Hard to Be Anywhere These Days, Part II: The 2020 Long List

More end-of-the-year blurbing, summarizing, and list-making: For FLOOD, I penned a few words about Fiona Apple and HAIM; and at In Review, I rhapsodized about Run the Jewels and repeated my Taylor Swift/Tony Bennett joke in a capsule review of Folklore.

My top 25 album picks, along with commentary, are still available here at the blog. But if it’s raw data you’re after, I can tell you that I spent time with around 90 new releases this year, and can easily list 50 without hitting any duds.

  1. Folklore | Taylor Swift
  2. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
  3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
  4. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
  5. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
  6. Women in Music Pt. III | HAIM
  7. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
  8. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
  9. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
  10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
  11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
  12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
  13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
  14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
  15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
  16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
  17. Headlight | Della Mae
  18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
  19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
  20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
  21. SOURCE | Nubya Garcia
  22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
  23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
  24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
  25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
  26. Southside | Sam Hunt
  27. Omega | Immanuel Wilkins
  28. Evermore | Taylor Swift
  29. First Rose of Spring | Willie Nelson
  30. Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor
  31. Hey Clockface | Elvis Costello
  32. Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able | Black Thought
  33. Serpentine Prison | Matt Berninger 
  34. Punisher | Phoebe Bridgers
  35. Reunions | Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
  36. See You Tomorrow | The Innocence Mission
  37. Your Life is a Record | Brandy Clark
  38. Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams
  39. Rejoice | Hugh Masekela & Tony Allen
  40. We Are Sent Here By History | Shabaka & The Ancestors 
  41. Saturn Return | The Secret Sisters
  42. Echo Mine | Califone
  43. Gaslighter | The Chicks
  44. Good Souls Better Angels | Lucinda Williams
  45. Italian Ice | Nicole Atkins
  46. Imploding the Mirage | The Killers
  47. McCartney III | Paul McCartney
  48. Pick Me Up Off the Floor | Norah Jones
  49. Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth
  50. Mutable Set | Blake Mills

Hard to Be Anywhere These Days: Top 25 Albums of 2020

I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.

As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.

One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.

01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.

02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.

03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.

04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.

05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.

06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.

07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.

08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.

10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.

11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing. 

12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”

13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.

14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.

15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges. 

16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.

17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.

18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.

19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.

20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.

21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.

22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.

23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.

24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.

25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.

Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.

Disavow the Gold Rush: Vampire Weekend through the eye of a needle

father of the bride

It’s hard to talk about Vampire Weekend without also discussing privilege. To be fair, they’ve largely brought it on themselves. It’s been more than a decade since the release of their first album, but you can probably still remember the uniform of their earliest iteration; to this day, no critic can mention them without also referencing the polo shirts and the boat shoes. And if you remember that then you might also remember a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” its title borrowing the language of Congolese dance music while also betraying the band’s upper-class roots. There is a certain audacity to how this Ivy League indie guitar band with a white male singer has routinely pilfered from the African continent– a certain cultural immunity, even– but it’s to the enormous credit of Vampire-in-Chief Ezra Koenig that he’s generally handled his privilege responsibly. That’s never been truer than on the long-gestating fourth Vampire Weekend album, Father of the Bride, which finds Koenig litigating that privilege ruthlessly, both through drollery (he had to have known what we’d say about a Vampire Weekend song called “Unbearably White”) and through jaundiced melancholy. Surely it is telling that the song on which the whole album seems to hang is one about forsaking wealth. “Married in the Gold Rush,” a Grand Ole Opry-styled duet with Danielle Haim, is a song about a union consummated in prosperity but destined to ruin. “We got married in the gold rush/ And the sight of gold will always bring me pain,” Haim confesses. But what’s really telling is that, on an album where the dominant mood is a kind of millennial malaise, a sad sack aloofness, it’s in this song that Koenig seems surest about how to move forward toward something like peace and contentment. “Time to disavow the gold rush,” he sings, “and the bitterness that’s flourished in its wake.” It sounds like a plan.

That song is preceded by one called “Rich Man,” which might put you in the headspace of Jesus of Nazareth and a certain young ruler. Here, Koenig alleges that he’s perhaps the only wealthy man on the planet whose treasures have brought real satisfaction. Maybe he’s telling the truth, but he certainly doesn’t sound happy on Father of the Bride, where nearly every one of the 18 songs weds major chords and a jubilant gait to lyrics laced with strychnine despair. Koenig sings here of crumbling institutions, broken covenants, and shattered faith; he sounds like a man who’s blessed but isn’t content, well-off but absent peace of mind. He may have been “born before the gold rush,” but what does it profit a man? When we encounter him on Father of the Bride, he’s sulking in the corner on his own wedding day (“crying in those rumpled sheets like someone’s ‘bout to die,” Haim appraises), bemoaning “this life and all its suffering,” apologizing to a forbearing partner for all his hand-wringing introspection (“all I did was waste your time”), and looking back ruefully on his gilded matrimony (“those wedding bells were ringing out our fate”). Maybe he’s more like that rich man from the Bible than he lets on; maybe he sounds so miserable here because he’s straining to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Trouble on the inside spills over to trouble on the outside, and while Koenig tries to find some direction in his one wild and precious life he witnesses the slow collapse of his one wild and precious world. It’s the same world emblazoned on the album cover in glorious ClipArt chic; Mother Earth.bmp, Lindsay Zoladz calls it. And it’s the same world he laments in one song after another about ecological apocalypse. “Big Blue, for once in my life, I felt close to you,” he coos in “Big Blue,” a lover’s hymn for a dying world, voiced by a faithless paramour who’s come around too little, too late.  And in the following “How Long?”– even its title suggesting a psalm of lament– Koenig has his eye on the rapidly-rising sea levels; there’s no question as to whether we’re all drowning, there’s just the question of when. Meanwhile, “Harmony Hall” spies a serpent slinking through holy and consecrated spaces– the halls of power, God’s misty-wet garden, or whatever other hallowed place once thought incorruptible. In this context, maybe his boast about being a rich man with a satisfied mind isn’t a sign of contentment so much as callousness. You’ll notice that, amidst the clang and pep of “Bambina,” Koenig all but admits he won’t stick around when the shit hits the fan. “My Christian heart cannot withstand/ The thundering arena/ I’ll see you when the violence ends,” he addresses his lover, apologetic and shuffling for the nearest exit. The song’s animating emotion is a kind of pre-emptive survivor’s guilt. To know that, when the crisis comes, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who is spared the worst of it… what could be more privileged than that?

There’s another sense in which Koenig has always handled his privilege with care: Situated on the long historic continuum of white dudes appropriating African tropes and conventions, each Vampire Weekend album has tilted graciously toward respectful footnoting and generous contextualization. The man who brazenly titles his song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” isn’t out to plunder; maybe to provoke, possibly even to troll, but mostly to draw connections and set the table for a more inclusive conversation. That conversation continues on “Rich Man,” which puts a properly-credited sample of the African guitarist S.E. Rogie into dialogue with American country and blues idioms. Koenig’s interrogation of privilege also leads him into more domestic pilfering than he’s ever done before, mining the fertile veins of dad rock in the same way previous albums sought inspiration on other continents. Included in this pan-cultural milieu are songwriting structures on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame; African flourishes learned from Graceland; immaculate guitar tones snagged from Dave Edmunds, jittery funk absorbed from David Byrne; in “This Life,” the very same bounce Van Morrison conjured for “Brown Eyed Girl,” long a staple of oldies radio and middle school dances.

Such a bounty of sounds and influences suggests something of the Spotifycore ethos, a concentrated eclecticism that lends itself equally well to deep immersion or casual play, here funneled through the sprawl of a classic double-album structure. By all means, draw parallels to the venerated twofer of your choice– to the whiplash collisions of The Beatles, the globetrotting roots music of London Calling— but the most valuable antecedent of all may be Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Like that album, Father of the Bride feels a bit like the outpouring of a mad genius whose perfectionist studiocraft can seem insular at first, but gradually opens itself up and provides countless details worthy of obsession. (The magisterial acoustic guitar figure that undergirds “Harmony Hall”? You can play it on an infinite loop!) There’s even a nod to Lindsey Buckingham’s punchdrunk drumlines in the brassy pomp and circumstance of “We Belong Together,” the only Father of the Bride track with credits for departed Vampire Rostam Batmanglij. Indeed, Vampire Weekend has never sounded less like a band and more like a Koenig solo venture, fleshed out by a revolving cast of supporting players who include everyone from Haim to a barely-discernible Jenny Lewis. Just listen to opener “Hold You Now,” where the song’s gestures toward country-music naturalism are disrupted by a sampled gospel choir, or to the Vocoder-warped cha-cha-cha in “Spring Snow,” and you’ll hear how Father of the Bride’s pleasures emanate from one-man-band studio impressionism more than they do the pretense of live performance. True to the double album spirit, some of the most rewarding moments are the most off-script ones, suggesting rabbit trails Koenig and Co. might circle back to on album #5; in “My Mistake,” the lone song here that doesn’t sound light and breezy, Koenig croons like a jazz singer and mopes like Thom Yorke; in a couple of jams with Steve Lacy, he gets noodly and winsomely weird; in “Sympathy,” he orchestrates a rowdy, speaker-rattling flamenco.

The scaffolding that holds all of it in place is a trilogy of he-said, she-said numbers with Haim– call them scenes from a marriage. The marriage trifecta begins with “Hold You Now,” where the chapel bells are ringing but Koenig’s worried mind is cluttered with second-guesses and what-ifs. In “Married in the Gold Rush,” he’s ready to disavow affluence but keep his bride by his side. And in “We Belong Together,” husband and wife realize that, for all Koenig’s jitters, their mismatched matrimony actually makes a lot of sense; he’s only sorry he’s wasted so much of her time with his anxieties. It would be a tidy end to the story were there not three songs left on the album, culminating with the hymn-like austerity of “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” where Koenig’s back to second-guessing, lamenting the “wicked world” just outside his window. It’s an unsettled conclusion to the record, and maybe that’s the point: The quest for contentment may redeem “this life and all its suffering,” but it’s not going to cure it– and to ever feel fully at home here is a privilege none of us are meant to know.