Saturday, December 5, 2020

2020: The Year's Best Music Albums - Jazz, Rock, Folk, and more

More good music came out in 2020 than any year in recent memory. Here are some you might want to check out if you haven't already.


When it comes to rock, and by rock I mostly mean post-punk, nothing rocked me as hard as 3D Routine by Leeds, UK band Mush. You have to be in the right mood to listen to it, but when you are it sounds great. For a more well rounded yet still punkish approach, try Fad by the Irish band Silverbacks. During the album's thirty-five and a half minutes this Dublin-based guitar-oriented group pulls off every (rock) trick in the book. Delving further, Berkeley, California's Naked Roommate proudly demonstrates some Arthur Russel worthy grooves on Do the Duvet, while Portland, Oregon's Lithics make a good case for a getting a snake tattoo with Tower of Age.  If Krautrock is more your thing, have a listen to Mexico City's Sei Still.


Something strange is going on in Northern Europe - a mix of spiritual or modal jazz meets heavy doses of their native folk music, sprinkled with spices from Africa and other parts of the globe. Prime example: Downhill Uplift by Norway's Stein Urheim, a journey which can go from sounding like Sun Ra to Ry Cooder to Pink Floyd in one song. Staying in Norway for a moment, 2020 also saw the release of Hardanger fiddle player Erlend Apneseth's Fragmentarium, which features Stein Urheim on guitar and bouzouki.  

Some of the best jazz of the year - if you can call it that - came from Denmark's Martin Rude and Jakob Skøtt Duo who released not one but two brilliant albums this year: The Discipline of Assent and The Dichotomy of Control. Returning to Norway, the self-titled Elds Mark record made me imagine woodland wizard creatures celebrating their annual holidays.

Aussies Represent
Thanks to artists like Courtney Barnett, King Gizzard and many more that I'm not going to mention, Australia has been hard to miss the last few years. Hey, Men at Work was prolly my first legit favorite band (Cargo on vinyl in 1983 at age 9) so my Australian credentials go way back. This year I want to mention two Australian artists that jumped to the head of the cluster. Firstly, Sleeper and Snake from Melbourne. There's a sound I tend to like and Sleeper and Snake makes it on Fresco Shed. The drum machines, the saxophones, off-the-wall anti-folk. Me like it. 

For a totally different Australian band, I highly recommend Surprise Chef, also from Melbourne. (Sydney - you need to step up your game). Four young Australians should not be able to make funky groove music with this much soul and maturity. All News is Good News might have been first released in 2019, but we didn't hear it here in the states until 2020 so it's a 2020 album. To top it off, Surprise Chef surprised us with a 2nd full studio album a few months later with Daylight Savings. New favorite band alert.

New Acoustic
A classic example of the instrumental New Acoustic "genre" is 1989's masterpiece The Telluride Sessions which featured the cumulative efforts of Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor, and Edgar Meyer. Whoah. Other examples might include The David Grisman Quintet, Turtle Island String Quartet, Scotland's Shooglenifty, and Sweden's Väsen. Anyway, to my ears there's been a dearth of this type of music for a good couple decades now. 

The wait is over. Two up and coming bands are carrying on this innovation, albeit in different ways, and those are Hawktail and Jon Stickley Trio. Both released fantastic albums in 2020. Hawktail's Formations has all the tune-writing, nuance and sophistication one could hope for, while Jon Stickley Trio's Scripting the Flip is sure to get you dancing in the aisles. So make some aisles in your kitchen and then dance in them.

Slow Stoner Jams
Singing Sands is more easy-going than anything Tommy Guerrero has ever put out. Under the moniker Los Days, Tommy G. teamed up with Josh Lippi to make a set of chilled out tracks that conveys tumbleweeds, arid horizons, and Spaghetti Western atmospheres. I pretty much dig anything that Tommy Guerrero has ever done, and so naturally I ended up loving this album after being unsure at first. 

Along those same lines, there's Passage by Vancouver, B.C. based musician John Jeffrey. It features steel guitar, vibraphone, and a helping of new age. With a BPM that romances a trot but doesn't quite get to first base, this one will still hold your interest across four extended cuts.

Gimme Some More Vocals of the Folkier Sort
You want vocals, of the folkier sort? This is the Kit. Kate Stables was back in 2020 with perhaps her best work ever in Off Off On. Whenever this would come up on random play over the last few weeks my wife would ask, "what is this?" and I would say, "This is the Kit!". You want more? OK, how about Three Queens in Mourning / Bonnie Prince Billy - Hello Sorrow Hello Joy. Listen closely for a cameo by Kermit the Frog. Third on this list of Gimme Some More Vocals of the Folkier Sort, we have Bonny Light Horsemen. There's a Y at the end of this Bonny. Fruit Bats fans know what I'm talking about.

For All Ya'll Deadheads Out There - You Know Who You Are
Let me know when you're done listening to podcasts or watching YouTube reactions videos. Ready now? OK. I guess I don't even need to mention Circles Around the Sun by Circles Around the Sun because you've heard that already, right? Oh that's right, you hate disco so never mind. Hold on, isn't Shakedown Street kind of a disco song? Anyway, for those still taking acid at age 50 or 60 I suggest you stop doing whatever you're doing right now - whether that be Tibetan yoga, chasing a three-legged chicken around the yard - and put on some Rose City Band. Have your tech person cue up their newest offering Summerlong.

What else do I have for those of you in this secret club? Have you heard LaMP????  It features guitarist Scott Metzger (does he sleep?) jamming with the keyboardist Ray "Grab the Skunk By the Tail" Paczkowski and drummer Russ Lawton from Trey's Beacon Jams that you just got done watching. It'll make you pine for the days of Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood. You could keep the party going with Como De Allstars by The Greyboy Allstars. Karl Denson is a member of The Greyboy Allstars. You might remember Karl Denson from that festival set 15 or 20 years ago when he blew your mind. Last on this Deadhead friendly portion of the show, you haven't heard of them yet, but check out Brooklyn, NY's Rhyton. It's on Bandcamp and the album is called Krater's Call. Good luck finding it!

I'll take this opportunity to mention that I created this Afrofuturism category simply as a means to recognize The Sun Ra Arkestra's new album Swirling. Sun Ra might have swirled into space in 1993 but his band has continued on under the leadership of Marshall Allen. This still evolving post-1993 version of the Arkestra has finally made a statement in 2020, and it's music for now, just like it always was. Sun Ra the person might be absent but his presence is strongly felt. And just to show that there's other life in this Saturnian universe, Shaman by Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids is worth a few minutes of your time.

Bill Frisell Gets His Own Category (Shout Out to Ron Miles)
Bill Frisell - Valentine. If you know me at all then this selection should come as no surprise. Frisell finally got around to putting out a studio album documenting his trio with Rudy Royston (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass). Even before I had even heard it I knew that this had a one-hundred percent chance of making my best-of the year list. It did not disappoint.

Bill Frisell is also on Ron Miles' new record for Blue Note called Rainbow Sign. This might be the best straight up jazz album of the year. You read that right. Certainly it will stand the test of time. Released in 2020 but Rainbow Sign can hold its own with the best of decades prior.

Gillian Welch Gets Her Own Category (Shout Out to David Rawlings)
When in one year you expose the world to almost 48 new songs, plus an album of covers, effectively doubling your recorded output over the last three decades, it's worth mentioning. (I say "almost" because a couple of the songs released as part of the The Lost Songs collection are earlier or alternate versions of ones that saw the light of day on 2003's Soul Journey). 

It's hard to believe that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were sitting on three albums worth of songs. Meanwhile her fans from 1996 'til now had convinced themselves that OK she's not the most prolific of artists and had learned to worship even the slightest whisper of a new album in the works. It's such a 2020 thing to then unleash an unheard of quantity of material practically all at once. More please.

It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so good. Everyone's mix-tape would be a little different, but I could easily assemble a 12 song mix tape made up of these 48 so-called Lost Songs and it would easily be a contender for her best work of all time. How's about you?

Classical - As Far As I Know
I'm not the most hip or educated person with regard to classical music, especially if the two recordings I'm prepared to mention are tied to seasoned dignitaries like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. If you haven't heard of these guys by now what kind of rock have you been living under? Nevertheless here's an opportunity to either extend your love of their music or discover it for the first time as interpreted by new artists.

Namely, I'm referring to Erik Hall's COVID-friendly solo interpretation of Steve Reich's 1970's masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians.  Getting 18 musicians into the same room ain't happening right now, but one home-bound musician with time on his hands might feel inclined to tackle a classic. This may be the fastest 54 minutes on record.

The other classical one that rightly caught my attention is Glassforms by Bruce Bubaker and Max Cooper. You can read about what others have to say while you listen to it. The methodology behind the music seems cool but I won't pretend to understand how it was done, so I'm not going to attempt to put it in my own words. More importantly and to the point, Glassforms has that quintessential, unmistakable Philip Glass sound familiar to anyone who has seen Tales from the Loop on Netflix and that's what I like about it the most.

Country Music
I've been forgetting about Country music these last few years. Maybe it's been ever since Garth Brooks came out as Chris Gaines? Sure there's Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Margo Price. Gotta love 'em. But if you put any of those on the jukebox at the redneck bar around the corner nobody even recognizes it. The kind of country I'm talking about is Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins country. Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis country. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock country. I want some of that. Enter Corb Lund and Colter Wall - two Canadian songwriters who are as country as any American might be.

