The 100 Best Albums of 2020 (#20-11)

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#20: Backxwash – God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It

Montreal has a history of pushing the envelope, artistically. This self-produced album, barely over twenty minutes in length, is another piece of evidence for that. Backxwash, who left her native Zambia to do a CS degree in Canada, moved to Montreal and came out as transgender, released this debut album at the height of the first wave of the plague and the tone fit that paranoid period of time perfectly. It’s a deft mixture of goth, trap, industrial, and post-rock sounds, and her vocals, ranging from Denzel Curry-furious rap to agonized moans, fit this roiling soundscape excellently. As an album it’s aggressive and brilliant; as a debut album it’s unfathomable. You can only find it free on Bandcamp right now, owing to the number of blatant uncleared samples on here (you’ll hear NIN, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin pretty clearly); despite that, it won the 2020 Polaris Music Prize.

#19: Run The Jewels – RTJ4

That the duo of Killer Mike and El-P would make it to this point was never in doubt for me; the first time I ever heard “Reagan”, from Mike’s El-P-produced R.A.P. Music, I knew I needed more of this, and I knew I wasn’t alone. Eight years later here we are, with more of that – an embarrassment of riches, really. Yeah, it’s true that they don’t walk the walk quite as well as they talk the talk, but others will and the talk the duo present can be the soundtrack to that. Given that a lot of hip hop inhabiting the popular space is half-assed, barred-out, and on the nod, it’s honestly galvanizing just to hear hard-edge rhymes over beats that go just as all-in as the words. This is a supergroup in the best sense of the word; the only thing capable of stopping them is themselves.

#18: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers has a playlist on her Spotify called “who is pheobe fucking bridgers?” and the question becomes less relevant with every passing day. Spend enough time online and you will know who Pheobe Fucking Bridgers is. She is the patron saint of queer girls just trying to make it on this bitch of an Earth. She’s an indie artist possessed of one of those voices that is instantly recognizable as soon as you hear it. There’s no mistaking her for anyone else: when she comes in, it can only be Phoebe Fucking Bridgers. At the same time, you can fill yourself into the songs at a highly relatable level, given that they’re pretty much centered around aspects of depression, hope, and the ever-present spectre of self-destruction which is, you might recognize, the theme of 2020.

#17: Cable Ties – Far Enough

Melbourne is the new home of a resurgent riot grrl movement – see also Camp Cope and Amyl and the Sniffers – and if we’re drawing direct references to the original PNW scene then Cable Ties are Melbourne’s Sleater-Kinney. This is more than just vaguely connecting a red string between two bands; the first time I heard it, before I looked into it, I thought it sounded like what I wanted out of The Center Won’t Hold instead of the overproduced St. Vincent-stomp we got. Far Enough is a powerful album driven by a standard power trio lineup and even if it lacks the knotty complex riffing that drives Sleater-Kinney’s best work, it has the straight-up abandon and howling vocal work of it. Like the best riot grrl albums, it blends the personal and the political in an intriguing way and, like the best riot grrl albums, it melts your face off at the same time.

#16: The Weeknd – After Hours

When Abel Tesfaye finds a flaw in himself he latches on and bleeds it for all it’s worth. After Hours is no different in that sense. In the musical sense, however, this is a brighter, poppier self-loathing; it’s self-loathing you can feel good to. There are more ballads, for one thing; for another, there’s a lot more New Wave influences, especially on the brittle Eighties-tinged lead single/song of the year “Blinding Lights.” Dev Hynes did it first, to be sure, but the merger of R&B with New Wave is such a delight that even second-fiddle records like this are a welcome change.

#15: Dogleg – Melee

Finding a new band whose star seems to be burning twice as hot as everyone else around them is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Exciting, because they sound like the future captured in a jar, with a glow too bright to look at. Nerve-wracking because such blazing stars tend to burn out quickly, and even if they don’t they often get trapped in a single songwriting mode and rapidly lose their luster (see FIDLAR and Cloud Nothings for further information). Still, the period of time that they exist at the peak of their powers is an absolute riot, enough to remind you that there is still fun and joyful abandon to be found in life, if you just know where to look for it.

#14: Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

Another London saxophonist, this time Shabaka Hutchings whose work serves as a good example of the delineation between traditional American jazz and modern London jazz. Traditional American jazz is a merger of several distinctly American Black traditions, including ragtime and the blues. Modern London jazz draws on a more global and eclectic blend of music. It has its roots in the freewheeling improvisational nature of jazz, of course, but it welds aspects of acid house, rave, drum n bass, Caribbean rhythms (including soca, whose influence is clearly felt on the opening track “They Who Must Die” in Hutchings’ sax work) and South African township jazz, which can be traced back to trumpeter Hugh Masekela in the late Fifties. The album was in fact recorded in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and so the album’s thematic thrust against “capitalist thought and white supremacist structural hegemony” has a raw, bleeding edge that might not have come about in a more Western setting.

#13: Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?

Irreversible Entanglements are a “liberation-oriented free jazz collective” with alto sax and trumpet, as well as poet Camae Ayewa, who also works as Philadelphia’s Moor Mother. Born out of a Musicians Against Police Brutality event in New York, the quintet hone their roaring anger into focused, tempered movements, wringing emotion from constantly shifting rhythm work and horns that move from soulful melody-makers to drone-jazz blares in the blink of an eye. Ayewa’s voice provides a punctuation to the howling paranoia and righteous fury propelling the music, and fleshes out the anger as well. The liner notes for the album indicate that “Dig it: Who Sent You? is the punk-rocking of jazz and the mystification of the avant-garde, a sci-fi sound from that out-soul-fire jazz quintet.” Dig it: that’s exactly right.

#12: Ian William Craig – Red Sun Through Smoke

Wildfires have been a big news topic of late; I wrote a story about one early on in the pandemic that I haven’t sold yet. The smoke referenced in the title and throughout the album is the 2018 wildfires in British Columbia; it was recorded in two weeks in Kelowna, B.C. while wildfires circled the town restlessly. His grandfather was there in a long-term care home, suffering from dementia; during the recording his grandather passed away from lung complications due to the wildfire smoke. He wasn’t the only person in the facility to die that way, either, and the spectre of decay and death tends to permeate parts of the album. Part of that spectre is the way in which a lot of the instrumentation is stripped back. His 2016 album Centres was rich with vocalizations and sound; Rolling Stone called him the most exciting experimental composer that year. IWC 2020 is much more spare; he utilizes his grandfather’s piano throughout, and supplements it with noises wrought from a shortwave radio and a set of tape decks that are used to capture the sound of decaying tape loops. The result is very much as though Grouper got together with William Basinski, albeit with more front-and-centre vocals. It’s a very apt soundtrack to a year that was in many ways the annus horribilis of our age (so far ha ha).

#11: The Necks – Three

In this age of the resurrection of jazz it’s nice to pay homage to the people that have been keeping the genre alive since the dark days of the Eighties, when Bill Cosby dressed it up in a sweater on national TV and pulled it’s teeth. The Necks are a trio that have been making improvisational jazz since 1987 and, like bark on a tree, they have created a series of overlapping albums that grow on each other. Three is one of their better efforts, a contemplative trio of songs that marry moody piano chordings to frenetic near-Krautrock drumming. It creates a series of places to get lost in, nooks and crannies to hide in and figure stuff out. It’s one of those jazz albums that makes an excellent soundtrack to nearly anything, especially if that “anything” involves some really nice mids.

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