My 2nd Annual “Year In Music” Review: Top 20, Honorable Mentions, and 100 Songs

For the second year in a row, I continued my album project in which I try to listen to at least one full-length album a day. In 2019, I got to 778 full albums, in addition to all the other random-scattered listening I do. This year the number is slightly lower, 711 (and counting). 

I enjoy reading lists like this, though haven’t used this blog to share my own until recently. I don’t pretend that my taste is any better than anyone else’s. End-of-year lists help me find music I missed, or prod me to listen again, more closely, to albums I may have dismissed too quickly. I heard 146 new albums that came out in 2020, up from 125 last year. I liked most of them, and really liked a lot. 

 

 

TOP 20


Microphones,
 Microphones in 2020

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Run the JewelsRTJ4

Taylor Swiftfolklore

SAULTUntitled (Black Is)

Fiona AppleFetch the Bolt Cutters

LomeldaHannah

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Mac MillerCircles

Laura MarlingSong for our Daughter

Cut Worms, Nobody Lives Here Anymore

Adrianne LenkerSongs/Instrumentals

Oliver Coatesskins n slime

Alasdair RobertsSongs of My Boyhood

Rose City BandSummerlong

Low Cut ConniePrivate Lives

Ambrose Akinmusireon the tender spot of

Flaming LipsAmerican Head

Drive-By TruckersThe New OK

Shabaka and the Ancesters, We Are Sent Here

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS (35)

  

Jazz/Experimental

Nubya Garcia: Source

Mary Lattimore: Silver Ladders

Gia Margaret: Mia Gargaret

Makaya McCraven/G. Scott-Heron: We’re New Again

Yves Tumor: Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Max de Wardener: Music for Detuned Pianos

 

Songwriter/Folk/Acoustic

Ryan Adams: Wednesdays

Sam Amidon: s/t

Bonny Light Horseman: s/t

Bill Callahan: Gold Record

Jeff Tweedy: Love Is the King

Bill Fay: Countless Branches

H.C. McEntire: Eno Axis

Brigid Mae Power: Head Above the Water

  

Indie/Rock/Pop

A Girl Called Eddy: Been Around

Beach Bunny: Honeymoon

Fontaines D.C.: A Hero’s Death

Habibi: Anywhere But Here

Blake Mills: Mutable Set

Eve Owen: Don’t Let the Ink Dry

Peel Dream Magazine: Agitprop

Perfume Genius: Set My Heart On Fire

Frances Quinlan: Likewise

Jeff Rosenstock: No Dream

Andy Shauf: Neon Skyline

 

 Country/ Americana

Courtney Marie Andrews: Old Flowers

Sam Doores: s/t

Jayhawks: Xoxo

Chris Stapleton: Starting Over

Gillian Welch: All the Good Times

Jaime Wyatt: Neon Cross

 

Hip-Hop/Rap/Soul

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia

Freddie Gibbs, The Alchemist: Alfredo

Lianna La Havas: s/t

KeiyaA: Forever, Ya Girl

 

SUPER HONORABLE MENTION!

Amelanchier, Sparrow Inside

Amelanchier, Is This the Doorway?

 

Amelanchier is the name that my son, Gavin Preller, recorded under earlier in the year. These were his first two homemade albums, available on streaming services. He has a proper vinyl album coming out next summer under his own name, put out by Shimmy-Disk/Joyful Noise. Every year it’s the same for me: I listen to Dylan more than anybody else. But I gotta say, there’s nothing in this world quite like listening to your own kid. Move over, Bob, make some more room at the table.

 

Also for fun: Here’s a Spotify playlist of 100 best, new songs I really liked that represented 2020 for me, the only rule was only one song per artist. Feel free to follow. Again, of course, your mileage will surely vary.

 

 

 

ABOUT MY “NOT NEW” INTERESTS 

Because I’ve now got this large file on my desktop, I noted the not-necessarily-new artists I listened to most widely (by the arbitrary measure of at least 3 different full albums). This sub-list reflects little jags I went on, where I’d get inspired and go deep on, say, Giant Sand or Lambchop, for extended periods. Surprisingly, this part of my list — the supposed staples —  varied quite a bit from 2019.

Those included this year: Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Keith Jarrett, Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders, Radiohead, Brian Eno, William Basinski, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Prine, Nick Lowe, Freedy Johnston, Bill Callahan, Smog, Adrianne Lenker, Mount Eerie, Elliott Smith, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Silver Jews, Andy Shauf, Khruangbin, The Go-Betweens, Big Thief, Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, Waxahatchie, Lambchop, Stew, Liminanas, PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Mountain Goats, Badly Drawn Boy, Alex G, Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo, Bright Eyes, Flaming Lips, Giant Sand, Shelby Lynne, Drive-By Truckers, Jayhawks, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, Jason Molina (Magnolia Electric Company), Bonnie “Prince” Billie (Palace Music), Jason Isbell, Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Kinks, Steely Dan, Jefferson Airplane, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Bert Jansch, Michael Chapman, Sam Amidon, Alasdair Roberts, and Kanye West. 

