Saturday, November 28, 2020

Top 10 of 2020

These records may or may not be "the best," art is not sports, I no longer have to review 250 new records a year (though I listen to at least that much), and so much of my listening this year was coloured by the state of the world. Make of all that what you will. This glorious music made 2020 somewhat bearable for me, hopefully for you as well: music of joy, pain, therapy, escape and beauty. Dancing, not so much. 

If this is all TL;DR, here's a 38-song playlist of single tracks from my top 40 albums (two are Bandcamp exclusives)

1 Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Matador). "Half of my whole life is gone" is the opening line here. It's not a lament. Not a regret. Mid-life crisis? No. Instead, it's a time of forgiveness—of the self, more than anything—and for moving toward a time when "shadows soften toward some tender light." Not that Perfume Genius's Mike Hadreas is a shiny, happy person peddling you some self-healing. This album, like all his work, mines a lot of pain, mixed with a romanticism and eroticism that's all the more powerful when it's clear how important—and difficult—it is for a lot of people to transcend mountains of negativity to achieve those idealized states. 

All of that is evident only if you listen to his lyrics—which you obviously should—but his skill as a songwriter is that it also doesn't really matter. If you listen to the incredibly sensual "Jason" and all you hear is a seductive tale, that's fine; read closer and only then will you realize it's about a one-night stand with a straight man who leaves his boots on, and sneaking a $20 bill out of his wallet after he tells you to leave. Or how a seemingly simple pop song about longing with the chorus "It's been such a long, long time without you" is actually about body dysmorphia. Does it matter? They're both perfect pop songs with or without the lyrics. The melody, the vocal performance, the production, the players all offer plenty to distract you, if distraction is what you're after. And sometimes a hot and horny song of pent-up sexual release like "Nothing At All" is simply exactly that.  

There are pop records I loved this year, experimental records I loved, sad music I loved, joyous music I loved. This is my No. 1 pick because it's all of those things. There are songs here that can easily appeal to anyone who loves Roy Orbison as much as Hadreas does. And there are songs here for people who love the "difficult" deep cuts on Peter Gabriel and Bjork albums. There's one song here, "Leave," that features what sounds like a pack of coyotes duetting with a gorgeous string arrangement. Several songs are incredibly sparse and haunting. There are five rousing anthems that should be played as loud as possible, at least one of which could be capable of creating the cinematic synergy that happened when his 2017 song "Slip Away" was used in Booksmart, in a scene that had me weeping with joy in the theatre last year.

Producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple, John Legend), who also helmed 2017's No Shape, deserves a lot of credit for how this record sounds, and his bass playing on "Jason" and "Just a Touch" manages to outshine even studio vet Pino Palladino, who plays on most of the rest of the album. Speaking of studio vets, heavyweight drummers Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain are also all over this, tasteful as ever. But it's what Mills does with Hadreas's longtime partner Alan Wyffels with the otherworldly synth textures here that provide each song with its own unique world to frame Hadreas's gorgeous melodies. 

Hadreas breaks down each song for this feature in Pitchfork, and for these liner notes on Apple Music.

2 Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History (Impulse). Shabaka Hutchings has become a jazz crossover sensation through his work in Sons of Kemet and the Comet is Coming, both of which are thrilling, visceral and ecstatic; it's not hard to understand their appeal to non-jazz audiences. This more traditional group, with South African musicians, is more laid back. Though Hutchings's melodic style is unmistakable, this music is driven largely by upright bassist Ariel Zamonsky's Mingus-y lines, while drummer Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene lay down some Afro-Caribbean grooves underneath him. The poet Siyabonga Mthembu's gospel-esque Zulu vocals bring a lot to the table, but are never the focal point. He does, however, provide the the context for an album inspired by Extinction Rebellion and other crisis points: the songs were composed based on his titles, which include "They Who Must Die," "Run, the Darkness Will Pass," and "Beasts Too Spoke of Suffering." "We are here because history called," he sings. Hutchings says the music is "a reflection from the ruins ... Music is the seed from which new worlds must grow." In a year when it became more important than ever to reimagine a "new normal," this was a spiritual salve. 

Great New York Times profile here, and one in the Guardian here

3 Agnes Obel – Myopia (Deutsche Grammophon). Piano, cello, voice, and absolutely haunting minor-key melodies steeped in melancholy: perfect for lonely, uncertain times. Every song is a miniature sonic film, and titles like "Broken Sleep," "Island of Doom" and "Won't You Call Me" reinforce the mood. What makes it even better, however, is this Berlin-based-Belgian's approach to production: all the instruments are often pitched higher or lower, including her voice—like Fever Ray, she likes to harmonize with a "male" version of herself in a lower register. If that wasn't otherworldly enough, the drum sounds and overall use of reverb make this seem like it was made at the bottom of a frozen lake in the German Alps. Which seems like a nice enough spot to get myopic and shelter in place. I listened to this daily, almost obsessively, at the beginning of the lockdown. It's lost none of its magic and mystery since. The one concert ticket I had pinned to my wall when the pandemic hit was to see her open for—wait for it—Dead Can Dance. 

