We're a little more than halfway through 2020, so we took the opportunity to look back at all the great music released this year so far and catch up on some stuff we missed. Between our Notable Releases and Bill's Indie Basement columns, we usually review at least 10 albums a week (often more), and we highlight plenty of other new albums throughout our daily coverage, but there's still stuff that slips though the cracks. To shine a light on some great music that passed us by this year, here's a list of five albums from this year that we highly recommend but haven't spoken about on BrooklynVegan yet. It may not necessarily be fair to call them "overlooked" -- they've all gotten their fair share of acclaim in certain circles -- but they've all (regrettably) been overlooked by us, and they're at least a bit more under-the-radar than, like, Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels. (Both of whom we love!)
Read on for the list, which is in no particular order. What albums do you think have gone overlooked this year so far?
KeiyaA - Forever, Ya Girl
What do Armand Hammer's Shrines, Medhane's Cold Water, and MIKE's Weight of the World all have in common, besides being three of the best underground rap records of the year? They all feature contributions from R&B singer/producer/instrumentalist KeiyaA, whose own 2020 album Forever, Ya Girl is a quiet triumph. Written, performed, and produced almost entirely by KeiyaA alone (with co-production on a few songs by MIKE under his DJ Blackpower guise, and one song produced by DJ Cowriiie), Forever, Ya Girl came together over the course of six years and it sounds like if Solange's last album was re-created as lo-fi bedroom pop, but even that description doesn't do justice to how defiantly unique this album is.
As KeiyA explained in an interview with DJ Booth, she's originally from Chicago and she got her start playing saxophone with Mick Jenkins, Chance The Rapper, Noname, and Vic Mensa early on, before moving to NYC and linking up with MIKE and others in the city's current rap underground. You can hear the influence of both of those worlds on Forever, Ya Girl, which fuses together murky loops, jazzy instrumentation, and KeiyaA's subtly powerful voice. This album came out in late March, and was presumably finished before the pandemic escalated, but as an album that was created almost entirely in isolation, it feels like it captures these crazy times. Its ingredients -- R&B, funk, jazz, psychedelia -- are styles of music often associated with groups of musicians who harmonize and improvise with each other, but you can really feel how Forever, Ya Girl is an album by a sole individual who was in her own head while making it. In these times where a lot of us are spending more time in our own heads than ever, this music resonates.
María José Llergo - Sanación
Spain's María José Llergo studied flamenco at the Catalonia School of Music under José Miguel “Chiqui” Vizcaya -- who also mentored Rosalía -- and on her debut album Sanación, she combines that flamenco influence with modern electronic music and art pop. "Rosalía comparisons are inevitable," to quote Dazed, but María really makes it her own. As Rosalía continues to assimilate into mainstream pop music, Sanación represents a more minimal, haunting, psychedelic alternative. The transfixing acoustic guitar lines are rooted in traditional flamenco, but María José Llergo's music is clearly not "traditional." She also utilizes brooding synths and glitchy percussion that brings to mind artists like Arca and Bjork, and her soaring voice could stop anyone in their tracks. Even if you don't understand the Spanish lyrics, the emotion in her voice is palpable. "I’m trying to make something beautiful out of my trauma and the pain," she told Rolling Stone. To say Sanación succeeds at achieving that beauty would be an understatement.
The Secret Sisters - Saturn Return
New West Records
After two albums on Universal Republic, The Secret Sisters (aka real-life sisters Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle) were dropped by their major label which put the fate of the band in question, but then Brandi Carlile took them under her wing. She had them open for her and produced their third album You Don't Own Me Anymore, which came out in 2017 on alt-country label New West Records, and this year the sisters and Brandi teamed up again for another record on New West, the gorgeous Saturn Return. The album is named after the astrological phenomenon that represents reaching full adulthood, and it followed some monumental life changes for the sisters; both became pregnant during the making of the album and they lost both of their grandmothers around that same time. "We were still just trying to figure out how you go forward in life without the strong matriarch," Laura told The Boot. You can hear how these life changes impacted these personal songs -- which, unlike their previous albums, were written without co-writers -- though Saturn Return also finds the sisters looking outside of themselves, like on the powerful "Cabin," which was written from the perspective of a woman who has been assaulted, and was written around the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. "This song was our way of saying, ‘We hear you, and we know it hurts…we know you’re not over it and that’s okay,'" said Laura. The power in the lyrics is matched by that of the music - warm, timeless Americana that would fit nicely next to anything from late '70s Fleetwood Mac to the new Jason Isbell album. Brandi's production is the perfect match, and she also encouraged the sisters to break from their trademark close harmony style and each sing some songs on their own, which very much worked to their benefit. Fans of their harmonies need not worry though -- there are still plenty of those, and they're as lush as you'd hope.
Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has performed alongside Kendrick Lamar, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Halvorson, Vijay Iyer, and others, and he's also been a bandleader for over a decade, with a handful of forward-thinking, highly acclaimed albums under his belt. on the tender spot of every calloused moment is no exception. In the past, his albums have heavily featured singer/songwriters (Becca Stevens, Cold Specks), rappers (Kool AD), and modern classical quartets (MIVOS Quartet), but on the tender spot of every calloused moment is more stripped-back. Jesus Diaz and Genevieve Artadi do provide some minimal vocals, but for the most part, Ambrose lets his trumpet and his long-running band -- bassist Harish Raghavan, pianist Sam Harris, drummer Justin Brown -- do the talking on this album. He calls the album "blues," but it's blues in the sense that it conveys real pain and emotion, not that it sounds like the traditional blues genre. "We've had conversations where I ask Archie [Shepp, who inspired the album and wrote the liner notes]: What is the blues?," Ambrose said. "What does that mean in 2020? Like, my blues as Ambrose Akinmusire shouldn't sound the same as Archie's blues, and that shouldn't sound the same as Bobby Bland or B.B. King." The stripped-back approach of the album makes it sound more like the small avant-garde jazz combos of the late '60s and early '70s than his last two albums did, but on the tender spot of every calloused moment is also not retro Miles Davis worship. Ambrose and his band make this kind of music sound fresh and urgent in 2020. Even with less vocals than his last couple albums, this is music that feels built for the period of unrest it was released into.
Desire Marea - Desire
Desire Marea first gained attention as one half of the South African performance art duo FAKA, who worked within the house-inspired South African genre gqom and made music that they say "explores the intricacies of love and romance within the black queer experience." But late last year Desire struck out on their own with the stunning "You Think I'm Horny" single and this year they followed it with their debut solo album Desire, which features that song alongside eight others. As a solo artist, Desire branches out from dance music and goes more into genre-defying art pop territory. There are some club beats on Desire, but the album never stays in one place for long. It's the definition of ripping it up and starting again; it takes notes from dance music, jazz, glitch, pop, noise, Afrobeat, ambience, and tons more, but fuses everything together in a way where it no longer sounds like any pre-existing style of music. Sometimes Desire's own voice takes the forefront -- like on the aforementioned "You Think I'm Horny," a powerful ode to queer sexuality -- and other times there are no vocals at all, with the focus entirely on the album's compelling, experimental production. There are sometimes other artists that Desire brings to mind -- the operatic vocals of ANOHNI, the aggressively experimental pop of Yves Tumor -- but this is music that feels genuinely new. It's not everyday you come across a debut album so strikingly original.