2020: There Will Be Better Days

by Melanie Love

It’s been a year of losses, the profound ones and the small ones. It’s been a year of narrowing, of redistributing the weight of our lives. It was the year my dog and cat became my most valuable colleagues (and at the very least, it’s been the best year of their furry little existences). A year of long walks, finding pleasure and presence in the way the light refracted on the Hudson River, letting the water work its magic. I spent three months watching a family of ducklings in the pond near my apartment, counting the nine tiny puffs of soft and feather each week as they grew and became indistinguishable from their duck parents, until one weekend they were gone. The pond looked empty for a month or so. But beneath the surface, the koi fish kept circling, and the pigeons stood sentry at the lip of the pond, maintaining the shared ecosystem. And soon enough, the ducks were back, even more of them this time, as if they’d encountered some long-lost relatives on their flightpath. The world keeps moving.

In these months, my relationship with music has been a funny one. In the beginning, I kept up with the new releases as I always have, trying to fold new songs into my life. As time wore on, I found myself leaning on old favorites, the warm grooves of routine. Only a few special albums broke through; that’s the reason I only managed nine for the list this year, and why you’ll see some Honorable Mentions that didn’t come out in 2020 but formed the soundtrack to my life. Anything goes in this weird moment in time.


1. The National – Juicy Sonic Magic (Live)

I’m forever grateful to all the cool people who exposed me to the National, whether it was as background noise in my office in grad school or being explained the intricacies of the chord changes in “Fake Empire” on a blissful October night at Forest Hills Stadium. Since then, The National has become one of my most-seen live bands, and definitely some of my most-played music. So it’s no surprise that this, slipping in right at the end of 2019, became a soundtrack for the cold months of an early winter leading into a long lockdown. It’s a perfect blend of all the National eras, from the glitchy moodiness of Sleep Well Beast to the propulsive driving rock of Trouble Will Find Me, with older hits and some new cuts blended in, too. Frontman Matt Berninger – who loves diving into the crowd and teasing his bandmates and riffing with the crowd in between songs – is always at his best in a live setting, and this release is no different. 


2. San Fermin – The Cormorant I And II

My last live show before the shutdown was San Fermin at Brooklyn Still in early December; I’d just moved back to New York that fall and was excited to dive back into the live music scene once work settled down a bit. San Fermin delivered as always, breezing through hit after hit of their orchestral pop and previewing new songs from what would be The Cormorant II. “Swamp Song” turned out to be a stunner, particularly live, with its cacophony of overlapping voices and instruments and its joyous attitude of total meltdown. Meanwhile, “Saints” (both the album version and the acoustic release) was pure, airy loveliness even as it captured the mood of a painful breakup. San Fermin always delivers something interesting and strange, and I can’t wait to see them live again someday.


3. The Weeknd – After Hours

As a longtime Weeknd fan, I was especially jazzed for this release, especially after 2016’s Starboy was a bit of a mixed bag. Lead single “Heartless” felt like a return to form, a classic Weeknd blend of bracing instrumentation and caustic lyrics backdropped by a bloody music video. But it was “After Hours” that really sold it for me, a slow-burner jammed with tempo changes and Abel’s vulnerable falsetto on lines like “Where are you now when I need you most? I gave it all just to hold you close / Sorry that I broke your heart.” And this disc was an appropriate mood setter for March when things felt most turned upside-down and a familiar voice crooning themes of devastation, shame, and destruction – but to catchy beats! – was needed more than ever.


4. Phantogram – Ceremony

I didn’t listen to this one as much as I did previous Phantogram releases, but that’s mostly because I was self-soothing with The National on repeat for months and new music barely snuck in. Still, this one has its excellent moments: “Into Happiness” is a glorious, soaring glimpse of the band at their to-the-rafters pop best, “Dear God” is a staccato and swaggering opener, and the stripped-down “Glowing,” which lets the vocals take center stage. I still love Three and Voices more, but this one can still hang.


5. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

All of us needed something beautiful more than ever, especially when trapped indoors for the better part of the year. And Perfume Genius’ latest delivered, crafting a vital, energetic, and gorgeous album. From the opening refrain of “Whole Life,” which spills out of your speakers in a gentle orchestral haze and intones “Half of my whole life is done,” to the dance pop thrill of “On The Floor,” Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a keen blend of erotic urgency and heady awareness of mortality. It’s an album of turns and transitions, like how the whispered falsetto of “Jason” shifts from its lovely interiority before opening up into a baroque stunner or “Describe,” which is thick with churning guitars that ebb out into muted orchestration. 


6. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (and the Copycat Killers EP)

I’ve really adored Phoebe Bridgers since her 2017 debut, Stranger In The Alps, as she is masterful beyond her years at crafting thoughtful, candid, often twisty lyrics (“Motion Sickness” is still one of my most played tracks, capturing the queasy disgust of a former mentor turned abuser with a driving backbeat that echoes the way we often cope with trauma by running away from it). On her latest release, and the accompanying EP revisiting a few of the cuts from the album, she fleshes out her sound even further, crafting arrangements that are textured and evocative. There’s an Elliott Smith quality to her sound – the insularity, the muted gentleness in the instrumentation belying the dark thorniness of some of her themes –  and he’s even the inspiration for the title track. Copycat Killer inverts some of the tracks from Punisher, stretching out the once-peppy “Kyoto” and “Chinese Satellite” until they becomes almost desolate in their spareness, with a certain grace to them, too. These releases are ones to come back to over and over, sinking into the soundscapes and pulling apart the origami of her imagistic lyrics.


7. Taylor Swift – folklore

I am, of course, biased since I eagerly devour everything Taylor Swift releases. But Folklore is genuinely a gorgeous and thoughtful new chapter in her catalogue. For the first time, she’s beginning to navigate themes outside of her own experience, zooming out to tackle substance abuse, a character-driven study of American socialite Rebecca Harkness, and healthcare workers during the pandemic. Not all of it lands, but seeing her stretch her wings at a time when most of us felt more confined than ever was a revelation. Joined by longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff and bringing in the illustrious Aaron Dessner (of the National fame), these songs have a grace and an interiority that make them endlessly listenable. In particular, Swift’s duet with Bon Iver (“exile”) is a dark, moving ode to the different perspectives each partner has on the dissolution of a relationship, “Mirrorball” is a shimmering ‘90s-esque description of what it’s like to live in the spotlight when that spotlight is suddenly turned off, and “Peace” is a spare, subtle closer bringing us in to some of Swift’s trepidations about being in a long-term relationship when her fame is a third participant in it. For even more Swift deep diving, check out the Long Pond Studio Sessions documentary, which finds her performing these songs live in a stripped-down form with commentary in between from her, Antonoff, and Dessner.


8.  Taylor Swift – evermore

Blessed be Taylor Swift, our most productive queen of quarantine, who dropped not just one but two albums in the span of five months. I’m still working my way through really getting to know this one, but it’s already a strong addition to Swift’s catalogue and continued evolution as an artist. evermore retains the same crew as folklore, even adding in the full lineup of the National and the HAIM sisters. Standouts include the sinuous lead single “willow” and its gorgeous accompanying video, the pumped-up country thrill of “no body, no crime” with its detailed lyrics of a murder cover-up, and the haunting ode to Swift’s grandmother “marjorie,” a perfect an encapsulation of grief. folklore still edges in as my favorite of the two sister albums, but that could just be because I’ve listened to it so much. evermore is still a standout and a testament to Swift’s boundless talent.


9. Glass Animals – Dreamland

Shout-out to my best friend/soul sister, who recommended Glass Animals many years ago to me in her infinitely good taste. It took ‘til this past spring when I was browsing through the new releases for that recommendation to stick, and even longer still because I was initially kind of “meh” about this album. Fast forward to a few months later when “The Other Side Of Paradise” from 2016’s How To Be A Human Being blasted out of my speakers and jolted me into a funky, totally catchy haze. It made me fall down the Glass Animals rabbit hole and finally come back to Dreamland with renewed interest. Songs like “Heat Wave,” “Space Ghost Coast To Coast,” and “It’s All So Incredibly Loud” are awesome mash-ups of R&B and psychedelic grooves with indelible choruses. The lyrics are complex and tongue-twisting yet rich with emotion, too. It’s why I repeated this album ad nauseum for most of the summer.


10. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

At once dense in its arrangements and spare in its lyricism, The Ascension feels like a natural extension of Sufjan’s sound and a clear lens on the current moment. The songs themselves are filled out with glitchy, choppy bursts from drum machines and sweeping synths, while Sufjan’s tender vocals create a kind of plaintive poetry: “Tell me this love will last forever,” he intones on the atmospherically romantic “Tell Me You Love Me,” while “Die Happy” consists of only those words repeated throughout a six-minute sonic breakdown. There are moments where this album threatens to swallow itself, running to almost an hour and a half, but we’ve got nothing but time nowadays, so it might as well be spent in Sufjan’s strange, fractured world where the best any of us can do is strive for connection. 

Honorable Mentions: Hamilton soundtrack (my actual most played album of the year); Lana Del Rey – Normal Fucking Rockwell (because anything by Lana Del Rey is a mood, especially this year); Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being (an instrumental part of my above-mentioned Glass Animals deep dive); “Better Days” by Miner (as a reminder that, as the song says, “There will be better days”).

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