“I’m sorry, I know I tell you this all the time, but…” Throughout my many decades as a fan of Low, I’ve barely missed an opportunity to tell Mimi Parker how much I love and admire her work. It’s just your basic, slightly embarrassing fangirl gushing, but I’ve never left a Low performance without all these emotions of awe and admiration pulsing through my veins. It’s like, I have to let it out. I have to tell her how much I love her.
Mimi had one of the most beautiful voices I will ever hear. Its radiance and resonance genuinely flood my heart with joy when I listen to her sing. I’ve tried to sing along with my Low cassettes (and later CDs, and later, streaming audio) in the car, and she’s simply unparalleled in her range, breath control, and just the emotion she can bring to one long sustained note.
Back in 2011, they stopped by KEXP (the radio station in Seattle where I work) for an in-studio session. I still remember creeping down the hallway to the performance space, and tucking away in the back of the engineering room to watch the broadcast (which you can watch here). When the “On Air” light turned off and they began to pack up their gear, I snuck into the room and, heart beating fast, approached Mimi.
“Ohmygod, your voice is so beautiful, ohmygod, I love the new songs so much, ohmygosh,” I breathlessly unleashed on her, wide-eyed and nervous. She was very sweet, and said thank you, and I scurried back to my desk, still shaking with excitement.
After that, I kept doing it. Telling her how awesome she is. The floodgates were open, and my emotions were too strong to close them back up again. Every in-studio session, post-concert opportunity, whatever.
“I’m sorry, I know I tell you this all the time, but ohmygod…” The last time I cornered her with praise was at last year’s Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows. The stars had aligned for Low to be able to open one of the eight nights. Their set was so beautiful. Even though I am definitely non-confrontational, I remember finding my courage to shush some jerks talking nearby during their set. Shut the hell up. Can’t you hear? Mimi Parker is singing right now. They opened with “Days Like These” and when Alan and Mimi’s voices chimed together for the first time on that song, it was like a solar eclipse, so blinding in its beauty.
At the end of the night, I turned to my dear friend Julia and said, “I have to tell her how much I love her. I just have to.”
Julia said she thought she saw her near the stage, so I took off upstairs to find Mimi. I spotted her in the corner. Her back was turned to me, but I saw her signature shoulder-length cascade of thick auburn curls. She was talking to someone else. I hesitated. Should I wait to cut in? I could feel those stupid butterflies in my stomach. I freaked out. I shuffled back downstairs and into the bathroom to catch my breath, when I ran back into Julia.
“Did you talk to her?”
“No,” I sighed, shoulders drooping as my nerves left me. “I couldn’t do it! I chicken’ed out!” And it was at that moment that Mimi stepped out from one of the bathroom stalls. Turned out, that wasn’t her upstairs at all, just someone else with equally lush locks (that we later learned was actually a wig; at that point, chemo had taken Mimi’s natural hair).
“Ohmygod, YOU are what I chicken’ed out about!” I blurted out as she stepped toward the sinks. ”I wanted to tell you how beautiful your set was, and how beautiful your voice is, and ohmygod…”
I was off and running. As always, she laughed, smiled, and was very sweet about it. “I’m sorry, I know I tell you this all the time…” I started to say, looking down at the floor in embarrassment. She laughed, and kindly replied, “You can always tell me again!” * * * I saw her a couple more times earlier this year, but that was the last time I really cornered her with my dorky effusive fangirl energy. And even though I cringe sometimes when I think of how awkward I would get around her, I’m also glad I got yet another chance to tell her how much her work meant to me. How dizzy with joy I get listening to Low. And how lucky the entire world was to have her in it. Was not supposed to make you cry I sang the words I meant I sang — Low, “Lullaby”
Beatrix Madell: My top ten: soccer players of the year (this took forever, too many to choose from) 1. Christen Press 2. Alexia Putellas 3. Catarina Macario 4. Kristie Mewis 5. Katie McCabe 6. Alyssa Naeher 7. Sophia Smith 8. Jenni Hermoso 9. Caprice Dydasco 10. Beth Mead Beatrix Madell is a 13 year old who lives in Brooklyn and loves music (playing and listening), theatre and film, science, and women’s soccer.