Corb Lund's been around a while but I hadn't heard of him until this year. His new album Agricultural Tragic is just shy of being great. I'm only docking it because of one or two novelty songs, but novelty is part of the tradition so maybe these add to its appeal. Who knows. He may not be joking when he sings about "Acid trips and rocket ships....I'm lucky to be alive". Composition is certainly something that Corb Lund pays attention to. It could be his jazz education or stolen licks from Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Corb Lund's songs have some pretty clever melodies, choruses, chord changes and bridges. A cut above the rest.

As far as Colter Wall goes, at 25 or so he's still too young to be making music this good, but he really does feel like the 2nd coming of Ramblin' Jack Elliott. I found out about Colter Wall via Corb Lund as both are from somewhere north of Montana. Colter Wall does in fact have an album out in 2020, making him worthy of mention on this list. It's called Western Swing and Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs. It's heavy on covers, including an excellent version of Marty Robbins' Big Iron. Now that I know about him, I am eagerly awaiting Colter Wall's next batch of original songs.

One more little paragraph on this topic. Randy Travis' 1986 debut album Storms of that's country. So naturally, an all instrumental steel-guitar driven track-by-track tribute to Storms of Life called Storms of Steel is going to be like cotton I mean denim candy for the ears. Done. Thanks Aaron "Ditch" Kurtz for this 2020 release.

Mallet Music
I have a penchant for instruments where the players uses mallets to bang on the keys/bars. Vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, name it. Here are couple from this year that hit that nail on the head.

Vula Viel - What's Not Enough About That? Call it jazz, call it African, call it punk. I don't know of many bands with a gyil as the lead instrument, but that is the case for London's Vula Viel. Ms. Bex Burch fronts the band while standing behind the gyil. What's a gyil? According to Wikipedia, the gyil is "the primary traditional instrument of the Dagara people of northern Ghana and Burkina Faso, and of the Lobi of Ghana, southern Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast." What's a nice Yorkshire woman doing playing one of these? Making great music that's what!

Mike Dillon - Rosewood. I'm familiar with percussionist and malletier Mike Dillon through his work with Nolatet. (When I say malletier I don't mean suitcase maker). When it comes to output under his own name, I've never given Mike Dillon a good listen until now. I wasn't expecting Rosewood to be as good as it is. Instead of having hard-to-listen-to edges it's actually quite soft and appealing all around, recalling Walter Wanderley, Cal Tjader, and Dave Pike. If what those guys did was jazz then I suppose this is too.

Library Music - It's a Thing

A prime example of library music in 2020 is Island Visions by Seahawks. You don't even need to know that it's a take-off on library music to enjoy it. In actuality, it owes just as much to early 90's downtempo jams as it does to library music. The other 2020 album that comes to mind under this umbrella is Our Feeling of Natural High by L.A. Takedown. I don't know where else I'd pigeonhole this if it weren't for this category. L.A. Takedown is the work of Los-Angeles musician Aaron M. Olson. If you're craving nostalgia and warm fuzzies this year, have a go round with Our Feeling of Natural High

Celtic Style Trad Folk
I thought I was done but I was forgetting about Celtic style folk music. I have two suggestions for you from opposite ends of this spectrum. One is Hold Fast by Stick in the Wheel. This London group experiments with traditional rhythms and song structures to conjure up something that sounds totally new. On the other hand, we have Seamus Egan's Early Bright. As a co-founder of the legendary band Solas, you might expect Seamus Egan's solo offering to be a fairly predictable and standard run through the formula of progressive tunes designed to get the feet tapping and the hands clapping. It's actually a lot more than that, harnessing an enlightened sense of composition, tension/release, and production that sets him apart from his peers. Early Bright could just have easily sunk into the New Acoustic category with Hawktail and Jon Stickley Trio.

EPs - them shorter playing little mini albums
Doggone it. I really thought I was done. But if I stopped now then I would fail to mention Cate Le Bon / Group Listening's 5-song 22-minute collaboration called Here It Comes Again. Magnificent. Or the piecemeal output by Oslo's Orions Belte. Another EP favorite is Tape 4 by Felbm. I'm done typing so this description of Felbm I copied and pasted will have to take it from here: "lo-fi, instrumental, jazz-infused sketches were written on guitar, with cascading keyboards, vibraphone and drum machine."

There you have it. In a week or two I might try and cull this down to an essential top ten list, although that might be impossible! I left a lot off already as is. If you're seeing a bunch of links above then good, I went back and added them. If not then I didn't go to the trouble. It's easy enough to find these on your own.

Thanks for Neddyo whose 2020 four stars Spotify playlist turned me on to several of these!

No comments:

Post a Comment