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

2019 in Review: Jazz

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

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

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

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

John Coltrane — Blue World

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

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan — Epistrophy

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

Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble — Where Future Unfolds

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

Resavoir — Resavoir

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

More 2019 in Review:

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

2018 in Review: Jazz

I think I’ve found a formula that’ll work going forward for which of these lists to do at the end of the year: One for EPs (posted that yesterday), one for archival or reissued albums, one for Richmond artists, one for albums that don’t fit into any of those categories, and then one more for a genre that stood out in some way during the course of the year. Last time around it was Americana, with exceptional releases by the likes of David Rawlings, Willie Watson, Dori Freeman, and Jake Xerxes Fussell. This year, jazz resonated especially deeply, so I thought I’d highlight five albums I was grateful to get to know.

John Coltrane — Both Directions at Once

I’m a big believer that you’re likely to feel a special connection to the first new album that comes out after you get into a band or artist. (The example I usually cite is Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief — an album many folks view highly but that I would rank one or two spots higher in their discography than others might.) Getting to have the Hail to the Thief experience with John Coltrane is such an unexpected treat, and Both Directions will always feel a little more meaningful to me as a result.

Julian Lage — Modern Lore

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the Off Your Radar issue from November about Julian Lage’s Arclight album, I hope you’ll take a moment to have a look. Arclight is such a wonderful album — so fascinating in terms of the connection between the notes you hear and the tools used to create those notes. Modern Lore is cut from very similar cloth and features the same ensemble, and I’ll cosign it with just as much enthusiasm as I did Arclight.

Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings

This may be the most perfectly packaged album of 2018, and it’s not just about the weight of the paper used to make the cover or the art that adorns it. Each side of my vinyl copy — four total — features a distinct group of musicians, all united by Makaya McCraven’s exploratory process. Start side one and you’re in New York. Flip the disc, you’re in Chicago. Grab the second disc and you’re in London. Flip that and you’re finishing in L.A. No two sides sound the same, even though they share an approach that’s indebted to sampling yet unmoored via improvisation. Somehow, amid all the repetition, you still feel like anything can happen. That’s the brilliance of a hip hop producer like J Dilla, and McCaraven has managed to capture that electricity with live instrumentation. It’s as inspiring as it is fun to spin, whether you’re zoning out or zooming in.

The Nels Cline 4 — Currents, Constellations

Nels Cline and Julian Lage in the same ensemble? Yes please and thank you. They’re two of my favorite guitarists, and while they’re divergent enough in terms of style, there are still moments on Currents, Constellations when you get to wonder who’s playing. They’re both such inventive, intuitive musicians, and I love that they join forces from time to time. I haven’t spent much time with their Room album, but I plan to ASAP.

Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth

This dude. His band. This album. His last album. His show at the National in November. His show before that at the National. All of it can be overwhelming — not because it’s too much, or because his albums are lengthy and generously built-out (which they are), but because there’s an abundance of goodness you don’t find very often. Most musicians can tell you the story of why their tracks are titled the way they are, or what inspired a certain instrumental piece, but when Kamasi Washington tells you about how a song was created and why, it’s wildly compelling and convincing. He has a poise when he speaks that stands in stark contrast to the fury he can conjure when he plays, and the only way to reconcile those two states is to understand that what he’s presenting is the absolute truth as he sees it. Seeing him play means seeing what he sees so vividly. I believe in Kamasi Washington’s truth. You should too.

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

YHT Book Club!

This Will End In Tears

It was Tuesday. Hopes of a partly sunny afternoon broke down when a grey, cloudy blanket settled in over Corolla, NC. With the beach looking less than tempting and my head cold doing a fantastic job of ruining my favorite week of the year, I joined Mrs. YHT and her parents on a walk to a nearby cluster of stores. The sky opened up about an hour later, and we hurried into an Island Bookstore, hoping that a little literary browsing would chase the rain away. It didn’t. That was the bad news. The good news was that a book was waiting there, destined to be found and bought by a sick, cranky vacationer who’d been caught in the rain. And really, could This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music have found a better home?

Continue reading