#30: Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
Early after this album dropped I read someone say in a discussion that you wouldn’t use Alfredo to introduce someone to Freddie Gibbs but I have to disagree with that. For one thing, it’s up for Best Rap Album at the 2021 Grammys, so clearly it has to have some kind of widespread appeal. The Alchemist’s beats are smooth as fine scotch on this record, and Gibbs is Gibbs: hard-nosed coke rap with an absurd sense of humour, the kind you get hustling in a Rust Belt shithole like Gary, Indiana. It’s bar after bar of serpentine wordplay, backed up with some prime guests: Rick Ross and Tyler, the Creator, as well as most of Griselda Records, returning the favour Gibbs graced on their own 2020 albums.
#29: Taylor Swift – Evermore
As of this moment, Taylor Swift’s second album of 2020 is taking it’s second week atop the Billboard charts and the word “cottagecore” is being thrown around like it means something. Like Folklore, Evermore was a surprise album, having been announced only a few hours before it came out. Like Folklore, it’s produced by the Dessner twins, whose touches can definitely be felt here and there. Unlike Folklore, it feels like a more fully-realized version of the “Taylor Swift goes indie folk” narrative. Folklore could be seen as a demo of the direction she wanted to go in, and in that case Evermore is the full product. I mentioned storytelling in the entry for Folklore? Look no further than songs like “Champagne Problems” and “No Body, No Crime”, the latter of which features some of the Haim sisters, for proof positive of the kind of stories Swift can tease out of these songs. Don’t let the braid on the album cover fool you: this is an album by a woman who is letting loose, relatively speaking, now that she’s figured out where to go while she plays with re-recording her entire back catalog.
#28: Drive-By Truckers – The New OK
Covid put paid to the tour behind The Unraveling, their first album of 2020, so with not much else to do the Truckers settled down into quarantine in their new hometown of Portland, Oregon, and began patching together a new record. “Patching” is the word here, since some of this album is built from recordings made during the sessions for The Unraveling and some were recorded during the tumultuous summer of 2020. Remember how I just said they live in Portland now? “Watching The Orange Clouds” is about that summer. So is “The Perilous Night.” Elsewhere, there is a sense that the band is mining the slow-motion collapse of their country on tracks like “The Unraveling” and “The Distance.” Topping it off is a timely-ish cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away”, done with the proper amount of abandon. It shows off a lot more range than the relatively more restrained first album, and at times it seems like the band is having more fun in quarantine than they were before. The New OK is a protest album, first and foremost, and after the summer America lived through it’s a wonder that there aren’t more of them.
#27: Fleet Foxes – Shore
Shore is the neo-prog-folk band’s second album since Robin Pecknold decided that stalking around the Columbia campus being miserable in black was less fun than he thought it would be. “Shore” is a proper name for the album, in a real sense. Shorelines are borderlands, and like all borderlands they signify an end to something, and a beginning to something; one can never pass through them unscathed. Crack-Up, the band’s first post-reunion album, was tumultuous and anxious, but ended in a burst of bright sunlight. Shore continues that feeling; they emerge into that bright sunlight and spend 15 songs reveling in it, regaining in a way the gorgeous spark that infused their 2008 debut with such world-shaking energy. Or, as my wife put it, “oh is this new, it just sounds like a Fleet Foxes album.” Yes, and that’s a beautiful thing.
#26: clipping. – Visions Of Bodies Being Burned
It’s become de rigueur in certain online left circles to shit on Hamilton and Lin Manuel Miranda. We can go back and forth on that all day, but it’s something that has to be said as a segue into talking about clipping. because it’s the hip hop outlet of Daveed Diggs, who is much better known for being the original Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (he’s also in the TV adaptation of Snowpiercer, for people whose children haven’t made them watch Hamilton performances on Disney+). clipping. is probably untenably hardcore for people who are curiously coming in to see what else this cool ass dude is up to. Honestly, strike the “probably.” Visions Of Bodies Being Burned is a continuation of 2019’s There Existed An Addiction To Blood, in that it’s strongly influenced by industrial, noise, and touches of power electronic/power violence. The industrial touchstone is no joke; the extended coda to “Say The Name” is specifically designed to invoke the one at the end of NIN’s “Closer.” Horrorcore is a legitimate genre of hip hop with a long pedigree (see RZA’s Gravediggaz project, Geto Boys, Kool Keith, early OFWGKTA) but it’s one that’s always come with a certain amount of cheese to cut the horror. clipping. eschew this, giving the people what they want: slasher films by the barrelful. Pitchfork complained about the lack of “theater, ham, cheese” but, as usual, missed the point entirely.
