2020 in Review Part 8: 31 Favorites

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites (You are here!)

Here we are. The last list in this series — 31 uncategorized favorites from 2020. I’m not a big Baskin Robbins person or anything; that’s just the number I ended up with after shuffling between lists and writing as much as I could over the last few months to pay tribute to the music that mattered to me this year. That makes 87 blurbs and 13,083 words across eight posts. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found something new to put in your ears, or a perspective that opened up new avenues of enjoyment. And I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but if you made one of the albums below, thank you for making a difficult year significantly better. I’ll close with an excerpt from the intro to Amanda Petrusich’s year-end list, which communicated this specific sense of gratitude so beautifully:

I’ve always believed that some amount of optimism, conscious or unconscious, is inherent to the art-making impulse—that to dedicate oneself to something as difficult and thankless as creative work, one has to believe that the world is still good enough and open enough to be transformed, even briefly, by beauty. The musicians who managed to hold onto that feeling—to go on believing in the essential decency of humankind and the various ways in which art can elevate us—kept me afloat through some strange days.

John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

This is another one where anticipation runs high. How high? So high that my very first act after gaining consciousness on Tuesday morning was checking the Black Mesa Records site to see if the preorder was available. You know you’re excited for an album to be announced when you literally can’t and don’t wait for the announcement to go out.

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I cut way back on TV watching in 2020, and the last hour or two of my night is now typically spent at my desk instead of the couch. Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s music writing. Lately I’ve been squinting at runout lettering while retroactively building my Discogs collection. (Currently working my way through my Beach Boys and Beatles sections. Send help.) One fun side effect of this shift is that I’m usually at my laptop at midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, which means I can listen immediately to new albums I’m especially excited about. I’ve never forget my Fetch the Bolt Cutters midnight listening party. It was momentous. It was fun. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. No reviews to bounce what I was hearing off of. No worrying over which vinyl pressing I’d get my hands on. Just me and a new set of mind-meltingly good songs by one of the most brilliant musicians of our time.

Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

If there were ever a chorus to keep in the front of your brain in order to maintain sanity during a global pandemic, it would have to be:

Grey skies, they don’t scare me
I find them unnecessary
There’s no tellin’ when the bad’s gonna come around
And it’ll come around no doubt

It’s like a badly needed pat on the back from a friend who’s reassuring you without bullshitting you. And Kate Bollinger’s gift for phrasing means the words slide through your consciousness so gracefully the toxic parts of your psychology don’t have a chance to play defense.

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

I called this a “perfect album” on Instagram and I stand by that 100%. It was very rewarding seeing this get as many Grammy nods as it did. So stunning. It’s not just that they’ve given new life to old songs; I hear something in the combination of vocals by Anaïs Mitchell and Eric D. Johnson — a space they carve out that’s not old or new but separate from time, and endlessly inviting. The rare instant classic that will continue to grow on you, no matter how much you love it right away.

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

“Garden Song” is my song of the year. The experience of hearing the first verse for the first time was wild. I was already blown away by how gracefully she incorporates the idea of killing and burying a skinhead neighbor — like one does — but then I got to “I grew up here till it all went up in flames / Except the notches in the doorframe” and did one of those blinking-while-shaking-your-head-slightly double-takes, like “Well hello there, One of the Greatest Song Lyrics of All Time. Nice to meet you…” That line is totally transcendent — the layers go on and on, from the the words themselves and the way they’re delivered to the exquisite connection between their literal and figurative truths and the bittersweet irony you’re left with. I’m in awe.

True story: I was listening to this on a run and passed by a house with a raised garden bed with prop feet sticking up out of the dirt. A glitch in the matrix, if I’ve ever seen one.

Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven

Back in July, I wrote a few words about “Hard to Be Anywhere,” a song from Closest Thing to Heaven that means a lot to me:

It’s an incredibly moving song, and it’s no exaggeration to say I needed to hear it right now. The start of the chorus certainly hits home, no pun intended:

It’s hard to be in the right place for the right thing all the time

The more connected we all are electronically, the more it can feel like you’re never where you’re supposed to be… Even now, at a time when my family is swimming in, ahem, quality time, that sense of togetherness is short-circuited by the strange shape of this situation — limitations on where you can go and what you can do, daily risk assessment, constant stress, and the fortunate-yet-crazy-making task of folding parenting into working from home. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether “the right place” is at my laptop, being the work version of myself, or in our backyard, pushing the kids on the saucer-shaped swing I hung from a sturdy branch of our maple tree near the start of this mess.

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

My relationship with Bob Dylan’s music changed significantly this year, mainly owing to a fantastic limited-run Aquarium Drunkard radio show called Pretty Good Stuff. Run by central Virginia’s own Bob Dylan scholar James Adams, the show compiled bootleg live cuts from various points in Dylan’s career, and I found myself totally transfixed by Adams’ combination of keen curation and intriguing narration. Dylan is famous for being unknowable, but Pretty Good Stuff made the mystery seem so much more approachable than it had in the past.

Case in point: The first time I heard “Murder Most Foul,” I couldn’t get past the absurdity of it — the way the lyrics seemed to drift, the length… It felt like something it was easier to set aside than to contend with. After several hours of Pretty Good Stuff, and several more spins of “Murder Most Foul,” I’m convinced it’s totally groundbreaking. If you consider things like melody, narrative, and form to be elements that help ground music in a listener’s expectations, this song is like grabbing a big bundle of balloons and floating off into the stratosphere. It’s also deeply romantic, in the non-sexy sense, such that it reminds me of the love for early rock and roll that my father maintained late into his life. There’s something in this fever dream of a song that I think I could stand to be reminded of, and even though I can’t exactly put my finger on it, I know I’ll keep coming back to try to find it.

Fleet Foxes — Shore

Another Glitch-in-the-Matrix moment, and I swear this is true: I was about to start writing a blurb about how I feel like I’ve only started scratching the surface of this album’s wonderfulness, and how I’m looking forward to getting to know it even better when my physical copy arrives early next year, and Mrs. YHT walked into the room and handed me a postcard she’d just retrieved from the mailbox. On the front was a pretty design made of two shades of blue, in the bottom left corner were the words “Fleet Foxes,” and in the bottom right is the word “Shore.” On the back was a message from Robin Pecknold thanking me for my pre-order, and for my patience. Really. That happened. At this point, it seems abundantly clear that we’re all living in a simulation, and that whoever’s in charge of the simulation is drunk. That or Robin Pecknold is just really thoughtful. One of the two.

Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death

I cracked open my copy of this album on a chilly December morning — one where I was feeling especially low. Imagine you’re out getting ice cream, and there’s not much of your flavor left, yet the person doing the scooping reaches way down in the tub and scrapes together a perfectly shaped confection that makes your day. That’s what Fear of Death did on that December morning; the bright sound and wry gallows humor scooped a soul that was stuck to the bottom of its container and made it feel new again. (Coffee also helped.) To truly beat this analogy into the ground, I’d compare the countrified opening of “Let It Be” to the moment when you’re finally handed your cone and pure joy floods in. I hadn’t heard this upbeat version of the Beatles classic for a month or two, and when it kicked in, I felt such gratitude for the fact that this album exists.

Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof

I owe Lilly Hiatt, big-time. Walking Proof was my first curbside pickup purchase — the first album I bought from a store here in Richmond after the pandemic took hold. In a very real sense, this album got me out of my house at a time when I was profoundly freaked out, and it was such comfort knowing there was a way I could safely patronize record stores again. Not unlike the album’s color-your-own insert art, Walking Proof helped me start repainting a map of the outside world that had turned grey and ominous in early March. It did the same for the household throughout the year, as the brightness of Hiatt’s songwriting changed the mood in the house for the better every time I put it on the turntable.

Horse Lords — The Common Task

You often see music described as experimental, but not many bands feel as connected to the scientific method as Horse Lords. They take a mathematical approach to elements like time and tone, and while that may sound dry or clinical, The Common Task is a wildly fun and energizing album. I would typically put this on around 4 p.m., when I needed a musical boost to get me through to the end of the day. In fact, it’s about that time as I’m typing this, and I’m going to go spin it again right this minute.

Yves Jarvis — Sundry Rock Song Stock

I loved this interview Yves Jarvis did with Jason P. Woodbury for the Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions podcast. That conversation spent a fair amount of time on Jarvis’ creative process, and it made evident that the talented Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer harbors a rare and highly intuitive artistic integrity, one that pushes him into territory that’s unbound by typical conventions of form and songwriting. He’s a true original, as you’ll hear immediately if you give Sundry Rock Song Stock a listen.

Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas

One of my weirdest musical memories of 2020 is contained on this album. My family spent an afternoon in Hampton, VA, attempting a socially distanced beach day fairly early in the summer, when it wasn’t all that clear how distanced was distanced enough. I was incredibly anxious, to the point where I was getting on everyone else’s nerves, and at one point I stayed in my beach chair while the rest of the family went down to the water to enjoy themselves. I didn’t have headphones, but I put on Lianne La Havas’ version of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” anyway, holding my phone up to my ear so I could hear it over the sound of wind and waves and other people having a great time. I won’t say I was comforted — more validated in my discomfort. Despite the fact that the song mentions fish and the ocean, it’s not exactly something you’d put on your fun in the sun playlist. Its lyrics talk about a devotion so intense you fall off the side of the earth, hit bottom, and disappear, and listening to “Weird Fishes” in that setting did feel a little like a disappearing act. I won’t say I ended up having fun afterward; it was a stressful experience. But good music is big enough to absorb something like that and keep you coming back, and I’ve returned to Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album many times throughout the year. (Thankfully in the comfort of home.)

Adrianne Lenker — songs and instrumentals

I mentioned that I enjoyed not having reviews in mind when listening to Fetch the Bold Cutters — I had the opposite experience with songs and instrumentals. Philip Sherburne’s review for Pitchfork points out something I’d missed, which was that by listening to this album from start to finish and thinking about one side of a vinyl pressing at a time, you’re witnessing a disappearing act. The first side is the most layered/produced, the second is more stripped down while still featuring words and singing, the third features just Adrianne Lenker’s guitar throughout, and on the final side, guitar gives way to wind chimes, and then the silence that follows the album’s conclusion. I’m a big fan of trying to put yourself in the artist’s shoes when it comes to why songs are presented the way they are, and I love the idea that Lenker had this idea of vanishing in mind. It’s made the album an even more rewarding listen.

Also rewarding? This profile of Lenker penned by Amanda Petrusich. In truth, “rewarding” is a dramatic undersell; I’m not sure I’ve read a more compelling and meaningful profile in my life.

Blake Mills — Mutable Set

The fact that Mutable Set rarely operates above a whisper makes it easy to underestimate, but don’t be fooled — as far as melody, harmony, and overall musicianship go, there’s a riot going on. I don’t know enough theory to pick up on the subtleties just by listening, but I did follow along with some Instagram live sessions Mills did around the time the album was released — sessions that essentially amounted to high-level guitar classes where he calmly and quietly walked through the complex chords he used. The techniques, the rationales, the implications. His mastery is astonishing, but not flashy in the slightest. He’s fiercely disinterested in making the same record twice, yet Mutable Set sounds more like him than anything else he’s made. Maybe it’s a type of innovation via interpolation. What I do know is that if Blake Mills is whispering, it’s worth listening extra closely to what he has to say.

Mink’s Miracle Medicine — Thumbs Up Angel

I’ve never managed to get a set of Spotify Wrapped stats that seemed accurate. For years, I shared an account with a brother-in-law more interested in metal than I am, so that would result in some hilariously disjointed results. Then there’s the Frozen factor; “Into the Unknown” was my song of the year in 2020 for reasons that will be immediately clear to anyone with a six-year-old. But the other big factor this year was Bandcamp — the fact that I started downloading music again, and that I spent as much time listening to those downloaded songs as I did Spotify, especially when they were singles made available before the release date of something I’d preordered. Thumbs Up Angel is a great example. I snagged this near the end of October’s Bandcamp Friday, then spent the rest of that evening listening to nothing else but “Spots on the Sun” and “Watch the Horses Run” over and over and over, marveling at how great they both are. And I spent part of the following day doing the same thing. I may not have stats that reflect the great Mink’s Miracle Medicine binge of 2020, but it happened, and it was glorious.

John Moreland — LP5

The cover art and title of LP5 may fly under the radar, its impact is anything but ordinary. His songwriting is so sharp, singular, and affecting — to the point that it feels like we can go ahead and save a best-albums list spot for any full-length he releases.

The Mountain Goats — Getting Into Knives

So much of what I said about John Moreland applies to John Darnielle. According to Wikipedia, Getting into Knives is the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album, and I’m amazed at the consistency with which Darnielle’s writing draws me in. He’s got such a gift for building imagined narrative spaces, and I love how he changes the scope from project to project; sometimes the album itself represents a narrative universe like with Beat the Champ or Goths, and other times he gives individual songs more space to form worlds of their own. My favorite in that respect on Getting into Knives is “Picture of My Dress,” which grew out of a tweet by poet Maggie Smith.

Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II

I’m wildly impressed and inspired by the versatility Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes of Irreversible Entanglements exhibit. So many styles are represented on Heritage of the Invisible II, from free jazz to soul to Afro-Caribbean — it’s like getting to explore parallel universes within the same timeline. I’m not sure I’d ever seen “imagination” among the instruments in a set of liner notes, but it’s entirely fitting here.

Nadia Reid — Out of My Province

I almost put this on my RVA list, because the in-town ties run deep on Out of My Province. The Spacebomb House Band, an illustrious list of additional Richmond instrumentalists, production from Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, engineering from Adrian Olsen… all in support of stunning songwriting — conversational and incisive, inviting and arresting. Reid’s voice comes through so clearly on Out of My Province — sonically, narratively, and artistically. A triumph all around.

Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven

Should this have been on the Blasts from the Past list? I certainly would have guessed that’s where this would end up, but what Makaya McCraven has done feels so fresh and… well, there’s no way to avoid saying it… new. The source material itself — Scott-Heron’s inimitable voice — is made new by McCraven’s knack for sonic recontextualization via the editing process. (Fans of McCraven’s work on the International Anthem label know all about that.) And We’re New Again is so colorfully rendered, with such caring attention to detail, that I hear new things each time I listen. What an achievement this is. McCraven is one of the most thrilling musicians to follow right now, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline

Another brilliant builder of narrative spaces is Andy Shauf, and his imagined dive bar, The Neon Skyline, is absolutely bursting with life. I’d love to know more about Shauf’s process — how his personality sketches start, and how he fills them with such uncanny detail. Just as I eagerly ate up both novels John Darnielle has written, I would be first in line for a copy of anything Shauf decided to pen down the road.

Shormey — God Bless Bob Ross: A Collection Of Low Fidelity Recordings

A snippet of a post I published in June:

The hardest thing about making a mix in honor of Bandcamp’s June 6 event was deciding which track from God Bless Bob Ross to include. The whole thing is stellar. I ended up going with “honeydipper,” which is intoxicatingly propulsive and wildly inventive in how it builds and releases its kinetic energy.

Sturgill Simpson — Cuttin’ Grass – Vol​.​1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)

Yes. Just… yes. The album art, the sound, the playing, the line of sight into Simpson’s songwriting… Happy camper over here. And Vol. 2 kicks (gr)ass in all the same ways.

Skyway Man — The World Only Ends When You Die

Weird story, fitting for an album about death: I was listening to this while sitting in my car outside Walgreen’s waiting to get a drive-thru COVID test when I saw a tweet calling the presidential election for Joe Biden. It wasn’t a news source I was familiar with, but I figured those would follow suit shortly thereafter, and during the 20-minute ride home after my test, I thought I was enjoying my first real taste of the post-45 era. The air felt lighter and clearer, and The World Only Ends When You Die was a great companion for that delightful (albeit illusory) experience. The real call didn’t come until a day later, when I was visiting my mom in Norfolk. We’d taken my daughter out for a run/bike ride around my old neighborhood, and someone stringing Christmas lights shouted down from the top of the ladder, “Did you hear? They called Pennsylvania!” It felt like a movie scene — something from 100 years ago. So much better than a tweet in the Walgreen’s drive-thru. We celebrated by letting my daughter stay up late to watch the acceptance speeches (she decided immediately that she wanted to visit Vice President Harris), and on the drive back to Richmond the next morning, I listened to The World Only Ends in full, the air feeling nice and light once again.

Eric Slick — Wiseacre

From a post I wrote back in July about the first single to be released from Wiseacre:

Direct and indelible, the song represents an elegant marriage of form and function — a beat that shines via understatement, and a lyrical hook that elevates the elemental: “I’m a simple person / When it comes to down to it.” It’s an idea that expands as you spend more time with it, and it ends up (for me, at least) taking on an aspirational quality. There’s peace in being able to say those words with confidence, and getting there can involve lots of hard work.

