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Published January 9, 2021
PICKS OF THE YEAR
40 Favorite Albums from 2020
From various pop music genres, here are our 40 top favorite albums from the past year's releases, picked then ranked not so much according to that year's various works' demonstration of intricacy than to the overall emotional strength of their respective (resultant) concepts and the tenable politics, philosophy, or social theory behind that strength
(all photos below grabbed from amazon.com)
Bruce Springsteen/Letter to You (released 23 October, Columbia / Heartland rock)
SO The Boss gathered his E Street Band in the bubble of his New Jersey compound where his studio is located to record "live," within a span of five days or so, a bunch of songs he just finished writing, along with three old songs. Now, if he did this in November this year, you'd say he probably did it in cognizance of the fact that, as he enters the winter of life at 71, he is at high risk of succumbing to COVID-19 in case he contracts SARS-CoV-2 in the current pandemic that has caused the sudden demise of several people in the arts and culture world. But The Boss actually did this in November 2019 before we all got to know of the virus.
Still, in those four days, what was produced was an album that came out very much like a heartland rock version of David Bowie's Blackstar, even though in one track dedicated to his dead friends, "I'll See You In My Dreams," The Boss implies by the very song's title that he doesn't want to join these friends anytime soon just yet.
Now, if there's politics in everything, then even a singer-songwriter's momentary break from overt political song-writing can be appreciated as a demonstration of a social-cum-political attitude towards people and places as well as death and the life that one has lived, especially in this current era where the line between political decisions and social behavior has all but been obliterated. Therefore, that demonstration would be as important as the protest oeuvres, maybe more important. And it's equally important that one did it via proven expressive heartland-rock melodic tropes that readily gel with Springsteen's sort of heartfelt prose that chooses to avoid a trendy kind of vague poetry, underlining the truth that this elderly rock star is still not interested in singing to the critics at the art pubs.
In the album's accompanying documentary titled Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You, The Boss closes the film's narration with this: "Age brings perspective in the fine clarity one gets at midnight on the tracks looking into the lights of an oncoming train. It dawns on you rather quickly, . . . there's only so much time left. Only so many star-filled nights, snowfalls, brisk fall afternoons, rainy midsummer days. So, how you conduct yourself and do your work matters. How you treat your friends, your family, your lover. . . ."
Makes you wish the USA had such a non-juvenile Boss-voice up there at the top, doing work that he would treat as something that could be his last. [Read our review...]
Destroyer/Have We Met (rel. 31 January, Merge / Synthpop, Art pop)
VANCOUVER'S Destroyer, helmed by singer-songwriter Dan Bejar and his pen of profound surrealistic verses, are once more the postmodernists in Have We Met, with Bejar's self-aware (self-mocking?) elegiac prose, keyboardist-producer John Collins' synthpop quotes from the past, and guitarist Nic Bragg's emulations of rock crescendos, all here working for a futurist monument to humanity's decline and possibly-oncoming death. So, while understanding that synthpop is supposed to be fun, historically, understand also that the new wave of the '80s introduced some of the best lines of hopelessness waving from behind the more noticeable keyboard-run dance rhythms of that time. But even as we listen hard to Bejar's words here competing with Collins' chords, we can also glimpse crumbs of hope in the humor in it all, taking us into a temporary disappointment at its being all just a joke perhaps. But things would always swing back to the alluded truths and how they are truths, and our triggered hopefulness is challenged to happily dance once more within all this virtual warning from decay, and ultimately the album becomes a perfect parody of our daily lives' aware but apathetic routines.
U.S. Girls/Heavy Light (rel. 6 March, 4AD / Art pop, Psychedelic pop, Pop soul)
THE Sydney Morning Herald: "Heavy Light finds (Toronto-based Meghan Remy’s) political commentary more radical than ever, but this time looking inward, offering a sobering and sometimes dark-humoured portrayal of survival and work."
Pitchfork: "Only the mind of Meg Remy can take the trauma inflicted on Earth and our childhoods and create something as wonderful as Heavy Light, another vivid and highly affecting album of experimental pop music."
Spectrum Culture: "Here, Remy explores a universal pain that comes with existing in modern society, and she does so by putting herself at the center of the story."
Crack Magazine: "If last album In a Poem Unlimited helped Remy broaden her audience by taking aim at the patriarchy over a disco beat, Heavy Light feels more theatrical, pinning her politics to piano melodies and gospel choirs."
Paste: "It trades Poem’s jagged punchiness for overflowing empathy, coalescing as a meditative and challenging album."
Loud and Quiet: "Heavy Light is absent of poses and gimmicks and scored through with subtlety and nuance – it’s a razor-pointed, laser-guided pop record that speaks with fierce intelligence to the times."
God Is in the TV: "Taking the album as a whole it’s another thought-provoking, stylistically diverse and intellectual entry into the U.S. Girls catalogue."
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever/Sideways to New Italy (rel. 5 June, Sub Pop / Jangle pop, Indie rock)
MELBOURNE indie rockers RBCF concluded their two-year international tour and instantly went back to the studio to take off once more from Beatlesque optimism within whatever incomprehensible moment. See that kind of optimism in the videos for "Cars in Space" and "She's There," or from inside the sadness of the lyrics of "The Cool Change," a song about someone's absentee dreamer father. That latent optimism may, after all, be the very flavor of music-making that got them to prove to the world that having three singer-songwriter-guitarists in one band isn't always going to be a handicap. Because, like a Swiss government recognizing peers as equal mates, the ready power trio treat their destiny with each other as an opportunity to reach the ultimate highs in teamwork. Therefore, Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney, like a super-trio of point guards for a 5-man team, perfected their roles in the committee of composition and arrangement for the republic of RBCF to come up with an album with enough sunny intricacies to last 52 more weekend listens.
