Ashley Janelle McMurray

FOCUS // 21 RECORDS THAT MADE ME A BETTER LISTENER IN THE YEAR THAT CHALLENGED EVERYTHING

It boggles the mind that it’s actually been one whole year since I was texting Nikk my selections for the Top 25, desperately dancing through terminals at McKarren Airport. Like yesterday, I can recall plowing through overzealously priced beer and nachos with headphones on, trying to make sure I hadn’t missed anything too egregious in the submissions while rerouting an upcoming tour. It might seem like a lot, but this chaos was relatively average for anyone playing music in 2019.

So for a while there, when the first quarantines kicked in around March, I was scratching at the walls like a rabid dog. Pretty much up to July, I was foaming at the mouth trying to keep myself occupied the way I did before. But eventually, I had to direct my attention elsewhere. When the knee-jerk reactions of grief began to fade, the energy stayed, and yielded a kind of sustainable energy.

It took a lot of time, but with some meditation, I actually started to find true joy in listening to music again. Wave after wave of fantastic new albums, livestreams, and pre-recorded sets rose up from the wreckage. It felt like my love for music had been reignited, and as far as I could tell, I was far from alone.

And that was just the beginning.

A whole new wave of artists were giving away stems for listeners to remix. Developers were giving out free software to pass the time safely indoors. Pedal manufacturers were raffling limited edition masterpieces in solidarity of vital social progress. In that brief moment, things were scary as hell, but the way that some of us came together was truly inspirational.

Whenever we create something, it’s easy to get caught up in technique or inspiration without realizing it. These tangents can occasionally distract us from the original point, and with art, that’s not always a bad thing. For some people, this just a part of their process; for others, it’s a matter of capitalism. But for most it comes down to a precarious balance of both, and rarely is that a successful one.

Personally, I had pretty much gone numb with routine by 2017. I was in several bands at once, all of them technically demanding, each with their own needs and agendas. It certainly taught me a lot about grind. Yet the sheer din of it all made listening to new music with any kind of meaningful presence a chore, even impossible at times. I still loved music, but deep down I knew that I was suffering way more than I needed to for it. Wasn’t it supposed to make me happy? Wasn’t this my life’s goal?

The power of perception is a funny thing. I realized how much I’d been handicapping myself through various internal narratives. The more I opened up to other ways of thinking, the more meaningful things slid back into place. Day by day, I was slowly remembering how to be happy. In fact, you might have even been there!

Several readers witnessed this change in real time through our IGTV series, where talking to bands like Town Portal, Floral, and TTNG actually helped me piece a lot of this together. 2020 gave us many things, including the chance to revolutionize the norm, wherever we are. In many ways, I believe we already have. I hope those interviews continue to serve you well as we cautiously make our way to the new year. There is a whole lot more where that came from.

We have a lot of exciting things teed up for 2021 as well, here and elsewhere. I can’t wait to share them with you as time allows. Until then, enjoy this list. These are 21 records from this year that helped me think deeper, listen harder, and enjoy every minute of it. Stay safe, stay amazing, and thanks for all the music.

I wish I could share all of the records I loved here, but hindsight being 2020… you know the rest.