From 2019, but not listed in 2020: Aimee Mann, Arcade Fire, Avishai Cohen, Beach House, The Beatles, Beth Orton, Big Star, The Byrds, Cass McCombs, The Clash, Courtney Barnett, David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie, Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley, Florist, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Gillian Welch, Hayes Carl, Hot Tuna, James Blake, Joe Henry, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon,  Laura Cannell, Laura Marling, Leonard Cohen, Mitski, Pavement, Penguin Cafe,  R.E.M., Ryan Adams, Stevie Wonder, Sun Kil Moon, Teenage Fanclub, Thelonious Monk, Tom Petty, War on Drugs, Waylon Jennings, William Tyler, an Van Morrison. 

 

CONCLUSION: It’s an impossible task, a fool’s errand. Forget what I like or dislike, whether I have “good taste” or bad. The best part is the music itself, and the artists who put it out into our world. Thanks goodness for music. 

Jigsaw Jones Says, “Mask Up!”

Jigsaw Jones and Mila Yeh say . . .

G E T   A   C L U E !

 

MASK UP and STAY SAFE

this holiday season & all winter long!

 

Art courtesy of R.W.Alley.

Jigsaw Jones Approves of This Message

Speaking of the holidays, messages, and the spirit of giving . . . 

“Dubliners Hang Hundreds of Coats on a Bridge for the Needy.”

 

 

Jigsaw Jones and Mila Approve!

Art by R.W.Alley from the most recent Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Hat Burglar.

One Question, Five Authors: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?”

“A good place to start

is by continuing to make art

which begs questions,

sparks conversations,

explains stuff,

and provides catharsis.”

— Lizzy Rockwell

I remember being at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival a few years back. Jeff Mack turned to me and asked, only half-jokingly, “Do you remember when it used to a bad thing for children’s books to be didactic?” We laughed about that one. Ho, ho, ho. I was reminded of that moment while reading a timely, interesting article by Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt in Horn Book’s “Calling Caldecott” series, titled, ” What the Hell Is Didactic Intent Anyway?”

The time seemed right to bring back my ever-quasi-popular, “One Question, Five Authors” series, beginning with possibly the thorniest question I’ve ever asked: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?It’s not a simple topic, and definitions vary — it’s not always clear we are talking about the same thing — which is likely why some responders gave longer, deeper answers than usual. Another reason for that: I made sure to ask this particular question to some of the more intellectual, thoughtful, experienced writers I could find. Today I’m honored to share this space with Lizzy Rockwell, Lois Lowry, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Tony Abbott. Please feel free to add a comment or voice a complaint. The more voices, the better.

 

LIZZY ROCKWELL

Thanks Jimmy.  What a good question.  Having raised two grown sons, I know that there were plenty of messages my husband and I consciously or unconsciously delivered as they were growing up: Be nice. Be responsible for your actions. Pay attention to your emotions, and other people’s emotions. Use words to work out conflict. Take care of your body. Learn about the world.  Respect all living things (including ecosystems). Be creative. Be generous. Be honest. Know that you are loved. Books helped. Frederick and Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, Medieval Feast, by Aliki, The Awful Mess, by Anne Rockwell, Donkey Donkey, by Roger Duvoisin, and Spinky Sulks by William Steig were some of our favorites.

Ours is not a religious home, but our ethics are in keeping with those of most religions.  Children’s books can support a society’s effort to help children grow into healthy, collaborative, expressive adults who distinguish between right and wrong, fair and unfair. But books are not just about molding successful and virtuous future adults, they are about providing art specifically crafted for children. A child’s need for art is every bit as great as an adult’s. Art is cathartic; it lets us identify and talk about our emotions.  Art is philosophical; it’s the best way to explore the big existential and ethical questions. But good art is never didactic. It is sensory and emotionally charged, so it gives us pleasure, scares us, makes us wonder, makes us laugh, connects us with others. Art is open-ended so it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. And art is subversive. It challenges the confines of social norms, and requires us to ask questions.

We are in a fascinating moment, where some very long-in-the-making problems are finally being pulled from the back of the closet and brought into the light. This moment is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The legacy of slavery,  the genocide of indigenous Americans, the oppression of LGBT people, the subjugation of women and girls, economic inequality, European imperialism, gun violence,  drug addiction, and environmental devastation, are on the short list of problems we can no longer ignore. Solving many of these problems requires disrupting systems (patriotism, capitalism, transportation, policing, Religious orthodoxy, industry) which also are the armature of American society.  So how do we rebuild and improve, without completely tearing down?

A good place to start is by continuing to make art which begs questions, sparks conversations, explains stuff, and provides catharsis.

But let’s be honest, making art for children is not the same as making art for adults.  We have a responsibility to not overwhelm them with fear or guilt. Any story or work of non-fiction created for children, no matter how disturbing the problem, or open-ended the solution, should contain a message of hope. And I don’t have a problem with that message at all.

 

LESA CLINE-RANSOME

I write each of my books with a measure of intention and purpose.  For me, there is a need to accurately represent my culture and heritage and provide a counter narrative to the misrepresentations that have pervaded literature for too long.  I write stories that provide one depiction of black life that reflects its resilience, sacrifice, joy, enduring traditions and loving families.  Is it a message?  Perhaps.  But in a time of erasure and exclusion, I feel a message celebrating the fullness of black life, community and family is a much needed one.

