The 20 Best Albums of 2020? (Part II)

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!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 1 of 10)

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!

The 20 Best Albums of 2020? (Part I)

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!  

Tune in next time for the next five albums!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: January

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:

Yes

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.

Maybe

  • 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.

No

  • 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.

Four more years? (ONE DAY to go edition!)

Well, here we are. The final update!

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!

Four more years? (one week to go edition!)

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!

Four more years? (two weeks to go edition!)

Buddha bless us and Saints preserve us, two weeks to go! At a month to go, my read of prevailing evidence was that Biden was in a very strong position. What about now?

Let’s start with national polling. RCP’s average currently has Biden up by 8.6%:

538, which takes a more nuanced approach to their average, taking into account the accuracy track record and historical partisan lean of individual pollsters, has Biden leading by even more:

A couple of other national “looks” are worth discussing. It being two weeks to go, we might look back over the past two weeks, and see if there’s evidence of major changes that one might project forward to election day. The short answer is “no”:

To the extent that Biden seems to be solidly ahead, every day with no significant change benefits him. Especially given a factor that we’ll discuss in a moment… Another relevant “look” is comparing where Biden is with two weeks to go with where Clinton was at the same point in 2016:

The same factors we’ve seen all year show up here: Biden is ahead by more than Clinton was at the same point, has had a higher “ceiling” and better “floor” than her numbers, and has never led Trump by less than 4 points, whereas Clinton was frequently within 1%-2%, and twice even trailed Trump.

One additional factor to consider is that who’s been ahead in the polls is not an academic matter. In fact, the election is already 24% over. That is to to say, between absentee ballots and early voting, 33.3 million votes have already been cast, representing 24% of the total from 2016:

One of the reasons Comey’s October surprise in 2016 was so damaging to Clinton was that there were a lot of late deciders on the fence. There are far fewer this time, and almost 1 in 4 votes is already in. And these votes came in during a period when Biden was strongly leading. So even if something damaging to Biden (or great for Trump) arose, it inherently can’t have as much of an effect now as it did in 2016.

National polls and vote totals, especially compared to 2016, do give us an idea of how things are trending. But, ultimately, it all comes down to the states. According to RCP’s latest tallies of the most likely swing states, Biden is leading in all of them:

538’s more nuanced approach shows the following Biden margins for these states:

If we were to take the lower RCP numbers and only give Biden anything above 5% and assume the others are a toss-up, this is the map we’d get:

In this scenario, any one of Florida, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania takes Biden over the top, as would Arizona plus the split electoral vote from Nebraska. Trump, conversely, pretty much needs a full sweep to prevail. And this is before getting around to states that Trump won fairly handily in 2016, but which are toss-ups this time- Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, and Maine’s split electoral vote.

RCP’s “no toss ups” map showing all current Biden leads looks like this:

Based on these state by state polling outlooks, 538’s model has Biden favored to win:

And the Cook Report and Sabato models both have the “lean Democratic” states alone totaling more than the needed 270 electoral votes:

“But the polls in 2016 were wr-” Okay. I know you all are too smart and too well informed at this point to pull out that tired old chestnut and re-roast it. But just in case, here’s a good discussion of what pollsters have done since 2016 to improve, and what areas they’re still worried about. And there are other data points we can examine…

To the extent that fundraising is another indicator of enthusiasm, the signs for the Democrats are very promising. Biden has been out-raising Trump by more than 50%, Act Blue is more than doubling the take of Republican activist platforms, and the Democratic candidates in the leading Senate races are all solidly out-raising their Republican opponents.

Speaking of those Senate races, they form an independent data point of their own. 538 currently has Democrats favored to recapture the Senate:

And the RCP “no toss ups” Senate map is showing the same thing:

Over on the House side, the generic Congressional ballot shows Democrats leading by 7.4%:

This is actually up about a percentage point from a month ago, and indicates the party is in no danger of losing the House. Indeed, the 538 model calls for it to slightly improve upon the 232 seats it currently holds:

One final thing to check in on is Presidential approval ratings. It hardly needs to be said, but, for the record, an incumbent being more than 10 points underwater with two weeks left to go isn’t a great sign for their re-election:

Looking back over the past 50 years of Presidential approval at this same point drives the point home:

Trump’s numbers look nothing like Presidents who were heading to easy victories. They don’t even look like Presidents who were heading to narrow victories. Instead, they most resemble Carter and Bush 1 when they were both on the edge of first-term defeat, and Johnson when he was so unpopular from Vietnam that he had decided not to run again.

