My Favorite Albums of 2020

2020 was a year like no other. For me it was chaotic, emotional, and painful, but it was also a year of reflection, celebration, reconnection, and gratitude. Throughout it all, music helped me process the world. I’ve wanted to do an end of year album writeup for the past few years, but I always made excuses: I’m not a good writer, I don’t have time, no one will care, etc. This year I committed to it and the joy I got out of writing and reflecting on music that means so much to me has already been worth it! I’m not a music critic by any means so this isn’t a music review list; I tried my best to focus on my own experiences and the perspectives I’ve gained from these albums instead. The following is my 100 favorite albums from last year: I’ve included a playlist with my favorite song from each album, listed out albums 100 – 51, wrote short blurbs about albums 50 – 11 (pages 2 – 5), and went way deep for albums 10 – 1 (pages 6 – 15). I hope you can glean something from the words I’ve written about them. If I put even a single person on to a new album that they enjoy, I’ll be happy : – ) So, without further ado…

  1. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon III
  2. Navy Blue, Ada Irin
  3. Beach Bunny, Honeymoon
  4. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
  5. Sporting Life, HBCU Gameday
  6. Jhené Aiko, Chilombo
  7. Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon
  8. Caroline Rose, Superstar
  9. Rico Nasty, Nightmare Vacation
  10. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
  11. Pink Siifu, NEGRO
  12. Disclosure, ENERGY
  13. Purity Ring, WOMB
  14. J Hus, Big Conspiracy
  15. Freddie Gibbs x The Alchemist, Alfredo
  16. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
  17. Yung Lean, Starz
  18. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
  19. 21 Savage, Savage Mode II
  20. NNAMDÏ, BRAT
  21. Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter
  22. Taylor Swift, evermore
  23. Ela Minus, acts of rebellion
  24. Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song
  25. SAULT, Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)
  26. Moaning, Uneasy Laughter
  27. Arca, KiCk i
  28. Gorillaz, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
  29. Alina Baraz, It Was Divine
  30. Ambar Lucid, Garden of Lucid
  31. SAINt JHN, While the World Was Burning
  32. Thundercat, It Is What It Is
  33. Omar Apollo, Apolonio
  34. Nick Hakim, WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD
  35. Khary, THIS IS WEIRD
  36. US Girls, Heavy Light
  37. Deftones, Ohms
  38. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
  39. Ty Dolla $ign, Featuring Ty Dolla $ign
  40. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
  41. Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans
  42. Princess Nokia, Everything is Beautiful / Everything Sucks
  43. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
  44. Bartees Strange, Live Forever
  45. Kali Uchis, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞
  46. Banoffee, Look At Us Now Dad
  47. Dominic Fike, What Could Possibly Go Wrong
  48. Aminé, Limbo
  49. Mura Masa, R.Y.C
  50. Khruangbin, Mordechai

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.

However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.

Image result for mashrou leila

The Evolution of Hip-Hop

The Evolution of Hip-Hop

This essay was written for the Expository Writing program class “Poets 2 Rockstars.” It was published in Brainstorm vol. VIII (2016). Brainstorm is the University of Oklahoma Expository Writing Program’s journal of student writing.  All Expo students are invited to submit an essay from their Expository Writing class for possible inclusion in Brainstorm.  At the end of each term, a selection committee will choose 3-5 of these submissions and invite the authors to revise their essays for publication.

