[This post is dedicated to the Looking Closer Specialists — especially Laure Hittle, Timothy Grant, and Winston Chow — whose contributions make this website possible.]

The word for this year was survive.

The Holy Scriptures caution us that with increasing wisdom comes increasing pain, and that to love is to suffer. The wisest and most loving people I know in this world suffered each day of this year as if it were another destructive wave striking a ship that was broken beyond repair. Waves of troubling headlines crashed over us: “Liars are venerated, losers congratulated / Cheaters celebrated, thieves compensated / Vultures satiated, murderers exonerated / Guilty vindicated, innocent incarcerated….” (That how Lucinda Williams summed up 2020’s news updates, anyway.) And in the ensuing chaos we would scramble to strengthen what remained, while precious resources — and sometimes even precious lives — were lost in the violence. As a pandemic conquered and occupied for a year, our leaders stifled the experts, lied to us, and failed us. As anti-American forces rose within our borders, they were praised, privileged, and promoted by our President and by many of our churches. Our planet, our nation, our communities, our churches, our families … they are fractured, bleeding from open wounds.

I’m painting a grim picture. But to do anything else right now is dishonest and unhelpful. Only the Truth will set us free.

I began making year-end music lists when I was 13, during a time when music was my window to the world beyond my small, insulated, evangelical Christian world. It gave me a sense, in those early days, that God was alive and well and doing magnificent things out there in the world that I was being taught to avoid for its toxicity.

And I was right. Music led me into a larger, more wonderful world. Music introduced me to a far more powerful God than I had been taught to worship in fear and ignorance.

This year — the year I reached the half-century mark — I needed music more than ever before. I needed it for escape from the constant clamor of evils wreaking havoc in the world around me — particularly from those being violently unleashed by the very churchgoers who had told me to fear the world. I needed it as a liturgy and a lifeline, to keep my spirits from failing as a death-cult led by an Antichrist raged across this nation that I love. I needed music for reminders of grace, beauty, and truth. I needed music so that my faith in God would stand, while so many of the very people who had kindled that faith in my early years abandoned their own teachings of love and peace for self-centered impulses of fear, prejudice, and violence. I needed it for a sense of community, for the reassurance that the artists I love were also seeing what I was seeing. I needed to hear a Gospel sung by the enslaved and persecuted — authentic voices raising a truth hard-won — rather than an easy, unearned gospel sung by the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant. I needed lamentations sung by grieving, raging prophets. I needed the playfulness of the childlike who could cast off fears and find delight even in the valley of the shadow of death.

This is the third part of a three-part post about the music that inspired and sustained me in 2020. (Did you miss Part One and Part Two?) Here are the 20 albums I turned to most often for solace, for surprise, for cathartic anger, for necessary lament, for confession, for gratitude, for joy.

20.


Laura Marling — Songs for Our Daughter

You’re all welcome to your Taylor Swift blockbusters. Even though she’s 30, Swift’s lyrics rarely remind me of anything more substantial than the self-absorbed and boyfriend-obsessed poetry that classmates of mine were writing as melancholy first-year college students. Little else seems to interest her. By contrast, I find 30-year-old Laura Marling’s songs remind me of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Suzanne Vega. They’re more compelling, more literate, and more mysterious, and her journey strikes me as far more fascinating. Swift — whose pop numbers are catchy and enjoyable, sure — seems 30 going on 22, while Marling is writing songs far beyond her years. It’s worth noting that while we rarely see Swift less than magazine-cover-ready, Marling appears here sans makeup. It’s a choice that’s consistent with the sound of her music. Songs for My Daughter isn’t my favorite of Marling’s albums — not yet, anyway — but I found it so appealing for its glow of humility, honesty, and sincerity. It feels intimate, generous, human.


19.

Buddy and Julie Miller — Lockdown Songs

I certainly wasn’t expecting a new Buddy & Julie release this year — not so soon after their excellent 2019 album Breakdown on 20th Ave. South.

This is only an EP, but it’s a knockout, opening with a ferocious (and may I say prophetic?) anthem of righteous anger “When You Go Down,” and moving immediately to a reverent eulogy for the great Rep. John Lewis called “The Last Bridge You Will Cross.” Steve Earle and the McCrary Sisters show up on the spirited “Let It Rain.” And then Buddy and Julie — known to play secret shows under the moniker Blue Ponies — unflinchingly align themselves with forces for righteous change in protest songs about corrupt corporations, confederate statues, and police brutality against Black lives. There’s even an easy but amusing retort to Trump’s spectacular and tragic mishandling of the COVID crisis: “Public Service Song #2 — Concerning Bleach.”