Early in 2020, Slick started posting drum cover videos to his Instragram, and while there’s been plenty of complexity to marvel at, from Rush and Zappa to CAN and Outkast, my favorite clip of all might have been his take on Andy Shauf’s “The Magician.” In the caption, Slick described the song as “deceptively simple,” and he praised the album it’s on (The Party — a favorite of mine as well) in saying “you can hear the hours of rewriting to make it effortless.”

I hear that exact same magic in “When It Comes Down To It.” Take a listen below, and click here to pre-order Wiseacre.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

As I did in October’s Bandcamp Friday post, I want to thank Steven Hyden for the recommendation here. It’s been so fun watching the accolades roll in for Live Forever from my cozy seat I snagged on the Bartees Bandwagon™ a few months ago. This album is a demonstration of a bold and broad artistic skill set, and it’s an invitation to connect with so many strands of your own musical universe. I also count this among the most versatile albums in terms of what I was doing when I spun it — cooking, puttering around in middle of the afternoon, running, hitting tennis balls against a wall… I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to listen to Live Forever.

Moses Sumney — græ

The level of artistry here is just astounding. The overall concept, the songs themselves, Moses Sumney’s voice, even the packaging for my physical copy… it’s all so next-level. Overwhelming, even. This is another album where it feels like the full picture will continue emerging over time, and I’m in no rush.

Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?

I mentioned in my live albums post that the list of bands I got to see perform this year is short but illustrious, and Sunwatchers is on that list. What a gift it was to see them live. Tons of energy, intensity, and complexity, and Oh Yeah? does a great job of bottling those traits. Did I mention it includes a 19-minute song called the “The Earthsized Thumb.” Can we all agree that’s just tautologically awesome?

William Tyler — Music from First Cow

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I’d totally planned see this movie before I bought the soundtrack. That seemed like the right order of events — as if there were a “wrong” time to buy a William Tyler album. (There’s not.) Then I listened to Music from First Cow a third time, and a fourth time, and I feel hard for how beautiful, musically economical, and evocative these pieces are, and I started to develop the kind of emotional responses you might expect to have after actually having seen the film, like how “The Arrival” triggers the kind of nostalgia you feel when something’s not even over yet but you already miss it… I’m still going to see this movie, but I’m not waiting to but its soundtrack a moment longer.

Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud 

Yielding my time to share this bit from Steven Hyden’s best of 2020 list for Uproxx:

In a year of so much chaos and tragedy and idiocy and fear, listening to Saint Cloud felt like hanging out with that friend who always manages to put things in perspective. No matter what happens today, the lilacs keep drinking the water, marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time.

More 2020 albums I enjoyed:

Anteloper — Tour Beats Vol. 1
Matt Berninger — Serpentine Prison
J.R. Bohannon/Ben Greenberg/Ryley Walker — For Michael Ripps
Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
The Budos Band — Long in the Tooth
Bill Callahan — Gold Record
Car Seat Headrest — Making a Door Less Open
Ian Chang — 属 Belonging
Tyler Childers — Long Violent History
Drive-By Truckers — The Unraveling
The Fearless Flyers — Tailwinds
Futurebirds — Teamwork
Lonnie Holley — National Freedom
Christian Lee Hutson — Beginners
Jason Isbell — Reunions
Pokey LaFarge — Rock Bottom Rhapsody
Roberto Carlos Lange — Kite Symphony, Four Variations
Hamilton Leithauser — The Loves Of Your Life
Kevin Morby — Sundowner
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk
Sylvan Esso — Free Love
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — Temple
Jeff Tweedy — Love Is The King
M. Ward — Migration Stories
Sven Wunder — Wabi Sabi

2020 in Review Part 7: RVA

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA (You are here!)
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Think about a place that’s especially meaningful to you. It isn’t just a place, is it? It’s a feeling too, I bet. Maybe it’s a sound or a taste. A mode. A chapter in your life. You often don’t notice those associations until after the fact — until you’re away for a while, or until you’ve moved on. It’s hard to process meaning when you’re busy. I don’t know about you, but the life-on-hold stillness of 2020 has resulted in waves of meaning cresting and crashing constantly, and as the year comes to a close, I’m flooded with gratitude for Richmond music. It’s been a lifeline. A source of joy. A way to locate myself in the world. A way to remember that the world is still, in fact, out there. A reminder that community boils down to something more essential than physically being together. Charlottesville singer-songwriter Devon Sproule called that “The Gold String,” singing:

I’m imagining a golden string that is connecting
Everything but especially, beings where love has been.
I’ve imagined it again and again so often,
It isn’t even imagining, it is making it happen.

That’s exactly the pull I’ve felt when spending time with the albums below. I bet you’ll feel it too if you give them a listen. You’ll notice there are a few more in this list than the others I’ve posted before. Like I said — it’s been a flood. And my sincerest thanks go out to the artists mentioned below. 

addy — Eclipse

I am so happy Eclipse is in my life. There’s a specific sense of joy in putting it on the turntable and knowing that Adam Watkins’ voice is going to be drifting through the house, carving graceful and distinctive contours around their songs’ lyrics. I love this album, and while this may sound obvious, it seems uniquely worth saying that I love listening to it. It’s wonderfully layered and immersive, and Watkins’ singing is a big reason why. If you haven’t heard Eclipse yet, treat yourself to an enjoyably enveloping experience.

Saw Black — Horsin’ ‘Round

Looking back, it seems fitting that Saw Black was the first artist I posted about after the pandemic started getting truly scary. I’ve turned to his music during other difficult times and have found comfort and joy when both seemed hard to come by. In what’s either coincidence or fate, I spent a few sentences in that post playing up Bandcamp as a way to support artists — just before Bandcamp held its first fee-free Friday. The next such event isn’t until February, but there’s not a bad day to buy music at Bandcamp, and while this Horsin’ Around EP may be sold out, the WarHen Records page has plenty more Saw for sale.

Butcher Brown — #KingButch

In a year that was as eventful as any I can remember, this album shone like an event unto itself. The build-up, the singles, Mothership Mondays, finally getting to hear the whole thing… these were some of my fondest musical memories of 2020. That’s one reason why I put together a bulleted recap of those milestones on the week #KingButch was finally released. In a year that was deeply upsetting in so many ways, everything Butcher Brown did was a reason to celebrate. I feel lucky to be living in Richmond during the Butcher Brown era. If I have grandkids, I’m going to be bragging to them about that fact one day. I’m certain of it.

Deau Eyes — Let It Leave

I didn’t publish many interviews in 2020, but one artist I had the great honor of chatting with was Ali Thibodeau of Deau Eyes. Here’s a snippet from the intro I wrote for our Q&A, which was published by The Auricular:

Over the course of nine beautifully rendered songs, Thibodeau demonstrates vocal skills and versatility that were shaped by a past in musical theater, while giving listeners every reason to celebrate her decision to leave that world behind to pursue her songwriting. It’s an inspiring listen, whether you’re rocking out with the wry and retrospective lead single “Some Do,” or soaking in her soaring anthem to freedom, “Autonomy” — a live set staple that ends, simply, “Let’s begin.”

McKinley Dixon — The House That Got Knocked Down

Did y’all see this teaser clip announcing a 2021 McKinley Dixon/Spacebomb project? Mind blown. Details are scant, but whatever they’re working on, I can’t wait to hear it. In the meantime, I’ll keep spinning this excellent EP, which came out in early 2020. “Sun Back” is on one of the first mix CDs I made from my Bandcamp Friday purchases, and as a result, it’s been a constant — something I’ve come back to again and again to recharge and reset.

DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Volume 2

It was so rewarding seeing this on Bandcamp Daily’s list of the best beat tapes of November. DJ Mentos’ work has an off-the-charts consistency when it comes to quality and impact. His beats hit hard, and the Bandcamp write-up confirmed as much:

The Maxell Tapes bumps from the middle of a boom-bap and trip-hop Venn diagram. These were beats for fans of Da Beatminerz and DJ Shadow, DJ Premier and Portishead. The Maxell Tapes Vol. 2 picks up where Vol. 1 left off, further mining and moving around that middle ground for more skull-cracking downtempo beats.

FM Skyline — liteware

Love this album. A few words from the very first Bandcamp Friday post, which, by my calculations, went up approximately 175 years ago:

With the backing of the 100% Electronica label, Pete Curry’s vaporwave project represents one of Richmond’s most ascendant acts at present.

