Sunday, January 10, 2021

My Favorite Music of 2020

During the pandemic year of 2020 with its lockdowns and working from home, some people compensated by baking bread, others with home fitness, still others binged all their favorite shows on streaming services.

I listened to a lot of music. By "a lot" I mean 107 new (to me) albums. So many that over the course of the year I lost track of what I had ordered, in what format (digital or CD), and whether I had received it or not. It was only after cleaning up the backlog of tunes over the past couple of weeks that I settled on 107 as an accurate count.

It's hard to identify just a handful of favorites from a list that long. So you'll have to indulge me for being lengthy in terms of the list and brief in terms of the descriptions.

PANAMERICA by Stick Men with David Cross

The first new album I bought in 2020 made the list: the 5-CD PANAMERICA by Stick Men featuring David Cross (violin). Recorded throughout a South American tour, the 5 CDs of PANAMERICA are themed as Improvs (Disc 1), Suites (Disc 2), one full live show (Discs 3 and 4), and Soundscapes (Disc 5). 

If you're not familiar with Stick Men they are Tony Levin (bass), Markus Reuter (guitar), and Pat Mastelotto (drums). To become familiar with the band, PANAMERICA is a great place to start because it gives you a taste of everything they do: the subtle application of power, sweeping melody, expressive rigor. 

PANAMERICA and other Stick Men albums are available on Bandcamp where you can preview even more of their work.

Music from the Early 21st Century by Previte, Saft, and Cline

Bobby Previte (drums), Jamie Saft (Hammond organ), and Nels Cline (guitar) recorded this classic, improvisational organ trio live on tour in late 2019. The results are a spectacular springboard of classic forms into future possibilities. 

Music from the Early 21st Century is available from RareNoise Records.

RUMBLE by Lorenzo Feliciati

This four-track EP is a stylistic standout from Feliciati's other albums. It's more of an orchestral take on jazz built upon Feliciati's rich, burbling bass lines that are more vocal than foundational. 

RUMBLE is available on Bandcamp.

Mixing Colours by Roger Eno & Brian Eno

The culmination of years of the two Eno brothers sharing keyboard pieces (Roger) and treatments (Brian) is the album Mixing Colours. The result is a series of shimmering soundscapes that deceive with their minimalism and entrance with their depth.

Mixing Colours is available from Eno's website.

Stillness Soundtracks II by Machinefabriek

Keeping with ambience for a bit, I was totally blown away by the gravity of the sound achieved in Machinefabriek's (Rutger Zuydervelt) Stillness Soundtracks II, five deep tracks scored to accompany Esther Kokmeijer's film of icebergs at the North and South Poles. I can't recall music that more accurately conveys a visual representation of icebergs: solid/liquid, massive/fragile, still/moving, visible/hidden, white/spectral. Amazing.

Stillness Soundtracks II was released by Glacial Movements Records and is available on Bandcamp.

Music of Our Times by Gary Husband and Markus Reuter

When stranded in Tokyo during a pandemic after your tour is cancelled, what do musicians do? They book time in a studio and make music. In this case, Gary Husband (piano), who was touring with Stick Men, and Markus Reuter (guitar) were able to exquisitely capture a moment in time, their take on a world at inflection between live interaction and lockdown. Elegance.

Music of Our Times was released by MoonJune Records and is available on Bandcamp.

Punkt and Firma (96k) by Trey Gunn

I was unable to choose between Trey Gunn's (10-string Warr guitar) albums Punkt and Firma so we get both. All you need to know is their description: "These pieces will reward detailed and repeated listening. Likewise, they will punish casual listening."

Both Punkt and Firma (96k) are available on Bandcamp.

Tranceportation Vol. 2 by Sonar with David Torn

My love affair with the combination of Sonar (a "progressive groove band") and guitarist David Torn goes back to 2018's Vortex in which Torn's playing was the salt to Sonar's polyrhythmic stew. Fortunately their collaboration continues on Tranceportation Vol. 2, described as "pointillistic, metrical complexity with deep subterranean grooves."

Tranceportation Vol. 2 was released by RareNoise Records and is available on Bandcamp.

The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince and Mose by The Jerry Granelli Trio

Speaking of love affairs, I don't recall when I first heard the piano playing of Jamie Saft but it's been a romance for me ever since. Here Saft joins Jerry Granelli (drums) and Bradley Christopher Jones (bass) as they perform their take on the work of Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison. Fresh and lively without being anchored to the past, the album ends with what's now my favorite version of Christmas is Here.

The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince and Mose was released on RareNoise Records and is available on Bandcamp.

