Tone Glow 043: Favorite Non-2020 Discoveries
Our writers talk about the non-2020 releases they discovered and loved this year
There’s a perversity to the way in which music journalism is so fixated on the new. Reviews and interviews are tethered to press cycles, outlets rarely provide coverage of older albums, and reissues are necessary for editors to even consider a write-up on a non-canonical artist of yesteryear. It’s funny that, in a way, it was through TikTok that any non-2020 songs gained significant traction on charts this year. And even though labels used the platform to manufacture viral hits of their own, it was refreshing to know that some things felt organic. The kids are alright. The adults running most music publications? Well.
More to the point: there’s always older music we’re hearing, we’re making sense of, we form bonds with, and it feels disingenuous to not allow a space for writing on these records. As we come up on the first anniversary of Tone Glow’s Substack iteration (our first issue was on December 9th), I’ve thought about how this has evolved, and how it’s of utmost importance to me that this newsletter feels less like a Brand than a group of individual music lovers writing about music they love. And while there’s plenty of new music we cherished throughout the past 12 months, it was only ever just part of the picture.
To be a music fan is to be constantly discovering—no one person knows everything, no one publication is the best, no one canon is comprehensive. And that’s why, in addition to familiar Tone Glow faces, you’ll see an assortment of new ones who are writing for this issue. They’re random people who reached out to me, who wanted to write. I wanted to know what they liked, too. I wanted to know why these albums and songs meant so much to them. So below, find 31 writers spilling words on the songs and albums and people that mean something to them. I guess that’s all I ever really want a music publication to be, for music to be about: a window into another person’s world. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Sade - “Maureen” (Epic, 1985)
I didn’t know my grandfather well, but I think of him regularly. When I visit my grandmother, the four-digit code to open her garage is his birthday: 0-7-2-4. I pause before pressing those numbers, wondering if he knows he’s alive in this way, protecting his wife like he did when his presence was physical. He also crosses my mind when I clip my toenails—he clipped hers, always. After he passed, she exclaimed how weird it was to do something so normal yet unfamiliar; it must’ve been five decades since she’d done it last. He’s there in every fight I have with my mom, too, because underlining our differences in politics and life goals and Christianity is an understanding of how, in some ways, we’re still very much the same: we inherited his passion, his stubbornness.
In the years following his death, my family would regularly visit his grave. We’d bring flowers and Clorox wipes; both were to honor him, the former laid in front of his tombstone, the latter to scrub off bird shit. I’d remember the way I’d dig into the engraving, the white froth of disinfectant filling up the crevices of every letter. When it looked pristine, we’d pray to him. “Is this biblical?” I’d wonder. “We’ve only ever prayed to God.”
I better appreciated my family’s direct talking to him upon revisiting Sade’s “Maureen.” I’ve loved the song for a long time, but it gained new resonance for me this year, one in which I ruminated endlessly about the boundless potential of any relationship. I thought specifically of friendships, of how much security and joy they could bring to one’s life, of how they could be of different but equal significance to that of a romance. I learned that from a friend I reconnected with, Tone Glow writer Shy. I learned that from two new friends I consider lifelongers, Finn and Anna. I learned that from one-off phone calls, late-night Twitter DMs, always-chatty Discord channels, and I took it all in because I needed it. But I didn’t just need it during quarantine; I could have always used deeper bonds, more fulfilling conversations, more love and hope and accountability.
There’s a beauty to how Sade so plainly addresses her titular friend, one who passed five years prior to the song’s release. For her, Maureen is still alive; the capacity of what she could mean to her didn’t begin and end at their meeting and her death. I’ve tried to think of music in the same way. While my favorite discoveries this year were those that felt like entire worlds to get lost in—the rabbit hole of Underwhich Records’ sound poetry, the comprehensive archive of Daigoretsu tapes, the various strains of pop music I obsessed over—“Maureen” was a reminder of how songs and people I’ve loved forever could still be on my mind and effect me after years of familiarity. But she sings of new friends, too, and how she wants so much for them to interact, for the world of people she loves to constantly expand, to grow richer. I think I get it now, and it’s how I want to approach life; I want to open myself up to the possibility for more—in the old and the new, in the ephemeral and everlasting, in art and people and everything. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Jim O’Rourke - “Fast Car” (unreleased, 2002)
Jim O’Rourke’s spun-out cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is, at this point, experimental music folklore. Discovering it is like finding the holy grail—whoever commented “where the hell has this been hiding” on YouTube had the right idea. Recorded at a live show in Japan in 2002, the 33-minute cover takes the nostalgic main theme of “Fast Car” and persistently repeats it, allowing it to sweetly bloom into its lilting poignancy.
The 1988 song depicts a woman who is trying to escape poverty. There’s an urgency that underlies the music, accompanying its wistful hope with a depth that O’Rourke seems to have honed in on. The cover is a feeling more than a story, snapshots of moments from the original that have been spliced together to create an atmosphere that beckons possibility and melancholy to coexist. It’s contemplative, like a thought that keeps on running through your head, blossoming into new ideas the more time you spend with it.
There was a global pandemic this year, and I know that’s probably what I’ll remember most from it. But what I wish I would remember most from 2020 is when I fell in love, and how I fell in love. I can pinpoint a specific time when we hung up the phone, teary-eyed from the pain we were going through together, and we were too afraid to say “I love you” for the first time even though we both knew how we felt. Love was a feeling I didn’t know was happening to me until it happened to me, and once it did, I knew it was an adventure I wouldn’t want to stop taking, the one drive I wouldn’t want to end.
Listening to this cover makes me feel like I’ve hopped into a car, any old car, and started to drive down a deserted highway, my engine humming as I watch the crunchy leaves on a yellowed tree fall onto my windshield. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know where I’m going will lead to something good. With the gentle pedal of O’Rourke’s limitless guitar and the wide open expanse of untethered emotion, all feels right in the world. Even if just for a moment. —Vanessa Ague
Gilda Radner - “Honey (Touch Me with My Clothes On)” (Warner Bros, 1979)
I first noticed it sometime during the late summer of 2019. A lazily penned phrase on the wall of an unoccupied building in Ridgewood. As someone prone to sentimentality, it struck a chord—the question felt familiar but without specificity, and at the time I believe I was more drawn to its wistful ambiguity anyhow.
2019 passed. The first two months of this year passed. Then too many more.
In April, as the COVID cases and deaths in New York were reaching increasingly staggering numbers, I began dedicating more and more of my time to long walks through the city. Throughout the week I would take a respite from my computer screen to wander with my head down for 5-ish miles here and there. On the weekends, when I had the most time, I would walk for 10-20 miles each day.
As I made my way over the Williamsburg Bridge on a pleasant April Saturday, eyes still pointed towards my feet, a tag on the asphalt brought me out of my tunnel vision. I took a few steps backward to confirm what I thought I had just read.
I took a picture and continued over the crest of the bridge and into Manhattan, eyes now focused on my phone screen, doing what I had inexplicably not done before, searching the phrase. Immediately, I knew exactly why that line had stuck out.
Maybe my mother’s favorite comedian in the world is Gilda Radner. She can recite the Roseanne Roseannadanna Weekend Update bits to this day and for as long as I can remember, she would sing bits of “Let’s Talk Dirty To The Animals,” the opening track from Radner’s LP that has always been on my family’s shelf, Live From New York. The closer, “Honey (Touch Me with My Clothes On)” is comedic of course, taking Radner’s story of youthful innocence and turning it into a gooey ballad that satirizes the romanticism of artists like the one she references twice in the song, Johnny Mathis; however, she prefaces and performs the track with a sincerity that breaks through the laughs and warms with a genuine appreciation for the type of optimistic love we give when we know no better.
My parents had visited the city the first week in March, just about a week and a half before the city drastically changed. By the time I walked by that lyric in April, it had already felt like the time I had spent with them was years gone. The first person I sent the picture to was my mom, a sappy person like myself. When she called in response I expressed how it reminded me of her and home and we both verbally recognized ourselves getting a little verklempt over the admittedly minor situation.
After I hung up with her, I sent the image and song to my partner, another sappy person like myself, then living in Tacoma, Washington. I had previously shown her the first occurrence of the unassuming message and was excited to see I had stumbled upon another. I told her about my lifelong relationship with Gilda Radner via my parents and to my surprise, she told me that she’d memorized “I Love To Be Unhappy,” the second song on Live From New York, when she was younger and had had her own lifelong relationship with Radner.
Despite distance, she and I listened to “Honey (Touch Me with My Clothes On)” together countless times over the phone and Google Meet. By the time she moved to New York in September, it had become our song and an unintentionally unironic extension of the story Radner recalls before she sings, about her and a boy enjoying each other’s presence and listening to a comedy album together.
In April, when I finally made the connection to Radner’s song, it overwhelmed me with assurance. More so than at any time before, I felt alone and isolated in the city, fearful of looking up and seeing more death and more sadness. I needed something to tell me it was ok to be missing people I loved and times that were less desperate. When I listen now, I know to allow myself to think of my most romantic times and to focus on trying to create more romantic times with a silly, optimistic presence. —Evan Welsh
Labi Siffre - “Watch Me” (Polydor, 1972)
In a year devoid of any sustained normalcy or prolonged comfort, I heard a song from 1972 for the first time that brings everything into focus for a brief three minutes and 42 seconds. The guitar intro of Labi Siffre’s “Watch Me” begins like a kaleidoscope before snapping into the prettiest tapestry of soothing colors and “dah dah dahs.” Whether it was during the suffocating heat of a pandemic summer or the intense melancholy of a dark and isolated winter, “Watch Me” was the hug I needed in all the worst ways.
