Ah, yes. It’s the most joyous of seasons once again. Time to decorate the Christmas tree, cozy up by the fire and compile comprehensive “Best Of” lists for the bygone year. It’s a more satisfying tradition than opening presents. I promise.
Here at Ourland, our Year-in-Review comes with a twist: It’s the first annual Mikey Awards — named after me, Ourland’s supreme leader, Mike Schoeffel — and while the Mikeys certainly recognize some of the best stuff created in 2020, they also highlight art that was first consumed by me in 2020. I wish I could take total credit for this idea, but like all good art, it was stolen — from the podcast Radiolab, particularly the former host Robert Krulwich, who celebrated his annual Bobbys for years before I “borrowed” the premise. So if you’re reading this, Robert, thanks for the inspiration. And please exercise some holiday cheer and refrain from suing us.
Keep in mind while scrolling through this list: I’m not a professional critic. While I enjoy books, music and movies as much as the next guy, it’s not my full-time job to digest art and drum up opinions. With that in mind, there may be some blind spots in my canon, and/or biases for or against particular genres. The Mikeys aren’t necessarily the best that the creative world has to offer, but instead the best that I’ve happened to stumble upon throughout the year. So don’t be offended if your favorite book/album/movie isn’t featured, I most likely just haven’t read/heard/seen it.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
New Albums: Top 20
20. Josh Johnson: Freedom Exercise
2020 was a good year for jazz, and this album is part of the reason why. Freedom Exercise is a straightforward record that foregoes unnecessary risk-taking to deliver an unpretentious collection of sax-y tunes that get to the heart of easy listening without asking too much of the listener.
19. Jeff Tweedy: Love is the King
Middle-aged Tweedy is good Tweedy: 2018’s Warm was an instant classic, and Love is the King is a worthy follow-up that, while not as inventive as its predecessor, further cements the Wilco frontman as one of the most consistent and enduring singer-songwriters of the past half-century.
18. Blake Mills: Mutable Set
Headphone music to fall asleep by, and I mean that in the most flattering manner possible. Mutable Set sounds like it was recorded around a kitchen table at midnight, in an otherwise empty house.
17. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways
I don’t think it can be overstated just how remarkable it is that a 79-year old man is making music at all, much less good music — and carrying that thought even further, this has to be the greatest album ever recorded by an septuagenarian, right?
16. Ezra Feinberg: Recumbent Speech
At times Tortoise-y in its spiraling machinations, and at other times on its own orbit, Recumbent Speech is rustic, ambient and explosive. It’s all tied together by the eight-minute epic “Ovation,” a slow-burner that builds and builds until it erupts in an orgasmic fury of fuzzy guitars.
15. Julianna Barwick: Healing is a Miracle
I’ll never believe Julianna Barwick created Healing is a Miracle. What actually happened — and I’m certain of this — is that she found a way to record the meditative hum of the universe as it expands outward into who knows what at God knows how fast. Barwick isn’t an artist, merely a vessel, which on second thought I suppose are the same thing.
14. The War on Drugs: LIVE DRUGS
If any band needed to add a live album to its discography, it’s The War on Drugs. Their energy is infectious, their tightness impregnable and, hey, it’s nice to have a live album to throw on during a time when in-person concerts are essentially non-existent. Smell the weed smoke wafting through the air while you dream of more sociable times.
13. Kurt Vile: Speed, Sound, Lonely KV
This short-but-sweet EP is likely as close to pure country as ol’ KV will ever get, so let’s embrace it while we can. Most of these songs are less smoked-out than the usual Vile fare (not that his smoked out songs are unwelcome), and as such hit a more simple-yet-universal note — the most notable being a duet with the late great John Prine, who we lost to COVID-19 this year. Damn you, 2020.
12. Colter Wall: Western Swing and Waltzes
Colter Wall is the latest traditionalist to be dubbed country music’s savior. It’s a dumb thing to call anyone, for sure, but it’s easy to see how Wall earned the title: his voice is once-in-a-generation good, and his songwriting chops are nothing to shake a shovel at. That this 24-year old Canadian is singing traditionally American songs about Saskatchewan instead of West Texas is a pleasant kink, too.
11. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: Artlessly Falling
Artlessly Falling is a grower not a shower (that’s show-er, not the bath thing), in the sense that Mary Halvorson speaks her own musical language that seems unintelligible upon first listen. But stick with her, all of her — the surrealistic lyrics, the minor-key arpeggios, et cetera — and her language will begin to sound like your first instead of a foreign tongue.
10. Muriel Grossman: Reverence
There are heavy In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis vibes on Reverence, meaning groovy undercurrents topped with chilled out horns and guitars. This record doesn’t break new ground, but the result is a precious mixture of relaxation and focus that make for perfect writing music — which is how I listen to music 95-percent of the time.
9. Freak Heat Waves: Zap the Planet
Freak Heat Waves have introduced me to a genre I didn’t know I needed in my life: goth-drone-dance. On paper, that sounds pretentious and probably a little stupid, but it works in execution, as evidenced by the numerous people who’ve started bobbing their heads when I put on this album.
