In My Ear 2020: A Playlist

It's time again for my favorite self-indulgent holiday tradition: the year end mixtape, which in the streaming age, has become the year-end playlist. There's some new stuff here, but a good bit of it older, so this isn't meant as some kind of Best Of 2020 list, just a record of what was in my ear over the course of the year and my shifting musical obsessions. 


Alt-country and Americana stuff has been in my wheelhouse for decades, so it's no surprise that 2020 began on a rootsy kick.  Ian Noe's "Letter to Madeline," which my wife turned me onto, is as gritty a crime ballad as you'll find anywhere, and Aaron Lee Tasjan's "The Trouble With Drinking" is, with apologies to Steve Goodman, perhaps the perfect country-and-western song. Around the time I was digging into a lot of country-leaning stuff, I discovered Danielle Howle's Swamp Sessions. Back in the early '90s, her old band Lay Quiet Awhile was the first rock show this teenaged music geek from the sticks ever saw in the big city of Columbia, which means her music has been a part of my life for nearly three decades. That bit about the Lake Murray Dam in "While I Miss You" makes me swell with Lexington County pride. Later in the year, Tyler Childers released Long Violent History, a collection of Appalachian fiddle tunes meant to set the tone for the album closer, the scorching, prescient title track released amidst the George Floyd protests that gripped the country and came to define the summer of 2020. 

A lot of the newer albums that I listened to this year were gleaned from The Bitter Southerner's Best of 2019 list. Jaime, Brittany Howard's first solo record after she disbanded Alabama Shakes, was one of them. It's a great record, and it was hard to pick a favorite, but the groove on "History Repeats" is perhaps the best taste. I found a lot of new jazz stuff on that list, too. I'm always listening to jazz and fusion, especially early in the mornings and late at night, but it's usually stuff from half a century ago or more. This year that changed somewhat. Theo Croker's Star People Nation album and Christian Scott Atunde's Emancipation Procrastination both blew up the spot along with an old favorite, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, as a soundtrack to homeschooling my seven-year-old when the pandemic lockdowns first hit.  

As summer wore on, I was struck by a bout of 90s nostalgia and spent a lot of time listening to stuff I dug way back then. One of the albums that I turned to in the throes of that nosalgia was Sugar's Copper Blue, a perennial favorite that I rediscover once every couple of years. As much as I loved Sugar, I'd never really explored Bob Mould's previous band, the legendary Husker Du,  that much, which seemed like some sort of transgression against the holy tenets of dad rock, indie/punk edition. Turns out it's a great catalog. I chose "Pink Turns to Blue" because I wanted to include a song from Du's other front man, Grant Hart.  

Because I'm restless and prone to passing fascinations, it's predictable that the summer of sweaty rock nostalgia gave way to the very thing all that punk noise was meant to destroy. In October I had an emergency surgery on my foot and lost a toe. I'm more or less back to walking normally now, but I was off my feet for a month or so, which paved the way for some deep listening sessions as there wasn't much else to do. I set out to explore King Crimson's daunting catalog, and it's a rewarding one. In the Court of the Crimson King is a seminal prog document, and Larks Tongues in Aspic is probably going to be a desert island album for me from now on out, but I had to whittle a wildly diverse and expansive catalog down to one song for this list, so I went with the haunting "Starless" from 1974's Red. The prog train then led me to perhaps the most unlikely revelation of 2020: it turns out I fuckin love Yes, a band I'd always low-key hated as the very epitome of ridiculous prog excess. Fragile and Close to the Edge are both magical-sounding records that I was finally able to experience in the right frame of mind, and both will continue to be on heavy rotation for a while.

It's funny how these passing obsessions turn into rabbit holes that lead to unexpected places. Those deep-listening prog sessions got me interested in King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp's solo stuff. His collaborations with Brian Eno were the soundtrack for much of my writing and grading work this year. Then there's his vast and eclectic catalog as a producer. The pristine, quirky folk harmonies of The Roches's self-titled album were a revelation, as was Darryl Hall's Sacred Songs and Peter Gabriel's early albums, all part of Fripp's legacy.  

So here it is, a sampling of some of the music that made this most singular of years somewhat less of a shit show. 


 

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