No Other Sadness in The World Will Do - The Top 10 Albums of 2020
10. Snarls - Burst
In my initial review of the debut full-length from the Ohio based rock band Snarls, I talk a lot about genre and sound—specifically how, in a piece about the group, MTV refers to Burst as a mix of both emo and shoegaze; at the time, and now, many months later, I would politely disagree. Neither of those are genres, or descriptors, I would use when discussing the album.
Why Burst worked in the spring when it was released, and why it’s still relevant and sounds vital now, at year’s end, is that it owes a lot to the early to mid 1990s alternative rock sound, with just a little bit of ‘jangle’ or dream pop for good measure; but it doesn’t owe everything to the past, and Burst is entirely too intelligent of a record to be derivative of the band’s presumed influences.
Burst is memorable because it is smart enough to give the listener the right amount of what they want, and provides enough respite when that gets to be too much. It’s an emotional record, but it’s not ‘emo’ in the traditional sense of the genre. And at times, like on the soaring opening track, “Walk in The Woods,” the pensive “Better Off,” or on the powerful double shot that closes the record, “Falling” and the titular track—at times, it can be an absolute torrent of emotion, both with the downcast aesthetic of the group’s sound, as well as the youthful power behind frontwoman Chlo White’s voice, and the truly, unabashed heart on sleeve lyrics.
And when it gets to be too much, there are moments that reenergize, and surprisingly, moments of humor, like the deadpan, though harmonious, vocal delivery between White and bassist Riley Hall on “Hair,” or “Marbles”—which finds the band, musically, playing with enormous hooks and a quiet/loud/quiet dynamic in structure, and includes lyrics like, “I didn’t shower today, but always put on my gold chain.”
Burst is memorable because, at its core, and in the end, it is incredibly pensive and reflective. The members of Snarls might all be relatively young, but they are already standing in a long, gloomy shadow, “I’m not who I thought I was gonna be,” White sings on “Twenty.” “Chase my dreams and my tail like a fucking freak.”
Burst is memorable because, as it concludes, during its swirling title track, White asks questions that are surprisingly dark, questions that are never answered, and questions that have stuck with me over the last nine months: “When I die, may I crack with a burst of thunder and a lot of glitter? When I die, may I say I lived the best life? And I might cry when you say goodbye—will you say goodbye?”
As startling as it is infectiously written, Burst pays homage to the ‘traditional’ rock band aesthetic while being an absolutely invigorating breath of fresh air.
9. Orion Sun - Hold Space for Me
I want you to know I hate it here without you
The thing that makes Tiffany Majette’s full-length debut as Orion Sun, Hold Space for Me, so memorable is that, in the end, is a reflection of convergences.
Musically, it is a surprising space where pop and contemporary R&B collide with jazzy flourishes and the occasional dash of hip-hop. Lyrically, or thematically, it is a convergence of where love, lust, longing, and loneliness overlap; Majette keeps literally nothing back across Hold Space for Me’s brief running time, exploring the dark, in-between spaces that form when those emotions, and more (mostly grief), merge together in to something full of vitality and beauty, but also incredibly full of sorrow.
Hold Space for Me opens with probably its most accessible track, “Lightning,” which caught my attention right away, but Majette had me, and never let go, with the beautiful, haunting way she sings the devastating line, “I want you to know I hate it here without you,” on the album’s second track—the mournful, contemplative “Trying.”
Majette’s lyrics are as clever as they are heartbreakingly honest, and she carefully (and intelligently) walks the line between taking herself too seriously, and not taking herself seriously at all, which allows her to continually create and break the tension on Hold Space for Me. Sometimes, she leans into one more than the other—like the aforementioned “Trying,” or the reflective, contemplative closing tracks, “Sailing,” and “Birds Gave Up,”—or, the surprisingly breezy and whimsical “El Camino,” which opens the album’s second side and features the charming opening line: “I feel like A$AP Rocky/Bitches on my Jockey/all up in my face—hockey.”
A majority of the time, though, Majette manages to find the balance between both, which is perhaps the most impressive thing about Hold Space for Me—on the heartbreak slow jam “Don’t Leave Me,” she says, “You be all in my dreams like I’m fuckin’ haunted,” and even on the aptly titled “Grim Reaper,” where she explores mortality (a theme that runs throughout), she juxtaposes a serious question like, “Where do you go when your soul leaves the physical?,” with a rapped verse about success: “Baby it’s so surreal—I might get a deal. Might get my mom a house just to show her that it’s real.”
