2020 Albums of the Year; 40–31.
40. Bird Problems — Beyond the Nest
Just the Tip
This EP feels like it doesn’t really give the full taste of what the band is capable of, but there are four tracks with lots of incredible instrumentation and that level of talent that feels so rare, like it’s a wonder that musicians who have this type of ambition were able to find each other and create music together. This album goes for some wildly heady off-beat playing accompanied with vicious screams but also can go into some of that more pretention-riddled progressive operatic singing style as well. That style for me can go either way, but in this album it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The focus seems far more grounded in the musical aspects than the image it portrays. I believe with this being only a taste, there will be a lot more in store from the band in the future and I think we’ll be able to see the full scope of their vision which clearly is trying to encompass a great deal of styles. Also want to note: I really have a hard time with the cover art and the bird puns for each track.
Check Out: Cold Turkey
39. Braids — Shadow Offering
The Kettle Boils Over
There’s a dreamlike quality about a lot of the songs on Braid’s newest record. Not intangible in ways that most dreams take shape across. Nothing like reaching through a distant lover and not being able to touch their shirt collar, nothing like trying to run in a foot of toothpaste. This is more like differing sensations of size that feel natural unlike that which you experience in waking life. As much as the synthesized music can build and soar, there’s always a sense of minimalism in it. It often feels like it’s stemming from one audio source, like it’s coming out of a single wall in a massive room, a room that is rotating on an axis while you stand spiraling in the middle of it. And front and center are the vocals. This will probably not be a new description, but there is such a strong influence of Bjork’s in there in the way that there are groans in her whispers, slices of her lung in the high falsettos. There are verses that pass like sprawling journal entries, words that we face the groundwork of anyone’s everyday inner monologue. But pressure builds and we start to find blood in the notes. It can feel like we’re seeing a bit too much sometimes, like she’s showing a little bit more than she anticipated when she releases a note. And that adds more to the dream, more to the art installation feeling surrounding this record. When I listen to this one, it feels like I’m walking through it, examining it, experiencing it. And it’s that closeness, that sense of being able to intimately examine the record that empowers it. I gained a little bit too much information on the subject, I smelled a little bit too much skin, but in a way I’ll always remember. So when we tunnel deeper into the dream, there may be a sense of the grotesque. But there will always remain that larger sense of beauty.
Check Out: Eclipse (Ashley)
38. Boston Manor — GLUE
In their second record, I am still amazed that this band writes stuff this catchy. It’s still got an aggressive edge to a lot of it, letting loose some big screams and catharsis, but the way that they continue to conceive and execute hooks is beyond where most bands are able to land. I believe they have the ability to strip away all of the heavier elements and become a straight forward massive chart topping band. In their first record, I kind of had some of their biggest moments compared to Fall Out Boy in terms of how well written and tight their songs were. This time around, there is a sound all their own. There’s a bit of a seductive element to the singing side of singer Henry Cox which is always front and center, but I think the guitar work of this band is really what crafts the sound. There is a structure in place that opens doors to let the band go a bit wild, but the way that pedals and effects are used gives the band this added element of depth that sets them apart from so many others. I liked this record at first, but coming back to it now, I’m really loving it. Lots of awesome moments that infect you with the need to sing alongside it. Clearly a grower.
Check Out: Plasticine Dreams
37. Fleet Foxes — Shore
A Mellow Joy
I always thought Fleet Foxes was more basic. More singer/songwriter but with a band, more for a surface sound alternative/indie rock sound without having to get too involved. I checked the record out nonetheless, and as every track came on, I continued to think about what exactly my history was with this band. Each song was starting to sound catchier and more brilliantly than the last. I was starting to realize that my judgement on this band was the true sign of an absolute pretentious ass. This record has everything, from slow pleading ballads to more forward expressions of joy and love. Two of the catchiest tracks of the year come off of this record for me (‘Maestranza’ and ‘Can I Believe You’). I remember as I was making it through the first several tracks of the record and the revelation of how much I was enjoying it was dawning on me reaching out and needing someone else to hear it. While there’s a good range of styles going on, there is a certain cut that every song falls into, a mood that feels like pulling up to a great outdoor bar in the summer and taking in the people and the atmosphere.
Check Out: Maestranza
36. Static-X — Project Regeneration Volume 1
While thinking about what I was going to say about this album, I tried to understand what exactly it is that has condemned numetal to this completely wack corner of music critique and commentary. I think a big part of it comes from the fact that so many of the bands that come out who attempt to make music in this style are older than the actual demographic it ends up really resonating with. It felt like Korn and The Deftones were already in their late twenties or early thirties when I was starting to get into them, and I’m sure Static-X was in the same boat. For so many, there’s an element that this music is so alienated and posturing from the sentiments it’s actually exhibiting that it comes across as disingenuous and packaged like a product as opposed to authentic creation. It also might be the sense of utmost earnestness about the music that lacks the irony and disillusionment that comes with other styles centered around more underground styles that come up that seems to relate more to the audience it’s being created for. As I was thinking this, I was also thinking, no, no, I think people just straight up think the music is simply genuinely terrible. That’s fine. It might simply be my nostalgia for this band’s Wisconsin Death Trip that really made this record stand out for me, but man, this album was more than I expected for a reunion style record that brought a “mystery singer” out after the death of Wayne Static to help plug in some of the holes that he had left unfinished in some songs the band had recorded. This sounds exactly like the style that I absolutely loved in 1999 that seemed to lose some of my attention as they began coming out with other albums along the way. The new singer “Xer0” (such a numetal name) sounds eerily like Wayne in some of the lengthier and guttural screams, but actually sounds far more akin to Jonathan Davis in some of the ways he sings the lighter stuff. Static-X’s sound never got too far outside of a very distinct style, and this one continues to bring it. The looping guitar sounds from Koichi Fukuda, the trigger sounding synth sounds that stay tucked in the background and the ogrish grunts of bassist Tony Campos. I don’t know if this album had as much of an impact on any of the band’s other fans out there, but this was such a welcome release for me, one that I will happily play when I take those walks back through some of my favorite records in this style.
