So here we are. Towards the end of the long road of 2020. A year where many have had time to pause and reflect on life.
Many have also struggled, their everyday existence turned upside down in a constant battle against the “new normal” paradigm.
New music has always been a constant for us here at Sun 13 and this year, more than ever, we’ve needed it.
It’s been an escape and as the year ends, on reflection it’s been the best form of escapism possible.
Being stuck in the confines of our own spaces for so long has enabled us to consume more new music, which may be a factor in us over-egging the overall quality of new releases in 2020, for we feel like it’s been one of strongest years in some time.
With it being the first year into a new decade marks an even stronger sense moving forward. Quite ironic, considering the arts are at a very serious crossroads as we stare into the great unknown, as government funding is almost non-existent and attention spans are constantly receding due to the demons of social media.
Battles that the album itself doesn’t appear equipped for, however championing the apparent underdog makes this victory even sweeter, for the album still delivers the best result of any musical art form and 2020 has solidified this notion, in our opinion.
The album has been a saviour. An immunity from pernicious governments, online trolls and ridiculous conspiracy theorists that have spawned from the woodwork during 2020.
There’s a fine line between being polemic and, to use a local idiom, being an absolute gobshite. Sadly, too many people have let themselves down during these online cultural wars that have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. People getting sucked into bogus narratives conjured up by, quite frankly, dangerous individuals.
Yes, we escape these pitfalls with music and some (rightly or wrongly) may be of the opinion that this very attitude contributes to part of the problem.
However, speaking honestly, here’s the thing…
Some of us find it hard enough to get out of bed every morning before dealing with the constant stream of information, both factual and fictitious. The reality is that some of us need a refuge just to get through each day. Here, we find it in music. We won’t apologise for that. It’s just the way it is.
And part of that process is to have some fun whittling down streams of A4 pages of new releases to a mere 50.
It’s just a list. It’s subjective. Yes, you will disagree. Next week, we’ll probably be inclined to disagree with ourselves, too, kicking ourselves that Run The Jewels didn’t make the cut, or something else that totally evaded our ears for most of the year at the time of compiling this list.
That’s the beauty of music. It’s a refuge from the war. Enjoy it for what it is and be truly grateful of its existence.
In the ensuing list of artists, we hope that you find something new because that’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes us get out of bed every single day. The chase for something new. Something vital.
The small things in life – that’s where those ever elusive victories can be found.
CS + Kreme: Snoopy
The Trilogy Tape
CS + Kreme is a collaboration between Melbourne-based artists, Conrad Standish and Sam Karmel.
With juddering beats, whirring atmospherics and dub-infused bass lines, their debut album, Snoopy, is something Seefeel may have created had they continued producing consistently after their Warp debut, Succour.
Snoopy possesses the kind of fractured rhythms and earworm beats that burst with that good feeling you get when walking through the doors of some underground club at 2 A.M. on a Sunday morning. There’s no explanation. Just the perfect vibe.
So with that there is no need to go in search of a late night mix. With Snoopy, CS + Kreme have delivered it right at your fingertips.
Yves Tumor: Heaven to a Tortured Mind
On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, the much anticipated release from Yves Tumor, he and his merry band of bohemian street urchins have toned down that bass packed electronica and cranked it up to turbo for a full-on rock assault that spews with a fluorescent crash, embellishing us with beguiling collages of sound.
The backdrop is presented with an unhinged swagger, a filthy, furious noise of glammed-up soul punk. Had A.R. Kane stuck around a bit longer, they may well have tiptoed through these perilous paths.
That is history, though, and this is the future. Yves Tumor doesn’t just carry that burning torch. On Heaven to a Tortured Mind he flails it.
Wharf Cat Records
Rising from the ashes of New York City underground punk collection Pill, three of its members, Veronica Torres, Jonathan Campolo, and Benjamin Jaffe, join forces with Eaters’ Jonathan Schenke and Bob Jones to bring us P.E.
P.E. describe their creation as “human music for the 21st century”. On the surface, it may seem slightly pretentious but when you spend the required time with Person it’s not so far off the mark. The interludes throughout (see Shimmy and the title track) give weight to this notion.
What P.E. accomplishes with Person is deconstructing conventional methods of rock music to form their own brand of electro-punk. But not as we know it. They pay a certain homage to minimalism but add to this in their own subversive ways. Ultimately, it’s punk in every sense.
If anything, Person should act as a fresh reference point for a new generation of artists aiming to be edgy and failing miserably at it.
Ulver: Flowers of Evil
House of Mythology
There aren’t many bands in the history of music that have played with extremities like Norwegian stalwarts, Ulver.
In many ways, they are a conviction band. They may tell you the spirits guide the music to where it wants to go – perhaps that’s part of the Ulver mythology.
When listening to Ulver one should never be surprised and it’s no different with Flowers of Evil.
The aggressive textures of their music may have been blunted over the years, but make no mistake ‒ Ulver‘s themes still remain as menacing as ever. Masters of music created under a black sun.
Flowers of Evil gets you harking back to Depeche Mode ‒ one of the overrated bands in rock history, in this writer’s opinion. Aesthetically, the fact that Ulver have completely aped them with Flowers of Evil is as much ridiculous as it is unsurprising. Once again, Ulver have re-written their own history.
