Delayed albums. Cancelled tours. The untimely deaths of beloved artists. You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was a shitshow. And things are likely going to get worse before they get better. Thankfully, some things never change: Artists keep releasing albums (eventually). And I keep listening — as usual, I heard more than 1,000 releases over the course of the year (and still have hundreds to get through). Here are the discs that stood out above the rest. Some you know. Some you don’t. Many were no-brainers. Others snuck up on me. And if you ask me next week, I would undoubtedly change my mind. But for the moment, here are the Top Albums of 2020 in alphabetical order. Click on the cover art to read more and listen to the tunes. And fingers crossed for 2021.
Forget what you’re thinking. This isn’t some ancient, oddball Afro-jazz album. Nope. It’s way weirder than that. Despite his self-appointed title, Sudanese jazz king Sharhabil Ahmed actually delivers something that sounds more like a wild ’n’ woolly brand of old-school surf-rock straight from the garage — complete with all the twangy licks, hip-shaking beats and wig-flipping abandon you want, but topped with a honking and squealing snake-charmer horn that intertwines with his flowing and soaring vocalizations. You gotta hear this one. But I warn you: One spin and you’ll be hooked.
As Tolstoy taught us: “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I doubt even he could have concocted an upbringing like the one experienced by Airborne Toxic Event frontman Mikel Jollett — as chronicled in his sixth and most personal album Hollywood Park. Sparked by the death of his father and accompanied by an autobiography of the same name, the dozen-song disc reflects on Jollett’s early childhood in the notorious Synanon cult, followed by a young life scarred by poverty, hardship, drugs and emotional abuse. It could easily have been a maudlin downer that would make Lou Reed’s Berlin resemble a fairytale, but in Jollett’s capable hands it becomes a stirring, cathartic work of survival and eventual redemption, set against a backdrop of swelling, soaring heartland rock grandeur reminiscent of an artsier Bruce Springsteen. “You tell me that you wanna know my story,” Jollett says at one point. “I promise you it’s boring.” I promise you it’s not.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Rejoice is a very special collaboration between Tony Allen, the legendary drummer and co-founder of Afrobeat, and Hugh Masekela, the master trumpet player of South African jazz. Having first met in the 70s thanks to their respective close associations with Fela Kuti, the two world-renowned musicians talked for decades about making an album together. When, in 2010, their touring schedules coincided in the UK, the moment presented itself and producer Nick Gold took the opportunity to record their encounter. The unfinished sessions, consisting of all original compositions by the pair, lay in archive until after Masekela passed away in 2018. With renewed resolution, Allen and Gold, with the blessing and participation of Masekela’s estate, unearthed the original tapes and finished recording the album in summer 2019 at the same London studio where the original sessions had taken place. Rejoice can be seen as the long overdue confluence of two mighty African musical rivers — a union of two free-flowing souls for whom borders, whether physical or stylistic, are things to pass through or ignore completely. According to Allen, the album deals in “a kind of South African-Nigerian swing-jazz stew”, with its roots firmly in Afrobeat. Allen and Masekela are accompanied on the record by a new generation of well-respected jazz musicians including Tom Herbert, Joe Armon-Jones, Mutale Chashi and Steve Williamson.”
WHO IS SHE? The outspoken, uncompromising, fearless and peerless singer-songwriter who burst onto the scene as a teenager with the raw, cathartic 1996 debut album Tidal and the Grammy-winning single Criminal. Speaking of awards: She’s also the artist who once accepted another prize by saying, “This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life (on) what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything.” Speaking of everything: She is also the artist who titled her second album When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right. WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Rebirth. Rejuvenation. And perhaps most of all, reinvention. Recorded in, around and with her Venice Beach home, the 13-song Fetch The Bolt Cutters finds Fiona Apple tossing out the rule book to deconstruct and rebuild her songwriting from the ground up. She mixes genres wildly, bouncing between rock and pop and jazz and blues and soul and classical and avant-garde. Along with regular instruments like piano, bass and drums, these elastic songs are filled with everything from stomping and clapping to barking dogs, the sound of roasted seed pods and Apple tapping on a box that contains her dead dog’s ashes — all the better to support her fearsome and powerful vocals, which can shape-shift instantly from a shivery bray to a soulful croon to a sinister snarl to a playground sing-song. Her lyrics are equally boundless and boldly unconventional, tackling both the intimately personal and the universally political with unflinching honestly, poetic beauty and scathing humour.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Celebrated, award-winning artist Bahamas has released Sad Hunk. Bahamas’ sound defies genre categorization, yet it incorporates many — pop, R&B, rock, folk, soul, alternative, Caribbean, blues and more. Sad Hunk contains 11 songs that encapsulate all that legions of Bahamas fans have grown to love — great songs, insightful lyrics, infectious hooks, exceptional musicianship, distinctive arrangements and sharp wit. From his vocal phrasing to his songwriting to his masterful guitar work, Sad Hunk reflects a natural progression of singer/songwriter/guitar virtuoso Afie Jurvanen’s artistry. Sad Hunk is an album inspired by domestic life and embodies an undaunted self-awareness. The album title and artwork finds the Jurvanen’s self-deprecating humor out front as the result of a nickname given to him by his wife in reaction to an overdramatic photo shoot a while back that was out of character.”