These songs aren’t subtle, but they’re cathartic in their plainspoken fury and faith-based hope. Songs like these could so easily be cheap and heavy-handed — but these are the kinds of crowd-stirring calls to action that can fire up an audience to go out and fearlessly do the right thing: vote.

Lockdown Songs will stand as a record of conscience and courage during some of America’s darkest days.


18.

Nada Surf — Never Not Together

“Holy math says we’re never not together.”

That’s line from a Song Exploder interview with Justin Vernon. I like it a lot — just as I like a lot of the wisdom and conscience in the poetry of this big 2020 discovery.

I know I’ve heard Nada Surf before, but maybe I’ve really underestimated them. This is one of the best rock-band records I heard all year, one that recalls the ambitions of the best bands of the ’80s and ’90s (I’m thinking U2, REM, Arcade Fire, and even Death Cab for Cutie) by enhancing hook-driven pop with big-arena sounds from the electronic to the orchestral.

“I need a tow up to clear blue sky,” sings Matthew Caws in “So Much Love,” the opening track… and before I can agree with him, I find that he’s already pulled me out of my own funk and carried me up into a brighter, more hopeful place. There is so much positivity here — not just wishful thinking or sweet nothings, but substantial U2-“Beautiful-Day” dreaming — that it plays like an antidote to the toxins in the context of its its 2020 release.

If you want to feel better, put this on, turn it up, and clear enough space for some dancing and fist-pumping.


17.

2nd Grade — Hit to Hit

It’s one of my favorite genres in music: Get a bunch of multi-talented musicians together; throw songs together fast; hop, skip, and jump around the map of rock and pop genres; save a lot of room for humor; and if you find a good hook, grab hold and don’t let go.

That was the formula for my own improv-comedy band in college, and much of what I hear on Hit to Hit sounds a lot like the spirit that kept bringing us back together, again and again, to record hundreds and hundreds of songs. So this was both a fresh and exciting new band for me and a flashback to some of the best times I’ve ever had making or listening to music.


16.

Jeff Tweedy — Love is the King

15.


Rose City Band — Summerlong

His name is Ripley Johnson. If you know the bands Wooden Shjips or Moon Duo (I don’t), then you may recognize quite a bit of what’s happening in Johnson’s latest project: Rose City Band.

Johnson plays most of these dreamy, gauzy layers in a way that sounds impressively like an inspired chemistry of several veterans. It’s a blissful, sunshine-y guitar-and-mandolin country-rock effort that, played live (if he could find the right collaborators), could easily expand into a set twice as long that gives the musicians time to jam, solo, and lounge in these semi-psychedelic riffs.

Add Rose City Band to my list of “bands” I find most promising. Johnson’s songs lifted my spirits whenever I pressed play, making me long for a chance to sit on a summer lawn and listen to this guy love what he’s playing.

Rose City Band would make an excellent double bill with Jeff Tweedy (or Wilco, for that matter).

Tweedy made the most of lockdown by doing his finest solo work yet by composing intimate, personal, testimonial songs and playing them with his sons. I often find Tweedy’s lyrics cryptic to the point of being opaque and confounding. But here, he’s surprisingly open and seemingly as contended as he’s ever been. It was a reassuring sound this year.

I love the opening title track — but I am deeply moved by “Even I Can See,” his meditation on how he may be meeting God quite specifically within the love of his patient and understanding partner.


14.

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

Biggest jump toward Blockbuster Status this year? Easily Phoebe Bridgers, with this spectacular album that veers between Cat Power intimacy and Sufjan Stevens ginormity. This is the album most critics will always point back to as the Big Bridgers Breakthrough: the confidence, the ambition, the performances, the production — it’s a fantastic package. And the sonic spectacle doesn’t distract from the lyrics, which are strong (and troubling) all the way through. It’s personal, its poetic, it’s beautiful in its quiet moments, its riveting and even terrifying in its furious finale. While “Kyoto” is the big single and “I Know the End” is the moment all the critics are talking about, I’m most moved by the hushed expressions of longing in “Halloween.”

