I started running out of things to say just as the SARS-CoV2 spread in the US, and when the lockdown happened, I threw myself into recording a pair of cover albums. I wasn’t buying much music, nor listening to anyone other than myself. By the time I finished making the albums, stores were opening up, and my music buying eventually resumed.
But I still don’t have much to say.
That doesn’t mean I’ve run out of opinions. So here are my favorites of the year so far.
Sam Sparro, Boombox Eternal
Timo Andres / Brad Mehldau / Jeremy Denk / Randy Newman, I Still Play
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Reunions
The Streets, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
My Very Own Familiar, Dear Listener: Lawnchairs for the Apocalypse
A friend of mine posted he was releasing an album recorded during the lockdown in Washington that started in March. This is that album, and it’s available only on YouTube. Also, it’s damn good.
Robyn, Body Talk
I’m disappointed in myself for not grabbing a copy of this album on vinyl on Record Store Day 2019.
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
I’m slowly coming around to Perfume Genius. I don’t know if I’ll explore the early albums, but these last two have appealed to me greatly.
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Reunions
I like this album more than The Nashville Sound, but I don’t like it as much as Here We Rest or Something More Than Free. But finding a bad Jason Isbell album is like trying to find a bad Emmylou Harris album.
Timo Andres / Jeremy Denk / Brad Mehldau / Randy Newman, I Still Play
I’m going to miss Bob Hurwitz’s leadership of Nonesuch Records. The label seems to be moving in a more Americana direction since his retirement, and while the partnership with New Amsterdam Records is tailor made, I can’t help but feel Nonesuch is outsourcing its A&R for modern classical music.
I’m old enough now that I can no longer be mistaken for someone remotely connected to the zeitgeist. A phrase I would often employ was, “I know of them, but I’ve not heard from them.” These days, the first part of that phrase is a stretch.
That said, I’m surprised by the number of R&B titles that have crept into my playlist rotation. I’m still a rockist at heart, but rock is loosening its grip on my attention.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury: How was Sturgill Simpson ever going to top A Sailor’s Guide to Earth? He didn’t. He veered so drastically in a different direction that the albums can’t be compared. None of his albums can be compared to each other.
Torche, Admission: Torche can be found under the metal section of most music stores, but when I play their albums, I hear post-rock.
Weezer, Weezer (Teal Album): It’s a karaoke album, but a painstakingly created one.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000: It’s a tall order to compile eight centuries of music into a single program.
John Luther Adams, Become Desert: It was also stirring to hear this piece live.
Cocco, Star Shank: We hear hints of clouds covering the sunniness of Cocco’s later work.
BBMAK, Powerstation: I will not lie — I’ve anticipating this album for most of the year, and I do not care who knows.
Shiina Ringo, Sandokushi: This album is a glorious mess.
Solange, When I Get Home: Similar to Sound and Fury, this album is confounding and fascinating at the same time. There’s nothing on here that matches the tunefulness of A Seat at the Table, and it would be too disruptive to the album’s flow if there were.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!: “Basquiat” was playing on the in-store system at Sonic Boom, and it pretty much clinched my decision to get this album.
Denk had yet to release his latest album, c.1300-c.2000, when he performed at Meany Centre. So he chose to focus mainly on Beethoven. The program did include John Adams’ I Still Play, which he wrote for retired Nonesuch Records president Bob Hurwitz.
Carolyn Shaw, Piano Concerto, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Feb. 2
I think Shaw lost me in the second movement of her piano concerto, when the opening melody in the piano repeated. And repeated. And repeated. The first movement established this piece wasn’t minimalist, so why become one in the second movement?
When I first started exploring classical music, I bought a cassette tape with Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Lieutenant Kije Suite. His Symphony No. 7 was tacked onto the album to fill out space, so I listened to it quite a lot. I haven’t explored other Prokofiev symphonies, but I have a fondness for the seventh.
I had planned to attend the Seattle Symphony’s performance of Heiner Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities, but it was scheduled on the day I was flying back from London. The concert was rescheduled a day earlier, and I traded my ticket for Amaedus Live. I was glad to learn it was the theatrical cut.
Emerson String Quartet, Meany Hall, March 6
The program on this concert included the Barber Adagio, a Razumovsky quartet by Beethoven and the Britten’s String Quartet No. 3. I particularly looked forward to the Britten quartet, having stumbled across recordings of his quartets at the thrift shop.
Morsel Trio, Good Shepherd Center, March 8
My violin teacher (Luke Fitzpatrick) and my music theory T.A. (Daniel Webbon) had pieces on this program.
Michael Tilson-Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, Benaroya Hall, March 19
I’ve known about Michael Tilson-Thomas for years, and I even have a number of his recordings as a pianist. So I wanted to hear him with the San Francisco Symphony before he ends his tenure in July 2020. The centerpiece of the concert was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. I love the first movement of the piece, but I’ve never really internalized the remained of it.
untitled 2, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, March 22
Pierre Boulez never struck me as a person you’d really want to meet in real life, and that impression has spilled over into his music. So I don’t think I really heard a piece by Boulez until this concert. It wasn’t as grating as I was expecting it to be.
Perfume, Paramount Theatre, Apr. 10
I’m sure there were parts of this concert that were … prefabricated, but I didn’t mind. It was visually stunning, and Perfume were entirely gracious to Seattle fans. If I hadn’t gotten out of the hospital a few days before, I probably would have stood in the excessively long line at the merchandise table.
When the orchestra finished playing the premiere of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5, one audience member didn’t even wait for conductor Thomas Dausgaard to signal for the applause. It was a pretty monstrous piece.
Alexander String Quartet and Joyce Yang, Meany Hall, May 22
Samuel Carl Adams has followed his father’s footsteps into the world of composition. His father is John Adams. Alexander String Quartet and Joyce Yang performed a piece by the younger Adams, and he sounds nothing like his father. In fact, I would like to hear more from Sam Adams.
untitled 3, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, June 7
A reimagning of Schubert and Schumann. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In the Spotlight: Bolcom, Jolley, Poteat & Hausmann, Octave 9, June 11
Seattle Symphony transformed its education space into a high-tech venue to showcase more experimental programming. I’m looking forward to attending concerts in this new space.
Torche, Highline, Sept. 15
Sturgill Simpson made me realize I was getting too old for rock shows, so I almost decided against seeing Torche, despite loving the new album. Then I saw they were playing at a venue that is a 6-minute walk from my apartment. I’m glad I went.
Bugs Bunny on Broadway, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Oct. 5
I wasn’t going to miss hearing What’s Opera, Doc? performed live. Even the 3-d animated new shorts weren’t too bad.
This first untitled concert of the 2019-2020 season showcased works for brass, and alternated between early and modern music. At the end of the concert, I was asked what I thought. I answered, “It was more conservative than I prefer.”
John Williams, Violin Concerto, St. Louis Symphony, Powell Hall, Nov. 3
I debated whether to take in a St. Louis Symphony concert while I was attending WordCamp US. A Sunday matinee seemed like a good option for someone navigating an unfamiliar city without a car. The light rail and bus system got me to the concert hall, which has a really nice sound. James Ehnes was the soloist for the Williams concerto, and yes, it’s unmistakably John Williams. For an encore, Ehnes did Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3.
Sleater-Kinney, Paramount Theatre, Nov. 23
I chose to sit in the mezzanine for this show because, yes, Sturgill Simpson.
One of these years, I’m not going to have a big enough pool from which to draw a mid-year Favorite Edition list. This year got close.
Weezer, Weezer (Teal Album): The big criticism of this cover album is the slavish reproduction of the originals, as if Weezer did nothing to inject its own personality in these songs. The studio geek in me, however, marvels at such a feat. It may be a karaoke exercise, but it’s a painstaking one, not unlike art students reproducing the masters.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000: It’s a tricky proposition to distill seven centuries of music in a single program, but Denk takes an admirable stab at it. I have no objections to his choices.
James Blake, Assume Form: Blake’s previous album was lengthy and not terribly engaging. He rights the ship on this one.
John Luther Adams, Become Desert: Where Become Ocean explored the Seattle Symphony’s lower and middle registers, Become Desert hovers almost exclusively in the upper ends.
Shiina Ringo, Sandokushi: Shiina’s first three albums looms large over the rest of her work, Tokyo Jihen included. Sandokushi is a fascinating mess — lots of seemingly disparate songs threaded together as a single program. It’s jarring but coherent, and probably the best summation of her style thus far.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!: Like Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake, Legacy! Legacy! was playing on a record store sound system and made me stop to find out who is Jamila Woods.
Solange, When I Get Home: There are no obvious singles on this album, which is fine because it’s not intended to be a singles album.
Madonna, Madame X: A quotation of Tchaikovsky’s signature work could have backfired, but when the Nutcracker interrupts “Dark Ballet,” it doesn’t feel forced. The singles preceding the release of Madame X didn’t hint at this kind of creative stretch.
The Drums, Brutalism: Jonny Pierce tones down the Joy Division influence and brings forth the beats.
Sometimes, you just can’t argue with conventional wisdom.
Del tha Funky Homosapien, No Need for Alarm
There’s something about beats made around 1993 that I really dig.
James Blake, Assume Form
The Colour in Anything made me approach Assume Form with caution. It turns out this album is vying for a spot on the year-end Favorite Edition list.
James Tenney, Postal Pieces
It’s amazing how much music can be generated by scores that fit on postcards.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000
This survey of Western classical music spanning seven centuries is another album vying for a spot on the year-end Favorite Edition list.
Lou Reed, Transformer
“Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side” are obvious choices for why this album should be in my collection, but really, it’s because it has “Perfect Day”, which Duran Duran covered on Thank You.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I dismissed Phoenix back in 2009 as that band in the car commercial. Thing is, “Listzomania” is damn catchy, as is the rest of the album.
Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits
Most of this collection consists of tracks from Stand! It also includes “I Wanna Take You Higher”, which Duran Duran also covered on Thank You.
The site will take its usual January break starting next week, so this entry is my last chance to point out some upcoming releases.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000, Feb. 8
I’ll be seeing Jeremy Denk in concert in a few weeks, but he won’t be performing the sprawling program of this two-disc set spanning seven centuries of music.
Mindy Smith, One Moment More, Jan. 29
Mindy Smith is so far the only country music singer whose voice reminds me of Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays.
Prince, Musicology, Feb. 8 Prince, 3121, Feb. 8
Musicology was heralded as a return to form, but I found it less interesting than 3121. But even 3121 was less interesting than The Gold Experience, which I would consider getting on vinyl. But really, when is the Love Symbol album getting reissued?