clockwise from left: Jason Isbell | photo by Joe Del Tufo // Lianne La Havas | courtesy of the artist // Nicole Atkins | courtesy of the artist // Ambrose Akinmusire | photo by Christine Hemm Klok
WXPN’s Best of 2020: Julian Booker’s 20 Records for 2020
As the year winds down, we’re continuing our look back at the music of these past twelve months with an ongoing series of XPN Best of 2020 deep dives. Today, Julian Booker shares his most impactful albums from an unprecedented year.
Often this year, as many others have, I’ve thought deeply about how history will view 2020. It has been the most consequential year that I’ve experienced. Polarizing politics, the fight for racial justice and equity, and the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in action and reflection that has been, frankly, overwhelming. Music has been angry, it has searched for solace, it’s demanded escape, and it has focused on the self as much as it’s focused on the world to try and find meaning in a time that’s been defined by isolation and fear.
But, for me, more than anything, it has provided communion. It has allowed me a connection with the artists who make it, and, maybe more importantly, it’s provided an opportunity to enjoy and analyze it with others who appreciate it. I’m so thankful for each of these selections that spoke to me, and I think, when I look back on 2020, they (among many others) will forever provide a reminder of what was, and if we listen carefully enough, what could be.
Nicole Atkins – Italian Ice (Single Lock)
Nicole Atkins’ Goodnight Rhonda Lee seemed to fly slightly under the radar when it was released in 2017. That was a surprise, because it may have been the finest record of her career up to that point. Enter 2020’s Italian Ice, that (pardon me) blends …Rhonda Lee‘s perfected retro exercise with a contemporary style that straddles the line between pop, singer/songwriter, funk and rock that belongs uniquely to Atkins. Her ability to synthesize her influences into something new come to a head on one of the best singles of the year, “Domino,” which encompasses all of the paranoia of 2020 over a mighty groove that dares the listener to stay off the dance floor.
Recommended Track: “Domino”
Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL)
At first glance, an album like this could appear to be, well, unnecessary. Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, a masterpiece released just over a year before his death in 2011, had already been “re-interpreted” as a fractured electronic collage (and a really good one, at that) by Jamie xx nine years earlier. But visionary Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven, with contributions from guitarist Jeff Parker, harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Junius Paul, and percussionist Ben Lamar Gay, adds remarkable depth to Scott-Heron’s work, meeting his poetry with equal parts empathy, force, warmth, and chaos. If it’s a jazz album, it is perhaps the best one of the year, but more that that, it’s a necessary addition to the great legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, and yet another example of why McCraven is such a vital voice of his generation.
Recommended Track: “I’m New Here”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions (Southeastern)
There simply aren’t a lot of artists like Jason Isbell. With increasing popularity (and we’re talking real popularity), his music seems to only improve. Perhaps that’s because he’s always been a songwriter who has been far more concerned with his craft than whether or not any institution or establishment accepts or promotes him. My friend, Tim Showalter (Strand of Oaks), recently put it perfectly on Twitter: “Reunions has been a constant companion. Every time I listen I learn something new.” And while every song on this album is a masterclass in form, you can add “Dreamsicle” to the growing A-list of contemporary classics penned by Isbell that includes his 2003 anthem with Drive-By Truckers, “Outfit,” 2013’s “Relatively Easy” and 2017’s “If We Were Vampires.” You can feel the oppressive heat of Isbell’s southern town and taste the orange and vanilla of the Dreamsicle he recalls, both fondly and with sadness. It is a testament to Isbell’s considerable power as a songwriter and communicator that, as we listen, it becomes our own childhood, our own memory, enriching the original document with our shared experience, and making us, and the song, all the better for it.
Recommended Track: “Dreamsicle”
Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Young – Jazz is Dead 001-005 (Jazz is Dead)
When it was released in March, Jazz is Dead 001 was among the most intriguing albums to come out in the early part of 2020. Born out of their Los Angeles jam sessions at The Lodge Room, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad assembled a cast of jazz innovators to both pay homage to the art form’s great history and keep an unwavering eye on its progress at a time when, some would argue (count me among them), jazz is at its most fruitful and exciting period since the 1970s. As good as that sampler was, it is the following four releases, which expand on their recordings with vibraphonist Roy Ayers, singer/songwriter Marcos Valle, Brazilian jazz funk legends Azymuth, and keyboardist Doug Carn that really show the extent of what the duo and their collaborators are capable. And while each volume has its treasures (especially the recently-released 5th installment featuring Carn), the nine-minute free funk workout with Azymuth, “Apocaliptico,” stands above all. Like 2020, it’s chaotic, and beneath the surface, there is a hell of a lot that’s life-affirming.
