Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Favorite Music 2020

Well a plus of the social distancing of the pandemic and the inability to travel back to my homeland for the holidays was that I had plenty of time as the Fall semester wrapped up to do a deep dive into recent music. Looking at these it seems to me that I have a strong musical inclination toward funk/soul, surf guitars, psychedelic rock, post-punk, intelligent lyrics and female vocals. Most of all I appreciate music that reaches down inside and touches me - whether it is the mind, my spirit, or my body. Thank you to the friends and critics that helped point out trails to follow on this musical derive and to the great deity of chance that randomly suggested others. Most of all, thank you to the musicians that move us with their creativity!

A Hero's Death by Fontaines D.C. ["Barely a year after the release of their hugely acclaimed debut album ‘Dogrel’, which earned a Mercury Prize nomination and Album of the Year 2019 at both BBC 6Music and Rough Trade record store, Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. have returned with an intensely confident, patient, and complex follow up album. ‘A Hero’s Death’ arrives battered and bruised, albeit beautiful - a heady and philosophical take on the modern world, and its great uncertainty."]

Alphabetland by X [After a 27 year hiatus X releases one of their best albums. "Alphabetland is the eighth studio album by American punk rock band X. Released digitally in April 2020, it is their first studio release in 27 years and the first with their original line-up in the past 35 years. X released the album with no prior announcement to coincide with the 40th anniversary of their debut album Los Angeles and credited songwriting to all four members for the first time in their career."]

American Head by The Flaming Lips [I expect spirit lifting, head spinning, spacey narratives from The Flaming Lips and they definitely have all of that in this album. It came out when I was feeling massive stress adjusting to teaching online for the first time during a pandemic and it provided me with many moments of just letting go with the flow of their music/lyrics.]

Anywhere But Here by Habibi [“The Wound is the place where the Light enters you.” - Rumi
Detroit Iranian-American band interweaves American style garage, surf and psychedelic rock with Persian cultural influences to produce a music that is unique and hypnotic. All of this is fronted with female vocal harmonies that express a grungy positivity that is much needed in these times.]

Black Pumas (Deluxe Edition) by Black Pumas [A 2019 debut album re-released in 2020 with a second album of excellent covers. This band makes my heart ache and my feet move. "Black Pumas is an American psychedelic soul band based in Austin, Texas, led by singer/songwriter Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada."]

Celebrated by Strangers by Catholic Action [Second album from the Glasgow band. "On their 2020 follow-up Celebrated By Strangers, the four-piece led by singer, guitarist and producer Chris McCrory, are firing on all cylinders again, ready to remind you that guitar solos still rule—if they’re as interesting and well-executed as these, that is. While their debut album delivered its fair share of peculiarities, Celebrated By Strangers is peppered with even more moments of unexpected zest. For one thing, the album begins with horns sputtering out of control—it sounds like the outro of a drawn-out, improvisational jazz number. But it eventually glides into those playfully coy guitars, always transmitted with a distinct tone that makes Catholic Action immediately recognizable. Their guitar pop fundamentals are always treated as the number one priority, but they have the ability to adorn their music with mystifying production or instrumental quirks that don’t overshadow the songs. Somehow, the wonky percussion and Renaissance organ-like guitars on “Witness” only heighten the song’s charm and slightly absurd theme." -- Lizzie Manno]

Color Theory by Soccer Mommy ["Following Clean, Soccer Mommy (real name Sophie Allison) became especially vocal about her struggles with body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety. These challenges lay solely at the periphery of Clean’s tales about youthful, regretful romantic breakdowns and insecurities, but on her eagerly anticipated Clean follow-up color theory, Allison bravely pulls her mental illness from the sidelines to the forefront, and she also tackles a grave subject she’s spoken about far less frequently: her mother’s terminal cancer. Success neither curing mental illness nor reversing a parent’s medical death sentence is a lot for a 22-year-old to face, but Allison is more than up to the task. color theory is an astounding feat of lyricism as clever as it is devastating, and Allison’s songwriting, production and voice are likewise orders of magnitude stronger than they were on Clean, recalling ’90s alt radio while pushing Soccer Mommy in galvanizing new directions." —Max Freedman]

