Priest Picks #9: Top 10 Records of 2020 (So Far)
For the love of god, is it only mid-year? Did we add some extra months to this year on a trial basis? If so, that means it’s time for the required mid-year briefing for our devoted Pickled Priest parishioners. I find it absurdly premature to make a list of my favorite records since I tend to digest records like a snake digests a pig—over time, without people judging me for my overconsumption. But, if asked at gunpoint (and with a 500% increase in gun sales lately, that’s becoming more and more likely) which records I recommend unequivocally right now, these are the first ten that come right off the dome. I've put them in random order—we’ll save rankings until December—and I apologize to the many “eliminated” but worthy records I axed at the last minute. I have a feeling a few of them will end up on the year-end list for 2020 anyway, which has, despite it all, been a strong year for recorded music. Here’s just a taste of the bounty.
1. NATALIA LAFOURCADE / Un Canto por México, Vol. 1
THE BASICS: Born in the quaint little town of Mexico City, Natalia is a casahold name in Mexico and she's recently shifted (temporarily, I assume) from her usual pop milieu to focus on a more traditional style, paying tribute to her country’s rich musical heritage by releasing collections of folkloric songs, this one to benefit an arts center in Veracruz. (For more, see Top 10 List #1)
WHY WE LOVE IT: In English, the title translates to A Song for Mexico. The record celebrates local heritage with marvelously played, impeccably sung new and traditional tunes that convey so much passion and heart one cannot help but feel warm in their embrace. She made the record to evoke the community and camaraderie of a Mexican marketplace and she’s succeeded brilliantly. This music is for living, laughing, loving, and dancing—often all at once. Sin defectos, mis amigos y amigas.
LISTEN: “Una Vido,” “Veracruz,” “Mi Religión” (Pickled Priest’s newly named Spanish theme song, whose chorus translate as “Music, My Religion!”), “El Balajú: Serenata Huasteca,” “Lo Que Construimos” (w/ Emmanuel del Real from Café Tacuba), “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” and any other track that’s playing at the moment.
2. LAURA MARLING / Song for Our Daughter
THE BASICS: An English folk singer, to put it in hopelessly simplistic terms, but her music is folk like Joni Mitchell was folk; it pleads for its own genre stitched from the remnants of several others. The album was inspired by Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter and is a must hear for young females and, for that matter, everyone else on the planet. (Interesting side note: Marling, as yet, has no children—in this case she’s imagining a “fictional daughter,” which as a side note to the side note, would be a great band name). I wonder if, like me, she's someday blessed with only sons, what they'll think of this record. Perhaps a sequel will be needed? As if boys would sit still for that.
WHY WE LOVE IT: Marling has grown slowly but confidently into a lifetime artist—someone you’re likely to listen to for decades to come. Few artists can quiet a room in seconds with a heavy strum of a guitar or the opening of a mouth. She has a captivating presence that owns you from the first moment of the album’s striking opener, “Alexandra” and never lets go. I just finished watching the new documentary about Laurel Canyon and I can easily imagine, had Laura had come of age in the late-60s/early-70s, that she’d have a rapt audience of admirers like Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young eating out of her hand as they sat listening cross-legged on the floor. Songs for Our Daughter has sounded like a timeless classic from the first listen to the last—it’s a record that will surely stand the test of time.
LISTEN: “Held Down,” “Strange Girl,” “Only the Strong,” “Alexandra,” “Fortune,” “For You,” and “Hope We Meet Again.”
3. ANGELICA GARCIA / Cha Cha Palace
THE BASICS: Born in the U.S.A. of parents from Guadalupe, who then moved to East L.A. and ended up in Virginia somehow, Garcia sees the world through fresh eyes and doesn’t allow anyone to derail her pursuit of her own version of the American dream. (For more, see Top 10 List #4)
WHY WE LOVE IT: Cha Cha Palace is like walking through a strange yet exotic neighborhood, one where you may have presumed you were out of place or unwelcome only to find just the opposite—all are welcome and encouraged to participate. Before long you’ll be caught up in the energy, the food, the community, and the music. Suddenly, in a blur of festive lights, aromatic food stands, and delirious celebration, you’ll realize you’ve just opened up a new world for yourself, one that was always there waiting for you. All it took to get there was a step outside of your comfort zone.
