“They want my head, pigs shoot, we shoot / Run pig run, black liberty / They on my back, they want my head.” One could read those lines and make the logical conclusion that they were penned within the past month, but they were not. Those are the foreshadowing words of rapper Ronee Sage, aka Pink Siifu off the track “Run, Pigs, Run”, from his latest record, Negro. Released back in April, it’d be restrictive and a disservice to the album and its creator to suggest its source material is simply “prescient” to the current socio-political climate. Instead, Negro captures decades of pain, trauma, and righteous anger of the Black experience through a revolutionary, systematic lens that transcends what is happening now.
As brutally honest and startlingly prophetic Sage’s words genuinely are, his disfiguring musical presentation proves to be even more visceral as one journeys through the necessary chaos at hand. With touches of avant-garde jazz, lo-fi plunderphonics, and blood-shedding strikes of hardcore and noise rock existing through discord, Negro is an inaccessible, guttural musical experience that’s hard to take in, but is better for it. An upheaval of White Supremacy is amidst us, and Pink Siifu’s latest record is the unheralded soundtrack that captures it all.
Serengeti has been churning out solid rap for over a decade, with very little fanfare. Dude’s a beast in all actuality, and with Ajai he’s brought in production wunderkind Kenny Segal, who is a beast in his own right. He’s made a signature of putting thick layers of jazzy Afro-beat production to modern classics – something that works again here and elevates Ajai. The two have assembled possibly Serengeti’s best record to date, and whatever it lacks in catchiness, it more than makes up for it with clever and intuitive rhymes that are thought-provoking and fresh. This is lounge rap with quality production that bangs and burns with nostalgia.
Within the first few songs of I Was Born Swimming, the debut album from Ella O’Connor Williams aka Squirrel Flower, you will be reminded of the grace of Mitski, the electricity of Neil Young, and the simmering passion of Torres. But, Squirrel Flower is her own beast: delicate yet mighty, poetic yet blunt. Her rowdier songs reflect both her searing mental turmoil and the bustle of her metropolitan home of Los Angeles. Then, on quieter cuts she takes us out into the countryside, where her words buzz and glow like fireflies to be examined and treasured. There are multitudes to be discovered and to submerge yourself in on I Was Born Swimming – both musical and lyrical – which will keep you plugged-in for every repeat listen.
Stay Inside’s Viewing is essential listening. The Brooklyn-based band’s full-length debut on classic punk/emo label No Sleep is a truncated deep-dive into the past 20 years of the genre while still seeming vital to right now. There’s cathartic screamo, poignant spoken-word, feedback heavy post-hardcore, melodic instrumentals, and a sense of introverted group-therapy that permeates the lyrics of these sing-along-inducing tracks. Lyrics that crave to be learned and poured over are an integral part of this scene and lines like, “My conscience has told me I shouldn’t sleep without four alarms,” show there’s no dearth of them here.
No emo band in recent memory has been able to coddle you with familiarity while seeming quite so alarming and interesting.
Stove God Cook$ & Roc Marciano – Reasonable Drought
While he may never have quite reached mainstream fame (more from lack of interest than anything else), Roc Marciano’s influence on hip hop in recent years can’t be overstated. Who would have thought that a gritty brand of New York street-rap revivalism would have become a defining tastemaker presence in a genre largely dominated by the likes of Lil Baby and Lil Pump? But, from Griselda to Mach-Hommy and far more, Marciano’s looming shadow is clearly visible.
Alas, his own music has grown to be somewhat marred by persistent homophobia, so his ceding the spotlight to a younger voice on Reasonable Drought is a true blessing. We’re still getting that stark yet vibrant Marciano production, just with Stove God Cook$’ pliable flow and snarky perspective. He opens the album with a Drake interpolation, and the way he draws his words out (“tell me someeeeethin’!”) has an immediate appeal. I could go on and on, but I’ll keep it simple: you’ll be hard pressed to find hip hop in 2020 this side of Alchemist and Westside Gunn that sticks to its guns this successfully. The beats hit with crunching urgency, and Cook$ recognizes the opportunity for exactly what it is. He makes the most of every second on an economical, triumphant statement.