Hip-hop, as a cultural force, has grown to mirror the culture it lives in and represents a narrative that had never been represented before in America. Rap, one of the five elements of hip-hop culture defined by Afrika Bambaataa (Aubry) that involves rhyming over a beat, has been highly controversial. One subgenre of rap known as “gangsta” rap still comes under fire today for its hyper-masculine lyrics involving violence, drugs, alcohol, money, and misogyny. The epitome of the “gangsta” rapper was Tupac Shakur (1971–1996), whose poignant and authentic portrayal of life on the streets in the Bronx and Brooklyn earned him unprecedented fame and whose scandalous personal life led to quite a bit of controversy. Tupac’s take on “gangsta” rap defined the hip-hop music industry and popularized the genre with American audiences. Tupac’s music expressed “realness,” an idea prevalent within hip-hop that artists must stay authentic and “true to oneself” (Williams 4). Tupac’s music was also special in the way that audiences could identify with it, especially those who grew up in similarly low-status conditions. This group of listeners, though, was very focused in comparison with the wider audience of hip-hop listeners from all races and backgrounds. Tupac had listeners who enjoyed and sympathized with his music and lyrics, yet they never lived in situations from which they could directly relate to his lived experience. Recently, hip-hop’s sound has been evolving and changing to reflect a different attitude in America. The idea of authenticity plays a large role for hip-hop fans, and, as times have begun to change, the idea of “realness” has been challenged. What constitutes authentic hip-hop, and what does this portrayal mean in terms of hip-hop’s cultural force? The answer lies within the audience—as listeners recognize authenticity, we define the impact that hip-hop artists make and the influence they have on the genre.

International Event: Caribbean Musical Expression in Mexico

Here at OU we recently enjoyed Mexico Week, which was full of different events highlighting both the rich culture of Mexico and the study abroad opportunities available to students in Puebla, Mexico.

I attended a lecture titled Caribbean Musical Expression in Mexico, which was taught by Juan Gabaldón. The lecture was an overview of different styles of music that have traveled from the Caribbean and become popular and reinterpreted into Mexico. What made the lecture engaging was the inclusion of samples of these styles into the presentation. For example, Gabaldón discussed merengue as an example of a musical genre that entered Mexico from the Dominican and he also played part of a merengue song from the . My favorite part of the lecture came at the end when Gabaldón had one of his colleagues lead the students in a quick dance workshop. We learned a few steps that would help us fit in if we were to travel to Mexico.

The lecture was very fun and informative. I discovered some new musical genres and added some new songs to my Spotify playlists because I really think that learning and enjoying the music of a language you are learning is incredibly beneficial.

Song Search

I’m a huge music nerd.  I will honestly listen to anything with a catchy beat, regardless of whether I can understand what they’re saying.  So, I’m browsing for some new songs to listen to while I walk to class and I stumble over this French singer Stromae.  Literally every song that came on was amazing. I would highly recommend ya’ll check him out. Here are some of his along with some others I loved if you’re interested:

Papaoutai-Stromae
Trous Les Mêmes-Stromae
Ta Fete-Stromae

Foutue Melodie Paroles-Black M
Frerot-Black M
Sur Ma Route-Black M

Fierte-Team BS

Deniere Danse-Indila

Magic in the Air-Magic System

Laissez-Les Kouma-Zaho

Music: A Capsule of Culture

At the beginning of October, I went as a guest of the Honors College to a Syrian music concert hosted in Sharp Concert Hall here on campus. There were two musicians, Kenan Adnawi, who played the oud, and Tareq Rantisi, who played percussion. While I have seen an oud in person, as well as depicted in media and entertainment, this was my first time hearing one played in person.
It was nothing short of amazing.
At first, it reminded me of the stereotypical Middle-Eastern music you hear in movies and TV shows, that short song played to transition our adventurers from their western local to a place more “foreign”. As I kept listening, however, I realized two things. First, Hollywood soundtracks fall far short in comparison. Second, I understand why such music is used to set the scene. Sitting there, in an auditorium chair in the middle of Oklahoma, USA, I was both entranced and transported. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The skill with which the musicians handled their instruments was apparent, even though their manner of playing was unique in my eyes. Mr. Adnawi tuned his oud anew for every song, and sometimes in the middle of a song. Mr. Rantisi, the percussionist, wore an ankle of bells, which he did not shake, but which would shiver and ring ever so quietly from the vibrations of his playing. The passion of both musicians was undeniable. Mr. Adnawi grew up in Syria and would give the title of every song, along with a short explanation of the meaning behind the title and behind the piece itself.
I am sad to say that I probably would have walked away from the concert, having enjoyed it but giving it no more thought, were it not for a song played near the end. As usual, Mr. Adnawi announced the title, and this time, he welcomed the audience to sing along. The reaction was near palpable. I was sitting in the balcony section, off to the side but still close to the stage. Below me, most of the audience was clustered in the first five or six rows, with the rest scattered around the auditorium. When this particular song was announced, a wave of excitement rippled through those first few rows. This was not a song he had written, but a classic, one well know. It irks me that I am unable to recall the title, I would have loved to learn more about the piece. As the song flowed forth, those rows clapped with the rhythm and sang along where they could. I could not recognize the language, although I would guess Arabic. Some knew more words than others, but most would join in for the chorus at least. It was strange to see a group of strangers, united in their appreciation for one song, a song that rang with tradition and history. Furthermore, it was strange to realize that I could not relate it to a potential example in American culture. A group of US students might unite in Europe after turning on “Cha Cha Slide” or some similar piece of pop culture, but that is hardly comparable. Aside from “The Star Spangled Banner” and the like, what music carries the culture of the United States? A few hundred years from now, will parents play today’s pop and rap and country for their children to connect them with the past? What will be the US’ musical legacy?

