Adam Shatz: 2020: the year I finally grasped the profundity of Yogi Berra’s remark, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Alex Ross: I will let Hans Hotter speak on my behalf: “I want only one thing now: the end.”
Andy Zax: I spent much of this year feeling, as Green Gartside once put it, “like an industry, depressed and in decline.” The only music I heard that was in any way helpful was a 2019 YouTube video of my lifelong hero Peter Hammill, then aged 70, alone onstage in Krakow attempting to play “A Louse Is Not A Home”—a spiky 12-minute epic about identity, paranoia and monsters from the id—for only the second time in 44 years. Watching him rage and struggle and howl through this beast of a song before, in the end, wrestling it into submission seemed like an act of great bravery. In a year where the subtext of everything was always “How do we make it through this?” Hammill’s performance was an answer: with difficulty, with humor, with resolve, with generosity, with the recognition that everything might fall apart, with hope.
Ariana Reines: I have love for 2020. It’s been teaching me a lot.
Catherine Lacey: I bought one of those Catholic candles to pray to Holy Death and I’m not Catholic and I don’t pray but the semblance of a ritual has been an odd comfort.
Charmaine Lee: These are some key thoughts I had over the course of the year. Although they were spurred on by the pandemic, they are a part of a longer arc of my thinking.
Music that prioritizes participation over production. Music that centers an imaginative over a canonical-based process. Risk-taking as accepting high level mistakes over valorizing failure. The limitations of a product-driven obsession (i.e Instagram) towards underground practices, and the consequent palatability of institutionalized experimental art. The necessity for rigor in abstraction.
The American fascination with and fetishization of obscure Folk.
“Lists” and the burden of genre. The burden of institutionalized music. Weaponizing information and ideas towards an illusion of complexity. Centering grievances as one’s primary creative identity. Music that is positioned as anti-music. The tragedy of anything that relentlessly situates itself as oppositional.
Trusting your listener. The cyclical pitfalls of NOT trusting your listener.
A hopeful resurgence of music that values depth, nuance, and skill.
A judicious use of Twitter. The profoundness of real friendship.
Chelsea G. Summers: 2020 is the year when I thank the gods old and new for Taylor Swift, her lingering indulgence of her feels, and her preternatural songwriting ability because if there's one lesson I needed it's that you can spend time alone with your visceral dismay and turn it into glorious, intimate art.
Chris Black: It all changes. It all stays the same. It’s been bad, but it could always be worse. This line from The Replacements song “I’ll Be You” sums this year up for me: “If it’s a temporary lull, why am I bored right outta my skull? / I'm dressin’ sharp and feelin’ dull.”
David Grubbs: One of the things I’m grateful for in 2020 is the way that musicians have supported musicians and acknowledged shared purpose with music writers, and I hope that much of this kindness will remain a part of people’s lives.
Eileen Myles: Robert Moses built East River Park in 1939 so they would let him build the FDR Drive and today the city of New York wants to demolish our beautiful park in the name of flood protection when it’s really development and I blame City Councilor Carlina Rivera.
Elvia Wilk: Mahmood is an Italian popstar who the far right hates because he’s queer and of Egyptian descent. He entered Eurovision in 2019 with the song Soldi (“Money”) which includes a verse in Arabic. The Fascists publicly denounced him before the finals and asked people not to vote for him, but he won second place by popular vote and first place by the panel of judges. In July 2020 he released the song “Dorado,” a.k.a. the mythic colonial pot of gold that doesn’t exist. I listened to it every day for the second half of this fucking year. I don’t speak Italian but in my mind the song is about how rich people bury everyone else in the fucking sand and how even when you’re buried you can still have sex and listen to pop music. My favorite verse from “Dorado”: (in translation) is: Those full of hate don’t put out my fire // Oh no no (uh), they say money isn’t everything (uh) // I like her because she has a firm ass (uh).
Emily J. Lordi: If you’re reading this, if you made it this far, I’m glad you’re still here.
Fette Sans: I want to cut you open and pour out all your insides, chew on your liver and your heart, and then sew you back together using your intestine and maybe I will pack you better than you were and there will be some left to crochet myself a necklace.
Finlay Clark of Still House Plants: Nothing means a lot.
François J. Bonnet: This year, for me, won’t have been a wasted year, and if there hadn’t been so much distress around me, I will have fond memories of it. Because this return to “duration” has forced me to reconsider a lot of stuff, to accept to let go of certain things or on the contrary to reaffirm what was essential for me. It also got me out of a certain amnesia, a certain loop of habits. But it remains to be seen how to benefit from this in a world still in crisis, in full uncertainty, and threatened by the long and multiple resonances of this pandemic.
Greil Marcus: I liked November 7, with people cheering and singing “NA NA HEY HEY” in the streets and playing “FDT” out their windows. No one seems to mention that Joe Biden and our hometowner Kamala Harris won the presidency. We will no longer have a thug in the White House. And after 94 years, Robert Johnson’s sister got her say.
Grey McMurray: Feed the vessel.
Be the spy.
Love your research.
It seems that probiotic kimchi and sleep can stave off the funk of desperation.
This probably won’t be the last odd eternity.
Applause and nice pants even when alone.
Hari Nef: Today’s library shuffle yielded “Alice” by Lady Gaga, the trance-house opener of Chromatica, released on May 29th of this year. I listened to this song at midnight, the morning it dropped. I was very stoned, legs vertical against the wall. Protests were erupting across the country and I scrolled and scrolled. Gaga belted: “My name isn’t Alice! But I keep looking for wonderland!” Today, it occurred to me that I might hear this song in a nightclub next year; my eyes widened and I stood up a little more straightly.
Ian Fenton: People may find this statement difficult to understand without context, but I’m generally against the reissuing of old recordings, certainly at the volume and pace they are pumped out into the world today. That said, there is one set of tapes I wish someone would unearth from a dusty closet, bake, remaster, and release on vinyl in whichever ridiculous colours the pressing plants currently offer. They contain the music Bruce Langhorne recorded for Peter Fonda’s excellent Idaho Transfer, a film I watched at 5 am after a particularly unsettled night’s sleep, deep in the heart of lockdown. I hope and pray the tapes still exist somewhere and that this music will find its way to a level of availability commensurate with the condiment Bruce created some years later, “African Hot Sauce by Brother Bru-Bru,” bottles of which can be bought online to this day, pandemic be damned.
Imp Kerr: Schopenhauer tells us that music expresses the world before we experience it. Here’s the end of this pandemic, a slow but firm joy, by Prokofiev.
Jason Williamson: Fuck this year. There has been nothing good from it apart from experiencing Australia for the first time on tour and also the slow humiliation of Donald Trump. He needs to eat shit and I hope he does. Fuck everything else tho. Fuck 2020.
Joe Levy: In my favorite song of the year, or the last 10 minutes, and it’s hard to say which, by which I mean I’ve lost all sense of time, but in this song I was talking about a band that started as 1977 London punks with their guitars chattering like teeth or telegraphs or teletypes or something and then kept going until now sang over impossibly slow moving bits of synthesizer, and it was completely different than in 1977 because it was so pretty, except that it was exactly the same song as at the start, like the gunfire had gone on so long it had become the umpteenth dream of the high tension line stepdown transformer. The band is Wire. In 1977 the song was called “Reuters.” In 2020 it was called “Humming.” Also Flo Milli is pretty much excellent.
John Corbett: As opposed to lapsing into solipsism—at many points an appealing option!—2020 forced the issue on cooperative action and collaboration, which turned me on and kept me from abyssal drift. Friends like Ken Vandermark, with his Catalytic Sound cooperative, and the altruistic team that put together the Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts, offered inspiring models for distributing music in an inhospitable environment. I was privileged to spend an afternoon this last week of our ridiculous year in the studio with drummer Hamid Drake, making his first solo record. Twelve months redeemed in a day. Grins beneath masks. Stories about the perils of Italian train travel. The time, two days after they were bequeathed to him, his handmade cymbals were lost by an absent-minded driver. His qualms about making a record without others. Such antiquated ideas as: energy, joy, gratitude. The richness of our lives revealed, in these violent times, against all merciless odds, by a magnanimous spirit with sticks and skins.
Laura McLean-Ferris: At the age of nine, as the oldest child on our side of Gillingham Close, I would corral my younger brother and the three children from the house next door, to dress them up in costumes and have them perform in my interpretative dance choreographies of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for an audience of our collective parents. Bringing the performance to a close with Inverno (Winter) was challenging. Spiky violins like icicles break into a kind of snow squall, but it's hard to create a lot of narrative drama: how is this supposed to end? Right now my family is at home without me in a country that currently has the media moniker “Plague Island,” where borders have closed for one reason and soon might close for others. Shortages of lettuce, citrus, and broccoli are expected. “Inverno” shares a root with the word “hibernate,” but it also sounds like “invert,” as though it is the time for the world to fold in on itself. The Great Conjunction promises a new era. How is this supposed to end? This is the most Inverno winter of my lifetime.
Lawrence English: I took a moment to check in with my friend (and source of deep inspiration and replenishment) Éliane Radigue the other day. As always she wrote a thoughtful and generous reply to my message. She signed off “Be well, do well.” This is a positive to hold close right now. Take care of each other, respect each other and make space for those around you. There’s room for everyone and now more than ever we need to remember that.
Luc Sante: Let the inwardness and privatization that have been forced on us by the coronavirus be succeeded—maybe in 2022, when the vaccine has become general and the numbers have been driven down—by an explosion of collectivity and spontaneous public theater in the streets of every town.
Lucy Teitler: The other day a Spotify playlist ran over and I found myself listening to John Prine’s “I Remember Everything,” which felt like a perfect epitaph for this year, especially since John Prine himself is one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans lost to COVID. That sounds macabre, but as I listened to it again and again, I felt lifted out of darkness by the song and also by the sublimity of an artist writing what would become not only his own epitaph but an epitaph for the whole insane and tragic era that suddenly appeared and swallowed him up. It felt exultant like a John Dunne poem and it felt good to listen to it and mourn.
Melvin Gibbs: I salute the youth of America who, after sitting in school listening to what grownups told them America represents, decided that they needed to get out in the streets to make it known that they want their country to actually become the country they’d been taught it was. Because it isn’t—yet.
Merve Emre: 2020 was a scintillating, sharply observed, luminous, incandescent, dazzling, tender, raw, searing, aching, lyrical pile of dog shit. A tour de force.
Mike Davis: 2020 has been a long burial party: of friends, in the first instance, but also of a personal romance with America that my heart has clung to despite knowing in my mind that its expiration date had long passed. I’m old, almost out of time, and cursed with the thought that my younger children may never see May again or reach the staircase to a new world.
Natasha Stagg: This year I fell in love with musicals again, either because Broadway is off-limits (I never went anyway), or because the limited space they inhabit now mirrors my own, or because I have always loved them—having grown up in a stage crew family—and this is the year of reconnecting with truer selves. A style of musical film from the 70s in particular gets at a certain realism of emotion that straightforward dramas can’t. I think Martin Scorsese said it well last year on the A24 podcast, speaking with Joanna Hogg about his 1976 film New York, New York (edited for brevity):
“I was so obsessed with Hollywood films but also, luckily, I had been exposed to neorealism when I was five years old—Rossellini and De Sica and that sort of thing. Now how could you do a serious attempt, let’s say, of Viaggio in Italia in a Hollywood musical? People said ‘The styles clash—’ Yes, that’s right, they clash. Certain Hollywood musicals like Blue Skies and My Dream is Yours, they always hinted that there was some emotional and psychological disturbance going on with these characters, especially in the relationships between the men and the women. I was interested in, when the end came up and the music hit and it was beautiful Technicolor, what happened to these people? You get it a bit in A Star is Born, the Judy Garland James Mason one, but it doesn’t get to the heart of it. They were trying to tell us something in these musicals. There’s a lot of darkness.”
Ottessa Moshfegh: I liked it when Demi Lovato performed at the Grammys in 2020. “I feel stupid when I pray.” I thought about using that line as the epigraph of the novel I wrote during quarantine.
Pete L’Official: Everyone should listen to more Evelyn “Champagne” King. She was one of my mom’s favorites, and in this year of nostalgia-inducing years, while making a playlist featuring solely artists born in the Bronx, it felt just as incredible to discover that I could include “Love Come Down”—a jam I remember ringing out on Saturday afternoons in my apartment as a kid—as it did to give in to those moments that brought you closer to all those folks that you couldn’t be close to, for 2020 reasons or otherwise.
