2020 is dead, long live 2020

the best music of the year, not of the year, and musings on all of it

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about how I want to talk about this year in an end-of-the-year sense. You’ve swallowed enough commercials, newsletters, ads, podcasts, songs, live-streams, t-shirts, articles, headlines, billboards and more to know that this year was something else. There that is it. This year was something else.

I started this newsletter after a conversation with my wife driving home from a New Year’s party with her family in Northeast Wisconsin. Along the drive, we stopped to pick up discount candy and trinkets at HomeGoods as our then four-month-old son slept soundly in his teeny car seat affixed to the shopping cart. I remember talking about how I wanted to write more.

“The billboard said ‘The End Is Near’/ I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here” - Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know The End"

I was working part-time from home at a job I mostly enjoyed, but it had transitioned to less writing and more data management(which is kind of fun because I’m a weirdo).

Working from home and taking care of a child as a new parent was challenging enough, then you add the competitive nature of the writing/reporting world(ie we want to be writing stories and making headlines constantly but those jobs and opportunities are shrinking so where do you go from there and now you are at a job where you aren’t doing that which means you can’t spend time writing which means you are falling behind and you haven’t even written a book yet or been published in a national news outlet or made it to write for Pitchfork or The Atlantic and you’re almost 25 so you should probably just give up now) and you feel like you are falling behind. That’s where we are at as a constantly online world, the comparison to others is always present and no one can just exist.

In February, I posted the first version of this newsletter where I talked about the post-genre, J-pop of Haru Nerumi. Around two weeks before posting that, I fell down a flight of stairs, got a big concussion, passed out, and need 24 stitches in my face. It feels unreal that this was the same year. January and February feel like they were decades ago, but it was still a turbulent time.

Once the world shut down, I had an opportunity to look inward and I went full speed ahead. I started focusing on more freelance projects, bolstering my portfolio, and figuring out what I want to do with this whole writing thing. At the beginning of this year, I would probably not call myself a journalist. Even though I’d interview people, written about community events, and reported news (print and talk copy) in Madison prior to this year. I didn’t go to journalism school so I can’t be a journalist! I’m a fake, I’m a fake!

So, I pushed myself to publish more pieces. I wrote about Amazon’s quick arrival to Madison, how protesters and restaurants navigate space and de-escalation in tense situations, help report on breaking labor news regarding one of Dane County’s largest employers, and then I poked the bear that is a beloved midwest gas station.

Through that whole time, I also had a full-time job (back in the office full time once we could secure child care which was a nightmare in and of itself, for the love of god just pay parents to stay home and take care of their kids during a global health crisis), my band put out a song and a video game, and my other band put out a set of demos.

Then just as we were really getting settled in our home in Madison, something needed to shake loose. My wife got offered a job in Green Bay and we said “sure! Why not move with a baby during a pandemic? This can’t possibly be hard!”

We were right and we were wrong. We’re about three months into living in Titletown, USA and we are loving it. It’s still Wisconsin, there are still great lakes and parks, housing is cheaper and our dog has a big yard to play in. What’s not to love?

The downside of the upside is I’m now at home all the time, which would be good if my brain was wired right. So instead of taking things slow, I jumped right back into writing and am now working with a hyper-local newspaper, The Press Times, in Green Bay. I’ve already written about the city’s continued rat problem, how an art scene booms and busts during a pandemic, an adjacent village’s last small dairy farmer quitting the stressful industry, and just recently published a massive story about the long wait for a bridge in Brown County and how it impacts land use in the area. That story was a lot of fun to jump into as nerdy as that sounds. I’m truly happy to be trusted with pieces such as that.

At the beginning of the year, I had a goal to be published in different publications than I’d previously worked with. One of those dream publications was Madison’s longstanding newspaper The Cap Times. Check! Did it. Another publication I wanted to write for was going to be a down the road goal, but I got an unexpected email one day and I had a story accepted with the thoughtful, regional publication Belt Magazine. Belt Magazine is a digital publication by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest that covers local issues of government, politics, art, community, and more at a regional scale. Here’s my story about what it means to live through a pandemic winter in a state known for its bitter winters.

