In 2020, time revealed its flimsiness. “What day is today?” “What’ll happen tomorrow?” “How many days has it been since x shut down again?”
Like everyone, I treasured the activities that carved out pockets of pleasurable time. I savored the way TV episodes went from clean-cut beginnings to satisfying ends. The way songs could be looped and re-experienced, wards against 2020’s wretched timeframes. The way art kindled new perspectives for an entirely new world.
I’ve recapped my year’s worth of books, songs, performances, films, and series for this blog since 2016. This time around, it feels especially fulfilling to retrieve these gems from the muck of 2020. I gravitated towards works of intense emotion in search of, I’m guessing, stories and sensations that could match the extremities of the 2020 news cycle.
Before the pandemic, I read a novel chronicling the scattered flood of thoughts and information that overwhelm any American alive today. I saw a film about a couple creating an isolated domain where they can truly be alive. Before the pandemic, I saw a play about nations, the strings tying us to them, and the myriad ways those strings can cut and stitch a person together.
And as 2020 proceeded, those all took on fresh meanings for me as we reckoned (once again) with race and American identity, redefined what isolation meant, and realized the difficulty of living with our own thoughts when we have more time with ourselves.
I find it fitting that my song of the year – a six-minute composition that condensed multiple genres, motifs into a musical microcosmos – sounds cataclysmic. Absolute change approximates apocalypse.
I’ll start with the live performances, which, of course, mainly took place in January and February. Theatre and performance have long been theorized as “ghostly” – with live shows, there’s nothing left afterwards. But it became especially true when there was literally nothing left, theatrically, after March.
Live Theatre and Dance
- Soundz at the Back of My Head, Tommy DeFrantz at Gibney
- A remixed mixture of text, movement, and sound by the inimitable dance scholar Tommy DeFrantz. Questions of racial borders, childhood recall, and survival amidst technology swirled around DeFrantz’s meandering choreography and spoken word. Strong shivers when I heard a twinkling video game motif melt into chord changes I’ve heard in church once upon a time.
- The Moving Orchestra in the LES
- Such a New York experience: seeing friends dance and jam with experimental musicians in a sunken Chinatown basement, followed up with a gourmet late night breakfast.
- Heilung, at Webster Hall
- A friend I met on my semester in London was touring with Heilung, a team of musicians imagining how ancestral Scandinavian songs would sound based on archeological research. So I went and saw them. There were deer antlers and wild costumes and crowd surfing. It was fantastic.
- The Thin Place, written by Lucas Hnath, Playwrights Horizons
- A taut, ghostly new drama tugging at the beliefs and behaviors we depend on in daily life.
- The Golden Spike, workshop at BRIC
- Cambodian Rock Band
- My favorite piece of theatre from 2020. A dive into nationality and personal history that’s braided ingeniously with rock music and electric performances.
- Bridesmaids, a dance narrative
- I’ve written about the above three February performances on this blog before!
A special shout out to Netta Yerushalmy’s Distant Dance Demonstration, live at East River Park, which was the last performance I saw in 2020– in September! The brief dance concert featured her talented company alluding to countless styles, as if they were offering up all the dance we’ve missed while sheltering at home. It was a satisfying buffet of movement that made me love and miss dance even more.
- Live From Here, Town Hall, hosted by Chris Thile and featuring Nathaniel Ratecliff, Haley Heynderickx, and Rachel Syme
- The last time I attended an event with over a hundred people, and what a show it was! Music, comedy, and spoken word all delivered with the virtuosity Live From Here is known for.
- Sean Watkins and the Bee Eaters, house concert
- An intimate musical evening that hammered home how truly magical live music can be.
Livestreams & Screen Media
Theatre and Dance Livestreams
I watched the Joyce Theatre’s revival of State of Darkness, choreographed by Molissa Fenley, on the night the 2020 election results concluded. State of Darkness is a thirty-four minute solo set to the entirety of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It demands exceptional pacing and stamina from its performer. After seeing Sara Mearns dance through it, I wrote the following:
“It’s about entering into these different states so that at the end of it, there’s been a real gathering of knowledge and intuition and insight,” Fenley says of State of Darkness. It’s about gathering a fractured set of mobilities and scouring them clean, dredging up pieces of yourself to fucking slice into the future like the knives our bodies are.
The best livestreams I watched in 2020 were the ones that didn’t merely remind me of what I was missing – they became events in and of themselves, whether blades or gems or simply balms. Here’s a couple more of my favorites.
- Women without Men, written by Hazel Ellis, Mint Theatre
- Women Without Men was part of the Mint Theatre’s series of free livestreams. The dry, sobering play is a tense drama of female relations between teachers at an all girls school, and this recording captured an engrossing performance. The Mint specializes in reviving underrated works, and Women without Men highlighted the strengths of this approach, pairing solid actors with material as fresh now as it was then.
- Paramodernities, choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy
- As mentioned above, Netta Yerushalmy has a roving, genre-blind appetite. Her fascinating Paramodernities paired academia with choreography, each of its six chapters featuring a scholar speaking on a particular canonical dance figure while Netta’s company performs with and around them.
