One of my favorite albums of 2019 was titled I Am A Mountain. Despite it being an entirely instrumental album, Tom Pearo’s ambient guitar-driven odyssey came with a rich storyline, a mythical quest of light and darkness. Pearo’s first release since that Tolkien-esque epic is a three-and-a-half-minute single, “Love Wave.” Despite its more modest size, though, “Love Wave” is no less ambitious; he went from from a Mountain high above sea level to recording literally underwater.
In the endless year-end debate about to rank or not-to-rank, I generally fall on the to-rank side. Putting some albums on and not others is already subjective, so why not go full bore? But I do find that things get increasingly arbitrary the further down the list you go. There is a difference in my mind between #2 and #3. But between #22 and #23? No, not really.
So this year I’m wimping out and doing a compromise: 30 albums, #11-30 unranked, and then the ranked Top Ten at the bottom. A method sure to satisfy no one! Seems appropriate for 2020.
Elder Orange – Stella
Matt Scott, aka Elder Orange, wrote his new EP Stella inspired by his ’71 Stella parlor acoustic guitar. But despite the acoustic guitar-influence, singer-songwriter music this isn’t. Scott’s a producer and composer who builds immersive instrumental soundscapes incorporating that guitar here and there, but not beholden to it. In this case, he says, “Stella is a blend of a lot of my favorite sounds; dusty 60’s funk rock laced with boom-bap alt-latin vibes and gritty electro-fusion.”
Amelia Devoid – Counters
It’s not clear if this song was written in our current self-isolation, but even if it wasn’t, lines like this have a new resonance: “I’ve been wiping down counters / and counting down hours / ’til i can lay in the flowers again”.
Bad Rat? – Transitional Forest
“Transitional Forest” is billed as the lead single of Bad Rat’s upcoming album This Time Around The Sun, but it’s almost two singles in one. The first half is a bit of a feint, a meditative meander that doesn’t predict the drop to come. With little warning, Marc Kamil’s mellow ballad becomes thudding post-punk, little more than a shared guitar line connecting the two halves.
A2VT – You Ma Numba 1
“African refugees in Vermont” is the elevator pitch, but their music offers so much more than just the human interest story. A duo of singers and rappers who go by Jilib and Pogi, augmented by a rotating cast of friends, they sing in English, Swahili, Maay Maay and a combination they refer to as “Swahenglish.” This infectious love song doesn’t hit as hard as some of the higher-energy songs on their great new album Twenty Infinity, but the joyous and insanely catchy chorus will burrow its way into your brain for days.
Critics of ranked lists like this see it as a bug that they’re entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I see it as a feature. There’s not really any difference between #12 and #13. Frankly, there’s not all that much difference between #1 and #25. But my feeling has always been, everyone gets that. No one actually thinks you can mathematically rank works of art. But the trying offers a wonderful opportunity for music nerds to look back at the best of the year, and for the sort of vigorous debate on which such nerddom rests.
Ali T – Electric Haze
Alison Turner is an artist out of time. She’s a singer-songwriter, but not with the folky connotations the phrase often takes on. Rather, something like “Electric Haze” sounds made for radio. Late-’90s radio, that is, when artist like Jewel and Meredith Brooks were racking up top-ten hits. It wouldn’t have a chance today, but “Electric Haze” ably walks to tricky line of engaging with nostalgia while creating something new.
When I saw Vermont-based guitar wizard Tom Pearo deliver a masterful album-release show recently, he made a comment about how I Am A Mountain soundtracked a movie playing in his head. Something in the way he said it made me think he had more in mind than a band’s standard promo line about how cinematic their new album is. Sure enough, Pearo has a very specific story in mind. Think a coming-of-age road journey as told by J.R.R. Tolkien (which I realize basically describes Lord of the Rings, but most of the battles in Pearo’s movie are internal).
Adam Rabin – The Other Room
You’re going to want to sing along to “The Other Room” after a listen or two – but I wouldn’t. The sketches of plot offered sound like a sci-fi family dystopia, a Black Mirror episode for children.
The Cheyenne Brando – Samsonite
So thoroughly does Endtime Hymns evoke certain bands that one begins looking for echoes everywhere. Is the title “My Jean Sebring” a nod to David Bowie’s “Jean Genie”? Does “Poisonhead” reference ABC’s “Poison Arrow”? Was “Privacy of Lucy” inspired by The Cure’s “Pictures of You”? Each connection a greater stretch than the last, and likely none intentional. Christian Hahn does explicitly cite the heyday of post-punk and new-wave in his bio though, and, sonically, the comparisons are everywhere. His next song might as well be titled “Bizarre Love Triangle Will Tear Us Apart.”