Check Out: Otsego Placebo
35. Bully — SUGAREGG
Man, what a sick album. It’s frantic and aggressive. Fast as hell. It has wildly catchy hooks hidden in the grungy yowls and is as easy to sing along with as it is to shout and pile on with. I love love love the way the guitars sound on this record, landing somewhere in the time machine production of Hole, Nirvana, Veruca Salt and Sebadoh. There’s clarity in the imperfection in every single guitar note that drives the record, a little bit of scatterbrained electric vibration at the edges that sets the mood so well. We get an idea of the perspective that Bognanno was going for on this record, newly taking the band from a multi-member affair to a one-person unit, and I think the imperfections sell that beautifully. In fact, the moments where she takes the microphone and the guitar and lets the rest of the music drift off into wings, this is where the DIY aesthetic really stands out so well, affirming the power of this one woman machine.
Check Out: Prism
34. Nothing — The Great Dismal
Dissolved Into Dissonance
Continuing the masterwork in fuzz of their last two records, The Great Dismal is Nothing building immense walls of sound, distorted in a rending sadness that spirals and whirrs around you in a haze of introspective headache. If these songs were sped up, they’d be capable of being some of the heaviest tracks you’d hear all year, but instead the low and lazy hum of pedals will lull you into a new static world. There are points of light on the record that feel like lightly populated cities surrounded by neon halos, spiked emotional oases in deserts of gray and comforting depression. Dominic Palermo’s vocals are coaxed out of him in monotone bursts at varying levels of higher pitch, adding such a perfect layer to the acceptance of the persistent death roll that we have to engage in on a daily basis. This is such a great album for examining what it feels like to make it through 2020 with your head alight. I love that some of the sounds coming from the guitars resemble power tools being used in a next door apartment. Such a deliberate and powerful buzz, and listen close enough you can hear some solar flares flying off the edges of distant notes.
Check Out: In Blueberry Memories
33. Higher Power — 27 Miles Underwater
A Coat of a Billion Threads
The first time I heard this record, I had a very strong “NO” reaction to it. In my own obnoxious sense, I found the vocals “annoying”. It’s exactly those same vocals and the decisions made with that voice that made me come back to the record and like it more with each listen. There’s some Perry Farrell, some Daryl Palumbo, some Jon Simmons along the way, but also a very distinct and unique take on the styles he implements through the record. There’s heaviness, dreariness, weariness, maybe some Finch, along with some Linkin Park and This Is Hell? The band that backs him walks the line between modern post-punk, post-hardcore and modern rock that never goes too deeply into any category to pigeon hole them into a place where they would be irrelevant to any crossover. It was three listens to the record before I was singing along with some of the bigger hooks, nodding my head, and finger pointing along with an imaginary crowd. Dope record. Definitely had to give it time to grow on me. There’s nothing like this within this space.
Check Out: Shedding Skin
32. The Beths — Jump Rope Gazers
Throughout the year, I had heard a lot of people quoting, mentioning, lauding and overall positively gushing about this new record from The Beths. When I finally got around to listening to it, it clicked instantly. From the very first track, I could hear the easily digestible quality of their music and the light effervescent tone of their work, but by the halfway point of the record, I was deeply examining just what I had waiting for in giving this record endless spins. This is a record that’s created with powerful confidence in the identity and sound of the entire outfit. It’s remarkable that this is only their second full length. It sounds like they’ve been doing this together forever, bouncing the sun rays off of each other for a decade or more. One thing that really stands out on this album for me are the brilliant ways in which they utilize background vocals, echoes, harmonies and even singular vocal ‘distance’ to add a lush texture to each track. Some of the themes are lonely and sad and longing, but what an uplifting wavelength these songs sit upon.
Check Out: Acrid
31. Samia — The Baby
The Hell of Being Young
I love when a record comes out and I am completely out of its demographic, completely out of the scope of who the music is for and by, and I feel like the Steve Buscemi 30 Rock meme, but replacing skater gear with the appropriate attire. This record fits that one particularly well, not only singing about fleeting and carefree enjoyments of young life, but there is a sense that many of the lyrics to the songs seem written quickly in class or while friends were over watching YouTube. There are so many small captured moments, adolescent love, or daydreams, or the way friends look at friends, that I feel I should have given up by now, that perhaps when listened to or reflected on by people 19–23 years old feels like all that life is, but with my age being damn-near-40 I still hold on to that emotion with a sense of nostalgia, and a glance back at “simpler times” when I wish I would have felt more about less. Alongside some emotional diary lyrical content, these songs are incredibly well written. I hate to bring comparisons this lofty into this, but these songs feel like Post-1989 Taylor Swift could have gone if she didn’t go into “I’m a Bad Ass Now” territory (or the following “I Live In a Cabin Now” territory). These are wildly personal songs, written like three minute hooks that never double back on themselves into pop structure, but instead present themselves as one everlasting lozenge that I never want to get rid of.
Check Out: Triptych