As Jockstrap, London-based music students Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye experiment with mixing shades of the lush and the grotesque. On Wicked City, they continue to hone their intriguingly bizarre sound, and nothing else released this year sounds quite like it. Fleshed out by elegant string arrangements and sung in an ingenue-like soprano, Ellery’s cinematic ballads have an old-timey feel and a twinge of the uncanny. Paired with Skye’s deconstructed beats and electronics, the result is a twisted landscape of sharp contrasts and odd juxtapositions.
The five song EP is marked by rapid and often jarring tonal shifts. Heavily distorted, hard-edged beats create an unhinged atmosphere on opener “Robert” (which features a verse by Injury Reserve), but the following two tracks, “Acid” and “Yellow in Green”, are driven by Ellery’s sweeping vocals into much more melodic territory. “The City” begins like the latter, but eventually devolves into a bewildering sequence that features a disturbing passage from Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. Autotune and distortion add peculiar colors to the more pop-oriented “City Hell”, which closes out this 20-minute sonic rollercoaster. It’s remarkable how much the duo managed to fit into this strange and wonderful EP—we can only imagine what they’ll do with a full-length. – Emma Bauchner
Khruangbin & Leon Bridges – Texas Sun
Even speaking as a fan of the band, I’d never imagined Khruangbin linking up with Leon Bridges would prove as wonderful as it did. Yet, here we are: Texas Sun exists as proof of the sublime. It may well have been intended as the soundtrack for a summer that very much never arrived, but it doesn’t mar the pure joy to be found here. While the band’s proper LP this year proved to be rather too much of the same with slightly diminished returns, Khruangin prove a surprisingly perfect backing for Bridges’ incomparable voice. He, in turn, bleeds enthusiasm, using his singing to show just how glad he is to share a studio with these peers. It may go against the times, but everyone involved is both delighted and a delight. Hell, we could certainly use the escapism. – Chase McMullen
Lauren Auder – two caves in
Very few pop artists carry a heart as heavy while possessing as much complexity as Lauren Auder, especially at a mere 21 years old. She’s so young; in fact, it seems like yesterday she was uploading music onto Soundcloud as a 15-year-old. Six years later and now with three EPs to her name, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that, in some ways, Auder is a seasoned veteran.
Earlier this year, Auder tapped into her true self, channeling her pent-up emotions and experiences into her second EP since signing with True Panther, titled two caves in. A project that aims to capture “real teenage emotions,”two caves in is a harrowing coming of age record that sees Auder render her grand orchestral pop style with a more eccentric art-pop touch. With other subtle notes of trip-hop and melodic post-rock-isms a la Sigur Rós, two caves in is a sweeping display that also makes listeners, as she puts it, “feel held.”Two caves in is not the full-length many have anticipated for a couple of years now, but it is a comprehensive promise of the devastatingly emotional potential at the core of Auder’s art. – Kyle Kohner
Le Ren – Morning & Melancholia
If you think you know heartbreak, then you are firmly implored to reconsider your definition of the word after hearing Le Ren‘s Morning & Melancholia EP. Le Ren (aka Lauren Spear) makes music that is so crushingly beautiful and sad that it could make you start weeping as you walk to work with her music in your ears.
Her debut EP for the Secretly Canadian label is only four songs long that add up to just under 13 minutes of music, but it’s almost too much. The sheer weight Spear can shift with her voice and guitar feels monumental, but when you learn of her tragic backstory (her ex-boyfriend was killed in a car accident two years ago), every phrase of pining, every careful strum, and pause of consideration seems enough to break you down to your knees. On “Love Can’t Be The Only Reason to Stay” she plays and sings with the delicacy of a glass figurine in a music box, and on “The Day I Lose My Mind” she pines over the memory of her past love as sweet, countrified pedal steel guitars and piano decorate the edges of her words. Every moment is considered, natural, and so moving. No one likes heartbreak, but Le Ren’s is some that is definitely worth knowing. – Ray Finlayson
LILY / LUCY – Laugh Now Cry L8r
[Good Flavor Tapes]
Lily Konigsberg has (co-)released three great EPs this year, including Republicans For Bernie with Lily & Horn Horse – her project with Matt Norman – and solo offering It’s Just Like The Clouds. With a body of work tough to pin down, the prolific Konigsberg has a way of levelling everything to an infectious hook-y immediacy, even in her more experimental outfits such as Palberta.
