EC 30: my favorite albums of 2020

by Dave Heaton

“I used to think the world was true and now I’m not so sure” – Katie Pruitt, “Searching for the Truth”

2020 was a horrific year and if we’re pretending otherwise, God help us all. It was hard to find time to write about music in a year when “hanging in there” became the default answer to “how are you?”. The end-of-year horse-race feels so irrelevant when friends, family and fellow humans are struggling, hurting, dying. When the very fabric of ‘ordinary life’ is crumbling around us.

Yet it was an extraordinary year for music, at least as good as any recent year I can remember.

Generalizing, from my POV, 2020 was:

  • Yet another year where women made the best music but received less of the promotional/industry attention (in some genres especially).
  • A year dominated, again, by forward-thinking jazz centered around Chicago, London, and a handful of other major metropolitan areas. Jazz, old and new, was one of the best balms during this rollercoaster year.
  • The year of disco. The pulse of disco ran through several of 2020’s best pop albums. Was it the absence of in-person community this year that made music about physical, communal connection so attractive?
  • A year to look beyond the US, for exploring new music. While my list, tastes and life are US-focused, I went down many rabbit holes of music from around the world – especially African pop music.
  • Yet another year demonstrating how hip-hop has replaced rock as the underlying spirit beneath our musical language, across genres, globally. Even if I had fewer-than-usual straightahead ‘rap albums’ on my list, it’s in the air throughout the list.
  • A year where I had less time for nonsense. The best music felt sharpened to its own point, connected at every step to its purpose, no matter the genre or style it came wrapped in.

My favorite 30 albums of 2020 are below, with short descriptions. Albums beyond the 30 are grouped together thematically, bringing the total to 141 if I did my math right. This is not an all-inclusive list, I cut a good 50-100 more favorites for the sake of ‘readability’.

I also haven’t taken the time to do a singles list in 2020, though a list of great songs not on these albums would also be incredibly long. (I’ll sneak in 5 songs for good measure – Suboi “Bet On Me”; Lil Baby “The Bigger Picture”; Pongo “Wafu”; Iris DeMent “Going Down to Sing in Texas”; 70 Shine x Nacho “Domino.”)

Albums:

1. Katie Pruitt – Expectations

Genre descriptions like singer-songwriter, folk, country, etc. will go nowhere towards describing: 1)how precisely written these heart-baring songs are 2) her stunning singing 3) the powerful, timely themes about societal repression of individuality and the way that’s internalized by families to horrific impact… 4) …and the way our systems and traditions reinforce all of that repression and lack of mutual understanding 5) how touching and tender the songs describe human connections in the face of that axis of repression 6) how self-analytical and perceptive songs on the verge of sentimentality can be 7) the rebellious spirit within traditional song structures 8) the way a great singer can feel like a friend, confidant, supporter during the course of a simple song 9) how forcefully it introduces Katie Pruitt as a star/anti-star-in-the-making (one can only hope).

2. Cindy – Free Advice

The San Francisco-based band Cindy makes patient, whispery pop that seems to be speaking its own language. Songs that feel wrapped in mystery, almost code-like, but underneath are simple observational stories and letters. Its music that seems easily dismissed with labels or comparisons (‘slowcore’ and similar) but spend much genuine time with it, and its charms and puzzles will win you over.

3. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle

A Cleveland Ohio collective probing the inherent injustice of America, and current end-times mood, within heady, murky soul-funk-electronics-etc workouts that also double as complicated love/betrayal songs. However you describe it, it’s powerful stuff doing deep work on listeners’ minds, bodies and hearts. They describe themselves as, “a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.”

4. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

Disco ‘returned’ in 2020, — providing a virtual sense of body-focused, visceral community during a year lacking it – and this album from the UK pop singer Jessie Ware was its apex. Self-consciously in tribute yet fully, vitally living up to any standards those stylistic references might set. Transcendent, beat to beat.

5. Luke Stewart – Exposure Quintet

A quintet album wrapped up the language and philosophy of free improvisation, which delivers in a diverse and energetic manner all of the listening pleasures which that creative freedom sparks and offers. It starts amped-up and spreads out along the way, as if meant to demonstrate how far focused, creative improv can take us.

6. Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has been behind much of the best music of the past few years – this time leading his ensemble through Afrocentric, spiritual jazz oriented towards looking back at what’s been lost and forward at what’s possible.

7. Luke Schneider – Altar of Harmony

Steel-guitar ambient – taking sounds you think you might recognize and stretching them out to be meditative, beautiful, patient yet also impatient, unsettled, unsure.

8. Alabaster DePlume – To Cy and Lee: Instrumentals, Vol 1.
The best balm for anxious nerves in 2020 was this collection of elegant jazz reveries, inventive and surprising within a placid sunrise/sunset sort of atmosphere.

