My favorite musical discoveries of 2020

22 December 2020

Music is one of my ongoing pleasures, but I don't write about it much - as the old witticism says "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." [1] But I do find other people's writing can lead me to some great music, and writing about my favorite albums I acquired this year is a way of paying that debt forward.

I talk about "albums" because I'm still stuck in the mold of buying albums. Back in my 20's I started a habit of buying 4 CDs a month. I'd listen to the new batch pretty heavily during that month, than shift them to a rotation with all the rest of my accumulated albums once I got a new batch. Given that was three decades ago, I've amassed a lot of music, and still find this way of exploring the musical world to suit me.

Last year saw a significant shift in where I bought my music. For many years I used the emusic service, which suited my 4-a-month buying habit really well. But over recent years their catalog got more withered and I eventually gave up my subscription. Now my first port of call for music is Bandcamp. From what I can tell, the site passes on a bigger share of my dollars to the artist than buying through someone like Amazon. In addition most artists on the platform allow you to listen to their music through the browser before buying, which allows me to sample a new band that I'm unsure of. That way I can get a sense if I'll like them and form a good mix in my four albums batch.

My tastes are not mainstream, and I doubt I'd find any of these albums on my car radio. I tend to focus on jazz and world/roots music, but it's easier to express what I like by going through my arbitrary top six of new-to-me albums in 2020.

v2.0 by GoGo Penguin

sample track: Kamaloka

My biggest new discovery of recent years is the Manchester-based jazz trio: GoGo Penguin (thanks Badri!). They play in a style of jazz that I've been listening to a lot recently, a style that takes a lot of influence from minimalist classical music, and EDM. There's a lot of emphasis on texture, rather than melody and soloing. GoGo Penguin has a sound that's very integrated, with lots of close interplay between the instruments, rather than one soloing and the others accompanying. If this kind of thing appeals to you, some similar albums I got this year are from Majamisty TriO, Aaron Parks, and EYOT

Hawk To The Hunting Gone by You Are Wolf

sample track: Three Ravens

You Are Wolf is an avant-garde take on English folk music. I've long enjoyed British folk music, with women singers like Sandy Denny, June Tabor, and Eddie Reader all having confirmed places on my virtual shelves. You Are Wolf is a whole new take on the folk sound. Kerry Andrew's voice matches those remarkable voices I named earlier, but the group's take on the music is far more experimental. Three Ravens is a dark English folk ballad dating from at least the seventeenth century. You Are Wolf reimagines this so that it sounds ahead of its time in the twenty-first.

Bridges by Adam Baldych & Helge Lien Trio

sample track: Mosaic

The common take for jazz violin is the gypsy sound from Stefan Grapelli. But the violin can offer much more to jazz that that, and the Polish violinist Adam Balydych demonstrates this in collaboration with the Norwegian Helge Lien Trio. I don't usually pay very much attention to record labels, but ACT has become an exception as they have excellent taste in European jazz and have led me to many favorite sounds in the last few years. A couple of other ACT highlights for me this year were Vincent Peirani & Emile Parisien, and Matthieu Saglio. ACT just started putting their music out on Bandcamp, which I hope will help me explore their catalog further.

The Old​-​Timey AfroPop Jibberish Junction by Dirty Bourbon River Show

sample track: Ballad of Mary Fairweather (Redux)

Dirty Bourbon River Show describe themselves as "Circus Rock", which is a fair description of a sound that suggests a big tent from their home of New Orleans. The compositions of singer/multi-instrumentalist Noah Adams mix his gravelly vocals with bayou rhythms and the hyper-active sax of Matt Thomas. I bought what was available of their physical CDs a few years ago, but Bandcamp has given them the opportunity to make the rest of their discography available.

Holy Room by Somi

sample track: Like Dakar

Somi is an American singer-songwriter, who I've heard described as a melding of Sade and Fela Kuti. In this live album she sings with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, and the combination of her vocals and big band produce that kind of international cocktail that is as magical as it is unusual. The arrangements have the band perfectly backing her songs keeping her, and the distinctly African sound of guitarist Hervé Samb, front and center.

Suite to be You and Me by I Think You're Awesome

sample track: The Distance

This album is a collaboration between the Danish jazz group I Think You're Awesome and the Berlin-based Taïga String Quartet. A line-up featuring Wurlitzer and Banjo is as quirky as I Think You're Awesome's name, but blends well with the string quartet in a harmony inspired by the marriage of their leader with the string quartet's cellist. The resulting album is uplifting and joyful, and I hope their relationship mirrors it.

While Bandcamp has been my primary channel for new music this year, I do get some from other sources, particularly for more mainstream labels that don't have their artists on Bandcamp. This year I finally got around to listening to Landfall: Laurie Anderson's collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. I've long liked Laurie Anderson's music and this could be my favorite album of hers. Some even-older music listening was triggered by watching the recent film biography of Miles Davis. I'd not listened to much of his later fusion work, but really enjoyed finally getting into In a Silent Way and A Tribute To Jack Johnson

I hope these suggestions have given you some new music to enjoy. If so, I should mention that my best sources for new music in the last couple of years has been Dave Sumner's monthly columns on best jazz on Bandcamp Daily, and the always enjoyable James Catchpole on the OK Jazz podcast.


Footnotes

1: The phrase was probably originated by Martin Mull, although the attribution is unclear