My Relationship with Music in the Pandemic Year 2020
Some time last year, I finally bit the bullet and got a streaming service. I wailed and moaned for years about how they screw over the artist by paying a pittance to them, how they commodify music, how they work you over in every possible way. Then one day, I found myself having to DJ at a gallery opening and ended up having to use Spotify for some reason and it clicked. I understood the allure, the freedom of having just about any song you need just about any time you need it. The process began and I started to break down. Of course, I knew I wouldn't go with the great grifter that is Spotify, so like with all major endeavors I take on, I researched for a while for the fairest streaming service with the best library for the best value and ended up going with Tidal, much to the chagrin of anyone who follows my Instagram stories (or to the integration with my Android operating phone, unable to use voice commands to play a song at will because I guess Jay Z didn't get the contracts for that). Somehow this seemed to be the best timing for it, since I certainly wouldn't foresee that my usual resource for new music for nearly the past decade -- raiding the bins of incoming new releases at KRTU San Antonio, ripping the mp3s, and uploading them to my little pocket of the cloud -- would become an impossibility.
My world as I knew it was starting to fall apart before the rest of the United States. I had my official very public break from Nextbop in February, though I hadn't really been writing about music since November of the year before. I was at that point pretty drained from the grind of music journalism. I still had my love of jazz and all other sorts of music still, but I was questioning my place in it. What made this time even funnier was that at around the start of the year, I took over a second contemporary jazz show at KRTU San Antonio on Saturday afternoons, meaning that just as I was pulling back from writing about jazz music for a while, I was now volunteering to make three hours of jazz radio every week. I was finding a way of making it work in my schedule. I work the counter of a barbecue restaurant all day on Saturdays, so I had to typically put together both shows in a production room at the radio station, then host The Line-Up live on the air Friday at 9pm, then run into the production room to record mic breaks for the Saturday show, evölve. It was an interesting tweak to a process I had gotten used to doing for a few years now, and I was getting into the challenge of staying fresh while programming so much time. By early March, I had finally gotten the process down to where it actually took me two hours to produce three hours of radio, whereas before it was taking me in the neighborhood of three or four hours to make the same three hours. Eventually, I started to think about how I would change up evölve. With a two hour show, I had more space to do interviews, which folks have always clamoured for me to do but I would immediately shut down the idea, claiming I was trapped by the confines of only having a one hour show that I wanted to dedicate solely to the music. I was getting older and less intimidated by phone calls than I was in my twenties, more open to the idea of interview as conversation instead of interrogation, something that always bothered me about the format. I could feel an idea beginning to germinate… and then I wasn't allowed inside the building, or on the campus of Trinity University which holds the radio station. No one from the general public was, and still isn't allowed on campus as a safety precaution for the coronavirus. It frankly makes sense, but this also left all the volunteer hosts at the station with the situation of having to make their radio shows from home. Considering my period of transition combined with my technical limitations (I own merely a Chromebook and don't have an external recorder), I just didn't have it in me to tackle such a task every week. So up until just this last week, I hadn't made radio since that last Friday before the world ended for a while, Friday, March 13th (huh... I probably should have read something into that).
That being said, I spent much of this year not making music into work. I leaned into being adrift, and I finally had the potential library that allowed me to get into the classics I had always meant to hear. I was going to spend this time getting into my roots. I stopped thinking of time spent listening to something from an earlier era was taking time away from something that was contemporary. I re-engaged the art I took in as enriching for its own sake and what it meant to me instead of as something that needed to be turned around for interpretation for the public. That may happen in due time, but this time was for the sheer consumption itself. For that extra contemplation, for it to rattle around in the brain for a while and revisit the next day, or the next month. I found my humanity again in the time in the woods, blaring my whims into the trees and down the tiny street through the curiously good Bluetooth connected speakers I had bought at the start of the year, thinking their value and being waterproof would make them the ideal accoutrement for all the tubing down Texas rivers I would not end up doing this summer.
