Best Of record reviews

Best of 2020 – Recorded Music

2020 Best Of – Recorded Music (And Playlist)

Music was the single biggest balm for me in this fucked-up time. I tried to take advantage of the additional time at home to dig into records with a fervor I’m sorry to admit I’d let slip away from me for a few years. 

I heard a couple hundred new records in full and it was hard winnowing down to 40ish, even harder getting to these 20 but these felt like they glowed together when I started looking at the track I kept. I’d be surprised if I’m not still taking these out and talking fondly in a few years.

I’ll also have a couple playlist posts last week of the month with songs from each of these and other songs I loved throughout the year.

  • Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
  • Don Bryant, You Make Me Feel
  • Jerry David DeCicca, The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures
  • Kassa Overall, I Think I’m Good
  • Angel bat Dawid, LIVE
  • Todd May, Let’s Go Get Lost (couldn’t find a Bandcamp link, hit me up with one)
  • Nicole Atkins, Italian Ice
  • Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E&F Sides
  • Jaime Wyatt, Neon Cross
  • Mourning [A] BLKstar, The Cycle
  • Ingrid Laubrock, Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt
  • Brandy Clark, Your Life is a Record (couldn’t find a bandcamp link)
  • Sa-Roc, The Sharecropper’s Daughter
  • Dave Douglas, Marching Music
  • Nubya Garcia, Source
  • Resistance Revival Chorus, This Joy
  • Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Goblin Alert
  • William Basinski, Lamentations
  • Busta Rhymes, ELE2: The Wrath of God (couldn’t find bandcamp link)
  • Joel Ross, Who Are You? (couldn’t find bandcamp link)
Playlist record reviews

Monthly Playlist – September 2020

Working up that Pink Elephant Greatest Hits reignited a love for me of making playlists. It also reinforced that I had a few years of not taking in much new music – my time on the bus (or walking) had mostly fallen into a rut of playing the same feel-better playlists. I never had a problem getting more than I needed for my year-end list but loving 35 records in 365 days to pare down to 20 didn’t feel like me, looking at prior years when I had almost 100 contenders to cut down to a top list.

I also miss writing about records, and I’m grateful for the promos that still come through. On the third hand, as winter comes and the pandemic rages on, I need some structure and some fun projects to get through it. So I’m going to try a monthly playlist of things I’ve heard recently. This first one covers the last couple months, things still fresh in my mind since the idea occurred to me a couple of weeks ago. From now on, it’ll be (mostly) stuff I heard in the last month.

Using Spotify because of ease; I’ve thought about Mixcloud – home of one of my perennial recurring playlist inspirations, Tutti Time – and SoundCloud but haven’t committed to the learning curve yet. If you have a preference, hit me up.

I’d love to do this on Bandcamp if there was playlist functionality, but we finally got Chromecast on it so I’m keeping hope alive. Obviously, especially when we’re not going to shows and buying merch, I encourage you to buy music that speaks to you.

