[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.
[You can hear Mark’s latest music here and here.]These are some records I’ve been listening pretty heavy to. Truly some of my absolute favorites. Some old and new. They’ve been regular features in my monthly DJ sets and, now due to the pandemic, my livestreamed Blues and the Abstract Truth. Some have been with me for 25 years, and a couple are new releases that I am so excited about and very grateful for. Instead of adding my own commentary for each selection, I think it’s best to let them speak for themselves. I’ve included lyrics and text from these incredible documents. They uplift and speak to a greater consciousness than I could ever communicate.Selection #1: Archie Shepp, Attica Blues (1972): “Attica Blues / Invocation: Attica Blues”
“I got a feeling that something ain’t going right, and I’m worried about the human soul. I got a feeling…”
“If I would have had the chance to make a decision, every man could walk this earth on equal condition. Every child could do more than just dream of a star. All the death and strife would cease, and I would put an end to war.”
“Only when nature doesn’t take it’s natural toll, am I worried for the human soul. Some people think that they are in their rights when on command they take a black man’s life. But let me give a rundown on how I feel… If it ain’t natural, than it ain’t real. I wish I were better.”
Members, don’t get weary Members, don’t get weary Members, don’t get weary For the work’s ‘mos’done.
O’keep your lamp trimmed and burning O’keep your lamp trimmed and burning O’keep your lamp trimmed and burning For the work’s ‘mos’done.
We’ll go down to the river Jordan We’ll go down to the river Jordan We’ll go down to the river Jordan When our work is done.
We’re going to sit at the welcome table We’re going to sit at the welcome table We’re going to sit at the welcome table When our work is done.
We’re going to feast on the milk and honey We’re going to feast on the milk and honey We’re going to feast on the milk and honey When our work is done.
We’re going to march with the tallest angel We’re going to march with the tallest angel We’re going to march with the tallest angel When our work is done.
Members, don’t get weary Members, don’t get weary Members, don’t get weary For the work’s ‘mos’done.
Negro Spiritual. Sung by Andy BeySelection #3: Joe Henderson featuring Alice Coltrane, The Elements(1973): “Earth”
Time Time Time Time the suffocator of the moment now dreams of tomorrow where we will find the missing pieces and on a new journey to wholeness Time Time Time Peace Love Hope moving on the wings of the moment now Time Time Time children of the soil rejoice yesterday was tomorrow never is Time is now Time Time is only love
Again comes the rising of the sun Another day when we’ve begun The unfinished chores of yesterday We set about to find our way We always finish and begin We go through life until the end And here are the things we do
We build it up, and tear it down We start all over, and make it round We can make it short, make it long Before we know it, our time is gone But tomorrow is always another day Yes we’ll keep going the same old way
But again comes the rising of the sun Another day when our work has begun We look for the better things in life Seeking to find an answer day and night Always studying and planning to make a profit And in the end we sometimes wonder if it’s worth it
And here are the things we do We build it up, and tear it down We start all over, and make it round We can make it short, make it long Before we know it, our time is gone But tomorrow is always another day Yes we’ll keep going the same old way
“Stay on it.” “At what point do we stand up? At what point do we stand up? At the breaking point? At the point of no return? At what point? At what point do we pull each other up out of the void… up out of the hell… at one point? At what point do we give a shit – do we stand up and say something? When we go off script… and step out of the daze. Dumbfounded daze… when we step out of the daze… dumbfounded daze… return back to the now. At what point?”
“Safety is in question. As the future unfolds in rapid succession. We walk in a rhythmic procession. The morning has transformed. Regression. Built up heights of depression. How can it stand? Declarations, demonstrations. Statement of intent. I will tell you what we want. What is the thing that makes you feel like your heart is growing? We want to see light touching surfaces. We want to see light touching surfaces. We want to see light touching surfaces. So we chose our next move. The time is now, it has always been. Respond anew. Pass the guard and get through. Because somethings never change. Black Monument.”
Misty In Roots: Live at the Counter Eurovision 79. I first heard Misty In Roots on John Peel way way back in the early 80’s. I learned so much from them and saw them uncountable times back in the day. I am on my second copy of this record (it was a vinyl only release) which was sent to me by a friend in London when he heard that I was in need. I listen to this ALL the time. My partner made files for me so that I can hear it on the go. Earth is a great record too.
The Blue Note: Club Culture. Having been deep in punk rock for many many years I found myself, seemingly suddenly, becoming open to different sounds and different ways of making music. Blue Note Club Culture was THAT record for me and to this day I still listen to it regularly.
We Are The World: Clay Stones. I fucking love this record and often times I feel like I am the only one. I want everyone to love it and buy it so that they continue to create. In fact I was just trying to find some more info on them to see what’s up and found a review that said of this record that “it plays like a devilish temper tantrum, where throbbing synths are overlaid with shocks of percussion, and the vocals of Megan Gold morph from possessed baptist minister to voodoo queen”. I mean … YES! Although I believe these words were meant to put potential listeners off.
The Slits: Cut. This record has the energy and confidence that I wish for myself. As a younger person I would describe this as “fuck off music”, which shouldn’t really need an explanation. And, of course, Budgie.
Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass. Agnes Obel is a Danish singer, songwriter and musician. On this record, she layers her voice so it becomes a choir. She uses instruments such as violin, cello and piano as well as other less obvious keyboards choices like the spinet, celesta and the Trautonium, which is a monophonic electronic musical instrument invented about 1929 – an early synthesizer! This is an eerie and beautiful record.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums: Rhythm. I once read something about this Swedish duo that said something along the lines of “Wildbirds & Peacedrums was born of a desire to break free and play music that captures pure, ecstatic feeling” and this is exactly what I get from their music, especially from their record Rhythm. The seemingly easy musical banter of drums and voice is so thrilling to me.
[You can listen to Damon’s latest music here and here.]
Keep your mind free is a phrase that stays ringing in my head. I orchestrated an evening of online performance and an image promoting decarceration with the same phrase. Thinking not only of those late nights when the weight of the new alternate pandemic lockdown dimension we found ourselves in pressed heavy but thinking of the people without my options. My students at Stateville Correctional Center remain in my brain while structuring correspondence classes as creative outlets, as escape, with the theme of liberation in the time of covid-19, inside of prisons, hoping to help them keep their minds free as the virus spreads. I purchased one new album in the first 2 months of the pandemic which served as a beautiful dream state inside a state of shock before the deaths of more Black people caused us to realize we never left our same racist dimension that we have always been in. Pandemic or no, the time is way overdue for structural change. Here are some records that are relevant to me some right now and some always. Thank you for reading. Love, Damon
Little Dragon’s new record is called, New Me, Same Us. This record just sat on my stereo getting flipped over and over. I am not sure where the magic of this record comes from, it just is. I paid for this record online and biked to the shop and picked it up curbside. It was a thrill to buy a record after a couple months.
Jeff Parker’s Suite For Max Brown is great. A sonic companion to his last record. Jeff’s concert was the last show I saw before the pandemic became the reality. It was a great show and it is a great record.
The Black Fairy is a record I have been looking for for a long time. I bought it a couple months ago after a long irl search. It is the songs from a theater piece done in the early 70s in Chicago about a Black fairy who loses her confidence because a little boy tells her fairies never help Black people and she has no power to make change. This is the story of how she regains herself.
Sit-In Songs w/ booklet. An instruction guide for sit-ins. See how the notes on the staff are stools? Come on!
Bernice Johnson Reagon is one of my inspirations. She was a member of The Freedom Singers who would perform at SNCC events in the height of the Civil Rights Era. The Freedom Singers set the template for how many singers I wanted in Black Monument. She later formed Sweet Honey In The Rock. This solo record uses the voice and her gospel training to address political issues. It’s a great record, very past, present, and future.