Welp, the ball finally dropped in 2020, minus the usual glitter and confetti, to the thud of a collective sigh of relief. We made it, right? Well here we are, not even a week in and so far the President incited a mob of thugs to storm the Capitol on Twitter. I don’t know what frightens me more, that Pence has taken the reins or that it feels like a relief. There were plenty of reasons over the past year to storm the Capitol and demand accountability from our public servants. Failure to deal with the pandemic, relief for small businesses crippled by COVID, and racial justice reform are just a few issues that come to mind. Instead it took conspiracy theories over an election that certified a clear victor, after all the counting and recounting of votes and more than 60 legal challenges, to mobilize these crackpots. I can only facepalm watching a handful of Republican senators trying to moonwalk over their states rights stance to curry favor with a demented despot. I’m still optimistic that 2021 is going to be a better year. Let’s get this party started paying tribute to a local music legend we lost and look back at some of the best in the worst of 2020. Happy New Year!
Big Jon Tierney
This one hit hard like one last kidney suckerpunch from 2020. Jon was an amazing performer who really could perform any style of music and hold his audience by their heartstrings. When I first saw Jon play it was fronting a metal band called Icenine singing these monster rocking numbers like “Truckstop Hooker” that were just awesome! Ten years later he was fronting essentially a Dave Matthews style jam band, which, while not my normal cup of tea, was great for just the sheer power of his big gravelly voice and his soul-stirring lyrics. Jon played a weekly residency for years with Kris Hansen that packed a wallop of frenetic energy, comedy and just a great vibe of positive energy. As great as a performer that Jon was, he was an even better person. I first met Jon sometime in the late ’90s and he had this warm genuine personality that just made everyone feel at ease as his laugh echoed through the room. In the past few weeks I’ve read so many accounts of how great of a friend he was and the lengths he’d go through to help people through their turmoils of life. Jon performed countless shows to raise money for charities, worked tirelessly with people with developmental disabilities in group homes, and had a knack for making everybody feel better and laugh in the face of adversity. I love you Big Jon, and your spirit will always be with us.
Best in The Worst of 2020
2020 was such a weird year. I don’t know how to rank albums or songs because everything was so in flux while going nowhere. Here is my soundtrack for the year. Let me know via email or Twitter (@marcclarkin) what you were rocking to!
Craig Finn — All These Perfect Crosses (Partisan Records)
This compilation of tunes that didn’t make Finn’s past few albums and stripped-down alternate versions provided a quiet comforting tale of lost characters trying to find their way. As with his work fronting The Hold Steady, Finn’s songs are short stories accompanied by music. The standout here is “It’s Never Been A Fair Fight,” which is reminiscent of growing up with punk rock in the 1980s. My favorite line is “You said there were no rules, but there were so many goddamn rules. You said they’d be cool but then they had so many goddamn rules.” Anyone who grew up in that era knows how true that was.
Ravi Shavi — Special Hazards (Almost Ready Records)
This record had so many great tunes like “Going Going Gone” and “Sixes and Sevens,” but my favorite here is “Casino.” “Casino” successfully manages to combine an eerie sultry vibe with riding a wave that breaks into your heart. It is definitely one of my top 10 songs of 2020!
Bob Mould — Blue Hearts (Merge Records)
The lead single, “American Crisis,” dropped like a bomb in the midst of the unrest following the murder of George Floyd last spring. I recommend the lyric video to get the full frontal assault as Mould and band unleash their rage in a cyclone of hooks and guitars. The rest of the album is good, but nothing that hits as hard as “American Crisis.”
Nymphidels — Insurgery
This duo creates jangling guitar pop that isn’t afraid to rock your socks off like on “Reprieve.” I thought about going with the soothing yearning of “Saved You” as the essential track, but “Change” just has too many goddamn hooks to be denied the honor. It is a shame that the pandemic kind of buried this great EP.
Low Cut Connie — Private Lives
Private Lives is my album of the year. There are so many bangers like “Wild Ride” and the title track on this double album that it is tough to pick the essential track. I’m going with “Help Me” because after 2020 we could all use some help having our spirits lifted up.
Guided By Voices — Mirrored Aztec (Rockathon Records)
Leave it to Guided By Voices; the entire music industry shuts down and they release three full length albums. Sometime I wish they’d leave some songs on the cutting room floor and put out another Alien Lanes, but that isn’t how Robert Pollard rolls. I chose Mirrored Aztec because that is the best album with mega-jams like “Please Don’t Be Honest” and “Haircut Sphinx.” As for their other records, on Surrender Your Poppy Field check out “Volcano” and on Styles We Paid For the go-to jam is “Never Abandon Ship.”
Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fetch The Bolt Cutters just seemed to drop out of nowhere last spring and for two weeks it seemed like no other music mattered. The pounding rhythms that Apple crafted her poetry around conjures up a magic that is both unique and now. My favorite is “I Want You To Love Me.”
Blackletter — Animal Farm
Animal Farm slays with the feel of a rock opera that really isn’t an opera. Blackletter mix poetry, Dio-like howls and Blue Oyster Cult playing Deep Purple riffs to create some really magic rock ‘n’ roll. The essential track here is “Invisible Chains / The Waltz” for more reasons than I have space to describe.
Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia Records)
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a return to rockin’ blues for Dylan after a series of cover records. This album is chock full of barroom jams, but the stunning “Murder Most Foul” is the pick here. Not just because it is Dylan’s first number one song, or the first 17-minute song to be a number one song, but because nearly 60 years into his career Dylan is still breaking ground and creating compelling art.
Throwing Muses — Dark Blue
Throwing Muses are only about 35-plus years in as a band, but they are still creating tunes that are both vivid and haunting. It feels like there is always something going on in between the spaces of reverb from the feedback squalls of Kristin Hersh’s guitar. The pick here is “Dark Blue” because it is like a painting of sound come to life.
Malyasa BellaRosa — Affinity
BellaRosa has a newer album with her band, the Sugar Cones, called Road Soda that I’ll cover in the next rodeo. I spent more time listening to Affinity this year so that makes The List as Chris Jericho would say. The pick here is the Jim Steinman type ballad, “Wanting More,” just because I’m a sucker for that shit.
Sick Pills — (75orLess Records)
Late Night Death Trip (along with Mould’s Blue Hearts) is my pick for punk album of the year. The first five tracks are all killer and is my favorite Sick Pills album to date. My go-to track is “One More Chance For Love.”
Steadystate — Fast Machine
Fast Machine grew on me like malaria as the shutdown happened last spring and I liked it. Electro-rock groovers like “Slider” were the soundtrack to driving around empty downtowns all over the state.
Jesse Malin — Todd Youth / Ameri’Ka singles(Wicked Cool Records)
Malin released a few singles as a planned album got delayed due to the pandemic. These tunes weren’t even on the same single, but who cares — there were no rules in 2020. These were my two favorites of the singles. I’ll go with “Ameri’Ka” as the essential track since it is about everything that went down in 2020. My favorite line is “Adam got the virus like when Reagan was in charge, history repeats itself, the killers are at large.” Right on, Doctor.
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