“PROBABLY HUMAN”: Music that Got Us Through 2020

"In what has been probably the least athletic year in my life, it's nice to be reminded that I have blood in my veins."

2020 has been a rough year for everyone. The times may have changed, but music has continued to be there alongside us throughout it all, offering companionship when we are lonely, calming our nerves, and energizing us when motivation can be difficult to come across. The people who bring us these sounds have also experienced a great deal of change in 2020. Most of the stages that used to bring so much joy to New Orleans currently collect dust as the pandemic rages on. ANTIGRAVITY decided to reach out to some of our friends and colleagues in the local music community about the albums that got them through a very turbulent year. Here is what they listened to while processing loss, becoming first-time parents, and outrunning fascists.


Hunter King

Every Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. Hunter King hosts his long-standing surf rock show Storm Surge of Reverb on WTUL. This year, King fathered not only a human son (“Mostly I’ve been listening to the joyful incoherence of a 10-month old,” he reports) but the TULbot, an automation system that keeps music playing on WTUL when the college station’s human DJs aren’t available due to pandemic-era complications.

Paradise Cove (Misha Panfilov & Shawn Lee)

When I think of albums I want to listen to more often, I think of Misha Paniflov & Shawn Lee’s Paradise Cove, an unambitious record that mixes krautrock low-voltage pulse and psychedelia with a mysterious, exotica prowl. I initially appreciated Misha for his irresistible funk singles, but he’s started to meander into more bedroomy noodlings (perhaps that’s COVID for you) including a nice theremin album earlier this year. This is the perfect mix though; cools down my day after the baby’s gone to sleep but keeps me moving for the evening me-time.

S/T (Fleur)

One of my favorite recent surf groups is Les Robots, who, thanks to some genuine clavioline, are about as close to an approximation to a modern Joe Meek instrumental group as there ever has been. They did release an album this year. It’s great, but I want to talk about Fleur’s self-titled record, which they were the backing band for. It’s a tremendous modern yéyé album— Fleur nails the vocal styling of the era, while Les Robots deftly decide when to support with period-appropriate stylings, and when to get gritty and weird.

Deep Teal (Adrienne Edson)

A big part of COVID for me has been helping WTUL stay listenable. At first that meant just avoiding dead air, creating an automation system, and helping DJs cue pre-recorded shows, but then I really wanted to make that automation system enjoyable. I wanted more local music in there, and I started crawling the “New Orleans” tag on Bandcamp and sampling everything. That’s how I found Adrienne Edson. Folk is rarely my thing, but add a thick layer of dreamy gazey sound, and I guess I’ll change my tune because I’ve come back to this one a lot. “Moon Honey Love” in particular may be the standout song of the year for me.

UMMON (SLIFT)

And since everything I’ve described is so pleasant, SLIFT’s UMMON has been the tremendous monster riff source that I’ve needed. “Thousand Helmets of Gold” is the standout track, with a screaming attention-getting lick right out the gate, spacey washouts, and fuzzy crunches. In what has been probably the least athletic year in my life, it’s nice to be reminded that I have blood in my veins.

Maslak Halayı (Ayyuka)

And since I’m Mr. Surf Guy I’ll include an almost surf record. Ayyuka are a guitar-heavy instrumental group that explicitly reference Dick Dale as an influence, but as a Turkish group they owe a lot to Anatolian rock groups such as Erkin Koray and Silüetler. They can riff plenty, but they play in scales that sound much more fresh to my American ears. There’s a great groove to them that might reach out to Khruangbin fans too. It’s been a great year for Turkish groups—I’ve also really been enjoying Altın Gün and Gaye Su Akyol. In general,  these groovy semi-surf things have been really hitting the spot for me; maybe it’s a need for the strange when there’s not much room for adventure.

Ruy De Magalhães

Eclectic post-punk trio Lawn released its second full-length Johnny in September. In addition to handling vocals, bass, and guitar with the band, Ruy De Magalhães (right, with girlfriend Cassie Glick) began an MPA program this year and found out he will be a father soon.