Angelica Garcia — Cha Cha Palace

2020’s concert calendar was short but illustrious; I made it out to only a handful of performances before things shut down due to COVID, but the ones I did see were phenomenal. The release show for Angelica Garcia’s Cha Cha Palace was one of them. It was as magical and dynamic as the album itself, with decorations around Gallery5 that turned the venue into a living representation of the album’s visual identity. Take a look at that cover art, and imagine being immersed in that beautiful assemblage of personal history. It was so generous of Garcia to invite us in like that, and the energy she brought onstage was utterly unforgettable.

Gold Connections — Ammunition

Another artist I feel very fortunate to have spoken to for The Auricular this year (read the interview here) was Will Marsh of Gold Connections, who is as gracious in conversation as he is adept at writing songs that stay with you — both because they’re endlessly relistenable and because they pull zero punches lyrically. The material on Ammunition was written before the lockdown, but the EP feels as pointed and vital as anything I heard this year.

Hotspit — Hotspit Live Session

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

If you’ve been following this Bandcamp bonanza from the very beginning, you might remember that my very first Bandcamp Friday post included music by Avery Fogarty, who fronts the Richmond band Hotspit. That group just released a three-track live session, which is very exciting. I’m especially fond of the first track, which illustrates the range the group has, and how great they sound in exploratory mode. Well worth a download.

The Hustle Season — Volume 1

A quick snippet from my November Bandcamp Friday post:

I’m a relatively new listener [the The Hustle Season podcast], so I’m in that honeymoon phase of familiarizing myself with all the regular segments and recurring jokes, but no additional research is needed to know that the show’s hosts (Reggie Pace, Gabriel Santamaria, James Seretis, and Kelli Strawbridge) bring a super-deep pool of musical talent to the table, and their Volume 1 LP provides a kaleidoscopic glimpse of those varied interests and abilities.

Kids Techno — The Harmony of Spheres

While the creator of The Harmony of Spheres remains mysterious, the album’s impact has become familiar over the course of 2020, given its release right around New Year’s. With apologies to Radiohead, another fine purveyor of mystery, I put this on when I want to disappear completely. It’s such a great way to zone out or zone in — whatever you’re looking for. 

Lefthnd — ad mausoleum

From my review for the Auricular:

The album packs an abundance of ideas into 28 minutes, grabbing your attention from the outset and keeping it over the course of eight songs that form an exceedingly rewarding encapsulation of Lane’s talents as a player, songwriter, and producer.

Lonely Rooms — Until We Have To

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I love this album. It’s remarkably poised, capturing moments of quiet turmoil and questioning made crystalline by melodies and structures that make you want to sing along and stay in the moment, however difficult it may be. And while there’s tremendous weight to the lyrics, closing track “Comeback” leaves you with a hopeful mantra I plan to return to repeatedly:

No alarms. No attacks.
Today wasn’t that bad.
I can take some comfort in that.
Try and figure out where my head is at.
I need strength and I find that I can
Feel it coming back.

Erin Lunsford — The Damsel

The chat with Erin Lunsford that I mentioned ahead of my covers list followed an earlier interview we did for an issue of James Magazine that came out in March. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a hard copy, but you can read the piece here. In it, she previews a solo record that would embrace her musical roots, and The Damsel is the extraordinary result of that sonic rediscovery. Lunsford has a rare vocal gift, and she pairs that power with generous, intimate storytelling for a totally distinctive set of songs — an album only she could produce. No matter where her path leads — and hers is clearly among the most promising of anyone’s in Richmond — this is an album future fans can return to when seeking a more complete understanding of her artistry.

Philip James Murphy Jr — bummer is icumen in

From the last Bandcamp Friday post of the year:

Philip James Murphy Jr has been a Bandcamp Friday MVP throughout this year… His music has a sense of melodic detail I enjoy, as well as a lived-in feeling that I’ve found to be comforting. Great winter listening.

Given that last bit, the song below may seem like an odd choice (the middle-English song it’s derived from references summer), but give credit where credit’s due: You can’t get much more right than releasing a song called “bummer is icumen in” in January of 2020. Come to think of it, WHAT DID MURPHY KNOW AND WHEN?!? We need answers.

Noah-O — DEADSTOCK VOL​.​1-8

Tremendous respect is due to Noah-O, who released an album a week from late April to mid June. Eight straight Fridays putting music out into the world, with sorely needed stories of perseverance and growth. Just incredible. A true inspiration.

Oneness of Juju — African Rhythms 1970​-​1982

Plunky Branch is another 2020 MVP. His front porch concerts were a staple of Byrd Park life for months. What a beautiful scene that was — lawn chairs, dancing, strollers, actual live music… I only made it out a couple of times, and didn’t get to stay long either time. When I did, I wished I could bottle those moments and carry them with me.

On that same day I got to see my first Plunky porch concert, I picked up a copy of this new comp from Deep Groove. The timing was impeccable; I’d just started to get into his music, and I wanted to snag something to spin at home, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Strut Records to the rescue with this excellent sampling of Oneness’ output.

Ophelia — Ophelia

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

A big part of past Bandcamp Fridays has been music that’s resurfaced — extra copies of pressings that had sold out, or albums that are seeing the light of day after spending some time on the shelf. This Ophelia album is such a glorious example of the latter, as it hit Bandcamp a couple of weeks ago after having been recorded back in 2010. After hearing it and enjoying it tremendously — including a magnificent listen all the way through on a long run at dusk — it’s hard to imagine this not being out in the world. 

Opin — Media & Memory

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

There’s a specific anticipatory joy that floods in just before you hear a new Opin song for the first time. Their track record of adventurousness means you’re never sure where they’re about to take you. It’s exhilarating — especially when, time and time again, you end up thrilled with where they’ve decided to go with their sound…

PANGEYA — PANGEYA

While exceedingly deserving of a place on this list on its own, the self-titled PANGEYA tape also stands in for the many other amazing 2020 releases from Ohbliv’s various pseudonyms. Here’s a list of the ones that were on my radar:

Bradford Thomas — Bradventure III
DarkTwaine_ — Shadow Work
DarkTwaine_ — The Hainted
DarkTwaine_ — BLACKRADIANCE
DarkTwaine_ — L’enfants Savage
Ohbliv — Foreverpayingdues
Ohbliv — LewseJoints Number 8 (a)
Ohbliv — LewseJoints Number 8 (b)
Ohbliv — Spirit Medicine
Ohbliv — Spirit Medicine B Sides

Only a legend like Ohbliv would warrant his own list within a list like this. And we’re not even factoring in the beats of his included on other amazing albums. Speaking of which…

Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin — FlySiifu’s

From December’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I already have my copy of FlySiifu’s, but I thought I’d include the album here for two reasons: 1. It’s excellent and well worth your Bandcamp bucks, and 2. The merch associated with it is A+. Can’t-miss holiday shopping right here. The work shirts are mostly sold out, sadly, but there are still long sleeve shirts and sweatshirts, among other items. Consider it a rule going forward that if your album invents/takes place in a fictional record store, and you then start selling merch for said fictional record store, you have my undivided attention. (Especially when said album happens to be one of the best released all year.)

Ruth Good — Haunt

I got more into cassettes this year, and was thrilled when I saw the Citrus City notification about this Ruth Good EP getting a release on tape. It’s a quick but super-substantive 4-song listen, with contributions from A-plus instrumentalists like Alan Parker and Eric Slick. (Not the last time you’ll see that name on one of these lists!) I’m especially fond of “All My Life,” which has a monster chorus that hits like something that would have been on a Traveling Wilburys album — big and memorable, the kind that makes for a killer live singalong. Hopefully one day.

Sons Of The James — Everlasting

I’ve spent a ton of time with “Things I Should Have Said” — to the point that the song’s distinctive fade-in has become a piece of music I look forward to in and of itself. No surprise there, given the mastery of sonic texture and detail that DJ Harrison brings to everything he produces. 

Spacebomb House Band — IX: The Best Played Lands

I’ve been a fan of these Spacebomb House Band tapes since they were released under the “Library Music” banner. They’re uniformly excellent and consistently surprising, and 2020 saw three new volumes added to the series. Picking a favorite out of those three is tough, since they collect so many unique moments and vibes, but I have to single out “The Bigs” from the ninth installment — a super-fierce beat that would have been right at home on Liquid Swords. So good.

Various — A Little Bit at a Time: Spacebomb Family Rarities

Speaking of Spacebomb, this comp is an absolute gold mine, showing how multifaceted the outfit’s impact is, from management and publishing to production. There are gems here from local and non-local artists alike, but I was especially thrilled to see an unreleased Sleepwalkers song on here. As someone who spent the years between Greenwood Shade and Ages eagerly awaiting more of their music, I value new Sleepwalkers tunes very highly, and the sudden appearance of “Why Am I So Sad” was a real treat.   

