It’s time to wrap up 2020, and I can think of no (literally not a single) better way to do so than to share the music I enjoyed in its final month. I spent this past December catching up on releases from earlier this year that I’d missed the first time around, listening to a few albums from 1995 that turned 25 last year, and just some general odds and ends (I seem to find myself listening to Pile a lot every winter).
You can follow the whole playlist on Spotify here. Bandcamp embeds are included in the list when available.
“Are You There”, Slaughter Beach, Dog
The new Slaughter Beach, Dog was certainly a nice Christmas present. Jake Ewald has quietly amassed quite the back catalog over the past half-decade, and while I don’t think At the Moonbase is destined to be my favorite of his releases, I appreciate the twisting alleyways it wanders down and it’ll probably go down as a nice bridge between Safe and Also No Fear and wherever he ends up after this. Plus, it’s only a year and a couple months after the last one, so it’s kind of like a bonus. Plus, it has this song on it—an excellent opening statement and my favorite of SB,D’s that doesn’t involve wishing to be someone else’s cat.
“Nu Complication”, Disheveled Cuss
Nick Reinhart, the guy from Tera Melos, the proggy mathy weirdos in Tera Melos, made a really punchy, straightforward, catchy, “normal” alt-rock album and it really rips. The Disheveled Cuss album would’ve been more or less a lock for my end-of-year list if I’d heard it in time. But we’ll have to settle for me telling you how good this song is. The chiming guitar and the background “woo-oos” are pure pop even without taking into account the subject matter (“How can I sleep / When you won’t answer?” is the kind of territory we’re in here).
“Forgive Me, Philip”, Brontez Purnell
I talked about my appreciation for this song and the EP it accompanies on my favorite EPs of 2020 post, the successes of this song in particular are worth reiterating. Singers singing over each other, is one of my favorite tricks and Mr. Purnell (who you may know from Gravy Train! and The Younger Lovers) does some really nice layering on the chorus. It’s really good pogo-pop-garage-mod…eh, it’s rock and roll music.
“House Is Falling”, The Geraldine Fibbers
For some reason I thought the Fibs were a rockabilly revival band, and no disrespect to those bands, but—they’re very much not, and in fact they’re quite up my alley. They are broadly speaking part of the 90s “alt-country” scene, but with both punk and experimental cred (Nels Cline spent some time in this band). There’s a southern gothic streak to this whole album despite this band being a West Coast concern, and Carla Bozulich is the kind of frontwoman that it really shouldn’t have taken this long for me to stumble into. I’ve given you the most immediately fun and hummable song from Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home—don’t mess this up.
Spoiler alert: there are three different songs from Jerk Routine on this playlist. It’s taken me awhile to fully appreciate this album but I can report from 2021 that I very much do now—it’s pretty wild to me that Rick Maguire’s gutter post-hardcore blues was so fully-formed even back in 2009, that he’d already set the groundwork for the tinkering and (pardon the pun) perverting of that sound for an excellent string of 2010s LPs. Like many of the best Pile songs, this is an uncomfortable, gross, sweaty fever dream (literally) of a number that uses its full 5-minute allotment for maximum effect.
“Wait Til I Turn Bad Again”, This Is Lorelei
Ah, pop music. Pop 40 Town music, to be precise. This is a nice little EP that almost flew under my radar, but I’m glad it didn’t, because this might end up being one of the true keepers here for me. My goodness, I love Nate Amos’s lyrics on this one, and I’m being serious here and not just talking about That One Line. I appreciate anyone who throws a bunch of vivid images towards you in a way that makes it clear that they’re meaningful, but declines to sort it out for you in any way (I’m thinking of “Every year the sun gets worse for the skin / Thinks of all the light it shed on Mars” as we speak).
“Electronic Windows to Nowhere”, Guided by Voices
Styles We Paid For is, as much as anything else, the “Old Man Yells at Cloud” of Guided by Voices albums—the titular dead-end vistas being the screens of the phones that are keeping us all, like, prisoners, man. At this point I am pretty sure that Robert Pollard, who knows damn well he couldn’t have made this album remotely during a pandemic without the help of the Internet and other modern conveniences, is fully leaning into a caricature at this point, much as he does with his hard-drinking “Uncle Bob” live persona. Regardless of what this song’s about, it’s less than two minutes of mid-tempo down-stroked power chords, a simple handclap-bait of a drumbeat, and one of the most memorable vocal performances from Pollard of the current iteration of Guided by Voices.