The Chicks/Gaslighter (rel. 17 July, Columbia / Country pop, Country music)
THE Independent: "It was a moment of genuine shock and awe. The (Dixie) Chicks – Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines – stood in front of a London crowd just a week before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and told a rapturous audience: 'We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.' . . . Still political, still resilient – if you were a fan of The Dixie Chicks back in 2006, then The Chicks are precisely who you hoped they would grow to be in 2020."
The Guardian: "There’s more going on here than a name change: the band’s trademark country-pop-with-attitude is fuelled by stories of rage and psychological abuse."
PopMatters: "Gaslighter is bold and incendiary, finding The Chicks reclaiming their relevance. Thankfully, The Chicks rejected silencing as Gaslighter reestablishes their penchant for vocalizing raw truths."
Paste: "Gaslighter is the best country album of 2020 because it forces empathy onto the listener while reminding us we don’t have to be superheroes to make a difference."
Slant Magazine: "Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but it’s clearly the one that The Chicks needed to make."
The Arts Desk: "There’s less kitsch cowgirl and more of a strong statement, of feminism and the future."
Sports Team/Deep Down Happy (rel. 5 June, Bright Antenna / Indie rock, Post-punk revival)
ENJOY these here Britpop-ish tracks of the current post-punk revival that actually also read as sardonic social chronicles of present conservative British life and some of the representative royal inequities experienced therein. If you got the satire in the songs' concise lines, then you'll get what the album title meant to put on your teatime plate.
Jarv Is.../Beyond the Pale (rel. 17 July, Rough Trade / Art rock)
BRITPOP'S pinko figurehead, Jarvis Cocker, through his new band Jarv Is..., is here asking us to get buoyant to his music whilst his words ceaselessly try to goad our minds. What a cruel request!
Oklou/Galore (rel. 25 August, True Panther Records / Ambient pop, Alternative R&B, Art pop)
YOUNG French producer and singer-songwriter Oklou (Marylou Mayniel) contributes an ambient pop mixtape to this list, and it's nothing less than perhaps this year's most serene collection of (not necessarily related) tracks practically dedicated to a sort of representation of female unfettering. What that serenity-agitation combine produces for this record is a rare kind of pop discomposure that should qualify the album as a gem, particularly as it initially flaunts a weakness in "fall" and "unearth me" before it bares a side of femininity that would whisperingly celebrate liberation in "asturias" and taunt someone's emptiness in "rosebud." Enjoy the smooth-rocky ride.
Helena Deland/Someone New (rel. 16 October, Luminelle / Indie pop)
WE don't know how feminists would debate on both the satisfaction and sadness of womanhood illustrated in these songs from Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's debut album, but here's what we read from some reviews so far:
Allmusic: "Throughout Someone New, on top of its hypnotic mix of the strange and familiar, Deland's vulnerable voice helps make her self-conscious, searching commentaries all the more engrossing."
Exclaim!: "Like a parcel of breakup roses compressed into a confetti cannon, Helena Deland's debut album is explosive, belaboured and totally intoxicating."
Loud and Quiet: "Helena Deland gets incredibly close to penning the perfect pop album for the current moment."
clipping./Visions of Bodies Being Burned (rel. 23 October, Sub Pop / Horrorcore, Experimental hip hop, Industrial hip hop)
ALLMUSIC: "Not many acts find the midway point between Wolf Eyes and Three 6 Mafia, but by the time Visions reaches its apex at the brutal centerpiece 'Looking Like Meat', that's exactly what (Los Angeles trio) clipping. sounds like. It's a particularly threatening chapter of horrorcore that renders even some of the more severe acts that came before almost cartoonish by comparison."
The Needle Drop: "clipping. somehow manages to top last year's There Existed an Addiction to Blood with a second helping of avant-horrorcore bangers."
Sputnikmusic: "Visions of Bodies Being Burned ruthlessly pulls at the edges of that world until it falls apart, dissolving back into our own, undoing the illusions its predecessor meticulously created."
Under the Radar: "Few listening experiences this year are as gripping, visceral, and vivid as Visions of Bodies Being Burned."
The Line of Best Fit: "Visions of Bodies Being Burned, like its predecessor, is macabre and monstrous in all of the ways that your leering curiousity would have it. It’s a taut exploration of hatred and hostility, one which stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its demonic older brother."
Idles/Ultra Mono (rel. 25 September, Partisan / Art punk, Post-punk)
NME: "The Bristol punks' third album is a juggernaut that roars through sarcasm, defiance, compassion and controversy. It's a bumpy ride, but one worth taking."
Louder Than War: "It’s a wonderful record. It makes you dance, think, feel wild and gentle, sing and shout and want to change the world whilst embracing everyone you can in a physically socially distanced but mentally very socially attached kind of way."
Crack Magazine: "One could accuse IDLES of sometimes being a bit, shall we say, on the nose, but given the absolute shitshow masculinity has become in a post-Trump, post-Brexit era, perhaps they should be lauded for meeting these topics head on, and with brute force. Because at the end of the day, music – no, the world – needs them."
