My 2020 in Music
Every year I use this space to talk about how there’s too much good music. It’s true. There is.
Out of all the new music released in 2020, I listened to 10+ classical albums, 150+ electronic albums, 10+ folk albums, 15+ hip hop albums, 15+ jazz albums, 20+ pop albums, 30+ R&B albums, 70+ rock albums, and something like a thousand singles.
I’m subscribed to Spotify and Apple Music. I buy mp3s from Amazon, Beatport, Tidal, and several other digital music marketplaces. Thanks to Bandcamp Fridays, I was able to directly support artists that in a regular year I would’ve seen live. And, for some stupid reason, I still buy vinyl.
But I’m not here to harp on how it would be a full-time job to listen to all the new music coming out, let alone to revisit all the best releases multiple times.
What I’m here to say is that none of that matters.
All that matters is how we dedicate our time.
Because every moment is a choice.
This year I became more conscious of these facts, and with increasing awareness realized that it’s up to me to choose where I turn my ears — and devote my energy.
And so, while I’m still always open, of course, to any and all kinds of music, I am more than ever attuned to two things, in no particular order:
One, I want to support the artists imagining — and actively creating — a world worth living in. Artists like Marisa Anderson, who believe that human beings shouldn’t have to die of dehydration while crossing the Sonoran Desert simply because they crossed an imaginary line on a map. Artists like Yaeji, who believe that we should lift up Black trans and non-binary femmes in the arts as well as Black arts & culture as a whole. Artists like Osees, Gen Pop, Germ House, and UK Gold, who believe that members of the LGBTQ+ community should have access to compassionate healthcare.
And two, I want to support real people in my community, the San Francisco Bay Area. People like my actual bandmates and their friends’ bands. People like art funk maestro Spencer Owen, one of my favorite live performers, who somehow managed to time the dissolution of his band to land a couple months before COVID lockdown. People like my favorite local DJs, including Sue Problema, teetering between cumbia and dance punk, and Moto Tembo, regularly spinning groovy house sets on Twitch for the whole world to enjoy. People like Oakland-based duo Night Sea, who — no matter that I don’t know them personally — produced a masterpiece of dub techno, one of my favorite albums of the year.
It’s this latest intention that led me to create White Crate, a new blog and newsletter 100% dedicated to highlighting the best music in the Bay. While we have had several great publications through the years highlighting local live music and indie releases, I couldn’t find a simple and straightforward space actively curating the best in Bay Area music new and old. So I’ve decided to try my hand at it. If you share my passion, then please subscribe!
Otherwise, let’s get on with it. Below I run through my favorite music of 2020. Admittedly, I went a little overboard this year and came up with a list of 52 entries. If you’d prefer something much more concise, then please reference my wife’s excellent short list:
Heavy Light - U.S. Girls
Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
What’s Your Pleasure? - Jessie Ware
If you’d rather listen than read, check out the playlist on Spotify.
“What kind of music is this?” my wife asked me.
I didn’t know how to answer.
Duval Timothy’s music sounds as complex as contemporary classical music yet catchy as pop. It may be as precisely planned as minimalism, but somehow it seems as improvisational as jazz. The piano pieces sound like loops you’d find on a hip hop producer’s beat tape, but when they feature vocals it sounds more like soul or R&B. And then the more you listen, the more you realize the piano, voices, and other live instruments aren’t operating alone; this is electronic music too.
As someone who adores all musical styles, I love these times because you can see artists incorporating an unprecedented diversity of influences. With this London artist, it’s not just music either: Working across photography, textiles, painting, sculpture, design, cooking, and video, Timothy is a prime example of someone successfully tapping into multiple dimensions of artistic synthesis.
A few of my favorites from his discography:
“Bum” (2012) is all solo piano, vamping like a jazz classic — think “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
“Hairs” (2016), another solo piano piece, flows from a simple vamp into a sweeping, emotional build up reminiscent of Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea.
“Ball” (2017) starts out as a solo piano vamp but, after some playful variations on the dynamics that give it the feel of a J Dilla production, additional accompaniment (vibraphone, electronic drums) fade in.
“Stuck” (2018), I believe, is the first song I heard by Timothy, appearing on London on Key, a compilation of London artists. The vamp reappears as above, but broken up by stretches of deep tones allowed to just ring out, creating ambient space.
“Slave” (2020), featuring Twin Shadow, was the first single from the new album Help, and it’s chilling. The song is an adaptation of Timothy’s own experience in the music industry because in 2019 he had to pay for the right to own his masters. It’s a slow, melancholy song, but it’s not hopeless. In the vein of African-American spirituals, it’s quite direct about the sad state of present reality (in this sense, for musicians or other artists like Dave Chappelle facing legal hurdles to own their work, plus the related financial issues). But it also finds solace in imagining and — through that imagining — creating a new reality.
The rest of the new album, an hour anchored by Timothy’s songwriting and virtuosic piano performances, is a fluid, dynamic work exploring the pain and power of healing. One of the best albums and artists of the year.