2020 in Review Part 6: Blasts from the Past

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past (You are here!)
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

So many excellent compilations, reissues, and lost albums came out this year. And they were right on time; who didn’t want to escape the present in 2020? Then again, the more the archival release market heats up — and it shows no sign of cooling off — the more essential this category feels each year. There’s so much to learn from albums like these, whether they’re filling in a musical blind spot (as is the case with Light in the Attic’s endlessly awesome exploration of 20th century Japanese music) or helping you delve deeper into an album or artist you already loved. I’ve chosen five to highlight, but be sure to comb through the bonus list below them. So much retrospective fun in there.

Brother Theotis Taylor — Brother Theotis Taylor

I would recommend this to absolutely everyone. The joy it brings — the way it changes the air in your house when it starts spinning — is in a class all its own.

Various — How the River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces of Indian Violin, 1933​-​1952

I look at compilations curated by Chris King much the same way I look at John Coltrane’s work — I may not hear all of what more trained ears are able to hear, but the mere fact that I’m engaging with the texts and working toward a deeper understanding of them makes me feel like I’m growing. Like I’m inching taller by continuously grasping at something just out of my reach. I may jokingly call King’s earlier Third Man comps “stressful Greek music” to get a laugh out of Mrs. YHT, but I spin them often and am constantly amazed at the depth of feeling in the recordings. How the River Ganges Flows inspires and amazes in the same way.

Various — Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972​-​1986

Dancing in the kitchen. Dinner on the stove. This is the stuff that comes to mind when I see the (totally gorgeous) cover art for this second installment in Light in the Attic’s excellent Pacific Breeze series. It’s so fun. This has been my go-to album for celebrating something, whether it’s actual good news or just the elusive event that four cooped up family members are in a good mood at the same time. LITA’s ongoing reexamination of 20th-century Japanese music is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

Various — The World Is a Cafeteria: American Soul Music (and one song from Ghana) 1955-1998

Time and time again, Cairo Records manages to put together soul collections that are otherworldly in terms of their impact. These compilations hit hard, in a way that reminds me of the supernatural quality folks often cite when describing Harry Smith’s work on the American Anthology of Folk Music. It’s like the tracks gain power by being next to one another. This is the fifth comp from Cairo, and while each one is utterly brilliant, the last side of this set is a cut above — the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” gone Ghanaian, Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne,” and a downtempo version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that may actually eclipse the original version Prince’s estate finally released a couple years back. Don’t believe me? Listen below:

Gillian Welch — Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs

This would be a stunning set of songs regardless of how they came to be. But once you know the backstory for Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs — how these compositions were whipped up quickly to satisfy an unwanted publishing contract (Hanif Abdurraqib’s New York Times piece is a great place to read more) — listening to them is like looking directly at the sun, or trying to imagine how many times you’ve blinked in your life. The scope of her talent is just incomprehensible.

Case in point: I picked “Here Come the News” as the opening track for one of my Bandcamp Friday mixes simply because it has the word “here” in the title and therefore fits a dumb naming scheme I’ve been trying to keep going each month. I’ve since gotten to know “Here Come the News” inside and out and am convinced of two things: 1. It could be the best song on just about anyone else’s album from the last 50 or 60 years, and 2. I would reach that same conclusion if I were to arbitrarily obsess over any of the other 47 songs on Boots No. 2.

While I eagerly made my way through Vol. 1, I’m taking my time with the second and third. The sun lets you look a little at a time, right?

Other reissues/archival releases I enjoyed this year:

Robbie Basho — Songs of the Great Mystery
Bon Iver — Blood Bank (Having the whole thing on one side at 33 1/3 RPM with live versions on the other side is A+.)
John Coltrane — Giant Steps 60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
Bill Evans — Live At Ronnie Scott’s
Joni Mitchell — Live At Canterbury House – 1967
Oneness Of Juju ‎– African Rhythms 1970-1982 (more to come on this one)
Tom Petty — Wildlflowers & All the Rest
The Replacements ‎– The Complete Inconcerated Live
Various — A Little Bit at a Time: Spacebomb Family Rarities
(more on this to come on this one as well)
Wilco — Summerteeth
Neil Young — Homegrown

2020 in Review Part 5: Live

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live (You are here!)
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

If you’d told me on January 1st that concerts would register as a distant memory by year’s end, I’m not sure whether I would have either laughed or cried. Either way, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine how this feels — the strange sensation of my favorite venues seeming so remote. Of driving by them and wondering what it’s like inside. It’s so heartening that relief for those venues is on the way, as a result of recent Congressional action, but with live music’s return still a ways off, I’ve been turning to live albums as a way to fill that void. And if Bandcamp Fridays have been any indication, artists have also been turning to the format — as a way to engage fans while we all wait for tours to resume.

Here are a handful of 2020 live albums I loved, starting with one that immediately feels like an all-time great.

Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood — LIVE

The word transcendent gets thrown around a lot, often as hyperbole in place of “really good.” But this live set from Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood breaks through the performer/audience barrier in spectacular fashion. In the process, she lays bare the set of power dynamics that hangs in the balance at a concert. While that whole set of invisible exchanges — everything from the height of the stage and the price of admission to the convention of applause — often flies under the radar for attendees, imbalances are acutely perceptible when you’re the performer, and on this night in Germany, Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood turned a lack of balance (resulting from racism they experienced while on tour) into art.

You hear it in the opening moments of LIVE, when Dawid is scolded by a hotel employee for playing a lobby piano, and you hear it during the set, when Dawid entreats an audience member who didn’t join a call-and-response chant: “What’s wrong with me? You don’t love me. You don’t love my family. We need you to affirm us.” In that moment, she shatters the whole set of power dynamics, especially the one about crowd participation being earned, en route to something both totally revolutionary and refreshingly simple: She holds someone in the audience accountable. In real time. And not by stopping the show and having them removed or shunned by the rest of the crowd; she brings that onlooker’s decision to withhold support into the song itself.

The very best live albums find a way to break down that barrier. Think “You’ve Got a Friend” from Donny Hathaway’s similarly titled Live album — the crowd becomes a part of the song during the choruses, and there may not be a more beautiful recording of that well-traveled composition. But what Dawid did in Germany feels vital for this moment, especially as we have some time and distance from live music to think about how concerts work. Whether we’re talking over singers who are baring their souls, or failing to compensate those same artists by streaming their music instead of buying it at the merch table, listeners could stand to hold themselves accountable in ways we haven’t in the past. It’s not unlike how this summer helped many white folks find a clearer sense of accountability in connection to the many manifestations of systematic racism in America. We can all do so much better, and I’m in awe of the way Dawid’s art has illustrated that.

John Moreland — Live at The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC – 6​/​9​/​19

I was so thrilled to see this pop up on Bandcamp. Moreland’s show in Richmond at the Camel was one of those rare moments when you know you’re in the middle of something you’ll never forget. I remember wanting to hold onto every moment. It was as packed in there as I’ve ever seen the Camel, and yet the crowd was absolutely silent as Moreland sang. As a group, we were hypnotized as part of what seemed like a collective realization of how lucky we were. Those vibrations are long gone, which is the way it has to be, but getting to hear a similar set (both with the multitalented John Calvin Abney accompanying) is a real treat. Get a taste by listening to their barn-burner of an opening number, “Sallisaw Blue.”

Joan Shelley — Live at the Bomhard

July’s Bandcamp Friday was quite the shindig, and it started unusually early. I already had Live at the Bomhard downloaded, but No Quarter had bundled a new vinyl pressing with an LP of Nathan Salsburg’s fascinating Landwerk album, in which he paired melodic loops lifted from old 78 RPM records with guitar and lap steel to create new compositions. FOMO was running high, so in the wee small hours of the morning, just after midnight on the West Coast, I quietly grabbed my laptop and made my purchase in the bathroom to avoid waking a still-snoozing Mrs. YHT. What does this have to do with the actual content of Live at the Bomhard, which comprises a totally fantastic survey of the Kentucky singer-songwriter’s catalog? Nothing, of course. I just thought y’all might find the image of a 36-year-old dude hiding in the bathroom with a laptop to buy records at 3 a.m. funny and/or endearingly deranged. (Just don’t tell Mrs. YHT.)

