Michelin Stars of Alderaan [work in progress]
Listening Listfully 2021

Listening Listfully 2020

No performance tonight

This New Year's Eve Moment is the occasion for which this blog still, on occasion, exists. It is the moment of the annual "Listening Listfully" list of the music that has appealed to me over the preceding year. 

In keeping with the practice of so many other, more reputable music-listers, I have abandoned any pretense of ranking this year.

What we have below is, by my reckoning, a list of 103 album-like music releases from 2020. 52 of them are listed in random order, as a sort of top tier, with commentary. The commentary frequently takes the form of embedded Twitter comments from the past year. The count is 52 because I adopted the practice of presenting them with album covers arranged in groups of four, and 52 is divisible by 4, don't you know. The first group of 52 is followed by another group of 51, arranged without further comment and in quasi-alphabetical [i.e., alphabetical by first word] order. I like the second 51 selections very nearly as much as the first 52, but one must draw lines somewheres.

All but a very few of the items on this list are available through Bandcamp, and many of my Twitter remarks were catalyzed by the laudable "Bandcamp Friday" initiative, which will continue into much of 2021. Each listing of a Bandcamp-available recording includes a link to its Bandcamp page. Buy music, please, always and frequently and particularly now. Streaming music is all right if you have bought that music first, or if you are listening once in contemplation of a possible purchase, or if you know you are never ever going to pay for that music apart from crumbs of crumbs and you are able to rationalize being all right with that. The convenience and portability of streaming services is grand and tempting, but the cumulative price is starving creators and the shedding of at least a little part of your soul. Proceed with circumspection.

That said, as a matter of foolish inconsistency, I have created a Spotify playlist of selections from most of the recordings catalogued below: "In My Mind These Are the Monster Hits"

For whatever reason, there is more jazz or jazz-adjacent or creative improvised music on this year's list than ever before, in large part because I ended up freely associating around the players and protegees of the Chicago Underground Quartet, triggered by the album that leads off the second group of four below. While working on this post, I found that Rolling Stone, of all places, tapped into that same source in summing up the year in that music, and I recommend that piece to you, which is here.
The same flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory thing as it ever was, here begins the fifteenth edition of The List: 

Doug SeidelGornisht Helfen

This comes first, for the simple reason that I want to tell somebody!  about it.

It is a "pay what you will" item on Bandcamp, and at this writing has apparently attracted maybe a half-dozen paying customers in the history of the world. [I am one of them, though that is not apparent as it displays in my own browser.] Is it the "best" of the year? Other than giving this fool pleasure with great consistency, perhaps not. You, whoever you may be, should at least give it a spin. As I have written of it on the Bandcamp site:

I've come down to thinking of this slyly pleasurable recording as, like, "Eno & Cluster in a shack in the woods making cartoon music with Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, and maybe David Lynch."
In theory it could be yours for free, but pay the man dammit.

This I believe.

Body MettaThe Work is Slow

"Top Drawer Racket" is a descriptor I started tossing about on Twitter in 2020. This is not the first recording to which I applied the term, but it is a fine exemplar. Critic and music writer Sasha Frere-Jones fronts Body Metta, on "right guitar." On the left: Grey McMurray, whose presence always signals quality [e.g., as one half of itsnotyouitsme with Caleb Burhans]. Melvin Gibbs and Greg Fox round out the rattletrap assemblage, and all combine such that any isle of shelter or quarantine in which you may have gone to earth will be satisfyingly full of noises.

Idris Ackamoor & the PyramidsShaman! 

The Pyramids' "When Will I See You Again?" is not the Three Degrees classic, but a lamentation of sudden loss by violence that resonates equally with seemingly endless swell of the late pandemic.

Mike Wexler with Synthetic Love Dream Mike Wexler with Synthetic Love Dream


Chicago Underground QuartetGood Days

This is the starting point for my personal Year of Chicago-centric Jazz.  Each of the players on this album - Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor, Jeff Parker, and Josh Johnson - reappears once or more below, as does producer Chris Schlarb. Any stop along that road is savory, and any combination of some or all is a feast.

happy place tendrils

Top. Drawer. Racket. The recording that first earned that moniker. Drums and guitars, and more drums and more guitars, dodging obstacles through a perilous array of meters and tunings. Rock 'em, sock 'em satisfactions galore, and smart, too. Vocals provided in part by Charlotte Mundy, who reappears in the unillustrated portion of this list with a commendable multitracked turn as all three of Morton Feldman's "Three Voices".

