New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: soul music

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beryond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

A Historic, Hard-Hitting New Album From the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band

The new album by the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, Message From Groove and GW – streaming at Spotify – is the first-ever big band jazz release where the organist plays all the basslines. Dr. Lonnie Smith does that with his Octet, but they’re only eight guys in a world of even larger sounds. Historically, there have been very few big bands with an organ to begin with: Jimmy Smith with Oliver Nelson, and the mighty Eight Cylinder Bigband, to name a couple.

Here, Schwartz decides to walk the lows briskly all by himself, joined by the Abel Mireles’ Jazz Exchange Orchestra in a mix of imaginatively rearranged covers and originals. This isn’t just esoterica for B3 diehards: this is a rare example of gritty gutbucket organ jazz beefed up with bright, hefty horn harmonies, rather than a big band that happens to have an organ as a solo instrument.

Schwarz takes considerable inspiration from Richard “Groove” Holmes’ work with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, notably two cuts on their album where Holmes took over the basslines. Schwartz opens his record with an original, Trouble Just Won’t Go Away, a brisk, catchy swing tune with punchy solos from throughout the group.

The band remake Coltrane’s Blues Minor with an ominous bluster anchored by the low brass, alto saxophonist Danny Raycraft’s solo setting up a searing, cascading one from the bandleader. The Aretha Franklin hit Ain’t No Way gets reinvented as a stampede with jaunty solos from trumpeter Ted Chubb, tenor saxophonist Gene Ghee and guitarist Charlie Sigler.

Dig You Like Crazy, another Schwartz original, has bustling, vintage Basie-style horns, with terse solos from Chubb, saxophonist Anthony Ware and then the organ. What to Do, a catchy Mireles tune, is more of an early 60s-style postbop number turbocharged with brass and organ, drummer David F. Gibson raising the energy very subtly at the end.

They do the Isley Bros.’ Between the Sheets as muted, pillowy funk, with slit-eyed solos from Sigler and Ware. Baritone saxophonist Ben Kovacs, trumpeter Ben Hankle and trombonist Andrae Murchison smoke and sputter and soar in Schwartz’s tightly clustering, bluesy title track.

Trombonist Peter Lin’s moodily shifting, latin-tinged A Path to Understanding features an ebullient solo from trumpeter Lee Hogans handing off to the composer’s lowdown turn out front, then the bandleader’s spirals and rapidfire triplets.

Schwartz charges into his epically swaying arrangement of the Mingus classic Work Song, Hankle contributing a hauntingly rustic muted solo echoed by Murchison, Ware and then the organ taking the energy to redline. Likewise, the brass – which also includes trumpeter James Cage – kick in hard. It’s the album’s big stunner. They wind up the record with a benedictory composition by Bach. Leave it to an organist to go for baroque at the end.

A Haunting, Hypnotic Elegy For People of Color Murdered by Police Since 2017

Cinematic postrock soul band Algiers originally released the anti-police violence broadside Cleveland on their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Frontman Franklin James Fisher’s impassioned vocals channeled determination to decimate what’s left of Jim Crow, whether the old or new kinds. In the wake of the protests of the past several months, they’ve released one of the most extended singles of all time, Cleveland 20/20 – streaming at Bandcamp – adding the names of 232 innocent people of color murdered by police since the song first came out. Fisher has also included the victims of the child murders that plagued Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. It is even more of a shock to discover that so many of these people were women.

This is sort of the Shoah single of 2020: haunting, hypnotic and relentless, over a swirling, gothic motorik background that decays to bleakly atmospheric free jazz. And at almost thirty-four minutes, it’s as grimly relevant as music gets in 2020.

There’s also a “vocal mix” that’s about half as long, with just the roll call of the murdered, gospel harmonies and handclaps.

The Original Cast Recording of the Tina Turner Musical Packs a Punch

The lavish 24-track original London cast recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical – streaming at Spotify – is a risky project. Covering an icon like Turner is a potential minefield: mess up and you will be held accountable. But singer Adrienne Warren, in the lead role, shows off a strong, throaty, versatile delivery. The band behind her are superb, particularly on the vintage soul numbers, and the supporting cast rise to the occasion as well. It’s not often that a Broadway pit band can school other musicians on how to play much of anything, but they do here. And the script doesn’t shy away from what a creep and an abuser Ike was.

The music doesn’t follow a chronological narrative, with songs from Turner’s big 80s comeback mingled within material that spans from edgy blues to high-voltage vintage soul to the poppier stuff of her later career. Sending out a shout to her gospel beginnings, the first version of Nutbush City Limits has a lavish, ecstatic choral arrangement. The band add a welcome raw edge to Shake a Tail Feather; likewise, Daniel J. Watts, whose salacious rasp makes a great fit in Ike’s Innuendo-fueled hit The Hunter.

Tina enters in the background in Matchbox, done here as a swinging jump blues. Her dad warns Ike what’s going happen if he strays from Tina in a witheringly cynical take of It’s Gonna Work Out Fine over some delicious guitar textures. In context, the angst-fueled intro to A Fool in Love packs a punch.

With a beefy rhythm section and bright spacerock guitars, Better Be Good to Me is a vast improvement on the original. The whole crew shift gears seamlessly back to a blue-flame, unexpectedly psychedelic take of Higher, the first song the Turners – battling hard behind the scenes by now – played on national tv.

River Deep Mountain High has a lavish intensity that rivals the record. Be Tender With Me, Ike’s plea for forgiveness, has a simmering intensity from both sides of the battle. Smartly, the version of Proud Mary here draws on the epic album version rather than the single – or Creedence, for that matter.

The group do their best to add an elegant, harder-rocking edge to I Don’t Wanna Fight, a good setup for Private Dancer, which is arguably even more weary and worn than the original even if it is a tad faster. And the cover of the Trammps’ hit Disco Inferno is practically punk rock.

Warren does a more-than-decent imitation of original singer Ann Peebles in Can’t Stand the Rain. After a low-key, starry version of David Bowie’s elegaic ballad Tonight, What’s Love Got to Do With It rocks a lot harder than the techy original, commemorating Turner’s first post-comeback New York appearance.

Likewise, Warren and the band reach toward Pink Floyd angst and grandeur in We Don’t Need Another Hero. Simply the Best may be epically cheesy no matter how epically you play it, but the decision to go back to Nutbush City Limits in the 1960s for the finale pays off mightily. There are only a couple of duds here: covering Al Green was ill-advised, and that odious Journey song is a real buzzkill. That’s why we have the mute button.

Imaginatively Arranged, Trippy, Artsy Retro Pop Sounds From James Righton

Klaxons keyboardist James Righton most likely has a huge record collection. His new album The Performer – streaming at Bandcamp – is informed by decades of soul and smartly orchestrated pop sounds. The production is elegant, frequently psychedelic and despite all the digitally precise layers, sounds pretty organic. The catchy tunes and artful arrangements are the focus here rather than lyrics or vocals.

The album opens with the title track, which sounds like Roxy Music playing an Oasis song, built around the former’s signature, biting, reverberating Arp electro piano sound but with more of Oasis’ loucheness. The band take it out with a perfect 1974 Country Life-style arrangement, layers of keys and sax hitting a peak.

The second song is titled Edie, but Righton uses her full name throughout this vampy mashup of vintage 70s soul and trippy 90s neosoul. With its strummy acoustic guitar, emphatic riffs from a string section and catchy bassline, See the Monster is the great lost disco track from ELO’s much-maligned but actually fairly respectable Discovery album from 1979.

Devil Is Loose has tasty layers of watery chorus-box guitars over a strutting bassline: the way the bass shifts to that same liquid, echoey tone is very clever. There are two versions of Lessons in Dreamland here. Part 1 is a starry miniature like the ones that Roxy Music would use to fill out an album side. Righton fleshes out the theme as a slow piano ballad with a staggered trip-hop beat to close the record.

Before that, there’s Start, a twinkling, swirly, anthemic art-pop original, not the big punk-funk hit by the Jam. Are You With Me has disorientingly tricky rhythms: at heart, it’s ELO doing a ba-bump Vegas noir pop song. And Heavy Heart is an imaginatively minimalist stab at shimmery Hollywood Hills boudoir soul.

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.

Witheringly Smart, Cynical Oldschool Soul, Gospel and Funk From Fantastic Negrito

Multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito a.k.a. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz has been pumping out fearlessly populist, cynically amusing, pro-freedom songs that span the worlds of oldschool soul, hard funk, hip-hop and gospel music since the zeros. His deliciously layered, often witheringly lyrical latest album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is streaming at Spotify. It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s a clinic in vintage soul music, the layers of guitar and organ are killer, and you’ll see it on the list of the best albums of 2020 here at the end of December. If you miss Prince, this guy picks up where he left off.

The first track is Chocolate Samurai, a gritty ba-bump roadhouse blues theme mashed up with some psychedelic hard funk and swirly gospel organ: a sly message to free ourselves from mental slavery, as Bob Marley put it.

