[You can learn about Amy’s music here and here.]
Les Filles de Illighadad, Eghass Malan: This is one of my favorite music groups of the past few years. Tuareg music is hypnotic in its simplicity and repetitive rhythms, and it induces almost a meditative state. Fatou Seidi Ghali and her bandmates hail from the desert in Niger, and she is the first woman to play Tuareg guitar professionally. I was lucky to see them play live last year. The combination of the responsorial vocal chants, minimal guitar repetitions, a simple leather drum, and the pounding of a calabash half-submerged in water creates a compelling soundscape.
Joe Wong + Nite Creatures, “Minor”: This is the new single from Joe’s forthcoming debut album on Decca Records. Joe is an old pal from DC back in the day, and he’s been churning out quality TV/Film soundtracks in LA for the past decade. He also has a really great podcast, The Trap Set, interviewing musicians. I’ve known Joe to be an amazing drummer, but it turns out he’s also a great singer and songwriter as well! This new solo album brings to mind Scott Walker’s epic album Scott 4 with its crystalline vocal production and lavish orchestration. Technically, I’m playing cello in his backing band for NYC/Philly shows in October…. I hope it still happens!
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: I wasn’t a Fiona Apple aficionado previously, but I had read some good things about this record when it came out in April, and I have a lot of respect for an artist who can record an entire album herself and then have the balls to release it in the middle of a pandemic. I deemed it a little chaotic upon first listening, but then after a few more I was really struck by the variety of musical sounds and uninhibited vocals with razor sharp narrative lyrics. So I keep listening and find new things each time to appreciate.
Hailu Mergia, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye: Ethiopian jazz accordion? Why yes, please. This album was recorded in 1985 shortly after Mergia relocated to DC from Ethiopia to study music at Howard University. It was recorded in 3 days and largely improvised pieces for accordion, Rhodes piano, synthesizer, and drum machine. The accordion had been popular in Ethiopia in the 1950s, and Mergia’s inspiration for the album was to bring back this instrument from his youth and blend it with traditional Ethiopian melodies and current music technology. It’s my go-to chill out record. Incidentally, Mergia still lives in DC and drives taxis.
Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest: Bill Callahan’s ability to spin a completely original narrative tale in 3-4 minutes is a rare talent. Combined with his signature economy of sound, this prolific songwriter never disappoints. In songs such as “The Ballad of The Hulk” and “Watch Me Get Married” his confessional lyrics mix with surprising metaphors, and there is always some new layer of meaning to decipher upon each listen.
Musica Secreta, Lucrezia Vizzana: Componimenti Musicali 1623: Lucrezia Vizzana was a 17th century Bolognese nun at the convent of S. Christina who managed to publish a remarkable set of sacred motets at a time of great prohibition in religious music. Convents were basically the only option for women who wanted to be educated and free to express themselves musically and not be shunned by society as having loose morals. Vizzana’s collection reflects her piety and her musical influences of Banchieri, Monteverdi and the new stile moderno which was taking the European scene by storm. This is a gorgeous recording of vocal music which transcends the centuries to offer us peace and tranquility if we choose to listen.
[You can check out Norman’s work here.]
Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music: I think about Arthur Conley a lot. Most people at least know “Sweet Soul Music,” the international hit single he co-wrote with Otis Redding, but the entirety of his 1967 debut album — also produced by Redding — had a darker vibe: Songs like “Take Me (Just As I Am)” and “I’m a Lonely Stranger” hinted at the struggle underneath. Conley eventually rejected his success, legally changed his name, and moved to the Netherlands where he felt he could live openly as a gay man, and I guess I think about him a lot because I always wonder how things might have ended differently if he’d just felt free.
Ayelle, NOMAD (Mixtape): I was always a fan of minimal techno — from Basic Channel to Force Inc. — so when minimalism started moving into pop music, I was all in. Ayelle is a Swedish-Iranian singer who lives in New York, and from my vantage point, she is committing to this style like it’s some kind of cult. Every track on this mixtape relies on her vocal to the extent that the songs feature very little else besides a strong beat, some sub bass, and ethereal keys. What I love about it is that I know it’s probably more complex than that, but it doesn’t sound like it.
Arca, KiCk i: This would probably have been called IDM in the mid-‘90s, but it also feels more accessible than that. “Mequetrefe” sort of reminds me of when Funkstörung started dabbling in hip-hop, but with a Latin groove punching its way out, while “Nonbinary” eventually morphs into a ballroom vogue track if the legendary children were having seizures. When a Björk guest spot is the least interesting thing on your record, you’ve crossed a lot of fucking lines.
Lonely The Brave, Things Will Matter: I still love honest-to-God rock music. But more than that, I love songs. If you are going to play rock music, then I need something to sing along to, I want an anthem, I want to feel like whoever is singing those words is really going through it. Lonely the Brave give that to me, and more than that, I think they understand that the songs are the thing: Each of their first two albums comes with an accompanying “Redux” version that strips all the songs into unique acoustic arrangements that rival the rock versions. The songs just expose themselves, no tricks necessary.
Owen, The Avalanche: As someone who has lived inside of the band world for 30 years, I have a lot of talented friends. But while I admire them all and love so many of the records they’ve made, I’m never really envious. Not so with Owen: Mike Kinsella writes songs that I wish I played on, he writes lyrics that I wish I wrote, he expresses himself in a way that I’ve just never really been able to express myself. This record, his latest, made me want to write a book or make a record immediately. It reminded me that for all that I’ve put out of myself in the world, I still don’t feel right about myself and that making things is the only salve I know.
Mark Owen, The Art of Doing Nothing: Most people can’t figure out why Take That are my favorite band, and I swear I never meant for them to be. Certainly a band who started by rolling around naked in jello for a music video can’t be my favorite band! But that was 30 years ago, and when I think about who I was 30 years ago, I can’t say I’m any more or less proud of who I was or what I did. In my eyes, Mark Owen is the underdog in Take That — the guy who isn’t Robbie Williams or Gary Barlow — and this album, to me, cemented his superior status. It’s a modern pop record with dark corners and rough edges; there’s bits of Bowie and Moroder and Lanois if you listen hard enough. Should you leave your prejudices at the door, you might actually come to realize how special this record is.
Hilton Als on Toni Morrison from 2003: Ghosts in the House
[You can hear Gordon’s music here]
Hum, Inlet: This is by far the best Hum album. The fact that it was released — as a complete surprise — 22 years after their last, in the middle of a global pandemic, just when society is longing most for connection to the familiar, feels like an act of divine grace. The songs are perfect, sprawling and huge and effect-heavy, but never overwrought. When we look back on this era, the release of this album will stand out as a bright spot in the darkness.
Beauty Pill, Describes Things How They Are: This is perhaps the defining record of the 2010’s DC independent music scene. Chad Clark, who leads Beauty Pill, is also a kind, gregarious, thoughtful soul, in addition to being a brilliant artist. Maybe 4 days after George Floyd was murdered, we all woke up to find that Facebook had “permanently deleted” Chad’s Facebook and Instagram profiles. Everyone assumed he had been targeted by MAGA nazis — and in that heightened moment, it felt darkly ominous, like all artists and political dissidents were about to be rounded up and permanently silenced. That could very well still happen, of course (I wouldn’t put it past 2020)! Thankfully his profiles were restored later that day, but for that moment, it was an important reminder of how when artists are silenced, it feels like the entire world collapses inward. If you haven’t yet purchased this record, get it from the band’s Bandcamp page.
Mike Ladd, Activator Cowboy: One hot Sunday night in the summer of 1998, a friend and I witnessed a mind-blowing performance of Mike Ladd’s — he played the Middle East in Cambridge with a four piece backup band: drums, bass, turntables, and tape loops. It included an epic freestyle that was maybe 30 minutes long. It was one of those magical moments in life that is impossible to clearly remember, but the feeling of which stays with you forever. I saw Mike Ladd’s name come up recently in an article about trailblazing black artists, and it was a great reminder to revisit his incredible late 90s/early 2000s LPs. Easy Listening 4 Armageddon in particular is a masterpiece of a debut, and it includes (sadly) timely tracks like “I’m Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War.” The 2001 Activator Cowboy single is the only thing I still own… time to fix that.
Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger: This is not a guilty pleasure. This is the sound of a group taking a quantum leap forward in their art. For a subset of the grunge generation — those of us who loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam but longed to have our brains rewired more toward the weird and psychedelic — Badmotorfinger delivered. I used to come home from high school, put this on as loud as I could without incurring parental wrath, and sit on the floor with my eyes closed. It was therapy. And it’s no surprise that I’m reaching for it again in 2020. Now, to attempt “Jesus Christ Pose” on the cello.
Peter Kernel, The Size of The Night: This Swiss-Canadian wife and husband band seems to be completely unknown outside of Europe, which is everyone else’s loss. For over ten years they have been releasing albums of their peculiar, idiosyncratic, sometimes trance-like art rock, each one better than the next. They win all sorts of critical awards and tour Europe continuously — and hopefully if live music again becomes possible, they’ll be able to tour internationally.
Fotocrime, South of Heaven: R. (Ryan Patterson, of Coliseum, Black God, and other Louisville bands) is suddenly better-known for his clothing line, Cat Magic Punks — which includes the excellent Cat Lovers Against White Supremacy (C.L.A.W.S.) line. But right before Ye Olde Covid Tymes, he released the astoundingly good second album from his solo project Fotocrime. It’s one of those perfect records where the artist has opened up an unfiltered channel into their true selves. There are darkwave (am I using that term correctly?), hardcore, and post-punk influences, but the voice is R.’s alone. You should buy this record.