[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 albumScott 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.
[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.
Hello, my name is Hank. Thanks to Zach for inviting me to do this. Info on some of my endeavors can be found here.T Pain, Tiny Desk Concert: This video is in no way new. Doing some Googling, it appears that the internet rightly flipped out over it en masse in October 2014 when it came out, and it’s currently sitting at 18.7 million YouTube views. But it is new to me. I like watching NPR’s Tiny Desk performances in general (lately, I’ve loved the Tyler, the Creator and Noname ones), and last week, the T Pain edition popped up in my YouTube “Up next” box. Since then, I have probably watched it 30 times. This is an extremely potent example of the Unplugged effect, i.e., the magic that can result when an artist usually heard through a filter of volume, distortion, and/or high-tech production (in this case, Auto-Tune), etc., checks those trappings at the door and simply let the songs speak for themselves. I’ve likely heard these tracks — “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” “Drankin’ Patna,” etc. — out in the world in a passive kind of way, but none of that prior exposure prepared me for this, i.e., the transformation of strip-club anthems into what sound more like heart-rending gospel hymns. The whole performance, just T-Pain and a keyboardist I wish I knew more about who’s apparently named Toro (apologies if I got that spelling wrong, but I cannot find any info on this man anywhere), feels casual yet sublime. I just wish it were longer.
On the Might of Princes, Where You Are and Where You Want to Be: The world of emo, screamo and related subgenres is discussed these days with an almost academic specificity, complete with talk of “waves” and micro-eras. I admire the dedication but I don’t pretend to be an authority here. I just happen to dig a lot of the music that falls under this general umbrella, from Rites of Spring and Cap’n Jazz all the way up through Say Anything, La Dispute and the Hotelier. (Being from Kansas City, I’ve got a special fondness for the bands Boys Life, Giants Chair, and The Farewell Bend, all essential if you don’t know them.) In terms of the fundamental qualities that I look for in this general area, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a better record than this one. It’s at once punishing and emotionally shattering, ranging from apocalyptically intense post-hardcore to the most tender indie rock imaginable. Singer-guitarist-songwriter Jason Rosenthal, who tragically died in 2013, comes off like the ultimate embodiment of that pissed-off, wounded kid we all know from countless basement shows, shrieking his way through the end of adolescence. (And clearly his sentiments connected; check out this priceless live footage.) But this record is not just some kind of raw purge — the songs are elaborate yet beautifully paced, with an almost proggy sweep that I’ve rarely heard in this genre, and performed with real lived-in maturity (the drum performance by Chris Enriquez is absolutely stellar). The last song, “For Meg,” is so naked and exposed, it should come with a warning label. This is music you want to pump your fist to while sobbing uncontrollably, which is about the highest compliment I could think to pay an emo/screamo record. (After being out of print for years, the album was recently reissued by Dead Broke Rekerds; the vinyl’s already sold out, but thankfully can you can at least download it on Bandcamp. There’s also an OTMOP documentary now in progress, and I can’t wait to see it.)
Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks Volume 31:I’m not a Dead expert; honestly, I’m barely a Dead novice. But I do really enjoy the Dead, especially those moments when they break free of song and really take it out there. This marathon set, drawn from three shows in August 1974, features some sublime examples of that aspect of Dead-dom, particularly a nearly half-hour-long version of “Playing in the Band” that I find absolutely transcendent. The idea of “jamming” has become a cliché and even a pejorative but there’s a reason so many people flocked to this group for decades — it’s because there’s a real feeling of eternity in this music, and of this strange, symbiotic ensemble unity where various musical organisms (shout-out in particular to Lesh and Kreutzmann, who I never tire of homing in on) are moving independently yet with full awareness of and responsiveness to the other. It’s rock music with a lot of the most attractive qualities of jazz and ambient music and, while this particular sensation isn’t pervasive throughout the album, there are still hints of it all over this set.