It’s even tougher to fathom more fun crammed into 14 minutes than this impromptu bedroom pop project between Konigsberg and Cooper B Handy, who writes and produces under the moniker Lucy. The duo’s deliciously offbeat production smarts conspire to reel off eight succinct pop bangers that stop just before they wear out their welcome. The most wholesome part might be the sheer ingenuousness with which Lily and Lucy play off each other, like a postmodern adolescent Sonny & Cher. Especially the latter’s rosy-cheeked too-shy-to-ask-the-prom-date vocal delivery, which just oozes dorkiness in its purest concentration. It’s kind of hard to hate. – Jasper Willems
otta – songbook
Finnish-British musician otta, real name Anna Ottridge, achieves such an astounding sonic depth in just eight songs on second EP Songbook, you kind of wish to classify it as a full-length album. She straddles between buoyant Micachu & The Shapes-inspired pop (“never see”), to the malformed R&B of Tirzah (the gorgeous “sick inside”). otta is fearless in pursuing more discordant, grim moods, like on the industrial-tinged track “suihku”, which sounds like a vignette that Suuns, Factory Floor or Xiu Xiu could dream up. Like a lot of EPs, you sense a giddy trial-and-error type of disposition of an artist assessing how far she can stretch the dynamics of her songs. Which, by all evidence, is pretty expansive. After listening to this EP, a groundbreaking, boundary-pushing album feels simply like a matter of time. – Jasper Willems
Quarantinas – Quarantinas
Just in case the name didn’t clue you in, this is a COVID project. Recorded in the relatively early days of the pandemic growing widespread (this past March), Quarantinas is a collaboration between D. Tiffany, Vani-T & Roza Terenzi, recorded live in Reinekendorf, Germany. A sweet little blast of left-field house, just when we needed it most. Mysterious, futuristic, and fun at once, seek this one out for a much-needed session of introspection, and perhaps just a bit of dancing. As they said themselves: “3 laptops, 0 regrets.” – Chase McMullen
Rosehip Teahouse – Fine
Rosehip Teahouse released their first EP, Chillin in the Void, in August, an introduction to the band’s compelling creative force Faye Rogers that was recorded in a single night. It gave us a moreish taste of their emotive and honest storytelling, and just a few short months later they’ve returned with Fine (not officially released until this Wednesday, December 9), which sees Rosehip Teahouse fully locking in their five-person formation with a much bolder sonic approach that only adds colour to Rogers’ writing. Buoyed by a sweeping dreampop sound that glides on propulsive bass and shimmers with glittering brass ribbons, Fine is a captivating listen that will leave more fissures in your heart than you think you can handle – but they’re the ‘hurts so good’ kind.
With both a vocal dexterity and lyrical wit that is reminiscent of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, Rogers’ fearless plundering of their treasure trove of emotional trials has no problem getting under your skin. From the opening “I Meant What I Said”, where the smell of a certain shampoo sends them spiralling into memories of a challenging break up, to the closing “Summer Sleep”, where an all-too-vivid jealousy-fuelled dream leads to Rogers abandoning their cherished partner in bed, you won’t be able to take your ears off these wondrously rendered tales. Along the way we stop off for a moment of pure polychromatic heartache in “No Gloom” and a cross-section of a panic attack in “A Million Times”, but with the exceptional quintet ensure that the music always remains bright, creative and lively, so you won’t feel anything but pure elation by the end – simply put, you’ll feel peacefully, satisfyingly Fine. – Rob Hakimian
Rosie Carney – i dreamed i was the night
We could all use a bit more Rosie Carney in our lives. Thankfully, however grim the circumstances, 2020 proved to be a fruitful year for the Irish singer-songwriter, as she’s poised to deliver her (brilliant) quarantine reimagining of Radiohead’s The Bends. However, before that more than dominates the conversation surrounding her, it’d be wrong not to acknowledge i dreamed i was the night. Following up her ever-so-intimate Bare, she takes full advantage of the tighter nature of an EP, less hitting the listener with a wallop, and more allowing them in for brief moment in time. It’s as beautiful, and heartfelt, as anything she’s yet offered. – Chase McMullen
Skullcrusher – Skullcrusher
A set of four scarcely-there acoustic-and-atmospheric songs – so gentle as to render Helen Ballentine’s Skullcrusher moniker hilariously mis-representative (purposefully so, one would assume) – there are few sub-15 minute experiences in recent memory that captivate as completely as Skullcrusher. The majesty of it is the simplicity; these songs all revolving around Ballentine’s inner monologues during her ample time in solitude, her songwriting tracing a minimal-but-detailed portrait of her doubtful mind.
“Places/Plans” kicks off the set with floating grace, as she lies alone in her room, shyly probing for deeper connection with an admirer by asking a series of questions about herself like “do you think I’m going places? / does it matter if I’m a really good friend?”, before coyly admitting “I don’t have any plans for tomorrow.” The chattering pianos of “Trace” hide the heartbreak at play in this story about her fading relationship, while “Two Weeks in December” manages to encompass a whole flirtatious interaction, Ballentine catching the flu and heading back LA – all in under a minute. Skullcrusher concludes with its crown jewel, the quietly cathartic and deeply stirring “Day of Show”, which takes us into her bedroom on a sweltering day where she’s unable to get up the energy to go anywhere. The song rises to an emotional peak on one of the most unexpectedly poignant admissions heard all year: “I’ve been searching for an hour in my closet / Trying to figure out what to wear / For a day I’ll spend alone in my room.” It speaks volumes about her persona and mentality, and simultaneously chimes with a year in which we’ve all had to spend too long in our rooms, trying to act like everything is normal. For those instances where you want to socialise, but you just down have the physical or mental capacity, Skullcrusher is all the company you need. – Rob Hakimian
Soul Glo – Songs to Yeet At The Sun
Sometimes, you only need 12 minutes. Philadelphia experimental hardcore punk noise-rap screamo crew Soul Glo aren’t fooling around on their latest EP. If you could chuck this thing in a blender, pour it into a liquor bottle and stuff its neck with a flaming rag, you’d have a molotov cocktail with enough destructive power to reduce an entire police precinct to smouldering rubble. Whiplash-inducing hardcore knocks vocalist Pierce Jordan this way and that as he whirls around like the Tasmanian Devil, chewing up scenery and spitting in our faces about systemic racism, late stage American-brand capitalism, or his prescription anti-depressants. As if the four cuts of blistering screamo-tinged punk weren’t disorientingly intoxicating enough, in the middle of it all they have the Archangel-featuring noise-rap centrepiece of “2K”, which sounds like Death Grips’ younger and somehow more volatile cousin. This is urgent music for a moment in history that demands urgency. All they need is 12 minutes. Like I said, Soul Glo aren’t fooling around. – Andy Johnston
Spoort – Spoort
Leicestershire’s Spoort lured us in with their duo of debut singles; the bright but self-reflective “Self” with its brimming hooks and twangy guitar melody, and the more melancholy piano-lead “FLYY”. These two infectious tracks are accented with just the right amount of distorted affectation, and feel like every eight bars – repeating for maximum effect – could make for the perfect ringtone for our attention-deficient society.
The rest of their self-titled EP takes a bit of a turn from there, opting for more a traditional verse style, but the sounds explored are anything but. “Pixel Vest” finds the has the band showing off a bit more of a jazzy and cosmic style with more free crooning that reminds me of Mac Demarco’s later work. A bit unexpectedly, Londoner Ashbeck is brought onboard to close out “Drake” with rap vocals, and the trend continues with Jars Pierre guesting for a verse in the middle of “Distant Worlds”. All the while you’re trekking through unfamiliar territory the warm synthesizer comforts you, while an almost Johnny Marr-like guitar highlights the ascent.
There are a myriad of styles channeled on this record: Brit pop, rock, UK garage, jazz, hip-hop – the band has deep appreciation of so many different sounds, but somehow are able to blend them to create their own unique aura. The quartet is just getting started, but if they can continue the right balance of new sounds there will soon be far more Spoort superfans like the one in the “Self” video. – Evan Kaloudis
Tomberlin – Projections
Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s Projections EP is another success for the young artist, whose 2018 debut At Weddings proved a perfect fit for Saddle Creek’s classic emo-folk sound. Just like At Weddings, which veteran Owen Pallett produced and played on, Projections sounds great – itwas recorded and co-produced in Philadelphia by none other than Alex G.
What Tomberlin brings to the table is her voice, both vocally and lyrically. It’s intimate music from a lovely singer whose songs range from soothing (“Hours”), to devastating (“Floor”), to catchy (“Wasted”) all while weaving the details of her life into the lyrics. “Natural Light”, a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone cover recorded on an iPhone and mixed by Ryan Hemsworth, closes the set delicately. If you’re like me, you’ll be wanting more when it’s over. – Ethan Reis
Enjoy our playlist of favourite tracks from these EPs: