Arca – “KLK” (feat. Rosalía)
This summer the Venezuela-born producer Arca dropped a record once again differing in sound from her earlier ones. She seemed to have taken a more mainstream direction with her style, which is most evident on the Rosalía team up “KLK”. However, the experimental electronic sound of the predecessors has not been entirely abandoned here; although “KLK”’s rhythm rests on a standard reggaeton beat, the industrial-sounding synths reveal that the old Arca is has not gone away.
“KLK” is highly ambitious in its production and it does manage to reach the heights it’s aiming for. The mix of the most cliché beat in contemporary music with a twist of glitchy instrumentation may not sound like a good cocktail, but Arca proves that notion wrong. Rosalía’s parts are treated like another instrument, which in Arca’s case means she goes to town with warping, distorting, stuttering, and modulating it. What seems in structure to be just another pop song, characteristic of music in 2020, turns out to be a witty take on exactly that, by means of Arca putting it through the processor of her unique music style. – Aleksandr Smirnov
Hazel English – “Combat”
I’m gonna be honest: you can play me any track from Hazel English‘s fantastic album Wake UP! and it will just hit a spot I didn’t know I needed soothing. There’s just something so comforting and nourishing about her music that leaves you feeling like the air is clear, the tension from your muscles is gone, and your focus is narrow and clear. “Combat” is a damn fine example, and it stands out for that Beach House-like warmth paired with English’s singing of nighttime fights with the person next to her in bed. The drums are pillow soft, guitar notes stretch out for miles into the distance, and English’s voice rises and falls with such gentle grace. “Combat” is the antidote for any malaise you might be facing, so drink up – it’s definitely good for you. – Ray Finlayson
Westside Gunn – “$500 Ounces” (feat. Freddie Gibbs & Roc Marciano)
For Westside Gunn, there’s never going to be enough credit for what he does. Sure, he’s been declaring himself among the best to ever do it for a while now, but is his sense of underappreciation really that off the money? The man released two of the best hip hop projects of the year, the just about properly acclaimed Pray for Paris and his cruelly underrated Shady Records one off, Who Made the Sunshine.
Hailing from the former, “$500 Ounces” displays Gunn at his absolute best as a rapper and curator. For all the credit Travis Scott gets as the ‘glue’ of his projects, Gunn has proven a truly deft deliverer of collaborations. Hell, the guy managed to give us the first Slick Rick verses in far too long, and he was backing Boldy James last year, before all the rest of us caught on. “$500 Ounces” wrangles none other than Freddie Gibbs and the man behind all this revivalism himself, Roc Marciano, for a truly memorable trio of verses. Needless to say, The Alchemist doesn’t come to play on production, either, offering up one of his very best vocal sample loops ever. It’s all pride, grim and ambitious. It’s what Gunn often claims to be, but very much really and truly: perfection. – Chase McMullen
Wilma Archer – “The Boon” (feat. Samuel T. Herring)
Producer and multi-instrumentalist Wilma Archer’s 2020 album, A Western Circular, has flown under the radar most of the year. This is unfortunate considering the record is a glorious example of Archer’s intricate, layered production and a cerebral blend of jazz, R&B, and electronic styles.
The arresting centerpiece of the album is “The Boon”, which recruits Future Islands front man Samuel T. Herring for a nuanced vocal performance that matches some of his best work with his own band. Though the track revolves around Herring’s vocals, washes of bright horns and understated keyboards build an enticing atmosphere so thick it could be cut with a knife. The ebbs and flows in the song’s structure match Herring’s performance perfectly, creating a rare occurrence where the guest artist and producer blend so seamlessly the result feels effortless in execution. – Grady Penna
Black Country, New Road – “Science Fair”
Isaac Wood knows what you’re thinking, and yes, he is well aware that his group Black Country, New Road sounds like Slint. And in case you didn’t know he knows, he’ll tell you barely one verse into “Science Fair”, the official lead single from the UK buzz band’s forthcoming debut, For the first time.
However, calling Black Country, New Road the “world’s second-best Slint tribute act” is selling themselves short; they’re also at least the world’s second-best Godspeed You! Black Emperor tribute act. Through a slow build of noisy guitar freakouts, sax skronks, and lilting strings, “Science Fair” elevates a lyric about a benignly embarrassing encounter with a girl into an
apocalyptic elegy, like “Don, Aman” via “Dead Flag Blues”, before kicking the whole thing down in a spectacular, crashing finale. It’s a promising sign of things to come from a young band whose reputation has already started to precede them. – Harrison Suits Baer
King Krule – “Alone, Omen 3”
King Krule’s lyrics function as a form of cypher. Man Alive!’s “Alone, Omen 3”, seems like a melancholic love letter on the outside. With relaxed trip hop grooves and atmospheric allusions to shoegaze leading up to the climactic finish of distorted, echoing voices repeating and shouting “You’re not alone,” it seems to comfort a lover. But looking past the music, there’s an ominous darkness: Marshall found himself obsessed over the horror franchise The Omen while recording, watching the three parts of the trilogy on consecutive nights, finishing with Omen III: The Final Conflict, where the fictionalized antichrist aspires to become President of the United States.