Under the Radar: "It may be easy to write off (IDLES) initially as preachy or reductive but the sharp, self-aware wit and incisive simplicity in the band’s best lyrics make it clear its members are no intellectual slouches."
PopMatters: "IDLES know how hard it is out there, now more than ever, but that's all the more reason for raised fists and unceasing resistance. Last time they did it joyfully, and before that, they did it brutally. Now those elements come together, whether for a fight or a moment of gratitude."
The Independent: "It's a one-tone listen. But that shout-in-your-face directness is exactly what makes Ultra Mono so powerful. This is rock music that compels you to pay attention."
Dork: "For all of the ugly rage and fury at modern life on display here, it is also a celebration of the beauty that can happen when people come together in love and unity to face the turmoil and traumas of an increasingly angry, shouty, scary world, and facing it armed only with a hug."
Nubya Garcia/SOURCE (rel. 21 August, Concord / Jazz)
PITCHFORK: "On her stunning debut (studio album), the tenor saxophonist and rising member of the London jazz scene meditates on her humble family heritage, the continuum of jazz history, and the power of collective action in our present moment."
The Observer: "The sax star delivers a multi-mood, guest-rich celebration of the music of the African diaspora, from reggae to cumbia."
As for us, let us just say that the fact that Garcia approaches her compositions as cultural pieces is already quite laudable. Oh yes, she'd dismiss your treatment of her jazz oeuvres as mere abstract decors for a restaurant setting, which by the way is our usual common take on jazz sounds, admittedly. In the album's first track, "Pace," for instance, Garcia already divulges both a love for bopping down the roads of London, which is supposed to be represented by the piece's rhythm, . . . and a suspicion towards the breakneck speed of living that capitalism has been demanding from us, to which the song acts as a parody soundtrack. It's a rally piece for and against, then. See what we mean?
The Soft Pink Truth/Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (rel. 1 May, Thrill Jockey / Ambient music, Ambient techno)
EXCLAIM!: "Using echoed piano, tempered disco beats, waves of synth and wordless, chopped-up vocals (courtesy of Angel Deradoorian and Jana Hunter), (Baltimore musician Drew Daniel) crafts a tapestry of tense sounds and sentiments."
musicOMH: "Following the election of Donald Trump, Daniel’s initial response was one of sadness and anger. Rather than respond to those feelings with an album of, as he puts it, 'angry white guy' music, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is a much more contemplative, meditative affair. It is probably the most relaxing and calming record Daniel has made in his guise as The Soft Pink Truth; the sonic equivalent of poking a flower down the barrel of a gun."
The Arts Desk: "It would be tempting to say there's a religious feeling here, particularly given the title taken from Saint Paul, but that's not right: more, it homes in on many of the qualities of various musics of religious practice from first principles. It feels good and right and galvanising, and it's exactly the record we need right now."
PopMatters: "Matmos' Drew Daniel rebrands his solo work to meet the trying times, offering up an ambient techno classic for the ages under his Soft Pink Truth moniker."
AllMusic: "While it's just as thought-provoking as The Soft Pink Truth's other albums, there's something magical in how the emotional dimensions and deep beauty of Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? reaffirm that positivity and creativity are the most powerful weapons against hate and darkness."
Pitchfork: "Matmos member Drew Daniel has put together a gorgeous album that carries itself with the strength of a soft prayer, masterfully fusing jazz, deep house, and minimalism into an enormous, featherlight shield."
Beats Per Minute: "Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is a wonderful record of majesty and enveloping textures that radiate a sense of collective positive energy."
Uncut: "Matmos member in 'restorative protest' mini-epic."
Tame Impala/The Slow Rush (rel. 14 February, Interscope / Neo-psychedelia, Psychedelic pop)
WHAT is a love story without fears? Tame Impala's love songs in The Slow Rush seem to know full well that axiom, the same way a fiction writer's novels may be aware that there can't be a story without conflict.
Northern Transmissions: "(Part Australian studio band and part touring band staffed by multiple humans) Tame Impala perfectly capture that feeling of existing in the tiny margins between fear and freedom on The Slow Rush."
PopMatters: "The Slow Rush is another masterpiece for Tame Impala, cover-to-cover. You know it's the band the instant the music begins, and yet the album feels both new and necessary."
Flo Milli/Ho, why is you here ? (rel. 24 July, RCA / Trap rap)
PITCHFORK: "The brief, playful project from the Alabama rapper is one of the breeziest records of the year, a clinic on nimble shit-talking that’s as effortless as it is brash."
Exclaim!: "On Ho, why is you here ?, Flo Milli separates herself from the crowded field of young women who are transforming the alternative rap scene through her appeal — her valley girl flow occasionally sneaks in and her lyrics represent a strong sense of self-sufficiency and individuality."
Duval Timothy/Help (rel. 7 August, Carrying Colour / Neo-soul, Nu jazz)
PITCHFORK: "On Help, his latest album, Timothy works with a number of collaborators from the London scene—Mr. Mitch, Vegyn, and Lil Silva to name a few—to create a piece of music that takes equally from modern jazz and UK bass. With their help, Timothy sings the song of a community that he carries within him, voicing their past oppressions even in his most abstract pieces."