Daniel Romano’s Outfit — Okay Wow

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

Good lord, y’all. It’s so good. This is one hell of a band, and not just in the sense of rendering songs well or being proficient. They have that elusive thing that makes the whole endeavor feel grander and more meaningful than just people on a stage playing instruments. The harmonies feel triumphant, and there’s grace and power to the way the group moves together. If you haven’t heard Okay Wow, please listen to it now.

Sylvan Esso — WITH

Sylvan Esso would be near the top of a list of “Acts that I wish I’d made it a point to see live before the virus hit” — a list that would double as the list of “Acts you better believe I’m making it a point to see live after this shitstorm passes.” WITH is more than a temporary fix; it’s the realization of a vision for what the group’s songs can feel like when rebuilt with a community mindset, with some of my favorite musicians in the whole wide word (including Adam Schatz of Landlady, Joe Westerlund of Megafaun, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Molly Sarlé from Mountain Man) forming that caring and deeply connected community.

Other 2020 live albums I enjoyed:

Phil Cook — From the Kitchen (too many excellent volumes in the series to pick just one)
The Decemberists — Live Home Library Vol I
Dogwood Tales — Live in the Velvet Rut Vol. 2
Drive-By Truckers — Plan 9 Records July 13, 2006
Hiss Golden Messenger — A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students
Hiss Golden Messenger — Forward, Children: A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students
Jason Isbell — Reunions: Live at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape (another great series — I believe only the most recent volume is available, though)
The Mountain Goats — The Jordan Lake Sessions
Mountain Man — Look at Me Don’t Look at Me
Sylvan Esso — WITH LOVE
Ryley Walker — Bozo in Big Smoke

2020 in Review Part 4: Jazz

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz (You are here!)
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Jazz was an incredibly important part of my life in 2020. It was something to turn to, focus on, and disappear into. When it was time to start cooking dinner — a typically enjoyable task that assumed a new level of intensity as a result of the regimented nature of life in 2020 — I reached for jazz. When I was up late, typing about who-knows-what and worrying about everyone-knows-what, I reached for jazz.

As I have the past few years, I spent a ton of time following the International Anthem label’s release cycles. You’ll read about one of those albums below, but I’ve already written about two 2020 additions to their catalog, and more IA blurbs are on the way. The fact that they’re scattered across these lists is both a testament to the imprint’s eclecticism and an attempt to hide my IA stan status in plain sight. (Is it working? Probably not.)

I’d also call 2020 the year that I aimed to form a more personal relationship with John Coltrane’s music. It’s always felt like I was barely scratching the surface there, so I decided I’d hold myself to a higher standard and get to know albums like Giant Steps and A Love Supreme in a way that felt less like saying “Hey” from a distance and more like a focused conversation. Later albums, too — I picked up a used copy of Kulu Sé Mama via Steady Sounds’ Instagram and held it up like a map of that unfamiliar territory. I still have a ways to go, but I do feel more connected, both to his work specifically and to the broader idea of spirituality being communicated instrumentally. It’s opened my ears, and I’d guess that the rest of the jazz I heard in 2020 sounded sweeter as a result.

That said, I’m certain that these five albums would have sounded sweet regardless. And truth be told, the bonus list below them still seems woefully incomplete, so I’ll probably keep adding to it as the year comes to a close.

Kahil El’Zabar — Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful

Pitchfork reviewed this a day before the election, and I was so moved by it — the idiosyncrasy of El’Zabar’s renderings of “America the Beautiful,” the frankness of the album’s dissonant passages, the ebullience of “Express Yourself” — that I put in an order for it right away, knowing it wouldn’t come until at least a few days after the last votes had been cast. The way I saw it, that first spin would either be a celebration of a hopeful new chapter, or a motivating reminder of how much work is left to be done. It ended up feeling like both. This is music that zooms way out, reminding you that history is long, that the difficulties ahead are part of struggles that are bigger than ourselves, and that they connect us to good people who came before.

Greg Foat — Symphonie Pacifique

A top-10 2020 album in terms of play count. I went through a stretch over the summer when I listened to Symphonie Pacifique about once a day, usually at night through headphones, and I’ve internalized it to the point that “Man vs Machine” starts playing in my head every time I hear a synth sound that’s anywhere in the same sonic ballpark. It’s lush, it’s varied, it’s fun, and it welcomes you with open arms. I did end up getting a vinyl copy, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that initial run of late-night listens.

Asher Gamedze — Dialectic Soul 

Three cheers to the kind folks at Small Friends Records & Books for securing a copy of this with my name on it. Like Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful, Dialectic Soul offers a blend of savory and sweet, marrying a lyricism that hits my ear like Mingus’ with a capacity for beauty that makes it seem like notes were placed next to one another by divine predestination. Seriously, listen to “Siyabulela” and tell me you can’t picture some melodic higher power guiding the way. It’s astonishingly gorgeous.

Sam Gendel — Satin Doll

This was a game-changer. I’ve since picked up two more Sam Gendel albums — DRM, which came out in October, and Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar (with Sam Wilkes) from a couple of years ago. All brilliant, all with a similar sideways vantage point into how melody and arranging can function. It’s hard to imagine life without Gendel’s instrumental voice now, and it all started with this collection of woozy renditions of jazz standards.

Jeff Parker — Suite for Max Brown

In addition to being one of the year’s best albums of any genre, Suite for Max Brown was also my overdue introduction into the multi-faceted and wildly rewarding world of Jeff Parker’s past output. I didn’t have to go far (same Bandcamp page!) to find him in the liner notes for recordings by International Anthem labelmates like Makaya McCraven and Rob Mazurek, but I ended up spending even more time with Tortoise’s TNT. That turned out to be another late night headphones-in favorite of 2020. Getting to know that one helped me appreciate Parker’s versatility even more — something that really shines on Suite for Max Brown.

Other jazz albums I enjoyed:

Butcher Brown — #KingButch (more to come on that one)
Bill Frisell — Valentine
Sam Gendel — DRM
Irreversible Entanglements — Who Sent You?
Quin Kirchner — The Shadows and the Light
Rob Mazurek — Dimensional Stardust
Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings E&F Sides
Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (More to come on this one.)
Shabaka and the Ancestors — We Are Sent Here by History
David Tranchina — The Ogre
Kamasi Washington — Becoming

2020 in Review Part 3: Survival Sounds

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds (You are here!)
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

It’s no secret or revelation that music has been a balm for many during 2020. (Big year for the word “balm” in general.) I think everyone had their own survival sounds this year — albums they held especially close, or turned to when things were rough. These are mine. These were the albums I’d spin first thing in the morning in an attempt to inoculate the day against stress and fear, knowing full well they’d come anyway. Day after day, this music would fill me with hope — a fleeting and irrational yet powerfully meaningful hope that I might not have found otherwise. I can’t possibly express the gratitude I owe these artists, but this list is my way of trying.

Alabaster DePlume — To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals, Vol. 1

I found out only a few weeks ago that the material on To Cy & Lee isn’t new — that this set represents the culmination of years of work and creative community building. (For more on his process and inclusive mindset, take a look at this Aquarium Drunkard interview.) To have that fact sneak up after so much listening was a jolt, but it also falls in line with the openness of this music. These tunes feel infinite, like I could keep finding new things in them forever. They make time and space seem less restrictive. Each song becomes a place to vanish into. That’s something the creators of the next album on this list know a thing or two about as well…

Elkhorn — The Acoustic Storm Sessions

A quick snippet from the review I posted back in September:

…I was so thrilled to learn that The Storm Sessions has a companion album on the way. Elkhorn has teamed up with the Centripetal Force and Cardinal Fuzz labels to release an addendum in the form of The Acoustic Storm Sessions — another pair of side-long pieces improvised at Gardner’s home studio during that fated blizzard, captured the night before the recordings that made up the original album…

If there were ever a time when we needed internal experiences that have the power to transport and connect us, this would be it. I suppose it’s ironic, then, to be so thankful these gifted improvisers were stuck in place when and where they were, but I am. Doubly so, now that we have these new acoustic sessions.

Mary Lattimore — Silver Ladders

It’s hard to put into words just how much Mary Lattimore’s music has meant to me during 2020. I’d guess that she’s second only to the Grateful Dead (looking at you, 36 from the Vault) in terms of listening time this year. I’ve spun the albums she’s released with Mac McCaughan (New Rain Duets and AVL) repeatedly. I scooped up a copy of her collaboration with Elysse Thebner Miller when a cache of copies became available on August’s Bandcamp Friday. I paid in British pounds to have her Luciferin Light cassette sent across the pond, and then spent the next handful of nights listening to nothing else. And then there’s the main event: an instant-classic of a new full-length — the first under her own name since I started exploring her output in earnest.

