A snowball's chance In Tucson: Best of 2020 lists and holiday releases from local music folk
Best of 2020
Every year around this time, DJs and music writers the world over start coming up with their best of the year lists. But your friendly neighborhood music writer wanted to know what your best of 2020 lists looked like for a change.
So, rather than some arbitrary ranking based on my own oddly specific tastes, I give to you the Tucson Sounds Best of 2020 list part the first, as crowdsourced from some of your favorite members of Southern Arizona's local music community.
Camper Sanborn: "Boris - 'NO,"
Thom Yanochko: "Hazel English - 'Wake Up!'"
Matt Rendon: "The Bats - 'Foothills'"
Paul Opocensky: "Idles - 'Ultra Mono; 'Run The Jewels - '4;'American Aquarium - 'Lamentations;' the Jayhawks - 'XOXO;' Paul Opocensky Project - 'The Ghost and His Enemies.'"
Jim Howell: "I released an album in October [Jim Howell Band's 'Crooked Arrow'] but other than self promo, I have really been into the Sharkk Heartt single ['More Than This'.] Heard it a few times on Rarity Rock Radio."
Mike Panico: "Sure it's shameless self promotion but I really like the local comp '2020 Covid Support Squad.'"
Mark Mason: "Pallbearer - 'Forgotten Day;' Bob Mould - 'Blue Hearts; 'Fates Warning - 'Long Day Good Night;'"
Jeffrey Locke : "The Talking Hours from Albuquerque and Katie Mae both released awesome records in 2020. Definitely deserve some attention.
Lucas Gonzales : "Fleet Foxes - 'Shore;' Fiona Apple - 'Fetch the Bolt Cutters;' The Weeknd - 'After Hours.'"
Odalys Catalan):"Aw man TOUGH one but...Dream Nails' self titled album, Poppy - 'I Disagree.' Also, shameless Mudpuppy plug.
Brian Mock: "Boris - 'NO.'"
Gabi Montoya: "Rolling Blackouts 'CF' and 'Washed Out' because they were the typical comforting indie rock/pop I enjoy. But Thundercat's 'It is what it is' was probably the best."
Lenny Cortes: "Jive Hounds - 'Prom Night' EP."
Taylor Bungard: "Dirty Loops released an EP called 'Phoenix' that absolutely crushes! And, speaking of EPs that crush, Cloudless released a banger as well called 'Three Bassists and a Drummer.' "
J. Lugo Miller: "I listened to a lot of beat makers on Instagram and hip hop by old people, like Busta Rhymes, NAS, Run The Jewels, and those two awesome albums by the Alchemist. Also some Fiona Apple and Dua Lipa was also thrown in the mix somewhere. But, mostly musicians on Instagram made better music than anything that got 'released' this year."
Kenny Wheels: "'What Darkness Brings' from Never Reborn. This Tucson metal band has put out the best-sounding record! The songs are all original, tight, and well-performed. One does not have to be a fan of or know a lot about metal to appreciate this CD. It rocks. One frequent complaint about a lot of metal is the indistinguishable lyrics, and I agree. This doesn't happen here. Bandleader and guitarist Steve White's voice has that roughness, but you can still hear what he's saying. I've photographed them at Encore, and they are even better live. The last two years have found me almost immersed in the metal scene here and this act is one of the best we have. You can purchase this CD at Zia!"
Pike Romero: "Nationally, I liked Westside Gunn- 'Pray 4 Paris;' Freddie Gibbs - 'Alfredo;' Conway the Machine - 'From a King to a God;' Royce 5’9 - the allegory (this is my number #1 because he self produced it) Kirlian - 'Psypiritual and the Lasso.' Locally, Aske - '5/26 Volume 2;'Seanloui - 'Beauty in the Chaos;'gP - 'Black Roses part 2' was my #1, Relli Kizan - 'Psypiritual, Rey, RND1.'"
