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Our "Pleasurably Bleak" duo makes Popmatters' Top 50 for 2020

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

One of the very few bits of good news Mark and I received last year came in early December when Popmatters included our album, American Bardo, in their top 50 Americana albums of 2020: The 25 Best Americana Albums of 2020.

I write "50" because Popmatters ranked their top 25 and included 25 honorable mentions in the article. We were not ranked with some of my favorites like Drive-By Truckers (#11), Bruce Springsteen (#24), Neil Young (# 8), and Bob Dylan (#9), but we were given honorable mention along with some of my other favorites like Jeff Tweedy, John Moreland, and My Morning Jacket. As my friend and former producer Randy Ray Mitchell said, "Congrats E! You are tucked in there with some good company!"

We released our four-song EP, This Mortal Farce, in October of 2020, and this critically-acclaimed EP was actually a continuation of our American Bardo project--so I think it deserves honorable mention with American Bardo's honorable mention. Two of the songs on This Mortal Farce--"Old Eyes" and "Seen So Much"--are actually better examples of our Americana style than many of the American Bardo songs.

Being clueless about promotion and press, I turned to my publicist, James Moore of Independent Music Promotions, to ask what being a Popmatters honorable mention meant. Here's his reply:

"The recognition from Popmatters is quite a big deal. It's a superb accolade, and they're quite respected. In fact, I've scoured their year-end lists many times before to decide which new music to explore."

Needless to say, we were thrilled ... but you can also imagine our surprise when we saw no significant bump in streaming on Spotify after the list came out. Such is the music biz in the 21st century, I guess.

In addition to being ranked, the top 25 on PM's list were listed with a music video or Bandcamp player for readers to enjoy while reading the article. I thought there should be something similar for the twenty-five honorable mentions so I made a Spotify playlist with all of PM's top 50 for 2020 (see song 26 and beyond).

I included all fifty so that people like James would only have to go to this playlist to hear all of the artists who made PM's list. For the top 25, I kept the rank and I usually used the song Popmatters used--unless there was another song I liked better. For the honorable-mention 25, I listed them in the order they appeared in the article and used their Spotify-ranked number one or two song from the 2020 album which PM listed them for.

After making this playlist, I came away with three new artists I follow--and three new amazing songs for my Spotify "Liked Songs" list: The Secret Sisters' "He's Fine," Stephanie Lambring's "The Joy of Jesus," and Front Country's "How Can You Sing." Great stuff and we are honored to be listed with these talents.

In fact, we are extremely grateful to be included on Popmatters' 2020 list, and we are extremely grateful to PM itself. We are especially grateful to one of the PM writers, Jonathan Frahm, who has consistently given our music excellent reviews (usually for his other publication, For Folk's Sake). We suspect that Jonathan nominated American Bardo for the PM list.

I do, however, want to take issue with one aspect of the article that accompanied the list. The subheading of the article is one way to introduce what was a bit off for me about PM's list:

"In 2020, Americana artists empathetically dealt with the things that bind us together and keep us apart. The albums on this list encourage hope for the future based on a belief in the human spirit."

I didn't do a deep dive into how optimistic the albums on this list actually are, but I don't think it is too risky to conclude that many examples to the contrary could easily be found--examples that would be in addition to our very Buddhist and, therefore, somewhat bleak (hopefully, pleasurably bleak) album, American Bardo.

I guess, if Popmatters wants its readers to listen to the music, it is probably best to fib a little in the direction of the glass half full. I'm not sure "pleasurably bleak" is actually a thing and, if it is, it probably is not a commercially viable thing.

Actually, the novel our album was based on, George Saunders' Booker-prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo, was very much "pleasurably bleak" and, I'm sure, a commercial success. It was hilarious and beautiful but also based on a metaphysics that must strike any I-centric Westerner as somewhat bleak. I'm not sure what gets reborn in Buddhism, but it is not the all-important "I" or self:

I also don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say that most of these albums got made--for sure most of the songs on them were written--before the pandemic. Furthermore, who can write an album's worth of songs and then get them produced within the nine or so months where the pandemic overlapped with 2020? That is--who besides huge artists like Taylor Swift who has a team of writers, engineers, and producers working hard to give her what she wants? Did they only include albums that came out in November or December? American Bardo was released in July of 2020.

Mark and I have been writing a collection of pandemic songs and we have worked with our producer, Mike Butler, to get them released during the pandemic, if not in 2020. In fact, we are still writing, recording, and producing songs for this pandemic collection we call "music in the time of coronavirus."

So far, our efforts have manifested in two pandemic releases. The first release was our single, "Careful Now My Son" (December 2020), which we managed to release not long after the Popmatters list came out in early December, and our 8-song LP Sirens Go By, which we released on February 11, 2021.

Only the single, "Careful Now My Son," was released in 2020. The rest of our "music in the time of coronavirus" releases will be in 2021: our five-song EP, Stuck Inside, and the project we are currently writing songs for, our fifth full-length album as a duo, Variant Blues. We had hoped that the pandemic would be shorter so we initially thought our collection would only have three releases.

American Bardo was made from the fall of 2018--when we released the demo version of "Matterbloomlight"--through to the summer of 2020 when it was released. Almost all of the writing for American Bardo and This Mortal Farce happened in the spring and summer of 2019.

I still think the important question here is--even if the songs were written during and about the pandemic--were all of the albums hopeful in the way PM describes them? Again, our album wasn't. It certainly was not a hopeful reflection on 2020 and the pandemic.

Our "music in the time of coronavirus" collection continues to be a reflection on the pandemic and the trauma of Trump and his disastrously huge cult. "Hopeful" would not be how I describe this collection either. It could be more "pleasurably bleak." Maybe that's why we don't make many of these year-end lists. I still hold out hope that Sirens Go By or Variant Blues might make PM's 2021 Americana list. I'm hopeful even if the music is not.

Eric Anders, 2/13/21


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