2020 was THE Covid year. We’re not out of it yet, but we are on the other side of something. A cultural transformation? A shift? Certainly I’m beginning to feel optimistic. Just under a year ago, the pandemic hit and that put an end to live performance. Venues were shut down and for awhile concerts that had been previously scheduled were played to empty seats and streamed into people’s living rooms. At first that was exciting. I recall projecting live piano recitals and chamber music concerts onto the wall above our fireplace. I haven’t done that in awhile. I confess that I’m terrible as a virtual patron of the arts, I have trouble getting into it. Covid also had us tightening our belts—the pandemic hit our business. So as much as I wanted to be supportive of the arts, I was less able to put money into the cultural ecology than I would have liked. Bandcamp (who are amazing with their 0% profit Fridays) and Apple Music were the two platforms that I used most and I bought several LPs—directly from the artist when possible.
Ten Favorite Albums
(These are not in any particular order and there are a handful that were released prior to 2020 but made their impression on me last year.)
Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto por México, Vol. 1
My interest in music from Latin America continues. Un canto for México, Vol. 1 is a beautiful record. Lafourcade is a big pop star in México, so this album is an exploration of her roots. I stumbled on several videos that she’d shot and was hooked. They played directly into one of my favorite scenarios: after a big meal with friends and family and plenty of wine, the tables are cleared off and instruments are pulled out, songs sung, and melodies improvised. It hardly ever seems to happen. But that’s what life should be like. Maybe I can work on cultivating that when life returns to normal. But that’s the feeling I get from this record and one that I seemed to need often.
Adrianne Lenker, instrumentals and songs
I listened to instrumentals more often than songs, but they are both great. I spent a lot of time inside Lenker’s zoned out, dreamy guitar improvisations. Something about the environmental quality of the sound appealed to me. They were recorded in a cabin in the woods, with the ambient sounds of nature, wind chimes, the crackling fire all manifest. I like Lenker’s take on the American Primitive style of guitar playing and how the notes in the upper register ring. These are incredibly intimate performances and I think they’ll stand the test of time.
Jeff Tweedy, Love Is King
Jeff Tweedy has somehow become something of a sitcom dad with the nightly peek he and his family allow into their family’s life through his wife’s Instagram page. As always, his songs are great and, importantly, always feel relevant. A lot of songs are written about the beginning of love and not enough about the second or third decade.
Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
Latin American musicians are doing a much better job, in my opinion, of bridging traditionalism and modernism in songwriting and orchestration. Digital beats, strains of indigenous culture, centuries of colonialism and resistance to colonialism. It’s all here.
Tyler Childers, Long Violent History
This came to my as a recommendation from my friend Kevin Seal. I don’t really want to know the story behind it and I’ve purposely avoided reading anything about Childers or his intentions. This music is chilling and powerful.
Alabaster DePlume, To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1
If I’d bought the LP of this album I likely would have worn it out. This was the great comfy blanket for a stressful year. My understanding is that DePlume comes from the world of jazz, but it doesn’t really resemble jazz in any way that I’ve ever understood it. They must do things differently in London in the 21st century. Sure, he plays the saxophone. Regardless, this is beautiful music and I’m stunned by its originality. This was recommended to me by my friend Ben Husmann.
Sault, 7, and also 5, Untitled (Rise), and Untitled (Black Is)
I listened to Sault so frequently in 2020 that I must have had a deficiency. (Sorry, and yes I know it means ‘jump’ in French). This anonymous group of musicians was spectacularly on point with everything they did in 2020 and 2019. I found 7, backtracked to 5, and then enjoyed the releases of the two 2020 albums. Musical, poignant, outraged… and to my ears, the best protest music of the BLM era.
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Don’t even know what to write about this one except that it is among the most heart felt and honest records I’ve ever heard. I’d never listened to Fiona Apple before. Unfortunately I was among those who were dismissive of her during the ‘heroin chic’ phase when she
Rosalía, Los Ángeles
Rosalía seems so unlikely: a Spanish pop star with deep roots in flamenco and a touch of the avante-garde? If you have not heard this record, stop whatever you’re doing and give it a spin.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bryce Dessner, and Eighth Blackbird, When We Are Inhuman
This appears to be the sweet spot for a lot of music I live, blended. I feel like I’m still walking around it, staring at it from different angles, unsure what to make of it. It’s less a favorite album and more an object of fascination.
I also listened to, enjoyed, and heartily recommend: Healing Modes by Brooklyn Rider, Century, Descant by Sarah Davachi, Late Comer by Michael Zapruder, S/T Lianne La Havas, Some Kind of Peace, Olafur Arnolds, Two Hands and U.F.O.F. by Big Thief, Healing Is a Miracle, Julianna Barwick, S/T by Coriky, Every Color Blue by Hayward Williams, Temple by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Songlines by Attacca Quartet, Yeo-Neun by Okkyung Lee, Unfurl by Fran & Flora, Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee, Think of Spring and Migration Stories by M. Ward, Silver Tongue by Torres, Elements by Hille and Marthe Perl, Early Riser by John Statz, Dawnbreaker by Daughter of Swords, Piazzola, Schubert & Schnittke: Works for Violin & Chamber Orchestra, by Irish Chamber Orchestra and Katherine Hunka, and Find the Sun by Deradoorian.
Two reissues on vinyl of note
2020 also saw the re-release of two LPs that had long lived on my discogs “want list.”
Wild Tchoupitoulas, S/T
This is a classic statement of New Orleans funk blending the talents of Allen Touissant, various Neville brothers, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. When the reissue was announced as part of Record Store Day, you better believe I made sure to secure it. The original is hard to find and sells for far more than I care to spend…
Jolie Holland, Escondida
Escondida is something of a family favorite. Holland’s record company had released a LP, which lived for a very long time on my Discogs wantlist. But with copies going for $80-$100, I went without. So, when Holland announced this reissue I was incredibly happy. It also turned out that Holland had never been satisfied by the sound quality of the initial issue. This version, pressed at 45 rpm, sounds amazing. It’s one of the best LP pressings I’ve heard.
Older music that was new to me
Irena and Vojtech Havlovi, Music of Silence
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett, S/T
Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, Ethiopiques 21
Colleen, The Weighing of the Heart