In a strange and challenging year, we needed music to keep us sane more than ever. Somehow it came through in spades with a slew of stellar new releases and live(stream) shows in the new normal.
1. Nobody Lives Here Anymore — Cut Worms
Cut Worms wasn’t on my radar until Spencer Tweedy covered “Last Words to a Refugee” on an episode of the Tweedy Show in November. That indirect recommendation rocketed to the top of this year’s chart. (The title is also somehow perfect for 2020 even though it doesn’t quite make sense in that context…)
2. The Neon Skyline — Andy Shauf
A Paul Simon-esque concept album about a night out at the local watering hole (remember those days?) that plays out like a short story. A unique yet timeless sound that I really dig. (The fact that there’s a recurring character named Judy–which is also my dog’s name–doesn’t hurt.)
3. Devotion — Margaret Glaspy
I really dug Margaret Glaspy’s first album. This sounds nothing like it. Alternatingly poppy and dancy and sweet and vicious, I dig this one for all those reasons and then some.
4. Sam Doores — Sam Doores
Once the fiddle player in Hurray for the Riff Raff, this eponymous solo debut has a nice New Orleans folk vibe to it. Released pre-pandemic, it became a go to for soothing casual kick-back listening as the year wore on.
5. Lamentations — American Aquarium
Sad songs make us happy. Top-notch songwriting from the most genuinely authentic voice in Americana. Also the inspiration for the Musical Heroes of the Pandemic section below.
6. Spirit Guide — Benji Hughes
When your favorite solo artist releases their first new to you album in ~6 years, anticipation abounds. Benji came through with a 47-minute single that hides 14 tracks of a concept album loosely themed around spirits and ghosts. And that’s not all Benji had up his sleeve this year…
7. Pop Up Jim Bob — Jim Bob
When the singer of your favorite band releases their first new to you album in 6+ years, anticipation abounds. Jim Bob came through with his most Carter sounding solo album–including an eerily prescient 30 second single (recorded and released pre-pandemic) titled “2020 WTF!”
8. Father of All… — Green Day
The best Green Day record since Dookie, not counting their semi-secret Foxboro Hot Tubs side project that this is reminiscent of. The fact that it both is Green Day and sounds nothing like Green Day blew my mind and made me smile more with each listen.
9. Serpentine Prison — Matt Berninger
This may have been my most anticipated album of the year, and it sounded more or less exactly as I imagined. More EL VY than National, and that’s fine by me.
10. Painted Shield — Painted Shield
I tend to be on top of upcoming music releasees, but somehow (2020 WTF?) this one eluded me until I heard Mason Jennings casually mention on a livestream that his new band with Stone Gossard was dropping their debut record that same week (!!!!!). It’s strange and glammy and wonderful. You had me at Mason & Stone, and won me with a song called “Time Machine.” But why isn’t the band called Stonemasons? Biggest missed naming opportunity since Petty Cash.
1. A Lovers Extreme / Another Extreme — Benji Hughes
Back in 2014, these two records were in a 3-way tie for second place on my year-end list. Originally released as OXOXOXOX & XXOXOXX via Benji’s website, they’re back with new titles, new artwork, and a wider release as thematic sequels to A Love Extreme.
2. summerteeth (Deluxe) — Wilco
One of Wilco’s classics gets the super deluxe demos and outtakes treatment, with a fascinating blend of early takes, different lyrics and live sessions. Plus “Viking Dan” might be my favorite new old song of the year. So weird, so awesome.
3. Wildflowers & All The Rest — Tom Petty
Another super deluxe, but at the core it’s really setting right what once went wrong by restoring Wildflowers to the double-album Petty originally intended. If only the label left Tom (and Virginia) alone back then.
4. Lockdown Sessions — David Ford
David Ford did a marvelous job of releasing & reorganizing older (and newer) tracks from his vaults via Bandcamp as companion pieces to his fortnightly livestream shows. My 2 favorite archival releases were The Ones That Got Away (essentially a best of the EP/B-Sides compilation) and The Lockdown Archive: Songs for the Road which celebrated his under-appreciated second album. (Additional bonus points for “The Bar is Open” — my favorite new song about COVID.)
This is usually my favorite section of this annual post, reminiscing on a year of live shows and highlights. This year was different for obvious reasons — but live music was still ever-present in new and unique ways. So I’ll break this out a little differently:
Supergrass @ Casino de Paris — 2/4/20
Back in 2014, we took a vacation to Paris & London to see the last ever Carter USM show. On the way home my wife asked when we could go to Paris again. “When Supergrass reunites,” was my off the cuff reply. I kept my promise — and I’m so glad I did with what transpired after. I consider this band to be the underrated champion of the 90s britpop era. (Blur vs Oasis? My answer is Supergrass.) The ‘Grass were back, and it felt like they never left.
Glorietta @ Antone’s — 2/13/20
2018’s album of the year was supposed to be a one and done collaboration and supergroup tour between solo projects. But as David Ramirez said when Glorietta took the stage as a surprise headliner for Luck Reunion’s annual Lucky Draw, “McRib is back!” It was a delightfully ramshackle performance that left me on a high around why I love live music so much–ironically making it a fitting final live and in person show to witness before the world turned and left us here…
Heroes of the Pandemic:
A silver lining of last year is the fact that it happened in the future. Twenty or even ten years ago the technology may not have been ready to shift the bulk of working and socialization online, but in 2020 it did a pretty solid job of making lemonade out of lemons where it could. I know it’s not the same, but below are some of the performances that kept us sane.
The Tweedy Show — Jeff Tweedy & Family
Jeff Tweedy sitting in his living room, playing songs from his back catalogue plus a lot of random covers with his sons Spencer & Sammy. It’s charming, laid back and real–and easy to imagine this is what a normal evening in the Tweedy household might be like. Originally airing EVERY NIGHT (!!!), it’s since scaled back to 3-5 days a week. But with 141 episodes and counting, I can’t overstate how awesome and caring and cool it is that a musician would connect with their fans in this way for free during trying times.
Alone Together Tuesdays — Hayes Carll
Episode count isn’t the way to evaluate these sort of things, but there’s comfort in routine so I’ve really come to appreciate some regularly scheduled programming. Hayes Carll has broadcast live on YouTube across 35 Tuesdays in a virtual reboot of his old Enough Rope with Hayes Carll series he once broadcast monthly from the Saxon Pub in Austin. Stories and songs for times like these with a true genuineness behind the whole production.
Lockdown Sessions / Milk & Cookies — David Ford
An alternating themed performance and benefit concert for Reverse Rett, David Ford shared his “whiny little English boy playing the blues” stage persona with a great mix of originals, covers, stories and surprises. My single favorite livestream of the year was the episode where he played a 40 minute medley of songs without stopping or speaking at all. Drop the mic, that ruled.
The Sad Song Revival — BJ Barham
In the earliest days of lockdown, when we were still adjusting to what was starting to be called “the new normal” and before it simply became “normal,” BJ Barham of American Aquarium was the trailblazer of what this new musical world could look like. He played free shows on Instagram and Facebook. He played ticketed full-album acoustic shows on StageIt. He played full-band, full production value full-album shows for a higher ticket price. He took requests, he told stories, he logged in early to interact with commenters before the show. These actions and the pureness of his intentions moved me from a casual fan to a big loyal one. He made us smile more in these instants than any sad song ever written.
Private Zoom Concerts — Smooth Hound Smith
While many artists experimented with the busking-style live show with virtual tip jar format, Smooth Hound added the ability to book a private show on their website. We did four of them over the course of the year (starting with each of our birthdays, and then “hey, why not?”) and had a terrific time chatting with the band, collaborating on setlists, and sharing a more personalized type of concert experience.
One highlight: After a scheduling snafu caused the band to inadvertently stand us up for show number 4, as an apologetic make good they offered to learn and cover any song we chose. (“Any song…?” I asked.) We picked “O Lonely Soul, It’s a Hard Road” by Mary’s Danish (or by Local Boy from Timely Persuasion, depending on your point of view). They nailed it, leaving us speechless that a band could bust out this obscure song we had no expectation of ever hearing live, giving it a new life and seemingly having a genuine great time doing so.
Private Computer Shows — Benji Hughes
I booked Benji Hughes to play my work holiday party via Zoom. He had a karaoke machine! And an extreme time was had by all. In a normal year, that would be enough to drop the metaphorical ball on this blog post and call it a year in review. But wait, there’s more…
Remember that scheduling snafu with Smooth Hound Smith that begot a cover of “O Lonely Soul…” referenced above? We had ten people in various remote locations waiting on a band that (explainably in hindsight and with no ill intentions) stood us up. What to do? I booked another band. Enter Benji on short notice, playing a Zoom show that left everyone floored. Piano, guitar, originals, covers — and yes, more karaoke. Another extreme time was had by all.
Really dropping the mic for now. Happy new year. 2021 FTW!