Psychic TempleHouses of the Holy

Chris Schlarb produced the Chicago Underground Quartet album that triggered so much else on this list, so he is a sort of Founder of the Feast – or Leader of the List – for 2020. Here, under his performing identity as Psychic Temple, he offers a 21st Century equivalent to the double-disked, gatefolded vinyl rock extravaganzas of yesteryear, with a different set of collaborators on each "side": Chicago Underground Quartet on Side 2, contemporary L.A. rockers Cherry Glazerr [rusticating in a cabin out Joshua Tree way] on Side 1, reformed L.A. '80s American Guitarstarists The Dream Syndicate on Side 3, and East L.A. hiphopsmith Xololanxinxo drenched in Alice Coltrane chorales on Side 4. Shuffle it, play it, straight through, or pick a side: this is a true "record-record," of the sort embraced in R. Stevie Moore's 'Play Myself Some Music'.

Bec PlexusSticklip


Molly JoyceBreaking and Entering

As we say on Twitter:


A Girl Called EddyBeen Around

Ted Hearne, Saul WilliamsPlace

Tara Clerkin TrioTara Clerkin Trio


Moses BoydDark Matter

Beyond Chicago connections, another stream in the choices on this list flows from the still fermenting UK/London jazz scene, marked by incorporation of Afrobeat, dub, reggae, hip hop, and more. Moses Boyd's album arrived early in the year, and kept finding its way to my ears all the way to the end. Boyd reappears on this list as drummer in Tori Handsley's trio.

Sophia Subbayya VastekLili

Sam Amidon – Sam Amidon

I have not done the math, but if I ever made an Ultimate List of Listful Listening there is a fair chance that no musician would appear on it more frequently than Sam Amidon, whether as an essential element in Thomas Bartlett's Doveman or in his own name. He is a fascinating Twitter follow as well. Every Sam Amidon release is as Sam Amidon as it gets, and this is no exception [though, for the moment at least, my first choice is probably still The Following Mountain - #2 in 2017]

Jeff ParkerSuite for Max Brown


Leah KardosBird Rib

The String Orchestra of Brooklynafterimage

Bernhard Weber, John HollenbeckGrids

Christian Scott aTunde AdjuahAxiom

Recorded live at the Blue Note in New York in March, in the last days before everything shut down. There are slightly uncomfortable jokes about washing your hands and not sneezing on one another, and a characterization of the word "jazz" as "belittling and pejorative." Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah prefers "creative improvised music" – as would I, but for all those extra syllables. It is a strong set of whatever it is, with the leader frequently stepping back to allow the other members of the band to show their craft. 

Bob DylanRough and Rowdy Ways

Moor Mother, Nichole MitchellOffering

Emma-Jean ThackerayUm Yang

Rangy, spiritous UK jazz, recorded one take straight to disk in Haarlem. 

John Foxx & the MathsHowl

Elvis PerkinsCreation Myths

Chad Taylor TrioThe Daily Biological

Tristan PerichDrift Multiply

Rob Mazurek– Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

This has proven to be a sound and correct recommendation:

NuminousThe Grey Land

Richard Valituttonocturnes and lullabies

Soundwalk Collective with Patti SmithPeradam

Chris Kallmyer – Gimmie Mountain Language

Light and Space guitar from the great Yonder.

Smoke FairiesDarkness Brings the Wonders Home

John HollenbeckSongs You Like a Lot

Third, presumably final, installment in the "Like A Lot" mythos. If you haven't been following it, you should - most particularly the soul-searing Jimmy Webb arrangements in Episode 1 - and if you have been following, you don't need me to tell you. Essential, any which  way.

Hubert Dupont, Antoine Berjeaut, Steve ArgüellesTrio Kosmos

French trumpeter Antoine Berjeaut released an under the radar, groove driven album with Makaya McCraven at the tail of 2019. Here, he features in an improvisational trio with electric bass, drums, and diverse atmosphères électroniques. End result spends time mostly in zones between "Silent" Miles and Jon Hassell. Do not sleep on it.

Matt BerningerSerpentine Prison

Irreversible EntanglementsWho Sent You?

Moor Mother throwing, or tearing, every last thing down over viciously incisive free jazz. That's it. That's the tweet. That's the answer. First IE album may be even better.

James Brandon Lewis, Chad TaylorLive in Willisau

This only came to my attention in the last moments of the year, just in time to find a place of honour on the List.
Saxophone. Drums. And on two rather lovely numbers: mbira.
Rhythm. Blues.
The essence of improvised creative music, there for all to absorb.
This year, nothing else has so captured the actions of Focusing and Making in the Moment, as they fly, in the moment of focusing and making.


There is apparently a quintet recording coming in 2021 with Taylor and Lewis at the heart of it, and I canna' hardly wait.

