2020 Albums of the Year; 50–41.
50. Ratboys — Printer’s Devil
Post-Emo Indie Rock
There are bands that try to produce this sound, something in between alternative rock, alternative country, thoughtful indie rock which is influenced by lots of the newer folk movements, and somewhere amidst all of those torn identities, the artist loses their own. Ratboys (what a name) manage to take all of those genres as suggestions and forming them into their own sound, strengthening their own chops by way of osmosis instead of emulation. There’s a sincerity in the vocals that really shines through as the star to me. This isn’t their first time around, of course, but there’s something about the way that humility adds a glow to Steiner’s voice, almost as if she is shyly taking up the microphone at an open-mic night where no one recognizes her. This is such a subdued weekend record, one that could guide you on the quiet drive home, but also one that could nurse a hangover with you in the early gray Sunday light.
Check Out: My Hands Grow
49. In Parallel — Fashioner
I was part of crowdsourcing this band’s original EP that took forever to release, something I waited for patiently (for years) and I think by the time it arrived, I let the wait time speak louder than the music itself. It was good, but felt like it was a record that eventually just ended up coming out. With In Parallel coming back with this EP, it feels far more composed and intentional, stuffed with a lot more purpose and direction. Big synth sounds and prominent bass lines call to mind rolling fog machines, unironic leather jackets with black RayBans, and atmospheric and moody post-goth rock. The vocals sound heavily inspired by Depeche Mode and others in the genre. The EP is short and sweet and each song feels simultaneously dark and shiny. A great addition to a beautifully dramatic style. Also, purely aesthetic, but I love the song title “Threat of Heaven”. So sick. I also think that would be an incredible opener. I can just picture this one live. The massive sound makes me so nostalgic (is that possible after only a year?) for live music.
Check Out: Fashioner (No Exit)
48. This Will Destroy You — Vespertine
A Sonorous Drift
There’s not much by way of diversity on this record, but for a band who has as broad and expansive as this band does (six records over sixteen years), each outing feels like a new book with a new set of characters and plot. This one hums deeply in its core like throat-chanting or the resonation of a groaning sea creature, but the reverberating guitars that streak across that vibration like shooting stars grant introspection and scale. This is a beautiful meditation, seven tracks to absolutely steal you away, expanding your perception and dissolving your presence.
Check Out: Dining Room
47. Floral — Floral LP
The Noodle Effect
There’s a weird middle ground when it comes to these types of bands who utilize their fingers to create some cosmic guitar geometry. I have never been a fan of guitar solos in the middle of songs that otherwise don’t require them. Somehow, someway, the spotlight of an instrument should honor the construction of the song instead of using the song as a vehicle in which it displays itself. Floral does a great job in this record showing off the sonic highway of overlapping sounds and percussive notes that the instruments can provide while also making full songs in the process, ones with individual personalities without requiring the vocals or lyrics which often create the distinctive divides from one song to the next. So many times, I find myself asking how many hours of practice it took to be able to even emulate this sound let alone write songs in this language, and what’s more, how many takes does it take to record a record like this, with so many intricate little taps and hammers, so many syncopated snare hits to get everything just right. Every little drip needs to be heard to make this music not sound like some convoluted mess. Floral pulls it off.
Check Out: Ebullient
46. Dryjacket — Going Out of Business
The Twinkle Ages
This band’s record from 2017 is still in fairly regular rotation for me. So when this new one dropped, I had wild expectations for it to be some kind of direct sequel to that style and that same sense of complex post-pop-punk. That was my mistake.That would have meant that in three years, the band hadn’t grown matured or found new ways to express themselves. This record instead immediately has a far more contemporary sound. Songs don’t disappear into frenzied stageless jangly breakdown style bridges that could send college students into heavy head bops at a VFW hall. Instead, they have orchestrated fuller rock tracks that have the same arsenal at their hands with lots of pop and twinkle, but it stays composed and strongly tied together. Of course there are those same moments of contemplation and spacy wonder, but it feels more tied to the structure of the song instead of like an emotional release of the exploding fireworks on a guitar neck.Tracks call to mind bands like Mae and the way they create silky smooth, sunny sounding van journal entries to sit with side by side like peers. There are also peeks into a world where this band is the next Death Cab For Cutie, with the earnest sadness and open admission of a world where they are unsure where they fit in, but the art they create will stand strong timelessly. This record is less fun, less (hate to say it) memorable, but without question, it is a much more well-written, well thought out effort. The way that Joe Junod has found a signature way to throw bends and falsettos into his lines surprises and impresses every time he utilizes the skill, not so much in its capacity or difficulty level, but more so in the way that when he employs it, the sensibility of exactly where to use it feels a skill perfected.
Check Out: Icicle Pyramid
45. Gulfer — Gulfer
The Pensive Jangle
This album is the sound that I imagine when I think of Gulfer. The strained voice of a singer behind a microphone stand that simply won’t stand straight up as the fingers and hands dance up and down a beaten guitar whose strings have broken and worn to the point of exertion. Sweat and release. There are no choruses, there are no hooks. Simply song. The spotlight on the tracks are always going to be the raw energy and the instrumentation of the guitars. They row along like ramshackled and roughshod boats down a terrible stretch of rapids. Melodies are strung together out of necessity. I love the way that they build chords that had previously been tossed aside, navigate note labyrinths that are only considered ruins to those who had long explored them and had them solved. There’s a sense of ugliness in this music and I believe this is how they like it, taking the noodling and twinkling which so many old midwestern emo bands influenced and turning them into a new style of their own, grinding and scraping together the roots to form shelter. I have never considered myself “punk” and in fact, the word has always sort of seemed cringy and Gen X to me. But the way this band has shaped the sound that more than likely initially inspired them to pick up instruments in the first place is one of the most punk things you will find on this list.
Check Out: Trips and Falls
44. Busta Rhymes — ELE2: The Wrath of God
Busta Is As Busta Does
I will say what I’ve said for a long time: no record needs to breach the one hour mark unless you’re making some wild ketamine hole drug paradise that means to sift through your consciousness and find the a simmering kernel of what remains of your strangled beautiful spirit that needs to be rekindled and burned at least for 61 minutes, taken on a virtual journey to convince it that it can still feel. A lot of rap records tend to run long and I’m not sure I understand why. I think a lot of it can be brought back to the prolific and addictive nature of those who are able to rhyme and keep books or files or parchment that go on forever and ever, that get combined and cross-referenced not only with the artist’s legacy, but also the piles of pages that were written with no beat in mind. Just a four/four that needs some bars to drink. And no one feels more prolific and effortless than one Busta Rhymes, not only reaching back through a time warp to recreate some of his earliest styles (and some wild throwback cameos from Bel Biv Devoe, ODB and Q-Tip), but also staying on the cutting edge of his ability to create new and unmistakably unique voices and messages (alongside Kendrick Lamar and Anderson Paak). Sinking deeply into this latest record by Bus, you can feel the 8 years since his last drop has given him a great deal of content to amass, a lot to contemplate, a lot to ruthlessly marinate on, and a lot to get furious on. So maybe an hour isn’t long enough? I think I could have done without an absolutely unhinged Chris Rock on some of the tracks, but otherwise, this one feels urgent and powerful. Also between the different character types and lengthy hypnotic flows he finds himself spitting (one in which he actually laughs to himself at the end of) you can hear that he takes joy in getting back in the studio to unleash the raw talent that rests within him.
