Best Albums of 2020 (First Half)

As teased last week, it’s time for my annual “Best Albums” mid-year summary report. I usually post my Albums of the (Full) Year reports in early December, recognizing that things that come out after that just aren’t likely to have enough time in the hopper and proven legs for me to want to claim them as being among the year’s greatest musical achievements. Because of that timing practice, I allow myself a wee bit of calendar fudging for mid-year reports; if something hit the streets in the last couple of weeks of 2019, but its greatest impact is felt most fully this year, I’m including it on this list.

My year-end reports contain mini-reviews of each of the ranked albums (here’s last year’s, the 28th such annual installment I’ve written for newsprint and/or web purposes), but at mid-year I simply provide links for further exploration. Many of these will obviously make the year-end list, but not all of them, since with six more months of musical exploration ahead of me, there’s gonna be tons of great tunes yet to be heard, and I am not ambitious enough to write 50+ album reviews when we finally get to December. The year-end reports also rank the albums numerically, culminating in an Album of the Year honoree, but for mid-year, I just go alphabetical.

It’s been a really solid six months of listening, with a lot of variety, a lot of fave artists issuing late career gems, and a lot of artists who I had never heard before 2020. That’s the way I like it. I hope never to get stuck listening primarily to the music of my teen and college years and declaring that those days were somehow intrinsically “better” than anything released since then. That sort of catalog ossification is obviously common, but I consider it a stunted statement that denies and denigrates ongoing growth, and I like to expand my (musical) horizons, even when my (real-life) horizons are shorter than they’ve ever been in my adult life as social distancing and travel restrictions keep me looking at the same places over and over and over again.

Maybe these albums will help transport you elsewhere, as they have for me over these recent tough weeks and months. It’s worth a try anyway, isn’t it? Click and enjoy!

  1. Awale Jant Band, Yewoulen
  2. Dark Sky Burial, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est
  3. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles In Allem
  4. Hazel English, Wake UP!
  5. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20
  6. Hyperlacrimae, Yoga Darśana
  7. Theophilus London, Bebey
  8. Bongeziwe Mabandla, iimini
  9. Hailu Mergia, Yene Mircha
  10. Mowgan and Solo Sanou, Soya LP
  11. Myrkur, Folkesange
  12. Plone, Puzzlewood
  13. Ras Michael, Live by the Spirit
  14. Run The Jewels, RTJ4
  15. Sepultura, Quadra
  16. Shriekback, Some Kinds of Light
  17. Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog
  18. Slow is the New Fast, Slower
  19. Snog, Lullabies for the Lithium Age
  20. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
  21. Moses Sumney, Grӕ
  22. Various Artists, Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991)
  23. Vula Viel, What’s Not Enough About That?
  24. Wire, Mind Hive
  25. X, Alphabetland

The title track of this great album has received more home spins than any other song in 2020. Choice cut!

Six Little Poems

Note: All six of these little poems were written in 2004, and are copyright JES. I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what themes they have in common and why I share them today.

I. Monster

Despite the spite, I suggest paying attention
to the next set of ravings that fall out of his head.
He’s a mean one, he is, on that there’s no argument,
but he telegraphs his moves through the things that he’s said.
He’s quite predictable in the targets of his new obsessions
and in his pettiness and willingness to carry a grudge
long after a normal person would have just let it wither:
once set on a bad path, he’s a hard one to budge.
But he’s ponderous, not nimble, and easy to outwit
if you do all your homework real well up front.
If you learn what he’s aiming for, by paying attention,
you can easily stay clear when he’s out on the hunt.
He’s a monster, though frankly he lacks the key skill
that he needs to be effective at the point of the kill.

II. Election Day

There’s foreign observers
down at the polling station,
as the hacks and the flacks
champ for confrontation.
I wonder, as I’m voting,
with some consternation:
When did we become
such a mess of a nation?