Live at Vicar Street  (Girl Band)

This is by far one of the best live records I’ve listened to in a long time. Girl Band is one of the groups that sort of walks the thin line between underground darlings and household names in the UK/Ireland, but here they are sort of reduced to Consequence of Sound articles, Pitchfork reviews, and some KEXP sessions. Vicar Street [in Dublin, Ireland] holds like 1,500 people and they sold it out. Here they play 300-seaters, if that. They’re so insanely visceral and motorik but there’s some clear pop sensibilities behind the music that really grabbed me. Also, the lyrics are killer.

Stereo (Paul Westerberg)

This record is absolutely fantastic. Paul Westerberg’s music embodies some of the introspectiveness of rock’n’roll without coming off as corny. On another note, my girlfriend and I are expecting our first child next year, and many of these songs deal with parenthood and Westerberg’s relationship with his own dad. It’s a nice record to reflect on. I hate the album cover, though. Homeboy looks like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Icky.

Broadcasting from Home (Penguin Cafe Orchestra)

I started an MPA program deep in the pandemic and this record has really gotten me through the process of sitting in front of a computer, doing research for hours. It is very guitar-driven and it flirts with some folk, pop, and krautrock vibes—minimal but very calculated and intricate. If you like Philip Glass or Steve Reich this is probably for you. It’s a nice change of pace considering all the loud and inaudible music I listen to on a daily basis.

Songs to Yeet at the Sun (Soul Glo)

Granted, this EP just came out, but I’ve been blasting it nonstop ever since. It’s really helped through the last of 2020 before we all have to deal with more of this garbage next year. I’ve caught Soul Glo live a couple of times and they’ve always delivered. In the wake of this pandemic, I have some newfound appreciation for artists who make me reminisce on amazing live shows. Soul Glo is most definitely the bearer of that sentiment.

Residente o Visitante (Calle 13)

This is one of those records I used to listen to nonstop when I was a teenager. I spent a crazy amount of time with it. In retrospect, it cemented a lot of the sociopolitical views I embrace today. Also, if you speak Spanish, you’ll be thoroughly amused at the amount of insults aimed at the police. They’re so insanely clever and hilarious. I’ve tried to imitate Residente’s delivery for years, to no success. The man is a king of wordplay and absurdism.

photo by Teddie Taylor

Emily McWilliams

This year, singer/pianist Emily McWilliams released Ravel, the second album of dark pop songs under her solo moniker Silver Godling. McWilliams is also known for her long history of collaborations with Thou and her time performing in MJ Guider’s live incarnation.

Myopia (Agnes Obel)

I discovered not only this album but also Agnes Obel, who has been putting out albums for the past decade or so, thanks to the Dark season 3 soundtrack. The song on the Dark soundtrack is off of Myopia—“Broken Sleep.” Myopia was released just before COVID-19 spread in the U.S., but I didn’t discover it right away. Agnes Obel’s songs are beautiful and mournful, yet peaceful, with somewhat sparse arrangements featuring acoustic piano, strings, and her gorgeous, lilting voice.

Ultraviolet (Kelly Moran)

I learned of Kelly Moran recently, in the early fall of 2020. Moran’s album Ultraviolet is an incredible joining of the prepared (acoustic) piano and electronic music. Her piano skills are phenomenal, and her music as a whole is beautiful and complex. Moran’s intent with this album was a sort of capturing and reproduction of sounds of nature (according to Wiki and Pitchfork). As a listener, there is a definite organic feel and flow to this, maybe even like having an open, uncensored conversation with your journal or a closest loved one. Bonus: the artwork for this album is beautiful!

Sour Cherry Bell (MJ Guider)

I suppose one could view this choice as weird since I’ve been part of the live MJ Guider band in the past! But this album is as new to me as it is to any other fan! SCB sensorily transports, which for me, translates into my brain reaching that elusive uncluttered state and finding The Moment. Part of this is possible because there seems to be an endless world of discovery in SCB. With each listen, I hear a new, nearly hidden sound or echo—it’s thrilling. Melissa Guion achieves a literal spatial listening experience with SCB not only by her flawless layering of sounds, creating the lushest instrumentation, but also where the sounds fall with regards to orchestration and composition and panning and echoes. It is a piece of art that has carved out its space in this world, and we are lucky to have it.

Meditations for Solo Double Bass (Eric Klerks)

This album was born of having performed it live for yoga studios, and one day, someone asked Eric Klerks if there was a physical format, which led to the recording of the music he’d been playing to accompany movement and intention. In general, but especially this past year, I struggle with feeling like my feet are on the ground, or like I am capable of gently leading my body and brain through life many days. Meditations creates a sort of low and beautiful, natural and flowing grounding, like a necessary tether that helps me remember that I am (probably) human and my feet will actually walk and not betray me.

Singles

I would be remiss to not include a couple of singles to which I have continually returned lately. Lingua Ignota’s “O Ruthless Great Divine Director” and Marissa Nadler and Lawrence Rothman’s “It’s Hard to Be Human.” “O Ruthless Great Divine Director” combines many of my favorite elements: piano, an amazing voice, a build, and a starkly contrasted journey toward the end of the song. Lyrically, to me, [Kristin] Hayter markedly collects alienating and enraging behaviors: violent judgement and damnation as well as ultimate surrender to instability, avoidance, and fleeing discomfort. “It’s Hard to Be Human” is a gorgeous, melancholic song by Lawrence Rothman with guest collaborator Marissa Nadler; it’s a gentle song that suggests sorrow but ultimate willful acquiescence, bodily and emotionally. Nadler’s gorgeous voice is the perfect complement to this song.

Dominic Minix

On December 18, singer/guitarist Dominic Minix’s new ska group BAD OPERATION releases its self-titled debut, which has been so eagerly anticipated that the entire first pressing sold out over a month prior to the release date. He also released a well-received genre-bending solo EP in July.

UNTITLED (Black Is) (SAULT)

Sault is a secret band that released two albums since the pandemic, UNTITLED (Black Is) and UNTITLED (Rise). (Black Is) perfectly captured the feeling at the time George Floyd was killed by the police. This music helped me process the anger, exhaustion, and powerlessness I felt as a result of the state killing of Black people without recourse. It also helped me channel my emotions to feel connected to revolutionary spirit. Aesthetically, this album is also so unique. It was on repeat for a while just because I haven’t heard anything so hip since Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut. Check out “Wildfires” from this record.

Season of Changes (Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band)

Summer is usually very taxing in New Orleans, and this one in particular felt like it would never end. Season of Changes was there for me when I needed to process the changes that I was going through: that this is the new normal but life still continues. This is beautiful, spiritual music that inspired me to see new sonic possibilities in Black American music. This is a very cathartic record. I also feel a personal connection to Brian Blade as we both learned to play Black American Music in New Orleans. Check out “Stoner Hill” from this record.

HOUSE (Lupe Fiasco and Kaelin Ellis)

Life is in full effect these days with hardship, change, achievement, and loss. There’s no casual viewing. “SHOES” from the HOUSE EP helped me get in touch with the pain of losing my friend Raymond Weber Jr. We grew up together and learned music together, with dreams of conquering the jazz scene. Shoes are a symbol for a soul’s passing, and we also say that we never know what someone is feeling until we walk a mile in someone’s shoes. Me and Raymond walked the same paths, shared some of the same internal battles, and I miss him. Check out “SHOES” on this record.