John Zorn, Baphomet: I’ve just concluded a roughly four-month immersion in the John Zorn universe, culminating in a somewhat lengthy Rolling Stone story that I published a couple weeks back. I spent time with a mountain of music for this and came away with a whole bunch of new Zorn and Zorn-adjacent faves, but the album that’s been sticking with me the most is the newest: Baphomet, which is the eighth album in just five years by Simulacrum, Zorn’s death-metal organ trio with the great John Medeski on keys and younger avant-garde metal badasses Matt Hollenberg (also of the band Cleric) and Kenny Grohowski (also of Imperial Triumphant, who are about to release an absolutely batshit and inspired album called Alphaville that you need to hear if you have an interest in any kind of outlandish/heavy music) on guitar and drums, respectively. Their live album from earlier this year, Beyond Good and Evil, is also excellent, but I really love the way Zorn turns them loose on a long-form piece here (one composition lasting around 40 minutes) and shows off everything they can do, from towering, explosive hard prog to groovy funk-fusion and gently lyrical mood music. I’d recommend this equally to a Zorn completist and someone who’s never heard a note of his music before. (Mount Analogue, another roughly 40-minute Zorn suite from 2012, with a more chill and mystical bent, is a great complement to Baphomet.)
Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, When Will the Blues Leave: I adore Paul Bley. I know a lot of his records but not enough. Something — I wish I could remember what — sent me down a Bley rabbit hole recently, and I don’t think I’ll emerge for a while. I particularly love hearing him when he’s matched with players who share his knack for effortlessly bridging bold abstraction and disarming emotional depth. Two prime suspects there are Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, and this live trio set (recorded in 1999 but not released till last year) is a holy document. The ballads in particular on this thing (particularly the one called “Flame“) sound like they’re simultaneously ascending and exploding, and the more intense pieces (like the scampering rendition of the title piece by Ornette Coleman) have a kind of joyous spark to them that makes you want to leap up and start shimmying wildly. Players like these (RIP to both Pauls) found a way to celebrate the many schools and eras of jazz in all their splendor while also uncovering new and infinite musical mysteries. What you hear here is so free but it’s not “free jazz”; it’s just three absolute masters communing on the high wire and seeing what happens.
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways: Somehow at 79, Dylan is making more Dylan-y music than he ever has. He’s fully settled into his late style, capitalizing on the full range of his now-ravaged voice, and arrived at a mode that as my friend, the brilliant Jay Ruttenberg, put it in a New Yorker write-up, feels both “frisky and elegiac.” He tosses out one-liners both hammy and hilarious (I think my favorite is “I’ll take Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando/Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando,” from “My Own Version of You“), spits out threats with unsettling venom (“I ain’t no false prophet — I just said what I said; I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head”) and creates these humid song tapestries that just keep unspooling and unspooling, on into some surreal eternity. There’s not really a Dylan album I know that I don’t love, and I know quite a few. But right now, I love this album (particularly the songs “False Prophet” and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)“) as much as any of them.
[You can see Rachel’s work here.]
Stina Nordenstam, The World Is Saved: I first heard “Winter Killing” (the 2nd track on the album) around 2009, when a dear friend put it on a mixed CD for me and 10 other women. I had started this compilation club, where every member was assigned a month and in that month had to make 11 copies of a mix, design the packaging and then send them to the other women in the group. Every month, a new mix would arrive from someone and it was a really great way to hear new music before streaming became a thing. The club got disbanded after CDs became obsolete and we couldn’t figure out how to bridge the technological gap while maintaining the integrity of what was intended to be a physical exchange (because getting something in the mail is super fun). But I digress. “Winter Killing” struck me as sweetly vicious and I really wanted to own the album it contained. Incidentally, an old acquaintance in Portland started Beacon Sound and I remember him telling me years later that he was in the process of getting the rights to ‘The World Is Saved’. I completely forgot he intended to release this record so a few months ago, I emailed him asking if he had anymore copies of the record. He told me that the record had sold out awhile ago but that he might have one in the archives, sparing me having to pay hundreds of dollars on Discogs. It showed up in May and the entire record is witty and vicious in that sweet Scandinavian way. I’ve been playing it daily since. Special shoutout to Andrew at Beacon Sound for doing me such a solid.
Gaussian Curve, The Distance: I don’t have a ton to say about this one except that it was recommended to me by a record store clerk and I love Music From Memory’s design chops. The cover of Nothing Is Objective, by Suso Sáiz, is equally beautiful. So, I’m saying I bought this record for the cover and I stayed for the excellent ambient music it contained. This is one of my primary morning records, where I stare into the middle distance over coffee and get gently lulled into starting my day.