A great band needs a great origin story. And The Bobby Lees surely have one: Singer-guitarist Sam Quartin formed the band after vacating NYC for Woodstock and recruiting a bunch of skilled teenagers from the local School of Rock. No, seriously. And here’s something else to take serious as cancer: Their highly combustible sophomore album Skin Suit. Rambunctiously swaggering, gleefully unhinged and feverishly blistering, the 13-song set veers wildly between punk, garage-rock, blues, funk, noise and whatever combination of the above they decide to spew at any given moment — along with choice covers of the Chicago standard I’m a Man and Richard Hell’s Lower East Side anthem Blank Generation. Throughout it all, Quartin’s paranoid lyrics and sweaty, wild-eyed bray dose these tracks with an unpredictable, disturbing dementia reminiscent of Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema having a psychotic meltdown while fronting Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion.
Phoebe Bridgers is on top of the world right now. Or at least she ought to be. Her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps rocketed her to fame and earned universal critical acclaim. And her subsequent high-profile collaborations in Better Oblivion Community Center (with Conor Oberst) and boygenius (with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) haven’t done too badly either. But you’d never know it from the lyrics of her sophomore album Punisher (which could more accurately be titled Self-Punisher) — the spellbinding singer-songwriter still comes off like a lost, lovelorn loner on many of these 11 songs. But don’t feel too sorry for her. As she and her band (augmented by al the collaborators above and more) weave her darkly devastating tales of dread, detachment, desperation, drugs and death over a distinctive, stylishly messy fusion of organic folk-rock instrumentation and electronic textures and layers, it quickly becomes more than clear that Bridgers is making the best of it — artistically, at least. And in the process, she’s nimbly sidestepping the sophomore slump while making it clear she’s no flash in the pan. She can stop punishing herself anytime now.
We may be trapped in the darkest timeline right now. Not to mention stuck inside our individual homes and headspaces. But hey, that don’t mean we can’t dance. And take a much-needed mind-clearing, soul-cleansing interior trip in place of an actual outing IRL. And who better to deliver it like pizza to a flaming bedroom than Troy Barnes himself — aka Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino (aka Earnest Marks if you wanna take it all the way to Atlanta) — via his fourth album 3.15.20. Quietly and briefly released as one massive loop (and with no cover art) on the title date, this 57-minute masterpiece finds Glover/Gambino ambitiously pushing the sonic and stylistic envelope even farther than he has previously (which is saying something). If you’re looking for touchstones, there are plenty — these cuts take plenty of cues from latter-day George Clinton P-Funk and early/more experimental Prince, with dashes of Death Grips, clipping., Anderson .Paak and assorted others thrown into the mix. Not surprisingly, that makes for a supremely and superbly diverse affair. Playing out more like a well-sequenced mixtape than a traditional song-based album, these freewheeling, meandering and compellingly replayable tracks unfailingly hit a host of satisfying sweet spots — groovy vs. trippy, organic vs. electronic, introverted vs. extroverted, noisy vs. melodic, funky vs. soulful, and plenty more besides. The sweetest spot of all: Along the way, they can, should and most likely will help free your mind. With any luck, your ass will follow.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Plenty Wrong to Go Awry is the fifth full-length album by Austin-based avant-garde blues band Churchwood. Even though the album was recorded in the summer of 2019 and mixed in the spring of 2020 it thematically addresses the current dystopian times we live in through a poetic and sometimes historical lens but still manages to have some fun on more traditional roots roadhouse tunes Tantamount and Fixin’ to Crawl. It possesses the dense, challenging music and guitar interplay that fans have come to expect from the band and will appeal to fans of Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits who like their poetry with some roots and garage-infused oomph.”
