Across the Margin takes stock of the status of music in 2020, stopping at the midway point to offer its picks for the best songs of the year (so far)…
Note: All album links found in this article will take you to Bandcamp, our favored website for procuring music. The reason: Bandcamp supports the artist they feature, and now more than ever. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, on every Friday Bandcamp has waived their revenue share for all sales, meaning all proceeds go directly to the artist. This will be the case on Friday July 3rd!
TODAY, Juneteenth (6.19.20), Bandcamp is donating 100% of their share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a racial justice organization with a long history of effectively enacting change through litigation, advocacy, and public education.
Mac Miller — “Good News”
The first single off of Mac Miller’s remarkable posthumous album, Circles, is the definition of bittersweet. New music from the gifted emcee is spectacularly welcome, yet once again serves as a reminder of the momentous talent and spirit lost by his passing. Produced and then completed by legendary superproducer and composer Jon Brion, Circles is an album that is both feelgood and hauntingly heartbreaking — but such is Mac Miller, a truly multifaceted and complex human being and artist. “Good News,” the celebrated first single is a clapback to those who don’t want to hear about the hardships we all face (“No, they don’t like it when I’m down, But when I’m flying, oh, it make ’em so uncomfortable”). Mac’s mental health struggles are overtly and affectingly peppered throughout the album, particularly on “Good News,” and while this battle surely contributed to his passing, it is his honesty and profound relatability that made him so very special.
Rose City Band — “Only Lonely”
Erik “Ripley” Johnson of the experimental psychedelic rock band Wooden Shjips, as well as one half of the tremendous act Moon Duo, has once again stunned us with his latest project, Rose City Band. Their latest album, Summerlong, an ode to the sun-soaked season, is more sparse and encompassing of euphoric soundscapes than Johnson’s previous output, and this welcome departure manifests itself as a soothing reprieve in these tumultuous times. “Only Lonely,” the first single off the album is brimming with soothing, frolocking (Grateful Dead-ish!) rhythmic vibes that evoke pleasant feelings of sunshine, daydreams, walking in the tall grass, and going where the wind goes.
Caribou — “Home”
This year Canadian composer Dan Snaith released his first new track in six years under the moniker Caribou. The song, entitled “Home,” turned out to be the centerpiece to his seventh Caribou album, Suddenly. It is beyond welcome to be gifted with more of Snaith’s adventurous and pacifying soundscapes. This first single off of Suddenly employs a sample of Gloria Barnes’ “Home” as the core of the track, and the song is a funky, soulful, and fascinatingly complex, employing multifaceted and layered arrangements (a description that would be apt for nearly every Caribou track!!).
Pro Tip: Learn more about the crafting of “Home” by Caribou from Dan Snaith himself on episode 178 of Song Exploder.
Waxahatchee — “Fire”
Waxahatchee’s (a.k.a. songwriter Katie Crutchfield) fifth album, Saint Cloud, was released on March 27th, 2020, amid the early, chaotic days of corona virus quarantine — and in no time at all this brilliant piece of art became our lockdown happy place. To begin to experience the wonder of this tremendous album, focus your attention on the gorgeous “Fire.” Crutchfield describes “Fire” as a love song to herself. Saint Cloud was written in the period following her decision to get sober, and “Fire” encompasses a few of the important life lessons she learned along that trying yet fruitful journey.
Thundercat — “Black Qualls”
Thundercat’s (Stephen Lee Brune) latest album, It Is What It Is, his fourth studio release, is thought provoking, funky, rife with emotion, funny, and in true Thundercat form, cosmic. “Black Qualls,” the first single off the album, is buoyed by a gooey, driving bassline that persists as the foundation for Thundercat to get deep, artfully ruminating upon the black experience in America. Thundercat described “Black Qualls” as a meditation on what it means to be a young black American, saying: “What it feels like to be in this position right now…the weird ins and outs, we’re talking about those feelings.” With assists from Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino, “Black Qualls” is a party starter, a socially conscious mind-expander, and another example of how special of an artist Thundercat is.
The Third Mind — “East West”
The Third Mind is a jazz collective composed of some of the most exciting musicians in the genre. The recording of their self-titled debut album features Dave Alvin (guitar, vocals), Victor Krummenacher (bass, vocals), David Immergluck (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Michael Jerome (drums, percussion), and Jesse Sykes (guitar, vocals). For those not in the know about this exciting project, commence your acquaintance with the exploratory, and assuredly outstanding musical journey that is “East West,” a Mike Bloomfield / Nick Gravenites composition inspired by Miles Davis (you will quickly hear the influence!).
