Friday, January 1, 2021

My Favorite Albums of 2020

Like everything in 2020, my music consumption this year went sideways. That is to say, I went down a lot of weird rabbit holes. In spring, right after the lockdown, I started working on a master emo playlist and accidentally got super into Coheed & Cambria and then spent March-August listening to pretty much nothing but their records. I also have a running playlist called “1000 Songs” which is more than 1000 songs but is my effort to compile a massive playlist where I can hit shuffle and every track kills. I put that one on a lot too. Late in the year I decided I wanted to listen to every album from the 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die book because that seemed like a great idea (and I’m only 20 albums in and it has been a tremendous amount of fun). 

Mostly though, I found myself working in my shop or making dinner not knowing what to put on so I’d just listen to a podcast. Or I’d put on John Prine, whose death this year at the hands of COVID still hits me right in the gut (listening to his final recording, “I Remember Everything” is a recipe for tears). Which is to say my 2020 new music consumption wasn’t particularly adventurous. 

7. Taylor Swift - folklore/evermore

Roughly ten years ago Taylor Swift released her single “You Belong With Me” and up until that point I had never hated a song more than that one. It rang 1000% hollow. What does this popular girl know about wearing t-shirts? For many years Taylor Swift remained a persona non grata. And then I had kids, and my wife started listening to Taylor Swift, and slowly but surely my mask of music snob hate began to crumble. Earlier this year we watched the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, and I realized that while I was growing out of my hate Taylor Swift was maturing into one of her genre’s best songwriters. It takes a minute for Swift to let her guard down in that doc, but when she does you see that she has a tireless work ethic and a deep commitment to doing whatever the hell she wants.

That commitment to doing whatever the hell she wants is on full display on her two quarantine albums: folklore and evermore. This isn’t a case of an album and a b-sides album, but two fully fleshed out and distinct records that are equally excellent. Does the National’s Aaron Dessner being on board as producer help me get on board? Certainly, but what really won me over with these albums is the songs. I questioned whether it was Stockholm Syndrome, since we listened to this almost exclusively in Jenny’s car on family trips because it was something everyone could agree on. But no, I don’t think it’s that. Watching The Long Pond Sessions doc on Disney+ cemented my original suspicion that Taylor Swift was in Thanos mode. Fully locked in, fully committed, and making music that feels like it will last a lifetime. Her ability to balance pure fiction with emotional truth is impeccable. And here I am swooning over T-swift, if 2009 KJHK Music Director Ian could see me now! I was such a hater back then. It was cool to hate. It was fun to hate. I mean, obviously it wasn’t, but I relished in it because I was young and stupid. And now I’m older, and slightly less stupid, and more open minded to music at least. Still stuck in my indie rock ruts but willing to admit I’m wrong. So that’s progress at least. 

6. Pinegrove - Marigold

There’s something so cozy about Pinegrove’s music. One of my strongest associations with them is driving home from work in a blizzard with Cardinal playing on the stereo. While the group hasn’t quite hit the highs of that record, the subsequent two albums are far from sophomore slump territory. Marigold in particular is intimate and lovely and earnest and just a damn fine record.

5. Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM

Oh, look at that, another great punk rock record from Jeff Rosenstock. Mercifully I feel like I had more time to digest this one than I did with Worry and POST- which came in such quick succession. NO DREAM and AJJ’s Good Luck Everybody were the perfect soundtrack albums for the hellscape of Trumpian America, and while NO DREAM is certainly less defeated, it’s just as angry and willing to express that with pure exuberance.

4. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman

Obsessively listening to an album of reworked folk standards for comfort was not on my list of things to do for 2020, and yet here we are. The Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson and Tony Award winner Anais Mitchell’s voices find new places to haunt in these old songs and make them feel as relevant as anything. Of all the year’s albums, this one was my go-to when I couldn’t think of anything else to listen to and wanted an album to swim around in.

3. The Mountain Goats - Songs for Pierre Chuvin/ Getting Into Knives

The lockdown was bound to produce some records that wouldn’t exist otherwise. With Taylor Swift, we saw her release two of the most immaculately produced and best written albums of her career. From John Darnielle, we saw him return to the boombox days for an album of songs about...the waning days of European paganism. Ok. I’ll follow JD to the ends of the earth so this was no big sell, but the songs on Songs for Pierre Chuvin are the sort of songs that made me fall in love with the Mountain Goats in the first place. There’s a freedom to these tracks that you don’t really get from his latter day studio recordings (which, as I’ll get to in a minute, are still great just different). There’s a raw verve that allows you to see his soul a little clearer. I’m no purist, i.e. one of those OG Mountain Goats fans who think he jumped the shark when he signed to 4AD and started recording the albums in proper studios, but this is one of those albums that fully sustained me in those early days of the quarantine.

