Absolutely nothing needs to be said about the year of our lord 2020 that hasn’t already been shouted from every social media platform like a shrieking alarm alerting us that the ship is sinking. We know. We’re all wet.
I will not remember 2020 as mask-clad because I didn’t take any photos while wearing one.
Every December, I reflect on the year through a short essay, allowing myself many opportunities to gush about the music that I didn’t include on my best-of lists but that I still loved dearly. (Though I guess I skipped last year. I found an abandoned draft the other day…) And consistently, I have regarded each year as one of transition.
I don’t have clear career aspirations outside of wanting to engage with music as deeply and personally as I can; my only concrete life plan is to profile small towns across the country through the lens of its local music scene. So, with this nebulous image of a future endeavor, I have had a tumultuous time with money since losing my job two years ago. I realized fairly quickly, after only a few months of foundering at it, that I was unable to freelance my way to a liveable income. And in all honesty, this was for the best—nothing hurts worse than realizing the activity you are most passionate about has become a chore. I stopped worrying about pitching editors and trying to rub elbows, and I got to work applying for jobs. I, incredibly luckily, secured one after a few more months. The adjustment to being unemployed was a leap for me and my deep desire for a routine, but the adjustment to being employed and trying to maintain a balance between day job and side gig was even harder.
Then I loosened up a bit. Toward the end of last year, I tried to make a vow to be more consistent with the blog, but instead, I prioritized sleep. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was an either/or scenario and probably would have made a greater effort to avoid my television if I had. But ultimately, I had to accept that my relationship with music journalism was on my terms. And regardless of how [in]frequently I ‘discovered’ new artists (for myself), I wasn’t ‘missing out’ on anything.
And let’s be real, I wasn’t overly eager to listen to new stuff starting around April. I put so much energy into not losing myself in quarantine that I tuckered myself out before shit really hit the ceiling. When I began thinking toward my year-end lists in November, I began to worry that this would be my most deflated best-of season in recent memory.
That’s ok, Zoë, no one really cares about top ten lists, I can hear you thinking, colored by a fascination with my determination. But as a double cancer and pisces moon, I like to cling to the art that moves my soul (read: ~nostalgia~). And so I take great joy in spending all of December and most of January repeatedly listening to my favorite music until I conjure a partially arbitrary ranking system and create playlists galore. It really is the best time of the year.
Of course, there are always a few titles that need no additional spins, whether due to automatic disqualification or simply because I listened so much that I know it intimately. The automatic disqualifications this year were particularly striking.
A few easy omissions were Chromatica, Positions, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Lady Gaga delivered her skip-less album around the time when it became clear that the pandemic was not even somewhat close to containment; my roommate and I cooked to Chromatica every night, singing along to every word. With each new record, Ariana Grande becomes a more graceful songwriter, and it also helps that Positions is a plain ol’, boot-knockin’ good time. And the raw power Fiona Apple wields in Fetch the Bolt Cutters would be frightening were she not the perfect vessel to deliver it to us.
Then there is the category of albums that simply didn’t need my (albeit dim) spotlight: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, græ, and KicK i are each masterpieces in their own right. They each move purposefully through diverse landscapes, each song a new adventure not bound by genre or expectation. Interestingly, Perfume Genius and Moses Sumney were never mainstays in my music rotation, while my love for Arca is unquestioned.
That leads us to Re-Animator, I’m Your Empress Of and The Mosaic of Transformation, all of which I actively feel bad for disqualifying. I’m too much of a fan of Everything Everything to impartially write about their new album, though it was one of my most frequently played. I have been writing best-of lists for six years now and I would prefer to write about a constantly expanding, diverse group of artists. That means I can’t keep doting on Empress Of, despite her status as one of our best contemporary artists. Me and Us were truly just prelude to her 2020 record, whose title is a formal introduction. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is also the most talented analog synth musician that I personally have ever engaged with, and her latest album is everything I could have wanted.
It took some self-control (aka strict time management) to not write a few thousand words about The Ascension. Let’s recall my massive thesis on Carrie & Lowell… Yes, I am a former Catholic who thrives in the ambiguous invocation of Scripture, especially from a songwriter who quite literally shaped my taste in music. Luckily, I’m not nearly as pent up with anger and existential dread as in 2015 when I was, for the first time, processing the physical and emotional distance from my family. This elongated emotional breakdown was spurred by drama between my parents, but was also due to an irrational fear I held about my own mother’s death. Listening to Sufjan Stevens forgive his mother on her figurative deathbed has stayed with me.
The anxiety I felt about 2020 was almost entirely external, so the gorge formed from the current of The Ascension was not nearly as deep a canyon in my heart as C&L, though it is still an affecting 80-minute journey. Stevens’ production, when coupled with his lyricism, is a breakthrough, though I do hear murmurs of folktronica from earlier in the decade. (I’m begging everyone to listen to Under Our Beds by Consilience.) And for perhaps the first time, there were songs that I occasionally skip. If I still had to commute to work, I bet they would have grown on me. In fact, this would have been a perfect driving album—one that wouldn’t cause me to weep while on the interstate. (oh Carrie. oh Lowell.)
Then there was VOL.II by my dear friend Lauren Ruth Ward. She gave me an opportunity to write a unique interview with her about the record to be printed on the inside of the gatefold, making it a permanent fixture on this most exciting of sophomore albums. I could not justify writing anything more about it, if only to preserve the sanctity of that interview, which I gave more effort and attention than any other piece of writing I had done. It was a wonderful and inspiring experience that I hope to replicate. The most heartbreaking part of the pandemic’s onset, from a social perspective, was not being able to visit Lauren after the record was released.
With all that said, 2020 was about so much more than the music I listened to. All the digital replacements for physical intimacy during lockdown made me realize that my legacy (aka all my music writing) is fragile, locked into the impermanence of the internet. So I took it upon myself to build a physical archive; in the fall, I finalized a zine template, and the first eight issues are in the can. (So far, I have 19 zines planned. Email me if you are interested in having one!)
I’ve also been living without a front tooth since mid-March. On one hand, it’s been convenient to wear a mask to hide the hole in my mouth, but on the other hand, all I want to do is bite into an apple. (For almost two years before I even knew I had to have my tooth removed, I had been forced to slice apples before being able to eat them. The abject humiliation.) The journey with my dentists and oral surgeon has been excruciating, to say the least. Who knew three people in the same medical practice could have such mightily different styles of care? [Author’s note: I got my crown after writing this essay! :grinning-emoji:]
In sum, it was my image of myself that I was able to see a bit clearer this year. Each year I think that I’ve figured something else out about myself, which had always led me to believe that I am a most-complex, divine being. But I think a more accurate interpretation is that, put simply, I am not static. My thoughts and emotions adapt to life and life doesn’t seem to stop throwing me around like sneakers in a tumbling dryer. My pronouns are now they/them and while I don’t have many specifics as to why, I just know that this feels right.
I hope your year was at least acceptable; 2021 promises a host of new challenges, but I think we can take ‘em.