4 Junia T – Studio Monk (Pirates Blend)

Wrote about this here and here.

This album should be to the next generation of Toronto what Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People was to indie rock in the early 2000s. Junia T steps to the forefront after being Jessie Reyez’s tour DJ for the last few years to craft this masterful collection of grooves built from the bottom up with live musicians and invite an array of mostly Toronto talent to shine in his stead. It functions not so much as a solo record but as a mixtape with all-stars like Reyez, Sean Leon, and River Tiber, but relatively unknown singers Storry and Faiza, as well as highly underrated Toronto vet Adam Bomb. Sometimes this much talent on one record means a lot of compromise and mush, but every single artist here brings their A-game. (Well, maybe not Nate Husser.) Jessie Reyez is the only big name here, but every guest here shows off big personalities while never overshadowing the brilliance of Junia T’s arrangements, which draw from vintage funk, neosoul, reggae, triphop, Brazilian beats and jazz. The beats are killer; the bass lines even better. The singers are all pitch perfect. Slakah the Beatchild is behind the boards, ensuring a rich, warm, vintage sound. This album was two years in the making, and it shows: there is a deep attention to detail and mood on every track. 

An in-depth short doc about the artist:

5 Melt Yourself Down – 100% Yes (Universal). One of my all-time favourite jams is Pigbag's "Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag" (a.k.a. the theme from CITY-TV's The New Music), and so to discover a current London band mining a similar vibe is nothing short of glorious. But nothing else sounds like this, and if it does I need to find it: Killer grooves, heavy percussion (timbales, congas, darbuka), a raunchy two-saxophone attack (bari and tenor) run through distortion, and a compelling singer howling in Mauritian, English and made-up languages. There's no doubt this is a party band, but so were the Specials and Mano Negra and Asian Dub Foundation, and, like those bands, the lyrics here are rich with reactions to racism and recent British history (i.e. the indifference to the Grenfell highrise tragedy). There's been an explosion of creativity in British jazz lately, and it should be noted that this band—which is not jazz—dates back to 2014, after which two founding members left to form Sons of Kemet, among other projects (including Shabaka and the Ancestors; see above). Between that association and a jump to a major label, this band should be much better known than they are. This is perhaps the one 2020 record I regret most not being able to see live (this is kind of fun but doesn't really cut it); that said, it's a hot, sweaty mess even just coming out the headphones.

6 Pantayo – s/t (Telephone Explosion)

Wrote about this here and here.

It’s safe to say that few people, if anyone, in North America has heard a band like this, which combines traditional Filipino percussion (kulintang) with modern R&B and pop. Producer Alaska B (Yamantaka//Sonic Titan) ensures everything sounds rich, thick and totally pro: deep Solange-ish grooves over which the Moondog-ish metallophones and other kulintang percussion sparkle with life. If this were just a novel and evocative instrumental record, it would already succeed, but these women are also great singers: check out the sultry soul ballad “Desire,” which absolutely could and should be a pop hit. The brooding pulse of “V V V” is a 2020 anthem (“They lie / they will never tell the truth”). “Heto Na” and “Taranta” have some serious ESG vibes, while obviously sounding nothing like them. I was thrilled when they made the Polaris shortlist, because this deserves to be heard around the world.


7 Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom (Dualtone). Edwards is a master of economy: lean but lovely arrangements, great players, and 10 songs so good that her long hiatus has been entirely justified. But bring hankies—especially if you're forty-ish or over and living with a bunch of regret. For those rare moments when you're not, "Glenfern" might just be the greatest song ever written with affection for an ex, remembering the good times with gratitude and moving past the hurt. (After years of armchair trainspotters wondering who Edwards's songs were about, that one is quite explicitly about ex-husband Colin Cripps.) And though I'm not well versed on the canon of canine songs, I'd hazard a guess that "Who Rescued Who" is also near the top of that niche. As always, there's an ace band behind her: longtime friends and collaborators Jim Bryson (keys, guitar), guitarist Gord Tough (also heard on Sarah Harmer's record), drummer Peter Von Althen and bassist Darcy Yates. 
Extra points for the driving kosmische Canadiana of "Hard on Everyone." I have to admit that I took this record for granted: on many levels, it sounds like Another Kathleen Edwards Album—an extension of 2012's fantastic Voyageur and entirely predictable, for better or worse. But as the weight of the songs began to sink in, it was not only a reminder of what a great writer she is, but that she keeps getting better: the character portraits, the tiny lyrical details, the turns of phrase, the earworms. Take your time, Ms. Edwards. You've more than earned it. 


8 Witch Prophet – DNA Activation (independent)

Wrote about this here and here.

“Bow down to queen,” demands Ayo Leilani on her second album as Witch Prophet. As we should: DNA Activation is a completely captivating, entrancing journey through trippy soul with an Eritrean Erykah Badu bent. Jazzy vibes, deep grooves and synesthesiac textures abound, creating a sonic splendour in which it’s easy to get lost. Leilani’s vocals aren’t a focus as much as they are a centring guide, a soothing presence asking, “Where do we go from here, when the whole world is falling?” Karen Ng’s saxophone plays a key role on three of the 10 tracks, indebted to Ethio jazz. “Makda” comes off like a trippier Dan the Automator. Everything about DNA Activation is a huge step up from her promising debut; its only real drawback is that it’s incredibly brief: 10 songs in 24 minutes. 
This is hypnotic, healing music for humid days, during days when these lyrics strike deep: “Where do we go from here / When the whole world is falling / Through darkness / And we cannot see the light.” The woman known as Witch Prophet brings that light.  

9 Frazey Ford – U Kin B the Sun (Arts and Crafts)

Wrote about it here and here.

Words will always fail to describe Frazey Ford’s voice, probably because she fails to enunciate most of her words in the first place. Such is the magic and mystery that this soulful singer brings to everything she does, whether it was the folk revivalism of the Be Good Tanyas 20 years ago (!) or the soul music she immerses herself in here. This is not exactly retro R&B, but it is a solid live band with a Hammond organ (or imitation) hovering over the bass-heavy grooves and gospel-tinged backing vocals. She’s a devoted D’Angelo fan, and her last record used the same band Cat Power did on The Greatest; Ford brings her own hippie B.C. vibe to the genre. She’s not in this game to win; she can take or leave the music business, as she’s proved over the years while moving at her own pace. The music she makes is for healing, for uplift, for the spirit. Which is all well and good and inspiring, but the songs she brings to the table this time, and the players she gathered to perform it, that elevate this far beyond mere good intentions. The Aretha Franklin of the Kootenays?

10 U.S. Girls – Heavy Light (4AD / Royal Mountain)

Wrote about this here and here.

This was recorded by humans in a room together at the same time. Crazy, right? Meg Remy and her circle are politically progressive but have decidedly old-school beliefs when it comes to musical chops: you should be able to play, you should be able to play well with other people, and no amount of multitracking can substitute for the sound of amazing singers surrounding a microphone in real time. 

Heavy Light aims to be a What’s Going On of this generation: lyrics that address personal and systemic pain, enveloped in melodies, grooves and arrangements that seek to soothe rather than confront. “You gotta have boots, if you wanna lift those bootstraps,” goes the opening track, addressing historic economic inequality in the guise of a sweet soul song. “Overtime” is a first-person song about a widow discovering that her overworked husband drank their savings away. “Born to Lose” could be a Sarah Kendzior or Barbara Ehrenreich book about American decline in a torch-y song with a choral chorus, set to ’50s lounge exotica. A Latin excursion on “And Yet It Moves / Y Se Mueve” works surprisingly well—or, not so surprising at all, considering the calibre of musicians involved. The entire record is lush and expansive, and yet always in subtle ways; this is not a record that wants to show off, it wants to draw you in.

Remy has a lot of top-shelf help here: Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury, partner Slim Twig, the band Ice Cream, future superstar James Baley, the E Street Band’s Jake Clemons, the underrated Geordie Gordon and Michael Rault, engineer Howard Bilerman, and vocal arranger Kitty Uranowski. It’d be hard to make a bad record with those people in the room. But with Remy at the helm, the result is an instant classic.

Everything about this exudes empathy and community, which is exactly what we need right now.