9. Little Big Town – Nightfall

Fleetwood Mac harmonies within sentimental, carefully crafted now-country sounds has been Little Big Town’s way for a long time now, but here they’ve reached an apex, transcending the intellectual and emotional limitations of their genre’s current state and displaying a well-rounded, almost-wisdom.

10. Fenne Lily – Breach

On her second album Fenne Lily expanded her sound far beyond the ‘indie-folk’ label she’s been given. A gorgeous album, with a layered pop sound. Lonely songs wrestling with anxiety, isolation, and memory — essentially the world we’ll all living in right now – handled with panache and guts.

11. Moses Boyd – Dark Matter

Led by drummer/producer/composer Boyd, another funky London jazz masterwork – this one especially eclectic, with big-band buoyancy melting into almost trip-hop club music. Moody poetry, electric guitar and complex rhythms are all in the mix.

12. Ariana Grande – Positions

The pop superstar’s latest – her best — is personal and playful, its erotic wordplay and subtly experimental melodic forms lending the album its own individual style. Trauma is woven throughout as a theme, the creativity a form of healing.

13. Keeley Forsyth – Debris

Debris is a title and a mood (opening lyric: “the streets are filled with debris”). Forsyth’s voice pierces in stunning but also unsettling ways, while the songs traffic in the same feeling, embodying and arising from depression.

14. Azana – Ingoma

The young South African singer Azana has an elegant way with pop/soul ballads evocative at times of ‘90s R&B, at others of something smooth like Sade. Ingoma means “song”, and beautiful songs, sung well, is the clear focus.

15. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brotherhood – Live

A raw, powerful live album, recorded in Berlin – channeling deep rage against racism’s pervasiveness, at home and abroad.

16. HHY & The Kampala Unit – Lithium Blast

The Uganda underground/electronic label Nyege Nyege Tapes’ releases tend towards beyond-hyper eclecticism. Lithium Blast is smoother yet at least as exciting – a futuristic vibe among vibes, and full of surprises.

17. Killah Priest – Rocket to Nebula

Beatless hip-hop, intergalactic meanderings from a cult hero and one-time Wu-Tang affiliate who is off on his own trajectory, always and forever

18. John Carroll Kirby – My Garden

Kirby has worked with Solange and Frank Ocean, among others; on his debut album the music’s perhaps more in step with ‘70s R&B that those two newer artists draw from. My Garden is sneaky in its persistence, the soul-jazz grooves that take a simple melody and mood and keep on it until it’s hard to shake.

19. Taylor Swift – evermore

Less of an ambitious showpiece than her other 2020 album Folklore, but low-key better, evermore is Swift at her most comfortable yet precise.  

20. Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red

Tongue-twisting hip-hop stylist with a vampire-punk demeanor amps up the gloom and the disavowal of convention, in service of playful nihilism. His music seems so dumb, until you realize the loss and emotion within the anger – which he only lets you see if you keep with him through each track of this uncompromising epic.

21. Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy & Happiness

A ‘90s “one-hit” pop-soul singer I don’t remember returns close to three decades later with a stunning collection of stylish, strangely sci-fi songs chronicling human pain. “My Mind Is Out of Its Mind”, reads one representative title.

22. Lewsberg – In This House

This Dutch band lives in the VU-Feelies zone of a locked-in electric guitar groove that serves as a platform for their noncomformist, anti-rock sort of rock, tied to ‘small’ stories and musings about life.

23. Caitlyn Smith – Supernova

Heartbreak anthems and detailed portraiture, from a singer who marries songwriter-y precision to belt-it-out showmanship; country music, but always resistant to getting too comfortable.

24. Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico

New Mexican bohemians playing UFO pop daydreams.

25. Tiwa Savage – Celia

Longtime, accomplished African singer breaks worldwide, on Motown, with a personal album (named after her mother) where the melodies and beats are light and bubbly, yet the subject matter goes deeper than is at first apparent.

26. Josephine Foster – No Harm Done

Mystic/folk singer with an extensive discography and fairytale voice records in Nashville, puts some gorgeous depth and form around her songcraft, tilting it in a grounded, almost-blues/country direction. One of her best.

27. Jamael Dean – The Ished Tree

Delicate almost to an extreme, this is a gorgeous solo piano jazz album teaming with not just skill but a distinctive, calming atmosphere of its own.

28. Koney – Koney

A crackerjack power-pop band (The ACBS) has turned into a creator of minimalist, enigmatic soft-pop.

29. Caleb Landry Jones – The Mother Stone

Pretentious art-rock s**t from a pretentious movie actor/bohemian. Nightmarish circus music that I love and then want to shut out of my mind forever.

30. The Growth Eternal – Bass Tone Paintings

The title says it all – bass that chases itself into a blissful oblivion, meditations on the world around us, messy as it is.

ALSO RECOMMENDED (in b.s. groupings vaguely by genre, topic or keywords)

‘AMERICANA’ [US mythology exposed]

  • David Dondero – The Filter Bubble Blues
  • Kahil El’Zabar – America the Beautiful
  • Lonnie Holley – National Freedom
  • ­Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band – Just Like Moby Dick

BEATS & RHYMES

  • 42 Dugg – Young & Turnt Vol 2
  • Boldy James and The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China 
  • Boldy James & Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols
  • Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
  • Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats – Unlocked
  • Father – Come Outside We Not Gone Jump You
  • Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
  • Gunna – Wunna
  • Mozzy – Beyond Bulletproof
  • Polo G – The Goat
  • Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation
  • Roy Kinsey – Kinsey: A Memoir
  • Shabazz Palaces – The Don of Diamond Dreams
  • Rod Wave – Pray 4 Love
  • Run the Jewels – RTJ4
  • ShooterGang Kony – Red Paint Reverend
  • Yhung T.O. – Jupiter

SHINY AND RUSTIC (country-ish)

  • Ashley McBryde – Never Will
  • Ashley Ray – Pauline
  • Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
  • Cam – The Otherside
  • Hailey Whitters – The Dream
  • Indigo Girls – Look Long
  • Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
  • Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross
  • Jerry David DeCicca – The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures
  • Joe Ely – Love in the Midst of Mayhem
  • Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels
  • Taylor Swift – Folklore

PROGRESS (jazz)

  • Ambrose Akinmusire – On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
  • Anteloper – Tour Beats, Vol 1
  • Asher Gamedze – Dialectic Soul
  • Carlos Nino & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Chicago Waves
  • Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure
  • Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again
  • Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet – Molecular
  • Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
  • Jeremy Cunningham – The Weather Up There
  • Kamaal Williams – Wu Hen
  • Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings Sides E & F
  • Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Failing
  • Nubya Garcia – The Source
  • Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

MOOD (instrumental/ambient/experimental/etc)

  • Asa Tone – Temporary Music
  • Bing & Ruth – Species
  • David Bird – Mirrors
  • Ezra Feinberg – Recumbent Speech
  • Frankie Reyes – Originalitos
  • Gabriel Birnbaum – Nightwater
  • J. Pavone String Ensemble – Lost & Found
  • Jonas Munk – Minimum Resistance
  • M. Sage – Blessing Redux (vivo relief)
  • Pole – Fading
  • Sarah Davachi – Cantus, Descent
  • Sarah Louise – Earth and Its Contents
  • Windy & Carl – Allegiance and Conviction

POP! (of various stripes)

  • Andrew ‘Hotdog’ Kaffer – Head Band
  • Anna McClellan – I Saw First Light
  • Astrid S – Leave It Beautiful
  • Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
  • Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
  • Demae – Life Works Out…Usually
  • Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
  • Ego Ella May – Honey For Wounds
  • Georgia – Seeking Thrills
  • H. Moon – Trustblood
  • Haim – Women in Music Pt III
  • Jessy Lanza – All the Time
  • Kabza De Small – I Am the King of Amapiano
  • Katie Dey – mydata
  • Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
  • The Legends – The Legends
  • Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately
  • Pia Fraus – Empty Parks
  • Sarkodie – Black Love
  • Terry vs Tori – Heathers
  • Thibault – Or Not Thibault
  • The Very Most – Needs Help

“ROCK” (or maybe these are still pop, I’m not sure…)

  • 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit
  • The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
  • Gum Country – Somewhere
  • Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree – Names of North End Women
  • The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin
  • Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else
  • Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
  • Porridge Radio – Every Bad
  • Shopping – All or Nothing
  • The Stroppies – Look Alive
  • Stutter Steps – Reeling
  • Torres – Silver Tongue
  • Wednesday – I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone

SONGS (“Singer-songwriter” aka intimate music by solo artists not already above)

  • Adam Selzer – Slow Decay
  • Allegra Krieger – The Joys of Forgetting
  • Angelica Garcia – Cha Cha Palace
  • Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming
  • Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part
  • Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners
  • Darren Hayman – Home Time
  • Emma Kupa – It Will Come Easier
  • Jeff London – Trouble Trust
  • Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season
  • Kath Bloom – Bye Bye These Are the Days
  • Mac Miller – Circles
  • Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer
  • Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming
  • Sweet Whirl – How Much Works

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

My 100 Favorite Albums of 2019.