Marc Sabat & the Harmonic Space OrchestraGioseffo Zarlino (2015​/​2019)

Tori HandsleyAs We Stand

Roomful of TeethJust Constellations

Wordless voices + persistent reverberation + just intonation tuning = a still spot in the churning turning cosmos.

Josh JohnsonFreedom Exercise

The "new kid" in this year's realization of the Chicago Underground Quartet, this is Josh Johnson's initial outing as a bandleader and it chugs and grooves scrumptiously.

Jacob CooperTerrain

Ambient art song.

Mary Halvorson’s Code GirlArtlessly Falling

This too has proven to be a sound and correct recommendation. May also contain non-negligible quantities of Top Drawer Racket.

Brother’s Testament4:7

Michael Vincent Waller A Song

Lucian Ban / John Surman / Mat Maneri – Transylvanian Folk Songs: The Bela Bartók Field Recordings

Tomeka Reid / Alexander Hawkins Shards and Constellations

Cello and piano. Mostly AACM-prov, plus Leroy Jenkins' "Albert Ayler…" & a luxe take on Muhal Richard Abrams' "Peace on You". 


 Sarah Kirkland Snider – Mass for the Endangered

Mass for the Endangered was originally commissioned and premiered through Trinity Church Wall Street as one of a series of new mass settings by contemporary composers. Sarah Kirkland Snider writing for singers is always a fine thing, and her Mass reunites her with poet Nathaniel Bellows from the 2015 song cycle Unremembered [#2 here that year]. A beautiful choral meditation on the fraught state of the bloom and buzz of non-human life.

Ambrose Akinmusireon the tender spot of every calloused moment

Stumped: this thing is terrific, but I cannot distill it down to tell you why. Take it on faith and listen.

Caetano Veloso and Ivan Sacerdote – Caetano Veloso and Ivan Sacerdote

Caetano Veloso's voice and guitar are as soothing a sound as exists, here joined by fluid and surprising clarinet from Ivan Sacerdote. Ted Gioia noted this one early in the year, wondering why it was getting so little attention. It's a mystery to me as well. Quietly crystalline comfort music.

Nubya GarciaSource

A superb player [saxophone], composer and bandleader, Nubya Garcia incorporates as globe-girdling a catalog of musics – anyone for cumbia? – as anyone in London into her full to bursting full-length debut.


BEST OF THE REST - 51 More Morsels

~NoisIs This ~Nois?

Aaron ParksLittle Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man

Alex SadnikSelf Portrait Delay


Arthur RussellThe Deer in The Forest: March 2, 1985 Live at Roulette

Bebel GilbertoAgora

Ben GoldbergPlague Diary

Carlos Nino & Miguel Atwood-FergusonChicago Waves

Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield’s PersonaAnthems Live

Charles MingusCharles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975

Charlotte MundyMorton Feldman – Three Voices

Clarice Jensenthe experience of repetition as death

Cosmic Vibrations ft. Dwight TriblePathways and Passages

David Thomas BroughtonLive at the Rose Hill

David Tranchina Large-ish EnsembleThe Ogre

Gabriel Kahane, Oregon Symphonyemergency shelter intake form

Gavin Gamboa - RQM après-Berlioz

Giacomo FioreCatherine Lamb // point/wave

Imperial ValleyImperial Valley

J.R. Bohannon/Ben Greenberg/Ryley WalkerFor Michael Ripps

James Holden, Waclaw ZimpelLong Weekend EP

Jon HassellSeeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)

JyotiMama You Can Bet!

Lakecia BenjaminPursuance: The Coltranes

Louise BockSketch for Winter VII - Abyss: For Cello

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic DogWhat I Did on My Long ‘Vacation’

Maria Pomianowska ProjectSukotherapy

Matt ChristensenMo Pussyfooting

Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun

Max de Wardener w/ Kit DownesMusic for Detuned Pianos

Michi WianckoPlanetary Candidate

Morgan GuerinThe Saga III

Nichole M. MitchellEarthSeed

Nick NortonLake Village Inn West

Oliver Coatesskins n slime

Pieta BrownWe Are Not Machines (triptych)

Roberto Carlos Lange - Kite Symphony, Four Variations

RollmottleIt’s a Miracle We’re All Still Alive

Roomful of TeethThe Ascendant

Sam GendelSatin Doll

Sunda ArcTides

Susan AlcornThe Heart Sutra (Arranged by Janel Leppin)

Taylor Swiftfolklore

The NecksThree

Thomas BartlettShelter

Tim MunroChristopher Cerrone: Liminal Highway

Travis LaPlante, Yarn/WireInner Garden


Van Huntfifti


yMusicEcstatic Science


Photo by the blogger: Off season foyer and escalator, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.


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