Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy — Rameau: A couple years ago Ólafsson recorded a clear, warm Bach album (which in turn spawned a bizarrely Nordic music video). I think I like his new album of Debussy and Rameau solo piano works even more: it’s a rewarding across-the-centuries tour of French harmonics. And of course, it comes with its own quirky music video, this one for a sublime, suspended-in-air piano transcription from a Rameau opera.
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Reviews of Waxahatchee’s new album have often compared it to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an all-time favorite album from my early adulthood spent driving across the Mississippi River. Those comparisons draw not just on the Southern-ness of the two albums, but on the foregrounding of “placeness” in both. Instead of Lake Charles, here we get West Memphis; instead of imagistic lyrics for a Delta juke joint, here we get “folding chairs, American flags, selling tomatoes at five bucks a bag.” Saint Cloud is the road trip you didn’t take in 2020.
Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown: I wrote about Parker’s album earlier this year and its opening admonitions to “Build a Nest.” We’re still nesting, almost a year on, but this album hasn’t grown stale one bit. My old roommate summed up its ten-minute closing track as “underworld music for some impossibly hip” Super Mario game, and Parker saturates almost every track with harmonically rich guitar work. One track (“Metamorphoses”) could have come straight off an old Tortoise album, too.
Artemis, Artemis: It was an especially good year for Cécile McLorin Salvant, but this all-female jazz super-group (whose seven members include her) shares joint responsibility and joint praise for this debut album. On some tracks, you can hear how one of these world-class musicians takes the lead—Allison Miller’s drumming on “Goddess of the Hunt,” for example, and Anat Cohen’s clarinet on “Nocturno.” But even if each member of Artemis could headline a concert herself, we get an album that miraculously balances seven heavyweights in equipoise.
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple launched her career from the piano bench, but her latest albums have shown her knack for the percussive tap and clang. This last album’s title song, which layers noise upon noise upon upright bass, came at the just the moment when the whole country had already learned to mumble her lyrics, “I’ve been in here too long.” And the final track, too, captures our appetite for bursting out of collective restlessness. In 2021, we will all “move to move.”