Getting Into Knives is the studio album, and I’m still pretty surprised we got this one in 2020 as well given how quickly it’s coming on the heels of In League With Dragons. That’s some Bob Pollard pacing right there (but still at a manageable enough clip that I can get to all of them without feeling overwhelmed). I don’t love every new Mountain Goats record, but they’re almost always good enough to make my year end list because JD is just that damn good and the funny thing is that I usually get into them eventually. Like Transcendental Youth, which I only really came around on last year. Or Goths, which I found myself listening to a lot in February. Getting Into Knives has more of an immediate appeal to me, and it’s one I’m still discovering and loving more every time I listen. 

2. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud 

I’ve been a marginal Waxahatchee fan since her 2013 breakout sophomore LP Cerulean Salt, and while I enjoyed the indie rock throwback vibe of that album’s two follow-ups--Ivy Tripp and Out of the StormSaint Cloud feels like the album where Waxahatchee becomes Waxahatchee and Katie Crutchfield fully realizes the songwriting potential she showed on Cerulean Salt’s best tracks. Despite being borne out of personal struggle, it’s an album that feels warm and lived in, always begging for another listen. 

1.Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher/ AJJ - Good Luck Everybody

I’m too tired to do the hand wringing display of which album takes the top spot this year. Both of these albums are phenomenal, and each of them served a distinct purpose in “using music to cope with the horrors around me” strategy in 2020. Where Bridger’s Punisher is an achingly brilliant examination of the internal, AJJ’s Good Luck Everybody is a furiously hopeless screed against the external (and the grief caused by the Trump administration). My line was that if Biden won, Punisher won, and if Trump won, Good Luck Everybody won, but seeing the fallout it’s clear that nobody won. We are stuck with the cult of Trumpism for the foreseeable future and have to live amongst this flock of conspiracy theory believing marks, fools, and idiots. It’s cruel and unusual, but what are you gonna do about it? Good luck everybody.

Punisher was my most anticipated album of the year. I have regaled at length my discovery of Phoebe Bridgers. How I initially thought she was some sort of Aimee Mann-esque journeywoman finally getting her big break with 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. I didn’t really listen to that album until 2018 when it became clear that had I been paying attention (and not buried in grad school work) it clearly would have been my Album of the Year. It was in my Top 10 of the Decade, and it is highly likely that Punisher will be in the Top 5 of the Decade next time around. When I found out that Phoebe Bridgers was not a 30-something troubadour and was in fact a mid-20s baby, it made her songs that much more phenomenal. To quote the Smiths (I roll this out everytime I listen to Bridgers), “How can someone so young sing words so sad?” She’s a young artist with what feels like a lifetime of experience, and a gift for sharing that experience with the rest of the world. Punisher tackles all of the big internal struggles, and some of the external ones as well. It’s an album that is both a masterpiece, and yet it doesn’t feel like we have even seen Bridgers’ best work yet because it’s a given that she is only going to continue blowing our minds for years to come. 

Good Luck Everybody was my opium in the leadup to the election. Now that it’s over--despite what Donald Trump tries to tell you in his tyrannical attempts to dismantle American democracy--things feel slightly less depressing. Still horrifically depressing mind you, but less hopeless. AJJ’s latest captures that hopelessness in raw fashion. It’s a cry from the bottom of a well. A tribute to trying to muster the courage to face another day in a world that seeks to out-cruel itself day after day. “This is the golden age of dickotry/Probably the last golden age of anything,” Sean Bonnette sings in the era defining “Normalization Blues.” Bonnette’s Live From Quarantine were required viewing for me in those final weeks in October, and they’re still required viewing in these final weeks of 2020. AJJ has long been a favorite of mine--Christmas Island topped my Best of 2014 list and their records are routinely in my Top 10--but this is the one that I absolutely couldn’t live without. Sometimes you need someone to tell you it’s gonna be ok, and sometimes you just need to know that other people feel as horrible as you do about the horrible things happening in the world. Good Luck Everybody is a perfect artifact for 2020, and the fact that it was recorded pre-COVID makes it feel almost prescient.

