Saturday, July 04, 2020

Best Of 2020 (So Far)

Typically, the way I make these lists is by scanning through my posts from the year, looking at Spotify playlists, and then dragging songs or pieces into a draft playlist. If it's more than 25 tracks long, I begin the process of narrowing it down. The main criteria is not "excellence," as that's where I focus my listening and my writing, but rather more a question of survival. To what music am I cleaving in order to get through the year? In times of strife, which is a polite way of describing the shit-show garbage fire that is 2020, many turn to the music of old and I have certainly spent some time with Bowie, The Beatles, Bob Marley, and Young Marble Giants, among others. But I have this engine inside that propels me towards the new and this year has been as generous as any in that regard. I am at a loss for words to describe the appreciation I feel toward any artist who has pushed past inertia and given us sounds that nourish us. Some of them are listed below. P.S. As usual, if I've covered the album before, just click on the title for more information.

Listen as you read here or below!

1. Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways There may yet be a shelf of books written on this almost overwhelming expression of creative fecundity. As Tim Sommer pointed out recently, the Never Ending Tour deserves its own place among Dylan's artistic achievements, but it should be noted that, like the three albums of Tin Pan Alley songs he's released since 2012's brilliant Tempest, that is an arena for interpretation rather than creation. So when he sings, "I'm falling in love with Calliope/She don't belong to anyone, why not give her to me?" in Mother Of Muses, you get a hint of the hunger he might have been feeling to get the plug back in the socket and start writing new songs. But who knows? There's a vagueness about when these songs were written or recorded. When he dropped Murder Most Foul back in April, catching the world by surprise, he coyly noted, "This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting." Coy, and the understatement of the year. These songs are all "interesting," at the very least, not to mention funny, smart, and displaying a full palette of emotions. They are also eminently quotable, from the ur-braggadocio of "I’m first among equals - second to none/I’m last of the best - you can bury the rest/Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold/Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls" (False Prophet) to the stark reality of "I can see the history of the whole human race/It’s all right there - its carved into your face" (My Own Version Of You), but while this is a wordy album, the sound of it is just as notable. Unlike Tempest, with its lapidary attention to each instrument, Dylan's production this time around often turns the band into a single unit, either dealing out blues riffs so elemental as to be platonic or creating a tapestry of delicate tones and textures, creating the perfect backdrop for his singing. And what singing, displaying nuance or power as appropriate and able to convey wit or heartbreak with masterful subtlety. Just listen to the way he caresses the words and toys with the tempo when he sings "A lotta people gone/A lotta people I knew" in I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You, one magical moment among many on this album. Even if Dylan weren't DYLAN, Rough And Rowdy Ways would demand your attention - but only Dylan could have made it.

2. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman

3. Molly Joyce - Breaking And Entering

4. Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur

5. Ted Hearne & Saul Williams - Place

6. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo After last year's triumphant Bandana, I would have forgiven Gibbs for taking the year off. But he's a man on a mission, so there was no time to wait. After working with Madlib, almost any other producer would have been a comedown, but The Alchemist is fully up to the challenge of goading Gibbs to new heights. The results never fail to entertain or inspire, with the latter best represented by the most apropos lines of the year: "The revolution is the genocide/Yeah, my execution might be televised" - words being worn right now on a t-shirt at a protest near you. Gibbs once more defines the moment and it is highly unlikely there will be a better hip hop album in 2020. Maybe he should square off with Dylan and let the sparks fly!

7. Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life See also his charming Tiny Desk Concert.

8. Matt Evans - New Topographics

9. Ocean Music - Morsels

10. Miro Shot - Content

11. Yaeji - What We Drew

12. Jay Electronica - A Written Testament

13. Makaya McCraven and Gil Scott-Heron - We're New Again: A Reimagining

15. Aoife Nessa Frances - Land Of No Junction

16. Car Seat Headrest - Making A Door Less Open

17. Frazey Ford - U Kin B The Sun

18. The Strokes - The New Abnormal

19. Tak Ensemble - Scott L. Miller: Ghost Layers

20. Wire - Mind Hive See also 10:20, a brilliant collection of strays and older songs reimagined.

21. John Craigie - Asterisk The Universe This is primo Americana and Craigie's most assured and varied album yet. It's his ninth studio album but don't feel bad if you never heard of him - I was in the same boat, a situation I detail in an upcoming interview with Craigie in Rock & Roll Globe. It's a rich catalog, too, but the smoky production, warmly cohesive band, and sharp songwriting here should put him in front of an even bigger audience. 

