Best of 2020: But I’ll Make My Own Happy Ending

  1. Western Sky–Mark Eitzel (The Ugly American)
  2. In a Cab–Bartees Strange (Live Forever)
  3. Tunnel in the Sky–Yomí (Selenite EP)
  4. Fight Like Ida B & Marsha P–Ric Wilson (single)
  6. my future–Billie Eilish (single)
  7. Memaloose Island–Laura Veirs (My Echo)
  8. Baptiste–Paul Weller (On Sunset)
  9. Damsel in Distress–Rufus Wainwright (Unfollow the Rules)
  10. Arkansas–Chris Stapleton (Starting Over)
  11. Scars–Fates Warning (Long Day Good Night)
  12. All the Pretty Colors–Sturgill Simpson (Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
  13. Snow at 10:23–Toyah & the Humans (Sugar Rush)
  14. Aaj Shanibar–Rupa (Disco Jazz)
  15. Simulation/Kingdom of Ends–Róisín Murphy (Róisín Machine)

Like pretty much everything else in 2020, the pandemic has changed my music-listening habits. In what used to pass for regular daily life, music was a constant companion—in the bathroom in the morning as I was putting on makeup; on my walk to the train and subsequent ride to work; at lunch during a quick dash to a restaurant or while I was eating at my desk; on the train back home again at the end of the night.

Once Chicago locked down in March, though, and my job pivoted to allow everyone to work from home, there went any reason to put on makeup in the morning. There went my train rides. There went any need to zone out while I was having lunch. So, it felt like, there went the music as well.

Not exactly, of course—my life is filled with music. There’s always something on in Brian’s room—ambient or classical while he’s grading student papers, then a miscellany of new obsessions, old favorites, and special reconsiderations later at night. And there’s the music we play together as well—in the early days of the pandemic we made short videos of us covering Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Then later in the fall, we live-streamed a couple of full-length concerts of our own original music from our living room performance space. But still, there was a marked decrease in my own private music consumption.

Other than ::waves hand:: all this, what was the problem? Without having to home-school any children, without the constraints of commuting to an office for an eight-hour work day, shouldn’t I have had more time to listen to music, not less?

Turns out that while I had a pretty good amount of internal flexibility around many of my daily habits (Mask wearing? Not a problem. Zoom with pals instead of meeting up for dinner? Totally doable. Get an exercise bike for home instead of going to the gym? Happy to skip the stench of dude-bros, sure), I was surprisingly inflexible about finding alternate “me time” when I barely ever left my house. And it was precisely that me time that I was accustomed to filling with music.

For a good chunk of the spring and summer, the relative absence of music in my life felt embarrassing to acknowledge even to myself. Was music only a thing that I utilized as background noise? Had I somehow relegated it to mere accompaniment to my daily doings, instead of cherishing it for its own sake?

To address the lack, I attempted several times to do the thing where you sit down to listen to a beloved album, in order, start to finish. And I ended up crawling out of my skin—my mind started wandering, I was picking at my cuticles, I kept glancing at my phone to see if any messages had come through via social media. Worst of all, I could barely hear, really hear, the music at all.

Eventually I figured it out. It’s just that, like any other meditation practice worth its salt, my body needed to be kept occupied so that it wouldn’t interrupt me while my ears and brain and heart were engaging with sound, song, performance, and production. I needed to find different ways in this so-called new normal to keep my body focused on something else so that music could have enough empty space to come flooding into.

So, I finally realized I needed to get out and take a long walk around Rogers Park so that I could listen to Bartees Strange and Paul Weller. I needed to get on our new exercise bike in the morning at home so that I could listen to Fates Warning and Sturgill Simpson. I needed to fold laundry to Róisín Murphy; I needed to cook dinner to Toyah and the Humans; I needed to darn socks to Chris Stapleton.

I realized that I had long made the big, brash, busy activities of my public-facing life into a music video that I felt deserved to be epically soundtracked, while forgetting that the quieter, more mundane activities that suddenly suffused my daily awareness in quarantine were worthy of sonic embrace as well.

I think a lot about this little drawing that I saw back in 2016 at one of the spaces where I used to rehearse with the Chicago Artists Chorale:

I love the multivalent work the phrase “to live by” is doing there. Music is a code, a creed to follow. It’s a rushing river, a trickling stream, a mighty ocean adjacent to where we put down our own roots which supports us in our flourishing. It’s a force that animates us from within.

It seems so wrong to use the words “best of” in conjunction with anything related to 2020, this year of so much loss, devastation, and suffering. But that’s the eternal way of things, of course—the eternal, perpetual mix and flow of opposites, chasing themselves around and through our lives. The bad doesn’t stop for the good, no, but the good doesn’t stop for the bad, either. The depth of one reveals the height of the other.

So what could be better, for me at least, than being taken in hand this year by what felt like the very spirit of Music itself, in order to be taught how to listen anew?

Other favorites (not necessarily released this calendar year but that were meaningful to me in 2020 nonetheless):

Harry Styles nailing Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on The Howard Stern Show * Vivian Bond singing “Christ Arose!” on Easter Sunday * the Hall & Oates comp Greatest Hits–Rock ‘N Soul, Part 1, which was on pretty nonstop rotation for me in the final weeks before everything shut down due to Covid * Kevin Rowland’s cover of “The Greatest Love of All” (be sure to read this brief essay in The Guardian for a summation of its devastating power) * Art Garfunkel’s cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You” * Jason Isbell’s “Be Afraid” (mostly because I liked to imagine it being sung in character by Jackson Mayne in the Bradley Cooper A Star Is Born) * Linda Ronstadt doing “‘Round Midnight” * And of course Bob Dylan’s magisterial, college syllabus-worthy “Murder Most Foul