2020, Summer 2
Music has been hit by 2020's strangeness just as every avenue of waking life has. And while there's definitely been some sparsity in releases this year, we've also seen some unexpected drops from artists now unable to tour, and find themselves back in the studio. You can feel the rifts, rifts that I'm sure will echo throughout the coming years.
I figured now that we're half way through 2020 I'd just discuss a few releases that I think are worth hearing.
Ka is not only proving himself to be a staple of the genre, but is managing to elevate hip hop to levels of contemplation and endless beard-stroking that hasn't quite been tapped before. Ka's delivery is smooth, teetering on spoken word, and his lyricism is pure poetry – his album this year is a step up in every regard. Having previously drawn up the ancient aesthetics of imperial Japan and Greek mythology on previous projects, his new record is soaking in references to the old testament (as the title suggests).
There's hardly a drum track in sight during the full 32 minutes, the instrumentation unfolding mostly as unsettling folksy samples of jangly acoustic guitars and eery woodwinds, filled with samples harking to Golden Age hollywood. It's this weird nostalgic fever dream that doesn't really have a home, but comes together perfectly.
But the true star here is the poetry from Ka, which is nigh-impossible to review in words alone. Ka is a true wordsmith, and the passion from his craft bleeds through.
'Descendents of Cain' has fast secured itself as my favourite release of the year, and is slowly but surely becoming one of my all-times.
Bridger's has been the 'indie artist to watch' for some time now, and she's mostly proven herself on 'Punisher'. Her debut 'Stranger In The Alps' is deceptively simple, featuring mostly ballads sang alongside an acoustic guitar. If Punisher does anything, it greatly improves on Bridger's instrumentation, all of the songs featuring layers of shimmery, muffled piano and electric guitar.
Both albums teeter on being morose, and while never quite fall head-first into hopelessless, her latest can quite quickly become a dirge of samey sounding sad songs if you're not listening closer than can be reasonably expected. But, if you're in that mood, it scratches the itch and doesn't out-stay its welcome.
'Garden Song' is almost worth the album alone, and I'm a sucker for 'Graceland Too', which, despite the phoned-in fiddle, features the full boygenius crew, and they've never sounded better.
I feel pretty confident in saying Quelle Chris has become my favourite artist of recent years, but considering he's released four album since 2017, and I've adored all of them, there's hardly any match.
Innocent Country 2 is probably his most consistent effort yet, while suffering from being a little bit too long, and never quite breaking away from its comfort zone. But what you do have is more than an hours worth of smooth, bluesy jazz rap that has no peers.
The genius of Quelle's work is his sense of humour, which he brings with him to everything he does, but somehow never crosses the line into parody. No matter how quirky his lines or delivery, there's always a message bigger than him that he brings along with him – as a true artist should.
Chris Key's production here isn't a world away from what Quelle would usually be rapping over, but it's still a fresh landscape regardless. It's not the Quelle album I would rave about, but it's the one I would put on without a second thought.
Every year it seems like Kozelek releases something new and we're a step closer to finding out what he likes to eat on toast in the morning, and I love it.
True to form, each song here is a long ramble about the quirks of every day life for Kozelek, ranging from his hilarious thoughts about how chard enchiladas have a lot in common with bassoons, to his fondness of hearing his brother's laugh on 'My Brother Loves Seagulls'.
Regardless, the real star of the show here is the instrumentation, thanks to the collaboration with friends Boye and White. Each track is a sweeping, gentle jazz-folk track, that never quite goes where you expect it to.
It's a very long, lethargic listen, but if you're willing to surrender yourself to its big yawn, then it'll carry you the whole distance. I always miss it when it's over.
I've been a fan of Serengeti ever since his collab with Sufjan Stevens on the strange but brilliant 'Sisyphus' – a bizarre synthpop album that combined Steven's soft folk singing with Serengti's husky and characterful rap style.
Ajai is a collaboration with Kenny Segal, who seems to make gold anything he touches. The beats are jazzy, colourful, and totally eccentric – a perfect match for Serengeti himself.
