“Almost Human” is a more clever title than is immediately obvious for Celsey McFadden’s single. The composer used avant-garde electronic music artist/technologist/performance artist Holly Herndon’s AI voice model app Holly+ to introduce the analog of the sound of her voice into the track and processed violins and other aspects of the song through the app as well giving the song an unusual quality that’s hard to pin down. McFadden compares it to the way DeepFake technology functions except instead of nefarious ends his are to expand the horizons of creative possibility. The strong rhythmic elements have it sounding like some futuristic Indonesian pop as they sync together with a touch of Middle Eastern flavor. And the tones come off like cybernetic insects having an improv session and resonating unconventional tonalities and textural sounds to give the whole a simultaneously alien and familiar feel. Listen to “Almost Human” on Soundcloud and connect with McFadden at the links below.
Think of the new album video by JAF 34 “EMPTY” as something of a short cosmic thriller and science fiction film with obvious nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jodorowsky, Stephen Kostanski and Panos Cosmatos. Musically the arc is like taking the very concept of dream pop to much more ambitious heights than usual. Yes, the flowing, refreshing synth drones that evolve and slip into the cracks of consciousness. Sure the ethereal, simple guitar line that wanders even as it suggests a distant destination. But JAF 34 doen’t leave it there, chapters of this song proceed to give a musical depiction of the way we have regulated our time on the earth and given up so much of our lives to the commodification of not just our waking hours but how the content we help to create to offer up as products of social capital monetizable as experiences and bits of information for others and as markers algorithms can use to market to us and to other people whose own characteristics and patterns of behavior and consumption match our own. This recursive feedback loop the film suggests does in fact leave us fairly empty and running on a kind of treadmill that serves capital instead of our genuine selves. The music thus in the point in the film reflects the layers of distortion and, flux and frantic and desperate activity and for what? More wandering and chasing paths outside our genuine and organic interests and desires and following those suggested to us by an impersonal economic model that enriches large corporations at the expense of society and our individual psyches. It’s an ambitious piece of work that has more in common with a work of art out of FLUXUS, Holly Herndon or Laurel Halo than any standard experimental electronic or rock artist as its social critique is inseparable from its execution. Watch the “EMPTY” in its entirety on YouTube and connect with JAF 34 at the website linked below.
“Peregrine” shimmers into your ear and takes you with soaring tones to an otherworldly realm as depicted in the Michelle Zheng-directed music video. The dream logic of the song and the video complement each other well. Luna Noon’s crystalline percussion muted bass ground the ethereal vocals and playful, ghostly synth melodies. The confused and disorienting, vaguely menacing interaction between the characters in the video before they reconcile and the lyrics of the song describe the way one can become lost in your own head swept up in a mood of the moment cast adrift on a sea of your own emotions. The song is reminiscent of Laurel Halo’s willingness to go off standard tonal structures and Holly Herndon’s surreal, percussive compositions and that artist’s own penchant for working in uncomfortable emotional spaces as a vehicle to explore one’s own lived psychological dynamics. Watch the video for “Peregrine” on YouTube and connect with Lunar Noon at the links provided.
This best of list was intended for publication in 2020 and parts of the entries with comments were published in my year end best list for the print edition of Birdy magazine in Denver for the December 2019 issue. The full best of list is presented here with those short reviews included with the appropriate album and the rest included without comment and several album covers shared as well. The album of the year was All Your Sisters’ Trust Ruins (listed first) because it encapsulated the mood of the year and the band put on one of the best shows of 2019 and the record felt like a leap forward in style and execution for the band. Soon I’ll publish the full best of 2020 list too in a similar format with the commentary for those items that made it into the print edition of Birdy for December 2020.
All Your Sisters | Trust Ruins | The Flenser
A brutal, maximalist summation of the turmoil, conflict, sense of chaos and confusion, rage and frustration and overwhelming flood of negative input from world and societal events of the previous few years. In articulating those feelings and experiences and more alone as powerfully as it does, this album by All Your Sisters transcends genre by providing an example of how industrial and darkwave music can burst beyond established conventions with the sharp-edged and precise percussion framing and channeling the fiery energy at the core of the songwriting.
Adia Victoria | Silences | Atlantic
Adrianna Krikl | Celestial | Self-released
Aldous Harding | Designer | 4AD
Alex Cameron | Miami Memory | Secretly Canadian
Altas | All I Ever Wanted Was | Self-released
A lush deepening of the band’s sweeping, cinematic aesthetic.
