Category Archives: #features

2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Last one, y’all. I promise. Here are 25 non-instrumental, non-jazz, non-audiovisual, non-RVA albums that meant a great deal to me in 2019. Counting the other posts, I believe this sets a new high water mark for number of albums I’ve blurbed at the end of the year. I want to thank my mom for editing the RVA post, and Mrs. YHT for understanding why this quixotic quest to document the year’s listening is so important to me.

As with the other posts, these aren’t ranked. Alphabetical order. See y’all in 2020.

African Acid Is The Future – Ambiance II

This was a gift from Mrs. YHT. Les Filles de Illighadad remixed? With some additional Afrobeat thrown in? Sign me up. The best part — I ended up getting to see Les Filles in person at the University of Richmond later in the year. What a gift that was, and spinning this album is how a prepped for that performance.

Bedouine — Bird Songs of a Killjoy

This whole album is written, arranged, and played beautifully, but do me a favor and spend some time with “Echo Park.” Put on headphones and really listen to the details. The effect on the backing vocals. The winding instrumental journey that runs from 1:16 to 1:43, and the mesmerizing breakdown that follows it. It’s like a painting that’s stunning from a distance and even more compelling up close. Then zoom back out an enjoy the rest of the album, because each track is rewarding in its own way.

Better Oblivion Community Center — S/T

I keep coming back to this record. It’s sad. It’s sturdy. It’s comforting. It’s been a good friend throughout 2019, and “Chesapeake” is an all-timer. In fact, I’m adding it to my “All Time” playlist, which is home to the songs that mean the most to me in the whole wide world. That image of parents and children both coming together and growing apart with music as the backdrop — it’s so wrenching, yet the song’s tone is so gentle. Could be my favorite song released this year.

Big Thief — Two Hands
Big Thief — U.F.O.F.

There are times when you look back and realize you’d experienced something incredible. Raising kids is that way. It’s hard to know how special a time is until it’s gone. Other times, you’re knee-deep in incredibleness and you know it. That’s what it’s been like to follow Big Thief this year. An A+ album in U.F.O.F. A surprise unmarked 7-inch mailed to those of us who pre-ordered U.F.O.F. Then another A+ album in Two Hands. I like to imagine this is what it was like to be a Stevie Wonder fan in the early 1970s — amazing music coming at you at a furious pace, and a constant sense of amazement that it’s happening.

James Blake — Assume Form

I remember the jolt generated by seeing Rosalía’s name among the contributors to Assume Form. She and Blake have both mastered the art of haunting understatement, and while there’s lots to like about this album, “Barefoot in the Park” has been my main takeaway.

Bon Iver — i,i

A memory that will stick with me for a long time: Listening to the “Holyfields” Song Exploder while cleaning out my childhood bedroom.

Bill Callahan — Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Just gonna leave this here:

True love is not magic
It’s certainty
And what comes after certainty
A world of mystery

Chris Cohen — S/T

I won Small Friend’s anniversary grab bag drawing back in March, and an advance CD copy of Chris Cohen’s self-titled album was part of the haul. I listened to it over and over in the car, marveling at the way it marries folk music and modal jazz. At least I think that’s modal jazz I’m hearing. I almost put this in the jazz post, but thought that might be going too far out on a limb, given my limited understanding of music theory. But give it a listen and tell me you don’t hear shades of Kind of Blue — the way the songs shift from one musical space to another with tremendous grace.

Jake Xerxes Fussell — Out of Sight

A highlight of 2019: getting to shake Jake Xerxes Fussell’s hand and buy a record from him when he opened for Mountain Man at Richmond Music Hall back in March. I thanked him for his music, and we chatted for 30 seconds or so. Seemed like a nice person — his demeanor is an easy one, just as his delivery on his recorded material seems effortless. But seeing him perform was totally thrilling; there’s a sense of significance around the songs he sings, because of the way he bridges the musical past and present, and because of how proficiently he draws on tradition. I was standing near the back, and I remember being thankful I couldn’t see his guitar work — it made what he was doing seem magical. I feel very lucky to have been there for that show. (Mountain Man was excellent as well.)

Steve Gunn — The Unseen in Between

You how you know an album is good? When it comes out and you listen to it a whole bunch, then you see the artist later in the year and think you’re hearing songs you love from previous albums, only to realize they’re the new songs you fell in love with earlier that year. That’s exactly what happened when I saw Steve Gunn at Richmond Music Hall in May. The songs on The Unseen in Between have become old friends in no time at all. “New Familiar” indeed.