Trentemøller, Obverse: If a record contains even a whiff of darkwave, I will happily welcome it into my collection. I love Trentemøller’s work but this one is special to me because it prominently features a number of my favorite female vocalists. I will take as much Rachel Goswell (Slowdive) and Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint) as I can get. I listen to this record on a loop when I’m in my photo studio. It’s a nice one to dip in and out of, which allows me to notice things I haven’t heard before. This has also been a mainstay in my solo Covid-19 quarantine walks because it has a lot of headphone candy and manages to match any mood I bring to these walks. Anxiety, anger, bliss, gratitude, exhaustion, and more. It’s all there.
This Mortal Coil, Filigree & Shadow: Every TMC record has one song that is worth the purchase of the entire LP and this album’s best song is the cover of Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings”. It’s so intense, which is saying something because Gene Clark’s “No Other” is one very intense masterpiece from front to back. I accidentally bought Filigree & Shadow twice because I haven’t fully inputed my record collection into Discogs yet, so I don’t always remember which albums I own. I’ve done this many times with albums like Pet Shop Boys’Please; ELO’s Face the Music; and Man or Astro-Man?’s Is It… Man or Astro-Man? Duplicates make great gifts so I don’t sweat it too much.
Depeche Mode, Violator: This is my favorite record of all time and it would be a real betrayal to not include it in any and all of my lists. I listen to this record a lot and every time in some way feels like the first time. This 1st pressing was gifted to me by my husband because he believes, as with books, everyone should own a 1st pressing of their favorite record. What can I say about this record? People either love Depeche Mode or they don’t, but all Depeche Mode fans know this is their irrefutable masterpiece (even if they happen to like another album more). I have the rose on the cover tattooed on my body, which is very bold because bands are comprised of fallible humans and there’s always a chance they can disappoint you (or worse, become super creeps – just thinking about all the Michael Jackson tattoos out there). So far so good with regard to Depeche Mode, though. I’ll still happily rep for them.
The Spinanes, Manos: This is another example of owning a 1st pressing of my favorite records. ‘Manos’ is the sound of Portland in the 90s. Rebecca Gates is now a friend of mine and every time I hear her voice live or on one of her albums, I am transported to my time of going to shows at La Luna or working at Berbati’s Pan (two venues that sadly no longer exist). When I first heard The Spinanes, it made me feel like there was room in the world for low lady-voices like mine (solid alto over here) and straight forward rock songs that are charming, smart and cutting at the same time. Also, after the recent glut of bands with 8+ members, a guitar and drum duo is so fucking refreshing. If you can get it done with two, why wouldn’t you? As a photographer, I’ve always loved the cover photo. The warmth of the hands/arms/face reminds me of my family’s photos from San Diego in the 70s and makes me deeply nostalgic for those old film stocks.
[You can hear Chris’s music here and see his films here.]
Yusef Lateef, Psychicemotus: I was lucky enough to study with Yusef in his jazz improvisation course when I was young, and that experience made a lasting impression on me. Lateef’s body of work is prodigious – the man played flute, percussion, arranger, oboe, tenor saxophone, tambourine, Chinese flutes, bamboo flute, and more – but “Psychicemotus” off his 1965 album of the same name very much reminds me of the vibe you would find in his class improv sessions.
PJ Harvey, Rid of Me: In my humble opinion, the title track – and the entire album – is the quintessential Albini sound working at its best. I love Polly Harvey as a songwriter and performer, and this opening track from her 1993 release of the same name works through Albini’s production to capture a raw, unfiltered document of her early style and sound. Forget compression, the dynamics on this track go from whisper quite to blistering fury, and don’t you dare touch the volume knob.
Sam & Dave, Soul Men: I’ve been thinking about Steve Cropper’s guitar playing recently, in particular the amazing simplicity of his iconic riffs. This 1967 track, that everyone should know, has one of what is perhaps the best examples of Cropper’s genius, with that famous opening guitar line consisting of a simple arrangement of notes. Obviously having Isaac Hayes and David Porter as the songwriters and the backing band being Booker T. & the M.G.’s with the Mar-Keys on horns help make this song sound so good.