It could almost go without saying that Lattimore’s music has healing powers, but I want to say it loud and clear, for the whole interweb to hear, and for her to hear, should she stumble across this tiny corner of the blogosphere: Mary Lattimore is a true 2020 hero. The “music as balm” idea has become a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and Lattimore’s music, which is just as daring as is it comforting, made this shitty year better. I’ll be forever grateful.

Gia Margaret — Mia Gargaret

Here’s what I wrote for my May Bandcamp Friday post:

Speaking of music that’s helping right now, I’ve found ambient music to be an essential part of my daily listening diet these days, and I can’t wait for this full album to be released. The first two tracks are meditative gems, and I could see this getting a ton of turntable time when my copy arrives.

I saw right. I’ve spun this one countless times since it arrived. “body” has been especially essential during a year in which I’ve tried to develop healthier habits while fighting the near-constant urge to interpret any off-kilter signal from my system as evidence of illness’ onset.

Joe Westerlund — Reveries in the Rift

Joe Westerlund goes deep. As the drummer for Megafaun, he carved out the pulse for an updated take on roots music — not unlike another drummer whose bearded profile bears a striking resemblance. As Grandma Sparrow, he mined the depths of some truly sublime weirdness to create the wackiest children’s album you’ll ever hear. (I wish y’all could have seen it come alive as I did here in Richmond in 2014. It was wild.) And on Reveries in the Rift, he’s plumbed percussion itself to collect sounds and rhythms that feel closely connected to the very act of being alive. It’s one of the albums I regularly reach for after waking but before making coffee. I’m a worrier by nature, but I’m not a pessimist; I’m certain of that because in that moment where I pick the first album of the day, I’m always hopeful that by choosing the right one, I’ll be setting the day off on its ideal course. In that sense, Reveries in the Rift may be the album I trusted most in 2020.

2020 in Review Part 2: Covers

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers (You are here!)
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Covers were such an important part of the musical landscape in 2020. I’d say this was most evident in the spring and summer, when bands started launching video series in which individual members would record their parts remotely and piece them together to create one bittersweetly fractured whole. I hope you were following Butcher Brown’s Mothership Mondays during that time. So good. Another great series was Erin & the Wildfire’s, and I spoke with Erin Lunsford about those clips for a piece that didn’t end up being published. She encapsulated the meaning of these videos beautifully:

“We miss each other a lot,” the group’s leader and vocalist Erin Lunsford said. “And it’s really hard to collaborate on original material when we’re not together, because that’s usually where our good ideas come to light — when we’re jamming and fleshing stuff out in a group setting… But these covers feel really good. It feels like we’re still doing something creative.”

Some of the cover albums listed below were motivated by that same drive to create in the face of unprecedented challenges. Others, like the Aquarium Drunkard comp, were already in the works. But all of these albums reminded me of the determination it took to make it through 2020 as a musician, and of the ingenuity I saw and so admired.

Lambchop — TRIP

You had me at “13-minute version of a Wilco song.”

Wesley Schultz — Vignettes

Lots to enjoy here, from Springsteen to Sheryl Crow, and Schultz does a characteristically excellent job of tugging at heartstrings throughout, but his rendition of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is a tour de force. It’s one of Mrs. YHT’s favorite songs, and she and I had a conversation while listening to this version in the car about the decision to drop the tempo and highlight the story’s mournful side. Doing so makes the most of lyrics like “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings,” and while Schultz did some editing to keep the length down on an already-long song that’s been slowed down, what’s left is a take on the song that feels essential — something that needed to be in the world.

Various — Lagniappe Sessions Vol. 2

Aquarium Drunkard was a crucial sanity-maintenance agent during this bonkers year we’ve just had, and it’s gotten to the point where you can sign me up sight-unseen for just about anything they write about or make, Lagniappe Sessions very much included. Picking a song from the Lagniappe Vol. 2 comp to embed below was very, very tough. I’m in awe of Joan Shelley’s take on “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” and I’m a sucker for just about any recording of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but I love it when a cover song brings me closer to an artist I’d been hoping to learn more about or understand better, and that’s what Erin Rae’s version of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” has done.

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All The Good Times

Back in September I wrote the following in a review of Elkhorn’s The Acoustic Storm Sessions:

The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.

All the Good Times is what I had in mind when I typed that part about “covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment,” and it’s a big part of what helped that idea crystalize. Feeling overrides precision for a listening experience that echoes the countless unseen acts of creativity and endurance that have helped us make it through the year, from songwriting to sourdough starters. Speaking of unseen, one of the clear highlights here is “Hello in There.” Rest in peace, John Prine.

Whitney — Candid

I’m not typically one to suggest certain songs are “off-limits” when it comes to covers, but “Hammond Song” gets close. The vocals that are as distinctive as they come, the production makes brilliant use of understatement… how do you add to that? (Did y’all know Robert Fripp produced the Roches’ self-titled album? I didn’t until just now.) But Whitney succeeds by grounding their version in their own falsetto-focused vocal distinctiveness, and by gently building outward to fill in some of the areas in the arrangement the original version intentionally left blank. High risk, high reward — and they nailed it.

Other cover albums I enjoyed:

Christian Lee Hutson — The Version Suicides (no longer available online)
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman (sort of counts as a cover album, but its rightful spot is on another one of these lists)
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll (more to come on that one as well)

2020 in Review Part 1: Duos

Part 1: Duos (You are here!)
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as ready for 2020 to be over as the next citizen of planet Earth. So why, a reasonable person might ask, is there a table of contents above showing that seven more year-end lists are on the way after this one? Why would I spend extra time memorializing a year most of us can’t exit fast enough?

First of all, I don’t want to forget 2020. It sure was rough, but I think we learned a lot this year. I learned a lot about myself, and many Americans have a clearer picture than ever of who and what this country is. Toasting to a fresh start in 2021 would risk having to relearn many of these hard, important lessons about injustice and structural inequality, and I for one don’t intend on starting over in that sense.

Secondly, my relationship with the music I heard this year was especially intense. You often hear about how, for many people, the willingness to absorb new sounds and follow new artists calcifies between the ages of 30 and 40. There are a number of reasons why, and neuroplasticity is one, but I’d guess that another is that the music you hear when you’re young soundtracks a wild, tumultuous time. So many ups, downs, fears, and frustrations. You’re trying to gain control of who you are and who you’ll be, yet so much is out of your control. It seems reasonable to believe that emotional extremes imprint themselves onto the songs that drift through our lives during difficult times like those. Like this time we’re living through right now. I may not remember which albums came out in 2007 vs. 2008, but for the rest of my life, I’ll know the cover of an album that came out in 2020 when I see one. That leads me to my last reason for blurbing more titles than I ever have in one of these silly retrospective extravaganzas…

I am so deeply grateful for the music that came out this year. Despite the crushing weight they were forced to shoulder as a result of a pandemic we weren’t prepared to fight and a federal government that has decided to shove its head in the sand (among other places) day after day, the musicians on these lists managed to put beautiful, life-affirming art out into the world. And I leaned on those new albums like never before — reading reviews daily, building and trimming my playlist of recently released singles, pre-ordering from artists I was familiar with, tracking the location of records as they made their way from some other part of the country to my doorstep, doing curbside pickup at the stores here in Richmond. To say that all that helped me keep going this year would be a vast understatement. In addition to financial support (you’ll notice most of the links throughout these eight posts lead to Bandcamp pages, and I hope you’ll chip in when you hear something you like), I owe these people my sincerest thanks.

Of the eight lists I’m planning to share, three categories are new, and I thought I’d start with one of those: albums I enjoyed by artists working together as duos. Without further ado…

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger — Force Majeure

This has to be the quintessential 2020 duo album. Culled from a series of streaming concerns bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger performed together from their living room during the lockdown, the performances on Force Majeure are as revealing as they are resplendent. There’s so much life in these recordings. Words of motivation. Hellos to friends who were following along in real time. Verbal cues between the two performers. So often, recorded music aims to filter those things out, leaving only the purest musical distillation. Force Majeure is so not that. It’s is a work of radical transparency — a document of two honest and accomplished performers letting the world in. And it’s a high water mark for good that can result from bad.