The Dancing Devils of Djibouti - Groupe RTD
In a time where we have access to all genres — and I seek out so many — it makes sense that I would fall most deeply in love with an album that melds a variety of styles. But as a fan of electronic music, which simplifies genre mixing, I’m somewhat surprised that the album that did this most effectively for me was performed by a nine-piece band.
I confess my ignorance: Before listening to this album, I didn’t know anything about Djibouti, the tiny country south of Saudi Arabia, north of Ethiopia, and— from Yemen — right across a 20-mile span of water between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. But when I read the liner notes, I somewhat forgave myself. According to Ostinato Records, Djibouti has been under one-party rules since independence in 1977, and “no foreign entities” have been allowed to work with the nation’s musicians.
So what does the band sound like? The advertising doesn’t lie:
A stunning collision of Indian Bollywood, Jamaican dub and reggae, sleek horns inspired by Harlem’s jazz era, Somali funk, and the haunting and joyous synthesizer melodies of the Red Sea.
The horn lines are infectious. The keys are full of praise. The rhythm section is tight as Fela Kuti. The energy sizzles colorfully like oil-drenched stir-fry in a blazing hot pan. If your feet don’t dance, your soul does. And tying it all together are the angelic voices of Hassan Omar Houssein, Guessod Abdo Hamargod, and Asma Omar. The last of these most deeply captivating on the second track — “Raga Kaan Ka’Eegtow (You Are the One I Love)” — singing the words I can’t understand but feel. I feel it for this song, I feel it for my wife, I feel it for everyone I know and this giant insane planet of which we only get to experience a painfully, blissfully short moment.
EP / POP
La vita nuova - Christine & the Queens
The opening song on this EP (“People, I’ve been sad”) is one of those songs where you’re like, was this made for life in a pandemic? (See also: Norah Jones and Yaeji below.) But no, this is just life. Oh, and it’s not just the ennui part of life, but also the joie de vivre. It’s tears that come out like glitter. It’s plunging from a giant cathedral into a loved one’s arms. It’s 23 minutes of pristine indie dance pop. And damn, she can sing.
EP / R&B
AUNTIE - Ian Isiah
After being completely shook by self-described “pangender” artist Ian Isiah’s Shugga Sextape (Vol. 1) last year, I was delighted to learn that he was working with Chromeo for his newest work, AUNTIE. The EP starts with a recording of someone on the street shouting hateful, transphobic things — and you never quite forget it. But then Ian Isiah launches into “N.U.T.S.”, one of the most affirming, uplifting, loving soul funk jams of the year; and you realize there’s some work for you here, there’s something in that juxtaposition of love and hate. Perhaps: Recognize the hate in the world, see it, but also be such a powerful force of love that nothing, not even the worst haters, can stop you. Just under a half hour long, the EP runs through vocoder-powered funk jams (“Princess Pouty”), chilled out groovers (“Bougie Heart”), and ends on a note that could almost be gospel (“Loose Truth”).
EP / ROCK (CHILL AF)
“C-Side” - Khruangbin & Leon Bridges
Everything Khruangbin does is good. Their first two albums (The Universe Smiles Upon You and Con Todo El Mundo) are already classics, their rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here” is one of the greatest, and their mixes (including the recent LateNightTales) are always full of treasures. Those mixes in particular reveal how much the band is steeped in the sounds of the world’s best funk — from underground post-punk to dubbed out reggae to Nigerian jams to South Korean pop, it’s all funk, funk, funk. So it’s no wonder that that’s how they play, chill af, and totally in the pocket. But, personally, I think their specialty is playing instrumental, so more than anything on their new album Mordechai (no offense to Laura Lee’s singing!) I favor their work on the Texas Sun EP with Fort Worth soul singer Leon Bridges. “C-Side” is essential — there’s just so much silence and space to breathe between the drum and bass, allowing the guitar and vocals to just glide.
LP / HIP HOP (INSTRUMENTAL)
1988 - Knxwledge
What’s the difference between downtempo electronic music and instrumental hip hop? Who cares. One of the best producers out of LA, and just one of the best period, Knxwledge found some time between flooding Bandcamp with mixtapes to drop a a brand new, hella high-quality full-length LP on Stones Throw Records. With only a couple tracks venturing beyond the two-minute mark, the album feels like a mixtape except you can tell it got a litle more love and polish. Even the random samples are memorable. As Knxwledge tends to mix it up, not all the songs are strictly instrumental — Anderson Paak even tiptoes in for a feature on “itkanbe[sonice]” (credited to NxWorries) — but overall the beats dominate.