To sum up: No matter what indicators you look at, with two weeks to go, Biden seems to be in a very strong position. Given the relative stability of this race throughout the year, I would be surprised if this changes drastically over the next week. But let’s meet back here in a week and see!

Four more years? (one month to go edition!)

It’s hard to believe. Even more so since we’ve had, like, a year’s worth of news in the last week. But, as of this past weekend, it was officially one month to go until Election Day! When we last checked in a month ago, the conclusion was, “Biden remains in a very strong position with two months to go.” If that was true then, it’s even more so now.

Let’s start with national polling. Using their average of recent polls (also note, the majority of these now include post tax story/debate news, but don’t yet have data since revelations of Trump’s COVID diagnosis), RCP currently has Biden leading by 8.3%:

RCP’s average is “naive” in the sense that it just adds together recent polls and takes their average. Over at FiveThirtyEight, they also adjust their weightings for pollster’s history of accuracy, compare national polls to state tallies for a “sanity check”, and take into account pollsters that have a historical partisan lean in one direction or another. This is certainly a more robust methodology, but at the moment it produces a nearly identical result, Biden +8.2%:

There are two things worth noting about this lead. The first is that it isn’t a meaningless data point, since more than 2 million votes have already been cast, and voting is taking place in more than 30 states right now while Biden has this healthy lead:

The other point worth talking about is margin of error. Even the best polling, irreducibly, has a roughly +/- 3% margin of error. To take the above 538.com numbers as an example, Trump could be as high as 45.7%, and Biden could be as low as 47.9%. That means that, at worst (from his point of view) Biden’s lead could be as little as 2.2%. Of course, equally, Biden might be as high as 53.9%, and Trump might be as low as 39.7%.

This matters because, as 2016 showed us, a narrow popular vote lead can still be an electoral college loss, depending on how the individual states fall. FiveThirtyEight has tried to quantify this, and at a 2% to 3% national lead, Biden has around a 50% chance to win the Electoral College. Of course, this currently looks to be Trump’s absolute best case scenario, and if Biden is ahead by more than 3%, his chances shoot up accordingly.

Did I mention individual states above? Indeed, and that is what the election ultimately swings on. As it happens, Biden currently enjoys a lead in all of the most probable swing states:

Granted that some of these leads are narrow, even restricting the map to just states where his lead exceeds 5% takes him over the top:

If we were to go further and look at RCP’s “No Toss-ups” map of all the states based on current polling averages, we get this map:

Using their sophisticated state-by-state model, 538 is currently predicting an 81% chance that Biden wins:

Note that this model in part reflects the uncertainties of still being a month out. To put this another way, every day we get closer to the election with Biden still having these kind of national and state numbers, that percentage rises. For reference, in 2016 538’s model had a 29% chance that Trump would beat Clinton on the eve of the election. Biden is in substantially better shape than that, as a quick side-by-side comparison confirms:

I do this list a lot, but because I think it’s instructive I’ll do it again!

  • Clinton frequently had a lead as low as 2% or less over Trump, Biden has never had a single day under 4%.
  • At two points, Trump actually led Clinton, he has never led Biden for even a single day.
  • Biden has spent significant time over 50%, and almost no time under 48%, whereas Clinton was often below 48%, and only topped 50% for a single day.

National polls, state polls, and the comparison to 2016 all confirm the notion that Biden is in very good shape with a month to go. What do other data points have to say?

According to FiveThirtyEight’s average, Trump’s net approval rating is currently more than eight points underwater:

To put that in historical perspective, Trump’s net approval numbers are worse at this point than any other President of the last 50 years except for Bush I and Carter, both of whom were about to be defeated:

Democrats are leading the Generic Congressional Approval ballot by 6.5%, meaning that their hold on the House is not in any danger, and could even expand slightly:

RCP’s “No Toss-ups” Senate polling averages map shows Democrats re-taking control of the Senate:

And FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast model gives Democrats a 65% chance of doing so:

In short, reference to Trump’s net approval numbers and the House and Senate outlook further bolsters the idea that Biden’s lead is as robust as it appears.

