Why do people make year-in-review lists? Why do I make them? I make sure to ask myself those questions each year when I start this process, because it’s easy for these things to feel competitive or exclusive. It’s worth making sure you are (as they say on the reality shows) here for the right reasons. For me, it boils down to two things: 1. Wanting a record of the music that mattered to me in the preceding year (I refer back to these posts all the time to jog my memory about what happened that year), and 2. Lifting up artists who have helped me survive another trip around the Sun via their creativity. I’m so grateful for the Richmond music community, and while I know that this is just another list on a blog, I can’t not take this opportunity to send out a message of thanks.
It feels extra fitting publishing this post on the same day President Obama shared his favorite songs from 2019 — a list that included Angelica Garcia’s “Jícama.” So thrilling and well-deserved. You can bet her upcoming LP will be on next year’s list of favorite RVA albums. In the meantime, here are the Richmond releases that meant the world to me in 2019. No rankings — they’re listed alphabetically, with a few exceptions where multiple albums from the same artist are grouped together.
To the folks who made this music, you have my deepest gratitude. Thank you for doing what you do.
Analog Suspects — Transmission 001
Noah-O x Fan Ran — Dirty Rice: Deux
The perpetual motion machine known as Noah-O had another big year, with two full-length sequel LPs as highlights. Transmission 001 started the year off in style, giving a name — Analog Suspects — to his partnership with DJ Mentos. The duo picked up right where 2016’s The Rain left off, with generous doses of introspection and inspiration, and a number of piano-based beats that set a no-nonsense tone (“GAS” stands out in this respect). Dirty Rice: Deux dropped in October, adding a second chapter to his collaboration with Fan Ran, this time with vinyl courtesy of the recently founded Fantastic Damage imprint. Both albums are excellent — evidence of Noah’s relentless drive and dexterity. Or, as he puts it during Transmission 001 track “Gary Webb,” “I’m leading by example / See, I practice what I preach.”
Butcher Brown — AfroKuti: A Tribute to Fela
I love this so much. I have a fuzzy memory of either Devonne Harris or the official Butcher Brown account posting a question on social media a while back about whether anyone would be interested in a Butcher Brown Afrobeat album. I can’t find the post now, but I remember nodding vigorously and responding as quickly as humanly possible with a gesture of support. One reason that exchange has stuck with me is that the answer to “Do I want a Butcher Brown ___ album?” is always yes. You can fill in the blank with anything, because their combined mastery means they’re capable of making compelling music in any genre. They certainly sound excellent here, paying tribute to the great Fela Kuti.
Lucy Dacus — 2019
Each time Lucy Dacus releases a song or album, we’re given new angles from which we can observe her mastery of language, and I’m in awe once again. “Fools Gold,” y’all. Holy shit. The brevity. The pound-for-pound weight of each word. The way you can both picture and taste champagne when she sings “coppery coins.” I’m not sure I’ll ever see or sip that substance and not think of that line. I love this EP so, so much, and while I cherish its cover tunes dearly, I have to agree with Pitchfork, which said of the original compositions on 2019, “These are among the best songs she’s ever written.”
DJ Mentos — Fresh Air
DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Vol. 1
I had the great fortune of interviewing DJ Mentos for River City Magazine, and I consider that conversation to be a top musical moment of my 2019. I have the utmost respect and admiration for his craft, especially his ear for incorporating jazz. (His “Flute Funk Volume 1” mix will change your life. Seriously.) In addition to the Analog Suspects LP mentioned above, he released two top-notch instrumental albums this year: Fresh Air over the summer, and then The Maxell Tapes Vol. 1 on the same November day he appeared on SiriusXM’s Sway in the Morning show. I asked him during our interview about where that tenacious drive to share music with the world comes from:
My dad played a lot of music for me when I was really little, and I cherished that. But growing up and listening to hip hop, there’s a real shared camaraderie between old school hip hop fans. When we talk about the early Def Jam days, or the golden era Native Tongues time to Wu Tang and Biggie, we all shared something really special. There’s a love of that shared musical experience. But I also love talking to people about music that I don’t even necessarily like… I think there are people who love music, there are people who are sort of indifferent, and then there are people like me who are obsessed. I wouldn’t compare it to a drug. I wouldn’t compare it to love, or food, or shelter. I guess for some of us it’s spiritual…
There’s a lot of music to discover. That’s the other aspect — there’s music to listen to again and again, and then there’s that high of finding something that first time. That I would compare to a drug, because when you discover something that you had never heard and seen and it resonates with you on that deep level, that’s so exciting. That’s what I want to share with people. So whether I’m DJing, or making beats, or texting a link to a friend, I’m trying to give you that high that I got.
