New Songs to Quarantine To, January 2021

In the first month of 2021, things we took for granted before 2016 made a comeback – e.g. presidents caring about what Americans think; domestic terrorists being treated as criminals; 3 Doors Down not getting the call to perform at a globally significant event. As my cynical, traumatized brain struggles to process this Common Sensory Overload, listening to new music has helped. From idiosyncratic indie-rock to wistful instrumental hip hop to chart-baiting country, artists around the world continue to remind us that, no matter how beaten down we might feel, human beings are still capable of harmony.

1. Tune-Yards – “Hold Yourself”

Having just plowed through Lydia Millet’s hilarious and harrowing novel A Children’s Bible – where older generations get their comeuppance for doing jack squat about climate change – I was primed to fall in love with Tune-Yards’ latest single. “Parents betrayed us / Even when they tried,” sings Merrill Garbus over gently syncopated bass and drums. She’s not mad. She’s just disappointed.

2. Kiwi Jr. – “Maid Marian’s Toast”

Effervescent jangle-pop goodness from this Toronto quartet’s endearing second LP, complete with a simple-as-pie, inhale/exhale harmonica solo.

3. Yasmin Williams – “Sunshowers”

This acoustic guitar virtuoso uses innovative tunings and percussive taps to create the sonic equivalent of running water. “Sunshowers” is an intricate construction of flowing melodies, eddying bass notes, and sprays of string squeaks – a tributary from the artist’s soul to our ears.

4. Rhye – “Helpless”

“I knew it from the start / I’d grow with you,” coos Mike Milosh on yet another feather-light, Sade-inspired ballad about the miracles of human intimacy.

5. Pom Poko – “Like a Lady”

This Norwegian pop-punk outfit captures the liberating thrill of rejecting society’s definitions of womanhood – when the guitars kick in, so does the visceral joy.

6. Madlib – “Road of the Lonely Ones”

Madlib doesn’t just sample the heartsick Philly soul ballad “Lost in a Lonely World.” He invites it to haunt his house.

7. Loony – “Raw”

An R&B ballad that captures the vibe of a long, romantic morning, lit by sunlight filtered through curtains.

8. Eric Church – “Heart On Fire”

Eric Church is a Nashville star with a heavy classic rock habit. (I saw him open a show with a scorching cover of “Back in Black.”) His latest single nails that blue-collar blues-pop stomp that Petty, Springsteen and Mellencamp buffed to a sheen in the ’80s – three huge guitar chords, twinkling right-hand piano accents, and snare drums that burst like fireworks.

9. Crystal Canyon – “Pollyanna”

This Maine shoegaze outfit celebrates the few remaining sunshine-and-rainbows optimists of the world, encouraging them to not lose hope over a slow, sun-soaked riff that feels like a chopped & screwed homage to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.”

10. Bill MacKay & Nathan Bowles – “Joyride”

This guitar and banjo instrumental might have a title that brings “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to mind. But this isn’t car chase music. It’s bike riding to the lake on a warm spring day music.

11. Shovels & Rope (feat. Sharon Van Etten) – “In My Room”

By enlisting Sharon Van Etten to belt with all her might, and backing her with stereophonic ’60s production, the folk duo Shovels & Rope have successfully answered the question “What if Roy Orbison covered The Beach Boys?”

The Top 25 Songs of 2020

A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.

Happy listening, and happy new year!

25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”

In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.

24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”

“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.

23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”

Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”

22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”

Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.

21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”

This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.

20. Machine Drum (feat. Freddie Gibbs) – “Kane Train”

What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.

19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”

Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.

18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love

In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.

17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control” 

An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.

16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”

A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.

15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”

Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”

14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi” 

This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”

Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.

12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”

The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.

11. Charli XCX – “Claws”

This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.

10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”

I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.

9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.

8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”

Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.

7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”

Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.

6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”

A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.

5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”

When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.

4. Laura Marling – “For You”

At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.

3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”

Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.

2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”

“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”

1. Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.

A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.

But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:

Key West is the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line


As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.

The Top 20 Albums of 2020

Music wasn’t the only thing that got me through 2020. My wife, who makes my home life perpetually exciting and meaningful and new, had me guiltily enjoying quarantine. My job allowed me to work from home, out of harm’s way. My coffee maker never broke down.

But this is a music column, and I did spend many precious hours of this past year playing old records and streaming new masterpieces while “trapped” inside my humble Maine bungalow. So if you’ll humor me, here are a few of the ways that music was there for me in 2020:

Music kept me engaged. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world this summer, new albums from several artists on the list below channeled righteous, motivating anger at America’s deeply rooted, white supremacist systems. And many classics felt even more urgent and alive – when I played my vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 triumph What’s Going On and heard him so effortlessly croon, “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” the realization of how little has changed brought tears to my eyes. A few weeks later, my wife and I were on the streets of Portland, chanting George Floyd’s name.

Music made me appreciate my age. I’m firmly in my 40s now, which means I’ve been obsessing over certain albums for decades. So when I decided to play several of my long-time favorites back to back on a long summer day, I was floored at how deeply they were ingrained in my psyche. I hadn’t properly listened to Randy Newman’s Sail Away or Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in years, but the lyrics came flooding back to me in a wave. As I puttered around the house, unashamedly singing along, it truly felt like some old friends had come to visit. I wouldn’t trade that connection to be 20 years younger if you paid me.

Music helped me relax. As a teen, I’d fall asleep to music all the time. I’d put five CDs in my beloved stereo, set them on shuffle, and let them take me away. In 2020, for the first time in ages, this happened again. I didn’t plan on napping when I put Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express on the turntable, but its cold, soothing bleeps made the book in my hand feel as heavy as my eyelids, and I drifted off. Waking up to the sound of the needle gently bumping against the label was like being told, “You’re coming back to reality now. And that’s okay.”

