It’s Year-End List Season, and I’m bored of it. In the music world, it means highlighting your favorite albums and songs released in 2020, deciding between a hiearchical or non-hierarchical list, deciding if reissues count, making sure you are one with the zeitgeist, etc. It doesn’t actually reflect how I listen to music in a given year. I loop back and forth between new and old, between playlists and albums, between intentional and random listening. The album and song list can’t include mediums that fall between categories, like radio shows, mixes, or YouTube deep-dives. It makes more sense to reflect on my music year in a spiderwebbed format: the connections, the rabbit holes, the rediscoveries. When I look back on 2020 in five, ten, or twenty years, I want to remember the incidental, non-new music as much as what the culture was up to during the pandemic.
So here’s what I was listening to in 2020. Below you can find my two massive playlists I make during the year, one featuring my favorite 2020 music and one featuring “scraps”–the music that didn’t come out this year but it’s new to me or I heard something new in it. Thanks for reading and listening.
If I had to pick my absolute favorite album of this year, the one that when I listen to it in the future I’ll be immediately transported back into 2020’s quivering, messy clutches, it’s Balafon Sketches, by Contours. Polyrhythmic music that blends dance, electronic, and ambient, using the balafon as the guide. I love the marriage of the ancient and the futuristic on this album. See also: Asa Tone //Temporary Music (2020).
A YouTube algorithm ‘discovery.’ Edgeless, rounded ambient music, rising and falling like an ocean. My favorite thing was reading the comments on the video: a listener uses the music to grieve their dying father; others write poems; another calls it “The waiting room in Heaven.” Sometimes the internet can be a wondrous, beautiful thing.
This record moves like clouds across a sunny sky. An artist with over 600 releases across the electronic and ambient spectrum, Milieu is quietly carving out a new economic model for musicians that’s more in line with the cottage industries of the past.
More electronic music that blends ancient folk styles with futuristic technology, and Glenn-Copeland’s open-hearted reverence hits you in the gut. The documentary is a slow and steady look at his process, his experience as a Black trans man, and his willingness to engage and learn from a younger generation.
A fantastic (though limited) collection of mini-documentaries on electronic music, covering Delia Derbyshire’s early ’60s work through the dawn of sampling in the ’80s. The sheer amount of labor it took Derbyshire to create sounds is staggering, but there’s something really creative and invigorating about seeing electronic technology stretched to its very limits. That labor feels more real than a lot of easier digital technologies.
A British band that mixed live instrumentation with electronic methodology, i.e. playing instruments in these big, looping patterns. More proof that early ’90s British electronic music is one of the most infuential and fertile eras in music history.
Dubby, hissy, broken-down electronic music that sounds like the dust under your couch has come to life and it’s throwing a party. Accidents are excellent collaborators: the project got its name and texture from a Waldorf 4-Pole filter that Stefan Betke dropped onto the floor.
There’s a quiet revolution taking place in the world of pedal steel guitar. The instrument once synonymous with country tradition is now popping up in electronic and ambient clothes. This record–by one of Nashville’s premier pedal steel wizards–dresses the instrument in glittering New Age duds.
I got obsessed with J.J. Cale’s quietly innovative recording technique where it sounds like you’re sitting in the middle of the band as the tape rolls. He can make a whisper sound like a rip-roaring honky-tonk.
A Montreal producer who organizes his records around a single color. This one is green, and it’s full of music that vines, branches, and shapeshifts. A great example of using recording technology as a writing partner.
Chacon, a veteran soul singer, teams up with John Carroll Kirby, a Frank Ocean and Solange collaborator. Low-key, homespun soul music in the vein of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, but with a modern sheen.
Paul Drummond takes a careful look at one of Austin’s finest exports. He toes the line between journalistic rigor and keeping the psychedelic mythos intact. Felt great to blast the Elevators in the early days of a quaratined spring.
I love hyper-specific compilations like these, especially when they change my understanding about an era of music. The ’80s American underground has been largely dominated by hardcore in the history books, but this comp shows there was something less aggressive but no less inspiring thrumming on the fringes.
Jeff Parker, guitarist for Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, mixes traditional jazz chops with chopped-up samples and funk workouts on Suite For Max Brown (2020). It sent me down the International Anthem rabbit hole, a borderless place where jazz can mean just about anything. Rob Mazurek’s Alternate Moon Cycles (2014) is a beautiful ambient album made from sustained cornet notes–a study in breathwork in a year when breathing steady was a matter of life and death.
There were stretches of this year where all I could listen to was jazz; there were stretches in those jazz weeks where all I could listen to was Miles Davis. Kind Of Blue was a port of calm during the early days of the pandemic storm. I had time and attention to just sit and listen and marvel at what a masterpiece that album is. In A Silent Way gripped me for a few weeks too, its amoebic pulse offering the perfect atmosphere. And about halfway between those colossal works lay Miles’ sets at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel. I learned how his band during this era was so good, they were bored with being good. So drummer Tony Williams proposed they try to play “anti-music”–the opposite of what was expected of them as instrumentalists. The result is one of the strangest jazz recordings, almost like a negative image of jazz: it simmers where it should explode, it explodes where it should whisper, it falls apart and comes back together again and again.
Benny Goodman Quartet // discography
A fantastic post at 64 Quartets led me down the Benny Goodman rabbit hole, where I especially fell in love with Lionel Hampton’s colorful vibraphone and Teddy Wilson’s suave piano playing.
A quarantine, a Swiss park, a guitar, a microphone: these ingredients add up to one of the most moving instrumental albums I’ve ever heard.
I’m immensely grateful I got to continue producing KUTX guest DJ sets this year. One from pre-pandemic life: El Federico, Austin muralist/artist, delivers a DJ set in Spanish and English, reflecting on his El Paso upbringing and border life in general. Turned me on to the aching “The Town” by Los Lobos. One from pandemic life: Tim Showalter’s Shut-In Radio Hour. The Strand Of Oaks frontman and newfound Austinite pulled together an all-vinyl mix, one that captures the full emotional range of the early pandemic days.
Or rather, the lack of man-made sound during the spring. It is startling how much noise we humans make. With nowhere to go and no traffic, our neighborhood filled up with the sounds of birdsong and wind and trees. The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempden points out that there are plenty of blind animals but there are no deaf ones. Listening is the most important sense in the animal kingdom.
Sometimes you need to break down and “invest in yourself.” The difference between my recordings pre-CB and post-CB is night and day. The Colour Box adds depth, detail, and clarity to any instrument you run through it. But I’m especially fond of the fuzzier, distorted end of the pedal. It throws in a degree of randomness to my playing that’s fun to respond to and get surprised by.
I completed 46 songs/recordings this year and captured hundreds of scraps–melodies, sketches, ideas, field recordings. It’s not about quantity…but sometimes it is nice to see the amount of work a year produces! My goal for 2021 is to cull and arrange the completed recordings into some sort of album.
I’m taking a course in permaculture design. Permaculture is a combination of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the basic tenets were developed by indigenous societies across millennia. It starts from the assumption that nature knows what it’s doing and encourages the designer to harness that momentum to human needs. Permaculture focuses on understanding environments as systems, not parts, and designing landscapes to closely mimic nature. Instead of even crop rows with one type of vegetable—like the American ideal of a farm—permaculture aims for a wide variety of plants, all interacting with one another horizontally, vertically, and over time.
What draws me to permaculture is its emphasis on making connections, among plants and among disciplines. It can be very narrow or far-reaching, from redesigning a backyard garden to creating cities and societies that are anchored in sustainability. I realize I’ve been looking for this kind of ethos my entire life. Our society is so set on specialization and myopic thinking. Permaculture pulls the blinders off.
I’ve started applying permaculture to music and audio recording. Designing a good permaculture system is very similar to a good audio mix. Every frequency, from bass to treble, sits in a specific auditory niche, and a good mix is balanced among these frequencies. Sometimes when I’m working on my own music, I’ll hear how “it needs something really treble-y.” That treble-y sound doesn’t sound very good on its own, but when it’s combined with the other frequencies, all the sounds work together in a way that’s almost magical, or like a landscape that has exploded to life after a little rain.
*Honor thy error as a hidden intention *Use an old idea *What to increase? What to reduce? *Are there sections? Consider transitions *Try faking it! *Give the game away
Creative work can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, and logical thinking can actually be your worst enemy since it’s grounded in habit and the limits of knowledge. Oblique Strategies encourage lateral thinking and the breaking of habits. A little bit of chaos or randomness goes a long way, and the prompts’ gnomic nature—which you have to decipher for yourself—contributes to their use. They turn a frustrating situation back into a game and get you thinking in a more playful way. They get you back into the dirt like a kid.
And here are some of the more playful permaculture design principles:
*Observe. *Stack elements in both space and time *Make the least change for the greatest effect *Optimize edge
Already, I’m thinking about how to apply these principles to the world of music, and conversely, how to draw on Oblique Strategies in my garden. That’s not what they were intended for, but that “wrongness” feels like a new Oblique Strategy. It creates the perfect amount of friction that can lead to spectacular (or spectacularly weird) results.
One of the books I read recently was Kay Larson’s Buddhism-focused biography of the composer John Cage, Where The Heart Beats. John Cage used the I Ching—basically an ancient version of Oblique Strategies—to write most of his scores (and a lot of his speeches, too). According to Cage, modern music suffered too much from the egos of the composers. There was no life to their creations, just endless logic and rigidity. You could hear their hands around the necks of every note. The I Ching offered randomness and loss of control, which is an incredibly lifelike and natural feature. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of Cage’s dearest teachers, counseled him that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” So that’s what he set out to do, and by doing so, he explored Coomaraswamy’s ethos of interconnection, where “art is religion, religion art, not related but the same.”
“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases,” Cage said. “Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.” His music sounds like a natural environment: random, surprising, buzzing with the life of independent sounds bouncing off each other. His music is not “pleasing” to many because of this chaos. We’re hardwired to organize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that need can lead to segmentation, segregation, and destruction for the sake of order. It’s how a manicured, geometric lawn turns into a lifeless, resource-sucking space. How much of the world do we not see because of this innate organization bias? How much of life goes unnoticed?
“Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet,” Larson writes. “That’s when a path appears.” In permaculture, this similar humility is greatly encouraged. Watch nature and work with it, don’t try to master it. Accept the randomness it gives you. Be a permanent student. All of this makes me realize how web-like our environments, interests, thoughts, and lives are. Music is nature is creativity is life—not discrete parts, but a whole. Not related, but the same.