Finding the Good in 2020:
Top Nine Twenty Twenty:
1. Juggling Responsibilities 2. Porchsleeper Rockdown Before Lockdown 3. WTF WFH
4. Repair Projects 5. Mask It or Casket 6. Stack the Deck
7. Feeline’ Fine 8. Nitty Gritty 9. Freshman Class
I follow the defunct TV show 30 Rock on Facebook and about once a week they post a text post that just says "What a week, huh?" and I swearta god every week it makes me laugh.
This was the most bizarre year of my life and I can only think that it may be similar to when Americans knew Polio was a bad thing but didn't know what caused it. My mom told me tales of a summer in the fifties when she and her sister couldn't play outside because there was something terrible happening to kids but nobody knew what it was. Or maybe it as like like London in WWII when kids couldn't go to school or families couldn't do their usual thing because bombs could rain out of the sky at any time.
This whole year was like the scene in Boogie Nights when they're trying to sell drugs at Alfred Molina's house but he has a weird teenager throwing firecrackers into the air when nobody expects it. All of the sudden, we're in lockdown, but then you can eat in a restaurant, and if your loved one dies in Ohio but needs to be buried in New York maybe you can't go to the funeral, but you can go to casinos, just not the library. You and your immediate family has stayed away from everybody, but your friends on Instagram are going on bachelor party weekends or hanging out with 20 other people on a pontoon boat.
You go to the grocery store in a mask and gloves, leave the (paper) bags on the porch and head straight to the shower, depositing your clothes in a laundry basket for your wife to throw straight into the washing machine, all the time wondering if the lady who asked you to get something from the top shelf just had allergies or what.
Your baby nephew gets bigger but you haven't been able to come within 6 feet of him in 8+ months.
You haven't hugged your mom in what feels like a thousand years.
At the same time, life moves forward, and you ask each other what month it is and do projects and bake things and make things and contribute to the GoFundMe pleas from the places you desperately need to still be open when we get out of this thing.
Your kid gets taller than your wife, then taller than you and is hilarious and whip-smart and (most important of all) kind, and has about the best group of pals you can hope for.
And your wife tracks the CDC site and the WHO site and keeps you informed on what is actually happening, cutting through the (literal) fake news nonsense that contradicts itself, and she plays more tennis than she has since high school (and is really good at it), she works to improve her community and she gets a job at a non-profit where she honest-to-god saves puppies and is respected by her peers.
So some days you feel lost and underwater, and other days you feel as content as you can feel, a little bit guilty for feeling good while waiting for the next bomb to drop or the vaccine to be in hand or waiting for the next firecracker to explode.
Henry and I took it upon ourselves to build a little table for the squirrels in our neighborhood.
Outside dining only.
This Old House
Replaced the water system at the farm, removed old wallpaper and had plaster repaired, washed and stained the deck, planed a tree to replace the monster maple tree that came down last year, cut a path through the back part of the property, started rebuilding and repairing the hand-built wooden window screens, got a dumpster and tossed out a barnsworth of garbage.
After working for a million years at the University, my dad retired and instead of sitting around at home waiting for COVID to be over, he is now sitting at home waiting for COVID to be over and making biscuits. It's about the weirdest year ever to retire, and I'm sorry he missed out on a big retirement party but I'm glad he did it.
Everything Bagel sprinkle
This year I discovered that you can buy a little sprinkle that you can put on your bagel to make it taste like an Everything bagel. I liked that a lot.
Developing Skills in These Unprecedented Times.
Henry is getting good at digital art in Blender (portfolio here) and playing the drums (as well as working in Garage Band and Reaper to compose some of his own works). During lockdown he learned how to solve a Rubick's Cube and how to juggle, as well as making donuts, churros, beignets and how to jump-start a dead car battery (which happened often since we were never driving anywhere). Remote learning is going well for him and it'll be weird for him to actually go to school again.
The only orange menace I have been able to really embrace this year is Gritty,
the Philadelphia Flyers mascot, so when I found out that there was going to be a sriracha and mayonnaise sauce in honor of Gritty himself,
I had to get myself some.
Election Results Day
The political world was an insane shitshow this year but I will always remember the Saturday after the election when I was working out in the yard on a warm November afternoon and I heard honking and hooting and cheering erupt in the streets all around me. I jumped in my car and honked the horn, and then Henry and I masked up and walked uptown, being passed by noisy car and people waving and a real feeling of relief. Somebody pulled their guitar amp out on their balcony and played a heartfelt (if note-imperfect) version of the Star Spangled Banner to the whole city. It felt like something had changed.
