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The Top 20 Albums of 2020 (6-10)

The Top 20 Albums of 2020 (6-10)

Here is part two of my list of top twenty albums of 2020.

6. Lianne La HavasLianne La Havas. This eponymously titled album is her third following Blood from 2015 and Is Your Love Big Enough from 2012. I had not heard of her until I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015 when she sat in with the Jon Batiste and Stay Human band and performed “Green and Gold” from Blood. It was an and incredible performance backed by a great band, so I bought the album and began to learn more about her. She was born in London to a Greek father and Jamaican mother. Her father taught her how to play piano and guitar, and she sang in her school choir. She got a big break in her career when she was featured on Prince’s album Art Official Age, and sang with him in an epic 2014 Saturday Night Live performance of the song “Clouds”. The first single from her new album is a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”, and it’s brilliant. Enjoy!

7. Bonny Light HorsemanBonny Light Horseman. This album was released in January, and I think it was the first new album I bought this year. As I wrote then, “I was struck by the clarity of their sound and their perfect vocal harmonies.” I must still be because I continue to play this album a lot. The group is made up of Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson, who in the press materials wrote of the reworked traditional folk songs they recorded: “This record is about timeless humanity. These 500-year-old lyrics are so deeply applicable. ‘The Roving’ could be the plot of an ’80s teen movie: ‘I had a wild summer with this awesome girl then she broke my heart!’ How incredible is it that as humans we still just want to love and have sex and feel sad and fight? It’s ancient music that feels, emotionally, right now. It’s thoroughly modern.”

8. Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery BandJust Like Moby Dick. Terry Allen has been putting out some strange form of Texan alt-country absurdist songs and music since the seventies. He is also an accomplished writer, playwriter, sculptor, and visual artist. Check out his label bio here. This album includes his stalwart band, some family members who play various instruments and add backing vocals, and Charlie Sexton as co-producer, plus Shannon McNally, a new collaborator, provides prominent vocals on some songs. It’s a great collection of odd people and strange stories that’s well worth listening to over and over again. Here’s one of the odder songs about a circus visiting a city of vampires.

9. Fantastic NegritoHave You Lost Your Mind Yet? Well these days sometimes I think I have, and this album is the perfect for when I feel that way. I don’t think many people know of Fantastic Negrito (real name Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz), but I think many people should – like you! His music draws on blues, R&B, roots music, a little psychedelia, and some great guitar work. Check out this video for “Chocolate Samurai” which features home videos solicited by Fantastic Negrito that show what his fans were doing to entertain themselves during quarantine.

10. Jerry JosephThe Beautiful Madness. This the most powerful political album I’ve heard in years. The album is produced by Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers, who’ve put out their own great political music, but this one is a gut punch. Jerry Joseph is new to me this year, which is surprising. I’d like to be able to say I first heard Jerry Joseph on KEXP, but I cannot recall ever hearing him on the station (must be too many f-bombs in his songs), so I only know of the album because it was mentioned in a weekly No Depression email, and I read the review and I immediately bought the album. Here’s a little snip from the review:

On Jerry Joseph’s new record, The Beautiful Madness, he walks the line between darkness and light, good and evil, and does so masterfully as he somehow speaks into the current realities of life with songs that were written well before a virus ravaged the globe and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd erupted protests and movements in the name of justice.

In other words, The Beautiful Madness is both prophetic and apocalyptic, quickly becoming a revelation for all who have ears to hear.

“Putting down the torch, surrender to the swell,” Joseph sings on opening track, “Days of Heaven.” “Ready for the dive, these are the days of heaven.” Co-written with Drive-By Truckers’ founding member Patterson Hood (who also produced the album), “Days of Heaven” sets the foundation for what’s to come on the rest of the record: living life on the brink of beautiful madness.

Here’s the video for “Sugar Smacks”.

Some of the Best New Music of 2020 so Far…

Some of the Best New Music of 2020 so Far…

There’s nothing better than listening to music while you are sheltering in place, so I have put together a few video tracks of my favorite albums that have been released this year.

I learned of Porridge Radio a few weeks ago, and I have been listening to them via YouTube because before the pandemic when I was able to go to Easy Street Records in West Seattle or Sonic Boom Records in Ballard, neither store had any of their music in stock. I guess I will have to order it and have it delivered.