Stephen Malkmus — “The Greatest Own In Legal History”
Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus continues to crank out phenomenal solo efforts. His latest album, Traditional Techniques, features a song entitled “The Greatest Own In Legal History” that we simply cannot get enough of. Rife with the snark and wit that we cherish about Malkmus, “TGOILH” is a song written from the perspective of a lawyer convincing a young defendant that he’ll get him out of jail. It’s a delightful socially conscious and thoughtful song from the prolific Portland indie rock legend.
Soccer Mommy — “circle in the drain”
Soccer Mommy’s (Sophia Regina Allison ) latest album, color theory, cuts deep. In it Allison confronts head on her ongoing mental health concerns as well as the family divides that have troubled her since her teens. Color theory explores three central themes: blue, representing sadness and depression; yellow, symbolizing physical and emotional illness; and gray, representing darkness, emptiness and loss. One standout tack, “circle in the drain” is representative of what is so unique and alluring about Allison’s work. It’s gorgeous, plucks at the heartstrings, and speaks to relatable struggles that so many of us deal with (“Things feel that low sometimes / Even when everything is fine”).
Fiona Apple — “Heavy Balloon”
Fiona Apple returned this year after an almost eight year hiatus with an album entitled Fetch The Bolt Cutters that many have described as perfect (exemplified by a Pitchfork rating of a perfect 10!). Fetch The Bolt Cutters features novel soundscapes like nothing we ever heard and is an album that decidedly speaks to the times. The song “Heavy Balloon,” driven by a percussion based relentless groove, is powerful, invigorating and demanding of respect. In it, Apple growls with might “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams” which manifests itself as a call to action and an announcement, that she isn’t holding it in any longer…and neither should we.
Run The Jewels — ”ooh la la feat. Greg Nice and DJ Premiere”
For Jewel Runners, the legions of ardent fans of the bombastic hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, composed of Brooklyn rapper / producer El-P and Atlanta rapper / activist Killer Mike, excitement was building to a fever pitch the first half of 2020. The reason, RTJ’s fourth album, RTJ 4, was on the cusp of being released, a fact confirmed once El-P announced a summer drop. On June 5th, in a build up to RTJ 4 that eventually sent shock waves through the hip hop world, the duo released two stunners: “The Yankee and The Brave,” and “ooh la la.” “Ooh la la” features Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice (whose verse on the 1992 Gang Starr classic “DWYCK” provides the core sample of “ooh la la”) and renowned producer DJ Premier, who cuts on the track. The song is a brazen “Fuck You” to the American systems built on greed and inequality, thus highlighting the rap duo’s unfathomable lyrical prowess and fuck the man ethos.
Kari Faux — “While God Was Sleepin’”
If you haven’t heard Little Rock, Alabama rapper / singer Kari Faux do her thing, drop everything. Her latest album, Lowkey Superstar (which she refers to herself as) is an impressive ode to taking the power back and to self love. Faux’s talents are vast and dynamic, and her rhymes are oftentimes smooth, other times cutting and layered with grit. Her lyrics are honest, clever, and poetic. “While You Was Sleepin,” which leads off the album, not only kicks in the door to Lowkey Superstar, but is exemplifying of the confidence and might of the artist and of the album to come. The lyrics “Tried to FaceTime God / He declined, I said ‘Oh well’ / He hit me back with a text / And said ‘save yourself’” hint on the notion that we are on our own in this life, but it’s clear throughout the track that Faux is going to be just fine even if God isn’t extending an olive branch.
Bishop Nehru — “Too Lost”
New York based emcee Bishop Nehru (Markel Scott) released his eighth studio album this year entitled Nehruvia: My Disregarded Thoughts, a remarkable feat considering Nehru is only 23 years old. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, the 13-track album includes only one guest feature, frequent collaborator and mentor MF DOOM. DJ Premier, it must be noted, can be found lending a hand with production on the tracks “Colder” and “Too Lost.” “Too Lost, ” the cream of an impressive crop, is a piano driven throwback boom-bap masterpiece that exhibits the lyrical talents of one of the most impressive young talents in all of hip hop.
