Not-Quites and Also-Rans
The Honorable Mentions of 2020

Things are well and truly coming to an end now around the Tuesday Morning offices. (Those offices consist of a dining room table, an office chair and a stack of CDs, but go with me here.) There’s a little sadness seeping in as I put a bow on 20 years of this thing. But there’s also a new sense of engagement with music, and I hope that carries forward.

Let me explain. For 20 years now, I have anticipated many new releases with the intent of writing about them. I’ve thought about how to frame my observations even on the first trip through, and while that has always been an enjoyable process for me, lately it’s felt like an obligation. But this week I heard Paul McCartney’s new album, McCartney III, for the first time, knowing I would not be writing about it. And the experience was really different.

For one thing, I like McCartney III, especially for what it is: an old man messing about in his home studio, doing whatever he wants. If I were writing about it, I would frame it in reference to the previous McCartney albums (which it does not approach, in terms of quality) and would likely launch into a spirited defense of Sir Paul’s right to just have a good time. He’s 78 years old, and he sounds it here – his voice is weak, and these songs largely take the easy path. But he did this all on his own, in the middle of a pandemic, at 78. That’s pretty cool.

See, though, I’m doing it. I’m writing about it. And the point is, I listened to McCartney III for the first time this week without worrying about what I would say about it. And I had fun. It was a joyous 45 minutes of total connectedness to a piece of music. And I definitely look forward to more of those in the future.

First, though, we have to talk about the year that was. Though 2020 was a nightmare on a lot of levels, the music that came my way this year stands out as pretty damn extraordinary. My top 10 list is done, and while the top three have been set for a while, I did have some inner debates about the bottom seven. In the end, I chose the ones I liked best, even if they’re not necessarily the most impressive or relevant.

And I also have a dozen honorable mentions, which I will get to in a moment. First, one last time, let’s talk about the rules for these lists. I came up with this set of criteria more than two decades ago, and it has served me well. My top 10 list will always consider only new full-length albums of primarily original material released between January 1 and December 31 of a given year. That means no live albums, no EPs, no covers projects and no compilations of previously released material.

It’s like a song I can sing at this point. Just typing that out one final time made me feel good. I’m going to miss this end-of-the-year ritual.

Anyway, those criteria did not leave out as many albums this year as they have in prior years. If I could nominate an EP, it would probably be Semisonic’s You’re Not Alone, an all-too-brief return propelled by some classic Dan Wilson songwriting. If I could nominate two EPs, I would choose Threesome Vol. 1, by three Jellyfish alum under the name The Lickerish Quartet.

If I could nominate a box set of previously released material, it would be The Book of Iona, a comprehensive look at the studio output of an absolutely brilliant band. If I could nominate two, I would choose Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, the gorgeous, sumptuous all-in-one collection of the Divine Comedy’s vastly underappreciated work. Those with the means and time to dive into these sets should absolutely do so.

And if I could nominate songs by themselves, I would stand up for Michael Penn’s “Revival,” marking his first new tune in 14 years. It turned out to be prophetic, and I’m so glad. Janelle Monae’s single “Turntables” did the same, and hopefully signals something new on the near-term horizon for her. Monae remains one of the best musicians we have. And if I could nominate an album on the strength of one song, it would be Good Luck With Whatever by Dawes, which is mostly pretty good, but in “Didn’t Fix Me” sports one of my very favorite musical moments of 2020.

But we’re not here to talk about albums I couldn’t honor with a slot in the list. Rather, we’re here to discuss the ones that fell just shy. Every one of these enriched my year, and if any one of them turned out to be a favorite of yours, well, I won’t argue. Here are 12 records I also loved in 2020.

The year started off well with Derek Webb’s long-in development Targets. A deceptively brief and simple rock record, there’s a lot happening under the surface of this one, and songs like “Good Grief” really helped to add perspective to these COVID times. (It’s funny how music written without specific hard times in mind can truly help navigate them.) Nada Surf then knocked it out of the park with Never Not Together, on which these long-running pop tunesmiths chose love and forgiveness, over and over. It remains one of the most relentlessly positive records of the year, without ever slipping into corniness.

Supergroup Lo Tom reunited for a second (and reportedly final) outing, and its quick-hit songs bowled me over. David Bazan’s lyrics shine, while Jason Martin’s guitars strike with an intense ferocity. “Start Payin’” was a superb first taste (and the best way to launch a Kickstarter campaign I may have ever seen), and the record never came down from those heights. Everything Everything, on the other hand, put the guitars aside for their fifth record, Re-Animator, and turned out one of their best efforts. The thick synths fit this group’s fractured art-rock style perfectly.

It was an angry year full of angry songs, so it was the perfect time for Midnight Oil to return. Their first effort in 18 years, The Makarrata Project, is a collaboration with the first nations people of Australia, and an impassioned plea for justice. It’s also awesome. But no one did angry-at-the-world quite the way Glenn Kaiser did it this year. The former Resurrection Band frontman took aim at the Trump administration and the politics of religion on the stripped-down Swamp Gas Messiahs, and the result both sings and stings.

Several songwriters took bold steps forward this year, and a few of them are on the list proper. One that almost made it is Chris Stapleton, whose third album, Starting Over, delivers a front-to-back experience. Stapleton’s songs here are streets ahead of his previous efforts (which were also quite good), and his voice and arrangements are raw and emotional. Same goes for Margo Price, who also gave us a third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, that showcased her terrific songwriting. “I’d Die For You” is one of the most graceful and glorious numbers of the year, easy.

The big surprise this year, though, was Taylor Swift, whose two albums – Folklore and Evermore – saw her confidently leaping into the realm of literary songwriter. Collaborating mainly with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Swift told stories and spun images across these two records, and married them to low-key folk to create several small-scale wonders. While it’s true that the best songs from these two long albums could have made one single stunner, it’s Folklore that has the edge with me on the strength of beautiful songs like “Seven” and “Invisible String.” I know she’s eventually going to go back to her pop style, but I hope she hibernates here for a while longer, because what she’s done here is her best work.

And finally, we have three albums that I would consider the number elevens, albums that were all in very close contention for the final list. Start with Elvis Costello, who, even after 31 albums, knows how to deliver. Hey Clockface is a diverse collection of spitting tirades and painterly snapshots, set to unfailingly interesting and melodic music. He’s an absolute master, and here’s further proof.

Then there is Kathleen Edwards, who returned this year after an eight-year hiatus. Total Freedom is not just the name of her record, it is the feeling these songs evoke. Edwards is so good that she can even make her ode to her rescue dog a compelling piece of music, and when she turns her eye toward the folly of love, or – as she does on the extraordinary “Simple Math” – the wonder of lifelong friendship, the results are magnificent. Here’s hoping she never leaves us again.

And then we have Brian Transeau, better known as BT. I’ve been a fan of this electronic music wunderkind since his earliest work in the 1990s, and with The Lost Art of Longing, his 13th record, he delivers another masterpiece. Over 93 minutes, Transeau and his collaborators create one blissful moment after another, like magic tricks. “The Light is Always On” became an anthem for me this year, and the rest of the album is so good that it’s barely even a highlight. There’s no shortage of electronic music available, but if you want a fully human experience, Transeau remains in a league of his own.

And that’s it. I hope you’ll join me next week for the 2020 Top 10 List, and then the following week as we bid this year, and this column, goodbye.

See you in line Tuesday morning.