Check Out: Oh No
43. Medhane — Cold Water
Stream of Consciousness
I have a hard time finding what the appeal is with a lot of the new wave of hip-hop/rap/whatever we’re calling it now. They all stem from similar roots, but much of it sounds so wildly different. There are moments in this record that feel like all and none of them at the same time. I’ve discussed this before, but there’s an element of found footage production at play here, with a lot of the beats and sounds that he rhymes over feeling more inspired and influenced by his environment than the overall creation of music in general. The low energy vocals give a sense of possession by verbiage as opposed to penning prose meant for contribution to a larger whole. And I love that feeling. This feels a lot more like a seance than a concert. I’ve felt this way before, in this tunnel of concentration, in a vortex the size of a pinhole, singular thoughts so concentrated that it doesn’t feel like everything’s outside is out of focus, but rather everything without no longer exists. This record engages me on such a pinned down level that it’ll sometimes take me a full minute or two to realize that the loop the rhymes are floating on is a single three second repetition. It’s minimalist bravado at its most potent.
Check Out: Bun Down Babylon
42. Taylor Swift — Folklore
Taylor Swift’s songs on this record are their own series of designs, close to the tiered heartbreaks that she’s engaged in before. But these feel genuine, they feel riddled with actuality instead of the verbose and overwrought receipts. It seems she’s tried to throw those who’ve scorned her in the past. Instead of telling them off in front of the world, it feels more like she deliberately addresses the individuals she’s concerned with and could care less about who hears it. These feel a bit like the leaks of a quiet and slowly eroding breakup. She looks through the dotted line where the lover used to exist and speaks to the new shape, the new intent, the form that the lover ended up with. Heavily focused on is the What-Could-Have-Been, the potential she saw in circumstances that ended up being, if nothing else, mundane. Antonoff once again works his magic, taking the charming and pointed songwriting of Swift’s past and injects a sensibility to it that speaks beyond just those who understand her schtick, making her songs more and more globally digestible to those who aren’t interested in becoming a fan of Swift herself, but simply the songs on their own. This time around, she makes use of her ally Aaron Dessner from The National, and going into the record with that filter in mind, one can feel the influence of the austere songwriting, the ability to stay within a center, to maintain eye contact, and I think above all, to show restraint and trust the sentiment of the song itself. My first mistake in listening to (and dismissing) this record was to listen to it as a collection of new songs to hear at length and to see what sounded good. This isn’t that kind of album. Once you meet each track, you learn its intent. If these songs are to feel like a bundle of found letters, it takes a second to stop skimming them and looking at the by-lines and who they’re addressed to. Instead, it’s holding the page, flipping them over, hearing the paper turn, and becoming the scenarios, becoming the intentions that are outlined. Read the pages and understand that this letter isn’t for you, it’s for him. And you’ve finally seen her. — I think at some point on this record, I lose the specifics though the specifics are so on-the-nose it reads a little bit like a Livejournal post from the early 2000s or a nod to the fans who follow the storylines in her life in tabloids and blogs. That being said, there are pockets of this record that deserve all of the praise it got when it first dropped even though I wasn’t able to see it at the time. Glad I revisited it.
Check Out: cardigan
41. O’Brother — You and I
Your Fortune In Tea Leaves
The absolute masters of esoteric and massive songs are back with this record that plays through like an epic instead of a collection of songs. I’ve seen these guys a couple of times in venues always far too small to contain their intent, and this record would have been absolutely no different if they were to tour behind it in this desolation year. The scale that these songs take on range from completely stripped down, rustic guitar orchestras to canyon deep and vast cries that seem too large to contain within the listener’s heart. They go big on this one, finding ways to pen mysteries of emotion and which are able to give me pause, as if I’m trying to keep my eyes on a screen or page. There’s storytelling aspects to their songs which draw strong parallels to Mewithoutyou and Radiohead and …Trail of Dead and The Snake the Cross the Crown, and yet despite my ability to pocket them in with other bands that give me similar concepts, I don’t think there’s a way to classify what it is these guys are accomplishing. Their songs don’t feel like simple choices for a playlist. They come to record songs that will erect a structure, not decorate a room. And on this record, they have succeeded.
Check Out: Halogen Eye