Thurn & Taxis, EP2: These guys are friends of mine and former musical collaborators, so I’m biased, but I think this track (and every other track) off their 2019 release EP2 is simply fantastic. The compositions are just tremendous examples of musicianship and arrangement, and “Ipoly” in particular has a terrific, triumphant tonal mood to it that I really enjoy. Roll down all the windows in your car and blast this.
Tony Conrad with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate: Tony was another artist I had the amazing fortune of studying under, and his outlook on creative production is a major influence in my own work. The title track from this 1973 collaboration with German rock band Faust is probably the most straightforward and approachable thing Tony ever recorded, but it definitely influenced me in my musical pursuits.
Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die: The opening track off Tortoise’s 1996 release Millions Now living Will Never Die is the song I still consider as being the high-water mark of 90’s post-rock. The movement and interplay of the different instrumental currents is really masterful, and it creates a rich musical narrative weaving throughout the aural environment. I love the band in general, and I’m a fan of their entire catalog, but this track was lighting in a bottle. Put on some headphones and lie back in a hammock to listen to this one.
[You can hear Alex’s work here, here, and here.]Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz, Celia & Johnny: I heard this album for the first time today, not knowing what a breakthrough it was. The grooves are so swinging, and the fiery band sounds so much bigger than it actually is. Queen Celia, y’all. I can’t imagine where we’d be without Johnny Pacheco and Fania Records. The well from which Salsa springs.
Keith Jarrett, Dark Intervals: Keith Jarrett is hands-down my favorite jazz pianist of all time. His sense of melodic line is staggering, and hearing him improvise entire solo piano concerts without a net boggles the mind. This record is a go-to because the compositions are shorter and we therefore get more snapshots to look at. “Americana” is EXQUISITE and it gets me every time.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent: All of Annie Clark’s records are excellent, but I went to this one because “Rattlesnake” is my JAM. This album brought with it a new image to her brand/fashion/performances (a Bowie move), and I always found it compelling and singular. I have mad respect for St. Vincent and her artistry.
Jacob Collier, Djesse Vol. 2: Jacob Collier is the past, present, and future of music all at once. He is an alien with supernatural harmonic powers, whose brain works at a scarily high level of theory — I’ve never seen or heard anything like him. I find this album to be warm and enveloping, with an organic flow to the compositions and arrangements that make for a smooth jump aboard if you pick up the frequency.
Living Colour, Time’s Up: This record was a HUGE influence on me and my buddies when we were growing up. There is a high-wattage charge within all the performances, and I am ALL ABOUT the mix of rock and metal and jazz and punk and funk, the way Living Colour does it. Peerless and fearless, these guys.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell: This album is so haunting, both in its music and its lyrics. You feel the struggle of trying to come to terms with the death of a mother when the relationship was fraught. I find Sufjan’s just-above-a-whisper delivery to be so heartfelt and heartbreaking. Pro Tip: this album pairs perfectly with a quiet rainy day.
[You can see Joan’s work here.]Bob Wilber, For Saxes Only: One of my favorite things about doing actual physical crate-digging is and always has been the joy of finding records with beautiful or beguiling or goofy covers, titles and premises, buying them blind, then going home to see if what you got was a gem or a dud. I got this gem on the next-to-last record shopping trip my husband and I made before the lockdown, at the great Musique Plastique records in our Portland, OR neighborhood. It’s an instructional jazz record for sax students wherein each arrangement has everything but one sax line. Some of the sheet music is inside. You’re supposed to sit there with your sax and play along! I have no sax, and Musique Plastique’s physical location is now all cleaned out and closed, but I do have this record, and I listen to it a lot.
Adnan Othman, “Bershukor” A Retrospective Of Hits By A Malaysian Pop Yeh Yeh Legend: This is out on the great Sublime Frequencies label, and before I came across it, I had no idea that there was a yeh yeh scene in Malaysia and Singapore in the 60s. Did you? This is full of jams, and also tons of great photos and notes of Othman that really transport you if you immerse yourself. Adnan Othman was the big dude on the scene, like a flashy Ian Svenonius/Little Richard figure. The 26 jams on this double LP are almost all room-mic’d, and have a lot of live feeling to ’em; it’s very dirty garage sparkle, and it’s a delight.
