[You can learn more about Uli here and here.]
I’ve decided to put the focus of my posts on 2020 releases. Maybe in an attempt to give this year a bright spot. I haven’t spent much time hitting a select group of records during quarantine. Instead, I’ve been spending time listening to my record collection in order from back to front, alphabetically. I’m currently on letter F at Fugazi‘s Repeater. Now, let’s dive into three releases that I really enjoyed spending some time with this year.
Lamb of God, S/T: Admittedly, I don’t listen to metal much, but I certainly have an open mind and appreciation for it. Now and then, there is a metal record that is every bit groove as it is intense, and LOG’s recent self-titled release is undoubtedly one of them. The more natural fluidity of rhythm in these compositions grabbed my attention. Metal to me is a little too abrupt of a stop and go, but the movement of these songs feel really natural and “right”… whatever that means. What I also enjoy about this record is how well it is recorded. Its such a crisp recording with an exceptional balance of the accompanying instruments. This is really key for me to take in a high energy record. What I enjoyed most of this record and this band is their attention to sociopolitical issues in the lyrics. Overall, this record certainly feels like a record this band was supposed to create. It delivers from start to finish, which I’ve been looking for in a 2020 release.
Phantogram, Ceremony: I’ve been a big fan of this group after coming across them as an opener in a radio winter holiday show that I attended for Weezer in 2016. They possess a really interesting sound that blends trip-hop, electronic dance, and rock. It casts a bit of a dark mood, but it’s energetic at the same time. Their 4th full-length, Ceremony, opens up with a more upbeat dance pop vibe. I certainly felt like it was a proper takeoff for the record. Unfortunately, the energy and excitement that comes from that opening track struggles to remain throughout the record. The journey from track to track isn’t as seamless as their earlier releases, but I still appreciate what this record has to offer. “Into Happiness” gives the more familiar dark electronic dance vibe that is sewn into the Phantogram DNA. Overall this feels like a more abstract approach while trying not to be at the same time. I could see how people could dig this record. I’m stoked on the gems this record has, and if it took building the journey of this album to give life to those tracks, I’m glad this record exists as part of their discography. I’m eager to see what comes after this release. Not so much that I need something closer to their first releases, but I feel this sets them up to transition into the next phase of Phantogram.
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Temple: This is another band that I quickly got hooked on by their unique trip-hop vibes. The thing that makes this band interesting is their ability to jump genres so frequently throughout a record, and even within a song, and then perfectly weave them together for a cohesive arrangement. Temple starts off with the album titled single that immediately captured my attention with a really cool twangy guitar riff. Then in comes a FUNKY bassline quickly followed by a more new-wave vibe drum sequence… and off it goes. This track is made complete with really specific and honest lyrics of her mother’s journey as a Vietnamese refugee. One of my favorite things about this album is how much more it showcases Thao’s unique flow as a vocalist. There is a very Missy Elliot vibe to her flow that I really enjoy. I would summarize it as an avant-garde Rap to verses and chorus. The second track “Phenom” perfectly illustrates that. Another high-point for me on this record is just 4 songs in with a unique indie-rock jam, “Pure Cinema.” A little more of a brighter, upbeat vibe. Then comes, “Marauders,” a love song for her wife that gives off a Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” vibe. The album from there keeps on…interesting and authentic to the group’s flawless ability to seamlessly blend in and out of so many genres. The closing track “Marrow” is such a proper closing track that dynamically sets the mood to feel like we’re saying goodbye… for now.
[You can order Jason’s book here.]
Alice Coltrane, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana (1977): I call this my “morning vibes” album and listen to it almost daily. I really love religious music, whether it’s gospel or old records of cantors singing in gigantic synagogues. There’s just a kind of beauty and purity you get when somebody is singing their praises to whatever they believe and I love that. Alice Coltrane was just on another level. This particular album just blends so much and takes you dancing through the cosmos and is a nice post-meditation album for me.
Drab City, Good Songs for Bad People (2020): When I was in my 20s I went through a heavy phase where I listened to a ton of Portishead and Stereolab and any haunting, beautiful film music that was or sounds like it could be from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I seem to be revisiting. So Krzysztof Komeda and stuff off of Kind of Blue, but also the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Drab City just sounds like a descent into night, like bad things are going to happen in the dark and the only thing that’s going to save you is daylight. It’s been helping me formulate this novel I’ve been playing around with.
