Live at Swedish American Hall, 2/22/2020 by the Mountain Goats
Alright, you caught me; in a year where the Mountain Goats released two new albums — not to mention their other 20+ albums and tapes — I have chosen instead a live concert. (As the original curator of this series, I reserve the right to break my own rules.) This live concert was the last in a series of three solo shows played in San Francisco; the Mountain Goats, to those poor souls unaware, is primarily the work of a single songwriter, John Darnielle, who has written hundreds of songs over the years. Though nowadays he often tours with a band, occasionally he will embark on a solo tour, though his introduction is always the same: “Hi, we’re the Mountain Goats.”
As you might be able to infer from the auspicious date, the concert was the last live show the Mountain Goats were able to play this year. (In the fall, they released video recordings of two new live sessions; I’ve seen plenty of livestreams and prerecorded shows this year and, to me, they’re great up until the exact moment when the first song ends and the deafening silence of the absent audience rings out.) Darnielle put together an incredible setlist for this show, and the audience banter is hilarious and enthralling as always, but above all else, it feels like the before-times — a feeling I can’t quite name, but sorely miss.
Towards the end of the show, one brave soul in the audience yells out “Ethiopians!” The audience’s chuckles turn to shocked gasps as Darnielle, after checking to make sure he remembers the chords and berating that audience member for requesting an unreleased song that “at least half the room hasn’t heard,” launches into one of his best songs.
The bad taste in our mouths /
The twinkle in your eye /
Good things never last, /
Bad things never die!
You just can’t get that on a livestream.
Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
As one of the top 0.05% listeners of Phoebe Bridgers, it would be immoral to write about anyone else. With this album, Bridgers ripped my heart out, took a bite, and delivered it back to me with a handwritten note which said everything will be okay. Hilarious, twisted, and heartbreaking, Punisher is incredibly smooth and clever. Every word carries impressive weight whilst still being delicate, every line feels just right. The palpable tenderness in “Graceland Too”, the desperation of “Moon Song”, the adoration in “Punisher” shine bright, deeply personal yet relatable. Bridgers captures what it feels like to be a 20 something-year-old in a messed up world, trying to navigate love, loss, depression, existence, and self. I cannot recommend “Garden Song” enough, my most listened to song of 2020. Something about the fuzzy and heavy instrumentals as Bridgers sings about murdering a skinhead, her surreal dreams, and learning to deal with resentment is weirdly familiar. And there is nothing quite like listening to “I Know The End” while biking, screaming along with Phoebe Bridgers; a kind of catharsis I hope everyone gets to experience at least once.
The Seven by Emily King
I didn’t listen to many full albums this semester, but I did find myself turning to The Seven when I needed it most. Regardless of the chaos occurring in my life this semester, Emily King’s sweet and soulful voice on this 2011 7-song EP was a consistent source of calm. So when I say The Seven, I mean THE seven songs that kept me from multiple mental breakdowns. The EP begins with King’s ethereal harmonies on “Down,” the keyboard accompaniment actively lowering one’s heart rate, followed by the rich and soulful strings on “No More Room.” My personal favorite is “Sides,” the reason why I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s King’s lyrics acknowledging one’s fears and the promise of mutual protection that hit home in a time where friendship really feels necessary for survival. Anyway, I have concluded that Emily is an excellent substitute for meditation, and you will find yourself swaying your body no matter what you do. Breathing = regulated.
7ven by Tokyo’s Revenge
I don’t hear enough people talking about how amazing Tokyo’s Revenge is. I will not lie, I discovered him through TikTok with his songs “Goodmorningtokyo!” and “THOT!” which were clearly influenced by XXXTentacion’s signature aggressive, bass-heavy style. 7ven somehow transitions perfectly from this aggressive tone, like in “BULLETPROOF”, into more melodic/vibe-y songs like “SINNER, PT. 3” where his vocals are nothing but impressive. “DEADMANSWONDERLAND” is a blend of his range, and it is impossible to not feel the emotion he puts into his work. His flow and lyricism always capture your attention, with one particular bar about Dyson vacuums always stuck in my head (you have to go listen to find out what I’m referring to). The closing track, “we made an anime opening”, made me Emotional the first time I listened to the EP all the way through, cementing the fact that Tokyo’s Revenge does such an amazing job showing his range in just 7 tracks. I’ve found myself resorting to this general alternative hip-hop genre a lot since the world has become a bit of a Mess, and this album was exactly what I needed to get me through the semester.
Spilligon by Spillage Village
The first feature project from Atlanta Hip-hop and R&B based collective Spillage Village, Spilligon takes the listener on a sonic journey throughout its 12 outstanding tracks. Made up of artists such as EARTHGANG, 6lack, Merba, Ari Lennox, and many more the chemistry seen on the album is almost unparallel. However, where Spillage Village stands out is it’s unorthodox response to the events of the world occurring around all of us. Recorded with all artists quarantining together in a house in suburban Atlanta; the album explores the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests of racial injustice and police brutality through the lens of religion during “the apocalypse.” Described as genre-bending “uplifting, soulful melodies and contemplative bars about day-to-day reality in 2020,” Spilligon perfectly complements the weird out there vibe 2020 has brought. My personal favorite track is “End of Days” a harrowing posse cut in which all members describe their lives as the world ends, portrayed through the questioning of the validity of religion.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
This album, when announced, came as an absolute surprise–much like most of what unfolded this year. As the famous story goes, FTBC was originally supposed to come out in October, but seeing as Fiona Apple knows everything on a metaphysical level, she sensed that humanity needed to hear her new songs (after a seven-year break, too!) during the darkest parts of quarantine. And, yeah! We needed it in April! Like every album she puts out, she offered well-thought lyrics, intricate, chaotic instrumentation, and intense, in-your-face self-reflection. However, separate from her previous albums, FTBC is her most powerful and surprisingly uplifting yet, giving us raw, earnest forgiveness, making me very emotional during every song the first time I heard them. During quarantine, I’ve also been in that self-reflection state (after all, there’s nothing else to do), thinking a lot about how I personally feel about the subject matter in FTBC. This album was an extremely-needed jumping-off point to understand how I love other people, how I’ve treated those close to me and those I barely know, if I tried my best to be kind and nonjudgemental, to come to terms with the things that happened to me and put them into perspective. Musically, it was the most “Fiona” album I’ve heard, with every instrument played by her and hand-selected friends (and her pets!). In other words, you could definitely tell that everything in that 51-minute time-span is 100% a product of her agency. And though I felt like nothing was in my control this semester, FTBC offered me a perspective that I can still have a firm grasp on myself and not let anyone or anything try to take that away from me. Listening (at midnight on the day of its release because Fiona Apple is one of my favorite artists, lol) to the album for the first time, I felt like it perfectly encapsulated my ‘quarantine experience’, from “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” demanding escape from our current homes (topical! brilliant!), to “Newspaper,” “Rack of His,” “Shameika”, and the others forcing me to think about my own past relationships and how I interacted with people I knew. In short, this album is gorgeous and has become a defining moment of my semester (and life, now), and I feel like I’ve grown a lot emotionally.
Anyway, I could write essays on Fiona Apple because she’s one of the most intelligent people of our time, but uhhh….my top five are: 1) “I Want You to Love Me” 2) “Cosmonauts” 3) “Ladies” 4) “For Her” 5) “Under the Table”, and I feel like that says a lot.
Positions by Ariana Grande
This album singlehandedly got me through my breakup. Well, in addition to other Ariana songs. But there was just something so special and sweet and empowering and sexy and sassy and loving about this album. Every time I listen to “just like magic,” I genuinely believe I am transported to the center of a stage somewhere and all eyes are on me, admiring my magnetic presence. This album has the ability to make every listener feel like the main character, even if we’re actually all just nameless humans. Ms. Grande delivered on what she does best: hype music with a splash of spite, a touch of reflectiveness, and a triple serving of confidence.
Frozen II by Various artists
Hear me out. I listen to cool pretentious niche music. I’m a badass bitch. Gaslighter and Neotheater banged around in my head for months, I listened to an UNHEALTHY amount of Lizzo. And yet, when I searched up what music I listened to the most this year, Frozen II came up as number one. Maybe this was from babysitting, but I am unashamed to admit that I listened to it for several hours on my own. After bawling through the movie with my sister in the theater, the soundtrack remained relevant. I listened to “Show Yourself ” as I moved from one city to another in a foreign country realizing my best self was could only exist in a place that let me be myself. “Into The Unknown” as I immersed myself in college courses a semester early surrounded by only upperclassmen, “When I’m Older” as a pandemic turned my life upside down, “Get This Right” as I crushed on an oblivious boy. And most of all, when I was so sick with Covid I could barely get out of bed for months, “The Next Right Thing.” again and again and again. Frozen II is intelligently written, beautifully composed, and deeply human. Disney does not skimp on the musical ingenuity due to having a young audience. I stopped listening to it months ago, but as I put it on now, I remember the way it gave me everything I needed. Patience, joy, and a curious form of empathy.
Making a Door Less Open by Car Seat Headrest
It’s something about the endless droning synths of Making a Door Less Open that just sounds like quarantine. Long stretched notes, screams, and instrumental breaks fill the minutes, leaving barebones lyrics that search for meaning, any meaning, to hold on to. This entire semester I’ve felt lost, untethered from my “normal” life. Without my friends, family, or even a familiar landscape, stuck in classes I hated, I began to lose my sense of direction. Why was I doing all this? What was the point? What would the future look like? This kind of existential dread is both the question and answer presented in Making a Door Less Open, and so I found myself coming back, over and over again. On loop as I drove laps around my town, in my earbuds as I studied, tapping my foot along to the beat as I cooked dinner in my kitchen, night after night. It mimicked the comforting monotony of my life, but also broke me out of it, injecting me with energy and an unshakeable desire to go and do. With just enough life to keep me going but enough pessimism to feel appropriate, MaDLO carried me through the semester.
If this was my own personal blog, I could go on about just “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” for hours, but to spare you my rambling, I’ll just say that that song is art. If you listen to one track from MaDLO, that should be the one.
Please by Sondre Lerche
Unlike last semester, where I had color theory by Soccer Mommy practically permanently on loop, I listened to a wide variety of albums this semester, some new, some I had known for a long time. There might not have been a real winner, but I’m going to give it to this album anyway, because of all the albums I listened to in these past few months, Please and I have the most history. I had just started listening to Sondre Lerche when this album came out in 2014; it was the first album I got to be “there” for, and when I listened to it at that innocent age of 13, I thought I understood it. Fool! Please is a divorce album, and while I, now pushing 20, definitely know no more about divorce than my 13-year-old self did, I do think I “get” it more. Please is about looking back at a thing that fell apart, and rehashing it over, and over, and over, and sometimes you’re the victim, sometimes you’re the criminal, and sometimes you’re just a dumbass who wants to be free and wants and hates to be alone. And what have I done this semester? Look back at a thing that fell apart (what was supposed to be college) and rehash it over, and over, and over. The friendships I ended, the ones I wanted to have, all the things I could have done but didn’t in the time I had—they’re just on a loop. Sometimes, that feels revelatory; sometimes, it just feels terrible. And in either extreme, Sondre Lerche is there, too, on Please, pissed (“Legends”) or melancholic (“Lucky Guy”) or aloof (“Lucifer,” “At Times We Live Alone”). And I get it now, I think.
Four by One Direction
Regression hit me HARD during the pandemic. Like many people, I am reckoning with the difficulty of being a college student in the setting of my childhood home. As a result, I’m looking to my past coping mechanisms. I wasn’t a Directioner when the band was together, but their ubiquitousness meant that their music was inextricably linked with my preteen years.
Four was released in 2014: the band had been the hottest thing in teen pop for 4 years. In Four, we see that they’ve grown up and apart –– this is the last album before Zayn left, and you can sense some divergence. These qualities make it the ideal soundtrack for feeling simultaneously like a child and an adult (Zoom college and teenage stardom are the same thing). The album features “Fireproof”, my third top song this year, and truly the happiest song known to man. Other highlights include “No Control”, the song that taught a generation of teenagers what sex was, “Stockholm Syndrome”, an 80s-inspired driving anthem, and “Steal My Girl” for that classic 1D musical motif, the na na na na section. Also important: the Irish jig intro to “Act My Age”, in case you EVER forget about Niall Horan.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet by Japanese Breakfast
I can’t say why this album hit me so particularly hard during this semester, but I listened to it over and over again, especially when I was studying late at night. What I love about Japanese Breakfast is how their songs are simultaneously cutting and ethereal. Even though I only listened to “Boyish” for the first time in September, it made its way into my top five on my Spotify Wrapped. The lyrics “I can’t get you off my mind/ I can’t get you off in general” just spoke to my experience of being separated from the life I felt like I should be living, due to quarantine and isolation. “Till Death” is also the perfect song to take you by surprise and make you break down crying in the middle of whatever you’re doing when you’re listening to it. I think this semester I just needed a new sound, a break from my traditional repetition of Vampire Weekend and The Strokes. The lyrics on SSFAP can be hard to discern if you’re not particularly listening, making it good ambient sound for studying or running errands. However, the lyrics are hard-hitting too and definitely worth the listen. I would really recommend this album, especially “Boyish.”
Divergent: Original Motion Picture Score by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenberg)
I admit this was probably the most random album that I stumbled across this year. I haven’t even seen the movie nor read the books. But, in a time where nothing made sense and I needed albums that were going to serve as great stuff for lifting me up but also as background music while I studied for my harder, hellish classes, this ended up being my go-to album because, somehow, it has both! The opener – “Tris” – is THE track for getting yourself hyped up, from the guitars to Ellie Goulding’s amazing vocals (special mention goes to “Choosing Dauntless” and “Capture the Flag”). The more ambient tracks – “Erudite Plan”, “Conspiracy” and “Dauntless Attack” – are so menacing with the hybrid elements yet understated that I could still do work without feeling the urge to jump out of my seat and fight some monsters (again, don’t know anything about this franchise). And the 20th track, “Fight the Dauntless”. Honestly, I could go on and on about this track, but I won’t. Suffice it to say I love this album and I hope it’ll be there for me next semester too.
Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa
I know it’s a very popular one but I honestly just needed some upbeat music that made me feel like a baddie this semester after all the stuff that has been thrown at me. People tend to say that artists have bad second albums but MISS DUA DID NOTTT DISAPPOINT! There is not a single song on this album that is bad. And I don’t say that often about Pop albums. It is perfect for getting ready, working out, and going on walks around your neighborhood to feel like you’re the main character walking in a fashion show. “Hallucinate”, “Good in Bed”, and “Pretty Please” have been on repeat as of recent. Just so fun and catchy.
folklore by Taylor Swift
What I like most about folklore is how the album is both overwhelmingly melancholic yet features various outlets of escapism. Taylor Swift has always been good at story telling, and she uses this album to emphasize her talents. She tells other people’s stories inspired by her time in quarantine spent reading and watching TV or movies. The whole album is very representative of the time period we are in and yet it is not confined just to the pandemic. The song “this is me trying” discusses how trying can look different for everyone and might take varying amounts of strength, but even the smallest acts can be counted as “trying”. I think while this speaks volumes during isolation, it is also true in just about anything. She also features a love triangle and tells stories from different perspectives (a teenage boy, Rebekah Harkness, a seven-year-old, the “other” woman, etc). Many of the songs are sad, but I can revel in her storytelling and the places she brings me through her songs. Being home in isolation is certainly not what I envisioned my first semester of college to look like, but I use her album not only to take comfort in the fact that my feelings are shared and I need not feel as lonely but also to escape (which is MUCH needed right now!).
boygenius — Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus
Listen: yes, it’s technically an EP, but it deserves to be on this list anyway! This 6-song masterclass in indie girl godliness was the only thing standing between me and insanity in this hellscape of a year. My first love of this EP was “Salt in the Wound” — a cathartic anthem of love, loss, and betrayal, with high notes that could shatter glass (and your heart). Ultimately, my favorite track (possibly taking on the mantle of My Favorite Song) is “Souvenir”. It’s painfully beautiful, simple, raw, and ethereal. I can’t really explain why it hits so hard, but I’ve spent many a late night lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, “Souvenir” on repeat. Overall, I just can’t really say a single bad thing about this set of songs! I would be remiss not to mention the Brooklyn Steel live performance and NPR Tiny Desk Concert on Youtube that solidified my obsession with this music. Massive shoutout to these ladies for all the hours of free therapy!
2000AND4EVA by Bree Runway
Speaking as someone whose mental health absolutely spiralled down the drain this semester, I guarantee you this album is the perfect remedy for pandemic/academic/personal despair. On her debut mixtape, Bree Runway serves hyperpop-ish alternative hip hop banger after banger with features from Maliibu Mitch, Rico Nasty, Yung Baby Tate, and mfing Missy Elliott. Her lyrics are clever and catchy and her beats are irresistibly danceable. This is truly a no-skip album so you really can’t go wrong but I think my favorites are “GUCCI (feat. Maliibu Mitch)” and “ATM (feat. Missy Elliott),” although “APESHIT” definitely gets an honorable mention. Also, there is literally no other song I am more looking forward to dancing to in a brownstone basement (someday) than “DAMN DANIEL (feat. Yung Baby Tate)” (“Got good brain but not much knowledge / That’s why I get my tiddies out when I’m with the scholars” !!!!) These songs will inspire you to dress up for no reason, hex every man who has ever done you wrong, & participate in other Hot Girl activities no matter how depressing your life is right now. I’m speaking with absolute sincerity when I say that if you’re not throwing it down by yourself in your bathroom while you brush your teeth to this at 1 am, I’m going to need you to take another listen.
Julia Tolda — Always Live For Always by Skott
Lillian Rountree — SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
Daniel Ortega-Venni — The Crown Season Two (Soundtrack from the Netflix Original Series) by Rupert Gregson-Williams & Lorne Balfe
Rita Nguyen — The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Zoomify or Spotizoom? by Joyce Jiang