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The Top 20 Albums of 2020 (1-5)

The Top 20 Albums of 2020 (1-5)

  1. Nick CaveIdiot Prayer. Nick Cave had a world tour planned for 2020 to promote his and The Bad Seeds excellent 2019 album Ghosteen. I bought tickets to a show scheduled for October in Seattle but, as with all the other shows on the tour, it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. No live shows? What could he do? He booked the Alexandra Palace and livestreamed a pay-per-view live show of just him at piano in a venue that can hold 7,500 people. Okay, so we all know Nick’s voice is a beautiful instrument, but what about that piano? Nick wrote this for The Red Hand Files:

The piano I played at Alexandra Palace was a Fazioli. There were limited pianos I could access during lockdown. There was, however, a Fazioli. I had never played one before but Dom Monks, the guy who recorded the Alexandra Palace performance, highly recommended this piano. The moment I sat down at the Fazioli, its warm, soft, nuanced sound spoke to me like no piano had spoken to me before. I was swept away by its extraordinary tonal range. It whispered to me. It roared at me. It was the most beautiful instrument I had ever played.

I watched the livestream show on July 23rd and was blown away by the intimacy of the performance. The songs take on a whole new character when performed without The Bad Seeds. You can’t help but focus on every word and Nick’s delivery of them.

Nick wrote in the liner notes for the album released in November:

On 19th June 2020, surrounded by COVID officers with tape measures and thermometers, masked-up gaffers and camera operators, nervous looking technicians and buckets of hand gel, we created something very strange and very beautiful that spoke into this uncertain time, but was in no way bowed by it.

The title track of the album was taken from the song of the same name on the 1997 release, The Boatman’s Call. There are six songs from that piano-based album, a few from Ghosteen, and other albums plus two Grinderman songs, including “Palaces of Montezuma”, which is one of my favorites on this album. As of now there are only two clips from the film available on YouTube. Here’s “Galleon Ship” from Ghosteen.

2. Lucinda WilliamsGood Souls Better Angels. Lucinda unleashed the devil when she put this album together. It’s visceral, raw dirty blues with a punk edge. With the lyrics she attacks the evil subjects in her songs, like Donald Trump in “Man Without a Soul”. She never says his name, but you know who she’s talking about. I’ve been a huge fan of hers at least since way back in 1998 when she put our her masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Here she is performing the opening track of Good Souls Better Angels – her new masterpiece.

3. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions. Another great collection of songs by Jason Isbell. I chose “Overseas” because of the infectious guitar part – especially at the 3:05 mark of the album version and at 3:39 when Jason throws in some Crazy Horse like harmonic distortion. The video here is a live at-home recording for The Late Show, and it’s a wee bit longer than the album version. Enjoy!

4. Porridge RadioEvery Bad. I think I learned about this band by reading this review in The Guardian. From there I watched and listened to several YouTube videos, both “Lilac” and “Sweet” really got my attention. Dana Margolin’s voice is a very powerful instrument she uses to belt out some angsty screams. She is a very talented songwriter and singer, and she’s only 26, so I expect more great things from this band in the future. Here’s the closest thing to a pop song on the album. Pop is good!

5. Fontaines D.C.A Hero’s Death. Just over a year after their first album, Dogrel, was released to great acclaim, they dropped their second album. It’s different than the harder rocking first album. It’s a bit dark and brooding, and that’s probably why I like it. Check out this very weird video for the single, “A Hero’s Death”. Sort of Lynchian…

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.