First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Rockin’ All Over The World – How to build a great p...

Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Rockin’ All Over The World – How to build a great playlist of golden standards

Jack Hamilton for Unsplash

Sure 2020 was a terrible year, but quarantine, lockdown and time at home made for the production of tons of great music and time to listen to it; which made a best-of list harder to compile than ever. 

Here you’ll find a roundup of EPs, a bunch of other top notch albums and jazz.

Waxahatchee‘Saint Cloud’. Katie Crutchfield just gets better and better, changing themes, transforming, shining brighter, becoming brilliant. While far from country, it is an album in the grip of the genre, produced with warmth, texture and subtlety.

‘Lilacs’ uses a guitar sound reminiscent of Reggie Young on ‘Suspicious Minds’. ‘Can’t Do Much’, possibly the standout track, sounds like The Cranberries one moment and gentle Creedence in presence the next. Great voice, great tunes and the record Waxahatchee will always have to try to beat.

S.G. Goodman – ‘Old Time Feeling’. The warmest reverb guitar opens ‘Space in Time’ before Goodman’s bold voice bursts out introducing this debut album. Three songs in and we’ve heard doo wop, rock n roll and country. It’s alt country at its core, but explores so much more. Learning to sing in church, she turned to Jim James to produce and proclaims – from a left wing, gay perspective – the social ills of her Kentucky and American homeland.

Fleet Foxes – ‘Shore’. Straight off, it’s the soaring harmonies with beautiful instrumentation that takes us to the Foxes’ own sonic world which shines and beckons. Whether it’s sunny shimmer or foamy burble, ‘Shore’ is packed with musical references, from The Byrds to Elliott Smith, always with Robin Pecknold’s headey, euphoric brightness.

Kenny Roby – ‘The Reservoir’. Once part of 6 String Drag, Roby is now on a solo road. An indisputably good songwriter with his heart in Americana, folk and even croon land, driving compellingly catchy tunes which are clear headed, observant and courageous.

Bob Dylan – ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. The truth is that Dylan endures as the leader and the oracle. The album arrived organically during global lockdown, starting with the 17-minute, name-dropping, historical commentary that was ‘Murder Most Foul’. It was history and biography.

Then, weeks later, ‘I Contain Multitudes’. We just weren’t prepared for the delivery of ‘Key West’, the rollicking, muddy ‘False Prophet’ or the rowdy, bluesy, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed.’ Superb, again.

Bonny Light Horseman – ‘Bonny Light Horseman’. BLH, a kind of folk supergroup, takes Appalachian and English folk as its root, contemporises it and makes love, war and today’s societal mess, the stuff of a fabulous acoustic record. ‘The Roving’ is the exquisite, stand out track.

Drive By Truckers – ‘The Unraveling’ / ‘The New OK’. Two albums in a year, veering between hard rocking bombs, dirty south acoustic triumphs, contemplative political opinion and sociological commentary. Lockdown, Trump, American racial violence and bad boy attitudes pervade. ‘The Unraveling’ is the better of the two, but both are worth the time and the days.

Rose City Band – ‘Summerlong’. With touches of The Allmans, Creedence, Canned Heat and Dire Straits, and mostly in motoric 4/4, there’s nothing not to groove to on this album, the title of which conveys its emotional charge. Bright guitars, happy voices, good fun. We sure needed this record in 2020!

Courtney Marie Andrews – ‘Old Flowers’. With songs sounding in country balladry and their context inspired by breakup, Andrews delivers her saddest, best and superbly produced album to date. Her voice, always pristine, can leap like Joni Mitchell or show the stable perfection of Karen Carpenter. The songs are the vehicle for exquisite beauty.

Chuck Prophet – ‘The Land That Time Forgot’. This album is one Elvis Costello wishes he could have written and recorded in this new century. It starts off with the 60s soul-type ‘Best Shirt On’ and moves to cohesive pop, rock and country flavours.

‘Marathon’ is all rock n roll and synths. Then to the undertow of politics in America today, referencing gun control and love on ‘Love Doesn’t Come From The Barrel of A Gun’ owing a lot to Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve Of Destruction’ and James Taylor’s ‘Everyday’. Despite these moments, it’s fresh, original, songwriting seduction.