Helado Negro — This Is How You Smile

The grace and goodness of This Is How You Smile are immeasurable. The air in the room changes when this is playing, like you’re being invited to pause your life and hop on a wavelength of hard-earned peace and clarity.

Hiss Golden Messenger — Terms of Surrender

I start to feel healing happen the moment a Hiss Golden Messenger song starts playing, so a new Hiss album being released is like being handed a go-bag of medicine and provisions that can will me get through another year in this sad, nutty political environment. Like, “Here, you’ll need this.” I’m so grateful for the music M.C. Taylor makes, and Terms of Surrender is another winner in my book.

Brittany Howard — Jaime

A major regret of 2019 is not having caught Brittany Howard on her Jaime tour, but I did catch a full performance that was streamed online. So damn good. And I got downright giddy when she launched into “Breakdown,” my favorite late-career Prince song. This album is brave, varied, immersive, and affecting. Side note: I’d recommend her Broken Record interview with Rick Rubin. It’s as clear a window I think I’ve gotten into Howard’s process as a musician, and they talk about ghosts and aliens at the end.

Jr Jr — Invocations/Conversations

This double album would be a miracle based on the songs alone. Tracks like “Day In, Day Out,” “Low,” “NYC,” and “Big Bear Mountain” are evidence that Jr Jr is reaching a rarified level when it comes to crafting pop songs. But knowing what they went through on the business side — having to fight for song rights, waiting years to release the album they wanted to release — makes Invocations/Conversations seem even more miraculous. It’s a gem.

Mdou Moctar — Ilana (The Creator)

Loved his previous electric albums. Loved his acoustic album. Loved seeing him live. Loved his Third Man live album. It’s all fantastic, yet somehow, his true studio debut is still a revelation. It’s like when Jim Carrey reaches the wall in The Truman Show and walks through the door into this whole other world that’s waiting for him. The sky is the limit for Mdou. Can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Nivhek — After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house

There’s music that’s comforting, and then there’s the stuff you listen to at your lowest — stuff that keeps you afloat when it feels like you’re about to sink. “dlp 1.1” from William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, for example. It’s like I’m carrying around a life preserver, accessible by opening up Spotify on my phone. (Easier to carry around than a real life preserver. Less bulky.) After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house was my Spotify life preserver this year. I listened to it over and over, and I when I did, it felt like I was disappearing into it.

Daniel Norgren — Wooh Dang

If I gave out an annual award for the album that felt like I’d heard it a million times before upon the very first listen, this one would be the clear winner. I can remember going running with this and zoning out and in with the album’s flow, which is easy and organic. I ended up snagging the fancy-pantsy Vinyl Me, Please version because I love it so much. A used standard copy was on sale at Plan 9 for weeks and weeks. If it’s still there, go pick it up immediately, for the love of all that’s good and decent.

Angel Olsen — All Mirrors

“Lark,” y’all. Holy shit. I picked up a copy of All Mirrors on its release day, which happened to be the day Mrs. YHT and I were traveling to Asheville, NC to celebrate our 10-year anniversary. I asked if we could stop by Harvest Records real quick — not to look around, just to get this — and was surprised to see how many they had in stock. It was the kind of quantity you’d have if the artist were doing an in-store performance. When we got to our B&B, I set up my portable record player, started spinning the album, and pulled up Olsen’s Wikipedia page. Sure enough, it lists Asheville as her (current) hometown. Weird, eh?

Jessica Pratt — Quiet Signs

So spooky. So beautiful. I re-listened to side A today and marveled once again at the uniqueness of the mood set by Quiet Signs. It’s unlike anything else I heard all year — not sad, exactly, and not trippy. It’s interstitial, like she found a dimension in between this world and another. (Come to think of it, the album cover does kinda look like when Matthew McConaughey was floating behind the bookcase in Interstellar…)

Joe Pug — The Flood in Color

It’s too late for Christmas/Hanukkah gift recommendations, so put this in your back pocket for a vinyl-loving family member’s birthday — Joe Pug sells a bundle of his whole discography, including his debut Nation of Heat EP. Color vinyl and everything. My in-laws got it for me last Christmas, and it’s brought me a great deal of joy this year. Speaking of 2019, the Big Pug Bundle (it’s not really called that, I promise) grew by one excellent album this year, as Pug released The Flood in Color, which contains some of his sharpest writing yet.

