On what turned out to be the last night before the rains and chill nights of fall came to stay in the Denver Metropolitan area, Modest Mouse and Future Islands brought an impressive display emotionally charged, melancholic pop. The great art punk band Empath opened the show but some of us ran into some of the gnarled traffic of rush hour, road construction and computerized misdirection getting into Red Rocks and had to miss their set.
It would be easy to be jaded about what might be called classic indie rock at this point but something about the music of both Modest Mouse and Future Islands have built into their songwriting an enduring quality borne of the music coming out of genuine, heartfelt emotions and not coming at that songwriting from a conventional direction. That bands this idiosyncratic and imbued with a gloriously raw sense of heightened feeling are able to draw a crowd of size speaks to the validity of music that clearly isn’t being honed or polished to be anything more than what it was in the beginning and from which it developed organically.
After having seen Future Islands at much smaller venues from the more intimate like the Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis in 2008 and 2010 and Larimer Lounge in 2011 and small/medium sized rooms like The Bluebird Theater and the Gothic Theatre it was refreshing to see that the band was able to take its hushed and reflective yet expansive art pop and its delicate sensibilities to the big stage and translate songs of such deep personal meaning for such a large performance space. Of course frontman Sam Herring treated us to his acrobatic movements, dramatically acting out the powerful feelings coursing through him as he relives some of the experiences that inspired the lyrics and as melded with the dynamic and evocative music that gave those words such a resonant context. In one moment Herring went for it so hard, swept up in the moment that he fell down and joked about the last time he played Red Rocks he tore his ACL with the moral of the story being “Don’t try to impress Morrissey” as that’s for whom Future Islands opened in July 2015. The set consisted of some of the band’s most beloved songs including breakthrough hit “Seasons” as performed memorably on Late Night With David Letterman in 2014 as well as deep, older cuts like “Tin Man” and “Little Dreamer.” Songs from the band’s 2020 album As Long As Your Are, “Plastic Beach,” “Thrill,” and especially “For Sure” with its tonal nods to early Depeche Mode hit the perfect mood for the night and a strong reminder that Future Islands has from the beginning established an aesthetic that is equal parts nostalgia and immediacy, a mix that seems somehow to help with processing regret and the kinds of emotional trauma that don’t crash into your psyche so much as haunt the back of your mind.
Nearly 30 years into his career writing music with Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock might be excused for resting on his laurels some but if his recorded output and this performance are any indication that’s not exactly happening. The band is supposedly known for having bad live shows but having seen the group in 2000 for the Moon & Antarctica tour and in 2008 opening for REM at Red Rocks while Johnny Marr was in the band I’d say the only Modest Mouse gigs I’ve seen have been solidly emotionally stirring including this concert. I also read some reviews of the band’s latest album, 2021’s The Golden Casket, with criticism of how there’s too much going on in every song. Perhaps we heard different albums or someone missed how eclectic the band’s music has been since very early on making for a fascinating eclectic body of work that isn’t stuck in a stylistic rut yet possessed of a signature sound. Maybe this new record didn’t work for those more critical reviewers.
Seeing newer songs like “We Are Between,” “Wooden Soldiers,” “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and “Back to the Middle” alongside classic tracks like “Cowboy Dan,” “Bukowski,” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” “Float On” and “Dark Center of the Universe” made it all seem like part of the band’s colorful and unique storytelling style with a broad palette of sounds that reconcile punk, synth pop, Americana, funk, Eastern European folk etc. into one of the distinct branches of indie rock that Modest Mouse helped to establish. That is to say a kind of music that makes it acceptable to write music that encourages you to take it on on its own terms without it needing to conform to something more familiar and established. The band’s multiple instruments were arrayed across the stage like a kind of orchestra in miniature so that its layers of sound could be brought to bear with ease and a precision that doesn’t seem there as the emotions are frayed around the edges in the vocals and expressive instrumentation. But seeing Modest Mouse in this incarnation made the intentionality of its sprawling and patchwork style obvious.
