Seven songs that got me through 2020 (or tried to)

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Nostalgia is a false construct. It contains all the solace of the good times we’ve lived through and none of the bad, even if the good and the bad were inextricably linked when we first encountered them. The nostalgic memory isn’t necessarily false, but the feelings surrounding it are sweeter and more artifical than Splenda. It’s one big con our brains inflict upon ourselves, the unwitting perpetrater and victim of our own short-sightedness.

One facet of getting older is that I can see this con for what it is. Take the song “Run” by Collective Soul. This was a big hit my senior year in high school. It’s a boring song, enough to render even the most ardent karaoke enthusiast comatose. My senior year of high school lacked many of the essential ingredients we demand of a successful farewell to K-12 education: an active social life, a letter admitting me to a college or university, alcohol. I didn’t like “Run” when it came out. I don’t like it now. But there was a time ― an uncomfortably long time ― when I could cue up “Run” on iTunes and it became a swooning ode to the best year of my life. Older and wiser, I can see this puerile, over-produced sophistry for what it is: a crappy song from a crappy year.

Gradually, 2020 broke me. I’m willing to allow a little nostalgia back into my life now. You should be, too. Without nostalgia, I think the last year might have killed us. (Well, more of us.) The series of events were too incredible to rationalize. Yes, it was a rude reckoning for Homo sapiens as an invasive species with a lust for frequent-flier miles. Mother Nature, in the form of a highly contagious virus, got some revenge that was probably overdue. But at some point, when friends and congressmen and Mary Ann from Gilligand’s Island are dead from something called SARS-CoV-2, the epidemiological explanation is as comforting as a bucket of cold water. Is there a cure among us from this processed sanity?

Nostalgia is the flawed, unlikely hero of the past 12 months. The common thread in the music that got me through the year is easy to pinpoint: I can anchor all of it somewhere in the past. There’s comfort there. If it’s naive to yearn for the simplicity of a pre-pandemic world, fine. I can live with that. For now, longingly looking backward through my mind’s eye doesn’t make me the victim of a con. It keeps me sane.

These are all songs that made their public debut in 2020 (that’s my rule; I celebrate new music at the end of every year) but they managed to take me out of the present and into something familiar. They’re all in a playlist here, and presented in no particular order:

1. Early James – It Doesn’t Matter Now

I have a difficult time with country music. I don’t consider this country music. Evidently Billboard did when it reviewed the album. Mr. James told Billboard that this song is about a toxic relationship between two people, but his lyrical references to things like “barnyard bigotry” and a “postponed funeral” channeled something else for me ― namely the legitimizing of white supremacy by a major U.S. political party and the urn containing my father’s ashes that’s been sitting in my kitchen the last eight months. Those words, and a few others, evoked disparate thoughts that made 2020 personally powerful and painful and strange. And “I guess it doesn’t matter now” is something all of us found ourselves saying at some point this year, right?

Dan Auerbach produced this song, and the debut album from which it came. Auerbach made his name with the Black Keys more than a decade ago. Here’s Auerbach singing about a toxic relationship. You can hear the throughline to Early James instantly. That was the subtle drop of nostalgia this song needed, even before I knew who produced it. I don’t think I’ll be humming it a year from now but man did it do the job in the moment.

2. Badbadnotgood – Glide (Goodbye Blue Pt. 2)

Check out my Spotify history and there’s a strong argument that a Canadian jazz quartet was the most important musical act of the last ten years of my life. Badbadnotgood came out of nowhere (technically Toronto) to provide the musical backdrop to songs by Snoop Dogg and Little Dragon. Off the top of my head, I’m struggling to identify a group so versatile and magnetic. They exist, sure, but they’re rare, particularly in the “underground 21st century jazz” genre.

“Glide” has all the elements of a badbadnotgood song. The hook is simple and melodic. The improvisations are flashy but tight. It stops looping sooner than you want it to, an easy way to spot great jazz at a glance. Many artists have refined their sound enough to render every new project unmistakably theirs. Badbadnotgood achieves this without ever sounding redundant; “Glide” is at once every song they’ve ever recorded and nothing I’ve ever heard before. Please inject it directly into my veins.

3. Khruangbin – If There Is No Question

Khruangbin’s genius is special, if not unique: minimalist funk music with a nod and a wink to 1970s Thailand. Like badbadnotgood, their sound evolves just enough from album to album to avoid redundancy, but it always evokes the same mood. Earlier this year Khruangbin showed up in a Miller Lite ad that managed to capture said mood rather well. Someone on Madison Ave. has good taste in music.

Three simple words from “If There Is No Question” took the title of 2020’s best lyrical earworm: “you’re not crazy.” I think we all needed to hear that at least once this year.

4. David Harks – Twice

I’d never heard of David Harks before this song. I didn’t find it particularly catchy or brilliant in any way, but it hit me powerfully just the same. “Twice” was originally a Little Dragon tune off their eponymous debut EP. That song was released 13 years ago. At the time, it resonated on a few levels with at least one unmoored 25-year-old sportswriter.

It’s humbling to think that a song from 2007 has aged enough to be worthy of a fresh cover. Ordinarily I’m unimpressed by young-ish indie artists who attempt their own spin on a classic (or at least, a song that fits my definition of “a classic”), but this was the year to tickle my nostalgia bone. Mission accomplished.

5. Diplo & SIDEPIECE – On My Mind (Purple Disco Machine Remix)

I entered a brief House phase in the mid-2000s (who didn’t?) and exited it probably around the time I left the Bay Area for Southern California. I’m not sure where the cutting edge of electronic music lived in 2006, but it wasn’t east of Pomona.

Diplo will always hold a special place in my heart. His debut EP, “Florida,” came out before my House phase ― and his ― but I needed it as a companion to the instrumental hip hop DJ Shadow and RJD2 were putting out at the time. That whole genre, as the kids say, was my jam. While Shadow and RJD2 largely stayed underground, Diplo went on to become a household name. Our musical inklings haven’t overlapped in at least 10 years. Once in a while he’ll put out something that catches my ear. This is good House music. It transports me to San Francisco, 2005ish, probably around the time someone convinced me joining Facebook was a good idea. Nostalgia!

6. Oddisee – The Cure

My relationship with hip hop is straightforward and uncomplicated. I’ll listen to any artist once, but I relate to it like a typical suburban white kid who grew up in the 1990s. Know that, and you can probably guess my tastes accurately. Wu-Tang forever.

Oddisee is from Washington, D.C. I’ve always found his lyrics relatable, the rhythms of his flow unpredictable. He never relies on the production value of a song to bail out his vocals. That’s been rare in hip hop since, oh, 1998 or so. This song is from this album, which addresses life in pandemic mode head-on. It’s the most literal “only in 2020” album I enjoyed in 2020. In typical Oddisee fashion, there’s a timelessness to his approach that I demand from the genre.

7. Tycho – Outer Sunset

I feel like I should have been to a Tycho concert by now. Late last year, I bought a ticket to his show at the Greek Theater in Los Feliz. With a pregnant wife at home and baseball season in full swing, that wasn’t going to happen, so I traded the ticket to my barber for a haircut. We keep missing each other.

Tycho (real name Scott Hansen) is a Bay Area guy, too. He began his professional transition from graphic design to music in the mid-2000s. Around that time he launched a blog. In its prime, the site was a marvelous showcase for electronic music, graphic artwork, and minimalist architecture. I bought one of Hansen’s prints off the site once. It’s now one of two pieces on display in my home office. Like most good blogs that launched 15 years ago, his is a ghost town now, but you can peruse the archives quickly and find a decade of original music that evokes the same mood of the track above.

Outer Sunset is the name of a neighborhood in San Francisco. I’d like to imagine that Hansen and I were hanging out there at the same time once and never knew it. In that way, this is the perfect 2020 track. It evokes a sense of mood, of time, of place ― even a person ― that epitomized everything I liked about the world before the pandemic.

I doubt every artist here intended to take listeners out of our present hellscape. They were probably just trying to record a good song. Whatever. It worked.