8. The Necks: Three
Anyone thirsting for 20-minute-plus jazz songs with trancey innards need look no further than The Necks, a band that’s had a monopoly on the genre — if one can call it a genre — for the better part of three decades. The Necks write songs that aren’t so much songs as they are entire worlds, with instruments that sometimes compete for the spotlight and sometimes meld together to form a tapestry of strange beauty, but pretty much always achieve the end goal of constructing a universe for the listener to disappear into.
7. Kiwi Jr.: Football Money
Yeah, OK, maybe they sound a little bit too much like Pavement, and I can understand why some critics might believe that this overt derivative-ness somehow subtracts from Football Money’s thrust. But damn it, Kiwi Jr. write good, deceptively complex songs, with lyrics as funny and thought-provoking as anything Malkmus penned in the ‘90s. I think of Kiwi Jr. not as ripping off Pavement, but instead carrying the torch of the slacker genre Pavement helped create.
6. Medhane: Cold Water
It’s ironic that my favorite album of rap music from 2020– a genre that leans so heavily on lyrics — features 15 songs that I can never remember any of the words to. But Medhane’s laid-back energy carries Cold Water, and while I’m sure he worked hard on crafting poignant words to accompany that energy, I can’t retain a one of them — but I’m fine with that, because listening to this album makes me feel like I’m in the room with him, smoking a spliff, or whatever it is that rappers smoke nowadays.
5. Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown
Parker has managed to put out a record that’s simultaneously groovy and forward-facing, while also being contemplative and steeped in tradition. Suite is a merry-go-round of feel-good sounds and nostalgia: it’s drinking red wine music, it’s writing music, it’s lounging-in-your-recliner-and-forgetting-about-the-world-music.
4. Badge Epoque Ensemble: Nature, Man and Woman and Self Care
It was a good year for Badge Epoque Ensemble, a collective that released two of the jammiest, jazziest records of 2020. The result is music that acts as an escapist salve for the non-stop bullshit that we as citizens of Earth have been pummeled with over the past 12 months.
3. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Boltcutters
I’ll likely catch an inordinate amount of flak for not listing Fetch the Boltcutters in the top spot, and maybe some of that flak will be warranted: after all, it’s Apple’s best album, and no other recording from 2020 better expresses the claustrophobic feeling of being quarantined. But in all due respect to Ms. Apple, Fetch is more like a 1C than a 3, and it likely would have been 1A had Have Me Met not made me dance so much and songs/instrumentals not made me feel so happy-sad.
2. Destroyer: Have We Met
Dan Bejar makes music that you can dance to while simultaneously feeling vaguely creeped out for reasons you can’t entirely pin down. You know a guy’s talented when he can spin out nonsensical lyrics like “By famous novelists brothers, Shithead Number One and Shithead Number Two” and still move something within you.
1. Adrianne Lenker: songs/instrumentals
Lenker’s fragile voice makes you want to wrap her in a big warm hug, and her lyrics reveal an artist torn between believing the world is a beautiful place and realizing it’s often grim, violent and ugly. Her instrumentals express these same sentiments through sparse acoustic guitars and found sounds, instead of words. A rare talent she is.
New Songs: Top 20
20. Kurt Vile feat. John Prine: “How Lucky”
19. Terry Allen: “Harmony Two”
18. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: “Walls and Roses”
17. Adrianne Lenker: “Mostly Chimes”
16. Bob Dylan: “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed”
15. Kiwi Jr.: “Salary Man”
14. Jeff Tweedy: “Opaline”
13. Jeff Parker: “Build a Nest”
12. Ezra Feinberg: “Ovation”
11. Brigid Mae Power: “On a City Night”
10. Destroyer: “Kinda Dark”
9. Colter Wall: “Western Swing and Waltzes”
8. Bob Dylan: “Crossing the Rubicon”
7. Blake Mills: “Money is the One True God”
6. Adrianne Lenker: “Two Reverse”
5. Kiwi Jr.: “Murder at the Cathedral”
4. Kurt Vile: “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”
3. Woods: “Where Do You Go When You Dream?”
2. Grace Cummings: “Sleep”
1. Badge Epoque Ensemble: “Badge Theme”
New-to-Mike Albums: Top 20
20. Bohren and der club of Gore: Piano Nights
19. Blaze Foley: Sittin’ by the Road
18. Max Richter: Blue Notebooks
17. Crush: Floating Points
16. Sandro Perri: Impossible Spaces
15. Dave Holland Quintet: Points of View
14. Four Tet: There is Love in You
13. Medhane: Own Pace
12. Pylon: Pylon
11. Johan Johanssen: Englaborn and Variations
10. Karl Blau: Introducing Karl Blau
9. Destroyer: Kaputt
8. Field Medic: Songs from the Sunroom
7. Jimi Hendrix: Live in Maui
6. Real Estate: Atlas
5. Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising
4. Antonio Carlos Jobim: Wave
3. Junior Kimbrough: God Knows I Tried
2. Weezer: Pinkerton
1. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
New-to-Mike Songs: Top 20
20. Field Medic: “Graffiti Paint”
19. Field Medic: “Gypsy Dead Girl”
18. Karl Blau: Woman (Sensuous Woman)”
17. Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas: “Furuberget”
16. Madeleine Peyroux: “Ghosts of Tomorrow”
15. Mary Halvorson: “Thunderhead”
14. Koop Islands: “Koop Island Blues”
13. Norah Jones: “I Knew It Was You”
12. Destroyer: “Savage Night at the Opera”
11. Weezer: “Pink Triangle”
10. Sufjan Stevens: “Eugene”
9. Karl Blau: “That’s How I Got to Memphis”
8. Weezer: “El Scorcho”
7. Sufjan Stevens: “John the Beloved”
6. Antonio Carlos Jobim: “Wave”
5. Karl Blau: “Fallin’ Rain”
4. Junior Kimbrough: “Tramp”
3. Weyes Blood: “Alot’s Gonna Change”
2. Weezer: “The Good Life”
1. Sufjan Stevens: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
New-to-Mike Books: Top 5
5. Cormac McCarthy: The Road
The grueling repetitiveness is the point: it drags the reader down into a hellscape that only McCarthy could paint this effectively — and the waterwork-inducing ending…Christ…an awful lot for the father, who dies mere moments before reaching his life’s goal of finding a group of “good guys,” but an uplifting coda, nonetheless, with the son heading off into the world armed with the survival knowledge his father passed down to him; a tale as old as time.
4. John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead
Criminally underrated essay collection featuring numerous examples of stellar first-person journalism and incisive pop culture critiques.
3. Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own
One can only admire this genius work by Ms. Woolf, which reads fluidly as both a (warranted) indictment of the patriarchy’s paranoid suppression of feminine creativity/knowledge and as a call to action for creatives everywhere, even (or especially) the unknown among us — as Ms. Woolf puts it in the final sentence of this timeless meditation: “…to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”
2. Chuck Klosterman: Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs
Klosterman has caught shit from some for being a pseudointellectual type, or whatever, but he’s a humorist first and foremost, and a highly effective one at that: these essays are fantastically entertaining and downright fun — what else could a reader ask for?
1. Richard Grant: Dispatches from Pluto
The lasting impact of this part-memoir, part piece of immersion journalism is Grant’s humanity toward an often regressive and infuriating American South. The message here is that each of us has more in common with one another than we know — no matter how different we may appear upon first glance — and that no person is simply one thing. Grant throws stereotypes to the wind and writes with conflicted honesty: he praises the Mississippi Delta’s virtues (its warmth, its sense of community, its kindness) while taking it to task for its shortcomings (its bigotry, its racism, so on and so forth). The result is a stellar work of non-fiction that captures the duality of the Southern Thing in concise and articulate terms.
New-to-Mike Movies: Top 10
10. “Jesse and Celeste Forever“
It runs a bit long and comes across forced at points, but this eccentric new age rom-com has enough heart and Samberg-inspired immature humor to compensate for its shortcomings.
A-plus for creativity, B-plus for execution, for the performances are ho-hum across the board minus our charming protagonist. This stuck-on-a-desert island with a twist flick offers enough suspense to be entertaining and enough originality to stick in the mind after the credits roll — not for a long time after the credits, I mean, but at least for a few months.
8. “The Way Back“
Full of enough twists and surprises to subvert the run-of-the-mill comeback sports movie drama it initially seems it’s going to be — plus, Affleck’s performance as a teetering alcoholic wrestling with numerous demons and personal tragedies is as moving as any role I’ve seen him play.
7. “Knives Out“
A funny, entertaining who-done-it that features a twist for the ages, as well as clever underlying commentary on racism and illegal immigration in America; in sum, one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
6. “Straight Up“
A fantastic film that defies contrivity at every turn while celebrating the nuances and ambiguity of sexual identity.
5. “Slow West”
A symbolic, artistic take on the traditional Western that’s both punishingly heartbreaking, visually compelling and refreshingly economical. No film I’ve seen captures the wonder of the American West more vividly and in such concise terms.
4. “The Boys in the Band”
Jim Parsons is absolutely riveting as master provocateur (and his supporting cast isn’t too shabby, either) in this strangely beautiful and ruthlessly blunt portrait about the challenges of being gay in America — both in 1968, when the original play debuted, and in 2020, when this witty and emotionally complex film was released.
3. “Palm Springs“
Samberg’s “Groundhog Day”-esque romp is one of the funnier movies I’ve seen in awhile, and at the heart of all that hilarity is proof that Samberg has the ability to make gut-busting movies that also communicate a truth about life, unlike some of his previous work — say, “The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience.”
2. “Uncut Gems“
This is what cocaine looks like on film, and holy cow, it’s as mind-blowing as it is completely exhausting.
1. “The Florida Project“
Carried by stunning performances from three child actors, “The Florida Project” is an unflinching exploration of America’s underbelly, and one that manages to humanize even its most deplorable characters — the most notable of which might be the state of Florida itself.
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
The best music and literature consumed by Ourland’s editor over the past year.