I had a hard time deciding what song I wanted to write about today. Until a million other things dropped today I was thinking about writing about Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”, which is apparently all the rage among the youngs and which I too really like. Among other things that were released today that I considered was something off of Rhye’s new album Home. Rhye creates some of the sexist music out there and this album continues that while adding a Danish orchestra. I heard one of the songs that is orchestra heavy while watching a spectacular sunrise this morning and it was a glorious moment. I also thought about “American Dream” by Willie Jones because in this song he is a Black country artist singing about things that the Nashville country machine wants nothing to do with. The rest of his album is your typical country fare about women and drinking, so while this song is one that country radio won’t touch with a ten foot pole I like to think that at a least a few people out there will like his other songs and listen to the whole album and be exposed to that song.
After that long preamble I finally present to you the song I actually chose. Ultimately I decided to go with Typhoon’s “Empire Builder” because its lyrics perfectly capture my mood right now particularly the ending lines to the song
Everybody’s angry And everybody’s lonely Maybe it’s hopeless and maybe Love is not enough But let’s not rule out The possibility
The song is off their surprise album that came out today Sympathetic Magic. The 11 piece band recorded the record through remote and individually socially distant sessions, but it still retains the swelling sound of a large band playing together. Take a listen.
I have probably listened to more Hiss Golden Messenger since the pandemic started than I have any other artist. His music is like a balm for my weary soul. No matter what he’s singing about, even the tough things, his musical stylings always make me feel like I’m laying in a warm, sunny field. It’s fitting then that the video for the new single he just released this week called “Sanctuary” is in fact set in a field although not a warm, sunny one given it was filmed in winter. With lyrics like
Jubilee, find me Steady with your hope now That little light’s gotta last a while Like an arrow to the marrow I know it feels like hell now Till we make it to the other side
it feels like the perfect song for right now. I’m pretty sure we could all use a little sanctuary right now and for the moment this song is mine.
I didn’t intend to be back with a New Music Friday post today. I figured I would take New Year’s Day off, especially since I didn’t think I would have anything to write about. But then Amanda Shires dropped a cover of the Genesis song “That’s All”. It’s always been one of my favorite Genesis songs, and it’s something she’s been covering live for awhile. So I’m happy to have an officially recorded version of it. It’s accompanied by a great animated video saying goodbye to 2020. That’s all.
It’s that time of year again where I share my favorite things I experienced in pop culture over the past year. As a reminder these are not necessarily things that came out during 2020 though many of them are. They are however things I enjoyed for the first time this year. This year is a little bit different because some of my standard categories I didn’t really have a choice in thanks to the pandemic. It wasn’t a matter what my favorite thing was. It was a matter of did I even get to do any of these things this year. Although I am sad that I didn’t get to do a lot in the way of seeing things like concerts and theater, which are what I love to do more than anything else in the world, there was thankfully lots of excellent pop culture to keep me entertained while I’ve been stuck at home for most of the year. Let’s get to it.
Movie I Saw in a Theater
This was an easy pick because I saw exactly one movie in a theater in 2020. At least I enjoyed the film, though I doubt it would be sitting in this spot had I seen other movies over the course of the year. It was Birds of Prey, the Harley Quinn movie starring Margot Robbie. Who knew I was going to be enjoying so much Harley Quinn this year, since I also loved the Harley Quinn animated tv series now available on HBOMax. I actually appreciated the smallness of this movie. While I mostly enjoy a lot of comic book superhero movies I hate when they are too what I call smashy smashy where you have long 20-30 minute CGI fight scenes of characters just smashing on things and each other. They bore me to tears. There was none of that in this movie. The fight scenes were at close range and a lot of fun. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but I found a lot to like about it and am not sad that it gets to be the lone movie I saw in a theater this year.