Clarissa Sarabia: "Little Dragon - 'New Me, Same US;' Washed Out - 'Purple Neon;' Khruangbin, Leon Bridges - 'Texas Sun.'"
Johnnie Rinehart: "Sonic Boom 'All Things Being Equal'
Isaac Reyes: "Freddie Gibbs - 'Alfredo.'"
Bobby C's Best of 2020
When I asked for best of the year lists from you folks, I was imagining a wealth of familiar artists' names, some new under-the-radar treasures, a lot of local shout-outs and a healthy does of musical self-promotion. And, for the most part, that's what I got.
But when it came time for Wanda Junes frontperson and Exbats/Gem Show bassist Bobby Carlson to reply, the answers were a bit...unorthodox. A love letter to a year in quarantine in relation to a baking competition show? Sure, why not.
Don't worry, though. There's some music in there too.
Bobby Carlson (Wanda Junes/Exbats/Gem Show):
In 2020, I fell in love with what I understood to be called the "Great British Baking Show." I’d been vaguely aware of it, but it took so much of life’s strangeness: Trump’s and Gov. Ducey's woefully inadequate response, an extremely comfortable quarantine, and much more of life’s randomness for the stars to align to bring a full episode to my attention. After which, I watched every episode available to me over however much time it took, since, as we all know, time ceased to have much meaning.
On Election Day, I distracted myself with what I had now learned the British call "Bake Off." I took comfort in its now familiar inclusive benign nationalism. The narrative of Great Britain created on the show is one of celebration and appreciation. Those that have closed minds and fixed ideas don’t do well. Creativity, and a dynamic for going with the flow do. A competitive drive rarely helps the bakers. The narratives the show creates fits what I understand about Buddhism which, to use a British term I like, is fuck-all.
A show in which everything hinges on the sense of taste is an absurdity. Not that it’s even close to an original concept but how does that even work?
The entire production is extremely well thought out: It’s colorful, harmonious, and always moves at the exact same enjoyable pace. Every episode is the same. The editors are super heroes. If one can make baking a cake into an existential adventure full of pitfalls and grand achievement, they can probably do anything including any explosion-laden blockbuster."
There are some invaluable lessons that come from a long-form baking contest. First and foremost, no amount of fretting changes anything: People misuse the term ‘karma’ pretty much every time it gets thrown around. Karma is not a cosmic force for justice and balance. It’s the simple science of cause and effect. If fear, anxiety, frustration have any impact, it is only a negative one, the ubiquitous spiral. A scientific, creative, fun loving approach is best. Listen to feedback, assess it, and move on. Focusing on the past or the future only provides one opportunity to suffer. Every day is a weekend in the tent. You do the best you can, you are judged, you move on.
Perhaps the most-timely resonant bit is that over and over again you see people in direct competition help each other, share a laugh, and connect. Regardless of the occasional squabbles and misunderstandings, and while it’s a no consequence baking show, one very rarely roots against anyone. Further, the contest mirrors the paradoxes of so many of life’s capitalist institutions such as school and work: while merit based, those merits, when one looks close enough, are truly arbitrary. All one can do is their best. Self awareness is key. Winning well and losing well are everything. Oh, how Americans have needed those reminders these last years.
Judge Paul Hollywood is illustrated as some sort of ogre. He’s meant to be hated. One could discuss masculinity on GBBS in an academic setting and I would read that work. Who doesn’t want to hate a white male so called expert with facial hair like that? And while he judges harshly, he’s hardly anything close to any American counterpart. He’s a rather good sport actually.
Further, one could certainly throw down a post colonial critique of what I’m sure is the problematic historic origins of the traditional British bakes, if it hasn’t been done. The history of English imperialism is probably directly metaphored in Great Britain’s nationalist identity as taken from their history of baking.
But it doesn’t take away from how well the show kept me focused and functional during a year filled with worry and protest. Ready, set… BA-AKE."
