Grad school upended how I listen to music. Mostly, music with discernible lyrics was out. As you’ll see, I listened to a lot of Spanish language music. But this was year of mostly classical music, including more baroque music than I care to admit. This is the year where the occasional, subtle dissonances that you find in Bach or Vivaldi really spoke to me. I was hungry for those moments, like the chords that punctuate the second movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s third concerto from L’Estro Armonico (check out Rachel Podger’s recording). Johnny Gandelsman’s recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin are incredible. Both Podger and Gandelsman play with a fluidity that feels informed by folk styles. And that feels right to me. I also loved 18th and 19th century chamber music played in a more modern idiom by ensembles like Brooklyn Rider or the Danish String Quartet. I like Gen X and Millenial interpretations of classical music. There’s a creative freedom that came wrapped up with coming of age post post-modernism. It’s like getting to the dinner party after virtually everyone’s left and just grazing on the leftovers.
I’m probably the very last person to realize that various genres of repetitive electronic music are great for studying. I listened to a lot of curated playlists. Bonobo, in particular, makes music I seemed to resonate with in particular. While, not strictly electronic, I tuned into Julianna Barwick’s albums a lot this year. If you’ve not heard Barwick’s gorgeous, voice-based soundscapes, her three albums are intoxicating—Will is my go to, but they’re all good. I also streamed a lot of NTS Radio this year, this is a global internet radio station based in London that seems to play almost nothing but great music that I’ve never heard of… not sure how they do it. My favorite program is “Questing with Zakia.” Zakia plays an odd intersection of floaty jazz and world music live every Saturday morning—I used to listen while prepping for the farmers market—but it’s all archived. NTS’s infinite playlists were great too.
Five 2019 Releases
But let’s talk about music released in 2019. Here are the five records from this year that I listened to most often (in no particular order):
Several of my favorite albums of the year are Latinx. In part because of the no discernible lyrics rule (I have to strain to follow the Spanish), but mostly because Latinx artists are making incredible music that feels very forward thinking. Almadura by iLe, a Puerto Rican singer and songwriter, was one of my favorites. Her songs are musically interesting, rhythmically complex, melodic, fun, and they straddle the 21st century and older, more traditional elements.
An entire concerto for bass drum? Yes, an entire concerto for bass drum… and it’s wonderful. This was one of my favorite discoveries of the year. Here’s the thing. A bass drum is known for exactly one sound. So how does a composer sustain interest over a four movement piece? It’s an interrogation of what’s possible and there’s beauty in that.
Orange is a suite of string quartet pieces by Caroline Shaw, who seems to be everywhere as the friendly face of contemporary classical music. I can see why her work is popular, it’s inventive, approachable, and really good. If you have never thought to listen to contemporary classical music, this would be a great starting point.
I’ve been enjoying Juana Molina’s music for years, ever since I stumbled on to her 2008 record Un Día. I’d kind of lost the thread of her career for awhile, so I was a little startled to hear this record. It’s much more rock and roll. And her band is great… the drummer in particular. Musically, it brings it latter day Fugazi to mind in the way it combines textures—a harsh guitar tone over something softer. Great EP, can’t wait till she releases her next full album.
This was my favorite record. I’d never heard of Helado Negro, but my friend Ben and I caught him live, opening for Beirut at the Pabst in Milwaukee last Spring. And this record burrowed its way into my heart very quickly. It’s music that feels good, even though it can be very serious and not always about happy things. This Is How You Smile is his 2019 release, but I mainlined all of his music all year long. Private Energy and his Island Universe Story albums are wonderful also. His electronic instrumentals are great, filled with satisfying textures and surprises.
Five 2019 Concerts
Brooklyn Rider, “Healing Modes” (Appleton, WI)
In October, I took the girls to see Brooklyn Rider at the Memorial Chapel at Lawrence University in Appleton—wonderful venue. They performed Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, which was written as he recovered from an illness, and a set of new works on the theme of healing by composers Matana Roberts, Du Yun, Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, and others. All of it was wonderful. They’ve been touring this program for about a year and hopefully they will eventually record it. The Du Yun piece, in particular, is one I’d like to hear again.
Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (Chicago Riot Fest, IL)
I think we found the single experience that could convince my wife, Linda, to attend Riot Fest in Chicago—which is almost laughably not her scene. The Flaming Lips played their Yoshimi record in its entirety, Linda’s favorite record. From start to finish it was nothing but joy, better than we could possibly have expected. It sounded amazing and there was even a giant pink robot.
Music for the Sake of Music Festival Orchestra (Green Bay, WI)
From a slightly different angle… one of my favorite concerts of the year was the one where I played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the Music for the Sake of Music Festival Orchestra. Getting to play Beethoven’s Fifth with a full symphony orchestra made up of amateurs and professionals was, likely, a once in a lifetime experience and one hell of a challenge for me. I played most of the notes and did my best to not damage the bits that were beyond me technically. After talking to a few of the professionals, it turns out that faking your way through orchestra parts is more common than people realize. The rest of the program was fun too. (If you don’t know me, I’m the violinist with the pale blue shirt).
OK Go, Video Tour (Milwaukee, WI)
For their birthdays, we surprised the girls by taking them to their very first rock concert, OK Go. As a family, we’d been enjoying Rude Goldbergian music videos for years. Judging by the fact that the audience seemed to be made up almost entirely of parents and children, this seemed to be the rule. While, I’m not a huge fan of their music, which is almost pointedly derivative (as in, “Let’s do a Jackson 5 song after we do the New Order song,”) they put together a really fun evening by performing their music live in front of the videos and talking about their process—and that’s what they are truly great at doing. The kids loved it.
Laura Gibson, Goners Tour (Milwaukee, WI)
In January, I was finally able to see one of my favorite singer/songwriters perform at the Backroom at Colectivo in Milwaukee. She performed with Stelth Ulvang (a touring member of The Lumineers) and a very talented multi-instrumentalist whose name I didn’t catch. She was great. I continue to be amazed at how singer/songwriters are using technology to reproduce complicated arrangements and orchestrations in live performance settings. I would have been ecstatic if she’d just shown up with a guitar, but the whole performance was next level. If you don’t know Laura Gibson’s music, I’d encourage you to check it out. It’s like my favorite sweater.
I continue to be grateful for the role that music plays in my life. Especially, and let’s be frank, when the world often feels like it’s coming apart. Linda and I have often gone back and forth on whether we’d prefer to be blind or deaf. Despite being very involved with visual arts and graphic design, I would much rather be blind. I don’t even need to think about it. Sound is what connects me to people and experiences; without it I think I’d feel completely alone and disengaged.