It also has the most imaginative, impressive illustrated lyric book that comes with the vinyl package. I always have to spend some time with it while I’m listening.

If I have any frustrations about it, it’s just how much each sounds like, well… a Phoebe Bridgers song. I’m not particularly surprised by anything except the production until that finale, which is one of the most exhilarating and cathartic moments of the music year.

 


13.

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

The album that caught me with the most unshakeable hooks this year — that is to say, I found myself singing these song constantly — was, surprisingly, a folk record of standards played with sprightly, skillful guitars and piano. The unsurprising part? It’s Anais “Hadestown” Mitchell, one of my favorite singer/songwriters in America today, in the territory she loves so much: history, mythology, and Gospel. She’s working with Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, and while I would love nothing more than a new Mitchell solo record, I’m loving their chemistry as a trio.

Here’s an excerpt from Pitchfork‘s review by Grayson Haver Currin:

There are references to bygone wars and the bounty of a father’s garden, to the Biblical parable of prisoners Paul and Silas and the folk heroism of John Henry. If you’ve listened at all to English, Irish, or Appalachian folk music or any of their many revivals, you’ll spot familiar archetypes and icons. But Bonny Light Horseman gently cut these songs free from aging roots, transplanting them to the present.”

Currin spotlights the revised version of the Napoleon-focused title track: “This version excoriates all-powerful leaders who dispatch the powerless to their death; as strongmen worldwide foment new nationalism, her rendition feels as much like a warning as a plea.

Timely and relevant, as they say.


12.

This is the Kit — Off Off On

Kate Stables’ last This is the Kit record, Moonshine Freeze, was my favorite of 2017. It was such a surprise, such a fresh new sound in folk-pop: the musicianship so precise, the rhythms so layered and crisscrossing, the lyrics as playful (and as dark) as nursery rhymes. And lo, here she’s working with the producer of the Bonny Light Horseman album I just described: Josh Kaufman. There’s so much sprightly creativity in both the performances and the production, Kaufman may as well count as a member of the band.

While most reviews are calling this a stronger album — and I agree that, in some ways, it is — it also suggests that a This is the Kit song is a *type* of song. I’m worried that the band’s work is going to become somewhat predictable.

But that’s a quibble. Few albums have even a couple of songs as creatively complicated as these.


11.

Run the Jewels — RTJ4

“Say their names!” The rallying cry continued, at the end of 2020, to crescendo like the orchestral tidal wave of anxiety at the end of the Beatles’ “Day In the Life,” amplified by the flagrant murder of George Floyd and the obscene killing of Breonna Taylor by police. Remarkably, the cry began to ring out from work beyond Black artists — it spread as a million memes; it resonated in the chants of peaceful protests; it inspired a Buddy and Julie Miller song; and it energized a stirring performance of a Janelle Monae song by David Byrne in his American Utopia show.

But that wave was, in fact, a phenomenon of people catching up as latecomers to causes and grievances that have been driving the laments of Black voices for decades. And so, before it’s too late, it’s time for a much wider (and whiter) audience in America to get over their phobic avoidance of Black art, and their prudish flinching at “harsh language” while they ignore their complicity in Black suffering.

Time to listen to the voices of experience.

This year, nobody raged, ranted, and lamented with more detail, more authority, more imagination, and, yes, more *humor* than El-P and Killer Mike, a partnership known as Run the Jewels.

I’m not enough of a hip-hop scholar to get into the influences and stylistic subtleties of the diverse sounds on this album. Nor can I speak with experience about the long list of important collaborators and guests — save one: The great Mavis Staples makes an appearance in “Pulling the Pin” as they decry “filthy criminals…at the pinnacle.”

But I am riveted by the richly layered, literate, and sophisticated testimonies and confessions here. These lines are so spectacularly agile and inspired that Neil Z. Yeung at AllMusic.com claims the album “provides relevant history lessons that are more useful than a classroom textbook.” And they’re peppered with clever pop culture references in ways both eloquent and surprising, highlighting the pair’s formative 1980s childhoods (“Goonies vs. E.T.”). In “ooh la la,” Killer Mike expresses a sense of desperation brought on by the relentless devaluation of Black lives and protests:

I used to love Bruce, but livin’ my vida loca
Helped me understand I’m probably more of a Joker
When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling
Cannibals on this island, inmates run the asylum.

