Every year there are more and more releases vying for your attention – and that’s not just in music. What’s more, the quality is pretty much great all across the board – even if one person doesn’t like it, it’s likely to be someone else’s personal pick. One mediocre review, or a lack of reviews, can mean a record can somehow miss the ears of the very person who might appreciate it the most.
This feature is our attempt to highlight some of those that we feel haven’t been heard enough. Our team has picked 30 releases from the first half of the year that we want to throw into the spotlight they deserve, and we hope that you’ll discover one or two (or more) to add to your library.
Having witnessed BAMBARA live two years ago as the opening act to IDLES, I vividly remember being absolutely enthralled by the band’s noir leanings and brooding atmosphere. Naturally, I indulged in the Brooklyn-based post-punk outfit’s discography, coming away even more astonished by their intoxicating gothic country twist. Following up their beguiling 2018 record Shadow On Everything with the equally shadowy Stray, it’s safe to say that the band’s latest album is leaps and bounds above any expectations I had.
Slithering through slinky atmospheres with a swagger that is intimidating-yet-fragile, Reid Bateh unravels poetry with a ripping drawl. “She kicked me in the teeth for my crying,” he laments on “Stay Cruel”; “Hooked me on a leash and then she tied it / Tightly to a tree where her little dogs piss.” A kindred, bleak spirit to both Michael Gira and Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, it is clear Bateh’s snarling voice is the backbone of this album and BAMBARA’s overall, unique sound. So, if you like post-punk painted in amorphous hues, a few shades darker, packed with a rowdy blues-punk punch, don’t let this record slip through the cracks.
Have you got the stomach for 30 minutes of unbridled rage? Then may I suggest you take a chance on Couch Slut? If any year will have prepared you for the experience of listening to New York’s most uncompromisingly abrasive noise-rock act, it’s 20-fucking-20.
Couch Slut vocalist Megan Osztrosits has firmly staked her place in the pantheon of livewire noise-rock singers, right next to The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow. Over the feedback squall and neanderthalic yet irresistibly groove-driven pounding of her bandmates, Megan O unleashes her throat-shredding screeds of unimaginable debauchery, degradation and debasement. In Couch Slut’s world, sex is violence – as the old Jane’s Addiction song goes – and violence is sex.
Take A Chance On Rock ‘n’ Roll is a bit of a blunt instrument compared to the relative expansiveness of the band’s hitherto high watermark Contempt, but it’s merely a slight adjustment of modus operandi. It’s unrelenting, culminating in the unspeakable assault described in the spoken-word Slint-ian nightmare of closer, “Someplace Cheap”. Make no mistake: this is not an easy listen. Not at all. This is the kind of noise-rock that scares off metalheads. It’s a raw nerve. It’s the white hot fury of a broken heart and/or psyche. And it’s the perfect soundtrack to 2020.
You might think, given that their debut EP is called Zero Dollar Bill and the lead single was “LeBron James”, that Do Nothing are an American band, but they are actually a bunch of school friends from Nottingham, England. They just clearly have an affinity for Americana – or using it to frame their sardonic worldview. Do Nothing make post-punk pretty much in the classic mould of grinding guitars, buoyant bass and propulsive drumming, but there’s a dextrousness and character that’s all their own. In singer and lyricist Chris Bailey they have a charismatic presence who can swing from talk-singing to cathartic warble and back in a single line, while mashing politics, pop culture and quotidian observations into a unique modern treatise. Behind him, the rest of the quartet back him to the nines with just as much ingenuity, whether it’s frantic nihilism as on “Comedy Gold” or bouncy sarcasm on “LeBron James”. The five tracks on Zero Dollar Bill are all hits, and introduce a fascinating new band to this constantly evolving genre.
Grizzly Bear are an extremely talented band – so much so that their secret weapon, drummer Chris Bear, often goes overlooked when people sing their praises. Now stepping out on his own as Fools, the percussionist is proving that he has more arrows in his quiver. Sure, there’s still plenty of his deft and unusual drumming, but it’s in service of creating a textured and engrossing world. Fools’ Harp Vol. 1 is an instrumental record that uses percolating electronic arpeggios, shimmering synths, marimba and so many more unusual sounds to create a bright and flourishing planet. Everywhere you turn your ears on this alien world there’s some kind of undiscovered flora blossoming, waiting for you to lean in and appreciate its unique scent, colour – and song.
There’s a heartbreaking background hiding in the descriptions on David Garland’s Bandcamp releases from Vulneraries Vol. 1 to Vol. 3. The first introduces Garlands as a husband (David Garland) and son (Kenji Garland) performing live music for Anne Garland, their wife and mother, after her terminal cancer diagnosis (and explains her wish to send proceeds to support National Nurses United and their fight for Medicare for All).
Vol. 3 Mortality was recorded less than a year later, days after she died. While these circumstances could never be removed from this collection (nor should they be), the music doesn’t require you to share in such an intense headspace. Compositionally closest to ambient, David plays a modified guitar (created by Kenji) to create a buzzing, living rumble that evokes a strong earthy, forest-like atmosphere – a sound he’s been exploring since his four-hour 2018 magnum opus, Verdancy. Kenji live-processes his father’s playing through modular synthesizers, which color and complement the sound while preserving its acoustic natural tone. Vol. 3 Mortality, and the entire Vulneraries project, has gifted us with some beautiful music and a significant document in the role of musical performance in processing loss.
If Georgia Ruth‘s 2016 album Fossil Scale was her icy, wintery album, then her 2020 offering Mai is her welcoming in the lighter seasons. Indeed, the album is “a meditation on finding hope and renewal in the seasons, in a world where the certainty of spring feels increasingly fragile.” This collection of 11 tracks from the Welsh singer, songwriter, and harpist was written in stolen moments, and this shows in the explorative, ambling feel of the tracks. The awakening opening number “Gardd” feels like stretching after a long hibernation, while the dawdling piano-led instrumental “Brychni” captures what sounds like a butterfly fluttering in a garden on a warm spring morning. Elsewhere Ruth gives her herself time to wander; there’s no hurry to tracks like “Madryn”, “Mai”, or the sweetly blossoming “Cosmos”. The language barrier might not immediately draw in as many listeners as with her previous work (songs are sung in both English and Welsh here), but Mai is a welcome languid and sweet album to greet the new seasons.
Just look at that album cover: that blocky orange font and the clashing colours. Clearly, this is a throwback – and boy do Higher Power have the music to match. This is full of chunky 90s riffs and detuned atonality; it’s bubbling over with raw scuzz and throaty cut-glass growls. But to simply compare Higher Power to the sounds they follow in the wake of does them a disservice: 27 Miles Underwater is very much their own star vehicle, and builds on the more melodic leanings of frontman Jimmy Wizard’s twisting tones. They fuse these elements explosively in tracks like “Rewire (101)” or the self-analytical “Low Season”, which are guaranteed to bring them a bigger range of fans. Their signing to Roadrunner is only a signal of the success they surely have to come – but don’t let the metal pedigree of the label throw you off, this Leeds band have tons of bouncy punk energy, campy riffs, and even an unplugged moment in the form of “In The Meantime”. While they might lack the depth of some of their more established peers, they are an addictively fun band to listen to – and sometimes that’s more than enough.
Honey Harper was born in Georgia, USA, but now lives in London, England, which goes some way to explaining why his debut album is country music that utilises plenty of the genre’s classic sonic touchstones, but is simultaneously a departure from those tropes. Harper’s voice is sugarcoated and moving, and he’s perfectly able to capture the personal angst of his country forebears, but he wants to go deeper: into dreams, into the sub-conscious, to fully examine his hopes and fears. To help him on this quest, the production ensures that nothing here feels physical: the pedal steel resounds out into infinity, the drumming is featherlight, the guitar sparkles like sun on water, and there are many subtle undercurrents that keep the songs perennially floating. With all these elements perfectly in place, Starmaker is an easy and blissful listen that’ll ease you into a sphere of cosmic and captivating spiritualism.
In case you didn’t get the memo: there’s a screamo revival going on. Emo’s younger, scarier and most misunderstood cousin has seen a resurgence in the past few years through bands such as Portrayal of Guilt, Closer, Birds in Row, Nuvolascura, Frail Body and/or Hands, and SeeYouSpaceCowboy (who even have a song called “Stop Calling Us Screamo”). Taking the mantle from the likes of pg.99 and Majority Rule, these bands smash together myriad sub-genres of metal, add a generous dose of hardcore, and top it all off with pained, coruscating screams.
The Fredericksburg, VA band Infant Island are quickly establishing themselves as leaders of the pack. This year they released two records within a month of each other; an EP (Sepulcher) and a full-length (Beneath), which both built on the already-huge promise of their self-titled debut. Across these two releases, Infant Island run the gamut from ferocious black metal, to sludgy doom, to whiplash-inducing hardcore, to experimental ambient noise, all without losing the emotional throughline that pulls you in.
Both Sepulcher and Beneath are paradoxically small-scale epics, fitting more ideas into 20-odd minutes than most bands manage in 90. They’ve mastered the dynamic range of screamo, hopping back and forth from vicious brutality to transcendent beauty to off-putting ugliness. Listening to Infant Islandfeels like stepping into the ring with a UFC fighter who takes breaks from delivering uppercuts to your face to caress your cheeks and plant soft kisses on your forehead. You will come out of it bloody, beaten and exhausted, but also feeling curiously soothed and understood.
Jackie Lynn is the alter-ego of Haley Fohr, the prolific experimentalist with a hauntingly deep voice best known for her avant-folk project Circuit des Yeux. When we first encountered Jackie Lynn in 2016, she was a mysterious outlaw on the run; Jackie Lynn was a rollicking 21-minute whirlwind filled with tales of crime, lust, and vengeance, that occupied the sonic space between country and disco (Fohr described the album as “a fried cocaine-country record that sounded like Suicide were the backing band”).
Jacqueline stays true to that initial vision, but shows a softer, more reflective side to our strange heroine, who has started a new chapter as a lone truck driver perpetually on the road. The punchy synths and glittery alt-country hooks are all still there, but along with them are cinematic and psychedelic textures that occasionally take the project into a different headspace. One of these occasions is stand-out track “Dream St.”, an evocative depiction of travel coated in a hypnotic haze of strings and soft percussion. Jacqueline is an altogether excellent affair, striking the perfect balance between glitzy and fantastical, while remaining above all a whole lot of fun.