Natural Beauty, the newest LP from Portland power pop prodigy Mo Troper: Man, I have listened to this record, no joke, nearly every day since it was delivered to our house from the wonderful Portland-based Tender Loving Empire imprint earlier this year. It’s such a smart, smart record that I exclaimed “what the FUCK” about 20 seconds in to the opener, “I Eat“. There are so many brilliant arrangements, so many deft production moves, so many sharp harmonies. It’s Teenage Fanclub-level power pop with a chip on its shoulder; it’s earworms with an Elliott Smith-level attention to detail (a note my husband pointed out that I agree with completely). There are little easter eggs all over this thing, and it just keeps giving and giving. And what a voice! BIG FAN OF MO TROPER. LET’S ALL BE FRIENDS, MO!
Please Advise, the new EP from DC legends Beauty Pill:Always listen to Chad Clark. Always learn from Chad Clark. Chad is a visionary, a luminary, one of our most brilliant and innovative Capital A Artists. Being #blessed with a new Beauty Pill EP in the year of our lord 2020 is a balm. Chad describes this EP as “A document of a time of uncertainty and fragmentation” — he and the band are masters of sonic texture, of lyrical storytelling, of peering into the deep darkness and somehow holding up a match so that you can see it too. What will you do with the match? Just watch, or burn it down, or singe yourself, or use it to light the fire of your own creative desires? Everything BP does is a filmic conversation with its audience, with sick-ass beats and velvety delivery and a hand on the shoulder. If you’re not already a devotee, get on it.
The Music of Trinidad, a Sounds of the World recording from the National Geographic Society: I have had this record since I was a teenager; I think I got it at Sound Exchange in Houston for a dollar (again with the “buying a record for the cover” thing). It’s a beautiful and frustrating listen because it’s presented as a bit of a montage; more of an appetizer platter of different types of traditional, folk and then-contemporary (this came out in the mid-60s) Trinidadian music. Just when you get into something and want to hear an entire record of it, the track is cut short and it’s replaced in a jarring way with another stylistically different track that makes you want to hear an entire record of THAT, and so forth. It’s meant to be a document of a ton of different styles, and there’s a large Houghton Mifflin-style outdated Eurocentric book inside detailing the origin of pan, calypso, etcetera. The thing that’s great about the record is that I always rush to learn and hear more after listening to it; everything on it is absolutely gorgeous and luminous and makes you have saucer-eyes and hungry ears.
KANKYO OGNAKU, Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music, 1980-1990: This is being played into the ground over here; it is a MUST-HAVE BOX SET. Every weekend morning, especially if it’s a Sunday, throw one of the LPs on, light a candle, make some coffee, read a book or the paper while you’re sitting near a window and a plant, and you’re on the right track. It is a Light In The Attic joint, all architectural soundscapes from various geniuses that squeeze your individual mind grapes differently. I have not had a xanax prescription or taken acid in a very very long time, and this gorgeous set helps do what those things did, and lord knows we all need that right now.
[You can hear Stephen’s music here and here.]It’s not revelatory to say that the temptation to retreat into a continual state of abject escapism is very real these days. Ever mindful of the ease with which I can retreat or escape, I’m endeavoring to subvert that urge inter-personally, politically, and emotionally — all with varying degrees of success. Music continues, for me, to act as not an escape, but as a call for something greater within myself and the world which I inhabit. It also serves to challenge my expectations, show me the truth of the souls that share their musical gifts, and reinforce my own need to continue to do the work required to dismantle the unjust and often, false doctrines I was raised with. These albums are recent favorites and perennial stalwarts that are helping to light my way.
As a long-time fan of Steve Albini it’s unsurprising that I would purchase Music from the film Girl on the Third Floor. That said, Albini is only one piece of the ensemble. Alison Chesley (stage name Helen Money, also a founding member of Verbow) has knocked me out each time I have had the good fortune to see her open for Shellac, and her performances and contributions here are incredible. Gaelynn Lea also makes an appearance as vocalist on the LP’s longest and most ambitious track. Her vocals are arresting, contain a purity I lack the vocabulary to describe, and demand repeated listens. And finally there is Tim Midyett of Silkworm, Bottomless Pit, and more recently Mint Mile whose bass, baritone guitar and Vibrachime all act as steady anchors to the moody, spacious and contemplative tunes. I haven’t watched the film yet. I plan to, but I want to live with these tunes for a while longer first.