Joan Shelley — Like the River Loves the Sea

That thing where you a song grabs your attention and puts a songwriter on your radar, and then the next new album wallops you with a whole new set of songs, each delivering on what you loved about that original song? This is one of those. “Wild Indifference” put Joan Shelley on my radar in 2017, and Like the River Loves the Sea has been an incredibly generous second chapter in getting to know Shelley’s music. Were I to make a top songs of the year post, “The Fading” would be on it.

Shovels & Rope — By Blood

Dunno about y’all, but to my ears, By Blood is indicative of a leap in songwriting, placing Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst in a whole other echelon of lyricists. These stories are so richly rendered, and while you still get their signature sound and energy, you get to live through fully formed narrative experiences. “Mississippi Nuthin'” may be my favorite of this set. So powerful. So uncanny. Like they’re talking about a friendship from your own past that you’re scared to confront.

Bruce Springsteen — Western Stars

This album has a cinematic quality that grabbed me, and I’m not surprised Springsteen turned it into a documentary film. Maybe I’m saying this because I listened to it a bunch while at my mom’s house in Norfolk, but I think my dad would have loved Western Stars. He loved old movies, and romanticization of the American West was right up his alley.

Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride

My personal AOTY. I made more memories with this album than any other in 2019. Excitedly listening to the first few tracks, celebrating with friends via text on release day, delightedly opening my copy when it came in the mail and finding the band had signed it, seeing the band at the Norfolk stop and marveling at their merch operation, making videos of singing “2021” with my kids, spinning the album during family dinners… Father of the Bride soaked into so much of my 2019. I can’t imagine the year without it.

Whitney — Forever Turned Around

My daughter loves Whitney, and for the first time, I got to share the excitement of a new album rollout with her. Listening to singles in the car ahead of release day. Opening up our vinyl copy when it came in the mail. Spinning it at home a bunch of times over those next few days. Together, those moments form a memory I’ll hold onto dearly.

A few more albums I loved in 2019 (I’ll probably keep adding to this):

Tyler Childers — Country Squire
Justin Townes Earle — The Saint of Lost Causes
Dori Freeman — Every Single Star
Itasca — Spring
Durand Jones & The Indications — American Love Call
Anna Meredith — FIBS
The Mountain Goats — In League with Dragons
Panda Bear — Buoys
Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow
John Vanderslice — The Cedars

More 2019 in Review

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: RVA

Leave a comment

Filed under #features

2019 in Review: RVA

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’.)

Various — All Together Now: 15 Years of the Richmond Folk Festival Live

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

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Leave a comment

Filed under #features, #rva

2019 in Review: Audiovisual

More than in past years, I found myself spending time with films that artists and bands created to accompany their music. This idea isn’t new — let’s certainly take a moment to acknowledge the greatness and importance of Lemonade in this area — but this year’s crop of albums with companion visuals struck me as especially noteworthy. Not sure if this’ll stay a category going further, but let’s celebrate what 2019 had in store for our eyes and ears.

Beyoncé — Homecoming: The Live Album

Just astonishing in its scope, importance, and execution. So many goosebumps. Beyoncé is no stranger to producing touchpoints, but I expect Homecoming will stand tall for generations as an achievement in communicating and celebrating culture, in much the same way Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album has. Goodness radiates from the screen as you watch her many collaborators sing, dance, and play. The sheer volume of excellence put on display is jaw-dropping, as are the many moments in which sound and choreography combine to create crystalline moments of performance perfection.

Aretha Franklin — Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings

Speaking of Aretha…

Full disclosure, I haven’t heard the new Complete Recordings version of the album, though I did spend time with the long-awaited film of the album’s recording process. More goosebumps. Every grainy moment is awe inspiring, knowing that what she’s making will go on to become the best selling gospel album of all time. I only wish I’d been able to catch a theater showing. Franklin’s talent looms so large — the bigger the screen, the better.

The Lumineers — III

The Lumineers didn’t just release a new album this year. They crafted a whole narrative world — one that’s packed with pain and purpose relating to the legacy of addiction. The link between the audio and visual elements of III are built right into the packaging, as the actors who brought the album to life peek through the outer jacket from the inner sleeve. Here’s a link to the group’s YouTube channel. Regardless of what you think of the Lumineers’ success, or the omnipresence of “Ho Hey,” I recommend giving III a fresh look/listen.