Here are 20 more examples of how music got me through this bizarre and challenging year. Each of these albums reminded me that the world was still turning out there, and that while creativity can be shaped by current events, it cannot be stopped by them. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!

20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B

When Carly Rae Jepsen named her 2019 LP Dedicated, she wasn’t kidding. The feel-good pop juggernaut wrote close to 200 songs during those sessions, in search of that perfect embodiment of love’s effervescent, organic swell. She pulled it off – and then some. Because for the third release cycle in a row, CRJ has followed up an LP with a “Side B” companion album, and this collection of Dedicated outtakes is just as effortlessly catchy and casually profound as Side A. Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s-inspired synth pop is as low-stakes-joyful as ever, combining the disco-ball sparkle of Kylie Minogue with Cyndi Lauper’s subtly emotional delivery. When she sings, “This is what they say / Falling in love’s supposed to feel like,” it’s with real wonder in her voice. And the synths and drums and backing vocals help her translate that feeling into the kind of starry-eyed, idealized pop music we especially needed this year.

19. Nnamdi – Brat

In the three years since his breakout LP Drool allowed him to quit his day job at a law firm, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been wrestling with career-based survivor’s guilt. On his emotionally and sonically kaleidoscopic follow-up Brat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist wonders if he’d be more valuable to the world as a farmer or astronaut, confessing that “I mostly live in silence.” Ironically, the way he confronts these feelings of self-doubt is proof that he’s in the right line of work. Brat jumps from acoustic folk to rubbery hip-hop to synth-chilled art-pop with a boldness that belies its themes. It’s a world where the materialistic banger “Gimme Gimme” and the vulnerable ballad “It’s OK” feel of a piece, because they’ve grown from the same soil of self-awareness and melodic ambition.

18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell

“We’ve gotta stop this fascist creeeeeeep!” screams Shawna Potter on “Wonderful Hell,” the fist-pumping thrash-punk centerpiece of her band War On Women’s uncompromising, anthemic third LP. While it’s no mystery who Potter is referring to, this riot-grrrl-inspired Baltimore quintet is more concerned with the petrie dish of systemic racism and misogyny from which our soon-to-be-former president is just the latest mutation. Whether the subject is domestic violence, mass incarceration, or do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” politicians, the message is delivered with the clarity of a punch to a Nazi’s face, and paired with melodic riffs that are wired directly to our adrenal glands. This is righteous indignation, distilled into one irresistible call to action after another. The louder it gets, the more hopeful it feels.

17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

At its best, dance music has a transcendent effect, its rhythms triggering something in our subconscious that shelves our worries so we can focus on the present moment. Jessie Ware’s fourth LP is dance music at its best. Over simmering, synth-driven R&B arrangements that hearken back to the ’80s post-disco reveries of Grace Jones, the London vocalist tells her glitter-flecked stories of dance-floor infatuations with leisurely confidence. Instead of just belting out these bangers, she adds to their nostalgic spell by tenderly crooning them, the reassuring warmth of her voice as welcome as a happy memory. To complete the effect, Ware closes with “Remember Where You Are,” a towering morning-after ballad written in reaction to the election of Boris Johnson and designed to help us cope with the world outside: “When life is hard, that’s how it goes / As your destiny unfolds, hold on.”

16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

On April 17, when it was starting to really sink in that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, the Finnish psychedelic black metal sorcerers Oranssi Pazuzu took us on a journey of the mind, in the form of its brain-flambéing fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi. By layering synthesizer patches and guitar effects to create uniquely unsettling atmospheres, and then vaporizing them in the cleansing fire of drums and distortion, the band expresses no interest in soothing our jangled nerves. When singer Juho ​”Jun-His” Vanhanen enters the fray, croaking like a disturbed cryptkeeper, the spell is completed, resulting in extended suites that stick in our heads like lucid nightmares. “Uusi Teknokratia” is perhaps the boldest display of disregard for genre norms, shifting from new age synth flutes to chaotic thrash to avant-garde horror-score classical without ever losing sight of its hellish destination.

15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

The polarizing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa is back in the news these days, thanks to an acclaimed documentary, which I’m not rushing to see. After all, with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in my record collection, I have even less incentive to try and “get” Zappa’s intentionally difficult catalog. An astoundingly gifted bassist, Thundercat could probably build a loyal following by just showing off. But on his third LP, he continues to do what I always wished Zappa would – value hooks as much as chops. It Is What It Is has its share of jazz-fusion fireworks, but they’re leavened by sensual R&B grooves and synthetic yacht rock melodies. His lyrics, delivered in a crystal falsetto, are often funny, but in a sweet, self-effacing way. “I may be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good,” he belts with a wink on the adorably non-threatening pick-up song “Dragonball Durag.” This is ambitious music, exquisitely played, that also wants everyone to sing along.

14. Polo G – The GOAT

This summer, America was forced to think about how dangerous it is to be a Black person within its borders. As complicit white assholes like me played catch-up, long-released books like The New Jim Crow re-entered the best-seller lists. And there were few albums better suited to soundtrack this overdue racial reckoning than The GOAT, the unflinchingly honest, sneakily melodic second album from the 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G. Released two weeks before the murder of George Floyd, The GOAT pairs heartbreaking descriptions of life in a racial caste system with minor-key piano and guitar loops that ring out like bad omens. He has no time to mince words when discussing the stark reality of this rigged game: “You gon either die or see the system / Ain’t no slippin’ up.” Yet, through the ease of his singing voice and the deftness of his pen, Polo G is somehow able to stuff these songs with hooks, turning would-be dirges into profoundly emotional pop music.

