1. “Sun bleached BBQ grill, red to pink” – Gabriel Birnbaum. A beautiful, hazy, pseudo-tropical, mildly melancholy lo-fi rumination that, paired with the title, evokes such a specific place and time that I feel like I have been in the song that I am hearing.
2. “The Actor” – Brief Candle. Snappy hip-hop drum samples, lazy pad synths, delicate guitar, and found clips of spoken French come together into a relaxing, groove-heavy instrumental composition. The vibe throughout the song is impeccable.
3. “Noah” – Joshua Crumbly. Grief does not go Point A to Point B in a straight line, and so neither does this elegy for a friend. This composition is anchored by a persistent, insistent bass pattern. Rhythms emerge, waver and disappear above that line; melodies flutter, flitter, and fade. Vocals turn into instruments. Sighs turn into statements. Ultimately, a lovely rumination.
4. “20 Grand Palace” – RJD2. RJD2 was the first instrumental hip-hop artist that I found, and I have enjoyed his work for a long time. This swaggering, confident, blast-of-fresh-air track opens amid flute flutters and string sighs before a long bari sax introduces a get-down bass line, triumphant horns, and more string sighs. It’s pretty much everything I could want out of instrumental hip-hop. Love it.
5. “Kora” – GoGo Penguin. While my discovery of GoGo Penguin was more recent than of RJD2, their incredibly tight fusion of piano-led jazz, hip-hop drumming, post-rock structures, and densely constructed moods has had me enjoying their work immensely for the last few years. They are a laser-locked-in crew here, taking a syncopated, punchy lead piano line that is intended to evoke the African instrument the kora in its rhythm and melodic structure, and turning that bit into a full-blown banger.
6. “Mendocino” – Jeremy Fetzer (feat. Duane Eddy). This instrumental desert-rock piece is a big ‘ol slice of mood served up hot. This has all the allure of spaghetti western tracks, plus a pop of funky bass/low guitar work, high-drama string chops, and an overall sense of fully-earned cool. Radness.
7. “Passengers” – Sleepersound. If post-rock has too much bombast for you, but you love the stretched-out canvases, Sleepersound has an antidote. This sleepy, almost slow-motion track includes the short snatches of post-rock tropes (big distortion bursts, mournful/soaring vocals, stomping drums) every now and then amid the dreamy, bleary main body of the track. It gives the track a sort of knowing smile–“we know how to do this, but we’re not actually doing it”–that I deeply appreciate. If you like Empire! Empire!, The Album Leaf, or Radiohead’s most experimental moments, you’ll be thrilled with this.
8. “Une île” – Under the Reefs Orchestra. A loping, swaying, baritone-sax-heavy intro slowly builds into a deep, thick groove over six minutes before evaporating back into a reminiscence of the earlier sway. The highlight is heavily distorted and thundering. It’s jazzy, post-rocky, fun, and interesting.
9. “Theme” – Jeremy Talon. More instrumental hip-hop here, of the slick, jazzy, low-key funky style. Works hard at sounding like it’s not working hard. Wears designer suits without tie or belt. Has a real Rhodes in its garage.
10. “Their Love Was Alive Before They Were Dead” – Joshua Van Tassel. Lives in the space between contemporary composition and ambient work; the lead piano is mysterious and evocative, while the strings both ground the sound and enhance the mystery of it. It’s beautiful, but a little unsettling–just like the title.
11. “Change It All” – Camel Power Club. A low-key, relaxed, subtly cynical pop song with smooth vibes and a lovely breathy vocal performance. That big ‘ol bass sound is like catnip to me.
12 “I Found Out” – Jonathan Russell, Jackson Browne, Artists for Peace and Justice. Here’s the PR lede on this one: “Today, Jonathan Russell, of The Head And The Heart, shares the video for his song “I Found Out” from the benefit album Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1, a collaborative project of songwriters including Russell, Jenny Lewis, Jackson Browne, Paul Beaubrun, Jonathan Wilson, Habib Koité, and Raúl Rodríguez along with members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik.” Russell’s voice is as lovely as ever, the arrangement is fun and friendly, and the vibe is great. The lyrics are, well, your-mileage-may-vary Head and the Heart lyrics. Overall, a memorable tune for a good cause.
13. “Hung the Moon” – Grace Joyner. Whoever’s doing bass on this Grace Joyner record is absolutely smashing: this second single from Joyner’s upcoming Settle In is approximately half bass and half everything else (which is how I like it). Beyond the excellent bass work, notable aspects include: the nostalgic, melancholy synths; the cooing, engaging lead vocals; and the steady, ’80s-inflected drums. If you’re looking for a pop song with some gravity, Joyner’s got it for you.
14. “All the Time in the World” – Joy Ike. Of the many Coronavirus tunes that have emerged, this one (and, uh, the whole album that The Mountain Goats recorded in social isolation–John, you’re setting the bar too high) are the most evocative and realistic. I could imagine listening to this joyfully funky and soulful track after this is all over, which is high praise from over here–I’m going to shed pretty much all traces of social distancing after this is over, and this is one that may not get the boot. (Be prepared if you see me: I’m coming in for the hug.)
15. “The Coast” – Stealing Signs. We all need a little bit of unbridled enthusiasm in this tough moment, so here: have a concoction that throws Vampire Weekend, Prince, midwestern emo, and surf rock into a blender set to froth. It’ll put some fizzy in yr system.