2020 in Review Part 8: 31 Favorites

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

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

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

John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

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

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

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

Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

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

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

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

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

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

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

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

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

Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

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

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

Fleet Foxes — Shore

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

Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death

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

Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof

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

Horse Lords — The Common Task

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

Yves Jarvis — Sundry Rock Song Stock

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

Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas

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

Adrianne Lenker — songs and instrumentals

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

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

Blake Mills — Mutable Set

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

Mink’s Miracle Medicine — Thumbs Up Angel

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

John Moreland — LP5

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

The Mountain Goats — Getting Into Knives

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

Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II

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

Nadia Reid — Out of My Province

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

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

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

Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline

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

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

A snippet of a post I published in June:

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

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

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

Skyway Man — The World Only Ends When You Die

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

Eric Slick — Wiseacre

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

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

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

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

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

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

Moses Sumney — græ

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

Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?

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

William Tyler — Music from First Cow

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

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

Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud 

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

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

More 2020 albums I enjoyed:

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

Son Lux

I wrote most of this post about Son Lux drummer Ian Chang’s 2017 solo EP while sitting in a dentist’s office last summer, waiting for the local anesthesia to kick in before getting a filling put in. Here I am, sitting in the same dentist’s office — might even be the same chair — about to get another filling, starting a post about one of the tunes Son Lux has made available ahead of the February 9th release of their new Brighter Wounds album.

Coincidence?

Yes, aside from the fact that I need to be better about flossing.

“Slowly” has quickly (sorry, couldn’t help myself) jumped way up my list of favorite Son Lux tunes. I feels like a bit of a departure — narrower in scope, maybe, and more personal, but no less ambitious. In fact, this is one of the most interesting examples of deconstruction I’ve heard in a long time. “Slowly” strips the classic R&B form to its basic elements, something the band manages to do with great precision thanks to Chang’s phenomenal internal clock.

Take a listen below. And don’t forget to floss before you go to bed tonight.

Son Lux — “Slowly” [Spotify/iTunes]

2017 in Review: 25 Favorites

Last list, I promise. I limited this post to 25 albums, which is totally arbitrary, but I had to wave the white flag at some point. I always start writing these year-in-review posts with high hopes of streamlining the process in an effort to siphon as little time as possible from holiday celebrating with family, but something in me can’t help getting absorbed then overwhelmed. It’s a moth-to-the-flame thing. Odds are good it has something to do with mortality/the passage of time/wanting to hold onto and contain experiences so they — and by extension, I — don’t quietly disappear into a scary, nebulous past… but you didn’t come here for existential hand-wringing, did you? Oh, you did? Great! Let’s be sure to catch up after about physical media as an ineffectual bulwark against death!

A few notes before we get started:

  • I made some additions to the previous lists — Steve Gunn’s tour-only Dusted album was added to the list of live jams, and Elkhorn’s Black River album was added to the Americana list. I snagged both at Steady Sounds with Christmas money and it’s still 2017, so…
  • This is just the non-live, non-reissue, non-Americana, non-RVA top 25. Doing a ranked top 25 this year would have been really tough. I held on especially tightly to the music I loved this year. Maybe because I needed the distraction. Maybe because new music was just really good this year. It’s probably a little of column A, a little of column B.
  • Like the other lists, this one is ordered alphabetically.
  • I kinda regret not doing a list of EPs. Ian Chang’s Spiritual Leader EP was awesome, as was Delicate Steve’s Cowboy Stories. There’s also Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference — I’m still getting to know that one, but I’m fairly certain it’ll become a favorite, based on what I heard at his show at the National earlier this month.

Enough preambling. Here are the best of the rest:

Ryan Adams — Prisoner

I didn’t end up connecting with the self-titled album that came before this one, in part because of the sound palette he was working with — more focused on 1980’s guitar sounds than is usually my cup of tea. Prisoner draws from the same well, but he seems more present in this one. And “Do You Still Love Me?” is a truly dynamite opening track. I was hoping he’d open his March show at The National with it, and he delivered. Love when bands do that.

Ryan Adams — “Do You Still Love Me?” [Spotify/iTunes]

(Sandy) Alex G — Rocket

I went a little nuts over this one. Step 1 was hearing the album and digging it. Step 2 was finding out that he played on Frank Ocean’s Blonde album. Step 3 was feeling crushed when I saw that a first pressing of the album had sold out via his Bandcamp page. Steps 4-18 involved various internal arguments about whether to order the first pressing from an online reseller — something I hate doing. I eventually caved. Not sorry one bit. It’s about as varied an album as I can remember spending time with this year — so many different flashes of brilliance.

(Sandy) Alex G — “Powerful Man” [Spotify/iTunes]

Dan Auerbach — Waiting on a Song

Did you know that John Prine has a writing credit on the title track? Or that Prine is pictured on the back cover? These are things I didn’t learn until I snagged a vinyl copy of Waiting on a Song the night Auerbach opened for Prine at The Altria Theater here in Richmond. What a show that was. That’s when this album went from something I enjoyed to something I really loved.

Dan Auerbach — “Waiting On A Song” [Spotify/iTunes]

Bedouine — Bedouine

There’s a quiet strength that runs through this whole album. It feels elemental. Inextricable. The Spacebomb flourishes are welcome and wonderful, but that strength never strays from center stage, making for an exceptionally compelling listen.

Bedouine — “One Of These Days” [Spotify/iTunes]

Father John Misty — Pure Comedy

I believe Pure Comedy was recorded before the last presidential election, and politics aren’t the focal point here, but I’ve found it to be of great comfort these days. Sometimes you need someone to point out life’s absurdities so you can maintain a little distance. As lyrically dense as these songs are, the net effect — for me at least — is like taking a breath of fresh air, or like hitting a reset button.

Father John Misty — “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” [Spotify/iTunes]

Fleet Foxes — Crack-Up

Speaking of dense… I’m not sure I’ve really cracked the surface of Crack-Up. Listening to the episode of Song Exploder about “Mearcstapa” was startling, in that I didn’t realize how much about the album’s sound was flying under my radar. That said, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m wildly curious as to what this album will mean to me in five or 10 years.

Fleet Foxes — “Mearcstapa” [Spotify/iTunes]

Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Luciferian Towers

Part of an unholy trinity of excellent albums I’ve been playing loudly when I’m working from home in an empty house. Lots of tension and anger here, but so much light as well. The climaxes of these tunes can feel joyous — the melody at the end of “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” sounds like it could have been lifted from a Christmas carol written a hundred years ago.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor — “Undoing A Luciferian Towers” [Spotify/iTunes]

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — Murder of the Universe

Another member of the unholy trinity. It occurred to me recently that King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard could be the Russell Westbrook of the musical world. Both band and baller set ridiculously ambitious goals for themselves (five albums in a calendar year for KG&tLZ, a season-long triple-double for RW) and it looks like both will be successful. Just amazing. Of the albums they put out in 2017, Murder of the Universe was my favorite by far. It’s pure fun — fast paced and delightfully creepy. On vomit splatter colored vinyl, no less.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — “Altered Beast I” [Spotify/iTunes]

Pokey LaFarge — Manic Revelations

Pokey’s sound has grown bigger and bolder, as has the St. Louisan’s writing voice. “Riot In The Streets” speaks to the Ferguson, Missouri protests, concluding:

Our past won’t go away
It haunts us to present day
There’s so much left to learn
As the bullets fly and the buildings burn

Pokey LaFarge — “Riot In The Streets” [Spotify/iTunes]

Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

I decided not to rank this year’s list, but this probably would have been #1. Lamar is this generation’s lyricist of record, in my opinion. To Pimp a Butterfly may have been more musically immersive, but DAMN. is just as vital to understanding our country and its culture.

Kendrick Lamar — “LUST.” [Spotify/iTunes]

Landlady — The World Is a Loud Place

A few words from my February post about the album:

I had a chance to see and hear a few of these new tunes when the band came to Hardywood in August [2016] — “Driving In California” for sure, and I think “Nina” and “Electric Abdomen” made appearances as well. It’s a fantastic album, every bit as imaginative, tightly executed, and soul replenishing as Upright Behavior. In fact, Landlady has become one of the bands –maybe you have a similar list — whose shows are more like exercises in spiritual fulfillment than just a pairing of people playing music and people watching those people play music.

Landlady — “Nina” [Spotify/iTunes]

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness

A very, very good album that was there for me in a difficult time. Here’s what I said in an April post after typing out the lyrics to the chorus:

What a thing to have sung to you while standing in the backyard of your new home on a windy night, watching clouds zoom past the moon. That place she’s describing — the pocket of time before life grabs hold of the course you’ve plotted and adds twists and turns to it — that’s exactly where my family is right now.

Aimee Mann — “Patient Zero” [Spotify/iTunes]

Mdou Moctar — Sousoume Tamachek

From the post I wrote after seeing Moctar perform in October as part of a screening of his Purple Rain remake, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai:

I also walked away with a vinyl copy of Moctar’s newest LP, Sousoume Tamachek, signed by the three-man band I’d just seen in-person and onscreen. I’ve been spinning it nonstop — it paints a really varied and intimate picture of Moctar’s approach, with a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitar.

I’ve been seeing Sousoume Tamachek in other year-end lists, which makes me happy. Especially after hearing during the screening’s Q&A how tenuous the initial connection between Moctar and Sahel Sounds owner Christopher Kirkley was. A couple of missed phone calls and this album might not have been in my life.

Mdou Moctar — “Sousoume Tamachek” [Bandcamp/Spotify]

Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked at Me

I listened all the way through once, cried at my desk at work, and decided I needed some time before I listened again. I haven’t gone back yet, though I did almost buy a used copy at Reckless Records in Chicago while we were there on a family trip in November. It’s such a powerful album, and I could imagine it being there for me when I need it, but I never want to need it, and just thinking about needing it is terrifying. I have seen people talk about how listening to A Crow Looked at Me has actually been a life-affirming experience, and I get that, since it made me want to reach out to the people I love and let them know how much they mean to me. Still… it’s a little like looking directly into the Sun, emotionally speaking.

Mount Eerie — “Ravens” [Spotify/iTunes]

Mutoid Man — War Moans

This completes the unholy trinity! Come for the masterful riffing, stay for the lyrics about impregnating Satan’s daughter!

Mutoid Man — “Kiss Of Death” [Spotify/iTunes]

The National — Sleep Well Beast

This is the first National album that has grabbed me. Two contributing factors: 1. Reading this Amanda Petrusich piece about it, and 2. Listening for the first time when I was very sad for reasons I’m not sure I want to share here. What I will say is that I found exactly the right kind of musical sadness to soundtrack a moment of real life sadness, and that sense of harmony helped me find peace where I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Sleep Well Beast — “The Day I Die” [Spotify/iTunes]

Orchestra Baobab — Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

One of my favorite assignments this year was writing about an earlier Orchestra Baobab album for Off Your Radar. I hadn’t spent a ton of time considering why that album — Specialist in All Styles — had wormed its way so deeply into my consciousness, and I came out the other side loving it even more. I’m enjoying this one a great deal, as well. Here’s what I said about it in that Off Your Radar piece:

[Original band member Ndiouga Dieng’s] death prompted the band to reunite and release a new album this year called Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Gone is Barthelemy Attisso’s virtuosic guitar — he’s back in Togo tending to his day job as a lawyer — and in its place you’ll find oodles of kora noodling. While I initially missed that brilliant, nimble guitar work, I’ve come to appreciate deeply how different this new release is. Another masterful move from a band whose musical chessboard spans the globe.

Orchestra Baobab — “Mariama” [Spotify/iTunes]

Rostam — Half Light

I feel like this was one of the year’s most misunderstood albums. While it was reviewed reasonably well, I feel like the reviews I saw missed something crucial about how bold the album is in making his voice the center of attention and using it as a muse for experimentation. This was his big moment to step into the spotlight, and he did so in a way that strikes me as exceptionally brave. It reminds me of a one-word answer he gave in an interview earlier this year when asked what he hopes people will remember him for:

Fearlessness.

Rostam — “Gwan” [Spotify/iTunes]

Skyway Man — Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye

From my May post about the album:

Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye is tailor-made for someone embroiled in exactly [my] obsessions, with the spacey aspects of Cosmic American Music, the voluminousness and spirituality of gospel, Tyler’s exploratory spirit, and references to early 1980’s production that remove songs from the present moment, like they’re wandering untethered by time. It’s all here, along with the signature Spacebomb sounds that consistently fill my heart with joy.

Skyway Man — “Wires (Donny Angel and the Opening Wide)” [Spotify/iTunes]

Devon Sproule — The Gold String

Another artist I nominated for Off Your Radar consideration. Here’s what I said about The Gold String in May:

I learned just this week that Sproule put out a new album earlier this year called The Gold String, and it’s lovely in all the ways I Love You, Go Easy is, especially when it comes to the way the lyrics flow. In fact, she touches on a similar idea in the title track when she imagines an endless strand that connects everyone and everything. Her description of it is nothing short of elegant, in large part because form and theme are one; she describes this inspiring connectedness using verses that lead into one another and this amazing rolling rhyme scheme that weaves together phrases in ear-pleasing clusters. Her words become the string she’s singing about. It’s really incredible.

Devon Sproule — “The Gold String” [Spotify/iTunes]

St. Vincent — MASSEDUCTION

So my daughter, who is three and half and loves the color pink, keeps choosing this when I tell her to go pick a record from the shelf that has 2017 albums on it. Let’s just say the cover art is quite the conversation starter. Also, “New York” is one of the best songs of the year. Hands down.

St. Vincent — “New York” [Spotify/iTunes]

Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

The only album I could envision ranking above DAMN. It’s a towering achievement, both in terms of vocal performance and emotional articulation. While I didn’t manage to win a Vinyl Me, Please pressing at the Triple Crossing listening party in October, I managed to find a used VMP copy on the trip to Reckless Records I mentioned earlier. I know I put way too much stock in getting this or that pressing and having a physical copy of something that I can listen to online, but I love that Vinyl Me, Please did a pressing. It gave me an opportunity to sit around a table with new and old Sumney fans talking about all the ways in which Aromanticism is incredible.

Moses Sumney — “Lonely World” [Spotify/iTunes]

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

From a Friday News and Notes post earlier this year:

Quick story — when Bob Dylan’s Tempest album was announced and I saw “Scarlet Town” on the track list, I desperately hoped it would be a cover of the Gillian Welch song from The Harrow & The Harvest. It wasn’t. So when I saw that a “Scarlet Town” was on this Thile/Mehldau album, I braced for disappointment…

No disappointment here. Just an hour and three minutes of next-level interpretation and collaboration. And, yes, it’s the “Scarlet Town” I was hoping for.

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — “Scarlet Town” [Spotify/iTunes]

Tinariwen — Elwan

This is the year I truly fell in love with Tuareg desert blues. So glad BK Music had a copy of this. I was wearing out Sousoume Tamachek.

Tinariwen — “Sastanàqqàm” [Spotify/iTunes]

The xx — I See You

I liked the first two xx albums, loved Jamie xx’s solo album, and found this to be a great middle ground. It’s funny this comes last alphabetically, because it was the first top-tier album released this year, and it makes me think about how fucking long 2017 has felt. Good lord. Hey 2018, maybe don’t be like that?

The xx — “Say Something Loving” [Spotify/iTunes]

More 2017 in Review:

2017 in Review: Live Albums
2017 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2017 in Review: Americana
2017 in Review: RVA

Ian Chang

Been gnawing on a bunch of non-bloggy writing, but I thought I’d share one thing I’ve been playing on repeat while I work — “Romeo,” from Ian Chang’s upcoming album, Spiritual Leader.

I’ve gotten to know Chang’s virtuosic drumming via Landlady and Son Lux, and its hard to overstate how captivating he is in the live setting. He’s a show unto himself, which makes a solo album — especially this solo album — a natural fit.

Chang’s using a type of technology that allows him to express a wide range of sounds with his kit — sensory percussion, it’s called. Two things jump out: 1. He really can be a show unto himself this way, and 2. This opens the door to a whole new way of listening — form, tonality, decision-making… you get to think a little differently about all of it given how the music is being created.

And you get to hear Ian Chang play drums, which is always a gift. “Romeo” is below, and the preorder is here.

Ian Chang — “Romeo” [Spotify/Bandcamp]

Friday News and Notes

denver

Just a few things to wrap up the week…

  • The Mountain Goats show was everything I could have hoped it would be — new songs, old songs, constant enthusiasm from John, enthusiasm from the crowd, a cover of “Dark as a Dungeon,” a “This Year” finale — and holy hell, was the merch table a dream. Practically his entire back catalog on vinyl. I got a copy of Beat the Champ (listening as I type this) but The Sunset Tree is absolutely on my wantlist now.
  • Oh Pep! opened and did an amazing job. Their song “Tea, Milk & Honey” has stuck to my brain like… well, honey is a perfectly sufficient simile. They even had homemade egg cups for sale at the show. I’m telling you — this was the most insanely good merch table I’ve ever seen.
  • Speaking of sticking to your brain, cheers to the White Laces on their new song “Cheese.” So catchy — such a bright and fascinating continuation of their ongoing evolution. Can’t wait to hear more.
  • Wow. I was excited for the Ian Chang solo stuff to come, but the video for “Spiritual Leader” totally blew my mind. Just wow. Want to see what drums can do? Watch this.
  • I’ve been meaning to post the “Animal Quietlies” video from Manatree. So glad to see this excellent, frenetic song making its way around the interweb.

Heading to Denver this weekend. Hope your weekend is great wherever you’re spending it.