20 + 20 for 2020 (Boys STFU Edition)
It’s the fourth anniversary of my original Boys STFU List. Progress has been made. More is needed. Let’s keep it going! Since the point is to listen to more artists, I made this list longer than usual. And non-binary or queer ambiguities are resolved in favor of inclusion, naturally.
I don’t have any universal insights into how the pandemic and quarantine are impacting our experience of music. In my home, we’re struggling to get through, and the absence of concerts is just another drag. This list, in hindsight, is oriented toward music that in one way or another is capable of bringing joy to our overwhelming sadness. And it is good to look back and appreciate there was a lot of that happening this year. Thank you, music.
One not-bad thing about this year is that, with an ungodly amount of time at home, I’ve been surfing for music videos. Now, almost all music videos continue to suck, and indie music videos especially tend to be poorly conceived and badly executed suck. Bands playing their own songs “live in studio” is a dead cliché to me, but this summer it was replaced somewhat with “live from home.” That is new. New is interesting. What does your song sound like if it is you and a guitar and your computer, or maybe even your phone. Phoebe Bridgers crushed this opportunity. She is ready, any day, to play any of her songs, solo. That’s one reason she is topping my list this year. I’ve included some of my favorite video links below.
1. Phoebe Bridgers - “Kyoto”
It was always going to be Phoebe’s year. She started with a stockpile of song ideas since Stranger in the Alps, plus the experience of recording two supergroup albums, and her knowledge of how to self-promote in 2020 may be unrivalled. The songs she is writing now are solid gold. She rules the internet. It seems like every publication queued up to do a “Phoebe Bridgers, Indie Darling” feature this year. And the Grammys are trying to find a way to get her a trophy.
After listening to everything on this album, a lot, this remains my favorite track. Phoebe’s songs combine fragments of memory with imagined dialog that matches exactly what it is like, for me, to think. In that sense, these are not “personal” songs at all. The memories are personal, but the songs are about what it is like to be a human who tries to think things through but keeps getting side-tracked by flashes of memory. The past won’t shut up.
Bonus video: There’s lots to choose from. She did “live from home” for fundraisers, and for every late night talk show. She played in her pajamas, and once from her bathtub. All of this is better than “live in studio.” My favorite video for "Kyoto" is this one, in part because it is so totally unassuming. Which is exactly what it should be.
2. Waxahatchee - “Can’t Do Much”
This is the first track I heard from Waxahatchee this year and I loved it immediately. Think of the bands you have known who did a “roots” record mid-career and it was fucking awesome. Awfully short list for me. But this was clearly going to be killer.
When you’re missing me,
oh what do you see?
that you think you’ll never be,
that you could tend to and lead,
to fill all your needs?
give it to you all on a dime.
This verse just floored me. What does your lover imagine when they are missing you? This is some insightful stuff. And it sounds gorgeous.
There’s a story Katie decided to write the rest of the album around this song. Maybe. But it’s not the best track on the album. You might pick four others from just the first side: “Fire,” “Lilacs,” “The Eye,” and “Hell” have all shown up on end of the year lists. Those are not wrong choices. And the album is better than the sum of the tracks. God I love this album so much.
Bonus video: Not exactly home, but it’s an acoustic version with just Katie. Also, this summer she did a series of streams live from home, one for each album. The Saint Cloud version is now on YouTube, this song starts here.
3. Frances Quinlan - “Your Reply”
The second single from the solo album, I’m glad it came out in a new year so that I didn’t have to make a choice. This track is all about the chords and the rhythms and I don’t think anyone is doing it better. Do the lyrics matter? The first verse is absurdly obscure (the author is Bohumil Hrabal, does that help?) and I don’t know whether the second verse has anything to do with it, but there’s this for the chorus right when the beat changes:
Whether or not I have, or was given, a little more time,
There just doesn't seem to be much room for a reply.
which was a highlight for me this year.
Bonus video: it is pre-quarantine and in studio, but it is a girl and a guitar and a really cool version.
4. Hazel English - “Combat”
I get why people call it “dreamy” but that isn’t a helpful description. This is a pretty unsentimental track. “When you ask what I want, I know it’s all talk.” Her voice is breathy and lush without sounding precious, sure. But be careful calling it pop, as there are real drums and real guitars carrying this along. There’s nothing I don’t like about this. English left Oakland to go record her album in L.A. and you can’t begrudge her that because it sounds great.
I can’t find any live videos. Maybe she’s back in Australia playing concerts now. For her sake I hope so.
5. Dua Lipa - “Levitating”
It is important that the album is called Future Nostalgia. There are some other words, less nice words, than “nostalgia” you could use for this. But look, if what you like best is Jamiroquai’s greatest hits, then make this album and don’t apologize. It is good to know what you like. It is better to have the confidence to say, "I like this and if you can’t share that with me, then you are the poorer." That confidence goes a long, long way.
Bonus video: because Dua Lipa lives in a nation ruled by a disinterested and massively incompetent conservative buffoon who at least is not actively seeking the death of his citizens, she was recently able to sing this and a few other songs in a room with her band.
6. Caroline Rose - “Feel The Way I Want”
In the context of the album, this is about trying to put trouble behind you. But this is a Caroline Rose anthem, and as a single it’s much less complicated. She now has a song where the audience can sing along to the chorus, irony-free. And suddenly no more audience. I’m sure there’s lots of examples of that but it hurts just to think about it.
Bonus video: a more band-friendly “live at home” format, a few members record their parts and splice a video together. This is a fine example of the form.
7. La Roux - “Automatic Driver”
If you missed the chance to experience pure joy at the return of La Roux, you should listen to this ten times, immediately.
Bonus video: just for Aaron, here’s the band “live in studio” at some Dutch music station, where after the song the most Dutch host ever acts in the most Dutch way imaginable, and Elly is having fucking none of it. Exhibit number one thousand why “live in studio” should be denied the vaccine.
8. - Diet Cig - “Who Are You”
Diet Cig achieve the pinnacle of their sugary pop-rock, and they execute every gimmick in their playbook to make you smile.
No live video found, but “Official Music Video” is unusually fun.
9. Beach Bunny - “Cloud 9”
They call themselves power pop, but we know they are really tenderpunk. And we love them for it. The last concert we saw this year was Beach Bunny, at the Great American Music Hall in March. At least we have a good concert to remember. The live version of this song seriously rocks. I choose to keep my memories, no videos wanted.
10. Bully - “Where to Start”
The third album from Bully is a welcome arrival after the sophomore whiff. My take is, maybe this needs even less production. Generally you should avoid overdubbing your garage rock. This very garage. “I was better then, back again, Ambien! / Fuck the win, are you in, are you in?” I like that a lot, but you can’t expect to be opening for Taylor Swift with it.
Bonus video: the band live at (someone’s) home (?!), maybe proves the point.
11. The Sonder Bombs - “What Are Friends For?”
I don’t know much about this band, other than that this track immediately popped onto my new music playlist and just keeps moving higher and higher.
12. Worriers - “Big Feelings”
However long Lauren Denitzio can keep this Worriers thing going, we should be grateful for every minute of it, and make the effort to give these songs repeated listens. “Expert overthinker in an Irish four A.M. / I am filled with whiskey words to run my mouth.” That is a perfect intro to this song. Her lyrics inject the scene, the context, the thoughts and emotions, all straight into your soul. “You know I’m not the gambling type / Put my money on warm hearts and these feelings.” We are with you Lauren!
13. Riverby - “Smart Mouth”
I heard this band described as “big in Philadelphia” and immediately listened to the album. The truth abides.
14. Bad Moves - “Toward Crescent Park”
When this album came out I told some friends it was a contender for album of the year (non-Crutchfield division). Now that I’ve listened to it a lot, I’ve got a take. It is just badly recorded. On this track, you can’t have David Combs riffing like he’s Jimmy Page and then bury Katie’s vocals like she’s whispering with a hand over her mouth. And then you have to smother the backing vocals even further to make them “backing.” C’mon, this is a great band writing great songs. Someone help them make a great record. Just for contrast, I’m going to put HAIM next, a band that makes no mistakes in the studio, ever.
15. HAIM - “Don’t Wanna”
This is my favorite track from the third album. It has a little more R&B feel, and I like when HAIM does that. Record sounds too perfect, right?