- What Do We Need To Talk About?, Richard Nelson, the Public Theater
- I relished my surprise, walking out my bedroom door, at seeing a play written for Zoom, made with Zoom in mind, and feeling something like the theatrical chills I get after walking out of a playhouse.
- Richard II, The Public
- Pleasure and gratification at hearing centuries-old lines containing the peaks of nature and the force of politics inside of themselves.
The musicians I love prompt a stirring in me, a kind of quickening. In its wild onset, the feeling these artists give me reminds me of my capacities – the capacities in any human being – for using what’s on hand to make something beautiful. I’m noting these performance streams for giving me that feeling.
- Julien Baker, Instagram livestream
- Hamilton Leithauser, Instagram livestream
- Sondre Lerche, Instagram livestream
- Bluegrass Pride, FB streaming festival
- Phoebe Bridgers, Live from Red Rocks
- Twisted Pine, album release party
Films and TV Series
I did get to catch a couple films in theatres, including my top movie of the year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’ve written about most of the following on this blog already.
- Portrait of A Lady on Fire – once in theatres then once again, streaming
- Once in theaters and streaming. Nowhere close to toppling my favorite Pixar film (*coughs* Ratatouille) but this was a fun and quirky entry in their canon, with some interesting themes of fulfillment and nostalgia.
- Toy Story 4
- I watched a lot of Pixar! What a beautiful movie; if anything, the visual splendor of Pixar’s environments in this movie are astonishing. There’s hard-thinking to be done about its themes of disposability, abjection, and awareness, too, if you wanna go there.
- Jojo Rabbit
- “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” – Michel Foucault
I watched a handful of television series this year. Small shout outs to the final season of The Good Place and the first season and a half of Schitt’s Creek, and bigger shout outs to the following two series:
- Babylon Berlin
- A jigsaw-puzzle detective thriller set in Weimar Germany that normally would be completely off my radar. I watched after reading Emily VanDerWerff’s coverage of it. Y’all it is SO good – the perfect blend of complex plotting, enticing acting, and stylish filmmaking.
- Over the Garden Wall
- This is the perfect autumn watch. Ten episodes, running only ten minutes each, following brothers Wirt and Greg as they wander lost in the forest. A lot of whimsy that threatens to – and often does – tip over into the creepy and the surreal. Apparently for children, but I audibly shrieked at Episode 7. Do yourself a favor and queue it up for next Halloween.
Books & Writing
My Top Novels
- Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
- A total behemoth of a novel. An experimental portrait of one Ohio housewife’s stream of thought– and I mean every thought. Every impression, name, tune, and memory of this mother of three is listed out in the eight-hundred page sentence that comprises most of the book. The way it foreshadowed many of the defining qualities of 2020 – the isolation, the doomscrolling, the political and existential reckonings – is uncanny.
- The City We Became – N.K. Jemisin
- The first book in the long, long 2020 spring that succeeded in transporting me entirely. And the place it transported me to was already fond in my heart: The New York of The City We Became is pulsing and alive, and Jemisin’s novel was a firm reminder of why I love it so much.
- Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
- Like the above, Ninth House exemplified the meaty capacity of what good fantasy can do: act as a mirror, or rather, a prism, for the “real” world. Leigh Bardugo’s dark star of a novel picks apart seedy Ivy League elitism with exhilarating, creepy glee.
- Trust Exercise – Susan Choi
- Trust Exercise choreographs itself and brings you along for the whirling dance. By the time you finish spinning and regain your balance, you’re somewhere else entirely.
- This Is How You Lose The Time War – Amal Al-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
- A book about love and time that summons an effervescent bubble around the reader.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
- Such a well-crafted debut by an exceptional poet. It’s like a chandelier assembled from jagged pieces of glass: Edges repurposed towards fracturing light into new visions, shards still sharp and capable of cutting.
Compared to last year, I read very little nonfiction – at least, on paper. I was reading so many, so many newsletters, articles, and thinkpieces this year. A special shout out to the following two books:
- Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
- Part of my ongoing investigation into the “canon” of essayists. Sullivan is a literate mage pulling phrases and paragraphs together like they’re diamonds floating up from the earth. I felt a kinship with his omnivorous range of interests, and awe for the unparalleled way he polishes his subjects just so.
- Intimations – Zadie Smith
- Grounding, insightful, and eloquent. As per usual.
And my fullest respect and admiration for the following writers:
- Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large at Vox
- I’ve been a big fan of VanDerWerff’s journalism ever since following her TV coverage on the AV Club, and her pieces on Vox as well as on her weekly blog Episodes continue to bowl me over.
- Favorites include “Six of Swords,” a swirling, tarot-inflected perspective on my favorite Phoebe Bridgers song, her spotlight on Over the Garden Wall, and her January response to the Mr. Robot finale.
- John Paul Brammer, freelance writer
- J.P. Brammer is a queer Latino writer who hosts his version of an advice column, ¡Hola Papi! It’s great advice that folds in wit and wisdom in short bite-sized pieces.
