Things I saw, listened to, read, or otherwise happened to me in 2020. Well, the things I liked.
It doesn't feel necessary to state what kind of year 2020 has been for most of us. I am fortunate to have avoided the worst aspects of the year, so I won't linger on 2020's general misery except to say that the things I liked this year, and some of what I didn't, have a lot to do with the baseline anxiety, restrictions, and frustrations we've all faced.
I did not listen to a ton of music this year, new or old. I am reaching the point where I don't feel connected to what's cool and new anymore. It's not that I'm incapable of finding new things, but what I find no longer gives me much of a spark and I feel cynical about most of what I have encountered. I'm not happy about it, but it's outside the scope of this post. I did hear a few things that have stuck with me, though.
When I first heard this, I did not know it is Emil Amos's reworking of a The Freed Man era Sebadoh song (an Eric Gaffney track, specifically). Emil adds some extra lines and builds the original song out more, musically, but his additions aren't out of place. While I like both versions, I am partial to the Holy Sons' take. But, whichever version, you really can't beat it as an isolated, lonely stoner guy number. I hear it as one of the great Fraud Revealer songs, the distance that comes from recognizing someone as something different from how they show themselves to others. Whether it's Emil's lazily sung 'No one's ever looked at you and seen right through, but I can level anything. Oh, a smile fades a lie. Meanwhile I choose to foreknow' or Eric's, of course, lo-fi and smirking version, you're getting quality alienation.
Have not liked Hum in the past, despite multiple attempts. A fuzzy guitar post-hardcore band seems about as Me as things get, but You'd Prefer An Astronaut just never did it for me. But from the first second of Inlet, I was hooked. It sounds A B S O L U T E L Y fantastic loud on headphones. Some albums are good or bad in all situations, no matter how you listen to them, but I could see myself having not loved this if I first heard it on my weak car speakers or at low volume through earbuds (both ways I have since listened to it). Nice speakers or over-ear headphones feel like a must for this, and I really do not mean that in a pretentious kind of way. Whatever way you hear it, if it sounds flat, turn the volume uuuup! Turn it up anyway! It's up there with Boris's Flood for me as far as 'guitar music that sounds like water' goes. This kind of music can overstay its welcome. And, on first listen, I did catch myself waiting to be let down by a song that meandered too long or an album that lost pace partway through. But Inlet's biggest success, outside of sounding awesome, is that it never gets boring, drags, or blends together. That is almost unheard of on a 55-minute long CD with four songs over eight minutes long. What a marvel!
Speaking of 'guitar music that sounds like water,' the OG of the style's track 'In Our Own Time' from the album And Now The Rain Sounds Like Life Is Falling Down Through It is wonderful. The rest of the album has its ups and downs, but this song stands out so well with its nod to Julian Cope's weird wise druidic hermit character.
You in your own time will come to regard me as someone you sadly must overthrow
I won't see it coming, but pray that within me the grace will be found and I'll just let go
Caught in our own time, oh how very different to think of the worlds we all have known
A conscious collective, somewhat ironic out here in the West where we both have grown
How strange to stand beside you peering at the stars, arranged without a meaning other than they are
My favorite Self Defense song in a while, maybe because, despite being officially released this year, it was originally recorded in 2011. Patrick redid his vocals for this release, and they are, at least to my ear, much better than the original's likely were. He's nailed whatever he is doing with his voice lately, and I genuinely love it on their newer stuff even if I find his lyrics now less my speed.