Bonus video: socially distanced “live from the recording studio.”
16. Soccer Mommy - “circle the drain”
I didn’t quite get the “color” concept behind the album, but some of these songs are perfect to chill at home with. There were a few times this year when I thought to myself “Things feel that low sometimes / Even when everything is fine.”
Bonus video: acoustic live from home.
17, 18, 19. Waxahatchee - “Witches,” “War,” “Arkadelphia”
OK, can’t keep quiet about Saint Cloud any longer. As it is impossible to single out anything else on Side One, let’s listen to the start of Side Two. “Witches” is the perfect stomping, double-tracked, mid-tempo country rocker to open an album side. “War” is the kind of song that Katie has always crushed -- three chords and a howl -- it’s the one track on this album that would fit on Ivy Tripp. “But I mostly keep to myself what I'm going through / I’m in a war with myself, it’s got nothing to do with you.” It marks a crescendo of a sort for Saint Cloud. Then “Arkadelphia” turns the corner: slower, simpler, longer, mournful. It's just what you want after the previous tracks and sets the stage perfectly for the closing tracks, which take all this a little further. The last turn that sets up the perfect closing. It's a beautiful song, made more beautiful by where it sits. You can say much the same for all the other tracks.
20. Phoebe Bridgers - “Garden Song”
Last week I had moved “ICU” onto this list instead, but going back and listening again, it has to be this. There’s a damn backlash in my Phoebe Bridgers fandom!
Aaron is correct, there’s a line about wanting to kill the skinhead neighbor and bury him in the garden. But again, on a deeper level, her songs are about what we try to tell ourselves about ourselves, and how little bits of memory interrupt us and demand to be dealt with. Maybe you are trying to tell yourself that “Someday I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill.” But in creeps a memory of the skinhead neighbor, the one you joked about killing and burying in the garden. You may not want to deal with that memory right now, you’re trying to imagine yourself living in that house up on the hill. Your brain doesn’t care what you want. Here it is. You have to deal with it, if you can.
21. Katie Pruitt - “Look The Other Way”
Katie Pruitt released her first album and it’s pretty good, but I got more interested in this, her “protest anthem.” First, if you are looking for a protest anthem, this is really, really good. This will worm into your ears. She and the band hold nothing back. And big respect to these folks, who don’t have an established career, or audience, or any sort of security in the industry, to decide that they want to say something hard and direct, even if Jimmy Kimmel isn’t going to praise them for it, or even be told it happened.
Headlines are bleedin’ red
With the name of a man that I’ve never met,
Cuffed on the street with a knee on his neck
And tears spillin’ out of his eyes.
Well, are we heartless or are we numb?
Changin’ the channel on the television,
Telling ourselves we’re not the ones,
And refusing to apologize.
And I get pissed when people tell me “That’s the way it is”
When there is so much more that we can say.
If you walked past, knowing that breath might be his last,
Would you still have looked the other way?
Bonus video: the acoustic version confirms Katie is really, really good. Can someone get her on Jimmy Kimmel?
22. Caylee Hamack - “Just Friends”
I was just so-so on this track until I heard Caylee explain somewhere that the first verse seemed like Dolly Pardon and the rest like Everclear, so she went ahead and recorded it that way. That describes this so perfectly, and I kinda love her for doing that.
23. Kathleen Edwards - “Options Open”
Kathleen Edwards contemplates a comeback, after several years of pursuing the comparatively lucrative career of serving coffee. She was alt-country when she took a break, but may just be country now.
Bonus video: acoustic live from home, even though she is in Canada, a nation where, unlike the U.S., &c, &c.
24. Lydia Loveless - “Love Is Not Enough”
Lydia Loveless also comes back, strong and dark. (It’s an alt-country renaissance here on tracks 23 and 24 of my list.)
25. Ambar Lucid - “Story To Tell”
Ambar Cruz takes a strong pop turn on this track from her debut album, a happy development, for sure.
26. Overcoats / Joey Pecoraro - “The Fool - Joey Pecoraro Remix”
Cathleen: “What are you listening to?”
Me: “Oh, it’s just a remix of this Overcoats song.”
*realizes I’ve been dancing around the house to this track for two days*
Me: “I guess, uh, I kinda like it.”
27. Ashleigh Ball - “Keep on Pretending”
I count Ashleigh’s solo work as her fourth project. The third is her indie pop band Hey Ocean! Her second is voicing Applejack and Rainbow, of My Little Pony. Her main project I expect remains dealing with bronies, the adult male fans of My Little Pony -- a fandom that at times is credibly sincere but always too deeply creepy to tolerate. None of this has anything to do with this track, I’ve just been hoping for years that Hey Ocean! would get something on this list so I could write about how weird Ashleigh Ball’s career has been so far.
28. Rina Sawayama - “Comme Des Garçons”
It’s hard not to feel a little timid writing about Rina Sawayama on this blog. I like this track. Amazing bass line. But it’s not like I find her some avatar of post-genre, universal pop music. Given the other posts, probably best to shut up and move along now.
29. Dua Lipa - “Break My Heart”
Close call between this and “Love Again” for the second 2020-list-eligible track from Future Nostalgia. I feel like if you accept the musical premise, all the tracks on this album are good. I also feel like you think I am overthinking this.
30. Shamir - “On My Own”
Shamir’s latest brew of genres and instruments comes together wonderfully on this mixtape/self-release/album. As the first track, “On My Own” sounds kind of like a declaration of intent, or maybe just a guide post for listeners.
31. Tennis - “How To Forgive”
Tennis is back and more Tennis-like than ever. Sometimes when I am in a cheap hotel with a bar, I imagine what it would be like if Tennis just toured hotels like some couple with a few pop hits might have done back in the 1960s. Maybe I should rent out a Holiday Inn bar, book Tennis for a show, and invite all my friends. I feel like if I had a billion dollars, I’d be so much more interesting than everyone else with a billion dollars. Don’t we all feel that way?
32. Lady Lamb - “We've Got a Good Thing Going”
File under: so you wrote an anthem to love and sharing and released it January 2020, then America decided we’d all rather kill each other than wear masks.
33. HAIM - “The Steps”
This is now the most HAIM track ever. A new high-water mark of HAIM-ness. It’s like, you just cannot do this any better than what you have right here, improvement is inconceivable.
34. Fenne Lily - “Birthday”
Fenne Lily is such a strong story-teller, I can see the point of minimalism in the instrumentation. And the arrangements are very pretty. There are good tracks on this album. Some days “Berlin” is my favorite, but I suspect it is about almost nothing. The meaning in this track, in contrast, is plain. And the hook might get you; it sure got me.
35. Shamir - “Other Side”
More delicious Shamir-ness. This time with banjo. And steel guitar. Folks, this is alt-country.
36. Luluc -“Emerald City”
First time I heard this was during a miserably hot spell in San Francisco. We have hot October here (not to be confused with our hot September under apocalyptic-orange sky, which is a fresh hell). If you’re ever stuck in the city heat when you don’t want to be, you will relate.
37. Soccer Mommy - “bloodstream”
I listened to this track less than “circle the drain,” so in my year end assessment, this came in second. Boy, you’d be forgiven if you mistook one of these tracks for the other. I’m a little concerned these are the two most depressing songs on the album. Is that my problem, or does Sophie make better music about feeling like shit?
38. Miley Cyrus - “WTF Do I Know”
It speaks volumes about the state of rock in the U.S. today that Miley Cyrus made one of the best rock albums this year, apparently on a whim. As if, seeing as how the band has been working up a bunch of rock covers lately, why not make a rock album? I guarantee you Miley Cyrus wrote this song in less than 24 hours. Who needs effort when you have talent, and it’s not like there is much competition. Brittany Howard was last year. St. Vincent, who seems to be America’s Greatest Living Rock Artist, didn’t make an album this year.
Anyhow, this track is fun, and it rocks, and as you probably have heard, there are a few covers on the album that slay.
39. Christine and the Queens - “People, I've been sad”
People, I’ve heard this a lot this year.
40. Fiona Apple - “Ladies”
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an excellent album. This is my favorite track, and right on point for this list, so I saved it for last.