Anamanaguchi | [USA] | Polyvinyl
Andre Cactus | Dune Juice | Multidim Records
Andy Stott | It Should Be Us | Modern Love
Angel Olsen | All Mirrors | Jagjaguwar
Poignantly dreamlike examination of identity in an age of universal scrutiny.
Bestial Mouths | INSHROUDSS | Rune & Ruin
Bellhoss | Geraniums | Self-released
Buoyant, lo-fi slowcore love songs for inner awkward nerd.
Bethlehem Steel | s/t | Exploding in Sound
The utter exorcism of oppression through bursts of melodic/atonal poetry.
Big Dopes | Crimes Against Gratitude | Self-released
Captivating indie pop earworm vingettes of American malaise and hope.
Big Thief | U.F.O.F. / Two Hands | 4AD
Bison Bone | Take Up the Trouble | Self-released
Black Belt Eagle Scout | At The Party With My Brown Friends | Saddle Creek
black midi | Schlagenheim | Rough Trade Records
A primer for the new avant-guitar rock revolution.
Black Mountain | Destroyer | Jagjaguwar
Blanck Mass | Animated Violence Mild | Sacred Bones
Blood Incantation | Hidden History of the Human Race | Dark Descent
Boy Scouts | Free Company | ANTI-
Briffaut | A Maritime Odyssey: Heaven is Only a Boat Race Away | GROUPHUG
Calexico and Iron and Wine | Years to Burn | Subpop
Cat Tyson Hughes | Gentle Encounters With Things | Self-released
Ambient, aural snapshots of memory fragments from the hypnogogic state.
Cau5er | The Tower | Self-released
Ceremony | In the Spirit World Now | Relapse Records
Chastity Belt | Chastity Belt | Hardly Art
Cheap Perfume | Burn It Down | Snappy Little Numbers
Chella and the Charm | Good Gal | Self-released
Chelsea Wolfe | Birth of Violence | Sargent House
Chimney Choir | (light shadow) | Self-released
Chromatics | Closer to Grey | Italians Do It Better
clipping. | There Existed an Addiction to Blood | Sub Pop
Consumer | In Computers | The Flenser
Control Top | Covert Contracts | Get Better Records
Cop Circles | Vacation for Hurt | Self-released
Subversive, Laurie Anderson-esque, New Age, No Wave send-up of corporate seminar jingles.
Cosey Fanni Tutti | Tutti | Conspiracy International
Heavy and hypnotic industrial rave autobiography through sound.
Curse | Metamorphism | Fake Crab Records
Eight, powerful, darkwave, prophetic warnings of our potential future.
Danny Brown | uknowhatimsayin¿ | Warp Records
Relentlessly inventive beats and tragicomedic, self-immolating swagger, sci-fi autobiography.
Davi Valois | Bátraquio | Space Cow Music
Deafkids | Metaprogramação | Neurot Recordings
Immersive, ambient-industrial death grind.
Doo Crowder | One For the Losers (& Other Pilgrims) | Self-released
The greatest art pop record since the death of Harry Nilsson.
Dog Basketball | s/t | Self-released
Drab Majesty | Modern Mirror | Dais Records
Moodily heartbreaking deep dive into the essence of love, memory and beauty.
Drowse | Light Mirror/Second Self | The Flenser
Dude York | Falling | Hardly Art
Earl Sweatshirt | FEET OF CLAY | Tan Cressida
Elizabeth Colour Wheel | Nocebo | The Flenser
Majestic, urban-tribal, noise-sludge dream psych.
Empath | Active Listening: Night On Earth | Get Better Records
Entrancer | Downgrade | Multidim Records
Ex Hex | It’s Real | Merge Records
Cosmic New Wave power pop gems beginning to end.
Facs | Lifelike | Trouble In Mind
FEELS / Shannon Lay | Post Earth / August | Wichita / Sub Pop
FM Cubgod | Handsome? | Self-released
Foxes in Fiction | Trillium Killer | Orchid Tapes
Frankie Cosmos | Close It Quietly | Sub Pop
French Kettle Station | Over X Millennia | Self-released
Retro-furturist, New Age pop shade jams on contemporary wack culture.
Future Sound of London | Yage | Fsol Digital
Gila Teen | Doesn’t | Self-released
Glissline | Digital Bipolarism | Multidim Records
Gold Trash | Quiet Violence | Glasss Records
Collage glitch industrial hip-hop daggers into misogynist culture.
Goon | Natural Evil | Convulse Records
Guerilla Toss | What Would The Odd Do? | DFA
Mind-altering, subtropical, disco punk dance pop.