Syrian Oud Music

Friday, Spetember 30 I attended the Music from Syria and Beyond workshop with Kenan Adnawi and Tareq Rantisi. Prior to the official starting time at 4pm there was an interactive question and answer session conducted in Arabic. Students form the Arabic flagship, as well as native speakers, introduced themselves in Arabic and asked the performers questions about the backgrounds, inspiration, and technique.

Kenen Adnawi and Tarek Rantisi at the Music of Syria workshop

Kenan Adnawi is from Syria and has been playing the oud since the age of 7. He is passionate about incorporating new techniques and improvisational methods into classical rhythmic structures. Tarek Rantisi is from Palestine and specializes in percussion. He plays a whole host of percussive instruments and explained the structure of traditional rhythmic patterns in music originating from the Arab world. Both performers described the importance of collaboration in their work as well as their desire to express Arab unity through their performances and composition of original pieces.

The following day I attended their concert at 8pm along with a cohort of my friends. People of all backgrounds filled the concert hall at Catlet to experience the performance. I had listened to oud music before on my own, mostly via youtube videos of recorded performances by popular oud players and trios. It was an entirely new experience to see the oud being played live along with the incredible drumming of Mr. Rantisi. Several of the pieces played were original compositions. A large Lebanese family sat in front of us and one of the women began to cry when the duo performed an old Lebanese song called Bint a-Shalabiyya.

James, Peter, Yousef, Vladmir, Lamis, and me at the Music of Syria concert

 

I was extremely happy to have attended the workshop that preceded the concert because I had gained a deeper understanding of and appreciatiation for the complex factors that affect the improvisation and style of these pieces.

 

Here is an original composition by Kenan Adawi.

If you’d like to hear some more oud music being played here is a trio of oud musicians from Palestine that perform all around the world. This performance is interlaced with poems by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Sha’bi music is a style of popular working-class music which evolved from baladi, an urban folk style originating in the Egyptian countryside, in the second half of the 20th century.

This genre has evolved greatly since legendary artist Ahmed Adaweyah achieved great success in turning Sha’bi music into a powerful genre sought by distribution companies in Egypt. Sha’bi music uses the popular dialect of Arabic to convey incredibly relatable music. The dominant style today is known as “Techno Sha’bi”.
Hassan el Asmar (October 21, 1959-August 7, 2011)

Drawing from early Sha’bi artists such as Ahmed Adaweyah, Hassan el Asmar discusses poignant topics in his songs Ketab Hayeti (The Book of my Life) and Allah Yasemhak ya Zamen (May God Forgive You, Oh Time). Some critics see Asmar as Adaweyah’s natural heir to the throne of Sha’bi music.

 

Sha’bi Music from Film

Another great example of Sha’bi music appears in the film Al Farah (The Wedding). The Egyptian word for wedding comes from the word in Modern Standard Arabic for happiness. Ironically, the most popular song to emerge from this film describes how the artist no longer recognizes himself and the resulting deep unhappiness he feels. The line “Ana mish ana”or “I am not myself” is hugely popular in Egypt. Despite the criticism Sha’bi music recieves for its utilization of simple language, the messages conveyed in Sha’bi songs often reflect the difficulties the Egyptian people face as a result of political, economic, and social instability.

