20. Monophonics – It’s Only Us [Colemine]
The Bay Area’s indelible psychedelic soul, live-show phenomenon, Monophonics have just released their third full-length, It’s Only Us. It combines the raw funk and sheer power of early soul masters with a touch of mind-bending effects in a dub-like vein. Singer Kelly Finnigan and company are calling it as they see it about the common day political state and the overwhelming sense of loneliness. Perhaps from the powers that be, perhaps not even in a political lean, but the theme strikes home for many of us in this day and static age. A proper soul record that smokes from start to finish is a fine way to mitigate the norms, social and otherwise. Simply said, if you can make it past “Chances” without a repeat, you’re dead inside.
With one of the best songs of 2020 starting things up, Monophonics stretch an eight-song record to its wildest abyss. Combining spacey build-ups with shuttering vocal effects is just part of the buttery slickness, reminiscent of early Impressions mixed with latter-day Curtis Mayfield too, and a touch of Isaac Hayes, after the acid, of course. Using them as building blocks but completing the assembly in their own sonic fashion with horns aplenty and a rhythm section well-versed in the sanctifications of their predecessors but deep diving to make a sound their own. — Scott Zuppardo
19. Swamp Dogg – Sorry You Couldn’t Make It [Joyful Noise]
At 77 years-young Swamp Dogg’s (Jerry Williams Jr.) custom brand of psychedelic, swampy soul and R&B has carried him far and wide since the 1950s. His latest offering Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is drenched in all the above but pull away at the layers, and you’ll come to realize Swamp Dogg is decidedly country at the foundation. Sure, he loves his horns, we all do, but his country roots are showing on this record, and it’s glorious.
You can’t fit Swamp Dogg into a box. He’s more country than most, more funk than the rest, and has more soul than all of them put together. On this new record, he’s laid down sad songs, love songs, songs about death, clairvoyant songs on all facets of the human condition in an emotive pocket that sucks you dry and reinvigorates in one fell swoop. Infectious rhythms, coupled with his silky, smooth delivery, lay the gravel for the record. Built upon by a dream-like backup band featuring Justin Vernon, Jenny Lewis, and key man, figuratively and literally, Derick Lee leading the band that was at times as large as 14 musicians. — Scott Zuppardo
18. The Budos Band – Long in the Tooth [Daptone]
The title of Staten Island-based instrumental funk group Budos Band’s upcoming 15th-anniversary album, Long in the Tooth, is a perhaps obvious but no less satisfying piece of wordplay that speaks to both the group’s longevity and style. Evocations of the snake have long been key to Budos releases, fitting visual analogues for the group’s serpentine style as they wind back and forth across the borders of retro cinema, golden age Ethiojazz, and psychedelic soul, all with a sinister edge. On Long in the Tooth, we find Budos Band on the attack once more with renewed fervor, fangs truly bared.
Long in the Tooth feels timely as a catharsis, but also mostly unexpected in terms of the immersive soundscapes and unspoken stories it contains. For a group halfway through their second decade — one that could likely coast on its established fanbase and tried-and-true formula of psych-rock and soul — this is no small feat. Daptone Records’ most roguish staples have an enviable career and a sense of style that keeps on giving, and Long in the Tooth, for its ingenuity, is a vibrant continuation of that. — Adriane Pontecorvo
17. Orion Sun – Hold Space for Me [Mom + Pop]
Hold Space for Me, the debut album from Orion Sun, neé Tiffany Majette, is an accomplished blend of soul and R&B, with a little hip-hop thrown in as well. Majette, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, builds her songs around her singing voice, which is quiet and clear. She tends to create low-key but strong melodies, making her songs a compelling listen that usually don’t go for the big pop hook.
There’s a sense of intimacy about the album as well. Some of that comes from Majette’s tendency towards sparse instrumentation, but her confessional, personal lyrics also draw in the listener. Hold Space for Me is a confident debut record that shows Orion Sun is very much in control of what she wants to do. She seems to know that her voice is her great strength right now, and she lets it stay front and center through the whole album. — Chris Conaton
16. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges – Texas Sun [Dead Oceans]
Leon Bridges and Khruangbin collaborate for
Texas Sun, a four-song EP that is indebted to their home state. Since the Alamo and the problematic intent and effect of manifest destiny, Texas has stood for the lone cowboy image or the rugged individualism side of the American dream, but that discredits the vast diversity that represents the state today. A majority of the Texas population is non-white and has been for 15 years. On “Midnight”, Bridges sings “midnight black on the outside” in a tale of driving across Fort Worth with classic American romantic imagery. It’s a deft extension of Bridges’ boilerplate political lyrics on songs like “Bad Bad News” from his 2018 album Good Thing.
It adds up to Texas Sun maybe being each artists’ best work. Leon Bridges loosens up a bit out of his stuffy old-soul persona, and Khruangbin thrive in taking a more ornamental role amidst a loose pop structure. The downside is that the EP only lasts 20 minutes and highlights this as a more gauzy one-off rather than a definitive artistic statement. Texas Sun should certainly act as a template for both artists – though especially Bridges – to pursue more varied sounds to jolt listeners and themselves out of their comfort zones. — Andrew Cox