EP / HIP HOP (SAVAGE)
Suga - Megan Thee Stallion
Admittedly, I was a bit disconnected from hip hop this year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed some of the best. Aside from a ton of beat tapes (see: Knxwledge above or local Bay Area stuff like LIGHT BEINGS #2 by SMARTBOMB) and that Kari Faux album my friend sent me at some point, I can’t say I loved that much. But Megan Thee Stallion is unavoidable. She’s rapping and shaking her ass all over the place, and I love it. She doesn’t give a fuck, and she’s clearly having fun. As good as she can dance, she spits, and it’s irresistible. I know she released a longer album but I’m a big fan of the bitesize Suga EP: “Savage” may be thee hip hop track of 2020 but I also loved “Hit My Phone” (feat. Kehlani) for resembling old school west coast hip hop.
LP / ROCK (NO CHILL)
Obliviosus - MSW
I first saw MSW performing as Hell a year ago in a grungy Brooklyn dungeon. A double bill with Mizmor, it was one of the best evenings of doom metal I’ve ever experienced. And now, MSW’s new album Obliviosus is one of his best. The artist:
This album was written about my brother and for my family. addiction, substance abuse, near death experiences, loss, grieving for the undead. Drugs that make you Oblivious to the pain it’s causing elsewhere.
In a year of unfathomable numbers of dead — and counting — and the reality of loved ones’ mortality more obvious than ever before, it has been difficult to remain oblivious. But sometimes that’s the only defense we have against crushing anxiety, fear, and pain. MSW translates all of this into an album consisting of towering doom, somber piano, funereal chants, and, finally, the epic 20-minute title track, offering catharsis.
LP / ELECTRONIC (GLOBAL)
Ghosts V-VI - Nine Inch Nails
Released simultaneously in the beginning of COVID lockdowns, surprise albums Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts capture the feeling of life in these times. As in all times: hope and optimism for the unwritten future mixed with miserly acceptance of the emptiness of everything. Yes, everything decays, but today let’s live for the moment and for each other. I love you, but I can’t stop worrying about my life, my problems, my eventual death. There are days I feel like I can’t breathe, but your touch makes me feel invincible. And on and on and on — the blinding, deafening carousel of the mind. And then what do you hear? I imagine it’s something like this expertly crafted ambient music, ticks and tocks, lungs inflating and deflating, a flit of a feeling under the skin, sometimes good, sometimes very bad, but also difficult to grasp, somewhere between black and white.
LP / ELECTRONIC (LOCAL)
Still - Night Sea
Aside from COVID, which happened to everyone, the biggest thing that happened to me this year was that I moved out of San Francisco, my home for the past decade. But I didn’t go far: just across the Bay to Oakland. It was this reestablishment of the Bay Area as my forever home, combined with other persistent thoughts passing through my brain this year — the madness of the pandemic, awareness of my mortality, the growing desire to be more intentional about everything — that led me to consciously seek out, listen to, and support local musicians. And then I discovered this album.
Night Sea follows in the footsteps of dub techno innovators like GAS (Wolfgang Voigt), Dettinger, and Rhythm & Sound. What I love most about their new album is that while a dreamy lightness permeates throughout, the bass shifts its rhythm from track to track: Here it’s a pulsing four on the floor, here it’s a heartbeat, here it’s dubbing along with a skip in its step.
Released on Vancouver-based Still Season, an electronic music label “influenced by the natural surroundings of British Columbia,” the album would fit just as well along the foggy coasts from Big Sur, Santa Cruz, and Marin up to Oregon and Washington. It’s serene, entrancing, and seemingly infinite. And since it was produced here in Oakland, I’m proud to call it one of the best albums of the year.
SINGLE / NONBINARY
“Riquiquí” — Arca
I haven’t fully felt this way about music since I listened to Aphex Twin’s drukqs in high school. (And I’m assuming Venezuelan electronic record producer Arca is very much influenced by Richard D. James.) Despite the complexity of the music on her new album KiCk i, it stays accessible by playing into tropes we except from dance music. That’s not the only sense in which the project is as nonbinary as the artist herself: From the album art to the music, everything about this work challenges and erases the imaginary lines between binaries like woman and man, sex and violence, humanity and machinery, electronic music and live music. My favorite track on the album is “Riquiquí,” an uptempo, constantly shape-shifting creature that Arca just re-released as Riquiquí;Bronze-Instances(1–100), featuring 100 AI-generated versions of the song.
SINGLE / MOST SARCASTIC COVID SONG
“A Happy Town” - Automatic Tasty
Okay, I love the music. It’s cheery synth pop with the sounds of dogs barking and birds singing in the background. And then there’s the songwriter and producer Jonny Dillon deadpan singing the best lyrics of the year:
The happy town is full of happy people
The happy church has a happy steeple
The happy people live happy lives
Happy husbands, happy wives
Happy news on the TV screen
We’re all one big happy world it seems
Happy people never disagree
Happy people like you and me
The happy town is full of fruits
Who march and sing in rainbow boots
See them marching through that happy world
See those happy boys and girls
This happy world is rough
Sometimes I worry that I’m not neurotic enough
SINGLE / FROM THE ARCHIVES
“That Suits Me” - Bessie Jones
“Bessie Jones was one of the most popular performers on the 1960s and ’70s folk circuit,” according to the notes to Get In Union, a new release from the Alan Lomax Archive. I’d never heard of her until this year, but she and legendary music archivist Alan Lomax worked together for years sharing and performing Southern black folk songs (going back to the slavery era) across the country. The performances are spell-binding.