It started simply enough. I hadn't heard enough Return to Forever. This was still in January, when I wasn't writing anything but the ground hadn't yet shifted from beneath me. The allure of having almost anything I wanted to hear was still quite fresh and I knew I had depths to go from the Stanley Clarke I knew as a boy, the one rounded out in the 90s and taking on more film scores in the 2000s, to the weirdo fusion music that I knew was right up my alley because it would meld with what I heard before. When February hit, and I was officially out of the music writing game for a minute, I knew I wanted to hear more of Jaco Pastorius' period in Weather Report, compare it to the band without him. I gained an informed opinion about how the band changed over time. I understood Wayne Shorter a little more, and Joe Zawinul, all in ways I never delved into before. I learned that "Nubian Sundance" off 1974's Mysterious Traveller goes super hard. I thought of how I would have experienced this work in the 70s; I thought about how it makes me think of Javier Santiago and what he does now. I would lay in my hammock among the pecan trees, or pace about on my front deck with a cup of Earl Grey or a constantly burning bowl and sort out the past and how it built our present.
It was weird when I took a trip at the last, maybe best possible moment to take a trip-- I spent five days in New Orleans, starting on Ash Wednesday, i.e. the day after Mardi Gras. The city was exhausted. Few folks were about, with their greetings to one another brief, asking how each others' Mardi Gras was with a twinge of hungover-flavored fatigue in the tone. My friends, Justin, Ashley, and I spent days in nearly empty restaurants experiencing the best New Orleans had to offer while most folks recovered at home, incubating the COVID they unknowingly were spreading the weeks before. I saw Extended -- the trio of pianist Oscar Rossignoli, bassist Matt Booth, and drummer Brad Webb -- at Snug Harbor and just enjoyed watching the gig as people do, not covering it for anything. I filled Brad in on the story of what all had been going on with me and the Nextbop breakdown story outside the club for a bit while he was between sets. My friends and I had wine and charcuterie at one of my favorite place in all of New Orleans, Bacchanal Wine, and happened to catch hearing folks I've run into in the past-- bassist Nathan Lambertson (who had once played a gig in San Antonio at Justin's gallery, his signature on the bathroom door still most memorably the largest; we kept the door and moved it to the storage space atop the gallery's current location), and then bassist Max Moran in the following gig. I spent that night at guitarist/electronic musician Cliff Hines' birthday party at a pub far off from the AirBnB where my friends and I were staying on Magazine Street. For a guy who was out of the music game, this was a funny way of figuring out my next path.
In March, I went from Weather Report to Tony Williams Lifetime, filling in that important gap I needed to know, understanding how this rough searching would lead the way to what fusion would sand down, for good and sometimes for ill. I remembered that I never got around to listening to PBDY's debut album from last year, Careworm, which ended up being more oddly beautiful than I was anticipating. When the world stopped, most conscientious folks remember their last day being social before the lockdowns swept the country, I rewatched Steven Soderbergh's Contagion like most everyone else and revisited Cliff Martinez's perfect, chilling score. I thought about the last concert I saw some weeks before, Kamasi Washington (which I found ironic considering my very mixed feelings about his playing). I still think about how odd that is for it to be the last concert I attended, unless one were to count my last night out after work, Saturday, March 14th, riding my bicycle home but getting one last drink at LowCountry just south of downtown and catching local country act Noah Harris, with my friend, KRTU music director Kory Cook backing him on drums, this being the last time I would see him in person, though I still appreciate our rambling phone calls from time to time through this whole ordeal as we awaited my return to the airwaves.
By April, things took the turn they did for everyone. This was when things got real, or when we all had to learn what the new reality would be, when something new would happen every day that was extremely pivotal but also somehow useless when tossed on the heap of everything else in the world, like Lucy and Ethel losing control of the chocolates on the conveyor belt. I still stayed current, because following my sources of news meant learning about fomites and droplets at the same rate that I was learning that Fiona Apple pushed up the release of her latest album after eight years of silence by four months or that Father John Misty was dropping a live album with proceeds going to charity. However, this was when I started getting into all the early Henry Threadgill I never heard before. I know his work with Zooid. I came up in my career covering contemporary jazz hitting the ground running and I knew this was a guy whose work I would constantly love. It was through Zooid that I truly learned that you can get away with anything if you can keep the rhythm going first. I most certainly had endless time and no true obligations. Yet much like any creature of habit, I heard all sorts of albums but kept falling in love with his debut as a leader, X-75 (Volume 1) Expanded, listening through all eleven and a half minutes of the flute quartet playing "Luap Nosebor", waiting each time for the drums to drop like it's the first time I heard Ying-Yang Twins' "The Whisper Song" freshman year at Morehouse, waiting for it to eventually get louder, just as shocked and amazed that the artist didn't give me what I expected and I was all the better for it.
