Welcome to part three of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (52 is weird, right? We ended up with that number for technical reasons explained below.) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my monthly review of new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.
So, 52? It’s like this: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 total posts of 5 each (or actually 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Got it? Then let’s do Part 3!
Body Talk (Robyn, 2010, 7 votes)– I think this is Swedish dance music that would have sounded pretty at home somewhere in the borderline between the 80s and the early 90s? It’s well performed and well produced, and there are some songs here that are clever, unusual, and fun, which I certainly would want in my collection as singles. But overall I have trouble feeling like it adds up to a consistent album, never mind “Best of the Decade” territory.
Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011, 5 votes)– The great danger of indie folk is that it has a tendency to sound the same- both internally from track to track in an album, and between albums. Which is not to say it is, by any means, bad. But a solid album’s worth of no changes in musical or vocal tone, well, that doesn’t always make for a great album. This album is fine, as far as I can tell. Just not a kind of fine I particularly groove on. And, fine or not, it never feels like it gets to great.
Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010, 4 votes)– Remember Rock? Remember when you first heard it? Really heard it? The further one gets into this century, the harder it is to remember what that felt like. The Black Keys, like the White Stripes (lots of bad blood there, don’t tell them I compared them), remember. This album, like their music in general, taps into that threshold where blues crosses over and becomes rock. And in the process takes me back to why I loved rock in the first place.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Angel Olsen, 2014, 5 votes)– I liked the intro with its richly textured acoustic guitar, and her beautifully dolorous voice. Then the second track kicked into a 90s rocker girl mode, and uh, I was done for. Her vocals are very interesting, with smart and nervy lyrics, and the music knows its way around rock history. It keeps changing musical modes, but is tied together by her undeniable presence. By track three I was officially ensorcelled, and remained so until the end.
Carrie & Lowell(Sufjan Stevens, 2015, 5 votes)– To say this isn’t quite the tour de force that his album Illinoise was, well, that’s like saying “not quite Brothers Karamazov, but still good Dostoyevsky”. The emotional and musical texturing of the songs is rich, and the lyrics, as always, searingly earnest and personal. If there’s anything more I might ask for, it’s more moments, vocally and musically, that break out of the relatively narrow emotional palette of the album. Then again, it’s an album about sorting out the emotional aftermath of his mother’s death, so you can’t exactly fault it for that.
All right, there we are! Fifteen down, which means 37 to go. Who knows what wonders we still have to discover?
As part of my quest to get re-connected to new music after several busy (if not sometimes downright difficult) years, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the best 20 albums of 2020. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my review of the critics choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my monthly search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
To quickly recap my methodology, I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are 11-15:
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers, 10 votes)– The kick-off with strings and disembodied keyboard notes had me concerned. From there it becomes well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun. It also ends up feeling unbalanced. Everything here is high quality, but I don’t see it coherently adding up to a “Best of the Year” album. Which apparently I’m in the minority on!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 8 votes)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan, 7 votes)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels, 12 votes)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee, 6 votes)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
We’ve now reviewed 15 of the top 20 critic’s choices for best albums of 2020. Tune in next time for the final five!
In an effort to get re-connected to new music, I am in search of the 21 best albums of 2021! To that end, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-out after the year ends. If you missed the January round-up, you can find it here.
(This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you may also be interested in checking out the latest editions of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.)
Let’s start with a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we’ll end up with well over 100 possibilities, so there’s going to be quite a reckoning at the end.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that certain “maybes” have a habit of lingering though, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, we’ll proceed! Here’s my take on the 67(!) new releases I listened to in February:
Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!– The first track is like a lost 70s song from Todd Rundgren suddenly popped out of a wormhole. This isn’t an accident, as the accompanying video proves. Subsequent tracks are in the same vein and it is utterly charming. While the music has a 70s timeless feel, the very clever lyrics are full of modern references and personality. For what it’s worth, this and the Baio album from last month are the only albums in 98 I’ve listened to from January and February that I found myself singing along to out loud!
Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories– This album is like a double musical love letter, both to Detroit and to Rock itself. Cooper does both covers and originals here, with hints of Iggy Pop, Kiss, the MC5 and other icons of a certain era in that city abounding. Honestly, it’s a little bit of a mess, but a glorious and heartfelt mess! It just makes me happy.
Black Nash, Black Nash– I kind of fucking love this! It’s lo fi rock with occasional noise rock tendencies, but also classic rock call-backs, and a place for melody. Musically, vocally, and lyrically, it’s distinct from the get go.
Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse, because the muse itself is at her beck and call.
Claud, Super Monster– Musically and vocally very sweet, like a treat right from the first song. Things here are bright and shimmering, with just the right undertone from the emotionally earnest vocals/lyrics (as a nonbinary artist they bring an additional layer of meaning to both), and a perfect home-produced pop sensibility.
Cloud Nothings, The Shadow I Remember– Crunchy feedback-laden rock with a dreamy choral background, lyrical and vocal power, and a great way with melody. It’s really pretty delightful.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, L.W.– I mean, the name, right? Is this a lo-fi hard rock album? A garage/psychedelic throwback? A weird jazz sitar album? Yes to all! I’d never heard of this band before, but apparently they are a recording powerhouse with a devoted following in their native Australia. You won’t hear anything else that sounds like this, and it is excellent.