I was born 23 years after this song came out and only became aware of it when Clairo tweeted about it. Like many people, I’m sure, I’ve spent a healthy chunk of this year trying to not think very hard. The news is somehow equal parts bleak and infuriating, and I’ve sunk into the comforts of my old life rather than seeing what else is out there. Old baseball games where I already know who wins, a re-watch of my favorite television shows, incessant listens to the music of my high school and college years—this all sounded better than digging around for new interests. I happily embraced laziness and the person I was more than the person I want to theoretically become.
Imagine my delight upon hearing “Watch Me” for the first time and finding that serenity before the lyrics even start. Since that initial listen, it has become the soundtrack to countless sanity walks, aimless drives to do nothing in particular, and solo weed smoking sessions. Each play feels like crawling inside a ray of sun that simultaneously houses the vaccine and a world where I forget how much we need the vaccine. The fact that I only became aware of this musical chamomile because of a person younger than me—as the song approaches its 50th anniversary, no less—speaks to the beautifully upside-down nature of life during COVID.
When I saw that the song was released on an album called Crying, Laughing, Loving, Living (the four horsemen of the pandemic), I knew that it was spiritually meant to be a 2020 anthem. And once this nightmare gives way to the expected joy of a life renewed, you will see me sparkle, see me flame, singing a song, playing a game. Just as Labi Siffre wanted. —Matthew Roberson
Idol Renaissance - Maegami ga Yureru (T-Palette, 2017)
Idol Renaissance disbanded because of a frankly uneventful reason. After talking it over, the members wanted to pursue something else outside of being an idol. As with rock bands, while onlookers may look for salacious drama as the source of a break-up, a group’s dissolution is usually brought on by things like lack of success and financial support, loss of creative ambitions, or a desire to chase other life pursuits—reasons that are so natural, it’s almost banal. For a group full of young girls in their late teens like Idol Renaissance, it was completely understandable for the members to close this chapter of their lives and move on to the next step.
The idol culture appropriately refers to this ritual that transitions an idol to an everyday civilian as a graduation, and Idol Renaissance especially resembled a high-school club. The producers were conscious of the schoolgirl image. The music video for “17 Sai,” their cover of rock band Base Ball Bear, was set in an actual school ground; the idols dressed up in pure white school uniforms for the cover of their 2017 album, Maegami Ga Yureru. Beyond just supplying visual themes, however, their young age played vital to draw out the realness in the emotions they sang about in their songs. While many praise the producers and composers of an idol song, the music of Idol Renaissance resonates as powerful as it does precisely because they were sung and performed by a group of teenage girls.
Expressed by a set of meek, amateur yet fresh voices, the idols’ youth enriches the narratives that unfold in the songs of Maegami Yureru. Their age excuses the cliche metaphor, the self-obsession and the dramatic fatalism that springs forth in “Maegami”: “The wind messes up my hair again / you and I, we probably aren’t going to be chosen,” they sigh, with a bad hair day somehow leading to the tragic conclusion that they’ll end up alone forever. “Koukan Note” builds the nervousness from ending up side by side with a crush by chance: “I want to tell you / that I am right here,” they sing as they try to muster up the courage to break the ice.
The bittersweet moment in “Koukan Note” is the bridge when the idols realize their time together is finite: “when the crosswalk turns green, we’ll be our old selves again.” The music of Idol Renaissance reminds how intense teenage emotion can be, but more importantly, it writes home the very fleeting nature of youth. Maegami Ga Yureru in retrospect is a precious snapshot of young teens in transition, and the album grows more and more poignant as the former idols’ years with Idol Renaissance recedes in memory. Idols aren’t everlasting, and neither is their youth, but sometimes that very truth can inspire some of the best pop music. —Ryo Miyauchi
Takagi Masakatsu - World Is So Beautiful (Daisyworld Discs / Cutting Edge, 2003)
Masakatsu Takagi opens and closes World Is So Beautiful with the laughter of children. Childhood has been a preoccupation for much of his career; his trio of acclaimed scores for Mamoru Hosoda’s films Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast, and Mirai all strive to speak to the innocence of youth and the encroaching shadows of maturation which eventually beset it. In World Is So Beautiful, no such shadows exist. The album is insular, a survey of responses to the question inherent in the title, an outpouring of affection for the life and beauty of the planet. Takagi swirls reversed and pitch-shifted choral runs into dizzying walls of colorful sound on “South Beach,” an early highlight; collages like this are the backbone of the twinkling, folky electronic style he explores across the album’s 10 pieces.
World Is So Beautiful evokes a profound emotional response in me, one so complicated that I find myself lost trying to convey it in writing; it’s the only album I’ve encountered in this deadening year that has made me cry. The tears were inexplicable, summoned forth like freak weather, and left just as quickly. The intense emotionality that produced them only caught up with me after the streaks had begun drying on my face. When I revisit the album, I still feel everything from that wellspring being pulled up from within me, out to the surface; there is some uncanny chord that only these songs can strike. No amount of self-interrogation has gotten me any closer to understanding what that chord is, but maybe that’s for the best.
World Is So Beautiful reaches an apotheosis of sentimentality on its closing 18-minute title track, where a simple, plodding percussive melody underpins a sprawling montage of the sounds of children from around the world (recorded from Takagi’s personal travels) laughing, shouting, and playing. Truthfully, it’s quite obnoxious, but in a way that further underlines the album’s thesis: yes, the world is so beautiful, will always be beautiful, is choked with beauty like roof gutters with dead leaves; and, in the shattered, depressive landscape of 2020, it’s a message that I have endless patience for. —Maxie Younger
Sleep - Live At Third Man Records (Third Man, 2019)
I’ve been sober for almost seven years, though I tried opening that up in 2020, allowing myself a drink on occasion. I also tried medical marijuana for anxiety and stress. I enjoyed weed in the moment, but when it wore off, my stress and anxiety was even worse than before. Chemicals have always been that way—my body gets used to a thing, then feels worse when it’s not constantly imbibed. I returned to the fully sober lifestyle in September. I feel best sober.
Appropriately, that’s when I became obsessed with stoner metal band Sleep. Despite the lack of overlap between favorite substances, the trio’s groovy riffs and lengthy songs were a mental and spiritual massage. I listened to Dopesmoker when the Southern Lord reissue came out in 2012, and it hadn’t clicked, but in September, I picked up The Sciences, their 2018 reunion record, and the rollicking, Sabbathy first riff on “Marijuanaut’s Theme” felt like a door got kicked open. I picked up everything. It’s weird when music you didn’t get at first becomes something you love—it reminds you that you evolve, your taste becomes more expansive, and maybe your understanding increases, too.
I can’t run these days due to back injuries from warehouse jobs and hauling records. Prior to quarantine, I was going to physical therapy, but that was canceled. So I bike. During these rides, I listen to one of two things—Zen podcasts/audiobooks or Sleep’s Dopesmoker. There’s a continuity: the meticulousness and patience of “Dopesmoker” matches what I try in my meditation practice, concentrating on the moment, the breath, being present. “Dopesmoker” is an incredibly tight feat of songwriting and performances that clocks in at over an hour long: guitars and drums plod, then soar, and bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros’s voice sounds like a melodic incantation, leading the listener to the riff-filled land. The performers are fully immersed in the songs; you can hear their presence of mind, and it’s inspiring on artistic and spiritual levels.
I could have picked Dopesmoker or The Sciences for this prompt, but I picked Live At Third Man because 1) it shows how tight Sleep are in a live capacity, 2) it sounds fucking incredible, and 3) it has all my favorite songs. Sleep have existed for thirty years, and every era has bangers—whether the Gummo-featured “Dragonaut,” the equivalent of a pop nugget, or recent compositions like the titanic head banger “Giza Butler.” Live At Third Man corrals eleven of Sleep’s most compelling tracks and spreads them across two hours and four slabs of wax. Unfortunately, it was only available as part of Third Man’s vault series, but there’s a vinyl rip that sounds pretty great on YouTube—if you’re a physical media must have, and in in Chicago with $125 burning a hole in your pocket, there’s a copy for sale at Reckless Records on Belmont.
Until it gets a much-needed reissue, some of us will listen on bike rides, thinking about Zen; others, from what I can tell, might hit play, and—with bong in hand—drop out of life. —Jordan Reyes
Judee Sill - Dreams Come True (Water, 2005)
You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.
—Simone Weil, Gravity And Grace
Simone Weil entered secular sainthood at the age of 34 when her tubercular heart stopped in a sanatorium in Kent, 1943. The coroner’s report ruled her death a suicide, stating she killed herself “by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” She received the diagnosis earlier in the year in London, ignoring instructions to rest in favor of toll-taking work in exsilium for France Libre under Charles de Gaulle, living on a diet that consisted of no more than citizen rations of her German-occupied France. As a student of Sanskrit and Ancient Greek from an early age, she refused sugar during World War One in solidarity with soldiers; she would evolve as an altruist and mystic on the outskirts of academia, working in factories and vineyards before leaving her family during the Spanish Civil War to fight among the ranks of Durutti Column anarchists.