Arthur Russell, Love Is Overtaking Me (2004): I’m a massive Arthur Russell fan, but I’ve somehow skipped over this one. I don’t know — I guess I just never thought “Gee, I want to listen to Russell’s country folk album,” but I also make a lot of dumb decisions. That was one of them. This is a really lovely summertime album, but it also shows just how incredibly diverse of an artist he was.
Unwound, Leaves Turn Inside You (2001): It’s funny, there are truly seasonal songs and albums, like I have a difficult time listening to the Beach Boys in the winter or will listen to “The Summer Ends” by American Football all the time towards the end of August. Leaves Turn Inside You isn’t a seasonal album, per se, but there’s just something about “leaves turn” in the album title that makes me think of fall. That, and I once took mushrooms and wandered around a forest listening to it and that was in late October, so I guess there’s some psychological psychedelic connection. The first few minutes of “We Invent You” … that feedback. Damn. It’s just too beautiful. I put it on after I heard Vern Rumsey had passed and I was sobbing by the time “Look a Ghost” started.
8Ball & MJG, Comin Out Hard (1993): I was thinking about growing up and making skate videos with my friends. I feel like homemade skate videos from the 1990s got pretty crazy and artsy if you had a friend that was looking to maybe learn a little more about basic editing. I definitely see skate video influence popping up more and more in unexpected places, but the best thing to me was always the soundtracks. My friends and I made a video once which features me throwing a Slurpee at some security cops that kicked us out of a skate spot we loved. The whole thing moved to “Armed Robbery” by 8Ball & MJG, and putting it on this playlist I’ve been playing around with made me revisit this album. It’s a classic.
Quicksand, Slip (1993): Another one that actually made it onto that skate video. I learned about Quicksand by skating to this album and my friend telling me “The dude was in Gorilla Biscuits.” For some reason I couldn’t wrap my teenage mind around that and figured he was just bullshitting me. Walter Schreifels is one of those guys like Steve Albini or Tim Green who I tend to put a lot of trust in terms of the bands they play in and the stuff they produce, but I think this album has aged especially well. There’s just something really comforting about this one, how certain parts sound like Fugazi and others remind me of You’d Prefer an Astronaut by Hum.
[You can check in with Ralph here.]
Beak>, >>>: I’m a ride or die Geoff Barrow fan. His body of work is a veritable cornucopia of resonant analog bleakness that hits me in all the right spots. I’m talking back to back bangers! From the iconic Portishead to his Stones Throw Records hip hop project Quakers, to his work with droll german/britt singer Anika. The dude has been dropping nonstop flames for a solid 2 decades, not to mention his soundtrack work with Ben Salisbury. In 2018 him and fellow shredders Will Young & Billy Fuller (who apparently plays with Robert Plant) hit us with the Beak> album >>> (not to be confused with their 2012 release: >>) and guess what? IT FUCKING SLAPS! It’s a moody 10 song hypnotic black hole that could work as the soundtrack to a late 70’s sci-fi art film about the end of the world. Think Vangelis’s Bladerunner soundtrack, Can, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Dr. Who, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop with maybe a splash of Joy Division. It’s a great rainy day album. It’s been in heavy rotation in my lab & is proving to be a prescient soundtrack to this slow-moving apocalypse. Thanks, Geoff.
Rocket Juice & The Moon, s/t: I’m also a diehard Damon Albarn fan. The guy is just full of killer ideas and has this ability to pull together these wicked collaborations. Back In 2008 someone played a song for me called “Hey Shooter.” The song featured Albarn on keys Tony Allen on drums, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Flea on bass, and Erykah Badu on vocals. I mean goddamn! The project was called Rocket Juice and The Moon. The nucleus of this one-shot supergroup was Albarn, Allen, & Flea and it features a revolving cast of collaborators. After hearing “Hey Shooter” I was hyped on the IDEA of the group but for whatever reasons, I hadn’t heard much else. I didn’t see the record on shelves anywhere, I didn’t hear anyone talk about it. It was akin to seeing a shooting star that no one else saw. But then sometime last year on a random trip to the record store with Damon Locks, we happened across a copy of the full length. A beautiful gatefold album featuring killer cover art by Ogunajo Ademola. It’s been in my steady rotation ever since. It’s a great record chock full of ill grooves & It has a fantastic looseness to it. It feels as if Albarn, Allen, and Flea went into a studio, hit the record button & just jammed then went back & added collaborators. This album also introduced me to the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. I love her voice. I’d be remiss not to mention that the album has one major shortcoming. The fucking rapping. M.anifest is the Ghanaian emcee featured on a good portion of this record, he’s not a bad rapper by any means, but every song he’s featured on is GREAT until he barges in and starts unnecessarily rapping all over it. Imagine you’re on a road trip, vibing to your favorite tune, the best part of the song is about to drop, heerrrre it comes in 1…2..thr. NOPE the voice of google maps disrupts your whole shit like “IN 500 FEET TAKE EXIT 3B” That’s what the rapping does on this otherwise beautiful album. Fortunately, there are enough great ideas on the Rocket Juice & The Moon record to keep me on board. The song “Benko” is by far my favorite. It’s a short melancholy masterpiece.