Favorites from all genres (that I listen to). Not a catch-all list; many enjoyable albums were excluded (the list was double the size when I started). All albums were listened to many times (not by streaming, for what it’s worth). I have no time to write about each album, or look up the record label names. Reach out if you want to talk about any of them, I’ll talk your ear off. Best wishes…

  1. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
  2. Cate Le Bon – Reward
  3. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
  4. J Macfarlane’s Reality Guest – Ta Da
  5. Burna Boy – African Giant
  6. Cassadee Pope – Stages
  7. Wand – Laughing Matter
  8. Steve Gunn – The Unseen in Between
  9. Clipping – There Existed an Addiction to Blood
  10. Sarah Louise –Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars
  11. Earthgang – Mirrorland
  12. DAWN – New Breed
  13. Angel Bat Dawid – The Oracle
  14. Boogie – Everything’s for Sale
  15. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
  16. Modern Nature – How to Live
  17. Sigrid – Sucker Punch
  18. Tayla Parx – We Need to Talk
  19. Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium
  20. Hatchie – Keepsake
  21. The Stroppies – Whoosh!
  22. Parsnip – When the Tree Bears Fruit
  23. Little Simz – Grey Area
  24. The Leaf Library – The World Is a Bell
  25. Junius Paul – Ism
  26. Davido – A Good Time
  27. Theon Cross – Fyah
  28. Doja Cat – Hot Pink
  29. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
  30. Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea
  31. Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code
  32. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
  33. Kim Gordon – No Home Record
  34. Maurice Louca – Elephantine
  35. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
  36. NKISI – 7 Directions
  37. Michael Nau – Less Ready to Go
  38. Solange – When I Get Home
  39. Patience – Dizzy Spells
  40. Men I Trust – Oncle Jazz
  41. Lana Del Rey – Norman F_g Rockwell
  42. Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
  43. Mark Mulcahy – The Gus
  44. The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Anxiety Art
  45. Lloyd Cole – Guesswork
  46. Meernaa – Heart Hunger
  47. Seablite – Grass Stains and Novocaine
  48. Dreezy – Big Dreez
  49. Jake Xerxes Fussell – Out of Sight
  50. Rina Mushonga – In a Galaxy
  51. Isasa – Insilio
  52. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
  53. Joe McPhee & Jon Butcher – At the Hill of James Magee
  54. Jeanines – Jeanines
  55. Lauren Jenkins – No Saint
  56. Big Thief – Two Hands
  57. Taylor Swift – Lover
  58. French Vanilla – How Am I Not Myself?
  59. Business of Dreams – Ripe for Anarchy
  60. Garcia Peoples – One Step Behind
  61. Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
  62. Hand Habits – Placeholder
  63. Loren Connors & Daniel Carter – The Departing of a Dream Vol. VII
  64. Fenella – Fenella
  65. Claude Fontaine – Claude Fontaine
  66. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Tracing Back the Radiance
  67. Frankie Cosmos – Close It Quietly
  68. Living Hour – Softer Faces 
  69. Ludovic Alarie – We’re a Dream Nobody Wrote Down
  70. Polo G – Die a Legend
  71. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
  72. Monnone Alone – Summer of the Mosquito
  73. Hallelujah the Hills – I’m You
  74. Possible Humans – Everybody Split
  75. Elva – Winter Sun
  76. Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich – A Tangle of Stars
  77. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
  78. Yhung T.O. – On My Momma 2
  79. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
  80. Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage – Bad Wiring
  81. Simon Scott – Soundings
  82. Sampa the Great – The Return
  83. Ings – Lullaby Rock
  84. Chance the Rapper – The Big Day
  85. Lisa Prank – Perfect Love Song
  86. Jon Pardi – Heartache Medication
  87. Eluvium – Pianoworks
  88. Jay Mitta – Tatizo Pesa
  89. The Catenary Wires’ – ‘til the Morning
  90. Sean O’Hagan – Radum Calls, Radum Calls
  91. Jay Som – Anak Ko
  92. Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats – Anger Management
  93. Guided by Voices – Zeppelin Over China
  94. Randy Houser – Magnolia
  95. Martha – Love Keeps Kicking
  96. Moon Diagrams – Trappy Bats
  97. Mammoth Penguins – There’s No Fight We Can’t Both Win
  98. MelodieGroup – Being & Nothingness
  99. 2 Chainz – Rap or Go to the League
  100. Pure Sounds of Michigan

Amp, “Entangled Time”

Five tracks, 44 minutes; that’s enough time to get truly entangled. Especially at the hands of Amp, the long-running experimental (read: entrancing, gorgeous) project of Richard Walker (aka Richard Amp). It’s currently, and for a while now, a duo, with vocalist Karine Charff.

Amp exists at “the space where noise and melody meet” (their own description). No record sounds exactly alike; some float along while others get closer to ‘songs’. But they feel similar; each are capable of surprise and a state of wonderment. This new one is no exception.

Since the early ’90s Amp has amassed a universe of beautiful recordings. Entangled Time, their first full-length in about eight years, fits right in with them. It’s a ‘bliss out’ — like the name of the Darla Records’ series they contributed to back in 1997 (vol. 4, Perception, a forever classic in my book and one of my all-time favorite works of music for napping to).