Jyoti/Mama, You Can Bet! (rel. 28 August, SomeOthaShip Connect, eOne / Psychedelic soul, Avant-garde jazz)
LOUD and Quiet: "The slow shift towards equal participation for women in jazz was starting beyond their supportive roles as mothers and grandmothers, but Black genius wasn’t being recognised, let alone Black female genius.
"Move forward some sixty years from the beginnings of free jazz and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to label (Los Angeles-based) multi-instrumentalist and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow as the scene’s future disruptor. Mama, You Can Bet!, her third album under the moniker Jyoti (a name she reserves for her jazz projects, bestowed upon her by the late, great Alice Coltrane), is jarring, groove-heavy, dissonant and entirely of her own design."
Bright Eyes/Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was (rel. 21 August, Dead Oceans / Indie folk)
GIGWISE: "Oberst returned to his native Omaha in 2016, and once he purchased a new house close to bandmate Mike Mogis’ - with an outbuilding they turned into a studio - a tenth record was always in prospect. . . . (This) is a true Bright Eyes record, complete with everything that entails: Oberst’s sage outlook is one of only a handful of indicators to the passing of time. Much will be made of how spookily prescient it feels lyrically in this pandemic climate, but in truth, catastrophising over the apparent gloom of our collective direction is something that Oberst has been doing since he was a teenager. You could pick up any of his albums and pluck out myriad lines that feel apt in 2020. Down in the Weeds… was always going to be a song worth singing - whether that was as the warning they devised it as, or as the elegy that it’s become."
Uncut: "This fittingly titled opus finds the trio and dozens of guests, including Flea, fearlessly diving into the present and looming possible futures, the opulent orchestrations and chorales rendering Oberst’s tremulous outpouring that much more existentially fraught."
DIY: "At once bleak, grey and obsessed with morbidity, and lush, blooming and gorgeous, it’s great to have them back."
Megan Thee Stallion/Good News (rel. 20 November, 300 Entertainment / Trap rap, Pop rap)
"BLACK women are still constantly disrespected and disregarded in so many areas of life. I was recently the victim of an act of violence by a man. After a party, I was shot twice as I walked away from him. We were not in a relationship. Truthfully, I was shocked that I ended up in that place," wrote Megan Thee Stallion in a The New York Times op-ed. She was talking about the story behind Good News' opening track, "Shots Fired." But, fortunately, unlike Tory Lanez's album of songs about the accusation against him, not everything in Megan's 2020 collection is about that.
Pitchfork: "Amid a pandemic, and while recovering from a gunshot wound, the superstar rapper made an album that purposefully celebrates life. Her beats are playful, and her rapping is as sharp as ever."
Exclaim!: "Even with some slight shortcomings, Megan's reclamation of tragedy is refreshing. In a year where any good news has been hard to find, the bar-busting Texan, full of raw charisma and energy, is every bit of good news."
Slant Magazine: "A high-octane, heavy-hitting rejoinder that rearticulates the headlines of a year fraught by global and personal trauma for the Houston rapper."
Clash: "Raw and ruthless, Good News is the sound of Megan Thee Stallion pushing against the boundaries imposed on her until they break."
NME: "On her debut, the 25-year-old combines West Coast samples with the Southern sounds of her youth. The message: she's staying sunny, despite her setbacks."
The 1975/Notes on a Conditional Form (rel. 22 May, Dirty Hit, Polydor, Interscope / Art pop, Electronic music)
IN an era of prideful inhumanity being egged on from the top, here's the new album from the Manchester-based band The 1975 that dares to open with teen activist Greta Thunberg.
Consequence of Sound wrote: "Besides being the most genre-bending collection they’ve released, it’s also the most painstakingly human album in their repertoire."
For that reason alone we'd bend towards this Q Magazine statement: "The bloated tracklist doesn't negate the fact that The 1975 are blessed with two things: a contrarian inventiveness and the common touch - a combination that ought to secure them a permanent place in the pantheon of pop greats."
Indeed, one can't be great without a tiny bit of humanity in him, can one? His using the word "great" in every sentence he puts out about himself isn't going to help.
Perfume Genius/Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (rel. 15 May, Matador / Art pop, Ambient pop)
DUA Lipa, The Weeknd, Seattle-based Perfume Genius, etc. How many among the creators of this year's music outputs are doing this homage to '80s pop, as if that time's ignorance towards what would be an oncoming catastrophe that was hatched by Reaganomics (in the US and elsewhere) is really worthy of our nostalgia for it today. But, of course, Reagan (or Thatcher, for that matter) didn't have anything to do with the aural tropes of that time, as these pop music mannerisms would have been rebelling against some things other than the externally political of that time. Except, maybe, with the lyrical allusions to the already-changing economic or cultural landscape by, say, English punk and post-punk rock songs or by American ghetto music.
But in the case of Lipa and PG, the subtlest politics on top of or around their appropriated music can easily be gleaned, perhaps because these elliptical codes are immediate to us in the present where Trumpisms, etc. loom above us all as large as the sky itself.
Here are what others have been saying about PG's new work:
The Independent: "With trusted producer Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Laura Marling), the artist born Mike Hadreas ensures that each and every note on his new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, lands with devastating precision. These 13 tracks are finely wrought works of art that draw as much influence from Purcell and Mozart as they do scuzzy Nineties post-punk."
