#70: Childish Gambino – 3.15.20
Look, learning to take Donald Glover seriously has taken a bit, okay? He had killer comedic sense on Community and his first big single contained the immortal line “made the beat and murdered it / Casey Anthony” so I can be forgiven to be slow to get into Childish Gambino as a serious project. It was 2016’s Awaken My Love, a bold declaration of love for Seventies-vintage psychedelic, funk, and R&B, that, uh, awoke me. 3.15.20 keeps the psychedelic glam-funk influences but updates them into the Eighties, using sounds that wouldn’t be particularly out of place on peak Prince records. It’s forward-thinking while drawing its roots from what is now the deep past, and manages to walk that dicey line between being topical and fun.
#69: Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
Dream Wife spin California punk rock by way of Be Your Own Pet, Le Tigre, Debbie Harry, and Madonna that is equal parts horny and angry. They have a winning way with alternating squealing and deadpan vocals but also with their live show; the band sometimes enacts a ‘bitches to the front’ policy where they invite women only into the pit to mosh.
#68: Spectral Lore & Mare Cognitum – Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
Once upon a time, black metal was an immature genre filled with adolescent edgelord Satanism, racism, misogyny, and I’m assuming ridiculous levels of substance abuse. Nowadays it’s an expansive genre where you can fill in the black outlines however you wish; there is still an unfortunate segment of Nazis using the form but there is also a vital and exciting movement of red and anarchist-aligned bands using the genre to express themselves. More on that later – Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum stick to strictly apolitical topics on their collaboration record, putting together nearly two hours of atmospheric black metal that goes planet by planet through the solar system, ending with 23 minutes on Pluto. There’s something about the astrology of the planets that you can dive into if you really like that stuff but the key here is that the duo have a fine sense for sweeping, headbanging melody (check out the main motif on “Venus (The Priestess)” for an example) and also some of the best technical blastbeat rhythms in the game.
#67: Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today
The Detroit post-punk band was once called “the most important band we’ve got in America right now” by Iggy Pop and their fifth album goes a long way toward showing why. Conceived of as a summation of their first decade together as a band, Ultimate Success Today came about while singer Joe Casey was ill and taking a spin through the re-release of the band’s first album, 2012’s No Passion All Technique. Playing the two back to back will show the deep growth the band has managed over the course of five albums. Ultimate Success Today is dense, with an ebb and flow reminiscent of an ugly summer thunderstorm, and shot through here and there with moments of jazzy brass and atmospheric strings. Like that same thunderstorm, standing in the middle of this record will leave you wet and a little frightened.
#66: Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Call it the slowest blowup of all time. Jay Electronica, one of Jay-Z’s hottest finds, released his first mixtape in 2007. That tape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), was a big success and led eventually to Jay’s signing with Roc Nation in 2010. What followed was ten years – an entire decade – of very little. There were one-off songs here and there, and some well-placed guest verses, but it took until 2020 for Jay’s fabled debut album to finally arrive. When it did, it hit like a bomb – it’s a tour de force of production and rapping, almost all of it handled by the man himself. It’s also very much a Nation of Islam record (in the same sense that Ye’s Jesus Is King is a gospel Christian record) so, uh…your mileage may vary.
#65: Jadakiss – Ignatius
Probably the biggest surprise of the year was that this formerly washed-up rapper and one-time Lox member still had one classic album left in the tank. Remember when Ye was untouchable and he rapped “The doors was closed / I felt like Bad Boy’s street team / I couldn’t work the Lox”? Jadakiss has had a wildly uneven career but Ignatius is an easy highlight, full of smooth retro hooks, solid wordplay, and some ferocious guests (including a tip-top Pusha).
#64: Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans
Consistency is a problem with many artists and especially so with electronic artists. Many electronic acts have a definite shelf life, getting one or two good albums out before tastes change minutely, rendering them scrambling and obsolete. Kieran Hebden, though, has been doing this for over twenty years and has survived largely by mining the same energy with slightly different changes just to keep things fresh. By now it’s kind of funny how big a name he is in the club circuit, given how much of this album showcases his love of atmosphere, ambience, and eclecticism. Someone has to soundtrack the chillout room I guess.
#63: Cornershop – England Is A Garden
Somewhere out there is a guy who only knows “She Don’t Use Jelly” and thinks the Flaming Lips are a one-hit wonder 90s band. This is the position Cornershop have been in ever since the 1998 remix of “Brimful of Asha” was a huge hit. The song rode its utterly undeniable hook, British Indian cultural references, and the line “everyone needs a bosom for a pillow” to the top, and then the band more or less vanished from the eye of the fickle public. They’ve continued to put out great English garage rock ever since, though, so here’s your “She Don’t Use Jelly” moment: you have a whole back catalog of hook-fused albums to peruse. Starting with their 2020 entry, of course, which serves to all of their strengths in an ageless fashion.
#62: Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Porridge Radio began life as a Brighton DIY band getting by on bedroom lo-fi recordings. Now they’re one of the leading lights of the UK indie scene, proving that you, too, can become a critical darling signed to Secretly Canadian as long as you also have hustle, ambition, and a Nineties-era penchant for dark, howling indie rock. It channels its gothy nature from its seaside English surroundings (Nick Cave has a house in Brighton, for what it’s worth) and cuts the existential dread with a sort of plain, aggressive directness that is as much refreshing as it is discomforting.
#61: Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open
I hated this album the first time I heard it. Honestly I hated it the second time I heard it too. Then, during the pandemic, I spent some time kicking around the band’s back catalog and then came back to Making A Door Less Open. I realized that, regardless of the sonic detours and new vocalizations, it is very, very much a Car Seat Headrest record, in both form and content. It’s still not even my fourth-favourite CSH record, but it’s quite good at what it does, which is provide new takes on Will Toledo’s sui generis songwriting. Once you become familiar with albums like Monomania and Nervous Young Man, you’ll hear their motifs ghost across the angular, jagged voicings used on this record. Toledo himself telegraphed the shift in 2018, telling Apple Music that “there might be some stuff that surprises people who only know us as a rock band, but I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people who are checking out all the deep cuts.” Plus, it seemed as though it was the right record for the right time: despite that it was recorded throughout 2019, it was as though we were hearing a band that was stuck inside and looking for ways to alleviate their boredom in as creative a fashion as possible.