13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times

In 1964, Sam Cooke released a single called “Good Times,” an homage to the power of music to “soothe our souls” amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. 56 years later, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion gave a similar gift of irrepressible joy to beleaguered Americans. Good Times declares independence from holier-than-thou body policers, patriarchal gender roles, bad lovers, Instagram haters, racist cops, and the misogynistic victim blaming the artist had to endure after being shot in the foot by rapper Torey Lanez this past July. Over thunderously catchy beats that hearken back to classic tracks from Naughty By Nature, Biggie Smalls and Eazy-E, Meg raps like a force of nature, melding the past and present into something exhilaratingly new. “They tried to knock me off, but a bitch still grindin’,” she proclaims with a smirk, creating a space for anyone who feels beaten down by 2020 to take a break, crank the bass, and let the good times roll.

12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad

Dana Margolin embraces contradictions. As the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Brighton, UK, post-punk quartet Porridge Radio, she’s drawn to themes that explore the faultlines between adolescence and adulthood, when we know just enough about ourselves to be dangerous. “Oh I don’t know what I want / But I know what I want,” she sings in her deep tenor on “Don’t Ask Me Twice.” “I am okay all of the time / I am okay some of the time,” she shares on “Circles.” “Baby, I was born confused,” she repeats on the opening “Born Confused.” The band soundtracks these cripplingly uncertain narratives with the care of a supportive parent, going silent when Margolin needs to whisper, bashing wildly when she needs to scream, lending structure and shading to every bittersweet melody. Resulting in one more glorious contradiction: Every Bad is very good.

11. Fireboy DML – Apollo

“Time doesn’t exist / When you’re listening to your favourite song,” observes Nigerian pop sensation Fireboy DML in the middle of his unselfconscious-grin-inducing second album, Apollo. The track, “Favourite Song,” stands as proof of its own hypothesis, its dopamine-summoning groove marked by bouncy “Sussudio” horns and an honest-to-god “Macarena” sample. The artist has a knack for taking us out of time, especially on tracks that fuse the fiery syncopations of his native Afrobeat with the pillowy sounds of ’80s adult contemporary. And despite the god-complex album title and delightfully confident opening track “Champion,” this is far from an ego fest. Apollo gives us plenty of time with Fireboy on his own, sifting through his regrets, searching for answers. “I just want to be alone / I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he admits over the gentle “In Your Eyes” synths of “Airplane Mode.” Press play, and set your soul to vibrate.

10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)

Perhaps there were some PR considerations behind the decision to completely conceal the identities of this mysterious UK outfit – it worked for Daft Punk, after all. But it makes for a more meaningful, holistic listening experience as well. Sault’s second “Untitled” LP of 2020 sounds like it could be a lost R&B masterpiece from the late-’70s, discovered in an auction of Prince’s record collection. Sweaty funk, rippling Afrobeat, catchy Motown, soothing spoken word, and achingly pretty jazz – it’s all here. Couple that with its restorative, motivational themes of inner peace and racial justice, and we have a record that felt like a gift from a benevolent entity. With nowhere else to look in the liner notes, we have no choice but to examine the song titles. The first three are all we need to know: “Strong.” “Fearless.” “Rise.”

9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now

One of the silver linings of quarantine has been how it stripped away life’s extraneous bits and forced us to inspect the foundation. The experimental pop cosmonaut Charli XCX spent the first few months of lockdown putting her own self-assessment on tape. What she discovered will be recognizable to any of us lucky enough to be hunkered down with someone we love. Over the malfunctioning robot glitches of producer A. G. Cook, she sings indelible hooks, evoking the bliss and terror of realizing someone else has the keys to your heart. “So I made my house a home with you / I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she swoons. A few tracks later, she confronts the power that her partner now wields: “Maybe you’re my enemy / You’re the only one who knows what I really feel.” Charli XCX may have been trapped inside, but her feelings were free as a bird.

8. Ka – Descendants of Cain

“When age speaks, youth listens sometimes,” states a crackling, uncredited voice at the outset of Ka’s fifth solo album, the gently haunting biblical allegory Descendants of Cain. And while Gen Z may not go wild for the Brooklyn rapper’s low-lit, open-hearted, hungover Wu-Tang vibes, he continues to set an incredible example, one gorgeous track at a time. “Got to be in grace first, to fall from it,” he murmurs over the ringing minor-key guitar licks of “Solitude of Enoch,” speaking to the inherent value of every American Cain driven to violence by forces beyond their control. Ka delivers every line, no matter how sad or outraged, in the same quiet, level-headed tone, like a Zen master telling stories anchored in universal truths, their life lessons burrowing deep into our consciousness.

7. Caribou – Suddenly

The title of Dan Snaith’s fifth LP under his Caribou moniker might have you expecting a bunch of sonic jump scares. But the eclectic electronic artist reportedly chose Suddenly because his daughter was “obsessed with the word.” She’s not the only Snaith who is fixated on the way things sound. Every track on Suddenly is its own carefully curated sonic universe, with constellations of pillowy synthesizers and modified soul samples that ensure Snaith’s angelic falsetto points heavenward. The overarching mood is soothing and supportive, the soundtrack to an afterparty that makes it feel less scary to come down and reenter that stark, sunlit world. When Snaith sings, “She picks up all the pieces / She’s going home,” over a touching Gloria Barnes sample, it feels like we’ve arrived at a warm, graceful place, where nothing sudden can happen.

6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter

In 2001, Leonard Cohen released a ballad called “Alexandra Leaving,” where he lies on satin sheets while using ancient Greek metaphors to brood about getting dumped. 19 years later, Laura Marling asked a question that never seemed to cross Cohen’s mind: “Where did Alexandra go?” On the UK folksinger’s impeccably crafted concept album Songs for Our Daughter, she writes about the interior lives of women who have been often cast as villains in her genre, her voice a guiding light of warmth and understanding. Marling doesn’t have a literal daughter; she’s singing to her younger self, her friends, and her future hypothetical charges. “I love you my strange girl / My lonely girl / My angry girl / My brave,” she sings, her confident acoustic strumming a reminder of how it feels to be the protagonist, walking away from pain, having chosen a better life.