III. Anesthetized

no data, doesn’t matter
get some facts and force them into
tangled webs of gossamer
and lies
the scientists are vying
with the publicists and naturalists
romanticists and classicists
and spies
the talking heads are talking
as the chopping blocks are chopping
and the commentators comment on it all
home looking, works cooking
we crash the couch and force the spike
into our flaccid arteries
and let the world
fall upon us with a sigh
on flat screen tablets
and in digital surround
on a rising stream of noise we swim
it engulfs us and we drown again
anesthetized
’til tomorrow when
we rise
like Lazarus
to die again

IV. Flood

There you go, let loose the flow
of tainted waters, rising from below,
bitter bile, salty tears, unspoken fears,
all the yes dears, for years and years
rupture the structures, the rocking towers,
like cattle in Babel lowing the hours,
some past, some present, some yet to be,
let loose the torrent, set the flow free,
ride, Sally, ride, on your column of flame
bottled and brokered by merchants of pain,
and the rain, oh the rain, the heavens part,
the waters are rising, drowning your heart
in the cascades and rapids, the swirling pools
of singular servants, wisely suffered fools,
for a moment, a minute, a point in space,
caught in curved surfaces, lost in a place
of floods and mud plains, waves of grain,
Amber alerted by Sally’s complaint
of pressured flow building from below,
so let loose the flow, let it flow, let it flow.

V. Labor, Organized

They cut the timber, we make it into pulp
They bring us pine trees, we grind ’em into pulp
Our machines eat up their logs in one big scary gulp

They work the west seam, we burn their coal for heat
They bring us black coke, we burn it up for heat
Watch ’em coughing up their lungs while drinking in the street

They grow the soy beans, we feed ’em to our pigs
Feed corns and soy beans, we give ’em to our pigs
Come the holidays we’ll have some bacon with our figs

They’re in the garden, with pitchforks in their hands
Pitchforks and torches, and long ropes in their hands
We sit here in darkened rooms and question their demands

VI. Immolation

he’s spun up like a top wound by an old crack-addled dervish
and he’s twitching like a fish, he’s flopping on the deck, he’s nervous
and he’s agitated, too, he’s got an edge just like a cleaver,
something somewhere is broadcasting, and he knows he’s the receiver
of its tension and its anger, though he couldn’t quite explain it,
he’s the bearer of a lit fuel tank with no good way to drain it,
just a spark or just a cinder, and the whole town would be flattened,
leaving nothing in its wake, not even hatches that he’d battened,
though he knew that it was coming, he just couldn’t seem to date it,
and it caught him by surprise the day the deal was consummated

William Blake could see the future. It looked much like the past.

Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

Bulk Content

This is my 62nd website post of 2020, with five months down and seven yet to go. If I keep up the current pace, that will produce about 150 posts by the time December 31, 2020 rolls around.

While that’s still a drop in the bucket for a lot of high-volume daily or near-daily bloggers, it does represent a bump in production for me. In 2019, I wrote 57 posts in twelve months, and considered it to be a productive year. The last time I went higher than 62 in an entire year was 2010 (101 posts), and my personal best was achieved way back in 2004 (432 posts, largely driven by my “Poem a Day” project, the fruits of which have since been removed from the public site).

I knew I would be writing more in 2020, though this is neither how nor what nor where I had expected that to play out. Having retired from my prior full-time job in November, I had intended to focus more on creative and commercial writing this year, and on re-building networks that had atrophied since I stopped regular freelance writing some years ago due to time and mental demands associated with my full-time work. The blog became less of a personal marketing instrument and more of a place where I wrote “for me” over those years. I could scribble here without worrying about commercialization or fundraising or whether my words would alienate or activate supporters or how well I was communicating important technical concepts. My professional writing was the complete opposite of that in many ways, and 2020 was the year I planned to knit those disparate threads back together, for fun and for profit, ideally.

As did so many other things for so many other people, that all changed a few months back. I had been registered for a pair of writing workshops that I saw as important steps in re-building those lapsed professional networks, and they’re both gone. I was graciously accorded this opportunity to focus on a key project, but that’s gone too. All the travel writing that I normally do? No longer possible due to multiple trip cancellations. The volume and quality of freelance opportunities available have also declined (and anecdotally, I’d say average hourly compensation has followed suit), even as a glut of formerly-employed creative folks are now in the fray to secure the jobs that do remain or emerge. Supply and demand curves in full effect, this is not a great time to be making a pivot in this professional sector, though that may change in the future as the world itself changes.

