In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate music critic Carl Wilson emails with fellow critics—this year, Rolling Stone staff writer Brittany Spanos, New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, and special guests Ann Powers, Jack Hamilton, Chris Molanphy, and Julyssa Lopez—about the year in music.
Hi Music Club,
When I reflect on my past year of listening, I have to start by acknowledging that for a few weeks in late March and early April of 2020, I found it difficult to listen to any music at all. I was by myself in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City, where I’ve spent all but a month of the pandemic, trying to adjust to all aspects of “the new normal”—including, most strikingly, the sudden, eerie shift in my city’s soundscape. Sirens screamed around the clock, while almost all of the other ambient city noises I’d become accustomed to were chillingly mute. This meant that my neighbors were sick, dying. On my daily walks around my shuttered neighborhood, part of me craved the escapism of drowning it all out with headphones and buoyant beats, but a larger part felt a responsibility to bear witness to the sounds around me, however painful they were. I’m grateful I had the sense to document this strange experience in a piece I wrote the first week of April, because a month or two later I’m not sure I could have put myself back in that reality. Reading it back now almost nine months later, I can barely recall writing it, let alone living it. As so many of us learned this year, as daily death tolls reached previously unimaginable heights, there is only so much trauma, despair, and bad news we can hold at the front of our minds. The body adjusts, buries the hurt, and carries on. For better or worse.
I was disinfecting groceries in my front hallway the first time I listened to Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, my favorite album of the year. There had at that point been conflicting reports as to whether or not disinfecting your groceries was even necessary, but I wasn’t taking any chances and, anyway, I had the time. As I doused cans of beans and bottles of seltzer in pungent alcohol, it took me approximately 79 seconds to realize this record was something special. That’s when the second verse of “I Want You to Love Me” kicks in—when the light, easy falsetto with which Apple has begun the song transforms into something earthy and quaking. Her vocal chords tremble as she sings the following lines, and you can hear in those trembles the simultaneous difficulty and absolute necessity of saying them aloud:
I move with the trees and the bees
I know that time is elastic
And I know, when I go
All my particles disband and disperse
And I’ll be back in the pulse
And I know none of this will matter in the long run
But I know a sound is still a sound around no one
And while I’m in this body I want somebody to want
And I want what I want
And I want you to love me
In an interview with Vulture’s Rachel Handler, Apple said this song “started as a love song to somebody [she] hadn’t met yet.” I remain struck by the vulnerable hopefulness of that, at a time when genuine hopefulness still feels like a commodity rarer than gold. “Next year, it’ll be clear that this was only leading me to that,” Apple sings matter-of-factly, with the wisdom of a career artist who has patiently waited out plenty of next years. Apple had been working on Fetch the Bolt Cutters for about half a decade, at home, in a state that some people used to characterize as a kind of hermitude until it became our collective reality. But the tone of this record also proved that she had found contentment and deep wisdom in her perpetual semiquarantine. There was hope in that, too. In a moment when it was almost painfully difficult to think about the immediate future, Apple’s music reminds us to look to the long run. Time, in her universe, feels almost geological. Fetch the Bolt Cutters puts a single year spent indoors (best case scenario) into greater perspective.
But this record is also about the very human process of burying excess pain, and then excavating it when you finally have the strength, energy, and maturity to confront it anew. That can take years, even lifetimes. “Shameika” vividly recreates the torment of Apple’s grade school years—I love the way the rigid rhythm of the prechorus mimics a bored student watching the classroom clock—as well as a passing word of encouragement that made it all tolerable. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” confesses her discomfort within the context of music industry “VIPs and PYTs and wannabes” in the late ’90s, when she was experiencing pressure to conform. When I listen to this record, I’m so grateful that she never did.
Eventually the sirens quieted down, and I was once again comforted by music. Fetch the Bolt Cutters was a constant companion, but so was Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, another album that found accidental emotional resonance in pandemic times. It is a record about how, as Bridgers put it, “it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world—you’ll always have your inner world against the outer world.” That, too, was a strangely comforting feeling this year. Punisher is a kind of tour-diary travelogue—flitting from Kyoto to Texas to Graceland, plus a few other places it would have been all but impossible to visit this year—but it’s also proof of that truism that, in the words of pre-pandemic Lana Del Rey, “everywhere you go you take yourself.” Wry, specific, and at times gut-punchingly earnest, Bridgers’ murmur flows like a steady internal monologue, linking all sorts of disparate experiences through her cracked but startlingly perceptive lens. Like so many of us, she feels both in the world and apart from it: “I love a good place to hide in plain sight,” she sings on the breathtaking title track, which plays out like a kind of supernatural and/or drug-fueled communion with the late Elliott Smith. Even when you’re not going much of anywhere more far-flung than the kitchen, Bridgers is an entertaining travel companion. There were some days this year when my own anxious internal monologue was all I could hear, but such is the intimacy of Punisher that listening to it feels like briefly trading the voice in your head for hers.
Fellow Punisher fan Carl asked about our last live show of the Before Times. I’m pretty sure mine was a mid-February U.S. Girls gig in Manhattan, where Meg Remy’s shape-shifting collective was previewing material from their excellent album Heavy Light. Oddly enough, there was already an air of elegy hanging over the performance, because after that night the venue, the Dance, was shuttering after just four months in operation. That night, a few friends and I mourned the many New York venues we’d seen fall victim over the previous decade to rising rents and relentless gentrification. Little did we know how much worse that was about to get. Or that this would be the last time we’d see one another for at least a year.
Brittany, you asked how we felt about the adaptive new reality of livestreams. I admit I never quite got on that bandwagon—if anything, I was paralyzed by choice. Even in a city as busy as New York (in normal times), you’re hemmed in by a certain reality of only being able to see, on a given night, whoever happens to be in town. During the pandemic, I sometimes felt like every band was in town perpetually, albeit in a reduced format, and that made me less inclined to tune into any given livestream. But the one that most pleasantly surprised me, actually, was Post Malone’s April 24 set of Nirvana covers, which proved the face-tatted pop rapper to be a strikingly faithful devotee of the Seattle trio. (He even rocked a floral muumuu that easily could have been hanging in Kurt’s closet.) The sound mixing on that performance was exceptional, and there was a simple joy in hearing a bunch of great songs I already knew and loved played really, really loud. The 2020 records I’ve mentioned so far are relatively quiet, but this year sometimes I also just wanted to be pummeled by towering guitars, breakneck tempos, or full-lunged shouts. I got that from some of my favorite rock records this year, like Jeff Rosenstock’s smart, searching, occasionally cathartically screamy No Dream, or the shoegaze-y metal band Nothing’s cavernous and grim The Great Dismal, which felt like a soundtrack for surrendering to the void.
Sorry if this entry was too much of a bummer, but I’m not sure there’s a way to write honestly about 2020 without being a bummer. Still, music provided me many moments of resilience and even joy this year. We’ll get to that. In the meantime, my album list is below. I’ll break the unlucky-13 streak and pick an even 25:
1. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
2. Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher
3. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud
4. Haim: Women in Music Pt. III
5. Yves Tumor: Heaven to a Tortured Mind
6. Charli XCX: How I’m Feeling Now
7. Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
8. Lil Uzi Vert: Eternal Atake
9. Jeff Rosenstock: No Dream
10. Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
11. Taylor Swift: Folklore/Evermore
12. U.S. Girls: Heavy Light
13. Burna Boy: Twice as Tall
14. Rina Sawayama: Sawayama
15. Kathleen Edwards: Total Freedom
16. Kelsea Ballerini: Kelsea
17. Bad Bunny: YHLQMDLG
18. Soccer Mommy: Color Theory
19. Jeff Tweedy: Love Is the King
20. Lady Gaga: Chromatica
21. Nothing: The Great Dismal
22. Jojo: Good to Know
23. Julianna Barwick: Healing Is a Miracle
24. Sufjan Stevens: The Ascension
25. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways
Chris, I’m kicking it back to you. Very curious to see how you made sense of the charts on such an unusual year. Did people seem to want songs that reflected their reality, or did they want escape?
By next year may it be clear that this was only leading us to that,