Recommended Track: Azymuth, Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge – “Apocaliptico”
North Americans – “Rivers That You Cannot See” (Roped-In; Paradise of Bachelors)
The debut from guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel guitarist Barry Walker works in similar territory as contemporaries Steve Gunn, Nathan Salsburg and William Tyler (who is a featured guest here), but with a ruminative ambience that creates its own universe. Their meditative repetition is as deeply tied to artists like Brian Eno, Laraaji and Mary Lattimore (who also guests on Roped-In and whose 2020 album is featured in this article) as it is with anything resembling “country,” but, of course, genres (and music itself) are elastic, and there is a deep sense of acoustic Americana throughout Roped-In that keeps it grounded in the roots of American folk music. Jargon aside, it’s a remarkably calm and peaceful listen that takes the listener on a journey that far outlasts its 31 minutes, and has kept me coming back to it over-and-over again, without ever tiring of its riches.
Recommended Track: “American Dipper”
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge)
Upon first hearing “Lilacs,” the lead single from Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, last February, I thought: “this is going to be the best song of 2020.” And I still feel that way. Embracing influences like Lucinda Williams and stripping away some of the sludge (I like the sludge) that, in part, defined 2017’s Out in the Storm, Saint Cloud is a panoramic view of Katie Crutchfield’s artistry. Through its twelve songs that rely on love, friendship, perseverance, survival and acceptance, Saint Cloud creates a space where struggles are overcome with strength and the weird beauty of our lives is always within eyesight. Cructhfield’s observations and voice are given much welcome space over a warm bed of acoustics and keyboards that recall the more tender moments of Blonde on Blonde, and after it’s all over, it feels like the end of a road trip through the heartland of America where we learned more than we ever expected. And still, there’s “Lilacs,” graceful, powerful and standing above the rest.
Recommended Track: “Lilacs”
Blake Mills – Mutable Set (Verve)
Multi-instrumentalist and producer Blake Mills has put his stamp on a lot of music over the years. In 2020 alone he contributed to albums by Rufus Wainwright, Stephen Malkmus, Perfume Genius and Pheobe Bridgers (not to mention his past work on records by Weyes Blood, Andrew Bird, Laura Marling, Dawes, Norah Jones and Jenny Lewis). But it had been six years since he released a full-length album of his own music, the last being 2014’s outstanding Heigh Ho. It was well worth the wait. Mutable Set is quiet and reflective, full of textures that showcase Mills’ considerable talent as a player and as a manipulator of sound. It’s also kind of unnerving. The world that Mills describes throughout Mutable Set is imploding in on itself, quite literally sick and fading from view. It’s the preoccupation of 2020 synthesized into 51 minutes, and that’s no small feat.
Recommended Track: “Vanishing Twin”
Circles Around the Sun – Circles Around the Sun (Royal Potato Family)
Circles Around the Sun was recorded just a week before their guitarist, Neal Casal, died in August of 2019. Though not a household name, Casal was an immensely talented and respected artist and guitar player who spent years with the Cardinals and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and contributed to recordings by Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Beachwood Sparks and Tift Merritt among many others. The pain of that loss is ever-present in discussing Circles Around the Sun, but it’s also balanced by the fact that these songs are, above all, really fun. The band was originally put together to record music that was featured during set breaks at the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts in California and Chicago celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead. And while there are plenty of echoes of the Dead here, CATS is much more expansive in its embrace of psychedelia of all kinds, shape-shifting between electronic music, funk and rock with themes that always feel intentional rather than meandering. The unrelenting groove and exploration within results in not only and exciting and enjoyable listen, it shows that Circles Around the Sun have a lot to look forward to in their future, despite the tragic loss of their celebrated guitarist.
Recommended Track: “Babyman”
Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas (Nonesuch)
Lianne La Havas had an extremely successful start to her career, especially in her native U.K., where her debut, 2012’s Is Your Love Big Enough, and its follow-up, 2015’s Blood, each went to the Top 5 on the albums chart. So it was a bit surprising to see five years pass before her next record. That self-titled album, though, surpasses its predecessors in almost every way. And the very fact that it shares the same name as the person who made it makes sense: this is Lianne La Havas exercising her abilities as an artist to their fullest potential. Soul, jazz, folk and contemporary singer / songwriter sounds all inform La Havas’ style, but she never relies too heavily on any of them, rather she incorporates elements of each to create her own palette, with her vocals and guitar maintaining equal importance throughout. She can write a great pop song, see lead single “Can’t Fight,” but it’s when she stretches out on her cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” and, especially, on album-closer “Sour Flower” that her powers are fully unleashed. A top 10 album in six different countries, Lianne La Havas helps further her case as one of the most important artists making music today.