The music backs up that sense, often reaching such a chaotic intensity of organic and electronic sounds that what we hear resembles a car crashing so hard that it tumbles end over end down a freeway without stopping.

In “Walking in the Snow,” Killer Mike raps some of the lines I find most personally convicting — lines written with the murder of Eric Garner in mind, but it’s remarkable how they rightfully instruct us over the murder of George Floyd:

And everyday 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’
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.

As if that doesn’t jab my conscience enough, they seize the moment to call out the hypocrisy of so many professing Christians, reminding me of the name I am so quick to claim as the foundation and motivation of all that I do: “All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves / Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.

What to do, then, besides promoting solid journalism and express solidarity with the suffering? That’s for each of us to decide. For me, the energy of conscience, rage, shame, and hope is finding a shape in teaching and writing, for starters. But I have a long way to go. I’m grateful for the difficult, demanding, but ultimately meaningful work that these major prophets of our time are doing in the minds and hearts of those with ears to hear.

For listeners like me have grown up with privilege that I have only begun to realize and reckon with, this kind of a record can be hard work, abrasive, and deeply unsettling. But that’s not any fault of the artists — they’re testifying of the hardships that people like me have — either in ignorance or aggression — forced them to suffer. They’re speaking the truth. In doing so, I hope that their art is bringing comfort to the afflicted, because it is certainly afflicting the comfortable in meaningful ways.


10. (How about a four-way tie?)

Gillian Welch — Boots No. 2, The Lost Songs (Vol. 1, 2, 3)
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All the Good Times

 

Yes, I’m cheating — because I can. Four albums have tied for this position because I don’t know how to break them up, and they all blur together for me as a spectacular four-part contribution to American music released all in one year.

In July, the official Gillian Welch Instagram account posted this update:

“For reasons better discussed in the history books, in the Spring of 2020 Gillian and I dusted off an old tape machine and did some home recording. Sometimes we bumped the microphone, sometimes the tape ran out, but in the end we captured performances of some songs we love. Five are first takes and five took a little more doing, but they all helped pass the time and held our interest in playback enough that we wanted to share them with you. We sincerely hope that you enjoy “ALL THE GOOD TIMES.”

Now… that’s just unfair. This duo’s first takes are so strong, it can make you crazy imagining what kind of masterpieces they might be capable of if they really threw their backs into it.

Covering 10 folks songs old and new — including numbers by Bob Dylan (“Abandoned Love,” “Senor”), John Prine (“Hello in There”), Elizabeth Cotten “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”, dear old Johnny and June (“Jackson”) — they offer a pandemic-lockdown house concert in their own home. But if you didn’t know they were covers, you’d swear they were originals drawn from the same well of timeless and seemingly effortless artistry that these two have become known for.

But I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet.

If they got good stuff out of lockdown, wait until you hear the treasure they stole from a Tennessee tornado last March. As storms annihilated homes, tore out trees, and killed 25 souls, Welch and Rawlings risked life and limb to save equipment, writing, and master tapes from their own legendary Woodland Studio. The building flooded; the music survived. And this convinced them — for the good of the world — to stop hiding so much light under a music studio bushel: They began releasing archival recordings one batch at a time, giving us a three-volume bootleg series that literally doubled the amount of original work they’ve ever released.

And it is extraordinary stuff.

I’m most fond of Volume 3, but I’m sure this will be an endless debate amongst fans. It doesn’t matter — the collection is outstanding, and even more impressive for the fact that Welch and Rawlings ripped through these songs, culling inspiration from a mountain of notebooks, in one weekend just to fulfill a recording contract so they could move on to new material. You can read the whole story in this Pitchfork article.


9.

Waylon Payne — Blue Eyes, The Harlot,
The Queer, The Pusher & Me

It’s a rare country record that resonates far beyond the familiar territory of lost love, hard times, and love of the homeland. But this one has its roots deep in Johnny Cash confessionals and prayers of hope for last-minute salvation. These narratives have the ring of truth from a cracked and tarnished bell. “Sins of the Father” rocks and hooks and stands out as a clear single, but most of the album is mellower and more introspective. I can imagine other artists with bigger, more soulful voices covering these songs in the future, but that’s not a jab at Payne’s pained vocals, which are full of character and texture. And I am, of course, moved by the sincerity of the gospel threads that glimmer throughout, as many of these stories are framed with a heart awakening with conscience and an eye on eternity.