SINGLE / METAL
“The Fear” - Blood Star
In 2019, I never would have guessed that a hair metal track would be one of my favorites of 2020, yet here we are. Maybe it had something to do with the feelings in the air but there was something satisfying (albeit cheesy) about hearing this clear-throated woman shouting above the racing bass drum and guitar riffs: “No matter what don’t give into the fear.”
Coincidentally, just as COVID lockdowns began in mid-March, I made a playlist called NO FEAR (no relation to the lifestyle brand) aggregating songs about death, fear, life, love, and just about anything — as long as it struck a chord amid the pandemic. And it’s been growing ever since: As of this writing, the playlist is 475 songs (37 hr 17 min) long, so make sure to give it a whirl on shuffle.
SINGLE / METAL
“Anti-Gone” - Boris
They wanted to say “NO” so loudly to all of 2020, they couldn’t even fit one of the two letters on the album’s cover art. Since the Japanese experimental thrash punk band has been doing their thing for going on three decades, it’s no surprise that Boris’ new album NO is worth a listen. But the first time is the best, as it opens with a six-and-a-half-minute doom-style beast that just plods ahead slowly and patiently. And then comes “Anti-Gone,” double speed and half the length, an absolute rager that makes even the olds among us wanna head bang again.
SINGLE / POP
“WAP” - Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion
Sorry for being as basic as a Pitchfork writer cramming in a three-martini brunch before the next COVID lockdown, but this song slaps. A quick word to the dudes who somehow found offense: it would be almost laughable if it weren’t so depressing that you forgot that you spent the last two decades jamming to dudes talking about how their dicks are so great. But whatever. Cardi B is hilarious, and Megan Thee Stallion is the rapper of the year: “WAP” is like the flaming cherry on top of the fine ass cake that was her Suga EP. Why is Kylie Jenner in the music video? I have no idea. Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re analyzing a Cardi B music video. The lyrics, the asses, the beats, the boobs, the fire, the flows, the tigers. So many tigers. Oh, and Rosalía! As the wise philosopher Missy Elliott once declared: “Let’s just have fun, it’s hip-hop man, this is hip-hop!”
SINGLE / BREAKS
“Ma Bae Be Luv” - Coco Bryce
First of all, I’m a sucker for Diana Ross. I grew up on the Supremes and other Motown legends every morning when my mama would drive me to elementary school. Second, London’s Lobster Theremin is one of the most consistently high-quality electronic music labels. So when I opened their email, saw Snoopy in Nikes hugging a lobster next to a buzzing theremin, and then started hearing “Baby Love” by Diana Ross chopped and twisted into a flutter of heady drum and bass, I knew I was home.
SINGLE / EGO
“96a” - Conifold
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I enrolled in this college class:
MUS096A PO - Electronic Music Studio
Introductory laboratory course designed to develop electronic compositions using techniques of analog and digital synthesis. Permission of instructor required.
After an enriching semester learning about electronic music pioneers like Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt, and Pauline Oliveros — and getting hands-on experience using the semi-modular ARP 2600 synthesizer as well as digital production tools, we were required to perform a final piece in front of the class (plus any other able and willing audience members). I chose to return to the ARP, playing and manipulating a pre-planned patch. It wasn’t the best piece in the world, but part of what made it successful was the fact that I had invited my fellow classmates to not just sit idly by like they were watching a classical piece being performed, but rather to participate by screaming along like they were at a rock concert. They obliged.
Fast forward a decade or so, and my friend Mark (aka Conifold), after learning about and hearing the piece, decided to remix it, using all the original source recordings except for the addition of a couple drum samples. Maybe it’s my ego talking, but I think it’s a damn good remix!
SINGLE / CALI BAES
“Birthday” - Disclosure feat. Kehlani and Syd
With heavy hitters like “Ultimatum,” “Moonlight,” and an untouchable rework of Gwen McRae’s “Funky Sensation,” Disclosure made a serious comeback in 2018. Last year they kinda fell off my radar again. And then this year they returned with ENERGY, an LP backed by a bunch of great singles. My favorite? Perhaps I’m biased by my Cali roots, but “Birthday” (featuring Kehlani and Syd, repping Oakland and LA respectively) steals my heart. It’s slower, more R&B-sounding than the typical Disclosure banger, but it’s still their tell-tale, high-quality, juicy production. And yes, the video is all kinds of cute.
SINGLE / DISCO REMIX
“Love on Hold [Extended Remix]” - Dr Packer
Released in 2017, the original mix of “Love on Hold” by Aeroplane features vocals by Tawatha Agee, the lead singer of Mtume. You know Mtume because you know The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” whose beat is built entirely around Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” which features Agee on lead vocals. And so Aeroplane actually tracked her down to collaborate on that 2017 track, which is fine and funky on its own. But this year Dr Packer (also featured on “You Got Something Special” below) remixed the track, doubling its length, bumping the entire rhythm section, and just generally spicing it up for the dance floor.