If the Have You Considered Punk Music LP from 2018 is the dividing line between Patrick Kindlon's two approaches to songwriting, the older style being more abstract and character-driven and the newer style being more obviously autobiographical and sometimes petty, 'Jesus of Nazareth' is a nice missing link with his new voice over old words. It includes his very unique and longstanding beef with The Haters, but in the way he used to be funny about it ('I make people feel things, that's my job, and anger's just another thing'), and goes on as a 10-minute pastiche of early Self Defense Family bits. Sung-yelled paired words like 'Rewards, rewards and setbacks / praise and false praise / Pitfalls, pitfalls and betrayals,' the steely guitars and loud drums from early Self Defense EPs/late era End of a Year material, repetitious instrumental segments pulling more in theory than sound from Lungfish, mantras ('It's fine to fail, Christ failed'), plain fun lines to shout along to ('People I've chosen to surround myself with have proven themselves unreliable shells'), unintelligible samples, all wrapped up in a vehicle of some stubborn interest or unusual perspective -- Jesus of Nazareth himself being the focus of the song, but song Jesus is also not entirely separate from at least the public persona of Patrick Kindlon. I don't imagine this makes a great jumping-in point for the band, but it does encapsulate what I love most about them.
As the man says on the Bandcamp: 'This is a wild track for fans of our Grateful-Dead-of-DIY era.' Hey, that's me!
Shoulda been the entirety of the soundtrack on the Tony Hawk remasters.
Phil Elverum's 44-minute song about everything. It's about his life, but also... life.
Not much I can say about Phil's songwriting that hasn't been said better by others.
I love how the guy uses location and place to ground the listener. That was a large part of (early) Mount Eerie. And maybe this only works as well as it does for me because I have been to the places he sings about and have memories of my own there. But, I hope that, if I hadn't been to these places, I would want to go just hearing about them. Beyond place names like 'Bellingham' and 'Anacortes,' Phil, as always, works in the natural world to his stories:
The true state of all things is a waterfall with no bottom crashing end and no ledge to plummet off full of debris and flowers, never not falling and in it we swim and fall sometimes beside, often apart
The song, like his body of work, is the weaving of broad philosophy like the above and hyper-specific stories like the below:
I checked themicrophonesathotmaildotcom like once a week. I would drive out to the ocean and not tell anybody. I'd watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a dollar theater in Aberdeen... And in the parking lot afterward for a few minutes in the rain, I stood glowing with ideas of what I might try to convey with this music. At that moment, my mind flashing like a blade. 22-year-old in flipflops running around in an empty mall parking lot, lost in a martial arts fantasy. It looks ridiculous now. But the truth is that alone there, something was formed. The way they held themselves upright with tea in the opening scenes. A warm formality, spines straight, and feet planted wide. Untipoverable, like the bambooed undulating hills. Walking slowly, making eye contact, and gliding. The sound of empty wind when the sword fought weightless in the bamboo. With a purity of heart that transcends gravity, leaping off a mountain into ambiguity, falling slow. I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace, buried underneath distorted bass, fog-imbued with light and emptiness. I kept on driving out to the ocean. It was raining so hard. I was wet, wool-caked with sand. I watched the dunes migrate slowly.
There just isn't anyone else who can do this.
As the song makes its way, he gets to thinking about recurring experiences, felt as though new each time, and this, in particular, stuck with me:
It seems like I'll never not lose wisdom, constantly relearning all the basics. Never recognizing any faces, crawling out from under living layers, squinting in the light of the earth bathing, shaking off the weight of expectations. Plus, all this nostalgia is embarrassing. So I walk into an unknown room, without a name.
I just want to post the whole song and think, 'Wow! Look at how good this guy is!' But, just listen to the song instead. If you skip to the last page, though, this is how it ends:
Anyway, every song I've ever sung is about the same thing: Standing on the ground looking around, basically. And if there have to be words, they could just be: 'Now only' and 'There's no end.'
A sneaky one-liner in the middle of the song has kept me up nights wondering about how I hear and interpret things. 'Meaning gets attributed wherever appetite bestows a thing.' Yow! And it's true, but I don't even want to dissect it further because I might fall prey to the anxiety it has given me, a simple obsessive weirdo.
Not to return to Self Defense Family so soon, but Microphones in 2020 is a complementary perspective to SDF's 'Mary Devoured By Horses.' These are different ways of wondering about similar things. Patrick talks here about memory, aging, and experience with his typical distance, but what he's working through is much the same as Phil. I really like the songs together as a couple sides of the same coin.
Podcasts, I don't know on this one. I listen to a few of them. As far as long-running shows go, outside of the aforementioned Hollywood Handbook, my most-listened to are QAnon Anonymous and Your Kickstarter Sucks. Any time I'm listening to podcasts, I need the hosts to have interesting voices (their literal voices) and (if it's comedy) good laughs. I think both shows qualify in both categories. I really love when someone's got a good laugh, okay! I would also like to give a shoutout to Jamie Loftus's Lolita Podcast (she has a good voice and laugh, too, but she's not doing comedy with this one, so it's less relevant). Finally, Sam Adler-Bell and Matthew Sitman's Know Your Enemy has given me many an interesting discussion about the history of intellectual conservatism. Matt, a former conservative intellectual himself, and Sam, a lifelong lefty, talk about obvious icons of the conservative movement like Buckley to lesser understood sources of the ideology like the Chicago School of Economics. My favorite episode of the year, however, is called 'How to Be Depressed,' a conversation about Sitman's commentary on George Scialabba's book on depression, How to Be Depressed. This episode is particularly kindhearted, as two friends talk about mental health, politics, and human frailty. I cannot recommend it enough as a sincerely uplifting talk about a difficult subject. You will cry!
QAnon Anonymous has become an end of the year fixation for me. Three guys recap the latest in Q and Q-adjacent conspiracies. It's a really fascinating blend of amateur analysis and debunking, deep-dives on absolutely bizarre individuals in the Q scene, and wonderful short fanfiction the show makes about people from Q World. ('I'm sorry, boy!') I have now gone through the archives and listened to probably about half the episodes. Cards on the table, I am a lifelong conspiracy buff and grew up on Coast to Coast, Bigfoot docs, abduction stories, etc. But there is something so unsettling about Q in particular that it's hard to even know where to start. If you grant that there's nothing new under the sun and that history doesn't repeat but does echo, then maybe Q isn't all that weird. But listen to this show and, even with the context of all the old C2C bullshit top of mind, it is hard to argue that Q isn't uncommonly weird, even its world. Not since, probably, UFO sightings has the relevant medium of transmission (with UFO sightings, TV/video, and with Q, the internet) been so critical to the conspiracy's success. It's impossible to discuss the conspiracy without being highly critical of the naive-to-nefarious media platforms that have allowed this garbage to proliferate. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter -- the whole gang -- are as key to all of this as the underlying human psychology and motivations.
Your Kickstarter Sucks is a show ostensibly about bad Kickstarter projects, and they do cover a lot of those, that is really just an excuse for me to listen to two depressed guys joke about all the stuff in Society they hate that I also hate too. Isn't that just... podcasting? Well, yes, but you have to find the two guys who hate the things you hate. You can't just listen to any two guys.
Lolita Podcast is Jamie Loftus's look at the book Lolita, a story I have never read and knew only the vaguest things about going into the show. But, I knew of Jamie from her Hollywood Handbook appearances and her show about joining Mensa, and how insane Mensa is (the show is very good, and called My Year in Mensa). Given my lack of familiarity with the book, I didn't pay much heed to her content warning at the start of the first episode. WELL! In that first episode, she walks through the entire book and many individual plot points in great detail. This is super helpful, but, boy, I had no idea what I was getting into. If you can stomach it, it's a good listen. Jamie gives a sensitive, nuanced look at the book and the interviews she does are really great. It's still running as of this writing, so I can't get into what conclusions she draws or how it all wraps up, but, as of episode five, I can recommend it.