Landon Elliott — Domino
Speaking of River City interviews, I had the opportunity to chat with Elliott last year, before he’d started sharing songs from Domino, and I could tell way back then that something truly special was on the way. We got to speak again closer to the album’s release day, when he was getting ready to put “Hurricane” out into the world — that was another special moment to be part of.
Domino is an impressive achievement from an artist whose star will continue to rise. I’m as sure of that as I was that Elliott’s initial excitement about the album was justified. What I couldn’t have guessed at is how varied the album would turn out to be — how many styles, techniques, and modes of articulation Elliott and his American Paradox collaborators would display on one disc. I’m wildly impressed, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.
Fly Anakin & Big Kahuna OG — Holly Water
Revolt of the Apes reviewed this better than I ever could (and in haiku form, no less) earlier in December:
Can’t argue with that.
FM Skyline — Advanced Memory Suite
Pete Curry achieved a rare feat in 2019 via his vaporwave nom de guerre — releasing an album that generates such high demand that it’s re-pressed to vinyl and re-released within the same calendar year. I missed out on the first pressing, but snagged the 100% Electronica version the moment I saw it became available. Really neat to see Curry making his mark this way.
Andy Jenkins — The Garden Opens
Andy Jenkins made his full-length debut with last year’s Sweet Bunch, and he’s kept the winning streak going with a four-song EP that contains one of my absolute favorite songs of the year, “Starfish Fever.” It’s fast, both in terms of track length and pace, with quick picking and lyrical imagery that appears and disappears in the blink of an eye. But that’s “the end of beauty” in a nutshell, isn’t it? There and gone before you know it.
Sammi Lanzetta — Ceiling Mirror
On the day 6131 Records started accepting pre-orders for Ceiling Mirror, I showed up at their store on Patterson Avenue looking like Fry from Futurama in that “Shut up and take my money” meme. Turns out they were instituting a new in-store pre-order system, and I was the first one to try it out. I’ll say this about the 6131 store: They are such friendly people, and even when I don’t end up walking out with a record, either because I was pre-ordering a disc or because I was looking for something they ended up not having, I leave feeling happy I stopped in. If you haven’t been there, I recommend making a trip there soon. I’d recommend Ceiling Mirror just as highly, and for some of the same reasons, interestingly. Lanzetta conveys this amazing sense of energy, and tapping into it is like electrifying your day.
Tyler Meacham — Property
Meacham’s lyrics are affecting, and her delivery is timeless. I can imagine these songs sounding excellent in a zillion different styles, which is what you might say about standards that eventually enter the pop canon. The title/closing track is especially powerful. While I’m on record as praising dynamite first lines of songs, “Property” has a stunner of a closing lyric: “You don’t have to burn the house down to move all your property out.” Her words echo and dissipate, leaving you space to apply them uniquely to your own life. That’s pop music’s highest calling.
Minor Poet — The Good News
On his Sub Pop debut, Andrew Carter expands on the sunny, lyrically substantive sound that made his 2017 And How! full-length such a success story. At just six songs, it zooms by, making it a great candidate for repeated listening. And if you haven’t seen the amazing “Good News Hunting” video for “Museum District,” it’s embedded below. You’re welcome.
No BS! Brass Band — A Decade of Noise
I consider seeing No BS! for the first time one of the most significant milestones in my introduction to Richmond’s music community, and A Decade of Noise is represents a vital milestone in the band’s discography. Their studio albums are exquisite, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about them, but sometimes you want to close your eyes and transport yourself to an imagined room where Richmond’s brass powerhouse is lighting up the stage as only they can, and that’s the gift this album gives you. It also acts as a de facto best-of, given how much of the group’s history is packed into these four vinyl sides. Speaking of vinyl, when I bought my copy, they were bundling records with t-shirts for just $5 more. Easiest decision I’ve ever made.