I’m just kidding. Why would I waste hours and hours of my life watching a baking show? I can barely boil water. Or, maybe I lost my mind and just like watching people eat and waste a lot of food. Another of 2020’s mysteries.
If anyone has read this far and care what I listen to, I spent the summer diving into the Alice Coltrane inspired sounds of jazz, looking for some sort of spiritual answer, I suppose. McCoy Tyner’s ‘Extensions’ and Miles Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way’ stand out. This was in tandem with the cliché middle-aged nostalgia for the music I listened to in my formative years supercharged by the surreal contextual factors that don’t need any elaboration.
I listened to very little music put out in 2020 in 2020, but Cut Worms should probably have more listeners (they put out a double album this year) and lots of buds, many of whom I miss intensely, put out great records that I should have used this space for extolling. Maybe next year. And maybe Julie will plug records in which I was involved. I am proud of them all. Even on long hiatus, Julie’s column and her work belong on anyone that matters’ ‘Best of Tucson’ list.
Tucson Sounds: Aw, thanks, Bobby!
A Tale of Two Christmas Albums
While Tucson is a bit of a far flung outpost on the national indie music map, we're a big enough creative mecca that you can count on at least one or two decent holiday music releases. But it isn't every year that one of those releases comes from a local band with a Grammy nomination. Calexico's latest commercial release, and first Christmas offering "
Calexico - 'Seasonal Shift'
Love 'em or hate 'em, Tucson's best-known musical export of the last several years is the sometime duo, sometime quasi-orchestral collective that is Calexico. Fresh off the heels of their 2019 Grammy nomination, Joey Burns, John Convertino and crew finally released a Christmas album. And, it's in many ways about exactly what you'd expect.
While the lyrics are holiday- and winter-themed, there's no mistaking the signature Calexico sound including border-inspired musical motifs, a "Calexican" take on some classic holiday cover songs (the Lennon/Ono penned "Happy Xmas War Is Over" and Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again") and cameo appearances from an impressive roster of creative collaborators (such as Gaby Moreno and DeVotchKa's Nick Urata.) Still, there are a few surprises in the mix.
Title track "Seasonal Shift" features lovely, leisurely vocals by Burns and slow, melodic keyboard and organ interplay with musical nods to the Band circa "Big Pink." "Nature's Domain" is a holiday music box waltz with a subtle touch of Leonard Cohen. And "Sonoran Snoball" (featuring Camillo Lara) is a dub-inspired, goofy romp.
Calexico's "Seasonal Shift" is available via all the usual musical distro sites of choice, including Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music and more.
Little Cloud - 'A Cloudy Christmas'
While Calexico is famous for their signature desert-inspired multi-instrumental sound, Tucson's Little Cloud's folky indie pop is nothing if not equally eclectic, featuring ukulele, horns, accordion, cajon and acoustic guitar and bass, gracefully interwoven vocals in the mix. And while the Cloud folk may not have garnered any Grammy nominations, I have it on good authority that one of their members made it past the initial rounds of a certain nationally televised reality singing competition, so, close enough?
In any case, "A Cloudy Christmas" is a joyous little morsel of an indie holiday album, planned and recorded in the space of just a week by father-daughter duo Joshua and Jonica Butcher and their cloudy collaborator. Highlights including the jazzy holiday vocal duet "Will You Holiday," the old timey Harry Nillson-esque ode to Santa's post Christmas blues "When the Deed is Done" (with collaborator Damon Barnaby) and the soulful (and inclusive) anthem "Into the Solstice (I Can Feel the Sun.)"
Little Cloud's "A Cloudy Christmas" is available for download/purchase via Bandcamp.
While this column will continue to refrain from weighing in on its own "best of" proclamations for this godforsaken year, stay tuned next week for a few more opinions from your fave local musicians, as well as a recap of more Tucson and Arizona music releases from the past few months, a new year's wish list for artists and venues and much more.