The halfway point of this list is where we start to get into the truly excellent, A-grade stuff. I’m fairly stingy about giving out A’s, so it’s actually a little surprising that I gave that distinction to just over 50 albums over the course of the decade (and retroactively, in a few cases), averaging about five such records per year.
As I did with my “Best of the Tenny Tweens” list, I thought it’d be interesting to break this list down by geographic location, and see which places the artists represented most commonly come from. Here’s what I came up with.
The summer of 2020 actually marked the 20th anniversary of my first album review, over on the now-defunct site Epinions. I’ve changed so much since then, as a person and as a listener, and I think getting into that habit of listening deeply and critically to each track on an album, not just the ones I considered highlights, helped to facilitate some of that change. I found myself wondering as I started to put together this best-of list spanning the 2000s, which of those 10 years was best for music? Breaking down my list by the year each album was released, this is what I came up with:
12 of these albums came out in 2000. 7 of these albums came out in 2001. 6 of these albums came out in 2002. 11 of these albums came out in 2003. 8 of these albums came out in 2004. 14 of these albums came out in 2005. 12 of these albums came out in 2006. 7 of these albums came out in 2007. 9 of these albums came out in 2008. 15 of these albums came out in 2009.
Revisiting the music of the 2000s was a trip that seemed like it would be an easygoing, nostalgic one when I first came up with the idea. I’d had so much fun a year ago, cataloguing all of my favorites from the 2010s, that I decided I wanted to redo that exercise for the decade prior, and do justice to some great records from the years 2000-2009 that I had discovered in the meantime. My most enduring favorites would hold up pretty well, I figured, but I’ve changed a lot as a person in the last eleven years since I wrote up my first version of a Top 100 list for the 2000s, so I assumed there would be some flash-in-the-pan stuff that I had a short-lived fascination with then, that didn’t stand up well to the test of time and would be easy to dump in favor of new entries. And boy, did I have loads of old-but-new-to-me albums queued up and ready to explore in Spotify – entire discographies from bands I’d fallen in love with in the 2010s and figured, “Well hey, they were probably putting out some really good stuff that was completely off my radar in the 2000s, bet I’ll find a ton of new favorites along the way!” Powering through all of that turned out to be the exact opposite of easy, and I’m still not sure after giving all of those albums at least two full listens that I was able to fully digest a lot of them. I kind of had to pick the most promising candidates, give those a final listen, and then move on. In fact, I can’t think of a list I’ve done for this blog that has ever caused me to stress and second-guess myself as much as this one did.
I had so much fun spending the first month of 2020 summing up all of my favorite records from the 2010s (or “The Tenny Tweens”, as I decided to call them), that I decided I’d spend the first month of 2021 revisiting the preceding decade’s best-of list – the 2000s (which I wittily called “The Ought Nots” at the time). I had originally done a list like this in January of 2010, when a lot of the newer records on that list were still quite fresh, and looking back, I’m kind of amazed at how little time in late 2009 I gave myself to prepare for that gargantuan write-up. I’ve discovered a lot of good stuff in the meantime that I found myself wishing I’d been able to give its due when I first wrote that list – but alas, any project of this nature is always going to be incomplete. This time, I came as prepared as I knew how, poring over back catalogues of artists I’d gotten into late in the 2000s or even in the 2010s that I had previously been unaware of or uninterested in at the time, and trying to be honest with myself when determining if any of this stuff which was new to me could compete with the long-time favorites on a list I had made ten years ago, especially if it meant admitting that some of those old favorites hadn’t aged as well as I’d hoped. I honestly may have bitten off more than I can chew, trying to make such an apples-and-oranges comparison while maintaining some measure of objectivity… but I’ll save the hand-wringing over that dilemma for the main list.
In the meantime, my first order of business is to tie up a loose end, and talk about the projects I enjoyed most from the years 2000-2009 that weren’t “albums” in the traditional sense. I didn’t make a list like this back in 2010, and as a result, there was a lot of good stuff that I left out. Most of these are EPs, and in a great number of cases they’re the first thing an artist ever put out (at least on a label), basically serving as their introduction to the world in the hopes of building up some buzz for that all-important first album. A few are anthologies/best-of collections summing up a band’s career up until a certain point – looking back now, they obviously tell an incomplete story, but I’m notoriously picky about the song selection for these things, so the fact that a few actually made me feel like they got it right is a huge accomplishment. One special case is a double-length album that was a repackaging of a band’s final LP along with a second disc featuring their final concert in full. (That band has since reunited, but of course they didn’t know they were gonna do that at the time.) Some of these discs are out of print, and I’m willing to bet a few of ’em are collectors’ items nowadays as a result – too bad my CD case that held most of these got stolen from my car in late 2007 (what can I say, I was late to the iPod party), and I wound up re-purchasing some of the hard-to-find stuff digitally. I’m glad I still have it all around to listen to in some form, because even if none of these recordings fit the traditional album format, they all brought me great joy back in the day, and still do. (Well, save for the one that was genuinely new to me. We’ll get to it.)
Though I’m sure many of us are tempted to remember 2020 as something of a “wasted year”, I genuinely have to say that it had far more excellent music in store than I would have guessed. Given that most of my year was spent in my makeshift office at home, hunched over a laptop and sometimes not leaving the apartment for days at a time, I can only imagine how utterly unbearable it would have been without new music as an avenue for exploration. I probably racked up more Spotify streams this year than in any previous one, what with the extra time afforded by not commuting to and from work or running most of my usual errands. I feel like that led me to branch out and try new things a little more often than in a normal year, whereas much of my listening time in the car during a normal year is dedicated to music I already know I like. With that said, I do feel like I got outside and got that much-needed Vitamin D whole doing a healthy amount of activities such as hiking and enjoying local parks and scenic drives with my family (we even managed a few road trips, despite the logistical difficulties of minimizing human contact while traveling during a pandemic), and it was great to road-test a lot of 2020’s best records during some of those excursions, as a way of making sure my visual memories of them wouldn’t be tied to sitting in the same boring spot all year. Whether the music was dark and cathartic and moved me to more authentically express my sorrow and anger at the current situation, or it was lighthearted, imaginative, and full of hope for brighter days ahead, these are the records that did the most to help keep my morale up during a year when answers, hope, optimism, and faith in humanity were in extremely short supply.
2020 really sucked for pretty much everyone, so I guess it’s not surprising that there was plenty of music in 2020 that also kinda sucked. For all that I bagged on 2019 when I noted my disappointment over its dearth of truly great records, I couldn’t come up with very many horrible ones at the end of it, either. 2020 certainly rose (sunk?) to that challenge. And honestly, I can’t even blame the pandemic for most of this crap (with one notable exception – a trilogy of exceptions, technically speaking). These were full-length, professionally recorded and released, bona-fide LPs that each artist took the time and care to put together, with the bulk of the work either being done before the pandemic, or finished remotely in such a way that the change in recording process was transparent to me as a listener. It’s just that they put most of that time and effort into making music that I found off-putting, or at the very least a dreadful bore. Some of the artists on this list have been boring me for several albums now, of course… but there are a few here whose work I’ve genuinely enjoyed in the past, and I certainly would have expected better from them. Despite all the sucky things in 2020 that I’d like to point the finger at Covid-19 and our petulant toddler of a President for, I can honestly say that neither are to blame for most of the bad albums I’m about to discuss.
The rules for this list are that each entry must be a full-length LP released in 2020 – no EPs, compilations, remix albums, etc. Some of these artists certainly tested the definition of how much material comprises an “album” – and if they’re going to put in a lackadaisical amount of effort and still call it that, I’m going to rate it accordingly. (To be fair, there are even some short entries on my Favorites list, so length alone isn’t necessarily why I’m criticizing those projects – it has more to do with the sense that they came up woefully short on interesting ideas.) In some cases there are songs from these records that I did genuinely enjoy, and I’ll embed examples where relevant, but you’ll note that I completely gave up on this midway through the list when things started getting really bad.
And with that, let’s get this masochistic train rolling!
2020 turned out to be a pretty good year for musical miscellany. With a lot of their plans for big album releases and all the media hype and big tours that typically follow botched by a global pandemic, many artists connected with their fans by going smaller, putting out something sentimental to remind us of past live shows we’d enjoyed being part of, or even documenting the process of performing remotely for socially distanced fans all over the globe. Understandably, many of these artists had to put out something to make ends meet, but given the desperation I was initially anticipating that might have led a lot of favorite artist to clear the vaults of every dodgy demo idea they had once clumsily spouted off into an iPhone, what we got this year clearly exceeded expectations.
Oh, and 2019 gave us a few more good records than I had given it credit for in my last year-end Favorite Albums rundown. Not many more, mind you – and only one of my belated finds is a full-length record this time around – but it’s still a year that I feel like I’m working on unearthing the best of (and that I’m weirdly nostalgic for at this point, seeing as it now feels like it was at least five years ago).
2020 may well go down in history as the year that we all felt would never end. It’s downright weird to me that it finally is coming to a close, and of course now that I’m finally at the point of looking back and taking stock of the few things I actually enjoyed in 2020, time seems to be cruelly speeding up from my own perspective (as it always seems to whenever I impose deadlines upon myself). As much as I want to say good riddance to this absolute dumpster fire of a year, I think it’s important to stop first, take a deep breath, and look back on all the music that did so much to help get me through all the chaos.
Contrary to what I would have expected when most of the world as we know it came grinding to a halt back in March, the harsh but necessary practice of social distancing didn’t prevent good music from getting made. Sure, it wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of many musicians who were no longer able to tour, or to record with their bandmates using traditional methods. But I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how well a lot of these creative minds adapted, finding innovative ways to connect with their fans by playing shows online, or perhaps taking the time to revisit and re-record old favorites, or dust off previously unreleased music that hadn’t yet seen the light of day. I know it doesn’t pay the bills for most of them nearly as well as touring does, but they still played a hell of a great game with the crappy cards they’d been dealt. I kind of expected 2020 to devolve into a hodgepodge of second-rate ideas, and I actually got more than my fair share of first-rate, deeply moving, and thoroughly enjoyable songs out of the deal. Maybe some of that has to do with a lot of the music already being in the can before quarantine began, simply needing some final touches put on it that could easily be done with computers and via remote collaboration. But a fair amount of this music had to have been made during the pandemic, and even if a lot of my personal favorites didn’t address the subject explicitly, a lot of songs dealing with subjects such as isolation, mental health issues, social injustice, and learning how to face our own mortality with dignity seemed to resonate a whole heck of a lot more during this stressful time. (Of course there was also plenty of fun stuff that offered escapism at a time when many of us had limited options for physical escape. That was much appreciated as well.)
Anyway, despite it being a weird year for music (as it was for life in general), I had more than enough to fill out my usual year-end list of 100 personal favorite songs. The ground rules for this list are pretty simple: The songs didn’t have to come out in 2020, but they had to have been released no earlier than 2018, and they had to be either brand new to me personally this year, or perhaps something I first heard last year that resonated with me more than I knew it was going to when I left it off of my 2019 list. Many artists who put out memorable albums this year will appear multiple times on this list, but not all of my favorite songs are from my favorite albums, and vice versa – some are singles that never found their way onto albums (or at least haven’t yet). I’ll go into detail about why I chose the top 30 entries – I can’t do all 100 because there’s only so much time before 2021 is upon us, and I’ve got other year-end columns to write up as well, but in many cases there’s a linked review you can check out for more details.
And of course, you can listen in on most of these favorites (limit one per artist, and presented in something resembling the chronological order of discovery rather than any sort of a ranking) via my “2020 in a Nutshell” playlist on Spotify. With that, let’s get to it!
It’s December, which means I’m posting the usual month-end grab bag roughly a week and a half early, because I’m covering a few Christmas albums that didn’t feel right to break out until after Thanksgiving, and it also doesn’t feel right to wait to tell people about them until New Year’s Eve, when they’ve passed their sell-by date.
Here are my first impressions of the latest from Anberlin, Jeff Tweedy, Sylvan Esso, Mumford & Sons, Sigur Rós, Peter Bjorn and John, and Hayley Williams, and holiday releases from Meg & Dia, Calexico, Andrew Bird, and Marc Martel.
Artist: Sufjan Stevens Album: The Ascension Year: 2020 Grade: B
In Brief:The Ascension largely trades in Sufjan’s highly detailed style of storytelling for much broader themes, but it’s still a meticulously crafted and incredibly vulnerable record that once again pulls off an unexpected genre shift from his past work, this time to a glitchy electropop sound that is quite distinct from his past electronic projects. The problem – as with most Sufjan records – is that it’s way too damn long, and the repetition/rumination gets overbearing, to the point where listener fatigue detracts from the quality of tracks that might otherwise stand out as thought-provoking highlights.