Gigwise: "This might be Hadreas’ best album yet. It’s brave, with new ideas and emotions. A beautiful blend of poetry, melodies and lyrics that subvert modern masculinity, it’s an album for our times."
Crack Magazine: "What Perfume Genius barters in is high camp of the grandest order: the pain, the love, the sorrow, the absurdity of the human condition laid bare for all to see, through the lens of someone whose poetry is forever intertwined with their identity."
[Read our own mini-review on the album...]
Jehnny Beth/TO LOVE IS TO LIVE (rel. 12 June, Caroline International / Art pop)
ROLLING Stone: "The (English punk group Savages') frontwoman explores electronic sounds and stream-of-consciousness self-analysis for a dark, compelling listen."
Under the Radar: "(The multi-talented French artist's) solo work reveals Beth to be an artist who can convey a range of emotions in a far more nuanced way. To Love Is to Live is an album of depth and subtlety that is poetic, passionate, elective, and cohesive."
musicOMH: "It seems to be a study of gender, sexuality, innocence and sin, and ultimately identity; and it feels literary, in the way it deliberately and self-consciously turns over its themes."
The Weeknd/After Hours (rel. 20 March, XO, Republic / Alternative R&B, Synthpop)
NOW Magazine: "On his fifth album, Scarborough(, Toronto) native Abel Tesfaye couldn’t be further from his debut – and that’s okay. The hour-long LP often plays out like an experimental '80s fever dream, but it’s still anchored by The Weeknd’s broody sonic DNA."
The Independent: "Like Starboy, there’s a hefty Eighties influence here, although for the most part, After Hours abandons the danceability of its predecessor in favour of moody introspection. This is the music you listen to when the party’s over."
NME: "The Weeknd's comeback record splits the difference between his hedonistic and reflective personas."
Fleet Foxes/Shore (rel. 22 September, Anti / Indie folk, Chamber pop)
THEYOUNGFOLKS.COM: "Shore is an album about the growth of individuals and how we should progress in times of hardship. Each song feels like a warm blanket that rests over you. The way that (Seattle veterans) Fleet Foxes are able to conjure up such emotion, especially given the circumstances surrounding the time we’re in, is a wonder to behold."
God Is in the TV: "Shore sees (Robin) Pecknold return to the territory of his debut record, melding sublime songwriting, soaring harmonies and lyrics of such empathetic warmth and generosity they’d make me puke if anyone else had written them."
Paste: "Shore doesn’t ask much of us—it merely shines into the room where you’re sitting, bringing in light like early morning sunbeams."
Northern Transmissions: "Shore is a bright, beguiling and hopeful statement that reflects on what has come before, where we find ourselves and leaves us anticipating the coming changing of the season in the most encouraging way possible."
AllMusic: "As a collection, Shore emits a sense of coming through something and arriving anew with the welcome bruises that foster greater understanding and compassion."
Open Mike Eagle/Anime, Trauma and Divorce (rel. 16 October, Auto Reverse Records / Abstract hip hop)
THE Line of Best Fit: "(Chicago musician and comedian) Open Mike Eagle working through his pain is more gleeful than many MCs rapping about their best days, so more is always welcome."
AllMusic: "The album's numerous anime references will be lost on listeners who don't follow the art form, but nearly anyone can relate to his confusion, weariness, and desire to set things back on the right path."
Pitchfork: "On his bleakly comic new album, Open Mike Eagle surveys the damage of one terrible year, using anime mythology as a lens for examining real-life pain."
Julianna Barwick/Healing Is a Miracle (rel. 10 July, Ninja Tune / Ambient music)
PITCHFORK: "The vocalist and producer Julianna Barwick’s revelatory new album asks us to picture healing at a moment when the task feels impossible."
Exclaim!: "(Los Angeles-based) Barwick masterfully creates a temporary escape from reality which relaxes tensions that slowly surrender and dissolve into its harmless components."
The Line of Best Fit: "Healing Is A Miracle is a magical album whose depths reveal themselves slowly even if the record itself (at only 34 minutes) disappears in the blink of an eye."
Slant Magazine: "The album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures."
The Observer: "If it feels less ambitious than its predecessor, 2016’s Will – which explored acoustic settings from a Moog factory to a motorway underpass – it’s also more ravishingly beatific."
Declan McKenna/Zeros (rel. 4 September, Tomplicated / Indie rock, Glam rock)
CLASH: "A daringly ambitious depiction of dystopian discourse. . . . In almost every way it is bigger than his debut, there’s urgency to the instrumentals and operatic crescendos, all in the aid of trying to observe the madness."
The Guardian: "(Glastonbury's Emerging Talent Competition winner) McKenna’s second album is in thrall to pop’s 1970s glam heroes, but his lyrics ponder today’s struggles, from the climate crisis to social media."
Pitchfork: "Nodding to Bowie and the Beatles on songs about climate change and capitalism, the 21-year-old songwriter roots his political critique in the rich tradition of British protest rock."
Uncut: "McKenna merges glam, pop, indie and a touch of electronica to make a contemporary sonic exploration of a tumultuous world."
Jeff Rosenstock/NO DREAM (rel. 20 May, Polyvinyl / Pop-punk, Power pop, Punk rock)
PITCHFORK: "New York’s most anxious punk delivers hook after hook on an album that deals with evergreen sociopolitical concerns yet sounds like it could’ve been written 30 minutes ago."