#25: Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce
Turbulent times make for great art and that’s pretty much what Open Mike Eagle is putting forward on his 11th album. The general idea is that there’s a lot going on in his head; there’s a divorce going on, and some financial troubles, but we’re never given any personal details. It’s enough that everything is ending or otherwise changing, and that covid isn’t helping matters. It’s bleak but it’s also hilarious, confessions and recriminations from an anime nerd having to laugh in order to avoid crying. Also “The Black Mirror Episode” is one of the top five songs of the year, if only because it’s maddening to try to figure out which episode broke his marriage.
#24: Nubya Garcia – Source
Saxophonist/bandleader/radio DJ Nubya Garcia is a leading light of the modern London jazz scene and her debut album Source shows exactly why. She piles wailing, emotionally toned sax leads over songs that bring together historical American jazz with reggae and Colombian folk rhythms. It ranges through the world to find inspiration, something she learned from her heritage as well as from her childhood time at art school in Camden Town. Jazz is, at it’s heart, a way for artists to make sense of disparate traditions existing under the same roof; Source fits in with the very best of that tradition, melding and examining musical traditions that underpin life in the modern cosmopolis.
#23: The Microphones – Microphones In 2020
Intimacy is not something that Phil Elverum has ever had a problem with. His songs, both with the Microphones and as Mount Eerie have been very upfront about what their creator is thinking, feeling, and dealing with. This brutal raw honesty reached a peak on 2017’s A Crow Looked At Me, which featured a collection of songs that all dealt with his then-recent experience of being a sudden widowed single father to an eighteen month old daughter. Since then he had a brief marriage to actress Michelle Williams and released two more albums about the death of his wife, 2018’s Now Only and 2019’s Lost Wisdom Part 2. If this sounds like I’m taking stock of his life, it’s because Microphones In 2020 does that too, and you may as well have some recent context to all the background stuff he’s got going on. Over the course of one 44 minute song he trades off on D and F#, textures the sound with noise and other snippets, and does his signature talk-sing thing over it, talking about how he got to this point: how he came of age in a punk house, how he first got the impetus to take the Microphones in a specific direction after watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001; his cassette-recording days and the influences of that era (including Tori Amos, Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters (obviously), and “radio stations coming from Canada”; seeing Stereolab play the same chord for fifteen minutes once and grasping that anything was possible; burning the name Microphones in a cave in northern Norway in 2002 and moving into the name Mount Eerie, and connecting that to a black metal song lyric years later; etc. It’s one long soliloquy that sums up everything he’s done so far, the good and the bad, and is easily as fascinating as the peak of Microphones-era Elverum, The Glow, Pt. 2. “I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising. I remember my life as if it’s just some dreams that I don’t trust, burning off, layered thick, a cargo that I haul, wounds and loves unresolved.”
#22: Boris – NO
The Japanese noise metal band Boris is now twenty-six albums deep into their thing and they have beome exceedingly good at it. Where their previous two albums went off into the same sort of hard-drone territory as Melvins’ Lysol, NO returns the group to the, uh, amplifier worship of their glory days, with globs of blasting hardcore interspersed with heavy sludge riffing. It’s probably the most consistently headbanging effort they’ve put out since 2008’s Pink.
#21: Haim – Women In Music, Pt. III
At Coachella 2018 Haim had the lead-in slot right before Beyonce and her marching band scorched the stage to the bare Earth. Haim’s set there was less a traditional set and more of a cheerleading for the mythology of the Coachella festival itself. Which makes sense; they are L.A. girls, after all, and they’ve been going to the festival for as long as they’ve been able. What that set really gave, however, was a sense of the Haim sisters as individuals. They weren’t just an interchangeable collective, and this is the concept that gets driven to completion on Women In Music Pt. III. On their third record we see each of them as three-dimensional characters, people with rich inner lives and a collection of flaws and fears. They’ve started mining honesty, in other words, and it makes their sunny 70s-era jams less Fleetwood Mac retreads and more like the messy reality of Fleetwood Mac. Of course, the Haim sisters’ concerns are a little more hardcore than a band intent on sleeping with each other while doing more cocaine than is humanly possible: this is an album flirting around the borderlands of the world of the dead, given the death and dying going around in Haim’s periphery in the last couple of years. It’s vulnerable and easily listenable, a combination that has rightfully put them on a path to glory.