The Flaming Lips – ‘American Head’. If I had to give you a tonal touchstone for the Lips’ latest, it sits between the mellow, easy, acoustic parts of Pink Floyd and Neil Young’s beautiful piano ballads. Notwithstanding those pointers, this is definitely languid Lips back on form; symphonic flushes, electronic ambience, wah wahs, synth washes and psychedelia all finished off with Coyne’s high pitched, plaintive  delivery. It’s a new course, often revisiting their best albums, ‘Soft Bulletin’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – ‘Sideways To New Italy’. Whether it’s the Aussie jangle, the sunshine rock, woven glinting guitars or the mild state of lyrical disaffection, RBCF rise strong on album 2.  The sound is simple and bracing, the songs masterful and the riffs familiar, just what a great rock record should be.

Adrianne Lenker – ‘Songs’. Playing the crispest steel string guitar and carrying the most fragile of voices, this is Lenker’s first foray away from Big Thief. Pared down, naked representations of solitude and lockdown. A flawless, isolated and lonely companion piece to her Big Thief collaborations.

Jeff Tweedy – ‘Love Is The King’. Another in the line of endless gems in Tweedy’s solo output. The modern musical everyman has come up with a set of wistful, relaxed and content songs.  The electric guitar crunches and jabs that infiltrate here and there, serve as a reminder that this is a lockdown, quarantine album borne out of hard times, but the general tone is one of warmth.

Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Punisher’. Varied, accomplished, mature, eerie and poppy, Bridgers has come of a generational age, wearing her thinking on her elegant, folksy sleeve. The songwriting has matured too; deceptively simple, alienated and complex, giving voice to a world of blemished youth.

Fontaines D.C. – ‘A Hero’s Death’. Album 2 by the Irish 5 piece.  Darker, harder, less punk, more groove, sturdier, funnier, angrier, more disaffected. Could the title song be a post-punk, ironic nod to the Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’? Love the energy, love the alienation. Saturday night record for brave party goers!

Ray LaMontagne – ‘Monovision’. Gentle, powerful, underpinned by acoustic guitar melodies and growling basslines, in the pocket drum grooves and warm lead lines, the songs are a tremendous comeback from LaMontagne. Intimate, soothing and reassuring, the album marks a definitive and welcome return to form.

This Is The Kit – ‘Off Off On’. The new record presents a fascinating challenge from the get-go. Either the voice of Kate Stables darts around at angles, or the rhythms do, but while the songs are never straightforward, their coruscating acoustic brightness is a perfect backdrop for complexity that drills into your brain. Before you know it, the songs have become infectious, becoming simple, catchy and imposing.

Laura Marling – ‘Song For Our Daughter’. Marling continues on her songwriting hot streak , showing her usual acuity and seemingly, after showing Joni inspirations, has begun to inculcate the voicing and style of another Canadian, k.d. lang. Touched by hints of ‘Blackbird’ and Simon & Garfunkel, Laura emulates Joni’s blinding 70s consistency.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – ‘Reunions’. This guy is such a good songwriter, and now back with the 400 Unit, Isbell continues to flourish in his rich vein of form. Embedded in classic southern rock and gentle folk, delivered with a slight country drawl, it might be that the band has shifted him into a smoother sound or a more ‘Knopfler’ orientation.

Equally it might be that sobriety has put up a world of self-reflection, but whatever the cause, ‘Reunions’ (with what the ghosts of his past?) is a subtle, punchy leap forward.

Chris Stapleton – ‘Starting Over’. When I heard John Fogerty’s voice on ‘Born on the Bayou’, I was struck by everything Creedence, but headshakingly, Fogerty’s vocal power. When I came across similar power decades later, it was when I first heard Stapleton. Styled more country than rock, his voice is sheer rock force. Imagine my delight to hear a blinding cover of Fogerty’s ‘Joy Of My Life’ on his latest.  The power is evident everywhere, the mood is happy and Stapleton is in fine spirits. The songs are delivered with punch and are blessed with a great Nashville production.