8.

Brian Blade, Christian McBride,
Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman — RoundAgain

Simply the most joyous and spectacularly synchronous musicianship I heard all year. This outfit has been tight since 1994, although this is my introduction to them as a quartet. (Back in the ’90s, I was seeing both Brian Blade *and* his brother Brady with different major live acts.) It sounds like four-way intuition of the best kind, from the cheerful to the wistful, without ever becoming showy. It’s like the musical equivalent of the ideal friendship. And when my spirits were low — and they were weighed down on a daily basis this year by the constant background noise of human cruelty — I often turned to this well of inspiration. It always did my heart good. And man-oh-man, did it make me miss the jazz clubs in which I used to read and write during my college years.

I’m fondest of the imaginative and consistently surprising reinvention of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the third track, “Silly Little Love Song.” Want to dance with your sweetheart in the kitchen? This is my favorite date-night track of the year.


7.–8. (tie)

Image may contain: 1 person, standingThe Secret Sisters — Saturn Return
Elizabeth Cook — Aftermath

Hmm. How to choose here? I’ve tried to pairing up albums by different artists in numerical ties here… but due to an error in revising my rough-draft list, I had both of these listed at #7… and, well, I now realize that I can’t figure out how to separate them. It was a surprisingly strong year for substantial Americana/country music, and these were, for me, the cream of the country crop.

Elizabeth Cook gives us her best record yet: bold and blistering new country-rock for 2020, alive with attitude, ambitious with U2-level arena-rock bombast, and a heavy-lyrics confidence that demands to be reckoned with. Alabama’s Secret Sisters give us their best record yet: A vintage Americana act that some how avoids sounding “retro” by equaling and maybe surpassing the acts they bring to mind, with stellar harmonies, and Gospel soul that sounds like sweet medicine to me at the end of a punishing, soul-bruising year.

We recently watched Saturn and Jupiter align in a way that teased us with apocalyptic implications, so the title seems right on time: Saturn Return suggests a new beginning, which might refer to the Secret Sisters’ new experience of motherhood, the loss of their grandmothers, or a commitment to standing strong in a time when strong women are under verbal and political assault from America’s top echelons of power. Few artists start out with a boost from producer T Bone Burnett and then go on to do even better work after he launches them — that first collaboration is usually the peak. But The Secret Sisters just keep shining brighter, and this is easily my favorite of their records.

Cook’s Aftermath teases pop divas who sing unpersuasively about pain, noting that they’ve “never had their heart slammed in a door.” By contrast, her pain sounds real, but this isn’t miserabalism — it’s motivating, showing us that anybody who’s hurt these characters in the past had better watch out for the missiles of righteous anger and truth-telling heading their way. I love the opening stomp-rocker “Bones”; the blissful layers of power pop in “Perfect Girls of Pop”; and the blistering defense of “Half Hanged Mary” (a woman who survived hanging in the 1680s for being a “witch”). And then there’s the sweet, funny, and provocative tribute to “Thick Georgia Women.” But the most intriguing song comes last, which PopMatters critic describes as follows: “The album’s funniest song works as a tribute to John Prine. He wrote an imaginative song about Jesus’ missing years. She creatively addresses Jesus’ mother and her ‘submissing years; with a wry panache that would make the Singing Mailman proud.”

 


6.

Jarv Is… — Beyond the Pale

People have opinions about Jarvis Cocker, it seems. I confess, I missed out on Pulp fever somehow; I was only aware of a couple of the band’s popular singles. And I haven’t followed him since, save to notice him incarnate as a troubadour within the world of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation (The Fantastic Mr. Fox).

But I happened to hear a track from this album early in the year, and there was something about its Bowie-esque ambitions, its Leonard-Cohen-as-art-rocker vocals, its irresistible beats, its layers of cosmic sonic experimentation, its joyously singable hooks that brought me back again and again, and its relentless capacity for *surprise* — I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of all that this album has to offer.