But in May, I found myself listless. I didn't listen to much. I consumed myself more with visual media. I binge watched the very smart Counterpart which aired for two seasons on Starz and starred J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams. As a lover of spy thrillers, this was right up my alley. It was also eerie since a major plot detail about it (spoiler alert) centers around a global pandemic, which definitely came as a shock to me at an understandably sensitive time. I remembered how much of my listening to music had previously been tied to the act of commuting, and my restaurant gig had been closed for the last couple months due to the lockdown, though I did take myself out of the picture for a few weeks before that happened, out of concern. I was truly home and back to my childhood roots of spending all my day watching television. However, by June, something important happened, probably the opposite of a childhood regression-- I started to get into Steely Dan.
I turned 34 this year. All things being equal, it would seem appropriate that in my mid-30s I would get into a Steely Dan period. Shortly after I read a bunch of Chuck Klosterman in college, I had the Led Zeppelin period he claimed every young man has in his life at some point. I've had Bob Dylan periods and Miles Davis periods and a bunch of those other stereotypical musical periods one has in life if you're a certain kind of music person, so it would make sense of course that this would happen by now. I found myself obsessing over Aja, especially the famous title track with a pair of drum solos from Steve Gadd that are so fascinating they're happening during Wayne Shorter soloing, I mean, that's just gall! This persisted all throughout the year at various points. My friend Justin and I have been obsessing over Bill Callahan & Bonnie "Prince" Billy's cover of "Deacon Blues" for the last month, finding it to be the most simply perfect rendition of everything Walter Becker and Donald Fagen molded together with a degree of meticulousness comparable to David Fincher. The vibe held and it didn't let go, though one could suppose it never did. The hooks were there early on, Gaucho's "Hey Nineteen" popping up on the smooth jazz station I would hear as a child, never questioning why this would be playing on a jazz station, the idea of "format" just beginning to gel in my mind like the radio version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It wasn't until a KRTU membership drive some years ago when I learned in one of those fascinating conversations radio folks get into between jaunts on the air that "smooth jazz" isn't actually a radio format, some Frankenstein's monster of various genres hovering around the same BPM and overall vibe that defines the experience of listening to it but blurs the lines of the genres that made it at the start. While some may decry the format, I could only appreciate what it gave me-- a catholic understanding of genre, still appreciative of the necessary boundaries of genre for the sake of definition, but with that same sense of embrace of diversity of conveyed ideas that those who wish to run from those same boundaries are still striving to embody. So I wasn't unfamiliar with Steely Dan. I had the youthful dalliances of appreciating what I was hearing on the radio, but this was my time for my deep dive. This was when I could look up the players and note that of course I loved this, Joe Sample was a session player here. I heard artists looking for something different outside of what they previously knew, an idea that's a universal in art. I was touched in a certain way, which is the likely move to make in one's mid-30s.
I'm reaching a point in my life where every epiphany I have about my mortality comes with a sense of recontextualization. As I went through Tidal's library, supplementing the albums I heard from artists I listened to as a child, filling in the gaps in my ears from what my parents had in their collections sitting in plastic racks still wrapped in cellophane from their latest move into their current house, preserved relics of the past that have little use now with their own streaming service and old mp3 mixes in rotation now. What used to be me in college excitedly calling my mom about the news of Anita Baker releasing a new album in 2004 in what was, at the time, her first new material in ten years is now me scrolling through an app wondering why my parents had 3, the 1990 collaborative album from Stanley Clarke & George Duke but wondering why I never heard 1981's The Clarke/Duke Project or 1983's The Clarke/Duke Project II. It's me realizing I'm around the same age they were as they were building the CD collections that were the starting place in my mind for where the app would later travel. In fact, I'm older than they were, unencumbered by the expenses of raising a family (but making much less all the while; I like what I'm doing, so it balances out). When October came around and I was obsessing over Michael Franks' 1977 album Sleeping Gypsy, I regaled my mother about it during our regular Sunday phone call, hipping her to the followup to Franks' landmark 1976 album, The Art of Tea, the CD of which I exhausted at some point in my childhood. I felt like I was reaching back in time to hip my mom to something that could have just passed her by, or reminding her of something she once knew. Either way, there was a sense of familiarity in our conversation about how Sleeping Gypsy (yeesh, unfortunate title, though!) is like the sequel to The Art of Tea-- still produced by Tommy LiPuma, still featuring Joe Sample on keys but this time bringing along Crusaders compatriots saxophonist Wilton Felder and guitarist Larry Carlton.
By July, I went through a Parquet Courts period, which I tend to do periodically anyway, but this was was spurred by a tweet from music journalist Larry Fitzmaurice, aptly stating "Parquet Courts have been the best pandemic band for me in that whenever I put them on I’m like, right, this is what’s going on in my head every waking moment". I was still listening to the new Brad Mehldau solo album that dropped in, or the Makaya McCraven album that releasedat the end of July, but throughout the summer, that teeming sense of anxiety and tension seemed to be wound together in my musical choices-- the jittery uncertainty of the those Savage Brothers & Co., the shifting beats of McCraven, the throttling need for escape from The War on Drugs, the hidden turns of Henry Threadgill. Even when juxtaposed against the calm of Michael Franks or Kurt Vile, or the brief moment of nostalgia in remembering that Incubus' 2001 album, Morning View is probably a career high for them that is just as good now as it was then (and everything sense was diminishing returns since then with highlights here and there, but 2017's 8 is truly terrible and learning this fact one night in August was either somehow good for me to know or some drunken wasted night, but in a pandemic, what better thing could I truly have been doing?). But when Bill Frisell's Valentine showed up, it hypnotically put me in a trance that would calm my soul every chance it got, and I gave it many of them. I was back at work again at the barbecue counter and this new adapting to normal meant commutes and time spent with music again as a connective tissue for tasks, and not just the constant ambiance to mostly one locale.
I was back on my contemporary jazz bullshit in September as some of my favorite releases of the year all reared their heads around this time-- Takuya Kuroda's Fly Moon Die Soon, the long anticipated From This Place from Pat Metheny, and the aforementioned Valentine from Frisell. I found myself more and more narrating the music I heard, back announcing players on tunes, anticipating what I would do if I had the opportunity to be on the air again. I was itching to be on the radio again, to share, to curate for others. I knew what I wanted-- to get back on the air again with the same sense of joy I had, but I have always strongly believed that How is always a more interesting question than What.
October rolled through and with it David Lord's Forest Standards, Vol. 2 enveloping me like a cloud I didn't want to escape. Every time the album seemed to evaporate far too soon, I would summon it again. Bound up in all this was my discovery of Michael Franks' Sleeping Gypsy to keep those cool vibes coming, with just a few touches of my semi-regular revisiting of Joni Mitchell. I could never spend too long in my life going without hearing 1976's Hejira ever since I found it in my Jaco discovery period back in college, those familiar melding of strums always transporting me back to a literary conference in Louisville with just a touch of snowfall and little else but the music in my phone to carry me through the weekend. I had my usual love affair with "Coyote" and "Song for Sharon" but decided I would go further this time. Fall a little harder for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (and forgive the Blackface, but also… are we all ready to talk about how Joni Mitchell was kind of THE problematic white woman of the 1970s? Is that conversation a bit much? I can go at length on "Furry Sings the Blues" alone. The man literally says "I don't like you" and she puts that in the song?! Furry Lewis was pissed at being name dropped without his consent. Is Joni Mitchell the 1960s & 70s' Taylor Swift?), finally listen to Court and Spark which I oddly never got to before, remember everything I love about Shadows and Light.
I also went through my semi-regular play through Yasiin Bey f.k.a. Mos Def's 2009 album, The Ecstatic, which I think is damn near perfect, which is why I usually play it on a whim at least once a year. This was actually a challenge since it isn't on Tidal. I thankfully had it uploaded to my Google Music library, but Google is in the process of discontinuing that service so it had to transfer my library to YouTube Music. Yes, this was all as frustrating to sort through on a Tuesday morning as it probably was to read that just now. Yet this whim led me to fall in love again with the album closer, "Casa Bey", which then led me to the song it sampled, "Casa Forte" by Banda Black Rio, which then led me to their 1977 album Maria Fumaça which I wondered where it had been all my life. This was a guiding force for a while along with the Joni Mitchell, Kurt Vile, and Junip's 2010 album, Fields were my soundtrack on the Second Saturday of October as I scrawled chalk on the parking lot of the Carver Library proclaiming my humanity and those in shades of brown and Black like me, handing out tie-dyed face masks to passers by.
I've been making it a point to give away masks and bandanas that I've tie-dyed, producing a batch every time an organization has commissioned me this year to make a public art piece. I have since made it an opportunity to say Black Lives Matter without saying Black Lives Matter, because navigating issues like that in San Antonio is tricky that way. My giving out masks has been my way of saying that we should take this pandemic seriously, especially because this is disproportionally killing Black people in the United States more than others and I'm kind of furious about people casually being okay with moving forward in their lives, passively saying Black lives are an acceptable loss. I wear a mask for all my outfits because the Black experience is adapting to the shitty situations you are societally predisposed to face as gracefully as you can, because that's all you have. The masks have been part of me as an artist as anything else, and I like that I realized that this year.
But just as I was out, music journalism pulls me back in. Once again, it was a Larry Fitzmaurice tweet claiming 2007's Our Love to Admire is the best Interpol album. This led to a couple days of listening to their body of work and shocking myself to discovering that perhaps this is true. Sure, we all have a soft spot for their 2002 major debut, Turn Off the Bright Lights, but people grow, change, mature, and then at some point take a turn and need to come back to their senses. There are lessons here to learn in growth, turns, focal points, and the wander beyond. I thought more of them when I delved into my Radiohead period as I lay out in my hammock reading Steven Hyden's latest book, This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century. It was natural that I would devour this book. I loved his 2016 book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, so the convergence of him writing at length about one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite bands just made perfect sense. This obviously filtered into my listening habits for the rest of the year in dollops and drips, heavily while reading the book over a week or so and then here and there as the nostalgia lingered with me. Like all these things in my rotation, it would make sense for me to have my Radiohead period again in the year like I do any other year. I noted how Hyden totally nailed the point that 2007's In Rainbows is the Kid A for Millennials, as I felt transported to my dorm room in Mays Hall at Morehouse College excitedly paying a few dollars for the download that random October night, buying the CD months later at Criminal Records in Little Five Points, and then the weird feeling I had seeing them live the following May, exhilarated at seeing them live and singing every word with the knowledge that my father was in the hospital and after talking with my mom about it, we knew there was nothing really I could do and that all would be fine in God's hands. All ultimately was, and there wasn't really a way for me, a person who doesn't drive, to get to the hospital, in the parlance of Metro Atlanta, outside the perimeter. Seeing the concert was ultimately the right decision, but like many people, I felt all the connections music has to experience and memory and context. Life wasn't too easy for many of us back in the late Aughts but we tried to make the best of it.
Yet now in December, I found myself back in review period, prone to making the lists as I do every year, looking back and contemplating how I felt about what I heard this year, yet I found myself also relishing in the fact that I still stayed current as I try to do. Rob Shepherd, a former writer at Nextbop, formed a new site in February, PostGenre, with some of the folks from the old site and others brought into the fold. I knew I would end up writing lists somehow and was gladly roped into their Best of 2020 list. I let them post my top 15 favorite jazz albums, or at least how I had my order at the time, and that set me on the path to here. I always have a tendency to make a thing for someone else that fits and the other thing for my own satisfaction.
I spent this year with the anchors I had in place while adrift in others. I didn't work for a while until I did. I wasn't doing radio for a while until I was at a friend's apartment just a few weeks ago, using his home studio with masks on and the windows open, just in time for me to put out a show of my favorite releases of the year, finding some kind of normalcy again. I still expanded my horizons and learned new things. Untethered from radio, I accomplished my goal of not turning my life with music into work and I still felt like I maintained a healthy relationship with it. I still have the touchiness I will have in being a player in the field again. I feel a bit of relief that I don't really want to have to worry about booking my unofficial jazz day party during the South By SouthWest Festival in Austin until probably 2022. I feel like both the rest of the world and I will be in a better place to have events again and for me to figure out how I'll pull them off like I sometimes do. I became an artist like all the ones I hang around and feel a sense of validation in that. I spent this year continually building the person I wanted to be, the soundtrack among the pecan trees in my yard or through AirPod knockoffs bought through Wish, still tethering itself to my life just as pivotally as it always has, and I still find myself wanting to tell people all about it.
Favorite Albums of 2020
As always, I refer to my list as my favorites and not the best because I'm just one guy (y'know?) and I hear what I hear because of what I have in my orbit and what I keep in my orbit. My moods can change and these things are fluid and to allow for all those who feel weird about ranking art (though I still feel comfortable doing so to some degrees because I can say what I, personally, liked or held more closely to for a while, than compared to other things. I'm weird like that).