Little Dragon, New Me, Same Us: Speaking of melancholy masterpieces, this new Little Dragon record has been a great counterweight to the times. While the Beak> album feels like a soundtrack to the downfall of our dystopia, the new Little Dragon record feels more like a colorful lush reimagining of the world. Not so much subject-wise but sonically. Of all the newer records I’ve been listening to lately, New Me, Same Us is definitely the most lyrically personal and most polished production-wise. Yukimi Nagano has a voice like chocolate: it’s sweet, it’s rich, it’s comforting and if you had no idea what she looked like you’d ask yourself “Is this a Black lady?” Also, I don’t want to get so hung up on her voice that I ignore the rest of the band because these cats can write some beautifully textured songs. Little Dragon was also one of the first bands I saw do an online concert back in the early stages of the pandemic and they’ve really managed to keep doing cool things online since they were unable to tour in support of their new record. I love this band and this album. They’ve been kind of a beacon in this mess. Now here’s some word association: Swedish, alternative, r&b, synths, dance, trip hop-ish.
A.K. Paul, Landcrusin: This one’s a bit of a cheat because it’s not actually a full-length album. It’s only a single. But I have to insist on including it in my Day’s Plays because I’ve been bumping it HARD for about almost a year now nonstop. Here’s how it started. Fact magazine is a UK publication that focuses on electronic music, hip hop, and experimental music. They started a series on their youtube channel called Re:cover where they feature an artist or band and have them cover a song. One of these videos was a band I’d never heard of called The Okumu, Herbert, Skinner trio covering A.K. Paul’s Landcruisn which I’d also never heard. But I thought the dudes looked cool & I knew Fact usually had some pretty interesting content so I figured I’d give it a shot. I absolutely LOVED IT! I don’t know what it is, that catchy-ass riff, the killer tone of each instrument, the clear technical acumen of the players, the trio’s cool aesthetic vibes. the song just “got me.” But it didn’ stop there, I HAD to hear the original and let me tell you it did NOT disappoint. Imagine if Prince and D’angelo decided they wanted to produce a Devo song. Yes it is absolutely as cool as it sounds.
Reggae Anthology: Niney Observer – Roots With Quality: This 40 song, double LP is full of bangers. A collection of tunes by various artists produced by criminally underrated reggae pioneer Winston Holness aka Niney Observer. It explodes out the gate with the tune voiced by Niney himself, “Blood & Fire.” 70‘s roots reggae was rife with “fire and brimstone end times”-type songs. I consider “Blood & Fire” to be a flagship example of this sort of tune, lyrically evoking the wrath of Old Testament God but juxtaposing it against a tonally pleasant tapestry. It feels very appropriate and on brand with the times we’re currently living in which is probably why it’s been getting a lot of play from me as of late. The album also features a few singers I had never heard before. My favorite has to be Sang Hugh & The Lionaires. If you’re a person who is interested in early roots & dub reggae but don’t know a lot about it i’d definitely suggest this album.
Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble, Where future Unfolds: Where do I begin with this one? I spend a lot of time with Damon Locks so I’ve been fortunate enough to watch BME grow from an idea to a full blown experience. Like the last song on the album “From A Spark to a Fire.” If you have no context whatsoever, imagine the general vibe of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, nods to Eddy Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening album, a black choir, & elements of the early Rza or Madlib -style production. This record is phenomenal.
[You can hear Tierney’s music here.]
