Hindsight is 2020. This will be the great irony of the 21st century. Yet it seems like the revisionism is already setting in. There’s no normal to go back to, and we can’t pretend to go on just as we had before.
In the chorus of “Throw the Fear,” from An Unknown Infinite, Amani raps:
You can feel it in the air
White devils living off of fear
We learn to cherish not to care
The beginning of the end is near
Put on my hoodie wipe my tears
Strolling through the city where ya seconds turn to years
In the blink of an eye you disappear
If they gonn’ always raise the fare then I’mma throw it
This reference to the fare is significant. NYC kicked off 2020 with a fare strike, following two protests the prior Fall. Dubbed J31, memory of this day of action may have been overshadowed by the pandemic and the summer of protest, but in retrospect it was a herald of what was to come. The stage was already set. Now, in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, issues of public transportation and racial profiling are more urgent than ever.
We don’t usually discuss vocal music on this site. Our line has always been that most of the music press already focus on lyric music, while instrumental music is oft-neglected. And instrumental music can express the ineffable, what can’t be captured in words. But it seems unconscionable to ignore lyrics after 2020. Many more of our ACL 2020 records featured vocals than ever before, surely a sign that something has shifted. Nonetheless, many of the records that got me through 2020, the records I’ve chosen to highlight here, are records in which the lyrical content demands a closer listen.
I began 2020 teaching a course called “Fiction & the Future,” and the quarantine began during our unit on dystopia. Many of my students began the semester skeptical of the possibility for change. With the pandemic shutdown, it suddenly became easier to picture the disintegrating America of 2024 (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower), the offline masked society of 2076 (The Private Eye), or the flooded but thriving New York 2140. We listened to Drexciya‘s The Quest, studied Afro-futurist concepts of time, and read indigenous fiction in the context of the American Indian Movement, which began right there in Minneapolis more than 50 years earlier. Just two weeks after they turned in their final papers, police murdered George Floyd and protestors burned down the 3rd Precinct in retaliation.
I’ve been back in Montreal since quarantine began, and have been thinking a lot about music and social movements. The city’s great anti-festival, Suoni Per Il Popolo, describes itself as dedicated not to any genre but instead to liberation music, a concept that comes in part from Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (1970). The form that expression takes changes, but the sentiment is shared. Thee Silver Mt Zion‘s use of vocals initially came as a surprise, considering Godspeed is famously an instrumental ensemble. Mt Zion have cited Ornette Coleman’s Friends & Neighbors as a key inspiration to their vocal approach, both drawing on spiritual traditions of congregational singing, social singing, and shape notes. (h/t Patrick Nicholson) Everyone joins in and sings. Loose, high energy, loft scene. Friends & Neighbors was recorded live at Prince Street in 1970, and the sound maintains that jam session vibe. Ornette puts down his alto and picks up a trumpet or violin. It’s harder to keep up that ethos with today’s rents. But the connections are still there.
For me as a teenager in New York, punk, hip hop, noise, and electronic music all shared the same DIY spaces, and often these were wrapped up in politics. The history of the concert venues themselves ensured some kind of historical memory. ABC NO RIO, C Squat, and other venues in the remnants of Alphabet City’s squatters movement, the Nuyorican and the rich history of Loisaida, the Wetlands earth-conscious activism. My friends and I often learned about new music from skate videos in the mid-90s, and that included hip hop as well as hardcore. When we started throwing shows a couple years later, sharing skills and knowledge was a must, and it didn’t stop at genre.
Geng writes about the importance of skill sharing in the Wire’s rewind issue, of “not hoarding information and knowledge”, but sharing personal experiences for others’ benefit. He makes sure younger artists know “that they’re allowed to push back,” and that they’ve “got to be counter-industrial and counter-cultural in stance.” When we speak of community, it’s amazing that we can speak of the global decentralized network that we are. But ultimately as 2020 demonstrated, we have to live up to our obligations to those actually around us first. There’s going to be a difficult period of contestation in the wake of this pandemic. Small business are failing, and only corporations and investor backed businesses are going to be able to re-open in their place. The future of live music may have to finally decouple from the sale of alcohol. Mutual aid is going to be necessary, and we’ll build from there.
