Another holiday season has passed and if you’re reading this, that means you survived. So well done. Those of you not interested in music (surely there must be some, right?), you need read no further, because this newsletter will not about writing, The Ranger of Marzanna, or any of my other forthcoming books I’m not allowed to talk about yet. This one is just about the music.
It was…an interesting year in music. Rarely do the zeitgeists of Top 40 radio intrude on my awareness, but I was astonished to find that one of my favorite albums of the year is also one of those mainstream, best-selling, Grammy-award winning albums. I don’t think that’s happened since the 90’s when Grunge was a thing.
It’s particularly confusing to me since it seems that, generally speaking, my tastes have actually gotten stranger and more esoteric as I’ve gotten older. Perhaps it’s a fluke, or perhaps having a teenage son who is equally passionate about music is exposing me to a host of new sounds. We shall see. But that’s enough preamble. Here we have some music that I found particularly notable this year, organized by genre for your convenience:
This album came early in the year and absolutely blew me away. It’s jazz, electronic, and includes a spoke word piece by Kate Bush that hit me so hard I had to quote a line from it at the front of one of my forthcoming books. This album is savage and refined, beautiful and ugly as hell. To my mind, that is exactly what modern jazz should be.
Honorable Mentions: Fyah by Theon Cross, White Night by Stephen Micus
This, of course, is the pop album I referred to earlier. Initially I was listening to it more for research while I was working on my first middle grade novel (which I will surely get to tell you about at some point). Billie Eilish is Lorde without the sentimentality. Smart, hooky, and at times quite funny, but always laced with an underlying gloom that after repeated listens really won me over.
Honorable Mentions: Ummm…does Cry by Cigarettes After Sex count? Assume Form by James Blake? I dunno, folks. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music.
I continue my awkward exploration of the “metal” genre, which I have found to be a search for the perfect balance between visceral and melodic. There are a lot of metal sub-genres out there. If it’s too “hardcore” (i.e. a lot of screaming and very little melody), I just find it grating. But if it’s too melodic, it mostly just feels like yet another weak attempt at replicating that lighting-in-a-bottle magic of early 00’s Evanescence. You guys, there can only ever be one Amy Lee!!! Ahem. Anyway, Brutus really strikes the balance of raw, skin-flaying passion and sweeping dark melody that I am seeking in a metal band.
Honorable Mention: Spiritual Instinct by Alcest
This has become an increasingly crowded genre for me in recent years. It’s just so damn good to write to. Like a soundtrack that doesn’t have the baggage of a movie that would muddle my vision. It’s no wonder then that Tokyo-based Anoice rises to the top of this competitive list by consciously choosing to write music that they describe as “cinematic”. It’s moody, whimsical, flowing, and dynamic. Hopefully just like my books :)
Honorable Mentions: Temporal by Julia Kent, Absent Minded by Gabriel Ólafs, and Ouka by Diago Hanada
I keep pushing this artist on people because she is everything I love about rap and nothing I don’t. I find a lot of rap these days to be rather shallow and dull. If I may borrow a phrase from jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Sampa makes “music with nutritional value.”
Honorable Mentions: Fever by Megan Thee Stallion, The Big Day by Chance the Rapper
I am somewhat fussy about my R&B these days. A lot of it sounds slick and (ironically) soulless to my ear. There are two ways to get around this. A quirky singer (like Erykah Badu or Perera Elsewhere), or else dynamic, unexpected compositions (like Rosalia’s flamenco influence, or FKA twigs just being her marvelously weird self). Brittney Parks, aka Sudan Archives, does the latter, bringing in not only interesting influences from West African fiddling, but taking some interesting chances with composition that never feel indulgent.
Honorable Mentions: MAGDALENE by FKA twigs and X Marks The Swirl by Kimmortal
I try not to repeat artists on these lists. Often it’s easy to refrain because a single artist rarely hits me that hard with multiple albums. Blanck Mass is that rare exception, I guess. I just can’t help myself. I look forward to every album, and so far they do not disappoint. This album is thick and brutal but it’s also such a banger that you might not even notice.
Honorable Mentions: Ascent by Orphan Swords, The Stillness of the Stars by Volsky, Holding In My Arms by IG88
My music tastes can get a bit far afield at times, and that’s not even counting some of the stuff that I listen to just for book research. But sometimes an aging hipster just wants some hot, loud, messy music comfort food reminiscent of the sounds from his youth. The Shivas are exactly the early 90’s vibe that soothes my weary soul.
Honorable Mentions: Family Dinner by SONS, Joy as An Act of Resistance by IDLES
I’m cheating here, of course. What does “indie” even mean anymore? Broadly speaking, Big Thief’s U.F.O.F is also rock n’ roll. But the difference between this and the simple “hit it and quit” style of a band like The Shivas or Charly Bliss is vast. This album is big. It’s textured. It’s complex. It’s a refutation of those who claim that “albums are dead”.
Honorable Mentions: I Entered The Void by Tuvaband, At The Party With My Brown Friends by Black Belt Eagle Scout, i,i by Bon Iver
It’s not a genre, but it seems every year there’s a couple of albums that I come across that I somehow missed when they were released but excite me so much that I can’t help sharing them, just in case there are others who also missed them the first time around. A Tribe Called Red’s blend of electronic and Native American tribal music split my brain in half when I first heard it a few months ago, and it’s only grown on me since. There’s also a 2016 release called We Are The Halluci Nation, which features some fancy vocalists like Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Saul Williams, but to my mind it’s this 2013 release that states simply and perfectly what this band is about.
Honorable Mentions: Luzmila Carpio Remixed by Luzmila Carpio, Entering Pale Town by Paperplain
Finally, some artists who are scheduled to release albums this year that I’m looking forward to hearing:
Run The Jewels
Car Seat Headrest
Fiona Apple (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Well, I hope those of you also on a quest to discover new music find that helpful. I present it differently each year, trying to find a template I like and that other people seem to respond to. In general I’ve found that less is more, so there were a lot of bands this year that I enjoyed that simply didn’t make the cut. If you have a specific interest, say instrumental music or ambient/trance conducive to writing, feel free to let me know here, or on social media, and I’ll try to pull something together.
So here’s to that clearer view in 2020. Talk soon about books and writing and stuff like that.