11 Nihiloxica – Kawali
12 Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia 
13 Marlaena Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed! 
14 The Dears – Lovers Rock
15 Wye Oak – Horizon EP
16 Deerhoof – Love Lore
17 Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
18 Nels Cline – Share the Wealth 
19 Sault – (untitled) Rise
20 C. Diab – White Whale

Blurbs for those are here
Playlist for all top 20 albums is here. Shuffle it up: 


21-40, in alphabetical order:

79ers Gang – Expect the Unexpected
Allie X – Cape God 
Julianna Barwick – Healing is a Miracle 
Bloto – Kwiatostan 
Budos Band – Long in the Tooth 
Caribou – Suddenly 
Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season 
Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record 
Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1
Sarah Harmer – Are You Gone 
Blurbs for the above 10 are here
Blurbs for the below 10 are here 

Quin Kirchner – The Shadows and the Light
Mourning (a) BLKStar – The Cycle 
Owen Pallett – Island
Prince Nifty – We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life 
Julian Taylor – The Ridge 
Throat Funeral – OU812212
Etuk Ubong – Africa Today
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
Donovan Woods – Without People
Playlist for these 20 full albums is here. Shuffle it up: 


10 more of interest: 
Destroyer – Have We Met 
DijahSB – 2020 The Album
Dana Gavanski – Yesterday Is Gone
Magnetic Fields – Quickies 
Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope
Terrell Morris – Lavender 
Sneaks – Happy Birthday 
Charles Spearin and Josefin Rusteen – Thank God the Plague is Over
Tricky – Fall to Pieces
William Tyler – New Vanitas

Blurbs for those are here.


Honourable mention, about which I can't possibly be objective:
Gord Downie – Away is Mine. Wrote about it for Maclean's here


My favourite singles and non-album tracks by artists not in the top 40: Magnetic Fields, Anderson Paak, Terrell Morris, Regina Gently, Destroyer, Sufjan Stevens, Will Butler, Buddy & Julie Miller, Serena Ryder, The Weather Station, Guiding Light, Eric Bachmann, The Ropes, Karen O & Willie Nelson, Beverly Glenn-Copeland


Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Transmissions
Prince – Sign O the Times
Pylon – Box

Blurbs for those are here


2019 albums I was late to in 2020:
Bon Enfant – s/t
Kaytranada – Bubba 
Little Scream – Speed Queen
Little Simz – Grey Area 
Lankum – The Livelong Day
Lightning Dust – Spectre 
Mdou Moctar – Ilana: The Creator
Junius Paul – Ism 
Wilco – Ode to Joy
Yola – Walk Through Fire

Blurbs for those are here.
Playlist for those is here:

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Top 20 of 2020: 11-20

My top 20 of 2020, numbers 11-20.

11 Nihiloxica – Kaloli (Crammed Discs). Ugandan drumming through a techno lens. This project started when the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble in Kamapla, Uganda, started playing at a local nightclub in between and during DJ sets. Word spread to Belgium, where a jazz drummer wanted to capture the synergy on tape. After a couple of EPs, this is the debut full-length, featuring two drum kits and electronics augmenting the vivid percussion, for a 21st-century Olatunji experience, a next-gen Congotronics, that doesn't in any way feel like the original tracks are being overshadowed. It's a great record, but on a personal note, it's also a very productive record: for writing, for walking, for housework, for whatever it is you need to do. As long as you're somewhere you can turn it up loud.  

12 Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia (Anti). I wrote this and this earlier: It’s great. And I say that as someone who didn't at all love Pimienta’s Polaris-winning La Papessa. Everything has stepped up, starting with Pimienta’s own vocals: they’re stronger, express more dynamics and inflection, and generally more emotionally resonant. That’s true of the electronics as well; she’s said part of her challenge here was to make the technology sound beautiful, and she succeeded. The brass arrangements throughout are also a lovely touch. Her blending of Colombian rhythms with electronics more fully developed. The record is roughly divided into two parts: side one is more modern, side two is (mostly) more traditional, with guest spots from South American pop stars Bomba Estereo and the traditional Afro-Colombian percussion/vocal Sexteto Tabala (the collab here will sound familiar to any fans of Caribbean-Colombian legend Toto La Momposina) illustrating the scope of what Pimienta is aiming for—and achieves. And—hey, look! A Grammy nomination for Best Latin Alternative Album.  

And check out this beautiful video made for the Polaris Prize:

13 Marlaena Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed! (Flemish Eye). Wrote about this earlier here: It's a good sign when the opening track on your debut album is a song of longing on par with "Nothing Compares 2 U." Yes, this Edmonton performer's "I Miss You" is that good, and so is the rest of the record. Moore has no shortage of great lyrics that document fragility ("You came to see my harvest and you wanted it for free / Now this empty garden is all that's left of me"), and she often delivers them with a voice with just enough waver that you think she might break, but her inner strength pulls through every line. Moore's an incredible torch singer, as closing waltz "Tiger Water" demonstrates, over guitar feedback, vibraphones and snare brushes. "Imposter" borrows from Roxy Music's "More Than This," likely unconsciously, but the album is full of equally killer melodies all her own. "Xmas Oranges" is a total earworm, an acrobatic melody set to chugging cellos and a beguiling chorus: "Christmas oranges / I don't care for sticky citrus / You can't tell the difference between love and fatal interest." Producer Chad Van Gaalen, who's known for an often-hazy and psychedelic '90s aesthetic in his solo work and for others, helps Moore deliver a vivid and colourful sonic backdrop for songs that are part Patsy Cline, part Liz Phair, part Angel Olsen. It's hard not to be impressed with the chutzpah of the album title, but it turns out to be entirely accurate. I can't wait to hear more from this woman.

Also, I'm a sucker for one-shot videos (well, three in this case), no matter how goofy.

14 The Dears – Lovers Rock (Dangerbird) I wrote this earlier: When Murray Lightburn put out such an incredible solo album just last year, called Hear Me Out, I wondered if he would resurrect the ever-imploding Dears, of which only he and Natalia Yanchak remain. But at his age, it's important not to mess with the brand and name recognition. Sadly, very few people heard that solo record. And as this record proves, there is still a lot of life in this band, who this year celebrated 20 years of their breakthrough End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story. "Since all these years / is it still the same old song?" he asks. Maybe it is, but these are some of the best songs the Dears have ever written, starting with "The Worst in Us," the kind of melodic anthem they often excelled at, with a surprising and danceable bridge taking a left turn in the middle of the song. There are more orchestrations here than they've used since 2011's big-budget Degeneration Street, although Lovers Rock was recorded at their home studio and at Hotel 2 Tango (and Sam Roberts dusts off his violin for the occasion). Jake Clemons of the E Street Band (and Montreal transplant) elevates the lovely "Stille Lost" with his soaring saxophone, while some of the softer moments here ("Play Dead," "Is This What You Really Want," "Too Many Wrongs") are the most stunning. For a band that always recoiled at obvious Smiths comparsions (and I'm going to apologize for bringing them up yet again), there are some decidedly '80s-sounding Johnny Marr effects on the guitars here, but at this point in time, with such a rich and varied career behind them, the Dears shouldn't have to be so defensive. The closing track threatens "We'll Go Into Hiding." Let's hope not.

15 Wye Oak – Horizon EP (Merge). A few years back, this Durham-via-Baltimore duo covered Pat Benatar's "We Belong" for a radio session (watch it here), and it was stunning. That song makes me weepy at the best of times, and Wye Oak managed to make it their own. They didn't have a youth choir behind them at the time, but they do here: the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who commissioned this work. Normally I find the use of kids choirs in pop music treacly (Benatar notwithstanding), but here they take Jenn Wasner's songs of alienation and dislocation and, to state the obvious, make them sound a lot less lonely, like all those Italian apartment-dwellers singing songs together during the first wave of the lockdown. Of course, these aren't catchy pop songs or simple folk anthems; this is Wye Oak, in all their glorious subtlety and complexity. Almost 15 years into their career, they continue to surprise. I'm extremely grateful they got to record this when they did, before it was no longer possible.


16 Deerhoof – Love Lore (Joyful Noise). This band is prolific at the best of times, and the pandemic made them even more so. In addition to a live album and a collection of odds and sods, they released a new album of original material, Greg Saunier covered Voivod's Angel Rat acoustically, and then finally this album of eclectic covers arranged into four long medleys. WIth such output, Deerhoof are more than easy to take for granted, which is why Love Lore is likely getting more attention than the original album released this year: we know what Deerhoof sound like playing their own songs, but what happens when they unleash their powers on others? Only Deerhoof would attempt Ornette Coleman, the Knight Rider theme, Eddy Grant, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kraftwerk and the Jetsons theme on the same record, rubbing up one another and reinvented in the most magical way. The greatest rock band of the 2000s is still alive and kicking.


17 Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Sony). This is an uneasy listening record centred around piano and voice and searing lyrics, and yet for me the main appeal is the production, the percussion (drummer Amy Aileen Wood, and percussionist David Garza) and Apple's rhythmic choices, especially on tracks like "Relay," "Newspaper" and "For Her." Apple's strong personality dominates the discussion about this record, which is hardly surprising: it's the most visceral post-#MeToo record to have a large audience, a solidarity message and warning to other women about predatory behaviour, and she laments "yet another woman to whom I won't get through." But it's the band—including bassist Sebastian Steinberg and Apple's own piano work—that I keep coming back for.