And then of course there’s the question of distribution. 2020 had no shortage of discourse on the merits of Bandcamp Fridays and the unsustainability of the Spotify model. Having a centralized streaming archive certainly has its merits. But centralization also means a centralized accumulation of capital, furthering inequality, while what remains of the old means of institutional support wither. How do we resist these growing monopoly powers? It’s easy to look to Amazon and Spotify and see how the long tail model benefits the central market, not the producers of the products that actually make up the long tail. Billy Gomberg has been just one voice that has raised some criticisms of the growing centralization of Bandcamp in the wake of Bandcamp Fridays. Waving fees for artists once a month was a nice gesture, and many artists (and bail funds and trans organizations and community mutual aid projects etc) have benefited from this, but Paypal is still getting their cut. Imagine if we could circumvent Pay Pal with a decentralized payment system. Maybe the right space to experiment with something like Circles in the future.
In October I published two podcasts devoted to Turkish music. In preparing for the accompanying text, I ordered a collection of Mimaroglu‘s writing from Turkey after coming across a quote from an essay entitled “Political Music.” It took months to arrive, so I want to share this quote now:
Electronic music has established means by which the composer is enabled to create directly. The primary task of an electronic music composer is the obtaining of timbres and the establishment of timbral contexts. This being so, it is logical for the composer to reach the conclusion that there can be no justification for an abstinence from direct instrumental and vocal timbres, including word sounds as produced by a performer (a musician or an actor), captured by a microphone and registered on magnetic tape. In the course of the past few decades words have been pulverized […] partly guided by the experience of electronic music. The time had arrived to reconstruct the sentence, and put it in the service of messages that needed to be very clearly transmitted.
The balance of the essay is an argument as to why Luigi Nono is the epitome of political music. But when I found myself in need of catharsis, I found myself revisiting music from youth, especially early in the lockdown. Fugazi, Refused, Cursive, Boysetsfire, Converge, Botch, Wu Tang, De La Soul, Gang Starr. And while the took in my fair share of ambient music this year, much of what stayed with me proved to be music that hit a little harder, demanded something more from the listener. Perhaps we’re reaching this phase in the cycle again, which calls for clarity and directness. Increasingly it seems that all albums are concept albums now, otherwise they’re just a collection of tracks. Many of my favorite records of 2020 have strong concepts and notably direct commentary on the present situation. More than ever, you certainly don’t need more words from me. So here are 20 of the records that got me through 2020, and some additional highlights. (Joseph Sannicandro)
20 FAVORITES FROM 2020 (in chronological order of release)
Irreversible Entanglements ~ Who Sent You?
Nobody had a better year than Moor Mother. Her first release of 2020 came from Irreversible Entanglements, a liberation-oriented free jazz collective. The group first coalesced to protest police brutality in New York. Who Sent You? was released just as we went into lockdown, and presaged the summer of protest that was to come.
more eaze & claire rousay ~ if I don’t let myself be happy now then when?
Now that many of us are well into our thirties and beyond, it’s been fascinating to watch the creeping reappraisal of emo and the manifestation of its influence in unexpected places. An overdue tiring of irony, the embrace of vulnerability and honest communication. A Jimmy Eat World reference doesn’t convey much about how If I Don’t Let Myself… sounds, but it may somehow be a window into the process. An engaging intertwining of the two artists styles and their personal experiences of transition, demanding dedicated listening.
Knxwledge ~ 1988
Knx’s profile has risen due to his collaboration with Anderson Paak. (NxWorries), and since Kendrick used “so[rt]” as the core of “Momma” on To Pimp A Butterfly. But the prolific LA-based producer seems to prefer keeping his head down (and nodding), churning out a steady supply of beats on his Bandcamp. Often this means setting accapella cipher videos from street rappers from back home in Philly to his own productions. He’s also been active on Twitch, providing a window into his production process and his taste in video games. But it’d been a while since we’ve had a proper solo LP from Knwledge, and 1988 came along at just the right time. Opener “don’t be afraid” was what I need here that last week of March. And the companion EP 10,000 Proof deserves special mention.