5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline

When Andy Shauf’s sixth album dropped in late January 2020, its easygoing, low-stakes, clarinet-flecked folk felt as comforting as a cup of hot tea. But less than a year later, the story told here might as well be science fiction – while hanging out at a bar called The Neon Skyline with friends, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend unexpectedly shows up, after which the group heads off to a different bar. “Oh I’m just fine / I’m wasting time / Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that,” Shauf sighs on the title track, his laid-back Paul Simon phrasing making it feel even more like a reassuring relic from a simpler, mask-free time. After his ex, Judy, shows up, it sparks all kinds of memories in our narrator, including a fight after a car crash where his selfishness gets the best of him. As the night goes on, his untreated ache grows, and we feel a different kind of social distance in the room. But Shauf ends things on a hopeful note, making it clear he believes that this guy, and all of us, can change. “I make a silent toast to the things I do and don’t miss,” the narrator proclaims toward the end, much like we all have done this year, figuring out how to make the absolute best of a challenging situation.

4. Moses Sumney – Grae

In most creative endeavors, it’s usually good advice to “kill your darlings” – cutting ideas that aren’t essential, no matter how profound you think they are. But on his sprawling double LP Grae, North Carolina auteur Moses Sumney threw this advice in the trash, writing about some of life’s most frustrating obstacles while dipping his brush in whatever genre he damn well pleased. Heavenly R&B, orchestral art rock, profound spoken word, dreamy jazz – it all works, because its connective tissue is Sumney’s voice, an impossibly elastic instrument that welcomes us in like a surprisingly friendly celebrity. Over the course of 20 tracks, he sings about the variety of boxes that society tries to trap us in: its self-destructive definition of masculinity; its cruelly efficient social media self-esteem compactor; its insistence that love is one very specific thing. “Honesty is the most moral way,” he sings in a Minnie Riperton falsetto, refusing to check any boxes in this backwards binary world, or listen to any tired old advice about how to make an album. His darlings are legion here. And we all get to listen to them, defiantly running free.

3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

This summer, my wife and I saw new potential in our long-ignored backyard. I made a fire pit from stray bricks; we bought a projector and a big screen; and spent many unforgettable nights watching old movies under the stars. Fate had pushed us to reassess a familiar thing, and it felt good. Singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield didn’t need quarantine to shift her focus inward. Her fifth LP as Waxahatchee is the result of years of introspection, a document of an artist’s shift from cynicism to optimism, from self-loathing to self-love. “I’m a bird in the trees / I can learn to see with a partial view,” she sings on “Fire,” accepting she’ll never have all the answers and that actually, life is pretty damn good perched on this particular branch. Musically, the album is one shimmering moment of clarity, its richly hued country arrangements directing steady sunshine on Crutchfield, who lets her voice soar like never before. And as she assembles the stray bricks of her psyche into something whole, she’s free to write honest, vulnerable, built-to-endure love songs. “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she confesses, discovering that incandescent truth is within arm’s reach.

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan spent the majority of his 70s singing the songs of his childhood, releasing a trilogy of Great American Songbook cover albums and pretty much exclusively playing those live, I imagine to the chagrin of many an entitled boomer. But this was more than just a weird rock star flex. This year, we realized that all that time dwelling in the past was preparing this grizzled poet to look clear-eyed into his future. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” the 79-year-old softly sings at the beginning of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The song, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a quiet autumn wood of ringing guitars, a breathtakingly simple backdrop for a Whitman-biting summation of the artist’s many contradictions. Everything on this album, even the full-bore blues stomps, bears the mark of this restrained, spacious approach – on the deeply catchy “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” drummer Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit his crash cymbal once. This commitment to openness, both sonically and emotionally, comes to a head on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a 9-minute ballad about a Florida island famous for drawing legendary storytellers to its shores. With each sun-kissed note, with every creak in this septuagenarian’s voice, it sinks in deeper – this is about an ideal death. “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality,” goes the final chorus. While others rage at the dying of the light, Bob Dylan croons at it like a weary Sinatra, convincing me definitively that the best is yet to come.

1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

“Black child in America / The fact that I made it’s magic,” marvels the Atlanta rap inferno Killer Mike on the final verse of the fourth Run the Jewels LP. In a just world, that line would be hyperbolic. But in a year where violent, institutionalized American racism ran amok on the world stage, the continued existence of this brilliant, outspoken, 45-year-old Black man really did feel like a miracle. After a four-year hiatus, Mike and producer/rapper El-P returned at the perfect time to throw us all a cathartic party, summoning our deepest reserves of adrenaline to spew righteous anger at a system built to destroy Black lives. Whether the duo is exposing the “slave masters posing on your dollar,” eviscerating people who are only outraged on Twitter, or proving that shit talk is an art form (“You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”), their voices are crackling with purpose, like pissed-off preachers with something to prove. El-P’s production is as fluid and supercharged as ever, his bass lines and drum breaks guiding us through bursts of static like a getaway driver with ice in his veins. And Killer Mike has never been better. Over the twisted, reverb-drenched synth funk of “Walking in the Snow,” he breaks down our country’s ugly legacy on a verse written before George Floyd’s murder:

They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”

It would be enough if this album just featured this kind of raw, urgent, necessary poetry. It would be enough if it featured music that made you feel invincible. The fact that it contains both, and that it came out when it did? That, my friends, is magic.

Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1; Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China; Bully – Sugaregg; Bill Callahan – Gold Record; The Chicks – Gaslighter; Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams; Fat Tony – Exotica; Haim – Women In Music Pt. III; Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo; Kamaiyah – Got It Made; Kylie Minogue – Disco; The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives; Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism; Oceanator – Things I Never Said; Pallbearer – Forgotten Days; R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages; Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; Tops – I Feel Alive; Thy Catafalque – Naiv; William Tyler – New Vanitas

New Songs to Quarantine (and Count Votes) To, October 2020

Making mixes for people has always soothed me. Something about the challenge of finding just the right songs, and putting them in just the right order, makes me feel like I have some level of control in this chaotic, ever-expanding universe. And as a form of communication, it suits me better than the art of conversation. My wife is my soul mate for a thousand reasons, and one of them is that, amazingly, she has always intently listened to, and given feedback on, the mixes I’ve incessantly made for her. As they have progressed from tapes to CDs to playlists, they have only deepened our bond, as celebrations of how our tastes, and hearts, align.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that on day 3 of the 2020 election, I have taken a break from refreshing the The New York Times Pennsylvania tracker to make a mix of my favorite songs from October 2020. I hope listening to it gives you a similar respite.

Love you Jen.

1. Wynonna – “I Hear You Knocking”

As Wynonna Judd reminds you what a force of nature she is on this stripped down cover of a ’50s R&B classic, let’s all fantasize about being able to say this to Donald Trump, very, very soon:

I hear you knocking / but you can’t come in
I hear you knocking / go back where you been

2. Stevie Wonder (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, CHIKA and Busta Rhymes) – “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate”

An uplifting, timely, harmonica-sweetened ballad from the master of the form, who is most definitely not calling just to say he loves us.

You say that you believe in all lives matter
I say, “I don’t believe the fuck you do”

3. Tierra Whack – “Dora”

“Please have common sense,” pleads this Philly singer, rapper and pop visionary over a post-Rugrats beat that features synthetic voices harmonizing in a charming, reassuring way.

4. The Mountain Goats – “Picture of My Dress”

Inspired by a tweet from poet Maggie Smith, John Darnielle gives us an opportune story-song about how good it can feel to come to terms with a bad decision. As a divorcee drives cross-country, taking pictures of her old wedding dress at various locations along the way, Darnielle writes about Burger King bathrooms like Shelley wrote about the wind.

5. Cakes da Killa – “Don Dada”

An absolute beast of a club rap single from an emcee who always seems to have adrenaline to spare.

6. War on Women – “Her?”

This Baltimore punk juggernaut gives us a space to pour all of our feminist rage, be it from 2016 or the entirety of recorded history.

7. Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean”

A year after dropping his ’80s hard rock Camaro album, Sturgill Simpson has pulled a 180, releasing an LP of bluegrass versions of songs from his back catalog. And it slaps harder.

8. Busta Rhymes (feat. Q-Tip) – “Don’t Go”

If ’90s Native Tongues rap is your nostalgic safe space, get ready to feel cuddled.

9. AC/DC – “Shot in the Dark”

The rock-solid 4/4 drums. The high-powered but simple riff. The gloriously mindless mosh chorus (“A shot in the dark beats a walk in the park”). The overwhelming feeling of celebratory camaraderie. We missed you, mates.

10. Tom Petty – “Hung Up and Overdue (Home Recording)”

This previously unreleased demo of a song from the She’s the One soundtrack is a highlight of the fantastic new Wildflowers and All the Rest box set. And while it is a somber breakup ballad in line with the tone of Tom Petty’s mid-’90s post-divorce period, its chorus rings true today in an utterly uplifting way:

We’re overdue / For a dream come true

11. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love”

In 1977, while working together on NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Project, astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan fell in love. The project involved sending two spacecraft into the great beyond, carrying recorded evidence of life on Earth, including the sound of a kiss, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and greetings in 59 languages.

Also included are recordings of Druyan’s brain and body functions, captured at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. While the tape was rolling, Druyan meditated on “the wonder of love, of being in love.”

In December, the electro-pastiche experts The Avalanches will release its third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by Druyan and Sagan’s romance. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to transcendence:

Spirit guide
Love provides
Spirit guide, spirit need
Love provides all that we need

The Song of the Election: “Grandma’s Hands”

On October 8, a week after being hospitalized with COVID-19, Donald Trump released a two-minute video on Twitter directed to his “favorite people in the world,” the senior citizens of America. And while the obvious goal of the piece was to shore up his poll numbers – on the same day, Politico ran a piece with the headline “Why Senior Citizens Are Flipping On Trump” – even that purely selfish motivation could not compel our president to express any remorse whatsoever for the nearly 170,000 Americans over 65 who have been killed by this virus.

But as we’ve learned over the last four years, abject cruelty and the refusal to admit fault are the default state of this administration. The reason this video stands out to me is the moment at the beginning, where Trump tells his favorite people that he’s ashamed to be one of them:

“I’m a senior. I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell ’em, but I’m a senior.”

Presidents are supposed to at least pretend to care about their most vulnerable populations, because to do otherwise would offend a loyal voting bloc and make you look like a deranged asshole. Why on earth couldn’t this 74-year-old lie factory express pride in being a senior citizen, even if he doesn’t mean it? The answer to that question cuts to the core of why Donald Trump is extremely unfit to lead our country, and absolutely cannot be re-elected on Tuesday.

He hates vulnerable people.

In 1971, the R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers released a hauntingly beautiful acoustic-blues ballad about how much he loved a vulnerable person – his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, who died when Withers was 15. Like Trump’s video, “Grandma’s Hands” clocks in at just over two minutes. It’s the loving, heartbreaking, empathetic antidote to his obscene narcissism.