On her deathbed she completed The Need For Roots, a text commissioned as a plan for renewal that scrutinizes the spiritual and sociocultural melancholy that afflicted wartime Europe; it would be the final outlet through which she explored the concept that would be her most pivotal contribution to continental philosophy: déracinement, or uprootedness. Weil conceived of our severed connexions to the past as a universal mode, only aggravated if people lack community; she thus outlines her own recommendations away from historical repetition and toward what our souls require to once again feel nurtured and nourished—among them equality, responsibility, risk, collective property, freedom of opinion.
Judee Sill entered secular sainthood at the age of 35 with a needle in her arm in the confines of her candlelit apartment in North Hollywood on Thanksgiving weekend, 1979. The coroner’s report ruled her death a suicide, though those close to her claimed the note near her body—“a meditation on rapture, the hereafter, the innate mystery of life” as Tim Page wrote for the Washington Post—was merely a mark of mystic music in the making. Outside the margins of her lifetime’s sparse recorded output, she was uprooted all her life: when her bar owner father passed and her mother remarried a Hollywood animator, she ran away to evade her stepdad’s violence; she engaged in armed robbery, sex work and scamming to support her heroin habit. After an arrest with a partner in crime she spent nine months at a reform school, maintaining a steady gig as a church organist, finessing her chops through Bach suites and Ray Charles tunes.
It was only after serving time for forgery that she started writing songs and was discovered busking—after joining Crosby and Nash on tour as an opening act, a young David Geffen signed her to his fledgling Asylum Records for which she would make two records. In retrospective songcraft and sanctity, Judee Sill and Heart Food have been my longtime desert island disks—both are about as close as Laurel Canyon got to the Sistine Chapel; at once sacred and streetwise, her lush (self-orchestrated) arrangements rose to heights perhaps only rivaled by Brian Wilson’s famous “teenage symphonies to God.” Nevertheless, Sill remained unsatisfied with poor sales, reluctantly dragged in as a mismatched opening act for bands like Three Dog Night. After outing David Geffen on stage in the UK, he pulled support for Heart Food and dropped her from Asylum. In the midst of her demise, she kept pushing forward and began recording demos at ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith’s studio for an album she would never complete.
Throughout this year marked by grief lessons and the loss of that which has felt most familiar, I have often turned to the sermons of both young saints, departed one age apart, as compass and solace—no better nomenclature for their respective restorative properties than “heart food” or “the need for roots”—but not until recently did I properly sit with this compilation and learn its pearls shine brightest. Like Weil’s aphorisms at their pithiest, the material that makes up Dreams Come True is the music of the deracinated; the gravitational balladry of anomalous souls and the love cry for unity and supernatural bread.
Though the ethereal baroque gestures that mark her other two albums are traded off for a humble four-piece band, the sense of drive has never been more distinctive and undoubted; her propulsive piano accelerates and decelerates with the determination of a pastor in homily attempting to convert an entire congregation. A listener can only guess how an immaculate pop song like “I’m Over” would sound with patinated production by her completed hand, but it’s almost better that we have the undisputed master of the quiet mix Jim O’Rourke behind the boards—he brings out Sill’s signature humility and hardheadedness that could have been lost in major-label magic. Regardless, no songwriter, be they bandit or heartbreaker, has reflected on impending apocalypse and redemption with such calm and clarity—evidence that if an end or a new world order is indeed in sight, we all must come together and take heart. —Nick Zanca
Jeff Alexander - “Come Wander With Me” (unreleased, 1964)
This serene folk ballad is one of those songs, like Sybille Baier’s “I Lost Something in the Hills,” that feels like a siren call from an indeterminate past. Whether the YouTube algorithm plops it in your lap or its revival in independent cinema catches your ear, it speaks to that fragile part of you yearning for a simpler life. “Come Wander” is told in the register of a ghost story, as it evokes a dreamy traveler who once came to whisk the narrator away. It resonates in 2020 because it’s a missive, not a call to action. It doesn’t exist to convince others there was a ghost—it’s about the unspeakable tally of days since the sighting. He loves me, he loves me not. The song debuted on an episode of The Twilight Zone, which makes a lot of sense. “He came from the sunset / he came from the sea… and can love only me” seems straight out of that “wondrous land of imagination,” doesn’t it? In any case, the song never loses its otherworldly luster.
This is music to which you can coast through life. Time and again, I wade to the song’s false endings. Following a chorus and one standard verse, there are three phantom verses, carried by Beecher’s gorgeous humming. While this prolonged outro feels a bit like slogging through a flurry of identical days, there’s undoubtedly solace in its hypnotic repetition. Even a whisper of the beauty of those first two verses is richer than anything below these gray December skies. —Zachariah Cook
John Prine - “(We're Not) The Jet Set” (Oh Boy, 1999)
In middle school, our history teacher got the green light for us to do a music history project wherein each student was to present a song by a classic rock band, and then explain why that band was special. Some examples were provided by the teacher to the ooh-ing and aah-ing of most of the class. And when it came time for us to pick (first come, first served), I rushed to say Led Zeppelin, not because I knew who Led Zeppelin was or any of their songs (sorry Mariana), but because it was one of the bands he named as an example. I knew none of them.
Looking back, it was probably a fun project for most, but it wasn’t particularly fun for me—son of an immigrant, whose mother played zero popular music in the house—to pretend that he was invested in Led Zeppelin for 5 minutes. (Immigrant son, I presented “Immigrant Song,” naturally.) Years later, I can tell you why Led Zeppelin is special, but back then, I was just a small kid with glasses, made smaller by trying to remember the names of Robert Plant and John Bonham and who did what.
My mother did keep some weird various artists ‘best of’ compilation in the car, and the song I remember most fondly was Conway Twitty’s “Don’t Cry, Joni,” a very minor hit in the US in 1975, a country duet with his daughter wherein a young girl has a crush on her older neighbour who rebuffs her for her age. It’s as schmaltzy and gross as it sounds. But for the most part, my mother—who immigrated to Toronto from Wuhan in the mid-80s—never bothered with North American music. The language barrier certainly didn’t help, although she did nostalgically hum the big, blocky melody of “You Can Call Me Al” once and told me it was everywhere on the radio when she moved here.
What does this have to do with John Prine, you ask? He passed away this year, one of many who were lost to COVID. And so the album that I revisited most this year was his 1999 album of country duets, In Spite of Ourselves. “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” (a mid-70s single by George Jones & Tammy Wynette written by Bobby Braddock) is the opening song, and at first impression, it’s charming if not particularly special, that is, until the moment when the John Prine and Iris DeMent’s voices lock together in harmony backed by pedal steel. And when they do their little dance together, it makes me think of a time before COVID, memories in black-and-white: family road trips, my mother flying to Canada to start her new life, Paul Simon and cute country duets in the air.
The song features the comical and quintessential country line, “Our Bach and Tchaikovsky / Is Haggard and Husky.” I empathize. My classic rock was my mother’s CD of schmaltzy tunes, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. —Marshall Gu
“Blue” Gene Tyranny - Out of the Blue (Lovely Music, 1978)
“The music of another time often reveals the most intimate language of the people then, the images and emotions that they truly considered to be real and valued.” These words written by “Blue” Gene Tyranny in 2003 to introduce a historical overview of American piano music could just as easily describe his astonishing debut album. In four songs, the Texan pianist and composer created a singularly contained world with elements of pop, minimalism, jazz fusion, and poetry that opens philosophical doorways. It offers an invitation into the sweet, sincere (admittedly stoned) thoughts of Tyranny and his late ’70s Mills College contemporaries, resulting in an “experimental” album almost anyone in the world should be able to enjoy.
This is especially true for Out of the Blue’s effervescent opener, “Next Time Might Be Your Time.” On the surface it shares a sentiment with another hopeful love song, The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, but the key word is might. In her high, cooing voice, Patrice Manget sings pragmatically about leaving history behind and making a new space for one another, committing to “love and honor” with the caveat that she would have “to take the bother.” Its melodies are instantly hummable, but the song travels to surprising places with frequent diversions for sax solos from Peter Gordon and guitar breaks from Strawberry Alarm Clock/Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek across eight winding minutes. The clearest hint at the narrator’s true feelings are revealed near its conclusion, when Manget ponders disappearing from this lifetime completely: “Can you go back to before you were born?”
“For David K” swerves into a surprising new direction with funky instrumental jazz-rock featuring The Stooges’ legendary Steve Mackay on bari sax and only sparse reminders of the previous song’s orchestral pop before shrinking into a twinkling swirl. It sounds like the best moments from Frank Zappa’s catalogue without any of his gross-out humour or aggravating baggage. “Leading A Double Life” is the album’s most straightforward cut, providing a solo spotlight for Tyranny on piano and weezing pump-organ-like Polymoog as he is joined by singers Jane Sharp and Lynne Morrow. Their doubled vocals sound like a Greek chorus as they describe a man and woman drawing nearer from “the blue distance” without revealing whether this is waking life or a dream.
Out of the Blue’s greatest gift is its 25-minute closer, “A Letter From Home About Sound and Consciousness.” It begins with the chug of an approaching train like a predecessor to The KLF’s ambient concrète masterpiece Chill Out before introducing see-sawing strings and synths that evoke a UFO landing. Structured like a letter to Tyranny, the electronic pastoral tone poem flips between Sharp and Morrow’s choruses and Kathy Morton’s loving spoken word narration about the time they got stoned and shared “crazy ideas.” She describes simple stories of dancing late into the night, widescreen thought exercises (“consider four billion people walking around with slightly different things in their heads at any given moment”), and fantastical moments like a five-year-old who “started to speak Polish and recall his past lives.” It might sound like hippie dippy ramblings or love-dazed nonsense if it wasn’t for the caveats Morton includes alongside her poetic observations, grounding the words back on Earth and making them feel universal. “That light defines the area all around the train just as your love defines the way you see the life closest to you. Is that too corny, Blue? Well, you know, that’s how we are here. Write soon.” —Jesse Locke
I listened to Steely Dan every single day for at least the first 7 months of this year. It started last year with a playlist a friend made and metastasized quickly, growing until I quickly had no other room in my day to listen to anything else. My friends can show you the messages I sent them, the slow decline from the occasional remark about how good Ajais until I was quickly at rock-bottom, scouring youtube for bootleg concert vids and studio outtakes to get my fix. I read pages of analysis on the lyrics, I looked up the bass tab for Kid Charlemagne (I don’t play or own a bass); I learned the history of the band in intimate detail, looked up Barrytown on the map, and generally annoyed my wife and friends with my newfound passion for Steely Dan. I even decided that the later albums weren’t that bad after all.
I have reservations about sharing my personal grief for public gain so I will spare you my sob story, and I will further spare you the usual pablum about how music is a balm for troubled times. The year-plus that has passed in my life since Thanksgiving 2019 has been bad for me in purely personal terms, above and beyond the bizarrely shitty year the entire world has shared. The sheer, selfish, pleasure of music was on many days the only thing that felt good enough to pursue. Why did my brain pick Steely Dan as its life preserver? No clue. We all know that music can allow one to feel and be free when nothing else will, allow one to connect and share one’s soul with others and be less alone, but the true reasons we love the things we love have always been a mystery to me, one I doubt I will ever crack. —Samuel McLemore
The Pointer Sisters - “Dirty Work” (Planet Records, 1978)
I can’t remember the first time I actually heard “Dirty Work,” but I can precisely recall several times while listening to it over the course of the sticky, incessant summer of 2020—a time that often felt like a blur of inescapable sameness in itself—that I experienced this dawning, horrific revelation: this song is going to be part of my life forever. Everyone knows at least one that would be the perpetually looping background track to their entire life, the one that would cue up like clockwork every morning and gradually drive them into hysteria if they were stranded in a time loop (à la Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” in Groundhog Day, or Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” in Russian Doll). This purgatorial soundtrack is not necessarily your favorite song, but it remains an undeniable reflection of yourself. The moment you realize a certain song has grafted onto you in that way is akin to the giddy, transcendent humiliation of letting yourself admit you have feelings for someone after attempting for ages, in vain, to stifle them.
The song’s original iteration, as a Steely Dan track first released on their debut 1972 album Can’t Buy a Thrill and immaculately performed by David Palmer, is likely its best known—but the “Dirty Work” that always hits hardest for me is the Pointer Sisters’ cover from six years later, off their successful but now somewhat forgotten album Energy. “Dirty Work” is far from the only cover on the album, which also includes renditions of songs originally performed by Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, and Sly and the Family Stone among others—and yet it’s one of the only covers I’ve ever heard that manages to profoundly transform the original through such minor alterations.
“Dirty Work” describes a relationship dynamic that seems deceptively easy to grasp: someone, ensnared in a clandestine affair with another who is already married (or at least somehow spoken for) laments the thanklessness of their situation. Yet the subject feels boundless in its psychological complexity—even as the chorus keeps insisting that the speaker has had enough, that they know they deserve better than to be repeatedly demeaned and taken for granted by a lover, the sheer, incessant number of times it repeats suggests that they still can’t convince themselves to leave. That contradiction is embedded in the song’s bones, from the disjunct between the song’s unassumingly orthodox, radio-friendly melody and its unresolvable lyrics to that saxophone solo that feels simultaneously glorious and forlorn. It’s a song that pitch-perfectly inhabits the tension between attraction and abjection, the inherent fatalism of any lopsided desire, the deeply human tendency for the force of any given all-consuming and unbidden longing to always overcome your abstract recognition that it’s not good for you: “I foresee terrible trouble, and I stay here just the same.”
While Palmer’s delivery in the original feels even-keeled, even angelically serene in its resignation, Pointer’s is plaintive, urgent, and unapologetically wrenching—you can hear it in the way that “do” in the chorus descends ever so slightly instead of reaching higher like Palmer’s, as if gesturing to a depth of feeling that would be genuinely dangerous to keep pursuing downward. You get the sense that there’s much more at stake here. Spiritually, it seems to have less in common with the Steely Dan original than it does Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs”—a song coincidentally released halfway in between the two versions—that likewise grapples with the uniquely heartfelt hell of knowing you’d be willing to give all of yourself to someone who’d only ever keep you at arm’s length.
I still always feel some degree of self-conscious ridiculousness whenever I play this song and feel that hot, thrumming nerve of connection—after all, what could I, as a cosseted 22-year-old who’s seen so little of the world and still earnestly believes in true love, really know of this degree of pain? Yet the resonance of “Dirty Work,” to me, lies in that unexpected communion. Those languid, wilting guitars still conjure up the fond, golden monotony of the summer I spent quarantined in my central Virginia college town, a place that now feels like a bubble universe I can never return to: seeing the same exact friends every day, spending every night nursing nicotine addictions on the same apartment building’s ever-decaying brick stairs, the general sensation of having been cast in a long-running sitcom that none of us had ever explicitly auditioned for. “Dirty Work” became the soundtrack of meals always cooked together; the reliable standard of sincere, drunken singalongs; the implicit backing track to every conversation during which we speculated if maybe we really were doomed to get ourselves caught in the same inane romantic resentments over and over again. I miss the honeyed inertia of that summer even as I know how listless it felt, how objectively regressive it would feel to slide back into that familiarity since having carved out another life for myself in a new city hundreds of miles away. You could say the song itself is a metonym for this kind of incoherent nostalgia. Every time I hear Pointer croon, “I’m a fool,” I always feel the bittersweet swell of identification. I can never get enough of it. —Aline Dolinh
Lucinda Williams - “The Fruits Of My Labor” (Lost Highway, 1992)
What business do you have in this room, baby, dressed like you are to sing. Meanwhile, the orchid you bought, refusing the light. What business do you have, collapsed like me. Baby, what do you need to be holding? Not the gloom, unless you make a show of it. Lavender projected on the wall, only abstract, for the sake of this hour I want to call a dream. What I want from you, baby, is a pageant. Velvet in a pile. Gown or curtains, depending on the mood. I arranged what I thought I might need. Wine from last night, one that begs you to put on lace and go out in the grass. Blood orange for dessert because of how it gets all over your hands. Perfume intended for being supine on the floor of your kitchen, or simply waiting in bed for the day to end. I could stay inside and become a decadent kind of woman. Monochrome, no matter the season. I know I could sing like you do. I could also go out on the porch. I could cut off all my hair, or I could take off in my car, depending on the weather. —Caroline Rayner
The Grateful Dead - Europe ‘72: Grote Zaal De Doelen (Rotterdam, Holland 5/11/72) (Grateful Dead / Rhino, 2011)
In the simultaneous and debilitating throes of a three month stay in my parents’ house and a six month writing process for a thesis on early internet communities, I came to the sudden and disarming realization that the Grateful Dead rule. I had encountered the Dead in their various guises— a greatest hits CD lodged in every uncle’s 6-disc changer, 2003-2007, a copy of Workingman’s Dead in the used bin at the local record store—but had never delved into their live catalog until inspired by tales of 80s-and-90s message board heads trading tapes. I listened to this set first on Spotify (where essentially the entirety of the Europe ‘72 tour has resurfaced since its 2011 rerelease), but I could’ve heard the very same soundboard on the internet archive in 2004 or on the WELL in 1995 or even off rec.music.gdead in 1990 if I was willing to send Taylor Prize-winning mathematician Thomas J. Carter an email to join a sound exchange. But even if I were not aware of the great chains of tape swapping that make listening to the Dead special in a broader cultural/historical sense, I’d still be able to glean some of that cosmic glory from the highs of this Rotterdam set.
It’s easy to describe jam band sets as odysseys or explorations, but most of all this Europe ‘72 set is a workout, a collaborative show of expertise that builds out from the intertwined guitar lines of “Playing in The Band” and circles through the fragments of every worthwhile song these guys ever did. It’s expansive music—despite its meandering qualities, it is the only thing to focus on while it’s playing. This is magic like how any great live set is magic. It’s the inescapable illusion of being there surrounded by a few thousand rapt hippies 25 years before you were even born. It’s the movement down from the twirling arpeggios of “China Cat Sunflower” into the straight-ahead yearning of “I Know You Rider.” It’s 45 minutes for “Dark Star” and then 15 more for “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks).” It’s a joy of human experience, bottled up and allowed to wander through the currents of time and online space until it can wash up to you when you least expect you need it. —Jacob Kuppermann
DJ Screw - Bigtyme Vol II: All Screwed Up (Bigtyme, 1995)
When Bigtyme Volume II finally clicked for me this year, it did so with the force of a psychic jackhammer, blowing my skull into a million fragments (see album art)—this was one of the most life-changing musical revelations I’ve had in recent memory. It wasn’t immediate. I’d heard bits and pieces by DJ Screw, and I childishly thought I had it all figured out: it’s all just about a process—‘slowing things down’—one largely dependent on the quality, or fame, of the source material. It didn’t help that I became seriously interested in music around the time that watered-down SoundCloud Screw-disciples were in vogue and pitching samples up and down was the basic, unremarkable tool in every Ableton-jockey’s kit.
More recently, I also (foolishly) reacted against my early, largely sample-based rap interests, championing drill’s shrouded RPG MIDI sound as the only truth and dismissing ‘sample-based beats’ as if they were all ‘outdated’ or overly ‘nostalgic.’ (Coincidentally, this narrow-minded attitude made me skip over Some Rap Songs when it came out—a deadly mistake—and after revisiting it at Tone Glow writer Nick Zanca’s recommendation this year, it became easily one of my favorite albums of all time.)
But—obviously—there’s so much more going on here. The tearing, warped wall of strings on “Short Texas” unfolds with the intensity, and density, of shoegaze’s best, a rippling force field of sound crashing, wave after wave, against the steady, stretched breakbeat holding everything together. The iridescent, flattened G-funk lead and cavernous snaps on “Backstreets” move with the militant energy of Chief Keef’s best beats (and includes coughs rivaling Keef’s on “War”), only melted, an enveloping, three-dimensional blob of abstract shadow-rhythms anchored with stabs of speaker-shaking dub bass. This is truly earth-shattering music—and the best part is, Screw is only pointing out, drawing out, what was already there the whole time.
Yes, his ‘mash-ups’ are among his best work (“Tell Me Something Good”), but the power of his music comes from his almost mystical understanding of the source material pending screw, a perfectly-tuned ear that hears which funk sample, verse, vocal tic will work when ‘slowed down.’ And, far from being a ‘lone genius,’ his work is rooted in community, endless collaboration, geography, and limitless experimentation in the truest sense (just listen to any of the freestyle tapes featuring the Screwed Up Click—the greatest jam band of all time—to hear this at work). The frequent eulogies in his work—dedications to lost friends and family (“rest in peace...”)—root it in a singular time and place, reminding us that all music emerges from, and reacts upon, concrete circumstances, no matter how ‘abstract’ it purports to be.
To use a loaded word I’m actively trying to ‘reclaim’—a word often tacked onto Screw’s music, though usually on an extremely shallow and surface-level basis—Screw made psychedelic music in the truest sense of the word, free of its ridiculous, rigidified cultural connotations. In folding decades of music history and tradition into a single song by engaging in a recursive ‘sampling of samples (of samples...)’; in collapsing dozens of contradictory emotions—anger, joy, sadness, euphoria, nostalgia—together in the span of minutes, even seconds; in forcing the listener to engage in deep, patient listening over extreme durations; in formally fracturing time with perfectly-placed ‘chops’: Screw truly rewires our brains, changes how we listen in the most direct and literal way. The world, and music, will never sound the same to me. A switch has been flipped. To use an overly-simplified analogy (involving a creative duo I can’t seem to shut the fuck up about), Screw does with music what Straub-Huillet do with film: the latter reveal the centuries of blood, violence, life—history—hidden in the most ‘mundane’ landscapes, granting us X-ray vision; the former reveals the finest details of texture, composition, tradition, storytelling—history—hidden (in plain sight!) in every recording, every word committed to tape, every seemingly disposable intro and skit, granting us Screw-vision, a heightened and sharpened awareness, consciousness. “I will never be the same”: isn’t this what all great art should aspire to? —Sunik Kim
DJ Taye - “Trippin’” (Hyperdub, 2018)
I’m considering an idea that I heard about from a friend’s friend, that what we are exposed to as teenagers shapes the rest of our lives. It’s been 20 years since I first became enchanted by drum n bass and what we now prefer to call “electronic listening music” (from IDM.) Though my enthusiasm sometimes wanes for amen break variations and glitchy generative arrangements, l always itch, deeply so, for fast, hard, abstract, repetitive patterns in music.
During my quarantine year, I dreamt of parties of the future, idealizing myself as a DJ in a holographic maze of light in a new age of explosive consciousness, but what was missing from this manic fantasy was a tracklist. I realized I was out of touch with current movements in dance music and my passive dependence on algorithms to shape my taste was only reflecting a convincing illusion of my interests. And so it was, one late summer evening, I returned to early methods of discovery.
I remembered sites like AllMusic and how I could enter the name of an artist I like, like Container, and follow leads to related artists, producers, and moods. I followed these leads to Bandcamp, overturning recommendation after recommendation, purchasing albums and tracks with a credit card I hope to pay off with a stimulus check that may never come. This journey eventually arrived at DJ Paypal and the Teklife crew and Chicago artist DJ Taye and his 2018 Double LP Still Trippin’and the song “Trippin’.”
A couple years ago I asked a friend if he could name any psychedelic hip-hop artists I could look into and he replied that all hip-hop was psychedelic and I have been content with this answer, but I think this album, Still Trippin’, is what I was looking for. It scratches an itch with an average bpm of 160, beats that feel abstract yet human, an acidic sound palette, and trippy flowing lyrics. This album was released in 2018, but so much more came after that from DJ Taye and Teklife. Footwork has been internationally appreciated and reimagined for decades now, but artists like DJ Taye keep it connected at the roots and growing and fresh. It’ll probably continue to be the future of music for years to come. —Kendraplex
Nice & Nasty 3 - “The Ultimate Rap” (Holiday, 1980)
Exploring music for most of the first half of 2020 was disappointing. I was listening to lots of early house and hip-hop, hoping to find something that helped me feel better during a seemingly never-ending period of suicidality and unemployment. After months of trying with little to no reward, I was starting to believe that maybe the only music that was worth listening to was the music I had already found. Maybe it was true that people only ever really loved the music they find in their teenage years. But then, I found “The Ultimate Rap.” Finding this song reminded me that it’s worth searching; it made every mediocre song I heard over those months worth it.
“The Ultimate Rap” really does feel like it could have been the final hip-hop song. 9 minutes long, 8 verses, 3 emcees (Charlie D, Mexi-Ray, and Terry T). With a great beat based on a sample from “Rescue Me” by disco band A Taste of Honey, and lyrics ranging from typical hype-up lines to Western-themed come-ons to a political takedown of the American Dream myth, every moment shines. It should definitely be compared with other recognized classics like “The Message” or “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” The best part is about 5 minutes in, when they finish a group breakdown with the line “you make us want to transmute!” and the sample quickly transmutes itself by changing keys. With songs like these, the best way to learn about them is from YouTube comments. You can find out that the shoutout to Pumpkin is for the man behind the production, and that he has unfortunately passed. You can learn that this song, while released in 1980, was recorded in 1979, not quite before “Rapper’s Delight,” but close. Most importantly, you can see the positive impact that this song had on people, and the fond memories they have of partying to it. A highlight is Mexi-Ray himself commenting and expressing his appreciation for everyone’s kind words. I’m glad I found this song instead of just giving up, and I’m even more glad so many people found it before me. —Kirk Bowman
Olly Wilson - “Sometimes for Tenor and Tape” (New World Records, 1992)
What did 2020 reveal? Little good. I shouldn’t be surprised, although personally I’ve come to wonder if each time I feel surprised by depravity I’m really justifying my complicity in it. Anyway, the twin headfucks of pandemic time and the internet’s endless unfurling of content did bring music to my attention free from the new release cycles.
Olly Wilson’s Sometimes for Tenor and Tape changed my ears fundamentally, an extended holler more eerie and griefful than I could imagine before I heard it. It begins in whispers and electronic babble which pan like hands in the darkness searching for walls. Almost two minutes in, a high-pitched tone peals out and it sounds exactly like the beginning of my iPhone’s Sci-Fi ringtone, and because nobody uses the phone to reach me except for bad news, I jump.
Wilson, of course, couldn’t have known we’d all carry alarm bells in our pockets back in the American Bicentennial year in which he composed Sometimes; he went on Guggenheim Fellowships to Ghana and opened Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music and taught at UC Berkeley while formulating his own brew of African, Black, and electronic rhythm and sound. But Sometimes is a work of prophecy nonetheless. Its vocal glossolalia gradually crystalizes into a duet of excruciating performances of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by the tenor William Brown, one live and one taped. “I ask,” Wilson said of Brown in a 1991 interview with Bruce Duffie, “to do a wide range of extremely virtuosic techniques. He’s all the way up to about a C and D and a falsetto E flat, and at the same time rhythmically he’s asked to do a lot of very, very interesting, complicated things.”