18 Nels Cline – Share the Wealth (Blue Note). As much as I love guitarist Nels Cline's playing, in Wilco and elsewhere, I never know what to expect from his solo records. I loved his Blue Note debut Lovers in 2016, a deliberately pretty and "accessible" journey through a varied songbook, everything from Rodgers and Hart to Gabor Szabo to Annette Peacock and Sonic Youth. Share the Wealth is considerably more adventurous, skronky and noisy at times, filled with swing and verve and prog turns and itchy-scratchy avant-garde tumbles into the unknown—in the case of the aptly titled 17-minute epic "Stump the Panel," all in one song. And yes, it's also pretty, as on the relatively straightforward "Nightstand" and "Passed Down." Featuring staple Zorn players Brian Marsella (keys) and Cyro Baptista (percussion), Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Zorn, Tuatara saxophonist Skerik, and Cline's long-time drummer Scott Amendola, this particular lineup had never played together before recording this album in two days. Cline originally intended to take the sessions and splice them up, but there was so much magic there he didn't bother. With players like this, there's no need for sleight of hand.

19 Sault – (untitled) Rise (Forever Living Originals). Nobody appears to know anything about this British act: whether it's an actual group, or a collection of studio musicians, or some kind of community arts project, or what. What we do know is that this is their fourth full length in the last two years, and the one before this, untitled (Black Is), managed to feature Michael Kiwanuka on one track; otherwise, everyone is completely anonymous. Each record is better than the last, and this features more complete songs rather than sketches, alongside killer grooves throughout. The sound can loosely be labelled soul, tied to no particular time period: big gospel/disco/R&B vocals, either by female soloists or in groupings, lush string sections, live rhythm section, and tasteful arrangements throughout. The raison d'etre, however, is to write songs that speak to the current/eternal unrest: "Fearless," "Street Fighter," "Uncomfortable," "Scary Times"—you get the idea. They sound all the more essential because so very few others appear to be doing this, or at least doing it this well. Closing track "Little Boy" is heartbreaking.


20 C. Diab – White Whale (Injazero). This album is the musical equivalent of escaping from the current shitshow to a Pacific Coast cabin during a rainstorm and just droning out with bowed guitar that sounds like a one-man Godspeed filtered through Loscil and Martin Tielli. It's not just bowed guitar, there are a few things going on here, none of which are ambient or soothing, but this does have a powerful catharsis of calm, if that makes an iota of sense. This is a very interior record, released during an extremely interior year, and it's been on high rotation for me since its release in June.  

Why the Melvillian title? Here's what he says in his artist statement:  

“The hope for security, for accountable humanitarian leadership, for affordable housing and fair income, for understanding, things which we learned were natural pieces of a progressive society, now seem like humanity’s great white whale in a darker, regressive world, once appearing on the horizon only to disappear again into the deep.
“It’s my hope that White Whale, for what it’s worth, will lend a small hand to the listeners’ emancipation from inward fear and sadness and feelings of unworthiness. And help you realize what it is you need to do in order to have that conversation, or make that move, and two steps forward in crushing that which seeks to crush you.”

Get I get an amen?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

2020 Top 40 pt 2: 10 more of the lower 20

10 more records from the lower 20 of my Top 40 of 2020, in alphabetical order. 


79rs Gang – Expect the Unexpected (independent). I can't claim to know a lot about New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras Indians other than a well-loved copy of The Wild Tchoupitoulas in my collection. This is a band comprised of two former rival chiefs, who unite to make a thoroughly modern record steeped in deep tradition. Yes, there's yet another version of "Iko Iko" (this one called "Iko Kreyòl," with Haitian band Lakou Mizik), and a spoken word track that condenses New Orleans history into 90 second. But the rest is a welcome reset, with some help from members of Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, if you need that to nudge you a bit closer. 



Allie X – Cape God (AWAL). This is a really smart, well-arranged pop record, in the realm of a more operatic Maggie Rogers. It pushes all the buttons for me that Carly Rae Jepsen should but never does. Allie X is a pop star without a radio audience of her own; she writes for BTS, Katy Perry’s a fan, and she’s been slogging it out for a while, to the point where she has more than a million streams (which is more than some Canadian acts who fill arenas). But this album is where Allie X’s classical training and craftsmanship really come to the fore. Ideally, she’d be a household name by now; in the days of Kate Bush, maybe she would have been.

Julianna Barwick – Healing is a Miracle (Ninja Tune). Yes, yes it is. And I listened to this album and others like it (collaborator Mary Lattimore's Silver Ladders) this year as a meditative balm. Even if there are times when I feel like Barwick is the new Enya, and after reading about the latter in Chilly Gonzales's treatise and Jenn Pelly's Pitchfork appreciation, I might be okay with that. 

Bloto – Kwiatostan (Astigmatic). Polish jazz from the end of the world. The drummer seems to be channelling drum'n'bass at times. The bassist plays Moog bass as often as he does electric. The keys are largely atmospheric and at times industrial, with the occasional vibraphone flourish or dark piano riff. The saxophonist plays tenor, alto, soprano and even that ridiculous Akai "electronic wind instrument." I know nothing else about this band other than that they sound like the Comet is Coming's creepier younger brothers. And it's awesome. 