SINGLE / TRUTH
“Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys” - Ego Ella May
How can someone sing so sweetly and yet so truthfully? Directly referencing air pollution, sustainable fashion, and other serious topics while making it sound like a love song? Without bitterness, with grace and love? I guess you just acknowledge aloud that you’re gonna do it. And then you do it.
SINGLE / DANCE POP
“Love is a Drug” - Empress Of
Really, this whole album is wonderful. It’s a half hour of catchy dance pop from LA’s Empress Of in partnership with prolific record producer, songwriter, engineer, and mixer BJ Burton (who’s worked with Bon Iver, Lizzo, Charli XCX, Eminem, Miley Cyrus, and more).
Empress Of first came on my radar when she opened for Blood Orange in 2018, but thanks to the dance pop perfection that is “Love is a Drug,” I’ll never forget her. With quick catchy lyrics and a voice full of longing over a funky synth pop beat, she wraps up the song in under three minutes — knowing you’ll be back.
SINGLE / LIVE MIX
“Bias [Mayfield Depot Mix]” - Floating Points
Jungle is back. Breaks. Drum and bass. Whatever you want to call it, it’s back. Hell, maybe it never went away and I was just too deep in discoland to notice. One of the best forays into the genre this year is by Floating Points, who seems to be getting better and better at everything he does. Crush was a top favorite for best electronic album of 2019, so no one was sad to see him release a live remix of one of the tracks from that album, “based around a live recording from [Manchester venue Mayfield Depot] with crowd noise bleeding in.” It’s a blissful way to spend 11 minutes.
SINGLE / DANCE POP
“What’s Your Pleasure?” - Jessie Ware
“What’s Your Pleasure?” is the outstanding title track for an outstanding new album by Jessie Ware. Soon after it came out, I was blasting it while driving around San Francisco, windows down, and some rando on the street shouted at me: “Is that the new Jessie Ware?? SO GOOD!!” Yes, it’s that good. Also, the dance version of the music video might be the best music video of the year.
SINGLE / DISCO EDIT
“You Got Something Special [Edit]” - Kon
Like all the best music, “You Got Something Special” originally came out in 1982. JK. Kinda. With Carl Sturken on production duties and Cindy Mizelle providing glorious vocals, Lemelle only released a couple singles. But to start 2020 right, Glitterbox (a disco party by London’s Defected Records) reissued the original single and instrumental with two new edits. KON’s take is the favorite: He beefs up the bass, expands the breakdown, and retains the sexy swinging funk of the original. Can’t wait to dance to this in a club some day.
“You, at the End” - Lafawndah
I listened to this multiple times a day when it came out in mid-June. It was a strange time, three months into the new not-normalcy of stay-at-home orders, and yet I found myself driving to the office. Just for a few days, I’d drive the empty SF streets, park in the Fifth and Mission Garage, and walk down abandoned Market St, taking in the shuttered shops and creeping anarchy. In the car after, I’d blast this stripped down track, somber horns laying low beneath Lafawndah’s spoken yet sung, gorgeous yet painful, clearly articulated poetry, and just breathe deeply: “Born to hold the world under her tongue,” a mantra echoing out.
SINGLE / SEXY HOUSE
“Sucio” - Late London
My coworker sent this to me sometime in the first quarter of 2020. I know this because I was on the bus on the way to work, absolutely swimming in my headphones. There’s not much to it: just a woman’s alluring voice (speaking in Spanish) and a deep house beat too irresistible to ignore.
SINGLE / SEXY DANCE
“Lento” - Lauren Jauregui feat. Tainy
Like a lot of my friends, I have a running playlist on Spotify with my top songs of the year. Every once in a while, I’d put it on shuffle and either remove songs or like them even more. With this track, it was always the same: I just kept falling deeper and deeper in love. It’s so simple, but something about the production and Lauren’s voice makes me feel like I’m almost… on the dancefloor… surrounded by a crowd… dancing ecstatically with another beautiful human being.
SINGLE / REGGAE
“Champion [Remix]” - Liam Bailey feat. Black Thought
The original version of “Champion” came out in November 2019, but I didn’t hear it until this year. It’s fire. Crispy, crunchy hats and deep rumbling bass as if it’s an old-school dub track, plus Liam Bailey crooning over everything like an R&B singer. On the remix, Roots rapper Black Thought serves the first verse, in a breath showing the commonalities between hip hop and reggae toasting. And then Liam comes in and it’s all reggae fire again.
