It feels like we’re in a sort of home stretch getting through this year. 2020 has been such a strange and unsettling time. Besides the love of family and friends the one constant that has kept me getting out of bed every morning and putting one virtual foot in front of the other has been music. 2020 has been a remarkable year for new releases, archival explorations and even unexpected “new” discoveries for me.
It is hard for me to make a “top 10” list as they are all good in different ways. So that said, here are some of my favorites… ok, there are a lot of albums I liked (which is not entirely surprising as I only tend to devote review space to albums I can recommend)! In case you missed them, click on the titles to jump to my full reviews:
Rough & Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan – Unexpected and wonderful, this was a hopeful mid-year turning-point release (great new Dylan? aww yeah! we’re gonna survive!). I loved it even on the streams but never got around to reviewing the vinyl which arrived late due to the Pandemic. To that, I am generally very pleased how it was pressed and how it sounds — and this was the deluxe harvest gold colored vinyl edition.
American Head, Flaming Lips – Inspiring and harrowing, American Head is a beautiful snapshot of America’s dark corners. A modern classic showcasing the Lips’ knack for crafting fresh otherworldly memorable, thought provoking sounds. I wrote two reviews including one based on the stream.
Letter To You, Bruce Springsteen – Bruce stepped up to the plate in October and hit a home run. Letter To You is one of the albums many of us needed now. “Song For Orphans” is amazing and was worth waiting 45 years to hear in completed form.
Shore, Fleet Foxes – Their Crack Up, was a favorite of 2017 so it was a treat this year to hear a new album (initially digitally). If you like multi part harmonies, acoustic guitars, clear CSN-inspired vocals and writing that aspires to the levels of The Band and Brian Wilson, check out this band.
Mirrored Aztec, Guided By Voices – I’ve come to anticipate multiple albums from Guided By Voices each year but I didn’t anticipate such a completely upbeat, tight and great sounding slab of pure rock ’n roll joy this year. Easily one of their best late period efforts, this is a good album that sounds good all the way through (as LoFi pioneers, that is a big deal). Hooks! Harmonies! Keyboards! Glossy-but-rocking production! Prog rock moments! A children’s chorus! Mirrored Aztec has it goin’ on…
Blackbirds, Bettye LaVette – Great sound, great songs and the great Bettye LaVette! Here interpreting songs associated with Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Della Reese, Ruth Brown, and others, producer Steve Jordan reaffirms Bettye’s brilliant late career star shine that began some 15 years ago. It was just announced that Blackbirds has been nominated for a Grammy!
Is That So? John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan & Zakir Hussain – A beautiful album crossing many boundaries, the trio offered this album for free for a time when the Covid reality was just kicking in. When the vinyl version was offered for sale, I ordered it and was not disappointed.
Strings For Peace, Sharon Isbin and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan – A wonderful cross-cultural release, this time between a Grammy winning America classical guitarist and a Sarod master. This group delivers melody, mystique and mood all wrapped up in an hour long virtuosic journey.
Living On Mercy, Dan Penn – The legendary soul songwriter drops his first new album in many years and it sounds like time stopped. Effortless, memorable, hook-filled and beautifully, simply produced. My vinyl copy just arrived this week so I’ll be getting to a review of that version soon.
Self Made Man, Larkin Poe – Killer hard rocking blues falling somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan restores faith in this genre. All it takes is great songwriting, sizzling playing, passionate singing plus the drive of independently produced, Grammy-nominated musicians.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Palo Alto, Thelonious Monk – A lost concert, a fantastic performance and a solid production. Premium package (with several bonus inserts) and reasonable pricing makes this an essential for the fans or even the curious at heart.
Live at Ronnie Scotts, Bill Evans – Newly unearthed private archive tapes recorded by drummer Jack DeJohnette captures a short-lived but acclaimed (and Grammy winning!) version of Evans’ trio then scaling new heights.
In Frequencies, NRBQ – Rare and unreleased songs across their 50 year career that plays as if it were “just” another fantastic album. No simple task, but then nothing is surprising from the wizards of NRBQ!
Halloween 1981, Frank Zappa – Complete shows from a misunderstood period in Zappa’s career, these recordings even made me reconsider this era. Fun and often jaw dropping performances here.
Money Jungle, Duke Ellington – An unlikely collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach gets a quality reissue courtesy of the acclaimed Blue Note Tone Poet series.
Nonsuch, XTC – Long overdue, the 200-gram vinyl reissue presents this lush, beautiful album in a manner far more complementary than a sterile compact disc.
“It’s Time!”, Jackie McLean – An excellent album given deluxe Tone Poet treatment, sounds great and puts a much sought after collectible mid 60s session within reach of most every jazz fan.
Orange Crate Art, Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks – Wonderful collaboration by music legends gets first time vinyl release, a long overdue reissue.
Nickel Creek – 45 RPM audiophile vinyl treatment for the three acclaimed modern acoustic alternative folk albums. All sound amazing!
Metrobolist, David Bowie – Producer Tony Visconti’s remix of The Man Who Sold The World is not so much a reinvention but a new showcase for underlying muscle he knew existed in these recordings.
Van Duren & Idiot Optimism – An obscure, under promoted power pop gem plus a lost sequel album finally get a much anticipated reissue.
EMOH, Lou Barlow – A rich modern acoustic album from the main driver behind alternative rock legends Sebadoh.
Gimme Some Truth, John Lennon – His music is timeless of course but Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon must get kudos for having the insight and vision to remix these recordings into surround sound while keeping the pure analog feel and making everything sound clearer and cleaner.
Seeds of Love, Tears For Fears – One of the best albums of the 80s reveals rich layers in an incredible Steven Wilson 5.1 mix. Included in the grand new boxed set with demos, outtakes and rarities.
The Savoy 10-inch Collection, Charlie Parker – Bird Lives on classic and long out of print 10-inch LPs, lovingly recreated for a new generation to discover.
A FEW OF MARK’S NEW DISCOVERIES
(aka Better Late Than Never!)
No Mundos Dos Sons, Heremeto Pascoal & Grupo – Found this album while I was in New Orleans in January. From 2018 (photo at the start of this review) but new to me and an excellent listen by one of the most amazing musicians out there. Also look for him on Sean Khan’s great Palmeres Fantasy album.
Introducing Kenny Burrell, Kenny Burrell – The 1956 debut by the legendary guitarist sounds even better than the rare original pressings. This came out in 2019 but was only really able to write about it this year when I found an original pressing to compare and contrast.
A.M. Gold, Amber Martin – Saw her live with John Cameron Mitchell (aka Hedwig & The Angry Inch) and was blown away. Bought her album after the show. Highly recommended!