Kevin Morby — Oh My God

I love the space this album occupies. Its connection to the subject of spirituality is sincere, but it never takes itself too seriously. It’s funny, but it never drifts off into parody. And the higher-than-usual degree of lyrical repetition signals rumination — like an idea you turn over in your mind a bunch of times without ever attempting to reach a conclusion or file it away. Quick story: I nominated an album of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s tunes for the Off Your Radar newsletter, and in my blurb, I almost mentioned how I hear her influence here and there throughout Oh My God. Then I saw Kevin Morby’s “Oh My God” short film, which flashes the Éthiopiques 21 album art at the 8:30 mark. So cool.

The National – I Am Easy to Find

Given the way my appreciation of National hit suddenly while checking out their last album, Sleep Well Beast, I wasn’t sure if it’d end up being a one time thing, or if maybe something about that album was what I needed on that particular day. I Am Easy to Find has settled the matter convincingly, as I’ve been turning to it repeatedly when I’ve found myself on the emotional wavelength I was on when I connected with Sleep Well Beast. I got my copy during BK Music’s closing sale. Sigh. I miss BK. Speaking of sighing, if you haven’t checked out the short film developed alongside the album, remedy that below. It’s really powerful.

Sturgill Simpson — Sound & Fury

Hot damn. Sturgill Simpson is fearless. By taking a stylistic left turn and partnering with veteran anime creators, Simpson asserted his artistic independence in spectacular fashion. Sound & Fury the film is a whirlwind of violence and creativity, and the album itself is a scuzzy thrill ride that upends expectations while continuing to speak frankly. I’ve embedded the kickass John Prine cowrite “A Good Look” below, but I recommend listening from start to finish. Better yet, if you haven’t heard the album, watch the film first. That’s what I did, and I loved getting to know the music that way.

Thom Yorke — ANIMA

The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed short associated with ANIMA (find it on Netflix) showcases Yorke’s acting chops, including some really amazing choreography. Once I’d seen it, the ANIMA songs it features suddenly felt more significant and accessible. That said, “Dawn Chorus” would have felt significant with or without video accompaniment. It’s some of Yorke’s finest work yet — a testament to how less can be more in the right hands, whether you’re working with melody or any other musical variable.

More 2019 in Review:

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: RVA
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Leave a comment

Filed under #features

2019 in Review: Jazz

The last few years have been an education in how much place and community matter when it comes to making meaningful jazz. Kamasi Washington’s Epic made the West Coast the epicenter of my jazz listening, illuminating a network of Brainfeeder collaboration linking excellent output from artists like Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar. Things started to shift toward the end of last year, when Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings signaled that something exciting was happening in Chicago, at the International Anthem label. That’s been the center of my jazz universe ever since, and I’d call this “The Year of International Anthem,” but the Chicago-based label shows no signs of slowing down, and I have a feeling next year’s jazz list will look a lot like this one.

Here are five non-RVA jazz (or jazz-adjacent) albums that I spent a ton of time with in 2019. Not surprisingly, three were released by IA.

Jaimie Branch — FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise

“prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2” is what initially grabbed me. I must have listened to it two dozen times in the days after I heard about it, probably from an International Anthem email. (At this point, given the winning streak IA is on, receiving one of their marketing emails means stopping whatever I’m doing and reading it immediately, because something awesome is most assuredly happening or about to happen.) “prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2” is an unfiltered masterpiece — a pure and powerful expression of pathos I couldn’t get out of my head. The rest of the album retains that directness, even when applying it to songs (“simple silver surfer,” for example) that have a lighter tone. Closing track “love song” splits the difference, delivering a cutting message with an irony that brightens up my day each time I hear it.

John Coltrane — Blue World

Still digging getting to go around saying things like “Hey, did you hear the new John Coltrane album?” And digging the music, of course. While this doesn’t have the true sense of “newness” that last year’s Both Directions at Once had, you can’t beat this collection of people playing this music at this time with Rudy Van Gelder at the helm. It’s a miracle. Carve this into a gold disc alongside everything else the Classic Quartet recorded and shoot it into space so aliens can still be having their own “Hey, did you hear the new John Coltrane album?” moments a million years from now.