- Favorites lodged in my heart include his writing on imposter syndrome and his brief piece on the concept of home, or, “anything that makes the daily chore of living possible.“
- Historian, Lucy Dacus
- My last great album of New York City before shelter-in-place shut down must of my outings. “Night Shift,” its most popular song, is indisputably exceptional, but I also have strong affinities with the retro-tinged rock of “Next of Kin,” the supernatural bedroom vibes of “The Shell,” and the muscular “Timefighter.”
- Right Now, Twisted Pine
- Twisted Pine, my musical love of 2019, put out their adventurous third record, the first to feature flautist Anh Phung. Reader, I squealed in delight when I heard that Right Now was coming out. From the bonkers fun of “Papaya,” the grooviest song about a fruit (and maybe something else) ever, to the tonal switch-ups of “Dreamaway,” Twisted Pine continue their awe-inspiring flight through genre, a long way from their departure point in bluegrass.
- Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple
- I’m not a longtime Fiona Apple fan, and I’ll admit that on my first listen, I was impressed but not hooked. It was in the fall, listening to Fetch The Bolt Cutters again, when I grasped the depth of these songs. The barely-contained energy of “Shameika” is rapturous. “Rack of His” ricochets between genre planets with sarcastic glee, and, as I’ve written on this blog before, “On I Go” simply struts. Across its runtime, Fetch the Bolt Cutters sounds like Fiona Apple somehow poured dozen of brilliant musical ideas into each track.
- Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
- I’ve already written about my favorite track from this album here, so I’ll take a moment to walk through some of my other favorites. Punisher is impressive in its wide-ranging lyrical subjects, from dream descriptions to Southern anecdotes, yet still sounds cohesive and engrossing from beginning to end. Its opener, “Garden Song,” has one of the most beautiful second verses I’ve heard. The lead single “Kyoto”? A banger, musically and emotionally. “Chinese Satellite” explodes with its existential crises and expert production. (I love alliteration, okay ?) “Savior Complex,” my first favorite, sounds dreamy but hits me in the guts, then “ICU” comes on and I’m revived. Near-perfect album.
- Spider Tales, Jake Blount
- An impressive collection of bluegrass, old-time, and country songs that reclaim Americana as a music that is Black and queer at its core. Needed this this year – listen to “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone” and “Mad Mama’s Blues”
- YHLQMDLG, Bad Bunny
- Such bops. “Si Veo a Tu Mama” and “Yo Perreo Sola” are my faves.
- Adaptations, Vols 1. & 2., Rachel Sumner
- I need the world to know more about Rachel Sumner!! She wrote one of my favorite Twisted Pine songs (“Hold On Me”). Her knack for catchy choruses and her attention to lyrical detail is exceptional.
- Dedicated Side B, Carly Rae Jepsen
- Bedroom dance jams!!!
- Migration Stories, M. Ward.
- For the late nights at home
The Songs for Each Season
- Icicle Tusk, Fleet Foxes
- icy walks down Eighth Avenue
- Drunk II, Mannequin Pussy
- midnight internal screams riding the A train. A rocker.
- You Look Good In Neon, Mike and The Moonpies
- dinner break slow country dance
- Night Shift, Lucy Dacus
- mind-blowing showers
- Papaya, Twisted Pine
- the perfect soundtrack for $2 hot-dogs
- Just Over the Stars, The Maddox Brothers and Rose
- heard through Bluegrass Pride. the yearning!
- Mad Mama’s Blues, Jake Blount
- the breakdown that closes the song is a perfect explosion of riotous joy / righteous anger.
- black pill skyline (ada rook rework), default genders
- crunchy, crackling chords. icy.
- Rack of His, Fiona Apple
- i absolutely love the vaudeville-adjacent vibe of this kiss off tune
- my future, Billie Eilish
- “I’m in love with my future.”
- Don’t Wanna, Haim
- Haim saved us on a rather stressful drive where my sister, her boyfriend, and I got lost
- Remember Summer Days (Night Tempo Showa Remix)
- neon pink pastels for outdoor California sun!!
- yellow is the color of her eyes, Soccer Mommy
- almost cried riding up the Hudson Bikeway listening to this
- august, Taylor Swift
- dreampop via T.S. kept me going through a sweltering NYC summer
- Savior Complex, Phoebe Bridgers
- sung so many times on late sleepless nights.
- presumably dead arm, Sidney Gish
- Pennsylvania driving music
- I Know The End, Phoebe Bridgers
- Si Veo a Tu Mama, Bad Bunny
- SUCH a bop!!
- Ohio, King Princess
- the moment it goes electric? incredible.
- Turn Out The Lights, Julien Baker
I’m entering 2021 with a resolution to live “in song.”
In my experience, singing is hard. Deliberate. But at the same time, it requires a relaxing, a release of tension that allows the sound come out of me, riding on my breath.
I want to practice “singing” in the literal sense, yes, but I also want to embody singing in the general sense of making acts of self-expression and self-love as regular and natural to me as breathing. In and out.
I’ll need songs to sing, so I’m looking forward to the sights and sounds I’ll experience in 2021. Thank you for reading my intermittent blogs throughout 2020 🙂