21) Jeremy Pelt - The Art of Intimacy, Vol. 1 (HighNote)
I've always sung the praises for every new idea Jeremy Pelt has in his albums every year. I had to admit I had some doubts about a trio album with him on trumpet, George Cables on piano, and Peter Washington on bass, meaning that there's no drums. But it's an album of ballads, of sweetness, of softness all the way through. It's the whole point and they accomplish this beautifully. I should have known better than to doubt Jeremy Pelt. He impresses me every time with his every new idea every year.
20) Charles Tolliver - Connect (Gearbox Records)
Everything Lenny White is doing on the drums, particularly on "Emperor March", is worth placement on my list alone, but just the pure down-ness this album has in swinging with stank on it has made it a staple for the year. This is Charles Tolliver's return to us after eleven years and it has most certainly been worth the wait.
19) Nir Felder - II (Ropeadope Records)
Nir Felder's follow up to his 2014 album, Golden Age, sounds just as ebullient and thoughtful as its predecessor, crafting moods and tossing jams.
18) Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah - Axiom (Ropeadope Records)
If you have never seen a Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah performance, or if you have really been craving the sound of a good live performance with the banter and all, this arrived at just the right time of the year for just all the right reasons. The stage banter and song descriptions alone are a balm to the soul, but the full complexity of this music in its moment satisfies as always.
17) Gil Scott-Heron - We're New Again a Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL Records)
This idea made perfect sense-- Makaya McCraven, the brilliant producer/drummer, giving a shot at Gil Scott-Heron's final studio album, 2010's We're New Here. New air and life is breathed into Scott-Heron's words. The groove McCraven is so adept at making melds perfectly with Scott-Heron's rhythms and cadence. McCraven elevates Scott-Heron's last statement in a way that makes respectable bangers.
16) Gerald Clayton - Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note Records)
In the tradition of live albums at the Village Vanguard, Gerald Clayton's quintet album with Logan Richardson on alto saxophone, Walter Smith III on tenor saxophone, Joe Sanders on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums checks every box you would want for an album like this.
15) Luke Stewart - Exposure Quintet (Astral Spirits Records)
Everything about this album goes hard, superbly hard. It's challengingly hard, and I like it like that.
14) Thundercat - It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder)
It was a toss-up what list I would put this album on but I knew that it had to make my list. Thundercat continues to go in any direction he chooses, playing and crooning with his heart on his sleeve. I revisited this album around list season, thinking it had slipped by me after I had enjoyed it when it first dropped back in April when the world was making a new, quieter order for a while, and in that state of uncertainty, I had forgotten how good this album is.
13) Rob Mazurek -- Exploding Star Orchestra - Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem Recordings)
It's a total swirling mix of compositions that totally work, with some of the coolest, weirdest players on the scene right now-- Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Brandee Younger, Jeff Parker (of course), Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch, Tomeka Reid, Damon Locks, and so many more. It's insane that it exists and more insane that it sounds so precise all the while.
12) Eric Revis - Slipknots Through a Looking Glass (Pyroclastic Records)
It's abstract, it's angular, it's got a lot going on but its grooves find a way to focus your attention. This is the secret to music like this-- if you can keep the groove, you can do anything. Bassist Eric Revis definitely proves this point.
11) Tineke Postma - Freya (Edition Records)
Everything just clicks into place perfectly with saxophonist Tineke Postma's latest album, her first as a leader in six years, like a rollercoaster you can implicitly trust will get you back to start again.
10) Norah Jones - Pick Me Up off the Floor (Blue Note Records)
For over twenty years now, Norah Jones has worked as an artist who does whatever she wants and it has been a delight over all this time to see every turn of her interests woven into each of her works. As much as her Blue Note release, Pick Me Up off the Floor can be called another "return to jazz" for her (particularly when backed by drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattituci), her sound is as much influenced by the country, rock, and "singer-songwriter" turns she has made, integrating them all into her personhood and artistry into something that is a synthesis of brilliance.
9) David Lord, Jeff Parker, Chad Talyor, Billy Mohler - Forest Standards, Vol. 2 (BIG EGO Records)
It's easy to get lost in David Lord's sparing compositions. There's plenty of space between his notes for Chad Taylor to stomp about on the kit and Billy Mohler to find new ways to expand the back end. Lord plays the angles of everything with a restraint that can explode into surprise at times but tenderly eases all the while. This is an album that gently floats through the air.