LISTEN: “Penny in My Back Pocket,” “It Don’t Hinder Me,” “Lucifer Waiting,” and, of course, Obama playlist favorite, “Jícama”
4. ROBERT VINCENT / In This Town You’re Owned
THE BASICS: Third album from Liverpool’s finest Americana singer. If that sounds like an odd claim, perhaps it is. But like it or not, the UK seems to adore traditional and modern American roots music just as much as, and perhaps more than, Americans do, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that artists enamored by folk, blues, and country traditions in the US are developing their own take on Americana and popping up all around merry old England and Ireland (sometimes both, as Liverpool is now 75% Irish).
WHY WE LOVE IT: We’ve always loved Americana (or Alternative Country if you must) and we don’t really care where we get it from as long as the stories are told with heart and soul in equal measures. Robert Vincent’s new album has been played three times as often as Jason Isbell’s new album around here—no slight to Jason, his album is reliably good, if not among his best—mainly because of the one thing you need more than anything else in this populated genre; great songs that emotionally connect. Vincent’s songs strike a chord. They’re honest. They’re beautifully rendered, without a note out of place. This is a brilliant record by a relative unknown in the States, but good songs have a way of finding their way here eventually. I’m a new convert. Will you be next?
LISTEN: “”Conundrum,” “The Kids Don’t Dig God Anymore,” “This Town,” “The Ending,” and “Husk of a Soul.”
5. RUN THE JEWELS / RTJ4
THE BASICS: Killer Mike and El-P teamed up as Run the Jewels four albums ago and the chemistry was so volatile, they did the smart thing and made it their main product. Be careful, though, contents are thankfully known to explode under extreme circumstances. (For more, see Top 10 List #5)
WHY WE LOVE IT: It’s a record that will go down as the defining record of 2020 not because it’s the soundtrack to a deadly pandemic, but because it’s the soundtrack to a crucial movement many will want to tamp down after the changed team names, torn-down statues, and requisite outrage wears off (all over a glass of wine on a freshly-stained backyard deck). But this record is not on the list because of its timing or out of obligation, it’s here because it’s a visceral and intellectual indictment of our passive society in general. It was written prior to even the pandemic, which tells you that this has been going on far too long. And yes, I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. I think we all needed an open-handed slap upside the head as a reminder that a so-called “permanent underclass” isn’t a working sociological model and that white people are primarily responsible for perpetuating it. Killer Mike didn’t want the role of society’s musical conscience and he shouldn’t have it forced upon him, but with his white partner, El-P, I think he realizes that he may not have a choice any more.
LISTEN: “Holy Calamafuck,” “Walking in the Snow,” “JU$T,” and “A Few Words From the Firing Squad.”
6. FIONA APPLE / Fetch the Bolt Cutters
THE BASICS: No introduction needed. First record in eight.
WHY WE LOVE IT: First off, where’s the rest of the album title? That’s all we get? Other than that disappointment, Fiona is so good she almost seems like she’s toying with people now. Bolt Cutters is fresh, original, and dynamic; her words and music absolutely jump off the record into and around your ears. It’s almost a shock to the system when something so different assaults your senses—I admit it took me a while to get my arms completely around it all (and it continues to be an evolving process). Interestingly, from moment one I said to myself, “Now this is what I’ve been looking for from music.” I just didn’t know it until I heard it, which is usually how it goes.
LISTEN: “Heavy Balloon,” “For Her,” “Ladies,” “Drumset,” and “I Want You to Love Me.” But in reality if you really require song selections at this point, give it up, it’s over for you.
7. DAN REEDER / Every Which Way
THE BASICS: Ex-pat now living with his wife in Germany, formerly of California via Louisiana, he’s got a voice like a sandy beach, a wit like an edgier Garrison Keillor, and a tendency to look outside of the box for subject matter, which explains his appeal to John Prine, who personally signed him to his Oh Boy Records three albums ago. Yet another reason to appreciate the late great Prine. (Also see Top 10 List #7)
WHY WE LOVE IT: He’s one of a kind writing about all kinds. He tackles environmental concerns in “Raft to Freedom” and “A Place on the River,” laments lost youth in “Woman in a Pool” and “Young at Heart” (both which cut too close to home), provides wise bar fight strategy in “Stay Down, Man,” and makes really effective soft-spoken threats in “Jailtime.” He’s also a hip schoolteacher in “Born a Worm” and an unsympathetic life coach in “Nobody Wants to Be You” (look for the song on a future episode of Ozark). (For more, see Top 10 List #7)
LISTEN: “Raft to Freedom,” “Stay Down, Man,” “Jailtime,” “Young at Heart, “ “Nobody Wants to Be You,” “Woman in a Pool,” and “A Place on the River.” (And then keep going.)
8. BLACK MARKET BRASS / Undying Thirst
THE BASICS: The pride of America’s new preeminent soul label, Colemine Records (yes, Dap-Tone included), is Minneapolis’s ferocious Black Market Brass, an 11-piece Afrobeat power plant with the thermostat turned up to meltdown. (Also see Top 10 List #2)
WHY WE LOVE IT: I don’t normally do this, but I can’t really summarize this better than the person who wrote the band’s bio on the Colemine website (mainly because I don’t have access to the exotic drugs needed): Undying Thirst is a noxious brew of diesel and bleach; a special long-player full of wasteoid rippers for skullduggerous hover-bike gangs peddling fugazi relics and snake oil tinctures. Blasting Undying Thirst from your home speaker system is like going over a waterfall in a rusted out oil barrel, long after the sun has boiled the falls dry.” I could not have said it better myself. I was going to use something to the effect of this being the audio equivalent of a Swedish sauna hooked up to a nuclear reactor, or that it brings the goods like a pandemic-packed UPS truck, or that it smokes more often than John Mellencamp, but this time I’ll leave it to the label brass, who seem to know what they’re talking about.
LISTEN: “So Who? Pts. 1 & 2,” “Cheat and Start a Fight,” “Into the Thick.” But this is a groove record you really need to ride in for the duration, so we don’t recommend making pit stops (with the exception of flipping the record, of course).
9. WAXAHATCHEE / Saint Cloud
THE BASICS: Katie Crutchfield, Southern by the grace of god, born with a discerning eye and the open heart of a poet, cites Lucinda Williams as a major influence, but has a distinctive voice all her own. Someday it will be her name cited as an influence.
WHY WE LOVE IT: For lines like this, which aren’t coming from any other songwriter at this moment in time: “Where do you go when your mind starts to lose its perfected shape? Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace / I guess the dead just go on living at the darkest edge of space.” If this isn’t the record of the year so far, it’ll do until another one gets here. Individual moments are so striking I almost felt like she was right behind me, writing lyrics on the fly based on my physiological reactions. I’ve loved her since Cerulean Salt, but at this point she’s getting so good it’s scary.
LISTEN: “Can’t Do Much,” “Fire,” “The Eye,” “Hell,” “War,” and “St. Cloud.” Good luck stopping there.
10. THE SECRET SISTERS / Saturn Return
THE BASICS: Two sisters, Laura and Lydia, from Alabama, who will lull you with their beautiful family harmonies and lure you down some dark paths less traveled, too.
WHY WE LOVE IT: The Secret Sisters operate agnostic to world events. Some records seem perfectly suited to be a tonic for the times, some are perfect for moments of great joy, some are just a familiar and comforting friend. The truly great records are those that don’t know what’s to come, just that they’ll be ready for it when it arrives. Saturn Return is one of those records. You’ll be drawn back to it for for a long, long time. It's here forever.
LISTEN: “Late Bloomer,” “Cabin,” “Hand Over My Heart,” “Fair,” “Nowhere Baby,” and “Hold You Dear.”
Thanks for reading. Next week, same concept, but for individual songs (perhaps 25 or more, we'll see how it goes). Until we meet again, keep the peace and keep away from me (unless you're going to give me a new record as a present).