Favorite Music 2020

Sadly lacking in live concerts, my favorite music-related things from 2020, in alphabetical order:

Erik Hall – Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is one of my favorite pieces of music. I have eight different recordings of it in my music collection. What is distinctive about Erik Hall’s recording is that he performed and recorded it alone at home using the instruments he had available. The use of alternative instrumentation gives this version some interesting sounds and textures, and the solo recording of a piece intended to be played by 18 people together in a room is totally on-brand for 2020 (even though it was recorded in 2019).

You can buy it here.

IDLES – Ultra Mono

This album is not as consistent, overall, as 2018’s Joy as a Form of Resistance. The best songs (“Grounds”, “Model Village”, “Carcinogenic”) are as good as any the band has recorded, while others (like “Mr. Motivator”) highlight the band’s finely honed two-guitar assault but are held back by Joe Talbot’s sometimes overly didactic lyrics. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of a rock band as vital and relevant as IDLES.

You can buy it here.

Lydia Loveless – Daughter

This is an album that just feels stronger and stronger with every listen. Loveless’s stellar voice and wonderful no-fucks-to-give attitude is still on ample display here, but the real news is the growth in her songwriting. There’s not a weak song on this album, and in a just universe “Love is Not Enough” would be a massive radio hit. This is my favorite album on this list.

You can buy it here.

Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song

A gorgeous and unique blend of techno and dreamy pop. This record lulls you into a contemplative state and then the drums kick in and immediately get you moving. Energizing and surprisingly emotional for “electronic” music.

You can buy it here.

Nate Patrin – Bring That Beat Back

This is an extremely well researched history of the use of sampling in hip-hop. Starting with Steve Reich’s “Come Out to Show Them” (and I’m hooked already), the emergence of prominent DJs in NYC in the 70’s, and the birth of the Sugar Hill record label, Patrin traces the key innovators and technologies that established sampling as the engine of hip hop.

This book introduced me, an old white guy punk rocker, to a lot of great music that I had previously overlooked, including James Brown’s In the Jungle Groove, J Dilla’s Donuts, and Madlib’s Shades of Blue. But I suspect that no matter how much you know about hip-hop, this book will increase your understanding and appreciation.

You can buy it here.

Run The Jewels – RTJ4

After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, anger, grief and frustration boiled out onto the streets across the United States. On May 29, Killer Mike of the rap duo Run the Jewels made a remarkable, impassioned speech in the wake of rioting in Atlanta expressing his rage and calling for action: “…it is time to plot plan strategize organize and mobilize.” A few days later, on June 3, Run the Jewels released their fourth album. RTJ4 is the sound of the summer of 2020, a searing indictment of U.S. society backed by incendiary beats and samples (including a great use of a Gang of Four sample).

From “Ju$t”:

Master of these politics you swear that you got options 
Master of opinion cuz you vote with the white collar
The 13th Amendment says that slavery’s abolished
Look at all these slave masters posing on yo dollar

From “Walking in the Snow”:

And everyday on the evening news they feed you fear for free 
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me 
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper “I can’t breathe” 
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy

Uncompromising truth, an unvarnished portrait of The United States in 2020.

You can buy it here.

This is The Kit – Off Off On

Kate Stables, the leader of This is The Kit, first came onto my radar when I saw her on stage with The National in 2019 (going to concerts, remember that?). This is The Kit sounds a bit like a 60s/70s English folk rock group with the addition of layered arrangements that sometimes incorporate horns and woodwinds. Stables’s voice reminds me a bit of Sandy Denny, which reinforces the folk rock vibe. This is a beautiful, well-crafted recording.

The songs are about dealing with loss, persevering through difficulty, and coming to terms with yourself and your powers. Stables is like the grounded friend who sits with you and talks you down when you’re freaking out.

You can buy it here.

Posted by Paul in Music

Favorite Music 2019

Craig Finn – I Need a New War

Craig Finn is best known as the singer and principal songwriter for The Hold Steady. His songs for The Hold Steady often tell stories about druggy teenage hoodrats dealing with their teenage problems in the hazy aftermath of massive parties. In Finn’s solo work — I Need a New War is his fourth solo album — he follows those messed up kids into their 30s and 40s. These songs are still about people with problems, but they are now adult problems: “Then the doctor left a message, said we’re looking at these numbers from your chest”; “I wore the right shoes, I wore the right shirt, I went to the city, the city didn’t work”; “I’ve been keeping up with payments, man, I’ve been managing the pain.” Finn’s protagonists are marginalized people, seeking refuge in small acts of kindness and tentative expressions of identity: Something to Hope For.

I feel like I’m painting this as a dark record, but it really isn’t. It’s a record about resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Two songs late in the record, “Holyoke” and “Her With the Blues” are wryly humorous and seem as autobiographical as anything Finn’s ever written.

This was the album I listened to the most in 2019.

Craig Finn & The Uptown Controllers – Live Performance, Minneapolis, MN, 8-Jun-2019

Seeing Craig Finn in a concert setting, what stood out is his ability as a low-key but engaging frontman and the flexibility and sensitivity of the band he’s assembled, The Uptown Controllers. Seeing Finn in a small venue in front of an adoring home-town audience was a real treat.

Squeeze – Live Performance, Minneapolis, MN, 3-Sep-2019

I wrote about this concert last year. We had great seats thanks to a friend with connections, and my expectations were far exceeded. My favorite concert of the year.

The National – I Am Easy to Find

When we saw The National in 2018 (I wrote about that concert here) the US was in the middle of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the band, and especially singer Matt Berninger, were palpably angry. I have to believe that the strong presence of female voices on I Am Easy to Find is, at least in part, a product of that anger. The album features vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Mélissa Laveaux, Eve Owen, Diane Sorel, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, and Sharon Van Etten. Carin Besser contributed to the writing of the album. Mike Mills‘ short film with the same name (linked above), starring Alicia Vikander, was developed in parallel to the album and is a moving portrayal of one woman’s life. The inclusion of all these new voices takes I Am Easy to Find to places The National have never been before.

This album is a lot to absorb and definitely rewards multiple listens. My favorite songs tend to shift from listen to listen, but “Not in Kansas” seems like a centerpiece for the album. The song’s protagonist returns home to the midwest, presumably from one of the coasts, and is dismayed with what has happened in the place where they grew up. The song ends with a chorus (of angels?) offering a suggestion, or perhaps passing judgement:

Time has come now to stop being human
Time to find a new creature to be
Be a fish or a weed or a sparrow
For the Earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired
Oh, the gardens are sprouting with flowers
All the tree-tops are bursting with birds
And the people all know that it’s over
They lay down their airs and they hang up their tiresome words

Honestly, in a world where Brent Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court Justice, that doesn’t sound like bad advice. I wouldn’t mind being a sparrow.

The National, Live Performance, Santa Fe, NM, 8-Sep-2019

Having seen The National in concert multiple times, the architecture of the band has becomes clear. Bassist Scott Devendorf and his brother, drummer supreme Bryan Devendorf are the Cincinnati rock ‘n’ roll heart of the band. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and keyboards weave chamber music patterns over the foundation provided by the Devendorfs. Singer Matt Berninger is the band’s trickster, an agent of chaos bringing a sense of unpredictability to their performances. At one moment, he’s handing out bottles of wine to the front row of the audience. In the next, he’s telling a story about a conversation with a lizard while hiking outside of Santa Fe. Then, he’s taking a mid-song excursion through the audience at the end of what must be the world’s longest microphone cable. All the diverse elements of the band make for a consistently exciting performance.

The performances on this tour had another element, the inclusion of a rotating cast of female vocalists. In Santa Fe, Kate Stables was onstage for more than half the songs. Her calm presence was like the eye in a hurricane of masculine energy.


Someone came into possession of bootlegged digital copies of 18 MiniDiscs that were created during the production of Radiohead’s 1997 OK Computer album. Altogether, the MiniDiscs included 381 tracks and more than 16 hours of music, including preliminary sketches of songs, demos, rehearsals, live performances, alternate versions, near-final mixes, and goofy studio hijinks. There are, for example, 19 different version of “Paranoid Android” spread across the discs. There are also multiple versions of songs that weren’t included on OK Computer that became holy grails for Radiohead fans, like “Lift” and “True Love Waits” (a studio version of which was finally released on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool).

The bootlegger was, apparently, attempting to sell tracks from this collection. In addition, at some point the entire collection was leaked on the internet. When Radiohead heard about what was going on they responded by making the entire collection available on Bandcamp for a limited amount of time, with all proceeds from sales going to the environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion. During the 18 days the collection was available on Bandcamp, more than 31,000 copies were sold.

Obviously, this is something that only diehard Radiohead fans will be interested in. For those of us who are big fans, this collection is like being set loose in the candy factory. It is full of previously unearthed gems and provides a fascinating glimpse into the band’s creative process.

Thom Yorke – ANIMA

ANIMA is Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke’s third solo album. This is dark, densely layered electronic dance music. Standout tracks include “Traffic”, “Not the News”, and the haunting “Dawn Chorus.” The album was accompanied on release by a short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson on Netflix (well worth watching, if you’re a Netflix subscriber). Anxious music for anxious times.

The Who – WHO

The Who are my all-time favorite band. When I heard that they were recording a new album, I had mixed feelings. Endless Wire, the last Who album, was released in 2006 and had some interesting moments, but was only a pale shadow of the band’s best work. Could a pair of septuagenarians really pull off a respectable Who album?

Well, the old bastards pulled it off. Townshend’s writing is full of piss & vinegar and his guitar playing is good as ever. Daltrey’s voice sounds better than it has in years (decades?). Moon and Entwistle are of course irreplaceable, but the backing musicians on WHO, including Pino Palladino, Zak Starkey, Joey Waronker, and Benmont Tench serve the songs well.

All this Music Must Fade” is a straight-up classic Who single. There are a couple of weak tracks, but overall this is an album that can stand proudly alongside the rest of The Who’s legendary catalog.

The Hoot

For years now, two of my best friends in Minnesota have hosted a hootenanny in their living room on the first Friday of even-numbered months. It works like this: ten or so people bring their instruments and/or voices to the house. The evening starts with snacks, adult beverages, and conversation. Then a circle is formed in the living room. Going around the circle, everyone gets a chance to either share a new song (handing out printed copies of lyrics and guitar chords), pick a song from the “Hoot Book” (which includes just under 300 songs), or pick a song at random from a hat. Then everyone sings/plays that song. This goes on into the early morning hours.

I started attending The Hoot occasionally, when it happened to coincide with one of my visits to Minnesota. Then I started planning my visits to Minnesota around the schedule for Hoots when possible. In 2019 I decided that attending every Hoot, even the ones during the Minnesota winter, was a priority for me, and I was able to be part of 5 of the 6 Hoots in 2019.

Why do I like The Hoot so much that I’m willing to travel 1,000+ miles six times a year to participate? For one thing, The Hoot has motivated me to pick up the bass guitar again after putting it aside for decades. I spend a little time every day practicing and preparing songs to bring to the next Hoot. Most importantly, though, the other people who attend The Hoot are smart, funny, talented, generous, and just plain nice. Musical mistakes are ignored, and good performances are always recognized. Just wonderful people to play music and spend time with.

Posted by Paul in Music

Squeeze – Live Performance, Minneapolis, MN, 3-Sep-2019

Glenn Tilbrook rocks the ukulele

I had low expectations going into the Squeeze concert. After all, Glenn Tilbrook is 62 years old and Chris Difford is 64. I was anticipating a low-energy affair. Boy, was I wrong! This was an energetic and loud excursion through Difford & Tilbrook’s deep catalog, fueled by punk energy and powered by a strong backing band.

Chris Difford

A couple of things really stood out for me. First, in spite of their age and decades of performing, Tillbrook’s and Difford’s voices still sound really, really, good. When they sing together, the combination of Tillbrook’s sweet tenor and Difford’s rough baritone still raise goosebumps. The second thing that stood out, something that I never realized, is that Glenn Tilbrook is a really excellent guitar player. He played lead guitar and all the solos through the entire concert.

Yolanda Charles

The band backing Difford and Tillbrook were excellent. I thought the rhythm section, in particular, were stellar. Drummer Simon Hanson was powerful and energetic while amazing bassist Yolanda Charles was the musical backbone of the band.

Opener KT Tunstall

One-woman band KT Tunstall was the opening act. You may not recognize Tunstall’s name, but you probably have heard her big hit. Her love of performing and gratitude for the audience’s warm reception were obvious. It was so inspiring to watch someone who so obviously loves what she’s doing.

Squeeze set list

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