The obvious thing to start this piece with is that this year is an enormous unremitting onslaught of shit, and that the albums I’m going to talk about have helped me through it, but I think that’s putting too much on the shoulders of this collection of music. It’s also not an accurate depiction of how I engage with music. I tend to interact with music in two ways; I’m either using the mood of the music to wallow in whatever feeling I’m feeling at a given moment, or I’m listening to something a little challenging in order to keep my brain ticking over. These albums which have really shone through the bleakness of this year are the ones that are powerful enough that they’ve been able to engage my brain despite our collective societal depression.

Wherein Lies the Good by The Westerlies

The Westerlies self-titled LP was pretty miraculous to me. Not only was it astonishing that a brass quartet could be so consistently captivating across the length of a double album, but with a mix of gorgeously constructed original compositions and beautifully arranged covers, the quartet reinvigorated my love of contemporary chamber music, Charles Ives (thanks to their delightful version of ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’) and introduced me to the music of folk singer, Sam Amidon.

Now, following a line-up change that saw the group integrating the playing of virtuoso trumpeter Chloe Rowlands (who has since become one of the most visible and influential transgender contemporary instrumentalists around), the Westerlies have returned with a new album that once again ventures into new and exciting musical territory while maintaining the warmth and joyful energy of their past works. Rowlands’ incorporation into the ensemble has brought a new emphasis on improvisation which has successfully ensured that the quartet’s sound remains just as fresh now as it ever has been. I particularly love the group’s interpretation of Charles Ives’ setting of ‘In the Mornin’ and the three-part ‘Entropy’ suite which closes out the record. Wherein Lies the Good is bright and shiny and leaves me hotly anticipating all of the ambitious young band’s future endeavours.

UNLOCKED by Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats

Denzel Curry has always been something of a hard sell for me as a musical personality. To me, the extent to which I can enjoy a hip-hop record relies heavily on the vibe and presence of the emcee. Denzel Curry always seemed to be too brash and not nearly whimsical enough for my tastes (Open Mike Eagle is my favourite rapper which should give an indication of the kind of vibe I’m into), but it would seem that the Florida rapper has more of a humorous, zany side than I gave him credit for.

UNLOCKED, Curry’s bite-sized album with producer Kenny Beats is concise, tactile and whacky as hell and I absolutely adore it. The production and Curry’s muscular flow are a particularly satisfying pairing which make for a hugely visceral listening experience that exudes enough energy for an album twice the size of this one. On top of that, the record’s insanely fun, cartoony aesthetic is lined by some serious lyrical barbs from Curry and not an insignificant amount of social commentary. This is one of the most entertaining and dense short albums I’ve ever heard.

You Already Know by Ted Poor

I’ve been a fan of drummer Ted Poor since his first appearance on Chris Thile’s radio show Live From Here (which thanks to the crummy state of things has very unfortunately been cancelled), and even more so after hearing his work with Andrew Bird and Cuong Vu. It’s always been somewhat disappointing to me that such a sensitive drummer had never released an album as a band leader, but this year that changed.

Impulse! gave Poor the opportunity to release his debut record, You Already Know, and it was well worth the wait. It’s a minimal affair, largely built from just Poor’s drumming and the saxophone playing of Andrew D’Angelo. Poor’s compositions are groove heavy with modest yet charming melodic ideas and the production, in typical Impulse! fashion, is warm. The record feels like it was designed to be played on vinyl in a room full of books. The mustiness of the production however does nothing to dampen the livewire energy of the performances, and the chemistry between Poor and D’Angelo is palpably dynamic from start to finish. You Already Know is the most aesthetically refreshing jazz record of the year so far.

Planet B by Jasper Høiby

If Ted Poor’s You Already Know is a warm, energetic hug of a record, the new project from Danish bassist Jasper Høiby is an equally energetic slap in the face. Before we were all preoccupied with the dreaded virus and a necessary surge in anti-racist activism, Jasper Høiby was using his music as a way to remind us that there are other things that will bring the world as we know it to an end. Høiby has always been vocal in his climate activism, and his new record with saxophonist Josh Arcoleo and drummer Marc Michel is a frenzied mix of frenetic contemporary jazz and samples of speeches on the subject of the oncoming climate disaster that awaits an otherwise preoccupied humanity.

The music is suitably anxiety-ridden in its pursuit of conveying such a frighteningly necessary message. Setting aside the meaning of it all, however, the performances are stunning and Høiby’s riff-heavy compositions are the perfect vehicle for some of the most high-octane improvisation I’ve heard this year. Arcoleo in particular completely lets loose in an incredible series of fiery saxophone solos which solidify him as one of the most exciting young saxophonists in Britain today.