Terrance Martin, Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington & G Perico — “Pig’s Feet”
Three-time Grammy-nominated Los Angeles producer (and close collaborator with Kendrick Lamar) Terrance Martin helms a potent and powerful new track called “Pig’s Feet,” which rages powerfully against police violence and barbarity. A protest song speaking directly to what so many worldwide are rallying against daily, “Pig’s Feet” features the profound talents of Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington and G Perico. While we recommend taking the time to listen to the song, we also would like to steer you towards its music video, which weaves together footage highlighting the brutal response protestors are facing from an increasingly violent and abusive police. In place of credits, the video closes with an extended list of black people killed by police…which scrolls for nearly two minutes…
“The video to this song is happening right outside your window.” — Terrance Martin
Anderson .Paak — “Lockdown“
Today, Juneteenth 2020, Oxnard, California based producer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinare Anderson .Paak released a song entitled “Lockdown” that passionately contemplates about the current global uprising against police brutality and racism. “Oh, won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’ what’s that really all about?” he spits. “Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels / Plus unemployment rate, what, 40 million now? / Killed a man in broad day, might never see a trial / We just wanna break chains like slaves in the South.” A poignant song, that also comes equipped with a must see, affecting video (directed by music-video aficionado Dave Meyers)…
Mick Jenkins — “Carefree”
Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins latest release is entitled The Circus, and that title is pointed and assuredly literal. As Jenkins puts it “This is a body of work about just that. These days it’s very hard to look at the state of the world and popular culture and not see allegory that makes this metaphor our reality more often than not.” “Carefree,” the first single from the EP, which is produced by Black Milk, is deep, something we’ve come to expect from the introspective rapper. In it, Jenkins meditates about the state of the union and how all people living in America sure as hell are not sharing the same experience (“If you living carefree then you probably don’t look like us.”). It’s a smooth and flowing track which impressively bellies its weighty, important, and sagacious lyricism.
Sankofa — ”Kevlar Chesire”
Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it.” Sankofa is also an underground rapper from Fort Wayne, Indiana that has been spitting fire for over two decades (and we are sure you can see how the motif of “go back and get it” works perfectly for an emcee). His latest album, Glyde Drexler, is rife with tracks that harken back to the golden age of hip hop, where smooth rhymes would flow over a hard hitting boom-bap beat. As Sankofa puts it, “all these rappers can grind, I’d rather glide,” and glide he does over each and every track on the album, specifically the throwback that is “Kevlar Chesire.” The song is a true relic of times of yore, where positive lyrics whisked like a breeze over a beat that demanded incessant head nodding.
Jay Electronica — “Ghosts of Soulja Slim”
It finally happened. Well over a decade after New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica emphatically caught the attention of hip hop heads far and wide, his debut album A Written Testimony was released this year. This delightful surprise was paired with another, in that Brooklyn’s Finest, Jay Z, is prominently featured on the album, so much so that he can be found trading bars with Electronica on the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth songs. The entire album is dramatically worth your time, but a good jumping off point is the first proper release, “Ghosts of Soulja Slim.” The song makes it clear right off the bat that this long awaited debut from a 43 year old enigmatic and ridiculous talented rapper has been well worth the wait.
Sven Wunder — “Black Iris”
Swedish psych rocker Sven Wunder’s recent album Eastern Flowers (an Americanized reissue of his first LP, Doğu Çiçekleri) is an album that has us in awe. As Sven Wunder tells it, the aim of his music is to take “the listener somewhere around the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, around the Levantine Sea, where he paints a colorful portrait and illustrates the region’s flora through sound.” We love that description, and more so Sven Wunder’s gloriously unique music. The opening track of Eastern Flowers, “Black Iris,” sets a wondrous tone for the album, creating an inviting, mystical jaunt that is both mesmerizing and wholly propulsive.
Sunwatchers — “Love Paste”
This spring the experimental New York-based jazz ensemble Sunwatchers released their fourth album Oh Yeah?. “Love Paste,” the first single released off the album, is a dizzying ride. It is brimming with circulating guitar riffs and saxophone bursts and once you give over to its rhythms and intricacies, “Love Paste” is a song with a penetrating groove that is absolutely intoxicating. Guitarist Jim McHugh describes the song as “the fluid in which the communal instincts we are born with are nourished and protected” — so yeah, it’s that sort of party, one you’ll be glad you attended.
Sean Watkins and Matt Chamberlain — “Orbital Debris”
Sean Watkins, known as one-third of Nickel Creek (alongside Chris Thile and his sister Sara), is prolific in his musical endeavors and creative projects. His latest finds him teaming with drummer Matt Chamberlain in a self-titled album that features vocals from Gaby Moreno, Madison Cunningham, Lucius, and David Garza (just to name a few). The whole album is an enchanting musical journey, one we urge you to venture on wholeheartedly. But for a taste, we suggest “Orbital Debris,” a smooth yet driven song that first manifests itself as sparse, but in time morphs methodically into a complex layered hypnotic dream.
Steve Cobby — “Between Rapture and Regret”
Steve Cobby is a British producer, musician, composer, and DJ, based in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire and is best known for being part of the English electronica duo Fila Brazillia. Cobby has been particularly inspired as of late, highlighted by the fact he has released two albums thus far this year. The one we can’t stop spinning is СТИВИ, an album loaded with some of the smoothest soundscapes we have come upon. Not buying it? Give “Between Rapture and Regret” a spin, proof positive of the silky, sultry songs that Cobby seems to bring to life with ease.
Woods — “Where Do You Go When You Dream”
Since the release of 2017’s wonderfully captivating Love is Love, a response to the distressing electoral events of 2016 that led America into its current nightmare, all has been quiet from the Wood’s camp. But the fifteen year old rock outfit helmed by Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere are back at it, releasing an album entitled Strange To Explain. The album is full of light, love, hypnotic melodies, and sonic dreamscapes that delight the senses and are blissful to get lost in. A fine example of the wondrous journeys and evocative imagery found throughout Strange To Explain is “Where Do You Go When You Dream,” an enchanting song that places listeners in gardens simply to watch them grow, and amid a new dawn as birds sing adjacent to an “old friend you left outside” that is “a burn pile you’ll light in spring.”
Phoebe Bridgers — “I See You”
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers (notably a member of two incredible supergroups, boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center) released her highly anticipated album, Punisher, earlier than scheduled. Announcing the news on Twitter, Bridges respectfully and impressively stated “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to “normal” because I don’t think they should. Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it.” We do like it, profoundly. Our favorite (at the moment, we have just gotten started with this gorgeous piece of art) is “I See You,” a heartfelt number about a breakup that, in true Bridges fashion, seems to also nod to hurt beyond the personal, the collective discomfort abounding in these uncertain times.
Bright Eyes — “Persona Non Grata”
This summer, the Conor Oberst led outfit Bright Eyes was set to venture out on a reunion tour, their first since they went on hiatus in 2011. Fuck you Covid-19 (a double fuck you for messing with the return of Rage Against the Machine and Oysterhead). Conor has certainly kept himself busy and kept us entertained with projects in the meantime, including solo albums, the punk band Desaparecidos, and most recently, the Better Oblivion Community Center, which he formed with singer Phoebe Bridgers. However, the return of Bright Eyes truly meant something to their legion of fans, including ourselves, and especially those that grew into adulthood with their soulful music soundtracking that uncertain transition. Fortunately, we have been treated to a series of new releases, sneak peeks from a promised forthcoming album, among them “Persona Non Grata,” a track that soars and vibrates with vintage vintage, heyday Bright Eyes.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — “Only Children”
It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite song off of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s recent album Reunions, because the entire album is a masterpiece front to back. With that said, our go-to off the Alabama native and former Drive By Truckers guitarist latest is “Only Children,” a song steeped in nostalgia and evoking memories of those youthful days, roaming the streets at night in cutoff jeans “doing what broken people do.” Before delving into “Only Children” or Reunions in aggregate, a word of advice: have some tissues at hand. Isbell’s brand of storytelling aims for the heart, and he never misses its mark.
Supergroups come in all shapes and sizes (as exhibited by the aforementioned The Third Mind). One, a fascinating trio composed of three indie rock folk phenoms who call themselves Bonnie Light Horseman, has our full attention. They have released one of the best albums we have heard all year, the self-titled Bonny Light Horseman. Composed of Anais Mitchell (the mastermind behind the album Hadestown, which blossomed into the tremendous Broadway play), Josh Kaufman (multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, composer, arranger, engineer, you name it) and Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson, they are a rare group of musicians that combined, feel as if they were destined to play together. “Deep in Love” is a perfect example of the affectivity of their combined talents, invoking traditional American folk and a haunting beauty that is both bewitching and invigorating. Because we couldn’t help ourselves, we had to throw another track from BLH in the mix, the must hear, deeply alluring song “The Roving,” which prominently features Mitchell’s stunning yet captivating vocal talents.