Lael Neale, Acquainted With Night– This is great from the start- clear lovely instruments, arresting vocals, poetic/personal/philosophical lyrics. It has a curiously timeless sound, like something at the intersection of Joan Baez and Dylan has gotten unmoored in time. It was also home recorded on an omnichord. I had not previously known what an omnichord was, and if you don’t either I encourage you to look it up because they’re pretty amazing.
Melvins, Working With God– I had previously outed myself in our January edition as a Melvins fan. I mean, I don’t feel any need to be closeted about it, really. If a certain kind of sludgy stoner rock with a big vein of humor appeals to you, they are that par excellence. This album opens with “I Fuck Around”, a song sent to the tune of the Beach Boys. And, sure enough, they are fucking around for the length of this album. But their fucking around is more entertaining than many another band’s best effort.
Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An effort by a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.
Hearty Har, Radio Astro– When you discover that this band is driven by John Fogerty’s sons, you might develop certain expectations. Those expectations are not disappointed- you’ll hear 60s garage rock, pop, soul, and psychedlia, all with a 00s rock sensibility. It is just damn good.
Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, Real One– Rock! Oh my god, rock! I’d almost forgotten what it could sound like. The specific varieties you’ll hear here most reflect 70s cock rock, 70s/80s album-oriented rock stations, and the pub rock side of British punk. It is, in a sense, nothing new or unfamiliar. But it is oh so welcome.
Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, albeit somewhat misleadingly, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay in a way that belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.
The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds merely like a copy. And the music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and then never lost me from there.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s a fascinating story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether or not to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (you’ll see the shorter one mentioned in a section below), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.
Valley Maker, When the Day Leaves– This album had a country-flavored indie folk thing going. Granted, there is a lot out there that sounds like that, but there are many musical and production surprises here, and strong lyrics. I just kind of dig it!
Another Michael, New Music and Big Pop– I liked the personal lyrics and weirdly off-kilter vocals of this clear, bright, energetic acoustic-tinged pop with a 70s vibe plus 2000s indie flavor. Some of it was a little too muted, though.
Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature– This would have been a yes if not for a meandering 7 minute instrumental track at the end. A NY-based artist and musician with quiet intensity in her vocals, and a deep philosophical vibe that takes the simpler music into overdrive.
Chris Crack, Might Delete Later– Musically this reminded me of the heyday of concious hip hop in the 90s, but with a swager of attitude and production familiar from 2000s hip hop. If there had been less “bitch” and “pussy” throughout, it probably would have been a “yes”.
Curtis Salgado, Damage Control– A nice contemporary blues album that does a good wrestle with mortality and aging on many tracks. It never rises above a certain level musically or lyrically, but it’s a fun, fun listen.
Dan Kroha, Detroit Blues– It seems weird to put an album of stripped down blues covers by an alumni of Detroit punk bands in the running for best album of the year, but it is great material really well done.
Django, Djiango, Glowing in the Dark– Energetic and propulsive, kind of electronica by way of Alan Parsons/Moody Blues art rock. Or an art rock band by way of electronica? It’s very catchy! It kept veering toward repetitive, but then the sheer well-doneness of it all pulls it out.
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight– I mean, I don’t think there is a bad Foo Fighters album. And the rock informed by funk/groove thing they’re exploring here is fun. The sort of problem is lots of other bands in the 2000s have already occupied this space. But the Foos sound great doing it!
Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place– She has an extraordinary voice, in both the lyrical and vocal senses, and is musically dynamic too- folky, rocky, the kind of searing feel you get from Aimee Mann. But it doesn’t feel quite consistent/coherent enough to be a great album.
Maximo Park, Nature Always Wins– It rocks right from the get-go, which I appreciate, and has a Bowiesque/Roxy Music/80s alt feeling. I would have loved this album in my 80s alt youth! My only reservation keeping it from “yes” is the dated feel.
Mush, Lines Redacted– I feel like I’ve flashed back to somewhere in 1979-1981 and landed in the most gonzo and discordant side of post punk/new wave. I kind of love it! But is it too dated sounding?
slowthai, Tyron– It took me a little while to get in to this British hip hop album, but then I was loving it. The witty and unusual lyrical voice, and neat production and sampling really grew on me.
The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness, Songs From Another Life– Beats, guitars, melody, and sugary vocals bam in from the get-go. What can I say, I love the jangle pop. Maddeningly, this has a problem many things I’ve listened to do- second half deflation. Bands! Don’t put all your slower songs one after another at the end!
The Telescopes, Songs of Love and Revolution– The wall of fuzzy guitar is a good start. I can’t make out the lyrics, but do I care? It’s a beautiful noise a la Jesus & Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, the only reservation is it’s so deliberately noisy I don’t know how regularly I’d want to hear it.