The (inherently British) references to a metropole’s dark side of town and the disregard for wealth (“Take a ticket, take the train to the end of the line / See where you can go, you spent it, it’s plastic, no do or die”) indicate struggles with class and identity. But seeing as Marshall became a father around the same time (as referenced in the music video), it could also be an address of his anxiety of failing as a parent. “So you got this, you’re the lead, feel your own / Battle through it, consume it, then let it go, girl” is as much advice for his daughter’s future as it is Marshall confiding in himself, rising above his inner doubt. – John Wohlmacher
Fleet Foxes – “Sunblind”
Richard Swift… David Berman… Judee Sill… John Prine. Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold name-checks these artists among others in the opening verse of “Sunblind” over a somber yet climactic piano melody. More musicians are named as the song continues, each prematurely deceased due to circumstances including addiction, suicide, and, yes, Covid-19. Pecknold turns to their albums for inspiration (“With Either/Or and The Hex for my bookends”) and worries that his creations won’t do them justice (“If this is flat, brother, I apologize”). Pecknold is helping ensure their legacies live on; at a time when thousands are dying every day, Pecknold’s approach is a template many could follow.
“Sunblind” isn’t one of Fleet Foxes’ most complex songs; like on most of Shore, the song follows a traditional pop song structure. Yet the song highlights what the band does best; beautiful arrangements that create landscapes with Pecknold’s graceful yet euphoric vocals echoing from above. “Sunblind” joins the ranks of exceptional tributes and reminds music lovers that, despite the tragedy, these beloved musicians don’t have to die in vain. Nobody does. – Carlo Thomas
Adrianne Lenker – “anything”
On one level, “anything” is a song about the tiny details: the occasional shimmer of finger sliding across the fretboard, the way Adrianne Lenker softly repeats the word “shotgun”, the sonic noise surrounding the song’s beginning, and the famous joyous “woo” once she finishes singing at the end. These features only bring additional humanity to a song so heartbreaking that even when I read the lyrics now, my eyes still get misty.
Lenker captures intimacy with such exquisite sadness, and we as listeners get this tender, vulnerable moment that captures the end of Lenker’s relationship. She pines in the choruses (“I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving / Lay in your lap when I’m crying”) but in the verses friendly, sunny moments turn sour, from a fight at the grocery store to the difficult conversion that ends the relationship (“You held me the whole way through / When I couldn’t say the words like you / I was scared Indigo but I wanted to”); in the chorus she doesn’t “want to talk about anything,” but ironically she spends the rest of the song talking about other things. When you know you have to have that conversation, anything else makes for better talking. Truly something this heartbreaking rarely sounds this invitingly divine and beautiful. – Ray Finlayson
Told Slant – “From The Roofbeams”
[Double Double Whammy]
Indian author Jaggi Vasudev once said of devotion that it “is a place where you do not exist; life just flows through you as a certain sweetness and beauty.” For Felix Walworth, aka Told Slant, devotion is a sacred place. At times, it’s treacherous, and indeed, a place where they’ve placed themselves as an afterthought. On the penultimate track to Told Slant’s new record, Point The Flashlight and Walk, Walworth circles back to the album’s underlying question of “How much can you lose and still be you?” Though this question is never truly answered, listeners, are encouraged to take the risk and say “yes” to love—to devote yourself—even if heartbreak looms heavily with inevitability.
As the track winds to a close with Walworth singing in a beautifully unpolished tremble, “I’ll stay with you, stay with, even when it’s scary to,” listeners are positioned at a crossroads where trepidation meets hopefulness. This intersection is embellished with bolder and more cathartic instrumentals, like radiant horn sections and a stunning marriage between harp, organ, and guitar. But, as is the case with the rest of the record, “From The Roofbeams” threatens to bring listeners to tears, as it is touched by an intensely vulnerable performance from Walworth, where they lay it all on the line with their voice alone. Though the track runs a similar emotional course to the rest of Point The Flashlight and Walk, there’s an inexplicable spirit moving through this specific song that’ll have listeners reaching for the tissues. – Kyle Kohner
Jockstrap – “The City”
Jockstrap are crafting ingenious and innovative music, of that there is no doubt. This year’s EP, Wicked City, was a dizzyingly vibrant record, the sound of Taylor Skye and Georgia Ellery matching the naive recklessness of youth with searing sonic talent. Yet for over two minutes, the most impressive track from that collection, “The City”, lulls the listener into a false sense of security: here is a standard melancholic ballad, just Skye’s tender piano and Ellery’s soaring and moving voice, something that the Top 40 would embrace.
The switch then hits – and how. “I wish I’d known / I was alone / In city life,” Ellery ponders, before it fades into unnerving glitchiness and absurd production. It replaces all smoothness as Ellery unleashes a strange spoken word monologue: “In the light the monster was frying four eggs in a huge black frying pan” and “I sat on the beaver’s face, and he sat on the beaver’s face” are choice examples of the surreal lyricism contained in the second half. “The City” is, really, showing that “better safe than sorry” is a platitude for another generation. Jockstrap will never be the band that you want them to be, and that’s a good thing. – Conor Lochrie