A lot of music is confessional, or at the very least, extremely personal. Hold Me to This is exemplary because you do not often see this kind of unabashed and evocative honesty in songwriting in pop or contemporary R&B—but in the spaces where those genres blur together against a slowly simmering and smooth yet accessible backdrop, Majette displays a rare fearlessness in allowing her listeners to get this closer to her—grooving together, crying together, and trying to find that place where it okay to feel both joy and grief, or pain, in the same instance.
8. Johanna Warren - Chaotic Good
I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about this specific element of Chaotic Good, but in revisiting it recently, what struck me again, as it did during my first experiences with the album in the late spring of this year, is Johanna Warren’s ability to turn a phrase.
Sometimes they are incredibly melodramatic, like the opening line to the slow burning piano ballad, “Only The Truth”—“The wound in me picked out the knife in you”; and sometimes within that melodrama, or theatricality, there are opportunities for brutal, stark self-reflection that you, perhaps, might not be totally prepared for, like the scathing lyric pulled from the country-tinged, “Through Yr Teeth”—“Without your beloved darkness could you sleep at night? Or would you even recognize yourself if you stepped into the light?”
Chaotic Good is a restless album. It’s not something that you notice right away, but it’s something that reveals itself by the terrifying conclusion to the end of the album’s first side. There becomes a point when it’s clear no two songs sound the same; in the hands of less capable songwriter might turn out disastrous, but Warren proves that, with each song on Chaotic Good, not only is she a capable songwriter and performer, but she makes it seem effortless while shifting through tonalities. Even with the night and day contrasts in aesthetics, the album has a surprising cohesion that she never loses control of.
In my piece on Chaotic Good, I chided the Pitchfork review of the album for its lazy comparisons of Warren to other female indie and lo-fi artists like Liz Phair (truthfully this is a little off base) and Elizabeth Harris’ Grouper project (this makes a little more sense), and Elliott Smith, which, at first, I scoffed at, but there are moments where that makes a lot of sense, actually—and it’s the moments where there’s a very apparent tonal shift—like the snarling, quickly paced acoustic shuffling of “Part of It,” and the slow burning, haunting, incredibly lonely “Bed of Nails.”
I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about this specific element of Chaotic Good, but in revisiting it recently, what struck me is how intense it is, and how it is not for the faint of heart—even in its most quiet moments, it is devastating; and in its most cacophonic moments, like the growing sense of dread that builds until it explodes on “Twisted,” or the dizzying, unhinged drama of “Faking Amnesia,” it is overwhelming. Throughout, Warren has created an album that is a force to be reckoned with in just how diverse it is musically, and how evocative it is lyrically—when she is channelling an otherworldly mysticism, which is how the album begins and ends; when there is a ferocity to her words (“You could never handle half of all that I feel/On the daily there shit I show up for is fucking real,” Warren sneers on “Twisted”); and, perhaps most effective, when she is most tender, somber, and reflective, like on the spiraling “Hole in The Wall,” which is another track that is slightly reminiscent of Elliott Smith: “Well, Hell is a state of mind, and I can’t be held accountable for your demise. But I know you’ll be fine; I’m still here for you—I can’t just take what isn’t mine.”
Beautiful and horrific all at once, Chaotic Good is an enormous statement from Warren—it’s her fifth full length, yes, but with this collection of songs, has firmly established her diverse, intelligent artistic voice.
7. Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated Side B
Earlier this year, Carly Rae Jepsen’s iconic album EMOTION celebrated its fifth anniversary; to commemorate, Jepsen reissued the album on vinyl of color, alongside a capsule collection of merchandise thematically tied to the record. A few months after this, she released a handful of holiday related1 items in her online store, and among those was, much to my surprise, a vinyl reissue of EMOTION Side B, the 2016 EP that collected eight tracks that never made it onto the album.
It had been a long time since I had sat down with that EP, and I had truthfully forgotten just how fucking good it is; especially a banger like “Fever,” the track that closes out the EP’s first side.
Like, that’s the kind of song that could have easily found its way onto the proper album.