TV Priest, Uppers– Hey, rock! In an angular, nervy, post-punk kind of vein. It’s a debut album by a band that first played together 20 years ago, which is a great story. Musically I was over the moon, but the vocals were a little too one shouting tone, which wore on its durability.
Virginia Wing, Private LIFE– Lyrically and vocally intriguing, with fun and unusual musical & production choices. Arty, smart, and orchestral in a synth kind of way, it did a really good job of keeping my interest. About my only reservation is that it may be too deliberately discordant for frequent listening.
Ad Nauseam, Imperative Imperceptible Impulse– Italian Death Metal band. It’s a little too 57 minutes of death metal not in English to be a good general album of the year contender, but genre fans certainly might enjoy it.
Adeline Hotel, Good Timing– Nicely textured acoustic instrumental. It’s very nice, but too mellow, too one-tone, too lyric-free to be a “best”.
AJ Croce, By Request– I love a good cover album, and these are a great fit with his blues/americana sensibility, but ultimately they’re too faithful to the originals to rise above and stand out.
Blanck Mass, In Fernaeux– I mean, if your name is almost Black Mass and your album is almost named Inferno, I’m expecting something a little more dark and heavy than this. It was more in an electronica/sound art vein. By turns too ambient and too abstract for me.
Brijean, Feelings– It’s got beats, it’s got dreamy musical swirls, it’s got fuzzed out vocals. It’s not bad, but it’s just not my jam.
Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow of Funk– I honestly never would have considered they were still around-it’s a little too industrial flashback for my tastes.
Deacon Blue, Riding on the Tide of Love– A booming Scottish alternative band with an 80s feel. The first half was great, but then the second went flat as all the dynamism went out of the songs.
Death by Unga Bunga, Heavy Male Insecurity– If you’re going to still be doing punk this far down the line, the unusual metalesque and symphonic flourishes here are a way to make it worthwhile. The five minute track at the end did me in though.
Francois & The Atlas Mountains- Banane Bleue– French indie rock. Certainly well done, but a little too swirly dream pop for me. And also, you know, mostly in French.
Florida Georgia Line, Life Rolls On– I am determined to find a great country album this year. This was not it.
Indigo Sparke, echo– This is 55% of a great album. on tracks 1-3 the acoustic folk vibe is too samey, but then it really picks up with tracks 4-8, before 9 kind of fizzles again.
John Tejada, Year of the Living Dead– Electronica, pretty good as far as it goes, but way too ambient and fading into the background for me.
Juliene Baker, Little Oblivions– Surging and affecting, but I feel like the soul is getting lost in the production, and the tracks tend toward sameness.
Menahan Street Band, The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band– 70s soundtrack vibe, only all originals. It’s too “album out of time” and instrumental to be a year’s best, but it’s so well and lovingly done.
Mia Doi Todd, Music Life– The music and the lyrics are sophisticated and her voice rings like a clear bell, at first I felt like I was in a lost Jefferson Starship album from the mid-70s. But by-and-by it got a little too New Age and self-consciously expository for me.
Mogwai, As the Love Continues– An interesting musical melange, more electronica and synthy than I was expecting, but I’m just not sure what would make it better or worse than a lot of other similar soundscape stuff.
Mouse on Mars, AAI– Electronica is mostly not my genre, so something needs to be above and beyond to catch my attention. That being said, this is certainly well done, although even as electronica goes, a little experimental for me.
Nightshift, Zoe– Almossstttt maybe. A brittle post-punk feeling with experimental flourishes. The good tracks were very good, but it was a little too uneven. For what it’s worth, it was best when the women were on lead vocals instead of the men.
Nonconnah, Songs for and About Ghosts– Experimental sound collage is not my thing.
Pale Waves, Who Am I?– Pop/rock structure is strong from the get-go, it would have been right at home in the 90s or early 2000s. It doesn’t add up to more, but you won’t have a bad time listening to it.
Puma Blue, In Praise of Shadows– Mellow beats, low key vocals, it’s pretty, but the tracks are indistinguishable, and the tempo never “ups”.
Rat Columns, Pacific Kiss– Power-pop, much sweeter than you might expect from a band with the word “rat” in its name. Strong song sensibility, and it doesn’t misstep, until the second half when all the energy and dynamism goes out of it, and the tracks get too shimmery and ethereal.
Robin Thicke, On Earth, As in Heaven– It’s very pleasant. It’s very smooth. It’s very blah.
Roy Montgomery, Island of Lost Souls– While quite good, it was just too ambient for me.
Sia, Music: Songs From and Inspired by the Motion Picture– Good fun dance-oriented pop, I’m just not sure it gets beyond that.
Smerz, Believer– Kind of like an abstract music theory senior thesis project.
Sun June, Somewhere– Ghostly breathless vocals, lyrics are sophisticated, mellow musical vibe, it’s got the minor chords, but ultimately everything is too much the same.
Tash Sultana, Terra Firma– Well produced, jazz-inflected, but just too 80s easy listening for me.
The Staves, Good Woman– The vocals are nice, the music is nice (with occasional surging surprises in each), but all a little too smooth and fading to sameness.