Later in the set proper Brock mentioned, with some amusement, how he was made aware of how his shouts of “Well” in “King Rat” had been made into a meme, providing a moment of humor in a set of music brimming with emotional intensity and insightful observations on personal psychology and society that have aged surprisingly well since the 90s. Perhaps this tapping into universal and long term human psychology explains some of Modest Mouse’s continued popularity but seeing the newer and older songs together in a touching demonstration of authentic feeling in musical performance it was also obvious that one of the classic bands of indie rock as we know it could evolve without losing sight of why it wrote music earlier in its career and why someone might connect with its songs.
This sprawling best of list was intended for publication in January 2021 but other priorities got in the way and I had written about many of these in brief in my year end best column for the December 2020 print edition of Birdy magazine in December. Others I wrote up for Birdy throughout the year. All of that text is here hopefully not in a form with my errors edited back in. At any rate it begins with what I’m going to call the album of the year, Type II by UK post-punk experimentalists Sex Swing. It not only stretched post-punk beyond the usual boundaries these days and it articulated the conflict, the outage and confusion of a world coming to terms with the great shortcomings of modern, international capitalism, the inadequacy of the conservative/far right and neoliberal government to address the needs of people across decades and most painfully and poignantly in the moment. That agony and anomie can be heard throughout the album but even separate from that context it’s just a great, experimental rock album. The original verbiage for the Birdy piece reads “An uncomromisingly mind-altering psychedelic noise rock ride through 2020 hell.” With any luck we’ll see the band in North America sooner than later and see for ourselves if the live show delivers. What follows is the rest of the best of list for 2020.
A.M. Pleasure Assassins | Careless Laughter | Self-released This latest EP from Fort Collins-based, math-y post-punk band A.M. Pleasure Assassins sounds like it was written after a long period of contemplation and self-imposed exile from one’s usual social activities. “Said Yer Outta Gas” is imbued with a rush of exuberance reflected in its words about emerging from winter into a period of new beginnings. “Get It Right” finds the band waxing into the warped garage punk territory like something one would expect out of Memphis, Tennessee the past two decades — raw and ragged yet bracing. “Cain Was Killing Abel” strikes a more contemplative tone and the sprawling “Pretty Dead Beat” creates a beautifully hypnotic pulse of sounds with bell tones processed through reverb and distorted drones for an effect like a late 90s Yo La Tengo track. The four songs give the impression of nostalgic reflection, but one where you see and feel deeply the joys and pains of a good time in your life that you are wise enough now to know to enjoy in its full measure rather than through the lens of selective romanticism.
Abrams | Modern Ways | Sailor Records
Adulkt Life | Book of Curses | What’s Your Rupture?
ADULT. | Perception Is/As/Of Deception | Dais Records Darkly urgent industrial dance anthems to purge today’s desperation, confusion and chaos.
Angel Olsen | Whole New Mess | Secretly Group A tender yet bracingly fragile portrait of the realization that you can never adequately prepare for everything life might throw your way.
Anna von Hausswolff | Sacro Bosco | Southern Lord
A Shoreline Dream | Melting | Late Night Weeknight With its first release since 2018’s Waitout EP, A Shoreline Dream presents a set of songs that seems less ethereal than their previous output. From opening track “Turned Too Slow” to closing song “Atheris Hispida” the progressive shoegaze duo has seemingly focused its attention on the texture and physicality of the music. One is tempted to say the guitars are more like hard rock, but only if your idea of hard rock is more in the vein of Swervedriver. But “Downstairs Sundays” has more in common with folk music in its intricate guitar interplay though threading through an uplifting, introspective drone. A Shoreline Dream still gives us its usual transporting melodies, but this time its astral realms are more focused and vivid as though coming out of its musical dreamstate into a phase of making those dreams real.
Autechre | Sign | Warp Records Cleanses the mind with textural tones and hypnotically immersive, abstract rhythms.
Bambara | Stray | Wharf Cat Records
Bestial Mouths | RESURRECTEDINBLACK | RUNE & RUIN
Bison Bone | Find Your Way Out | self-released
Black Wing | No Moon | The Flenser
blackcell | Burn the Ashes | self-released Denver-based EBM/IDM band Blackcell returns with its first full- length album since 2013’s In the Key of Black. Matt Jones’ processed, distorted vocals sound as ever like a dispossessed human resisting an ever increasing mechanization of life. These dark dance songs articulate so well the struggles of the human condition and seem so resonant for today as meaningful choices and control over your own life are leeched away into increasing labor defined by a gig economy, subscription and streaming services in the modern equivalent of pay-per-view, and a failing political and economic system that has channeled all the world’s wealth into fewer and fewer hands, nickeled and dimed to death and expected to take it like it is or not to streamline the technocratic wealth pipeline. Blackcell offers no answers but this time, its Gary Numan-esque end of the world techno feels particularly cathartic right now.
BleakHeart | Dream Griever | Sailor Records
Body Double | Milk Fed | Zum Vignettes of personal psychological horror expressed as seething, angular post-punk pop.
Body Negative | Fragments | Track Number Records
Bootblacks | Thin Skies | Artoffact Records Soaring synths and guitar sketch a vivid image of a deep yearning for personal transcendence and rebirth.
Boris and Merzbow | 2R012P0 | Relapse Records Alien soundscapes of stunning immediacy that challenge preconceptions of all artists involved.
Botanist | Photosynthesis | The Flenser
Cabaret Voltaire | Shadow of Fear | Mute
Camila Fuchs | Kids Talk Sun | Felte Records Avant-garde, psychedelic synth pop for tropical vacations in parallel dimensions.
Causer | Hellebore: Demos | self-released
Chicano Batman | Invisible People | ATO Records Un-ironic, un-corny psych Tropicalia love songs for an inclusive future of unified humanity.
Choir Boy | Gathering Swans | Dais Records Every song is an introspective Goth R&B ode to radical self care.
Church Fire | Some Lonely Wip | self-released This collection of “unfinished/unmixed/unmastered/instrumentals” bridges the gap between Nine Inch Nails and Crystal Castles with their raw, lo-fi, maximalist glitch. Without the highly emotive and cathartic vocals that have been part of Church Fire’s signature sound we are invited to visit the soundscapes that give those vocals a powerful musical context. What is obvious here is the band’s playfulness and gift for pairing dark tonal choices and buoyant rhythms anchored by spare textural elements. On “pixie death tickle” there are wisps of voices but they serve as more a musical aside from the strong, bright, urgent main passages. The “wip” in the title may refer to “works-in-progress” but these songs would work as mood pieces in a soundtrack to the inevitable English language Inio Asano manga film in mirroring that artist’s talent for simultaneously expressing melancholia and joy.
cindygod | EP 2 | Fire Talk
Clipping. | Visions of Bodies Being Burned | Sub Pop Brooding, seething, menacing industrial hip-hop horror stories from an all too near future.
Cyclo Sonic | Pile of Bones EP | self-released
Damn Selene | Nobody By That Name Lives Here Anymore | self-released
Dan Deacon | Mystic Familiar | Domino Records
Dead Voices On Air | Stone Cross Shuttle Worn | self-released
Deafbrick (Deafkids + Pet Brick) | s/t | Rocket Recordings
Death Bells | New Signs Of Life | Dais Records Atmospheric post-punk brimming with an infectious sense of hope after a time of struggle.
Death Valley Girls | Under the Spell of Joy | Suicide Squeeze Acid jazz flavored garage psych with an ear for emotionally rich infinite horizons.
Drew Danburry | Icarus Phoenix A Sides and B Sides 2020 | Telos
Drew McDowell | Angalma | Dais Records
Dyad | Dormant | self-released Charles Ballas and Jeremy Averitt are perhaps better known for their participation in acts like Howling Hex and Esmé Patterson’s live band respectively as well as their production work for Echo Beds. But DORMANT from their long-running collaborative project DYAD showcases their mutual knack for genre-bending IDM-esque soundscapes. DYAD freely blends elements of non-Western polyrhythms, intricate and textured instrumentation, luminous jazz keyboard progressions and tasteful electronic arrangements that convey an eclectic and international flavor. Imagine music equally influenced by Herbie Hancock, 80s Ethiopian synth pop, Daft Punk, Warp Records artists and informed by a deep sense of play, and you will have some idea of the soothing and imagination stirring quality of this music and its brilliantly new age downtempo future jazz sounds.
eHpH | Infrared | self-released This Denver-based electro-industrial duo minces no words on the opening track “Idiot” in its introductory sample “I’m gonna say one thing, fuck Trump.” And then on to choice sampling of 45s words and those of journalists cataloging some of his offenses against humanity. The menacing descending synth bass progression and minimalistic percussion puts the focus on the words. The rest of the album is less explicitly and specifically topical but it is the band’s most fully realized and focused effort yet. The pulsing pace and Fernando Altonaga’s distorted vocals draw you into meditations on the perils of creeping authoritarianism on “Tarnished.” The pastoral pace and deep melancholy of “Forever Haunted” resonates with the artfully despairing tones of the Closer period of Joy Division the way its circular guitar line and synth melody rides a wave of personal revelation and the contemplation of an unrelievedly bleak future. EhpH has long been one of the more interesting modern EBM bands but Infrared demonstrates that the group of Altonaga and Angelo Atencio have fully integrated those roots with a more contemporary post-punk and darkwave sensibility, thus never sounding stuck in the past.
Emerald Siam | Inventions of Ascension | self-released
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou | May Our Chambers Be Full | Sacred Bones Records
Emmy The Great | April / 月音 | Bella Union
Entrancer | Decline Vol. 4 | Multidim In constructing this latest installment in Entrancer’s Decline series Ryan McRyhew utilized Rob Hordijik’s DIY synth, the Benjolin, as well as the Make Noise Shared System. Though both are modular synthesis devices and visually look complex, McRyhew, in naming the equipment on the Bandcamp page, takes some of the technological mystery out of music making with synths and puts the emphasis on the creativity end. For twenty-seven minutes forty-four seconds of the single track of this album, “Decline XVI,” we travel with McRyhew through the sonic analog of the distorted ebb and flow of civilizational decay that we seem to be experiencing right now. Yet at the heart of the piece we hear a separation of more industrial sounds and those more organic like the inevitability of nature reasserting its primacy in our own consciousnesses and in the entire world.
Equine | Light Wa/orship | Noise Pelican
Eve Maret | Stars Aligned | White Supulchre Records
Eyebeams | It Means Trouble | Hot Congress
Eyedress | Let’s Skip to the Wedding | Lex Records
Eye of Nix | Ligeia | Scry Recordings Uplifting, psychedelic, blackened noise doom journey to a pagan underworld and back.
Facs | Void Moments | Trouble In Mind The post-punk equivalent of crime jazz’s subterranean menace.
Faim | Hollow Hope | Deathwish
Fearing | Shadow | Funeral Party
Fire-Toolz | Rainbow Bridge | Hausu Mountain Records
Flaming Lips | American Head | Warner Records Overflowing with compassion and musical salves for the pain and despair of the fractured American psyche.
French Kettle Station | Spirit Mode | Slagwerk
Future Islands | As Long As You Are | 4AD A soulfully soothing and transporting examination of the roots of one’s melancholic impulses.
Galleries | Resolve | self-released
Ganser | Just Look at That Sky | Felte Records Incandescent yet contemplative post-punk dense with conceptual content and poignant social commentary.
Gold Cage | Social Crutch | Felte Records
Hard to Be a Killer: A Tribute to Ralph Gean In an alternate universe Ralph Gean is a beloved rock and roll hero widely known for his brilliantly unique and off-beat songwriting. But the British Invasion derailed that trajectory and Gean instead has since become a bit of a legendary figure with a cult following in Denver music who has periodically played shows and championed by figures as politically disparate as Boyd Rice (who compiled a collection of Gean’s work in 2007) and Jello Biafra. That fandom is reflected on this sprawling tribute album assembled by Arlo White of Hypnotic Turtle Radio and bands like Deadbubbles and The Buckingham Squares. Every interpretation of Gean’s songs is a worthy listen and a fine showcase for his sheer breadth as an artist. Contributions from local, experimental eccentrics like Little Fyodor & Babushka, Claudzilla and The Babysitters lovingly capture Gean’s essential appeal as an artist with an unvarnished charm and humor. Eric Allen of The Apples in Stereo fame highlights the science fiction cowboy persona that Gean could convey while White’s band Diablo Montalban with the late, great eccentric DJ and Denver cultural figure Frank Bell give “Switzerland” a real dark exotica treatment reminiscent of weirder moments in Tom Waits’ catalog. A fascinating portrait of an important yet often overlooked artist.
