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.
My dearest Music Clubbers,
What a treat it’s been to read you all unpack this year so eloquently. I feel incredibly honored to have been a part of this.
The final stretch of posts has had me thinking and rethinking the music that defined my year that I haven’t yet touched upon for this panel. What was left evoked the same emotions I spent a lot of the year feeling but avoiding: anger and sadness. As I mentioned in my second entry, when I was at my angriest and saddest this year, I couldn’t bear to listen to anything. I chose escape when needed as the year progressed, through marathoning movies on my watch list and listening to disco I (very clearly) cannot wait to dance to.
Yet there were blink-and-you-miss-it moments of musical rage and angst that I found to be an absolutely necessary release. Halsey’s Manic was an early, pre-pandemic favorite I kept on repeat. I was first drawn to the post-grunge “3am,” a song about running through your phone book for some late night attention. By March, I was fixated on the single “You Should Be Sad,” a song about a toxic ex with a title that has eerily mirrored my feelings when viewing videos of crowded, maskless parties as our national body count rises.
Poppy’s nu-metal odyssey I Disagree was another early 2020 favorite that found a different kind of resonance during life in lockdown, with the type of brain-silencing loudness I’ve loved since I was an angsty preteen. In pop, there was a fleetingly beautiful nu-metal revival at the start of the year. Halsey teamed up with Bring Me the Horizon for “Experiment on Me,” her deliciously noisy contribution to the excellent Birds of Prey soundtrack. Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama, one of the best debut albums of the past few years, was dripping in early-2000s MTV, the meeting point of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit. Her assured single “STFU!” is a song that my dreams are made of: a mosh pit ready banger with a hook entirely about wanting someone to, well, shut the fuck up.
I was also pleased to have the return of Evanescence this year, one of the bands to soundtrack those aforementioned angsty preteen years. Their first album of new songs in a decade comes out in a few months, but the single “Wasted on You” is an impeccable heavy metal power ballad that made me spend some much needed quality time with the band’s first two LPs.
I underestimated the immense comfort of listening to the same music I used to play during the last long stretch of being trapped and moody in my bedroom: midaughts radio rock and scene kid pop-punk. Machine Gun Kelly’s Travis Barker–assisted Tickets to My Downfall felt in some ways like a war flashback, with the often goofy rapper pivoting to Warped Tour prince. It’s his best album yet, with MGK meditating on the loss of his father, mental health, his new romance with Megan Fox (perfect couple), and what he wants to leave behind for his young daughter. In the past I found his music easy to write off (his acting career, however, is iconic), but this album is a healing but still open wound that works brilliantly as an homage to the artists that were formative for him, as well.
How can I wrap up all my 2020 in music thoughts without a nod to two of my most-listened-to albums by one of my favorite songwriters? Would it be charming, if a little gauche, if I brought up someone we have talked about a few times already? I’ll do it anyway: Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore are two albums I didn’t think I wanted to hear this year but ended up needing. The average BPM on my most-listened-to songs for the first half of 2020 was quite high, so it surprised me that the dreary goth-folk of Folklore in particular drew me in the way it did. But like the dance music, pussy talk, and heavy metal guitars that allowed me to escape from reality throughout the day, so did Swift’s departures into stories outside her own.
On Folklore, a central story strings together a few of the songs: a teenage love triangle starring the fictional lovers Betty and James (with a cameo from a friend named Inez). As a longtime fan of Swift’s breakup songs, the volume of which has been the butt of jokes for years now, I loved that she is the most in love she’s ever been and still writing them, just finding other relationships to unearth heartbreak in. Lindsay made such a great point about the girlhood that defines her lyrics; her age and perspective after two decades of songwriting make her return to the schoolyard all the more revealing and heartbreaking. So long to Romeo and all the enchanted meetings: Sometimes everyone and everything just hurts and there’s not much you can do about it.
Of course, she came back with a second album that ripped me to shreds more than the first. Maybe because instead of singing from the teenage perspective, she looks back on not so distant youth with immense pain and growth. “Champagne Problems” breaks apart a pair of college sweethearts, while “ ’Tis the Damn Season” reunites the girl who left her small town for the big city with the one who maybe got away. Their reunion is fleeting, a holiday visit fling that she tries to keep as impersonal as her new friendships back in L.A. “Dorothea,” like Folklore’s “Betty,” reexamines a relationship (in this case, the same one depicted in “Season”) from the perspective of the male lead, looking from afar at the glamorous Hollywood life of the high school sweetheart he used to love. My personal favorite, “Coney Island,” is a melancholy conversation between Swift and the National’s Matt Berninger, playing the type of doomed Brooklyn couple of every song by the National. One worries she did too much while the other worries he did too little. Was anyone else broken in half by them harmonizing “Sorry for not winning you an arcade ring”?
“Coney Island” wasn’t the first song to make me openly sob when I first played Evermore a couple weeks ago. That title goes to “Happiness,” a kind of classically Swiftian breakup purge. But unlike the 22-year-old Swift on an album like Red, she readily acknowledges that like the joy she felt in her relationship, all the frustration and sadness shall also pass. There was incredible beauty to celebrate and no villains to create: just bad blood and a few memories linger.
In some ways that’s how I feel about 2020. People have been debating online whether it’s OK to celebrate the good things that happen in a year like this. I am in favor of grasping on to those moments of happiness. If we don’t, then what’s left? How can we move forward? Every time I got to see the faces of my friends, family, or colleagues, virtually or otherwise, felt like I was being injected directly with sunshine. Every sentence I wrote has felt like a marathon. We have made it to the finish line, and I toast it all. Long story short, it was a bad year. Now, 2021, I’m all about you.
Happy holidays to you all and thank you for your brains now and forever.
Leave it all behind and there is happiness,