Rachel Kushner: The calendar year is no exit from what sucks. We live in a failed state but this year I listened to Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet No. 12 like it was my job and you might love it too and I’m hoping that we all have good luck soon because on Halloween there was a big dirty full moon and I saw glowing orange eyes staring down at me all around and it turns out they were owls and owls are good luck even if they aren’t meant to be (if you don’t believe me believe Ben Ehrenreich, whose Desert Notebooks begins beautifully with the beckoning of owls and then moves through the history of the destruction of worlds, including this one). Other good things happened amidst all the bad. The star of Bethlehem rose. And that same day that Jupiter and Saturn aligned into one burning star I got receipt number 153 at the gas station and I was told by the cashier that it’s amazing luck, that Jesus caught 153 fishes according to the Gospel of John, and if I am not quite a believer, I believe in the cashier’s fulgent pleasure, his joy, when he saw that number, a joy so real that I’m trying to spread it. Hallelujah.
Racquel Gates: I didn’t realize how much 2020 had unraveled me until I suddenly burst into tears during the Patti LaBelle/Gladys Knight Verzuz. I really want to believe that 2020 is the prelude for something new and good to come, but—I swear—this year has just been fucking relentless.
Richard Hell: My favorite discovery of the moment is a group and person whose recordings I’ve known since before their first album, which came out in 1963 and had six hit singles on it, namely the Impressions. So, not exactly a discovery, but Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions aren’t always thought of as highly and often as they deserve—at least they weren’t by me. The music is so smooth and delicate and well put together, and there’s also just something about Curtis. His name reminds me of that Jim Carroll story, “Curtis’s Charm” (why are squirrels and ducks the funniest-word animals?), which is more about its diction and New York and shattered blue brain glass of esoteric knowledge, than it is narrative. Apart from the title character’s name, the association may be about the wish for purity. Curtis Mayfield—his falsetto palpitates with kindness and goodwill, even his most pained protest songs. And the music is like all the best r & b and rock and roll, where you can distinctly hear each of the few separate parts interlocking. The harmonies! And I do love his name. I don’t know why. It’s right up there with Pierre Klossowski and Raphael Rubenstein, for some reason. There were quite a lot of other good things in this year of disrupted habits and disproven assumptions, and fuck the rest of it, no offense. It’s been educational.
Sam McKinniss: Whenever the coast is clear, maybe sometime in the second half of 2021, I imagine I will begin to see people again whom I’ve been avoiding for literally a year or more through no fault of anybody, and then I will try to have consensual sex with them. I hope the new year brings with it a season of getting over one’s self, moving out and breaking up with that character you assumed yourself to be during the pandemic. Reaching out and touching somebody else, no big deal. We can be people again, let’s hope. I liked two songs by Lianne La Havas: “Sour Flower,” and her cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes.” I relate to her, somehow, which is very nice.
Sam Sifton: I’ve been living inside lists for nine months now: lists of tasks, lists of recipes, lists of books, lists of music, lists of things to stream. It makes me miss serendipity, which is what Dust to Digital delivers almost every time.
Sarah Schulman: As my friend Francine Volpe pointed out to me this morning: there is no such thing as revenge and people very rarely try to get it. So whenever revenge is the theme of a movie or book, especially attributed to a woman, it is probably phony. Instead we have to live in response to other people without finality or easy solution.
Wayne Koestenbaum: In 2020, I discovered Bob Andy singing “Life.” I discovered Delphine Seyrig playing a vampire in Daughters of Darkness. A year contains peril, desolation, catastrophe, reanimation. Not necessarily in that order. Perhaps awakening precedes catastrophe; afterward, we grope toward regeneration, minus the pieties of the prefix “re-.” Momentarily alive,I woke again to the invincible, ironic complexities of Carmen MacRae; singing the lyrics, she takes them apart. Sense—or, our universe—turns piecemeal, awry, in an act of chastening (the syllables chastened by MacRae’s delivery) that also promises a salvific reorganizing of the principles we thought we rested upon.
Yasmina Price: The arbitrary capsule of this year has felt uniquely terrible, but worst of all, it’s been not an aberration but a continuation of a world orchestrated by strangleholds of profit and power. One record I have held close is We Insist! Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach with five uncontainable movements of black insistence and anger, a layered and international demand for freedom (now), a scream of refusal.