Bill Callahan – ‘Gold Record’. As always, the fireside warmth of the opening words on any Callahan offering sets the tone for what one knows is coming. What arrives is always familiar, yet always different. Cynically named, as Callahan will never get a gold record, the wealth provided by a life’s journey manifests in a gentle, quiet, settled lifestyle of song stories.

Tap, tap on the high hat, fingers sliding on the neck, a bit of hushed oompah.  Lovely all round. Step aside Leonard Cohen.

Sturgill Simpson – ‘Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1’. When bluegrass hits like this, it’s euphoric, fun and technically wonderful. Sturgill is a veritable Zelig, moving from subversive country to all over rock and now, a remarkable lockdown album, reimagining 20 songs from his own back catalogue and giving them the flat out, bluegrass treatment.

Mandolin flourishes, banjo fills, flatpickin’ solos and flits of fiddle from the best session players on offer.  Yeehaa!!

Shirley Collins – ‘Heart’s Ease’. At 85, Collins has pretty much lost her singing voice, but not her songs or her love of them. The music is brightly acoustic, unmistakable, traditional Britfolk, with guitars following the melodies and fiddles and mandolins giving it a gentle charm. Collins’ voice is both sprightly and appealingly flat and homely. Trad folk songs like ‘Rolling in the Dew’ cross pollinate with dance celebrations like ‘Orange in Bloom’.

Colter Wall – ‘Western Swing & Waltzes’. If ever you wanted the perfect campfire, cowboy soundtrack to a laid back, yet epic storytelling movie of the Wild West, replete with mournful mouth harp and lap steel, you can start and end with the baritone of Colter Wall and this superb straight and true country record! No more needs to be said; just give it a listen.

Nadia Reid –‘Out of My Province’. Quiet and confident, coaxing and assured, delivered by the warmest love, there’s more pop here and better songs than ever. It may be out of her province, but the album touches a collective universality and enjoyment that’s bound to push her much higher on the singer/songwriter barometer.

H.C. McEntire – ‘Eno Axis’. With a voice and a production sound that is closer to Emmylou Harris than anything else, H.C. was always going to hit my splash point. Brushing her tone in a sonic gleam, she progresses musically on ‘Axis’.  Still sheened around the bleak but expressed with focus and clarity, this album provides more solace than we’ve heard before.

And for a good, but different cover, Zep’s ‘Houses Of The Holy’ gets a treatment you could only have imagined.

Kathleen Edwards –‘Total Freedom’. I’ve been a fan since 2005’s ‘Back To Me’. A coffee shop detour gave her time off and she’s back with more muscular songs, more songwriting acuity, an uncomplicated feel and polished, emotional pop songs.

The Dead Tongues – ‘Transmigration Blues’. Hiss Golden Messenger sideman and ‘on the road tale teller’, Ryan Gustafson recalls Dylan, Young, acoustic Stones, rich Americana and sweet harmonica, all imagined via the fast forward button to 2020.

RVG – ‘Feral’. Forever a sucker for The Go-Betweens shimmer, I was always going to be drawn to Melbourne’s ‘RVG’. On their second, they crank up the stinging guitars and turn on the swagger. Feral bursts with energy for good on a ferocious, untamed, garage pop record.

***

2020 The top EPs – The best of the rest

Listen on Spotify and on Apple Music

As digital consumers wanted frequency and not necessarily albums, a range of great ep’s saw release dates in 2020.

Of all of these, Josh Ritter’s ‘See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion’ – more a ‘mini album’ of outtakes – is as good as many other’s best efforts.  It’s just excellent, really.

‘Time Is Wasting’ could be an outtake of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’, but it’s just another testament of the excellent Ritter. Also among the best of them was Kurt Vile’s ‘Speed Sound Lonely KV’, a partial collaboration with the late John Prine.

Jonathan Wilson’s ‘El Camino Real’ abandoned his ‘post Laurel Canyon’ sound for country and featured violinist Mark O’Connor, while Tyler Ramsey’s ‘Found A Picture Of You’, took its title from a line from The Pretenders’ ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ which he covered.

Isobel Campbell’s ‘Voices In The Sky’, was an ep of covers, of which The Association’s ‘Never My Love’ was the standout track.

Yo La Tengo’s Sleepless Night’, comprises a mix of originals and covers recorded over the past 20 years.

Lastly, The Dirty Projectors released 5 ep’s this year, now aggregated under that title.  I started with ‘Windows Open’, a typical zig zag affair.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ was a welcome release, back with the E Street Band. The material shifted from acoustic to trademark rockers, following a loose narrative about a life in a band.

Soul jazz man Maceo Parker was back with the funky ‘Soul Food’.

‘Jerry Joseph’s ‘The Beautiful Madness’ could have been 2020’s third Drive-By Truckers’ release, backed as he was backed by them on this bare, politically charged record.

As expected, Garcia Peoples ‘Nightcap At Wits’ End’ jams away, but is more tightly constructed this time around, where Josh Teskey & Ash Grunwald strip away from the expected soul, exploring blues on ‘Push The Blues Away’.

The Magnetic Fields abandoned epic works and squirted out ‘Quickies’, 28 fun, sometimes provocative, songs over 47 minutes. The Bahamas’ ‘Sad Hunk’ is an album of funkily produced roots rock.

The Kronos Quartet’s album of folk standards with a range of vocalists, ‘Long Time Passing’ is a fine record which includes a beautiful rendition of ‘Mbube’.

The Kronos featured Sam Amidon’s ‘Sam Amidon’ gave us more of his unique voice and light, thoughtful folk.

Seth Lakeman’s trad folk sea voyage of the Mayflower is beautifully told and played on ‘A Pilgrim’s Tale’ while M. Ward’s ‘Migration Stories’ is folksy and spacey, as expected.  

Blitzen Trapper ‘Holy Smokes Future Jokes’ is easygoing, new folk.

Brent Cobb ‘Keep ‘Em On They Toes’ is dang relaxed country folk, touching J.J. Cale at times.

Damien Jurado’s ‘What’s New, Tomboy?’ expands the sound palette, but is a return to gentler times.

Dawes’ ‘Good Luck With Whatever’ continues their 70s Cali folk rock, albeit with a harder tinge.

The Explorers Club popped up a double of nostalgic Beach Boys/Bacharach influenced type vacation chill on ‘The Explorers Club’/’To Sing And Be Born Again’ while Gill Landry’s ‘Skeleton At The Banquet’ is a run through a fabulous collection of folk tunes.

Grant-Lee Phillips ‘Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff’ picks up from his ‘Widdershins’ sound

Ron Sexsmith, Canadian tunesmith extraordinaire and not far from Macca or Rufus in voice, gave us ‘Hermitage’.

The National’s Matt Berninger delivered his first solo album, ‘Serpentine Prison’, which was both touching and warm and is somewhat unadorned relative to his more recent records with The National.

James Elkington’s ‘Ever-Roving Eye’ displays his guitar virtuosity and for fans of the acoustic Jethro Tull, you’ll get that channel among the influences.

Joachim Cooder, percussionist son of Ry, gave us the sensitive ‘Over That Road I’m Bound’ and Elvis Costello released the meditative and diverse ‘Hey Clockface’.

Kevin Morby’s ‘Sundowner’ is his best for some time.

Steve Earle & The Dukes’ ‘Ghosts Of West Virginia’ was a long time coming; a concept country album with deep worker roots.

George Ogilvie’s ‘White Out’ was good indie, ambient soft rock, touched by folk that worked, while the barely known Borrowed Books ‘Shorting Out And Longing’ was one of the year’s most thoughtful and well hooked pop albums.

My abiding love of the sheer force and velocity of Hüsker Dü usually means that Bob Mould gets a reckoning and ‘Blue Hearts’ is no different.

Another big return is Pearl Jam’s  ‘Gigaton’, their best for years, even channeling ‘Remain In Light’ era Talking Heads.

The Vacant Lots’ ‘Interzone’ was a minimalist, synth popping electronica loaded fun, steering to the 80s most of the time.

Laura Veirs’ ‘My Echo’ finds her still brushing her tonal palette in a sonic ‘carbon glacier’, but with movement into more beats.

Anna Burch is all indie guitars on the rock tinged ‘If You’re Dreaming’.

Aoife Nessa Frances skips between archaic drum machine and sweet acoustic on ‘Land Of No Junction’.

