Arts Feature: Music That Sustained Us Through the Year of the Pandemic
Compiled by Bill Marx
Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways made all three lists.
With concerts all but wiped off the calendar by the pandemic, I naturally spent my time with recordings (and virtual live shows). Here are 10 albums that helped sustain me.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple. Quarantine wasn’t a thing when the singer/pianist holed up at home to tap into her psyche, summon pent-up emotions, and record with musician friends, barking dogs, and makeshift percussion. But her first outing in eight years sure fit our 2020 anxieties. My review
RTJ4, Run the Jewels. Hip-hop’s premier tag-team dropped its prescient fourth album in the wake of George Floyd’s death, its mock buddy flick morphing into atmospheric film noir and sociopolitical broadsides boosted by diverse guests. And its live debut in the virtual realm proved just as crushing. My review
Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan. The father of muses stares down mortality and drops endless cultural references in wry, grizzled ruminations. Dylan can go on a bit (JFK elegy “Murder Most Foul” is his longest song ever at 17 minutes), but his carefully spooled wordplay reflects the poet laureate’s wisdom and whimsy. Arts Fuse review of “Murder Most Foul.”
Untitled (Rise), Sault. The second of two 2020 albums from this prolific, enigmatic British collective more outwardly engages. Yet it still tucks pointed commentary on the Black experience within the aural optimism of jazzy, seductive strings and sleek beats from disco-soul to drumlines, both retro and contemporary.
Data Lords, Maria Schneider Orchestra. Acclaimed jazz composer/arranger Schneider gets more musically and topically ambitious on this double album, splitting pastoral inspirations from our “natural world” with personal politics. The first disc offers an aural denunciation of our data-hungry “digital world,” her malleable collection of players breaking into subsets with dark tones and edgy solos, while the second record spins lighter threads amid the folds of familiar impressionistic swells. Arts Fuse review
Good Souls Better Angels, Lucinda Williams. Raw, real, and rocking, Williams wraps her weathered voice around snarling blues and heart-wrung ballads, tackling the darkness of the day with righteous indignation. Arguably her best outing since 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, assisted by its co-producer Ray Kennedy.
Lianne La Havas. Beyond her rhythmically restructured take on Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” this British neo-soul singer captivates with soaring, sumptuous vocals on a rich third album of originals framed around a bittersweet breakup.
Smiley Face, Laurie Sargent. Singer/songwriter Sargent explores darkness and light through life-embracing rock, infectious soul-pop, ghostly blues, and moody Latin lounge-folk on her fourth record, aided by Boston brethren led by drumming partner Billy Conway. My review
Fantasize Your Ghost, Ohmme. A Chicago art-rock duo of classically trained women who contort their guitars and voices in alluring counterpoint and sinuous noise while honing melodic craft and thickening texture on their second album. And like Run the Jewels, they recreated that sound live in a virtual showcase for the album.
Budapest Concert, Keith Jarrett. The sad news that a series of strokes forced this piano titan to quit performing only magnifies his magical touch on this 2016 solo set. It also led me to revisit his live solo albums from the ’70s, when he favored longform improvisations that remain more adventurous in their spontaneous transitions and evolutions, keeping my mind both meditative and invigorated in isolation. Arts Fuse review
At the end of March I made a mix-disc called “First Quarter Faves” as part of my usual series intended to remind me of albums and singles and discoveries. Then the year swirled into an alternative reality and I can’t even locate the pile of CDs that I used to make the disc. So I’m just listing the selections (some not even from 2020). All the tracks are picks and very likely the albums where they appeared.
- FKA Twigs, “Sad Day”
- Halsey, “You Should Be Sad”
- The Coathangers, “Memories”
- Grimes, “My Name Is Dark”
- Gil Scott-Heron/Makaya McKraven, “Running”
- Pop Smoke, “Invincible”
- The Claudettes, “I Swear to God I Will”
- Amyl and the Sniffers, “Monsoon Rock”
- The Third Mind, “East West (Full Mongrel USO Mix)”
- Drive-By Truckers, “Thoughts and Prayers”
- Sarah Lee Langford, “Painted Lady”
- Lisa Hutton, “Rush Hour Rhapsody”
- Wood River, “Future Fun”
- Sudan Archives, “Pelicans in the Summer”
- Roger Eno and Brian Eno, “Deep Saffron”
This includes non-jazz picks from after the first quarter (alphabetical)
- Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Clean Slate/Epic)
- The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark)
- Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher (Deep Oceans)
- Ceu, Apka! (Six Degrees)
- Elizabeth Cook, Aftermath (Thirty Tigers)
- Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
- Fox Green, The Longest April (self-released)
- Grae, Moses Sumney (Jagjagwar)
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions (Thirty Tigers)
- Johann Johannsson and Yair Elazar Glotman, Last and First Men (music only) (Deutsch Grammaphon)
- Shannon LaBrie, Building (Moraine)
- Low Cut Connie, Private Lives (Contender)
- Moby, All Visible Objects (Mute)
- Nnamdi, Brat (Sooper)
- No Age, Goons Be Gone (Drag City)
- Old 97’s, Twelfth (ATO)
- Oneohtrix Point Never, Magic (Warp)
- Prince, The One Night Alone Collection (Legacy)
- Run the Jewels, 4 (Jewel Runners/BMG)
- Frederic Rzewski, Songs of Insurection (Thomas Kotcheff, piano) (Coviello Classics)
- Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You (Columbia)
- Tyler Swift, Folklore (Republic)
- Toots and the Maytals, Got to Be Tough (Trojan)
- Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind (Warp)
- Laura Veirs, My Echo (Raven Marching Band)
- Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure? (PMR/Virgin)
- Neil Young, Homegrown (Reprise)
Beyond Honorable Mention:
Juliette Greco, Mes Plus Belles Chansons (ZYX)
I discovered her because she passed away. I hear longtime boyfriend Miles Davis wafting in and out of her music and perfectly understand why he said he never married her because he loved her too much.
Jason M. Rubin — Best of 2020
Arts-wise, 2020 was a bad year for movies and theater, and a good year for books and television. Despite a dearth of live concerts, it was a pretty decent year for music, too.
Is That So? – John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, Ustad Zakir Hussain
The year started promisingly in January with the release of this entrancing album by the former Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist, joined by vocalist Mahadevan and tabla master Hussain. Probably the mellowest album McLaughlin has ever made, but it’s beautiful.
Michael Kiwanuka at the Royale
One of the last shows I saw before the lockdown. Kiwanuka sold out the Royale for his February 11 show on the strength of his Grammy-nominated album, also named Kiwanuka. With three great albums under his belt, he is my favorite songwriter to emerge in the last 10 years, and I hope he can come back here by the end of 2021. My review
Rough and Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan
June saw the release of Bob Dylan’s most inscrutable album, and that is saying something. Depending on how you view the Nobel laureate, the album is either a work of genius or an elaborate joke. Among all the name-dropping and repetitious meters, there’s something of value here. I’m not exactly sure what it is yet, but I’m compelled to keep searching. Arts Fuse review of “Murder Most Foul.”
Good Luck Seeker – The Waterboys
Mike Scott is on a roll, releasing four studio albums in the last five years. Recorded mostly in isolation with other band members sending in their parts, this album, released in August, showed Scott embracing soul and R&B, while continuing his recent fascination with electronica and spoken word, along with his longtime love of the broad folk idiom.
Live at the Roundhouse – Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets
One of last year’s concert highlights was Pink Floyd drummer Mason’s new group, which played the Orpheum on April 13, 2019. The band is dedicated to playing Floyd’s earlier, mostly psychedelic repertoire. In September 2020, he released a live album and film drawn from 2019 shows at the classic London venue. It’s a welcome artifact for those of us who are sick of Roger Waters trotting out The Wall for the umpteenth time. Arts Fuse review
I want to give a special shout-out to Adam Sherman, former lead singer of Private Lightning and a longtime fixture on the local music scene. His show at the Burren in Somerville on March 11 was the last club show I saw in 2020, and it was marvelous. He had a residency set up at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge until the lockdown intervened. Sherman quickly pivoted, doing free Zoom shows from his home and joining with like-minded musicians in a group called Back Porch Carousel, which has raised money for out-of-work staff at music clubs throughout greater Boston and for organizations such as the ACLU and On the Rise. Along the way, he has continued to record and release songs featuring his cello-licious voice on his Bandcamp page. Adam is a great guy and a talented singer-songwriter who deserves our respect and support. My review
“Michael o’clock” – John Powhida International Airport
This is a late addition to my list, as it was released on December 1 on Powhida’s Bandcamp page. Local singer-songwriter/guitarist Powhida and producer/keyboardist/vocalist Peter Moore are supported by everyone’s drummer, Chris Anzalone, and Powhida’s former bandmate in the Rudds, Brett Rosenberg, on guitar and bass. The tune is a response to Michael Quercio of the Three O’Clock unfriending Powhida on social media — apparently all is now forgiven — and its insanely catchy pop-soul chorus introduces the words “Supercaliforniafragilediva” and “Psychorelicdandyliar” to the musical lexicon. My review of Powhida’s The Bad Pilot.
The well didn’t exactly run dry, but man, sure did miss the water this year. I had no idea upon leaving Christone “Kingfish” Ingram’s March concert at Brighton Music Hall (Arts Fuse review) that — in short order — the curtain would come down hard on live music and reshape the environment for musicians and their work.
But I am deeply thankful for the work that made it through the 2020 gantlet. Music offered some degree of comfort in a wildly uncomfortable year. So, in no particular order, here are the records that made it possible, occasionally, to tune out all of the other static.
Rough and Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan. In the ’60s, Dylan sang like a prophet; on his latest, he sings like a historian. Dylan is still riffing as wildly as he did on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but on “Rough and Rowdy Ways’’ he slows the pace, cataloging people and events that shaped him. Of course, he towers over a cultural landscape that he has shaped. Yes, it reflects Dylan’s intimations of mortality, full of creaks and moans. But it crackles with a vital badass energy too. Arts Fuse review of “Murder Most Foul.”
The Land That Time Forgot by Chuck Prophet. The record’s “Republican Trilogy” — one about Lincoln, one about Nixon, one about the guy WHO JUST LOST — adds plenty of ideological panache. Add to that a bunch of other cleverly written, sonically sharp tracks and you have another indispensable Chuck album. Arts Fuse review of a 2020 biography of Chuck Prophet
Lamb of God by Lamb of God. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic yielded a ton of new heavy metal albums, from the most out-there experimental sounds to wonderfully buffed-up classic rock (welcome back BOC!). But Lamb of God stood out: this self-titled album gave us a group that was as fierce and provocative as ever — but with the control and command that comes from being around for more than 25 years. Arts Fuse review
Alive and Well by Goose. It’s not surprising that fans are flocking to this band Goose in an exponentially increasing rate, though it is amazing that this kind of popularity explosion is happening at a time when even established artists are struggling. (Anyone check out Mike Campbell’s new music?) Goose’s 2-CD set, released in April, features nine songs recorded at various points along the band’s 2019 tour. It’s a solid showcase of Goose’s improvisational chops, compositional skills, and eclectic tastes. This band will be everywhere in 2021, guaranteed. Arts Fuse review
Existential Reckoning by Puscifer.The stuff this band used to lampoon as fringe-y American absurdities have gone mainstream. So what’s to satirize? Maynard James Keenan and crew confront the new world disorder with a riveting batch of songs. Puscifer keeps its trademark sardonic humor in place and reshapes its sonic landscape with a variety of synthy, ’80s-era prog rock tones as it explores (and deplores) current American ideas of freedom and control. Arts Fuse review
El Dorado by Marcus King. The young guitar whiz turned his attention to songcraft on what is billed as his first “solo” album, which featured a cast of Nashville session pros and had the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in the producer’s seat. King still pushes out plenty of memorable and bracing guitar riffs and solos, but tunes such as “Wildflowers & Wine,” “Young Man’s Dream” and “Beautiful Stranger” reveal just how multifaceted a talent he is. Arts Fuse review
Ghosts by Cowboy Junkies. Seven of the album’s eight songs were composed as companions to the Junkies’ brilliant All That Remains album, capturing the emotional upheaval experienced by band members Margo, Michael, and Peter Timmins when their mother died while they were promoting that 2018 release. But the Covid complexities of re-releasing All That Remains — along with a second album made up of these tracks — was resolved by the Junkies by way of the release of a digital version of Ghosts in March. Frankly, these deeply moving tacks do not need to be contextualized in order to stand tall on their own. Arts Fuse review
The Power of the One by Bootsy Collins. The king of funk bassists orchestrated a relentlessly upbeat and positive record for dark and troubling times. Bootsy jams with an expansive all-star cast spanning young up-and-comers such as the aforementioned Kingfish Ingram and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer to old pros such as Victor Wooten, George Benson, and Larry Graham.
Garcia Live Volume 15: May 21st, 1971 Keystone Korner by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders. No matter the year, there is never a dearth of Grateful Dead related vault releases. The reissues of the Dead’s twin peaks American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead garnered much of the media attention, but this red-hot set Garcia and Saunders constructed early in their fruitful partnership was the sleeper gem. This unique, jazzy includes saxophonist Martin Fierro on several tracks. It also is a rare recording of solo Garcia — without bassist John Kahn. That leaves Saunders to hold down the low end groove on organ as well as to push out the disc’s soaring jams. We get guitarist Garcia at his freest, completely untamed.
The River Flows by John Hurlbut and Jorma Kaukonen. While Garcia left us way too soon, his contemporary Jorma Kaukonen is now 80 years old and is making some of the most heartfelt and exquisite music of his career. This record springs from Kaukonen’s tremendous “Quarantine Concerts”” livestream series. The concept lets him hang back and play leads on acoustic guitar while kindred spirit John Hurlbut handles the vocals and rhythm accompaniment. The album gathers up a batch of inspired covers and a wonderful original composition by Hurlbut. This is powered by the intimacy of two old friends engaged in conversation, including shout-outs of the psychedelic fire that marked Kaukonen’s seminal work with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Arts Fuse review