This anecdote is actually going somewhere—don’t worry; Jepsen as a pop singer and songwriter is famously prolific while working on material for an album, and tunes that don’t make the cut are as good, if not often better, than what ends up on the ‘real’ thing—something that speaks volumes of her abilities as a songwriter and performer.
Arriving exactly a year after Dedicated, the record’s “b-side” is not just an EP, but an additional full-length that collects 12 songs leftover from the Dedicated sessions, many of which are strong enough and impressive enough to, I think, have worked their way onto the proper album. As you would expect from the kind of adult oriented pop music Jepsen has built her career on the last five years, in the wake of her “Call Me Maybe” success, it’s a rollicking, technicolor, wildly fun set of songs, which is precisely what was needed in 2020.
A collection of songs sitting on the proverbial ‘cutting room floor’ for a year, at first glance, might seem a little thrown together, or might not work as its own, cohesive album; but, again, speaking to Jepsen’s abilities, Dedicated Side B works And when it works, it really works. Across the dozen tracks, rarely does Jepsen let the high energy falter, and when she does, it’s for a reason—those moments, like the introspective, somber “Heartbeat,” and “Comeback,” which was one of my favorite ‘pop songs’ of the year, are among the most compelling songs included.
I hesitate to say that Carly Rae Jepsen is a ‘wholesome’ pop singer, but she certain, at this point in her career, isn’t going to take a surprisingly sexually explicit turn like Ariana Grande. Jepsen is coy, and much like the bright, invigorating music she’s spent the last five years crafting, her coy, playful approach to love and lust in her songwriting is what makes an album like Dedicated Side B so successful. It’s less about “leaving it to the imagination,” and not even about simply “leaving it,” but she knows where to drawn the line in a song, like the sensually charged “Fake Mona Lisa,” where she confesses she’s been wearing her “black, just in case,” and then coos, “You take my clothes of, said ‘it’s getting hotter,’ Don’t know how to swim, but let’s breath underwater.”
Early in the spring, when I wrote about Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, I think I said that no album should legally allowed to be that much fun; Lipa’s album was on the eventual short list for my favorite records of the year but what I determined after revisiting both Future Nostalgia and Dedicated Side B is that Carly Rae Jepsen, even with a collection of leftovers, made the best ‘pop’ record of 2020. Thoughtful and pensive when it needs to be, but that’s not what most people need pop music to be, and Jepsen is a capable enough performer to know that even when you keep the energy as frenetically high as she does here, there’s a line between intelligent pop music, and pop music as simple escapism, and she’s intelligent enough to know how to walk that distinction carefully, graciously, and infectiously.
6. Cartalk - Pass Like Pollen
In the early days of Anhedonic Headphones, I used to review just about anything, regardless of if I really liked it or not. That, eventually, became rather tiresome, and I found that I just didn’t have it within me to spend the time, energy, and thought into a negative review; even as a weird joke thing.
I’m inconsistent with how often I try to ‘tag’ an artist in a review on social media—mostly Twitter, or Facebook. There were times, during the site’s first two years, when I don’t think I did tag a group, and written a somewhat negative piece about their album, and then they found it anyway and attempted to take me to task in 140 characters or less. Lately, since all I write are stupidly long, thoughtful, mostly glowing reviews of albums I want to listen to, occasionally I risk it, and @ the artist in question, with the small hope that they will see it; and with the even smaller hope that they will re-share.
Referring to Pass Like Pollen, the electric debut full-length from Chuck Moore’s Cartalk project, as ‘emo meets country,’ wasn’t (and still isn’t) intended to be a bad thing—it is just the description that came to mind during my initial sit down with the record. Putting that in the review, and then tagging Moore across all social platforms, was a bit of a risk; because they could have been like, “Hey, fuck this guy. He’s not even a real music writer.” But Moore, seemingly, appreciated it, and they were kind enough to share the piece on Twitter and Facebook.
I said it in October, and I’ll say it again, ‘emo meets country’ sounds like it could be a recipe for a fucking disaster, but Pass Like Pollen is one of the most exciting, visceral records of 2020.
Pass Like Pollen is a long gestating, labor of love for Moore, who spent a number of years honing these songs to get them to the place where they are now, and that kind of meticulous attention to detail shows across the highs and lows that have found their way into the album. It opens with a gorgeous, slow burning, evocative vignette and closes with an actual fist-pumping anthem, bookending a ride through a thoughtful cavalcade of emotions.
Rarely are debut albums as stunning as Pass Like Pollen is, and that is in part to Moore’s gift for very literate, poignant images and storytelling within their lyrics. There’s enough ambiguity or vagueness to leave a little to the imagination, but there’s also enough components to craft compelling, well developed portraits, like the somber, uneasy exchange between two people in “A Lesson,” or the vivid depictions in key lines from the explosive “Noonday Devil,” or “Driveway.”
The most important part of Pass Like Pollen, for me, arrives in the first third of the record, with “Las Manos,” and the core of that song—bombastic, raw, and beautifully put together—as well as one of the observations from my initial review that Moore had elaborated on while they shared it on social media, is the idea of ‘frightening honesty,’ both with yourself and others. Written about a close friendship and what happens when frightening honesty is introduced—it (hopefully) makes that relationship stronger, but what Moore has alluded to, and is correct in believing, is that you have to be honest with yourself as well—an idea that resonates numerous times throughout Pass Like Pollen, and with that thread running through the album, Moore has built a beautiful, eruptive, poignant debut, establishing them as a highly intelligent, dynamic songwriter.
5. Hannah Georgas - All That Emotion
The thing about these lists is more often than not, it’s just me revisiting a handful of albums I really liked from the year, and I try to re-write or condense my original review, while attempting to include a few new insights, if I am able to. Rarely does an album that I either a) slept on originally or b) liked but didn’t write something about, make it onto the list—the only example I can think of was five years ago when I had erroneously missed out on covering Kamasi Washington’s 3xLP The Epic upon its release in the spring, but by the time December came around, had gotten around to making the investment of my time in it, and was in awe of its scope and ambition.
I think that was also the year I couldn’t even name 10 albums as my ‘favorites’ of the year because I was too stressed out and depressed2 to do it.
Canadian singer and songwriter Hannah Georgas’ fifth full-length, All That Emotion, came along at a strange time of year for me—it was released in early September, the month I had set aside as an intentional hiatus from publishing content on Anhedonic Headphones because by the end of the summer, my mental health was hitting a serious low and I was burned out on keeping up with the goals, or deadlines, or whatever, that I set for myself, and just needed a break.
My best friend pointed out that I never really did take a break from writing that month off, managing to shift my focus from regular-ish-is ‘content generation’ and onto both the 20th anniversary thinkpiece about Kid A, and a long personal essay about something that happened to me when I was in high school. There were a number of albums that came out around this time I would have liked to cover, or listened to with more thought or intent, but in pushing myself forward through October and into November, it just wasn’t going to happen for a lot of them.
I liked All That Emotion enough when I listened to it—though my early pass throughs were not done so in as thoughtful of a way as they could have been. It is, however, an album I eventually found my way to about two months later, thanks in part to Georgas releasing an alternate mix of the song “Pray it Away” as a stand alone single—a version featuring Matt Berninger of The National providing additional vocals.
Georgas, you could say, has become an associate of The National—providing tour support for them in the past, and serving as an additional vocalist for the I Am Easy to Find-era shows. The group’s multi-instrumentalist and arranger, Aaron Dessner, if you weren’t aware of it already, had a busy year, even with the pandemic, and one of the many projects he worked on was producing and collaborating with Georgas on All That Emotion. The album arrived a little over a month after Dessner’s top secret collaborative work with Taylor Swift, and around four month after another Dessner produced effort—Don’t Let The Ink Dry by Eve Owen, both of which get mentioned in a rather poorly written and unfavorable review of All That Emotion on Pitchfork3.
The thing about Georgas and All That Emotion is that at first listen, it’s very accessible, musically speaking—glitchy electronics and National-esque instrumentation all flutter underneath Georgas’ somewhat wounded, but always beautiful sounding voice; however, it’s an album, like all albums, really, if you actually want to get a better understanding of them—it’s an album that you need to take some time with. I clearly took my time coming around to it, and I somewhat regret not picking up on its subtleties and complexities early on.
Like most albums that I find myself attracted to, there is a lot of pensive self-reflection across All That Emotion (the title alone should clue you into that), but as a songwriter, Georgas also a knack for sliding in some very subtle, self-effacing lyrics that begin to register, and resonate more, after multiple listens.
Or, if not ‘self-effacing,’ they are reflective of difficult things that one might not want to work through.
As accessible as All That Emotion can be, musically—there are times when Dessner’s contributions to the arrangements steer the song into territory where there is a noticeable groove, like the slithering electronic skittering of “Punching Bag,” which is perhaps the most self-deprecating on the album (“Hey, I could be your punching bag,” she sings early in the song), or the steadily building rhythm of “Dreams” and “Someone I Don’t Know”; but as accessible as it can be, there is this underlying hint of tension throughout—tension that sees little, if any, release, and with this accessibility juxtaposed against the hint of tension, there’s this sense of unease present in a lot of the songs.
All That Emotion isn’t a ‘break up’ album, but a number of its 11 tracks deal with the aftermath and difficulties that come from the end of a relationship, and this is where Georgas’ ability as a songwriter, blending that sense of deprecation and reflection, has the chance to excel, like on the swirling, minimalistic “Someone I Don’t Know,” with its refrain of “Someday I’ll get over you and you’ll become something I don’t want. You’ll become something I forgot—because you are someone I don’t know who you are,” or the woozy, warm sounding “Easy,” which is slightly more wistful in its approach—“I thought I had a million things to say; I woke up and I can’t think of a thing,” and later in the second verse, and much more direct in the need to let go, but the difficulty in actually making that happen: “Don’t want to feel it when I see your face—don’t want to feel it when I hear your name.”
As rollicking and kaleidoscopic as it is capable of being in its instrumentation, All That Emotion is a statement of gentle beauty that, at its core, is delicate and thoughtful. And in that gentle beauty and thoughtfulness, it leaves listeners with a lot to ponder in its wake.
4. Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison
I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you
Released as the second single from Matt Berninger’s debut solo effort, Serpentine Prison, it wasn’t until I was, like, in the album, writing a piece about it, for the weight of the song “Distant Axis” really hit me.
The solo album.
It’s a tough thing to pull off for a voice so synonymous with the band that they are a part of; how do you work to separate it enough from your ‘day job,’ but make it different enough to show you can be creative, or have an outlet, on your own, or working with other collaborators?
Partnering with soul and R&B legend Booker T. Jones, who serves as producer and arranger across Serpentine Prison’s 10 tracks, Berninger finds the right balance between familiarity and not so much ‘uncharted’ musical territory, but something just different enough from his work with The National to set it apart. Musically, the album is much more delicate, or gentle sounding in comparison to what Berninger has spent the last 20 years doing with The National. There are no enormous moments of visceral catharsis, or grand, dramatic, sweeping string arrangements to add another layer or drama to the song—the music isn’t boring, though; it’s just more relaxed and less focused on the give and take of ‘tension and release,’ or being preoccupied with creating a dizzying, disorienting swirling feeling.
The relaxed, or more contemplative nature of the album lends itself to Berninger’s lyricism. I would never say as a frontman, or writer, he is ‘relaxed,’ but there’s a nervy-ness that he brings to The National that is absent across Serpentine Prison, and in that absence, there is a more contemplative, quiet nature to his lyrics. Less hyper-literate, fragmented, and shadowy than they are with The National, Berninger is still, as one would expect, self-deprecating and moody on Serpentine Prison—it’s just not as ambiguous.
Not every song on the album needs to be emotionally devastating—Serpentine Prison’s opening track, “My Eyes are T-Shirts,” is just clever, but when a song hits, it really hits, and when you are in the album, as I found myself when really sitting down with it closely shortly after its release, the songs that really hit end up hitting too close to home—the reserved bombast of “Distant Axis,” co-written with Walter Martin (formerly of The Walkmen), explores the feeling when you realize there’s an unexpected chasm that has formed between yourself and something you once cared deeply about; the soulful shuffle of “One More Second,” which I was going to say I is among Berninger’s most desperate in affect, but that would actually be the frantic “Take Me Out of Town,” a song that leaves nothing to the imagination in its depiction of anxiety and emotional breakdowns—“Swear to god, I’ve never been so burned out,” Berninger sings in his booming baritone voice. “Gonna lose it any minute.”
Intelligent and introspective, there is a hushed gorgeousness that simmers across Serpentine Prison, and there are moments that, as I had initially observed, serve as reflections of parts of ourselves that we might not always wish to see—the head on confrontation of depression in “Oh Dearie,” and the uneasy domestic scene of “One More Second” are among the especially personally difficult to hear without feeling ‘seen and attacked.’ But in those moments of self-reflection, introspection, and hushed beauty, Berninger and his stable of impressive collaborators have created an album that does set itself apart from his work with The National but is also emotionally impactful enough to linger with you the same way.
3. Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
In returning to Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s wild, feverish fifth album (and her first in eight years), the conclusion that I came to before the first side had even concluded, was that it, without a doubt, will outlive the mythology that surrounds its creation and the circumstances it was released under—both of which threatened, for parts of the year, to overshadow it.
It will also outlive the mythology Apple has built for herself over the last 15 years as a relatively reclusive, personal artist who, after a certain point, made it very clear she has no fucks left to give w/r/t what anyone might think about her, or her music, and 24 years after her auspicious, iconic debut record, she’s going to make the kind of music, and kind of record that she wants to make, and she’s going to make it on her own time.
Fiona Apple, I said in my initial assessment of Fetch The Bolt Cutters—after I had spent nearly 10 days deep into it, and all of its complexities and quirks—owes us absolutely nothing but this year she literally gave us everything. She gave us a long gestating album, released at least five or six months early (against her label’s wishes), an act done specifically for people who were possibly trapped in tough situations during the early part of the pandemic, and might need a small reprieve; and she gave long, candid interviews about her career—something surprising given just how quiet and insular she has been following the release of her sophomore album, 1999’s When The Pawn….
Fetch The Bolt Cutters, from beginning to end, is a raw, innate experience—spilling over with dizzying and unrelenting energy. Apple, as a songwriter, holds nothing back, yes, but also, even as dark as it can be, manages to work in a sense of humor into a number of these songs. And there are moments—at times, simply outstanding moments—where the humor isn’t dark at all, and Apple manages to create something damn near whimsical, and you can tell she is having fun while doing it. I am of course talking about the introduction to the song “Ladies,” where Apple sings the titular word 16 times, slipping into a weird drawl while she does it, and becoming more pleased with herself each time the word passes through her mouth.
It isn’t an easy album—I hesitate to say it’s ‘difficult,’ because it really isn’t. It’s just highly intelligent, and that can keep you at an arm’s length. Fetch The Bold Cutters is also incredibly scathing, personal, thought provoking, and rewarding; and for as ambitious and experimental as it grows toward the conclusion (the final run of songs are perhaps the most challenging on the album) it is completely worth the effort for the raucous, emotional ride Apple takes you on.
I learned when I was still writing for a newspaper that you aren’t supposed to use the word ‘unique’ to describe something unless the thing in question is, really, unlike anything else, and as I sit and think about how breathless, torrential, and bewildering Fetch The Bolt Cutters is, it truly is unlike anything else I heard in 2020—Fiona Apple made a wholly unique record.
2. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Arriving around four months ahead of the album, from the moment I heard the glitchy, shuffling tension of “Garden Song,” I knew that Punisher, the sophomore full-length from the unstoppable Phoebe Bridgers, was going to be full of complexities and, much like her debut, as well as her work with the ‘super group’ boygenius, an emotional rollercoaster.
I guess what I hadn’t counted on what just how densely layered and complex Punisher would be, or just how much of an emotional rollercoaster it would be—with enormous highs and terrifying lows built into both the music, as well as the lyrics.
The thing about Punisher is that it isn’t just a logical step forward for Bridgers at this point into her career—it’s a surprising next step that reveals that she is the kind of fearless artist who is willing to push herself, and her sound, forward into places unexpected. And after hearing Punisher, and after sitting with it for so many nights this summer, gin and tonic in hand, lying on the living room floor, listening to it, she couldn’t have made any other album.
This is the album she needed to make, and this is the kind of album we needed to hear from her. It is an artistic statement, the size of which is practically impossible to put into words.
In taking Punisher as a whole, from beginning to end, the scope of it is immense, and there are only a handful of moments, few and far between, where it doesn’t land precisely on the target. Throughout, you can feel Bridgers, already a confident, talented lyricist, continuing to grow and explore all of the way she can create vivid imagery with just a few words; and you can hear the ear she is developing for production—there were already hints of that, at times, on her debut, Stranger in The Alps, but here, credited as co-producer alongside Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, the soundscape created is robust, fascinating, and meticulous in its details as the dense layers continue—from the moment the album starts until the final, whispered, joking ‘scream’ at the conclusion—continue to envelop you.
After spending many nights immersed in Punisher, my original piece concluded with a quote from David Foster Wallace about fiction, ‘good fiction,’ and what it means to be a ‘fucking human being’: “There are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctly hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize that we are still human beings, now…I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art.” And it’s that dramatization and exploration of what it makes difficult to be human, and what it means to be human today—that is the most devastating element of the album.
Not everything on Punisher needs to be a huge, evocative portrait that plays out like a harrowing, poetic fever dream, like the fragile, then explosive, finale, “I Know The End,” or the heartbreaking “Moon Song.” No, Bridgers is capable of conjuring a lot with a little, like the quiet, introspective phrase, “The doctor put her hands over my liver—she told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she muses on “Garden Song.”
But not everything on Punisher is as small, or as observation; like the personal reflections on “Chinese Satellite”—“I want to believe; instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing,” or the titular track, which is part fan letter to Elliott Smith, which then turns into less of a ‘reflection’ and more of a hard look at yourself, and your personal shortcomings.
“I swear I’m not angry,” Bridgers says in the song. “That’s just my face.”
The final thing said on Punisher is the expression, “The end is here,” which was a surreal thing to hear this year, as it often felt like were truly living in real end times. A lot of albums released this year were a true product of feeling like the end was practically upon us, but Punisher is not one of them—it is a beautiful, serious, compelling statement that underscores (and at times, magnifies) the uneasiness and uncertainty of the human condition. It’s a stark reflection of ourselves and our relationships with others, and in that reflection, Phoebe Bridgers has created an album that is gorgeous, challenging, and something to behold.
1. Taylor Swift - Folklore/Evermore
Which young, sad, blonde girl hurt me the most this year?
That was going to be the entire conceit of this list, up until December 10th, at 11 p.m. I was going to write blurbs for nine albums, and then the number one spot was going to be a look at both Punisher, and Taylor Swift’s Folklore—a sprawling reflection on how much time I spent within both records this summer, how well made they both are, what kind of artistic statements they make, and in the end, how much they hurt me.
Like, how much of myself did I see in them?
How ‘seen’ and ‘attacked’ did I feel while listening?
Why were these the two albums that resonated with me the most in 2020?
It was very obvious, though, that one of those young, sad, blonde women hurt me more than the other, and I couldn’t talk about Folklore, or select it as one of my favorite records of the year without pairing it alongside its companion record, the just released Evermore.
But 12 months ago, if you would have told me about a lot of things that occurred this year, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Someone I used to work with shared with me this joke she had read online that Taylor Swift opens up Folklore with the line, “I’m doin’ good—I’m on some new shit,” and then proceeds to release an album with the 17 saddest songs of her career. And the thing about that is Evermore might be even sadder—with Swift doubling down on the emotion, and emotional manipulation in her songwriting.
There are myriad elements that make both albums so fascinating and important—outside of Swift’s uncanny ability to turn a phrase, one of the most apparent is the dichotomy Folklore and Evermore strikes between her pedigree as one of the most revered pop stars of the last decade, and what her production and co-writing partners on both albums bring to the songs—specifically arranger and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner of The National, who contributed to over half of Folklore and nearly all of its companion album. It’s easy to call what occurs in the merging of Swift and Dessner a musical partnership that creates ‘tension,’ but there’s more to it than that.
It’s a give and take that, across both albums, pulls the songs into compelling and unexpected places for both artists—with Swift easing herself into material that leans into the densely orchestrated indie rock Dessner is known for with The National, and in turn, Dessner finding ways to take that densely orchestrated indie sound and work it into a ‘pop song,’ a feat which is way more apparent on Evermore—seeing his name as producer and co-writer on the slinky, energetic, and infectious “Gold Rush” came as a total surprise to me.
Of course, though, it is Swift’s lyrics that make both of these albums—or at least the way she marries her dramatic, emotionally emblazoned lyrics with the swooning of the music. Whether it is a personal narrative, her knack for storytelling, or the place where she blurs them both together, Swift is an absolute master across both records. Even when there’s a lyric that seems, at first, like it might not land, or be entirely too self aware to work—the “I come back stronger than a 90s trend” line in “Willow,” and the confession that she sends her former partners baby gifts from “Invisible String” both come to mind right away; even in those cases, and others, it works, and usually it does surprisingly well.
It’s the more serious, or difficult reflections, though, that linger from both of these albums, like the portraits of badly damaged relationships from swirling, moody “Tolerate It,” or the jaw dropping (yes I said it4) collaboration with The National on “Coney Island,” or the assessment of toxic masculinity that occurs between Swift and Justin Vernon on the Folklore duet “Exile.”
It’s the more serious, or difficult reflections, though, that linger from both of these albums, like the uncomfortable introspection of the hypnotic and gauzy “Mirrorball,” or the uneasy darkness and sweeping arrangements from Jack Antonoff on “This is Me Trying,” or Evermore’s dramatic, chaotic ‘conclusion5,’ that may or may not be a thinly veiled6 expressions of Swift’s bouts with depression.
Both Folklore and Evermore openly pushed Swift out of her comfort zone, both with the idea of the ‘album cycle,’ as well as her entire process for songwriting, and both albums provided astonishing results, with one album truly making you appreciate the other more. They are both very clearly albums that reflect the time that we are living in—with Folklore being assembled remotely as a way for Swift to continue being creative during the early portion of the pandemic, and Evermore being a response to just how well things worked the first time, with Dessner and Swift continued to grow together as songwriters. There is the very obvious shadow of the pandemic that hangs over both records, but hopefully, in time, that will fade, and the sheer quality of both albums will be what people focus on when they reference them.
Taylor Swift, coming off of the success of the wild, technicolor Lover, released at the tail end of the summer in 2019, didn’t have to make an album this year—but she did. She didn’t even have to make two albums this year, but she did, and they are as much for her as they are for us, the listeners. Across a sprawling 34 tracks, Swift, who didn’t need to craft enormous artistic statements like these, has created albums that blur the lines between introspective indie rock, folk, pop, and a return to country—and make it look so fucking easy while it happens. There are moments that are both high and fun, and extremely low and pensive.
If Punisher is representative of how the job of good art, or good fiction, is to reflect the difficulty of what it means to be human today, Folklore and Evermore occupies a similar space, as well as the place that forms when you use pop music as a form of escapism. But even in attempting to escape, and even as infectious as moments on these albums can be, the reason both of these albums were simply so devastating is the conclusion that I arrived at during my initial review of Folklore. Both of these records are about the messiness of being alive, in this very moment and all of the blurred, convicting feelings you carry with you. These are both albums that meet you where you are, and at year’s end, that is where I am, still. I am alive (still a surprise!), a fucking mess, and full of blurred, conflicted feelings.
Folklore and Evermore are albums that are mirrors for both Swift, but also for us, forcing us to look at parts of ourselves we might not want to. They push into places of discomfort or disappointment into who we have become, but they are both albums that remind us that we are absolutely not alone, even though it might seem that way, in how we feel.
1- This is just a quick aside to talk about how a lot of artists, I noticed, really upped their merchandising options this year, more than likely in response to the pandemic. If you can’t go out and tour in support of a record, I suppose another way to insure a somewhat steady income is to continue to release new merchandise and hope that people will order it.
2- I think I talk about this period of time a lot but I just wanted to hop on here and mention that the first time I gave serious consideration to walking away from music writing was at the end of 2015, when I was still writing for the newspaper. I had a really awful year, personally speaking, and the job was not making things any better. By December, I was so miserable that I think it took a herculean effort on my part to put together the ‘year end’ lists that I did.
3- I know I am guilty of ‘reviewing the review’ a lot, but here’s the deal—I still read Pitchfork even though it is a site that is beyond frustrating for me in terms of what they opt to cover, how they choose to cover it, and how bad a lot of the writing has gotten. I am find with disagreeing on an opinion—like, the person who wrote the review of All That Emotion also wrote the piece on Serpentine Prison and she didn’t like either record, but the cumbersome nature of the Hannah Georgas review doesn’t really talk about the album all that much, and instead, sets up a conceit that there is really no follow through on.
4- I still feel like a lot of people are missing the gravity of this song but whatever.
5- A little confusing that the physical editions of Evermore have two bonus tracks tacked on at the end but the album clearly concludes with the titular track.
6- In doing research for my review of Evermore, I came across a puff piece about Swift and some comments she made about her mental health in 2019. She doesn’t come right out and say “I’m fucking depressed,” but there are implications, as there are implications in her discussions in the “Longpond Sessions” special for Folklore.