Looking back, my year in music centered on albums that reassured, inspired, or completely distracted. In the absence of live music events, I mail-ordered more vinyl than ever before, including the better portion of this list. These are the albums that were here for me when I needed them, and I wanted to return the favor in my own small way.
- Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Roy Ayers | Roy Ayers JID002 (Jazz is Dead)
Roy Ayers was a big discovery for me in 2019. This album came as a reward for unearthing the catalog of this prolific and legendary composer and vibraphone player. Collaboration with Younge and Muhammad results in a sound that is both perfect throwback and fresh optimism—exactly what I needed this year. There was a period when not a day went by without spinning this album. Beautiful, harmonic, and inspiring from start to finish, it’s so hard to pick favorite tracks. I could listen on repeat (and have), in part because it flows so smoothly as a single creation. The soothing, hypnotic vocals and synth on “Soulful and Unique” move seamlessly into drum and bass interplay on “Shadows of The East” to captivating effect.
- Damaged Bug | Bug on Yonkers (Castle Face Records)
I had no idea who Michael Yonkers was before listening to this album, but if it’s fundamental to John Dwyer, then I probably should. I adore this album for its punchy garage rhythms, loads of buzzy reverb, and confident touch of melancholy. It doesn’t really sound a thing like the originals, and I love that about a cover album. All the tracks are distinctly Dwyer’s loving homage to an artist near and dear to him. “I Tried” brings out Dwyer’s froggy vocals and “Microminiature Love” has him a little more singsong than usual below a chirping synth flute. I thank him for the exposure as well as this new contribution to my regular rotation.
- Nicole Atkins | Italian Ice (Single Lock Records)
If ever there was a model of musical perseverance, it is Nicole Atkins in a pandemic. She’s kept performing in all sorts of innovative ways, including her regular “Live from the Steel Porch” sessions and the occasional garage performance that did well to recreate a dive bar stage feel. When this album finally made its way through the sluggish vinyl pressing machine, it was a triumph in so many ways. Her composition is always tight, classic, and on-point, and this is infused as ever with her biting wit and lilting croon, but the material exquisitely captures so many shared experiences and feelings during ‘these times.’ “AM Gold” is a comforting, casual bluesy riff, and the country swing of “Never Going Home Again” reminds us that we’re all in this together. “These Old Roses” showcases her pleading Roy Orbison-esque vocals that I love so much. There’s something–or everything–here for everyone.
- Osees | Protean Threat (Castle Face Records)
Yes, more John Dwyer, and this is only half of his output for the year! This one starts as a ripper with crunchy guitars, but if that’s not your cup of tea, there’s loads of weirdo synth and undefinable accents to come. “Wing Run” reminds me of Pee-Wee and Miss Yvonne dancing in Puppet Land. “If I Had My Way” is a surf jam that will take up residence in your temporal lobes.
While the band has taken many a turn for the meandering jam of late, this one features more straightforward and contained compositions.
- Chicano Batman | Invisible People (ATO Records)
This is Chicano Batman at their tightest and most polished to date. It’s dancey and groovy, but it’s not just ear candy. It’s smart, sensitive, self-aware, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you really follow “Manuel’s Story,” it’s a heart-pounding tale, followed by “Moment of Joy,” reminding us to be present and recognize contentment where it finds you. Once again, Chicano Batman delivers declarations of love and joy and appreciation for each day we are blessed to experience.
- Run the Jewels | RTJ4 (BMG Rights Management)
This would feel like a response to the dialogue that unfolded in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, except the big questions society at large has just started taking seriously are the lens through which Killer Mike and El-P insist we see the world. “JU$T” commands us to “look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar.” They bring in some big guns here, with the return of Zack de la Rocha and the introduction of the legendary Mavis Staples, singing with heartache appropriate to one who’s been beating this drum since before any of them were born. And that “ooh la la” hook is just plain wicked.
- Tame Impala | The Slow Rush (Interscope)
Months of teasing the release with excellent singles made you hope the trailer wasn’t spoiling every detail of the plot. “Borderline” is so well-constructed and the bassline is irresistible, I was glued to the screen every time he performed in an empty room or studio. Shoot, they even gave us the fantastic “Patience,” which ultimately didn’t end up on the album. Thankfully, the full production brought plenty of plot twists. A few lulls midway (“On Track”) feel like a rite of passage that Kevin Parker needs to take us though to fully appreciate this epic Parker / Jay Watson mind meld. The bells in “Breathe Deeper” give me gleeful early ‘90s Eurodance chills.
- Khruangbin | Mordechai (Dead Oceans)
This is a band that seems to tweak their vibe a bit with each album. I loved the dreamy tumbleweed instrumentals of Con Todo El Mundo, and while the Texas Sun EP was its own triumph, the more structured sound was a departure from what I enjoyed about the band. Mordechai turns back to a western amble but with a little more groove than psychedelia (“So We Won’t Forget”) and a touch of disco in “Time (You and I)”.
- Mildlife | Automatic (Heavenly)
More disco! At some point this spring I found myself asking, “Why is disco everywhere all of a sudden?” Well, aren’t we all desperately seeking to tune-in and drop-out of reality for a little while? Whether or not that’s how the writing timeline worked for this album, it’s definitely how I received it. Enhanced with some spacey Pink Floyd-conjuring effects (“Downstream”), this album is loaded with hallmarks of the ‘70s: complex layers of synth, funky basslines, daydreamy vocals, and delicate, jazzy drum work. Dig “Rare Air” and cut a rug in your kitchen or tilt your head back and let “Citations” wash over you while you wait for the world to reopen.
- Deerhoof | Future Teenage Cave Artists (Joyful Noise Recordings)
This band brings me so much joy. Once again, they toe the line of songs that feel both so personal they were plucked straight out of my dreams and at the same time keep me on my toes, guessing where we’re going next. It’s tender and caring and full of concern that brings a tear to your eye. Try “The Loved One” to warm your heart and “Zazeet” to get your brain fizzing. | Courtney Dowdall