 

LOIS LOWRY

I can’t comment on any trends because I simply don’t keep up with what’s being published (isn’t it ironic that Spellcheck wants “published” to be “punished”?). But my personal opinion about books with messages has not changed. A book with a blatant message…a book whose author has set out to instruct young readers and guide them to a higher morality…is a bad book. A book with intriguing characters who face complex problems and weigh difficult choices is a book from which a message will arise but it will not have been placed there by the author. It will evolve from the reader: from the reader’s circumstances and introspection and emerging beliefs.  When a student emails me and asks: “What is the message of (insert title)?” I always reply: “Whatever you want it to be.”  When a parent or grandparent hands me a book to sign and asks me to write: “For xxxx, in hopes that this book will teach you…blah blah” I always conceal a deep sigh and write: “I hope that you’ll love this book.”

As an old person myself I do sympathize with…and share…the yearning to be able to impart wisdom to the young. But if I’ve learned anything in my 83 years, it’s that wisdom is acquired through experience and through feeling one’s mind and heart opened…occasionally by a good book. Not a book with a message.

 

LIZ GARTON SCANLON

For me, the question isn’t so much whether books contain messages. I honestly think that’s a given. Characters learn and grow and have ah-ha moments. They navigate tricky times and grapple with moral choices. Metaphors telegraph meaning or theme. Beginnings pose questions that endings then satisfy with deep realizations. Books are full of messages.

I think the question is a more subtle one –- one of prepositions. I think messages in children’s books need to be of or from children rather than to or for or at them. I like to see them emerge with each page turn, from the small, wide-eyed perspective of a kid, rather than come down like an explicit, instructive hammer.

What if messages were more like discoveries than lessons? What if they were sometimes nonlinear or digressive or funny or wholly surprising – just the way they are for kids in the world outside of books? What if young characters and young readers alike got their messages in deeply felt and experiential ways? I think that’s how we give them the most important message of all – that we respect them, that we’re paying attention, that they matter.

 

TONY ABBOTT

While I’ve given this question a bit of thought over the last couple of years, it’s not been with any sense of tying it off with an eloquent flourish, so forgive clumsy lapses in logic. But, yes, I think we are seeing more and more books for children with simpler and simpler messages that try to appeal to the reader by defining, quickly, and in terms that reader will understand, what those books are about and why they should be read.

Part of this trend might stem from increased competition in the marketplace. The need for books for younger readers to be published with an engaging tagline — “would you be brave enough to . . . x y z?” is an attempt to land the besieged reader with a simple emotional hook. This is one response to a glut of shiny things to attract one’s attention. (Another might be a flashy cover.)

That’s all very fine, but I think this nailing-down-the-point notion might have worked its way down to the writer — it’s not difficult to see why it shouldn’t have. The writer wants to be read, so, sure, let’s lead with that phrase, however it simplifies my 300 pages. After time, we forget that taglines are something to be applied after the fact, and not during the composition of a piece. We have all seen how particularly “meaningful” lines or phrases from a book make their way into memes that are then used for corporate or personal promotion of the book. That a writer might write toward one of those simplifying lines is also easy to imagine. We would never admit so, but even unconsciously it’s easy to see how that would happen. And then we have the message book — the one that, more often than not, is a story of some kind of empowerment and hope. These themes follow obvious trends in the political, cultural, and emotional marketverse.

You can see, however, how after a time, this might be what the literature becomes: a sequence of very acutely directed essays aligning with (or scandalously denying) the current cultural touchstone. I’m certain I’ve been guilty of doing this, just as I’m certain it’s a bad thing. I’d hope other kinds of publishing aren’t like this, but my sense is that they are. [Let me also add that I don’t particularly see one’s editors as at the front of this trend; it’s a cultural current.]

This is one part of the cartooning of America, the shallowing of culture you can see just about everywhere — necessitated, in a way, because we as audience are also getting thinner and less able to work in complexities. No doubt social media has played a big part here.

Talking about this issue is, for me, likely one more aspect of sour grapes, so it can easily be dismissed. My last books have gone precisely nowhere, so I’m moving on. If you write a book, you have to allow yourself at least two years to get to a decent shape, often longer. To push through to completion is a bigger and bigger deal when you get older and other projects have been laid aside for too long. So you leave. Is there hope? I don’t think so. It’s a downward trend we’re seeing played out in every sphere of American life, starting at what we used to call the top. Yes, you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the same in every country. Another reason to build a big personal library and lock the door.

James Preller — that’s me! — is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming in Spring 2021, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

       

 

In Defense of Living in the Past

They say you shouldn’t live in the past.

“Be present in the here and now.”

But the older I get,

the more past there is.

It keeps piling up.

And, of course, that’s the only place

I can go to visit

some of my favorite people.

A favorite photo of my father,

Mr. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Not a big drinker, don’t mean

to give that impression.

But he liked his Scotch.