Exclaim!: "NO DREAM is punk rock that's fit for the masses without sacrificing any of its authenticity. For every catchy melody there's a brashness that says to the wrong people, 'This isn't for you'."
Beats Per Minute: "NO DREAM channels the precise anger and weariness that has surfaced from what CNN’s Don Lemon recently deemed two deadly viruses killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism."
BC Camplight/Shortly After Takeoff (rel. 24 April, Bella Union / Psychedelic pop)
HOW should one confront one's pain from a mental illness? Manchester-based American songwriter and multi-instrumentalist BC Camplight's own such pain is here laid bare for all to hear about, but all through whatever fascinating charm there is that could be distilled from the discomfort. And, to boot, not without the humor he would bravely bandy about concerning this tumult. The melodies and hooks that Camplight runs with up to this record's finish line, to many listeners' probable standing applause at the end, are in themselves a marvel, like music to a musical play very much trying to make the aesthetic merging of anxiety, stunning beauty, and hilarity work. It's triumph enough that it does.
TORRES/Silver Tongue (rel. 31 January, Merge / Indie rock, Art pop)
POPMATTERS: "TORRES' Silver Tongue is her most mature release to date. Its nine songs, all evocative and transporting, strive toward a new vocabulary for connection, confidence, and queer love."
Loud and Quiet: "Silver Tongue is tightly-coiled and whip-smart, rendered beefier than its scant 35 minutes by synth washes, esoteric percussion and, best of all, an even more ruthless penchant for melody."
Exclaim!: "At just nine tracks and 36 minutes, Silver Tongue runs the gamut on aural and ethereal moods, leaving (the Nashville-based singer-songwriter) with one of her most emotionally fulsome and satisfying records."
FLOOD Magazine: "This is an album that doesn’t force its artistic value outwards. Instead, it welcomes you into the tower and offers a novel view of familiar surroundings from above."
Andy Shauf/The Neon Skyline (rel. 24 January, Anti- / Chamber pop, Indie pop)
NOW Magazine: "Written and performed wholly by Shauf, The Neon Skyline is wistful, but also sweet, philosophical, self-deprecating and very relatable."
No Ripcord: "Even at his most open, there's still this sense that his character-driven songs wouldn't exist without revealing the backstory of his Canadian roots. His sentiments are more palpable and poignant, but his approach is as casual as always."
Spectrum Culture: "Shauf further cements himself as one of our more intriguing and effortless songwriters, unafraid to ditch typical conventions in favor of some of the most remarkably vivid imagery in recent memory."
Clash: "The charm of this album is the familiarity of it. If one chose not to listen too closely 'The Neon Skyline' could wash over you without appreciating the beauty within."
Pitchfork: "The Canadian singer-songwriter uses the concept album to recreate the quietly stirring scenes of a dead romance. The Neon Skyline unfolds into a wistful, funny, and heartbreaking world of its own."
Gigwise: "Shauf has a brilliant ability to create a wholesome narrative that is rich with colourful and complex characters."
Dua Lipa/Future Nostalgia (rel. 27 March, Warner / Dance pop, Nu-disco)
FROM our own mini-review of the album:
"(Pray tell), how can a conservative feminist embrace this collection when, in song 2 ('Don't Start Now'), (English singer-songwriter Lipa) scarily sings, 'Did the heartbreak change me? Maybe. / But look at where I ended up, / I'm all good already. / So moved on, it's scary.' It even seems to push a snide remark against false sympathy coming from, let's say, Trump people in an election year, via that chorus that goes, 'Don't show up, don't come out. / Don't start caring about me now. / Walk away, you know how. / Don't start caring about me now.' Then, Lipa, more a progressivist as a Bernie Sanders endorser than a liberal, becomes almost libertinely scandalous (to you) in 'Cool', standing up for lipstick feminism's pride, and then, horror of horrors, takes her hats off to that champion of dolphins and the environment, Olivia Newton-John, via her own composition titled 'Physical', released as a single last January 30. There are more odes to female-alpha third-wave feminism in this sexy salute to '80s disco-era music, the peak being in 'Good in Bed', we think. But finally, as a matter of course, all that mini-skirted empowered stuff must needs get into the area of #MeToo concerns, too, so Lipa must close her record 'before the sun goes down' with the seriousness of 'Boys Will Be Boys'. It's a track that's sure to offend the men who are invoking the Schlaflys of the world, men whom she addresses with: 'If you're offended by this song, / You're clearly doing something wrong.'
Taylor Swift/folklore (rel. 24 July, Republic / Folk-pop)
GIGWISE: "In this record - in large part a remote collaboration between Taylor and The National’s Aaron Dessner - Taylor is contemplative, authorial, clear and simply exceptional."
Entertainment Weekly: "Swift explodes the expectations of anyone preparing to call her music 'diaristic', writing songs from different perspectives while putting her already-detailed work under a microscope."
Consequence of Sound: "The singer-songwriter's eighth album cuts away the pop scaffolding for dark, dreamy contemplation."
The Line of Best Fit: "This is an album of Swift at her most knowing, pushing away the tabloid fodder that has often surrounded her artistry and magnifying the talent she's been honing her entire life."
Rolling Stone: "Her eighth album is a radical detour into the deepest collection of songs she’s ever come up with."