“Nada” - Lido Pimienta
Aside from possibly having the year’s best album art, Colombian Canadian artist Lido Pimienta released one of the best alternative Latin albums in 2020. She describes it as “a cynical love letter to Colombia.” It’s an album clearly drawing from the country’s musical styles — cumbia we all know but bullerengue and porro are new to me — with lyrics and content inspired by the artist’s complicated relationship with the culture she came from, especially its anti-Blackness and normalization of violence. On the absolute earworm of a cumbia cancion that is the album’s second single, “Nada,” Lido Pimienta sings about nature, femininity, and the fact that ultimately we all die, we are nothing. So why be afraid?
SINGLE / DISCO JAZZ ODYSSEY
“Apex [Remix]” - Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas
In November, Norwegian space disco masters Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas released III, their first joint album in 11 years — but that’s not where this track is from. This is a remix of Jaga Jazzist’s “Apex,” from their album Pyramid, itself a psychedelic electronic jazz experience released this year by Brainfeeder. So it didn’t take much for the disco house duo to do their thing, extending the already-long song to 11 minutes, zeroing in on their favorite grooves, and launching it into outer space.
SINGLE / CLASSICAL
“Mercy” - Max Richter feat. Mari Samuelsen
“All human beings are are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” If affirmation works, then here’s a good one to play on repeat and speak along to. There’s no singing: just typically gorgeous orchestrations by Max Richter (with an emphasis on cello and bass) accompanying American actress KiKi Layne’s recitation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following the atrocities of World War II, the document was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, laying out essential rights and freedoms of all human beings. And then atrocities continued for 72 years. So while not a statement of fact, the document’s text has been resurrected by Richter and set amidst stunning music to remind us what we should be striving for.
The album’s peak arrives on the final track, piano and violin duet “Mercy,” which was composed years earlier and first performed by violinist Hilary Hahn on her 2013 album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. Mari Samuelsen does the work well in her own way, closing out the album with a haunting, hopeful vision for the future.
SINGLE / NICARAGUA
“Momoto Carenado” - NAOBA
It wasn’t just my roots in the San Francisco Bay Area that tugged at my heart this year. It’s also now been three years since I visited my mother’s homeland of Nicaragua. That last visit was a monthlong joy, celebrating love and life with family and friends. Less than a year later, a movement erupted across the country protesting the blatantly corrupt nepotism of the dictator president (he literally made his wife the vice president). They crushed the protests and they’re still in power, so the peace presiding now is an uneasy one. Add a pandemic, and visiting just hasn’t been in the cards for me.
So I was grateful to stumble upon this compilation featuring a super creative electronic piece by NAOBA, aka Tamara Montenegro, an artist focused on producing music inspired by native people’s wisdom. For this album — collecting new music inspired by the songs of endangered birds with 100% of the profits going towards the organizations working to protect them — NAOBA worked with the Momoto Carenado, a bird famous in Nicaragua for its flamboyant tail. The song itself actually incorporates the birdcall, but also builds sounds around it to create something new and rooted in earth.
SINGLE / MOST REALISTIC COVID SONG
“Tryin’ to Keep it Together” - Norah Jones
Like the Yaeji track on this list, I’m pretty sure this song was written before the craziness of the pandemic. But it’s a good theme song for 2020. If you’re into soul jazz piano music, then I highly recommend Norah Jones’ new album Pick Me Up Off The Floor. If you’re not sure, it’s worth watching one of the casual, intimate home recordings she’s been uploading to YouTube this year, like her Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. On “Tryin’ to Keep it Together”, which came out this year but didn’t appear on the new album, the Blue Note musician sings a lullaby to herself about empty conversations and a quiet, broken love. It’s sad, but honest.
SINGLE / DISCO
“Murphy’s Law” - Róisín Murphy
Roisin Murphy’s “Incapable” was easily one of my favorite songs of 2019. In 2020, she returned in full force with Róisín Machine, an hour of flawless disco house. In a way, the full album is something of a greatest hits between Murphy and collaborator Richard Barratt (aka DJ Parrot and Crooked Man), who had previously released singles “Simulation” (2012), “Jealousy” (2015), and “Narcissus” (2017). All the tracks new and and old are worth a listen, but “Murphy’s Law,” with its simplicity and relaxed, below-120 BPM beat, could have the same staying power as “Incapable.”
SINGLE / POETRY
“Lamp Lady” - Sevdaliza
Sevdaliza is an Iranian-Dutch singer, songwriter and record producer, and 100% an artist. It’s hard not to think about Portishead or other trip hop classics when listening to her beats, but her voice is unique. Her 2020 album Shabrang is solid all the way through, but I was especially hooked by the lead single “Lamp Lady.” It’s trip hop with a short pop song structure and repetitive chorus, but the lyrics — “Lamp lady selling tangerines, and / With the loving eyes of God / Drift back to the sun” — are delivered magically every time.
SINGLE / ELECTRONIC
“Mr. Kill Myself” - Sewerslvt
Technically, this came out in December 2019, but whatever. I only found out about this release because I was following Geometric Lullaby, which I originally thought was “just a vaporwave label.” Well, maybe that’s still true since “vaporwave” is a tenuous term. Beginning with a minute-long ambient soundscape, this track rapidly descends into one of the tightest productions of breakcore I’ve heard this year. There’s another synth-based moment of peace halfway through, but the breaks return, rapidly descending you into a chaotic but beautiful drum and bass… if you’re into that sort of thing. Eight minutes of jungle heaven.