The Weather Station, Ignorance– Quiet vocals, beats, and jazz flourishes, with occasional touches of frenzy or eerie dissonance that complement the harrow of the lyrics, but it is a little too one tone emotionally/musically, albeit very well done.
The Weeknd, The Highlights– Very well produced dance music, some great singles certainly. It’s fun high-energy pop, and it’s not doing anything wrong. But does it add up to an album?
Tindersticks, Distractions– Beats, mellow vibes, disembodied vocals. It’s a little too low key electronica for me compared to, say, a Daft Punk/LCD Soundsystem approach. I did appreciate the Neil Young cover, though.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life– It’s a little surprising to see this here, right? The extended version made my “yes” list. I actually appreciate the production more on the longer version (this one has a more 80s feel), and it’s weird how this version essentially repeats the intro track twice in a row.
Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights– Some nice instrumental flourishes, but a little too muted for me, somehow it doesn’t ever emotionally or musically rise above.
Willie Nelson, That’s Life– This is Nelson’s second recent album of Sinatra covers. (Dylan’s been doing this too lately. Why is this in the air?) The covers are a little too straightforward, but they are well done, and I like the worn gold sound of his voice here.
And there we have it, the “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” from February. Join me in a month (give or take) for the March roundup!
Welcome to the second installment of my review of the best albums (according to critical consensus) of the 2010s. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. This is one of three musically-themed blog series I’m doing this year. You may also be interested in my review of the reputed 20 best albums of 2020 (latest edition here), and my search for the 21 best albums of 2021 (January edition here).
To quickly review methodology, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 total posts of 5 each (or actually 6 on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And now, without further ado, here’s Part II!
Anti (Rihanna, 2016, 7 votes)– There’s musical and lyrical sophistication here, and songs that are sometimes more conventional, sometimes more personal and confessional. It’s very well produced, but I don’t know that it makes the level of a “best album” of the decade. It is, par excellence, what a big chunk of the decade sounded like. But I’m not sure it holds up to the best of other soul/R&B/dance albums from the same time period.
Art Angels (Grimes, 2015, 4 votes)– The ethereal disembodied first track almost sent me away, but then the variability and verve of the subsequent efforts brought me back. Quirky music, quirky vocals, very upbeat. She knows pop music, and then keeps ‘effin with it with dissonant choices, which I appreciate. If this was the average level pop music was landing at, it would be a grand thing!
Beyonce(Beyonce, 2013, 6 votes)– From the first track, which tackles body image and social pressure, this is a pop album in service of a higher purpose. Whether tackling social issues, personal biography, or emotional confession, track after track aims for import. In lesser hands, this could be an unwieldy exercise. But given skill and vision, it can be pulled off, and is amazing when it works (cf. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation). Beyonce’s hands are not lesser- between mastery of the musical idioms of soul and R&B, by turns soaring and subtle vocals, rich production, and incisive lyrics, she delivers.
Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016, 6 votes)– As a David Bowie fan, I had been curious about his final album. The opening/title song is mesmerizing and self-valedictory, in the course of 10 minutes, it tries out styles from throughout his long career. Subsequent tracks stick more to a unified musical theme, with healthy portions of dissonant art rock and electronic beats. Vocally and musically the tracks are unsettling in the way many a Bowie song can be unsettling, and then on top of that there is an obvious concern with history, legacy, and mortality throughout. It’s a powerful thing to do with a record and makes for a fitting swan song.
Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016, 8 votes)– Is it just me, or does the first track sound like an autotuned chipmunk? Real vocals kicked in midway, but the sound was still very autotuned. Which is a shame, because musically it’s making many unusual and interesting choices for R&B. Dammit, it’s growing on me. The arrangement and production is actually really, really good. Except for the occasional dip back into autotuned chipmunk. But this is a fun and unusual sounding album. I can see why it ended up on so many lists!
And that’s it for Part II. Ten down, 42 to go! Which means we may learn the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything…
Welcome to Part II of my review of the reputed 20 Best Albums of 2020. In case you missed Part I, you can find it here. This is one of three music blog series I’m doing this year as I seek to reacquaint myself with new music. You may also want to check out the most recent editions of the other two, in which I seek out the Best Albums of the 2010s, and search for the 21 Best Albums of 2021.
A quick reminder on the methodology for this series: I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are my reviews of 6-10!
Heavy Light (U.S. Girls, 4 votes)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.
It Is What It Is (Thundercat, 7 votes)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This seems to be a kind of jazz fusion sound, very mellow. It’s well done, but I can’t find a heart of anything that feels real or vital in most of it. It wasn’t until track four that I found the first song that really engaged me, and then not again for several more tracks. Really, critics?
Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen, 4 votes)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.
Live Forever(Bartees Strange, 6 votes)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!
Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams, 7 votes)– This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. There’s a kind of simplicity of the music, which is belied by the complexity of the lyrics and surprises in her vocal delivery. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it is a consistently interesting high energy listen.
So there we are, 10 down, 10 to go. Join me next time for 11-15!