Live 1973—1975 (Bob Marley & the Wailers)

My Dad got this record from Starbucks when I was a kid and I stole it from him because I loved it so much. In high school, when I felt overwhelmed by life, I would skate to this record and it would make me feel happy and free. Don’t sleep on the music that you used to listen to when you were a kid. It still makes me feel happy and free today. It’s not available on streaming platforms, but just search YouTube for “Bob Marley Natty Dread Chicago 75 HD.”

Agadez (Bombino)

Beautiful funky folk music from Niger. I love the unique style of guitar playing and the subtle groove that’s in the music. Also, the melodies are beautiful and simple. I strive for elegant simplicity, and Bombino achieves this brilliantly on songs like “Tebsakh Dalet (A Green Acacia).” I listened to this around the beginning of the pandemic and it digs deep into my heart every time I listen to it.

photo by Kevin Barrios

Craig Oubre

Local divebar rockers HiGH released their latest full-length Out My Scope in October after teasing it with a couple of singles earlier this year. Singer/guitarist Craig Oubre propels the power trio’s hard hitting, emotive sound.

At Rockpalast (Thin Lizzy)

You asked for five albums but I am going to come out of the gate and bend the rules early. This is not an album that is available on any digital streaming services, but it is easy to find on YouTube for free. Filmed for the German TV series Rockpalast, this is Thin Lizzy live in 1981. At this point in the pandemic we really need to see and hear live music and, let’s face it, live streams are lame. This comes about as close as it gets to scratching the itch for a live show to me. The band rips and it doesn’t have any overdubbed performances like some “live” videos. I also really like this era of Thin Lizzy; it’s towards the end of the band’s career but before they enlisted John Sykes on guitar, whose playing is a little overdone for my taste.

Teenager of the Year (Frank Black)

I’ve always been more of a Breeders fan than a Pixies fan—not that we should have to choose between the two— but in an effort to dig harder on the Pixies I found this record. The opening track (“What Ever Happened to Pong”) is killer. I played the hell out of this one.

Road to Ruin 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Ramones)

I am not really crazy about box set reissues. This one is really fun though, especially if you have an insatiable appetite for all things Ramones. I decided to give it a spin after hearing a podcast about the record with Ed Stasium, the album’s engineer. This has some really cool demos, rough mixes, and a full acoustic version of “Questioningly.” My favorite part is disc 3, the Live in 1979 concert. There are a ton of live Ramones concerts available from the era right before this. The setlists then are almost identical. The concert in this package has songs from Road to Ruin and End of the Century, the latter of which had not yet been released in 1979. The concert portion is a must hear for the fanatics, particularly if you are not into the oversaturated reverb that Phil Spector dumped all over End of the Century.

Parade On (Doug Gillard)

This album was suggested to me by a staff member at Euclid Records and I am glad it was. For those who don’t know Doug Gillard, he is the guitarist in Guided By Voices. Even though this album has a lot of riff-based rock’n’roll on it, it somehow serves as a palate cleanser for me when I don’t really feel like listening to straight ahead rock music. There are moments of jangly power pop and just some really pretty vocal melodies to go along with some jazzy guitar feels. I highly recommend this album.

One Nation Under a Groove (Funkadelic)

Not sure why this record is not on streaming services, but you can almost always find a decent copy in a used section. Eddie Hazel does not play guitar on this record but his replacement kicks ass. Check out “Into You” and “Groovallegiance” if you are not familiar.

photo by Rachel June

Khris Royal

In September, Khris Royal & Dark Matter released “I Can’t Breathe,” a collaborative single featuring Nigel Hall in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Royal, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his sax playing, has also torn up stages with the likes of The Meters and Rebelution.

The Many Facets Of Roger (Roger Troutman)

Everyone has heard the classic boogie funk anthems from this record like “So Ruff, So Tuff” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” I had never heard the track “Superman” until it popped up in my discover weekly playlist in April. After hearing that cut, I decided to dig deeper into the record and that has inspired me to write more music using the talk box.