My Favorite Songs of 2020

As a rule, the songs list is usually more fun than the albums list for me. Throughout the back half of the year it’s my go-to anytime I need to put some music on. Sometimes I’ll read about a band and throw a song on there, seeing if it catches me when it eventually comes up on shuffle. It’s how indie rock dads keep things spicy. 

10. Destroyer - "Cue Synthesizer" (Have We Met)

9. Christian Lee Hutson - “Get the Old Band Back Together” (Beginners)

8. John K. Samson - “Millenium For All”

7. Bill Callahan - “The Mackenzies” (Gold Record)

6. Phoebe Bridgers - “Kyoto” (Punisher)

5. Matt Berninger - “One More Second” (Serpentine Prison)

4. AJJ - “Normalization Blues” (Good Luck Everybody)

3. Waxahatchee - “Arkadelphia” (Saint Cloud)

2. Perfume Genius - “Describe” (Set My Heart on Fire Immediately)

1.Jeff Rosenstock - “Scram!” (NO DREAM)

Saturday, November 21, 2020

1001 Albums: #19. Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook

Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook
Verve, 1959

Clocking in a 3 hours and 15 minutes, Ella Fitzgerald's exhaustive take on the Gershwin Songbook is intense. It took me a week to work through, and when you're dealing with the First Lady of Song, it's not like you can just breeze through it. This is just luscious. Just pure romance. Burning through all these great ladies of jazz, it's like what do you even do with that? How do you even objectively tackle folks who are unimpeachable? I could listen to them sing all day long, and in the case of this one, I pretty much have! 

1001 Albums: #18. Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan at Mister Kelly's

Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan at Mister Kelly's
EmArcy, 1958

Another live record, and I dig this one quite a bit more than Duke Ellington's Ellington at Newport. For one it has a more off the cuff feel while still capturing Sarah Vaughan's incredible voice and charm. Toward the end of "Willow Weep For Me" she flubs a line and sings, "I really fouled up this song real well" to the laughter of the crowd. That's what I want out of a live record! To see the artist as a human being is part of the reason to go to a live show, and it's one of those things where the flaws are what make it special. But my god could this woman sing. I've been listening to a lot of these records in the kitchen lately and it's been a real treat. We're in the middle of a four album span where 3/4 of the records are from three of the great ladies of jazz. And you think about Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald and you wonder how white people have the nerve to think they are somehow superior. I think about what it must have been like to not only be black, but a black woman, singing for white folks for their entertainment, and yet being seen as something lesser. It is truly obscene. This record, on the other hand, is truly sublime. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

1001 Albums: #17. Jack Elliott - Jack Takes the Floor

Jack Elliott - Jack Takes the Floor
Topic, 1958

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is the bridge between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan that I never knew existed. His story is a good one too. The son of a Jewish doctor, Elliott ran away from his New York home to join the rodeo as a teen and though he was eventually dragged back home, it wasn't too long before he hit the road under Guthrie's wing. While the throughline between Eliott's stripped down folk music and Bob Dylan is crystal clear, they honestly seem a little bit like the same person. Both were city slicking Jewish dudes obsessed with Woody Guthrie, yet where Elliott stayed a cowboy Bob Dylan became, well, he became Bob Dylan. This is the music of the dirt, and I've always had a soft spot for the music of the dirt. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

1001 Albums: #16. Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin

Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin
Columbia, 1958

Imagine hearing that voice for the first time. This was the last album released while she was still alive, and reading up on her death is one of the most heartbreaking things I've read in a while. Just so tragic how someone who was able to make such stunningly gorgeous music suffered so greatly. These recordings are world weary and weathered. Well, her voice is at least, compared to her dulcet tones in the 30s. The sweetness is gone, but the orchestrations are epic and sappy, and contrast wildly with the newfound rasp in her voice and make this an incredible listen. 

1001 Albums: #15. Tito Puente - Dance Mania

Tito Puente - Dance Mania
BMG, 1958

I'm glad that the book mentions Tito Puente's turn on the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episodes of The Simpsons as one of the reasons anyone under the age of 40 knows his name. That me! I have listened to more Latin music in the last week than I have in my entire life up to this point. I think I'm getting to the point where I can ID an Afro-Cuban rhythm, which is exciting. This album is lively as hell, and does plenty to chip away at the cynicism of this aging rock chump.