Interesting and complicated things, for sure: Brown throws his rich voice to the heavens, scrapes the ground with it, runs and volleys and hisses and chants with it, while echoes and drones attend him. It’s Black Power Electronics. To my ears, Coil and Diamanda Galas and Dreamcrusher and Shannon Funchess and M Lamar follow, though the devastation in these 25 minutes are all its own, and certainly not for me to claim. It exists not to reveal anything to me. I heard it in a loud year of agonized duets with recordings of agony. —Jesse Dorris
Sapphogeist - “Mar A Lago” (BANK Records NYC, 2017)
It seems that it was more-or-less impossible to make good art about the presidency of Donald Trump. Unlike previous populist fascists, who inspired great works of art by everyone from Picasso to punk rockers, Trump’s presidency was, evidently, so nakedly ridiculous as to leave nothing else to say. It simply happened. The one exception I’ve encountered, in all four years, is Sapphogeist’s brilliant ‘Mar A Lago’, from her 2017 debut album of the same name.
The song begins with a Trump impersonator delivering a modified version of Martin Sheen’s opening monologue from Apocalypse Now. Honestly, this is the rare work of art which changed how I interpret another work of art; though I will always love Apocalypse Now, Sapphogeist’s appropriation manages to puncture the inflated machismo of the original in a way that’s difficult to forget. When I last rewatched the film, after a dozen or so listens of this song, I found myself laughing all the way through Sheen’s ponderous, gravelly recitations.
However, the monologue also works without a background knowledge of its source. Taken on its own, the speech paints a dark portrait of a weak man, facing a job he didn’t want to do, dreaming of his ‘safe space’—an Italianate resort on the Florida coast. Yet the relationship between the man and his property is not simple. It seems that, although Trump craves the safety of Mar-a-Lago, he also knows that it is somehow siphoning his energy, making him “softer, smaller”: as the Trump impersonator intones, “I get weaker... she gets stronger.” The resort has an almost supernatural hold on the president, drawing him back into its confines, again, and again, and again. This nearly-vampiric relationship is cemented when Sapphogeist begins to sing in character as the resort, addressing Trump directly:
Hello, are you a success, / You disgrace?
Are you a boy? Are you a man? / Well I’m a place.
In Sapphogeist’s rendering, Mar-a-Lago is not only conscious; it’s malicious, manipulative. Mar-a-Lago stood for sixty years before Trump purchased it in 1985, and we get the sense that the resort is well aware of this. It knows that it predates Trump, and that it will outlive him, too. Mar-a-Lago is confident, almost seductive, even as it confesses the symbiosis of its relationship with its owner and most loyal guest:
I’m old enough to know / I’m big enough show
In Spanish marble and gold / I’m unforgettable
Wherever you go, I’ll go
Mar-a-Lago, the resort, taunts Trump, emasculates him—and yet, it misses him too. It wants him. And he wants it—or should I say her? The lyrics artfully convey the feeling of a strange, psychosexual bond between the 45th president and his beloved resort. Each, on some level, views the other as an enemy: Trump realizes that Mar-a-Lago is feeding off of him, while the resort views its owner as a “disgrace,” as the weakling he truly is. Yet, at the same time, each of them needs the other. They are locked together in a toxic but inseparable relationship; two sick, sour souls who deserve no better than each other.
I wouldn’t say that the song makes me any more sympathetic towards Trump, exactly. However, by transforming a rather garish Florida resort into a sentient, voracious, Shining-like entity, Sapphogeist hits on some truth about the president’s real addiction to his favourite piece of property. This is a song about a man lost in his own personal war; who stumbles through his new, unwanted life so baffled, so paranoid, that he thinks a hotel is plotting against him—and, in Sapphogeist’s vivid rendering and mocking delivery, we almost believe it, too. —Mark Cutler
Lester Bowie - “The Great Pretender” (ECM, 1981)
This year, jazzstandards.com has served as a sort of emotional crutch for me. There’s comfort in finding myself moored to a familiar tune or a set of chords even as the song itself changes radically across each interpretation. And I’m forever thrilled by the way music can fold back on itself, tying personal memories to collective ones. I’ve been thinking about how Dexter Gordon, among other musicians, would recite the lyrics to his audience before playing a standard. As a song changes contexts—as it shifts, maybe, from something sung by a character in a musical to a hit on the radio to a springboard for bop improvisation, what changes? What stays the same?
It’s not a typical jazz standard, but I can’t stop listening to Lester Bowie’s version of “The Great Pretender.” You’ve probably heard the doo-wop original, written by Buck Ram for The Platters. Lester Bowie’s version is magic to me—he explodes “The Great Pretender” into a seventeen-minute saga, moving from a spiritual introduction that feels fitting for his first ECM album to a burning R&B section to bop solos and beyond. Both Bowie and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett are so deeply expressive here, practically shouting through their instruments, pushing the band further and further out into free jazz territory. But as avant-garde as this interpretation is, it feels unique to me in its fidelity to the original. Bowie’s arrangement consciously retains the pop signifiers of the Platters’ original—the doo-wop harmonies, the piano’s pulsing rhythm. And I can’t describe his opening solo as anything but voicelike—it’s impossible for me not to hear every lyric in my mind.
The original version of “The Great Pretender” is such a sad song, and it must be relatable to just about everybody, but I think there’s a wink to it, too. It’s such a dramatized song—to perform a song about the pain that comes from emotional performance with lines like “I’m wearing my heart like a crown” strikes me as at least a little bit funny. Lester Bowie’s enormous “Pretender” is big enough to hold it all: the sincere sadness, the self-deprecating humor, the deep desire to bare your heart. And at the end, when someone (I don’t know if it’s Bowie himself or it’s David Peaston or Fontella Bass, who both sing on this song) laughs and says “I’m here, baby… I’m here… I’ve arrived,” there’s some kind of triumph, a new sense of “Great.” —Kevin McKinney
Luc Ferrari - Petite Symphonie Intuitive Pour Un Paysage De Printemps (BV Haast, 1990)
I’ve always been obsessed with storytelling, and particularly abstract narrative in music. When I make stuff, I’m almost always thinking in narrative terms while improvising or building a piece. There’s always a push and pull between the present moment, and telling a larger story. In search of inspiration and a way into musique concrète, I found myself on a certain strangely named synth forum, and came across a post from the great Jim O’Rourke suggesting some pieces that combine narrative elements and electronics. This Ferrari piece was the first on his list and I quickly bought the reissue from Recollections GRM and gave it a listen.
The whole thing has this great air of mystery that immediately brought me in, and the bits of conversation that are scattered throughout reinforce the trip that you’re taken through as the protagonists trek deeper into the French Gorges of the Tarn. The flutes used throughout reminded me of the pan pipes in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and the way Ferrari uses the stereo field is all encompassing and inspiring. The piece hit me hard, coming around right when the pandemic was keeping all of us inside, and walks became the new normal. I was in the habit of going on long walks with my toddler in stroller and dog by our side. I immediately associated this piece with our changing environment as now these walks in the neighborhood had turned into slow journeys through a new ghost town, the flutes symbolizing the wind blowing through the empty streets, and the light percussion reminding me of the stroller rolling through the cracked and broken sidewalks. —Scott Burton
Black Baron - Abject Skin (Blood Moss, 2015)
In a year of solitude and timelessness, it only feels natural to return to one of the loneliest periods in post-punk. I’ve always been fascinated by the sparse feed of the early 2010s: Masshysteri, Balaclavas, Stalin Gardens, Hateful Abandon, those singular and forgotten bands that slipped away just after Pitchfork’s post-punk revival and just before the NME’s London art punk. But Ontario’s Black Baron is the most singular of them all. The band’s digital history is sparse, consisting of a handful of sets with <500 views on YouTube, some archived one-paragraph reviews. Apart from a few stray singles, 2015’s Abject Skin is their sole release, and it sounds like they knew this: that it would be their only chance, and that everything they’d ever have to say would be delivered in just thirty minutes. There is no regard for genres; officially, you can call this post-punk, the same way you can, disastrously, classify Chipmunks on 16 Speed as such. There’s a black metal edge to the riffs, a shoegaze sensibility to the unrelenting wall of sound; you can just forfeit altogether and call it noise rock. But in truth, there is nothing here but a desperation and a hope and a hatred that just happens to be channeled through guitars.
Abject Skin metastasizes fury and momentum in every note and every calculated hook. It’s in the cascade of lament at the end of “Divine Chains,” or the full-body shiver at the end of “Sullen Skies.” There are brief moments of pain in a paradoxical gentleness, like the way the guitar— only briefly—rises, and breaks free of the vocals at the end of “Canary in a Mineshaft” but Abject Skin never lets itself rest entirely. Every track is fused together in an unrestrained stream of anger, an unrestricted momentum that never dips below 150 BPM, and unintelligible proto-doomer lyrics that sing of decay and thirst and sullen narrators. It’s a brief, firecracker-like stream-of-consciousness where all the words finally fit together, like someone who was once a friend holding your hand in the early morning, right before she leaves for her terminal, and she has all these years to coarctate into one conversation, and you don't know her any longer but you let her hold you and you let yourself listen.
