I don’t care if you’ve taken just seventeen trips around the sun or seventy of them, you can’t name a more challenging year for all of us as a whole human race. It’s never good for the psyche when you’re exiled in the same four walls for much of the year, watching as the foundations of your nation’s principles are taking cannonfire. It’s never been easier to be lonely, to be angry, or to strike with venom.
And so, as I sorted favorite songs for the year to put together the Skeleton at the Feast mix disc that serves as a homemade holiday gift to friends, some of that vitriol surfaced in the art. Sometimes it was direct, like when the Drive-By Truckers tap into Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for the title of “The Perilous Night,” before condemning the racist “dumb, white, and angry with their cup half filled, running over people down in Charlottesville,” or like when Low Cut Connie pleads, “Tough shit for the little guy, living like a chump with his back to the wall. He’ll wanna scream at the face. It makes no difference at all,” right before name-dropping The Donald. Sometimes it’s more sardonic, as when the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle imagines himself as a snake sunning itself atop the ruins of mankind.
But you know us at The Dew by now. There may be acknowledgment of things outside our control, but we always find at least an equal measure of hope. Or of comfort, as when Joshua James assures his child that “shadows in the lamplight are just reflections of you.” Even the pot-clanking rebellion of Ana Tijoux’s “Cacerolazo” can evoke cheers for first responders during the pandemic as well as the spirits of the falsely imprisoned it intended to inspire. Ezra Furman sums it up best in “Evening Prayer aka Justice,” when he bleats, “If you’ve got the taste for transcendence, then translate your love into action and participate in the fight now for a creed you can truly believe.”
Winter is here, but spring is coming. Let’s grow some stuff next year.
Blah blah blah. Here’s the track list and the Spotify playlist:
- The War and Treaty, “Jubilee”: A warm, beautiful song was a deliberate choice to set a tone neither acerbic nor grim. This is just love.
- Car Seat Headrest, “Hollywood”: OK, here’s the vitriol. But it’s fun.
- Michael Stipe, “Drive to the Ocean”: Welcome back, old friend. This has all the texture and power of R.E.M. at its most popular.
- The Mountain Goats, “For the Snakes”: Do what you need to do in the studio, John, for your own sake. But from the listener’s perspective, there’s no reason for you to ever record with anything but an acoustic guitar and a boombox.
- Airborne Toxic Event, “True.”: After the two blasé songs that kick off the record, I flat-out love this whole album. Sure A.T.E. sounds like an alt-rock band circa 1998. But they also sound like your favorite alt-rock band circa 1998.
- Angel Olsen, “What It is”: “It’s never easy to admit that maybe you just want just to feel something again.”
- Will Johnson, “Inclined”: As instrumentally sparse as The Mountain Goats’ boombox record but without the lo-fi aesthetic. Similarly, the less that’s there with Johnson, the more powerful the work seems.
- Drive-By Truckers, “The Perilous Night”: Something’s got ahold of my ‘feel alright’ alright.
- The Flaming Lips, “Assassins of Youth”: The beeping that evokes a heart monitor in the intro gives me chills. Almost as sad? The line “I was young yesterday … oh, my youngest self, I miss you.”
- Ana Tijoux, “Cacerolazo”: Do yourself a favor and look at the translations and explanations of this at the song’s Genius Lyrics page.
- Bruce Springsteen, “If I Was the Priest”: The Boss’s fine new album has several top-notch tracks, including one called “Rainmaker” that almost got the nod for its attempt to understand, with sympathy, the Trump voters who aren’t misogynists, racists, or greedy upper classmen. But my heart went with this unearthed song he wrote decades ago, with its Dylanesque poetry. This year’s best 1970s-style Springsteen song.
- Ezra Furman, “Evening Prayer aka Justice”: Punk rock suits Furman.
- Tami Neilson, “Call Your Mama”: If you told me this bit of badassery was penned by an angry, young Loretta Lynn 50 years ago, I’d believe you.
- Joshua James & Nate Pyfer, “Be Let In”: From an album for children that doesn’t pander to them — and, as a result, it’s great listening for adults too. This song is one of several that Jenn thinks gives the Skeleton collection an Ennio Morricone vibe (along with Springsteen, Leithauser, The Black Lips, and maybe even the Will Johnson song) …
- The Boomtown Rats, “Trash Glam Baby”: … whereas I kind of felt the album’s theme was veteran rockers returning with rare energy, thanks to this cut, the Springsteen one, Stipe, and a Dramarama track that barely got nixed.
- Waxahatchee, “The Eye”: I was skeptical when early reviews of this record drew comparisons to Dylan, but they’re actually on target, not in terms of impact but in its freewheelin’ vibe. Warm, rolling guitar licks reminds me of the venerable Vulgar Boatmen’s “You and Your Sister” album.
- Creeper, “Cyanide”: Over-the-top, “Rocky-Horror”-style theatrics? A song cycle about a prophesizing angel who falls for a girl in a diner? A lead singer who is, literally, David Bowie after being bitten by a vampire? I’m in.
- Hamilton Leithauser, “Here They Come”: From a brilliant, relaxed solo record from one of The Walkmen.
- The Black Lips, “Rumbler”: Where ya been, boys? The Black Lips have never sounded better than when they deliberately try to make a redneck rockabilly record.
- Low Cut Connie, “Look What They Did”: One of very few down-tempo songs on a great, soul-inflected solo record. Third great album in a row (at least) from Low Cut Connie.
- Porridge Radio, “Born Confused”: It’s like The Cure’s Robert Smith was born as a girl.
- The Hold Steady, “Blackout Sam”: The year’s best 1970s-style Springsteen song not by Bruce Springsteen.
- I already mentioned Dramarama’s new record, and it’s no slouch. No one can turn a phrase like John Easdale, who’s been frank about his addiction struggles, as he sings, “When you’re crawling on the floor/And you’re looking for some more/Cuz you’re sure you saw some falling through the cracks/Get your mind out of the sewer/Give up looking for the cure/Face the nation, face the music, face the facts”. That’s from “It’s Only Money.”
- Several Bob Dylan songs were on the shortlist including “Black Rider” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”.
- The Futurebirds’ “My Broken Arm” is a great song.
- Something probably should’ve made the cut from Steve Earle’s achingly powerful “Ghosts of West Virginia” album, but I discovered this record just this week. Sorry, Steve.
- And Matt Costa, still jockeying hard to be included on a Wes Anderson soundtrack — any Wes Anderson soundtrack — had three contenders off of “Yellow Coat.” Leading the pack was “Let Love Heal”.