Even in a truly bizarre year, there was still new music to appreciate. My favorites, in no particular order:
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush – Kevin Parker continues to evolve his blend of psychedelic pop and electronic disco. Coming nearly five years after the breakthrough, Currents, this new album sounds lush and fully realized. Parker flexes his production skills to make it an immersive experience. Of course, none of it would matter if he hadn’t assembled some inventive rhythms and melodies. The lyrics are occasionally a little uninspiring and the tunes aren’t quite as immediate as compared to the last album, but overall it’s a solid and welcome return from a true pop music auteur.
The Weeknd – After Hours – The Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, provides the next chapter in the continued the development of his persona, a longtime Lothario trying to change his ways and build genuine, loving relationships. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie, his very own Purple Rain, and it succeeds marvelously. Even if he’s just playing a character, it’s lived-in and quite believable. The rumors that elements of the songs refer to his past, real-life relationships with Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid add to the intrigue. His skill at taking vintage new wave and R&B sounds and transforming them into something fresh is definitely reminiscent of Prince. His love of theatrics and dramatic falsetto vocals trace back directly to Michael Jackson. If he continues on this trajectory his name will soon be mentioned among those luminaries.
The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form – A few of the experimental pieces on their most recent album can be insular, self-indulgent, and frankly just boring. The album is far too long at 22 tracks and 80 minutes. But when band works in tried and true song forms, they are able to seamlessly blend pop, rock, emo, and electronic music styles into a heady retro-styled brew. “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” smashes the 80s nostalgia button hard, “Me & You Together Song” is pure pop, and “Guys” is touching paean from lead singer Matthew Healy to his bandmates. The best songs from the album make it a truly worthy listen, and the few filler tracks are mostly harmless and easy to ignore or skip.
HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III – Their third album finds the Haim sisters loose and relaxed, successfully incorporating elements from numerous genres, from the hip-hop style beats that kick of “Los Angeles” to the reggae rhythms of “Another Try”, while sounding like no one but themselves. As the album title suggests, several songs discuss the misogyny the band faces in the music industry. Even though they were released well in advance of the album, the three excellent singles “Now I’m In It”, “Hallelujah, and “Summer Girl” are added as bonus tracks, rounding out another winner of an album that’s bringing them well-deserved acclaim.
The Naked And Famous – Recover – Formed in New Zealand, The Naked And Famous have been around since 2010, scoring an indie-pop hit with “Young Blood”, but they’ve only now managed to craft their finest album after losing half of the original band. The remaining couple had to take some time to assess whether or not to stay together. Lucky for us they did. The songs are about the hope and healing borne from devastating heartbreak and loss. Writing songs that can capture those complex feelings is not easy, but they’ve done a masterful job. The songs are both deceptively deep and thoroughly enjoyable as pure, modern pop.
Dogleg – Melee – The album is a blast of pure punk/emo adrenaline. These young gents from Michigan fuse poignant lyrics with aggressive, melodic guitars. The whole album is a pent-up release of visceral energy. I imagine they put on an impressive live show. Melee is a very apt title, as the music can definitely make you feel like you were swept up in a mob of wildly excited fans. Exhilarating.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia – Simply put, Dua Lipa has crafted the finest funk/disco dance-pop of the year. The songs pay homage to numerous past dance divas from Madonna to Kylie Minogue to Lady Gaga, but she forges her own identity — cool, self-reliant and self-assured. The top hits, “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart” will be on DJ playlists for years to come and Future Nostalgia is a soon-to-be modern classic.
2nd Grade –Hit To Hit – This album consist of two dozen compelling, diverse, indie-pop nuggets. There are numerous melodic gems scattered throughout the album, and I think each listener will find their own favorites. The lyrics are at times a little precious, oddly specific and a bit quirky, but definitely very relatable. The fact that the band is made up of several veterans of the Philly scene means the arrangements are actually pretty tight despite the ramshackle aesthetic. An enjoyable romp.
Cut City – Absolutes [EP] – Of all post-punk revivalists that blossomed in the wake of Interpol nearly two decades ago (Editors, British Sea Power, White Lies, Bloc Party, etc, etc), Cut City were among the least appreciated. The Gothenburg, Sweden-based band released their debut Exit Decades in 2007 to positive reviews; it remains one of my favorites of the genre. The follow up Narcissus Can Wait, released in 2009, wasn’t quite of the same caliber. They released their excellent third album, “Where’s The Harm In Dreams Disarmed”, in 2011, but the band dissolved right as the album came out. Even the band said it was their swan song. They were on hiatus for nearly a decade, when out of the blue, in 2020, they released this brand new EP. Their previous peers are either long gone, or are barely hanging on, mired in mediocrity. Absolutes is fresh and vital, and if you love post-punk, is an essential listen.
Vulfpeck and Cory Wong – Ok, so I’m cheating a little here; while both Vulfpeck and Cory Wong DID technically release albums in 2020, I am going to talk about both artists as a whole, and dig into their entire back catalog. As a big fan of instrumental funk, I have no idea how I missed these guys for so long. After discovering their work early this year, I am pretty much listening to their stuff daily.
Vulfpeck was formed in 2011 by music students at University of Michigan. They were originally conceived as an imagined psuedo-German version of the U.S. session musicians of the 1960s such as the Funk Brothers, the Wrecking Crew, and Muscle Shoals. The idea was to channel that era of the live rhythm section. The founding members are Jack Stratton on keyboards/drums/guitar, Theo Katzman on guitar/drums/vocals, Woody Goss on keyboards, and Joe Dart on bass. They wrote, catchy rhythm-based songs, sometimes as instrumentals, sometimes in collaboration with a small, rotating cast of guest vocalists. Their song “Back Pocket” was used in an Apple commercial, and they built a strong online and live following, culminating in a sold out show at Madison Square Garden in 2019. They are all excellent musicians, but Dart in particular is an amazing bassist; he’s already in my top 10 of all time.
Cory Wong is a Minneapolis-based jazz/funk/R&B guitarist, songwriter and producer. He jammed with Vulfpeck in 2013 and eventually became a de-facto member of the band in 2016. That initial jam session became the basis of the Vulfpeck song “Cory Wong”. Wong has played on nearly all Vulfpeck songs since then. His own solo work includes numerous excellent collaborations with other like minded musicians, especially in his hometown. He plays some the funkiest rhythm guitar this side of Nile Rodgers. Wong and Dart also play together in the excellent side-project Fearless Flyers with drummer Nate Smith.
Both together, and apart, these guys are playing the funkiest music around. I look forward to the opportunity to see them live!
Various Artists(Italians Do It Better label) – After Dark 3
Black Pumas – Black Pumas
Various Artists – Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
Prince – Sign O’ The Times (Deluxe Edition)