The 100 Best Albums of 2020 (#10-01)

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#10: Jeff Parker – Suite For Max Brown

Jeff Parker is the guitarist for avant-post-rock legends Tortoise; in his spare time he collaborates in the Chicago jazz scene to the point where one might wonder if he has any spare time after all. His solo work is also top-notch; his 2016 album The New Breed was named the best jazz album of the year by The Observer. Suite For Max Brown is a companion piece of sorts to that album, continuing the mixture of samples and instrumental improvisation but taking even more on to himself. While there are a number of fellow players throughout the recordings, an awful lot of it is Parker himself – more so than most other jazz albums, in fact. The result is at once smooth and comfortable and intellectually eclectic; there are parts that are strongly reminiscent of the best of Coltrane, and then there are parts of it that aren’t reminiscent of anything at all – they dive headalong into a coffeehouse future that you want to see yourself living in.

#09: Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Even as her career was taking off, Katie Crutchfield was struggling with personal problems. Her and her twin sister Allison were originally the well-regarded indie punk act P.S. Eliot, and then after that band fell apart she formed Waxahatchee; by 2013 she was getting rave reviews in all the right blogs and each subsequent album amped up the hype just a little bit more. However, it also made her drinking problem that much more of a problem. In the aftermath of a promo tour behind 2017’s Out In The Storm, Crutchfield made the decision to get sober. Saint Cloud is an account of the struggles of that effort. It also represents a musical shift. Her previous three albums had a grungy feeling to them, with distorted chords roiling underneath her voice. Saint Cloud, by contrast, is very much a part of the tradition of Americana; in fact, parts of it are strongly reminiscent albums like Car Wheels On A Gravel Road or Nashville Skyline. It’s easier, breezier, an album that evokes the summer wind and the smell of all of those floral blossoms that open up just before the rain comes. It feels like that moment you realize that you desperately need to relax and then unclench your jaw; afterwards, everything seems to just melt along you.

#08: Destroyer – Have We Met

Dan Bejar’s twelfth album as Destroyer was recorded in bits and pieces – not because of the pandemic (Have We Met came out at the end of January) but because that’s just how things shook out. The writing and recording process for every Destroyer album is always different, after all, and this time it was a mixture of lo-fi recording and self-sampling. The vocals were recorded by Bejar on GarageBand at his kitchen table, with a stream-of-consciousness focus that has cropped up here and there throughout Destroyer albums (most recently on 2011’s world-weary disco journey Kaputt). He would then send these vocal recordings and some demo instrumentation to his long-term producer John Collins, who would “blow them up” in Bejar’s words. In this case that meant adding synth and rhythm sections, but also in using snippets from previous Destroyer recordings. If you recognize some of the horn work, for example, it’s probably because you heard it on Kaputt originally, or on 2015’s gorgeous Poison Season. The result is almost a southern gothic: lyrical grotesquery merged with a rolling countryside of the comfortable and the eerie, sometimes minute to minute.

#07: Moses Boyd – Dark Matter

The London jazz scene has been instrumental in reviving the genre for a new generational audience, and a key reason for this has been the London scene’s willingness to go beyond the traditional jazz formula and experiment with all sorts of disparate genres. One of the more interesting is the scene’s response to 00s jazztronica by incorporating electronica ideas into their jazz. Dark Matter is a perfect example of this type of move: the spirits of IDM, drum n bass, and 2-step garage float thorugh a framework built on American jazz and afrobeat. It’s experimental rhythmic work you can dance to, a reminder that you used to have to go to grimy speakeasies to see jazz, instead of getting dressed up in a tux for the theatre. Like Gene Krupa before him, Moses Boyd is a drummer of intense skill and creativity AND a stellar bandleader. His quintet is tight and focused, keeping things firmly grounded in the present. Theon Cross’ tuba playing (see also Sons of Kemet) provides a parallel to thick synth bass pads and Binker Golding’s sax work takes on the guise of several genres without ever losing its way. It’s not your dad’s jazz, for sure, but it might have more in common with your great-grandfather’s jazz than you might think.

#06: Sault – Untitled (Rise)

Who the fuck is Sault? I don’t know and neither do you. Paste Magazine found some names that might be a part of this allegedly-British musical collective, although this is just through credits on individual songs derived from song metadata. They have virtually no social media presence, very little traditional press coverage, and released two albums by surprise in 2020. The key thing about all that is that those two albums are easily two of the best records put out in 2020 as well. Rise, the second of those two albums, is the more dancefloor-oriented of the two, although it is paradoxically the more righteous and angry of the two. It merges sweat-soaked funk and peak-era disco into a relentless rhythmic machine with breakdowns inspired by marching band rhythms and Brazilian percussion. At the same time it, like it’s predecessor album, foregrounds Black concerns; in the middle of “I Just Want To Dance” they begin to ask “why do my people always die?” In effect it’s the ol’ one-two punch: lure the listener in with moving bodies and then hit them with the uncomfortable truth and watch their eyes widen as they dance.