I’m So Happy I Could Cry is a similarly high-voltage minor-key gospel hip-hop number complete with passionate guest vocals from Tarriona Ball of Tank and the Bangas. How Long? is next, a brooding, savagely wise soul tune in a bluesy Gil Scott-Heron vein:

To alll the baby Al Capones
Out there screaming all alone
Full of shit, full of hope
Holding on
We can repeat the same old lies
That make us feel all right
Try to escape
But but we gotta fight the scary ones
…moving so fast, spitting out hashtags
But the lynch mob’s ready to kill

The saturnine guitar solo midway through packs a wallop.

Searching For Captain Save A Hoe features golden age Bay Area rapper E-40, in a darkly organic, soul-infused reprise of his surreal, sarcastic 1993 stoner classic. Your Sex Is Overrated is more subtly amusing than you would think – and the expertly guitar-infused, darkly jazzy early 70s soul ballad atmosphere is spot-on.

These Are My Friends is a strutting, gospel-tinged chronicle of the shady characters Fantastic Negrito surrounds himself with. “Things that don’t kill you in this lockdown will only make you stronger,” he reminds. Easier said than done!

“You want me kissing your ass and you know I never could do that,” he explains in All Up In My Space, an eerie mashup of noir 60s soul and hip-hop, with a slithery organ solo. He brings in a harder funk edge in Platypus Dipster, the album’s most psychedelic number – the ending is priceless. He winds up the record with King Frustration, blending vintage soul, searing Chicago blues and early 70s Stevie Wonder in a fervently detailed message to the masses to wake up. We’ve never needed music this good as much as we do now. 

Lush, Impeccably Arranged, Artsy Purist Tunesmithing From Mimi Oz

Right up until the lockdown, songwriter Mimi Oz was a ubiquitous presence on the New York live music scene. She always seemed to have a gig at the Rockwood, or Pete’s, and would occasionally put in an appearance at one of the Bushwick indie clique spots. While she doesn’t have any publicly announced gigs on the calendar, she has a lavishly and tastefully produced new album, Growing Pains, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe this dovetails with the zeitgeist, but on this one there isn’t as much of the quirky sense of humor that’s often infused Oz’s work up to this point: this album is dead serious and better off for it.

Anchor, a soaring gospel-soul number, is told from the point of view of somebody who isn’t exactly a saint. Lots of people play on this record: throughout the album, Richard Weisdorf and Dan Ricker share piano duties, Oz joined on guitar by David Celia, Mike Milazzo and William Pearson. Jason Smith and Jarrod Ross share the bass chair; drums and percussion are handled by Ryo Tanaka, Miles Gibbons and CJ Young. There’s orchestration, too – Lenna Pierce on viola and Kensuke Shoji on violin, with Leigh Macdonald on trumpet and Josh Aguilar on sax.

Caroline could be a Blondie hit from the early 80s with more than a hint of Tex-Mex and Motown, plus a rousing choir of backing vocals. The album’s title track is a real showstopper, a towering art-rock anthem that clocks in at about seven minutes. With its gorgeously bittersweet layers of guitar and Oz’s angst-fueled vocals, it’s the best thing she’s ever done – and one of the best songs of 2020.

Hate is a slow, simmering electric rock anthem for outsiders in an era of top-down divide and conquer. The slow gospel ambience returns in RFYL, awash in organ and Rhodes piano.

Oz stays in pensive mode for the stark solo acoustic ballad Star, contrasting with the joyous, coyly bouncy Time Will Tell.

Brianna Thomas Takes Her Soulful Sound to the Next Level

Buoyed by an endorsement from Will Friedwald, the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing, Brianna Thomas’ career was in full swing while she was still in college. But she’s always been more than a purist, elegant jazz singer. Anybody who’s ever heard her sing blues or gospel knows how badass, and funny, she can be. Her new album Everybody Knows – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace for her, in terms of the jazz, which is heavy on the ballads in addition to other styles beyond the idiom. It’s been a dark year; this is a pretty dark record, and Thomas’ voice will haunt you long after it’s over.

Conun Pappas pulls the sustain bar all the way out on the Rhodes, hovering above guitarist Marvin Sewell’s gritty, circling funk riffage in the album’s opening number, Since I Fell For You. Thomas’ impassioned, insistent vocals match the bite of his bluesmetal solo midway through.

“How deep can a hole in your soul go, how far back can you look to find a clue?” she ponders in How Much Forgiveness, a slowly crescendoing pop ballad, bassist Ryan Berg tiptoeing over Pappas’ shimmery piano chords. Those two players edge their way into the noir-tinged It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie with a similar terseness, Thomas working a mysterious, aching ambience up to a tantalizingly allusive scatting solo; Sewell’s austere, darkly bluesy lines fill out the picture.

She keeps the nocturnal vibe going with a slow, latin soul-tinged, rising and falling take of My Foolish Heart. Once again, Pappas’ starry chords provide a vivid backdrop, building to Thomas’ throaty crescendo.

Fueled by the shifting rhythms of drummer Kyle Poole and percussionist Fernando Saci along with Thomas’ gritty insistence, the band reinvent the old 60s Gerry & the Pacemakers hit Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying as a bustling, defiant anthem. By contrast, I Belong to You is a lusciously Lynchian latin noir mood piece that Sewell hits out of the park with his grim chromatics.

It Had to Be You gets remade as 70s boudoir soul, fueled by Pappas’ twinkly Rhodes and Sewell’s purist Memphis riffs and fills. The hokum blues My Stove’s in Good Condition is irresistibly fun: Sewell goes deep into his hometown Chicago blues riffbag , and the bandleader turns it into what could be the album’s title track. Or maybe one of a pair.

Sewell gets ghostly with his slide in the dirgey take of Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, a lauching pad for Thomas’ mix of nuance and full-throttle intensity. It’s a shock that more singers haven’t covered the Nina Simone classic Mississippi Goddamn, a protest song which is sadly just as relevant in 2020 as it was during the Civil Rights era. This group’s shapeshifting, crushingly cynical remake, part wah funk, part chilling oldschool soul, will rip your face off.

They close the record on an upbeat note with an impassioned, blues-infused, Allen Toussaint-esque version of The More I See You. History may judge this a career-defining album by one of this era’s most dynamic voices in jazz, and a lot of other styles too.

Van Morrison Pushes a Lot of Buttons With the Smartest, Catchiest Protest Songs of 2020

Van Morrison, the eternally vital inventor and finest practitioner of Celtic soul, is 75. He has never sung with more righteous passion, and has never been more relevant than he is now. Beginning in September, so far he’s released a trio of songs from a forthcoming album that speak truth to power about the ugly propaganda, fearmongering and duplicity behind this year’s pandemic of fascist lockdowns under the pretext of a global health emergency.

Interestingly, anti-freedom platforms including Amazon, Youtube and Spotify have not demonetized the songs, perhaps simply wanting to cash in. As of today, you can still pull them up at Spotify, but there are also a number of places, including the bare-bones oldies webpage Best Classic Bands where you can hear all of them ad-free.

Born to Be Free is a swinging, sunny, organ-driven, Memphis-tinged anthem. Van the Man doesn’t waste time getting to the point:

Don’t need the government cramping my style
Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile
The “New Normal” is not normal
It’s no kind of normal at all
Everyone seems to have amnesia
Just trying to remember the Berlin Wall
Some kind of new ideology
A new psychology
But it’s not for the benefit of you and me

The centerpiece of the triptych is No More Lockdown, set to a vamping, gospel-infused groove:

No more lockdown
No more government overreach
No more fascist police
Disturbing our peace
No more taking our freedom
And our God-given rights
Pretending it’s for our safety
When it’s really to enslave…
No more lockdown
No more threats
No more Imperial College scientists
Making up crooked facts

That last line no doubt refers to the now-disgraced Neil Ferguson‘s computer model, which, until it was debunked as grotesquely alarmist, was a cornerstone of this past spring’s first wave of lockdowner mythmaking.

Musically, the most memorable of the songs is As I Walked Out, a midtempo ballad in 6/8 time:

As I walked out this morning
All the streets were empty
The government said everyone should stay home
And they spread fear and loathing
And no hope for the future
Not many did question this very strange move

Morrison, perennial populist that he is, wants to know, “Why are they working and why are we not?” He also pointedly calls bullshit on how the Boris Johnson regime keeps flipping the script about the rationale behind the lockdown.

The lockdowner pushback has been predictably tiresome. Rolling Stone – which until the past few months had been a reliable source of solid investigative journalism – fretted hysterically that “This time, Morrison’s preferred method of venting might also cause harm to others.”

The BBC quoted Northern Ireland’s health minister characterizing the new songs as “dangerous”. However, their piece’s link to an unnamed “conspiracy theory,” supposedly alluded to in one of the songs, has been disabled.

The only review to be found on the first few Google search pages for these tracks was a snide little squib at a Canadian content farm which dismissed them as “right-wing COVID-19 truther songs.“ The author of that piece has written for the site on such important topics as the Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, Kanye West’s aborted run for President, and how a member of the Strokes surprised a tv actor with the gift of a leather coat.