But what I love about this album is the subject matter – it's a concept album about a guy who loves shoes. In a world where it feels like every album wants to tackle the big questions of the human experience, this album is about fashion-heads. Serengeti is here playing different comedic characters, at first Ajai himself, but then when one of his shoes gets sent to the wrong address, it's played out from an entirely new perspective from a man (even more comically performed) who literally puts on Ajai's shoes and walks a mile in them.
It would be straight up something out of Flight of the Conchords if it didn't, at times, profoundly touch on environmentalism, materialism and narcissism from angles that you wouldn't be able to capture without rooting yourself in comedy.
Lines like 'Dumb ass turtle eating plastic in the ocean' are hilarious, before they make you really, actually, quite devastated.
I wish more artists took themselves less seriously like this.
A defining jazz record of the year, 'Who Sent You?' is sparse, strange and keeps the blood pumping throughout its run-time.
It does what all good jazz should do, make you feel like you're walking the streets of the city it was recorded it. And as Chicago is becoming ever-more torn, you can feel the confusion, anger and excitement through every moment of this one.
Not always for the feint of heart, if you're willing to dip a toe into some chaos, you'll get bundles in return.
Don't worry, I'm not going to say any more about Steve Reich's piece 'Music For 18 Musicians' that hasn't already been said.
Essentially, this chap recreated the whole thing by himself in his home studio. It certainly doesn't capture the magic of the classic recordings, but it's a totally new way of hearing the composition. It's got a much cozier, lo-fi sense to it. It's warmer and quirkier.
I wish the production was a little less muddy, and at times it can feel a little bit too rigid, but it's a faithful recreation from someone who clearly has a love for the piece, as we all should.
Blu & Exile are the legendary underground hip hop duo that are almost soley responsible for breeding my love for the genre. 'Below The Heavens' is their 2007 cult classic, with its larger than life, soulful production and Blu's bright and energetic flow, his verses exploring adolescence, life and love. They're not the young men they used to be, and while there's nothing as catchy or as fun as 'Blu Colla Workers' or 'First Things First', both Blu and Exile have refined their craft to produce their most sophisticated efforts to date.
Its been eight long years since their last LP, but 'Miles' has been entirely worth the wait. It's a remarkably mature and confident record, with 20 songs running for 90 minutes, and there isn't a single miss. It's a huge accomplishment, and I get excited every time I play it from the start. It's become my go-to, you can just play any track and know you're in for something smooth, something smart, something insightful.
Its still a great mystery to Blu & Exile fans, that despite their unfaltering discography and rave critical reviews, and seemingly universal appeal, they remain largely unknown.
I have a feeling this new one will age like wine.
Not much to say about this one, except its a pretty perfect 40 minutes. Ten tracks, all as good as the last. It's nothing ground breaking or unique, but Nadia has a timeless voice, and a knack for story-telling.
'All of My Love' has become one of my most played song of the year, for perfectly capturing a calm, reflective tone, in both her words and the music. But it's not all one-tone, as Reid moves the formula into more upbeat songs, more soulful songs, even heavier sounds at times. But all in all, a pretty album that's just about the easiest listen you could accomplish.
Reid was one of my new discoveries of the year, and I'll be excited to see what she has to offer in the coming years.
Charli's release last year was a pop monolith – 50 minutes of the biggest, loudest pop tracks with the sharpest production in the business. 'How I'm Feeling Now', in that case, is the perfect follow up. It's short, it's rough, it's totally from left field, and it's the better album as a result.
The production is more crunchy, glitchy and unusual, and Charli even uses this lack-of-polish to provide more honest and personal moments throughout. It's far from perfect, and not all of it's experiments pay off, but it's a fun, tight listen all the same.
I suspect if any album was to become the soundtrack to 2020, it would be this. When meeting up with friends digitally from the lockdown, we'd put the full thing on in the background more times than I can count.
It somehow perfectly captures the cabin-fever, the uncertainty, but also, at times, the sentimentality.