Budos Band – Long in the Tooth (Daptone). Hey, remember the '70s, when there was massive political unrest, people getting shot in the street, cities were decaying, there was mass unemployment, there was a drug epidemic and institutions were breaking down? And yet people made powerful music that managed to encapsulate all that in ways both beautiful and bleak? Thank god we have the Budos Band around today. This might be their first album where no one will compare it to a '70s NYC dystopian movie soundtrack, because we're living the movie right now. At least this is a part of the soundtrack. 



Caribou – Suddenly (Merge). I wrote this in June: Dan Snaith continues to not only improve, but to remain unique in his field. I’m hard pressed to think of another electronic artist with this breadth of material in one album, from beat-less ballads to R&B pop songs to psychedelic jazz loops to early '90s house. Less rigid than his last record, this is Snaith’s most soulful and encompassing records of his long career. Suddenly is like his own greatest hits collection. 

Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season (Idée Fixe / Paradise of Bachelors). This Toronto songwriter split for Port Stanley several years ago, and so instead of the usual all-stars surrounding her, this is a true solo record. And it's perfect: guitar, piano, harmonica, and that spine-tingling voice, all sounding like they were recorded in a rural town on the coast of Lake Erie (which they were). Remembering friends in "NYC," singing about how "butterfly days are here" in the title track, writing a paean to the moon on "I'll Never Walk Alone"—these are songs for meditative moments when life slows down to a crawl. Had any of those lately? She can even lift a phrase from a well-known Motown song—Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?"—and make it entirely her own. 



Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record (Warner). Game respects game, which is why it's not remotely surprising that this Nashville songwriter got Randy Newman to drop by for a song called "We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat." It's not even close to the best song here. Like him, she is a master of character portraits, rich with acerbic details and kiss-off one-liners. She sounds cynical at times, but that's the "hopeless" part of "hopeless romantic." This is ostensibly a country record, but any fan of great songwriting should get on board.


Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 (International Anthem). “People have said this to me: ‘I put your music on, and it was perfect, but then you started shouting something about a pig. Can’t it just be the nice bits?'" Alabaster DePlume explained to The Quietus about why he put out an instrumental record lifted largely from his previous four albums. I knew nothing about this oddball beforehand, so I can't really comment on his pig poetry, or how this album relates to his work in music therapy, but I do know that this is a beautiful, soothing record focused mainly around a saxophone played with maximum vibrato, which suits the eastern melodies. This isn't jazz or experimental or specific to one specific cultural reference (though there are certainly nods to Ethiopian jazz); it simply sounds like open-minded, delicate players aiming for beauty. This was essential pandemic listening for me early on. 



Sarah Harmer – Are You Gone (Arts and Crafts). I wrote this back in June: The master is back. It’s been 10 years since we last heard from her, and she’ll tell you this is her best record yet. Strong words: it’s hard to top the untouchable You Were Here or I’m a Mountain. But this comeback is full of timeless gems, not the least of which is “St. Peter’s Bay.” And dammit, “New Low” is exactly the political pop song we needed in 2020; I only wish she turned up the guitars on that one in order to match the lyrical bite. Would love to hear Billy Talent take a stab at that. Can imagine Stars doing a lovely cover of "Wildlife." But can't imagine anyone but Harmer improving on the sublime "Just Get Here" or "Little Frogs" or "Take Me Out" or, or, or... ah, dammit, it's so great to hear her voice again. Her comeback might have been ill-timed from a business standpoint, but fans really needed to hear from this old friend during times like this.



Next: the top 20

2020 Top 40 pt 1: 10 of the lower 20

10 records, alphabetically, from the lower 20 of my 2020 Top 40. That make sense? 
Quin Kirchner – The Shadows and the Light (Astral Spirits). This Chicago drummer wants to blow your mind right out of the gate, with the solo percussion piece "Shadow Intro," but it quickly becomes clear that this record is anything but an ego trip, ranging from full band freakouts to more melodic material, to songs featuring just an unaccompanied horn section, to the delicate kalimba-and-upright-bass "Pathways," to the dreamy, interstellar Sun Ra-ish journeys heard on the latter half of the record.   

Mourning (a) BLKStar – The Cycle (Don Giovanni). Is there a secular gospel movement afoot? Last year Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble put out Where Future Unfolds, featuring a chorus of voices singing modern civil rights songs over jazz instrumentation and electronics, and it was fantastic. This year Cleveland's Mourning (a) BLKStar showed up with this stunner, featuring three lead singers with clear gospel skills, a robust horn section, and grooves harkening back to Massive Attack's Blue Lines, with organ at the forefront. "Mist :: Missed" opens with the lines, "I've been dealing with a whole lot of shit / Got my mind racing over it / Folks don't care what they say / It's like they're playing different games." Amen.