And speaking of living with tunes, Espiritu Zombi by The Eternals/Espiritu Zombi Group, is a record I was not ready for when my host here, Zach Barocas, gave me a copy. Much like Zach’s insistent beats have propelled me to places I thought I was ill-equipped or unprepared for, this record has, and continues to challenge my preconceptions about what music is and what it does to us. This LP is emotionally heavy, uplifting, and ambitious in ways that I’m still working out four years later. I get stuck in creative ruts just like any person struggling to make art and I return to this record to help me push through, it has yet to fail me. One favorite moment is the chorus of “Blackout!,” “Moved to do the things you do / Like someone’s coming after you / Monsters are cruel / Don’t let them fool… you.” Yes they are, and they are plentiful these days.
Continuing that thread, Hold On To Yourself by Friendship Commanders is an unrelenting and unflinching shot of fury aimed at abusers. In the tune “Among Monsters,” Buick Audra asks if she lives among monsters, shares her feelings of fear, then asks us if we can imagine a world where we feel no pain. These days I find myself asking those same questions more often than I’d like. Knowing I’m not contending with them alone gives me some solace. I love this record for it’s viciousness (Buick’s guitar playing & vocals, and Jerry’s drumming), but especially for its vulnerability. The final track, “July’s Revelations,” is the kind of tune I wish I was brave enough to attempt myself. If that’s not inspiration, I’m not sure what is.
Sing What Scares You by Trophy Wife has been in heavy rotation lately partly because of the message on the lyric sheet insert: Sing what scares you, ok? It’s a message I’m trying to remember for myself. The other reason I am playing this over and over is that Diane Foglizzo and Katy Otto write incredible songs that are equal parts fury and sensitivity. They touch upon themes of autonomy, setting boundaries, love/loss all while serving it up with heavy guitar, raw vocals, and some of my favorite drumming. Years after sharing stages with them, and hearing the tune “Identifiers” several times in those settings, I still get chills when Diane sings: “Take flight from this world / In your skin you’ll be born again.”
Years by Criteria has become a regular staple in my weekly running routine. It’s loud, unapologetically anthemic rock music. It’s the kind of music that can elicit (in a lot of fratty-looking white men especially) fist pumping, singing along (off-key) and a kind of jockishness that on the whole I abhor. That is, if any of those kinds of people will readily tolerate tunes in 6/8 and refrains of “Break away / Before you break me down / Down like an enzyme it won’t be the first time” or “We want world Peace / We want it right away”. It’s funny to me that even when I’m trying to “loosen up” and “just play some feel-good music” while I run, there are still some heavy themes wrapped around kick-ass guitar riffs, killer drums, and catchy vocals. Oh well.
Do I even need to talk about Coriky? I hesitated to include this here, but decided I absolutely should because it’s a record that speaks directly to my quest for reaffirming alliances, shoring up the walls of my psyche, and taking stock of the ways in which I have progressed and the ways in which I have been lulled into complacency. Do I need to tell you how great Amy Farina’s drumming and vocals are? Do I need to tell you that Joe Lally’s bass playing is still phenomenal? Do we really need to hear more about Ian MacKaye’s uncanny ability to write a super catchy chorus? And that it’s a song about a drone pilot? Maybe I don’t need to tell you all those things, but I kinda did anyway, and that’s the game I’m playing with myself lately too. What am I doing? What do I believe in? Where have I fallen short? How can I help? If not now, when?
[You can hear some of J.’s music here, here, and here.]Sparks,A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: Brothers Ron and Russell Mael formed Sparks in 1967, which means they have been a band as long as I’ve been alive. 2020 is the year I became a super-fan. This is their 24th studio album, released this May, and like every other Sparks record I’ve heard, it’s full of timeless, eccentric yet immediate pop music that crackles with an irrepressible creative joy. Sublimely ridiculous lyrics (“Stravinsky’s only hit / he toned it down a bit / He didn’t write the words, that was my job”) frame surreal and sometimes unexpectedly poignant stories, while the music runs an insanely wide gamut from almost symphonic harmonic complexity to new-wave ditty simplicity. Unlikely but incredibly catchy hooks abound. This record achieved the impossible: it made me smile while I was doing yard work.
