (predictions for 2021):I know we’re going to be awash in Covid-19 metaphors for the better part of the next decade (or until the next plague comes along) but, can we maybe not? Can we all agree now that’s not going to be something that anyone will enjoy? Thanks.
Enrique Lavin (predictions for 2021): There just might be another Latin boom. With Biden signaling that Dreamers can dream again, there may be a rush of celebratory music coming from the U.S. Latino scene. Another trend could be that we’re all so fucking happy that we’ll return to some notion of normalcy under Biden that pop music gorges itself with escapist boy bands.
DPK (predictions for 2021): A banner year for hip-hop and rap (especially production)… an outpouring of a quiet year’s worth of exploration and deep crate digging. Dare I dream? A return of boom bap at the top of the game?
Jim Testa (predictions for 2021): Punk rock will have a big comeback as cities return to hosting live music.
Mister Guch (predictions for 2021): There will be a hybrid of pop and metal, with easy to digest lyrics and adorable metalheads. Additionally, Devo will go on tour again, as will the Go-Go’s.
Brad Krumholz (predictions for 2021): Pared-back lo-fi guitar rock.
Tom Snow: (predictions for 2021): More quality songs per capita coming out of New Zealand.
Steven Matrick (predictions for 2021): Songs about being alone.
Ben Krieger: I do wish The Weeknd would retire, but he should have done that after his first record.
Brad Luen: I suspect mushrock (and mushrap) may have peaked—there are plenty of recent models for clear messaging and decent enunciation, plus two minutes a song is about optimal for streaming revenue.
George Pasles: The best songs I find every year are always decades old, but of course they’re new to me. So this year, my favorite new songs are simple bubblegum pop numbers written for a late ‘60s cartoon called Cattanooga Cats:
Paula Carino: Music saved lives and sanity this year, so go easy on it.
Brad Krumholz (Best Live Show You Saw In 2020): ALAS.
Jim Testa: Please let 2021 be better.
Your Album of the Year results were posted two days ago. Yesterday, you hung at the singles bar. Tomorrow, we’ll crash through my Top Twenty, and then on Friday, we’ll cover the rest of my loudmouth opinions. Thanks again for playing, and for reading.