And here we are, the third of three musical blog series I’ll be doing this year. In my first foray, I set out to listen to new releases every month in search of the 21 best albums of 2021. My second series tackles a review of critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020. These are both part of a New Year’s intention of getting caught up with current music, after years spent filling out previous decades and also distracted by cross-country moves, family issues, fighting creeping fascism, etc.
Because of all of the above, my relative outage on newer music extended through most of the past decade. So this third series will be working its way through the critical consensus on the best albums of 2010-2019, and seeing what is what. (Some years back I did something similar for the 2000s, you can find my wrap-up of that series here.)
A quick note on methodology, which was fairly simple. I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. It wasn’t clear to me going in just what my cut-off would be in terms of number of albums, but as it happened, albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to 50 to serve as a good round-up.
And now I’m working my way through listening to them, and writing reviews as I go. I’ll do 10 total posts of 5 each (and 6 on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get going with Part I!
1989 (Taylor Swift, 2014, 5 votes)– It is obviously disingenuous in some wise to say I missed this album, because it’s Taylor Swift, and if you didn’t hear “Shake It Off” and some of the other singles from this album in the last decade, you probably weren’t in the last decade. Importantly for an album, the non-hit singles here are as comparably compelling and well-done as the hits. Look, I’m a rock guy, I’m a genre classics and alternative guy, I’m a history/deep cuts guy. But there’s nothing wrong with good pop music, and this is pop music at its finest.
A Seat at the Table (Solange, 2016, 8 votes)– Solange, reportedly, is not fond of being compared to older sister Beyonce. If you’ve found yourself on either side of that sibling comparison game, this is probably understandable to you. As it happens, she’s earned independent review, because, at least based on what I hear here, she’s a force in her own right. This album is soulful, weary, and wise from the first note. It mixes the personal and the social, and there’s genuine vulnerability throughout. And, while keeping a general smooth low-tempo R&B vibe, it takes musical and vocal chances that are lovely. If you want to play a comparison game, this honestly reminds me of Prince in its complexity and quality.
A Moon Shaped Pool(Radiohead, 2016, 4 votes)– As has been documented elsewhere in my music writing, I don’t particularly care for Radiohead. I’m aware that this puts me at odds with every music critic ever, as well as many actual humans I know. Now, don’t get me wrong. They’re not, by any means, bad. It’s just, I like moody atmospheric music. Sometimes. I like elliptical lyrics. Sometimes. I like lackadaisical low-key anguished vocals. Sometimes. But 50 minutes solid of that and only that? It’s just not a mood I’m often in. Despite some fine moments and individual songs that worked for me, I was not in that mood listening to this album as a whole. It might be someone else’s cup of tea, though!
Acid Rap (Chance the Rapper, 2013, 7 votes)– Rich, fun, and dynamic from the get-go with “Good Ass Intro” (which is), and it doesn’t let up from there. Musically, it makes excellent use of an amalgam of Soul, Funk, R&B, and Jazz backgrounds. The lyrics are also so well done, both clever, informed by pop culture references, and meaningful. And the vocals cycle through multiple modes- staccato rapid flow, straight-up singing, spoken word. Altogether, it’s a kaleidoscope of moods and modes that sounds like its title. It’s easy to see why this ended up on so many lists!
AM (Arctic Monkeys, 2013, 4 votes)– This starts off with solid beat and vaguely sinister guitar, which is a good way to get me on board. Then come the vocals and lyrics, which also have a dark and slightly sleazy feeling. The songs also display an excellent feel for the interplay between music and vocals, how each should move around the other for maximum impact. Even in the second half, when it sometimes slips into softer croonier and more “high concept” tracks, every song fires on all cylinders. This is sophisticated dirty rock the way sophisticated dirty rock is supposed to be done!
All right, that’s five down, 47 to go. Saints preserve us, and see you next time for another five!
Welcome to the second of three musical blog series I’ll be doing this year! I’m determined to catch up on years-worth of missing new music as I was diving deep into the archives, and also being distracted by life in general. You may have already read the first installment of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
In this second series, I’m on the hunt for the best 20 albums of 2020. My methodology has been pretty straightforward. First, I took year-end “best album” lists from a dozen sources that all have something to recommend them: All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin.
For every album one or more of them listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. It turns out that there were 18 albums that got between 6 and 12 votes (which would be a perfect score). So then I had to choose two more from the 4-5 vote bracket to round it out to 20. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums, and then doing a sum-up at the end. With that, let’s get started with the first five!
color theory(Soccer Mommy, 8 votes)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. All this could add up to something merely pleasant, but in each track there’s a surprising twist of one or more of music, lyrics or production somewhere in it. Some songs are more ornately arranged, some are stripped down, but none are bad. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert, 6 votes)– I like hip-hop. A lot! In multiple genres, and all eras from the late 70s to the 2000’s. But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. This album has plenty of that and and the first few tracks are not dynamic musically. There’s some skit material framing things that’s clever, and there appears to be a first half and second half “dark side” and “light side” motiff that’s interesting. The “light side” is much better than the “dark side”, but by then I’m halfway gone. And the first half is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through. This is unquestionably well-produced, but it’s kind of a “nah” for me.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple, 11 votes)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.
folklore (Taylor Swift, 8 votes)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.