September 2020

  1. “Trouble”, Reverend John Wilkins. Wilkins’ closing set at Gonerfest’s day show outside Murphy’s nine years ago was a thunderbolt-level inspiration to me and one of those sets I still remember with crystal clarity this many years (and over 1,000 bands) later. The son of Rev. Robert Wilkins (who wrote the Stones classic “Prodigal Son,” his voice and guitar changed the air and stopped everyone who might have been a little jaded after six hours and 9 bands that afternoon. And the thing I most remember is this song, preceded by his introduction: “Let me see your hands if you’ve known trouble!” Followed by a chuckle and, “Well, I know you’re young, but I also wanna remind you it’s early.” I’ve been waiting from that moment to this for this song to be on record and this performance – and the whole record, featuring a crack band including Wilkins’ daughters, organist Charles Hodges (from the legendary Hi rhythm section), and drummer Steve Potts (Gregg Allman, Neil Young), lives up to and even betters that glowing memory.
  2. “4 Days,” Mourning [A] BLKstar. Cleveland’s Mourning [A] BLKstar stunned me the first time I heard them, blew me away the first time I saw them live at The Summit, and keep getting better and better. This first record of theirs for Don Giovanni is a brain-expanding, soulful puzzle-box. This song, with its loping groove and fist-pumping, infectious horn riff against a haunting, indicting melody, hasn’t let me go yet. But it was extremely hard choosing just one track of this. The Cycle should be lived with and savored.
  3. “A Little Lost,” Molly Tuttle. I still remember picking up The World of Arthur Russell on Soul Jazz records from Other Music (so nostalgic for that store I’ve watched the documentary about it twice) and amidst the throbbing sideways disco and the chamber music I expected, his voice-and-cello version of this perfect cut-glass miniature of longing stopped me in my tracks. Molly Tuttle’s covers album …but I’d rather be with you was another case of having a hard time picking a favorite track, but her warm opening-up of this song I love so much kept sinking its hooks in me.
  4. “Dangerous Criminal,” Waylon Payne. Talk about coming from royalty and having to live up to it, this son of country superstar Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson’s longtime right hand on lead guitar Jody Payne (and named after his godfather), had a hard road since his first try for country stardom over a decade ago. But he distilled all of it into this lumpy-in-the-best-way, nothing-to-prove masterpiece Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me. This gorgeous song paints a pastoral backdrop for a keening, high-stakes quest: “But still you keep on reaching, you keep hoping and believing somewhere there’s a revelation on this journey that you’re on. Hey, boy, why are you always alone?”
  5. “Goddess of the Hunt,” ARTEMIS. I’ve been in awe of drummer and composer Allison Miller since the first downbeat I heard her play, so when I first heard about this supergroup she was putting together, there wasn’t any doubt it would be something special. Their Blue Note Records debut, and especially this piece written by Miller, exceeds even that high bar. The infectious hook and spiritual sprawl both have room to play here between the sizzling front line of Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet, Anat Cohen’s clarinet, and Melissa Aldana’s tenor and the panoramic rhythm section of Miller’s drums, Noriko Ueda’s bass, and Renee Rosnes’ (who I previously mostly knew from records with singers and am blown away throughout the record) piano.
  6. “These Days,” Elizabeth Cook. A songwriter I’ve been stunned by for many years shot even farther into the stratosphere with Aftermath, full of the explosive defiance and joy of putting things together and learning to breathe again another writer I saw rightly compared to Bowie. One of the hardest records here for me to pick a song from.
  7. “Want You Back With Me,” Lou Kyme. I met Lou through my Twangfest pals in St Louis 15 or so years ago so there’s even less chance of my being unbiased here, but this is one of the freshest Americana records I’ve heard in a long, long time. What’s the Worst That Can Happen pairs the London-based songwriter with Chuck Prophet’s band, The Mission Express, produced by drummer Vicente Rodriguez. The album’s a thrill ride through the various colors of roots rock with sticky playing from Adam Prieto’s organ and James DePrato’s and Kyme’s guitars, and I haven’t gotten this song out of my head since its release as an advance single.
  8. “Source,” Nubya Garcia feat. Ms MAURICE, Cassie Kinoshi, and Richie Seivwright. This title track from the London-based saxophonist Garcia’s debut album as a leader is an explosion. A flaming fountain of ideas immediately appealing and approachable but always eluding grasping. The London jazz scene is having a moment right now with monumental work by Shabaka Hutchings, The Comet is Coming, Sons of Kemet, and more, and this is a testament to someone finding their scene and everyone building each other up to make something great.