Guidon Bear | Downwardly Mobile: Steel Accelerator | Antiquated Future Records
Gun Street Ghost | Battles | Self-released
Half Shadow | Dream Weather Its Electric Song | Illusion Florist
Haunted Horses | Dead Meat | SIXWIX
Have a Nice Life | Sea of Worry | The Flenser
HEALTH | Slaves of Fear Vol. 4 | Loma Vista Recordings
HIDE | Hell is Here | Dais Records
Holly Herndon | Proto | 4AD
HTRK | Venus In Leo | Ghostly International
Love songs from downtempo dance clubs in the future urban decay.
Jamila Woods | Legacy! Legacy! | Jagjaguwar
Jenny Hval | The Practice of Love | Sacred Bones
Kal Marks | Let the Shit House Burn Down | Exploding in Sound
Kid Mask | dead sore(s) | Self-released
Dispatches from the industrial glitch techno hard rave revolution.
Kim Gordon | No Home Record | Matador Records
Scathing jazz cool poetry set to hip-hop-inflected noise.
Kristin Hersh | Possible Dust Clouds | Fire Records
Kyle Emerson | Only Coming Down | Swoon City Music
Larians | Looming Boy EP | Self-released
Loneliness and isolation distilled as shimmering IDM nuggets.
Legendary Pink Dots | Angel in the Detail | Metropolis Records
A brilliant synthesis of classical sonic architecture, emotionally charged ambient and deep social critique.
Lightning Cult | EP 2: Ether Waves | Cloud Command Sound
Lingua Ignota | Caligula | Profound Lore
Caustic, industrial fusillade against patriarchal fragility.
Lisa Prank | Perfect Love Song | Father/Daughter Records
Little Fyodor | Pithy Romantic Ballads | Self-released
Arch punk cynic and curmudgeon begrudgingly admits affection and survives.
Lot Lizard | s/t | Different Folk Records
Lower Dens | The Competition | Ribbon Music
Malibu Ken | s/t | Rhymesayers
Mannequin Pussy | Patience | Epitaph
Mdou Moctar | Ilana: The Creator | Sahel Sounds
Intricate African prog suffused with the joy of the creative act.
Moon Pussy | Band Meating | Self-released
Eruptive, searing, angular, anti-pop exorcisms.
Muscle Beach | Charms | Sailor Records
Necropanther | The Doomed City | Self-released
New Standards Men | Field Recordings From Late Capitalism Vol. 10 | Self-released
No Gossip in Braille | Bend Toward Perfect Light | Cercle Social Records
The transmogrification of sorrow into transcendent melodies.
NoSwoon | s/t | Substitute Scene Records
Effervescent yet introspective dark wave synth pop.
Nots | 3 | Goner Records
Nuancer | I Hardly Know Her | Self-released
Obtuse | Who’s Askin’? | Self-released
Gloriously earnestly meaningful, off-the-cuff, utterly unpretentious pop punk.
Oh, Rose | While My Father Sleeps | Park The Van
Oko Tygra | Assistoma | Grey Market Records
Masterfully executed emotionally stirring downtempo dream pop.
Old Time Relijun | See Now And Know | K Records
Orbit Service | The Door to the Sky | Self-released
Pedestrian Deposit | Dyers’ Hands | Monorail Trespassing
The sonic analog of places we don’t want to visit but are drawn to anyway.
Pharmakon | Devour | Sacred Bones
Pinkish Black | Concept Unification | Relapse Records
Pile | Green and Gray | Exploding in Sound
Furiously poetic, orchestral and thoughtful blueprint for arty, noisy post-punk to come.
Plaid | Polymer | Warp Records
Pop. 1280 | Way Station | Weyrd Son Records
POW! | Shift | Castle Face Records
Priests | The Seduction of Kansas | Sister Polygon
Redwing Blackbird | Too Klaus For Comfort | Self-released
Rowboat | Birchwood Halls | Self-released
Secret Shame | Dark Synthetics | Portrayal of Guilt Records
Sheer Mag | A Distant Call | Wilsuns Recording Company
Modern blues punk’s equivalent of Judas Priest’s Stained Class.
She Past Away | Disko Anksiyete | Metropolis Records / Fabrika Records
ShitKid | DETENTION | PNKSLM Recordings
Silence in the Snow | Levitation Chamber | Prophecy Productions
Sleaford Mods | Eton Alive | Extreme Eating Records
Sleater-Kinney | The Center Won’t Hold | Mom + Pop
Slugger | Is Real | Self-released
Sole & DJ Pain 1 | No God Nor Country | Black Box Tapes
somesurprises | s/t | Drawing Room Records
Spirettes | Esoteria | Self-released
An ethereal distillation of deep yearning and determination.