The Drones, Feelin’ Kinda Free: The Drones were an Australian guitar band between 1997 – 2016. Members went on to form the delightfully-named Tropical Fuck Storm, who are also great, but the Drones are a special band for me and this record is a masterpiece. Singer/guitarist Garth Liddiard is a virtuoso of “wrong” notes and whammy bar mutations, whose playing has a scary emotional directness, seeming sometimes to grasp and stumble, but always with purpose and musicality. Their sound went through stages from garage-psych noise to melancholy Gothic Americana, to Neil Young-influenced walls of sound, and this record, their last, was a dive off the deep end incorporating loops, digital editing, and deep synth bass into an uncompromising wall of sound, with lyrics ranging from sharp-tongued political outrage (“Private Execution”) and conspiracy-theory-fueled satire (“Taman Shud”) to broken-hearted farewells (“To Think That I Once Loved You”). I often describe this record as “imagine if Beauty Pill were drug-addled reprobates,” and I say that with a heart full of love and awe.
Grace Jones, Hurricane: I got HOOKED on this record for maybe two weeks after watching the documentary “Bloodlight and Bami.” Deep grooves, inventive production, powerfully autobiographical lyrics, that unmistakeable voice so full of depth and challenge. A perfect beginning: “This is my voice, my weapon of choice.” The song “Williams Blood” is like a tone poem. Before I heard this record, I had always thought of Grace Jones mainly as an icon of surfaces and representation — her piercing gaze; her striking looks; her records, which, though brilliantly curated and highly enjoyable, were mainly cover tunes – but this (no less stylish) record is personal, powerful, and deep.
Einstürzende Neubauten, Perpetuum Mobile: Most people who know Einstürzende Neubauten only from a distance seem to think of them primarily as a noise band, more of an alienating art statement than music; the putative inventors of the elusive genre known as “industrial,” with lore such as their legendary destruction of the old 9:30 Club stage with jackhammers. But in the course of their 40-year history, they have absorbed and incorporated influences as disparate as Kurt Weil and Lee Hazelwood, and produced some sublimely beautiful music with unorthodox textures, hypnotic rhythms, and poetic lyrics. This record can bring tears to my eyes, especially “Youme and Meyou” and “Dead Friends Around the Corner.”
T-Bone Burnett, Tooth of Crime: T-Bone Burnett is mostly known as a record producer (his star-studded discography includes Sam Phillips, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand) and soundtrack composer (True Detective among many others). I went looking into his music after hearing an interview on the Broken Record podcast, and this album, along with its sister “The True False Identity,” stuck with me. The musical soundscape often resembles a slicker, more elegant version of Tom Waits’ recent records – noisy, often overdriven – yet somehow still understated. Lonely tremolo guitars hang in the charged air, distorted kick drums boom and ring, but the total effect is more seductive than Waits’ cranky challenge. Burnett’s deadpan delivery of darkly comic lyrics sometimes gives way to a more melancholy melodicism and an almost tin pan alley aesthetic, as in the ballad “Dope Island,” a duet with Sam Phillips which is a standout track for me.
Jerry Goldsmith, Logan’s Run Soundtrack: Jerry Goldsmith has been a huge musical influence on me since I was a kid. Like all the best movie composers, he was able to evoke the inner lives of a film’s characters, the soul within its action, and bring the audience into the story in a way only music could achieve. He was an effortless musical chameleon, while still maintaining his voice as a composer — endlessly inventive with melody, harmony, and rhythm, equally comfortable with pop hooks or 12-tone soundscapes. It became his curse that he had to supply depth for so many films that lacked it in and of themselves (to illustrate my point: try watching the supernatural scenes in the original “Poltergeist” with the sound down). Anyway, leaving the actual movie aside, this score is great! Goldsmith was a big fan of mixing what was then brand-new music tech like analog synthesizers and tape echo units with more conventional orchestral sounds, and in this score he really revels in avant-garde synth weirdness (to reflect the emotionless world of the dome dwellers) – but he also makes the most out of what sounds like a small-ish orchestra (with nods to Stravinsky and Copland) when it’s time to bring a sense of wonder or a deeper human feeling.