“Where Will I Be”, Emmylou Harris
Wrecking Ball is the first Emmylou album that I’d ever listened to in full, and from what I gather it’s not exactly typical of her oeuvre. This is the one she made with Daniel Lanois, who’s the one that made The Joshua Tree sound like The Joshua Tree. I quite like this song (which was apparently penned solely by Lanois), and it does sound kind of U2-y—does Emmylou have a U2 covers album? I feel like I might enjoy listening to that more than I would a U2 album (and I’m by no means a U2 hater).
“Soul Sister”, Blue Mountain
Not a Train cover, but rather an original by the mid-90s Mississippi roots/southern rock band. There’s actually a pretty fair deal of “”””rootsy”””” songs on this playlist, for whatever reason—perhaps ’95 was just a good year for that kind of thing. Blue Mountain has a Wilco connection (their bass player is the twin sister of Wilco’s bass player) but they sound more like Jay Farrar’s Uncle Tupelo songs and Son Volt to my ears. They have more of a southern bluesy drawl than any of those bands’ Midwestern twitchiness, however—Lucero might be another point of comparison here.
“Clutter”, Sonny Falls
I already mentioned an album that would’ve made my end-of-year list if I’d heard it in time—here we have a song from an album that could’ve damn near topped it, if it hadn’t come out on December 18th. This is a double album by Chicago DIY fixture man Hoagie Wesley Ensley, who I knew nothing about before hearing this album, and who I now know is a hell of a songwriter. The music is a bit deceptively welcoming, but this is anything but an easy listen for me. It’s a 4 minute tour through claustrophobia, paranoia, dysfunction, fury, and hopelessness. “There is no destination, fate’s a hallucination”—surely you want to hear this song now, no?
“A Dog’s Life”, Nina Nastasia
One of my musical Rosetta Stones is Silkworm’s You Are Dignified covers EP. While four of the acts represented on that release—Pavement, Robbie Fulks, Bedhead, and Shellac—I’ve spent plenty of time with and received much from them in return, the fifth has until recently eluded me. Nina Nastasia is/was a traditional (instrument-wise) folk singer who released music on Touch and Go and recorded with Steve Albini—a curiosity then, and still hard to neatly pigeonhole now. The song title here is quite literal—a dream of turning into the aforementioned creature then turns into a rumination on wanting to live as a canine herself (“it’s interesting to me” being her justification).
“Rear House”, Little Gold
More rootsy stuff—can’t say I didn’t warn you. Little Gold, led by ex-Woods member Christian DeRoeck, claims a big Silver Jews influence, and the vocals on several songs on Wake Up & Die Right are such a dead ringer for Berman I had to check the Bandcamp credits to be sure it wasn’t him. Not this song, though. I initially came through this band due to their being labelmates of the appearing-later-on-this-list State Champion, and there’s definitely some similarity there, as well as to the mentioned-earlier-on-this-list Uncle Tupelo. Country punk, is what I’m getting at here.
“The Living Films”, Mythical Motors
Mythical Motors, led by Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Matt Addison, emulate their on-sleeve influences (Robert Pollard, Martin Newell, Elephant Six) across several planes—the prolific output pace, the lo-fi production, the short song lengths and hook-centric writing. “The Living Films” is to my ear the “hit” from their latest, Sleepwalking on Main Street, as it wastes no time showing off its earworm of a verse melody to all and plows straight through for 2 minutes.
“Pages Turn – Alternate Version”, 28th Day
The year is over but I’m still listening to and finding more to like from the Strum & Thrum compilation. 28th Day is probably one of the more notable bands on the comp due to the later minor-indie-rock-level fame of Barbara Manning. I’ve heard some of Manning’s later bands before but this is the first thing to grab me, which might be because she apparently wasn’t the bandleader and this song was actually written by Cole Marquis, I’m not sure. It certainly sounds like her singing, though, and this song could’ve come out today and not be out of place amongst the Landscape. Sounds like something The Courtneys would do.