Cutting Grass Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Session) by Sturgil Simpson [From Saving Country Music“On Volume 2, we recorded everything I was too afraid to do on Volume 1… It’s hard to deny that this is a much more personal record. I was thinking about my kids, my grandfather, my wife,” Sturgill says of the album. It includes numerous tracks from his Grammy award-winning album from 2016, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which he wrote after the passing of his grandfather, the birth of his first son, and includes the song “Oh Sarah” about his wife, first recorded in his band Sunday Valley. Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 also includes a version of the song “You Can Have The Crown” that Sturgill had previously retired from performing, with a slight lyrics change. The album also ends with a song called “Hobo Cartoon,” which Sturgill says was co-written with Merle Haggard. Named after the infamous Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa where Country Music Hall of Famer and producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement plied his craft for many years, the record features an additional 11 songs from the Sturgill Simpson repertoire done bluegrass style."]

Dreamland by Zelma Stone [A pure, raw, stunning, beautiful channeling of grief "into a healing process of creation, this five-song cycle has a palpable sense of resilience, compassion, and vulnerability in its slowly swaying bedroom pop." I hope to hear more from this San Francisco artist!]

Fetch the Boltcutters by Fiona Apple [Stunning lyrics and musical innovation. I wish I could see this live! The title song pretty much sums up a lot of our feelings at the end of pandemic 2020. "Rooted in experimentation, the album largely features unconventional percussion. While conventional instruments, such as pianos and drum sets, do appear, the album also features prominent use of non-musical found objects as percussion. Apple described the result as "percussion orchestras". These industrial-like rhythms are contrasted against traditional melodies, and the upbeat songs often subvert traditional pop structures."]

FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You've Been Waiting For by Illuminati Hotties [12 songs in 26 minutes - love this energetic strangeness "With a solid black album cover and no credits to be found, buzz about the album started to swirl on social media—though that probably wouldn’t have happened if the album wasn’t so mind-numbingly good. Fans immediately began to speculate about whether this was a supergroup whose members included the indie artists tweeting the link, but a close ear would tell you that Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties is indeed on lead vocals, later spelling out her band name several times on track seven “Content / Bedtime.” It was later confirmed as a new Illuminati Hotties mixtape, and it’s a big step up from their 2018 debut Kiss Yr Frenemies. It’s bolder, punkier and has some of the best rock hooks in recent memory. On their 12 songs (with goofy, lowercase track titles) and less than half-hour run time, you’ll hear tinges of phat electro-rock, invigorating riot grrrl and delectable twee-pop. —Lizzie Manno"]

Fresh Kills, Vol. 2 by Night Birds [Actually a compilation of earlier material released in 2020, but I had never heard of them before so I am including it. A New Jersey punk band with a surf punk sound complete with a heavy emphasis on the guitar sound endemic of the genre. They are also quite capable of slipping into thrash mode, in fact the release starts off with a couple of songs in full thrash mode before turning to the surf punk sound. The names of two of their previous albums demonstrate their punk wit: 'Mutiny at Muscle Beach' (2015) and 'Born to Die in Suburbia' (2013)] 

Heavy Light by US Girls ["Her most referential work to date, Heavy Light is defined by an inward-facing well of civic unrest, with Remy foregoing the prescriptive style of her manifesto-like 2018 album In a Poem Unlimited. The record’s name is itself a reference to Franz Kafka (“Faith, like a guillotine. As heavy as light.”), and Remy merges the ideals of the realist movement with narratives of experiential, hometown frustration. ... Largely, the album is a move to activism of consent: She isn’t making assumptions about what people want or how they feel; they have to want it, too, and need to get there in their own right." — Austin Jones]