Over a mournful, minor-key riff, Withers starts the song with a reassuring, now-iconic hum. The sweetness of his voice is an immediate comfort, a signal that we’re about to be smiling through our tears. Then the artist starts singing about how his grandma looked out for him. His lyrics, which often quote Galloway, are direct, honest, and effective – perhaps a stylistic homage to the way she treated others:

Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
Might be snakes there in that grass

In the second verse, Withers points out his grandmother’s physical vulnerability, but as a way to provide further evidence of her strength – her painful arthritis can’t stop her from offering solace to a woman who was likely being shunned by others:

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell

The song’s simple blues arrangement continues, steady and slow, for the entire track – three verses, no chorus, no bridge. Even the studio ringers brought in by producer Booker T. Jones cede the spotlight. Stephen Stills’s lead guitar runs are quiet and gentle. Drummer Jim Keltner plays a basic 4/4 beat. All so we can truly feel the warmth and gratitude in Withers’s voice, as he passes down memories like the elder he’s memorializing.

On the final verse, we understand just how much Galloway protected her grandson – and not just from hypothetical snakes:

She’d say, ‘Mattie don’t you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core,’
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

On March 30 of this year, Withers passed away at 81, from non-COVID-related heart complications. Weeks into the pandemic’s terrifying, disorienting first wave, everyone was listening to him again, finding solace in his lyrical sensitivity and deep, burnished tenor. So many of his hit songs were about love and compassion and the beauty of being together, from the blissful “Lovely Day” to the gut-wrenching “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the profoundly supportive “Lean On Me.” He wrote “Grandma’s Hands” before all of those classics, showing the world how he learned to love before teaching us.

What if Lula Galloway had contracted a horrible virus and died before her time? What impact would that have had on her grandson who loved and needed her? Would he have been inspired to write these songs that, even today, make me feel like everything’s going to be okay? Or would that legacy of love have been ripped from us?

Every time a senior dies unnecessarily from this unchecked pandemic, we are losing so much more than their physical presence. We’re losing the knowledge they have to impart, the love they have to give, the lessons they have to teach. These are precious natural resources that help our younger generations grow into well-rounded, kind-hearted adults who know what true strength really looks like – someone who uses their hands not to grab whatever they want, but to protect the people they love.

So if you haven’t voted already, please vote for Joe Biden on Tuesday. He’s an (admitted) senior citizen who understands grief. Who will tell our nation every day that wearing a mask is an act of strength. Who will work to protect the vulnerable populations of this country, and teach our children to respect them.

Until I read the headline that announces his victory, I know what I’ll be listening to.

R.I.P. Bill and Lula.

The Funniest Album of 2020

In the mid-1960s, a meme was cropping up on the streets of London. Spray painted on walls and scrawled in bathroom stalls, it hyped the ability of a rising young guitarist in a preposterously overstated way: “CLAPTON IS GOD.”

As a music critic, I’ve been guilty of my share of hyperbole over the years. And as a music lover, I understand the attachment we can feel to artists whose work moves us to tears. But I draw the line at cult-speak. No guitar player is god. No pop singer deserves to be worshipped. No songwriter can truly “save” us.

The absurd intensity of music fandom makes it ripe for satire. And on his new album Mouth Dreams, the comedic mash-up virtuoso Neil Cicierega has a blast taking the piss out of “serious” artists by combining their sacred texts with the most obnoxious bullshit he can find, and making it all, somehow, sound good. It’s one of the funniest things to happen in this nightmare year, a necessary reminder that the world is chaos, that celebrities can’t save us from it, and that it’s hilarious to think we would expect they could.

When this Boston-born comic, animator and puppeteer started dropping his mashup albums for free back in 2014, his collages were just as expertly curated, but they were ruder, containing purposely dissonant sonic hellscapes that practically dared you to keep listening. Toward the end of his debut LP Mouth Silence, the track “Space Monkey Mafia” takes R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and throws Billy Joel’s equally wordy rip-off “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on top of it, creating an unlistenable cacophony of ’80s pop sing-speak. Then he throws a “Weird” Al-esque polka beat underneath it all, propelling the song and listener off a cliff together.

On his third album, 2017’s Mouth Moods, Cicierega had begun to master his craft to the point where he could wreak utter havoc on your ears, but in a way that kept you listening even after the initial joke landed. On “AC/VC,” the artist isolates a vocal track from AC/DC’s gravelly lead singer Brian Johnson, who sounds like a goat dying from laryngitis when paired with the twinkling pianos of Vanessa Carlton’s hit “A Thousand Miles.” Yes, it’s hilariously strange, but the mash-up is also seamless – the chords and melodies and rhythms in sync, even though they’re breaking all the rules of good taste. It will always make me laugh my ass off, while listening to the whole thing.

Mouth Dreams, released on October 1, finds Cicierega in full crowd-pleasing mode, making us laugh while we also drop our jaws at how effectively all the elements align. Peter Gabriel and Limp Bizkit. Johnny Cash and Justin Bieber. Ludwig van Beethoven and Britney Spears. None of these mash-ups sound forced, no matter how silly they look on paper. They’re perfectly executed, while also being perfectly ridiculous.

Perhaps the biggest coup is “Ribs,” which pairs the zombified doo-wop of the Chili’s “baby back ribs” jingle with the instrumentation of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Marilyn Manson’s vocals from “The Beautiful People.” Every layer is totally unexpected, patently silly, and somehow just right.

Cicierega’s music is no longer an endurance test for absurdist comedy nerds. Mouth Dreams is an incredibly entertaining exposé of how thin the line really is between art and commerce, poignancy and idiocy, masterpieces and fiascos.

So the next time you’re tempted to call an artist you love a god, remember how close their songs could be to that jingle from your local car dealer. Also, Eric Clapton is terrible.

New Songs to Quarantine To: September 2020

This summer, as each month came to a close with no end in sight for COVID-19 or systemic racism or climate change or the rule of law, etc., I let my anxiety and outrage influence these playlists quite a bit. For some reason, now that we’re officially in autumn, my favorite tracks from September sound a whole lot like a mix I’d make for a backyard party – 48 minutes of braggadocious rap and glittery dance and psychedelic funk and blistering metal. Yes, the election is around the corner. Yes, that debate was a diarrhea hurricane. But I say let’s forget about all of it, and move to some music, if only for 48 minutes.