1001 Albums: #14. Little Richard - Here's Little Richard

Little Richard - Here's Little Richard
Specialty, 1957

I think the question isn't "What was the first rock and roll song?" but "What was the first rock and roll song that made rock and roll rock and roll." You always see Bill Haley & The Comets "Rock Around the Clock" touted as the first true rock and roll song, which has a real "It's your cousin, MARVIN BERRY" vibe about it. Honestly with all the Jim Crow stuff it's a real stew of shit when it comes to deciphering the origins of rock and roll music. You have white artists appropriating black music and black artists who aren't allowed a platform to perform their music due to Jim Crow and racism country-wide. You have someone like Little Richard, who on top of being black was also queer, and it almost seems like a miracle that "Tutti Frutti" is such an enduring classic. There is just something so perfect about that opening "Whop bop b-luma b-lop bam bom" that transports you to a place of pure joy. If "Tutti Frutti" isn't the first rock and roll song, maybe it's the first rock and roll song that truly perfected the craft. That's a tune you can still listen to today and feel exactly what it must have felt like hearing that on the radio in 1957. The energy is unimpeachable. There are other great numbers on this record--"Ready Teddy," "Long Tall Sally (The Thing)"--and though a lot of them mine the same sort of sonic turf (many of the songs are effectively variations on the same theme). Regardless, this is what magic sounds like.

1001 Albums: #13. Machito - Kenya

Machito - Kenya
Roulette Jazz, 1975

More Afro-Cuban jazz! Initially I thought this was gonna be some tribal African music or something like that, so hearing the fiery Latin jazz of the opener "Wild Jungle" caught me totally off guard. Kenya is quite a bit livelier than the Sabu record from a couple entries ago, but it just feels like a different piece of the same patchwork. There's plenty of conga, but the horns and grooves take center stage here. This one is another fine example of an album I thought would make this project difficult, but lo, it turns out being a music lover is quite easy. Literally, all you have to do is listen. The albums here are curated by 94 music critics so you know you're not really going to get any duds, and all that is required is an open mind and ears. 

1001 Albums: #12. Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool
Capitol, 1957

Jazz still has that foreign film without the subtitles feel for me, and I reckon it will for a while. I would probably need a semester long How to Listen to Jazz class to truly get it. That would honestly probably do the trick. I took a class on Film Music through the music department at KU during my undergrad and it absolutely blew my mind. Not only did I gain a greater appreciation for film scores and how they did a lot of heavy lifting in delivering a film's emotional impact, but I learned a ton about timbres and orchestrations and all that musicology stuff. The final in that class involved picking a movie from a list--I chose Bernard Herrmann's score for Citizen Kane--and identifying every music cue in the film. I watched Citizen Kane five or six times, IDed the cues, the instruments involved, how they worked in the greater cinematic landscape, and I feel like I learned more about film in that class than any of the classes from the film department proper (I did take a film music class through the film department from the legendary Chuck Berg, but like all of his classes it was a sumptuous softball of film (music) appreciation than it was a scholarly powerhouse). That's as close as I can get to jazz, and while that class was helpful for like, identifying oboes and bassoons, there's so much social and cultural history to jazz that it is tough to properly assess without a 700 page book on the subject. 

But here we are, listening to one of the most famous jazz records of all time and it's still essentially pearls before swine. It's lovely to listen to, and I wish I had more context for how this fit into jazz as a whole. The book provides a little context, and there's a nice little trivia bit that reminded me he did the score for Louis Malle's excellent Elevator to the Gallows, which I now need to revisit, but there's just so much history. In my waning days at KC Public Library I visited Kansas City's American Jazz Museum as research for a breakout box (think a breakout room, but self contained in a lockbox for teenagers to figure out how to break into, which shouldn't it be called a break-in box? I digress) about Kansas City's music history. I left before the project reached completion, but it was fun to hang out in that space. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool, another record I can see myself randomly throwing on while cooking dinner.

Monday, November 9, 2020

1001 Albums: #11. Sabu - Palo Congo

Sabu - Palo Congo
Blue Note, 1957

There is a fair bit of world music in this book, and I'm here for it. It's another one of my musical blind spots. Here Louis "Sabu" Martinez opens my eyes to the wild and wonderful world of the conga drum. It's pure percussion, and there's something about this recording that feels very primal. Like we are hearkening back to the dawn of time or something. Some tracks are straight up Sabu going wild slapping the skins, but the tracks where the conga serves as the base for the more traditional jazz-folk numbers were my favorites. "Rhapsodia Del Marvilloso" in particular.