Movie I Watched at Home
I probably watched more movies at home this year than I normally do because I couldn’t see movies in theaters. I normally prefer to see movies in the theater as I have a hard time concentrating on them for that long at home without getting distracted by other things. I think my favorites though were two documentaries about collecting, The Booksellers and Vinyl Nation. As you might guess The Booksellers were about rare book dealers and collectors while Vinyl Nation was about record stores and record collectors. I am not a collector. I guess I don’t have that kind of personality, but I enjoyed seeing the worlds of these people who are super into collecting their books and vinyl records. Despite being a librarian and avid reader I have no interest in collecting books. I borrow most of the books I read and am happy to send books back out into the world for others to enjoy. I rarely reread books so I don’t see the point of having shelves full of them. I do often wish I was the kind of person who was into vinyl collecting though. Music is obviously something I consume over and over again and the idea of having a collection of records that I look through, select from, and then sit down and listen to appeals to me. In reality though the record player we have is not even out on the floor and the two vinyl albums I own were WXPN pledge drive gifts. Realistically I am never going to be that person, but I enjoyed living in the world of the people who are for a little while.
Without actually meaning to or seeking them out I feel like I read a number of books having to do with various wars or people living under the constant threat of violence. Although it is to some degree an entirely different thing I also felt like there were a lot of parallels to our current state living through a pandemic with lots of death, living in a constant state of fear, and not knowing if or when it’s ever going to end. The best of these books and the one that is the best fiction book I read all year is Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I am just going to share my review on Goodreads because I don’t think I have anything better to say about the book than that.
“An apeirogon is a figure with an infinite number of sides and that is actually the perfect title for this book. I don’t even know how to describe it. At its basest level it is a fictionalized story of the real men Palestinian, Bassam Aramin and Israeli, Rami Elhanan both of whom lost their daughters to violence but who come together to try and fight for peace in the Middle East. It also includes non-fiction passages at the heart of the book written by both men. The story if you can really call it that moves and folds back and around itself while weaving in other facts and histories all written in short vignettes ranging from a mere sentence to several pages. It’s masterfully written and creative in a way that compares to no other book I can think of save for maybe Lincoln in the Bardo, which I more admired for what the author did than I actually enjoyed reading it. Here I think everything comes together perfectly. It’s definitely not a book for anyone who needs their books to have a straight narrative story, but this is beautifully written and full of so much meaning that it is a true masterpiece.”
I have two books that qualify for my favorite non-fiction book of the year. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of thee Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban was the first book I read in 2020 and even then I said this is probably going to be one of my favorite books of the year. I was not wrong about that. It’s the informative and horrifying true story about how generic drugs are made and why there can be so many issues with them. This has made me question everything when it comes to the medications I take.
The second book, which was no surprise, was Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I was very much looking forward to this book as I loved Wilkerson’s previous masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns. Caste looks at how the United States really operates on a caste system based on race. She delves into the history and the effects on people and our country. She offers the best explanation I’ve seen as to why it’s important for us to actually address this issue and do what we need to do to repair rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or say it’s not our problem because we’re not the ones who caused it. If you read one of the three books I’ve mentioned here make it this one.
I have a few tv shows I want to mention that were the highlights of a year in which I watched a LOT of television and that’s saying something given how much I watched before this. I already alluded to Harley Quinn in the movie section. It’s a fun adults only show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes of.
The first show I watched in 2020 was Schitt’s Creek. I binge watched it over my winter break last year. I had not watched it for a long time thinking it was not something I would enjoy. I was never into all the Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara movies and I generally don’t like shows where people are just awful so on the face of it this show was just not for me. But I had heard so many people talk about how much they loved it that I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did because it is such a delightful show full of so much heart. It is a little rough going in the first half of season one where it felt more like what I was expecting, but eventually the show grows and the characters grow and it’s something that brings me so much joy. If you haven’t watched this show yet please do yourself a favor and do it.
My second favorite show of the year has sadly already met an untimely death after only one season. Thanks Netflix. It’s Teenage Bounty Hunters. I love this show so much! Talk about a show with so much heart. In some ways it shares a lot of DNA with Schitt’s Creek in that it is a ridiculous over the top story with characters that are somewhat caricatures but who have such heart that you just fall in love with them. Everyone I have convinced to watch this show has loved it and I know the many other people I’ve been telling to watch it but who have been resisting my efforts (you know who you are) would love it too. I saw it on a lot of year end best of television lists too. I wish Netflix had let it stick around and grow an audience because get why based on the name and description it wasn’t something people jumped right into when Netflix put it out, but it’s definitely a show that would have grown an audience through word of mouth if it had only been given time. Even though it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger I still highly recommend treating yourself to the one season of this show that we were gifted.
