To put it bluntly, 2020 can suck it. There have been few years that have been so catastrophic to so many people as this past year. If the coronavirus pandemic and the hell that it wrought weren’t enough, we also had to endure police brutality of an unprecedented level and the trashfire that occupied the White House and threatened to undermine our democratic process this past election season. (On a personal level, I also had my own personal Apollyon with which to cope, but that’s another story.)
And of course, as music fans, we’ve had to endure a year without live music, a year without those adrenalized communal experiences that are capable of so much cathartic release. We could have used that release this past year more than ever. Fortunately, there was still music: new music and the thrill that comes with the discovery of something innovative. Below are those records that thrilled me and helped keep my head above water.
Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols
Returning with their first album in more than 30 years (and eight years after they first regrouped for some shows), Scotland’s Close Lobsters showed that the jangly pop that landed them on the legendary C86 cassette years ago had gathered very little dust in the interim. While the title—a nod to end times, Charles Baudelaire, and being skint while recording—is more than a mouthful, the record is more immediate, with each cut breezing by at a brisk pace. Like the band’s past work, the album is at once effervescent, whipsmart, and catchy. It’s at turns self-referential and wistful for days gone by, bittersweet and carefree. Of course, their timing couldn’t have been worse as there was little they could do to promote the album, but theirs was a most welcome return nonetheless.
Grimes may have ventured to the far end of the sanity spectrum with her hubby, Elon Musk, but (perhaps as a result of that eccentricity?) she still creates utterly beguiling music. Her latest comes off like the soundtrack of a not so distant, probably dystopian, future. Leadoff track “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” is a light-as-air pop song, at once androidal and touching, especially when Grimes coos, “So heavy I fell through the earth… ‘Cause I’m full of love from you.” The record does have its human moments, however, even when expressing a mechanized action on the acoustically driven, Oasis-like “Delete Forever.” Elsewhere, Grimes seemingly melts into the notes of “IDORU,” as she sings, “You are the only one. Feels so numb.” It’s as if she’s become one with the synthetics she’s created, a metaphor in action of a future where we can escape this physical world.
Like much of post-punk legend Wire’s output of recent years, Mind Hive is a seeming culmination of everything the band has done throughout its career—the freneticism of their early records, the ambient pop the band released in the ’80s, and the industrial-strength riffage of the albums made in the early ’00s—while also adding new elements. On “Cactused,” vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman pairs verses of half-sung vocals and jaunty guitar lines with the chorus’ melodic hook to good effect. But with “Off the Beach,” the band sounds almost bucolic in its blend of chiming acoustic guitars and keyboard washes. However, it is when the aforementioned coalescing of Wire sounds happens that the record is most remarkable, as on “Primed and Ready,” a jagged meshing of sandblasted guitars and synth shards that has one foot in the past and another clearly in the future. Newman expresses this juxtaposition lyrically on “Shadows” when he sings, “Shadow of the future, shadow of the past,” and this sentiment is emblematic of Mind Hive, a record which shows what can happen when hindsight and innovation meet.
Although the title of The Strokes’ latest—their first since 2013—seems prophetic now, when it was released in April, the future was still uncertain. As we settled into our new abnormal, it was the record’s aesthetic that seemed more fitting than anything. The Strokes have always had a talent for capturing a feeling of ennui, and here, the band’s slack playing and inherent cool made for a tonic that went down very easy as the world was falling apart around us. There are also equal doses of reticence and resillience to be heard when Julian Casablancas sings, “Life is too short, but I will live for you,” like he is resigned to his fate, no matter how much suffering it may bring. He knows, in times like these, sometimes it makes sense to just say, “Fuck it.”
With the band including members of Huggy Bear and Male Bonding, it was hard not to have high hopes for the debut album from Adulkt Life. Fortunately, the record’s 10 songs didn’t disappoint. Repeatedly tapping a vein of sharp-edged vitriol, Adulkt Life reveal that anger isn’t just the purview of the young. Indeed, Chris Rowley (of Huggy Bear) seemingly has his dander up from the get-go. On leadoff “Country Pride,” he intones,“You made a promise,” while on “JNR Showtime,” he shouts/asks, “Why would you let this shit carry on?” From there the album never lets up, until the prophetic “New Curfew,” where Rowley sings, “I don’t know what to feel when I hear sirens outside anymore.” It’s a fitting finale to a record that, put out in a time when there’s so little joy (notice a theme here?), capably gives us some needed relief.
Although I found it emotionally wrenching at times to listen to The Avalanches’ follow-up to 2016’s Wildflower and its odes to lost love, never did heartache sound so good. On We Will Always Love You, the Australian band reveals a knack for combining yearning with pop melodies and electronic flourishes. Even on glistening pop gem “The Divine Chord,” featuring MGMT and Johnny Marr, it’s hard not to be equally enchanted and wistful when the refrain of “I still remember you” kicks in. With so many of us dealing with loss this year, this record felt like a soundtrack for the times.
Although released before the pandemic kicked in, when Dana Margolin sings, “I’m bored to death, let’s argue,” on the opening “Born Confused,” it’s hard not to construe that she was in the thick of a relationship strained by our new reality. Similarly, when she sings, “Please make me feel safe,” on “Pop Song,” it’s impossible not to hear several meanings. Although relatively, fresh-faced Margolin and her cohorts sound like old pros on Every Bad as they combine various strains of indie rock influence as varied as the Mekons, Raincoats, and PJ Harvey. It all comes together in 11 waves of glorious tumult that are smart and assured, while still disjointed in all the right places. That it now seems eerily prescient only makes it more fetching than it was at the beginning of the year, before everything went to hell.
The self-titled debut full-length by Riki, the name under which visual artist Niff Nawor makes music, may hearken back to the synthesized sounds of the early ’80s, but Nawor shows that when done right such aesthetics are truly timeless. She veers between confectionary pop, as on the leadoff “Strohmann,” and darker sounds of a Depeche mode before closing out with the vaguely danceable, New Order–esque “Monumental.” But at every point throughout this wondrous album she hits her touchstones while also leaving her mark. This is a classic for the end times.
Run the Jewels have made some good records, but with their fourth, Killer Mike and El-P delivered a masterstroke. RTJ4 is a blitzkrieg of knockin’ beats, samples (including Gang of Four!), and spitfire lyrics that make reference to the kind of true hip-hop of which RTJ are without a doubt the heir apparents. Plus, they managed to be topical without sounding preachy, as on “Walking in Snow,” where Mike makes reference to Eric Garner, and with “JU$T” and its refrain of “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars!” The hat trick is that with “Ooh La La,” they also dropped the kind of joint that would have been ubiquitous everywhere you went if only we were actually able to go anywhere this past year.
A record that may have flown under your radar, the debut album from Boston’s Sweeping Promises is not to be missed. Hunger for a Way Out bristles with the herky-jerky energy of post-punk luminaries like the Slits, Girls at Our Best, and Young Marble Giants, while remaining distinct and fresh-faced. Underpinning each of the record’s 10 songs are the pop traces that make the album so damn irresistible, while singer Lira Mondal also imbues each with a certain amount of wistfulness, breathing into each syllable with sadness or restlessness as it’s needed. Amazingly enough, the record was made using just one mic, but the band seemingly used its limitations to its advantage, with Mondal’s bass criss-crossing paths with Caufield Schnug’s wiry guitar and strategically placed synth squiggle accents. There were few things able to get me excited this year; this was one of them.