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!

Here we are. The last Bandcamp Friday of the year. Maybe the last one ever. (Has anyone heard if they’re doing more next year?) It’s been a trip, y’all. If you’ve been following along with these posts, I hope you’ve found some fun new tunes here and there, and I hope you’ve been using these monthly events as a way to take stock of how important it is that we support the art that matters to us. Since it’s December, this month’s list includes a few extra merch alerts, in case you’re on the hunt for holiday gifts to send the music-loving cousin/niece/cousin’s niece on your shopping list.

Without further ado…

Iris DeMent — “Going Down to Sing in Texas

Learned about this powerful protest tune (proceeds benefit the Poor People’s Campaign) from Spencer Tweedy’s email newsletter. Are you subscribed to Spencer Tweedy’s email newsletter? I’d recommend it highly. Merch alert #1: His new book on home recording would make a great gift, if there’s anyone in your life who’s into that sort of thing.

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger — Force Majeure

Pure bliss in the form of bass and harp. One of the categories I decided to add for the 2020 year-end list extravaganza was duo albums, and this epitomizes why those are so relevant this year: musicians leaning into the way circumstances unavoidably inform scope, thereby making something that’s in perfect harmony with this far-from-perfect moment. One quick note about the label that’s releasing this one: International Anthem is running a deal on bundled 45s that may already be sold out by the time you read this, but if it’s not, it’d make a great gift for any vinyl-spinning jazz lover in your life.

Landlady — Landlady

Pre-orders going live for a new album from one of my very favorite bands on the entire planet would be an event unto itself, but that happening on Bandcamp Friday is like when a fast food restaurant or state fair booth finds a new way to combine two of your favorite foods into one exceedingly delightful thing. So I guess that makes Landlady’s self-titled album the Luther Burger of Bandcamp Friday — only without the ignominious distinction of being dubbed “a cardiologist’s worst nightmare.” In truth, I don’t believe the medical community has issued any findings at all relating to this album, but in my non-medical opinion, lead single “Supernova” is very good for your heart, as all of Landlady’s music is. Can’t wait to hear more of the new tunes.

Philip James Murphy Jr — darkness seen and the sound in between

 

Philip James Murphy Jr has been a Bandcamp Friday MVP throughout this year, and it feels fitting to end the year by recommending his latest, which I believe will be his most fully realized release of 2020 in terms of running time — a nine-track album entitled darkness seen and the sound in between. I’m excited to get to know this one as I have the singles and EPs he’s shared 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.

Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin — FlySiifu’s

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.)

Esther Rose — “Keeps Me Running

I’m late to the Esther Rose party, but the buzz around her recent covers EP started echoing when I saw Father/Daughter Records’ notification about the release of “Keeps Me Running.” Really glad I listened to those echoes. This chorus is going to help me make it through what I’m sure we can all agree is going to be, with apologies to the Counting Crows, a long-ass December.

Other releases on my radar today:

DarkTwaine_ — Shadow Work
Lee Han — PIWA PI
Bryan Hooten: Solo TromboneIsolation
Mdou Moctar — Mdou Moctar Mixtape Vol 8
Eric Slick — “Can We Still Be Friends” (Todd Rundgren cover)
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk No. 2
Various — Going to Georgia (Merge Records comp to benefit the Georgia senate run-off)
Alan Good Parker — “Johnsburg, Illinois” (Tom Waits cover)
The Mountain Goats — The Jordan Lake Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2
Ohbliv — Foreverpayingdues

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

VOTE

Today’s the big day, y’all. I know a lot of folks have already voted, which is awesome. And heartening. But if you’re reading this and haven’t yet made your voice heard in this incredibly important election, please drop what you’re doing and go vote. And if you know someone who’s considering sitting this one out, send a friendly reminder. I don’t know what the next few days will look like, but I do know that the future will look a whole lot brighter a whole lot sooner if a whole lot of people go to the polls today with love in their hearts.

A few voting resources that might come in handy:

Polling place locator
What should I bring with me to the polls?
Election Protection Hotlines

I thought I’d also share a song worth taking with you (literally or figuratively) when voting today. I’ve been enjoying the cover of Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” that Helado Negro put out last week — with contributions from Flock of Dimes, Devendra Banhart, and Richmond’s own Trey Pollard. Win or lose, these lyrics chart a clear path for the road ahead:

It’s gonna take a lotta love
To get us through the night
It’s gonna take a lotta love
To make things work out right

If you’re reading this, whether you’re hopeful, confused, stressed, or just eager for this election to be over with, I want you to know that I love you. And I promise whatever happens, it’ll help to have this song in your heart.

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: