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Sunday, January 24, 2021

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Music Mondays: My favorite albums of 2020

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Honorable Mentions: 

Pottery - “Welcome to Bobby’s Motel”

The 1975 - “Notes on a Conditional Form”

I’m Glad It’s You - “Every Sun, Every Moon”

Flo Milli - “Ho, Why Is You Here ?”

Towhead Recordings - New York Dance Music Volumes I-IV

In 2020 I had moments with a lot of albums, transported somewhere else for weeks or even mere days at a time, diving into the depths of post-punk jam sessions, pseudo-philosophical reflections, emo-revival anthems, scandalizing minimal pop-rap and transfixing New York Dance music. There’s a lot of albums I have fond feelings for this year, even if I don’t return to them constantly. I opted for honorable mentions that took over my listening life for a stretch, forcing me to repeat them over and over.

There is a distinct heartbeat to all five of these honorable mentions, all from disparate genres, and each hit me at a different season. Notably, I found everything hereafter COVID-19 took over all of our mental capacity. I turned to these albums for something that felt either profoundly relatable— I’m Glad It’s You and The 1975 — or positively transportive — Flo Milli and New York Dance Music from Towhead Recordings. 

I found the New York Dance Music compilations through Bandcamp while the streaming service was making room for Bandcamp Fridays once a month where all proceeds on the site went to artists — a real light among darkness for working-class artists across the music industry in a year without touring. These comps are absolutely worth the price and will remind you just how big the world of New York creatives is. The list of artists here is huge and provides a way to discover far beyond even what Towhead Recordings is shedding light on. 

Pottery also completely absorbed me and filled a slightly different void. “Welcome to Bobby’s Motel” felt like getting in on inside jokes with a new and inviting group of friends. It felt like partying without any intimidation factor, just a space filled with fun people creating a new world through guitars, drums and Texas. 

“Every Sun, Every Moon” is the sound of a young band leveling up under unfortunate circumstances — I’m Glad It’s You’s videographer and close friend, Chris Avis, died during the band’s 2017 tour, which preceded this record. “Every Sun, Every Moon” is the exact kind of emo/pop-punk/indie rock that I cling to in times of darkness and even just doing chores around the house, meaning it’s filled with its own heart and soul and yet feels communal with sticky melodies that are worth returning to. 

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I just can’t get enough of The 1975, too. “Notes on a Conditional Form” was easily my most anticipated album of 2020, and the boys delivered with 80 minutes of music and an opening Greta Thunberg speech. Can’t say the sequencing on this makes a ton of sense or that every song feels essential, but that’s not exactly why any fan keeps coming back to this band. These guys just have more creativity bubbling up inside of them than almost any band working and the resources to realize any idea that comes to mind. The album is always searching for new sonic palettes from Burial-indebted night train electronics to ‘80s pop anthems (“If You’re Too Shy” is absolutely one of the best songs of the year) to a closer that is about the “Guys” in the band. It’s a celebration of the band itself while offering all the greatness that this band can pack into individual songs.

And Flo Milli has been the most recent find. It just feels so good to be able to put an IV drip of confidence right into my veins by listening to Flo Milli rap about how hard it is to quit Flo Milli. She’s a born star. 

And now my favorite albums of 2020.

5. Charli XCX: “How I’m Feeling Now”

Charli regularly puts every other creative in her field to shame through her consistency, creativity and community building. She hosted Zoom calls with fans and artists to get instant input into how she should create her quarantine album back in April and May. AG Cook of PC Music fame helped produce these songs, all made in a six-week frenzy while we were all stuck at home, and there are few things as intoxicating and saddening as flipping on “anthems” from this album. The album is honest about everything that early quarantine did to Charli’s (and our) brains and her urge to be with others in any capacity, all while she dared herself to make a full album under intense time and resource constraints. 

And these songs will absolutely outlive their COVID-19 narratives as pure future pop that is as sticky as anything Charli’s ever made, with even more of a streamlined pop approach than recent more experimental efforts. Just tap on “pink diamond” and hear Charli shout, “I just wanna go real hard,” above screeching electronics and get out of your house without moving an inch. 

4. Jeff Rosenstock: “No Dream”

It is exceedingly difficult to capture the political turmoil of a moment while living in it. But Rosenstock has done this for three albums in a row now, and “No Dream” is his best yet. It’s his most visceral album, his fastest, his most desperate, and it feels absolutely vital to the moment in which it came out and will surely live on without a Trump presidency to frame its anxiety. Rosenstock is as cynical as you have to be in this moment regarding politicians of any ilk, giant corporations, a planet on fire, our inundation with news and notifications. And yet, he centers this record around a search for human connection, powered by classic punk energy. Burn it all down, and may we start anew with “No Dream.”

(And he even captures quarantine before quarantine.) 

From “The Beauty of Breathing”: “I've read that if you just sit on a chair and think / Of focusing your nervous energy / On the beauty of breathing / You could live a life of real tranquility / But I just thought of every stupid thing / That's been keeping me from sleeping”

3. Dogleg: “Melee”

Set my body on fire and hurl me into the Dogleg mosh pit. Play “Kawasaki Backflip” on repeat for all time and let me run through the desert without water and may my legs never tire nor my lungs run out of breath. I’ll run through walls without pain or thought. For these 35 minutes, I feel my own pulse and the heartbeat of every member of this band who is preternaturally skilled at old-gen video games. As long as “Melee” is on, I’m invincible, and so are you. 

2. Lomelda: “Hannah”

1. Young Jesus: “Welcome to Conceptual Beach”

My top two records are the most intimate and difficult to recommend on this list. They’re albums with entire worlds unto themselves that are best appreciated when revisited, re-engaged over and over again in different settings in different seasons in different states of mind. This preamble makes it sound like these two albums are obtuse pieces of art, but I don’t think that’s really true either, because — in spurts and in songs — Young Jesus and Lomelda will hit you with the same intended immediacy that “How I’m Feeling Now” might. 

For Lomelda (the solo project name of singer/songwriter Hannah Read), this means she’s going to let you see the closest thing to her own brain that you can get from an artist — barring late-era Phil Elverum albums. Mostly she’s talking to herself, and yet she lets a full band join her on this album in a move that she’s never allowed herself previously. In her 2019 album, “M for Empathy,” Read shared her frustrations with speaking intimately about anything with anyone close to her, and on “Hannah” she makes an even more radical shift in her songwriting by making these songs more accessible, more easily digestible, while still sharing that previous lyrical vulnerability. 

On one of the best songs of the year, and maybe the best in her career thus far, “Wonder,” she sings, “When you get it, give it all you got, you said” over and over with further and further accompaniment from her band’s wall of sound. She takes simple advice and relays it to us in a way that makes it feel worth living every moment by. 

She’s yelling more on this album. She’s attempting to sound bigger. She wants to be heard like never before, and it is one of the most transfixing musical performances of the year. 

And then there’s Young Jesus, a band I’ve been blown away by since 2018's “The Whole Thing Is Just There,” similarly structured to “Conceptual Beach” with a short tracklist and a behemoth final twenty minutes. The band builds its sound on free jazz jam sessions blended with Modest Mouse style indie-rock roots and leading man John Rossiter’s inner monologue that he wraps into proper poetry. 

“The Whole Thing” featured songs that mostly sounded on the verge of collapse, with conflicting ideas and moral philosophies seemingly in combat through dissonant guitar tones and chaotic drumming to match. But on “Conceptual Beach,” the song structures are appropriately in greater harmony. The band seems to have a greater sense of what it might make of the world, a bit more guidance, though no precise conclusions — and Rossiter wouldn’t be so foolish as to look for any conclusions when we’re talking about faith, eternity, how to live and how to cope with grief and regret.

But watch what he pulls on “Faith:” 

“That’s how we live

Between pain and hopelessness

But if our monsters could hold our souls

They might tell of love, of holes

That we all carry

That we are reflected in

Imperfection never leaves

And the pain you feel you’ll always feel a bit

But in the moment

Of knowing what we’ve known

Of seeing every ghost

And giving it a home

We just might grow”

All that is done with varying tempos, varying modes of singing, wailing, moaning, with a band able to match every peak and valley in hope and hopelessness, convincing itself that it might grow from failure and violence rather than become consumed by it.

“Pattern Doubt” lets the band do its best Bruce Springsteen impression with an extended saxophone solo. “(un)knowing” shows Rossiter in meditation about what knowledge does to us, with a finale that features Jesus, Mary and God himself insight. “Meditations” reminds us of the anguish that can accompany engaging with the future-focused poetry Rossiter offers us when he repeats over and over, “I wanna be around and live it” with increased madness. 

And then comes the album’s first single, “Root and Crown.” Among a tracklist with no obvious singles, the band chose a real grower rather than something more immediate or with a familiar song structure. It comes to us unassuming, with acoustic strumming and Rossiter posing that “every record needs a thesis, needs a crisis, or campaign,” signaling that this band might be on a mission too. Perhaps you groan at this academic approach to songwriting, but in the same breath, Rossiter is joined by a heavenly harmony of bandmates, backing him with group vocals: “What if living wasn’t of the mind? / The root and crown don’t doubt the wintertime.”

As is often the case with this band, these lyrics are more impressionistic than they are decipherable, but goddamn, if I am not completely moved every time I hear these guys sing together. It’s the most simple song on a tracklist that follows “Root and Crown” with two closing 10-minute jams. That last 20 minutes, in some ways, feels like a chance to sit with what you hear in the short time that “Root and Crown” takes the stage. You just don’t hear albums this ambitious, this dense, this packed with ideas. There’s real anxiety here over where the pursuit of knowledge takes us, what the limits of art ends up being. Is there any comfort in trying to write this stuff down? Rossiter even imagines himself during “(un)knowing,” “redeemed in shame and grief / In knowing I may not find peace.” 

And yet Young Jesus continues on, creating music as friendly and engaging as can be, especially with the last two jams. It will scare you and welcome you. And no great art ought to leave us unscathed. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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