SINGLE / COVER
“Smile Now, Cry Later” - The Shacks
Like Liam Bailey’s “Champion,” which also appears on this list, the Shacks released “Smile Now, Cry Later” on Brooklyn’s Big Crown Records, one of my favorite labels over the past few years. They have the old-school soul sound dialed in, without coming off as quaint or novelty. As part of a label compilation released this year called Dear Sunny…, nine Big Crown artists covered songs by 1960s San Antonio R&B/tejano group Sunny & The Sunliners. This is the first track on the comp, a dreamy wonderland that convinces you everything’s gonna be okay — even though the title suggests otherwise.
SINGLE / ELECTRONIC
“Nervelevers” - Squarepusher
After focusing on his live band Shobaleader One in 2017, Tom Jenkinson returned in 2020 with an EP (Lamental) and LP (Be Up a Hello), both reviving the sounds of early Squarepusher. While the EP is fairly relaxed (even including a lovely but brief bass solo, “Les Mains Dansent”), the LP is wildly frenetic. On “Nervelevers,” the album’s second single, it’s frenetic… yet also delicately orchestrated. With massive stomps of bass, laser gun explosions, and jungle rhythms, it’s everything I loved about IDM growing up — but all brand new.
SINGLE / AMERICA
“America” - Sufjan Stevens
I’ve loved Sufjan Stevens since high school, but the truth is that I haven’t been crazy about any of his albums since All Delighted People a decade ago. But I know he tends to experiment, so I’m always down to hear something new. When I found out that the first single off his new album The Ascension happened to be the album’s 12-minute centerpiece and final track, I just loved it. Who does that?
Titled “America,” it arrived in late July, an interesting time for America. A couple weeks after the Fourth. Black Lives Matter, the biggest protests America has ever seen. A flailing, failing government response to the pandemic. An unqualified and dangerous egomaniac of a sitting president running for reelection against a business-as-usual white old man. And then Sufjan drops this epic song, pleading with one of the best lines of the year: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.”
SINGLE / BASS
“Dragonball Durag” - Thundercat
I almost picked the minutelong, Squarepusher-ish bass funk jam “How Sway” from Thundercat’s new album It Is What It Is but, as it turned out, I couldn’t resist the catchiness of “Dragonball Durag.” It’s so silly, but so good. If you didn’t know that Thundercat was a complete nerd… well, now you know. And you also know he can write a babymaking jam for the ages.
SINGLE / COVER
Ordinary Guy - Toro y Moi feat. The Mattson 2
On one of the Bay Area’s best singles of 2020, Toro y Moi plays chill indie funk tribute to Afro-Filipino boogaloo star Joe Bataan. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942, Bataan is Afro-Filipino just like Chaz Bear (of Toro y Moi), so sharing the lyrics (“I’m just an ordinary guy / Afro-Filipino / Average sort of guy”) works well. While the original blends funk with boogaloo and eventually breaks down into salsa, the Toro y Moi version sticks to tight grooves, funky bass, and airy guitars — the kind of locked-in funk many of us associate with Khruangbin these days. With gentle crooning vocals on top, it’s a sweet indie pop snack. (By the way, if you haven’t checked it out yet, Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace was one of the best albums of 2019.)
SINGLE / POP
“4 American Dollars” - U.S. Girls
Another one released right around when lockdown started, and a nice comfort at the time. The whole album Heavy Light is worth a listen but this single is a perfect place to start. I realized recently that the sound reminds me of the soulful soft rock sound from David Bowie’s Young Americans, which is a great thing.
SINGLE / FOLK
“Fire” - Waxahatchee
Talk about shiver-inducing melody. Backed by minimal instrumentation, Katie Crutchfield lets her singing and songwriting take center stage on this track, worth playing over and over again.
SINGLE / IDM
“Cold” - Xyla
If I started telling you about the best new IDM out of San Francisco in 2020, you’d be forgiven for picturing a straight, white, 30-year-old man recently retired from Google. But Xyla is a classically-trained, queer bpoc, and her latest contribution to the genre is a welcome change. From ambient techno (“Feel”) reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85–92 to meditative, beatless interludes (“Now”) to jungle-inspired jams (“Ways”), Ways reflects an artist melding a variety of styles to create one entirely their own. “Cold” (featuring Oso Feo) is one of the album’s highlights, blissful footwork built around a lovingly washed out vocal sample from Ashanti’s 2002 hit “Foolish.”
SINGLE / MOST MOTIVATIONAL COVID SONG
“Waking Up Down” - Yaeji
While a lot of cheesy lockdown-themed music came out this year, there were also a lot of songs about regular life that ended up sounding like they were planned for our current situation. Released one day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and one week before the San Francisco Bay Area issued a “stay at home” order effectively shutting down offices, restaurants, and nightlife, “Waking Up Down” is one of my favorite examples of this. It’s very obviously just a reflection on celebrating the small wins in everyday life: You know, like waking up. Cooking yourself a meal. Or even just remembering to hydrate. Before coronavirus struck, anxiety was already plaguing millions of people. Yaeji understood this feeling and captured it in a bubbly, pop-inspired house track. You can dance to it in your bedroom, or just play it in the background while you’re “making a list and checking down.”
SINGLE / NONBINARY
“Kerosene!” - Yves Tumor
I first saw Yves Tumor in 2018 at FEELS 6, a mini music festival in Richmond, CA hosted inside a giant warehouse. I had never heard of them, but after seeing this individual pace around on stage for 30 minutes, screaming into a microphone, and having nothing but a laptop spitting out noise, I was intrigued. It’s hard to explain why. It was extremely punk rock. Possibly the most punk rock electronic I’d ever seen.
Fast forward to 2019, and I’m at a different music festival — Primavera Sound in Barcelona — and I happen to catch a couple songs performed by Yves Tumor. This time they have a whole band, and they’re rocking out like it’s 1976. Jump ahead one more year, and we’re given Heaven to a Tortured Mind, featuring the amazing second single “Kerosene!” It sounds like that big festival rock & roll band I saw, but you know it has the spirit of that warehouse noise punk artist too.
SINGLE / DRUGS
“Microdosing” - 070 Shake
In some indefinable grey area between R&B and hip hop lies 070 Shake, whose 2020 album Modus Vivendi straddles the line through dark, heavy, brooding synth productions. “Come Around” is meditative, “Morrow” is a straight up hit, and I imagine the experience of hearing Shake’s modern take on the traditional folk song “In the Pines” is what Memphis Minnie fans felt when they first heard Led Zeppelin do “When the Levee Breaks.” But my favorite song on the album is probably the chilled out, enigmatic “Microdosing,” applying the drug term to relationships. In other words, just a little bit at a time. It fits in with 070 Shake’s entire aura: She was one of the few artists I was able to see live this year, and her performance was all about sharing stories of growth and tribulation while pouring peace and love into the crowd — and receiving it right back.
SINGLE / TRUTH
“The 1975” - The 1975
By now, nearly everyone understands that climate change, driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, is a grave issue. (If you’re still in denial, please watch David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.) It’s not just an issue for saving a few species of plants or animals or for conserving a handful of cherished ecosystems around the world. In fact, it’s a matter of life or death for the human race. If you’re like me, you understand this, but you also know that you as an individual have little power. And so it’s easy to give up. The world has too much momentum, what could we possibly do to stop it? Well, whatever you may think about Greta Thunberg, the media’s favorite teenage white girl climate activist, she knows how to write a damn good call to arms:
We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today. So everyone out there: It is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.
That’s just the last few lines of a fiery, five-minute speech that opens up the 1975’s 2020 release. It’s an epic way to start an album, and I applaud her and band for spreading these scary, uncomfortable truths.
1 IN 1001
Ingénue - k.d. lang
2020 marks my 25% completion of a 20-year project to dedicate every week to a single selection from the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. So here’s an album that isn’t new at all— it came out in 1992 — but was all new to me. I wish I could say it’s unbelievable but not unbelievable that this happened just 30 years ago, the year k.d. lang released Ingénue:
Coming out as lesbian saw several US country stations banning her music, and she faced a picket line outside the 1993 Grammy Awards ceremony where she would receive the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
At least the Grammys did something right. This album is one of my favorite new discoveries from “the book” because it’s sound I’ve never heard before — and it’s done really well. The lyrics and vocals are lovely, but the whole production is this unique amalgamation of country, folk, and… bossa nova? It’s definitely jazzy, and it seamlessly flows from stripped down quiet parts to upbeat, lush arrangements. And it all comes down to great songwriting.
It’s hard to believe this happened this year. But it really happened. My friends and I saw Detroit techno legend Moodymann perform at 1015 Folsom (with Soul Clap opening), and it was the best set I’d ever seen at that venue. I guess they’d torn down an entire wall, which previously separated the main dance floor from the main bar; the change made all the difference, creating a much more open party atmosphere. The talent also helped, of course.
Soul Clap did their thing, and then came Moodymann, an underground star who has consistently released quality, soulful, jazz-inspired house and techno cuts since the 90s. He mixed his music with ease, occasionally getting on the mic to share his thoughts and take us on a journey. He played delicious techno cuts. He played “Need You Tonight” by INXS. He played “Pick Up” by DJ Koze. He played whatever the hell he wanted and it was on point every single time. That was about 11 months ago… And I can’t wait for live music to return.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found one or two new pieces of music to love. 💟 If you want to hear more about my music recs or stay in the loop about music from the Bay Area, please subscribe to White Crate. 💟 Peace!