8) Lionel Loueke - HH (Edition Records)
It's guitarist Lionel Loueke playing a solo album of Herbie Hancock songs. It sounds just as great as this concept already sounds. Loueke goes through every nook and cranny of these songs but uses every part of himself and his guitar to do so, as he constantly does in the fullness of himself as his instrument. Like I said, it sounds just as great as this concept already sounds.
7) Chicago Underground Quartet - Good Days (Astral Spirits Records)
Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Chad Taylor, have joined up with Josh Johnson to form the Chicago Underground Quartet due to the tricky, clever wheedling of Chris Schlarb producing the album at his BIG EGO Studios in Long Beach, California. The result is a reconfiguration almost twenty years in the making that is a whirlwind of hypnotic forces. These songs are trances that grip and don't release until they're ready. There are moods here that shift fluidly and naturally. It's a total trip.
6) Kurt Elling & Danilo Perez - Secrets are the Best Stories (Edition Records)
This is a two-hander of sheer beauty. Kurt Elling, voice still smooth as butter, sweetly makes every turn of original compositions and inspired covers with Perez on piano all throughout providing texture and additional grace. The two make a good pair leading through these lush songs.
5) Takuya Kuroda - Fly Moon Die Soon (First World Records)
Takuya Kuroda has for some time found just the right pocket of cool to inhabit. Album after album, he stays just as soulful a player and composer, especially any time he's collaborating with Corey King. Yet again, Kuroda has released an album of cool jams that are show stoppers. He's gotten quite the knack for it.
4) Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides (International Anthem Recordings)
McCraven the producer can continue to warp and bend material and find things anew, so of course he found a way to make his 2018 album into the goose that lays the golden eggs. Some of this is work you've never heard before, some is reworkings of recordings you have heard before. All of it is as brilliantly crafted as the rest of McCraven's work, consistently the jam.
3) Jeff Parker - Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem Recordings)
As hard as Jeff Parker went in on his first album for International Anthem in 2016, The New Breed, he goes even harder melding more soundscapes in the midst of the groove. It's all a bout of brilliance that builds to the ten and a half minute closer, "Max Brown", that is almost impossible not to dance to. All along the way with compatriots like drummer Jamire Willaims, bassit Paul Bryan, Rob Mazurek on piccolo trumpet, his daughter Ruby Parker singing vocals, and numerous others, Parker warps the ear in a feeling that's hard to let go.
2) Pat Metheny - From This Place (Nonesuch Records)
Still innovating the game, guitarist Pat Metheny spent time playing with his quartet of drummer Antonio Sánchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and newcomer Gwylim Simcock on piano. He recorded their work together then had the Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Joel McNeely play arrangements to back the quartet. That said, it's still very much a Pat Metheny album, the compositional ticks are there, which if you're a sucker for them after all this time, they definitely satisfy here, because Metheny is always going to do his thing, even while still innovating the game.
1) Bill Frisell - Valentine (Blue Note Records)
On its face, Valentine is a simple guitar trio album with Bill Frisell alongside Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, but these three and brilliant musicians, so things aren't quite so simple. Whether it be their inspired takes on Boubacar Traore's "Baba Drame", or Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "What the World Needs Now Is Love", or the natural flow from Frisell original composition to the next, these three are in sync with Morgan and Royston the perfect support for every one of Frisell's weird, shimmery ideas.
15) Washed Out - Purple Noon (Sub Pop)
Every time Ernest Greene brings a mood, I'm for it. If he's going for a whole Miami Vice vibe, I'm sure there's a time and a place for it that'll work, because he pulls off what he's trying to do every time he tries to do something else while still sounding like that origin of "chillwave" that he can never escape. He's steering into the skid and I've always enjoyed the ride.
14) Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty Records)
There's a romantic sense of lostness Sufjan Stevens had in 2010, recovering from illness and relearning his relationship with music in the process. A decade later, those same feelings associated with the electronic turns produced in the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz is present here again, just as challenging and just as rewarding. It's a grower. You gotta let it happen.
13) Son Lux - Tomorrows I & II (City Slang Records)
Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang continue to truly click and through that they continue to soar.
12) Real Estate - The Main Thing (Domino)
Any Real Estate album is full of a kind of pleasantness that truly satisfies. This album was released back at the end of February, so it was kind of a surprise to remember that these folks put out something after 2017's In Mind. Hearing this is a comfort, but they always have been.
