It should not be as hard as it has been to see the next sunrise. We made it through 2020, but a month after the calendar turned, I’m still not sure how we did it. There were many days when no betting man would have taken odds on our survival. Often, I assumed that our problems were greater and more intractable than those of my neighbors. Perhaps they were. But if there’s a single thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that there are wolves at every door. We’re all beset, and there’s nowhere to run.
There are those among us who didn’t experience a feeling of constant existential threat in 2020. They didn’t feel jeopardized by poor leadership, or by the police, or the proliferation of guns, or by the growing sense of entitlement among those who prefer violent solutions to everyday problems. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the virus was a network news exaggeration or a political ploy. They had no crippling psychological or physical problems to contend with. We all know people like that. But chances are, you don’t count them among your pals. They’re certainly not voting in this annual Poll, brought back from oblivion, by me, to help ease the chill of a treacherous winter: one where we’re busily binding up wounds, warily looking out our windows at days we’re not permitting ourselves to enjoy, and girding ourselves against what’s to come.
Fifty-three voters submitted Poll ballots. Almost all of them came from regular respondents. It was a tough year to make new friends, and this exercise has always been, at its essence, a roundup of friends’ opinions. Because I know you, I can say with some authority that you’re part of an anxious tribe. Even during sunnier days, we’ve tended to pick stormy soundtracks: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy in 2011, Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? in 2007, The Loud Family’s Days For Days in 1998. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not your number one jam. In 2020, there was always very little chance that this resurrected Poll would be topped by anything other than a ghost story.
Phoebe Bridgers put a scribbled apparition on the cover of her debut album. For Punisher, she’s dressed in a skeleton suit, and she poses, bent backward under the weight of night, contemplating a vast and starry sky. She wears the same suit in the video for “Kyoto”, and surfs through a green-screened Japan like an animate memento mori. But a spirit in the material world she is not — she’s a flesh-and-blood woman, grappling with cosmic forces, cracking jokes as her stride quickens near the gates of the cemetery. “A slaughterhouse/an outlet mall/slot machines/fear of God”: this is her ten-word State of the Nation report on “I Know The End”. Once older listeners (and we voters are now more than three decades older than we were when we began this tradition on placemats in a Jersey sit-down deli) might have found her fatalism premature. Times have changed. These days, the ghosts rattle their chains in earshot of everybody. Phoebe Bridgers was the reporter who gave it to us straight, and with no small amount of gratitude for her candor and courage, we’ve put her second album atop the thirty-first edition of our Poll.
The music on Punisher is not extraordinary. The arrangements are straightforward. Melodies don’t take unusual turns. It’s stark and spectral West Coast folk-pop, aligned with that of college rock practitioners, and it is descended in spirit from the ’70s records of the songwriter who Phoebe Bridgers reminds me of the most: Jackson Browne, another generational spokesperson with one eye on his deteriorating interpersonal relationships and another on doomsday. The words, however, are uncompromising, and, at times, downright scary. Her narrators live too close to the hospital; they’re hearing ambulances and getting spooked. One love song is called “ICU”, another chronicles an affair with a married man who “might be dying”. A character stalks the songwriter Elliott Smith, even though he killed himself two decades ago. Romantic metaphors are delivered with an undercurrent of terror: a lover is a “work of art”, but she stands too close and “sees the brushstrokes”, another pulls her in so deep that her feet “can’t touch the bottom”, and there’s a strong intimation of death by drowning. She thinks of the things she’d do for love, and when her mind flashes to the Brian Stow killing in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, it somehow makes perfect sense. Characters duck ontological anxiety by picking fights: a pointless quarrel about John Lennon, invective about “Tears In Heaven”, condemnation of a boyfriend’s mother who is probably neck-deep in QAnon propaganda. In one pivotal sequence, a character gets into a shouting match with Westboro Baptists, only to admit to herself, in the solitude of her room, that she envies their certainty that the soul will transmigrate. She tries to hear the ghosts in the walls, but is confronted by the limits of her own materialism: that’s impossible, she concludes, to her dismay. All things are sliding inexorably to the same finish line, and when she passes the “End Is Near” sign on the highway, she stands up straight and confronts its blank back side. The world Phoebe Bridgers is describing is not a pretty one, or a particularly survivable one. But it’s most certainly our world, and if we must live in it, it’s nice to know we’ve got company.
Album of the Year
- 1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (186 points)
- 2. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (164)
- 3. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters (160)
- 4. Taylor Swift – Folklore (146)
- 5. Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia (142)
Punisher finishes, comfortably but not thumping-ly, ahead of 2012 Poll winner Tame Impala. I chalked up the popularity of Lonerism among our voters to Kevin Parker’s occasional vocal resemblance to John Lennon, and the enduring popularity of pop-psychedelia. I now acknowledge it’s more complicated than that. Tame Impala lyrics are candid and incisive, and although Kevin Parker often makes you fight through the machine processing to get to them, they’re always worth riddling out. Many of the respondents who voted for The Slow Rush mentioned the album’s themes: the inexorable passage of time, romantic disillusionment, the awful inevitability of growing up. Sorry about that; it happens to us all, if we’re lucky. Fiona Apple’s celebrated Bolt Cutters wears its theme more boldly, and that figures, since outspokenness as a means toward self-definition is one of the things she’s angling for. The Canadian-Colombian Lido Pimienta makes many of the same points, only en Español, which, given the emotional clarity and pure vehemence of her performances, ought to be no obstacle to appreciation of her music. I’ve been waving the flag for Miss Colombia since its release this spring, so if its appearance at #5 seems a little high to you, you might blame the Pollmaster for that. It’s the highest finish for any Spanish-language album in the history of our Poll.
I’ll have a lot to say about T. A. Swift over the next few days, and I don’t want to start the engine roaring just yet. For now, I’ll just point out that over the last fifteen months, she’s released fifty-two songs and three albums. I believe that’s unprecedented. Even if you don’t like what she’s written, it’s hard to knock the productivity. I’m reminded of the crazy streak that Roger Waters was on in the late ’70s, but Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking — which was apparently written at the same time as The Wall and The Final Cut — didn’t come out until 1984.
- 6. Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You (141)
- 7. The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (138)
- 8. Kiwi Jr. – Football Money (130)
- 8. Of Montreal – UR FUN (130)
- 10. Hum – Inlet (129)
Those who voted for Punisher and Fetch The Bolt Cutters tended to place those albums at the very tops of their lists. Nobody had Football Money very high, but it appeared on many of your ballots: 15 of the 53 submitted. Because I hadn’t even heard of Kiwi Jr. until December, this surprises me. Maybe it shouldn’t. Many of the voters in this Poll are veterans of power pop and indiepop bands, and Football Money has the verities in place: sardonic lead singer as mentally restless as early Joe Jackson, plenty of guitar textures, jangle and snap, copious chord changes and hooks delivered at high velocity, brevity, wisecracks, references to being broke. Indie musicians can relate. Kiwi Jr. finishes in a flatfooted tie with perennial Poll favorite Of Montreal, and The Beths, whose Jump Rope Gazers is moody and lovelorn but never less than tuneful. Several Jump Rope voters made it clear that they don’t like this one as much as Future Me Hates Me, the Beths debut, and an unadulterated exercise in New Zealand power pop. I know ’em both, and I’m pretty sure the new one is better. It’s certainly less frantic.
You might assume that this is friendly territory for Springsteen: we’ve got lots of Jersey voters, and I’m a Jersey guy. But the truth is that the Boss has usually taken a beating on our Poll. Some of our most reliable voters are passionate E Street detractors, and he’s been a landslide winner in certain negative categories in the very recent past. The embrace of Letter To You isn’t even a restoration, because he’s never finished in the Top Ten before. Our voters just liked this one. Most of those who tapped Letter To You had never submitted a ballot with a Springsteen album on it before.
- 11. Taylor Swift – Evermore (125)
- 12. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline (124)
- 13. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo (119)
- 14. Homeboy Sandman – Don’t Feed The Monster (116)
- 14. Run The Jewels – RTJ4 (116)
Hip-hop arrives in the early teens. None of that kid stuff: these rappers are skills-heavy veterans with loud mouths and personal agendas to push. The Alchemist provides Freddie Gibbs with a silky backdrop for his pleasantly vicious storytelling, Quelle Chris matches spy music and weird, off-balance beats to Homeboy Sandman’s latest clever/curmudgeonly verses, and Jaime Meline fires up the RTJ machine for another trip to the barricades with co-pilot Killer Mike delivering broadsides from the shotgun seat. Superficially, Andy Shauf couldn’t be more different: on The Neon Skyline, he’s a mumbling barfly who, through his own romantic inaction, has allowed the girl he wants slip through his fingers. But even though he isn’t as assertive as the rappers are, his dilemma — which is elaborated in some detail on a concept set that features the sort of linear storytelling that our voters always like — isn’t too different from theirs. He’s dealing with thirtysomething desperation, and the creeping feeling that he’s about to enter a period of irrelevance. Mike blames the government, Homeboy Sandman blames his girlfriend, and Freddie blames his rivals on the street. Andy blames himself. By the end of The Neon Skyline, you might feel that he deserves a good scapegoat.
- 16. Adrianne Lenker – Songs (114)
- 17. Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was (112)
- 17. Rina Sawayama – Sawayama (112)
- 17. Juice WRLD – Legends Never Die (112)
- 20. Elizabeth Cook – Aftermath (104)
Juice WRLD was less than half Killer Mike’s age when he died of a drug overdose a little over twelve months ago. We’ve lost too many promising rappers over the last few years: Pop Smoke, whose posthumous release Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon narrowly missed this Top 40, was shot to death in February. Stepa J. Groggs of the excellent Arizona group Injury Reserve — Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018 and 2019 — died this summer. Emcees with the potential to make it through their twenties and deliver solid music, Homeboy Sandman-style, well into their forties are getting waylaid by a combination of violence and self-destructive compulsions. It’s another horrible American phenomenon, and one that ought to concern everybody who loves music.
- 21. Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (100)
- 22. Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter (98)
- 22. Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma And Divorce (98)
- 24. Nada Surf – Never Not Together (96)
- 25. Morrissey – I Am Not A Dog On A Chain (95)
- 26. Caribou – Suddenly (92)
- 26. Sevdaliza – Shabrang (92)
- 28. Touché Amoré – Lament (91)
- 29. Field Music – Making A New World (90)
- 30. Coriky – Coriky (88)
A few interesting names in this section, and at least one that’s become a genuine hot potato. Even as his venomous statements have pushed him past the periphery of pop music and into the netherzone of the non-personed, many of our voters have not turned on Morrissey. I couldn’t agree less with the political positions he’s taken — I don’t even want to dignify them by calling them a coherent ideology — but as an appreciator of pop records, I find his recent ones aesthetically successful. I’m not sure he’s ever sung more passionately or more communicatively than he has on his last three albums, including the covers set California Son. Morrissey was adamant that I Am Not A Dog On A Chain was his best work, and he complained, Curt Schilling-like, that critics were intentionally withholding the approbation he deserved. That’s probably true. If we can agree that he did it to himself, and if we can further agree not to feel bad for him when he whines (I sure don’t feel bad for Schilling), I think we ought to be able to approach his records and appreciate them for what they are: very solid pop-rock recordings from a talented but deeply unpleasant practitioner of the style. He’s always been highly misanthropic. If you remember him differently from his days with the Smiths, well, I think you were missing the essence of the man.
Moz comes in three places and three points after a musical hero of mine: the Berkshire folk-rock singer Laura Marling, who, if we’d held this Poll in 2017, would’ve likely won it. Our voters were less enthusiastic about Song For Our Daughter. She hasn’t finished in the twenties since Alas, I Cannot Swim, her debut, in 2008. Going in the other direction: Nada Surf is a group that has always gotten votes here and there, but has never finished in the Top 30 before; their (early) association with Ric Ocasek and the talkiness of Matthew Caws’s approach and the er, power in their pop are all hallmarks of groups that do well in this Poll. Finally, it’s always gratifying to see Sparks on a year-end list. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate that group, and yes, if you’ve read this far, I reckon you’re that type.
- 31. AC/DC – Power Up (84)
- 32. Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface (83)
- 32. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (83)
- 32. Sad13 – Haunted Painting (83)
- 35. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory (77)
- 36. Idles – Ultra Mono (75)
- 37. Benny The Butcher – Burden Of Proof (75)
- 38. Thundercat – It Is What It Is (73)
- 39. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions (71)
- 39. Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream (71)
Votes for Elvis Costello, votes for the Boss, votes for Angus Young and company, but very few votes for Bob Dylan. We’ll talk more about that in the coming days. You know how it goes: singles list tomorrow (Feb. 2), a round-up of miscellaneous categories on Wednesday (Feb. 3), and then I post my own ballot on Thursday and Friday. Will there be a final essay? I hope so, but life does have a way of intervening.
Other albums receiving #1 votes:
- Ariana Grande – Positions
- Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
- Blake Mills – Mutable Set
- Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach
- Game Theory – Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript
- Seeming – A Birdwatcher’s Guide To Atrocity
- Haim – Women In Music Pt. 3
- Finlandia/Singapur – 19 Junio, 1955
- The Menzingers – From Exile
- The Killers – Imploding The Mirage
- The Microphones – Microphones In 2020
- The Bye Bye Blackbirds – Boxer At Rest
- The Corner Laughers – Temescal Telegraph
- Leslie Pereira & The Lazy Heroes – Good Karma
- Eyelids – The Accidental Falls
- Willie The Kid – Capital Gains