James McNew (Yo La Tengo, Dump)
What’s That? 2020
Noise in refrigerator: evaporator fan
Noise in kitchen: steam-angle radiator valve
Noise in hallway: can now identify every person in building by sound of their footsteps
Noise in car: alternator/ serpentine belt
Noise in toilet: fill valve
Noise from outside #4: fireworks (all summer, every night)
Noise from outside #3: maskless rich drunk asshole neighbors partying and blasting music in their well-appointed backyards at 2am (May–September)
Noise from outside #2: sirens (March–June: ambulances; June–December: cops)
Noise from outside #1: one minute of applause/noisemaking at 7pm daily, in appreciation of essential workers; said appreciation ended promptly June 1. More than one person within earshot has (= shouldn’t have) a trombone.
Stephen McRobbie (Pastels, Geographic, Monorail)
1. One of the best best things about 2020 for me was starting to see Glasgow in a slightly different way, one in which the river is the essential part. In May I started cycling to work on a daily basis along the Clyde, rediscovering landmarks that I had loved and forgotten and new ones too. It was a time of dramatic change and sometimes cycling slowly home or stopping off to examine something was the best way to find some perspective on what was going on and to feel hopeful that in the end there would be a way through.
2. Music was incredible in 2020. Not us so much us, in fact we didn’t play together at all. At the start of the year I thought I had three strong ideas for new songs. At the end of the year I had what I still felt were three strong ideas for new songs. So it was more a year of archive things. It was really nice to finally release two songs from a 1997 John Peel Session – “Advice To The Graduate” and “Ship To Shore” on a 7”. “Advice To The Graduate” is of course a David Berman song – thought about him often.
3. Music was incredible in 2020. Really fell for the Cindy album, Free Advice. It just had real confidence about playing softly and being there but not fighting for your attention or anything. And it opened up a scene of other groups via a mix cd… Present Electric, Reds, Pinks & Purples, Hectorine. It felt new but also existed in the spaces between Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo, Movietone and various Flying Nun groups. There are always spaces, you can always make something new.
4. So many other great records came out. Amazingly Plone came back with Puzzlewood for Ghost Box, and by now more or less working from home, I’d lots of time to write about it for Monorail. It was a really fabulous return, so unexpected, I was often smiling their tunes as I cycled along.
5. The Jarv Is record was amazing too – he somehow managed to make it of the times but above or at least to the side of them too. I interviewed him on the day it came out. He said that when he was researching stories for This Day In History on his Sunday Service he realised that most news stories at any time are bad news and this had given him a bit of perspective on things. His group just now is dynamite.
6. As if that wasn’t enough he ran his Domestic Disco on Saturday nights for a large part of the year. These were magical (Jarvis is a great dj) and ok, maybe a little drunken at certain points. Along with Tim Burgess’s Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties and various BBC6 shows especially Gideon Coe, something similar to going out to shows was always there. We always felt we were part of a great community.
7. Great songs belatedly dropped out of the seeming nowhere. That Dump single, “Feelings 1 & 2” is so special. I got a preview of a new Johnny record (all Joe Meek songs) performed with a super lightness of touch and sheer pop joy by Norman Blake and Euros Childs. People are going to love this record.
8. I was working on various archival projects I thought I could close out but didn’t – Strawberry Switchblade, Pastels, a Glasgow music comp. I did manage to make a fanzine called Yesterday Was Another Day, Glasgow 1979-82 to coincide with the reissue of The Bluebells Sisters album. It was a collaboration with the group and my friend, Musho Fernandez, who is a great graphic designer. Felt a real sense of pride about how it turned out.
9. The more I think about it the more I realise that music more or less got me through 2020. It seemed deeper than ever with so much music – Jon Brooks, Robert Lippok, Andrew Wasylyk, Tenniscoats, Bridget St John, Stereolab, Broadcast, Movietone, Brian Eno. In the kitchen Katrina and I listened to lots of mix cds, probably the most played being one that Gerard made for the Monorail Film Club night we used to have at the Glasgow Film Theatre.
10. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was important and righteous. It was beautifully made too. Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” from the Lovers Rock episode became an absolute obsession. There are so many Janet Kay Top Of The Pops appearances on Youtube (a couple even with the great Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced it). Still not enough, song of the year, music of the year. Fight on.
Janice Headley (KEXP, Meow Mix, Copacetic zine, chickfactor)
Like many of us, I’m sure, I needed a mental break from the horrors of 2020, and books have always served as a trusty escape hatch. So, here’s a random sampling of ten that I happened to read last year. Just to be clear, this isn’t a list of “Best Books of 2020” or even my personal “Top Ten.” As you’ll see below, several of them didn’t even come out this year, and one of them I didn’t even really like! Just ten random books. Here ya go.
• When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (2020, Harper Collins)
Described in the press release as “Rear Window meets Get Out” — and I legit thought “this is so Hitchcock-ian” while reading it — When No One is Watching is the gripping tale of a fictional Brooklyn neighborhood on the brink of gentrification… but there seems to be something even more insidious at play. I found this book breathtaking, and I consumed it in less than two days. And during a year of relentless (and disheartening) racial unrest, this book was even more powerful and unsettling.
• Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (2020, Grove Press)
I loved Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman, so I was excited to get my hands on her latest. That said, WHOA, this was nothing like that charming tale of a small store clerk; Earthlings has abuse, violence, incest, cannibalism, and more, all crammed into less than 300 pages. This was another one of those books that was just exhilaratingly engrossing, and the ending was such a smart surprise. I can’t say I “recommend it,” per se, but I’ll just say, it sure as heck was a page-turner.
• Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (2020, Vintage)
Discovering comedic essayist Samantha Irby was one of the very few bright spots of 2020. I somehow stumbled across her 2017 collection titled We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and felt an instant kinship. I then went on to inhale everything she’s ever written. Like me, she recently moved from a big city (for her, Chicago; for me, Seattle) to sleepy Southwest Michigan. And, like me, she loves Sassy magazine, receiving mail, and being indoors. I feel like she and I need to be friends, but I am also slightly afraid of her.
• Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (2020, Gallery Books)
I bought Brosh’s 2016 book Hyperbole and a Half at the airport ages ago — I mean, just the fact that I wrote “airport” tells you it wasn’t in 2020 — and proceeded to annoy my fellow passengers because it was literally laugh-out-loud funny. But shortly after the book’s release, she mysteriously disappeared. There were Reddit threads of readers wondering if she was okay. The concern slowly died down as fans seemed to assume and accept that she had chosen the unpublished life after all. But, in 2020, she returned with her first new book in seven years! I’ll admit, I didn’t “LOL” as much as I did with her first one, but maybe that’s ‘cause 2020 just wasn’t a real “LOL” type year. But I liked it a lot.
• My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (2016, Quirk Books)
This year’s season of the podcast Conviction sent me down a “Satanic Panic” wormhole. I wanted to read, listen, and learn everything I could about this weird ‘80s phenomenon, even culminating in an article for my day job (gratuitous self link here). I scrolled past this book on the library app while doing research, and the funny VHS-style book cover inspired me to check it out. It’s a fictional story of two best friends, one of whom seems to have been possessed by an evil spirit. It’s somehow both funny and creepy. Hendrix has also written a story about a haunted IKEA titled Horrorstör that I have definitely added to my “must read” list.
• The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (2019, Hachette)
I’ve been a fan of West’s since back in the days when she wrote for Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger. It’s been rad to see her writing get such national attention, and she even has a TV show on Hulu titled Shrill. (The aforementioned Irby is a staff writer.) The Witches Are Coming is a much-appreciated attack of “Tr*mp’s America” (sorry, I can’t even type it without throwing up in my mouth a little). She somehow released a new book toward the end of 2020 titled Shit, Actually that I’m currently reading.
• A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (2020, Crown Publishing Group)
I don’t know why I like Saturday Night Live. It’s not even that funny most of the time. But, it’s something that’s been in my life since I was a kid. I still remember my best friend and I sharing Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts on the playground during recess, or going to see Wayne’s World at the dollar theatre. So, I’ve read a lot of cast member memoirs, and this one was pretty entertaining. (I still enjoy Tina Fey’s Bossypants the most.)
• Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness (2019, HarperCollins)
The release of season 5 of Netflix’s Queer Eye was an all-too brief spark of sunshine during the dark summer of quarantine. I checked out Ness’s auto-bio audiobook to fill the void and found myself appreciating the grooming expert even more. He shares how he overcame childhood sexual abuse and drug addiction — stuff he can’t really address during the hour-long episodes, which are mostly focused on the nominees. (Do they still call them “heroes”? I can’t remember if that’s a throwback to the original series.)
• Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy (2018, Dutton)
This book came out a couple of years ago, but, as I’m not really a fan of Wilco, I never bothered with it. But then, in April, a podcast I listen to (Rivals: Music’s Greatest Feuds) did an episode detailing the conflict between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar during their Uncle Tupelo days, and I was so intrigued I wanted to learn more. What I learned is, Tweedy is a very funny writer. (Either that, or he has a good ghostwriter/editor.)
• Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz (2020, St. Martin’s Press)
I’ll be honest, this isn’t a very good book. Frantz isn’t the most engaging writer, and many of the chapters just blur into each other. (“We played a concert and got an encore. We ate fish for dinner. Some random lady was good-looking.”) But the David Byrne barbs are both relentless and hilarious, and you can tell from his writing how much he still really loves Tina, which is so sweet after 40+ years of marriage.
Rob Pursey (Catenary Wires, European Sun, Heavenly, Tender Trap)
I’ve been running an online poetry-reading event during 2020. Basically, I choose a collection, everyone gathers on a zoom call, and then we take it in turns to read out loud. Sometime the poetry is canonical and old, sometimes it’s contemporary (and on most of those occasions the real-life poet has joined us on the zoom call). It works better than I can have expected. Hearing 30 people’s voices, taking it in turns to read, is very moving and a good antidote to loneliness and isolation.
So my top ten readings were
PARADISE REGAINED by John Milton. An old, blind man finds himself on the losing side of the English Civil War and tries to come to terms with the restoration of the hated monarchy by re-telling the story of Christ in the wilderness.
DIVISION STREET by Helen Mort. Legacies of the Miners’ Strike, passionately re-imagined by someone too young to have been there.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE by William Blake. Apocalyptic poems for children.
RECKLESS PAPER BIRDS by John McCullough. The excitement and fear of living in London when you are young and gay.
BRIGGFLATTS by Basil Bunting. On a par with ‘The Wasteland’, but less celebrated because rooted in the landscape and dialect of the North-East.
ISN’T FOREVER by Amy Key. Funny, fragile, sometimes self-lacerating poems by a really great new writer.
SONNETS by William Shakespeare. He couldn’t put his plays on because of a pandemic, so wrote lots of these instead. Lucky us.
HAPPINESS by Jack Underwood. Beautiful, funny, very self-aware poems on straight male identity and anxieties.
VENUS AND ADONIS by William Shakespeare. Him again. A little epic, where his medieval roots are audible.
SMOOTHIE by Claudine Toutoungi. Another really great new poet; spiky, witty, dramatic and energetic.
Music That Got Me Through the Year
Minnie Riperton, Come to My Garden
A Girl Called Eddy, Been Around
Destroyer, Have We Met (the live show I saw in February was *amazing* except the annoying girl screaming gross borderline harassment the whole time)
Joe Pernice, Richard and Manilow covers record, but mostly his live sets on Instagram
Shopping, live — the last show I saw in early March before the world went pear-shaped
Brazilian music (especially Jobim and Veloso)
Various Artists, Strum and Thrum
Bridget St John, Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny, Rodriguez
The Clientele, Oh everything. Musical anti-anxiety remedy and life-affirming soul boost. More please!
Yo La Tengo’s very sad but very necessary Hanukkah show. Please music gods, don’t make them go through that again. Shoutout to Amy Rigby (my friend Shawn called her “a female Jonathan Richman, but funnier”) and Ira’s sweet mom, slaying us.
All the best to everyone in 2021. Keep fighting evil.