Despite the crushing indignities of the COVID-19 outbreak, this year has produced some incredibly good music. I have not listened to a lot of albums this year, and I am not sure what is being lauded in the various year-end lists online, but here are the albums I purchased and listened to this year in no particular order. If you can, I hope you will support these excellent musicians by making a purchase.
This is a jazz EP released by U.S.E. Trio, a Philadelphia-based jazz band. I have to admit that I am biased here: this is the band of my longtime friend Sandy Eldred. That said, I think the sort of jazz music found here is both exceptional and necessary in the current moment. Personally, I have often felt that the latest jazz music is often one of two things: inaccessibly atonal free jazz, or punishingly predictable academic jazz. Derived from sessions performed at their “Creative Concepts In Jazz” series at the Maas Building in Philadelphia, Impact is neither. Instead, a dose of insightful creativity from the Philadelphia jazz scene. You can purchase ‘Impact’ on bandcamp
Standout track: Terakawa 🔊
Love-Lore is Deerhoof’s appropriately erratic attempt to play ~43 cover songs in ~35 minutes as a sort of tribute to the history of experimental music. Despite the fact that I have heard almost none of the original works reinterpreted here (in fairness, I have heard The Jetsons Theme, Rainbow Connection and Electric Avenue previously), I find this to be an incredibly fun album to listen to. Deerhoof bring the earthquaking manic speed and unpredictable rhythms they’re known for, and remind us what makes them the most reliably invigorating experimental rock act of the 21st century, after all these years. You can purchase ‘Love-Lore’ on bandcamp.
Standout track: Love-Lore 1 🔊
Adrianne Lenker’s band Big Thief is bar-none my favorite band going right now, partly due to their tight, organic instrumentation and partly for her sublime poeticism. That poeticism is fully present here in this collection of dreamy, vulnerable folk songs occasionally ornamented with birdsong and wind chimes. songs (and it’s b-side, instrumentals) was performed in a log cabin in western Massachusetts at the start of the first (and hopefully last) quarantine summer in America. Lenker describes the cabin as “sounding like the inside of an acoustic guitar,” and this quaint solo record benefits enormously from the affordance. You can purchase ‘songs’ on bandcamp.
Standout track: zombie girl 🔊
Consultant, the trenchantly political new album from New England post-punk band Landowner, is the logical next step from their previous effort, the trenchantly political old album Blatant. “Sketch comedy routine impersonator / Finally made me see that we’re living in a dark joke!” Landowner’s hilariously bleak assessment of ideologically-loaded pop culture is a reminder that not even this very clever album can stand in the way of neoliberalism’s destruction of the earth. But damn if it doesn’t feel good to hear a rock album say something true once in a while. You can purchase ‘Consultant’ on bandcamp.
Standout track: Phantom Vibration 🔊
Stones Throw Records is historically known for producing alternative hip-hop the likes of Madvillain or J Dilla, but Jerry Paper is among the burgeoning psychedelic rock acts supported by the label in recent years. I genuinely had a lot of fun listening to this album. Jerry Paper’s absurd, acid-tinged synthpop must have really eased my mind, because in retrospect I’m surprised that this didn’t come out until May 2020. I would have thought my carefree memories of dancing alone in my kitchen to songs like “Cholla” and “Memorial Highway” were from pre-Corona days. For further bizarre experiences, check out Paper’s mind-bending music videos, which often combine awkward mugging with the oddest computer-generated imagery this side of the uncanny valley. You can purchase ‘Abracadabra’ on bandcamp.
Standout track: Cholla 🔊
Here are some honorable mentions; albums that I enjoyed, but which I did not find the time to put on heavy rotation yet.