Listen to the loneliness of that moment, that last time you will ever see each other. Not the friend; you’re not looking at her. You’re looking into her eyes, but really you’re taking in the emptiness around her. You’re seeing the white contours of this airport as you know it now and never will again. You’re remembering the spaces around the people: the venues in your home country that will never reopen, the deserted stairwell at your old high school where you once looked out the window at the dew-jeweled grass and thought you were the only person in the world. Listen to the view on Abject Skin’s cover—at the paper-thin notion of its confines, at the mall in its permanent stagnancy, at the dead dream of ’80s decadence just out of-frame—and listen to yourself staring at it from the plexiglass ceiling. You look at the woman hurrying home, just off-center of the focal point, her face awash in the LED-blue light of her phone, and silently you know she’ll never get there. —Zhenzhen Yu
Pom Pom Squad - Ow (self-released, 2019)
Pom Pom Squad’s sophomore release Ow evokes a feeling of visceral heartbreak through a grunge aesthetic. The ringing guitars, defined melodies, and unrestrained vocals create an atmosphere of relentless sorrow. The project is a true powerhouse of pain. Angst reverberates off of punchy guitar riffs and tight percussion as Mia Berrin’s piercing vocal delivery strikes the audience with a raw vulnerability. The first single, “Heavy Heavy,” slams the audience with loud distorted guitars, an explosive hook, and wry lyrics that merit a chuckle and a good cry.
Ow’s alluring narrative structure makes the project feel alive. Each of the seven tracks feels representative of a different layer of heartbreak and depression. Upon hearing “Ow (Intro),” the listener is given the exposition of an unsuccessful relationship which is eventually echoed in the final track, “Owtro”. “Honeysuckle” and “Again” suffocate the audience with its sorrow-drenched vocals and stripped-down guitars. There’s a strong physicality to the heartbreak and depression described in the detailed lyrics. “Cut My Hair” drops the raucous energy the past tracks and flourishes into an understated song of self-acceptance. In just over 20 minutes, Pom Pom Squad manages to deconstruct the nuances of anger, loneliness, and growth. Ow cuts out all potential fluff and excess, putting emotions first and letting the music follow. This project doesn’t hit, it punches. Even the quieter moments on the tracklist aren’t calm; they’re the silence after the battle. They’re the cathartic release of knowing that it’s over and you’re still standing. —Grace Ann Natanawan
The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop, 2003)
As a South African living in the States, I am always playing cultural catch-up. Though I grew up relatively engaged with and surrounded by a lot of American media, I am consistently surprised by how many albums, movies and TV shows I haven’t experienced that are considered staples in American culture. As a result, I have become a cultural sponge; one mention of a fundamental piece of American cinematic or musical history and I am all over it.
This year, I discovered The Shins, and specifically their sophomore album Chutes Too Narrow. An author mentioned the album in a book, not so subtly denigrating it for being a “bad album to love” because of how celebrated it is in indie/alternative circles. Having never heard it before, I became fascinated. It seemed to me like the classic case of popular music fatigue, that brutal cycle that all good art goes through: from loved to overloved to embarrassingly overrated.
It’s odd to come across a piece of work that has gone through this cycle, something that many have strong opinions on—that the mainstream may consider to be seminal—and to be able to listen to it with a clear mind. In some ways, it’s a privilege. I listened to the album multiple times as the pandemic hit and instantly fell in love. The track that captured me was “Young Pilgrims,” in which the title of the album is embedded. I simply could not stop playing it. The guitar work was mesmerizing; the fullness of the sound produced by one instrument (albeit layered) paired with earnest vocals gave off a certain purity that I found to be dream-inducing. The sound became the soundtrack of my early quarantine, and as I continued to listen to the album I gathered more favorites, most notably “Pink Bullets” and the infectious electric guitar break toward the end of “Turn A Square.”
Falling into a well done, structurally simple album amidst so much chaos was a wonderful experience, and I definitely came to understand why this album is considered essential in so many ways. There was so much to enjoy even apart from the sonic beauty of the album. Mercer’s lyrics are the type that are hard to shake, and his emotion a refreshing experience. Months after first listening to the album, I stumbled across an interview with the author who led me toward it. He said he regretted using it as an example of a “bad album to love” because, he had to admit, it really was just a good album. —Gail-Agnes Musikavanhu
ABBA - The Visitors (Polar, 1981)
In a year characterized by boredom and anxiety, ABBA’s The Visitors has been a musical life preserver. My introduction to The Visitors occurred right before the beginning of quarantine, when my friend Walter played “Head Over Heels”; I was instantly hooked.
Diving into the work of ABBA is like discovering the codex for modern pop music. Their melodicism is a potent drug: sweet and at times borderline cloying, but also inventive enough that you just want to listen again and again and again. My girlfriend can testify to this: I played “You Owe Me One” twenty times in a row at one point, which resulted in this album being banned from my house.
I later read that even the band disliked the song, referring to it as “a jingle”—evidence that artists are often the poorest judges of their own work. “You Owe Me One” is a confection, but it’s also a pure distillation of what makes this period of ABBA—their ultimate form, their final song cycle—so great. The song is absolutely packed with hooks, from the opening guitar/synth line to the backing vocals throughout. The track also gets a bit experimental, with dueling gated drum parts in the chorus. Truly, there is more melody in just the verses of this one song than some acts manage to fit into an entire album.
While ABBA’s earlier work was pure immaculate pop, The Visitors ups the ante with interesting arrangements, studio trickery and a production aesthetic that you can dive into and swim around in—early 80s DCO polysynths and glossy compressed drums, brilliant use of vocal harmony and counterpoint, screaming guitar work—and a collection of songs with great emotional breadth, from bombastic and stagey (“Head Over Heels”) to wistful (“Soldiers”) and pure pop (“One of Us”).
As 2020 draws to a close, I’m still feeling isolated, bored and anxious, but then I put on The Visitors and become entranced by its hooks, pleasantly lost in its harmonic twists and turns, and wrapped up in the weighted blanket of its early 80s production. There’s always so much to discover here. —Isobel “Pet” Ward
Xray Xperiments - “Take No Chance” (Xray Recordings, 1991)
Many of my recent music discoveries fall into what I call “proto-genre”: stuff released either well before or just before formal description. Unfortunately, I’m not alone here: a global pandemic and the internet’s tendency to both democratize and flatten discourse means that my content addiction is supplied by competing players: reissue labels, glossy journalism, self-mythologizing music writers, a rat’s nest of YouTube uploaders, high fashion brands ready to gentrify rave culture, DJ livestream platforms, and—probably the most inscrutable—the inner machinery of streaming platforms. As Geoffrey Sumner said in 1958, “this is a journey into sound... a journey which along the way will bring to you new color, new dimension, and new values.”
Some of these discoveries help me recontextualize my heritage and childhood, like Charanjit Singh’s 1982 proto-acid house record Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, SC Sharma’s 1972 experiment in proto-minimal techno at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design (NID), or A.R. Rahman’s interpolation of jungle in “Shakalaka Baby” (Mudhalvan, 1999). Others bring me new appreciation for music of my adulthood, like Mikel Rouse’s proto-footwork on 1984’s Quorum. And some just scare the shit out of me, like Spotify’s algorithmically demarcated genres “new isolationism” and “escape room.” But the big one, the one for 2020, is Xray Xperiments’ “Take No Chance,” produced by Steven Rutter and Michael Golding (who later became B12).
On its surface, “Take No Chance” is typical for a ‘91 breakbeat hardcore tune. There’s the punchy piano riff, stolen from Italo house (Hipsters’ “Remember,” 1990). There’s the wailing yet vague vocals (“feeling a desire to go out and dance / come take my hand, boy / ooh, let’s take a chance”, etc.), also nicked, this time from 1987 NY garage house. There’s the Hooveresque synth, buzzing like a bumblebee around the vocals and sub-bass. But what’s this? Usually breakbeat hardcore drums are rolling, live-sounding, a little blown-out. These are composed, tight, like hitting a speed bag with velvet gloves. And the counterpoint between those drums and vox are the template for UK garage, nearly two years before Matt Jam Lamont would release “Feel My Love” as The Jam Experience.
Here’s the thing, though—was “Take No Chance” unambiguously the first UK garage track? Two years is eons in rave time, and “Feel My Love” was apparently produced in 1991. So who knows, ultimately? Maybe we’ll uncover a new dubplate and the race will continue. So many genres were cross-pollinating during the collective high of the late 80s and early 90s: Belgian New Beat, bleep techno, industrial music, NY rap, hip-house, UK garage, acid house, breakbeat hardcore, Baltimore club, jungle, drum and bass—all pre-Internet. Can you even assign a song to one genre if they were constantly combining?
Maybe Simon Reynolds was wrong about calling hardcore a continuum. A continuum implies a sequence. I think it’s a mycorrhiza, where the fungi are the psychotropic substances du jour. Or something.
Sherine - Garh Tany (EMI Music Arabia, 2003)
At the turn of the millennium, the dance-pop coming out of Egypt was the envy of the world. Its fusion of Eurodance, Latin pop, and folk music was spellbinding—deep-voiced divas wailing their hearts out in an unfamiliar scale over four-on-the-floor beats punched up with darbuka counter-rhythms, Andalusian guitar strums, and canned orchestral string runs. I remember it fondly, even though I have never set foot in the Land of the Nile—at the time Bollywood reliably ripped off the Middle East’s greatest pop hits, and who could blame them? Hip French discotheques played it, an entire generation of American hip-hop producers collected it, networks of tastemaking blogging sites disseminated it—everyone wanted a piece of its magic.