Peter Evans ~ Being & Becoming
One of the greatest trumpet players pushing the instrument today, Peter Evans’ music can range from straight standards to high endurance solo improvisations. His work for ensembles has been consistently exciting, often experimenting with electronics to creative ends. Being & Becoming announces his new group, a small acoustic ensemble that joins notated music, improvisation, and groove in a deeply satisfying synthesis. Backed up by Joel Ross (vibraphone), Nick Jozwiak (bass), and Savannah Harris (drums and percussion), Evans’ compositions have reached a new peak.
Quelle Chris & Chris Keys ~ Innocent Country 2
I’ve sung Quelle Chris’s praises here before, and Innocent Country 2 is the rare sequel that surpasses the original. Like Everything’s Fine and Guns, this album came at just the right moment. Chris Keys sets a musical tone that is often joyous and celebratory, both of which have become radically necessary. I returned to “Living Happy” and “Sacred Safe” many times throughout the year for a boost.
Keith Rowe ~ GF SUC
Steve Smith calls it “a dignified threnody for our present moment,” and I can’t top that encapsulation. Keith Rowe’s response to the murder of George Floyd is one of the single pieces of music that struck me the hardest on first listen. Rowe has long deployed radio tranmissions to dramatic and serendipitous effect as a member of AMM and as a solo performer, but the weight of the radio material here works exceptionally well. Rowe’s second contribution to AMPLIFY 2020, the title stands for “George Floyd Screwed Up Click,” a nod to Big Floyd‘s association with the late DJ Screw.
Okkyung Lee ~ Yeo-Neun
One of the more surprising albums of 2020. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s for sometime, following her collaborations with Christian Marclay, her trio with Evan Parker and Peter Evans, countless others, I’ve seen her perform solo and in ensembles with John Zorn. Yet here on her debut for Shelter Press is something wholly unexpected and welcomed: ten distinct, delicate, and sentimental pieces for chamber quartet. Yeo-Neun (an opening gesture, in Korean) sees Lee embrace a melancholic mood, sad but content. The double bass and piano, played by Eivind Opsvik and Jacob Sacks, grounds the album, but it is Maeve Gilchrist’s harp that makes for some of the most beautiful passages. Still, all the instruments blur percussive and melodic effect, providing a rich listening experience.
(fka) Lil’ Jurg Frey ~ The Quarantine Concert
Who would have thought my favorite live performance of 2020 would happen in Animal Crossing? And yet there we are. Nothing captured the specificity of the moment quite like Lil’ Jurg Frey. The first time I tuned in, I wasn’t even watching. Finally my curiosity got the best of me, and I was legitimately surprised. There is still an acousmatic quality to the music they make, even if watching everything happen. Together and apart, the performers meet in the game’s virtual environment. Inherently mediated, there’s no “original” space the audience is missing out on. While the four ensemble members are seasoned musicians, the format flattens any notion of instrumental virtuosity. I’m reminded of composers such as Rhys Chatham here, whose tunings put all players on relatively equal footing. Their performances as Lil’ Jurg Frey began from an interest exploring actual musical instruments in Animal Crossing (ocarina, saxophone) but the end result leans into the specificity of the environment in really satisfying ways. The virtual quartet have since been written up in the Wire and Quarantine Times, enough attention for their Swiss namesake to request they change their name. Looking forward to more from this ensemble in the future, whatever their name ends up being.
Jim O’Rourke ~ Shutting Down Here
Production for Shutting Down Here began 30 years ago when a young O’Rourke visited the GRM studios in Paris for the first time. A fitting choose for the debut of the Portraits GRM series of contemporary music. WIth an artist as prolific as O’Rourke, one could easily point to other 2020 releases (In Cobalt Aura Sleeps, his collaboration with Kassel Jaeger, or to several releases from his Steamroom series) but Shutting Down Here feels like a major work in his œuvre, one I’ll be continuing to unpack for many years to come.