Recommended Track: “Sour Flower”
Lomelda – Hannah (Double Double Whammy)
Hannah is not only Lomelda’s second album in as many years, it’s also Hannah Read’s finest statement to date. The deeply personal songs on Hannah play like conversations between the artist and her own self. She namechecks her influences: Low, Yo La Tengo, The Innocence Mission, Frank Ocean and Frankie Cosmos, checks in on her own emotional state and pleads with herself, and documents her travels all on songs that bear either her given, or stage, name. This introspection feels especially apt in a year when we’ve all had to check in on, and get to know, ourselves amidst isolation from our friends and family. The last minute of “Hannah Sun,” the album’s best song, plays like a mantra that we could all benefit from: “do no harm.”
Recommended Track: “Hannah Sun”
Nubya Garcia – Source (Concord Jazz)
UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s debut LP, Source, reflects the diverse and fertile London music scene from which it comes. At its heart, it’s unquestionably a jazz album, but it takes deliberate trips through hip hop, neo-soul, dub and cumbia to create a listen that is consistently surprising and exciting. Joining Garcia are pianist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casmir and drummer Sam Jones, as well as guest vocalists Ms. MAURICE, Cassie Kinoshi and Richie Seivwright. Source is particularly poignant right at its halfway point on the emotive communication of “Together is a Beautiful Place to Be” and the righteous “Stand With Each Other,” both sentiments essential in our time.
Recommended Track: “Together is a Beautiful Place to Be”
Fleet Foxes – Shore (ANTI-)
Fleet Foxes’ Shore was a surprise, announced just one day before its release on the first day of autumn, 2020. And while a lot of Fleet Foxes’ music evokes fall’s melancholic beauty, Shore felt particularly of the season, sonically full of warmth and comfort. Whereas their previous album, 2017’s Crack-Up, demanded close attention, only revealing itself to the listener following numerous listens, Shore hits right away, with Robin Pecknold’s vision no less detailed, but much more accessible. And that’s a good thing. For all of Pecknold’s strengths as a songwriter, Crack-Up,and even its predecessor, 2011’s Helplessness Blues, were constantly in danger of being tedious. Instead, Shore is full of irresistible melodies and the Foxes’ trademark harmonic beauty (helped, in part, by the addition of singer Uwade Akhere), and Pecknold’s narratives are clear and memorable. “Sunrise” pays homage to the late Richard Swift and David Berman, setting the tone for a record that addresses our individual and collective mortality, but also takes time to ruminate on the ecstatic wonder of our existence.
Recommended Track: “Can I Believe You”
Bill Callahan – Gold Record (Drag City)
Before 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Bill Callahan always appeared to be a mystery. It had surely been years in the making of him becoming more comfortable as a public figure, but, with that record, he appeared to open up in a way he hadn’t before. He let his guard down. He even got a twitter account (@billcallaman). On Gold Record, Callahan continues to explore the quiet joys of family life, especially on the excellent “Another Song,” “Breakfast,” and a re-interpretation of one of his best songs, “Let’s Move to the Country” (originally included on Smog’s 1999 album, Knock Knock). He’s still funny (he opens the album with a joke: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), and he’s still able to tell a damn good story with a twist (“The Mackenzies”). But it’s “Protest Song” that is most surprising. Released only two months before the bitter election of 2020, Callahan manages to turn what starts as a throw away into angry, pointed commentary on the inefficacy of our elected officials. He sneers, “somebody must stop / these boys / they’re messin’ with man’s toys” before the challenge, “step aside, son / you gonna get hurt.” I do believe he means it.
Recommended Track: “Protest Song”
Keleketla! – Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time)
Born out of Johannesberg’s Keleketla! Library, this aptly named project is a true collaboration across many continents, generations and styles of music. With a strong backbone of classic and contemporary music from all over the Africa, Keleketla! features contributions from Coldcut, legendary drummer Tony Allen (who passed away this year), saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who I’ll discuss again later in this article), the Watts Prophets, and afro-beat torch bearers Antibalas, among others. It’s focus is at once activist and celebratory, best displayed on “International Love Affair,” which features a dynamite groove by Allen and exquisite horn work by Antibalas and Hutchings behind the vocals of Sibusile Xaba, Nono Nkoane and Thabang Tabane. It’s a globalist anthem that cheers on diversity and rebukes those seeking to destroy it.
Recommended Track: “International Love Affair”
Ambrose Akinmusire – on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note)
On June 5th, at the height of nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and the continuing problem of systemic racism in America, trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire released his fifth record, on the tender spot of every calloused moment. Featuring Harish Raghavan on bass, Justin Brown on drums, Sam Harris on piano and Jesus Diaz and Genevieve Artadi on vocals, the album was written in response to the changes that Akinmusire saw in his hometown of Oakland, California, with many longtime residents getting pushed out with the onset of the Silicon Valley tech boom. The centuries-long racial inequity in America is felt in Akinmusire’s compositions and performances, full of anger, sadness, pain and brief, but powerful, moments of peace. The determination of “Yessss,” the fury of “Tide of Hyacinth,” the beauty and confusion of “reset (quiet victories & celebrated defeats)” and Akinmusire’s haunting solo performance on “Hooded procession (read the names outloud)” tell a story to which we should all listen, and respond.
Recommended Track: “Yessss”
Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction (Ba Da Bing)
One of the first albums I listened to in full this year, Irish singer / songwriter Aoife Nessa Frances’ Land of No Junction has never left my rotation. Her full-length debut, recorded with the excellent guitarist, Cian Nugent, has been compared to Cate Le Bon and Alduous Harding’s 2019 albums Reward and Designer (both of which I loved), but also shares similarities with the psychedelic folk of Nick Drake, John Martyn and her contemporary, Jessica Pratt, as well as the dreamy sway of early Beach House. Her music is equally effective when it’s straightforward (“Geranium,” “Blow Up”) as it is when it drifts (“Land of No Junction”), and though I had no way of knowing last January, it has provided me comfort throughout the entirety of 2020.
Recommended Track: “Blow Up”
Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders (Ghostly)
LA-based (and former Philadelphian) Mary Lattimore can be heard playing harp on a ton of records from the past few years, including albums by soccer mommy, Sigur Ros’s Jonsi, Frances Quinlan and Kevin Morby. Her 2018 release, Hundreds of Days, was a favorite that year, and her collaboration “Dreaming of the Kelly Pool” was a quiet refuge in the (first) dog days of the pandemic. This fall saw the release of her beautiful Silver Ladders, which, like the aforementioned …Days, is an ambient trip that expands the possibility of what Lattimore’s chosen instrument is capable. Using repetition and delay, Lattimore’s harp is instantly recognizable as she creates textures that radiate across the spectrum of emotions. She collaborates with Neil Halstead throughout, whose guitar only adds to the majesty of Lattimore’s soundscapes, especially on the epic “Til a Mermaid Drags You Under” and the shimmering “Sometimes He’s in My Dreams.”
Recommended Track: “Sometimes He’s in My Dreams”
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (Dead Oceans)
I loved Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. But her 2020 album, Punisher, is far superior. Like Alps’ “Motion Sickness,” Punisher‘s “Kyoto” is Bridgers’ version of a pop song, infectious and endlessly re-listenable. On …Alps, Bridgers wrote a number of great songs, but taken as a whole, they felt in danger of collapsing under the weight of themselves. And while that emotional weight is retained here, the production choices (and an even better set of songs) allow for a more exciting listen, especially on the album’s first full track, “Garden Song” and its closer, “I Know the End.” And on the album’s quieter moments, including the title track, “Savior Complex” and “Graceland Too,” Bridgers delivers her best melodies and performances. Perhaps it’s a surprise that Bridgers has drifted towards the mainstream in terms of popularity, but her success is well-deserved, Punisher is one of the best of the year.
Recommended Track: “Kyoto”
adrianne lenker – songs (4AD)
adrianne lenker releases a lot of music. Last year her band, Big Thief, released two records after lenker put her own album out less than a year before. In 2020, lenker showed up with two albums: songs and instrumentals. The latter is a two-song set of long form ambient tracks, while the former is a more traditional release that recalls 2018’s aformentioned abysskiss. There are few that can express images the way lenker can, leading listeners to visualize her lyrics in a way that instantly draws us in. The cyclical nature of her music, too, makes songs that we may never have heard feel instantly recognizable, like on one of the best songs here, “anything.” The fact that lenker is able to put out so much music that is so consistently excellent will never cease to amaze me. songs is another welcome addition to her already remarkable catalogue.
Recommended Track: “anything”
Shabaka & the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here by History (Impulse!)
London-based jazz musician Shabaka Hutchings’ second album with the Ancestors (comprised of South African musicians Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax, Siyabonga Mthembu on vocals, Ariel Zamonsky on bass, Gontse Makhene on percussion and Tumi Mogorosi on drums) is a record about the impending apocalypse that, yes, was released on March 13, 2020. Rather than meeting the end times with fear, We Are Sent Here by History meets it with head high on the unrelenting “They Who Must Die.” As the album’s 11 songs unfold though, Shabaka and his band work through the complexities of doomsday and its fallout, especially on the closing triptych “‘Til the Freedom Comes Home,” “Finally, the Man Cried” and “Teach Me How to Be Vulnerable.” Its dark music for dark times, but for all the “unprecedented” discussion that’s taken place in 2020, it also is a reminder that humanity has been here before, and We Are Sent Here By History is a guidebook on how to get through to the other side.
Recommended Track: “Go My Heart, Go to Heaven”