Future Nostalgia(Dua Lipa, 8 votes)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!
I have found it can be opportune to harvest the energy of the beginning of a new year to set some intentions for the year to come. Being an audiophile, some of my intentions for this year are music-related. To whit: after being out of keeping up with new music for various reasons for the last few years, I have determined to catch up!
So I am going to review new releases every month, with the goal of eventually finding the best 21 albums of 2021. This will be one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year, with another reviewing critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the third one doing the same for 2020.
(Parenthetical shout out to Joe Biden for winning, and freeing up the time and mental/emotional energy to do this. The last four years politically weren’t the only reason I didn’t do much music writing, but they were a major reason.)
Let’s start with a quick note about how this will go. I’m listening to the new releases each month and sorting them into three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I want to leave myself some room though, because I’ve more than once had the experience of an initial “maybe” becoming a favorite eventually.
No– These albums are not in contention. In a few cases, I even abandoned them after listening to three or four tracks, although others were compelling in certain ways, which I note.
I’ll be doing this each month, and then at the end of the year we’ll do the final reckoning to find the best 21. And with that, let’s get to it! Here’s my take on the 31 new releases I listened to in January:
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very simple. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.
Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from the lead singer of Vampire Weekend. I have heard tell of this Weekend of Vampires for a few years now, but am not familiar with their work. Based on this I might want to be! It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy…
Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.
Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Macca to Mecca!– This is a live album from the touring band of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band-member Little Steven. On that basis alone, you would think it would be solid. But wait, there’s more! It’s an album of Beatles covers recorded at the Cavern Club in Liverpool where the Beatles got their start. As Steven says on the album intro, “Rock and Roll is my religion, and this is Mecca”. Great material, well played, and, crucially for covers, true to the spirit of the originals without being slavish copies.
Midnight Sister, Painting the Roses– This album is unsettling in a good way. It’s partially the music, which is solidly in a neo-soul vein but keeps doing complex and surprising things track after track. And it’s very much in the lyrics and vocal performance. Lead singer Juliana Giraffe (I am not making this up) is heavy on hypnotic artistry, bringing to mind Kate Bush from way back and Florence and the Machine from more recently.
Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of Post-Rock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song work, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.
Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of Psychedelia, 80’s New Wave/Synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.
Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The musical mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!
Weezer, OK Human– I have to admit, when I heard that this latest Weezer foray involved a full orchestra and took inspiration from opera, I had more than a touch of trepidation. I thought we might end up with something like how Rivers Cuomo getting interested in music theory on Pinkerton squashed all the energy and charm that had been in their debut album. Here, though, those touches are always in service of solid Pop Rock structure, and Cuomo is in top form lyrically. It’s just too good to ignore.
Dale Crover, Rat-a-Tat-Tat– Crover is the drummer from one of my long-time favorites, the Melvins. Per what one might expect from that, this is full of great heavy and yet melodic rock. The downside is that throughout it veers into experimental sound forays that just get a little annoying.
Kiwi Jr., Cooler Returns– Good solid Power-Pop. If you like the Modern Lovers and the Replacements, you might like this. I was left wondering, though, if the sound is a little too familiar?
Lia Ices, Family Album– This is affecting from the start, she sounds and feels like a 70s singer-songwriter livened by psychedelic and 90s indie touches. Her voice weaves spells, but by the end a sense of sameness starts to set in.
Palberta, Palberta5000– Sweet, melodious pop-punk, it’s musically propulsive and interesting. And I am a sucker for girl groups. It’s very charming, but occasionally gets a little lyrically and vocally repetitive.
Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs– Very interesting! The grooves are infectious, the lyrics political without getting polemical. It brings to mind PiL, and the Streets. The delivery, though, is a little, well, shouty, which gets hard to sustain toward the end.
The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings– This is a very strong maybe. It’s surging, atmospheric and weird, in a way that brings to mind 70s Prog Rock as well as newer efforts by bands like the Flaming Lips. Per the Prog Rock vibe, the tracks sometimes feel a little…long. But it grew on me the more it went.
Trevor Beld Jimenez, I like It Here– This felt like a 70s Southern California album lost in time. He’s lyrically compelling and vocally rich. My only hesitation is that the production sounds a little too thin and straightforward, but it’s definitely worth another listen or two.
Yung, Ongoing Dispute– Poppy in a power-chordy kind of way, and I liked the naively self-referential lyrics. I did feel it veered a little too much toward sameness by the end.
Alpine Decline, For the Betterment of Well People– Very high quality pop-rock, but there’s just too much “sameness” to the tracks.
Ani DiFranco, Revolutionary Love– To be clear, there is no such thing as a bad Ani DiFranco album, and this isn’t bad. It was however, a little too in an “adult easy listening” vein musically and vocally, and I like my Ani a little more incendiary.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, New Fragility– Very well done, but it’s just kind of too one tone “sad indie guy”.
Gas Lit, Divide and Dissolve– Instrumental metal with new age and orchestral flourishes. It wasn’t for me, but I’m sure it does have an audience.