SRSQ | Temporal Love/Unkept | Dais Records
Stonefield | Bent | Flightless
Strange Ranger | Remembering The Rockets | Tiny Engines
Studded Left | Popular Intuition | S/L INTNL.
Psychedelic post-punk portraits of life and love in our dystopic USA.
Summer Cannibals | Can’t Tell Me No | Tiny Engines
SunnO))) | Life Metal and Pyroclasts | Southern Lord
Swans | leaving meaning. | Young God
Tacocat | This Mess Is A Place | Sub Pop
Telefon Tel Aviv | Dreams Are Not Enough | Ghostly International
The Coathangers | The Devil You Know | Suicide Squeeze
The Hecks | My Star | Trouble In Mind Records
The Ocean Blue | Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves | Korda Records
The Paranoyds | Carnage Bargain | Suicide Squeeze
The Stargazer Lilies | Occabot | Rad Cult
The Twilight Sad | It Won/t Be Like This All the Time | Rock Action
The sound of a valiant struggle against existential failure.
The Vanilla Milkshakes | Punching Cows | Self-released
Humorous and heartfelt pop grunge odes to perpetual outsider status.
Total Trash | Field Guide | Self-released
Melancholic, post-psychedelic, slowcore, glitter jams.
Turvy Organ | The Ghost at the Feast | GROUPHUG
Tyler The Creator | Igor | Columbia
Dense, gritty, hazy beats and meta-exploration of identity as human and artist.
We Are Not a Glum Lot | The Price of Simply Existing | Self-released
Gripping, emo-inflected, math-y, post-punk bummercore.
Weeping Icon | s/t | Fire Talk
Cathartic, thorny, darkwave doom garage.
Whipporwill | The Nature of Storms | Self-released
Wreck and Reference | Absolute Still Life | The Flenser
Xeno & Oaklander | Hypnos | Dais Records
Heavy/heavenly techno for the dance club on Mount Olympus.
Xiu Xiu | Girl with Basket of Fruit | Polyvinyl
Zealot | The Book of Ramifications | Self-released
Pulsing low end rumble pushes Buggie’s song “Westend” along as Gretchen King almost reads the story of the current dissolution of the world order as we knew it and the desperate attempts to save it. Whether that be with “corporate saviors” or clinging to the utterly discredited neoliberal order with its distractions in entertainment, social media and dead end jobs held out as our only options as a way to perpetuate an economic model that hasn’t been sustainable in even the most powerful countries for four decades. Buggie points out that it seems like the last legs of resisting the inevitable. The almost industrial percussion wedded with King’s pondering but cautionary vocals convey the hard reality before us but inject it with a hint of whimsical flavor as if to suggest that maybe this end of things as we know it is a positive because it’s already been crashing in on itself since the turn of the century and maybe we’re already ready for something new even if it seems scary. Fans of Holly Herndon and Hiro Kone will greatly appreciate the production and soundscaping and the conceptual nature as well as the social critique of the song. Listen to “Westend” on Soundcloud, watch a short clip of the stop motion music video on Instagram and connect with Buggie at the links provided.
Holland Andrews’ clear, radiant voice comes in and soars over the blasts of white noise, murky synths and industrial beat of the new Like A Villain single “Daughters” from the new album What Makes Vulnerability Good. Andrews has been at making stirring and unsettling yet gripping soundscapes for several years at this point but this song is especially confrontational, it hits you with searing lines like “they listen, they see her but they don’t believe her, they’ve broken my daughter” uttered with nearly blinding outrage more than suggesting violence of some kind inflicted on a woman and the aftermath of denial of the events. Comparisons are often made between Andrews’ work and that of Diamanda Galas’ groundbreaking, heartrending exorcisms of industrial beats, soaring vocals and raw and challenging subject matter and Holly Herndon’s experiments in vocal processing and similarly psyche unmasking material. But for this song one might even reference Lingua Ignota’s new album Caligula and its uncompromising and moving critique of misogyny in modern culture and its pervasive effects on everyone’s lives. While a harrowing listen this song feels like it shakes off some of the rage and personal darkness it also embodies or at least gives it a coherent form that is impossible to ignore. Listen to “Daughters” on Soundcloud and follow Like A Villain at the links below.