22. Honey Cutt - Coasting

23. Soccer Mommy - Color Theory

24. Them Airs - Union Suit XL I was pointed towards these New Haven art punks by Tracy Wilson's Turntable Report, which has quickly become an essential filter. Led by Cade Williams, Them Airs' website is a delightful trip into their aesthetic, including a highly editorialized list of all their gear. With their own liner notes referencing both Wire and "spicy no wave sax," you should be aware of what you're in for on this spiky blast of irreverent fun. Though they've been recording since 2017 and playing out since 2018, they have yet to play in NYC. I hope to be there when it happens!

25. Nadia Reid - Out Of My Province

What's been in heaviest rotation in your shelter?

You may also enjoy:

Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 2
The Best Of 2015 (So Far)
2014: Mid-Year Report
The Best Of 2013 (So Far)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Record Roundup: Machine Learning

Here are three albums that combine the organic with the synthetic in such an integrated way that such a divide becomes irrelevant. The end result is music that is deeply human.

Molly Joyce - Breaking and Entering There is a lot to explore in the background to Joyce's debut album, mostly around her use of electric toy organs, which allow her left hand, disabled in a childhood car accident, to participate fully by pressing the chord buttons. And it is remarkable and inspiring stuff about turning your weaknesses into strengths and providing uplift to those who doubt their own ability to move beyond obstacles imposed from within and without. Joyce covers some of this ground in her interview with Frank J. Oteri earlier this year and in her TEDxMidAtlantic talk from 2017, which is when she first came to my attention with Lean Back and Release, an EP of two brief works for violin and electronics.

But none of that prepared me for what this brilliant album would sound like, or how it would make me feel. Unlike that earlier release, which featured her as a composer, Breaking and Entering is a startling introduction to Joyce as a performing artist, with her clear, unwavering soprano soaring over the sparkling, propulsive patterns of organs and a halo of electronics. The emotional impact has me reaching for comparisons as varied as the ancient incantations of Hildegard von Bingen, the proto-New Age of Popol Vuh, and on to the gleaming optimism of futurists like Franco Falsini, who recorded under the name Sensation's Fix in the 1970's.

A song like Form and Flee manages to be simultaneously meditative, hypnotic, and energizing, putting wind in your hair as you pirouette through the ether in imagined flight. The lyrics, as in this example from Body and Being, wisely straddle the personal and universal: "are you the soul of me/or the disgrace of me/are you the whole of me/or the reject from me." After all, each of us have our battles over the divide between our physical selves and the world of our mind and perceptions.

While Lean Back and Release was firmly in the realm of what is usually called "contemporary classical," Breaking and Entering overleaps silos and should make inroads deep into the hearts and minds of fans of dream pop, chill wave, ambient techno, synth pop, Krautrock, Euro-disco, or genre-defying artists like Micheal Hammond of No Lands, who produced and engineered the album. I can't say enough about how great this is and will leave you with one caveat: prepare to be obsessed. Note: Deepen the experience by joining the virtual album release party on June 26th.

Miro Shot - Content Arising from the ashes of my beloved Breton, this collective led by singer/songwriter/arranger/futurist Roman Rappak began releasing singles last year, assembled on the Servers EP, while also pushing forward a vision of applying VR and AR to the concert experience. Now comes their debut album, which expands on those earlier songs, combining electronics, orchestrations, a tough rhythm section, and Rappak's trademark vocals, alternately wry and bruised. While the lyrics question much of what Hoovers up the collective attention of the world at this moment, they are unafraid to aim straight for the gut with big choruses and bridges that kickstart songs into overdrive.

The visuals are just as addictive, all quick cuts, high-tech overlays, and clever juxtapositions. In future decades they will become essential chronicles of the way we live now, while still remaining ever-fresh through sheer force of artistic will. The same can be said of the album, which is resolutely up to the minute and deeply informed by the past, seeming to exist in its own time-space continuum. While the current crisis means we'll have to wait even longer for the concert experience, you can grab a taste in their live sessions for Radio X and sign up for a date on their Virtual Worlds tour - or all four. While new restrictions on our lives seem to be imposed daily, some limits are a thing of the past. And Miro Shot has the perfect content with which to celebrate that new kind of freedom.