Indian-American musician Sunny Jain has spent the last decade showing off his diverse percussion abilities in his other projects Red Baraat and Junoon, but this year he released his first solo album in a decade, Wild Wild East. He returned to working under his own name to create his most personal album yet, focusing on his parents emigration from India to New York City after their home country’s division in the middle of the 20th century. Across Wild Wild East, Jain invites a host of talented collaborators to join him in songs that envision that feeling of pining for your homeland, re-create some of his family’s favourite Bollywood hits, and even invoke his father Shri’s spirit by playing his bulbul tarang – an instrument also known as the ‘Indian banjo’. Sunny Jain put no limits on the sonic realms he and his collaborators could approach, and as such Wild Wild East has jazz inflections, shoegaze sweeps, Middle Eastern tinges, and even a hip-hop track, which are all in service of making this stunning document of the life of an immigrant to America.
After the fallout with her label 4AD, Torres (aka Mackenzie Scott) went through some existential doubts about her music. Happily, she managed to get a new label deal with Merge, and ended up writing and self-producing her most intimate album to date. Silver Tongue might have her on less vicious form than her previous albums, but it presents a personal side to the adversarial pesona seen before. “I don’t want you going home anymore / I want you coming home,” might be one of the most unassuming lines about love, worry, and desire; Scott’s details about her relationship with girlfriend Jenna Gribbon can be equal parts devastating and intimate, touching on instances of shame, jealousy, and devotion.
Scott paints with similar colours as we have come to know her for, but her wash of synths, drums, and guitars shift the focus song to song, be it to the propulsive deep drums of “Dressing America” or the snarling guitars of “Good Grief”. Silver Tongue might not take the acclaim of Scott’s finest work, but it’s no less essential for helping us reach a fully-informed view of her as a person. There’s still instances of anger and frustration, but moments of sweet joy too; Silver Tongue gives us more shades to Scott so that our image of her becomes more true to life with each album – and with each spin of each album too.
Dave Benton, the mind behind Trace Mountains (and formerly LVL UP), is not afraid to wear his inspirations proudly on his sleeve. His latest album, Lost in the Country, pays homage to indie-rock giants such as The War on Drugs with its soaring, guitar-centric songs. Yet however much Benton displays his reverence for his musical forebears, he never loses sight of himself in the process. Lost in the Country is brought to life by Benton’s distinctive and quirky voice, and his singing is not unlike fellow indie singer-songwriter Andy Shauf in that it beckons the listener with a peculiar yet enduring quality. This, combined with tight, robust songwriting and rich production results in an album that asks little of its listener, but gives back immensely in return.
Chicago singer-songwriter Vivian McConnell, better known under her moniker V.V. Lightbody, is only on her second album and has already invented a new genre for herself. She dubbed her music as “nap rock,” and though it was almost certainly done as a joke, it’s not a terrible descriptor of her sound. That doesn’t mean, however, her music is sleepy or boring; quite the opposite is true. Her new album, Make a Shrine or Burn It, takes her mellow brand of indie-rock and expands the scope exponentially. Songs weave and bounce between genres and multi-part vocal harmonies ebb and flow as she lays out her enigmatic, often personal lyrics. From slow-burning rock knockouts like “If It’s Not Me” to the gently-plucked guitar and piano balladry of closer “USPS”, McConnell proves that while her music may have a hypnagogic quality, she’s certainly not asleep at the wheel.
If anyone were to think that the departure of longtime guitarist Dante DeCaro might leave a gap in Wolf Parade‘s sound, Thin Mind proves them wrong. Working with producer John Goodmanson again, the band fill all the corners of the songs on Thin Mind. Yeah, it’s no Apologies To The Queen Mary, but nothing ever will be.
“Nobody knows what they want,” Dan Boeckner cries on the opening track, and it feels like a fitting sentiment to fans who want the past, but also the present and future too. Thus Thin Mind likely left a few unimpressed when it came into the world earlier this year – but it’s no less full of great Wolf Parade songs. “Julia Take Your Man Home” is one of Spencer Krug’s best slow burning cuts, with quotable lines aplenty, while Boeckner still manages to make the plea for the blue collar worker with impassioned heart. When the noise crunches into a cathartic blast like “Fall Into The Future” and the triumphant and optimistic closer “Town Square”, or when the groove just snaps into place easily like “Forest Green”, then it’s all you could ask for from Wolf Parade in 2020. Thin Mind shows that even when it’s not their strongest cuts, they’re still giving it their all.