It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very weird year on a host of fronts. One of those sections of strangeness is musical output. With so much time at home, there has been a veritable glut of material released this year that I think we probably would not have seen if not for the external circumstances of a global pandemic. While that’s very obviously a terrible foundation to set a stream of great music upon, there is in full transparency a sense of gratitude that I feel toward artists who took the opportunity in strange circumstances to reach out to their fellow humans with relatable art that connects us even in necessary separation. This year has been difficult, but made less so by the work of our favorite musicians. To them I say, thank you.
While the records featured this month don’t generally fall into this category, I can think back on many records covered in this column this year that were as delightful as they were unexpected. There’s a throughline of improvisation, spontaneity and intensity that has covered so many releases this year, and regardless of circumstance it’s made for some cathartic listening. Expect nothing less from the records we loved last month.
Special thanks to Eden and Josh for contributing some great music to our list. If I’ve learned anything in this godforsaken year, it’s that good community changes everything. Infinitely grateful for our Heavy Blog family and all the goodness contained therein. Stay safe. Be well. Enjoy some damn fine music.
Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide
Age comes for us all. For some more gracefully than others, but nonetheless it’s an inevitability. Rap and metal both have interesting relationships with their elder statesmen and women that has been the subject of more than a few think pieces. Both genres share some similarities in how they approach their senior members, which are fairly obvious for fans. Look at Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Metallica, and Judas Priest for reference. It’s obvious that each entity’s best work is behind them, but their legacy as seminal artists in their fields has awarded them continued financial success and no major shortage of output. While the quality argument is certainly up for debate, I would posit that it’s rare that bands and artists maintain the quality of their best work in the twilight of their careers, let alone eclipse it. Which is why Aesop Rock such a unique contributor to the modern rap story.
Over the past two decades, Aesop has been an absolute staple of experimental hip-hop. From his poetic and truly classic early releases to his wildly unique material in the mid-2000s, Aesop has a discography that doesn’t need another classic. He could hang up the mic right now and be considered an all-time legend in his space of the rap world and call it a day. But barreling past forty years old has brought a different perspective and creative spark than we ever could have expected, but since when has Aesop been one to create music or make career decisions that bow to general expectations? Spirit World Field Guide, his eighth solo full-length record, is not only one of the best rap records of the year, but one of his crowning achievements.
The past four years have shown Aesop coming to terms with his age and status with an incisiveness, anger, and resignation that is truly remarkable. 2016’s The Impossible Kid detailed his perspectives on aging with remarkable honesty, while his collaborative release with TOBACCO as Malibu Ken proved that there was plenty of that tongue-in-cheek creative restlessness and fun left in the tank. Spirit World feels like a channeling of both of these spirits, mixing witty and thoroughly enjoyable rhyme schemes and lyrics with poignant observations about death, aging, and the trials of life. It’s a fully alive, truly electric record that displays everything about Aesop that makes him the truly special voice in hip-hop that he is. “Coveralls”, with its glitchy beats and humorous/oddly violent lyrics present a perfect amalgamation of Spirit World kaleidoscopic aesthetic, resulting in one of rap’s best moments of the year. The entire epic record is a masterpiece of form and variety, and uniformly intriguing.
If you’ve ever enjoyed Aesop’s work, Spirit World Field Guide will give your heart plenty of joy. As one of rap’s most treasured artists, it’s difficult to imagine the man aging more gracefully and ferociously. Here’s to many more years of classic Aesop records, because at this quality here’s hoping he never stops, and never dies. One can dream, right?
Phoebe Bridgers – If We Make It Through December
Phoebe Bridgers has had quite the 2020. Her sophomore full-length record, Punisher, was an unmitigated success, thus far landing on dozens of year-end lists and selling boatloads of copies. Far from the shy voice that emerged in 2017’s transcendent Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers has established herself as one of the leading voices in folk-tinged indie rock now and into the future. Whether she’s collaborating with Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center or Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in boygenius, or producing records for up-and-comers like Christian Lee Hutson, she’s a household name. Which makes releases like this one so special.
Compiled of a smattering of Christmas-themed tracks recorded over the past few years along with a new rendition of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December”, this EP represents a side of Bridgers that endeared her to so many listeners. Holiday releases, however cringe-worthy many of them may be, represent a relatability that many other types of thematic releases do not, and Bridgers’ choice of covers are particularly moving. “December” is an utterly appropriate track for 2020, echoing what many are feeling in a year that has been filled with incredible levels of public health and economic hardship. It’s a beautiful rendition, featuring Bridgers’ simultaneously depressed and hopeful vocals with a simple piano accompaniment that could not be more sonically perfect for the lyrical content. It’s a new Christmas classic.
If you’ve been following this column for any amount of time, it should be clear how deeply we love Phoebe Bridgers and her music. If We Make It Through December is another simple and effective testament to her appeal, and a release that I will be spinning throughout another holiday season.
Primal Architecture Records – The Waning Daylight
There’s an interesting overlap that’s not often explored between drone, ambient, and folk music. It makes sense when you think about it; a lot of the instruments that make up traditional folk music can also be used for drone, like string and wind instruments. However, the genres have, for some reason, “split” in our current atmosphere, where drone is understood to be more of an experimental, and even abrasive, sub-genre whereas folk has mostly spun into a “calm” or “comfortable” sounding genre.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. In the recent few years, there has been a growing number of bands and projects that have re-explored the tensions and possible collaborations between the styles. Cinder Well, for example, has a beautiful and ambient, almost drone, passage on their track “Our Lady’s” from this year. Other groups, like Deaf Center and even Ulver’s more ambient works, come to mind. To this growing list of explorations we can now add The Waning Daylight, a compilation of ambient and morose folk works from Primal Architecture Records.
The album, which was released on December 4th, is carefully curated. From the haunting delicacy of opening track “Waves from Beyond” (recorded by Alora Crucible and Crisantemos), through the mournful coldness of “Cedar XI” (Pieter Nooten and Bert Barten) and “The Pine”’s heart-wrenching piano (Lights With Teeth) that anchor the middle of the album, and all the way to Graven Image’s massive “Burying a Stone In Your Bed”, this compilation is carefully constructed to explore the different configurations of folk music, ambient, and drone. It showcases how powerful these combinations can be, eliciting both visual and emotional responses from the listener. It’s a study in delicacy, made all the frailer yet somehow stronger, by its marriage to the somber ominousness of drone.
It’s also a perfect album for its season, channeling the rising of winter in all sorts of interesting ways. Couple that with artwork by the incomparable Caroline Harrison (who has done work for Pyrrhon, Yautja, Inter Arma, Sunn O))) and many more, as well as for Heavy Blog itself) and you get a very evocative, very winter-appropriate compilation. It’s one worth diving into, as there are many moments hiding in the subtle complexities of the music on it.