Album: Menneskekollektivet Artist: Lost Girls Release Date: March 26, 2021 Label: Smalltown Supersound Favorite Tracks:
“Carried by Invisible Bodies”
Thoughts: This debut album from a Norwegian duo consisting of singer-songwriter Jenny Hval and multi-instrumentalist Håvard Volden is one of the most remarkable things I’ve rested my ears on in some time. It sounds like ambient music layered on Laurie Anderson avant-garde styles, layered on 90s techno, layered on 70s disco. Maybe it won’t sound that way to you but the best way to describe it is as layered and rich. The lyrics focus on feelings and capture emotions in their sound and repetition as much as in their words. Their is a lot of improvisation and exploration in this music. I expect this will be on my favorite albums list at the end of 2021.
Album: Really From Artist: Really From Release Date: March 12, 2021 Label: Topshelf Records Favorite Tracks:
“I’m From Here”
“In the Spaces”
This Boston-based band gets its name from the question asked of its mixed-race members, “Where are you really from?” The lyrics explore identity and social awareness, set to music that is virtuosic and eclectic. In one album you can hear jazz fusion, aggressive indie rock, and acoustic singer-songwriter styles seamlessly blended. The Pitchfork review of this album is very insistent on calling Really From’s style as emo and “math rock,” a genre I’m pretty sure they just made up. But whatever the style, I know that I really like it.
Album: Three Little Words Artist: Dominique Fils-Aime Release Date: February 12, 2021 Label: Ensoul Records Favorite Tracks: Thoughts: Dominique Fils-Aimé, a vocalist from Quebec, explores the sounds of soul music with hints of jazz on her third album. The songs draw on influences from Do-Wop and classic Motown to more recent performers like Amy Winehouse. Lyrically the songs celebrate Black history and music and the ongoing struggle for liberation. Everything seems to be arranged and produced to perfection. Really the only flaw to the album is that it ends with an unnecessary cover of “Stand By Me.” If you like beautiful vocals and souljazz arrangements, this album is for you.
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.