There are, of course, factors that this analysis doesn’t take into account. Election night returns may temporarily show Trump leading before absentee ballots are tallied and reflect the full picture. And Trump has given every indication that he plans to dispute results. But none of that, ultimately, changes the fundamental fact that, a month out from the election, Biden has a very solid chance of prevailing on 11/3/20 (plus a week or two).

Tune in again two weeks from now for the two week outlook!

Four more years? (2 months to go edition!)

Well here we are, with 60 days to go! That frightening image above, by the way, is the “Red Mirage”. We’ll get back to that later. But first, as a reminder, at three months to go, we concluded that things had tightened a little since four months out, but that Biden remained in a very solid position. How do things look now that we’re two months out?

The last thirty days have seen a lot of news:

  • Biden’s VP pick of Kamala Harris
  • Both party’s conventions
  • Trump taking action on a series of executive orders meant to address the economic fallout from the pandemic
  • New national unrest, including murder of protesters, over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin
  • Trump responding by a full-court press to run a “law and order” campaign

In response to all this activity, national polling over the past month has seen…on net, just about nothing. Biden is up 0.2% over a month ago, and Trump is up 0.4%, leading to a net of Biden +7.2% now vs. Biden +7.4% a month ago:

Yes, but the polls in 2016 were wr- Stop! Stop? Stop. It is, however, useful to compare Biden’s year-to-date position in the RCP average to Clinton’s 2016 average for the same period:

One will note that Biden has been above 50% several times. Clinton only ever was for a single day. Biden has almost never been below 48%. Clinton was rarely above 48%. Biden has never had a lead of less than 4%. Clinton was less than 2% multiple times, and Trump was even ahead of her twice. On this same day in 2016, 11% of voters were undecided between Trump and Clinton. Only 8% of voters are between Biden and Trump. Everything about the comparative perspective says that Biden is and consistently has been in a much stronger position than Clinton.

It is worthwhile to note that RCP’s polling average is “naive” in the sense that it just averages all major polls within a certain time period (the last eight days, at the moment). 538’s polling average is a bit more sophisticated as it weights pollsters according to their historical track record of accuracy, and makes adjustments for pollsters that show consistent partisan lean in one direction or the other. Using this methodology, 538 currently has Biden at +7.3% vs. +8.2% a month ago:

In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by +2.1%. Taking the smaller of the two averages above, Biden at +7.2%, and adding that difference of 5.1% to Clinton’s 2016 state by state margins results in the following electoral map:

That gives us a ballpark of how things might be different this time, but of course state by state dynamics are not necessarily going to be the same as last time. If you look at RCP’s averages of the likely swing states, Biden currently leads in all of them:

This has narrowed within the last 30 days, which is certainly worth keeping an eye on:

However, it should be noted again that Biden maintains a fairly strong and consistent lead in these states. Using its more robust methodology, 538 is currently showing:

  • Wisconsin Biden +7.1%
  • North Carolina Biden +1.8%
  • Florida Biden +4.1%
  • Pennsylvania Biden +3.4%
  • Michigan Biden +6.4%
  • Arizona Biden +4.6%

If we took only those states where Biden has more than a 5% lead according to the 538 averages, we would have this map:

Under this map, if Biden wins any one of Florida, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, even by a few hundred votes, he’s President. Trump would have to win all three to prevail. If Biden just won Arizona, we’d be at 269-269 and the election would got to the House. May Al’lah forefend against such an outcome.

For their part, RCP’s current “no toss-ups” map shows the following:

There are some other electoral data points worth considering as well. RCP’s “no toss-ups” Senate map currently has Democrats picking up five Senate seats (and losing Alabama) for a net gain of +4, which would flip the Senate:

And the Generic House Preference polling has Democrats up by 7.3%, not far off of the 8.7% that catapulted them to a net gain of 41 seats in the 2018 midterms.

