My Top Album of 2020 was Room on Fire by The Strokes

The Strokes in 2003. Photo Credit: Colin Lane

Whose culture is this and does anybody know?/I wait and tell myself, life ain’t chess/But no one comes in and yes, you’re alone/You don’t miss me, I know

The date was March 16, 2020. I got a text from my boss. He said he was really sorry but not to bother coming into work: “Looks like Cuomo is going to shut it down by the end of the day.” Which he did, shortly after. The lockdown order had descended upon New York City. And so began my two month period of pure isolation, before we all started cheating a little bit here and there, with clandestine coffee in the park and what not.

This year tried everyone differently, our traumas and baggage as unique to one another as the circumstances that surrounded our lives pre-COVID. Me? I’m a single 28-year-old woman, living in a small one bedroom apartment off of Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Queens. I have no roommates save a twenty-pound black cat named Luca. He would remain my only companion for all those weeks except for the thirty-something union plumber who visited every two weeks to supply me with a fresh half ounce, smoke a joint with me and see how I was holding up. Besides that it was just me and the cat.

In the early days of the lockdown, I listened to no music at all. I realized that in this isolation, to feel any kind of emotion was dangerous, and what does music do but evoke emotion? So I listened to podcasts and watched the longest Martin Scorsese films I could find to pass the hours while I feverishly kept my hands busy with cross-stitch projects, this soundtrack punctuated by the sounds of sirens blaring through my neighborhood on the way to Elmhurst Hospital, which CNN kept calling “the epicenter of the epicenter.”

In those days I realized the extent to which we rely on the validation of others, be it your coworkers or the barista at the coffee shop by your house, to remind ourselves of our likeability, that we are not alone in the world. I found myself without that resource. I turned off my music and searched inward to see what was there. I went for long runs around Queens, logging miles around the numerous cemeteries that surrounded Ridgewood. I could run with my mask around my chin, because the only people there were already dead. I tried to picture myself post-lockdown, Charlize Theron in Mad Max, carved out of stone and devoid of feeling.

That’s just a phase, it’s got to pass/I was a train moving too fast

When Lindsey Rhoades, Audiofemme’s Editor-in-Chief, approached me for my list of favorite albums of the year, as she does at the end of every year, I realized I had listened to virtually no new music this year. But when Spotify released our year end data, I looked through my most-listened-to songs and found that The Strokes’ Room on Fire was one of the most represented albums on that list. Never mind that The Strokes released The New Abnormal, their sixth album (and first in seven years) in 2020 – Room on Fire was one of my favorite albums in high school, and it got me thinking of the comforts of the past, the way I could mutter the words along softly from the recesses of my memory, giving me this sort of blissed out haze, not unlike the concept of ambient television as raised in the New Yorker recently.

But why that album? For one, as I mentioned, it felt familiar and comforting. But I also think it has something to do with its rampant themes of detachment – “I never needed anybody,” Casablancas repeats on the chorus of “Between Love & Hate” – paired with a deep longing for intimacy. On each track it seems as though our narrator cares deeply but masks it with apathy, as if to say that something meaningful meant nothing at all to him. 

Summer arrived. The sounds of sirens were replaced by the sounds of protests and the fireworks that exploded twenty-four hours a day. It was a shock to the system, that after all those months of silence in my Queens apartment I found myself on the streets surrounded by thousands of others. I cringe at the consciousness of my own privilege to say that it took these tragic circumstances for me to feel something like purpose or community again. But like so many other things this year, it is what it is. 

Summer also brought with it a cautious return to socializing, for better or for worse. This was, and is, controversial of course. I know that some who reads this may judge my perceived irresponsibility and selfishness. In fact, I acknowledge my irresponsibility and selfishness, but I’d also retort that we’re all just doing our best to get by. Single and exhausted with the oppressive isolation of my apartment, I hopped on the dating apps with a sort of manic hunger for intimacy. I haven’t found it yet, not in a lasting way, anyway. What I have found are other tired souls desperate for a connection, as ephemeral as a night or a week or a month. It’s proved draining for me. Lately my anxiety of isolation in the initial lockdown has been replaced by the anxiety of being isolated that way again, an imagined race to cuff myself to another body before Cuomo shuts it down again. I eat less these days and I started smoking cigarettes again, some regression to my 21-year-old self who eschews the careful routine of self-care I have cultivated in all that time.  

Never was on time, yes, I once was mine/Well, that was long ago and darling, I don’t mind

Where does that leave me now? Surely sitting on my fire escape, listening to “Meet Me in the Bathroom” again and smoking a cigarette, like a cliché. Lately I feel somehow less like myself and more like myself than ever. Less like myself in the sense that I never saw myself a real smoker again, a little boy crazy the way I was ten years ago and listening to the same indie rock albums I loved in high school. But more like myself for the same reasons I guess, that these facets of my being have somehow meshed with the person I’ve grown to be since then. I believe the major difference is that I’ve achieved some level of personal resilience, a gift with which this year has blessed me. I’m reminded of all my other blessings, my tiny home and my cat and all the friends who check on me. That I still have income. And the greatest blessing of all – that I have not personally lost anyone to COVID yet. The weight of that loss feels immense when you consider how many lives three hundred thousand can touch.

Two weeks ago I had a first date in my living room with a painter I met on Hinge. It was snowing outside and we drank hot toddies on my sofa. Normally I wouldn’t have a first date in my home, but the weather was bad and my pandemic fatigue has left me unwilling to imagine any more creative ideas for dates. I told him I was thinking of writing this essay and he agreed that it was a great album. He said he wanted to see me again but hasn’t made any plans.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll be fine. 

Here’s to 2021.
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