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan — Epistrophy

Love a good version of “Lush Life.” I can’t find it on YouTube, but the whole album is great. Frisell and Morgan are both outstanding, though the real star of the show is the empathetic connection that holds each cut together, despite the space the two players give one another to operate. Check out their take on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” to see what I mean.

Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble — Where Future Unfolds

Did I play this on the night the new Kehinde Wiley “Rumors of War” statue was unveiled at its permanent location outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, right next door to the United Daughters of the Confederacy? You bet I did. It sounded great, just as it has throughout the year. Another question: Does this belong in the jazz category? Who knows — Where Future Unfolds is a multifaceted explosion of creativity featuring excellence in playing, singing, dancing, and historical documentation. Its abundance defies categorization. It overflows, even when taken in as an audio work alone. The thought of seeing it all come together in person gives me goosebumps.

Resavoir — Resavoir

Ugh. So gorgeous. An instant classic. Will Miller has earned “wherever you’re going, I’m there” status as fast as anyone I can remember, given his work with the International Anthem crowd, and his arranging work with Whitney. When I think about Resavoir’s self-titled album, the word “resplendent” comes to mind.

More 2019 in Review:

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: RVA
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Leave a comment

Filed under #features

2019 in Review: Instrumental

Let’s get this retrospective party started, y’all. Once again, I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew and am attempting to blurb more albums than is remotely reasonable, but I thought I’d get rolling with a list of nine favorite non-jazz, non-RVA instrumental albums. Four posts will follow this one — Jazz, Audiovisual (new category this year, though I guess “Instrumental” is new too), RVA, and 25 Favorites. As has been the case the last few years, these are presented in alphabetical order. No ranking. Just sending love letters out to the albums that meant a great deal to me in 2019.

Phil Cook — As Far As I Can See

I wrote in the last Off Your Radar issue of the year about my connection to Phil Cook’s music, and how it distills the joy I have for the creative community that links Richmond, Durham, and Eau Claire. As Far As I Can See provides a zoomed-in view of Cook’s genius, narrowing the focus so we can see how he builds songs and melodies when words aren’t on the table. I’ve played this a zillion times since it came in the mail, often first thing in the morning on weekends or when I’m working from home. Pair with hot coffee and feeling hopeful about what the day will bring.

Ebony Steel Band — Pan Machine

I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk all wrong this whole time. In truth I haven’t spent a ton of time with the German band’s albums — just exploratory listens here and there. But I’ve always focused on the mechanical stuff. The beat. The synth sounds. The blunt vocals. This wonderful album of steel drum covers pushes melody to the foreground. Mind blown. I had no idea how gracefully these songs move. I can’t wait to get to know the original versions even better — now with a better listening toolkit.

Elkhorn — Sun Cycle/Elk Jam

Two fearless, searching albums, with approximately two million avenues for your mind to travel down while listening. Sun Cycle and Elk Jam remind me of the note Zooey Deschanel leaves Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous about spinning Tommy and seeing your future unfold — press play on either of these, close your eyes, and let your imagination run wild. You may end up in a forest. You may communicate with dead relatives. Elkhorn’s music is as infinite as your capacity for wonder.

Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan — New Rain Duets

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I walked into Richmond Music Hall in May to see Steve Gunn, I had no idea that the “Mary & Mac” who would be opening were Mary Lattimore and Mac McCaughan, who released this gorgeous ambient album just a couple of months earlier. As far as supporting act surprises go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Mrs. YHT and I sat and ate dinner in the back of the hall while Mary & Mac painted some seriously dreamy soundscapes, complete with nature imagery projected onto the back of the stage. What a gift that was.

Ryan Lott — Pentaptych

I learned fairly early on in my Son Lux fandom that frontman Ryan Lott was also a composer, and Pentaptych has been an excellent introduction to that side of his musical brain. Quick story: I grew to love the way the piece — originally composed as ballet accompaniment — carved out musical space. The low end and high end are noticeably distant from one another, leaving this vast, vacant middle area. Turns out (and I can’t seem to find where he said this), Lott was intentionally setting the stage for the dancers, creating an openness where visual aspects of the performance could be foregrounded. I’m amazed at how clearly he was able to articulate that vision.