Oh yea! Throughout this year I’ve also been writing newsletters for you. Here are some of my favorites along the way. My conversation with Floridian bubblegrunge power-pop ban Expert Timing was a hoot, a meditation of anxiety and Spanish Love Songs was very cathartic, I wrote about my cat on election day, a Soviet-era history lesson and LA sludge metal, the April pandemic-election in Wisconsin had me channeling rage and death metal, Illinois post-everything maniac The Acid Flashback at Nightmare Beach is still a trip, I wrote about buying PHYSICAL MUSIC IN A PHYSICAL STORE a week before the world shut down and I miss live music too much to put into coherent words. (and that’s not even all of them!)

A year without (live) music

Speaking of live music, here is a rundown of shows I’m really upset I didn’t get to see this year. I had tickets for Riot Fest which was headlined by My Chemical Romance, so that’s a major bummer.

I almost got to see State Faults, a Northern California screamo/posthardcore outfit that makes amazing flowery music.

I interviewed with Porches in March ahead of his Madison show but then that got scrapped and the story got killed by the publication, I don’t really know what happened with that interview at this point and I’m too afraid to ask. Bummed that I didn’t get to see Aaron Maine’s beautifully crafted synth-pop, but it was a nice phone call so I’ll have to dig that out of the vault potential. Porches’ new album was a sleeper since it came out right when the world exploded, but check out the sweetly crafted video for “Patience”.

Horse Jumper of Love and Strange Ranger planned to come to Chicago, so that sucks.

The last show that stands out in my scrappy memory was Black Belt Eagle Scout, the prolific songwriting of Katherine Paul, which was planned for Milwaukee this year so again, a bummer.

Speaking of Brew City, it wasn’t COVID related, but climate-disaster informed screamo band snag. were going to play a show in Madison early this year in February, but they got snowed out on a Sunday. Still want to see them live, but their 2019 self-titled is a powerhouse.

Let’s hear it for the locals

In a year that doesn’t really need lists or categorizing or pontificating, I want to spend some time on Wisconsin releases as it is my home state and there’s a lot going on this year with music.

To get started here’s a shameless plug for Madison area music put out by Tone Madison, which I had a part in. I only wrote about Madison’s Norris Court, a dreamy indie-pop band with earth-shattering song-writing on their debut Imposter Syndrome.

An emo band from everywhere and nowhere in Wisconsin(now based in Milwaukee mostly) released their sophomore album and it is a doozy. Barely Civil’s I’ll Figure This Out is a cathartic crescendo of emotion and self-realization, with roaring chords and dynamic drumming. The dudes are gonna go far.

Juiceboxxx is originally from Milwaukee but now resides somewhere else, his punk-infused twangy rock/hip-hop is something I don’t delve into often, but I enjoyed 2020 full-length It's Easy To Feel Like A Nobody When You're Living In The City.

Another Wisconsin-adjacent act is Slow Pulp, the indie-rock group who followed the Madison to Chicago pipeline and released a moody, catchy and atmospheric album in Moveys. I feel for everyone that released a full-length this year as the news cycle and constant state of being online swept somethings to the side-line, and this well-crafted album was one of those casualties.

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Disq, longstanding Madison indie heartthrobs, had another strong album, Collector on the noted Saddle Creek Records, but a lot of their plans (including a tour with NYC outfit Pom Pom Squad!) got squandered.

I’m still getting my footing when it comes to Green Bay area music, but the new project Negative Christ put out a noisey, crusty, distortion-drench album Nerve Damage. It’s a whirlwind that includes some groovy moments and unexpected turns so soak up the malice while you can.

Wait a minute, Misery Signals put out an album this year?!?!

Merrill, Wisconsin orchestral, alternative musician Zola Jesus put out a haunting cover of the Armenian priest and musicologist Komitas’s “Krunk”. Best suited for listening at a high volume in a dark room and allowing your mind to fall out of your ears.

Speaking of brain malfunctions, here is DJ Speedsick’s Turn Illness Into A Weapon, a blaring and unnerving release from the Madison industrial solo artist.

Top 2020 albums

You’ve seen all the lists so do your own research. Here’s a quick glimpse at national acts that won my heart this year.

Dogleg - Melee • The Acacia Strain - Slow Decay • Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher • The goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick - Ways of Hearing • Respire - Black Line • Modern Color - Leaves From Your Garden • Bartees Strange - Live Forever • The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers • Floral Tattoo -You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start • Necrot - Mortal

I’m certain I’ve missed something, you be the judge.

Top non-music media consumed this year

When I wasn’t listening to music, here’s what was preoccupying my mind.

The Crown, Knives Out, House of 1000 Corpses, Spiral (Shudder Exclusive), chapters from Meghan O'Gieblyn’s Interior States, chapters from Phil A. Neel’s Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict (I don’t think I read an entire book this year?), Mario Kart 8, Animal Crossing, and the following amazing newsletters in the year of the newsletter boom:

Ellie Kovach’s You Don’t Need Maps, Luke O’Neil’s Hell World, Larry Fitzmaurice’s Last Donut of The Night, Marissa R. Moss and Natalie Weiner’s Don’t Rock The Inbox, and various authors involved with the new media outlet The Discontents.

Again, I’m sure I missed something and I’m also positive I need to diversify my tastes. Comment below or email me with your thoughts and favorites, I’d love to hear from you.

2020 releases I haven't fully explored but they slap none the less

Militarie Gun - My Life is Over: LA fuzzy, stripped-down postpunk. Fans of moody conversations and denim jackets inquire within.

cursetheknife - Thank You for Being Here Pt. I & Pt. II: New Mortality Zine puts out some outrageous underground acts including this alternative, atmospheric shoegaze Oklahoma outfit.

Oceanator - Things I Never Said: Simple, sunny songwriting from Elise Okusami, who can distill emotions down to their core with the faint strum of a chord.

Gelassenheit - They Will Beat Their Swords Into Ploughshares: I almost put this in my top releases for the year, but I haven't soaked it in enough yet. It will surely go into my 2021 loves. This Brooklyn-based solo black metal act blends crusty instrumentals, choral bells and shrieking vocals as they recount the militant story of the Irish Revolution Army, Christianity and the pillars of socialism. The album title is taken from Isaiah 2:4, in which militarized weapons are exchanged for societal growth. Their whole discography is focused on reclaiming the community and love that is found in Christianity for a world that needs to sow needs seeds. I should give credit to NPR's Lars Gotrich for the great newsletter that introduced me to this expansive music.

We went down to Houston Christmas Eve

In compiling this brain dump, I realized that all of the new albums I’ve listened to this year haven’t held a grip on me like one album has this entire year. Greet Death’s New Hell, released towards the end of 2019, was a precursor to the circular despair that permeated this year.

The space that this album takes up sonically knocks you out. Even in writing this, I repeated spun the album and wanted to swallow more and more of their agony. On the closing track of the album, Logan Gaval recounts driving down to Houston ahead of the holidays. “New Hell” pushes the ten-minute mark and is a spiral. Gaval’s memories are dreams and his recollection can’t be trusted, in the second verse, he even admits to driving to Chicago in his sleep.

I’ve done a lot more driving this year. It’s been one respite from the mess of this year. I would take back roads home and stay out just a little longer after picking up food or other household items. Gaval’s voice hit me as I thought of a trip to Houston my wife and her mother took in 2019 before the birth of my son. Even though it wasn’t via car, the sprawling roads of Houston stretched for miles and occupy much of the city. We visited the beach and searched for armadillos along the roadsides.

While in Houston, I picked up a souvenir in the form of Dolly Parton’s Heartbreak Express, realizing I didn’t own Dolly on wax. The record made its way onto a plane and back to Chicago then Wisconsin via car.

This world of people, places, connections, and journeys feels so foreign to me. Everything has turned inward and while I am a homebody by nature, I never realized how much I love being in new places and exploring their streets and places. Even the comfort of a new restaurant where I’m sure to order a familiar plate of food is something I now long for daily. If anything, I think this year has helped me not take things for granted. It’s taught me to love unconditionally and enjoy small moments. I have the privilege of existing and I want to hold it close.

In a weird, very roundabout way, I think this disparate connection to Dolly is heartwarming as we do have her to thank for solving the COVID vaccine puzzle, so 2021 is going to be a year of paying dues to the queen of country.

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This year's inward turn has been medicinal as my focus on writing and aligning the needs of our family has been at the forefront, but I am itching to explore the world again. New Hell confronts fear, isolation, interpersonal relationships, and the starkness of life. This album has comforted me throughout the year and it feels like a timeless record just released.

Here’s to hope. Here’s to a 2021 that feels like sliver of something different. Thank you for joining me this year. Thank you for finding the time.

Finders Sharers,
John McCracken

p.s.- gonna take a little bit of time off, you should too. Subscribe so you don’t miss the next one.

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I Found This. is a poor attempt at cataloging epiphanies regarding music, media and Midwest living.

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