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit/Reunions (rel. 15 May, Southeastern / Americana music, Heartland rock)
CLASSIC ROCK: "Whether he’s musing insightfully over alcoholism or parenthood, his band are blazing and (Nashville-based Isbell) takes a tired format and charges it up with passion and perceptiveness. An admirable anomaly."
AllMusic: "The fact that these songs seem so telling in a strange and difficult time has a bit to do with coincidence, but more important is the excellence of Isbell's songwriting."
The Arts Desk: "Lyrically, Isbell is at the top of his game."
Paste: "The result is a body of work that often feels indispensable. Isbell is a songwriter’s songwriter, but the songs that result are for all of us."
The Line of Best Fit: "With a blend of fact and fiction, Isbell has created his own Nebraska and secured his place among the greats of country-rock."
Rolling Stone: "Reunions is a nuanced, probing record that finds Isbell more restless than he’s been since Southeastern, a rich portrait of an artist eternally searching deeper within himself."
Duma/Duma (rel. 7 August, Nyege Nyege Tapes / Industrial music)
THE Guardian: ". . . extreme Kenyan metalheads bring doom to the dancefloor."
Pitchfork: "The Kenyan noise band’s debut is inventive and abrasive, a timely distillation of global chaos and techno-dystopian dread."
Crack: "A singular glimpse into the abyss from one of the world’s most exciting labels."
Ariana Grande/Positions (rel. 30 October, Republic / R&B, Pop music)
LIPSTICK feminism in pop music today in the strongest terms.
Centennialbeauty.com: "Directed by Dave Meyers, the ‘Positions’ music video is filled with feminist Easter eggs symbolising Ari’s left-leaning political views. From cooking pasta in her kitchen to leading the country as the President of the United States, the singer’s message is clear: No matter what role Ari chooses for herself, being a woman is her most powerful position of all."
The Line of Best Fit: "Positions is Ariana Grande’s most carefree, playful, and mature work to date."
The Observer: "With her pleasure-seeking hubris leaving little to the imagination, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the production plays it fairly safe: Grande falls comfortably back on '90s-indebted, trap-speckled R&B, her voice breathy and gleaming."
Pitchfork: "Her third album in two years searches for peace, tracing the quiet work of piecing yourself together and delighting in giddy new romance at the same time."
Entertainment Weekly: "It might not make for her most arresting album nor her most dramatic, but it’s certainly her most sensuous."
Róisín Murphy/Róisín Machine (rel. 2 October, Skint Records, BMG, Loaded / Nu-disco)
NME: "The eccentric Irish icon’s dancefloor-ready record is her most euphoric yet, full of hedonistic singalong hits that will make you really, really miss the club."
Spectrum Culture: "An album that only Róisín Murphy could make, Róisín Machine is the product of a life milked to its fullest extent. Instead of ignoring shortcomings, it elongates them into swirling, hypnotic dance tracks that are just as suitable for the club as they are for days stuck at home, where restlessness brings out the strangest in us all."
Pitchfork: "On her fifth solo album, the Irish singer finds a new role as a dancefloor truth-teller, infusing house and disco epics with thrilling expressions of desire, regret, and self-knowledge."
Imperial Triumphant/Alphaville (rel. 31 July, Century Media / Avant-garde metal, Black metal)
AVANT-GARDE metal at its darkest this year from Imperial Triumphant, utilizable as shamans-cum-oracles' theater from this masked band dancing to a vague reality in America's streets replete with gun-toting nationalists. Via seemingly-progressivist lyrical mirrors raised to reflect their country's possibly irreversible dystopian direction, terrifying music arises that combine the bravery of electric-era Miles Davis, the erstwhile deranged novelty of formerly alt-right-leaning Norwegian black metal, and the adventurism of progressive music. Truly, as per Metal Hammer, "(masked) NYC brain-melters Imperial Triumphant (are serving) up metal/jazz/avant garde/barbershop madness on majestic new album Alphaville."
Tkay Maidza/Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 (rel. 7 August, 4AD / Pop rap)
PITCHFORK: "Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2, is an EP/mixtape that feels like a second debut at a moment when the world might be more ready to process an artist with (Adelaide-based Tkay Maidza's) unique combination of ambition, pop aptitude, and quirkiness than it was when she released her actual debut four years ago."
DIY: "Although the second outing carries with it the powerful urgency that current times inspire, it primarily embodies the might of (Zimbabwean-Australian singer and rapper) Tkay’s continued musical self-discovery."
Run the Jewels/RTJ4 (rel. 3 June, Jewel Runners, BMG / Hip hop, Hardcore hip hop)
IS the era of playing the victim over? Are those types of times, when a fist is all you have against a racist with a gun, on its way out? Why else is this endgame reality being seemingly pushed on the US East Coast rappers' CD cover, over a socialist-pink square at that, looking like a declaration of what could be declared any day now? Yes, that declaration. Unless people stop helping “to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too” now. [Read our review...]
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Kylie Minogue/DISCO (rel. 6 November, BMG / Disco, Dance pop)
ASIDE from English Dua Lipa's, Irish Róisín Murphy's, and Londoner Georgia's 2020 disco releases, there was Kylie Minogue's parallel call from Down Under for the resurrection of old times, and in all caps at that! In our era, this―outside of its libertine or otherwise pandemic-fitness contexts―in fact also functions as a sort of timely rebellious rally against the racist and homophobic forces that in the '80s organized the anti-disco movement and presently continue to live on 4chan.