I’m certainly most very fortunate at this stage in my life to not need that planned writing work to meet my basic financial needs, though there’s still a certain sense of opportunity lost. I could, of course, be productively using all of my unexpected free time to hunker down and crank out the Great American Novel or develop a brilliant business plan or some other ostensibly “useful” writing-related activity. But I’m not, and I think that’s because given the psychologically stressful aspects of life during lockdown, I find it more important and comforting to write what I want to write, and not to focus so much on writing what I should write. It’s a pleasurable diversion and distraction to clatter away here, and its a nice bonus when some of the things that I put up on my public blackboard resonate with others in some way(s).

So as a result of that sense and those feelings, you’re getting content in bulk here these days, and probably will for the foreseeable future. I know from the wide variety of websites I follow, along with the number of recommendations I’m receiving from WordPress announcing newly-established blogs in areas of interest to me, that I’m not alone in seeing my unproductive public productivity increasing. As a result, I have expanded the number of sites that I formally follow over the past couple of months, and I’ve seen increases in the number of readers who formally follow me here as well. (Neither of those numbers are large, just for the record). Then there are the “guest” readers who surf around my site without leaving any marks and signs beyond ticks on the visit counter, which is spinning at a rate that will probably make my final 2020 visit and visitor numbers as high as they’ve been since the early 2000s, when the blog world was a very different place, and I was one of few, not one of many, paddling about in a high-profile fashion within that newly-formed creative pond.

A lot of the increased writing volume I see and read around the web is explicitly dedicated or related to COVID-19 in one way or another. How it impacts us. How we feel about it. What we are doing with ourselves as the world shuts down. How we feel about it again. And then again. And again. Lots of feels being shared, for sure. While I certainly reference COVID-19 in a variety of posts on the site, this one included, I have made a conscious decision to not write more explicitly or frequently about it here, in large part because the number of trenchant “hot takes” out there about it is exhausting, and I don’t have or offer any unique perspective that I feel warrants extensive public exposition.

In the early days of lockdown, I’d saved a draft blog post called “Post-Pandemic Pipe Dreams,” and occasionally I’ve added items to it on ways that I’d personally like to see the world change as a result of our current travails. Looking at that list today, lots of those ideas and reflections have been considered and covered at length in a wide variety of other online outlets, so it’s hard for me to want to elaborate on any of them, and I am guessing it would be hard for you to want to read them if I did, since they’d be so obviously agreeable to everyone.

We’d all like more space in restaurants and on airplanes, right? Duh. And everyone would like to see TicketMaster, FOX News, and a variety of other predatory-to-destructive businesses go under, yeah? Of course we would. Having watched the character of my hometown be completely destroyed by AirBnB operators hoovering up any available rentable properties downtown, and countless unique cultural destinations destroyed by the arrival of cookie-cutter cruise ship culture, I’d be happy to see those business models bite the dust too. Oh, and of course nobody should ever again spend $200+ million on turning a freakin’ comic book into a bloated soulless movie, especially if said comic book has already been expensively rebooted half-a-dozen times over the past few decades. If the studios would knock that nonsense off, then going to the theater could return to being an affordable and enjoyable enterprise, assuming people learn to put their cell phones away and stop talking during the movie. That one may be impossible, I know. Influencers? Gone. I am certain we all agree there. Also, no giant dogs allowed in apartment buildings. It’s cruel to the dogs and their neighbors. Stop it. And stop giving money to endowments without considering your favorite nonprofits’ operating needs too. There’s going to be loads of them that collapse because people put permanent restrictions on gifts in exchange for naming rights and other non-charitable incentives, while the “keep the lights on and do the mission” part of the enterprise is ignored. Everyone would like to see that stop, right?

Well, okay, so maybe some of my post-pandemic pipe-dreams aren’t quite in keeping the zeitgeist or popular public opinion, but still, I don’t see elaborating on them further as a productive or enjoyable process for anybody. Suffice to say I dream of and long for changes in how our country and culture function, some more needed and serious than others. And also note that I’ll work to support those who can bring such positive prospects to pass from out of such a negative time period, even if I don’t write in bulk about such activities here, preferring to produce my usual piffle and tripe instead.

For better or worse, that’s the niche I’ve established after 25+ years of having a public online presence, and dancing with the one what brung ya’ is always a sound play. Fortunately, I do quite enjoy cluttering and redecorating my verdant little wall grotto in the global garden of blogs, and when all is said and done, the little things that give us joy are important, perhaps now more so than ever. Here’s hoping that approach works for you too, both in your experience of visiting here, and in your experience of managing your own little joys in the face of the countless dislocations tearing at the fabric of our society today.