I did not get as involved as some quarantuners, but I did spend a bit more time playing guitar and specifically trying to learn the gypsy jazz style of playing as demonstrated by Django Reinhardt.
Haunted Hall prints and ReTech lamps
Every October there is an artist's fair called Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween that offers some really cool art pieces, but this fucking year ruined that. They had an online event and I was still able to find some wonderful rubber-hose/Cuphead style prints from The Black Rabbit Studio and continuing my fascination with the industrial sculptures and lighting designs from ReTech.org.
Sunsets at Glen Arbor
This year we tentatively drove upstate to a condo in Glen Arbor which showed us a series of the most picturesque sunsets I have ever seen. It was fitting.
We took a blacksmithing class at a local farm school. While my arms were tired, it felt good to actually create something.
Thano's Lamplighter Pizza Experiment
I felt the need deep in my bones to re-create Thano's Deep Dish Sicilian pizza that I loved at the Lamplighter so much.
It was a pan-style Sicilian pizza with a thick, buttery, doughy sesame seed crust, a spice-heavy (non-sweet) sauce with thick mozzarella (or maybe a blend?) and sparse, large (not curled-up) pepperoni and onion (long sliced onion pieces, not diced). Maybe the pepperoni was under the cheese? It was cooked and delivered to the table on a thick, silver-colored, rectangular pan and served in eight rectangular slices. So far I've gotten close to nailing it but I have problems with my soggy bottom. I ordered a new pan this week and the quest continues.
20th Work Anniversary at AMGMacrovisionRoviAllMediaNetworkBlinkxRhythmOneNetaktionAllMediaNetwork
20 short years ago I started working as an assistant editor at All Media Guide (after a couple years of scattered freelancing and casual stalking). When Tower Records closed down, I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. "What jobs are there? What do people do for a job?" I would ask myself (and the only thing I could think of was being a garbage man). At that time, miraculously AMG had outgrown their humble beginnings and moved their offices to my hometown. At the same moment, the internet was becoming a thing and the company was expanding, looking for somebody who would write about bluegrass, folk and acoustic music. Woodstra interviewed me about working at a big record store, and Tom and I talked about the recent Merle Haggard reissues. I didn't think we talked about anything actually business-related, and later I discovered that *was* us talking about business. I stumbled into the weirdest job with the best people and have somehow stayed there* for two decades and through a million different business cards (and parent companies). I honestly have no idea what will happen next, but if I can somehow squeak out another 20 years helping to keep these websites breathing, I'll consider it a career well spent.
Summer Game and Bummer Game
Our local library is literally the best. Each summer they set up a bunch of quests and missions and riddles in town for people to research and discover, and when you get the answer you earn points toward t-shirts or notebooks or other goodies. This year they amazingly invented a way for regular people to create home codes, put them on a map and then when players discovered a home code they could redeem it for points. We took a lot of walks in the neighborhood using the map and getting points.
If that wasn't enough, they saved our sanity in the spring by creating the hilariously-named Bummer Game which was a lite version of the Summer Game just when we needed it most.
Weird stenciled records stapled up around town
At some point during the summer some art weirdo went around our neighborhood and nailed a bunch of hand-painted stenciled LP records up impossbly high on phone poles. Some have come down but many are still there.
Porchsleeper show at Hamtramck Blowout
The 'Sleeper awakened this year for a reunion show at Baker's Streetcar Bar right before the lockdown hit. It is so incredible to remember being in a room pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mass of humanity shouting and sweating all in the name of rock and roll. I feel like we played well and am thankful for the memory.
Fatcat No More
Our cat Twix weighed a whopping 23 pounds at the beginning of the year. There is a chart of what obese cats look like and he wasn't even represented on the chart. Through a lot of dilligent measuring of food amounts and regulated feeding schedules he is now down to a lean and mean 15 pounds (a total loss of 8 pounds!). Sometimes I'll hold a pound of ground beef before cooking it and realize "Twix has lost 8 of these. He used to carry around 8 of these exact things and now he is much healthier."
Pumpkin Carving Contest at AADL
Penny and I entered a verrrry spooooky pumpkin carving contest held by our incredible local library and both of us won big prizes!
You can see Penny's scary pumpkin which won Best Classic Jack O'Lantern at 3:25 and my first place winner at 6:10.
Tunes:Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
This album was surprise-released when we were about a month into COVID-19 lockdown at the moment when we all kinda looked at each other (from a socially-distanced distance) and said "whoooo. OK, we may be in this for a while." The material was worked on and recorded over half a decade in her home studio and is insanely intimate and self-aware, with oddball percussion, hooky melodies, unexpected soundscapes and the occasional dog bark in the background. Apple reveals parts of herself in that way that only Fiona Apple "This world is bullshit" can, recounting (maybe?) half-fictional elements of her relationships, her childhood and how she views the world. This was not only the best album this year but one of the best albums of the decade.
Folklore - Taylor Swift
While I don't think this is the best album of the year, it may be my favorite album of the year. Bridging some kind of line between singer-songwriter folk and indie pop, it feels insular and intimate, like it could only have been recorded on a shoestring in little individual recording studios during the pandemic of our lifetime. It insists and suggests, and her characters intertwine from one song to the next. I think she's a little bit scary like she has the power to put you in the cornfield if you give her too much trouble, and this confidence is balanced with her decades-crafted little girl innocence to offer different layers of discoveries upon repeat listens.
Teamwork - Futurebirds
As gruff around the edges as Drive-By Truckers but sweet and soaring like My Morning Jacket. At times it feels like Flying Burrito Brothers, "Being There"-era Wilco or side 2 of "Exile on Main Street."
Marigold - Pinegrove
Pinegrove released this pleading, urgent album in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie or the Decemberists with an emphasis on soaring anthemic melodies balanced by the lead singer's eyes-closed/heart-forward vocals.
Women in Music, Pt. 3 - Haim
Sparse and California funky, the Haim sisters' harmonies and loose orchestrations feel casual and imploring, and come off as brassy and innocent and comforting.
The Waterfall II - My Morning Jacket
I like it quite a bit. More than Waterfall. I purposefully sat down and listened to it (as opposed to having it on in the background while I was working) and found a number of real gems. The first two songs remind me of low-key Evil Urges/Circuital anthems, "Climbing the Ladder" is a goofy pedal steel disco backbeat with a third chorus that slows down to half tempo(?!?!?) before finding its feet again. "Magic Bullet" is a sneaky dark "Highly Suspicious" or "Holdin' on to Black Metal" with a honking baritone sax section. "Run It" and the last two songs are little back porch strummers that round out the record nicely. Nothing hit me as hard as their mid-period records do, but I have found a lot to like.
Rookie - Rookie
These Chicago rockers have been compared to Cheap Trick, Wilco, Big Star and the Rolling Stones which sounds pretty OK to me. Loose and raw and summery and swaggering and occasionally gleeful, this was my summertime 2020 go-to.
Reunions - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Another solid offering from Jason Isbell. It didn't hit me as hard as some of his other albums, but each one has been a grower, and there are some quality songs on this one. "Dreamsicle" is particulary evocative of a summer day as a kid.
England is a Garden - Cornershop
'Member these guys? "Brimful of Asha?" "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow?" This album got a suprising number of spins from me this year. Uncompromisingly upbeat and whirling, it sounds like Tjinder Singh is smiling throughout the entire recording process.
Homegrown - Neil Young
This was a fun archival issue recorded in 1973 but never actually released. It is loose and rambling and played by real people in a room with wood floors and lots of candles and beer.
I also did a Spotify playlist of my fave tunes.
Computers and Technology:
I'm not convinced computers and technology were a help to us this year.
The Rewatchables Podcast
Some of the folks behind Grantland sit around and talk in-depth about their favorite movies. Fun and insightful.
This particular episode of Reply All called "The Case of the Missing Hit"
Do you like to feel good? Do your ears and brain want to go on a ride that takes you places far away from whatever today is? If so, I recommend this episode of Reply All where a guy is convinced he is remembering a song, and the rest of the world thinks he is crazy.
This story has interviews with music producers, an unbelievable/believable story about Doug Morris (the head of Universal Records), homemade recordings of whistled flutes, and bare naked ladies. It really has it all.
Decoder Ring Pop Culture Podcast on Slate
Researched takes on unicorn poop, the mullet, rubber duckies and what Cancel Culture looked like in the 1860s.
Imaginary Worlds podcast
This host has a lot of similar nerdy interests in sci-fi, fantasy, movie making and comics.
This genius takes classic songs and puts his own mediocre flute playing on top of them.
It is even hilariouser than it sounds.
One of my favorite music writers co-hosts this conversation about some of the wildest rivalries in music history. The Gallagher Brothers from Oasis, Fleetwood Mac, the guys from Uncle Tupelo, the members of The Police all get a brighht light shined on their petty squabbles and I am here for it.
Strong Songs podcast
An academic and musical analysis of the structure, tones, melodies and rhythms of songs from all over the place, from "Tom Sawyer" by Rush to "Hyperballad" by Björk and even "World 1-1" from Super Mario Bros.
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
Quite possibly my favorite author, Stephenson writes incredibly long and in-depth novels about technology, human nature, faith, reality, computers and makes it all somehow personal.
One really interesting concept in the book was where in order to completely obliterate fake news, a guy writes a program that creates millions of comments on everybody's social media account using a library of offensive terms and contradictory descriptions.
So everybody's Twitter/Facebook/Insta/LinkedIn/Snapchat is filled with "Julie is a Slut" "Julie is nice" "Julie tortures animals" "Julie died in Brazil last summer" "Julie loaned me her sweater when I was cold" "Julie is deaf in one ear" ...so much noise and static that nobody knew what to believe and nobody could trust anything so overnight everybody just shut off social media.
Maybe in a way that's where we're heading. Soon 97.4% of posts will be from bots and KPop street teams and it may be for the best.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks
This is an impossibly cute story about the last days of working a seasonal job at an apple orchard and the lives of the teenagers who are about to go off to join the real world. If you liked the graphic novel Blankets this one is also worth checking out.
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
A wild west re-imagining of the Snow White story (with seven companions, a wicked stepmother and apple magic). This author has a wonderfully vibrant way with language (big fan of her book Speak Easy) and she manages to give this old tale new teeth.
Full list of stuff I read here at Goodreads:
Again, not a lot of TV watched this year, but a handful of things I liked and watched at least part of:
The Umbrella Academy
The Queen's Gambit
I *think* Enola Holmes was the only movie released in 2020 that I saw in 2020. And that was on a television.
We saw and enjoyed Knives Out when we saw in the theater this year. (the only movie we saw in the theater this year)
I also really loved the documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway.
The more interesting movie events happened at home where Henry decided in October that he was ready to watch a scary movie so we watched Alien. He reacted favorably and it kind of ushered in the possibility of a new era of movie watching. More mature films are now in the offering.
He wanted to see a western so we first watched The Magnificent Seven and then watched Kurisawa's Seven Samurai directly afterwards, and had good discussions.
He has been a fan of Anime so I decided he was ready to watch Akira (which he loved).
Over Thanksgiving I spent the long weekend prepping Henry with film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity and discussing the concept of anti-heroes, pulp detective stories and paying cinematic attention to shadows and light.
Afterwards he and I watched Blade Runner (the original American theatrical cut with the hokey detective voiceover just like Double Indemnity) and then he schooled me for an hour about cyberpunk, manga, anime, set design and the concept of a 'lived-in' universe that was ushered in when Star Wars arrived in 1977 (and how that factored into Ridley Scott's Alien and sci-fi up through Firefly).
He made some amazing revelations about how his mom loves sci-fi and his dad loves westerns and now he loves dystopian futures where Asian and western cultures have fused into a techy cyberpunk Akira Magnificent Seven hodge-podge and that's fine by me.
Things That Are Awful:
I mean... (gestures hands wildly in every direction)
The most important and horrible thing I read this year was this Vox article about the current administration and how manurebag mastermind Steve Bannon really perfected the concept of "Flooding The Zone with Shit" (meaning that politicians and media types can choose to publish information, some of which is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading) and nobody seems to care. The story that leads is the story that people (and robots and trolls) recirculate and that is all that matters. It is obnoxious and more harmful than any of us realize.
Eddie Van Halen
Adam Schlesinger (this one really hit me and I wrote a whole jumbled thing about it)
Jerry Jeff Walker
Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Toots Hibbert (Toots and the Maytals)
Olivia DeHavilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Grant Imahara (Mythbusters)
Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings, Alien)
Terry Jones (Monty Python)
Darth Vader AND Boba Fett goddamnit
We had a trip booked to Disney in early April (spoiler alert: It didn't happen) and were planning an epic journey through the U.P. in the summer. I didn't get to hang with my buddies hardly at all.
The well pump broke at the cottage and arranging for it to be fixed from afar while everything was shut down proved challenging.
People I love had a hard time, and places I love have closed and may never re-open.
On the whole, my attitude on Social Media changed quite a bit in 2020.
Drink water, get rest, see you in 2021. I'll probably give you a hug.
My best girl, the boy, and I took a trip to London, the city some people call "The Chicago of Europe."
Record stores, Sherlock Holmes museum, pints, London Gin, Sunday Roast, Abbey Road, bangers,
mash, baked beans for breakfast every day, but the real highlight was going to the Wimbledon
Tennis Tournament (a bucket list item for the missus and a real treat all around).
Gypsy Jazz Guitar This year I decided I wanted to learn how to play Gypsy jazz-style guitar (along the lines of Django Reinhardt). After several months of (nearly) daily practice, I can now fumble myself clumsily through about three songs. Sweet and lowdown.
Civic Theater Gala This year is the Ann Arbor Civic Theater's 90th year and they hand-selected a fistful of important people (past and present) were hand-selected to receive honors. My old Pop was one of the folks recognized so we got to go to a fancy shindig and associate with theater-types. We felt it was important for Henry to get to see his Gramps be recognized for the hard work he puts into the community and how people in his craft respect him. Especially since... (see next item)
My kid was drafted by the local theater troupe to make props for their youth production of Aladdin.
His maker ability is starting to earn him a reputation. The centerpiece was the magical staff
used by the evil sorcerer Jafar, which looked like a giant golden snake with menacing red eyes.
The lesson he learned was to always bring your glue gun everywhere because the thing you built
will get dropped and break but the show must go on.
Building the Shed at the Cottage The extended Johnson family assembled this spring and built a shed at our cottage. The shed is super-helpful but the best part was getting the whole family together to build a thing. I'm a big fan of building a thing. Especially with family.
Bell's Double Two Hearted Ale One thing I really have come to appreciate is a Michigan made craft beer with two hearts in it. I couldn't possibly imagine anything better but then Bells brewery put out their Double Two Hearted India Pale Ale I scoured the area looking for it. I think I may have grabbed the last six-pack stashed behind the counter at the local grocery store but I have no regrets.
Cool new lamp from Re:Tech
All year I pool up my pocket money and visit a showing of my favorite industrial artist www.retech.org
to see if he has built anything that tickles my fancy. He cobbles together electronic/electric
pieces that evoke Blade Runner, Mad Max, Steampunk and a Jawa sand cruiser, but the pieces are
beautifully battered and hand-loved in a way that hits me.
Star Trek Exhibit The Henry Ford Museum always has great exhibits, but this year they put together a Star Trek retrospective that had science, props, costumes, original production artwork and a ton of cool interactive displays (including a camera booth where you could film your best "KHAAAAAAAANNNNN!" scream a-la the original James T. Kirk.
Baby Oliver I am now an uncle again.
Henry Mowing the lawn Man oh man, when you have a kid some part of you thinks "Someday, I'll be able to put him to work to do all the lousy jobs I don't want to do" and friends, this was the year.
Elfquest In a year of nerdery, this was so unexpected and wonderful, I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. As a kid, I simply ate up this little indie comic called Elfquest that was printed in black and white (practically by hand) by a husband and wife team who didn't have a huge industry supporting them, but had a unique story and an unwavering vision. This summer my beloved local library brought them in as key members of their annual comics festival and I got to meet them and get some stuff signed and generally bask in their warm wolfpack embrace. It exceeded my hesitant expectations of meeting your heroes and became one of my favorite memories of the year.
The 20th Anniversary of Buying Our House
In May of 1999 we bought the worst house on the best block we could find.
20 years later we are happy as clams.
Hamilton We got to see the famed musical Hamilton in Lansing this year (after a failed attempt explained later) and it really lived up to the hype. My kid started listening to the soundtrack a year or so ago and while I was reluctant at first, repeated listens really drove the mastery and innovation of Lin Manuel Miranda's score and execution home. Seeing it performed live brings another level to my appreciation.
C2E2 We made a spring break pilgrimage to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo to get our nerd on, shop for comic books and see a panel with Summer Glau from Firefly. I think the boy dug it.
What's up Ypsi Pickle!!?!1 Much like Martin Luther King, I had a dream where Penny and I were hanging out at Frog Island in Ypsilanti. Soul Train (who is/was a local character downtown about 20 years ago) walked into the room all dressed in green velvet with a broad-brimmed green hat and a green feather sticking out of it. In the dream he smiled wide and said "What's up, my niggas?" and my wife stood up and excitedly screamed "WHAT'S UP YPSI PICKLE!!!!" like it was the catchphrase from a sitcom or a hilarious SNL bit that everybody knew. In this dream I remember being so amazed that my wife obviously knew so much about the legend of Ypsi Pickle and also how pumped she was that he was actually there.
Somehow, the same weirdo in our neighborhood kept putting up flyers on our light pole.
Someday we'll unmask that rascal.
A Rebuilding Year After we had some roof work done on the old farmhouse, the ceiling in one of the rooms was cracked and damaged. We engaged with a local contractor (Lussenden Painting if you must know) after being burned by a couple other lousy contractors in the past. They did a bang-up job faster and cheaper than originally quoted and it was nice to have a project go right from start to finish.
After that, we kinda called all-hands-on-deck and did a massive painting project (including ceilings!) over a weekend and really took care of business. Thanks to friends and family for showing up, painting over the old 70s brown, and getting the farm one step closer to being totally done.
Our local library puts on a summer-long event where you can solve puzzles,
go on scavenger hunts, answer riddles and generally indulge in all of your
Sherlock Holmes/DaVinci Code inklings in exchange for arbitrary points that
can be used to get t-shirts or tote bags. The real wizardry is how it forces
me to explore my town, visiting art galleries and historic neighborhoods,
sitting with my son to solve a wordplay riddle or getting a text from my wife
that says "I SAW THE BUS GO BY! IT SAYS ''STAYCATION'" (which was a game code).
-13 degrees block party Holy shit you guys, it got rill cold last winter. On the coldest day (like -13 degrees) our insane neighbor Piotr decided to throw a block party so we went down there as bundled as we could get and stood by the fire, drinking shots of the coldest vodka you can imagine (your lip froze to the glass) but it built community, that's for sure.
Flannel Lined Jeans Hey, these are nice.
Tying Pizza to Balloons
On my birthday I celebrated by doing something I've always wanted to do:
I ordered a pizza and then tied a slice of the pizza to a bunch of balloons.
Sound & Fury by Sturgill Simpson This album needed to grow on me, and it needed to be played loud. The whole thing is just a lurching grinding hulk of an album with fat grooves and grumbling sentiments. It feels organic and real, and the songs just ebb and flow into one another seamlessly. The whole album passes by and I want to hear it again.
Girl by Maren Morris A sunny and sweet collection of tunes following in the same vein as her previous album Hero. Highlights include the empowering title track and the stoned and steamy "Make Out With Me" (which I contend is kind of like a prequel to Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed" but exactly 50 years later. Both have a swaying late-night/early morning feel with tremolo guitar and a disheveled heroine, sweeping strings and murky Memphis guitar, both clock in at under three minutes. Dusty in Memphis was released in March 1969 and Maren Morris' Girl was released in March 2019).
Cuz I Love You by Lizzo Have you heard of Lizzo? You might not have heard of her this year. She's really good.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey I gotta say I never had an opinion about LDR for the past decade, but but the production on this album is really strong. At times it reminds me of Extraordinary Machine-era Fiona Apple with a less insistent vocal delivery but the same underlying intensity.
Ribbons by Bibio It feels like if Tycho produced a Nick Drake album. Mostly acoustic guitar-based songs peppered with ambient/electronic pastoral sections and the occasional string section movement.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish I kept coming back to this album because I simply could not figure out where she was getting all of these influences and where in the world it was going to go next. Breathy and menacing but also sweet and broken and at the same time empowered and untouchable. Man, this album confuses the hell out of me.
The Highwomen by The Highwomen The production is a Dave Cobb chef's kiss and it is so great to hear Jason Isbell's slide guitar peeking out underneath everything.
I am such a fanboy of Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, and I think Brandi Carlisle has written some of the most gripping folk songs of the past several years.
And overall the concept is great.
I dunno how much you follow the business and politics of contemporary country music, but a couple of years ago this nonsense happened:
It started when industry publication Country Aircheck featured radio consultant Keith Hill in its lead story, and as part of Hill’s advice to programmers around the country he said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” According to Hill, country radio is “a principally male format” and the format’s female fans prefer hearing men blasting out of their speakers. Playing back-to-back women is a bad idea for retaining listeners, he claimed.
“They’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill explained. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
So to have a group of women in Nashville say "Fuck that" and revive the old supergroup of the Highwaymen but with 10 times the sass and 1000 times the estrogen is exactly what should be happening in 2019.