Owen Pallett – Island (Secret City / Domino). There's always more happening on an Owen Pallett record than first meets the eye. At first glance, I thought this was his most stripped-down record, with most songs based primarily on acoustic guitar or piano. Which is ridiculous: part of Pallett's immense talent as an arranger is the delicate detail that you're not even aware is happening. (See also: his soundtrack to the documentary Spaceship Earth, released this year.) Island is much more of an interior mood piece than any of his previous records, and it's a mood that landed exactly at the right moment (for listeners, anyway; it sure put a wrench in his touring plans). 

Also: video of the year?

Prince Nifty – We're Not in Kansas Anymore (Bandcamp exclusive). "A soundtrack for doing nothing." Well, that's 2020 in a nutshell, ain't it? Matt Smith is a long-time collaborator of Owen Pallett's, dating back to Les Mouches, and had a hand in Lido Pimienta's excellent Miss Colombia. Here, in his solo alias, he opens with "Over the Rainbow," on solo acoustic guitar and sounding like he's being beamed in from Mars, and from there spends most of his time futzing with synths in what sounds like '70s sci-fi soundtracks. There are two layered vocal tracks that could accompany a Guy Maddin film, while there's also a dramatic Angelo Badalamenti cover and a beautiful acoustic original called "Imitation of Life" (def not a cover of R.E.M.'s worst single). As a whole, it doesn't make a lot of sense. But what does these days? 

Slow Leaves – Shelf Life (Birthday Cake). I wrote this earlier: It’s not like critics are stumbling over themselves in a hunt for the new Lightfoot in 2020. But hey, FWIW, Slow Leaves is likely the new Lightfoot, or at least the most worthy contender since Doug Paisley dropped the 2011 classic Constant Companion. Davidson sings with a gentle lilt and affecting tremolo, his breezy folk rock designed to be played on crackly vinyl or around a campfire. Davidson sounds like a middle-aged dad, which he is, and this is an ideal midlife rainy day record when accompanied by coffee and/or scotch. It’s not new or dark or sexy; it’s just life.

Julian Taylor – The Ridge (independent). Taylor has spent more than 20 years knocking around Toronto's music scene in two original bands (one of them eponymous), but this solo acoustic record has proven to be his breakout. Small wonder why. These are gorgeous, folk-country songs with rich production and Taylor's velvety voice. The full-band arrangements are gentle and warm; this whole record feels like a warm blanket in front of a campfire on a chilly night. It's comfort food, but it's fucking delicious. 

Throat Funeral – OU812212 (Bandcamp exclusive). Why, yes, all things considered, 2020 is the perfect year to debut a new noise project called Throat Funeral that sounds like a chest being eviscerated. Riff-rocker / heavy metallist / prolific podcaster Danko Jones has had this record in the can for a while, and decided to unleash it on the world now. There are guest spots from Tanya Tagaq (naturally), first-wave grunge singer Tad Doyle, and Swedish avant-garde saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby, but all other sounds here were generated in the deepest depths of Jones's chest and lungs. It's paradoxically aggressive and ambient, somehow both soothing and terrifying. It's 2020 in an audio nutshell.

Etuk Ubong – Africa Today (Night Dreamer). This Lagos trumpeter arrives with accolades from Seun Kuti, and it's not hard to hear the connection to that family's legacy. Recorded live to disc in the Netherlands, this is a document of a band on fire; every single player is fantastic and stands out in the mix, as impossible as that seems (though the keyboardist and percussionists are essential). In a year of horrible headlines from Nigeria, this was some welcome news.

Wolf Parade – Thin Mind (Sub Pop). I've said this often in the past three years: Wolf Parade Mk 2 is infinitely superior than this band's first kick at the can. Sure, Apologies to the Queen Mary, which turned 15 this year, is an untouchable classic, but 2017's Cry Cry Cry and now this display a band hitting their stride all these years later: as songwriters, performers and singers. Underestimate them at your peril. I wrote about this here and here. Oh, and for the Globe and Mail here.

Donovan Woods – Without People (Meant Well). Are you feeling lonely in a long-term relationship, possibly exacerbated by a pandemic lockdown? Then hey, have I got the bummer country-pop album for you! Ontario's deep, dark Woods is a master of economy who keeps getting better: in his melodies, in his lyrics, and here he paints some devastatingly vivid pictures on tracks like "Seeing Other People" and "Clean Slate." This record is full of earworms, and the more they get in your head, the more he's here to remind you that "lonely people wrote every song you ever loved."