Eels, Shootenanny!: I am, as they say, a “big fan” of this band. One of the books that I was excited to finally read this summer was Mark Everett Oliver’s devastatingly deep autobiography Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Coincidentally, I had also watched a series that was suggested to me called Love, and was pleasantly surprised to see that “E” was acting in it as (what I can only assume after learning about his life) a version of himself. Needless to say, these events took me down a path to dig deeper into the albums that I had not fully immersed myself in yet, and for whatever reason (probably the intimidating catalog), I never really got around to this one. But, as any admirer would know, the two main ingredients that make up a strikingly good Eels song are genuine, dry wit mixed with a simple melody that you wish you came up with… and this delightful concoction happens all throughout Shootenanny!.
Amiina, The Lighthouse Project: When touring was still a thing, there were a few albums that I would rotate whenever I needed a relaxed or meditative escape from being in a car or on a plane for hours at a time. Or just touring in general. The Lighthouse Project by the Icelandic group, Amiina, was one that was on automatic repeat. Aside from almost knocking me out (I’m cursed with not being able to sleep in moving vehicles), on a musicality level, I think that they’re absolute masters of simplicity and negative space. They’re able to create these beautiful, perfectly sparse instrumentals using only a minimal amount of instruments like glockenspiels, saws, atmospheric synths, and my favorite, a Rhodes. While I’ve mourned the idea of touring for the foreseeable future, I’ve luckily been able to transfer the calming effect of this music to my quarantime with great results.
Dave Hill, The Pride of Cleveland: Pride! That’s what I feel knowing that I am associated with one of the funniest and most hardworking people on the planet. Dave’s new live comedy album is out now and I would be a terrible friend if I didn’t mention it. All you need is an hour and the slightest knowledge of NYC to enjoy it (which should qualify pretty much everyone)… and maybe a sense of humor. That would help.
Built To Spill, Untethered Moon: I suppose that I should thank the Spotify robot that had the incredible but creepy intuition to include “Another Day” on a playlist that was made, apparently, for me… which again, is kinda creepy. Otherwise, I may not have ever heard my most-played album of 2020. One of the aspects that I love about this band is the use of layering. Doug Martsch has a way of tastefully blending organs, synths, and other textures with his unique brand of guitar playing, that transforms into something bigger than the sum of its parts. I got the same feeling of excitement when this song came over my little pink kitchen radio as I did when I heard Keep It Like a Secret for the first time. Dare I say that this may be my favorite album of theirs, if it’s even possible to pick a favorite…
Matmos, Plastic Anniversary: I’ve admired this experimental electronic duo-couple from Baltimore for a while now, ever since I learned that they were enlisted to work on Bjork’s Vespertine. Apart from deeply focusing on my own demo playbacks, I couldn’t tell you when I last sat down and solely listened to music without any other distractions. But what I can say is that I haven’t heard anything this exciting in a while. Plastic Anniversary‘s sounds were made entirely with recycled plastics, and the record is anything but sterile or synthetic. Utilizing everything from dominoes to PVC pipe, implants, and bubble wrap, it’s best enjoyed when the listener can be fully submerged in the ASMR-like effects via headphones. One of my favorite tracks, “Breaking Bread”, was built from sampled fragments of broken vinyl by the 70’s rock band, Bread. Crazy! There are also contributions from real-life Animal-drummer, Greg Saunier, and members of a high school drumline playing garbage cans. And on top of all of that, the album’s other overarching theme is meant to be an environmental statement on the world’s intense relationship with the pervasive material, with a hopeful call for change.
Mobb Deep, The Infamous: I’m sort of embarrassed to say that as many times as this album has passed through my fingertips during my almost 20-something years as a record store clerk, the only time I ever took the CD out of the jewel case was to check the condition for resale. But thanks to a recent episode of Song Exploder, I was instantly drawn to the haunting “Shook Ones, Pt. II” and it’s backstory, and needed to find out more. I’ve always loved an eerie piano line, and The Infamous is chock full of similar, dark musical bits ingeniously sampled and detuned from the likes of Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones, who were contemporaries of Prodigy’s musically successful relatives. The album feels more like a tragic documentary with a cinematic score more than anything, and the raw lyrical content forces you to step outside of yourself to try and imagine what it might be like to live in impoverished Queens in the mid 90’s. It’s a life that most of us will never know or be able to relate to, and is unfortunately, still relevant in black communities today, making this an even more important listen.