A year of intense change 2020 feels longer than average. Within the span of a year the regular awful run of the mill of the past three years kicked it into a nightmarish gear. The apocalyptic tenor of the pandemic, of the collapse of employment, came somewhat unexpectedly. Of course, things were bad but the intent of badness was still at least open to interpretation. Nobody can disagree that things are dreadful, yet there is a bit of hope. Realization of centuries’ worth of injustice, economic imbalance, these are finally getting a greater deal of attention.
Thus, when I was going through what I listened to this year I occasionally had to confirm that yes, the album came out this year. I do not think I have had to do that in any other year. Albums that came out before the pandemic feel like there are from another year almost, one that made a tad bit more sense. Destroyer’s “Have We Met” feels that way, like it came from another universe, one much more stable. I listen to its darkness and think to myself “wow, this didn’t even realize how dark things would get”.
For me 2020 brought a whole slew of opportunities and moments of sheer wildness. Positivity did reign alongside anxiety. Cross country moves during a pandemic tend to do that. I live in California now, barely avoided a mass layoff, and plan on staying put on the West Coast for a nice period of time, perhaps longer than anticipated. Some of the environment shifted my listening habits. Going through my list I see a shockingly large number of electronic albums, as if non-electronic music barely registered.
Which is a lie. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” serves as one of the finest things I have heard in a long time. Her tension, the anxiety of the album itself, all that percussion, Fiona Apple really captured the zeitgeist so flawlessly. I at least expected her to do it. Bob Dylan’s “Rough And Rowdy Ways” shocked me. Not much of a Bob Dylan fan, I gave it a listen because I figured why not. Most of me was expecting it to be a bit dry, but I was overwhelmed by how good it was. The Strokes even released a good album with “The New Abnormal” which again, sort of touched upon the darkness of the times, an oddity for a band that literally defines the soundtrack of the college experience from countless movies.
People deal with the isolation differently, which is what a lot of the music highlights. Mark Leckey’s “In This Lingering Twilight Sparkle” does his live journaling of his sonic experience masterfully well. Likewise, the obsessive attention to detail revealed itself on Grischa Lichtenberger’s “KAMILHAN; il y a péril en la demeure”. In a year without an Autechre release, this fractured funk really scratches the itch. 1995’s epilepsy’s self-titled effort definitely feels alone with its deeply, deeply weird thoughts. Is it nostalgic or haunted? Why not both it seems to say. Sote’s “MOSCELS” draws from a similar framework. If Autechre’s “Confield” lost the beats it might be a little bit like this: flawless sound design and incredible detail. Possibly the loneliness of quarantine is best captured with Ulla’s “inside means inside me” where the sheer spaciousness becomes overwhelming, akin to being in one’s house for days on end with no contact with the physical outside world.
Neuroses form with the simultaneous connection and loneliness a city locked down can bring. With Pontiac Streator’s “Triz” they bring a little of Terre Thaemlitz’s unsettled soundscapes into the fray, particularly from her album “Soil”. Heavier still Nazar’s “Guerilla” defies easy categorization. A truly literary album Nazar makes things uncomfortable but then brings some relief. The ebb and flow of unease proves to be outright incredible. Even Moodymann’s usual arm’s length approach melted away for something more intimate on “Taken Away”.
Escapism proves to be another useful tool in terms of getting over the intensity of being so isolated. This can go in a number of ways, such as the relentlessly playful experimentation of Beatrice Dillion’s kaleidoscopic rhythms of “Workaround”. Incredible, absolutely incredible percussion she really created a fully organic beat workout. Then there’s the shadowy dancefloor anthems of Jasmine Infiniti’s “BXTCH SLÄP”. A truly timeless take, Jasmine Infiniti combines old school and new school electronica in a sort of claustrophobic tunnel, with the sounds echoing out into the distance. Of course, somebody could simply include everything they could think of and see what happens, a sort of everything and escape in its sheer ambition, which is what the 1975’s “Notes On A Conditional Form” does. By letting in literally every impulse into their album they delve into something far weirder than they probably intended, and everybody’s better off for it.
Then there’s disco. A lot of it for the year 2020. DJ Harvey’s of course been doing the disco thing since he was born, so him doing it on “Live At Rumors” should not surprise, though it was a particularly good set. Nor should U.S. Girls’ “Heavy Light” shock as they have always flirted with the sound in the past. “Four American Dollars” might be one of their undeniably best songs. Jessie Ware’s stylish “What’s Your Pleasure” gives off distinct Moroder vibes. So slinky the whole thing has just the right amount of playfulness. On the heavier side of the disco vibe is Public Practice’s nightmare of “Gentle Grip” which features the right degree of menace.
Loopy dispositions permeate culture. The sheer lack of connection to reality for a surprisingly large number of people explains the antics of Ratgrave’s bizarre “Rock”. Weirdo elements emerge throughout from the surprisingly melodic basslines to the crunchy funk they utilize. Completely loose and carefree Sam Gendel’s “Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar” keeps things light. So much bright tones flow through as the music outright refuses to get intense, to the benefit of all. Dreamy to its core Vinyl Williams’ “Azure” choose a similar tact, with lush orchestration. Totally removed from it all Hum’s “Inlet” is a welcome return for the group and the gauzy guitars represent what a potential new wave of shoegaze might sound like.
Rage runs through Run The Jewels’ “RTJ4” which rules. It needs to be played loudly. Lyrics have so much thought delivered with so much energy results in a total wildness. Honestly with the sheer level of awfulness ongoing there’s something cathartic about the way Run The Jewels taps into that sense of indignation.
On the flip side of this, of meditation and sheer beauty, Shinichi Atobe’s “Yes” feels perfect. He’s really perfected the power of deep house. No vocals (there aren’t supposed to be vocals in deep house, people who say otherwise are wrong) means that the focus can be on his incredible arrangements, which seem to offer a glimmer of hope.
Hope is what is needed for 2020. Maybe things turn around. That would be ideal. Fortunately, a great deal of musicians really stepped it up, resulting in a surprisingly enjoyable first six months of the year (music-wise at least).
- Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
- Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways
- Beatrice Dillon – Workaround
- Nazar – Guerilla
- Destroyer – Have We Met
- DJ Harvey – Live At Rumors
- Grischa Lichtenberger – KAMILHAN; il y a péril en la demeure
- S. Girls – Heavy Light
- Hum – Inlet
- Jasmine Infiniti – BXTCH SLÄP
- Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure
- Mark Leckey – In This Lingering Twilight Sparkle
- Moodymann – Taken Away
- Pontiac Streator – Triz
- Ratgrave – Rock
- Run The Jewels – RTJ4
- Sam Gendel – Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar
- Shinichi Atobe – Yes
- Sote – Moscels
- The Strokes – The New Abnormal
- Ulla – inside means inside me
- Vinyl Williams – Azure
- The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form
- Public Practice – Gentle Grip
- 1995 epilepsy – 1995 epilepsy