One of the most slept on projects from 2020 is from the stylistically diverse singer/rapper (Liv).e. Her powers combined make her debut album Couldn’t Wait to Tell You a riveting listen from start to finish. She bounces back and forth under lo-fi production, with crackles and wisps laying the foundation for cacophonous vocals that feel run through a busted speaker. She spends time contemplating, like on “Stories with Aunt Liv”, and employs a poetry slam style over subtle hand drums. But later on she flips the switch, offering up a psychedelic slice of soul on “You’re Wasted Lets Go Home”.
It’s as if Erykah Badu recorded an album with Earl Sweatshirt – both of whom she can count as fans of her work. And at less than 50 minutes, Couldn’t Wait to Tell You utilizes its 20 tracks to boast, but not in your face: “Lessons From My Mistakes…but I Lost Your Number” pokes fun at abrupt stops by circling back around for a smooth outro. (Liv).e isn’t SZA style rap/R&B, what she’s accomplished here creates a genre all to herself. – Tim Sentz
Margaret Chavez – Into An Atmosphere
[State Fair/We Know Better]
Named after his mother, Margaret Chavez is the project of Marcus William Striplin, and on his album Into An Atmosphere he is like a kid in a costume shop, trying on all the items he can find and mixing hats and capes and onesies. This mish-mash of styles comes across on the album’s first three tracks, as Striplin tries out a few outfits and sounding a little cumbersome and glued together at points. Textures shift unevenly, sonic details stick out awkwardly, and unfortunately a few ideas get lost in the mix.
However, come the mid-album interlude “The Cheap River & The Broken Mirror”, Into An Atmosphere suddenly clicks into place, expanding outwards with breadth and scope not unlike Sufjan’s grandest folkier moments. “H O R A” spreads out distorted fuzz with anthemic drums and guitars across eight minutes, as Striplin announces reassuringly, “you’ve got time!” On “I Virgo” he rides an alt-country groove full of interesting scenery over six and half minutes. Even the aforementioned interlude is a dense, textured beast of stuttering synths and wiry guitar noise, showcasing an ability to create instrumental cuts that are as enrapturing as those with vocals. Come closing track “Do Tell”, Striplin (joined by Bonnie Whitmore on soothing guest vocals) lounges into Hawaiian surf rock vibes as waves of noise and thunder crash in and out of focus. It’s a settling moment, but it leaves you ready for more. Until that next album arrives, riding through the expanses of Into An Atmosphere will happily suffice. – Ray Finlayson
Matmos – The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form
How do you describe three hours of music made from contributions from 99 different artists in a few hundred words? First thing to mention: this is Matmos, so if you’ve listened to anything from the experimental duo before, then you’ll know you’re in for a wild adventure. This communal 178-minute opus is meant to be consumed in one sitting, and doing so is a mammoth undertaking – especially in an age of swiping right and 15 second Tik Tok videos. Along the way you’ll get glitchy EDM breakdowns, dub rhythms, found sound, robotic voices, jazzy bursts of noise, and the most surprising appearance of a familiar streaming noise you’ll ever hear (to really, truly name but a few).
Everything contributed had to be 99 beats per minute, but still the duo stitch it all together expertly and keep the landscapes interesting along the journey. Sure, it can feel like a slog to even just take in one of the discs all in one sitting, but that’s the chaotic energy Matmos are about. They branch out, try crazy and cumbersome ideas that might not necessarily provide the ‘best’ results (in terms of easily consumable music at least), but the journey is kind of unforgettable. The Consuming Flame is such a journey, so strap in and take it all in as the hours roll by. – Ray Finlayson
Meaningful Stone – A Call From My Dream
Moments on the debut album from 김뜻돌 (which translates roughly as Meaningful Stone) don’t feel quite mastered, with some tracks serenely flowing through your headphones, while others all but demand a cranking up of the volume. Indeed, it may be a bit ramshackle, but, truthfully, that’s part of A Call from My Dream‘s charm. It’s the sound of a more-than-promising new voice in Korean DIY music finding herself, and it’s beyond exciting to imagine where she’ll go next, as what she’s crafted here is already essential bedroom brilliance. – Chase McMullen
mei ehara — Ampersands
Year-end lists are understandably filled with the artistically ambitious and the emotionally raw, but that’s never anyone’s full musical diet. Sometimes our favorite albums of the year are the cozy and the laid-back, the albums that transport us to worlds of sunsets and drying off on pool chairs. We all know the type!
Here’s a great example from the Japanese indie world, mei ehara’s second album Ampersands. One could point out some musical nods to 1970s city pop, but really, this album shares just as much in the jazzy, funky, soft rock vein that’s been spreading good vibes internationally for some time now. Something that makes Ampersands special is Ehara’s singing voice, always kept front and clear in the mix, a perfectly jazzy feathery touch to complement her band’s tight arrangements—but a voice that can still wow over a spare solo guitar on the closing track. A chill gem for a year that can use some. – Josh Sand
Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams
There is a universe where Neil Cicierega used his ear for mixing together disparate songs for good and not evil. This is not that universe. Cicierega could have dominated clubs as a Girl Talk successor, but instead, he’s here to make you alternately snort like an idiot, shake your head in bewilderment, or dedicate your life to stopping him from future crimes against humanity. Depending on your affinity for the dregs of old pop culture ephemera (and immaturity levels), Mouth Dream, the fourth in Cicierega’s Mouth series, is goddamn funny. There’s no recreating the first listen to a Mouth album, so I’ll be light on spoilers, but I’ll just say: you’ll be singing “Chili’s baby back ribs” to yourself for a week for reasons you won’t want to explain, Johnny Cash gets sentence-mixed with the expertise of a 2010 YouTube Poop, and you don’t even want to know what the title of “Closerflies” is referring to. There’s not really a wide field of comedy albums to compete with, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping the visceral rollercoaster of putting this on. – Josh Sand
London-based noise project No Home, aka Charlie Valentine, casts brooding dark synth spells that dismember the basics of punk music, morphing it into something almost unfathomable. Their debut record Fucking Hell is quintessential bedroom punk, stripped to its harrowing core. Yet, it is reinvented and reinvigorated because of a very real possible future shrouded in doubt and fire—if it isn’t already. A concept album about “[imagining] you’re the devil who spent thousands of years in hell…trying to redeem yourself,” Valentine offers something intriguing based on premise alone.
But as beguiling of a concept this record may possess, Valentine’s words yearn for even more attention. With lines like “You masturbate to my misery,” Valentine holds listeners within their grasp, clenching and wringing out all sense of comfort from their system, and yet, this isn’t even the most impressive aspect of Fucking Hell, that honor belongs to Valentine’s vocal performances. Constantly swarmed by staticky lo-fi dissonance and undulating post-industrial blasts of percussion, Valentine’s voice is a calming constant, as the singer placates these chaotic sounds within beautiful hymns. A deceptively enchanting listen, there’s no escaping the hellish realm that is the fiery Fucking Hell. – Kyle Kohner
Noveller – Arrow
[Ba Da Bing!]
The actual apocalypse didn’t happen in 2020, but I am pretty sure I have heard it. Noveller‘s 2020 album Arrow sounds like a tour through the hellfire, of eternal dark skies bellowing overhead, and of the horsemen arriving. Needless to say Arrow is a dark, heavy, and dense listen. It’s no surprise to learn that Noveller (aka Sarah Lipstate) is a filmmaker as well as a musician; her work is cinematic, and Arrow is a deep, gloomy, and engrossing blockbuster.
“Rune” draws in the thunderclouds, evoking Brad Fiedel’s Terminator soundtrack and John Carpenter’s horror oeuvre. Eight minute-plus “Zeaxanthin” jitters about before forming into new shapes while “Pre-fabled” paints a starry, barren landscape. It’s only on “Pattern Recognition” do you hear the first instance of recognizable sounds in the form of distinct guitar notes, but even then the whole track is a seamless instrumental orchestration of mood and texture as what sounds like electricity clatters through copper wire. Arrow is an enveloping listen, and one that feels immense and huge with good headphones. There are moments of light sprinkled throughout (the refracting melodies on “Canyons”, the streaks of heavenly, bright light that break through the blackness on closer “Remainder”), but for the most part let this dark synth journey enfold you. Turn the lights off, turn the music on, and welcome the apocalypse. Ray Finlayson
Odunsi (The Engine) – EVERYTHING YOU HEARD IS TRUE
[Kimani Moore Entertainment Ltd]
While the likes of WizKid and Burna Boy may still be making the most noise out of Nigeria, Lagos native Odunsi (The Engine) burst onto the scene in 2020 in a major way. Even more R&B leaning than his peers, Odunsi’s second project, EVERYTHING YOU HEARD IS TRUE, boasts some of the very best, most forward-thinking production from any nation this year, the sort of beats that just might make Travis Scott take Utopia back to the drawing board. As suited for lonely walks as it is club-adjacent, much like its beautiful, mysterious cover art, this is music genuinely perfect for late nights. – Chase McMullen
Pretty Sneaky – Pretty Sneaky
Who is this man/woman/band Pretty Sneaky? Nobody really knows, but who really cares? Someone could tell me this is a transmission from another civilization coming out of a galaxy far, far away and I’d believe it 100%. Maybe they’re trying to communicate with us in their advanced language and we’re just too primitive to understand. I’m about as primitive as they get, and I’m totally fine with this. I may not understand this strange language, but I certainly can feel it. I feel it with every glitchy bloop and bleep and that dub rhythm just lulls me into a sedated form of ecstasy that unties all the knots and stress inside my mind. If you’re strapped for cash because of Covid, consider ditching the therapist and just letting our alien overlord(s) cryptically known as Pretty Sneaky use their psychic surgery to cure you of all your ills and angst.
Once in a while in life you just have to trust the opinion of some old intrepid traveller and try something new. Be bold and brave and ready yourself for proof of life on other planets or other dimensions. I expect that some of you college kids know exactly what I’m talking about, and you’re going to track this one down, hit the play button and perform whatever ritual you usually do to enter alternate realms of the imagination. Give this one a shot and be sure to tell me how it went afterward. You will not be disappointed.- Scott Zanassi
Riki – Riki
One of the most fun hidden gems of the year so far, the self-titled debut of Niff Nawor, aka Riki, is a mysterious, albeit bright and melodic darkwave turn. Formerly of death rock outfit Crimson Scarlett, Riki champions resilience, with love shining through industrial and darkwave guises. I say ‘guise’, because the album’s production is rarely cold and mechanical, contrary to what is customary with most bands of this sound. Instead, Riki’s debut bursts at the seams with warmth and organic textures, which is a breath of fresh air within the realm of dark synth music. These songs pulse with an affectionate heart; they’ll get you dancing, but above all, they will impress you with Riki’s knack for constructing a damn good pop song. Considering how far she’s traversed from the hellish depths of deathrock and anarch-punk, Riki unflinchingly proves her medal as a versatile visionary, making her a name to watch down the line. – Kyle Kohner
Sewerslvt – Draining Love Story
There’s been few noteworthy ‘Internet-genre’-releases the last year – odd, considering we’ve seen a pandemic diminish opportunities for working musicians to perform, tour or even jam. Usually, the weirdos residing on Bandcamp and Soundcloud blossom when locked up, so maybe the dire state of things paralyzed a culture defined by their psychedelic reconfiguration of genre-specific media.
So, it’s a little reassuring to see Sewerslvt’s newest record gain quite a bit of traction, especially as it succeeds so marvellously at transcending genre barriers. Uniting the aesthetics of drum’n’bass, vaporwave and dubstep, Draining Love Story alternately feels like a 90s techno-club take on Burial’s Untrue and, with its dreamy synthscapes, an extreme sister to Slowdive’s 5EP. It’s a beautiful, optimistic album of deeply sad psychedelic electronica that plays with dichotomies to deal with depression. In a winter that’s going to be defined by lockdown and quarantine for most of us, it will be the perfect soundtrack to observe the world through high-rise windows. – John Wohlmacher