I’ve reviewed 23 albums on this blog in 2020, and probably listened to just as many that I didn’t feel compelled to write about. From this list I’ve selected five of my favorite albums that I recommend you give a listen.
Album: The Christmas Revels: Celebrating 50 Years! Artist: The Revels Release Date: November 30, 2020 Label: Revels Records Thoughts:
If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that one of my favorite holiday traditions is seeing The Christmas Revels performed at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA. I was eagerly anticipating this year’s 50th anniversary show, but that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, we did get this gift of a double-disc set of songs recorded live on the Sanders stage from the 1970s to the present.
Live is live, so that means when listening to the recitation of the poem “The Shortest Day,” you can hear audience members coughing during the quiet pause. It’s a memory of a simpler time when someone coughing in a crowd was a minor irritant rather than a moment of horror. The songs bring back many memories of attending performances over the past 20 years. You can also trace the evolution of Revels from a show that began with celebration of traditional English songs and culture but grew to embrace holiday and solstice traditions from across Europe and the many cultures of the Americas, including African American, Indigenous Peoples, and Meso-American cultures.
I own every Christmas Revels recording every released and will likely continue to acquire them until I die. But if you want just one Revels album that captures the width and breadth of the Revels experience, I’d recommend this one. I should also note that there is a Christmas Revels performance for 2020 available virtually. Through the magic of video editing, performers appear on the Sanders Theatre stage intercut with film of performances from 1977 to 2019. I was a member of the cast in 2009 and you can totally see me in the background of those performances! You can purchase the virtual performance and the CD as a bundle, but be quick because the stream will only be available until December 31.
Album: Untitled (Black Is) Artist: Sault Release Date: 19 June 2020 Label: Forever Living Originals Favorite Tracks:
Sault, a British music collective that eschews media attention on their real identities, put out two albums this year that encapsulate the Black experience in 2020. Released on Juneteenth, and just 25 days after the murder of George Floyd, the music expresses grief, defiance, and hope in equal measures. The music blends soul, R&B, afrobeat, and funk that clearly draws on its antecedents while also being fresh and unique.
Album: Untitled (Rise) Artist: Sault Release Date: 18 September 2020 Label: Forever Living Originals Favorite Tracks:
I Just Want to Dance
The Beginning and the End
Releasing a second album just three months after its predecessor seems a recipe for a watered-down follow-up, but with Sault it is just the opposite. If anything, Untitled (Rise) is brimming with energy and relevance with the music filled with disco melodies and traditional African polyrhythms.
Album: Spilligion Artist: Spillage Village Release Date: September 25, 2020 Label: Dreamville | Interscope | SinceThe80s Favorite Tracks:
End of Daze
Spillage Village is a hip hop musical collective based in Atlanta, Georgia. I am no expert on hip hop, but I find these days that when I really like something it comes from the Atlanta and Southern scene. The album was born of the COVID-19 lockdown with members of Spillage Village living at the studio as a safe place. Naturally, the album reflects the concerns of the time as greater inequality and social justice concerns. But is is also an album that is full of hope and joy. In addition to rap, the album reflects a wide variety of musical styles including soul, funk, and gospel. It serves as a perfect time capsule and a message of hope from this cursed year.
Album: We Will Always Love You Artist: The Avalanches Release Date: December 11, 2020 Label: Modular Favorite Tracks:
“We Will Always Love You”
“The Divine Chord”
“We Go On”
“Wherever You Go”
20 years ago, the Australian electronic group made one of the most amazing albums of all-time, the sample-filled “plunderphonics” of Since I Left You. Then they disappeared for 16 years only to return with an uneven follow-up album (albeit with some magnificent individual tracks), Wildflowers, in 2016. Now after a relatively short 4-year gap, The Avalanches are back with a much-anticipated third album.
This work feels more down-tempo than previous works without songs like “Frontier Psychiatrist” or “Because I’m Me” to jump out and grab you. The most prominent samples on the album include low-key acts like The Roches, The Alan Parson Project, and The Carpenters. The album also features a boatload of guest artists whose vocal interplay with the samples and electronic tracks is seamless(featured artists include Sananda Maitreya, Vashti Bunyan, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo, Pink Siifu, Denzel Curry, Tricky, Sampa the Great, Leon Bridges, Johnny Marr, MGMT, Clypso, Neneh Cherry, Jamie xx, Kelly Moran, Cornelius, Karen O, Kurt Vile, Mick Jones, Cola Boyy, Perry Farrell, and Orono).
The underlying theme of the album is outer space and how it is a metaphor for the distance between people. A photo of Ann Druyan, director of the Voyager Golden Record project and producer of the tv show Cosmos (both projects she worked on with her husband, Carl Sagan) is on the album’s cover. The final track, “Weightless,” features the beeps of the message to the stars from the Arecibo radio telescope (and SETI gets a featured artists credit). The album was recorded before the collapse of Arecibo earlier this month so it serves as an unintentional obituary for another senseless death in 2020.
This is a beautiful album and gets better with each listen as my ears uncover the onion-like layers of the songs and the album as a whole.
Album: Inner Song Artist: Kelly Lee Owens Release Date: August 28, 2020 Label: Smalltown Supersound Favorite Tracks:
Welsh artist Kelly Lee Owens is a unique electronic music producer who is also a song writer and vocalist. Her second album seamlessly blends various electronic music types from dancefloor bangers to the ethereal and meditative to more typical pop song structures. Fellow Welsh musician John Cale joins Owens on “Corner of My Sky,” with lyrics in both English and Welsh.
Album: American Head Artist: Flaming Lips Release Date: September 11, 2020 Label: Warner Favorite Tracks:
Dinosaurs on the Mountain
Mother Please Don’t Be Sad
Assasins of Youth
The Flaming Lips enter their fifth decade as recording artists with this trippy new album. This seems weird to me even though I first heard the band in the 1990s, and began listening to them avidly with their legendary releases of the 2000s. The album is a loose concept album drawn from band leader Wayne Coyne’s childhood in Oklahoma City. Musically, the Flaming Lips aren’t breaking new ground and the lyrics are full of gratuitous drug references. But the melodies are gorgeous in this collection of mostly ballads awash in rich instrumentation. Kacey Musgraves provides counterpoint vocals on a few tracks.
Album: Shore Artist: Fleet Foxes Release Date: September 22, 2020 Label: Anti Favorite Tracks:
Can I Believe You
A Long Way Past the Past
I think this is what they call “headphone music” because the rich instrumentation and lush harmonies of Fleet Foxes become readily when pressed up against one’s ears. There’s a definite warmth to the album which according to the band’s frontman, Robin Pecknold “celebrate “life in the face of death.” And so I can say “it speaks to our time of COVID” for about the 100th time in this blog. But if good art is one of the few worthwhile things that the pandemic brings us, then I will accept that.
Blitzen Trapper has always sounded a bit like a throwback band, but on this album they explore a folk rock/alt country sound reminiscent of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Doubly so because the album draws inspiration from the Tibetan Book of the Dead which was also popular during the psychedelic era. Nevertheless, whatever deep metaphysical thoughts are in the lyrics, the tunes are warm and breezy and a pleasure to listen to.
Album:Dandelion Artist: Carolina Story Release Date: September 4, 2020 Label: Black River Americana Favorite Tracks:
Light of the Moon
Lay Me Down Easy
Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s I was deeply invested in the contemporary Folk/Folk Rock/Folk Pop/Americana, etc. scenes. Eventually I drifted away, partly because everything started sounding the same and I wanted to hear something different. Hearing Carolina Story reminds me of the excitement of discovering something new during the height of my folkie days.
The duo is the married couple Emily and Ben Roberts of Nashville. They remind me a little bit of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer with more country twang and less mysticism. But the best thing about Carolina Story is that they interpret traditional folk sounds in a voice that’s completely their own. They are especially good using their voices to provide a wide range of expression and the instrumentation of the duo and their backing band is particularly rich.