Armand Hammer ~ Shrines
ELUCID and billy woods have established themselves as one of hip hops greatest duos with their fourth LP. Two distinct personalities and voices, the two MCs compliment and elevate each other as writers and perfomers. 2018’s Paraffin featured many beats from ELUCID (as well as Backwoodz regulars Small Pro, August Fanon, Messiah Musik, Kenny Segal, and Willie Green) and was charcterized by its claustrophobic and hazy atmosphere, as can be heard more clearly on the Instrumentals version which came out in 2020. In contrast, Shrines opens things up, letting in some air and light. And yet from the Earl Sweatshirt produced “Bitter Cassava” its clear that the biting commentary is still there, more urgent than ever. There are plenty of guests, but they mostly stick to delivering the hooks, leaving the relationship between the two MCs front and center. Closer “The Eucharist” may be the absolute greatest billy woods verse, deeply personal and laced with hip hop references, a fade out ending that will leave you wth Shrines on repeat. Unquestionably the album cover of the year.
Dreamcrusher ~ Panopticon! / Another Country
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon has been a recurring modern metaphor, in part due to Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. Bentham designed a prison in which the inmates must assume they were being watched at all times. But the all-seeing has one weakness: noise. Thus a fitting title for a Dreamcrusher album, one of two recent PTP releases. The other is a “mixtape/project,” Another Country, imploring us build the world of our dreams. And even though they are based in NYC, Dreamcrusher is from Kansas, and so I was reminded of Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010), which documents how queer communities have organized in less urban contexts for over a century. Two powerful documents of sonic expression.
Speaker Music ~ Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
DeForrest Brown, Jr. released a number of engaging works in 2020, but Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, released on Juneteenth, may be the strongest statement. Speaker Music recontextualizes America, constantly shifting beats anchored by a steady tempo, the ether against which a chorus of powerful voices are suspended. The opening poem from Brown’s young cousin will remain one of my enduring memories of 2020. There’s too much to unpack here in a capsule review, but Brown will feature on an upcoming episode of the podcast where we delve into his rich body of work in great detail.
Vanessa Rossetto ~ you have to rehearse your presentation, practice completing within the time limits allowed
2020 was the perfect year to delve into Rossetto’s quotidian soundscapes. Beyond merely magnifying the sonic richness from the detritus of the everyday, this two-part work gradually accumulates in drama and intensity, culminating in a cloud of honking cars. A terrible din decontextualized and transformed into an expressive climax.
Boldy James / Sterling Toles ~ The Manger on McNichols
Detroit. I first learned of Sterling Toles a while back through Dakim. (When Dakim says “this is a legendary artist,” I take note.) Manger has been in the works for over a decade, and isn’t just a showcase for Boldy but a true communal labor of love. The Griselda associate may be having a moment, but its remarkable just how consistent the rapper is ten years of sessions. Toles has gone on record stating that a liberated relationship to time is the thread that runs through the heterogeneous traditions of Detroit. (Refutation of Quantization) I’m reminded of something Arthur Jafa said when profiled by the New Yorker: “in trying to think about what I consider fundamental Black aesthetic values, one of the things that came up was rhythm. Most people will say Black people have rhythm—they seem able to do things with time. So I became interested in how cinema could be inscribed with a more idiomatic sense of timing.” Toles does something similar with music. The Manger on McNichols has the texture of a community quilt, assembled over many years.
Amani + King Vision Ultra ~ An Unknown Infinite
New York. A true album, crafted with intention from start to finish with such a narrative structure that it’s almost a play, narrated by Milford Graves and some other New Yorkers. Powerful themes of spirituality and community run through the music and lyrical content. Monie Love‘s introduction and intermission tags give the feeling of a mixtape but also solidifies the shape of the album. The first verse comes courtesy of ELUCID (1/2 of Armand Hammer), who opens the album with a baton-passing cellphone soliloquy, taking us from 9/11 to the pandemic. Three tracks feature guest producers, and An Unknown Infinite feels very much like a community showcase. But King Vision Ultra’s approach to sound makes him the unquestionable executive producer, and the genre-transcending sonic experience that we expect from PTP. The B-side is no slouch, either. To the contrary, each track seems to top the last. Amani trades bars with Akai SOLO and Maassai, making thematic and sonic call backs to the first act. Closer “Guillotine” is track of the year.