H Lite | Green Youth Heattech | self-released Anton Kruger has been known for his inventive, hyperkinetic electronic and experimental music. But for this new EP he took a deep dive into contemplative realms of sound. Elegant, heavenly strings, luminous swells of tone and crystalline percussion embody the title of the song “Light Language.” The spacious sound design aspect of all the song’s on the album are reminiscent of Plaid in the enigmatic playfulness and the stretching consciousness to find inspiration through creative work. Every song brings forth a singular and imaginative portrait of tone, texture and rhythm that takes you on a journey to alien spaces that strike one as familiar and ultimately comforting like a dream. It is post-glitchcore IDM that dispenses with the anxiety in favor of a soothing spirit.
Houses of Heaven | Silent Places | Felte Records Gloomy street tribal dance anthems fortified with dark, minor chord melodies.
Human Impact | s/t | Ipecac Recordings
In The Company Of Serpents | Lux | self-released In the Company of Serpents has long been a band that has aimed to infuse its music with its interest in cinema, esoteric knowledge, literature, and with all of those come out of directi human experience, emotion and an attempt to make sense of life and imbue it with meaning. Lux is the fullest manifestation of those aims written into its most sonically dynamic set of songs to date. The crushing yet fluid heaviness of its sound is paired perfectly with elements of song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. “The Fool’s Journey” opens the record as a sort of map for the path set before us ending with the enigmatic “Prima Materia.” It’s a musically diverse and rich album that places In the Company of Serpents apart from a mere doom band and more in the realm of Swans’ and Neurosis’ own heavy explorations of the human psyche.
IDLES | Ultra Mono | Partisan Pointed yet loving politi-punk built on a hip-hop framework.
Insect Ark | The Vanishing | Profound Lore Records A seething and entrancing hybrid of a Junji Ito manga and industrial psychedelic doom.
Jarv Is | Beyond the Pale | Rough Trade Records
jOoHS UhP | Big Glasss | Records This record is so irreverent and self-deprecating it uses the swagger language of much of hip-hop to make statements that are the opposite of anything some other artists would brag about. The irony runs so deep even the elements of the music sounds like swagger. There is a song called “NoWeDon’tWannaMakeGoodMusic.WeTriedAndIt’sBoring.” The glitchy, industrial beats are so unconventional and eccentric you would never confuse this duo with anything resembling traditional hip-hop. It all has more in common with Renaldo & The Loaf and The Residents than even a weirdo like Kanye. Though often confrontational and obnoxious there’s no denying the relentless creativity of the production and glorious seeming lack of regard for how a song is supposed to sound.
Juliet Mission | Surren | self-released Surren is the third EP from Denver-based post-punk band Juliet Mission. As with previous releases the trio’s command of blending layers of atmosphere with strong rhythms and a contemplative melancholy is impressive. The short title track actually has three movements that flow from existential introspection to passages of dark realization to a mood of uneasy acceptance. All four songs in their brooding beauty demonstrate, as have the most recent albums from The Church, that you can write vital and engrossing rock songs from an adult point of view with elegance and grace, and without defaulting to an adolescent, and thus thematically limited, perspective.
Jupiter Sprites| Holographic | Jupiter Sprites Records
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith | The Mosaic of Transformation | Ghostly International
Killd By | Neotropical (tape reissue) | Noumenal Loom
King Krule | Man Alive! | Matador Like The Fall gone hip-hop chillout lounge post-bad trip horror movie dreaming.
Klara Lewis | Ingrid | Editions Mego Distorted melancholic cello drones like the glitched image memories of past life regression.
KoKo La | Curriculum Vitae | self-released Koko La has long already established herself as an artist of note as one of the MCs and producers in the hip-hop group R A R E B Y R D $. Her soulful voice and presence often draws out subconscious emotions and gives them form in the music and performance. Curriculum Vitae finds Koko La exploring the experiences that have shaped her. Aided by Machete Mouth and Kitty Opinion$ on a couple of tracks, Koko La excels here with shining a light on those experiences that challenge you in various ways, while at the same time, giving you a better sense of self and the boundaries you must draw the border for people who might seek to dismiss you as a human or otherwise put you in your place. The trap beats and hushed atmospheres provide a fascinating listening experience, like you’re honoring the subconscious thoughts and feelings that affect your waking life by giving them an identifiable form that also allows you to comprehend, embrace and reconcile the wounded sides of yourself.