Soccer Mommy still layers her insouciant voice over sheets of guitars on what I hope will be a breakthrough album, ‘Color Theory’.

The Beths hit the crunchy, rock road on ‘Jump Rope Gazers’, while Haim introduced the warmth of sax and some wailing guitars to darken their pop on their best by far, ‘Women in Music Pt lll’. 

Lucinda Williams ‘Good Souls Better Angels’, feels a little too much of the same with references to Crazy Horse and Patti Smith, but she is of course still a sneer worth hearing.

Expected intensity on the clever, new Fiona Apple offering, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ and Mary Chapin Carpenter assembled her best in years, ‘The Dirt and the Stars’.

Khruangbin’s ‘Mordechai’ is still grooving, although not quite with the same cool casualness as before.

On a somewhat gentler tip, The Magpies show up neat pastoral folk on ‘Tidings’ while Diana Jones ‘Song To A Refugee’ is lyrically stronger, recorded ‘dead flat and effect free’ Americana.

Gretchen Peters dives into deep, compelling cuts on ‘The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs Of Mickey Newbury’.

Native Harrow’s ‘Closeness’ is an intimate album spanning folk to rock, touching Laura Marling in parts.

Duet Luluc’s ‘Dreamboat’ continues their acoustic piano and guitar driven beauty. 

Gillian Welch provided ‘Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs’ and with David Rawlings, ‘All The Good Times’.

Molly Tuttle stayed at home and produced a delicious album of covers ‘… but i’d rather be with you’.

***

2020 The Jazz Roundup

Listen on Spotify and on Apple Music

It was a good year for guitarists! John Scofield paid restrained, pointed homage to his mentor, bass player Steve Swallow on the angular ‘Swallow Tales’.

And while on angles and guitars, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s ‘Angular Blues’ is his most gorgeous and accessible to date.

Still on 6 strings, Will Vinson, Gilad Hekselman & Antonio Sánchez gave us the dynamic ‘Trio Grande’, with Hekselman the guitar playing star, combining fun with splashy chops.

The solo guitar explorations by Pasquale Grasso playing from the Joe Pass school, released three albums this year, of which ‘Solo Standards’ and ‘Solo Bud Powell’ were best.

I re-visited Pat Metheny’s ‘From This Place’ a few times before falling fully for it. Mainly characterized by his sweet hollow body, the music was  melodic and challenging.

To end guitar albums, one of my very favourites, Bill Frisell’s ‘Valentine’ is one of the nicest ways I can think of to spend an hour, with his reverse delay and innovative voicings.

Carla Bley, also with Swallow, gave us the delicate, drummerless trio date ‘Life Goes On’.

Josh Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade’s ‘RoundAgain’ was a re-grouping of that power quartet.

Elliot Galvin’s solo piano ‘Live in Paris’ is a fresh adventure while, still with solo piano, Brad Mehldau’s ‘Lockdown Suite: April 2020’ comprised 15 varied solo vignettes of differing tempos and styles, some covers and all interesting.

‘Common View’ by Enrico Pieranunzi showed how the piano trio gives no one anywhere to hide.

Keith Jarrett’s own ‘gold standard’ of solo piano performances, ‘Budapest Concert’ was another marvel – especially joyous was the twisting ‘Part Xll -Blues’, and more so as it was probably Jarrett’s last ever live performance.

The Tingvall Trio’s ‘Dance’ was a bright, almost summer crisp collection with perfect pace and pitch.

Our own Asher Gamedze gave us the sharply avant garde ‘Dialectic Soul’ while Gil Scott-Heron/Makaya McCraven got together for Gil’s third take of the cool ‘We’re New Again’ concept.

The Charles Lloyd 8: ‘Kindred Spirits’ cemented his late charge in his 80s.

One of my most often visited jazz albums of 2020 was the improvised beat and relaxed groove of Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela’s real fun album, ‘Rejoice’.

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s ‘Hero Trio’ cracked and sizzled while Majid Bekkas’ ‘Magic Spirit Quartet’ sounded like ECM meets Touareg.

That’s the jazz. DM/ML

You can follow Mark Rosin on both Apple and Spotify under his name, or check his playlists here on Spotify, and here on Apple Music.

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

No Comments, yet

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted