Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 in Review

In this strange year without much live music, my writing here has obviously suffered. I still saw a few shows early in the year, and one during the early autumn lull, but nothing big. Last year was a record number of concerts and reviews for me, and I had no hope of matching that this year. However, I released my first solo song in 9 years and an album from my old band in Austin, and I’m about to release some more music, too. But like any other year, I’ve spent a ton of time listening to music, and like I did last year, I’ll share a few of my favorite releases from 2020.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:
  • The Asteroid No.4 - Northern Songs - The obvious Beatles references are well-done, but so are the Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine bits. This is a wonderful psych rock adventure.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - Great lyrics, great videos, great music, prominent cute cat. Hard to beat that.
  • Cup Collector - Cordum Hominum Renovatio and Morning Cofee and Tea - The former might be CC’s best electric guitar-based drone yet, and the latter is a successful experiment with layers of nylon-string guitar. I hope it’s not absurd to say that Cup Collector has become my favorite artist to listen to while doing lockdown yoga.
  • Elephant Stone - Hollow - Is this an album about the end of the world released before the pandemic reached full fury? Doesn’t matter, the music is rich and the storytelling is prescient. This is my favorite Elephant Stone album yet. The more explicitly pandemic-related “American Dream” single is also good, albeit a bit precious.
  • Holy Wave - Interloper - Their live shows were always great, and now they finally have an album that equals them. They’ve grown far from their garage roots and have embraced a wealth of new sounds, naturally mostly psychedelic in nature. The lyrics are a huge leap, too: “Maybe Then I Can Cry” hit me hard.
  • Hum - Inlet - Is this another album about the world ending, again presumably written and recorded before the pandemic? This album sounds huge and simultaneously vibrant. It’s their best yet.
  • Ian Fisher - American Standards - This adopted Austrian sure seems enamored with Nashville, but the music is tellingly much wider in scope than mainstream country or even the classic 70s pop hinted at in “AAA Station”. The lyrics are even more powerful and self-aware than Ian’s already-high standard. I can read the excellent title track five or six different ways, and I love that I don’t know which is right.
  • Melange & Jacco Gardner - “Ashokh” single - It’s such a shame they only recorded this one song and that the band broke up. It’s a superb, spritely, groovy jam on par with their wondrous Viento Bravo from 2017.
  • Monta at Odds - Zen Diagram and A Great Conjunction EPs - Both are majestic kosmiche space rock from my hometown of Kansas City, and the former successfully covers a great Tones on Tail song.
  • Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence - Is this pure 80s nostalgia? Yes, probably. But is it a crime to want to sound like Simple Minds or OMD? Certainly not!
  • Pia Fraus - Empty Parks - This sounds like an Estonian blend of Slowdive (especially their self-titled album from 2017), Stereolab, and Loveless, and obviously I rather enjoy it. I wish it was a bit punchier, but sometimes soft and warm is nice, too.
A few additional honorable mentions:
  • Khruangbin - Mordechai - Khruangbin seem incapable of making bad music, but this album is merely pleasant. It actually sounds more derivative than their previous albums, and some parts are a touch too silly. Their collaborative Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges from earlier in the year was also an interesting aside, but where Bridges’ vocals shone, the lyrics didn’t.
  • Mietminderung - Tatsächliche Verhältnisse EP - Their tagline of “rock music in bureaucratically-inflected German generally about interpersonal relationships” really undersells them, but it hits a certain type of dry German humor on the head. The vocals are indeed a bit stiff, but the music is more adventurous. This is the last and best of the three EPs they’ve released this year.
  • Neil Young - Homegrown - The Archives Volume II collection is almost too big to handle, but this forgotten record is a condensed version of the best of the unreleased content. It’s not exactly great and I understand why he shelved it. Then again, it’s also idiosyncratic and emotionally complex, so it’s a shame that it took 46 years to release it. (I’m almost considering buying the box set anyway just for the wonderful CSNY versions of “Human Highway”, though.)
  • Perlee - Slow Creature EP - It starts slow and doesn’t really pick up much at all, but “Charlie’s Song” is quite good. The early-era Beach House vibes are heavy, but the harmonies are a nice extra touch.
And while I don’t like being rude, there were a few high-ish profile releases that I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by. Here are those:
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles in Allem - I love Neubauten, but not this album. It lacks the creative energy and unpredictable spark of their finest works. It’s weirdly restrained and dour. I like the requiem for Rosa Luxemburg, though.
  • Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension - This seems like a retread of The Age of Adz, but with less variation. Some of the lyrics are nice, but I don’t really get it.
  • Other Lives - For Their Love - I really like the idea of this band, and I still think Tamer Animals is excellent, but this one sounds a bit stale. Much like Rituals from 2015, it sounds huge and cavernous, yet lacks anything memorable.
Lastly, there were again some excellent albums from (relatively) recent years that I missed before but picked up this year. Here are some of the best:
  • Lush - Blind Spot EP (2016) - Their only new music after reuniting, and it matches their classic sound in all the right ways.
  • Monta at Odds - Argentum Dreams (2018) - More great space rock with lovely 80s synth sounds, but also featuring Lawrence artist Your Friend!
  • Tocotronic - K.O.O.K. (1999) - Tocotonic took a while to grow on me. The lyrics are subtle and yet evocative. Musically, I think this is their album that’s mostly closed tuned to my tastes.
With any luck, live music will be a viable option again at some point in 2021!

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