Lazarus Horse | Oh the Guilt! | self-released
Lithics | Tower of Age | Trouble In Mind Surreal, minimalist post-punk funk disintegrating into disorder like American democracy.
Lone Dancer | Temporal Smearing | Multidim
Mamaleek | Come and See | The Flenser
Many Blessings | Emanation Body | Translation Loss Records Ethan McCarthy of Primitive Man renown returns to his ongoing noise soundscapes with the enigmatic and forbidding Many Blessings. In typical fashion this set of five pieces stretches beyond what McCarthy has done with the project in the past. Throughout this album there is not the harsh noise and deconstructed drones of some earlier work. Rather, it is layered collages of sound that give voice to the raw angst and anxieties that sit as a background hum of modern civilization eating away at our collective unconsciousness. The concluding track “Harm Signal” is like a symbol for the whole effort — a flow of sounds, a frequency, that we usually ignore but which causes untold destruction to our existence. These songs identify and give expression to energies and forces we’ve bypassed our whole lives but which are now impossible to ignore, like a sound art metaphor for the social and political forces that have come home to roost of late.
Marissa Nadler | Moons | self-released
Melkbelly | PITH | Carpark Records/Wax Nine
Memory Bell | Solace | self-released
Metz | Atlas Vending | Sub Pop
Midwife | Forever | The Flenser Madeline Johnston wrote Forever during one of the darkest times of the Denver DIY music and art community. Her community was scattered and challenged in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire with so many lives seeming to be on hold with no hint about when thatdespairing period would end. And the 2018 death of Colin Ward hit everyone whose lives he touched so deeply that it seems like the kind of hurt that will never fully heal. Johnston’s almost ghostly, delicate and vulnerable vocals and distorted, ethereal guitar seem to drift together in an effort to make some sense of those feelings with a nuance and sensitivity that always comes across as emerging directly from those places of acute pain and ache and loss, and honoring the need to just feel all of that whenever the need strikes and for however long into your life it lasts even if that is, indeed, forever. An especially touching and evocative tribute to a uniquely restless and creative yet sensitive and emotionally refined person in Colin Ward, Forever is a tender and heartbreaking, healing catharsis in the listen.
Mild Wild | Mild Wild, Vol. 1 | self-released Intensely personal, imaginatively lo-fi aural snapshots of daydreams and poetic observations.
Mint Field | Sentimiento Mundial | Felte Records Dream pop slow burner illuminating and warming the inner regions of the melancholic heart.
Moby | All Visible Objects | Mute Records Retro rave and chillout lounge songs mourning our collective loss, yearning for a hopeful future.
Molchat Doma | Monument | Sacred Bones Records Introspective, elegantly minimalistic, lo-fi, Belarusian gloom pop.
Mong Tong | Mystery | Guruguru Brain
Moodie Black | FUZZ | Fake Four
Moon Pussy | Hurt Wrist | The Ghost Is Clear Records Guitar riffs like swarms of angry insects sweeping through. Syncopated percussion like start- and- stop jackhammers. Bass lines like a half- ton coil being struck and emitting a menacing fluidity. Tortured vocals erupt with Brutalist, post-hardcore poetry. All of this helps to make this latest Moon Pussy record the perfect companion and reaction to a radically uncertain world seemingly in perpetual crisis mode and on the verge of we know not what. Fans of bands on the Amphetamine Reptile imprint or Touch and Go will be thrilled with the band’s seemingly endless supply of inspired, aggressive and savage noise rock riffs and the ability to articulate directly from a place of desperation and outrage. “Fail Better” should be the theme song of these United States.
Mr. Bungle | The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo | Ipecac
Mr. Gnome | The Day You Flew Away | El Marko Records
Mrs. Piss | Self-Surgery | Sargent House
Napalm Death | Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism | Century Media
New Standards Men | I Was A Spaceship | self-released
Night of the Living Shred | Return of the Night of the Living Shred | self-released The name of this album of course invokes the title of the 1985 horror comedy Return of the Living Dead. And the Colorado Springs-based metal group has taken the opportunity to give us an unusual and eclectic record that not only reflects its members’ broad taste in music but a deeply healthy sense of humor about the world and themselves. “Shred Shoppe Quartert” is an a cappella song in the style of a barbershop quartet. There are rap, punks, death metal, doom and grindcore songs. All of it performed with a charming exuberance even though the entire track list reads like something out of a heavy metal version of Mad Magazine. “We Get it, Mike Patton Is a Musical Genius” with screaming like a cover of something by Naked City with lyrics mocking that? That’s genius. Even though the record is largely a put on in one way or another, the fact that it has so much variety makes it eminently listenable.
No Age | Goons Be Gone | Drag City
Of Feather And Bone | Sulfuric Disintegration | Profound Lore Records
Oneohtrix Point Never | Magic Oneohtrix Point Never | Warp Records
Otzi | Storm | Artoffact Records Emotionally intense post-punk at the intersection of Sleater-Kinney and The Cure.
Perry Weissman 3 | Backlog | self-released
Plack Blague | Wear Your Body Out | self-released
Plague Garden | LEFT IN THE GRAVE | self-released
Pod Blotz | Transdimensional System | Dais Records
Pole | Fading | Mute Records
Primitive Man | Immersion | Relapse Records
Princess Dewclaw | Wild Sugar | Glasss Records On the Wild Sugar EP Princess Dewclaw has reinvented itself as a gritty, industrial darkwave band. That element was there on its 2017 album Walk of Shame (in fact the songs “Walk of Shame” and “Into the Words” have carried over in a significantly different form), but there seems more of an edge here. The vocals come more directly from channeling anxiety and pain into catharsis. Rather than acoustic drums the electronic and programmed drums sync more closely with the cutting synth work. The effect is like a caustic and politically charged take on a pop song with mainstream appeal. In that way it has an appeal similar to that of Alice Glass’s emotionally raw solo offerings.
Protomartyr | Ultimate Success Today | Domino Records Burning poems songs evoking a Jim Thompson-esque modern America in slashing/clashing post-punk.
Public Memory | Ripped Apparition | Felte Records If Tarkovksy and Jarmusch could team up to make a cyberpunk movie this would be the soundtrack.
Rafael Anton Irisarri | Peripeteia | Dais Records
Raspberry Bulbs | Before the Age of Mirrors | Relapse Records
Reverb And The Verse | RESONATE | self-released Since 1999 Reverb & The Verse has been developing and writing some of the most imaginative hip-hop out of Denver. The groupput their songwriting on this ninth record through a rigorous process of experimentation and weeding out the material deemed not quite there. Though steeped in classic MC wordplay, the beats and expertly crafted synth work and rhythms seem as informed by the likes of Minneapolis alternative hip-hop that came out of the 90s as it does 80s and 90s synth pop. All of these elements make for a sonically rich and diverse listen a bit like a cross between Clipse and Meat Beat Manifesto.
Riki | s/t | Dais Records Goth synth pop for skate rink parties in abandoned malls.
Run The Jewels | RTJ4 | Jewel Runners
Shabazz Palaces | The Don of Diamond Dreams | Sub Pop
Shitkid | 20/20 | PNKSLM An unlikely and fascinating hybrid of garage rock and soulful synth pop.
Shocker Mom | The Mediocre Depression | self-released
Sightless Pit | Grave of a Dog | Thrill Jockey Sublime and caustic, often claustrophobic, soundscapes of terrifying and transcendent beauty.
SNAD/Jackson Lee| Jargon/Syntax Error 12” EP | Deep Club Records
SPELLS | Stimulants & Sedatives | Snappy Little Numbers This record is raw even by SPELLS standards. But it’s perfect for 11 songs about the messiness of adulthood with lyrics that frankly go for the jugular. This isn’t new for this pop punk band and its anthemic choruses, but it’s always interesting to hear the contrast between the primal pop of the songwriting and incisive portraits of American life that dispense with the soul-destroying niceties. “We Can’t Relate” is a pointed declaration of the disconnect between the culture of the wealthy and the working class. “I’m Sorry I’m Not Sorry” is something of an apology song for being how you have to be in a world that demands essentially unacceptable compromises. Imagine an amalgam of Blatz, Stiff Little Fingers and The Replacements and you have an idea of the sound, the vibe and the sentiments expressed throughout.
Spice | s/t | Dais Records
Sprain | As Lost Through Collision | The Flenser Colossal, sprawling, slowcore deep dives into the catharsis of anxiety and rootlessness.