The show plays into one of my big fascinations: 'How can something so clearly NOT in favor of a thing (in this case, pedophilia) be taken as in favor of that thing?' You can argue that that happens when something is poorly made, but, yo, at some point... Dude, who is going to make literature better than a Russian writer? So you just have to wonder, what is going on with us, that we read a book where a girl is raped over and over again by a clearly deranged, manipulative, cruel adult and some of us say, 'Thanks for writing one of the all-timer romances, Nabokov!'? I can only conclude, at least in the case of Lolita, that people see it as license because a whole lotta people are actually child abusers or would-be child abusers, and cannot process this kind of writing in any way other than, 'I see myself in it, so it must be good.' Everything else is peripheral to these readers, so any 'warning signs' or evidence counter to their reading of the book is unnoticed. This hit me in the most recent episode where she goes through all of the plays inspired by Lolita (the episode where she discusses Kubrick's adaptation is also helpful here). Adult men have repeatedly read this book and thought, 'If I had my druthers, I would do this shit!!!!' And they thought this so hard it never entered into their minds that someone could ever be showing a mirror to them in a way that reflected anything bad. The book isn't just showing them child sexual assault, but vanity, narcissism, ego, self-importance, delusions of grandeur. So, even if you forget the literal child rape, you're still seeing this absolutely loathsome guy and thinking, 'Hey, it's a living!' And even in the watered down 'less bad' adaptations of the book that have shown up in film and on stage, you are still seeing morally wrong behavior done by an absolute psycho. So, if you grant, 'Well, people understand this book because of how the film dices it,' folks are still seeing a literal child in a relationship with an adult man and thinking that's somehow a tragic romance or in any way appealing. Fucked up!
Yeah, yeah, and we just talked about Lolita...
Of all the websites to spring into existence since the death of blogs, message boards, individual sites (like this one!), etc., Tumblr's format has always been the most appealing to me. It's got a lot of pictures. Posting too many words is frowned on, but you're also allowed more room than Twitter or even Facebook. You find things, and then people, through tags rather than @s -- that is, interests rather than @RealDonaldTrump or @jack or your friends from college. It's as anonymous or public as you want it to be. And one thing I particularly like: No real cohesive social structure. If you go on Twitter, for example, you see every depraved aspect of human social neediness. But Tumblr has few powerusers. It has some people known within a community and some people who have become famous as its 'main character of the day,' but less of the jockeying for attention a site like Twitter has. From its earliest days, Tumblr catered to artsy types and oddballs, and those people have continued to be the backbone of the userbase. There's a shadow hanging over this backstory, though, which is the death of Tumblr: Around when the site banned porn... everyone left. I don't want to give the adult content ban all the credit, because there are other potential causes, but it certainly allowed the narrative that the site has died to spread.
I went back to see dead Tumblr a few weeks ago and, to my surprise, a dead social network is pretty good! It occurred to me that I could just, like, follow accounts that post cool art or memorabilia or whatever, so I did that. And if I see one of those accounts reblog from another account frequently, I check out that other account and maybe I follow it, too. When I scroll through my dash, I see pretty much only things I like! And I see only the things themselves -- a post or a reblog of someone's manga scan, nobody underneath it trying to suck up to some bigger account, no fighting, no insane opinions, no thread I have to open where scrolling down just a little too far shows me some wacko's take, no main character of the day I have to learn about, no rush for every guy to get his two cents in on whatever the latest thing is. I have no doubt I could get closer to this life on other social media, but I couldn't replicate it completely. Instagram would still show me people's comments, unwanted. Twitter would still be so much information so quickly -- even if I somehow managed to follow ONLY image accounts, I would still see the site's trending topics, where I would be reminded that Belle Delphine and Donald Trump are once again in the news. I can actually browse Tumblr before bed as a calming activity! I know this would not have been possible when I was using Tumblr daily and in a more social way, but the fact that it's possible at all cannot be said about any other major social network.
TV & movies
I don't watch a ton of TV and movies, in general, but we did get through all of Seinfeld and the baby Yoda's second season this year. Jerry's standup has aged terribly, but the show itself has some really great writing and so many memorable, hilarious moments. The episode 'The Bris' is a particular favorite -- from the mohel's amazing rants, with the specter of an impending circumcision hanging over them, to Kramer's pigman encounter.
The Mandalorian's second season was much more enjoyable than the first. While it still retains some of the video game-y pacing I didn't love in the first season ('Yes, I can help you, but first you must do this sidequest with me... Have an armor upgrade!'), it was overall a much better set of stories. The action scenes, especially in the Robert Rodriguez-directed episode late in the season, are also about a bazillion times cooler. I have no strong feelings about Luke being the Jedi who shows up to take the baby Yoda, but when Luke does take the baby Yoda and the Mandalorian instinctively goes to wipe away his tears but can't because of his helmet... :'( Not the greatest show of all time, but was very fun to set aside time with my wife to watch. Also: Much better than other recent Star Wars.
Finally, there's Curb Your Enthusiasm, a work still in progress for us. Plenty of comedies dwell on mental health -- the heightened behaviors of alcoholics, depressives, manics, manic depressives, abusive assholes, etc. -- but I can't think of another that poses the question: What does untreated ADHD and the neuroses that come from a lifetime of it look like? Pretty (pretty, pretty) funny! Sometimes it's a little too close to home. Weird to see your own idiosyncrasies and obsessive tendencies, which you work very hard to conceal!, shown off. My natural inclination, despite years of counter-programming, is to act like Larry does in 90% of the Curb episodes I've seen. It's not just the facets of semi-fictional Larry David that people find charming, I also relate to the very annoying ones. When he's at the beach with his wife whining about how he doesn't understand what people like about the beach, completely unable to live in the moment or focus... I felt that. It is exhausting not to be a fussy, argumentative, distractible, grouchy, and unreliable. If I had Seinfeld money, mask off, I swear to God...
2020 was the year of immersive, escapist video games. 'One more turn' soulsuckers, open world explorers, and life simulators.
My single most-played game for the year is likely Total War: Warhammer II. It's up there with Civilization as an absolutely perfect timewaster with endless replayability. Outside of real-time battles, you don't need to be actively managing the game, so it's easy to focus on something else for a few minutes, jump back into Warhammer and goof around for a bit, then go back to whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. While Warhammer 40k will always be cooler to me, fantasy Warhammer does have some neat enough stuff in it and the game's factions are diverse enough to make playing most of them worthwhile.
Animal Crossing, this one took up most of my Spring to early Summer. What a nice break from the world! I easily put hundreds of hours into it, playing both with friends (which I had not really been able to do with previous titles) and alone. The multiplayer aspect ended up being a great way to socialize, before we even knew exactly how badly this year was going to go. The myriad ways you can redecorate your island is where I spent most of my time with the game. Working on my home interior did not feel as exciting. A common knock on the game is that you run out of things to do after a while, but I'm not sure that is the game's true problem. There is a ton you can do in the game, and even after 300+ hours there is more I could be doing in it right now. The issue is more that key parts of the game feel stale after some amount of time (which will vary from person to person). The 'con' of games like this relies on you not realizing that you're in a staged world, I think, and when you start to see how few dialogue options villagers have, how often you see the same items in stores, how many of the exact same basic ass DIYs you get, it becomes clear that the game's core excellence could stand some big additions.
And then there's Read Dead Redemption 2, which is best played as Animal Crossing with Guns. I have played through the story a couple times, and it's mostly enjoyable, but the best parts of the game all involve riding around in the middle of nowhere, exploring and hunting, then shooting hillbillies and Klansmen. It's a fuckin' nice game to be outside in. Cruise around on your little pony, grab some pelts, cook some steaks -- you're living. I spent many a Spring evening chasing achievements and gear upgrades in Red Dead to avoid thinking about, like, anything else. And hey, I had nothing to worry about, 2020 has gone just fine.
Well, that's... the tea, that on that, all she wrote. 2020 is in the books. Hard to say we really learned anything from it, given that if we could take everything we know now and rewind back to February, 2020, things would probably play out worse, somehow.