#05: Feminazgul – No Dawn For Men

Here is the part where we return to our discussion on red and anarchist black metal bands. It’s become a genuine movement on the internet, and it’s an outgrowth of the Americanization of black metal. Black metal’s origins in the Norwegian scene of the early 1990s is problematic, to put it mildly. It was music for outsiders and weirdos, alright; unfortunately, its practitioners were all too often outsiders because they were outright Nazis. Emperor, the pinnacle of the first wave, had a homophobic murderer for a drummer and Varg Vikernes for a bassist. Darkthrone and Mayhem both displayed strong fascist tendencies, although both dropped it later on. All of them utilized an immature edgy-atheist version of Satanism as an ethos, which is honestly just cringe af now. For a while the genre was relegated to the extremes of the European scene and the back pages of rock magazines; the Americans were far more into death metal anyway.

Then bands like Wolves In The Throne Room came along: Americans who liked black metal but saw different ways for it to be presented. WITTR were nature pagans, drawing on natural imagery to present the critique against modern existence. Then bands like Liturgy and Deafheaven eschewed religious aspects entirely; Liturgy had…whatever ascendant philosophy Hunter Hunt Hendrix is espousing, and Deafheaven wrote songs about class consciousness, envy, and regret. Red and Anarchist Black Metal (RABM) is a progression from both of those movements. It’s a direct refutation of National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM), a genre that has flourished in the racist, fascist underground (which reminds me, see Green Room if you haven’t already – Patrick Stewart as a NS movement leader). A lot of the bands espouse some form of Marxism or are breadpilled, and they often put out compilations to benefit a left-wing cause (see Kim Kelly’s Black Flags Over Brooklyn organization for a stellar example).

Enter Feminazgul, a trio of women from North Carolina who make the most absolutely sublime atmospheric black metal you will ever hear in your entire life. Their songs, like WITTR, have a natural bent to them, but Margaret Killjoy specifically uses Tolkien imagery to drive home ideas of anarchist thought (as you might have gathered from the band name). I have to quote her directly here from an interview with Astral Noize: “Lord of the Rings is, in one understanding, the perfect anarchist parable. Power cannot be wielded, it must be destroyed…but the Feminazgul, in particular…what do the Nazgul do besides find men who have the power (the ring) and take that power away from them?”

Beyond their Tolkien-inspired fight against the patriarchy in the metal scene, however, they also make great music. “The Rot in the Field Is Holy” has some of the best strings ever committed to a black metal record and “Bury The Antlers With The Stag”, which starts off with early Thee Silver Mt. Zion level ambient work and then LAUNCHES into a perfect blastbeat, is probably my favourite song of 2020, period. Unlike a lot of black metal projects, the production values are really quite good, so you can crank them good and loud and still get good fidelity.

Plus they’re now distributed by Tridroid Records, who are all around awesome people and a great queer noise/metal label to follow.

#04: Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

Sufjan Stevens has spent his entire career subverting expectations. I know that this phrase – “subverting expectations” – is a joke now, ever since D&D subverted people’s expectations that they could stick the landing for Game of Thrones. There’s no better way to put it, though; a new Sufjan Stevens album only means that it won’t sound like the last album. Michigan and Illinois were probably the closest, even though Illinois is clearly much more kitchen-sink than Michigan ever was. Age of Adz was huge, glittering, and over-the-top; Carrie and Lowell was its exact opposite, a quiet acoustic album fueled by dread, love, and regret. The Ascension was always going to be something big and fancy, then; there was nowhere else to go from Carrie and Lowell but in the opposite direction.

The Ascension is perhaps most comparable to Age of Adz, but where Age of Adz‘s conceit was to throw absolutely everything into the mix and craft sprawling epics out of the wreckage that ensued, The Ascension finds solace from the chaos of modern existence in a neon-brittle electro minimalism. These are less complex Sufjan Stevens songs, comprised largely of smooth club beats, texture loops, and Moog synth riffs. Critics were largely divided on this: either it really struck a chord with you or it left you feeling kind of cold. For me, it reminded me of late-80s synth pop gold – your Pet Shop Boys, your Depeche Mode – and as such it filled in that little niche in me that missed out on mall culture the first time but still responds to that pop formula that seems tied to the time. As such, a straight-up pop song like “Video Game” resonates because it’s a straight-up pop song, but one that seems like it’s from both a previous and a future time. “Tell Me You Love Me” is the best 1989 ballad that never was. “America”, the final song and inexplicable lead single, is a twelve-minute mediation on wanting a better deal from God than America got; it honestly feels like a song that sums up how a lot of people feel as dawn rises on 2021.

#03: AJJ – Good Luck Everybody

AJJ – formerly The Andrew Jackson Jihad, before the band thought better of misappropriating the word “jihad” – have spent a long time honing their particular brand of folk-punk, becoming one of the most recognizable and least junked-out members of that particular possum-centric genre. It is a testament to the absurdity of the human condition that, thirteen years after they released one of the seminal albums of the genre (People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World) they are just now getting around to nearly topping the Billboard New Artist charts, as well as the Americana/Folk charts. It is just this sense of absurdity that they tap into for their seventh album, although it’s subject matter is nothing so mundane as music industry insider baseball.