Bellows ~ Undercurrent
There have been many bright spots in the history of this collaboration between Giuseppe Ielasi and Nicola Ratti, two of the great experimenters of contemporary Italian music. Their duo has often seemed to put process front and center, even if that process is often distinct from record to record. Handcut dragged contact mics on old vinyl, Reelin’ manipulated modular melodies with tape, and more recent records leaned harder into a micro-sound dub aesthetic. Like Giuseppe Ielasi’s solo work from 2020, Undercurrent sees a return to the use of acoustic instruments, equally remarkable for how little a bearing this has on the final work.
Geneva Skeen ~ Double Bind
Though it was released relatively late in the year, Geneva Skeen’s latest lured me in immediately with its deep bass explorations and raw energy, and got a lot of play as the fall days faded into winter. Double Bind often feels claustrophobic, a turn inward from the seeming chaos outside. “The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath” takes it title from Clarice Lispector, further enforcing a kind of existential reading of the album. But I’ve also found much comfort here. I’d been a fan since her LP for Dragon’s Eye, and look forward to hearing more from her.
Ana Roxanne ~ Because of a Flower
When ~~~ was re-released by Leaving Records in 2019, the six song collection was already nearly 4 years old. We praised that album highly at the time, but have been curious as to what she was doing currently. Because of a Flower is a window into how much Ana Roxanne has developed as an artist in the meantime, and has been another source of tranquility during an anxious time of the year.
Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger ~ Force Majeure
Bass and harp duo live-streaming from their living room in Harlem, recorded with a single microphone. Uplifting and nourishing comfort music, my December alternative to the ubiquitous Christmas muzak. Two professional musicians with a deep personal relationship making music together during the quarantine, just the kind of musical dynamic I was drawn to throughout the pandemic.
Moor Mother & billy woods ~ BRASS
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Because of its acoustic resonance and malleability, and its natural antibacterial properties, its commonly used to make instruments, or to embellish works of art in place of gold. The title invites us to think about the combination of these two artists into an even greater alloy. Woods provides some narrative cohesion and structure, with most of his verses coming in neat even bars, while Moor Mother is often looser and more raw. “Tiberius,” featuring ELUCID, is a standout, even if it it doesn’t include woods. Alchemist-produced “Giraffe Hunts” is another highlight, as is “Scary Hours,” featuring the legendary John Forte. “Maroons” includes the voices of Amirtha Kidambi and Imani Robinson, a real elevation of the beat from propping up the MC to being musical in its own right, opening up one more level of interplay. Closer “Portrait” features some remarkable symbolic interplay. I loved seeing wood’s culinary call out: “While you were whippin’ water/ I had grits in the double boiler/ Pork belly under the broiler/ Broccoli rabe, olive oil.” Picking up on Moor Mothers own reference too food and police, woods contrasts cooking drugs to preparing a meal. Amidst all the heavy history and contentious present, these closing lines about food are just another reminder of the importance of coming together.
This record was announced in the first week of December and appeared digitally on 18 December. The physical editions won’t even appear until March. So while we better see a lot of Brass on the 2021 best of lists, I had to include it here as well.
So much of the new music I spent time with this year didn’t actually come from proper labels at all, which seems fitting for 2020. Instead these were series responding, or adpating, to the pandemic in various ways. We at ACL have already written much about the exceptional AMPLIFY 2020, Touch: Isolation, and Constellation’s Corona Borealis Longplay Singles Series, to which I would also add Discrepant’s Corona Loops and ISSUE Project Room’s Isolated Field Recordings series. Friend of the site Kate Carr also presented an quarantine-focused field-recording series with her Interiorities – sonic experiments and documents from lockdown. Collectively these series gave me something to anticipate during the endless repetition of the same. Lastly I would be remiss to neglect Longform Editions, whose format really lent itself to our new reality. Every batch continues to surprise, and the next batch will really blow you away. Don’t miss it.
But I have to choose one label to showcase here, it has to be PTP. 2020 may have been their strongest year yet. In addition to releases from King Vision Ultra, Amani, Speaker Music, and Dreamcrusher, 2020 also saw new tapes from 9T Antiope, Saint Abdullah, and many more. This New York collective has been setting a high bar, and they’re not slowing down. An upcoming episode of the podcast will feature a profile of Geng and the PTP label very soon.