Sherine (or Shirene or Shereen, Arabic has no standard English transliteration system), is an Egyptian singer who is known first and foremost for her show-stopping voice, which is androgynously low and has an indescribable and unique timbre. And nowhere is her talent used better than on Garh Tany, her solo debut and a fine collection of dance-floor scorchers and anguished ballads. It’s most popular single, “Sabry Aalil,” is a monster of a track, and a paragon of this Golden Age of Egyptian dance-pop. Listen to the music video version of it (it has a different and worse album mix): the beat is tense and complex and maddeningly addicting. Another, lesser diva like Latifa would sing here as if they were floating above the beat, but here Sherine attacks it, rides it, departs from it only to pounce upon it again—that’s the Sherine difference. And she does it again and again, just absolutely wiping the floor with what could have been album filler, like “Bos Ba’aa” and “Ana Fel Gharam.” And the ballads—well, okay, Sherine’s best ballads are still ahead of her. Still, though, her delicate vocal performance on a track like “Mategrahnish” is a thing of beauty.
I imagine that Sherine’s music does for me what city pop did for a lot of internet-damaged white millennials. I found it through the YouTube algorithms, for one, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to the fondly remembered music of my youth, not ’80s boogie in this case but upbeat Indian wedding pop. And it’s just different enough that my real nostalgia is confused with an imagined one, and I am moved from thinking of festivities past into longing for happy times that never happened, or perhaps happy times that are waiting to happen if I just hold onto this warm feeling. When I listen to Garh Tany, I feel a merry crowd of people that I have yet to meet enveloping me like a hug. Good! I am so tired of being alone. —Adesh Thapliyal
Sara Parkman - Vesper (Supertraditional, 2019)
Some songs indelibly imprint themselves with the time, place, and everything else surrounding you when you first heard it, and there’s nothing to be said about that. Strictly speaking, it hasn’t been all too long since I first heard Sara Parkman’s “Vreden,” but the past month may as well have been a day or decade (or both in once), and something within me knows that whenever I hear those tense opening strings tiptoe through my headphones, I will instantly be transported to a small moment circa late October, 2020.
The scene in my music video of the mind: a residential street near my apartment. I’m carrying two grocery bags. The sun shines through the branches, which are laden heavy with the recent leavings of an unseasonably early snowstorm; Halloween decorations sleep under a white blanket. Prematurely fallen yellow-green leaves carpet the wet asphalt. The town, the country, the planet holds its breath for the results of an election that may determine whether we will spiral ever faster towards environmental ruin, or we are granted one more chance to slow the death march on a large scale.
I don’t know if “Vreden” would have struck me as the unforgettable wild prayer that it did if not for the circumstances. On the other hand, perhaps it sounded like a prayer because it is one.
Parkman, a violinist and singer with a background in traditional Swedish fiddling, is also the child of a line of socialist preachers. Of her 2019 album “Vesper,” on which “Vreden” appears, she wrote that the music delves into Christianity, but not the brand peddled by the right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist party that gained six seats in the Swedish parliament in the previous year’s elections. “I have been inspired by texts by KG Hammar and Johannes Anyuru among others—two religious thinkers who let their faith make sense but also be a weapon against capitalism, environmental destruction and cynicism,” Parkman declared.
Take “Vreden,” for example, an antifascist psalm: “May God bless you with the forests of wrath,” she sings in Swedish. “May God bless you with the roar of anger,” she opens up her throat into a full throated howl that needs no translation. A choir answers her battlecry with encouragement: the wounds of anger help us create change. Then leave it onto someone who can use it. Then stitch your wound up; take time to heal, remember the power anger brought you.
Church music of many kinds leaves its stamp on “Vesper,” which is itself named after the traditional evening mass. The most on-the-nose instance is the reprise of opening track “Jag ropar,” where her father’s liturgical chant faces off with her; elsewhere, melodies descended from the mystical visions of Hildegard von Bingen tango with a choir belting out in visceral harmonies evocative of American shapenote singing. “Valven” ascends into the heavens on a cloud of alleluias. Even the tracks without any explicit religious content feel devotional; canticles for as-yet-unconducted rituals.
Part of me wishes I had stumbled on Parkman’s music earlier, but another part thinks she landed in my ears at exactly the right moment. A cloud of fear and malaise surrounds life in Month 7 of the pandemic, but at its core burns a white-hot ember of righteous anger—and to quote “American Gods,” anger gets shit done. —A.Z. Madonna
Arthur Russell - “Iowa Dream” (Audika, 2019)
I’m in college at the moment, living with a few friends. When I played them “Iowa Dream,” one line caught their ears immediately: “I’m riding my bike / I do what I like.” The naïve energy of Russell’s delivery was infectious, and we permuted his words to our hearts’ content: “I’m biking my ride / I like what I do,” “I’m liking my bike / I do what I ride,” etc. We kept the melody while substituting different phrases to describe our day-to-day mundanities, even if our substitutions didn’t make syllabic sense.
Russell’s friends and collaborators considered his pop instincts razor-sharp—a sentiment corroborated by my own experience; that hook from “Iowa Dream” briefly became my friend group’s definitive in-joke. His songwriting is disarming in its earnest simplicity—sensuous and emotional, yet pensive and reflective. The tunes he’s penned are impressively malleable, taking almost any shape while retaining their essential character. I guess that’s why they’ve stuck with both his friends and mine.
I also love how “Iowa Dream” begins: rapid scales run up and down, all circus-like, while session drummer Andy Paley barks and pants like a dog, announcing an imminent arrival the way a rooster heralds the rising sun. I’d have to feel quite comfortable to do what Paley pulls off in a studio environment, with other musicians watching. But at home? I know my friends wouldn’t mind barking along to “Iowa Dream” with me, indulging ourselves the way it so delightfully indulges itself. Without them, I don’t know how I would’ve made it this far. —Jinhyung Kim
This is totally cheating, yeah, but regular Tone Glow readers ought to know that I like to play fast and loose with conventions. I don’t really consider myself a “music writer,” anyway—just a person that occasionally has things to say about music and cloying thoughts about sounds—so maybe it’s best that I don’t stick too closely to what I’m expected to do. Last year, I didn’t have a whole lot to say about music. It was one of the worst years of my life, and when things get tough for me I retreat from everything—my friends, my hobbies, and pretty much anything I love. I don’t remember much of my 2019 aside from traumatic events, and at the start of 2020 I was pretty sure it was shaping up to be more of the same. I had to do something different. Repairing some of my atrophied friendships seemed as good a place as any to start, so I reached out to a certain Joshua Minsoo Kim—maybe you’ve heard of him.
Tone Glow had just pivoted to being a newsletter from its previous incarnation, which Joshua had asked me to write something for years prior, but I never did. There were probably two or three issues out at this time. I let slip that I might be interested in contributing, and that was his green light to bug me about it every time we talked. I distinctly recall the moment I relented, when I woke up to a Twitter DM that said “okay, it’s time for you to write now.” Honestly, I did it just to get him off my back. My first contribution was for issue 005, a review of Robert Haigh’s Black Sarabande. I was feeling a bit moody the day I wrote it, so I went for a walk as I listened to the album and pontificated about my surroundings and my place on this big ball of dirt. I thought it was a shit review; Joshua told me it was great.
It was a great experience to get some enthusiastic positive feedback on something I’d written, but it made me anxious too; I didn’t know how to deal with it. I sat out the next six issues, fully intending not to write anymore until Joshua checked in to see why I wasn’t contributing. My normal way of handling doubts and anxious feelings is to fade into the background and hope nobody notices me. It usually works. I probably would have made up some excuse or lied about being too busy to contribute, but I will confess: I had an opportunity to review the then-newest Inoyama Land album, and it sounded like fun. That review of Fuku-Ura in issue 012, in retrospect, is probably the moment I found my voice. I tried to write something a little more clinical and analytical, but I wasn’t liking the way it was coming out. I decided to let my heart bleed out into the Google Doc, and I actually wrote something I was proud of. I got some encouraging feedback on that review, and it was heartening to learn that people actually wanted to read the way I thought about music. It made me want to think about music more—and so I did.
Truthfully, I thought for a good long time about a “normal” 2020 discovery to write about for this issue, but I realized that I’ve already written about a majority of discoveries I was super enthusiastic about in the Download Corner sections of the newsletter. I wrote the first ones not written by Joshua, simply because he was pressed for time and stressed about getting everything done for the issue. I wrote about a Fluxus recording of a game of chess turned into a musical composition, and some field recordings outside of a Bali temple. It was fun to introduce things I love to an audience of sound-curious readers, so I wrote more of them—a lot more. I wrote about a woman who thinks she’s a dog, the most extra remix known to man, and, most recently, a 5 minute collection of bird songs. I feel like I’ve done it all justice the first time, so I didn’t really want to revisit anything I’d already written about.
When I think about the most significant music-related discovery I made this year, it’s not about any particular album or song—it was about finding my heart. Like I said, when I’m in a bad place everything suffers; I spend less time with the things I love and the people I love. Having a place to stretch out and grow, share ideas, and have a dialogue about those ideas helped me enjoy music again—more importantly, though, it helped me learn how to be a little bit more human again. I came out of my shell a bit more this year. I reconnected with old friends; I made new ones. These special issues aren’t supposed to have scores, but if you’ll allow me to defy conventions one last time...
Thank you for reading the forty-third issue of Tone Glow. Here’s to another year of loving older music.
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