I also fell in love with the show Wynonna Earp this year. It’s not a show I had ever really heard anyone talk about aside from one guest on a podcast I listen to. Apparently her love of the show was enough to get me to check it out and I’m glad I finally did. I tell people if they were Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans than this show is probably for them. It’s got a strong female lead, actually lots of strong female characters, love stories, and supernatural fun. I can’t wait for the second half of the most recent season to air hopefully sometime soon.
I have two episodes to talk about in this category. First Season 4, Episode 8 of Insecure, “Lowkey Happy”. This is one of those pay off episodes that I love from long running tv shows. Season 4 was mostly about Issa and Molly’s friendship and was an excellent season looking at the fading of friendship, but this episode was about Issa and her ex-boyfriend Lawrence. They reconnect over a long night spent together that reminds me of the Before movies. It was lovely and romantic and something that only could have happened with these characters and their relationship being developed over seasons.
Second is Schitt’s Creek Season 4, Episode 9, “The Olive Branch”. This is actually another payoff episode in that earlier in the season Patrick sings an acoustic version of the song “The Best” by Tina Turner to David during an event at their store that David both hates and loves. Then as a romantic makeup gesture after a fight in a later episode David does a dance to the song for Patrick. It’s so wonderful. It’s, no pun intended, the best scene from the entire show and is one of the videos I keep in my arsenal to rewatch when I need something to make me happy. Sadly it seems like the videos on YouTube of just that scene have all been pulled down. So you’ll just have to go watch the show to see it.
I had far too many albums I loved this year to talk about in this post, so I refer you to the separate post I did recently on my favorite albums of 2020.
My favorite song of 2020 was Janelle Monae’s “Turntables”. It’s an amazing empowerment anthem that has kept me going through some pretty dark times in this year.
Also have to give a special mention to the song “It’s Still Alright” by Nathaniel Rateliff. It was the first song I added to my 2020 playlist and it’s a song I came back to a lot. Although the song is about substance abuse and the death of Rateliff’s long time producer Richard Swift, the soothing tones of the song and the lyrics of the chorus repeatedly telling us “and it’s still alright” were a continued gentle reminder in this year full of so much pain and sorrow that there are brighter days ahead.
Unlike most years when I would have dozens of concerts to choose from in this spot, this year I only had two. The final concert I went to in 2020 before everything fell apart was Trampled by Turtles at Baltimore Soundstage. It was a fun show and one I would have cherished all the more had I known it was the last show I was going to see for who knows how long.
The concert that was ultimately my favorite and probably would have been in contention for that even if I had gotten to see everything I already had tickets to in 2020 was traveling to Nashville to meet up with a friend to see Brandi Carlile at the Ryman Auditorium. One of my favorite artists in a fantastic, historical venue with a friend and fellow music lover. Who could ask for more? If I was only going to get to see two concerts in 2020 I can’t complain that this was one of them.
I’m adding in this new category this year because in lieu of getting to go out and see actual shows I watched a lot of artists perform online this year. Hopefully it’s one that I will only need to use this year because I want nothing more for 2021 than to be able to see live music again. There many, many online shows I watched from artists playing on Instagram and YouTube from their houses for free, shows I paid for with artists playing in their houses or shows I paid for with artists performing in actual venues with no audience. None of it fulfills the same experience as going to an actual live show and sharing the musical experience with a crowd.
The two things that I’m going to talk about here are things that are/were some of the least produced online music experiences but because of the way they are/were done brought at least a little of that communal experience you get from live music. When the pandemic first started Amanda Shires did 30 straight days of shows from her barn, which she called I So Lounging. Most of them also featured her husband Jason Isbell as well as Seth and Kelly Plemmons who were living with them at the time when we thought this would all be over in a few weeks. Seth is a member of her band and Kelly worked on the behind the scenes stuff. It was something that really kept me going those first weeks of lockdown when everything was so new and raw. It was wonderful to hear them play and just laugh and cry together and there was a little community in the YouTube comments for the shows. Although they were up on YouTube for a long time, sadly it seems like they’ve pulled all the videos down now.
