Last year started with me opining about whether the 2020’s would roar like the 1920’s; I talked about all the things that happened in that decade, and thought it was a fascinating look back at how life was 100 years ago. Well… who knew??? We have enough minutiae from 2020 alone to unpack that we need nothing else to happen for the rest of the decade… except for a return to normal life……… And then there was the madness of the Presidential election, and people storming the Capitol building… oh, and we’re STILL in a pandemic, now featuring new COVID-19 strains, with more cases and deaths than ever… and the GRAMMY Awards have been postponed (not sure how they even thought they could pull off the live event in the current climate)… so ’21 is picking up right where ’20 left off… Lord have mercy.
Thanks to everyone who stopped by this spot casually or out of curiosity last year, and a special thanks to those who read Now Hear This! on the regular; I have some ambitious plans for the site this year, so stay tuned…
Over the course of 17 posts, I reviewed 89 projects in 2020; this first post of 2021 celebrates the best music I heard in the past year. Here are my favorite albums from 2020; they are presented in no particular order:
It may sound a bit derivative, but you can’t place where you think you’ve heard it before; the latest from Aussie artist Tame Impala is The Slow Burn, and it combines elements of Electronica, Psychedelic Rock, and Dance music into one tasty brew – think of Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair as a reference point. Some are saying the hastening of Rock’s demise is due to all the hybridism it’s taking on (I think that’s a phenomenon occurring in popular music in general), but if it’s done as well as this, then let it happen. My Best Rock / Alt Rock Album of the year.
In the category of Best Blues Album of any kind (contemporary traditional, etc.), the latest album from Oakland native Fantastic Negrito did it for me. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? was both a pandemic anthem and an album that took a normally sorrow-filled genre and injected a bit of much-needed humor and fun to it.
I call him my good friend, because I got to meet him twice and take pics with him earlier in his career; he undoubtedly wouldn’t remember me, but that’s besides the point. On All Rise, Jazz vocalist extraordinaire Gregory Porter put it all together; between his Jazz vocalizations, his leanings into Soul and Gospel territory, and Sophisti-Pop, he created what I believe to be his masterpiece, and my Best Jazz Vocal Album of the year.
Houston-based Indie Rock trio Khruangbin released the groovy Mordechai, and showed what a simple guitar, bass, and drum combo can sound like. They like to mix Rock elements with global sounds; their song “Time (You & I)” is one of my favorite songs of the year, coming off like a new school Tom Tom Club.
My current musical obsession is Jungle / Drum ‘n Bass, and the legendary V Recordings label puts out some of the most exciting music in the genre. Bryan Gee Presents Future is a compilation of 25 new tracks from artists on his label, which has been around now more than 25 years. This compilation is my Best Dance / Electronica Album of the year. 174 bpm, baby!
The latest album from Protoje was In Search of Lost Time, and it fused traditional Reggae sounds with a Hip-Hop flava; his track “Like Royalty” was one of my favorite tracks of the year, and this is the Best Reggae Album of the year.
The highly-anticipated album from Busta Rhymes dropped in October, and after hearing Extinction Level Event 2 – The Wrath of God, it was quickly anointed as Best Hip-Hop Album of the year. The bombastic Rhymes gave us searing social commentary, and some playful moments, like my jam “Boomp!“; it was all on point.
The second of two solo albums released last year by Eric Hilton, one half of Thievery Corporation, is The Impossible Silence, a cool mix of chilled, loungey grooves; it embodied the musical variety for which his main group was famous, with a little Latin & Bossa flava, a little Reggae, a little Bachelor Pad-style Pop, and more, creating a very cosmopolitan mix.
We got an introduction to the talent of 29 year old London-based tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia on her album Source. The album takes you on a journey through the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, and her skill on the instrument has garnered comparison to some of the greats, like Dexter Gordon. Quite an auspicious introduction it was, she’s part of the next generation of Jazz, and in particular of women in Jazz (honorable mention goes to fellow Jazz saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and vocalist Jazzmeia Horn); this album earns both the Best Debut Album and Best Jazz Instrumental Album of the year.
The latest album from Chris Stapleton caused a bit of controversy for some lyrical content contained on it. Starting Over came on the heels of a CBS interview, where he showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and pissed off some of his fans in the process. Whatever you think of what he said, the man can sing – just listen to “Cold“, and tell me you don’t feel something. My Best Country / Bluegrass / Roots Album of the year.
The year of the social protest produced what are easily the Best R&B Albums of the year in two albums by the mysterious outfit Sault. The albums Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) were totally, unapologetically Afrocentric, fueled by the social unrest occurring at the time of their production and release. Ironically, they came to my attention on Sirius xm Chill for the Indie Rock-ish “Wildfires“, but musically, think of Solange’s latest stuff, mixed with the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets.
Back in ’95, I had the pleasure of catching what was then called the Joshua Redman Quartet in concert; last year, the original members, now all Jazz superstars in their own right, got the band back together to record ‘Round Again, and it was fantastic.
In my household, Elah Hale became a bit of a sensation among my wife and 6 year old daughter; the 20 year old New York native’s debut EP Room 206 is a nice blend of Alt Soul and dreamy Pop.
The latest album from Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto was fueled in part from losing her dad, legendary Bossa Nova musician Joao Gilberto. Agora is a wonderful fusion of cool Bossa-flavored Pop that rivals her best stuff.
The year 2020 was a mess. Between all of the health and social situations, the last thing we probably felt like doing was dancing; it was just that kinda year. There were three videos that spoke to the pandemic situation by using dance as their mode of expression; these videos bring me joy, and I still periodically look them up on YouTube to watch them – they make me wanna dance, too!
The first video is the lead single from the Khruangbin album Mordechai; it’s a simple video with two people dancing and trying to make the perfect sandcastle all over the place. Here’s “Time (You and I)“…
The next video is from Fantastic Negrito, who used various clips of people passing time while in a state of pandemic isolation. Here’s the title track from the album “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?“
The last video came from UK Dance duo Disclosure and their latest album Energy; their track “Douha (Mali Mali)” features Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and various other isolated dancers, filmed in nine different locations in Italy, South Africa, and New York, simply dancing to the song… Here’s the video…
R.I.P. to rapper MF Doom, whom the world recently learned of his passing, and to all of the artists we lost in 2020.
Happy Birthday to singer Sade, who turns 62 today! An artist who released three albums between 1984-87, but just three studio albums since then – how many artists have enough staying power that people would still be checking for them with that little output? The good news is that she’s rumored to be in the studio now, working on new material; we’re patiently waiting…