[Stone Music Entertainment]

Perfection as pop, pop as perfection. For all the grief outsiders give the scene, K-pop is often great for the very reasons its detractors attempt to tear it down: it is manufactured to a T. Sure, at times it can lead to forced or half-baked concepts and products, but when everything comes together? There isn’t really a pop force on Earth that can mess with that vibe.

In 2020, it was IZ*ONE who best bottled that tempestuous lightning, delivering a veritably flawless debut album. They offer absolute bliss, track by track, note by note. Whether it’s the bombastic energy of “Fiesta”, the sheer ecstasy of “Dreamlike”, or the outer frontier tempting “”Spaceship”, there isn’t a weak moment to be found on BLOOM*IZ. Given the expiration date put upon them from the get go, we know our time with IZ*ONE will be limited (they’re set to disband this coming April, save a possible, if unlikely, contract extension). With this album they clearly displayed they don’t intend to be forgotten. The most ecstatic, most danceable, and plain old best pop release from any country this year. It’s 40 minutes of bliss that spits in the very face of the shitshow that our collective experience has been in 2020. Soak it up. – Chase McMullen


Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today


Eerily prophetic, Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr’s most elaborate effort to date, oscillating between introspective melancholia and angry punk manifestos. The band’s characteristically dark post-punk has never felt more current and accurate than now, with Joe Casey’s lyrics creating a dystopic vision of a corporate run police-state that is visibly breaking apart. Workers, builders and pedestrians are reduced to worthless units that are dumped overboard ships, left in rusted houses, shot dead on sight, while billboards promise ultimate, everlasting elysium in the conformism of business casual. America is dying, strangled by cops, sold to warlords and social media giants, while narcissists stand by drunkenly reciting aphorisms.

Casey is the United States’ eschatological prophet, foreseeing the “Day Without End” that 2020 became. Maybe that’s why Ultimate Success Today had to end with him serenading his own existence on “Worm in Heaven”, ruminating on lost chances and a life buried at the feet of those drinking Nebukadnezars, his dying words: “I was here! I was – or: never never never was.” – John Wohlmacher


Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan


Windswept Adan is Ichiko Aoba’s seventh album since she released her debut in 2010, at the age of 20. She has grown some notoriety in Japan with each subsequent release – not to mention artistic leaps – and 2018’s qp became a favourite among blog-scourers the world over. While many might have assumed her earlier material would be hard to appreciate for non-Japanese speakers, on Windswept Adan she’s sidestepped that issue somewhat by adding a level of musical accompaniment previously unheard in her discography. With the addition of a string quartet, harp, flute, and more to some of the songs, Aoba’s music has never been so lush – appropriately so given the album’s title. But her voice remains the crux of it all, never crowded out despite its fragility, each breathed and sighed note as vital as ever.

See, the thing about Aoba’s work is you don’t necessarily need to understand the words, the symbiosis between her vocal melodies and that of her guitar is so captivating, and she conjures an atmosphere with ease. That may be the most enjoyable thing about Windswept Adan: the singular journey that is maintained from beginning to end. Whether it’s the orchestral-pop masterpiece “Porcelain”, or one of the ambient interludes like “Parfum d’étoiles”, or the magically skeletal folk of “Chi no Kaze”, it’s all one grand-yet-intimate spectacle, one that transports you to the titular location – to the birth of humanity itself. In this cinematic space, stories seem to whisper and sing from the very earth and wind, Aoba the conduit – you may not think you understand them, but this is music and storytelling so ancient and pure that it’s encoded in your DNA. All you have to do is listen. – Rob Hakimian


Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics

[Meat Machine]

This is not just another debut album, this is the Pain Olympics. Vancouver-based collective Crack Cloud came into one another’s orbits through addiction recovery programmes (some as support workers rather than patients), so you know there’s some past trauma being brought to the party by each of the seven (or more?) members. In Crack Cloud, they don’t have to hide that. The band’s nominal leader, Zack Choi, has deemed the project a “healing mechanism,” and you can hear that process in action across the eight spooky and cathartic voyages comprising Pain Olympics.

Crack Cloud make ‘art rock’ in the truest sense: the songs here are gaudy, haggard, weighty and, despite all this, they are downright beautiful. Both vocally and lyrically, Choi puts his visceral uncertainties at the forefront and the band back this up with tense post-punk guitars and soundscapes rife with chilling samples. His storytelling can be unsettling as on the tense noir punk of “Bastard Basket”, while others are more mournful reflections on addiction, best evidenced by “The Next Fix” and “Favour Your Fortune” – and then there’s “Ouster Stew”, a new-wave bop about being excommunicated.

Regardless of the darkness lurking, Crack Cloud as a collective face up to it, and through their shining and anthemic music they elevate these strung-out states to places of compassionate euphoria. By re-framing their former addictions and persistent worries in a heroic and purgative art rock sound, they’re simultaneously displaying that they’re moving past it and signalling to listeners that they can do so too. This may be the Pain Olympics, but it’s no competition – all Crack Cloud want to do is help you heal. – Rob Hakimian


Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach

[Saddle Creek]

While the title Welcome to Conceptual Beach might already put some people off, it is the perfect summation of what Young Jesus are communicating throughout their grandiloquent new record: you can reach a place of mental paradise if you just come to terms with your pitfalls, shortcoming, and demons. They want to show that if you embrace them with compassion and good grace, you can follow that instinct to a place of deeper happiness. Led by the remarkable vocal skill of band leader John Rossiter – sitting somewhere between Anohni and Jeff Buckley – Young Jesus present their own road map through personal trials, triumphs and revelations that congeals into something approaching the divine; a place where he can evoke images of Jesus, angels, phantoms, magicians and so many more more-or-less supernatural entities with vivid fluidity that composes his multi-faceted emotional journey.

While Young Jesus are nominally an alt-rock or post-emo band, Conceptual Beach ranges far beyond those boundaries. They are evidently influenced by art-rock greats like Talk Talk, and just as the British pioneers evoked the titular garden on their landmark Spirit of Eden, so Young Jesus paint their Conceptual Beach through voyages into improvisation, free jazz and gorgeously soaring post-rock.  In a year when we’ve all yearned for an opportunity to escape to a beach, Young Jesus’ Conceptual Beach might have been the closest many of us got – and it may have been more rewarding than a true vacation. By the time you reach the conclusion of the record, you should feel a warm sheath of thankfulness and peace descend upon you, and an urge to join Young Jesus in expressing the emphatic mantra that sits repeated at the centre of the record: “I wanna be around and live it.” – Rob Hakimian


Ulla – Tumbling Towards a Wall

[Experiences Ltd]

“Strictly for the hardcore chillers” – that’s how Resident Advisor described Ulla’s Big Room, a standout ambient record of 2019. Tumbling Towards a Wall continues the undulating ambient and abstracted grooves that carry Ulla’s music. Not looking for something undulating, abstract and chill? Best look elsewhere. What you can latch onto as a listener here are the unique sounds that identify the tracks on Tumbling Towards a Wall, such as the cricket sounds in “Something I Can’t Show”, or the heavenly piano of “I Think My Tears Have Become Good”.

As clichéd as it may be to say, Ulla is a mysterious artist, avoiding interviews and explanations of her instrumental music, preferring instead to post poems on Soundcloud and Instagram. Recently she posted a track on the former called “40th and Spruce”, which is an intersection in Philadelphia that I cross every day on my way to work. Here’s an excerpt from the poem on Soundcloud that probably explains Ulla’s music as well as anything I can write:

to observe the present is to see the layers of time peel away.
constantly moving farther from the past.
constantly moving into an unknown but imagined future.

Ethan Reis


Deftones – Ohms


Sometimes you just need a familiar voice to get you through a rough patch – and 2020 needed Deftones more than it would care to admit. From album opener “Genesis” there is a vigour to proceedings that is sustained admirably across the album as a whole. Hints of White Pony abound, a mere 20 years after the release of that masterpiece.