I Grow Tired But Dare Not Sleep by Ghostpoet [When I was a college student I would haunt used record stores seeking classic and obscure spoken word albums. Stand-up (e.g. Lenny Bruce), slam poetry (e.g. Saul Williams), word jazz (e'g. Ken Nordine), poetic musings (e.g. the compilation Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness), musicians (Serge Gainsbourg), everything, the true delights were when I found an artist that matched their word play with tight, provocative music - that was magic! I mean that literally - spoken words and rhythmic music, ritual magic that feeds the spiritual needs of the tribe and solidifies the connections in the frenzied movement it ignites. So finding this UK musician brought this all back to mind and reminded me of those heady days of being drunk on the possibilities of words and music. Also, what a title for an album 'I Grow Tired but Dare Not Fall Asleep' ... one can imagine it came upon him at night, drunk on poetic language, a stub of a pencil falling out of his hand, pages scattered about, eyes glazed and mind afire ...]  

Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens ["Dream pop and techno might be vastly different genres, but they share a common goal. Where dream pop’s glimmering, reverb-soaked guitars and keyboards entrance listeners into a listless stupor, techno’s clattering 808s and simple, repetitive rhythms keep the party going. While these modi operandi at first seem diametrically opposed, a closer look reveals that both genres impart enchantment, nirvana, hypnosis and even healing—a night out at the rave is as palliating as an evening splayed out listening to Teen Dream. Welsh songwriter-producer Kelly Lee Owens understands these genres’ powerful overlap more than any other musician in recent memory. With her sophomore album Inner Song, however, Owens potentially opens herself to a much wider audience. A thrilling, dynamic LP that overflows with life, Inner Song is full of dance floor devotionals that easily rank among her most accessible creations to date. If Kelly Lee Owens gently opened the door between dream pop and techno, Inner Song rushes through it and builds a world where ecstatic, curative, untethered electronic sounds abound." — Max Freedman]

It's Only Us by Monophonics ["With a timeless sound that blends heavy soul and psych-rock, Monophonics have built a reputation over the past decade as one of the best live bands in the country. Led by singer Kelly Finnigan, the band of has drawn on their colorful history — both their experiences as veteran touring performers and as individuals growing up in the Bay Area — to create “It’s Only Us,” their fourth release since 2012. A reflection of what they see as the current state of the world, the record touches on difficult subjects such as broken relationships, mental health issues, gun violence and power struggles, all with an underlying message of unity, resilience and acceptance. The band’s signature style of arrangement has been expanded with top-notch production and creative instrumentation to round out the Monophonics’ trademark soul sound, while Finnigan’s vocals are more powerful than ever. At times these tracks can feel classic, as familiar as an old song you grew up with, while simultaneously raising questions about the state of music in 2020 and what the future might hold."]

Lianne La Havas by Lianne La Havas ["Lianne La Havas is the self-titled third studio album by British singer Lianne La Havas. The album was released on 17 July 2020. Released after a five-year hiatus and written following La Havas' break-up, the album was inspired by the life cycle of nature and its ability to thrive, go away, and come back stronger. ... Lianne La Havas is a concept album with a song cycle that depicts the stages of a relationship, from early romance to demise. The albums musical style was inspired by Milton Nascimento, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorious, Al Green, and Destiny's Child, resulting in a predominately neo soul album with elements of jazz and folk. Upon release, the album was met with rave reviews from critics, who praised the album's eclectic musical style and lyrical exploration." - Lizzie Manno] 

Miss Colombia by Lido Pimienta ["Colombia-born and Toronto-based artist Lido Pimienta shared her second album Miss Colombia earlier this year via ANTI- Records. Pimienta won the Polaris Music Prize for her 2016 debut La Papessa (the first artist recording in a language other than English or French to take home the award), and her Polaris Prize-nominated (and Grammy-nominated) follow-up is even more ambitious. Mixing electro-pop, industrial and reggaeton music with cumbia rhythms, Miss Colombia is a fearless album about identity, resistance and pain. —Lizzie Manno"]

More From the Levee by Chris Smither [OK, I looked up the long, illustrious career of this excellent folk singer and it seems I must have been living in a cave to have missed out on him until this time. This album is full of strong, hard-earned, wisdom and I could imagine sitting around a fire in a forest at night time listening to these songs.]