The other online shows that I have loved have also been because of their regularity and the fact that they feel a little bit more intimate and personal. Almost every Thursday night since the pandemic started Amos Lee has been going live on Instagram on Thursday nights at 7:30. He hasn’t even been collecting tips. I’m not sure how he’s keeping himself going with no touring income. He’s done a couple of fundraisers for various organizations so whenever he does that I make sure to donate to whatever his chosen cause is. I’ve turned Thursday nights into a little bit of date night surrounding these concerts. We get take out and then I make my husband play a board game or card game with me while we listen to Amos Lee play. He’s even saved a lot of them to his IGTV so you can go back and watch if you want.
Broadway Theatre Production
Even though I had tickets to several shows later in the year I did not get to see any Broadway shows in 2020. My Company tickets were refunded. Who knows when or if that show will ever open. Our Music Man tickets were rescheduled twice and we’re now set to see the show in February of 2022. We thought it was hilarious when we were buying tickets for November 2020 in August of 2019. Little did we know.
Baltimore Theatre Production
I did get to see one show in Baltimore this year before everything shut down. It was Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally at Baltimore Center Stage. Unlike with the one movie I saw I can’t say that this was a show I super enjoyed. Sadly I’m not sure that the new artistic director and I see eye to eye on theatre. After loving almost every show I saw there for many years as a season ticket subscriber, this past season I didn’t really like much of anything. I think most of it was chosen in the interim before she actually started so I’m hoping that I’m wrong and that when the finally do get back to being able to have actual shows there that she selects shows that are more to my liking.
Online Theatre Production
Like with concerts I saw some online theatre productions this year as well. Some were previously taped performances that were released from archives. Some were weird Zoom like things (though not actually on Zoom). And some were live productions in front of no audience. I watched several shows put on at the Old Vic in London that were produced live with no audience. It lead to me watching theatre at some very odd times given the time difference. I think my favorite was Three Kings starring Andrew Scott, who you may know as Hot Priest from Fleabag. Sometimes one person shows where it’s just one long monologue can lose my interest, but I thought he did an excellent job and the story he was telling kept me engaged.
I think I’ve mentioned Make Me Smart to some degree in this space every year since it has existed and that is not going to change this year. This year they expanded from their once a week on Tuesday episode to transitioning to a daily podcast after the pandemic started. They still do what they call the big show on Tuesdays, which is usually around a half hour or so. Then the other days they do short 15 minute episodes most of those they each bring a news story and something that makes them happy to talk about. They started naming the episodes at some point: Make Me Smart Mondays, Big Show Tuesdays, Whatta Ya Want to Know Wednesdays (in which they ditch the normal daily show format and spend the whole episode answering listener questions), Hollowed Out Shell Thursdays (because by that point in the week we all feel like hollowed out shells), and Economics on Tap Fridays (their weekly happy hour episode where they would have a drink and would often live tape over YouTube so people could see them and join in in the comments). It’s the first podcast I put on every time there’s a new episode in my feed. It helps me going and I’m so happy they expanded to 5 days a week.
Staying in with Emily and Kumail was a short lived podcast produced by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani that they put out at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all in lockdown. They basically just talked about their lives and the things they were enjoying and experiencing. Although she is no longer practicing Emily is a trained therapist so she had a lot of great insights to offer about what we were all experiencing and how we were experiencing them. She also is immunocompromised and at high risk for COVID so they were being extremely careful just like my husband and I have been. So it was nice to get their perspective on that as well. It’s not something that would probably make sense to listen to now if you didn’t listen to it when it was first on, but it was super helpful for me in processing everything that was happening and all the feelings I was having at the beginning of the pandemic. I get why it’s not something they kept up, but I do think it would be kind of nice to have a check in episode every once in awhile.
Today for new music Friday I have some new old music for you. Maggie Rogers decided to subvert the whole sophomore album thing by instead of putting out an album of new music compiling music she created with various bands and at various times in her life before she hit it big and released her first album. Notes from the Archive covers music she wrote from 2011-2016. It moves backwards in time on the album with the newest music appearing first and moving back to the earliest written songs when she was 16. It’s definitely an interesting exercise and you can definitely see her changing over time and trying to figure out her sound. Oddly my least favorite stuff are the newest songs that she would have created just before the songs that wound up on Heard It in a Past Life. While I appreciate the ability to have this look back at her music, I am definitely looking forward to whenever she puts out an album of actual new music.
At some point in the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing up my annual Most Memorable Pop-Culture of the year post, but as I was thinking ahead to what is likely to go into that post I realized that I was going to have a hard time narrowing my album choice down to one or two things that I wanted to talk about. So I figured I would write up a separate post with my favorite albums from this year that I will just refer back to in that section of my larger look at pop-culture for the year.
I was trying to come up with a nice even number for this like Top 5 or Top 10, but I finally decided that was an arbitrary limit and I could choose as many albums as I wanted to. When I was trying to stick to just 5 I felt like I was still leaving some albums out, but when I tried to get to 10 then I felt like I was putting in some albums just to pad things and that they weren’t really favorites. So here you go. Here’s my Top 7 Albums of 2020.
This album was an early favorite for me and it stayed there. It came out back in March. I was already in love with the title single, “Expectations”. I had tickets to see Katie Pruitt in concert in June before the pandemic put a kibosh on that. The title track has a very Fleetwood Mac vibe to it that I love, but I also feel like it is not representative of the rest of the album which I don’t think has the same vibe. I love all the vibes though. It contains several songs off an earlier EP, so there are songs that are at least 5 years old on here in addition to newer stuff. So you get a range. There are songs about mental illness, about her working through her sexuality with her religious parents, a dangerous former relationship, as well as some lovely love songs. As one might expect for my favorite album of the year
This is Kathleen Edwards’ first album in 18 years. She had left the music business and opened a cafe in Canada where she is from. I’m so happy she decided to return to music because this album is fantastic. It feels like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket. It’s definitely going to help carry me through this long, dark winter.
This is the first Jason Isbell album since Stockholm that is not my favorite album of the year. It comes in at number three, so that’s still not bad. I’m apparently not the only one though because his past several albums have always wound up high on all the year end lists, but this year I’ve only seen it on one. I don’t know exactly why because it’s still a great album and full of the typically brilliant and insightful Isbell lyrics. The opening line to “Overseas” is one of the most brilliant lyrics I can think of “This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out.” Also, it contains one of my favorite songs of the year “Dreamsicle”, which people seemed to be high on when it came out but I haven’t seen it on any year end lists either.
This is the first album by 20 year old Filipino-British singer. It has a super 90s female rock vibe. Weirdly that wasn’t something I was super into during the actual 90s when I should have been as a teenager, but now I guess the sound is super nostalgic for me and I really love it.
I have adored everything Phoebe Bridgers has done in the last several years. This is her sophomore album and it is just as wonderful as her first album and the two side collaboration projects she did with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker as boygenius and with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. She just got nominated for Best New Artist by the Grammy’s which cracks me up because she already has so many things under her belt, but the Grammy’s is gonna Grammy’s. I shake my head at that category every year.
This album was a late edition to my favorite albums of the year as it didn’t come out until October and I didn’t learn about it until some time in November when NPR Music did their podcast episode on their favorite music out in October. I wrote about it for one of my New Music Friday posts, and I don’t know that I have anything else to add to what I already said about it.
This is a wonderful country album that will sadly never get any play on mainstream country radio. It’s full of beautiful story songs that weave a lovely tapestry. Many of the songs are very autobiographical including the title song “Pauline”, which is about her grandmother, and “Just a House” about her mother’s refusal to leave her house as it’s falling down around her because it’s where she lived with her now deceased husband.