Satin Doll by Sam Gendel

Alto saxophonist, Sam Gendel is perhaps best known for his involvement with kooky jazz/funk multi-instrumentalist, Louis Cole. Gendel’s dextrous improvisation and muted tone are a staple of Cole’s live sessions and the pair created a bizarre YouTube phenomenon in the form of the surrealist mystery duo, Clowncore. Despite the quirkiness of his online presence, the musical stylings of the saxophonist have not gone unnoticed and Gendel’s debut LP was released this year on Nonesuch Records.

Satin Doll is a series of dense, electronically augmented, reworkings of Great American Songbook standards. Gendel’s saxophone playing is clearly present but distorted along with all the other contributing instruments into a soup of chilled-out yet eccentric vibes. To once again make a direct comparison with You Already Know, the Ted Poor record is unimpeachably refreshing new music with a vintage aesthetic while Gendel’s is an exploration of classic old material in a style that is utterly new.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple might be the greatest living songwriter and, while it may be predictable to say so at this point, her latest work Fetch the Bolt Cutters is unquestionably the best album to come out so far this year. It might even be perfect. It’s been eight years since Apple released her last album, The Idler Wheel…, which was one of the most raw, heartfelt and beautifully constructed albums of the last decade. It’s tempting to discuss Fetch the Bolt Cutters solely in terms of its hard-edged, uncompromising lyrical bite or its timely cultural relevance, but Apple’s long-awaited new project is all of that and much more.

Aside from speaking to some of the most pressing cultural issues of our time and being a deeply personal glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s great creative thinkers, the album is a wonderfully inventive and intricate musical construction. Apple’s piano writing is just as harsh and angular as it was on The Idler Wheel… but the record is much denser with industrial instrumental and production work, not to mention the more abstract and inventive song structures which have resulted in longer, continually evolving and ever-surprising tracks. Some songs feel like rambling confessionals or half-remembered dreams, while others are snappy and direct with catchy, yet abrasive hooks. Fetch the Bolt Cutters manages to be angry and relentless at the same time as it is full to the brim with love and solidarity, and the miraculous, collaborative musical efforts of Apple and the other musicians involved with the production process (including Apple’s dog).

RTJ4 by Run the Jewels

It speaks to the dire situation continually faced by Black Americans that RTJ4, an album recorded months prior to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent massive uptake in Black Lives Matter protests, feels as painfully relevant to our current moment as it does. The partnership of Killer Mike and El-P is perhaps the most iconic hip-hop duo currently working. Killer Mike’s raw energy and insightfulness paired with El-P’s verbosity and slick production make for a pairing full to the brim with chemistry.

The pair’s fourth full length collaboration as Run the Jewels is their most cohesive to date, striking a balance between braggadocio, introspection and socio-political commentary that they didn’t quite pull off on RTJ3. I’ve had reservations in the past about Killer Mike’s political advocacy, particularly his support for the NRA, but there’s no denying that his passion and clarity on the subjects of racism and police brutality are truly necessary in the current moment of upheaval. ‘Walking in the Snow’ and the album’s closing track, ‘A Few Words For The Firing Squad’, are harrowing accounts of the reality of the extent to which America does not value Black lives, and elevate the record to the very top of Run the Jewels’ discography.

Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma

The original Goat Rodeo Sessions which released almost a decade ago, is one of my favourite albums of all time. It was the record that facilitated my deep love of progressive bluegrass and introduced me to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers which became my favourite band. The record itself was a beautiful melding of contemporary classical composition and traditional folk musics, and a powerful collaborative effort between two McArthur ‘geniuses’, the most notable cellist alive and a true pioneer of modern bluegrass fiddle. To say that I have been hotly anticipating the quartet’s follow-up project would be grossly underestimating the degree to which I have been buzzing since this new record was announced.

Not Our First Goat Rodeo is a vastly different project to the original. The Goat Rodeo Sessions leaned rather heavily on the folk sensibilities of fiddler Stuart Duncan and the catchy melodic writing of Thile’s Nickel Creek and early Punch Brothers days. This new project is weighted far more towards the technical, heady compositional style of Thile and Edgar Meyer’s two duo albums. The record is less tonal and accessible, even the pieces with vocal contributions from singer/songwriter Aoife O’Donovan (I’m With Her, Crooked Still) are more abstract and meandering. That being said, the record is consistently exciting from beginning to end – a fascinating exploration of the creative limits of this combination of instruments and musical backgrounds.

Please go and support these musicians by buying their music! Musicians’ income has been hit really hard by COVID-19 and they need our help.