Laid Black (Marcus Miller)

I love this record. Marcus has always been known to keep his music current while also holding on the traditions of the past. I love the way he incorporates trap music and jazz, something I have been doing with my band for years. I’m a huge fan of Earth, Wind & Fire so it was really cool to hear their song “Runnin’” reimagined with a trap vibe on Miller’s “Keep ‘Em Runnin.” The last track on the record, “Preacher’s Kid,” inspired a track I wrote in April called “For Those We Lost.” It is dedicated to everyone we lost in 2020, especially the people who had to go through it alone. I lost a few friends and mentors this year to COVID and the worst part was knowing they died in a hospital alone without their loved ones there.

On The Rise (The S.O.S. Band)

In May, I rewatched The Black Godfather on Netflix and that kind of sent me down a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis rabbit hole. This record is pretty interesting because Jimmy and Terry only produced the A side, but all three cuts are bangers. One of the singles “Just Be Good To Me” always reminds me of the Saenger Theatre because Richard Pryor used the instrumental for his Here and Now special.

Everything (Lido)

Lido is my favorite producer hands down. Every few months I find myself coming back to this record because every time I listen I hear something new. 2020 has been the year of the livestream, and in a lot of ways that has sucked, but in some cases it’s a blessing. I have never gotten the chance to see Lido live so when he did his first livestream I was really excited. After the stream, I ended up playing this record on repeat again.

It Is What It Is (Thundercat)

Thundercat is without a doubt one of my favorite artists right now. I love that he can make music with advanced jazz harmony and silly lyrics and somehow regular people (non-music nerds) can still vibe to it.

Photo by Achilles Lawless

R. Scully

In 2020, songwriter/guitarist R. Scully released two full-lengths: last month’s New Confusion and his earlier children’s album Eat Your Toes. Many New Orleanians fondly recognize him for his time with party rock veterans Morning 40 Federation.

Palo Alto (Thelonious Monk)

I have always preferred traditional jazz over modern jazz or bebop, but, during the pandemic, repetitive pop hooks of much of the music I love seem to exacerbate my pandemic angst. Turning away from more verse-chorus-verse, I am now leaning more toward the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Specifically, Monk’s Live at Palo Alto High School has been a go-to. It was recorded by a janitor in 1968, but sat on a shelf until 2020 when it was dug up and released. As a listener, I will always choose authenticity over sound quality, and this album is a perfect example. You can hear Monk’s chair squeak during his solo piano pieces and the bass player mouthing the melody along with his improvisations during his solos. There is an immediate purity in this recording that makes it seem as if it was destined to surface now.

Phase Three (Ratty Scurvics)

Mr. Scurvics recorded and released several records and a wealth of visual art during the pandemic. His most recent record, Phase Three, has been the one most often in the Scully queue. This is an instrumental record and, like the Monk record, it is absent of traditional song structure. Each of the nine songs is a journey on its own; there are explosive thumping rhythms that move into sensitive piano melodies and silences and back into the explosion. Ratty says he developed his songwriting structures by studying sonatas; the complexity is welcome. When I listen to these songs, I don’t just hear them, I feel them. 2020 has rewired my brain to want to be challenged by the music; Phase Three hits me in the gut.

Quantum Entanglement (Royal Trux)

Royal Trux is one of the most underrated bands in history. It wasn’t until relatively recently that their catalog was made available on streaming sites. Drag City, their label since the ’80s, was holding out. Fortunately, it is now available and has provided me with the joy of discovering kick-ass songs from a band with vocal and guitar textures that exemplify what rock’n’roll should be. Quantum Entanglement is a compilation record released in 2019 by Fat Possum Records. It is a nice doorway into the Royal Trux world and turned me on to songs like “Platinum Tips,” which will knock your ass in the dirt, and “Sunshine and Grease,” a throwback to ’50s pop, but with wicked fuzzed-out guitar soundscapes. Much of their records are self-recorded and have a grainy lo-fi quality, but in times of distress when I need to turn it to 11 and rock the fuck out, this is it.