Tone Glow had an incredible year. It began as a blog run by Joshua Minsoo Kim (The Wire, Bandcamp) but 2020 saw it retooled as a newsletter and bringing together a massive group of excellent music writers. Their output has been unbelievable. Between the written and podcast editions of Sound Propositions, I’m lucky if I can feature ten interviews a year. Meanwhile Tone Glow averaged something like a long-read per week, and they’re all gold. Maybe start with their long interview with Jim O’Rourke, but you can legitimately dive in anywhere. Highly recommended.
I also want to mention Primary Information, a New York a publishing house runs by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff. Do yourself a favor and purchase their annual subscription. I think I mentioned their 2019 edition of the Writing of Tony Conrad, which was enough to get me to subscribe in 2020. They’ve re-issued facsimiles of historically significant work (Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover, David Wojnarowicz’s zine In the Shadow of Forward Motion, Cardew’s Stochhausen Serves Imperialism), collections of under-appreciated work by women artists (Women in Concrete Poetry, Yvonne Rainer: Work 1961-73), work by contempory artists (Martine Syms), and more. Truly an extraodinary value. 2021 will see the release of DeForrest Brown, Jr.’s Assembling a Black Counter Culture, as well Black Art Notes, Women Artists in Revolution, Dan Graham’s Theatre, and much more. Domestic US subscriptions are just $125.
We lost so many people in 2020 that I can’t begin to do them justice to here, so unfortunately I’ll confine myself to just one.
Richard Teitelbaum (19 May 1939 – 9 April 2020) was one of the core members of Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), along with Frederic Rzewski and Alvin Curran, who founded the group in Rome in 1966. In 1967, he brought what is very likely he first Moog synthesizer to Europe, which he had altered so as to trigger musical events with his brain-waves. He was a pioneer of intercultural improvisation, founding the World Band in 1970. That group brought together expert musicians from South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and North America. He also produced a number of operas exploring Jewish mysticism, presented work at the Venice Biennale, was a Guggenheim Fellow, and a professor of music at Bard College. Read much more about this extraordinary life in his obituary at the New York Times.
I should also mention Henry Grimes and Giuseppi Logan, two free jazz greats who seem to have experienced parallel journeys. Both born in Philly in 1935, both died in New York in mid-April 2020 due to complications from COVID-19. Both vanished from the scene for decades, reappearing little more than a decade ago. An interview in the Wire documented that Grimes had moved to California seeking work in 1968, and didn’t even own a bass for more than 40 years. In fact, he hadn’t even heard that his old collaborator Albert Ayler had died in 1970. Logan vanished in plain sight, busking in Thompson Square Park. Logan’s sole LP as a headliner, The Giuseppi Logan Quartet (ESP Disk, 1965) is a favorite of mine, an incomparable fusion of melody, rhythm, and abstraction. Grimes has been much more prolific, even contributing to William Basinski’s Sparkle Division.
Due to quarantine, I wasn’t able to visit many museums or galleries as I traditionally would. I returned to Minneapolis for the Spring semester after 18 months away, and was grateful to visit the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, two institutions that I have a strong affection for. The Walker archives have been helpful in my research over the years, and especially so during the lockdown.
Back in Montreal, I was able to catch the final days of Eva and Franco Mattes‘ exhibition at Phi (formerly DHC/ART). I found that much of the pioneering net-artists work translates awkwardly to the gallery context. Their Dark Web project works better when it’s actually on the Dark Web, and I found their presentation here somewhat contrived. COVID-19 was already on our minds enough to make crawling under pyramid screens with strangers to be out of the question. Still, I found their taxidermist cats, sitting on a pedestal or staring down from a hole in the ceiling, to be just the kind of Internet-inversion that works.
I was impressed by Dayanita Singh‘s work which was included in Surrounds: 11 Installations at the MoMA in New York in 2019. I had missed her exhibition at Callicoon Fine Art the previous year, but her interview on the Hyperallergic podcast, Art Movements, remains one of my favorite interviews with any artist. A photographer and book maker, the global pandemic helped make the case for her approach to the book as exhibition. Via Singh’s instagram, I learned about Himali Singh Soin‘s We Are Opposite Like That, and I quickly snatched up a copy of this extraordinary futurist vision, an almost psychedelic amalgamation of science,history, typography, art, and future studies. The project also includes a film, audio works, and performance, but the book stands on its own as a work of art.