Ohbliv — Soulphonic
Ohbliv — Give Thanks
When I pulled this album up on Bandcamp and gave it a listen back in January, I couldn’t have known just how much time I’d end up spending with Ohbliv’s handiwork in 2019. I went from owning zero albums of his (nobody should own zero Ohbliv albums, to be clear), to owning three within this calendar year. I pre-ordered Soulphonic right away, then went down to Plan 9 with my daughter when the man himself was signing copies of Give Thanks. (“Enjoy the vibes,” he wrote on my copy. I certainly have.) I also snagged a copy of the Retrospective compilation during BK Music’s closing sale. That’s eight total sides of beats by the iconic Richmond producer, and while they’re great in just about any situation, I make it a point to spin them when we have friends visiting from out of town, so they can hear what Richmond sounds like at its best.
Alan Good Parker — Everything’s Normal
One of my favorite albums to come out of Richmond this year. This decade, for that matter. The playing (Parker is as complete a guitarist as you’ll hear), the way the collection moves from beginning to end (no two tracks set the same mood), the song selection (a Big Thief cover y’all!)… It’s outstanding at every turn. I’ve spent a ton of time with Parker’s playing over the last handful of years, given his work with the Spacebomb House Band, and hearing him featured like this is tremendously rewarding. If you enjoy jazz and haven’t yet given Everything’s Normal a spin, make it the very next thing you listen to.
Saw Black & the Toys — Christmas in the Background
On a basic, physical level, music is all about wavelengths. The air vibrates with a certain frequency, your ear and brain work together to translate those vibrations, and bing-bang-boom, you got music. But wavelengths matter on a whole other zoomed-out level involving moods and people and time. Sometimes you find an artist who’s writing the songs you need to hear at a particular moment. That’s how I feel about Saw Black in general, and about Christmas in the Background especially. When you look at the album as a whole, there’s a beautiful ambivalence — an acceptance of the fact that the holidays present a complicated stew of emotions for many people. That’s the wavelength I was vibrating on this Christmas, and being able to spin this record made finding that sense of acceptance a little easier.
Sleepwalkers — Ages
I didn’t do much writing on here as much as I would have liked to in 2019, but when the first tracks from Ages were made available, you can bet I got off my Blog Butt™ and put up a post in celebration. I looked forward to this album more than just about any other in recent memory, from basking in the afterglow of Greenwood Shade’s brilliance to interviewing the band for River City Magazine to getting a preview of some early mixes out at White Star Sound to seeing that the group was partnering with Spacebomb. Ages is exactly the Sleepwalkers album we’ve been dying to hear, and it’ll stand for years as one of the city’s great musical achievements.
Spacebomb House Band — Known About Town: Library Music Compendium One
I am a devoted disciple of the Spacebomb House Band tapes, and I was so thrilled when they announced they’d be compiling some of the best cuts for a Record Store Day release. I mentioned this in my Black Friday post, but I’ll repeat here that I keep the latest tape SHB tape in my car at all times, ready to provide groovy driving music in all sorts of situations. Hauling off to an errand that’s kinda far away. Zooming down the highway with a full tank of gas. Driving just to give myself time and space to think. I can’t recommend these tapes — and this compilation — highly enough. (Small Friend still had a copy last time I was there. Just sayin’.)
I can’t imagine what it was like to select tracks for this compilation. So many performances over the years. So many genres and traditions. (Spacebomb’s site mentions sifting through 1,300 hours of recordings.) But isn’t that the folk festival in a nutshell? It’s this monster exercise in curation, and thanks to the hard work and great musical taste of the organizers, it turns out to be a successful celebration of kaleidoscopic talents, year after year. All Together Now is just that — a wonderfully ranging collection of styles, beginning with the joyous reggae track below by Clinton Fearon and the Boogie Brown Band.
More 2019 in Review