Ian MacKaye never lets you down. Not politically. Not philosophically. And certainly not musically. Four decades after forming the legendary Minor Threat and more than 15 years after the deservedly worshipped Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus, the singer-guitarist and punk icon remains as creative, passionate, potent and relevant as ever. Coriky, his latest collaboration with Warmers drummer (and his wife) Amy Farina and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, deliver one of the year’s strongest debuts with their long-awaited eponymous full-length. Their sound and approach are stylishly spare, engagingly economical and artfully arranged; MacKaye’s baritone guitar advances and retreats, slashing and burning with laser-focused blasts; Farina’s offbeat rhythms dart and dance in and out and around the edges of the grooves; Lally’s melodic basslines rise to the top of the songs even as they anchor the bottom end. Woven together with near-psychic interplay, they fashion striking tracks that deftly target the bittersweet spot between post-punk and art-rock, providing a darkly rich, tastefully understated backdrop for their sharp-eyed, sharp-witted sociopolitical commentary and world-weary lyrics. It all comes not a moment too soon; if there every was a time when we needed to hear from MacKaye, it’s now. You can only hope that he and Coriky — who have already been together for five years, but didn’t play live until 2018 — will have plenty more to say in the near future.
Maybe you can’t go home again. So what? You can still grab your guitar, head down to the bar and play one more awesome show with your old bandmates. And hopefully, somebody will record that sucker and release it as a live album so everybody who owns and cherishes all your criminally underappreciated southern indie-rock band’s albums can savour one more blast from the past — and cross their fingers that maybe you and the rest of the crew will make one more studio album before you drift apart again. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into this fan-fucking-tastic live recording from Alabama’s Dexateens, who welcomed former lead guitarist John Smith back into the fold for a one-off reunion gig at Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers’ yearly Heathen Homecoming bash in Athens, Ga., back in the good old concert-going days of February. And what if I am? It doesn’t make this set of bare-knuckle, raw-boned roots-punk any less monumental or essential. So shut up.
WHO ARE THEY? The venerable, dependable and commendable southern-fried indie-rock stalwarts fronted by singer-songwriter guitarists, longtime musical partners and onetime roommates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. And the band that served as the launching pad for acclaimed singer-guitarist Jason Isbell.
WHAT IS THIS? Their dozenth studio album — and the orneriest, most opinionated and political work of their two decade-plus career. Granted, 2016’s election-cycle protest album American Band wasn’t exactly a frothy romp. But the tellingly titled Unraveling almost makes it look like pop in comparison to these grim, broodingly intense tracks tackling the border crisis, opioid addiction, mass shootings, religious hypocrisy, income inequality, right-wing punditry and more.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Outrage. Disgust. Horror. Basically what every person with a functioning soul, heart and brain thinks and feels every time they read or watch the news — except these dispatches from the edge are set to rangy, raw-boned guitar-rock and voiced in a twangy drawl.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The original idea for this album was to put out an EP utilizing some great tracks we had from the Memphis sessions that The Unraveling was culled from. We actually had a wealth of music recorded in those sessions. Not inferior outtakes, but songs we felt strongly about that didn’t further the narrative of the album we decided to release. We also wanted to include some new songs written during this endless summer of protests, riots, political shenanigans and pandemic horrors. We ended up with a full album that hopefully balances out the darkness of our current situation with a hope for better days and nights ahead.”