Mashed Potato Records Volumes I and II

I listen to these when I want to conjure the memory of the times when live music was a driving force in my life. For over two years preceding the pandemic, I was curating the Friday Night shows at BJ’s. During that time I befriended so many great people and bands. Jackson and the Janks, Pony Hunt, Duff Thompson, Chris Acker, Sabine McCalla, Esther Rose, Max and the Martians, Carver Baronda were all regular players and patrons. Sam Doores [Mashed Potato co-founder] has done New Orleans a great service by capturing the talent of this tightly-knit scene. All of these songs were recorded on analog tape machines which gives it the grainy, washed-out authenticity of an earlier era. Side B on Volume II always gives me life. Duff Thompson’s “You’re Pretty Good” is perfectly weird while Chris Acker’s “Dallas Does Debbie” is my favorite country song of the decade. I miss seeing these guys at my favorite bar, but listening to them on these records reminds me that those times will return.

Repeater (Fugazi)

I picked up this record when it came out in 1990; I was 17. By that time I had already had a life-changing experience seeing the band at the Outhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Fugazi’s message of pushing back against materialism meant a lot to me then and although I was naive, it still informs much of who I am today. During the pandemic and under the shit show that is the Trump administration, this record is a reminder that when capitalism is unchecked the result is psychological, social, and political rot. Ian MacKaye screaming “You are not what you own!” resonates as much or more now than it ever has.

Photo by Matthew Seltzer

Alynda Segarra

Over the past decade, Alynda Segarra has gone from performing with a scrappy bunch of street musicians in the Quarter to becoming a globally recognized songwriter for her work with Hurray for the Riff Raff. In September, she released a collaborative cover of Big Star‘s “Thirteen” with Bedouine and Waxahatchee (and word on the street is she’s recording her next album in North Carolina with Waxahatchee producer Brad Cook).

Miss Colombia (Lido Pimienta)

Lido Pimienta is a genius, and this album should be celebrated as one of the best of 2020. The songs “Nada,” “Resisto Y Ya,” “Eso Que Tu Haces,” and “Te Queria” all got me through this year so far. Though my understanding of Spanish is super limited, I took the time to study her lyrics. The videos accompanying this album are also amazing.

Keyboard Fantasies (Beverly Glenn-Copeland)

I am so glad to see that many of us found the music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland this year. His voice led me through some of the mystery of this year, and I am so inspired by the way he brings images of the natural world together with electronic music. I want to see him booked and well paid for all he created. Listen to “Ever New” outside in a garden or by some trees in City Park.

YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)

Bad Bunny means so much to me as a Nuyorican weirdo kid. This album gave me some bangers to blast while riding my bike. This summer, Benito [Antonio Martínez Ocasio] put on a roving concert on top of a flatbed truck tricked out to look like a subway car. Moving all through the Bronx and Harlem, he performed dodging street lights and overpasses. People looked genuinely psyched, and I cried watching him bring my hometown some much deserved joy after such a death-filled time. Favs: “Yo Perreo Sola,” “Si Veo a Tu Mamá,” “La Santa,” and the EPIC “Safaera.”

Ultra Mono (IDLES)

Fuck Pitchfork. This album is great for working out so you can outrun fascists. Favs: “War,” “Model Village.”

The Passion Of (Special Interest)

Last show I saw in 2020 was Special Interest playing under circling helicopters and a burning surveillance camera in the now abandoned Beauty Plus parking lot on Mardi Gras day. First off, Alli Logout is a fucking legendary performer/singer and writer. The entire band creates an experience that feels transcendent. This album shows so much growth and commitment to their vision; the lyrics are beyond. I am too scared to do drugs, but I think listening to this did something to me that I can only imagine feels like a trip. I’m a different person now. Thanks Special Interest! Favs: “Street Pulse Beat,” “All Tomorrow’s Carry.”


Illustrations by Airily Arts.