11) Moses Sumney - græ (Jagjaguwar)
All of the ambition of the predecessor Aromanticism is even bigger and bolder with græ.
10) Father John Misty - Off-Key In Hamburg (Sub Pop)
My love of that constant prankster Josh Tillman made this placement on my list pretty automatic, and I very much appreciated the release of this live album as the necessary gesture artists made early on when folks were taking quarantine seriously of releasing a live album as a kind of balm to get us through to a time when we can hear live performances again.
9) Bill Callahan - Gold Record (Drag City Records)
Bill Callahan has always sounded like a rambling storyteller who surprises you when you discover he had a path to his long yarns all along. He's warm, inviting, and always a fun listen. His voice has a simple quality that still has an interesting range. Gold Record was easily a calm in a storm during this year.
8) Kurt Vile - Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP (Matador Records)
In his five song EP with two John Prine covers, one of which includes the late legend in one of his final recordings, Kurt Vile makes the statement that there's always been an outlaw country streak to his Aw, Geez schtick. It's one of those things that sounds obvious when posed this way just as an argument, but the work definitely proves that fact to be true. He's definitely still a lover of all the effects pedals to make the immersive soundscapes that have always been his signature.
7) Psychic Temple - Houses of the Holy (Joyful Noise Recordings)
My favorite band/cult-leader, Chris Schlarb, in his constant tackling of multiple things at once, takes on the concept of the double album without filler, melding four different concept albums with four different groups (Cherry Glazerr, Chicago Underground Trio, Dream Syndicate, and Xololanxinxo) together into one coherent piece, and continuing a Led Zeppelin bit, amongst other things in this fifth Psychic Temple album.
6) King Krule - Man Alive! (The Panther Sounds)
Whenever I think about this album, it feels like it's from some other year entirely. This February release certainly seems so, but there's this quality that feels so squarely in the pocket of his previous work that it melds together like a part of the past. When I think about albums in 2020 and my mind broaches Man Alive!, I think of this as a pivotal point where things were different after. This probably had one more gallery opening left in it on a playlist. (Also, "Stoned Again" is a sick song, of course.)
5) Khruangbin - Mordecai (Dead Oceans)
Everything about this album is light and airy and perfect. It floats in the breeze it generates and ends far too soon. In a year without festivals, it puts one between the ears.
4) Ian Chang - 属 Belonging (City Slang Records)
Drummer/producer Ian Chang in his debut album goes through the wringer, finding all manner of directions through his outfitted drum kit and his producing skills to make over a half hour of head nods. You end up a bit disappointed it ended so early that you're overjoyed to just play it again.
3) Deerhoof - Love-Lore (Joyful Noise Recordings)
I didn't know I needed Deerhoof doing a covers album moving at a mile a minute, running through a musical palette so broad, it's as mind-boggling as the band's renditions of it. I've got my favorite moments-- their runs at the theme to Knight Rider or Eddie Grant's "Electric Avenue", the playback of David Graeber's "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit" turning into the theme to The Jetsons, or the comedown of it all of The Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow Parties" as the breath of fresh air after realizing you were submerged it in all for the last half hour.
2) Tame Impala - The Slow Rush (Universal Music Australia)
As much as I found its 15-month promotional cycle to its release, only for it to land squarely in front of a pandemic that would cancel all the festivals for which this music is perfect, irritating to the point of hilarious, I still can't cast aside how perfect the music is nevertheless. Kevin Parker worked painstakingly to make a synth-filled album about recklessness in the face of midlife like he's a one-man Steely Dan implicitly made for Millennials but with an infectiousness for everyone. It's an album made for moving, and you can dance just fine at home. Also, bike rides are generally safe, this is perfect for that.
1) Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic/Clean Slate)
Of course, I would put this at the top of my list. Fetch the Bolt Cutters found us right when we needed it in April; Fiona Apple, the wise recluse, emerging in her own perfectly imperfect way to grace us with her craft and insights once again, with a warmth in these songs recorded in her home that feel like we're being invited into her life for these glimpses. And one mustn't forget her impeccable sense of rhythm, a most crucial element that's always been her thing that grabs at the soul once more. It's Fiona Apple releasing a new album for the first time in eight years, which was at the time her first in seven years-- of course, I would put this at the top of my list.