Dean's List: 2020
As I pondered my Dean's List 2020, I was struck by how hard it was to write about. The Pazz & Jop essays I wrote for The Village Voice from 1975 until 2005 were magnum opuses that wore me out, but post-Voice my year-enders turned easy peasy--chatty and informational while saving room to toss out a few generalizations. As I pondered my choices for the finest albums of 2020, however, several statistical anomalies bothered me. At 71 selections it was the third shortest of the century, and 10 of my picks weren't even 2020 records, including three from 2018 that encompass two slept-on EPs by the Roots' Black Thought and one each from 2017 and 2016; indeed, only three of the five inevitable 2019 misses--the late-released Lil Wayne plus Young M.A. and Mannequin Pussy--were records anybody else much knew about. Rough-hewn DIY singer-songwriter Kirby Heard I pulled out of my unplayed shelves blind and Zambia-born Canadian transgender rapper Backxwash's hip-hop Deviancy I sought out on the strength of the title-not-music of her Polaris Prize-winning horrorcore 2020 God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. Then there was Amanda Petrusich's stunned New Yorker Etran de l'Air rave in December, which not only alerted me to that band's 2018 desert-guitar No. 1 but reminded me that I hadn't dug around in the Sahara myself for a while. This led me to Group Doueh & Cheveu's extraordinary 2017 Paris-meets-Sahel Dakhla Sahara Session, which generated but a single U.S. review I could find, a superb one by Jennifer Kelly in Dusted. And then there's another blind pull, Martin Creed's Thoughts Lined Up: the whimsical outcries, musings, tributes, jokes, protests, and word games of a 47-year-old Scottish punk-pacifist-dadaist conceptual artist who's modestly famous in the so-called United Kingdom. His 2016 art show was noticed here, his CD only in Britain.
So OK, it's not like I've never pumped music few readers have heard of before. In recent years there've been, to name a varied few, Dawn Oberg, Jinx Lennon, Carsie Blanton, Jealous of the Birds, and Derek Senn, plus African stuff. And this year EP-powering Yonic South, Phoebe Bridgers tip McCarthy Trenching, my second Chicago Farmer pick, and the not yet reviewed Justin Farren and Mukdad Rothenberg Lankow don't exhaust the candidates. Obscurantism is never my goal--as I've always carped about critics who pride themselves on "discovering" hot items and next cool things, novelty should never be an end in itself. But as I examined the year-ends of Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Paste (which while far less acute than the bigger guys' is where I encountered Backxwash), and the so-called Village Voice Pazz & Jop Rip-Off Poll--about which I know essentially nothing because I'm a Facebook denier, but whose results I found more to my taste, perhaps because it wasn't calibrated with a target market in mind--I was struck by how different Stone and P4K were down below Fiona Apple, Run the Jewels, Bob Dylan, Waxahatchee, and Haim, all Xgau A's, and Phoebe Bridgers, Sault, Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Bad Bunny, and Lil Uzi Vert, all honorable near-misses by me. And I was also struck by how few of the entities we used to call bands appeared on the Pitchfork list as Rolling Stone did what it could to hold the fort.
We all know 2020 was a megashitty year that our deposed president did everything he could to render shittier. We all hope that with him gone 2021 will be shinier. But as music fans we'd best remember that we'll be lucky if anything like live music is up and running by autumn; in all likelihood, the drought that began last March has yet to reach its midpoint. It's tempting and not inaccurate to kvell about how staunchly musicians bore up under the most extenuating historical circumstances since World War II--the livestreamed concerts with their merch sales and tip jars, the scattered live albums these events generated (full disclosure: I proposed Hamell on Trial's scabrous Pandemic Songs myself), robust support for the George Floyd-sparked Black Lives Matter marches, enthusiastic turns at the Biden convention and inauguration, Taylor Swift converting her imposed isolation and untold wealth into 34-count-'em-34 good-to-superb songs in a single year, her helper Matt laying down 10 lesser ones, others great and small venturing back into the studio as well. But how sustainable this adaptability is we simply don't know.
It hasn't proven impossible for artists to record in the era of social distancing, especially given the long-distance, time-staggered track manipulation that's standard in hip-hop and is built into pop production from Dua Lipa to 100 gecs as well. But as someone who always preferred to edit new writers in person rather than over the phone (with the impersonal strictures of Google-docs distancing after my time thank G-d), I'm a believer in the random connects, coincidences, pheronomes, and vibes of sociability. And I say these happen not just whenever a band goes onstage in front of an audience that will never be the same again but whenever musicians knock off, eke out, and haggle over songs in the presence of a recording console. In 2019 more than a dozen of my Dean's List picks were generated by under-30s who'd soldiered through some version of this process. In 2020, with Waxahatchee and Haim both now past the big 3-0, that number was down to at most five--Dream Wife's 30-ish Rakel Mjöli is cagey about her age and I know zip about Yonic South, but Fontaines D.C., Grrrl Gang, and Hinds definitely qualify; Hinds, who began as emigre club teens in Madrid, have long understood both love and social interaction in terms of that now shuttered scene and find themselves forced to recalibrate, which is why they've recorded a group promo video in their separate domiciles and cut a single with their Japanese sisters in Chai. Having never generated the Stateside cred they deserve, Hinds are worth rooting for. But so are 40-year vets Dramarama, who relocated from New Jersey to L.A. circa 2000. Always consistent, they topped themselves on their first album in 15 years, which John Easdale pieced together till it flowed from studio recordings he and his mates had been putting in the can approximately forever.
Having ventured into the age thing, I should mention that while I continue to find trap beats unmotorvating, I did locate a sizable cohort of young rappers I admired, enjoyed, and occasionally marveled at, not one of them cis male: Backxwash's vulnerable, outraged cross-gender detail most of all, but also down-to-earth lesbian Young M.A, whimsical homegirl Princess Nokia, pussy-talking bad-asses City Girls, and last but most seductive semiconscious drug fiend Bktherula. As shouldn't surprise anyone with a grasp of demography, however, the entirety of my more mature hip-hop contingent is male: Public Enemy fighting the power like they've never stopped (which they haven't, by the way), 50-year-old FDNY captain Ka pondering his gangsta years while fighting conflagration for a living, oral-compulsive genius Eminem addicted to wordplay, stick-to-it-ive Serengeti recording everything he can think of, Dwayne Carter so lil he can kiss Trump's ass standing up, Black Thought unfulfilled by the TV gig that pays the rent, and Run the Jewels excoriating a racist system challenged by a fundamentally nonviolent and multiracial revolt that was in progress before RTJ could release the album that anticipated it.
It's sad in a way that the two women who ended up four and five on the 2020 Dean's List had their momentous music outflanked by history: Fiona Apple's the long-awaited culmination of the painstaking, experimental attention she's lavished on every one of the four albums she's eked out since 1999, Lucinda Williams's full of the righteous protest music she was always too proud a litterateur and arrogant a scold to sink to. Apple's album got plenty of year-end respect: firsts from Pitchfork and "Pazz & Jop" plus a second (to Swift's Folklore) from Rolling Stone render it the consensus album of the year. Williams finished old news, shut out at Pitchfork, 47th in Rolling Stone, and 34th in "Pazz & Jop," though she did rank 13 in Nashville Scene's Country Music Critics Poll.
But as the protests continued and my listening evolved, neither of these excellent albums suited my needs. Well past June I felt more deeply than ever that at the very root of Trump's attack on democracy was neither economic oppression (nobody well-off enough to assemble a home arsenal can be meaningfully slotted working-class) nor cultural ressentiment (although rightist whining about both "woke" and "cancel" should remind those pointy-headed enough to be reading this not to give them extra ammunition). Instead I blamed that all but ineradicable bugbear race, which Americans fought a Civil War whose consequent constitutional amendments America's second-worst and first-impeached president strove to cancel as soon as America's best president was removed from office and life by a ressentiment-ridden artiste. So while I continued to listen to everything as is my lucky lot in life, I found myself drawn in the musical hours I shared with my jazz- and blues-craving wife to even more Black music than usual. Most of it failed to address my political anxieties as directly as I craved. But I continued to get satisfaction from the Uprising 2020 playlist Joe Levy put up at Spotify, ignited by Anoyd's "BlacKKK Baby" and Beyoncé's "Black Parade" and anchored by Atlanta rapper Lil Baby's franchise-pumping "The Bigger Picture," song of the year hands down so let's hear it for Stacey Abrams.
RTJ4 still satisfies every time I play it, which has been a lot since I started writing this year-end, including the very moment I'm typing this sentence. But it was supplanted in December by Group Doueh and Cheveu's Dakhla Sahara Sessions, sung in a French I don't understand though I assume there's some Tamashek as well in there. Why did I nonetheless love this record before I even knew Cheveu was a Parisian alt-rock band? Because as its handsome booklet details in a French I gave up struggling through because Kelly had so much to say--let's hear it for rock criticism, yeah--it's an interracial collaboration that in historical fact was ridden with conflict. You can hear the two cultures and also the two sexes (like many Tamashek bands, Group Doueh showcases female singers) clashing and meshing, banging and harmonizing, each plenty pissed in general about stuff that has nothing directly to do with the music at hand--but also, sometimes, pissed at each other. So let's also hear it for rock and roll. Yeah.
But most of all, let's hear it for the blues and gospel of Hanging Tree Guitars, which I'm proud to note finished 72nd in "Pazz & Jop." Encouraged by my blues-prone wife, I've been playing it since early September and spreading its news since I was sure it was commercially available in October. "Hanging tree" is something of a come-on or hook. Most of these 12 unknown Black artists--many from the unmodernized eastern reaches of a North Carolina rock critics associate with Merge Records over in Charlotte-etc.'s research triangle--play acoustic guitars crafted by local luthier Freeman Vines. But these weren't necessarily the few that repurpose the black walnut tree once utilized by local lynchers who local African-Americans prove reluctant to name or even acknowledge in the excellent Hanging Tree Guitars book because their people are still around and one never knows, does one?
"People talk about slavery time, I believe it's happening right now," sings Guitar Gabriel, who despite remembering his daddy dying in 1941 and walking five miles to the store for his mail eventually broke his promise not to come south no more. Whereupon Adolphus Bell dedicates "A Black Man's Dream" to "the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.": "Change, America, change, don't be just a big ding-a-ling/If you don't put an end to this once and for all/I'm afraid everybody in America's gonna fall." After John Lee Zeigler's "John Henry," however, the mood brightens with G.B. Burt's soulful "Clock on the Wall," the Glorifying Vines Sisters piano-glorifying "Get Ready," Faith & Harmony's "Victory," Elder Anderson Johnson's "Glory Glory"and the Johnny Ray Daniels hallelujah "Somewhere to Lay My Head." The finale? Guitar Slim Stephens's broken "Amazing Grace" rambling into a hopeful chorus of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
Not believing in Jesus myself anymore, I prefer what Rufus McKenzie has to say in an opener called "Slavery Time Blues": "Gonna be some changes made in the White House/People don't see no freedom here for me." After which, I note for the record, McKenzie declines to promise a damn thing.