Nombrar las Cosas by Michelle Blades [Name Things! Indeed. I enjoyed the vocals and music so much I dived into her back catalog and found a treasure trove. "Mexican-Panamian artist Michelle Blades brings a vast range of influences to her unique transcontinental post-psych. Born into a family of salsa musicians, Blades has a rich musical history that includes the Arizona-based noise rock band called North Dakota and the French synthpop group Fishbach." - Jasmine Albertson]

Piano Works by Gabríel Ólafs [Gabríel Ólafs originally composed these when he was a teenager (14 - 18) and performed on Icelandic TV for the first time at 19. He revisits these works in this 2020 releases (I think he is 20 or 21 now). Perfect music for unwinding, reflection, cooking, studying, yoga, creativity ...]

Reunions by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit ["Jason Isbell isn’t the kind of guy you’d think of as haunted, but he’s surrounded by ghosts on his new album. Some of them are the literal shades of people he (or his narrators) once knew who are gone now. Others are figurative: past selves, maybe, lingering in the shadows that memory casts. Together, they’re the spirits that constitute Reunions, Isbell’s latest LP with his band The 400 Unit, and the follow-up to his 2017 release The Nashville Sound. ... Isbell has both smarts and perspective, and each seems to increase a little bit more from one album to the next. He’s always been an empathetic songwriter with a distinctive willingness to see the world from a point of view other than his own. Like any good storyteller, Isbell creates characters, and he has a storyteller’s ability to bring them to life by infusing them with enough of his own experiences, be it sobriety or fatherhood, to make their struggles and small triumphs resonate." - Eric R. Danton]

Somewhere by Gum Country ["There’s nothing better than a band fully aware of their sound—not in the sense of knowing their limitations, but knowing their strengths so well that they can deliver as many satisfying moments as possible. Courtney Garvin and Connor Mayer know they have you wrapped around their finger with the steamy self-described “harsh twee” of their new project Gum Country—or at least it sounds like they do. Pulling from noise, avant pop, college rock and classic indie, it’s clear they know their stuff. After all, this isn’t Garvin’s first indie-pop outing. She played lead guitar in The Courtneys, a Vancouver trio who released two full-length albums of fuzzy power pop—most recently 2017’s The Courtneys II. Drawing on Flying Nun bands like 3Ds and The Bats (as well as Sarah Records groups like Brighter and Heavenly), they fittingly found themselves releasing music for the classic Kiwi indie label as well. While The Courtneys’ sound is centered primarily on driving, harmony-laced indie pop, Gum Country push this sound even further on their debut LP Somewhere. Front and center, Garvin ramps up the fuzz, and Mayer adds eccentric synth flourishes—making for a sound that’s more mature, but as equally carefree as before." —Lizzie Manno]

Stray by Bambara [Deep vocals, layered in heavy music, conveying stories along the lines of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Morphine and Wall of Voodoo - noirish. Originating from Athens, GA music scene now in Brooklyn, NY. "While the music itself is evocative and propulsive, a fever dream all of its own, the lyrical content pushes the record even further into its own darkly thrilling realm. If the songs on Shadow On Everything were like chapters in a novel, then this time they’re short stories. Short stories connected by death and its effect on the characters in contact with it. “Death is what you make it” runs a lyric in “Sweat,” a line which may very well be the thread that ties the pages of these stories together. But it would be wrong to characterize Stray as simply the sound of the graveyard. Light frequently streams through and, whether refracted through the love and longing found on songs like “Made for Me” or the fantastical nihilism on display in tracks like the anthemic “Serafina,” reveals this album to be the monumental step forward that it is. Here Bambara sound like they’ve locked into what they were always destined to achieve, and the effect is nothing short of electrifying."]

 There is No Year by Algiers ["There Is No Year encompasses future-minded post-punk R&B from the trapped heart of Atlanta, where they began; to industrial soundscapes à la 4AD-era Scott Walker or Iggy & Bowie’s Berlin period; to something like the synthetic son of Marvin Gaye and Fever Ray. The whip-tight rhythm section of Ryan Mahan and Matt Tong (ex-Bloc Party) moves back and forth from infectious menace to sci-fi soundtrack to big band fever dream, seamlessly syncing fresh continuity. Mahan’s beat programming and synth constructions fill out the fibrous threshold, while Tesche’s sound-sleeves and aural-layering shapeshift into a richly polished means of exploration, revealing more and more the deeper you delve. “This is the sowing / Of the whirlwind,” Fisher sings on “Repeating Night.” “Don’t forget it’s us against them.” There’s something more behind the curtain of our daily-headlined pain, the album’s title seems to suggest—something even larger at stake than rage, or even revolution; which is exactly what Algiers’ music appears to have resolved itself to channel, and to wield. Their essence on There is No Year is a statement of their defiance, their desire to feel and be human even beyond the necessary fight back, sprawling head-on into the burning wind of doubt and fear and all it’s claimed, arriving on the far side of calamity more alive than ever." - Blake Butler]

Ttrruuces by Ttrruuces [English psychedelic rock from Jules Apollionaire and Natalie Findlay. This debut is a rock opera and while that genre is fraught with egoism and pretensions, I think they pull it off marvelously. The story of Sadie (Sad Girl) and Syd (Lost Boy) as they navigate a troubled world seeking transcendence and ecstasy. I'm rooting for them :) The narrative isn't always clear, for me it is the sounds that will keep me coming back. Extra points for some engaging and amusing videos (especially "Sensations of Cool" and this reworked live video during the summer pandemic of "I'm Alive" ).]

Untitled (Black Is) - SAULT ["The album of the Movement has arrived—and every second of it is glorious. Last year, a mysterious soul group named Sault arrived out of nowhere with two albums, titled 5 and 7. No one knew the identities of its musicians, and the albums were released on an independent label, but they drew rapturous acclaim. 5 and 7 were feasts of rhythmic and exuberant Afrobeat, soul, funk and R&B—the songs are passionate, radiant, radical and rooted in rich Black musical traditions (which, by extension, are the same roots of most popular genres). They were unexpected triumphs, but after releasing two albums in the same year, one might’ve figured Sault would go silent—at least for a little while. But earlier this year, something incredible happened—they surprise-released another album, Untitled (Black Is). On June 12, they posted a square image of a Black power fist on socials with the caption: “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening … We are focused.” The languid synthesizers on “Eternal Life,” the fury-filled shared vocals on “Stop Dem,” the jazzy guitars on “This Generation” and the skittering beats on “Black” make up a rich tapestry of soul, funk and gospel music. While there are nods to Motown, these aren’t your parents’ classic soul records—you’re hearing the eccentricities, voices and personalities of today and tomorrow." — Lizzie Manno]

More Music 2020:

Saraya Brewer's local/regional tribute which I am going to catch with next Best of Kentucky 2020 

Live fireside performances by poet and singer-songwriter Wesley Houp

In the early days of the pandemic when I was home alone as a single person, as everything was shutting down, Jeanne-Vomit Terror had a series of live performances that soothed my nighttime nerves and made it feel like I wasn't alone. Their next one is on New Year's Eve 

My super cool neighbors, Nathan Smith and Leland Miller, that jam next door and keep me updated on new musical trends. They have asked me a couple of times to do some vocals and I was hesitant, but Ghostpoet is giving me some ideas of how I could intertwine my writings to their music.

I was trying to think what was the last live show that I saw. It seems so long ago, I think it was Rising Appalachia 

Live on KEXP - my favorite live music podcast. Like most of us, they transformed what they do as a result of the pandemic, and I appreciate their new format that includes excellent biographical introductions to the bands before they perform. It provides a good context for the new music I am listening to.

Love That Album - my favorite retrospective music show

My favorite recording of a live performance Illuminati Hotties 22 set FREE I.H. Live at BetaWave TV

William Pauley III Best of 2020 on Spotify (131 songs, 11 hrs)

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