Finally, there are Presidential approval numbers to consider. Trump is currently underwater by nearly 9%:

While that’s actually an improvement from nearly -14% a month ago, on the face of it you might still think this isn’t a good place for an incumbent to be two months out from an election. And you would be right! The only two first term Presidents of the last 50+ years who have been in a similar position were Carter and Bush I, who were both headed for defeat:

What this all boils down to is that national polls, state-by-state electoral college totals, the outlook for House and Senate races, and Presidential approval ratings are all telling us the same thing: Biden remains in a very strong position with two months to go.

Now, a word about our opening graphic. This is what’s being called the “Red Mirage“. Indications are that a large percentage of Biden-leaning voters are planning on voting absentee. A similarly large percentage of Trump-leaning voters are mail voting-averse, and are planning on voting in person. Meanwhile, the individual states have widely varying rules about when absentee ballots must be received by, and the deadlines for starting and finishing counting them.

Because of all this, Election Night returns may show a big lead for Trump, and Biden’s true numbers won’t be apparent until several days, maybe even more than a week, later. There is nothing improper or weird about this, and it doesn’t affect the final outcome at all. But the two dangers it presents are:

  • If you don’t know it’s happening, Election Night could be pretty scary!
  • It presents Trump with a week or more to agitate his followers about the “illegitimacy” of the outcome, something that could be enormously disruptive for the country.

So I would recommend fortifying yourself against the first possibility, and all of us being prepared to take appropriate action against the second. Meanwhile, we’ll reconvene in a month to see how things are looking with a month to go!

Four more years? (3 months to go edition!)

countdown

Is it just me, or was that a fast month? When last we gathered with four months to go, Biden’s position was looking very solid, and even better than it had at five months or six months. How are things different at this point?

To start with, the polling numbers have tightened up a little, but not a lot:

BvT

It hasn’t so much been Biden falling out of his usual range as Trump having bounced back a little from a dismal bottom beneath his usual range. Overall, Biden’s position remains very strong. One thing to keep in mind about the RCP average, is that it’s just that- an average. But not all polls are created equal.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, they address this by weighting pollsters according to their history of accuracy (more accurate ones being given more weighting than less accurate ones) and historical partisan skew (adjustments being made to pollsters that are regularly more +D or +R). This more nuanced approach has Biden up by a little more:

538poll

Another useful way to think about the RCP polls is to compare Biden’s YTD numbers with Clinton’s for the same time period in 2016:

This side by side comparison makes immediately apparent that Biden’s 2020 position is much stronger than Clinton’s 2016 position:

  • Biden has never been less than 4 points ahead, compared to Clinton, who was frequently within 2 points, and twice was briefly behind Trump.
  • Biden has been above 48% 2/3 of the time or more, Clinton was above 48% only 1/3 of the time or less.
  • Biden has had several runs above 50%, whereas Clinton was only above 50% for a single day.

Of course, we in America are blessed with that cute little Constitutional anachronism known as the Electoral College, so national polls can only tell one so much. We do have a pretty good idea from 2016 and trends since then what some of the key states will be, and Biden currently leads in all of them. Not only does he lead, he’s well outside the margin of error in every state here except Arizona:

battlegrounds

If we look at RCP’s current “No Toss-Ups” map, Biden is in very strong shape:

NoToss

Even if one just looks at the states where Biden leads by 5 points or more, the map looks like this:

5plus

“But the polls were wrong in 2016!” First of all, no. Polls can be wrong, but they are rarely 5% wrong. Also, in some of the 2016 states, a major problem was that, because they weren’t widely believed to be competitive, the were under-polled. We may be looking at the wrong states now, but for the ones that were surprises last time, they are very well polled this go-around.

Take Michigan as an example. The current RCP average there is based on four major polls that all have data from the last two weeks:

MI

A final useful check-in is on Trump’s net approval numbers in comparative perspective:

NetPop

One can clearly see that, except for a few days right at the beginning of his term, Trump has never had positive net approval numbers, and has consistently lagged every President of the last 50+ years. The only two his current numbers really compare to are Carter and Bush I, first term Presidents who were going to electoral defeat.

So, while the polling numbers have tightened up a  little, by every concrete measure we have, Biden remains in a very strong position. Let’s tune in again in a month (and after the pseudo-conventions and Biden’s VP pick to boot!) to see what things look like two months out!