Car Seat Headrest - Making A Door Less Open While Bowie going electronic didn't have the seismic impact of Dylan going electric, the aftershocks have been longer lasting. Example "A" for 2020 is this new album from Will Toledo's indie rock band, which only features guitar on four out of 10 tracks. One of those songs is the anti-anthem, Hollywood ("Hollywood makes me want to puke," etc.), which comes in on a guitar storm then settles into a chillier groove - but you know the storm will return. I can only imagine how captivating it will be in concert

But many of these songs display Toledo's rock-solid song craft and could likely exist in any number of settings. Even so, it's a thrill to hear him push his vocal limits on a song like Hymn and fuck with the rhythms on Martin, shifting a classic CSH love song into stranger realms. When the synth/trumpet solo enters it feels even more blissful due to the contrast in moods and textures, further proof of the mastery of soundscaping on MADLO. Andrew Katz, drummer for CSH since 2014, has also been pursuing a "satirical EDM" project, 1Trait Danger, for a while and certainly deserves some credit for moving Toledo into new territory. When Bowie put out Low in 1977, he got some stick from the rock establishment and, likely, some fans. I hope that isn't the case with this one. But I think Toledo, like Bowie, is engaged in a continual quest to make the music that satisfies himself, a quest on which it is a privilege to tag along. 

You may also enjoy: 

Friday, June 05, 2020

Black Voices Matter

For most of my life, I've used music as my voice when I was too shy to speak, whether it was finding community at shows or being welcomed at parties because I had a killer mixtape. Needless to say, a good portion of that music was created - or influenced - by Black musicians, songwriters, singers, and producers. I think about growing up with Stevie Wonder's Living For The City speaking truth from my AM radio - or waiting to hear Bad Luck by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes because of how it made me feel. Not to mention the Jackson 5, with their resident superstar who was just six years older than me! I think about my high school band, the Young Aborigines, and how we incorporated elements of salsa and dub into our weird art rock - and then danced our asses off to Thriller, Bob Marley's Uprising, and The Message after rehearsal. My gratitude for all that these artists have given me is humbling, especially considering the challenges and obstacles this country has thrown at Black people going back at least to 1619. 

Since launching AnEarful, I have used my voice to celebrate the greatest music of our time but today I am using it to say, unequivocally, Black Lives Matter. I stand in solidarity with the families of those, like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, whose lives have been destroyed by racial violence. More power to all the protesters who have risked life and limb - not to mention their health in this time of COVID-19 - to amplify their voices and push for social change. It would be easy for me to assume that everyone is doing their part and already knows about the ways to support this movement. But just in case, here's a list of organizations I've supported or vetted who are all helping in their way. 

The Bail Project
Black Visions Collective
Black Youth Project 100
Campaign Zero
The George Floyd Memorial Fund
Know Your Rights Camp
Movement for Black Lives
Reclaim the Block
Southerners On New Ground

Also, since this is a music blog, I would like to encourage you to support organizations, like Black Art Futures or the others listed here, which help Black creators of all stripes. 

Naturally, another way to help is to buy music by Black musicians or from Black-owned labels. One of the best ways to do that is on Bandcamp, either today when many are waiving fees, passing on all funds to artists, or supporting organizations like those above, or on June 19th when Bandcamp will donate its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. 

If you need suggestions, check out this mega-list of over 1,000 Black artists, producers and labels, or look for releases by Laraaji, Smoke DZA, or Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a Black trans man who is currently homeless, just to name a very few.

Black voices matter, too, and in the aftermath of last week's eruption, a number of songs have been swirling around my head, so much so that I decided to put them in a playlist because that's what I do. I hope you enjoy this mix of familiar and less well-known tracks that seem to speak to our current moment. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.

This is the big one - 17 albums that go from gentle and introspective to aggressive and angular. Reviews will be short and to the point, just enough to get you to listen for yourselves. Find tracks from each of these in the 40 For 2020 playlist, alongside selections from recent pieces for Classical, Electronic, Hip Hop, and Jazz. The main playlist for Rock, Folk, Etc. has 10 hours of album tracks and singles and the year isn't even half over. Embrace the overwhelm!

Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman When singles started dropping from this project last year, I had a feeling the album would be one of the best of 2020. Thankfully, the trio of Anais Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson didn't let the quality slip over the 10 tracks on this remarkable album. As I said on my video review, these songs, some of them centuries old, sound both brand new and like instant old friends. Cameos from Justin Vernon and This Is The Kit only serve to up the level of indie-folk bliss. It was a constant listen when it came out in the halcyon days of January, making it sound only more otherworldly now. Expect it high on my best of the year list and many others.

Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur I went deep into the roots, process, and results of Wilson's latest brilliant collection in my article for Rock & Roll Globe - read that if you still haven't yet gotten on board. TL/DR: Some of Wilson's most personal songs yet, given the high-Americana treatment, including the incandescent fiddling of Mark O'Conner and key contributions from Wilco's Pat Sansone, who also co-produces.

Nadia Reid - Out Of My Province Reid has one of those voices that, when you see her live, you can't believe is emitting, seemingly without effort, from the human being standing in front of you. It's the perfect vehicle for her literate yet raw songs of love, loss, and the aching moments in between. For her first album made outside her native New Zealand, she went to Spacebomb, Matthew E. White's nexus of cosmic American music and it proves to be a heavenly collaboration, with their smart yet soulful horns and strings limning Reid's glorious songs with a warm glow. She may be far from her province, but she sounds right at home.

Aoife Nessa Frances - Land Of No Junction I'd been wondering what became of Cian Nugent since he released Night Fiction in 2016 (one of the best of that decade, donchaknow) when I spotted his name while scanning a Pitchfork newsletter that mentioned this album. It seems that he and Frances had been working on this wonderfully distinctive album for a while, and, besides further expanding our view of Nugent as a crafter of sound, it's a dreamy introduction to a singer-songwriter with a wonderfully hazy style. After a few listens, what at first seemed impossibly diaphanous, like chasing a butterfly's stardust trail, gradually reveals itself to be a deeply informed array of psych-folk gestures in song, all coming from a well of real feeling. Catch up with her solo performance from the Sea Change festival - one of the richest live-streams of the COVID-19 era - and the songs only uncover themselves further. Truly wondrous stuff.

Ocean Music x Jerome Ellis - Morsels After 2019's double-whammy of Troubadour No. 1 - best album of the year - and Fan Fiction For Planet Earth (also incredible) I would not have faulted Richard Aufrichtig for taking 2020 off. But the man is as prolific as he is talented so we have this interesting project, with short fragments of songs intended to be looped, along with a generous selection of bonus material from the Fan Fiction sessions. Even though I'm still waiting for my cassette, which has each fragment looped for seven seconds, it still works on many levels, with moments of high drama or mellow contemplation each creating a complete universe in less than a minute. The extras, whether demos or b-sides, show off Aufrichtig's range in moving fashion - he's incapable of being insincere or anywhere else than rooted in the moment of his performances - rooted, but flying so free. Fly with him. P.S. I've heard some of his next album, too, and it will go as far, or further, than what we've already heard. Get a preview.

Frazey Ford - U Kin B The Sun I don't know what Vancouver native Ford has been up to in the six years since her last album, but it has done wonders for her art. This is her most direct, focused shot to the heart yet, and the sensitive soul cooked up by her collaborators carries each song like a perfect vessel - kudos to bassist Darren Parris and drummer Leon Power. Political, personal, or poetic, Ford is in rare form here, and now lands at the pinnacle of today's singer-songwriters. Perhaps its time for her to follow Nadia Reid (and Natalie Prass) to Spacebomb - could be mind-blowing!

Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life I don't want to belabor the point, but I really didn't like Leithauser's last album, a failure I lay at the feet of his collaborator, Rostam Batmanglij from the regrettable Vampire Weekend. As word started to trickle out about this album, I was riding a razor's edge, with anticipation and excitement on one side and protection against disappointment on the other. Well, I'm happy to report that, as the sporting announcers say, "It's IN and it's GOOD." Now, I don't want to say I told you so, but there's no question that the return of Paul Maroon to the fold (on six of 11 tracks) has helped bring out the best in Leithauser once more. Yet this is also Leithauser's most self-sufficient album yet - recorded, produced and mixed by him at his home studio, known as the "Struggle Hut," with many songs featuring him as the sole instrumentalist, playing everything from guitars, bass, and drums to glockenspiel and violin. The lyrics are all pithy portraits of various down and outers, a series of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds, all drawn with the compassion of a 19th-century novelist. Jeez, this guy is incredible, and I haven't even mentioned that indelible voice - lordy, can he sing. I've already pronounced Black Hours, his first solo album, one of the best of the 2010's - this one will certainly be in the running for the current era.

Honey Cutt - Coasting Led by Kaley Honeycutt, this trio sails in as a lighter-than-air confection of indie jangle with a little bit of quirk to add to the fun. There are moments, too, where the three of them take flight in a manner that suggests they are great live - one day I'll find out for myself. For now, I'll just revel in this delightful debut.

Soccer Mommy - Color Theory While I've kept an eye on Sophie Allison's project since inception, admiring more than loving her indie-rock for it's sheer minimalist competence. It was always an enjoyable listen, but never involving - until now. Color Theory has her slow burn catching complete fire as she opens up her emotional world and lets us in. The music is hotter, too, surrounding her crystalline voice with wraiths of guitar-haze, edging into psychedelia at times, keeping a protective distance from the pain at the core of many of these songs. Even though this is her second official album, it feels like I've met a brand-new artist. Welcome, Soccer Mommy, we've been waiting for you.

Squirrel Flower - I Was Born Swimming I read about Ella O'Conner Williams in Mojo where this was presented as a debut album - the marketing states the same. But a quick dig into Spotify reveals earlier albums, recorded solo, but with her shimmering guitar and gorgeous voice fully present. There's no question, however, that the band format serves her very well, especially with accompaniment this sensitive (including her father, Jesse Williams on bass) and that time has honed her songwriting to a fine point. Whether this is her first album or her third, it's just plain GREAT.

Dana Gavanski - Yesterday Is Gone There's a dignity and restraint to Gavanski's folk-rock that makes you lean in and listen closely. Apparently a late bloomer - she was originally pursuing film - these songs seem born of experience and a long apprenticeship. Already a fully formed artist, the possibilities for what she'll accomplish in the future are thrilling.

Ultraista - Sister Nigel Godrich is known for producing Radiohead, among many other bands, and playing in Thom Yorke side projects like Atoms For Piece. Drummer Joey Waronker, also an Atoms veteran, has played for Beck, Roger Waters, and more. With singer Laura Bettinson, they are Ultraista, and this sleekly propulsive electro-pop album is their second since 2012. Worth the wait, with tighter songwriting, deeper emotions, and the sense of great power held in abeyance. Best of all, it feels truly collaborative - there are no guns for hire in Ultraista, just talented musicians who have found common ground.

Wire - Mind Hive Was it just this year that these post-punk legends, over 40 years into their career, released one of their finest albums? Why yes, it was! Hope you didn't miss it as it gives all the many young bands who have been carrying the legacy forward a run for their collective money. From sleek yet barbed shots across the bow like Cactused to gently pulsing wonders like Unrepentant - as lovely as anything Cluster ever perpetrated - all of their virtues are on display. Long may they reign, etc., etc.

Porridge Radio - Every Bad There's a bit of post-punk in the DNA of this band, not only Wire but also The Raincoats, especially in the way singer-songwriter Dana Margolin wears her heart on her sleeve in a most relatable way. The lyrics are conversational ("And maybe I was born confused/And baby, I was born confused/So I don't know what's going on/Maybe nothing's going on" - Born Confused) but Margolin's use of repetition has a way of heightening the quotidian message, somewhat like The Courtneys did on their brilliant second album. It took them four years to follow up the charms of 2016's Rice, Pasta, and Other Fillers, and while the increase in craft is palpable, I hope we don't have to wait that long for more!

Dogleg - Melee This Michigan band also took four years between their debut and this album, making an even bigger leap in the process, going from a lo-fi solo project for main man Alex Stoitsiadis to a powerhouse trio (Chase Macinski - bass, backing vocals, Parker Grissom - drums, backing vocals) with an impressively massive sound. Even more impressive when you see the modest credit, "Recorded by Alex Stoitsiadis at home" - kid's got talent far beyond strumming and shouting, which he also does really well. Even at high tempos, Grissom finds the groove, and the addition of double bass, trumpet, and violin enlarges the sound further. Add the almost desperate passion of a young Paul Westerberg and you've got a Melee worth diving into.

The Strokes - The New Abnormal As I recently pointed out on an episode of Sound Opinions (they always take my calls, LOL), if you don't accept the fact that Angles is nearly as fantastic as Is This It?, you probably shouldn't be reviewing this album. Or even listening to it for that matter. But if you loved Angles, this will thrill you, with some of Julian Casablancas' most nakedly emotional writing and singing married to sleek yet engaged playing from the rest of the band. Often accused of being rock & roll scavengers, they cleverly spin gold out of rust by bolting together a bit of Modern English's Melt With You and a lot of Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself to arrive at Making Bad Decisions, an instant hit. But they also pursue newer sounds, such as the siren-like guitar and implacable drums of Eternal Summer or the synth-driven At The Door. A triumph for the band and for producer Rick Rubin. 

Lucinda Williams - Good Souls, Better Angels If there is one American musician still working today who has less to prove than Lucinda Williams - and who's not Bob Dylan - I'd like to hear about it. Even so, Williams and her main foil, guitarist Stuart Mathis, come ready to rumble on this, her 12th album of original material. Often using a variety of well-worn blues and Americana structures - but unafraid to invoke The Stooges and The Clash - and fueled by Williams' rage at our current situation, many of these songs reach their apotheosis when Mathis fires off a solo written in pure lightning. While Williams speaks for us in her dissection of the loathsome creature in the White House in Man Without A Soul, she also offers a bulwark against despair in a song like Big Black Train ("I can hear it comin' on down the track/And I don't wanna get onboard"). Williams is also wise enough to use metaphor and allusion to avoid creating songs with built-in expiration dates. Besides, there will always be something to be pissed off and sad about - Williams will have your back no matter what is going on in the headlines. And I can't imagine the catharsis - both on stage and in the crowd - when these songs are unleashed in concert. I hope to be there.

Hear more in the vein of these albums in my Of Note in 2020 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) playlist and make sure to follow it so you can keep up with the wonders yet to come.


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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global

The train to catch up on 2020's music is on track, although with each station I hit, another station adds itself to the itinerary as more great music continues to be released. But no matter. This leg of the journey is stoked by three albums, two that fall under jazz and one that (for lack of a better term) falls under global. The main playlist has plenty of other goodies for your listening pleasure, but these were the ones that kept me coming back. You can find samples from each in the 40 For 2020 playlist, along with tracks from previous posts focusing on Classical, Electronic, and Hip Hop.

Wayne Escoffery - The Humble Warrior For most people, having a colleague tell them that their nephew is a musician would be an excuse to exit stage right. When that happened to me a couple of years ago, however, I a beeline back to my office to check it out. That's how I discovered this supremely skilled and passionate sax player and his album Vortex. His new one finds him exploring new areas while paying homage to his own roots and that of the music itself. For the former, he's created a searching, expansive take on Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis, which he heard as a child growing up in London, where he sang with the Trinity Boys Choir. For the latter, his own composition Chain Gang reflects the role of work songs and slave chants in the DNA of jazz. Fittingly, it opens with a Coltrane-like voluntary, heralding in a powerfully involving piece. As on Vortex, his band is all in, especially pianist David Kikoski, who sparkles throughout. Guitarist David Gilmore (not Gilmour!) and trumpet legend Randy Brecker lend a hand to the Britten tracks, giving more foils for Escoffery's reed to work against. If more mainstream jazz was this good I would listen to more mainstream jazz.

Makaya McCraven and Gil Scott-Heron - We're New Again: A Reimagining In 2011, Jamie XX spun spooky electronic gold out of I'm New Here, Scott-Heron's somewhat misshapen final album. Now to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the original, Chicago's avatar of the new jazz scene has reimagined the album entirely with all new backing tracks for Scott-Heron's gravelly reflections - and came up with another winner. Aided by crack players like Jeff Parker (guitar) and Brandee Younger (harp) and driven by McCraven's percussion, it refers back to the master's albums with Brian Jackson while the addition of Ben Lamar Gay's diddley bow seems to take it to a more elemental place. Not only does this album honor Scott-Heron's extraordinary legacy, it's also the most convincing work McCraven has yet released. A remarkable and riveting achievement.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Navarasa : Nine Emotions In 2016, I put this trio's Everything Sacred in the "rock, folk, etc." category but as Suhail Yusuf Kahn's voice and sarangi are even more to the fore this time, I'm putting it here. The title refers to a Sanskrit theory of the various emotions expressed by the performing arts and each of the nine tracks represents one sentiment. Even so, it's a consistently contemplative album, with its highest spirits reserved for the second track, The Shearing's Not For You, with James Yorkston singing what sounds like an ancient Scottish folk song. With each release, the polyglot trio's vision sounds ever more gorgeous and full of natural affinities between cultures. There's no better example of that than Westlin' Winds, which combines the Pakistani devotionals of the Qawwali tradition with the poetry of Robert Burns. If you're still unfamiliar with Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, start here but by all means trace the journey back through all three albums.

Make sure to follow this playlist to see what else gets added in these genres.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Best Of 2018: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Double Bass, How Low Can You Go
Bayeté's World

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Of Note In 2020: HIp Hop, RnB, and Reggae

As is typical for these genres, the main Of Note playlist is dominated by singles, many of which I hope bear LP-sized fruit later in the year, like those from Isaiah Rashad and (especially) Frank Ocean. For now, I want to draw your attention to an EP and two albums that have really grabbed me. Tracks can be found in the 40 For 2020 playlist, alongside those from recent posts on Classical and Electronic releases.

Charlotte Dos Santos - Harvest Time Where her divine 2017 album Cleo showcased her limber, multi-octave voice in a variety of styles, including jazz, cha-cha, and electronic R&B, the five songs here solidify what might be called the "Dos Santos" style, where all those genres melt together in one dreamy melange. Part of her skill set is also conceiving of complex vocal arrangements, which she then executes through flawless multi-tracking. There's an insular, self-sufficient feeling to Dos Santos's music, only making it seem more of a privilege to be invited into her world.

Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2 (Deluxe) Even knowing this once-emerging rapper is dead, killed in a home invasion in February, doesn't make it any less convincing when he says, "I said, I feel invincible" on the opening cut to his second mixtape. That's a tribute to his gravitas, which must be the mark of an old soul as he was only 20 when he died. According to several writers at Complex, he's also still the King Of New York, which is a credit to his talent and a commentary on the state of hip hop in its foundational city. But he's not wearing a crown by default. Working within the confines of Brooklyn Drill, which is what came of trap when it pinged to London and then ponged to Chicago before rolling into BK, he brings an immediately arresting authority to his flow, even when he spitting some filthy bars. But it's that weight and menace that makes you hang on every syllable, along with the way he weaves his word through the spacious beats. Apparently there's an official debut album in the can. Until we hear that, Meet The Woo 2 will serve as both a legacy of what he accomplished and a promise of how much more he had to offer.

Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony As you may or may not know (and probably care even less) I don't think much of Jay Z, although when he's on a Kanye West record (or collaborating as on Watch The Throne) he brings the heat. So the fact that he's on eight of ten tracks here and I still love it is as much as I do is a tribute to how awesome this album is. Jay Electronica is a font of creativity, whether sampling Fripp & Eno on Ezekiel's Wheel, one of six songs he produced, or rhyming with polished density as on the first verse of The Neverending Story: "Have you ever heard the tale of/The noblest of gentlemen who rose up from squalor?/Tall, dark, and decked out in customary regalia/Smellin' like paraphernalia/Hailin' from the home of Mahalia." Islam is woven throughout but it doesn't rub this atheist the wrong way, just adding an air of mystique and depth. Hopefully we don't have to wait 10 years for his next album, but A Written Testimony will likely have significant staying power.

Dig in to everything I'm tracking in these genres with the Of Note In 2020 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae) playlist - and let me know what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Electronic

Continuing on in my efforts to catch up with 2020, are the six electronic albums that have called me back the most. Listen to tracks from all them here or below, along with samples from the last post. For a wider view, scroll down for the full Of Note In 2020 (Electronic) playlist.

Roger Eno & Brian Eno - Mixing Colors Roger's name is first on this gleaming collection of electronic miniatures so I'm going to credit him with adding both melody and concision, two elements often lacking from Brian's recent albums. That's not always a bad thing, as no one else can put together an hour of generative ambiance like Eno did with Lux near the beginning of the last decade. But it was no accident that it was his more songful Small Craft On A Milk Sea that wound up on my list of the best of the 2010's. Mixing Colors is charming throughout, even nodding to Satie at times, and a dazzling display of textural variety. Even when Roger's piano comes to the fore, the sonics are likely the product of many wise choices. It's too easy to take Eno's genius for granted these days and not appreciate the music for what it is. Lose yourself in Mixing Colors long enough and who made it won't matter - but your environment may be transformed.

Seabuckthorn - Through A Vulnerable Occur If a shaft of light powers through a dense thicket to the forest floor, does it make a sound? Probably not, but if it did it might sound like this gorgeous album from Andy Cartwright. As he did on his last, A House With Too Much Fire, Cartwright treats his guitar and various other stringed instruments, building them up with loops and layers into something both monumental and diaphanous. While his music is great at painting pictures inside my eyelids, for some external visual information take a look at the accompanying art book by Australian photographer Sophie Gabrielle. You may just find it the perfect gift for that special someone with adventurous tastes. That special someone may also be you. I won't judge! Either way, delve into the world of Seabuckthorn however you can as there is literally no one else doing what he does.

Beatrice Dillon - Workaround You could breeze through this album and think all the tracks, though beautiful, are kind of the same. But further listening reveals nuances among the eely bass lines, crisp percussion, and chill keyboards. Clever samples abound, like the tabla of Kuljit Bhamra or the cello of Lucy Railton, but the experience is all Dillon and it is sublime. I'm no audio snob but I really lost myself in the sound when it bloomed in my Grado SR60 headphones, which is now my preferred method to listen to this dazzling debut.

Matt Evans - New Topographics Mea culpa - in a post earlier this year I called Evans "one of the best drummers alive," which is now revealed by this astonishing album as a severe undersell. Not only is Evans a master percussionist (catch him with Tigue or Bearthoven) but he is a deep thinker and sonic architect like few others. Taking inspiration from the high-concept thoughts of Timothy Morton, which classify massive classes of sometimes immaterial things - climate, the internet, styrofoam - as "hyperobjects," and a Richard Brautigan poem that pictures us "freed" to rejoin our mammal cousins while being babysat by robots, Evans constructs little landscapes of sound out of field recordings, percussion, and electronics. There's a cinematic structure to the album, too, with the bright, busy charms of the first three tracks giving way to the tense, nervous mood of Cold Moon. By the end, an equilibrium is reached, but it remains ambiguous. That's what I heard, anyway, you can choose just to toy with the marvelous textures as they go by. This also sounds great on headphones, but almost seems mastered for laptop - listening on my MacBook creates a space where sounds are spread in a radius of at least two feet. Or maybe infinity, held back only by my own biology. Don't let yours hold you back from hearing this masterpiece.

Nnux - Ciudad The project of Ana López-Reyes, Nnux was one of my favorite discoveries of 2018, and this short album is yet another example of why she grabbed me from first listen. The incantatory singing and nearly baroque electronics are in full force on several of the tracks, but I also hear new developments. She's giving her voice more room to breathe in parts, while also revealing more of her Mexican heritage on something like the title song, which has the ghosts of old ballads in its DNA. It's been a thrilling experience to be in Nnux's slipstream the last couple of years and I suggest you join me.

Yaeji - What We Drew Queens-born, raised in Seoul and now based in Brooklyn, Yaeji has been scattering singles and mixtapes like sweet little crumbs over the last several years, building a following that includes over one million monthly listeners on Spotify. Now she gives all those hungry ears the full cake with her delightful debut album. Pulling on at least the last 40 years of electronically-infused song craft, from house and drum'n'bass to hip hop and more avant garde realms, she proves the ruler of all she surveys, bringing a deliciously light touch to every tone, texture, and melody.

Keep up with everything I'm tracking in this category - and whatever comes next - here or below.