Don’t mind the overgrowth. The flowers are fragrant if you can find them.

(I’m Always Touched By Your) Five Songs You Need to Hear

I will be doing my summary “Best Albums of 2020 (First Half)” report in the next couple of weeks, six months after I posted my comprehensive Best Albums of 2019 feature. (That was the 28th consecutive year I’ve done such a year-end article, in a combination in print and digital outlets; almost all of them are on the website now). I usually try to do my Albums of the Year reports in early December, recognizing that things that come out after that just aren’t likely to have enough time in the hopper  and proven legs for me to want to claim them as being among the year’s greatest musical achievements. Because of that timing practice, I allow myself a wee bit of calendar fudging for mid-year reports; if something hit the streets in the last couple of weeks of a given year, but its greatest impact is most fully felt in the following year, I’ll still include it on the list.

As as teaser for that list, I offer a fresh installment of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series, with each of these selections culled from albums likely to appear on my mid-year Best Albums list. As always, the premise here is that I love all of these songs, you have probably not heard all (or any) of them, and I think that you might want to do so. So give ’em a listen, and then maybe explore their five host albums further. If this series piques your curiosity, here’s the link to all of the “Five Songs” installments (scroll down when you get there to move past this article), which is now at 15 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await the brave and intrepid there. Happy listening!

#1. “Poisoned Kobra (Shrouds Remix) by Hyperlacrimae

#2. “Vinter” by Myrkur

#3. “Conveyor/Boxes” by Moses Sumney

#4. “Five and Dime” by Hazel English

#5. “Ten Grand Goldie” by Einstürzende Neubauten

A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley

Introduction: Iowa’s Decatur County recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case yesterday. With this report, the novel coronavirus has now officially completed its “Full Grassley,” having visited (and made itself at home in) all 99 of the Hawkeye State’s counties.

I have also personally completed a Full Grassley. I did so in 2011-2012, along with various GOP Presidential aspirants doing so at the same time as a way of currying electoral favor across the State in advance of the quadrennial Iowa Dumpster Fire Caucus. One day soon after we moved here, I was sitting in a traffic jam caused by one of those GOP candidates’ tour buses blocking traffic in downtown Des Moines. As I stewed in place, it occurred to me that the Full Grassley wasn’t really as much of a chore for the candidates riding about in relative comfort in the back of the R.V. (or flying into various regional hubs from Des Moines) as it was for the unfortunate drivers who had to zig-zag back and forth across often featureless sectors of the state just to hit a series of tiny county seats. 

So I decided I wanted to see what a Full Grassley felt like for those folks, behind the wheel, at road level. I got it done (Benton County completed my collection), but it was a chore, at bottom line. I suspect I’ve actually seen more of Iowa than 95%+ of the folks who have actually lived here all their lives. But did I mention that I got it done? I did. So there.

On the occasion of COVID-19 checking off all of its Full Grassley boxes, I re-run a piece I wrote in 2015 discussing why Iowa’s 99 counties represent an absurd anachronism that feeds into an even more absurd political practice. I’ve updated the data cited to the most current information. I’m cautiously optimistic that this year’s particularly embarrassing Caucus performance ends Iowa’s reign as the distracting and non-representative first-in-Nation player in our Presidential electoral process. But beyond that, I still think the State could still benefit from implementing some form of the modest proposal described below.

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Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.

Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 32nd largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.IowaCounty

Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.

The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.

But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?

I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”

I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.

So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.

First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap (about 35,000 people!) between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Warren County), with all of the top ten counties having over 80,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:

  1. Polk County
  2. Linn County
  3. Scott County
  4. Johnson County
  5. Black Hawk County
  6. Woodbury County
  7. Story County
  8. Dubuque County
  9. Pottawattamie County
  10. Dallas County

Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), or because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:

  1. Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
  2. Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
  3. Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
  4. Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
  5. Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
  6. Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
  7. Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
  8. Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract“)

So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.

Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.

Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a below-middle-of-the-pack State, size-wise and people-wise.

Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.

What do you think? I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?

My battered 2011-2015 Iowa travel map, documenting all of my Full Grassley drives, and then some.