“Urantia” is possibly the heaviest riff that Stephen Carpenter has ever conjured up for the band, a razor-edged juggernaut before the track slips into ethereal territory for Chino Moreno to swagger all over. It’s in this dynamism between the Djent-loving guitarist and the eclectic romanticism of the singer that makes this band so vital on their ninth studio album. The tension at the core of the band has always been their absolute strength. Ohms is peak Deftones, and the band sound as though they can make this magic last a lifetime. – Todd Dedman

P.S. – the Earth is round, Stephen.


Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind


Growing up in one of the most conservative areas of the United States may have been the perfect driving force for Sean Bowie to evolve into Yves Tumor. Raking in all of the influences from Throbbing Gristle, TV on the Radio, and other major avant-garde artists, Yves’ fourth album finds them firmly in the spotlight, unveiling themselves from the shadows that concealed them on previous albums. This lean towards more prominent songwriting started with 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, but now that Yves isn’t afraid to take center stage their music has reached greater heights (and larger appeal).

The dance-rock opener “Gospel For a New Century” finds Yves commanding an army of funky jams with a booming chorus sure to rile up crowds when their Covid-cancelled tour resumes. The ticking timebomb instrumental opening of “Dream Palette” sets up a wonderful pairing of Yves and Julia Cumming as they beautifully represent the album cover with pleas of “Tell me is this fundamental love.” “Kerosene!” is forged from ingredients of blues rock à la Led Zeppelin, but doesn’t pitter patter like others in the genre; Yves instead goes for long and drawn out solos that weren’t even possible on their last album.

This newfound love for mixing the experimental nature of Safe with more ear-candy choruses may turn some diehards off, but those who are willing to accept this transition will find Heaven to be just as replenishing for the soul as their last record. It may lean closer to experimental pop, but part of the beauty with expression is just how far an artist can take their love of their art, and Yves Tumor’s goal here was to make an album that represented them right now. It does that perfectly. – Tim Sentz


Kate NV – Room For The Moon

[RVNG. Intl]

Katya Shilonosova aka Kate NV, the vocalist of the Russian art-punk band Glintshake (ГШ), released her third solo album this year Room for the Moon. In 2016, her first effort Binasu radiated with strong Japanese city pop influences, whereas the 2018’s для FOR combined ambient electronic soundscapes with percussive rhythms and melodies. On Room for the Moon, Shilonosova picked out all of the right aspects from her previous solo works as well as from Glintshake and concocted a very unique mixture between pop, ambient, and experimental genres.

Certainly among the most impressive records of this year, Kate NV’s third album has the potential of appealing to a large and very diverse audience: it packs in catchy vocal lines from pop, through jazzy improvised-sounding sax, and stretches all the way to broken rhythms of experimental/art rock. – Aleksandr Smirnov


Adrianne Lenker – songs and instrumentals


In just a few short years, indie-rock outfit Big Thief have catapulted themselves to widespread recognition thanks in large part to front person Adrianne Lenker, whose immaculate, tender songwriting carries with it a mystical, enchanting quality. On her latest solo album, songs, and the accompanying instrumentals, she showcases a keen understanding of her craft through a set of skeletal acoustic folk songs that are just as beautiful and engrossing as they are heartbreaking. 

Lenker recorded songs after relocating to a rural cabin in Massachusetts, and the bare recordings perfectly capture the collective loneliness that echoed throughout the world after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force. Finding her separated from a loved one, the songs ache with a sense of longing and loss that are stunningly rendered through some of the best poetry she’s ever put to paper. Early track “ingydar” is a lyrical knockout, with its evocative imagery and arresting melody, while “zombie girl” is a testament to the power of simplicity. Lenker also allows these tracks to breathe and fill with the soft sounds of the environment in which they were captured, reminding us there’s always life filling the empty spaces, even if we choose to ignore its presence. There’s a deep sadness on songs, yet by imbuing the recordings with such beauty and grace, Lenker guides us toward a destination that glimmers with hope and much-needed solace. – Grady Penna