1. Rico Nasty – “Own It”

Over some bouncy synth bass, Rico pours Dom Perignon, brags about her Crocs and provides sweet relief to our battered egos

2. Kylie Minogue – “Magic”

Under the lights of a disco ball, with Kylie Minogue singing about the beauty of living in the moment, hell yes I believe in magic.

3. SAULT – “I Just Wanna Dance”

This faceless, secretive British soul-funk group has gotten me dancing in spite of it all.

4. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”

Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.

5. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi” 

This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”

6. Porridge Radio – “7 Seconds”

Synth-driven goth-pop that sticks like Robert Smith’s hairspray.

7. Napalm Death – “Zero Gravitas Chamber”

These legends of extreme British metal formed almost 40 years ago, but they’re still cranking out adrenalized chaotic events like this track, which makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack while seeing the face of God.

8. Kamaiyah & Capolow – “Gimme Dat”

Sonic sunshine from two of Oakland’s finest.

9. Chris Stapleton – “Cold”

Chris Stapleton has become a crossover Nashville star on the strength of his booming, whiskey-barrel-splintering voice, and this fantastic breakup ballad gives those pipes the melodramatic, orchestral backing they deserve.

10. Prince – “Soul Psychodelicide”

In the early ’00s, I was lucky enough to see Prince play an after-hours show at a small club – his full band, including Maceo Parker, was crammed onto a tiny stage, just a few feet from me. They jammed for hours, a living dream of melody, chemistry and charisma. This 12-minute funk freakout on the mind-blowing new Sign O the Times box set brings me back to that moment – Prince calling out cues to his incredible players, channeling Sly and James and George while carving out a groove all his own.

11. Gorillaz ft. Robert Smith – “Strange Timez”

Speaking of Robert Smith, the Cure legend made a rare guest appearance this month, singing about odd sunshine and Belarusian fascists while giving Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project its best track in years.

New Songs to Quarantine To, August 2020

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As we say goodbye to August and look to November, Joe Biden is maintaining his slight lead in the polls. But it should be an 80 point lead. Americans are dying from a virus that our president has ignored, and from racist police officers and vigilantes that our president has encouraged. It makes me wonder, do we really hate each other and ourselves this much? Counterpoint: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts this month with a watershed of a song that celebrated the joy that human beings can give to one another. We do love ourselves! Now we just need to apply all that positive energy to canvassing, and donating, and VOTING.

1. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”

Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores in this House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.

2. Bully – “Stuck In Your Head”

Alicia Bognanno’s alternative-nation rocker seems to be about never acting on your feelings, and then dealing with the fallout of that inaction. But its blistering hook will get stuck in your head all the same.

3. Marie Davidson – “Renegade Breakdown”

This bilingual robo-funk banger is so catchy, I don’t even mind when it reads me to filth: “Your cheap headlines, your lazy writing / I wonder how it feels for you to sit around all day.”

4. Machine Drum (feat. Freddie Gibbs) – “Kane Train”

What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.

5. Orville Peck (feat. Shania Twain) – “Legends Never Die” 

Shania Twain is indeed a legend, and she sounds as charismatic and arena-ready as ever while harmonizing with old-school country’s most compelling modern torchbearer.

6. Mourn – “This Feeling Is Disgusting” 

I never understood music theory, so I can’t tell you what note this Barcelona pop-punk quartet is playing at the apex of this track’s rollicking lead riff. A seventh? A suspended fourth? I was too busy bouncing around my living room to look it up.

7. MF Doom – “Coco Mango (FloFilz Remix)”

A German producer gives a 2012 MF Doom track a summery piano-jazz makeover.

8. Laura Veirs – “Turquoise Walls”

A ballad about being alone in a room, waiting for a text from someone who betrayed you, that somehow feels like hope.

9. Black Thought (feat. Pusha-T, Swizz Beatz & Killer Mike) – “Good Morning” 

This quartet of forty-something rappers might be over the hill, but holy shit are they gaining speed.

10. A.G. Cook – “Today”

Smashing Pumpkins’ deceptively sunny-sounding classic gets a loving electro-pop makeover from the head of the PC Music collective, bringing out its inherent darkness without blunting its shimmer.

New Songs to Quarantine To, July 2020

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There is some telling symmetry on my list of the best songs from the past month. Two tracks openly wish death to an immoral man. Two others fantasize about falling in love using amusement park themes. All of them resonated with me during a time defined by crimes against humanity and a yearning for intimacy. It’s a wicked world, but it can’t stop us from singing.

1. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.

2. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”

This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.

3. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”

Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.

4. Aminé (feat. Young Thug) – “Compensating”

“It’s hard to admit that I’ve made my bed,” this Portland, OR, rapper shares on this track, where a sprightly marimba loop is as refreshing as the artist’s ability to accept blame.

5. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”

Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”

6. Sylvan Esso – “Ferris Wheel”

Here’s another addictive summertime amusement park romance jam, this one literally pining for the chance to make out at the top of a ferris wheel on a hot August night.

7. Black Thought – “Thought vs Everybody”

In the same month we said goodbye to one of the founding members of The Roots – the perennially underrated rapper Malik B – his old foil Black Thought dropped an intense, chorus-less rap exercise that makes me believe he could battle the world and win.

8. Widowspeak – “Plum”

How is it that a simple chord progression, strummed in just such a way, can make me want to go for a drive in the country? This song was made for watching rolling fields go by, and feeling grateful for every one.

9. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”

Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue has made an album called Disco. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single heals through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”

10. Pallbearer – “Forgotten Days”

The progressive doom cosmonauts in Pallbearer have returned with a new single, with the kind of giant, lumbering riff that could casually destroy your town.

11. Bill Callahan – “Another Song”

Bill Callahan just keeps on reveling in romantic domesticity, and it just keeps on making me cry: “As the shadows of the leaves on the wall / Grow and dissolve / Almost in time to our chests’ rise and fall / As we lay on the bed wanting for nothing at all.”

Catching Up with King: “Duma Key”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I packed up my shorts, sandals and ghost pirate repellent and cracked open his 2008 novel Duma Key.

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On June 19, 1999, Stephen King was staying at his camp in Western Maine, enjoying a bit of a family reunion on the lake. He was planning on taking everyone to the movies that evening, but figured he still had enough time for his daily four-mile walk. It was a decision that almost cost him his life.

While walking against traffic on Route 5, a van swerved directly in his path. King smashed into the windshield, flew 14 feet into the air and landed on the pavement, breaking his leg in nine places. In his 2000 memoir/manual On WritingKing describes being helicoptered to the hospital in Lewiston, a ride during which one of his lungs collapsed:

“… as I lie in the helicopter looking out at the bright blue summer sky, I realize that I am actually lying in death’s doorway. Someone is going to pull me one way or the other pretty soon.”

Eight years later, the author completed a novel seemingly inspired from that realization, giving shape to that entity whose unseen hand has the power to pull us back from the brink, or push us off a cliff. In Duma Key, this entity is definitely not something we would call God.

This is the story of Edgar Freemantle, a successful Minnesota developer whose entire existence is upended by a horrifying construction site accident, which claims his right arm and rattles his brain to the point where he has trouble finding the right words for things. In the early stages of his against-all-odds recovery, Edgar is physically and verbally abusive to his wife Pam, who divorces him. Broken in more ways than one, Edgar contemplates suicide, until his therapist asks him if there are any creative outlets he can use to build up “hedges against the night.”images

Edgar immediately thinks of sketching. Soon, he’s asking his realtor to find him a rental in a warm, remote place, so he can continue his recovery and maybe even stumble across his muse. Once he arrives at a remote, largely uninhabited island, Duma Key transforms from an exploration of the grim aftermath of physical trauma to something of an anti-ableist superhero origin story. As Edgar experiences a remarkable artistic reawakening, he realizes that the phantom itch in his missing hand is maybe more than a phantom. The more he understands its power to not only make goosebump-raising works of art, but also right the occasional wrong in the real world, Edgar feels like he’s risen from the dead. Problem is, he’s not the only one.

“Some questions I have never answered to my own satisfaction,” Edgar admits in one of King’s “How to Draw a Picture” interludes, “but I have drawn my own pictures and I know that when it comes to art, it’s perfectly okay to paraphrase Nietzsche: if you keep your focus, eventually your focus will keep you. Sometimes without parole.”

51xVH88DkPL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOn the rare occasions when King sets his stories outside of Maine, it’s usually for a good reason. Duma Key is no exception. The author and his wife Tabitha began spending their winters in the Sunshine State in the late-’90s, after a falling icicle almost killed their dog. “We never really came to terms with the fact that we were rich” until that moment, King told USA Today. They got a place in Sarasota, a short drive over the bridge from islands like Siesta Key. Duma Key is a fictional place, but it is set off the coast of Sarasota. So when King writes about visiting tourists blasting Toby Keith and ruining his day, it’s safe to say that we’re reading the very real complaints of an honorary Floridian.

More importantly, the geography of Southwestern Florida is integral to this story. Edgar’s transformation into an up-and-coming “American primitive” artist is sparked by his terrifying paintings of the Duma sunset, as seen from the porch of “Big Pink,” his rented beach-house-on-stilts. And the book’s most important relationship, between Edgar and his Duma neighbor Jerome Wireman, is a result of the former’s daily beach walks. The first time they interact, Edgar can’t quite make it all the way to Wireman’s beach chair. When he finally gets there a few trips later, Wireman has a celebratory drink waiting for him. In a book full of arguments that you can’t age out of creative inspiration, King also shows that it’s possible to forge meaningful friendships late in life as well.

The first time Wireman and I actually met he laughed so hard he broke the chair he was sitting in, and I laughed so hard I almost fainted … It wasn’t the only time we laughed together. Wireman was many things to me – not least of all my fate – but most of all, he was my friend.

51S-RggeyLL._SY445_QL70_ML2_Wireman is only one of a handful of colorful-yet-haunted characters that populate this story, including the octogenarian art patron and wealthy heiress Elizabeth Eastlake, whose tragic family history is tied up with the ancient evil that resides in Duma Key’s ominous psychotropic jungle. Edgar’s wife and daughters play critical, life-saving roles, a vision of how post-divorce bonds can transcend bitterness. A boozy Tampa art critic steals a few scenes, and Edgar’s pseudo-assistant Jack is a lovable and supportive kid with a knack for keeping his boss sane. It’s a classic King strategy – make you care about people as they become closer and closer friends, and then seal that bond with a healthy dose of shared trauma.

Horror movies will always go back to the “child draws something super scary” well, as a way to depict an innocent being’s mind being overtaken. In Duma Key, those scary drawings are more than just drawings. It’s kind of amazing that King hadn’t explored the terror of that idea before, given his penchant for writing about haunted creative types. Yes, this book has some pretty clear callbacks to classic moments from It and The Shining and Pet Sematary and John Carpenter’s film The Fog, but on the whole, it’s a fresh take on the entrancing, healing qualities of the human imagination, and how they could make any of us susceptible to the darkness. Especially if a powerful evil was somewhere trapped out there, straining to transcend whatever’s blocking it, like one especially bad idea.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Duma Key

6. Doctor Sleep

7. The Talisman

8. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

9. 11/22/63

10. On Writing

11. The Stand

12. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

13. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three

14. Bag of Bones