A more lighthearted Sha’bi song that has received nation-wide fame also comes from a film. The song Helwa Rooh from a film bearing the same name is upbeat and fun. The song describes the beauty of a belly dancer (played in the video by world-renowned Singer Haifa Wehbe) and is often used as a song to which Egyptians belly-dance.

Shabaan Abdelrahim (March 15, 1957-Present)

Born in Cairo, Shaaban Abdelrahim was working as a makwagi (one who irons clothes) earning a low wage. His 2000 breakout song “I Hate Israel” became immensely popular while simultaneously attracting intense criticism. His catchy beats and political lyrics captured the hearts and minds of average Egyptians, catapulting him to fame. He is famous for his flashy clothes and his outlandish antics.

You are Good with a Capital G

I’ve been writing a lot of music lately. I’ve been writing a lot of music and it’s all been sounding like nothing. I’ve been writing a lot of music about mountains and God and girls who don’t eat and nothing I lay beneath my fingers or behind my lungs seems to hold enough talent or depth or whatever you want to call it to be something worth listening to.

 

That’s been my problem for most of my life; being something worth listening to. Even today as I talk to my new friends and message my old friends, I find that my stories are led with a question and followed with an apology, I find that my mouth falls shut more than it falls open, I find that I lose a lot of words inside my head than out in the open air. And even then, there are very few people I trust enough to sit in silence with, without feeling the need to put something, anything, no matter how pointless into the air between us. There is just air between us.

 

This time it’s not a language barrier thing; it’s a people barrier thing. It’s my music sounding the same day after day and all the words I write sounding too much like 14 year olds listening to Panic! At The Disco. Is it wrong of me to want to write like a 27 year old listening to Grieg or a 65 year old listening to Radiohead? Don’t get me wrong, P!ATD got us all through a lot of our years, but I’m tired of being blonde and black at the same time and I’m tired of people mistaking my angst for youthfulness. I’m tired of keeping my mouth shut. But when I do open it to scream, I find that most of the time nothing comes out in time for anyone to stay long enough and if something does, it sounds a little too much like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to make anyone believe I am serious.

 

If I come home to find someone has shut my window while I was at school, I am afraid that the good spirits have already left after getting tired of knocking on the glass pane all afternoon long.

 

Maybe the music thing is that I am living too much here to have time to process what it has meant to be alive, maybe the music thing is my ears are too busy hearing a new continent to want to hear myself, maybe the music thing is I am much more empty than I thought. Or maybe I am enjoying being full for the first time in my life.

 

All I know is that I’ve heard a lot of laughter here that I want to remain belonging to the atmosphere instead of trying to trap it inside my piano strings. I’ve got notebooks full of scribbles and Word documents full of lines that rhyme, but nothing inside my mind seems fine enough to line up in front of you saying “Listen, this is mine.”

 

I wonder what it felt like to be David writing the Psalms, I wonder if “Divine Inspiration” leaves room for creative liberty and expression, or if the pen God held to David’s head felt more full of lead than ink. I’d like to think that God wasn’t exactly expecting the profound amount of anguish and sorrow that David put into the Psalms, but when He read them He found favor upon His creation because he saw that David’s sadness was good.

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re sadness is good, too. I hope you understand why the word “death” is feminine in Spanish and I hope that you have periods of time when whatever art you make stops coming to you and you have to take the energy to figure out why. Please don’t become complacent in your goodness, because things change and people change and you will sometimes have to rock yourself to sleep at night. You are good, with a capital G and even zeroes for O’s if you want, G00D. You are good and you deserve to eat ice cream at 10 in the morning and you deserve to know that even though God gave him the pen, David got to choose whether or not he put it to paper and started writing. Please choose to start writing, even if its just scribbles in a notebook or lines on a word document, please choose to start writing. You are something worth reading.

 

-HA