Henrik Appel, Humanity– In a proto-punk/post-punk vein musically, and it has some mood and lyrical flourishes, but it’s a little too simple and one tone for me.
Lucero, When You Found Me– It’s good dark Country-Rock, but descends into too much sameness.
Madlib, New Ancestors– Please understand, I love Madvillain so I was pre-disposed to like this effort from the “Mad” half of that hip-hop duo, and this is beautiful and well done. But it’s too down-tempo and fading into the background for me.
Pearl Charles, Magic Mirror– Pretty effort from a singer-songwriter with an interesting musical mix, but ultimately a little too simple in its production for me.
Shame, Drunk Tank Pink– Third generation punk. It’s fine.
Tamar Aphek, All Bets Are Off– Slick and well-produced effort from an Israeli indie rocker, but I failed to locate anything that felt genuine in it.
The Body, I’ve Seen All I Need to See– I do like my noise rock and my experimental rock, but this was a little discordant even for me.
The Notwist, Vertigo Days– It all ends up being a little too ambient and sound-effecty.
Therion, Leviathan– Symphonic Scandinavian metal with Celtic elements. I was left flat when the really good metal moments kept giving way to the symphonic moments, but it’s definitely interesting.
When we did the very first one of these, with eighteen months to go, I was arguing against the then fashionable Democratic peeing of the pants that Trump was inevitably going to win and we were toast. At one year out, I said there was still every chance we could do this, even though we didn’t know who “we” would be yet. At 6.5 months to go, I said that Biden’s chances were good, and Trump was in serious trouble. And last week, with one week to go, I concluded that Biden remained in an extremely strong position.
Well now, with one day to go, it’s put up or shut up time. Looking at the evidence, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that Biden will win tomorrow (even if the result isn’t certain for a few days to a few weeks). Let’s take the evidence piece by piece.
Since last week’s update, the RCP national average has tightened somewhat, from +7.4% Biden to +6.5%:
If that’s all it’s moved in 6 days, it’s not likely to suddenly change in 24 hours, and if Biden is ahead by more than 6% nationally, he probably wins, no matter what chicanery the GOP pulls at the state level. Don’t just take RCP’s word for it, though. The 538 average is much more sophisticated, as it takes into account the historical accuracy of various pollsters, and their typical partisan lean. It has Biden up by 8.4%, down slightly from 9.2% six days ago:
It is of course state totals and the resulting electoral college total that is the final determinant. National averages are useful in setting a ballpark for state results, but to really get a sense, we need to look at the most likely swing states.
Last week, RCP had Biden ahead in 6 out of 6 swing states. It now shows him ahead in 5 out of 6, with some seeming movement towards Trump. However, RCP is also including some pollsters that have had a…questionable…habit of producing implausibly Republican-leaning numbers. 538, as mentioned, tries to adjust for things like this, and it shows Biden ahead in 6 of 6, and only Wisconsin having (pro-Biden) movement that’s outside of a tiny tick up or down that’s indistinguishable from statistical noise.
If one just takes the three states 538 has Biden ahead by more than a typical 3% margin of error and leaves everything else to Trump, this is the resulting map:
But, as mentioned, Biden also has leads in several of the other likeliest swing states, and in addition to those six, Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio are all widely thought to be in play. RCP’s “no toss-ups” map currently shows the following:
Taking one last look back at Biden’s position this year relative to Clinton’s in 2016 is also instructive:
To give a few highlights:
Biden’s lead is twice as large as Clinton’s at the same point.
On the eve of the 2016 election, 9.4% of voters were still undecided. Now, only 4.7% of voters are.
Biden is just shy of 51%. Clinton was below 47%.
In short, all the factors that made it more likely Trump could edge ahead of Clinton are not in play this year. And, indeed, 538’s forecast model now has Biden with a 90% chance of winning:
At this same point, Clinton was around 70%:
There’s a very important point to keep in mind about all the above polls as well. I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating. These are not just leading indicators of how people may vote tomorrow. They’re also what people were saying as they were actually voting. As of this writing, early voting equals just shy of 70% of 2016 total votes:
The earliest votes started on 9/5, when North Carolina sent out its absentee ballots. Which means the above 70% of the 2016 vote all came in during a period in which Biden was never leading by less than 5.8%, and was frequently up by as much as 8% to 9%:
Finally, let’s check in one last time on a few other indicators. Trump’s popularity is more than 8 points underwater with one day to go until the election:
You probably don’t need anyone to tell you this, but that’s not a great place for an incumbent to be. And, indeed, his net popularity is well below any President who was going on to re-election in the past 50+ years. It’s more like Carter or Bush I when they were about to be defeated, or Johnson when he was so unpopular from Vietnam that he’d decided not to run again:
In terms of other elections, the RCP Senate no toss-ups map currently shows Democrats making a net gain of 3 seats, and tied in two others:
And 538 is projecting a 76% chance that Democrats re-capture the Senate:
The generic House preference poll shows Democrats with a more than 7% lead:
And 538’s model finds a 98% chance that Democrats keep the House, and even slightly increase their margin there:
We’re all understandably gun-shy after 2016. Could Trump win again, despite everything above? Yes, there are plausible scenarios. But every piece of evidence in view tells us that, with 24 hours to go, Biden remains in a very strong position, significantly stronger than Clinton in 2016. So take some deep breaths, remember to pace yourself tomorrow night and in the time to follow, but be encouraged.
