The last concert I attended was November 15, 2019. It was my 17th show of the year. My friend Aric and I went for just the opening act, 100 gecs, a Hyperpop band that was gaining notoriety. Had I known that might be the last live show I would see for at least 18 months, I would have stayed to soak in as much as I could.
“I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other.” — Dave Grohl
Like Dave, I am optimistic that we will be arm in arm again, packed into bars and clubs and amphitheaters. But until then, it’s a bit strange. I recognize that there are more tragic things that happened this year than missing out on live music. Music has been the lens through which I see the world and mark progress, so I am going to capture this strange and difficult year with a focus on music.
Music is resilient and musicians are creative. As I reflect back on my year in music, there was actually a lot of live music I saw. It just took on a different form. Instead of being packed together with other sweaty, excited fans in some dingy club, I was at home, on my couch, staring at YouTube or Instagram, experiencing the live performance. Here are the live (or semi-live) performances I witnessed this year:
- Italians playing music on their balconies on Twitter
- Phoebe Bridgers at Red Rocks without any people on YouTube
- Phoebe Bridgers various late night performances in support of Punisher
- The Hold Steady doing their Massive Nights shows from Brooklyn Bowl on YouTube
- Luck Reunion replacement live stream during what would have been SXSW
- Jeff Tweedy and his family live on Instagram a couple times a week
- Ben Gibbard playing Death Cab For Cutie songs on YouTube, among others, from his house for the first month or so of sheltering in place
- Taylor Swift Long Pond Sessions for folklore on Disney+
- David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO Max
- Field Report playing Marigolden live on YouTube
- Kathleen Edwards’ record release show for Total Freedom from her coffee shop in Canada on YouTube
- Tom Petty tribute live on Twitch
There were many other live events on Twitch, YouTube, and Instagram — DJ sets, solo performances from home — as well as massive marketing events on Fortnite. Many of these events corresponded with the release of new music. I had two friends release beautiful albums this year and never got a chance to share them in person. Paul Jacobsen’s long awaited Two-Headed Hearts (it includes long-time live favorite “Apocalypse Wow” and my personal favortie “I’m On Your Side”) and Ryan Tanner’s latest Crushed Romantic (my favorites are the Oasis-esque “Parting Ways” and “I’m Sorry I Can’t Be Your Baby Anymore”). They have missed the proper celebration of releasing their albums into the world, but they deserve a listen, a follow, a tip, some kind words because “we need moments that reassure us that we are not alone.”
Live music plays a pivotal role in my music discovery and fandom. Sometimes the live show cements the album as a favorite for me. Other times, there’s a song I didn’t like on the album that is amazing when played live. Experiencing the live interpretation of the songs reveals parts that you didn’t know where there — sort of like reading a book and then seeing the movie.
When I miss an opportunity to see my favorite songs performed live, I miss out on the chance to deepen my love for them. This year, YouTube and Instagram were the stand-in for live music. It’s been inspiring to see music finding a way from the artists to the masses, like Phoebe Bridgers, who seems to have thrived with the constraints, creating a number of memorable performances.
I can say without a doubt that it’s not the same. I also cannot deny that somehow these things resonated in a way that no other live performance has. Watching the Tweedy family on their couch, in pajama pants, read lyrics off of a phone and sing a Guided By Voices song followed by a Wilco deep cut into a Courtney Barnett song, is inspiring in a way that a 3 hour, 33 song set could never be. I would like to think that in a normal year, these performances would have been as impactful, but this year we needed these unique moments to “reassure us that we are not alone.”
And because I’ve done this every year for the past 15 or so years, here’s my ten favorite albums that were released in 2020:
- Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers (One of the few artists thriving in the virtual performance era. “I Know The End” is my favorite)
- RTJ4 by Run the Jewels (This had the angst and edge I needed in the middle of the summer. Nothing hits this year quite like the opening of “yankee and the brave”)
- grae by Moses Sumney (He’s been building momentum for a whole now. This album accelerates that. “Cut Me” and “Me In 20 Years” are favorites)
- Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee (One of the few albums to come out early in the year and stick around. “Fire” and “Arkadelphia” are favorites)
- Circles by Mac Miller (Hit in January when there was excitement and optimism for the year. Doesn’t hit so well now, but still a great album. “Good News” is a fave)
- Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple (With some albums, timing is everything. This album would be timeless but also came out at the perfect time. The female empowerment described in both“Shameika” and “Under the Table” make them standouts)
- BRAT by NNAMDÏ (One of the most unique sounding albums of the year for me. “It’s OK” and “Salut” are favorites)
- Live Forever by Bartees Strange (In an interview, Bartees said that indie rock needed musicians of color to make it more interesting — he was right. “Mustang” and “Boomer” are standouts)
- folklore by Taylor Swift (Enough has been written about the two albums Taylor Swift put out this year. This is my favorite of the two)
- Rough and Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan (This gets in on the strength of “Murder Most Foul” alone)
Other albums worth mentioning: Lo Tom, Childish Gambino, SAULT, Sylvan Esso, Matt Berninger, Dominic Moore, Walter Martin, Burna Boy, beabadoobee, Weave, and Paul McCartney.
Now, on to 2021.