Wharf Cat Records
Bambara‘s southern gothic-inspired leanings may draw comparisons to The Birthday Party/early Bad Seeds while sonically, their nervous freight train blues assault gives a delicate nod in the direction of the much underrated Gun Club.
Reid Bateh‘s storytelling is dark and dirty, embellished with cigarette ash and the stench of stale liquor. There’s a razor-sharp edge to his craft. A slightly debauched wordsmith producing gritty realism through a scope of intense anxiety-riddled protagonists navigating on fault lines.
Stray is an album where the liner notes must be read with fervent interest. Bambara don’t demand this of their listeners. Like a moth to a flame, subconsciously you are drawn to them. Some of the passages so jarring, you might just get burnt.
This is what upper echelon art demands. Walking that tightrope between beauty and pain and with Stray, Bambara produce both in equal measure.
The Microphones: Microphones in 2020
Elverum & Sun
After Phil Elverum‘s harrowing explorations during Mount Eerie’s recent recordings in Now Only and A Crow Looked At Me, the lo-fi veteran decided to reignite his Microphones project.
With Microphones in 2020, we see Elverum stunningly recapture and re-imagine his past in a bid to move forward with life.
“I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising/I remember my life as if it’s just some dreams that I don’t trust, burning off, layered thick/A cargo that I haul, wounds and loves unresolved,” sings Elverum during the first passage of this single 43 minute song.
Much like the two aforementioned Mount Eerie records and last year’s collaboration with Julie Doiron in Lost Wisdom, Pt.2, Elverum‘s near spoken-word tales dominate Microphones in 2020. However, it’s the sound production during this release that is equally beautiful. Lonely lo-fi hums push against warm dissonance of feedback which add a haunting backdrop to these stories, which include touring life, songwriting and seeing Bonnie “Prince” Billy and his band all dressed in tracksuits whilst on tour in Italy.
The Bats: Foothills
Flying Nun Records
The Bats‘ tenth album in a career spanning just under forty years with an unchanged line-up, the Christchurch-born act are one of a handful of New Zealand bands credited with the Dunedin sound and with Foothills, once again they produce jangle-pop splendour.
Foothills comprises of songs that are the best The Bats have produced. No mean feat considering they’ve spent a career breaking through creative ceilings and here, once again they outdo themselves.
This year, many will doff their cap to the Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (and fair enough), but had it not been for bands like The Bats, then arguably the former wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Foothills is yet another layer of song craft splendour. We shouldn’t have expected anything less from The Bats.
Purchase from Bandcamp
The Innocence Mission: See You Tomorrow
Not many artists present beauty like The Innocence Mission.
The fragility on display from the Lancaster, Pennsylvania duo during their latest album, See You Tomorrow, has the ability to continuously bring the listener to tears.
When engaging with The Innocence Mission, it’s hard not to get dewy-eyed at the best of times, but on See You Tomorrow, Karen and Don Peris produce A-grade tender-heart balladry, excavating new depths of emotion. Prior to its release, you wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking that such efforts were impossible to reach.
Some of the best ballads committed to tape in 2020 are courtesy of The Innocence Mission and it’s not a stretch to say that See You Tomorrow is one of their finest records yet.
Bad Amputee: Convenience Kills
Bad Amputee (Phil Tyler – vocals/guitar, Claire Welford – vocals/bass, and Robin Fry – drums) are one of a handful of artists in Britain adopting the origins of slowcore and in a landscape of new music that consists of indie landfill fodder, Bad Amputee are simply a godsend to these ears.
Their debut album, Convenience Kills, will go down as one of the most underrated releases from a British underground act in 2020.
The songs, full of space and depth, with tones that elusively pummel and rhythms that stay etched to your mind.
It’s hypnotic rock music circa 2020 and as far as Britain is concerned, not a lot has touched it
Windy & Carl: Allegiance and Conviction
After an eight year absence, Dearborn, Michigan duo, Windy & Carl, return with Allegiance and Conviction – their thirteenth album.
Windy & Carl have always found created multilayered cinematic snapshots of sound, shrouded in glacial, luscious drones.
On Allegiance and Conviction, Windy Weber‘s spoken word narratives provide a fresh outlook for the duo. Alongside the swelling drones and melody, it works wonders.
The album’s six compositions are something to escape to. Some may suggest it’s the perfect isolation record and these musings aren’t far off the mark.
Stick on a set of headphones and enjoy the spatial landscapes in the world of Windy & Carl.
Triple Crown Records
Having released two EPs midway through the last decade, Michigan four-piece, Dogleg (Alex Stoitsiadis – vocals/guitars, Parker Grissom – guitars, Chase Macinski – bass, Jacob Hanlon – drums) arrive with their stunning debut, Melee.
Bathing in 90’s post-hardcore reverence, Melee, quite frankly, blows away the competition. I mean, any album that starts with a track named Kawasaki Backflip can’t be anything other than awe-inspiring.
And Melee continues the trend, with white-knuckled bangers jam-packed with pummelling choruses and riffs-to-sky euphoria. It’s not hysterical or dramatic. The fault-line fury projected through each instrument cuts with raw vigour and verve.