Gunn-Truscinski Duo — Soundkeeper

I remember when Fleet Foxes’ Shore came out, everyone noted that the early-autumnal timing was too good to be accidental. The same seemed true for Soundkeeper, released on October 9, which happened to be the day Mrs. YHT and I took off work to take the kids apple picking in Charlottesville. Okay, so we ended up picking up two pumpkins and some donuts and gave up on the whole “picking apples” part of the trip, but it sure as hell felt like fall that day, and I played Soundkeeper while driving down I-64 and feeling thankful for a rare and restorative respite from the pre-election ugliness that seemed to be everywhere you looked.

Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon — Noon

“Interplay” is a word you might expect to see in a blog post about duo albums, but Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon make collaboration seem truly playful. They combine virtuosity with a deep confidence in one another (check out their Talkhouse podcast episode for more on that), giving these songs an uncommon sense of freedom. As masterful and complicated as their respective techniques may be, Noon is as bright and fun as anything I heard in 2020 — perfect for a spin on the weekend when everyone’s in the kitchen mixing it up before obligations intervene.

Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson — Chicago Waves

Was tough deciding which posts this one should end up in. It’s a live album — an improvised set recorded when percussionist Carlos Niño and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson opened for Jeremy Cunningham as a duo in late 2018. It’s also on a short list of the most curative music I turned to in 2020. (A hint at another new category in this year’s retrospective.) But this list is where Chicago Waves seems most at home, given how remarkable it is that it’s the work of just two people. These pieces feel fully realized and three-dimensional — more narrative than you’d expect improv to be and wonderfully evocative. Yes, it’s soothing, but the more you zoom in, the more your close listening can be rewarded.

Jim White and Marisa Anderson — The Quickening

Something clicked when I heard The Quickening. Don’t tell Steve Gunn and John Truscinski, but I actually needed to hear this before I jumped into G-T Duo’s work with both feet; I had tried out Bay Head a couple of times, but felt like I was on the outside looking in. It was locked. The Quickening was the key that allowed me to access this form — this stark pairing of instruments maneuvering boldly without bass to anchor the whole endeavor — more meaningfully. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment when the door handle finally turned, it was probably when I heard “18 to 1,” a song that’s among the album’s calmest musically, but don’t be fooled — it packs an emotional wallop, producing a heady mix of emotions ranging from relief to regret. Proof of just how much you can do with just drums and guitar.

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

How’s everyone’s week going? Anything eventful happening? In all seriousness, if you’re like me, you could use a reason to stare at something other than election results. Bandcamp Friday to the rescue once again. In truth, Bandcamp waiving its fees for a day is more than an excuse to stop doomscrolling. We seem to be entering a new phrase of the pandemic-prompted pause on live music, given that case numbers are climbing to record highs, and I’m more motivated than ever to send love and support to the artists who are releasing new music out into a world that’s desperately in need of the kind of fulfillment only art can provide.

This time around, I thought I’d zoom in on folks with Richmond connections. I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen with the election, but I know that looking out for one another listening more deeply are going to be crucial along the road ahead. As I said in my post on election day, I love you all, and I think you’ll find some new music you love below:

Gold Connections — Ammunition

I posted back in June about Gold Connections’ previous release, a searching standalone tune entitled “Iowa City” that was recorded in isolation during The Year of Our Lord 2020™. These tunes, on the other hand, came from sessions that predated COVID, and while these have a full band feel that distinguishes them from “Iowa City,” it feels like it’s all part of one big winning streak in which Gold Connections is releasing one crisp, memorable tune after another. If tapes are your thing, be sure to grab one of these before they’re gone. I certainly will be.

Sons Of The James — “Everlasting

The full-length debut from this dynamic duo of Rob Milton and DJ Harrison is due 11/19, and I can’t wait to hear the whole thing. All the singles (including “Things I Should Have Said,” which was featured on HBO show Insecure) have been excellent, and this last one, “Everlasting,” is no exception.

Bradford Thomas — Bradventure III

When I started making mix CDs that compiled select Bandcamp Friday downloads, I decided on a no-repeat artists rule — as a way to keep things fresh, and as an extra incentive for being adventurous when the next Bandcamp Friday rolled around. Beat craftsman Ohbliv has sidestepped that rule repeatedly thanks to his many pseudonyms — I’m pretty sure only one or two mixes HAVEN’T included sounds he made. This is my first purchase on his Bradford Thomas page, but I bet it won’t be my last.

Big Kahuna OG — HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1

More brilliance from the Mutant Academy contingent — this time a beat tape from Big Kahuna OG, who is half of the combo that brought you standout 2019 LP Holly Water. I’ve been enjoying all of HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1, but “SCHEME THRU THE VONAGE” is an early favorite, with layer upon layer of sound inviting you to lose yourself along the way. So good.

The Hustle Season — Volume 1

The Hustle Season podcast has been my go-to auditory coping mechanism during this unfathomably tense week. Speaking of losing yourself — it’s been such a relief disappearing into discussions of Phil Collins’ relationship troubles, magician-shaming, and the surprising awesomeness of the AC/DC comeback. I’m a relatively new listener, so I’m in that honeymoon phase of familiarizing myself with all the regular segments and recurring jokes, but no additional research is needed to know that the show’s hosts (Reggie Pace, Gabriel Santamaria, James Seretis, and Kelli Strawbridge) bring a super-deep pool of musical talent to the table, and their Volume 1 LP provides a kaleidoscopic glimpse of those varied interests and abilities. I definitely recommend giving “The Day The Nationalists Came” a listen as a way to process the week’s political news. In that sense, the Hustle Season has helped me both escape from and engage with this challenging and historic time. I’m deeply grateful.

tangent — “gone in your eyes

More Kelli Strawbridge! The versatile member of some of my favorite Richmond groups (including Mekong Xpress & the Get Fresh Horns) has shared a new song under the stage name tangent. Love the feel and flow of this one. Looking forward to hearing more tangent tunes.

Mitchel Evan — “Leeches

Richmond singer-songwriter Mitchel Evan has kept a steady stream of new music coming throughout the quarantine, including a seven-song EP entitled Don’t Tell Me It’s Gonna Be Alright that was released in April. (Also available on Bandcamp!) His latest is called “Leeches” — alongside previous single “Band-Aid,” it heralds an LP that promises to be one of the city’s 2020 Americana highlights.

Other releases on my radar for today:

Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 7
Jaimie Branch — SOS sessions 3
ragenap & the Baked Growhouse Orchestra — “the national anthem
DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Volume 2
Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell — Live at the Shoals Theatre
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood — LIVE

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, y’all! I hope everyone is able to find ways to celebrate that are safe, spooky, and surpassingly sucrose-soaked.

A quick recommendation on the spooky side of things: Pumpkin, the new musical radio-play from Adam Schatz of Landlady.

In addition to being one of my favorite musicians on the planet (follow the Landlady tag at the bottom of the post for more on that), Schatz is one of my favorite writers on the planet, having penned a number of incisive essays for The Talkhouse that address heavy stuff — COVID-19 isolation, the perils of South by Southwest, and the creator-creative dichotomy — with humanity and generosity, and a clarity that can make it feel like he’s speaking directly to you. His honesty is consistently inspiring. I always leave Landlady shows feeling changed for the better, and I feel the same way after reading something he’s written.

He’s also hilarious, and Pumpkin — which takes the form of a scary bedtime story in which humans and monsters live (and die) side-by-side, parents strive to connect with their kids, and serial killers sing about crafting — is bursting with levels of moment-to-moment brilliance and silliness that only Schatz is capable of. It had me literally laughing out loud multiple times while running around my neighborhood this past week. I’m already an unsettling sight when jogging these days, thanks to COVID and early sunsets; my mask and headlamp make it look like I’m late for a surgery that’s happening just down the block. Add in laughter and you’ve got something truly special. Happy Halloween, I guess?

Per Schatz’s request, my favorite Pumpkin joke has to be the self-doubting student reporter singing “They call me a loser just because I always lose / Maybe they’re right.” Kills me every time. (Halloween pun very much intended.)

Much like his last festive radio-play, The Holiday Party, Schatz largely wrote, recorded, and edited Pumpkin himself, though it comes to life via a wildly talented cast of voice actors (Charlyne Yi is the fear-craving title character), and a band that includes Richmond’s own Pinson Chanselle on percussion. It runs about two hours — perfect for a leisurely Saturday early in-person voting experience. Did I mention it’s the last day for early voting in Virginia? Please vote, y’all. And if you end up enjoying Pumpkin, you can download the soundtrack over at Bandcamp for $10, with proceeds going to the The Okra Project.

You need a Stitcher Premium account to listen, but free trial options are available, and a few of the songs are streaming on the Bandcamp page. Hear “Pumpkin’s Fears” below: