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.
Contours // Balafon Sketches (2020)
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).
Thor Harris // Joyful Noise Artist In Residence Box Set (2019)
Weirdo percussion experiments from Austin’s Thor Harris, with poetic names like “Asian Market Smell” and “Recreational Antibiotics.” A reminder that simply banging on shit is a lot of fun.
Josiah Steinbrick // Liquid/Devotion & Tongue Street Blue (2020)
Freefloating, fluid, and otherworldly rhythmic explorations that aim for that ancient/future hybrid.
Textured, grainy ambient music. I loved the small, delicate dreamworlds constructed by these artists, who are so attuned to subtlety and detail. My favorites:
Taylor Deupree // Objects I’ve Been Given (2020).
Taylor Deupree & Marcus Fischer // Twine (2015)
This Valley Of Old Mountains // s/t (2020).
Michael Grigoni & Stephen Vitiello // Slow Machines (2020).
Federico Durand // A Través Del Espejo (2016).
Brian Eno // New Space Music (2014)
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.
Milieu // Phosphene Weather (2009)
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.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland // Keyboard Fantasies (1986) & Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story (2019)
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.
juneunit // s/t (2020)
Shadowy, mysterious, vaguely gothy electronic music that sounds like a cross between the Cure and Boards of Canada. I bought it on cassette tape for maximum warble and graininess.
Seefeel // Quique (1993)
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.
Pole // 1 2 3 (1998-2000)
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.
Two albums from the dawn of computer music, made from glitches and digital accidents. Their textures now sound homemade and quaint in comparison to a lot of current electronic music.
Jan Jelinek // discography
Abstracted, looped music that sits in the ambient/electronic wheelhouse, but it can sound as improvisatory as jazz. Excellent music to collage to.
Max de Wardener // Music For Detuned Pianos, performed by Kit Downes (2020)
Exactly as advertised (though I was wishing for more detunedness!). Detuning the pianos opens up entire new harmonies, melodies, and worlds. Sounds like an acoustic Aphex Twin.
Aphex Twin // “Alberto Balsalm” (1995) & “Alberto Balsalm” covers
Luke Schneider // Altar Of Harmony (2020)
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.
Willie Nelson // various live recordings
Working on a Willie Nelson birthday celebration and an Armadillo World Headquarters radio documentary sent me worshipping at the feet of the Red Headed Stranger again, specifically his ’70s live recordings. There’s his 1976 Austin City Limits taping, capturing a live rendition of Red Headed Stranger in its entirety on film. There’s his blistering set at the Texas Opry House in 1974 (part of the full Atlantic Recordings box set). And then there’s Willie and The Family live at a casino in Lake Tahoe, 1978, where he has the brilliance/humor to play “Amazing Grace” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job And Shove It” back to back.
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.
Greg Vanderpool // Sub Raton (2020)
An album of country heartbreak that, in the Austinite’s words, “sounds like a whisper from start to finish.”
Califone // Echo Mine (2020)
Collaged-together folk-rock that sounds like it was born in a junkyard. “Kill the algorithms / algorithms kill” is one of my favorite lyrics of the year.
Karima Walker // Hands In Our Names (2017)
A mix of sound collage, folk music, and layered harmonies that only a Tucson, Arizona artist could make.
Numün // Voyage au Soleil (2020)
Earthy folk music that’s been blasted into outer space.
Murky, scuzzy drone landscapes recorded with a single mic. And their album from 2018 made more sense this year: slow motion music that sounds more like a drifting conversation than an album.
Acetone // 1992-2001 (2017)
Yo La Tengo led me back to this band, which sounds like it’s cut from the same family tree. Quietly brilliant songs that blend Velvet Underground hush with a casual California atmosphere.
One artist, two totally different results. There’s the glittering electronica from this year, made with a modular synthesizer, juxtaposed with the jazz, bossa nova, and soft rock sounds on his debut.
Yves Jarvis // Sundry Rock Song Stock (2020)
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.
Brother Theotis Taylor // s/t (1970s/2020)
Grainy home recordings from a South Georgia preacher, spiritual singer, and pianist. Sheer joy, both in his singing and the way the piano notes dance around the room. Led me back to the epic weirdo folk music of Mississippi Records: Alexis Zoumbas, Moondog, and the emotional, cosmic, occult world of Joe Meek.
Eddie Chacon // Pleasure, Joy & Happiness (2020)
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.
R.A.P. Ferreira // purple moonlight pages (2020)
The best rapper alive lives in Biddeford, Maine. Psychedelic, in both sound and Ferreira’s way with words.
Nick Hakim // “QADIR” (2020)
Psychedelic, in the way that grief can make you lose your mind. Slo-mo soul music from a master emotional craftsman.
Little Simz // “one life, might live” (2020)
Little Simz makes an absolute banger where the beat doesn’t kick in until the song is halfway through.
Ela Orleans // Movies For Ears (2019)
Pop miniatures made from collaged bits of sound and samples. All the various sources and textures makes it sound literally timeless–as in, divorced from time.
Late Night Tales: MGMT (2011)
I’m not that big into MGMT, but they make an incredible mix, threading together a lot of my obsessions: ’60s psychedelic pop, post-punk, crude electronic music, and drone-y folk.
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.
Bek Phoenix // Park Variations (2020)
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.
A simple and emotionally-loaded concept: click the link, and look out someone else’s window for awhile. The sights and sounds of being in another person’s shoes.
The best internet radio station. Always surprising, wonderfully strange.
Proof that a digital music company can be nimble, thoughtful, and radical. Their monthly Bandcamp Fridays initiative put money directly into the pockets of hurting musicians and labels, creating a community and I’m sure a hefty amount of brand loyalty. Above it all, they created a better vision of the future.
The Sound Of The Pandemic
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.
JHS Colour Box // Recording by the numbers
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.