  9. “(521),” Vladislav Delay with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. In my days diving deep into obscure electronic music I had a specific and particular love for the Finnish composer and producer Sasu Ripatti, so all these years later seeing a mention in The Wire that Ripatti revived his Vladislav Delay moniker for a record with the legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie (I refuse to believe, whoever you are, you don’t have at least a few records featuring them) I lit up like a neon sign and the record didn’t disappoint. This worked for the hottest days of summer, and I’m willing to bet I’m still tangled in its intoxicating textures through the deepest freeze of February.
  10. “Her Name,” Makaya McCraven. I already raved about McCraven’s set at Winter Jazzfest (before everything locked down) being a deserved victory lap, and the Chicago scene right now is having a similar moment to Garcia’s London scene. This continues his mind-blowing forays into the textures of dance music and the possibilities of the cut-up within the context of rigorous improvisation. A music of letting everything in, knowing the value of it all, and using exactly what you need.
  11. “Lightning,” Psychic Temple. Writer-producer-label head Chris Schlarb’s Psychic Temple project accomplishes the almost-unheard-of feat of making guest-artist-filled albums that still feel indelibly personal and not like Rolodex exercises. This double album Houses of the Holy is an embarrassment of riches, with each side backed by a different band. This tune, with Chicago Underground Trio, features lyrics by my dear friend Jerry David DeCicca and it’s as good an intersection of these three approaches to exploring the mystery of the world without trying to confine it or diminish it as I could have hoped.
  12. “Dance With Me – Roundhead Version,” Na Noise. One of my favorite Gonerfest bands, this single sums up what I think this Auckland duo is doing better than anyone right now. Sleekness, danger, and hooks nested inside one another.
  13. “Never,” Lydia Loveless. Loveless’ new record uses the sleeker, shinier textures of Real but turns up more of the rootsy textures of and tumbling narratives of Something Else for a perfect entry in the annals of autumn music, one of my favorite genres that’s not a genre but everyone knows what I mean. The insistent, simmering beat on this song leaves room for the question in the lyrics to sink in even deeper: “I’m standing on my own know, isn’t that what everybody wants?”
  14. “Kick Rocks,” Nick Allison. This slice of classic Let it Bleed-era Stones with a side of The Jacobites hit a particular sweet spot for me in Allison’s Gonerfest set and I’m going to enjoy living with it as the leaves turn.
  15. “Running,” Shamir. I saw Shamir at Bowery Ballroom in 2015 only knowing a single and it was one of my shows of the year. A performer so charismatic when he said, “Let me hear you if you’re ratchet,” even Anne had her hands in the air screaming, with a voice that chilled my blood. The records after that didn’t hit the same sweet spot, but the new one – and this song in particular – won’t let me go.
  16. “Cupid,” Spillage Village featuring Earthgang and 6LACK. A friend and co-worker turned me onto 6LACK a few years ago but I wasn’t aware of the Atlanta collective, he’s part of, Spillage Village so this record hit me like a bolt from the blue. 
  17. “I Felt It Too,” Bette Smith. Rock and Soul dynamo Bette Smith’s new record is full for perfect jukejoint Friday night anthems like this one (and no shortage of Sunday sorting-through-the-wreckage comedowns).
  18. “Ladies Night,” Dick Move. One of my favorite Gonerfest finds, if this New Zealand band doesn’t make you want to bounce around the room, I’ve got nothing for you.
  19. “Finally High,” Liz Longley. There were more shows canceled I’m bummed about this year than I can count before we even get to what hadn’t been formally announced. Longley’s planned trip to Natalie’s in the Spring (tentatively rescheduled for 2021) was on that list and that pain got more acute with the release of her record Funeral For My Past. Exactly what I want from a singer-songwriter, that swirl of guitars on the chorus, “Don’t fuck me up, I’m floating. I’m finally high above it.”
  20. “Hergé: Vision and Blindness,” Jacob Garchik. Ending with a beautiful sunrise. Garchik’s profile has raised in recent years with his film scoring and arranging for Kronos Quartet but I remember seeing his all-trombone choir doing the secular gospel music of his The Heavens suite downstairs at Bowery Electric and wanting to drag people in off the street. I’ve seen him in big bands, as recently as January, and his playing is always impeccable, but I’ve been jonesing for some new writing of his. This new record as a leader, too many years since last time, Clear Line, features the cream of the crop in exciting players including Adam O’Farrill, Jennifer Wharton, Anna Webber, and Carl Maraghi, is a massive step forward and maybe my favorite thing to write to all year.
live music record reviews

Things I’ve Been Digging – August 10, 2020

Recorded Music: The Anthony Braxton Project by Thumbscrew

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers and passing music down. There’s magic in folks removed from the source remaking material and finding their way, but there’s something special about people who have played with and studied with a composer. There’s no greater living American composer than Anthony Braxton – and precious few even in the same league – and his ensembles and classrooms gave legions of the finest genre-bending musicians to the new music scene.

My favorite of the tributes in time for his 75th birthday is this concise look at rarities from the Braxton book by Thumbscrew, a collective trio balancing sharp originals with a keen command on jazz history, featuring two members who worked directly with Braxton (Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums and vibes) and Michael Formanek on bass.

Only two tracks on this project – honed in a residency at Pittsburgh art space City of Asylum – break the seven-minute mark and they cram twists, turns, and an almost overwhelming sense of delight into that space. “Composition No. 68” features thick, juicy arco playing from Formanek while Fujiwara’s high-wire vibes spark off Halvorson’s flurry of barbed guitar. “Composition No. 35” also stakes out space for the vibraphone, especially in a joyous cat-and-mouse intro.

Throughout, Thumbscrew highlights Braxton’s approachability, his sense of infectious melody, without ever dumbing down or selling out his idiosyncratic vocabulary. “Composition No. 14” threads the record as a solo showcase for each player. “Guitar” projects a wide-screen constellation of Halvorson’s signature melodic string-bending. “Drums” leans into Fujiwara’s sense of understated drama, drenched in an almost symphonic mood. “Bass” showcases Formanek’s sense of space and texture.

It’s hard to go wrong with The Anthony Braxton Project as an introduction to either Thumbscrew or Braxton’s compositions. It’s my favorite thing to write to for the couple weeks it’s been out, and it works beautifully on an intellectual and visceral level.

Adonis Rose Sextet, screenshot from livestream

Live Music: The Adonis Rose Sextet, presented by the New Orleans Jazz Museum and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

At the end of a long workday – I was logged back in at 6:30 pm when they started and went well past their hour set – this unknown-to-me band was the perfect, refreshing tonic. Loose-limbed, intense classic hard bop led by Rose’s exciting, suspenseful drumming. They covered classic repertoire (including a burning take on Horace Silver’s Jazz Messengers classic “Ecaroh”) with a singular focus and passion, mastering the balancing act this mid-century American music requires to breathe and live:  a fine-tuned interlocking machine of love for the world.

Live Music: Movement In Stasis, Day 2, presented by Experimental Sound Studios and Sonic Transmissions Fest.

Experimental Sound Studios, already one of Chicago’s treasures, has filled a much-needed niche in these COVID times by providing a steady streaming home for experimental music of all stripes, often teaming with other players in the scene like Ken Vandermark or Corbett V. Dempsey gallery.

This collaboration with Austin festival Sonic Transmissions Fest single-handedly justified my (scheduled earlier) mental health day from work. I caught three sets (out of four, I sadly missed Mars Williams).

Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey, broadcasting from their home, showed off the continuous refinement of their unique language and telepathy. The first piece, with Laubrock on tenor, danced through growling almost-R&B, nudged by Rainey’s jostling, lively drum part then dropping out for Laubrock to lean into almost Brotzmann-esque stuttering and disruption of the gorgeous melody. The latter piece with soprano used instrument’s vocal textures to devastating effect with Laubrock’s unmistakable tone, Rainey’s drums almost acting as hypeman and instigator.

Wendy Eisenberg played an undulating solo electric guitar piece with a subtle rhythm track by the reservoir she stood next to. Glowing crystalline cells of melody stuck in my blood, then dissipated into a foam of something confounding and even more beautiful. Eisenberg built this piece on the glory of disjunction, on the surprise and delight of nature and humanity, and reminded me what keeps me hungry for new music.

Blacks’ Myths, the DC duo comprising Luke Stewart on bass and Warren G. “Trae” Crudup III on drums, streamed an intense, enticing duet from their respective homes. Painting surreal landscapes with the colors of a traditional rhythm section, their set was as surprising as it was deep. In Crudup’s hands, rolls and ride time exploded into flurries reminiscent of Sunny Murray, Stewart used string noise and mutes to create a rich negative space and long, organ-like tones of distortion to provide narrative propulsion.

Best Of record reviews Writing Other Places

Best of 2018: Recorded Music

Tyshawn Sorey at Big Ears Festival 2018

As is tradition, I submitted my top records of the year to Agit Reader. I wrote about my #1 and the site’s #9 – Pillars by Tyshawn Sorey, a new benchmark for mixing contemporary classical/new music and improvisation, in this post:

The full top 10 of mine and their other writers are at this link:

My 11-20:

11. IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance
12. Lea Bertucci, Metal Aether (reviewed for Agit Reader)
13. Jlin, Autobiography

14. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen is a Reptile
15. Neko Case, Hell-On
16. Brian Fallon, Sleepwalkers

17. Cecille McLorin Salvant, The Window
18. Motel Mirrors, In the Meantime (Half of the singing-songwriting core of this band, John Paul Keith, also put out an exquisite solo record, Heart Shaped Shadow whose songs dotted every time I had people over to dance, but this was the one that kept me up at night)
19. JD Allen, Love Stone
20. US Girls, In a Poem Unlimited