“Drifting”, the first track on Entangled Time is called, as it should be. It ends like we’re being carried away by an ocean. The 8-minute “Will-Oh Dreams” is absolutely gorgeous, peaceful and still. It’s here also in an “extended mix” that doubles the time and carries us away with a feeling of gentle transcendence. Drifting, indeed.

Asiahn, “Love Train 2”

At a distance Asiahn’s style of R&B is very 1990s. Up close it’s right in today’s moment. That’s a compliment, not a criticism; her on-point singing harks back to a classic, sometimes underrated period for the genre, while still feeling fresh (which may say something about said period). On Love Train 2, a sequel to a 2017 EP, the production by Cardiak (who’s worked with Rick Ross, Joe Budden, Lloyd Banks, Dr. Dre, J. Cole, dozen of others) perfectly sets up that feeling, sleek yet deep.

The topic at hand is love, plain and simple. Or really it’s honesty. By the third track Asiahn has already described several lies and acts of wrongdoing, on the part of an ex-lover. Her message to potential lovers, and to humanity at large: “mean what you say”.

These 12 songs divide into those about leaving a lover whose “truth is shit”, those where she’s fancying a potential new lover but isn’t sure the timing is right, and those where she’s full-on surrendering to a new love, confident that this time they’ll be real with each other.

Somewhere in between are a few moments of sheer pleasure — for example “Drip”, a glacial slow jam about bodies speaking the same language for lovers who verbally do not.  As the album proceeds, the balance shifts from lies to truth, mistrust to surrender. The 40-second closing song “Stuck” is a final love note, or really a prayer – “I wanna be stuck in love with you”.

Dolphin Midwives, “Liminal Garden”

“Dolphin-assisted births are a thing”, proclaimed the headline of a 2013 Time article about dolphins serving as midwives for human births. But let’s forget about that for a second; focus on Dolphin Midwives, the musical project of Portland harpist Sage Fisher.

Harpist, you say? Yes, and singer too, but while listening I mostly forget about what instruments were used to make the music, and instead get lost in the transformative, fanciful, otherworldly music. Voices are instruments are manipulated and layered, getting us to focus on the whole more than each part.

Classify this as ambient or New Age, but this is not background music. It’s more riveting, attention-grabbing than that, connecting sound to nature’s mysteries, to the most fantastic imaginary world you can imagine.

I said mostly forget because there are songs throughout where we’re accurately aware that someone is playing a harp. The playing is gorgeous, nimble, and in contrast with but complementary towards the more abstract, meandering soundscapes of tracks like the opener “Grass Grow”.

Nature imagery is abundant, in the track titles and in our minds. Liminal Garden is a great title for this type of strange beauty, suggesting new, phantasmagorical vegetative or animal life.

DAWN, “New Breed”

On Dawn Richard’s brilliant trilogy of progressive pop/R&B (Goldenheart, Blackheart, Redemptionheart), she seemed always somewhere between here and the galaxies. Her songs were tied to our lived reality – disparities, injustice and all – but also creatively oriented towards intergalactic realms. On New Breed she comes down to Earth, without stepping away from the sparkling sonic architecture and streamlined production of those past works.

Geographically where she’s landed is clear from the start, when she re-introduces herself as “a girl from the Nine” – 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana.  In “The Nine (intro)” she sings, “I want to go back”, and that’s significant. Her family left New Orleans post-Katrina, and have since returned. This time she’s musically come with them. The songs point back towards her upbringing, with autobiographical memories referenced throughout, but also pull us along with her on a trip to her New Orleans.

On the album cover she’s wearing the headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian. Their actual voices are woven into the mix, in moments, as is the voice of her father Frank Richard, singer for New Orleans funk band Chocolate Milk. The culture, style, history and music of New Orleans are here in her music, yet it’s more like lightly surfacing roots that were always there, rather than her adopting a new direction.

Whether directed towards an ex-lover, a would-be lover, to herself or the world at large, Richard’s songs carry themes of independence, survival and freedom, while keeping style and spatial design always at the forefront. Those personal themes sync up with the New Orleans theme in a natural, perhaps inevitable way.

The 5-minute “Vultures / Wolves” is perhaps the emotional centerpiece, a portrait of the predators among us, in relationships and business. Predators disguised as men, be they would-be lovers or music-industry businessmen Vulnerability is displayed in her delivery, leading to a statement of strength and determination.

Songs like “Dreams and Converse” and “We, Diamonds” are aspirational but not naively so. “Let’s get lost up in the moment and live richer than we can”, she sings in the former. On the latter, she’s asking to be challenged so she can soar past the low expectations.

“We rough around the edges / but that don’t mean we ain’t diamonds”, is the chorus to that song. That’s a recurring attitude on New Breed, one she carries for herself, her family, her culture, her city.

Guided by Voices, “Zeppelin Over China”

In 2019 Robert Pollard’s music is critic-proof. His hundreds of recordings, usually coming at an almost non-stop pace, resemble a river you either run away from or fully immerse yourself in. (For evidence, and a deep dive, see the 79-hour Pollardverse playlist someone put on Spotify.)

It’s also critic-bait, in the sense that those who choose submersion set themselves up for obsession, dissection, comparisons and an endless addiction to list-making. It’s fanboy-bait, then, perhaps even more so. Music for those OK with getting led into a cult.

There’s a with-us or against-us quality to Pollard/Guided by Voices fans that sometimes belies our individual preferences within that fandom. At this point, personal preference is without a doubt going to be a factor in any review of a new Pollard/GBV album, even for someone like me who has a hard-to-count number of records, CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, books, posters, etc. with a Pollard connection. When someone says that X Pollard album is the best thing he’s done in years (as I may be about to; spoiler alert…), where that writer is coming from matters.

So let’s put personal preference front and center. By now I know which types of Pollard songs are my favorites and which my least. My least favorite are the power-crunch anthems and overt ‘classic rock’ exercises (meaning ‘70s over ‘60s; big and ponderous over quick and lean). Pollard’s version of prog-rock, of hard rock. The fewer songs where the band stomps forth while Pollard intones rock-and-roll “yeahs” and “uh-huhs”, the better.

My preference is for these three Pollard song-types: 1. Short-and-weird (one-minute or less, surreal). 2. Bubblegum (the hookiest, most pop sing-along tunes). 3. Mid-paced melodic melancholy. By the latter I mean ‘ballads’ in a general sense, and mid-tempo songs where melody is a driver but in a more impressionistic way, not as a straight-ahead carrier of a repeatable chorus but as a feeling or mood.

The new Guided by Voices album Zeppelin Over China persistently leans towards type 3, which is right up my alley. Bubblegum pop, hard-rock stomp and song-sketches are like birds circling around, appearing here and there but never landing for long.

A double album split neatly in half (16 songs each), it feels to me so much like two separate albums that I’ve taken to thinking of it as two. In my thoughts I’ve begun referring to the second half as Zeppelin Over China, since the sixth song on that half is “Zeppelin Over China”, and to the first half as Holy Rhythm, after the sixth song on the first half.  I think of the album this way because I’m a nerd. But also because it helps me digest this beast in a way that makes sense to me.

Holy Rhythm is kind of a perfect title for the first half, which picks up where 2018’s Space Gun left off, dancing close to that stompier, crunchier side that’s not my favorite, but within anthems streamlined by melody and a psych-pop dreaminess, to move forward in a tuneful and driving, yet pleasantly strange way.

The pleasures of these first 16 songs are familiar and new at once. Style-wise I’d slot this in the Under the Bushes Under the Stars/Isolation Drills vein of melodic pop-rock, but with less of a sense of striving for hits. They’re comfortable here with abstraction and strangeness, with it all washing over the listener the first time through, the details sinking in deeper with each listen.

Nothing here is out-of-this-world new for Pollard; it hovers in a comfortable, and comforting place for fans. Yet it also feels very fresh, in the sound, in the strength of the current band (Pollard, Doug Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr, Mark Shue, Kevin March, Travis Harrison), and Pollard’s fairytale/surrealist lyrics, which feel more purposeful and at the same time intuitive than they have recently.

There are unique and memorable songs throughout the first 16. “Carapace” (a word that means the hard shell of a turtle, apparently) might be the most rhythm-driven GBV song in years; even the singing becomes mostly about the rhythms of the words as they break down into nonsensical syllables. “Send in the Suicide Squad” steps up the emotion, the hookiness and the late ‘60s pysch-pop leanings in a tidy package. “Bellicose Starling” is tender and pretty in a still warped way. “Charmless Peters” takes Pollard’s psychological probing in a near-horror direction, and then unexpectedly leads into an anthem built around the line “Smoke / them / if / you /have / them”, sung with that emphasis.

“The Rally Boys” is the punchy pop classic, optimistic yet mysterious. I love the playfulness of the final lines – “you won’t catch the rally boys / the cyclone alley boys / the Rand McNally boys.” The first half ends with “You Own the Night”, a rousing finale.

Yet we’re only halfway there.

The second half is in a very similar vein, but in some ways goes even further into it. Some songs fall into  a gorgeous but unsettled dream-state – like a sharper, deeper version of some of Pollard’s most introspective, most underrated minor releases (say, 2010’s Moses on a Snail). But scattered throughout are the punkest songs of the album – spunky little razor cuts.

Each half of the album has its own beginning, middle and end. This second half starts quick with “Everything’s Thrilling”. At first it sounds optimistic, but what is thrilling? Sin, dying, “a minimal request for the river of souls”.