No, Good Luck Everybody is an homage to the accelerating decline and fall of civilization and the ugly horrors awaiting us in the Cool Zone.

This is a bleak record, lyrically. Musically it’s easy enough to digest and full of great hooks that you can really belt out as you sing along. Of course, you’ll be singing along to such lines as the one that opens “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope”: “The lake of dead black children that America created is getting fuller than the Founding Fathers even wanted.” Or maybe the line about Trump and how “He’s a symptom and a weapon of the evil men who really run the show / the ones who melt down human beings into money like a cruel Sorcerer’s Stone.” Or perhaps “Mega Guillotine 2020”, which was originally designed to fit fifteen Congressmen at the same time! It’s a feel-good campaign song that was definitely what I was singing throughout the whole stupid Presidential campaign cycle.

Anyway, I think they’re right when they say this is probably the last golden age of anything. I recommend a little book by Roy Scranton called Learning To Die In The Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. Good luck, everybody.

#02: Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

At some point Fiona Apple became a legend. It’s sort of hard to pinpoint exactly when. I mean, her only real “hit single” was “Criminal” from 1996’s Tidal. I don’t even recall her second album, although it was probably because it was 1999 and I was deep into a regrettable nu-metal phase. However, when Extraordinary Machine dropped in 2005 it was an Event. I ended up meeting several people who raved about it, and upon listening I realized why. Then of course it took 7 years for a followup to that, which was 2012’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, another Event (and one that is pretty high up on Rolling Stone’s perennial 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list). Which brings us, eight years after THAT, to Fetch The Bolt Cutters, another certified Fiona Apple Event. How did this happen? At what point did every Fiona Apple album become an atom bomb dropped upon an unsuspecting music scene?

There’s no real answer. It’s enough that people have gone absolutely nuts for this record. Pitchfork gave out it’s first 10 since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s not really all that hard to see why, either. It’s an album that takes incredible liberties with instrumentation. That is to say, there are instruments, but those instruments are also percussive in nature. Everything is percussive in nature. Everything is percussion. These are songs that are textures on top of textures, held together with Apple’s odd half-sung, half-chanted vocals. Imagine Tune-Yards in the hands of a master, and that’s approaching what Fetch The Bolt Cutters sounds like, but only sort of. It’s hard to tie it to any one other touchstone in particular because it’s absolutely peerless.

The title is a line delivered from Gillian Anderson in the TV show The Fall. I think it was delivered straight; she was actually looking for a pair of bolt cutters. Apple took it as a cry of liberation: fetch the fucking bolt cutters and and get yourself out of the situation you’re in.” Or, as she says on “Under The Table”, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up.” It’s also about not letting men control the message or pit women against each other as “competition” so that they can continue to exercise control. It’s about freedom, to put it simply. And it’s incredibly freeing.

#01: Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

Released on Juneteenth, in the midst of the white-hot George Floyd protests that swept America, the finest album released in 2020 is protest music, but without all of the paisley-coloured Sixties hippie bullshit that usually comes along with that term. This is black protest music, by a group of unknown and only allegedly British musicians. It’s also a masterful blend of funk, Afrobeat, soul, and jazz, a mixture of relentless sweating precussion and goosebump-inducing vocal lines. It’s also not one of those albums that dwells on the problems and becomes depressing: this is marching music, standing your ground music. “It’s a hard life, fighting to be seen,” they sing on the militant “Hard Life”, “be on your way – things are gonna change.” Then, moments later, “I ain’t gonna wait no more, gonna start a war.” “Don’t Shoot Guns Down” implores a racist policeman not to shoot, echoing the concerns of the entire black population of America, whether they leave their house or not (or, in the case of Breonna Taylor, their bed). “Sorry Ain’t Enough” promises “I’m gonna scrap whatever you say, ’cause nobody can do it my way, throw it in the bin and light the coffin.” “Wildfires”, in a soaring soul line, says “you should be ashamed, the bloodshed on your hands, another man, take off your badge, we all know it was murder,” before proclaiming “I will always rise in wildfires.”

As I’m writing this a crowd of white grievance dipshits is storming the Captiol building, the day after a black woman delivered Georgia for the Democratic Party, ending Republican rule at the federal level. The police, who spent the entire summer tear-gassing and batoning and flashbanging and anonymously kidnapping BLM protesters, have suddenly decided that they can’t do any of those things. The stark divide in tactics is obvious and reflects the deep racial divide in America, where it is sadly still the color of one’s skin that determines one’s interactions with law enforcement. Who knows how this ends? Who knows who Sault is? Either way, in the middle of chaos, struggle, and the movement to live in freedom without fear of police targeting, there will be a soundtrack, and this record is as much a soundtrack as anything else you could name. “It’s time to wake up / We have walked the walk many years / Many times / We have walked in silence / We have expressed our voices / People have died / We’ve walked the walk / We have talked the talk / Nobody’s listening / Nobody listened / Nobody cared / Nobody cared / This generation cares.”

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