And I like the fact that they're weirdly rag-tag: A gritty lesbian, an untested songwriter, a free-spirit fiddle player who has been in the shadow of her husband, and practically a teenager who has had her most chart success with an EDM crossover song. It's almost like a focus-group put them together.
I've also come around on the entire genre of pop country over the past couple years. I think Tom Erlewine has a lot to do with it, and the fact that in the workshop at the farm I can pretty much only get one radio station, but overall I used to dismiss it as being dumb, one-note and maudlin/nostalgic and now I embrace the fact that it is simple, warmly predictable and romantic. Songs about loving your family, seeing a girl in a pretty dress in the bar, or putting your feet in the sand while drinking a Solo cup of beer always felt dopey and eye-rolling to me, but almost like reading a pulp detective novel or watching a rerun of an '80s sitcom, it is easy and pleasant and hits the right notes at the right time.
Maren Morris' two albums are sweet little pop gems along the lines of Taylor Swift, but with a more believable/approachable attitude.
There is so much honest emotion in the album too.
Jason and Amanda wrote what might be the first same-sex country love song for Brandi who sings it like she really feels it.
There's a lot of content about what it means to be a woman in this day and age, I think they nailed the concept overall.
The lyrics all over the album are terrific, particularly in "Redesigning Women"
"Rosie the Riveter with renovations"
"Running the world while we're cleaning up the kitchen"
"And when we love someone we take 'em to Heaven/And if the shoe fits, we're gonna buy eleven"
"Some of us are saints and some of us are surgeons"
"Made in God's image, just a better version/And breaking every jello mold"
Man, so great. Just terrific one-liners that sum up the whole attitude.
Goes West by William Tyler Much like his previous albums, Goes West evokes shimmering desert landscapes and sun-baked open air, but this time it feels less like a bedroom lo-fi project and more like a real full band.
Weather by Tycho Tycho's previous albums had mostly/all been electronic instrumental affairs, but this album brings in some female vocals reminding me of mid-90s downtempo acts like Olive and Morcheeba at times. Still, the underlying vibe of Tycho's bleeps and bloops are the primary driver making for a perfect late night or early morning chillout record.
Tallies by Tallies Bright and ringing indie pop with strong nods to The Sundays and Lush, this album has some of the best shimmering wall-of-sound guitar since the early '90s.
I also did a Spotify playlist of my fave tunes.
Computers and Technology:
Disney+ If you had told me 20 years ago that there would be a TV channel that let me watch every Star Wars movie and every Simpsons episode ever made, I would have called you a kook.
Air Pods These look dorky as hell and I don't think they sound all that great but for listening to podcasts I have found them to be super-convenient.
We put together a nice timeline function to look back on the albums from the past 10 years which required
some new technical tomfoolery but I was very proud of how it looked and proud of the team that put it together.
Dolly Parton's America podcast The guy from Radiolab went on a deep dive exploring not just Dolly's life and music but what it means to be a Southerner and how her mojo expands all around the world. Fascinating, even if you don't like country music.
Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast A podcast about sound and the weird sounds we hear in movies, in music and in real life.
Hit Parade podcast Slate's Chris Molanphy digs way deep into the Billboard charts to dig out gems and see patterns in how music evolves.
Roku Stick I've been a fan of Roku for years and when our old box finally became incompatible I opted for the the little stick that goes into the HDMI slot. Recommended.
Reddit As Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly infuriating, I have found myself enjoying Reddit as a resource for dumb browsing. Like any wild west community, there is plenty of toxic stuff on there, but I find that since you can tailor your feed to just be the dumb things that interest you, it is freeing in a way.
The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan Giant epic series spanning 14 thousand-page books telling the story of three farm boys who are thrust into becming heroes while channeling elemental magic, talking with wolves and conjuring flaming swords and the original author died halfway through? Sounds perfect.
Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr God, what a mess/On the ladder of success. Bob Mehr really got a hands-on experience of the fights, achievements, missteps and glory of the Replacements. The book is infuriating (Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson literally burning their per-diem money just for the fuck of it), and sad (man, those Stinson boys had a rough upbringing), but the story explains so much about what makes the band so great, despite their best efforts.
Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London #7) by Ben Aaronovitch I have eaten up every book in this series about a London copper who just happens to solve crimes by speaking to ghosts and a variety of mythical beings, and this one was particularly memorable since I read it while on our vacation in England. The city and surrounding countryside ends up functioning as its own character in these books, and Aaronovich's ability to describe a location makes the reader really feel like they are transported there.
Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente Man, this book was like a tall glass of absinthe poured through the gauzy hem of a flapper's dress. Imagine if Heaven, Hell, Limbo and any of Dante's circles were all actually the floors in a mythical hotel -- rooms filled with Bacchanalian never-ending parties and basements of toil and servitude, all paced with the lingo and hep jive speak of the Jazz Age.
Last Argument of Kings (The First Law #3) by Joe Abercrombie The third and final book in The First Law trilogy did not disappoint. The quietly-simmering barbarian got to unleash his fury AND try to become a hero, the spidery puller of strings attempts to take over the world, and final battles are waged.
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde This oddball book was part Douglas Adams, part Tom Robbins and part Margaret Atwood doing a dystopian fiction story where everyone's place in society is dictated by which colors they can see. But kinda lightweight and funny.
Again, not a lot of TV watched this year, but a handful of things I liked:
The Mandalorian I'm a sucker for a good space western.
Star Trek Discovery A buddy of mine pleaded with me to watch this show to the point where he gave us his CBS All Access password just so we could watch it. It is very different than any other Star Trek series... Darker, grittier, more like a long mystery than a series of stand-alone episodes.
The Repair Shop Stumbled into this show on Netflix and it is simply lovely. Nice British people bring broken things into an olde workshoppe and then different British people fix them using tools and elbow grease and a little bit of know-how.
Ken Burns Country
Stranger Things 3
Game of Thrones
The Office (the boy has been enjoying them muchly)
(in roughly the order that I liked it.)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Ford v Ferrari
Toy Story 4
Alita: Battle Angel
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Echo in the Canyon
Things That Are Awful:
15 years ago this Little Boston Terrier pup rocketed into our lives, with unquenchable energy and inexplicable noises.
We taught her to say “I Love You” and she taught us that any toy with a squeaker in it only had seconds to live.
As she got older she lost her ability to see and hear, but she still smelled.
Daisy was just about the sweetest dog I ever met and our world is worse off without her.
The Current State of Politics in America November 2020 can't come fast enough. There can't be more of them than us.
Airbnb Nonsense While our trip to London was an unequivocal highlight of the year, it got off to a rough start. We secured an Airbnb flat several months ahead of time, but before our trip they canceled the reservation with little warning. We scrambled and found another Airbnb and figured everything was set. We arrived in London after our red eye flight but when we made it to the (second) flat, the plumbing didn't work. There had been a leak and they shut off the water (not before the previous occupants left a dump in each toilet than you very much).
There were assurances and plans to have the plumbing fixed but long story short, it was not going to be fixed for several days. We had to frantically (and half-asleepedly) book another hotel which was too small and only had vacancy for two nights. This required yet another scramble to find a place with all three of us frantically using our phones to try to find a hotel that would work. Finally, not wanting to spend our entire vacation hopping from hotel to hotel every two nights, we bit the bullet and got a room in Waterloo that was more expensive than we wanted but ended up being really nice. To use a local phrase: Sod Off, Airbnb.
Uncle Gary/Aunt Alice/Neighbor Sandy Three great people left this year. Nothing but fond memories of all of them.
Mark Hollis from Talk Talk and Peter Mayhew from inside Chewbacca died. Jammin' in Heaven.
Not Hamilton in Chicago/Throwing Away Our Shot We made a trek to Chicago to surprise Henry with tickets to see Hamilton but the day of the show he got sicker and sicker. We just sat in the hotel room all afternoon while he slept for hours and hours until we finally came to the realization that there was no way we were going to make it to the show. Even if we went he would be miserable so I tried to find any Chicago pals who could take the tickets an hour before curtains. Nobody could do it so I planned to drop the tickets at the front desk to see if any hotel employees wanted them. In the elevator on the way down, I looked at the woman next to me and said "I have three tickets to Hamilton that starts in an hour. Do you want them?" She and two of her gal pals were in town with nothing to do that night so she was over the moon. We stayed in and watched The Meg on the SyFy channel.
Maple Left During a windstorm out at the farm, a giant maple tree (probably nearly 100 years old) split and fell on one of the outbuildings. It had been struck by lightning at least two other times in the past and finally had to come down. Now that part of the yard looks totally weird every time we see it.
Bag of Diet Dr Peppers
Sometimes you order a box of 24 Diet Dr. Peppers and UPS delivers you
a damp bag with 18 loose Diet Dr. Peppers in it.