“White Knuckles”, Pile
Here we have what might be described as a Pile country song. “White Knuckles” does not sound like Killdozer, per se (too strummy, not enough sludge), but the combination of the backwoods horror, the bizarre folksiness, and Rick Maguire fucking losing it on the last verse puts me in the same mental space that I go when I listen to Killdozer. It smells like rancid meat in here.
“Stick Figures”, Gold Connections
We’ll get the Car Seat Headrest comparison out of the way now: yes, production-wise and vocally, Gold Connections do sound a bit like a band that’s part of the Will Toledo extended family, but the songwriting and structure is where the similarities end. Rather than turning insular, cleverly meta and self-referential, Will Marsh uses his chugging power chord foundation to shoot for a wide-eyed, wide-open, big empty country feel a la Cymbals Eat Guitars or another of those heartland indie punks (or, in this case, Acela corridor punk?).
“Pressure Drop”, Toots & The Maytals
Not to turn this post into a 2020 in memoriam reel, or to steal valor as a Toots Hibbert superfan whose life will never be the same after my icon passed on last year—I just happen to like this song and it seems fitting to have it here. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a fan of reggae music, but I would advise any of my fellow skeptics to give a listen to Funky Kingston (of which this song was not originally a part, but only improves as a later-added bonus track)—there is no barrier to entry here whatsoever. I can’t wait for the pressure to drop too, Toots (this entry written on January 6th).
“Sorrow Reigns”, Papa M
I probably have to acknowledge that “There was something like a wall between us / That stopped your going down on my penis” is a line in this song, because it feels like I’m punking you if I pretend that it doesn’t exist, but really, I’d rather talk about the follow-up couplet (“The ghost of lovers past still await your response / Was I just a medium in your séance?”). Under 80 seconds, too, which is a nice bonus.
“Directions”, Thanks for Coming
Apparently some people are scared off of bands and artists who release a lot of albums. I’m not really sure why this would be the case—music industry complacency? Not being able to count very high? Anyway, the point is this is not a malady from which I suffer, and in fact, it’s actually a pretty good way to get me to pay attention. Another way is to write a song as good as “Directions”. Hats off to Rachel Brown for apparently being aware of how much I enjoy a good road song (let alone road-as-metaphor song) and for striking just the right balance between sympathetic and cloying with that “IIIIIIIIiiiii’m calling to tell you” smirk of a refrain.
“San Andreas”, Portastatic
Speaking of releasing a lot of albums, always respect to Mac McCaughan for having a completely different run of great records not made by Superchunk and, like, not making a big deal about it. Like many faster-paced Portastatic songs it’s in the same ballpark as ‘Chunk, just a bit more rudimentarily-performed (certainly not –written though). Either this song is truly about an earthquake occurring along the titular fault, or Mac is just being melodramatic about someone not calling him back, or I suppose it could be a bit of both. I was also unaware of the music video for this song when I put it on this list, but having seen it for my research, I’m begging you to watch it too.
“The Black Mirror Episode”, Open Mike Eagle
So we move on from Mac McCaughan to an artist that I’m aware that Mac is a big fan of. I myself don’t quite understand my own taste in hip-hop—so many of the heavy hitters don’t do much for me, but I’ve heard enough that has really resonated with me to know I’m not averse to the genre entirely. It’s not surprising to me at all that I’m into this, though. I mean, come on: “The Black Mirror episode ruined my marriage”? That’s fucking perfect. That line is actually, literally what the song is about, and is also an absolutely true story according to OME. It’s absurd, funny, devastating, and completely believable to me—I bet that goddamn episode raised the divorce rate, whatever it was.
“Can’t Be Shown”, Pardoner
Pardoner’s underrated Uncontrollable Salvation was a dense and swirly bit of Polvo-y post-hardcore/post-punk skronk, so I was a bit surprised when I (belatedly) got around to listening to their independently-released follow-up and got a face full of straightforward Dinosaur Jr. fuzz pop. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course, and in revisiting them I did realize that they’d always had a bit of the Freak Scene energy in them. Oh, and there’s some jamming too.
“The Mountain Low”, Palace Music
“If I could fuck a mountain, Lord, I would fuck a mountain” is somehow only the second-most out-of-nowhere surprising sexual lyric on a turn-of-the-century-Drag City folk album appearing on this playlist (see: M, Papa, above). Anyway, maybe not this song precisely, but listening to Viva Last Blues as a whole helped me understand why Jason Molina got so many Will Oldham comparisons when he first came on the scene. Molina and Bonnie Prince Billy never sounded too much like each other at the same time, as they both changed styles significantly from their origins, but the Oldham of one point (this point) sounds very much like the Molina of another point (about four points—err, years from now).
“A Band Called Bud”, Blue Mountain
Gather ‘round, children, and listen to Blue Mountain’s tale of an apocryphal mid-90s post-grunge band, true “rock and roll soldier[s]” with the “big green on your mind”. Later, they try “rapping rhymes over funky bass” in order to get their big break. Channeling their inner Steve Albini, Blue Mountain warn them “don’t sell your soul to a deceiver”, and you do find yourself rooting a bit for the marijuana-themed titular band. It’s a moment of zen for the No Depression movement—but this is all a bit rich coming from a band who released this album on Roadrunner Records. So this is how they remind me.
“Snakeface”, Throwing Muses
I slept on Throwing Muses for way too long for a silly reason—namely, that “Not Too Soon” is so great and also doesn’t sound like anything Kristin Hersh would ever write. I had been depriving myself of some of the most entertainingly nuanced (not to mention influential) rock music of the 90s. I like to think that Hersh realized that this slinky, bass-driven song sounded like a snake slithering along and titled it accordingly, but for all I know she could’ve had that snake visualized in her mind already and structured everything else accordingly.
“Banker”, Them Airs
Them Airs’ other 2020 album, Union Suit XL made my end-of-year list, and the only reason the album this one is on didn’t get considered as well is it got lost somewhere in the shuffle and I only just got to it. The biggest surprise for me is just how poppy “Banker” (and a couple others on this album) is compared to what I was familiar with from them. Structurally this song almost feels like an alt-rock single circa ’95 (“You know the code word” would’ve been a hell of a chorus hook), but filtered through the lens of 2000s maximalist, post-psych-punk indie/blog rock.
“Slaughterhouse”, Guided by Voices
Continuing with the theme of “songs with excellent bass work”, here we have this lumbering behemoth of a song from the new GBV album. This sounds like nothing else that the band’s current lineup has put to (digital) tape, and given that my only real complaint about their recent output is it can be a bit samey, I must applaud this risk taken and successfully executed. It’s no surprise that Robert Pollard, a vegetarian, isn’t celebrating the titular facility here, but given that I’m not sure Uncle Bob could write a straightforward political lyric if he tried, this is not exactly a PETA ad either. A lot of dark humor here (“when pork comes to pull”, of course, and what might be a Charlotte’s Web reference as well).
“Last of the Big Game Hunters”, Barstool Prophets
A really strange nostalgia pick from me. More bass-driven stuff too, which makes sense, given that this is the instrument of choice for the band’s primary songwriter. Barstool Prophets had a few moderate rock radio hits in their native Canada in the mid-to-late-nineties, including this song, which somehow I stumbled upon years ago in my youth. It stuck with me, which upon reflection isn’t surprising—it’s got a killer guitar riff for a hook and vintage “quirky” college rock evocative lyrics. “Watusi Rodeo” comes to mind, but there’s Hoodoo Gurus in there too. Anyway, at the time I discovered the song it was out of print and not available for iTunes download (hah!) so I could only enjoy it through a rudimentary version of YouTube. I had a thought recently to see if it had ever turned up, and lo and behold, the Prophets have two whole albums on streaming services.
“Roses Rotting in Your Glass”, Sonny Falls feat. Sen Morimoto
Much of what I said about “Clutter” earlier applies here too, although with this one the vocals are mixed a little lower and it’s busier musically, with Sen Morimoto earning his “featuring” credit with some tasteful saxophone parts. The former aspect meant that I picked up the details of the song’s narrative in bits and pieces through multiple listens—first I learned she was passed out, later concerned that she wasn’t breathing, but finally relieved to learn she was only sleeping.
“Seeds”, Fig Dish
Fig Dish might be most notable today for being the precursor band to Caviar, a Y2K-era one-hit-wonder who made their small mark on the culture with the deeply bizarre and equally fascinating “Tangerine Speedo” (a song that I will talk about here eventually). However, before that, they were Fig Dish, just another Chicago alternative rock band that got a major label deal, did not actually become the next Nirvana/Pumpkins, and subsequently got sent to label purgatory until the band petered out. 1995’s That’s What Love Songs Often Do seems to have a minor following, and I can hear why—it’s definitely above average for bargain bin stuffing. There’s another universe where Fig Dish were the next Soul Asylum, or at least the next Buffalo Tom. “Seeds” kind of sounds like if Archers of Loaf decided to “sell out” and write the most radio-friendly thing they could’ve, and I mean that as a compliment—I enjoy it greatly. Also, according to their Wikipedia page, they quoted Game Theory’s “Friend of the Family” in another of their songs, and Rosy Overdrive wholly supports any and all Scott Miller homages.
“Powerful Mad”, The Sorts
I suppose we’re fully into the “curiosity” section of this playlist by this point. The Sorts were a Washington D.C. post-rock/emo/jazz/slow noodle band that was associated with Dischord, although I don’t think the album this song’s pulled from, Common Time, came out on that label. They shared at least one member with the slightly-more-remembered Hoover. What band info is out there refers to them as “mostly instrumental”, but this song does have some singing on it. “Powerful Mad” is a slow burn number, nearly 7 minutes of fills, mid-tempo jazzy/mathy riffs, and occasional outbursts of sad-sack vocals.
“Sunflower”, The Springfields
The Springfields were the proto-Velvet Crush (who will also appear here eventually), but in terms of pop, they were much more “jangle” to Velvet Crush’s “power”. As the title of this song indicates, there’s some 60s sun-drenched psychedelia going on here as well, and the 15-second intro riff is practically the ideal opening for this kind of music. Their discography, primarily consisting of five singles released from 1986 to 1991, got a reissue in 2019, aptly titled Singles 1986-1991. This song also was featured on the Strum and Thrum compilation, which I promise I’m done pulling from…for now.
“Evelyn”, Tica Douglas
2017’s Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us was my go-to rec for sad singer-songwriter indie folk for awhile, but even this didn’t prevent me from somehow overlooking its follow-up for a few months. The silver lining is I can put this song here now. Douglas does some of their best work when the whole song is mainly just a simple electric guitar riff played and sung over (see also: “The Same Thing” from Our Lady Star of the Sea). “Evelyn” is another such entry. The effectiveness of a line like “I was a little bit drunk, you were totally sober / That’s happening more and more” depends entirely on the singer’s delivery and, readers, Douglas delivers.
“No Magic”, State Champion
Would any of my playlists be complete without a State Champion song? They may not be my overall favorite, but, technically speaking, they may be a perfect band. There is hardly a wasted note or track among their four albums and thirty songs. “No Magic” takes an absurd amount of twists and turns for something begging to be slapped as “alt-country”, and I’d submit from 1:53 to 2:23 as the best 30 seconds of any song on this list, although even this would leave out the floating-on-air instrumental break that comes 20 seconds later, and the “nomagicnomagicnomagicnomagic” breakdown before the second chorus might put that part over the top. If Sophomore Lounge wanted to repress this album on vinyl, this would certainly not upset me.
“The Moon”, Pile
So, this is the song I’m putting 2020 to bed with, if that’s how any of this works. “The Moon” has a surface similarity to “White Knuckles” since they’re both acoustic, but whereas the latter flies off the handle as it approaches its end, “The Moon” just kind of floats away. Not that there isn’t an ominous undercurrent flowing through this song, regarding what the narrator is running from and/or towards, why he “has to move”, why the moon howls back, and why it needs to be qualified that no one is trying to kill him “on purpose”. “Climate change” is probably too lazy of a critical analysis.