That’s not the only reference to sin, and certainly not the only one to mortality, in this portion of the album. There’s a continual thread of life and death, without any one clear idea or message. As always, Pollard’s lyrics are more poetic image-clouds than complete stories. One theme here is survival, challenges. In “Questions of the Test” it’s a challenge to give the right answers; it could be one of those “oh crap I didn’t study” school nightmares, but it feels broader in scope.

Yet it’s hard to characterize or summarize even just these last 16 songs. There’s one straight-up fantasy piece (“Lurk of the Worm”) and an incredible pop tune that seems maybe music industry-related (“My Future Is in Barcelona”). The prettiest song in this stretch, “We Can Make Music”, might not be about music at all – “We can make music with the trees / shake them so they’ll sing / until they are free.”

“The Hearing Department” is some kind of classic, of a variety I’m not sure I’ve heard from Pollard. I keep interpreting the title as a menacing corporate entity. But more likely the song might just be about people who struggle to hear.

This is not a concept album, and to treat it so would be a mistake. But something’s lurking beneath the surface, some deep-down questions about life and the universe, that I’ll keep trying to bring up to the surface as I listen.

As I’ve said time and again, to try and rank Pollard’s albums seems beside the point, with the way he approaches music- and art-making as one continual action. Yet, nonetheless, I’m an obsessive fan, so I won’t hesitate to declare it as the best, most exciting Guided by Voices album of the past 15 or more years. And I’ll be right, in my own mind at least.


Continue reading “Guided by Voices, “Zeppelin Over China””

Favorite Albums of the Year (2018)

I sat down to write a top 10 list and came up with 200 albums. I got honest and maybe even cruel, and cut it down to 68. The numeric order gets more arbitrary as we proceed downward. I’m publishing this before I change my mind.

Has music writing turned into mere list-making? For me it sometimes has. I’ve written brilliant descriptions in my mind of why each of these are my favorites, but all I’ve managed are a few words describing each of the top 10.

I wrote very little about music in 2018. What’s the right metaphor for keeping up with all of the brilliant new music released every week, and then finding enough minutes to stop and write about it along the way? Something about a river or a waterfall, in a barrel or holding onto a twig. Or maybe it involves lava, a boiling pot, some other scientific phenomena? Rocks and hills? Weather? Traffic? Somebody find me the right words… (a mantra for 2018). Time marches on, there’s always next year, etc.

  1. Dear Nora – Skulls Example – Career-defining, and a brave step forward; projecting all of the environmental and social anxieties of the moment into a nexus of Southwest mysticism and bubblegum pop.
  2. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings – Drummer-driven, like much of the best jazz and experimental music this year. But also collaborative and freeform; each of four sides connecting multiple cities, players and dynamic jazz scenes to build new connections and creations.
  3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour – Country-pop taken in a sunlit, daydream, philosophical quandary direction. Filled with clever turns and breathtaking moments; it is possible still for an album to keep surprising.
  4. Rico Nasty – Nasty – A somewhat goofy Internet rapper transforms herself into the hardest and on-point rapper of the moment, projecting anger, humor, style and multiplicity.
  5. Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism – The best work of music criticism of the year, and non-stop pleasure to listen to. Recommended if you like ‘80s/’90s R&B, or have forgotten about it and need to go back.
  6. The Beths – Future Me Hates Me – Punkish pop-rock with a ‘90s sheen that nonetheless totally inhabits the current moment, via sharp-as-nails songwriting and self-deprecating humor that rides an amped-up guitar-pop wave like nobody’s business.
  7. Caitlyn Smith – Starfire – An accomplished songwriter steps into the spotlight, and dazzles, with show-stopping highway ballads and small-scale Waits/Hopper-esque scenes.
  8. SOB x RBE – Gangin II – The big splash from this youthful, hyper SoCal group began last year but picked up steadily in 2018, with the explosive Gangin’ and their Black Panther track “Paramedic!” Gangin II took all the fire of its predecessors and deepened the emotions and overall feel.
  9. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss & Auto-Tune – Extending the Autotune-as-emotional-moisturizer approach of 808s and Heartbreak into every neck of the woods has become the life calling of Justin Vernon; here the eccentric soul legend Swamp Dogg wears that Autotune aesthetic remarkably well, through ‘futurized’ standards and more typical Swamp Dogg hijinks.
  10. Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread – Michael Nau & the Mighty Thread – The most tender rolling Americana melodicism of the year – lush and lovely in its melancholy exploration of wandering desert balladry.
  11. Ashley Monroe – Sparrow
  12. Peluché – Unforgettable
  13. Roy Kinsey – Blackie
  14. Arp – Zebra
  15. Boys – Rest in Peace
  16. Kamaal Williams – The Return
  17. Body/Head – The Switch
  18. Trouble and Mike Will Made-It – Edgewood
  19. Domineco Lancellotti – The Good Is a Big God
  20. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is a Reptile
  21. Nathan Bowles – Plainly Mistaken
  22. Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
  23. Maisha – There Is a Place
  24. Tove Styrke – Sway
  25. Clay Hips – Happily Ever After
  26. CupcakKe – Ephorize
  27. Jerry David DeCicca – Time the Teacher
  28. Beach House – 7
  29. Dorian Concept – The Nature of Imitation
  30. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
  31. Noname – Room 25
  32. The Goon Sax – We’re Not Talking
  33. Jennifer Castle – Angels of Death
  34. Fred Thomas – Aftering
  35. Tres Oui – Poised to Flourish
  36. Of Montreal – White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood
  37. Booker Stardrum – Temporary, etc.
  38. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
  39. Jonathan Richman – SA
  40. Migos – Culture II
  41. Drinks – Hippo Lite
  42. Chloe x Halle – The Kids Are Alright
  43. Massage – Oh Boy
  44. Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests
  45. Serpentwithfeet – Soil Reprise
  46. DJ Muggs X Roc Marciano – Kaos
  47. Jack Hayter – Abbey Wood
  48. Chris Crofton – Hello It’s Me
  49. Say Sue Me – Where We Were Together
  50. Pete Astor – One for the Ghost
  51. Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On
  52. Low – Double Negative
  53. Tunde Olaniran – Stranger
  54. The Ocean Party – The Oddfellows’ Hall
  55. Cloud – Plays With Fire
  56. Jay Rock – Redemption
  57. Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound
  58. Slim Jxmi – Jxmtro
  59. Frankie Cosmos – Vessel
  60. FaceFace – MMmm
  61. Anna Burch – Quit the Curse
  62. Benjamin Shaw – Megadead
  63. The Spook School – Could It Be Different?
  64. Smokescreens – Used to Yesterday
  65. Laura Gibson – Goners
  66. Sarah Davachi – Let Night Come On Bells End The Day
  67. Yhung T.O. – Trust Issues
  68. Landing – Bells in New Towns

Happy new year! Yours truly,

Dave

Azure Blue, “Fast Falls the Eventide”

The title, alluding to the hymn “Abide With Me”, is a description of darkness arriving. Surely it feels like darkness has arrived these days. Azure Blue’s answer to the surrounding darkness is to bask in luxurious layers of synthesizers. I’m not sure it’s an escape. By the second track “New Moon” it feels more like standing strongly upright within the current and refusing to be pulled along.

Tobias Isaksson — of phenomenal Swedish-pop outfits from days gone past like Irene and Laurel Music — has led Azure Blue through three previous albums of romantic synth-pop. This fourth album is especially reliant on synths, in a bright, welcoming way that makes the neon art of the cover feel appropriate.

The songs are sullen, heartsick and defiant. “Post Affect”, one song is titled. This immersion in ’80s-style synth-pop isn’t a pose. Isaksson is fully devoted to the style and the sentiments it perhaps naturally pairs with – love, dreams, sensitivity, romantic obsession.

“Whatever ’18” might sound like a slacker title, but it’s a commitment. The mantra (sung at least 10 times) “I don’t care / I do what I want to / as much as I want / whenever I want to” is a declaration of independence that pairs nicely with the next song “Beneath the Sphere”, a dancefloor tribute to standing up for yourself. By the end of the album he’s dreaming off into the darkness, or perhaps the light. Dreaming idealistically of what’s next, even when holding the object of his dreams firmly within his arms.

( http://matineerecordings.com/item.php?item_id=280)

 

The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”

Her future self may hate her, but her present self doesn’t think that highly about her either. On the debut album by the Auckland, New Zealand band The Beths, Future Me Hates Me, singer Elizabeth Stokes persistently voices self-doubt and disappointment within a climate of punchy pop-punk that’s inescapably “’90s alternative” but nonetheless has an of-the-moment immediacy. That comes from the melodies but mainly her singing, channeling lots of emotions within an overriding one of melancholy.

There’s self-destructive partying (“Uptown Girl”, not the Billy Joel song), multi-varied lust (“Little Death”, a mid-album stretch-out), and driving off a cliff in a failed double-suicide as the inevitable response to heartbreak (“Whatever”). For every song propelling towards destruction there’s one where joy is trying hard to poke its way to the surface. There’s tenderness, always, in the sulking, the hatred, and the instinctual drive towards “stupid mistakes”.

“You wouldn’t like me if you saw what was inside me”, she sings early on, but this is a very, very likable deep-dive into frustration and desperation. The last track “Less Than Thou” explodes – a soft but boisterous release.

(http://carparkrecords.com/artists/the-beths/)