I’ve included comics in my last few yearly reflections, but new comics didn’t ship for a few months due to the pandemic, so I don’t have too many new books to taught. I did finally read the complete collection of Jason Lutes Berlin, which explores the ineptitude of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism from 1928-1933. Lutes published the first installment in 1996, and finally finished the series in 2018. The material feels much more charged now than it did two decades ago.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip also look back at the 1930s with their original graphic novel, Pulp, a timely reminded of the history of fascism in the United States, and perhaps how the stories we tell ourselves are not as innocent as we like to pretend. The duo are well-regarded for their long-running Criminal series, and Pulp certainly maintains some of the tone one expects. On the surface it appears to be about the golden age of the American cowboy, but in fact it is a look at how that romantic image was itself a product of 20th century media imaginaries.
Brubaker also debuted two issues Friday, a new series with penciller Marcos Martin and colorist Muntsa Vicente. Friday ages up the young detectives archetypes from children’s literature (think Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown, The Great Brain). Brubaker did something similar with The Last of the Innocent, one of my favorite volumes of Criminal, which explores the dysfunctional adult lives of a Riverdale like town. Friday follows Friday Fitzhugh, who returns home from college to find her childhood detective friend Lancelot Jones oblivious to his interpersonal relationships, caught up in some occult mystery. Career best work from Martin and Vicente. Looking forward to seeing how this series develops.
Lastly, I must praise Jay Edidin’s exceptional Cyclops one-shot, published as X-Men: Marvels Snapshots. Edidin is best-known as co-host of the podcast Jay & Miles Xplain the X-Men, which has done an incredible job of building an inclusive and supportive community, and done more for unpacking “the mutant metaphor” than anybody. The character of Cyclops has often been derided as a corny Boy Scout, but Edidin’s take will at least provide some importance context that may change how we think of him. In fact the story isn’t really about Cyclops at all, but Scott Summers’ youth in an orphanage. The story works beautifully on multiple levels. As a meta-story about superheros, it has something to say about us about why we read comics. I certainly was an introverted and obsessive young person, so I found Scott’s obsession with superheroes touching. But this isn’t a story about coming to terms with superpowers. Scott transfers his obsession with heroes into being prepared. He takes his differences (neurodivergence, introversion, obsessive tendencies) and owns them, he is empowered by having confidence in himself and being prepared for anything. Cyclops has a good day.
A few personal releases to mention. Early in the year I put out Music for Quarantine a digital EP of thrift store cassette manipulations, as well as a live performance of the same. I was also very honored to present I Always Worked on Dinzu Artefacts. And just before the year ended, I released Music for Insurrection a digital sound collage dedicated to George Floyd, comprised of processed field-recordings from my neighborhood in Minneapolis, as well as live-streamed audio from the burning of the 3rd Precinct. (Some tapes are still available for purchase here.)
My Sound Propositions podcast returned later in 2020 than I had intended, with three new episodes released during the Fall. If you haven’t heard the show, it’s not the chatting format often associated with podcasts. Instead I edit myself out of interviews, mixing the resulting narrative with music, field-recordings, samples, and sound design. More episodes will be coming out bi-weekly throughout the rest of the Winter. They’re evergreen by design, so feel free to peruse the archive.
[Useless Sounds] also returned, a weekly series sharing short, unprocessed (often binaural) field-recordings I began in Napoli in 2019. I included some recordings made in quarantine, but also dug through my 2019 travel archive. Another batch of recordings, old and new, will be released beginning in February.
I didn’t find quarantine very conducive to writing. But I did produce a good number of mixes. Check them out:
- Or the murmur trees make…نفخة من الأشجار (live tape mix)
- Everyone is Bored
- Kinda Blue
- Alone with Others
- for the workforce, drowning
- together again
- sette opere di misericordia – 7 weekly internet radio mixes