“I’m a man of contradictions. I’m a man of many moods. I contain multitudes.” Bob Dylan rasps that little confession (with no apologies to Walt Whitman) a couple of minutes into his 39th studio album. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not exactly breaking news. But let me tell you this: When it comes to Rough and Rowdy Ways, truer words have never been spoken. Especially those last three words. Over the course of 10 tracks and 70 jam-packed minutes, the former Robert Zimmerman essentially surveys “the history of the whole human race” from Creation to Judgment Day — paying special attention to the bittersweet mysteries of life, love, war, religion, creativity and anything else that sparks his razor-sharp mind and roguish wit. Bragging like a gangster rapper and dropping pop culture references faster than Dennis Miller on speed, the 79-year-old singer-songwriter pinballs from topic to topic like James Holzhauer running the Jeopardy! board. He ponders the assassination of JFK and its turbulent aftermath. He expresses his love for Key West and sends off Jimmy Reed (but not Jimmie Rodgers, the source of the album’s title). He lays his heart bare as a young lover. He thumbs his nose at death. And he name-checks everyone from Julius Caesar and Karl Marx to The Rolling Stones and Indiana Jones. Even more impressive: Somehow he manages to tie it all together like one giant murder board of humanity. And he wisely sets it all to another nostalgic collection of laid-back blues, Americana and vintage Tin Pan Alley songcraft that works to complement and not compete with his lyrical tsunami. By the time you get to the end ofthe near-17-minute epic Murder Most Foul, there’s no doubt that Rough and Rowdy Ways is the latest late-career masterpiece from a man who’s not only the finest and most influential songwriter of the last half century — but also one of the most original and impactful songwriters working today. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that either.
Steve Earle has never been afraid to dig deep. Or mix art with politics. But the outspoken singer-songwriter takes his musical activism to a new level — and in a new direction — on Ghosts of West Virginia. Earle’s 20th studio outing (counting a pair of collaborative efforts) is one of his darkest and most dramatic works: A concept album about the disastrous Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in 2010. It’s also dramatic in the theatrical sense; Earle voices these songs from the perspective of the blue-collar miners and their families, forging empathy with his subjects instead of just preaching to the choir. Originally penned for a play called Coal Country and retooled here with full-band arrangements, these tales are pointed, passionate and potent — never more so than on It’s About Blood, when Earle recites the names of the miners who perished in the tragedy. Appropriately, these haunting stories are grounded in a rough-hewn assortment of timeless Americana — gothic Appalachian bluegrass, fingerpicked acoustic folk, bare-knuckled roots-rock, slapback-echo rockabilly, country balladry, even an a cappella piece midway between a gospel hymn and a work song. It all comes together into a masterful, moving and memorable creation from an artist who remains at the height of his powers — yet continues to push himself onward, upward and forward.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Bubbling up from the psychedelic tar pits of L.A., Frankie and the Witch Fingers have been a constant source of primordial groove for the better part of the last decade. Formed and incubated in Bloomington, IN before moving west to scrap with Los Angeles’ garage rock rabble, the band evolved from cavern-clawed echo merchants to architects of prog-infected psych epics that evoke a shift in reality. After years of searching for the specific alchemy that would tear open the cosmos, they found the formula with the addition of Shaughnessy Starr on drums in the summer of 2018. They began a new cycle and tripped into tip-on double gatefold territory, fleshing out their lysergic impulses into a monolith of sound that closes in from all sides. The band reached new levels of grandiosity and utilized every minute to manifest their psych-soul Sabbath in four dimensions, spilling psychic blood on a populace ready and eagerly waiting.”
“I’ve been down,” Haim admit midway through Women in Music Pt. III. No shit, Sally. From the opening words of the California sisters’ third full-length (“Los Angeles / Give me a miracle, I just want out from this”) to its full-circle final tune (“L.A. on my mind / I can’t breathe”), this is easily the trio’s darkest disc. Granted, these tales of disillusionment, dissatisfaction and dysfunction aren’t coming straight out of the blue; all the sisters reportedly were battling depression due to a slate of personal hardships experienced before and during the making of the album. But what is a surprise — in the best possible way — is how magnificently they rebounded and responded on the musical level: Despite its darker tones, Women in Music Pt. III also happens to be the band’s most bold, advanced and adventurous outing. Pushing the envelope both stylistically and sonically, Haim put their sunny, summery pop-rock in the rear-view and head headlong into freakier, freer and far more fearlessly creative terrain that embraces anything and everything. From sax-fuelled reggae-pop and Afrobeat-tinged folk to post-modern electro-rock, futuristic R&B, old-school homages to Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and even a track that revamps a guitar lick from Mountain’s Mississippi Queen, it’s all here. And it’s all more than vibrant enough to brighten even their blackest of their lyrical corners. So make no mistake: They’ve been down. But things are undeniably looking up for Haim.
Raucously clanging post-punk guitars will never steer you wrong. Ditto grimly grinding basslines, unflagging airtight drumbeats and an unhinged, whip-smart frontman who knows how to turn a phrase and sounds like he’s always thisfuckingclose to losing his shit at any moment. Bristol’s Idles have them all in spades — and waste no time putting them all into play on their third album Ultra Mono. More imporantly, microphone overloader Joe Talbot and his mates keep this magnificent, malignant racket up for the bulk of this 42-minute corker. If this ceaselessly frenzied, adrenaline-laced mega-dose of spiky guitars, hard-charging aggro and full-throated bellowing doesn’t have you bouncing off the walls of your living room, spilling beer on the dog and punching yourself in the face, you’re obviously doing it wrong. ’Cause they sure ain’t.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The Jaded Hearts Club are a new band featuring frontmen Miles Kane (The Last Shadow Puppets) and Nic Cester (Jet), guitarists Graham Coxon (Blur) and Jamie Davis, plus Matt Bellamy (Muse) on bass and drummer Sean Payne (The Zutons). The band were formed in 2017 when Davis, a British guitarist living in Los Angeles who previously ran Coxon’s Transcopic Records label in England, wanted to book a Beatles covers band to play at his birthday party. The cost proved to be excessive and the available tribute acts were drab, so Davis had a back-up plan. “I realised I knew a bunch of half decent British musician friends living in L.A. so I thought I’d ask if they’d come together to form an early ’60s Cavern-era Beatles band.” They kept their plans a secret. So when family and friends turned up at the party, they were shocked to see an all-star band rampaging through a Cavern Club-era Beatles set. “The place went nuts,” smiles Davis, “and everyone had such a good time that we decided to do it again.”
WHO IS SHE? The raspy-throated rock ’n’ roll queen (and former Canadian Idol judge) behind Can-rock classics like Make You A Believer, Tell Somebody, Rescue Me and the Joe Cocker duet Trust In Me from The Bodyguard soundtrack. WHAT IS THIS? The first authentic blues album of her three decade-plus recording career, and her first solo disc in a more than a decade. WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A welcome return. And a helluva homecoming. Cut on the fly and off the cuff with her touring band The Champagne Hookers and produced by husband (and current Guess Who frontman) Derek Sharp, the eight-song Rebel Moon Blues finds Jordan jubilantly and expertly celebrating the songs, sounds and styles of everyone from old masters like Willie Dixon, Elmore James and Freddie King to younger, louder guns like Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher, and The Allman Brothers Band. Along with seven classic covers, Jordan and Sharp contribute one brand-new tune titled The Key, which she freely admits was influenced by another idol: Tom Petty. (Full disclosure: I was paid to write some promotional material for the album. But honestly, I would be recommending this wicked little gem either way.)
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard return with K.G., their 16th since they formed in 2010. In the wake of a global pandemic, it’s a collection of songs that saw the six members of the band retreating to their own homes scattered around Melbourne, Australia to compose and record remotely. But have no fear! Not a drop of that unnamed alchemical something that makes this band so special is missing. This is the Gizz firing on all sonic cylinders, for if ever a band were built to swiftly adapt to adverse circumstance then it is them. Hell, on paper Covid-19, with its monstrous yet unseen face, ecological implications and new language, even sounds like an abandoned concept for a King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard album.”
“My heart is black as night,” Mark Lanegan claims a few minutes into Straight Songs of Sorrow. And maybe he’s telling the truth. But on the plus side, his mind has never been clearer and more focused. The former frontman for Screaming Trees, Queens of The Stone Age, Gutter Twins, Twilight Singers and plenty more penned this dozenth studio album as a companion to his just released memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. I haven’t seen that yet, but if it’s half as unflinching and harrowing as some of these musical confessions, I wouldn’t read it alone in the dark. Over a mixed backdrop of skittery electro-rock, fingerpicked acoustic folk, lush synth-pop, post-modern Americana, junkie gospel and more, Dark Mark leads you on a grim personal travelogue of drugs and violence, blood and beauty, death and destruction, paranoia and persecution. And even though there are the occasional glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel, by the time he’s through, he makes Iggy Pop and Lou Reed seem like Donny and Marie. “I spent my life trying every way to die,” he confesses at one point. “If I had a razor, I would cut you everywhere,” he warns at another. Yikes. No wonder he can’t seem to keep a band together. On well. At least you can’t say he didn’t give it to you straight.
Nobody is going to accuse The 1975 of pandering to fans. Though some might accuse Matt Healy and co. of trying to overload them. The British indie superstars’ monumentally ambitious fourth full-length Notes On a Conditional Form — the wildly anticipated sequel to their late 2018 knockout A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships — is the sort of disc that makes its predecessor (not to mention recent releases from their peers and competitors) look like a fluffy pop lark. Over the sprawling course of 22 songs and 80 minutes, the freewheeling, ever-changing epic furiously pinballs unpredictably between sounds, styles and sonic settings. Boisterous post-punk and sunny indie-pop, experimental electronica and earthy roots, arty rock and ambient soundscapes, ’80s synth-pop and earnest folk, gospel and Greta Thunberg speeches; it’s all here, along with plenty more. And as usual, most of it is every bit as creative, cool compelling as it is confounding and challenging — sorta like Radiohead, but if they cracked a smile and cranked out an unironic house track every once in a while. Not surprisingly, the boldly unclassifiable album ends up feeling more like a shuffled playlist than a pointed, focused work. Then again, maybe all that eclecticism and diversity is the point. Who knows? Maybe Healy. So go ask him. You ask me, all I know is that Notes On a Conditional Form should keep their fans occupied until The 1975 decide what form their next album should take. As if they could ever settle on just one.
WHO ARE THEY? Singer-guitarist Amy Love and bassist Georgia South, a high-powered London grime-punk duo who have been around since 2014, touring behind the likes of Wolf Alice, Fever 333 and Prophets of Rage — which prompted guitarist Tom Morello to call them “The best band you’ve never heard.” He was right. But here’s your chance to rectify that. WHAT IS THIS? Their long-gestating, long-overdue first album — and one of the most distinctive, dynamic and devastating debuts of the year. WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A thunderiffic mashup of rock, rap, grime, punk, pop, grunge, metal and anything else that strikes Love and South’s fancy. Their meaty, beaty, big and bouncy songs come anchored by walloping hip-hop grooves, driven by grinding subterranean basslines, fuelled by serrated power-chord guitar riffage and topped with take-no-prisoners lyrics and vocals that lurch from sultry raps to flamethrower screams at the drop of a beat. On top of that, they know how to write songs that get instantly and indelibly wedged deep inside your noggin.
“I’ll make you scream, I’ll make you defecate,” cracks Ozzy Osbourne on the opening track on his dozenth studio album and first solo outing in nearly a decade. Well, it’s nice to see the Prince of Darkness hasn’t lost his sense of humour. Even better: He hasn’t lost his wonderfully evil touch on the musical side either. Despite a host of physical ailments — which now include Parkinson’s, as he recently revealed — wicked wizard Oz is in fiendishly fine form on these 11 energized tracks, wailing and yowling and cackling and howling with the same demonic lunacy and intensity that has possessed him since the opening seconds of Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut LP half a century ago. Give props to producer and guitarist Andrew Watt, who surrounds Ozzy with suitably massive, majestic and malevolent sonics — not to mention an all-star band that includes Slash and Tom Morello, Duff McKagan, Chad Smith, Charlie Puth, new bestie Post Malone and even old pal Elton John. Not that Osbourne needs the help; even in declining health at 71 — really, it’s a bloody miracle he’s actually alive in the first place — he makes it clear that he’s the real Iron Man on hell-raising, fire-breathing riff-fests like Under the Graveyard, Eat Me, It’s A Raid and Straight to Hell. Bottom line: Ordinary Man is as bat-bitingly good as anything he’s done in the past couple of decades. Bust out the Depends and let ’er rip.
THE PRESS RELEASE: “Magic happens when everything comes together like it’s supposed to — when the joys and the pain, the triumphs and the missteps all click into place to be seen for what they truly are. Waylon Payne’s Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is such a moment, the culmination of an extraordinary journey set to music. A son of country music royalty, a teenaged Baptist preacher turned addict and actor, Payne sings about fathers and sons, faith and addiction, recovery and renewal with devastating clarity. His character-rich collection harks back to a way of telling stories in song that revealed kept secrets and promised mystery. Over his years, Payne has felt the terrible power secrets can hold and learned the transformative value of releasing them. Finally, he’s in a place where he can harness that power to create transcendent work.”
Some people prefer music that’s the sonic equivalent of comfort food — safe, familiar, easy to swallow. Others have a more adventurous palate. The latter group will want to sink their teeth into Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia. And they will come away both satisfied and hungry for more. The Toronto singer-songwriter’s third album and the followup to her acclaimed 2016 release La Papessa, this daring and dynamic creation presents a fantastic, innovative and stirring fusion of ambition and artistry, novelty and nostalgia, timely and traditional. Over her signature fusion of cumbia, electronica and classical — which she has descriptively dubbed industrial reggaetón — the candid Pimienta tackles everything from injustice in her Colombian homeland to her own loves, losses and personal traumas. Of course, unless you are fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to check out some lyrical translations to truly appreciate and understand all of that. And while you should make the effort, you don’t necessarily have to. You can get almost as much pleasure out of the disc just from immersing yourself in the futuristic and unique sounds that dominate the album’s first half, or by soaking up the transfixing traditional grooves and percussion that dot its second part. But however well you get to know her, you’ll come away quite understandably and rightly convinced that Miss Colombia is unmistakably a winner.
“I should’ve fucked your friends / It would’ve been the best revenge.” Those are the first words Jessie Reyez sings on the opening track of her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us — an album whose cover pictures her perched on a coffin in a cemetery. Clearly, the woman knows how to get your attention. More importantly, she knows how to keep it with her sensually scratchy drawl, songwriting that manages to be nostalgic and groundbreaking at the same time, and provocative lyrics that find her fixated on obsession, instability and death. If love doesn’t end you, she just might.
“Every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free,” Killer Mike rhymes midway through Run The Jewels’ RTJ4. “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 the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Amazingly, he wrote those prescient lines last year, not last week. But they will undoubtedly be just as true and topical next week. And next year. And if that doesn’t give you a hint of just how fierce, committed and relevant the masterful RTJ4 is, rest assured there’s plenty more words where those came from. The uncompromising and potent 11-track album is brimming over with provocative, take-no-prisoners lyrics about racism, justice, police brutality, political corruption, revolution, social media and umpteen other topical issues. And naturally, those urgent, challenging pronouncements are set atop relentlessly driving, endlessly creative and punishingly heavy tracks — many of which welcome VIPs like Pharrell, Mavis Staples, 2 Chainz, Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, and DJ Premier. Still not sold on the disc? Well, you don’t have to be — as usual, Mike and partner-in-rhyme El-P are giving the damn thing away for free. So really, the only goods RTJ4 doesn’t deliver are dinner, a facemask and a cure for COVID-19. But hey, they’re probably working on all of that.
We’ve all been there. You’ve got nothing to do, nowhere to go and nada in the fridge, so you call your buddy and meet at the pub where you always hang. A few rounds later, that ex you’ve been thinking about — you know, the one you never quite got over — shows up out of the blue, and you’ve had just enough to drink to think maybe you could get back together, despite the way she treated you. Will you? Won’t you? And is this really enough storyline to carry a concept album? You’ll have to listen to Neon Skyline to answer the first two questions. As for the third: In the skilled, sensitive hands of Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf, it most assuredly is. The solo followup to his likeminded 2016 musical narrative and commercial breakthrough The Party, the intimate and compelling Neon Skyline (set in a real-life Toronto watering hole) unfurls gracefully and gradually, chronicling a night of boozy camaraderie, nostalgic yearning and romantic revelation that will ring true to anyone who’s ever had to weigh love against loneliness at last call. Fashioned from the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist’s bittersweet melodies, lazily drawled vocals and powerful yet mellow brand of orch-tinged folk-pop, this modest masterwork might be the most Canadian concept album ever. Or at least until Shauf writes one about going to the lake on the long weekend, hanging out in a Timmy’s parking lot after hockey practice, or apologizing.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Letter To You is Bruce Springsteen’s new studio album with The E Street Band, and is a rock album fuelled by the band’s heart-stopping, house-rocking signature sound. Recorded at his home studio in New Jersey, Letter To You is Springsteen’s 20th studio album, and is his first album including The E Street Band since 2012’s High Hopes and their first performances together since 2016’s The River Tour.”
Heads up, Low Cut Connie fans. Britain’s Swampmeat Family Band is fronted by former LCC member Dan Finnemore. So it’s hardly a surprise that the foursome’s latest album Muck! — their second since Finnemore returned to his Birmingham stomping grounds and reunited with drummer T-Bird Jones — features the same down ’n’ dirty, rough ’n’ tumble garage-rock and back-bar roots-punk as his much-loved former crew (while also bearing more than a passing resemblance to another raggedly glorious band you might have heard of called The Replacements). That’s good news for anybody who needs some new drinking music. The better news: No dress code, no cover, no minimum, and no closing time.
Restless. Fearless. Boundless. They’re all fitting adjectives for singer-songwriter Sean Bowie, the musical visionary behind Yves Tumor. Which is not to suggest for a second that his fourth album Heaven To A Tortured Mind embraces the doctrine that less is more. On the contrary. Bowie/Tumor doesn’t skimp on anything over the course of these 12 tracks. Not on style. Not on substance. Not on sonic artistry. And certainly not on sexuality. Heaven To A Tortured Mind comes off like one long 36-minute come-on as Tumor tries to get inside your pants, brain and soul with a seductive cocktail of post-modern art-rock, get-down freak-funk, mind-bending psychedelia and winsome soul-pop. If I had to liken this to anyone or anything, it would be Prince at his sexiest fronting TV On The Radio at their artsiest. But that doesn’t really cover it. Because Yves Tumor is ultimately unlike anyone else. Which reminds me of one final fitting adjective for him: Peerless.
So much for This Sweet Old World. Less than three years after lovingly revisiting her darkly beautiful 1992 masterpiece, Lucinda Williams’ nostalgic mood has definitely soured on her 14th studio album. Despite its uplifting title, Good Souls Better Angels is an angry record that’s firmly grounded in the here and now of life below heaven. The 67-year-old singer-songwriter comes out swinging and pulls no punches as she lashes out at her country’s liar-in-chief, his cadre of lunatics and hypocrites, abusive men she’s known and pretty much anyone else fool enough to get in her way or on her bad side. Not surprisingly, the hour-long set is also her most musically aggressive in years, with her ragged, rugged drawl underpinned by raw-boned, bare-knuckle blues laced with everything from noisy psychedelia and gritty garage-rock to ominous cellos. Recorded in just two weeks, it might be the leanest, meanest and most powerfully pointed album she’s made. Along with one of the most solid and satisfying. Ignore it — and her — at your own risk.
Van Morrison. Ray Charles. Mose Allison. Georgie Fame. James Hunter. That’s a pretty impressive roster. And now you can add another name to that list: Nick Waterhouse. The California singer-guitarist traffics in the same brand of old-school R&B, soul and jazz — complete with fingerpopping grooves, pulsing Hammond organs, gruff horns and honey-flavoured female backup vocals. Cool, swinging and nostalgic without feeling hokey or ironic, Live at Pappy & Harriet’s is clearly the next best thing to being there. Except you don’t have to worry about the cover or the two-drink minimum. Cheers.
Some albums need to be heard to be believed. This isn’t one of them — but only because you probably still won’t believe it after you hear it. Unless you can believe in the existence of a band (and an album) that sounds like Tom Waits fronting Pere Ubu — if they were an avant-garde punk-jazz combo. Seriously.
Sometimes a little goes a long way. Case in point: Frank Zappa’s 1970 incarnation of The Mothers. The short-lived lineup (and the first to use the abridged band name) only made it through seven months and one studio album — the underappreciated Chunga’s Revenge. But they aren’t given short shrift in The Mothers 1970, the latest archival box from the Zappa Family Trust and the late legend’s vast, vaunted vault. It’s a four-disc set containing 70 studio and live recordings — nearly all previously unreleased (at least officially). Right off the bat, the 12-track studio disc delivers various versions of the classics Wonderful Wino and Sharleena, but is mostly dominated by instrumental fare, including three cuts featuring lengthy solos from superstar drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Unsurprisingly, the live portion of the proceedings is where the outrageous ensemble — fronted by freewheeling former Turtles vocalists (and Zappa’s Laurel Canyon neighbours) Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie) — and the set really hit their stride. The three-plus hours of concert content comes from a slew of excellent shows in Europe and America that fall. The set list covers the waterfront from Freak Out to 200 Motels, along with plenty of solos and a handful of rarities like Portuguese Fenders. Betwixt and between, you get an array of ribald, raucous onstage shenanigans, along with some routines similar to those found on the following year’s Fillmore East — June 1971. And considering a lot of the shows were recorded on the fly — sometimes with Zappa running the reel-to-reel and changing tape himself onstage — the sound is surprisingly tolerable. Bottom line: These discs make it clear the 1970 version of The Mothers weren’t short on musical talent, improvisational skills, outsized personalities and sheer unbridled lunacy.