Behind Closed Doors by Thorsten Quaeschning and Markus Reuter

When the pandemic made it virtually impossible for musicians to tour and perform live, some got creative. Markus Reuter, for example, held several live, online sessions with other musicians to demonstrate technique, record tracks for an album, or perform brief concerts. In this later category falls his 50-minute performance with Thorsten Quaeschning (Tangerine Dream). The combination of Quaeschning's synthesizers and Reuter's Touch Guitar is mesmerizing as they cover the gamut of tone and texture.

Behind Closed Doors is available on Bandcamp.

Bonus: Behind Closed Doors 2 came later in the year when the duo added percussionist Shawn Crowder.

Small Moments by Michael Manring

Perhaps not a household name, but when you think bass guitar Michael Manring's name should be at the forefront of your mind. Similar to Trey Gunn's albums cited above, Small Moments features Manring and his basses and that's about it. Pure and expansive, these pieces (written to be performed live), reveal mastery of one's instrument combined with artistic expression.

Small Moments is available on Bandcamp.

Listening to Pictures and Seeing Through Sound by Jon Hassell

Being a fan of Jon Hassell (trumpet) doesn't necessarily mean I've done a good job of keeping track of his work. I was thrilled to hear about his new album Seeing Through Sound and disappointed in myself for finding out it's the second in his Pentimento series, the first being Listening to Pictures. So I got both. And was not disappointed. 

Both of these albums by Jon Hassell are available on Bandcamp.

Spectral by Robin Schlochtermeier

I first heard about Schlochtermeier in an online post by Eraldo Bernocchi whose opinions are usually enough to get me to take action. Spectral is the first solo album by the composer of film soundtracks and "captures some of this mysterious, nebulous spirit of bafflement and wonderment" he witnessed in his baby daughter.

Spectral was released on Denovali Records and is available on Bandcamp.

Selling England by the Pound and Spectral Mornings Live by Steve Hackett

It's not surprising that a Steve Hackett album should land on the favorite list of a person for whom Genesis was the genesis of his musical interests. Yet it may be surprising to know that of all the Hackett albums I own (which are many) this is my favorite. These performances feature Hackett and his band in fine form and the version of Spectral Mornings is fantastic.

This 2-CD live album is available on Hackett's website.

Cuts Open by Merzbow, Gustafsson, Pandi

I'll be honest. I didn't expect to like this album knowing that previous work by the parties was heavy, raging improv. On Cuts Open, they didn't take their foot off the gas but maybe turned down the volume from 11 to 10. 

From a description of the album: "When the occasional bursts of brutality arrive – and they do arrive, in all their eviscerating glory – they’re almost cathartic in their relief from the teeth-gnashing tension of the album’s more subdued moments, where menace hangs in the air like a thinly veiled threat."

Cuts Open was released on RareNoise Records and is available on Bandcamp.

OWARI by Stick Men with Gary Husband

Fittingly named OWARI meaning "the end," this live album was recorded on the last date of the group's truncated tour of Japan thanks to the pandemic. Perhaps because of this, the performances are majestic with Husband's keyboards playing a central role. 

OWARI was released on MoonJune Records and is available on Bandcamp.

Bumerang by Hallebeek, Feliciati, and Voskuil

Bassist Lorenzo Feliciati joins guitarist Richard Hallebeek and drummer Niels Voskuil on this self-titled album by this new trio. To my ear there's a definite Allan Holdsworth influence that's paired with Feliciati's triumphant bass playing. Can't wait to hear what Bumerang does next.

Bumerang is available from Hallebeek's website.

Another Flower by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd

Even if this album wasn't good (which it is) I would've put it on the list. It was the last album released by Harold Budd before his death due to complications from Covid-19. Unlike their other pairings, this album to my ear emphasizes Budd's piano work over Guthrie's lush washes of guitar. 

Another Flower is available from Darla Records.

Mujo by Eraldo Bernocchi and Hoshiko Yamane

In yet another example of a favored artist of mine (Bernocchi, see above) paired with a Tangerine Dream alum, the result is - let's say - "classical electronica."

Mujo is available from Denovali Records.

Jamie Saft Plays Mr. Dorgon

I do not know Mr. Dorgon but I do love Saft's piano work. If you listened to any of the samples of Trey Gunn's albums above, those are a good analogy for this album of "intuitive, counter-intuitive, and non-intuitive" compositions. 

"One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain."

This album was released by Veal Records and is available on Bandcamp.

PORTAL by Feliciati and Mastelotto

I hadn't realized how much of Lorenzo Feliciati's work was on this list until now but we'll end with his PORTAL album with drummer Pat Mastelotto. Maybe the most melodic rhythm section you'll hear today.

PORTAL is available on Bandcamp

Bonus: A remix version: PORTAL: The Late Night DJ

The Full List

The morbidly curious can see the full list here

P.S. Sorry about all the extra white space but I didn't feel like fiddling with Blogger's editor.

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