Guitars might be a dirty word these days, but Dogleg give the middle-finger salute to such proclamations. This is outrage-to-the heavens delight akin to what Husker Dü achieved during the mid-80’s.
Fans of Cloud Nothings and Metz take note. You’ve just found your new favourite band.
Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling
Like their 2016 album, American Flag, the themes of immigration, equality, and politics are once again the platform for the Drive-By Truckers on The Unraveling, with Trump-era America firmly in the band’s ire.
In tandem, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley bring to life the everyday pressures of the beleaguered working class through their own unique way of storytelling and – like always – are perfectly flanked by their trademark southern fried riff-a-rolla.
Drive-By Truckers have never made a bad album and with The Unraveling they don’t buck that trend.
Without question, they are simply one of the most powerful voices in rock music today.
Walter Martin: The World at Night
While his Walkmen counterpart in Hamilton Leithauser may gain most of the plaudits in 2020, don’t underestimate the impact of Walter Martin‘s latest long-player, The World at Night.
Martin‘s story telling holds no doubts and it’s easy to see why, along with being a musician, he writes television commercials. His mental nimbleness for wordplay and yarn spinning is achingly beautiful (look no further than The Solider).
While aesthetically, it’s not a world away from Leithauser‘s latest album, ironically, the pair of albums are a good foil for one another.
Those who like to indulge in audio books, ditch them for forty minutes – The World at Night and Walter Martin have this well and truly covered.
Fotocrime: South of Heaven
We first stumbled across Fotocrime last March in the cold bellows of Scunthorpe’s Café Indiependent where Ryan Patterson (formerly of Coliseum) sported jet-black shades, cloaked from head-to-toe in leather, amid a backdrop of cyan strobe lights and a drum machine. He was supporting Crippled Black Phoenix on the back of his Principle of Pain album.
Since, Fotocrime’s Sister of Mercy-inspired dark wave ditties have been a constant and on South of Heaven, his second full-length LP, things don’t change.
Recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, South of Heaven continues with themes of Patterson’s search of love and the disasters in encountering such things.
Sonically, it’s not a world away from his previous album, but when an artist stumbles across something that truly works then there’s no urgent need to tinker and Fotocrime’s South of Heaven represents this fact rather admirably.
Daniel Avery: Love + Light
It’s been quite a year for London ambient producer and pioneer, Daniel Avery.
Having released the excellent collaboration album with Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini, shortly after, Avery surprised us all by announcing details of his third solo album which dropped in the same week.
Love + Light contains all the best bits of Daniel Avery’s richly produced creations with meticulous gliding ambience, full-throttle dance floor bangers, shadowy drones and glitchy minimalism. It’s all here in an album spanning over 14 songs, which is best consumed in the deep hours of the night.
The clandestine approach Avery took in the lead-up to Love + Light has been somewhat to his detriment, for it has slightly floated under the radar. That in itself is a surprise, considering Avery’s standing in modern day electronic music circles. Hands down, it’s the most underrated release of 2020 and yet another fine addition to Avery’s body of work.
Land Trance: First Séance
Land Trance is the new collaboration between Liverpool-based musicians Andrew P.M. Hunt (Outfit) and Benjamin D. Duvall (Ex-Easter Island Head, Whistling Arrow) and here they give us their brilliant debut album, First Séance.
Recorded in various locations, including a space overlooking Concert Square, First Séance is a pulsating affair, ignited by humid drones and quiet melodic ambience. The influences behind these recordings are far-reaching, spearheaded by the album’s epicentre that is Chilean Miners.
First Séance is a rapid journey, exploring every corner of the experimental music landscape. Fans of Fennesz and the swathe of artists under the Kranky label, this one is certainly for you.
After a seven year absence, Justin Broadrick resumed with his Jesu project, starting with the release of the Never EP just before the first lockdown.
Terminus, his much anticipated new album, comprises of themes based on loneliness, death, hope and love. A reflective broad-church of ideas and if anything it unfurls as a collage of Jesu‘s past recordings.
Terminus is a welcome return for Jesu. Between its digital slowcore explorations and interpretations of slow-motion post-metal, whatever you wish to call it, Jesu is the gateway for Broadrick to showcase his tender side.
After decades not limited to spitting rancour at us with Godflesh, being the source of bowel-twitching beats with Techno Animal and providing the immoral dissonance through JK Flesh, Jesu is the final piece of the puzzle that bestows Broadrick as the finished article and one of the most vital, esoteric artists in the world today.
Wrekmeister Harmonies: We Love to Look at the Carnage
Led by J.R. Robinson, Chicago-based Wrekmeister Harmonies have been making a raw hybrid of chamber-doom for a long time now.
With their latest long-player, We Love to Look at the Carnage, it may just been the project’s darkest and all encompassing effort yet.
Notwithstanding the immeasurable morose themes of death and the existential burdens which follow losing those closest to you, Robinson orchestrates a rich brooding framework of surly strings and drawn out drones that are eerily quiet and elusive.
We Love to Look at the Carnage is a storm that casts long shadows, equating to one of the most cathartic listens one will experience this year.
Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown
Tortoise guitarist, Jeff Parker, returns with what was the first warning shot of 2020.
His latest album, Suite For Max Brown—dedicated to his late mother—bursts with far-reaching fusions of jazz and ambience. It’s an all-encompassing listen that can be consumed intensely with headphones or is equally as hitting in the tranquil milieus as background noise.
Fusion Swirl has a bass line so fucking good (probably the best of the year) that it features later on in the album during Go Away.
There’s plenty of that Tortoise noodling throughout Suite for Max Brown, which is accompanied by the spiritual essence of blues, early hip-hop and, of course, jazz.
It’s an album enriched with multi-layered vistas of sound.
Bruxa Maria: The Maddening
Before the first lockdown, London‘s Bruxa Maria returned with their second album, The Maddening, and where hard-nosed sounds from the U.K. in 2020 are concerned, it’s the best the country has to offer.
On The Maddening, Bruxa‘ draw from an array of styles, not limited to sludge and noise-rock, adding new razor-sharp dimensions to their already unhinged contraption of punk.
It’s all held together by leader, Gill Dread, who delivers a stunning performance, spitting venom for the The Maddening’s frenetic 36 minutes. Dread‘s quiet/loud vocal style exudes an anxiety that encapsulates these dark times. The album’s title in itself, a prescient snapshot of the world’s current standing.
Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle
Julianna Barwick possesses the voice an angel. She is also impervious to making bad records and her fifth, Healing Is A Miracle, further hardens such claims.
The multi-layering and flashing ambience is once again something to behold and while Barwick reaches further afield with contributions from Sigur Ros’ Jonsi, Mary Lattimore and Nosaj Thing, by and large it’s when Barwick goes it alone that the best results are found and here there are many of them.
It’s hard to rank Barwick‘s albums, as they feel like a synchronised offering of sheer beauty. It’s music for the heavens and as a listener, the sweet spot can be found by spending the afternoon in Barwick‘s entire body of work from start to finish.
Healing Is A Miracle is yet another worthy addition to that.
Okay, so what is this?
Unground veteran Chicago rapper, Serengeti, and Los Angeles producer, Kenny Segal, ‘collab’ to piece together one of the finest representation of hip-hop committed to tape in a long time with Ajai – an album inspired by consumerism and designer clobber that is as rare as rocking horse shit.
The album is split between two characters. First there’s the album’s namesake, Ajai, an Indian man who lives for exclusive drops and merchandise collaborations and goes to absurd lengths to procure his desired products.
Those well versed in Serengeti‘s body-of-work will be familiar with the album’s second character, Kenny Dennis, a semi-retired white rapper who has his own demons and equally astounding yarns to spin.
And that’s where we’ll leave it, because this story needs no spoilers. This utterly absurd and equally thrilling tale simply needs to be heard to be believed.
So what is this? It’s one of the best hip-hop albums made for quite some time.
Algiers: There Is No Year
After the jagged visceral offerings of 2017’s The Underside of Power, the best was still yet to come for Algiers and with There Is No Year, it feels like that moment is here.
With politics and the malaise-riddled world still firmly in the band’s ire, the polemic outrage Algiers spit is more venomous on There Is No Year.
They’ve always been an unbalanced listen but that’s the point. Algiers have never made it easy for their cult of followers and that’s exactly the way it should be. It’s art dripping with purity.
Franklin James Fisher hasn’t given a better performance yet. His vocals, soulful, primitive, melodic and bleeding with a subtle rage.
On There Is No Year the equilibrium of thematic and sonic ideals are perfect.
Pallbearer: Forgotten Days
Pallbearer have always been one of those bands that seemed accustomed to playing heavy-handed dirges in churches. While their previous works may have frightened off the practices of faith, on Forgotten Days they may have just found such audiences. If those churchgoers believed in the occult, of course…
In the past, Pallbearer have fleetingly shown us their tender side and on Forgotten Days they produce it in spades. Alongside the master behind the soundboards in Randall Dunn, they have given us an open-hearted journey whilst maintaining their doom aesthetic.
This makes Forgotten Days a vital addition to the Pallbearer arsenal, establishing their organic growth as both band and individual artists. While metal is often (and sometimes rightly) criticised for its primitive tendencies, Pallbearer remain immune from these objections and with Forgotten Days, they solidify their position as the true apostles of doom in 2020.
FACS: Void Moments
Trouble In Mind
After their 2018 debut, the needle-thin spidery offerings of Negative House, Chicago’s FACS return with Void Moments, a thick-clouded atmospheric affair cloaked in a new shade of darkness.
If there were an album to sound just like its namesake then look no further.
Where the world is littered with loss-leader post-punk acts selling cheap idealism, FACS are far removed from this, unleashing a sprawling rancour that feels as if it were conceived from the belly of a junkyard.
With Void Moments, FACS rumble through the sludgy furrows of this diseased world where they serve their art on an equally grim platter.
TORRES: Silver Tongue
TORRES (Mackenzie Scott) returns with her latest and self-produced fourth album, Silver Tongue – her first for Merge Records.
TORRES has also written blindingly brilliant songs, but this level of intensity hasn’t always been maintained throughout her records. In some ways one could argue that Scott is the victim of success.