Bill Orcutt — Odds Against Tomorrow

Gave this a listen after Mark Richardson wrote about it for Bandcamp Daily. My first rodeo with Bill Orcutt’s music. I’ve found Odds Against Tomorrow to be richly rewarding for both the head and the heart; it forces you to flex preconceptions relating to time and dynamics, and it contains a delicately rendered version of “Moon River,” the song I often sing my kids at bed/naptime.

Rosenau & Sanborn — Bluebird

I put in my pre-order for this while on vacation in the Outer Banks. I can remember stealing a few minutes to myself and using them to listen to “Saturday,” only it was too long to get through, so I listened to it in pieces the first few times I heard it. My copy came in the mail a few months later, on a day when I really needed something wordless and nurturing and engaging. Bluebird was both figuratively and literally there for me.

Various — Industry/Water

One of 2019’s most welcome developments was Jonny Greenwood starting his own label, Octatonic Records. I’m a big fan of the Radiohead guitarist’s soundtrack work, and it’s great to know he’s planting deep roots in the realm of modern classical. The announcement of the label’s founding was accompanied by two initial releases, and I snagged the second — an LP that pairs one of Greenwood’s own compositions, “Water,” with a delightfully dissonant piece by Michael Gordon called “Industry.” Both are beautiful and challenging, and I can’t wait to see where Octatonic goes next.

William Tyler — Goes West

I get a sense of warmth from this record that goes beyond notes, chords, and instruments. It’s an atmosphere. It’s a statement of belief, rooted in a genuine appreciation for his Cosmic Americana forbears — including a Windham Hill universe that he’s helped me connect with over the past couple of years. While Goes West is certainly a fun listen, it feels as deep as anything William Tyler has made to this point.

More 2019 in Review:

2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: RVA
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Leave a comment

Filed under #features

Black Friday Buying Guide

I’m away from Richmond this Black Friday, so instead of doing the Record Store Day thing, I’m taking this opportunity to scoop up a few items I’ve had my eye on online for a while. Doesn’t hurt that most labels are sending out discount codes via email. I’ve compiled a bunch of those below, along with a handful of albums I’m set on snagging.

Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I’ve been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for someone to repress this thing, given the $100+ price point of the existing copies available on Discogs. Vinyl Me, Please to the rescue. “Every Single Night” remains one of my favorite songs from the last decade or so, and I was lucky enough to see Mountain Man do a cover of “Hot Knife” when they recently came through Richmond. Won’t soon forget it. Not for nothing, VMP is doing a site-wide 30% off sale today…

Saw Black & The Toys — Christmas in the Background

Saw Black. War Hen Records. Christmas. Count me in. Just 100 copies were pressed, so don’t sleep on this one.

The Congress — The Loft Tapes

I had my eye on a Loft Tapes ebay listing ever since I interviewed Scott Lane of the Congress and American Paradox Records. While the resulting piece zoomed in on his role as founder of AP, I learned a ton about the Congress’ early days, including how The Loft Tapes served as an on-the-job education when it came to producing albums. It’s a killer collection. Out of print, but there’s one for sale on Discogs, and it’s available for listening via streaming services.

DJ Harrison — Vault Series #9: Thanksgiving Dinnerz

According to Bandcamp, this nine-song set is available for only a limited time. Listened to it on the way out of town yesterday morning, after “Alice’s Restaurant” and before my car’s Bluetooth connection stopped working. Fun times!

Spacebomb House Band — VI: Connected by Birth and Employment

I learned a while back that Mrs. YHT keeps one of those little packets of two saltines in her glove box, just in case some sort of apocalyptic traffic situation unfolds. My first thought was “That seems a little alarmist,” but I realized I do the same thing by keeping a walkman, an aux cord, and the latest volume in the Spacebomb House Band’s cassette series in the car at all times. And guess what? That’s what we listened to when my car’s Bluetooth crapped out on Friday! I’m late in snagging Volume VI, so I plan to remedy that over the next few days.

As promised, here are a few limited-time discount situations I’ve seen marketed. Hope they help you start the holiday season off right.

Leave a comment

Filed under #features

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Make sure you spin some Ohbliv today. I’m sure as hell thankful for all the time I’ve spent with his music this year.

Oh yeah, and if your extended family isn’t yet on board with impeaching the president and removing him from office, dinner tonight is a great time to work through that.

Cheers!

1 Comment

Filed under #features