The other day, one of my high school friends posted a meme on his Facebook wall. You’ve probably seen it, but it sums up my attitude about this year. It said, “I’m staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not to ring in the New Year, but to make sure this one leaves.” This year has been the most grueling and overwhelming year, not simply for me but for all Western society. Many of the comforts that we took for granted are now missing leaving us to reevaluate just exactly what is truly important to us in our lives. Family? Jobs? Healthcare?
As a microbiology student in college, we seemed to always discuss what should be done during a pandemic. Often, we would look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 for what they did correctly and what they didn’t. Every time the discussion came up, it always started with our initial defense being mitigation efforts, such as wearing a mask, social distancing (though back in 1918, scientists believed that six feet was NOT enough distance between individuals, but we’ve learned much since then) and locking down communities/counties/states/countries for 100 days. Back in 1918, the trouble was the ability to disseminate the information to the public, since there was a lack of a mass media as we have today. Today, we have the mass media, but we have much misinformation being passed along which confuses the less informed.
For us to put this pandemic in our collective rearview mirror, we need 90-95% of the world’s population to get vaccinated. And, that will take a Herculean effort and cooperation not only by the population in the States but throughout the world. From what I’ve been reading, experts are anticipating this will take a couple of years to complete. Remember while our friends in the UK are getting vaccinated now, we should celebrate the beginning of the end. However, the end is still off in the distance, especially in this time of world travel and economics. But, as they say, the lady is finally warming up her vocal cords for her long-anticipated solo.
All of this created frustrations in all of us. It seems an eternity ago that all of the NCAA basketball games were being cancelled, but that was just in early March. Now, the NFL and NCAA are getting a majority of their games in, while the NCAA allowed basketball to open their season. And mere months after the Lakers claimed the NBA in a bubble championship, the NBA is getting ready to start thing up again. However, all of these games are being played in near-empty stadiums.
And, the music world has been very strange this year. Many artists had to delay the release of their physical albums due to COVID (It took me two months before I finally received my vinyl three-record set of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers & All the Rest, but I have it now!). Then, all forms of touring were delayed for AT LEAST a year, we affected some many music fans out there. The Kellers had quite a lineup set this summer with Billy Joel, Hall & Oates/Squeeze, Rage Against the Machine and Guns ‘N Roses.
Initially, artists offered to submit acoustic performances for special broadcast shows. Then, other artists began various special broadcasts and streams of one-off concerts. There were drive-in concerts at some outdoors concert venues and drive-in theaters (remember those?) with performances projected on a big screen. Everyone was trying, though the communal experience was still missing.
Then, by summer, artists, who suddenly were at home with little to do, began writing and recording and dropping albums left and right. Big names like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and the Drive-By Truckers led the way with this. Others had records that were recorded before the beginning of the pandemic started that were going to be dropped regardless.
To be honest, the music released during 2020 was solid, not spectacular, just solid. Maybe, it’s because I’m a grumpy old man now and haven’t seen my granddaughter since August, or maybe I am sick and tired of not going anywhere for some fun. The music of 2020 has been soothing and comforting, but none of it excited me to get off my ass and do something. Then again, maybe that’s what was actually needed to keep us calm during this most stressful moment in time.
I cannot remember needing to work this hard to listen to so many albums. It was easy in my youth because it was all new and exciting. Now, I just don’t have the patience to wait for the hook. It could be a societal/Information Age thing or it could be my age, I don’t know (Personally, I think it’s a little of both.). So, folks, my Top 40 list is jammed full of artists with whom are “old,” with very few of the cool artists that the kids would be into.
So, let’s jump in and get this countdown going!
40. Kylie Minogue – DISCO. The former-teen star has comeback with a terrific album updating the disco era for a whole new generation.
39. Jeff Tweedy – Love Is King. The Wilco leader turns in a solid set that doesn’t travel far from the sound of his band over the past two decades.
38. Thundercat – It Is What It Is. Arguably this generation’s greatest bassist nails his jazz/yacht rock sound once again.
37. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. I know the younger critics LOVE this album and it IS good. But, to me, it is a solid indie pop album from the 2000s.
36. Ariana Grande – Positions. Yes, little Ariana is all grown up now. And, her music is maturing as well. Makes sense that she would be making solid albums at this point in her career.
35. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now. I’ve been waiting nearly a decade for this talented woman to finally breakthrough to massive commercial success. Is she becoming another Janelle Monaé?
34. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Ms. Apple’s albums are so damn consistently good, it’s nearly unbelievable. This one happens to be the album of the year on many lists.
33. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News. After the great Kendrick Lamar, MTS may just be the best rapper of her generation.
32. Fleet Foxes – Shore. The critical darlings of a decade ago are back with a quiet roar on this album, their best since their debut.
31. Paul McCartney – McCartney III. 50 years after McCartney and 40 since McCartney II comes the third in the trilogy of albums where Sir Paul plays everything himself while experimenting in the studio. I love it when he is truly inspired.
30. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher. This album just may get her the Grammy for Best New Artist coming up.
29. Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling. My favorite Southern Rock band dropped this at the beginning of the year as an attempt at rectifying their southern roots in the 21st century.
28. The Chicks – Gaslighter. While DBT attempt to square their rural upbringing with their liberal leanings, The Chicks got that straightened out a long time ago. So, the Trump era was the perfect time for these woman to come back with a vengeance.
27. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor. The lead singer of pop punk band Paramore finally released her long-anticipated album and it’s a good one.
26. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy. Like Johnny Cash before him, Dylan has been going through something of a late-in-life renaissance. And, I am thankful for that.
25. Billie Joe Armstrong – No Fun Mondays. At the beginning of the pandemic, Armstrong started digging through his record collection and began recording and releasing a video of him doing a cover of some of his favorites. This album is much edgier, and perhaps better than Weezer’s like-minded Teal Album from a year ago.
24. Drive-By Truckers – The New OK. DBT were not content to rest upon the laurels of their first album of the year, the aforementioned The Unraveling. This album is an even stronger extension of the previous one the band released in 2020.
23. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions. Since leaving DBT, Isbell has become the best Americana artist going, including his former band.
22. The Killers – Imploding the Mirage. Yes, I love all the artists who remind me of the Eighties. While The Killers have been kind of sleepwalking through their career since their excellent debut Hot Fuss, the band had me immediately with “Caution,” their first single from this album. And, it is comforting that they have finally gotten their standards back up to that transcendent first one.
21. Halsey – Maniac. I know I am not in Halsey’s target audience, but I sure do love how she works her demons out through her art. This young lady is a major talent who has yet to hit her creative stride.
20. Pearl Jam – Gigaton. Can you believe that the two greatest surviving bands of the Nineties, Green Day and these guys, both released albums in the same year? And for a brief moment, my boys were back in elementary, and we were jamming in the mini-van. Talk about a Nineties cliché.
19. Chris Stapleton – Starting Over. Understatement of the year: this guy is so good!
18. Neil Young – Homegrown. Hey Neil! Thanks for finally releasing this g.d. album! This is brilliant. How could you let it sit on the shelf while you were releasing Trans? Sometimes, you just really piss me off.
17. Childish Gambino – 3.15.2020. I know you are still pissed that you didn’t get selected for a SNL cast, but I think things have worked out much better for you. Oh, and this album is super fine too!
16. Run the Jewels – RTJ4. This is hip hop’s best duo going right now. To me, they are rap’s version of The Clash, making one spot-on political statement after another in their music. Thanks guys! We needed it.
15. AC/DC – Power Up. The first band I saw in concert in an arena in 1979. They’ve survived the death of first lead singer Bon Scott and now rhythm guitarist and riff-meister Malcolm Young and still made a great album in 2020. This one is the band’s best since their salad days of the early-Eighties.
14. Green Day – Father of All Motherfuckers. Green Day reminded me just how much I love power pop music with this album. No, it’s not Dookie nor even American Idiot, but it’s better than anything they’ve the past decade. Why? The guys sound like they are having fun.
13. The Strokes – The New Abnormal. I remember when my older son brought The Strokes’ first album home when he was in high school and played it for me. That lead us to listen to my old CBGBs bands, like Talking Heads, Blondie, Johnny Thunders, Television, Dead Boys, etc. Man, it is so good to have them back to form so I can get some flashbacks going.
12. Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface. The last concert I went to was Elvis in November 2019. During that stellar show, he debuted some of the songs on this album. So, I was anxious to get a copy of this one and it did not disappoint. And, all is right in the world again.
11. X – Alphabetland. If you had told back in 1990 that X would reform in 2020 and make a punk record that stands up to everything they recorded in the Eighties, I would have bet against you. Well, I lost. This album should make X the comeback story of the year.
10. Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts. Now, this is NOT the rock album that the critics are saying it is. But, it IS rock-tinged and does rock, which is a great texture for an excellent pop-rock record. Kudos to Miley for continuing to take career risks. But, this sound suits her well.
9. Taylor Swift – Folklore. This is the same young lady who is around my younger son’s age who’s career began as a pop country artist? Wow! While I’ve respected her past work, this is the actual visceral stuff that true artists are made of.
8. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia. Ms. Lipa’s sophomore album is a triumph. This is a younger person’s take on Seventies and Eighties disco/dance music than Kylie Minogue attacked from a knowing perspective. It’s the innocence of youth that takes the music to another level.
7. Bob Mould – Blue Hearts. Once again, Mr. Mould has proven he has mastered his sound and knows how to craft outstanding songs that will sound fresh 50 years from now. He’s been on a roll for a decade now.
6. Lady Gaga – Chromatica. My favorite 21st century artist continues to impress with this album that does not have a ballad. She’s got some big balls after the mega-success “Shallow.” That’s what I love about her, the willingness to follow her muse and not chase album sales.
5. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush. Kevin Parker IS Tame Impala and this album is his crown jewel. I love the electronic flourishes of psychedelia in his take on the pop/rock medium. I continue to come back to this album day after day.
4. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall II. I fell in love with this band when I heard their version of The Band’s “Makes No Difference” on a tribute compilation nearly 15 years ago. They have been up and down over the years, so when I heard they were releasing an album of outtakes from the sessions that created one of the band’s less interesting albums, The Waterfall. Well, I was very skeptical. Then, I heard it. I listened again. Then, I bought it. And I listen some more. How did MMJ ever leave this stuff off the original album? This is magnificent.
3. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III. So, nothing on this sister trio ever prepared me for this album. Whoa! Obviously, they grew up absorbing all of the right music in their parents’ collection. Now, the Haim sisters have become their own women and artists. This is the finest album of a 21st century artist this year. I hope they win the Grammy for it, but I’m afraid Taylor will win yet another one.
Paul Weller – On Sunset. Of course, my top two are going to all-time favorites of mine. I was all prepared to give Weller the nod for #1, but I pulled back just now. This album is a perfect summer album. It’s not a Beach Boys or Eagles type of album. No, this one harkens back to the early-Seventies soul I used to listen to on my little transistor radio on the headboard of my bed. This is the music of the Chi-Lites, The O’Jays and The Stylistics channeled through Weller’s English rock base to create some excellent music for those of us middle aged folks. I was listening to some of The Style Council stuff yesterday and who would have ever guessed that Weller’s voice would mature to sound at times like Ray Charles, or at least Richard Manuel of The Band.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. When it comes to my musical heroes, I try not to get worked up by the media hype behind their albums. Instead, I tend to listen to their newer albums with a pinch of trepidation. But, by the third song on this album, I swore I was back in my dorm room, listening to Springsteen with my roommate and others, bouncing around the room. Now, my bouncing days are long gone, but this is vintage Springsteen at his best. And, personally, it was the album I needed in 2020.
And, that’s a wrap on 2020. Let’s keep the music and throw away the rest of it. Peace!