Not with Silver Tongue, however. Scott finds a haunting poise, unleashing her most honest record yet with an ethereal backdrop of instrumentation that swirls and is instantly engaging.
There are no misses here, undoubtedly all hits and clocking in at thirty-six minutes, Scott has crafted a gnarly, moody album brimming with raw emotion.
A punkier version of Lana Del Rey? We’ll let you be the judge. In any case, Silver Tongue is TORRES‘ finest release to date.
Shabazz Palaces: The Don of Diamond Dreams
Shabazz Palaces are to hip-hop what Low are to rock ‘n’ roll.
Vendors of a futuristic brand of hip-hop expanding on the building blocks of ’80s conscious rap, The Don of Diamond Dreams is Shabazz Palaces at their fiercest.
Aesthetically, The Don of Diamond Dreams bursts with spatial inflections of jazz and foggy synths that create a sensual ambience. The cheeky ironic digs at their contemporaries still remain and are in fact better than ever, growing the conscious of this project and expelling a new found wisdom.
Hip-hop to have candle light dinners to? I honestly couldn’t think of a better soundtrack, but in saying that, the best results are engaging with The Don of Diamond Dreams with a set of headphones.
The subtleties on this album are what make it.
Jehnny Beth: To Love Is To Live
Channelling the stark minimalism many of us would associate with Nine Inch Nails during their Year Zero phase, on To Love Is To Live Savages’ Jehnny Beth walks the tightrope with themes of love, death, and religion, exposing each of them with a raw unbridled vigour.
Many raise concerns about relatively new artists splintering off to produce solo albums, but this level of cynicism shouldn’t be directed at Jehnny Beth.
Here we have a project totally exiled from her previous endeavours with Savages, resulting in a collective of songs that are some of the strongest Beth has written.
To Love Is To Live is brutal as much as it is beautiful, presented through a clear lens that showcases a newfound intensity. All told, To Love Is To Live is a flawless triumph.
Einstürzende Neubauten: ALLES IN ALLEM
After a thirteen year absence of new material, the deranged industrial sonic terrorism of Einstürzende Neubauten‘s earlier years makes way for supple and spaciously arranged songs and the results are simply frightening.
ALLES IN ALLEM is ‘Neubauten at their most accessible. Many skins have been shed, with frontman and former Bad Seed, Blixa Bargeld projecting himself into newfound limelight as some otherworldly space crooner. Bargeld‘s lyrics – once translated into English – are patently abstract, constantly searching for answers that remain forever hidden, further epitomising ‘Neubauten‘s fey obscurity.
One often associates such occurrences as contentment, but that’s not the way ‘Neubauten function. If it were, then they would have halted long ago.
Whilst they’ve spent the majority of their career scraping instruments against the concrete walls of a distorted universe, with ALLES IN ALLEM Einstürzende Neubauten produce an ambient-laden soundtrack as they finally emerge from this murky labyrinth into a new world.
Moses Boyd: Dark Matter
London drummer and vital cog in the London jazz scene, Moses Boyd, unleashes one of the most captivating listens of 2020 so far with Dark Matter.
Boyd has scoured the corners of the earth for influences and what a world tour it is, throwing jazz, blues, soul, R&B and improv’ into a melting pot that brims with a homely aroma of the most palatable of sonic broths.
Dark Matter is a spatial adventure drawing inspiration from yesteryear and injecting a modern day verve and virtuosity. Is it a streamlined representation of Sun-Ra?
Who knows, but it sounds fresh and alive.
The Bug Ft Dis Fig: In Blue
Kevin Richard Martin returns to the fold as The Bug and this time he teams up with Berlin-based vocalist, Felicia Chen, a.k.a. Dis Fig.
The result is In Blue. A moody, multi-layered silhouette of sounds that drift like fog and feed into every crevice of the very tunnel this album was seemingly conceived in.
In Blue is filled with thick rolling blankets of fog that most would try and escape from in pursuit for brighter landscapes. It’s 2020, though, and both The Bug and Dis Fig seem firmly entrenched within the milieus of this deep vortex. Listeners should be, too. Not dissimilar to Martin‘s collaboration with Roger Robinson as King Midas Sound, this too is an album to engage with alone.
It may just be all one needs to get through this impending, perilous winter.
Following their underrated collaboration albums with kindred spirits, The Body, in 2018’s Mental Wounds Not Not Healing and Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back, we are indeed in the ire of that very storm with Uniform‘s fourth release, Shame.
While harder-nosed sounding records have been somewhat underrepresented in 2020, Uniform fly the flag commendably with what can only be described as dead-eyed chamber punk. Shame welcomes in the punks, the metal heads, and, of course, the noise-rock aficionados.
It’s a withering coalition of sounds from the darkest pits one can excavate and on Shame, Uniform give the best representation of themselves so far.
Destroyer: Have We Met
Thirteen albums in and Dan Bejar‘s Destroyer project isn’t letting up any time soon.
His latest instalment, Have We Met, may just contain his most morose set of songs since he began two decades ago in 1998 with his debut, City of Daughters.
Bejar‘s hazy diatribes are usually backed by carefully orchestrated pastiche soundscapes, but on Have We Met, if anything, we hear Destroyer actually sounding like Destroyer. It sounds both ancient and fresh.
It’s suggested that Daniel Bejar is serenading the apocalypse on Have We Met, but his sharp prescience and sneering cynicism for the world already places him contently dancing alone after it.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: X: The Godless Void And Other Stories
Dine Alone Records
Originally earmarked to be Conrad Keely‘s second solo album (his first, 2016’s Original Machines), these songs have been given the full …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead treatment but it’s …Trail Of Dead version 2020.
It’s yet another shedding of skins for Austin, Texas’ finest purveyors of all things post-hardcore and indie rock with various other facets comprising this Molotov cocktail of noise.
Those trademark chord structures and lung-busting choruses that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The true feeling of artistic expression getting under your skin and staring you in the eye and having a conversation.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have always made music that talks to you and with X: The Godless Void And Other Stories that conversation very much continues.
Keeley Forsyth: Debris
The Leaf Label
Oldham actress/composer/singer, Keeley Forsyth, blindsided us all at the beginning of 2020 with her debut solo album.
On Debris, Forsyth presents eight tracks at under 30 minutes in bewitching fashion.
It’s as if these songs were conceived during a séance at the top of the moors. Each song, filled with an unparalleled emotional dread as Forsyth delivers her messages in true unique fashion. The sonic bedding provided for Forsyth’s medieval extractions is equally cloaked in a haunting shade of darkness.
People talk about new weird Britain, but terms like this are a ruddy canvasses over anything sounding left-of-centre and feel too disingenuous to each piece of art presented. This is the case with Debris, a spellbinding folk record possessing a slant that Keeley Forsyth has truly made her own.
The Flaming Lips: American Head
“Mother please don’t be sad/It’s only me who’s died,” sings Wayne Coyne during the meandering psychedelic Mother Please Don’t Be Sad – one of the many highlights on The Flaming Lips‘ American Head.
It’s not soaked in tie-dye but merely dipped. There are still those staple odd-ball moments dotted throughout American Head, but for the most part conventional arrangements act as a setting for Coyne‘s manifestations.
As always, The Flaming Lips‘ greatest weapon in Steven Drozd finds the right spaces to sprinkle his melodic fairy dust all the way through American Head. Equally, long-time collaborator and producer, David Fridmann, pieces it all together from behind the mixing desk.
Coyne hasn’t sounded this poetic in years.
Six Organs of Admittance: Companion Rises
Ahh Ben Chasny. Arriving three years after the brilliant Burning the Threshold, with his Six Organs Of Admittance project, the fine run of form continues with Companion Rises. An album that feels like a journey where one emerges from the fog.
On Companion Rises, Chasny channels his early under-the-floor-boards lo-fi styles, intertwining these characteristics with his new found affection for hi-fi melody.
He’s always had an uncanny ability for heart-stopping melody but on the back of Burning the Threshold and his New Bums project with Skygreen Leopards‘ Donovan Quinn, Chasny has introduced it more and more with Six Organs Of Admittance.
Chasny has always had a knack for gorgeous arrangements and with Companion Rises he’s carved out some of his best. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better folk record all year.
Out of the swathe of super-groups that crop up during the course of a year, there’s always one that piques the interest. In this case it’s Muzz.
Paul Banks (Interpol), Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman) and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) combine to create some of the most gorgeous songs of 2020.
It’s the sound of respective artists being free, following their noses to the grand prize and with their self-titled debut, a gold rush is in motion.
The simplicity to Muzz is the album’s greatest strength. Above Barrick‘s syncopated rhythms, Kaufman carves out beautiful breezy soundscapes that drift with a unique atmospheric charm.
As for Banks, he’s ditched the suit and it’s a sign of an artist re-invigorated, for Muzz is the finest piece of work he has been involved in since Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights.
The Necks: Three
Northern Spy Records
Legendary Australian improv’ jazz trio, The Necks, unleash their twenty-first album in what is a three track sixty-sixty minute voyage of textural splendour.
The vast and visceral passage of Three starts with the weightless percussive sprawl of Bloom. Twenty-two minutes of something raging with a moody gale-force intensity.
The gentle rattling and luminous soundscapes of Lovelock follows – a composition dedicated to former Celibate Rifles and football tragic, Damien Lovelock, who sadly past away last August.
Then there’s the seductive offering in Further. Every brilliant album needs to finish with a track that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and with Further The Necks are only too willing to dispense. A mysterious dreamscape finale designed for quiet spaces and lonely nights.
Three comprises of tracks that further illuminate the wide array of sounds The Necks have mastered since their inception in 1989.
A band that is truly not for this word.
After a succession of EPs and mixes throughout the last ten years on the brilliant Illian Tape label (also home to the great Skee Mask), Italian producer, Andrea, begins the new decade with his debut album, Ritorno.
Andrea throws a fresh bucket of paint at the wall with Ritorno, an album designed for the large rooms and towering sound systems of club land. There’s fluttering ambience, crushing break beat and skinny techno. It’s a radiating journey through the most technical and far-reaching aspects of electronic music.
It’s been quite the year so far for electronic music and with Ritorna, Andrea is perhaps the shining beacon of all things beats, thus far.