Anyway, here is how Alexis Petridis describes “Lilac” in his review of their album Every Bad for The Guardian.

Lilac, meanwhile, turns that emotional journey on its head. This time around, Margolin repeats: “I don’t want to get bitter, I want us to get better, I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other.” What looks like a self-help platitude on paper slowly builds up a power at odds with its sentiment, becoming increasingly frenzied and raw-throated, in a way that completely undercuts any optimism. By the end of the song, it sounds confoundingly like a threat.

This tension of opposites is a recurring theme, not just in Margolin’s ability to destabilise a lyric with her voice, but in the words themselves. They’re big on inconsistency – “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I want” – and frequently sound like frantic internal dialogues that capture a very twentysomething brand of angst, where the realisation that you’re now an adult crashes against uncertainty about whether you’re doing adulthood correctly.

This next one is by Destroyer, a band, or basically a guy named Dan Bejar who I discovered from reading this Pitchfork review of his latest album, Have We Met.

In the extraordinary “Kinda Dark,” he delivers his apocalyptic verses in a distracted whisper over subdued electronic scenery. When the drums hit and the electric guitar attacks out of nowhere, it feels genuinely startling: the appearance of the looming threat he’s been slowly backing away from the whole time.

This sense of unease spans the record, making uptempo songs like the glittery “It Just Doesn’t Happen” and the soaring “Crimson Tide” sound like dispatches from a doomed adventure. Other songs exist in the cloud of smoke that’s left behind.

I first heard this new “supergroup” Bonny Light Horseman while wandering around Sonic Boom Records a couple months ago. The band members are Eric D. Johnson, Anaïs Mitchell, and Josh Kaufman – all of whom I am not that familiar with, but I guess many people are because they are SUPER. I was struck by the clarity of their sound and their perfect vocal harmonies, so I bought their eponymously titled debut album. The video is from a live performance and it sounds very muck like it does on the album. No Depression wrote this about it:

That winter [of 2018], they made the trek to Dreamland Recording in Woodstock, New York, for another quick session to finish what they hoped would be enough for a record. “When we went to Woodstock, we knew we were trying to finish a record, and I think the question became, how to record in a way that felt of-a-piece with the Berlin stuff in an environment that was so different,” Mitchell says. They had a blast over the course of two days, again standing close to one another, playing live without headphones, and joined by Michael Lewis (bass, saxophone) and JT Bates (drums, percussion), as well as engineer Bella Blasco and mixer D. James Goodwin. That live sound results in an intimate, but atmospheric vibe that permeates every song on the album. These sessions took on that same sense of immediacy the band felt in Berlin, particularly with songs like “Deep in Love” and “The Roving,” two of the album’s standouts.

This last one is by another singer I learned about this year while reading No Depression reviews. Her name is Kyshona Armstrong. Here’s a snippet from the review.

Kyshona Armstrong honed her craft in the state mental hospital. Not as an inmate, but as a teacher. She broadened her musical healing abilities in prisons and also in schools, working with children diagnosed with emotional behavior disorders.

The singer, who records under her first name, has said that she never wanted to be in the spotlight. Armstrong had aspirations to be a psychologist, but a music scholarship opened up new possibilities for her in the field of musical therapy. She eventually realized that her message could do good from the stage as well.

On the title cut, Kyshona urges people within the sound of her voice to start their activism by the simple act of listening: “I know you wanna help / but you’re deaf to the mission / Even when you see the hand I’m dealt / You pretend it’s my decision.”

And last but not least, Pearl Jam is releasing a new album titled Gigaton tomorrow. Alexis Petridis wrote this about “Quick Escape” for The Guardian:

Quick Escape does a lot of Pearl Jammy stuff – big soaring chorus, more guitar histrionics – but sets them against an atmosphere that’s authentically spacey and strange, as again befits lyrics that have taken on an entirely unwitting kind of currency. If you’re going to release a song about the human race facing such catastrophe that escaping to another planet feels appealing, now is probably the moment to do it.

That’s all for this week. I’ll try and do this more often – maybe every couple of weeks or so.