I don’t think I have ever written two New Music Friday posts by the same artist two weeks in a row let alone two covers by the same artist. But we have now hit the time of year when not much new music is coming out and it’s also time to start listening to Christmas music. In my last New Music Friday post I wrote about Phoebe Bridgers’ and Maggie Rogers’ cover of the GooGoo Dolls’ song “Iris”, which they put out as a one off single on bandcamp. This week Phoebe released a 4 song EP of Christmas songs that she has been covering over the past several years. The new one that she added was a cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December”. It really is the perfect Christmas song for 2020. It feels like it was written for this year even though it was written back in 1973. Here’s hoping we all make it through December to better times.
On election night Phoebe Bridgers tweeted that if Donald Trump lost she would cover the song “Iris” by the GooGoo Dolls. Maggie Rogers responded with something to the effect of she would love to harmonize on it and now they have actually made it happen. They released the song on bandcamp this morning.
I have always loved the song “Iris” by the GooGoo Dolls and will go on record saying that the City of Angels soundtrack, which this song is on, is one of the best soundtracks of all time. This cover by two of my current favorite artists collaborating is wonderful. It is my favorite type of cover song in which artists take a song and make it completely their own and don’t just faithfully rerecord the original.
Weirdly based on Maggie Rogers’ Insta Story it sounds like they’re only making it available for 24 hours. Maybe they mean they’re only making it free for 24 hours? It seems odd to only have it available for 24 hours in total, especially since proceeds from it are being donated to Stacey Abrams organization Fair Fight. Anyway, get yourself over to bandcamp to grab a copy while you still can.
Here at this late ate in the year I discovered a new album that is definitely in contention for my favorite album of the year. Stephanie Lambring’s Autonomy is an amazing Americana/indie country album that tackles a lot of really deep issues including faith, the weight of expectations both familial and societal, and suicide through wonderfully crafted story songs. Basically it’s like my catnip.
The whole album is fantastic and you should really listen to the whole thing, but I’m going to focus on the song “Joy of Jesus”, which is the song that drew me to the album in the first place. Ann K. Powers of NPR Music named it her favorite song of October which is how I found out about it.
It, like other songs on the album, “Save Me Tonight” and “Someone Else’s Dress”, addresses wrestling with faith and looking at the moralistic judgement that masquerades as Evangelical Christianity today and wondering if that is the joy of Jesus and if so who would want that?
Based on the lyrics of some of the songs I don’t think she wound up in the same place I did, but I very much connected with her questioning as I too, especially in the last five years, have wrestled with my own faith and being a Christian when the face of Christianity I see in the world is not what I see in the Bible. Thanks to a church family that I do think is focusing on the important things and trying to be the love and grace of Jesus and whose mission is reconciliation in addition to writers like the sadly taken from us way too soon Rachel Held Evans and of course my own personal experience of God I’ve been able to salvage a faith that has certainly at times been precarious at best.
There is so much new music coming out all the time its rare that I listen to an album more than once, but this will be one of the few albums that I’ll be listening to over and over again.
I took last Friday off not because I didn’t have a song I wanted to write about but because I just didn’t feel like writing. I’m back this week and originally planned on writing about the song I was going to talk about last week, but then some other songs popped up that I felt like writing about more. I thought about doing a threefer post, but I also really want to devote a whole post to last week’s song so I will probably wait and write about it later in the year when new music releases really start to trickle off in December.
Instead today I have two duets for you, one a cover and one a brand new song.
Under Pressure by Karen O and Willie Nelson
Earlier this week Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Willie Nelson released a cover of Queen and David Bowie’s song “Under Pressure”. Apparently she connected with him in trying to find people to do stuff to support NIVA, the association working to save independent music venues. It’s unclear to me if money from this song actually goes to support it or not. I assume so, but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, it’s my favorite kind of cover in that it really adds a new feeling to the original song and is not just recreating it. It’s definitely going on my playlist of cover songs.
A Beautiful Noise by Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile
Last night there was some get out the vote type special on CBS and as part of it Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile performed a new song called “A Beautiful Noise”. It’s about women coming together and using their voices to fight for a better future. It was written by a cavalcade of fantastic songwriters: Ruby Amanfu, Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Hailey Whitters, and Linda Perry. It is indeed a beautiful noise. Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile sing beautifully together.