Moses Boyd/Dark Matter (rel. 14 February, Exodus / Nu jazz, Jazz fusion)
Through previous mixtapes, Boyd has been known for merging various other music genres (including grime and electronica) into his mother genre, jazz, from which merging he seems to have created interesting little sub-genres each of which could birth movements of their own. But like many in current British jazz whose young composers won't allow a non-linkage of the genre to contexts of race, Boyd rebels from the identification of jazz as restaurant background music. Boyd himself would describe his kind of jazz as "an extension of black music," appropriating elements from "the diaspora" that would include afrobeats, reggae, soca, drum and bass, and even jungle music.
THE Observer: "A progenitor of the current London jazz scene, Boyd’s official solo debut goes large on cross-pollination – and dancing."
Beatrice Dillon/Workaround (rel. 7 February, PAN / Electroacoustic music, Intelligent dance music)
THE Guardian: "Interplay between Dillon’s computer and her collaborators’ samples and instruments – from tabla and kora to pedal steel guitar and cello – give the album its colour, though her use of space is its foundation. Rather than let reverb and echo lumber to inertia, she tightens up on the air supply: synths become breathless, fibrous string textures dry out and the bass is punchy yet weightless. All tracks clock in at the dizzyingly fast-slow tempo of 150bpm (somewhere between techno and jungle) and it’s in this high-altitude, crisp-air atmosphere that Dillon sculpts lithe contortions such as tabla-as-bass or kora-as-percussion. The results are delightfully surreal . . . "
Deerhoof/Future Teenage Cave Artists (rel. 29 May, Joyful Noise / Art pop)
IF you want a sample here of our own guide notes for the San Francisco band's 2020 outing, here goes: . . .
"The Loved One" comforts a community whose concept of God has gone kaput. "O Ye Saddle Babes" mocks a cowboy as a corporate invention whose cattle may have helped hasten the planet's climate change reaching catastrophic heights, then implores everyone, all "little doggies" now, to just get along. [READ OUR REVIEW IN FULL...]
Mary Lattimore/Silver Ladders (rel. 9 October, Ghostly International / Ambient music, New age music)
MUSICOMH: "With the temperate harp thrums that chime through (opening track) 'Pine Trees', the tone of the record is distinctly established. Recorded in the Cornish countryside at the Newquay studio of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, the restorative influence of time spent in nature, a clement, balmy tone infuses proceedings with wordless serenity as a breeze of bowed strings swirls the air and soft electronic waves lap at its shore. . . . So much of the delight of listening to music comes from the lyrical, our tacit affiliation with the rage, wit or pathos an artist wishes to project. This record (by the classically trained harpist) goes some way to appropriate the perception of being wordless, hushed by the beauty of the world we inhabit."
Kelly Lee Owens/Inner Song (rel. 28 August, Smalltown Supersound / Tech house, Art pop)
NME: "By allowing her songs to breathe, leaving space for contemplation, ‘Inner Song’ is a perfectly-arranged album where each track has a part to play: an emotive-yet-euphoric collection that’s made for late-night reflection, (Welsh singer, producer, songwriter and former nurse) Kelly Lee Owens has made one of the most beautiful records of the year."
Headie One/EDNA (rel. 9 October, Relentless / UK drill)
NME: "‘Edna’ is proof that (Headie One is) the unmistakeable, global ‘King of (UK) drill’, and much more besides."
The Telegraph: "Despite its focus on crime and punishment and prodigious use of gangland slang, Edna proves far more thoughtful than the genre’s reputation might lead listeners to expect."
The Arts Desk: "There’s a lot you can learn about (Britain) from hearing that grimness expressed with such determined intelligence."
Georgia/Seeking Thrills (rel. 10 January, Domino / Electropop, Synthpop)
NME: "It’s not quite picture perfect, but ‘Seeking Thrills’ is (Londoner) Georgia’s jubilant and insightful document of the life that moves under the disco lights."
The Guardian: "The singer and producer has absorbed Chicago house, Robyn-style pop and dub reggae, and refashioned them into an album about being ‘consumed by night’."
The Independent: "Drawing heavily on the Chicago house and Detroit techno of the Eighties, Seeking Thrills is a heady dose of sonic nostalgia."
Laura Marling/Song For Our Daughter (rel. 10 April, Chrysalis, Partisan / Folk music)
STEVEN Johnson of musicOMH writes of British singer-songwriter Laura Marling's new album: "Released four months ahead of schedule in an attempt to offer succour and comfort at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, its main premise sees Marling considering what advice she would give to girls soon to find themselves challenged by all the world has to throw at them. Speaking ahead of the release she remarked how she 'acutely feels the responsibility to defend The Girl' and what follows is a set of sensitively delivered tracks that demonstrate why she’s still so far ahead of her contemporaries."
Låpsley/Through Water (rel. 20 March, XL / Ambient pop, Indietronica, Art pop)
DOWN with any celebratory music that may be made to blare on speakers after the COVID-19 crisis passes and the economy reopens! Why? Because "Through Water," the title song of this album by British singer-songwriter-musician-producer Låpsley, is already quite a caveat. It is the caveat we should all be listening to immediately after the current crisis.
The Observer: "What is less familiar are her more outward-facing lyrics. Whereas her debut was all about the personal, Through Water is more explicitly political."
[Through Water is in our March 2020 picks of the month list...]
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