Erin Moran, A Girl Called Eddy 1) Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Best book I’ve read about music since Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys 2) Jim’s Organic French Roast Decaf 3) Get Back 4) Singing on Burt Bacharach’s latest record Blue Umbrella 5) SolaWave Skincare Wand. It’s a red light therapy/microcurrent thingamajig doing yeoman’s work trying to lift my jowls 6) Call My Agent! on Netflix. French, funny, smart 7) The ramen at Menkoi Sato, 7 Cornelia St. NYC 8) Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold 9) Tom Ford’s Lost Cherry. Not a film about a young boys’ journey from Milan to Minsk, but a perfume. Oh the almond-y/Vidal Sassoon shampoo smell of it 10) The Dodo on instagram
Janice Headley (KEXP, chickfactor): Ten Things I Liked in 2021 (In No Particular Order) 1) Season 3 of Stath Lets Flats (to be fair, my partner Joe did not like it AT ALL, so your mileage may vary.) 2) Zoom karaoke w/ west coast pals 3) The podcast Films to Be Buried With with Brett Goldstein 4) Huichica Music Festival (I now wish every music festival was held at a winery.) 5) Japanese stationery store niconeco zakkaya [263 E 10th St in NYC] 6) HBO’s Insecure 7) Glossier’s Monochromes eyeshadow sets (particularly in Heather) 8) Blake’s Hard Cider Strawberry Lemonade 9) Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner 10) Licorice Pizza (except for the unnecessary racist Japanese bullshit, and yes, I know Paul Thomas Anderson has a Japanese mother-in-law [Maya Rudolph’s stepmom], but that is still no excuse.)
Nancy Novotny’s top records Rather than calling it a “best of” list, I’d say that these are the 30 albums & EPs (culled from a list of over a hundred favorites) that possessed something “je ne sais quoi, oh so very special”* for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary. In no particular order: Merope – Salos (Stroom) Andy Aquarius – Chapel (Hush Hush) Meril Wubslin – Alors Quoi (Bongo Joe) Blue Chemise – Flower Studies (B.A.A.D.M.) Nathan Salsburg – Psalms (Quarterstick) Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou (Fire) Conny Frischauf – Die Drift (Bureau B ) Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek – DOST 1 (Bongo Joe) Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble In Mind) Richard Dawson & Circle – Henki (Domino) Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victim (Matador) Monokultur – Ormens Väg (Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox & Ever/Never) Hawthonn – Earth Mirror (Ba Da Bing!) Henry the Rabbit, Beatrice Morel Journel & Semay Wu – Songs of the Marsh (Moon Glyph) Tarta Relena – Fiat Lux (La Castanya) Grouper – Shade (Kranky) Hamilton Yarns – Outside (Hark!) Steven R. Smith – In the Spires (Cold Moon/Worstward) Oddfellow’s Casino – The Cult of Water (Nightjar) Dechmont Woods – November ’79 (Woodford Halse) Blod – Missväxt (Grapefruit) Midwife – Luminol (The Flenser) Green-House – Music for Living Spaces (Leaving) Doran – Doran (Spinster) Various Artists – Incantations (Seance Centre) Beautify Junkyards – Cosmorama (Ghost Box) Shirley Collins – Crowlink (Domino) Laura Cannell & Kate Ellis – October Sounds (Brawl) Jonny Nash & Ana Stamp – There Up, Behind The Moon (Melody as Truth) You’ll Never Get to Heaven – Wave Your Moonlight Hat for the Snowfall Train (Seance Centre)
Some notable singles: Claire Cronin – “Bloodless” (Orindal) Bas Jan – “You Have Bewitched Me” (Lost Map) Constant Follower – “The Merry Dancers on TV” (Shimmy-Disc) Large Plants – “La Isla Bonita” (Ghost Box) Astral Brain – “Five Thousand Miles” (Shelflife) Burd Ellen – “The High Preistess and the Hierophant” (Thread) Dean McPhee – “The Alchemist” (Hood Faire) Garden Gate – “Tarot” (Library of the Occult) La Luz – “Tale of My Lost Love” (Female Species cover) (Numero)
Some notable reissues/archival anthologies: Persona – Som (Black Sweat) Aurita y su Conjunto – Chambacu (Mississippi) Alice Coltrane – Turiya Sings (Impulse!) The Doubling Riders – Doublings & Silences Vol. 1 (Btx3R/F01101/Exe) Aunt Sally – Aunt Sally (Mesh-Key) Alison Knowles – Sounds from the Book of Bean (Recital) Oh OK – The Complete Reissue (HHBTM) Kiko Kids Jazz – Tanganyika Na Uhuru (Mississippi) Pamela Z – Echolocation (Freedom to Spend) Kiri-uu – Creak-whoosh (Stroom) Joel Vandroogenbroeck – Far View (Drag City) Michèle Bokanowski – Rhapsodia / Battements solaires (Recollection GRM) Michael Ranta – Taiwan Years (Metaphon) Roger Fakhr – Fine Anyway (Habibi Funk)
Jens Lekman’s ‘Smalltalk‘ column appears irregularly on his website. It’s always quiet and wise. One column dealt with going bald. “What bothered me the most was the pressure to be proud of myself. It didn’t allow for a natural transformation. I remember people shouting at me, ‘Be proud. Take off your hat. You look great.’ But my face had just made a U-turn. What used to be a frame for the canvas that was me had disappeared. I wanted to mourn.”
Lots of friends spent lots of time in hospitals this year. In December I read an old History Workshop Journal obituary of Clive Goodwin (1932-1977), widower of English pop artist Pauline Boty (1938-1966) – “In America, whoever calls for medical attention for another person is responsible for paying the bill. Clive was killed by capitalism.”
Ancient historian Robin Lane Fox’s gardening column in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. He’s been writing it for over 51 years and is unfailingly equable except for his dislike of gnomes.
Andrew Tuck’s wry and calming weekly essay on Monocle on Saturday radio show. Common threads: walking the dog, the weather (meteorological or otherwise) in London, how to be a good work colleague.
Wanting to give Gabriel (played by Grégory Montel) a long hug every time he lost a client in Call My Agent. And an extra can of whipped cream.
Laura Barton’s impossibly sad account of travelling to Greece during the pandemic to begin a round of solo IVF. She wrote it in 2020, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it in 2021. “For a week I feel truly pregnant. And then suddenly I do not. One day I wake to feel a tangible distance between the synthetic hormones and my own body. I do not tell anyone. Instead I walk down to the water, stay out far beyond the mandated hour. I marvel at the flicker of tiny fish moving between the boats in the harbour. I look at the bright yellow tangle of fishing nets, the deep pink of wooden shutters, the distant mountains, snow-peaked against the bluest sky.”
Pallavi Aiyar’s The Global Jigsaw Substack. Aiyar writes about China, about cats, about travel. She’s also, unfashionably though not necessarily incorrectly, in favour of cultural appropriation. “As a writer, and as a person, I’ve desired to stretch my identities; to be supple. The imagination’s work is to bend and twist around the policing of boundaries— political, religious, gastronomic, temporal. The writer, the reader, or any curious person, really, has a proclivity towards inhabiting the past and the future, as much as the present. They extend themselves beyond their ethnicity, gender, colour, sexuality, and empirical experiences to imagine other lives in other places and times.”
Belatedly discovering the writing of Jewish educator and children’s rights champion Leila Berg (1917-2012). Her autobiography Flickerbook (1997—and republished last year by CB Editions) is a funny, raw, diaristic account of coming of age in the 1930s—“Fancy Joan Littlewood and Jimmy Miller getting married! We all talked about it. Fancy concentrating all that spikiness together, and having double-spiky agitprop children!”
As always: Everything But The Girl, Night and Day; The Style Council, The Paris Match; Blueboy, The Joy of Living. But also: Shelleyan Orphan, Beamheart; Steve Beresford, Vous qui passez sans me voir; Time Is Away on NTS Radio. And and and – all of Kings of Convenience’s first LP for 12 years, Peace Or Love. Sad, tender, bitterly gorgeous.
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.
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.
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.