Spunsugar | Drive-Through Chapel | Adrian Recordings
Squarepusher | Be Up a Hello | Warner Records
Stay Tuned | Remote Control | self-released Brilliantly sampling from American media and entertainment culture, both musically and thematically, Stay Tuned has produced not just a signature song with this arc of eleven tracks but a signature album. Dense with content each song uses the format of autobiography to comment on aspects of society like the shallowness of celebrity culture and the way we formulate our dreams and aspirations in terms and frameworks taken from preexisting constructs like television shows, movies, video games and other media — of course expressed through the corporate controlled channels we most often use to communicate with one another. But in free associating musical and other media references in a collage of sounds in the beat, Stay Tuned uses media tropes and collective myths and imagery to showcase how we can subvert the prevailing power relationships and the monopolistic paradigms of our time.
Stephen Malkmus | Traditional Techniques | Matador
Studded Left | Sidewalk Vitamins | Girlgang Music
Stūrī Zēvele | Labvakar | self-released An endearing indie pop manifestation of the essence of close and warm friendships.
Sumac | May You Be Held | Thrill Jockey
Suo and Data Rainbow | s/t | Multidim
SUUNS | FICTION EP | Joyful Noise
Syko Friend | Fontanelle | Post Present Medium
The Drood | Totally Comfortable | self-released
The High Water Marks | Ecstasy Rhymes | Minty Fresh
The Microphones | The Microphones In 2020 | P.W. Elverum & Sun
The Paranoyds | Pet Cemetery EP | Suicide Squeeze
The White Swan | Nocturnal Transmission | CockThermos
Through Flames | Through Flames | self-released Riveting, radical experiments in political poetry and sound design.
TI-83 | Demo | self-released
Time | These Songs Kill Fascists | Dirty Laboratory Hip-hop artist Chris “Time” Steele displays a true gift for fusing autobiography and lived experience with historical context and knowledge of political theory on this album. He’s always been a brilliant lyricist whose expert wordplay has seemingly effortlessly combined his sharp sense of humor with a wide ranging curiosity about the world and a growing body of knowledge of history, culture and politics. On These Songs Kill Fascists, Steele works with Daiba, Mick Jenkins, long time producer AwareNess, Giuseppe, Ron Miles, JXSHYB, Cat Soup and Psalm One to create a jazz-inflected story cycle commenting astutely on social issues now getting some focus. While a riveting listen purely as a well crafted album, These Songs Kill Fascists does not function as merely socially conscious entertainment, it seems to have been crafted as a form of praxis that challenges artist and listener in a dialectic of critical pedagogy that mutually encourages ongoing personal growth and social transformation.
Tobacco | Hot, Wet & Sassy | Ghostly International Bright, bombastic, noisy synths paired with darkly humorous musings disrupt the album’s aesthetic of nostalgic comfort sounds.
Torres | Silver Tongue | Merge Records
Uniform | Shame | Sacred Bones Records Scorching and thrillingly diverse industrial hardcore inspired by noir literature.
Usaisamonster | Amikwag | Yeggs Records
Vivian | The Warped Glimmer | self-released
Voight | s/t | self-released Maybe it’s Chase Dobson’s treatments and mixing and mastering after Adam Rojo and Nick Salmon wrote and recorded this album, but the self-titled Voight album is the closest the duo has come to sounding like it’s blurring the line between its rock and electronic aesthetics. Guitar chords burn and shimmer out, percussion flurries and traces out a minimalist beat and Salmon’s vocals float through the songs like a person who was once lost but is now rediscovering his ability to feel and to express those emotions with a coherent self-awareness. Every song has an expansive quality reminiscent of Clan of Xymox and The Twilight Sad. The tone of the album perfectly walks the line between urgency and introspection without ever compromising an underlying delicacy of spirit and emotional refinement.
Wayfarer | A Romance With Violence | Profound Lore Records
Wetware | Flail | Dais Recordings
White Rose Motor Oil | You Can’t Kill Ghosts | self-released
Windy & Carl | Allegiance and Conviction | Kranky
WL | ADHD | Beacon Sound
Wolf Parade | Thin Mind | Sub Pop
Yves Tumor | Heaven To A Tortured Mind | Warp Records Futuristic, effervescent, downtempo, synth pop-inflected, R&B informed non-binary funk.