It took a while to realize that one of the album’s prevailing themes is about surrendering to the inevitable disintegration of getting old. Do I love this album because this is how I want to feel going forward from my 50th birthday? “Do something new, or do something else!” he sings in my favorite track, “Am I Missing Something?” And I want to roar in affirmation. And then, in “Save the Whale” — “Embrace the darkness and all that it entails / Move beyond the pale.”

And don’t overlook the wickedly clever rhymes: “G-damn this claustrophobia! / I should be disrobin’ ya!”

I hope Cocker feels at home with this new group and this new moniker: I would like a library of records this creative, ambitious, and strange.


5.

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

When I first heard “Murder Most Foul” — Bob Dylan’s longest, most layered, most complicated song in a long career of literary lyricism — I was deeply disturbed. I began to sense true prophecy in Dylan’s work way back in the ’80s — and I was a latecomer to sensing that significance in his work even then. Listening to this song now — this meditation on the nature of corruption at the very roots of American history, and its focus on the assassination of Kennedy as the turning point when it became clear that the ideals and dreams of America’s promise would always be kept out of reach by the what Yeats calls the “passionate intensity” of “the worst” — I felt as if the prophet’s poetry might speak powerfully into this present and historic trouble, as America teeters on the brink of a second civil war.

He might be anticipating, as I am, how the Antichrist President of 2016–2020 has stoked flames of long-simmering hatreds so high that no subsequent President will be likely to live long past Inauguration Day.

I pray I’m wrong.

But even as I write this, a man carrying fake Inauguration credentials and tons of ammo has just been arrested. [UPDATE: 24 hours later, *another* person has been arrested for the same thing.]

And just two weeks ago, our nation’s most sacred sanctuary was raped; Trump supporters besieged our temple of Democracy, paraded through its corridors with Confederate flags, aggressively sought to apprehend and assassinate members of Congress and the Vice President, and literally squatted down and crapped on its floors.

So far, while Democrats try to recover from near-executions, Republicans are suddenly calling for the very “unity” they’ve actively opposed for many years, rather than demanding the accountability that is our only hope for meaningful progress. A few arrests have been made — that is all. Rumors and evidence of further conspiracies and plans for violence are everywhere.

While others count down the last days of Trump’s presidency, I find myself preparing my heart for the heaviest blows yet, praying for the best but bracing myself for the worst. American history shows that the leaders who have a vision of an America finally repenting of racism are the leaders who end up dead.

Wait… isn’t this review supposed to be about the new Dylan album?

I’ve only referenced one song here so far — the grand finale, the weary epilogue, the eulogy for an America so capable of imaginative genius and so much more capable of lies, idolatry, hatred, and destruction. It’s sung with such love for the vision lost, such world-weariness and grief, and yet the lasting tone is one of gratitude for the fleeting glimmers of glory along the way. Things may be coming apart in these latter days, but we cannot deny that the Gospel has been proclaimed, the Gospel has been sung, even in the darkest chapters of this sordid history.

What comes before “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways is a tapestry of references religious, mythological, historical, and plucked from pop culture. It’s full of self-knowledge (“I Contain Multitudes”) and self-effacement (“False Prophet”). It revels in gratitude and tributes to the icons who have inspired Dylan’s work. It is extravagant in it allusions, rhyming “Rolling Stones” and “Indiana Jones” as if both are equally real in their historical importance.

In fact, it’s hard for me to attend to one song over another here. They all feel like part of one last epic-but-intimate American opera playing out in Dylan’s imagination, as if his whole American life is flashing before his eyes. Just a few weeks ago — but it feels like years, in view of 2020’s relentlessly punishing events — we heard retired-and-pardoned General Michael Flynn urging President Trump to “cross the Rubicon,” referring to the moment Julius Caesar sparked the the Roman civil war and became a dictator. Soon afterward, Trump’s minions answered the call and defiled the Capitol in a show of violence, arrogance, and privilege, actually committing the crimes they’ve accused civil rights protestors of committing. In view of that, it’s hard for me to hear Dylan’s 2020 song “Crossing the Rubicon” as just another poetic flourish about the singer’s readiness to slip this mortal coil. It sounds more like a song from the point of view of someone losing his soul, having made one compromise too many. It sounds like Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World,” the Judas who boasts instead of confessing: “I prayed to the cross / I kissed the girls / And I crossed the Rubicon.” Yes, he did — this present Antichrist paid lip-service to Jesus, went on exploiting women, and went then went into full authoritarian mode. Dylan sees it all as if he’s already reading — already writing — the history book on this.

Why, then, if this album is such a rich and rewarding peak in Dylan’s legendary career, is it only #5 on my list of 2020 favorites?

That’s about the music itself. Here, the band is brilliantly cohesive in providing the place settings for these generous servings of storytelling and poetry. But I’m not hearing the kind of musical imagination that would make the *sounds* of the album more than handsome frames from the documents of Dylan’s playful and profound reflections. What moves me in the world of music is much more than lyrics. I love, well… music.

Anyway… with respect to Childish Gambino, this — THIS — is America. And I’m inclined to say that Dylan sees it with greater clarity and vision than any artist in any mode of American art-making. These may not be his greatest songs if we’re considering their musicianship or whether or not people are likely to be singing them in 20 years. But they are his most sophisticated weave of poetry, and the greatest work of literature I heard all year.


4.

Lucinda Williams — Good Souls Better Angels

Bad news hangin’ in the air
Bad news layin’ on the ground
Bad news walkin’ up the stairs
Bad news all around…

Feels like 2020, yes?

After my first listen to Lucinda Williams’ 15th album on my morning commute, I started it again and posted this on Facebook: “This record is exactly what I needed. I’m blasting through it a second time on the home stereo. So cathartic. And I haven’t heard guitars this righteously angry since U2 at their peak.”

These aren’t the subtlest, most sophisticated lyrics of Williams’s career – far from it. But in a year like 2020, when your own nation’s character is being stripped to pieces, when your own nation’s dignity is being burned to the ground by a treasonous and self-centered President, you need a way to release your rightful rage without throwing fuel on the fires violence. You need to cry out in anguish. You need to lament. You need to pray like Jeremiah: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the treacherous thrive?”

You need to speak the truth about your assailants without stooping to their evil tactics. And she does. She laments:

Liars are venerated, losers congratulated
Cheaters celebrated, thieves compensated
Vultures satiated, murderers exonerated
Guilty vindicated, innocent incarcerated…

And she stares down a man manifesting the spirit of Antichrist:

You are a man without truth
A man of greed, a man of hate
A man of envy and doubt
You’re a man without a soul.

It’s one thing when a simple, emotional songwriter in pop or in metal says something like that. It’s another when a poet as perceptive and as careful with words does it.

To cast out a devil, you have to name him. She’s naming the devil in the lyrics, and in doing so, the hot light of her righteous anger illuminates and reveals not only the devil but those who serve him.

Likewise, the band is using a language of suffering, a language of turmoil, and naming the devil with fearsome eloquence. Their music — including the instrument of Williams’ voice, which has never been stronger, and the Edge-like guitar solos of Stuart Mathis — expresses the grief and the rage I felt every day of 2020, every day of the last five years. Their music, in expressing the truth, gives me a reassuring sense of company, a reminder that in God’s time it will all be made right, It affirms for me that the glory of beauty and Gospel will every remain beyond the reach of liars and cheaters and fascists. The enemy’s songs are feeble and foolish. They can’t take away or even touch the Kingdom of God so long as their hands are busy scheming, stealing, and doing harm. No, the Kingdom can be given only to those whose hands are open in humble hope for God’s provision, who hands reach out to one another with mercy, who receive the suffering brought down on them whether they know or not that Christ is there beside them, that he is already revealing how empty and worthless the “power” of the wicked really is.

Williams may still regard Christian faith with skepticism. (And who can blame her, considering the contradictions and hypocrisy that professing Christians are showing the world right now?) But just as Bob Dylan reminds us that “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” she picks up where that leaves off, calling out her would-be Masters and declaring “You Can’t Rule Me.” She is singing from a place of conscience alongside the poor, the abused, the neglected, the oppressed, the unjustly maligned. She, in an inadvertent imitation of Christ, prays Psalms for and with the persecuted, not compromising to stand with persecutors or revel in her privilege.

This album, in all of its righteous rage, is a timely consolation.


3.

Loma — Don’t Shy Away

The top three spots on my list have changed almost every day of the last month as I’ve listened and argued with myself. And I may change my mind again. But for now, well… here’s the most satisfying conclusion I’ve been able to reach…

Loma’s Don’t Shy Away is even better than the trio’s debut record. It’s also the most enchantingly beautiful album musically I heard all year. No doubt about it, this is the 2020 album I will play most often in the future. So, in that sense… it could be #1!

I’d say more, but I wrote extensively about the album already at Looking Closer at this link.


2.

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

For the homemade-ness of it.

For the most inventive and resourceful percussion on a pop record I’ve heard since 1987’s The Turning by Leslie (Sam) Phillips.

For the fact that it’s an album full of righteous anger and defiance, and yet is also so full of obvious joy and creative inspiration.

For the time Fiona Apple takes — and this is a big deal to me, a characteristic of many of my favorite records of all time — to explore the possibilities of each song, and the willingness to let them morph from one thing into another, constantly changing up the instrumentation while boldly holding to catchy, singable melodies.

For the punctuation of laughter.

For the obviousness of the patience and the labor of love that this album was for Apple. She took her time for years on these songs, willing to disappear from the headlines and the hit parade until she had something that was ready, something that would stand the test of time.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook back April when I first heard this record:

The Holy Scriptures tell us that the sins of the fathers (or, rather, those with the responsibility of parental and governing power) extend to the sons (or the next generation) and beyond. This can be read many ways. I think it’s wrong to ever read God as making horrible threats: “If you’re bad, I’m going to punish your kids.” That contradicts any claim that God is Love. But it does make me think about how the hatreds and unloving behaviors of the Authority will be learned, imitated, and carried on by the Apprentice, to the harm of others and everything, most of all the one committing the sin.

On her new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple sings: “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burned / Turns to pass the torch….”

Then, yearning to escape the curse of receiving violence and turning it into violence of her own, she sings: “But I know if I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race….”

And at the end of this incredible song, she sings with longing: “Wipe it all away / Wipe it all away / I used to go to the Ferris wheel every morning / Just to throw my anger out the door….”

What an incredible image.

Dig a little deeper — read her interview at Vulture (CAUTION: F-BOMBS GALORE) and you read these amazing words:

“I wrote the line ‘Evil is a relay sport, when the one you burn turns to pass the torch’ when I was 15. I just always liked it. [If] you get burned by somebody, when the person who burns you doesn’t acknowledge it — which rarely happens to people, acknowledging when they’ve burned you — it turns into you not knowing what to do with it. Then you just put it on somebody else. The assault when I was 12 made me think about innocence and guilt and forgiveness. It made me think about a lot of big things. Because the first thing I did after it happened was pray for him. But you can’t stop at praying for them. You have to hold them responsible.”


1.


Sault — Untitled (Black is)
Sault — Untitled (Rise)

Has a record — or, in this case, two records — ever represented the year of release more perfectly? I’d be hard-pressed to think of an example. And yet, I’m going to go on listening to both of these — particularly Untitled (Black is) — for many years to come.

  • Because these records play like the soundtrack of the greatest civil rights movement — not just in American history, but in all nations poisoned by white supremacy.
  • Because these artists are a community of creativity modeling brotherhood and sisterhood, and calling us to march non-violently despite the relentless and ongoing violence that is brought against them.
  • Because, in spite of the fact that these records exist due to generations of Satanic injustice, they are joyful, creative, life-affirming, God-honoring, and radiant with love from beginning to end.
  • Because it would be easy to write these records off as “protest music” merely preaching a message. But no — the music is fantastic, wide-ranging, funky, fiery, danceable, and often downright gorgeous.
  • Because I value the element of surprise in music so much, and though I’ve heard both records all the way through several times, I am still delighting in surprises
  • Because if we don’t agree to affirm that “Black lives matter,” then we are, in our silence, complicit in the system racism that has made such an affirmation necessary. If we brush off this cry, we are closing our ears to our neighbors who are suffering — still suffering after America made a promise of liberation that has never really been fulfilled.If you don’t understand the movement, you have not been paying attention. Jesus stands with the poor and the oppressed, and while these records are not addressing American racism exclusively, it’s clear that, in America, no community has suffered more injustice than Black Americans. At times it seems that the persecution will never end, but it is empowered by pride and ignorance and the idolatrous idealization of a “past” when America was supposedly “great” — a past that is a fantasy, believed in by those who aggressively deny rampant corruption.To say “Black lives matter” is to love your neighbor. It is to favor the injured hand, to attend to its radiating signals of pain, to love it into healing and wholeness.

 

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