Favorite Albums of 2020

Folks, this has been a hell of a year. Some might call it a hellscape of a year. I’m writing this in hopes that you and yours are making it through and hoping to see the daylight of a better 2021 on the horizon. I know that’s a tall order. One thing that has helped me day-to-day is the same thing that I’ve rushed to forever: music. Staying home every day has kept me close to my record collection and there has been no slow-down to its growth. I could admit that I have a problem but I’m fairly certain that the fault lies with the artists who cannot stop producing outstanding and very collectable work.

Previously, I have sworn off ranked album of the year lists. I have since bristled at even attempting unranked lists because there’s so much to share that I’m definitely going to forget something. My wife blames my broad and insatiable taste in music. She really gets me. Some of these have been mentioned on my podcast, BrokedownPod. A few of these artists have even been so gracious as to appear on the show. The mission here is not to plug the show it is also not intended to turn into a push for Bandcamp. But then I realized that almost everything here can be found there. You can also find a slew of stuff that didn’t make the list if you go to my profile: https://bandcamp.com/rowjimmy

Now it’s time for an impenetrable list featuring more content than you can shake a stick at, and presented in no discernible order. There is a little bit of a sequence or flow devised that might serve if you took the time to listen to each in order but… no one is going to do that. I purposefully wrote this in several sittings because each time I stepped away, I thought of things that I couldn’t leave out. Even still, I left some great stuff out so, an honorable mentions list will likely follow. I finally decided to cap the list at twenty-five items because, as arbitrary numbers goes, that’s a pretty good one. I love all of these for different reasons, some of which I will attempt to explain.

  • Woods – Strange To Explain
    • I’m putting this one first because they show up on my list every year they put out a record. I wonder if these guys could put out an album that I don’t like? I’m not pushing for that. They’ve grown as humans and musicians and it’s plain in this record. (Bandcamp)
  • Dire Wolves – I Just Wasn’t Made For These Set Times
    • Deep, group explorations in the line of their other recent studio work. This is for the heads. Live set “Flow & Heady” (out on Feeding Tube Records) is aptly named and well worth your energies too. (Bandcamp)
  • Wet Tuna – Eau’d To A Fake Bookie Vol. 1-3
    • Look, the Matt Valentine/COM universe is vast. These excursions have extended it throughout the dark 2020 times. Ride these waves into the wired weird spaces. (Bandcamp)
  • Chris Forsyth/Dave Harrington/Ryan Jewell/Spencer Zahn – First Flight
    • Collaborating with great players is the theme for a couple of Forsyth’s releases this year. This live record has enough energy shooting through it to keep your speakers warm in the coming winter. Don’t sleep on the Peoples Motel Band record with Garcia Peoples! (Bandcamp)
  • Mosses – T.V. Sun
    • Speaking of Ryan Jewell, it seems an age since he was on BrokedownPod. we spoke of this album and played a little and, to be honest it feels like I’ve always had this album. It’s mind and genre bending and rewards multiple listens. (Bandcamp)
  • Garcia Peoples – Nightcap At Wits’ End
    • These guys just keep growing and showing more strengths than is fairly contained in a single young band. (Bandcamp)
  • Nick Mitchell Maiato – Pino Carrasco
    • One Eleven Heavy had plans for 2020 that got scrapped. Some of those plans were folded into Nick’s recorded-in-lockdown jammer that I keep going back to play. Get it. (Bandcamp)
  • Trummors – Drop Out City
    • Cosmic American music goes west. Great songs and deep vibes. I celebrate their entire catalog. (Bandcamp)
  • Pacific Range – High Upon The Mountain
    • These California cats get it. Produced by Dan Horne (Circles Around The Sun) who had a great EP this year himself (The CATS record is good too!) (Bandcamp)
  • Color Green – s/t
    • More cosmic Californian vibes on this EP. I’m looking forward to a full length because, if you could wear out a digital download, I might have done by now. (Bandcamp)
  • Joan Shelley – Live At The Bomhard
    • Late to Joan’s work, I found it in a big way this year when I ordered this and wow did it deliver. Her voice shimmers and her words are deployed with precision. Backed by a band of ringers too. (Bandcamp)
  • Bonny Light Horseman – s/t
    • Sort of a super group, perhaps, featuring Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric Johnson delve into traditional folks sounds and come away with a lovely record. (Bandcamp)
  • Hello Emerson – How To Cook Everything
    • Panning from plaintive to soaring this album spins honest and relatable thoughts into a truly compelling set of songs. (Bandcamp)
  • Chris Sedelmyer – Ravine Palace
    • Known, perhaps, for his work with Jerry Douglas (who guests on this) Sedelmyer should hereafter be remembered for this stunning set of compositions and playing. Can’t wait to hear the next one. (Bandcamp)
  • Matt LaJoie – Everlasting Spring
    • Spiraling guitars inducing trance states is where this lives. LaJoie’s Flower Room Records has been prolific throughout 2020 with tons of great music for your mind. (Bandcamp)
  • Steve Palmer – Useful Histories
    • The phrase “visionary expanse” comes too mind when I try to place this music. Guitar driven, aural treat. (Bandcamp)
  • Prana Crafter – Morphomystic
    • The soundtrack to an adventure deep into the dark heart of a forgotten magic forest. Will Sol’s guitar carries you from your seat into an otherworldly realm. (Bandcamp)
  • Barry Walker Jr. – Shoulda Zenith
    • Taking pedal steel beyond previously perceived limits, Walker is at times treating it like Paul Metzger does a banjo. Not just a fancy slide guitar, the pedal steel becomes a medium for un earthly sounds on this fascinating record. (Bandcamp)
  • The Howard Hughes Suite – Smoke From A Future Fire
    • Another, but very different pedal steel driven album. Less experimental and more ethereal. Elsewhere I compared this to “an oil painting of a distant landscape, textures and details arise and serve as conveyance to another place.” Either way, a good listen. (Bandcamp)
  • Josh Kimbrough – Slither, Soar, & Disappear
    • North Carolina finger style guitar player, Kimbrough, captures the ear and imagination with this set of instrumental tunes; meditations on a new sort of life. (Bandcamp)
  • Elkhorn – The Acoustic Storm Sessions
    • Elkhorn again expands their duo format to worthy effect. Pairs nicely with the preceding “Storm Sessions” LP. (Bandcamp)
  • Rose City Band – Summerlong
    • Quickly on the heels of the previous cosmic country jammer, Ripley Johnson (Moon Duo, Wooden Shjips) delivered one of my top Summer spins. (Bandcamp)
  • Dogwood Tales – Closest Thing To Heaven
    • This feels like Virginia. Not the Virginia you outsiders think you know but real, rolling down the the mountains to the piedmont sorta Virginia. Folk Rock shot with Country and the grease of an I-81 truck stop. There’s also a nice live release. (Bandcamp)
  • Zachary Cale – False Spring
    • He was JUST on my podcast. This album has wrapped me up and held me on many a day this year. I expect that it shall continue to do so for some time yet. (Bandcamp)
  • Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – All The Good Times
    • This record might be my favorite for the year if I were forced to pick just one. It’s loaded with stunning beauty, sadness, and joy. The material runs from traditional to Norman Blake, Bob Dylan, and the late John Prince. While limited and rare in physical form, the digital is still available for what is basically required listening. (Bandcamp)

2016 Albums

My Favorite Records of 2016

I’m sitting and listening to the thudding bass and wailing vocals which kick off the new Childish Gambino record, “Awaken, My Love!”, as I consider the yearly slog through the exercise of ranking albums. This album certainly makes a strong case and, being freshly released in December, it has a decided edge over a few great releases that might’ve slipped off the immediate radar. But that’s what we’re attempting to assess, isn’t it? The question isn’t, “What albums did you like?” The question is, “What albums are truly noteworthy?” This album, with its unabashed references to Funkadelic and Prince might well belong on that sort of list. I’ll let it spin and see if it comes back around as we talk.

I’ve harped on giving up this year-end thing so many times that I’m bored with the standard excuses about feeling compelled by the quality of the material or wanting to offer a rebuttal to other lists. I’m not going to lie, I like to look back and see what has landed in my collection and heart. I do not like ranking items. How can I compare a cultural cornerstone artist to an up-and-coming musician with only a couple albums in her catalog? It’s patently ridiculous. So don’t look for rankings here. No bullet points or whatever, either. Consider that method off limits and don’t try to interpret the sequence of my narrative as an order of preference.

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Phish – Big Boat

“I don’t listen to Phish albums.”
The number of times that I have heard this declaration, or some variant, over the years is striking. Doubly so when one considers the fervent fan base commanded by the band. Yes, live performance is where Phish rises to its highest heights. No, the studio albums do not contain the same energies found on stage. Fans often seem to have difficulty reconciling this disparity even as the band, ever aware of it, has embraced the separateness of the two more and more on each album. Their latest release, Big Boat (out Oct. 7 on JEMP Records), continues this trend and manages to present the listener with some fresh sounds. The challenge may be that the audience doesn’t really want fresh sounds. By and large, fan criticism runs from unrestrained delight in a new Phish album to indifference to disgust. Scanning Twitter on release day, one sees the entire gamut from assertions that the band is “…out of ideas…” (which is nonsense) to “hitting a creative peak”. As usual, the truth falls in between.

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Albums of 2015

Every year someone writes that the year passed and nothing grabbed them and it’s therefore a shit year for new music and let’s get on with next year. Immediately afterwards, someone else assembles a lengthy click-bait piece listing the fifty albums that some person with too much time on their hands could not be without. This plays out in an unrelenting back and forth beginning in November and ending sometime mid-February. The ongoing hash and rehash of the album of the year list nonsense has moved me to swear off such lists. Yet, here we are.

I know I said I wouldn’t do this again but I can’t let this year escape without some sort of survey of my favorites. In my utterly vain opinion, the things that I love are so worthy of your love that I feel obligated to shout about them into the Interweb nothingness in hopes that just one of you will hear my message and find, herein, at least one new thing or perhaps an old thing worthy of reappraisal. I will eschew the bulleted list format in favor of dense blocks of text because that will spare those of you who probably haven’t even read this far the burden of my opinion. I will also not rank anything. The albums mentioned below are all my favorites from this year though they may not, in fact, be all of my favorites. Continue reading

Fare Thee Well – Chicago 2015

It’s been a week since I got home from Chicago and I’m still processing the experience of attending the Fare Thee Well shows. Herein, I shall relate the story of my weekend and, hopefully suss out a few things that I learned along the way.

We set off early on Thursday morning from Washington D.C. I and two of my oldest friends, Andy and Modi, with whom I’ve seen countless shows over the past twenty-plus years of friendship. This would be a big one. We were going to Soldier Field in Chicago for the final shows to feature the remaining “core four” members of the Grateful Dead. Two days earlier, Modi and I had marked the 20th anniversary of our last Grateful Dead shows. Now we were flying down the highway towards a great unknown. Having heard the Santa Clara Fare Thee Well shows, our expectations were tempered, at best. In fact, you could say that we were a bit dubious about what Chicago would bring. But, we were also excited. We’d been waiting months for this day to come, and finally, we were Chicago-bound. Continue reading