Activity: Unmask Whoever
From the first note of In Motion, the opening number from Activity‘s Unmask Whoever, it’s evident that you have cottoned onto something spellbindingly wonderful.
To be frank, there’s not enough column inches here to talk about Unmask Whoever. An album with echoes of Sonic Youth‘s melodic endeavours and the whirring atmospherics reminiscent of Autolux.
This is no pastiche, though. Activity provide their own spirit and swagger, conjuring up a haunting reverb, seething synth and syncopated rhythms.
With Unmask Whoever, the New York-based four-piece have produced an album that explodes with a unique dynamism. It’s one of the finest debut releases for quite some time and head and shoulders the greatest debut this year.
Touché Amoré: Lament
Irrespective of your musical tastes, Stage Four was an album that touched the hearts of the wide-spanning music community. Following the loss of his mother after her lengthy battle with cancer, singer Jeremy Bolm crystallised the emotions of loss and bereavement and committed them to tape.
Throughout Lament, Stage Four’s excellent follow-up, Touché Amoré explore the themes of a band grappling with the idea of fame, with Bolm crumbling under the weight of being heralded as an emotional crutch for the fans so invested in both he and his band.
While many have claimed that Lament is an album coming out the other side of bereavement, seeing Stage Four as Touché Amoré’s Skeleton Tree and Lament as their Ghosteen, it feels a lot more like an extension of the former.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou: May Our Chambers Be Full
Sacred Bones/Sargent House
Emma Ruth Rundle and Louisiana sonic terrorists, Thou, join forces for their debut collaboration album, May Our Chambers Be Full – the latest in Sacred Bones‘ collaboration series which has seen the likes of The Body, Uniform, Marissa Nadler and Stephen Brodsky showcase their unique talents.
While Rundle‘s voice floats graciously across the instrumentation Thou provide, Bryan Funck‘s visceral screams slice straight through it like a glistening blade. Some may be put off by the extreme contrasts of vocal styles that weave and collide throughout May Our Chambers Be Full, but in truth these facets adds a new vital ferocity not previously heard.
This is what makes May Our Chambers Be Full so captivating. The results are the perfect marriage between unbridled elegance and unhinged chaos.
Baxter Dury: The Night Chancers
On The Night Chancers, Baxter Dury gives pass off the the air of contemplation. A loose concept album, even, ducking and weaving between lust and love, arriving in that ever-present grey area. Overall, the mood isn’t a world away from his stunning sophomore album, Floor Show.
The Night Chancers is a slow burn. Dury has always produced music of this quality and that’s why his fellow Britons have always found his music hard to pierce. The French know the score, though. Had Dury been born there then there’s little doubt he’d be heralded as a national treasure.
The durability of Dury’s song-craft will outlast his contemporaries. Not that he has that many given his unique form of sneering satire. The man stands alone and sometimes that’s the best way.
Baxter Dury feature
Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today
Domino Recording Co.
Throughout Ultimate Success Today, Joe Casey and Protomartyr take an even more inward approach than normal. A sledge hammer replaced by any icy chisel to get his points across.
Not only have Protomartyr continually raised their own bar, which is further demonstrated with Ultimate Success Today, but it’s evident that their contemporaries are ill-equipped to keep up, which will only illuminate the Detroit collective’s standing in not only the modern day climate, but in the future, too.
It’s hardly surprising, though. Protomartyr have always been ahead of the game. That’s what makes them one of the best bands to emerge from the shadows in the last fifteen years and the bruising post-apocalyptic portraits conjured up through Ultimate Success Today adds yet another fine chapter to their story.
Steve Von Till: No Wilderness Deep Enough
With No Wilderness Deep Enough, Steve Von Till connects the dots between frightening existentialism and a dream state by orchestrating rich textures that overshadow heavy silence and eventually annexed by his abstract poetry.
The overarching narrative to No Wilderness Deep Enough persuades us to emerge from a barbed net of destruction. It’s dark ambient imagery feels like walking into a new world and reconnecting with absent loved ones and for those who have suffered personal traumas throughout their life, a profound emotional correlation will be found.
Von Till has created an illusionary piece of art that aggravates raw wounds and stirs past pain as much as much as it provides hope for the future. He has never sounded so poetic. He has never sounded so bare. And ironic as it sounds, he’s never sounded so real.
Zelienople: Hold You Up
Barely a fanbase beyond early enthusiasts, obsessive record collectors and those constantly on the hunt for new music, by and large Zelienople have been rekindling the spirit of faded ’90s underground touchstones of slow-core, post-hardcore, and post-rock, since their 2002 debut, Pyjama Avenue.
They don’t sound exclusively like any of the above, but with the influences of each peering through the cracks throughout moments of their underappreciated body of work, Zelienople deliver a fragile sound that casts a woozy spell over their audience.
Zelienople carry the torch for all the great things which came from the decade in which they followed. Personally, it may have been a crime to have their music pass by for so long, but time has been served and Hold You Up is a very timely entrance point for not only new listeners to discover Zelienople. With all the uncertainly we face today, this album is a timely welcome into this world.
MJ Guider: Sour Cherry Bell
MJ Guider‘s Sour Cherry Bell is a cosmic leap from her 2016 debut, Precious Systems. With synths that are drenched in dark-wave, Guider‘s heavenly vocals capture the essence of dream-pop while the low-end drones are reminiscent of druggy downer-rock. There are also those famous echoes of Kranky touchstones, Bowery Electric.
If Precious System didn’t prove it, then Sour Cherry Bell bestows MJ Guider as one of the finest purveyors of experimental sounds today.
From front to back, Sour Cherry Bell is a journey. It would almost be remiss to single out one particular track, such as they weight these ten songs carry.
The concurrences on songs like The Steelyard and Simulus instantly jump out at you. Songs one can immerse in and get lost to laying in an empty field despite also possessing a quality as late night bangers in a room full of dead-eyed souls inhabiting an abandoned warehouse.
Sour Cherry Bell is the sound that offers endless possibilities.
Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Abstract verses that are feverishly plotted, disregarded then revisited, chopped and changed via various discarded notebooks and elusive rogue bits of paper. Incongruous conceptions that take years to perfect.
And that’s why we, as listeners, have to wait. That’s the price of perfection and the illustration of why patience is the greatest virtue of them all. In this case, we’re talking about Fiona Apple or, more specifically, her latest album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
Apple‘s storytelling is sharp and evocative with vocals that are saccharine yet stained with nicotine and dowsed in bourbon. A concoction of life’s great vices all committed to tape and dispensed for our listening pleasure.
Then there’s the instrumentation. A backing accompanied by soundscapes not limited to barking dogs, sinewy jazz fills and sporadic hits on Tupperware. It’s the kind of scrapyard clamour one would associate with Tom Waits circa Bone Machine.
And that’s the artist we associate Apple with the most – Tom Waits. There’s leanings of the baroque-pop that Scott Walker gave birth to, as well, of course. Above all, these are artists who are/were boundless, forever unshackled in their endeavours to create something truly unique.
And Fetch the Bolt Cutters is most certainly that. A remarkable record and a priceless jewel in the crown of artistic expression.
Holy Sons: Raw and Disfigured
Emil Amos‘ Holy Sons has always sparked the senses.
Amos‘ black pits of nihilism and personal post-apocalyptic dread are profound. Casting a barbed wire net over his listeners, the bottomless torrents of soul-eroding despair you feel within Amos‘ songs are almost beyond reality.
Raw and Disfigured is the kind of album that has been jaundiced by life. It’s art of the best kind and while Amos has been the provider of glistening daggers over the past two decades, there’s a valid argument that he strikes the most telling blow right here.
Where underground is concerned, we did suggest it was the best double album since Polvo‘s Exploded Drawing and while some have raised an eyebrow to such claims, we steadfastly maintain this opinion. It’s just that good, to the point that you really need nothing else.
In a year that’s been the strangest in our history, high-grade art has shone through even stronger, exemplifying its importance in today’s society. Raw and Disfigured is the shining beacon of all artistic expression and the cornerstone of everything we love about music.
In 2020, this record’s feverish emotional intensity has been unrivalled and in the first year of a new decade, however maddening it’s been, Holy Sons has transcended all of it.
That’s why Raw and Disfigured is, hands down, our album of the year.
Top 50 recap:
50. CS + Kreme: Snoopy
49. Yves Tumor: Heaven to a Tortured Mind
48. P.E.: Person
47. Ulver: Flowers of Evil
46. Bambara: Stray
45. The Microphones: The Microphones in 2020
44. The Bats: Foothills
43. The Innocence Mission: See You Tomorrow
42. Bad Amputee: Convenience Kills
41. Windy and Carl: Allegiance and Conviction
40. Dogleg: Melee
39. Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling
38. Walter Martin: The World At Night
37. Fotocrime: South Of Heaven
36. Daniel Avery: Love + Light
35. Land Trance: First Seance
34. Jesu: Terminus
33. Wrekmeister Harmonies: We Love to Look at the Carnage
32. Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown
31. Bruxa Maria: The Maddening
30. Julianna Barwick: Healing is a Miracle
29. Serengeti: Ajai
28. Algiers: There Is No Year
27. Pallbearer: Forgotten Days
26. FACS: Void Moments
25. Torres: Silver Tongue
24. Shabbaz Palaces: The Don of Diamond Dreams
23. Jehnny Beth: To Love is to Live
22. Einstürzende Neubauten: ALLES IN ALLEM
21. Moses Boyd: Dark Matter
20. The Bug Ft Dis Fig: In Blue
19. Uniform: Shame
18. Destroyer: Have We Met
17. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
16. Keeley Forsyth: Debris
15. The Flaming Lips: American Head
14. Six Organs of Admittance: Companion Rises
13. Muzz: Muzz
12. The Necks: Three
11. Andrea: Ritorno
10. Activity: Unmask Whoever
9. Touché Amoré: Lament
8. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou: May Our Chambers Be Full
7. Baxter Dury: The Night Chancers
6. Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today
5. Steve Von Till: No Wilderness Deep Enough
4. Zelienople: Hold You Up
3. MJ Guider: Sour Cherry Bell
2. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
1. Holy Sons: Raw and Disfigured