And, tune in here in …a week? …two weeks? To see how the data measured up against the results!
Well glory be, there’s only a week to go! Did you ever think we’d make it this far? Me either. But here we are! Biden’s position was looking pretty strong a week ago. What about now? There are several ways we can approach this question…
There being a week to go, we might look back a week, and see if there’s evidence of movement in any particular direction. At the national level, RCP’s average has negligible movement over the past week:
The tiny bit of tightening seen above is frankly indistinguishable from statistical noise. it certainly doesn’t show evidence of a big move for or away from either candidate.
As we’ve mentioned before, RCP has a “naive” average in the sense that it just averages together recent polls. Over at 538, their averages also do weighting by a pollster’s track record of accuracy, and take into account the historical partisan lean of various pollsters. This is certainly more sophisticated, and, arguably, leads to better results. Using this method, their “topline” number for Biden is higher:
They are also showing some tightening, in that Biden’s lead is down from 10.3% a week ago. While this is more movement than RCP shows, it’s equally hard to distinguish from statistical noise within the margin of error, and certainly doesn’t seem like a major shift.
But, as you may have heard once or twice, elections aren’t determined by national results. They’re determined by the electoral college, and how the candidates perform in the individual states. Here’s how the numbers for the most likely swing states have shifted over the past week:
There’s definite evidence of tightening up here, but Biden still leads in all six states with a week to go. Some of these leads are pretty narrow and well within a margin of error, so we wouldn’t be surprised if, for example, he didn’t end up carrying Florida or North Carolina. Crucially, however, RCP has him above 5% in Michigan and Wisconsin, which means any one of the other states could take him over the top. 538 has him above 5% in those two, and Pennsylvania as well, which wins the race.
If we look at RCP’s “no tossups” map today (right) versus one week ago (left) the only change is that they now have the very close Georgia going to Trump:
To sum up here, looking over the past week we see some evidence of tightening (actually a very usual occurrence toward the end of a campaign), but we don’t see any indication of a big trajectory change. And, since Trump is behind by 7-10 nationally and trailing in the most crucial swing states, he needs a trajectory change. “Staying roughly the same” for Biden, is remaining in a predominant position.
This is even more true given that, thanks to the push for absentee and early voting due to the pandemic, literally tens of millions of people have voted over the last week. As of this writing, more than 68 million ballots have already been cast, representing almost 50% of the total votes from 2016:
So the preceding polling numbers weren’t only a preview of what voters may do on Election Day, they are the data that came in as voters were actually voting all across the country.
Another way we might approach this is to look at Biden compared to Clinton at the same point in 2016:
Looking at these side by side, several things become apparent:
Biden’s lead is about twice as big as Clinton’s was a week out.
Trump’s late surge in 2016 is readily apparent. Nothing like that seems to be going on in 2020.
There are considerably fewer undecideds at this point than there were in 2016.
Biden remains solidly above 50%, while Clinton was falling down from 48%.
Trump hasn’t had a day over 44% since March, whereas at this point in 2016 he was climbing up toward 46%.
Two other things are worth quickly mentioning about the state by state outlook in 2016 versus 2020. The first is that there was a significant third party presence in 2016, whereas we have no indication of it being above the more typical 1%-2% this time. That created a lot more uncertainty in races that were down to the wire in 2016 than there is this time.
The second is that the polling of at least the Midwestern swing states is better this time- both in terms of number of polls, and models taking into account the kinds of voters that went for Trump in 2016. Pollsters may be making entirely different kinds of mistakes this go-around, but being way off in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin probably isn’t one of them.
One can see the net effect of the lower national margin and the uncertainty in 2016 versus 2020 quite clearly in the 538 forecast model. As of today, it has Biden at an 88% chance of winning the race:
At this same point in 2016, Clinton had dipped down to 71% (and was falling):
Any way you look at it, week-to-go 2020 versus week-to-go 2016 indicates that Biden is in a much more solid position than Clinton was. And recall, Clinton won the popular vote, and only isn’t President today because of literally 77,000 voters spread across three mid-western states. It doesn’t take much marginal improvement in 2020 vs. 2016 to swing the election, and Biden looks to have more than marginal improvement.
The last area we might quickly check in on is whether other data points line up with the notion that Biden is doing well. With a week to go, Trump remains around 10% underwater in net popularity, a position no recent President has won from:
538’s Senate model indicates that Democrats remain favored to win back the Senate:
As does RCP’s “no tossups” Senate map:
And the generic Congressional ballot shows Democrats with a clear edge nationally:
As the 538 model gives them a 96% chance of keeping the House, and even expects them to widen their margin by a few seats:
Whether we look at movement from a week ago, comparison to 2016, or fit with other data points, the verdict is clear: Biden remains in an extremely strong position with one week to go.
We’ll do one more update on Monday with (egads!) 24 hours to go!