#80: Armand Hammer – Shrines
The brother of Antoine Yates, when questioned about his brother’s acquisition of and later mauling by an exotic tiger named Ming, said “My brother wanted to build a zoo. He wanted to build a utopia, because when he looked around him all he seen was destruction in our neighborhood.” This is included at the end of “Pommelhorse,” but it’s also reflected in the cover of the album, which shows an NYPD officer trying to get into position to tranquilize Ming. The point is pretty clear: Life is an unending series of absurdities that can only be countered with dark humour and turning the universe’s unrelenting sketchiness into art. Billy West, whose 2019 highlight Hiding Places covered much the same territory, is no stranger to this sort of thing. It’s the other half, Euclid, that gets it succinctly, however: “It started as a lesson of achieving dreams and reaching fantastical heights / Ended with us watching the Challenger rocket smoldering on the black and white.” Plus the production lineup is diverse, including Earl Sweatshirt, his sometime art director/skating buddy Navy Blue, Kenny Segal (who helmed most of Hiding Places), Andrew Broder from Fog, and Boston’s indie duo Child Actor.
#79: Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
The 2020s pop scene is gearing up to be anything but boring with the mainstreaming of experimentation (how’s that for a phrase) and the advent of styles like hyperpop. Once upon a time pop music was two verses, two choruses, and a bridge that was only slightly different, and if it wasn’t the cutting edge of sound production and major label money it wouldn’t get played on the radio. Now you can filter your voice to hell, glitch out more than prime Aphex Twin, and rebuild the very idea of structure itself and you can be the coolest person around, because who gives a shit about radio? The major label money in the only remaining piece in the puzzle: How I’m Feeling Now was released on Atlantic but it’s very much a PC Music album, and one that charts a strange course through unknown stars.
#78: Westside Gunn – Pray For Paris
Pray For Paris is the strongest argument for why Griselda Records and Buffalo hip hop in general is a scene to watch. There’s nothing flashy or trendy about the shit that Griselda puts out. It’s not sing-song pop-rap that’ll conquer the Billboard charts and the Fortnite emotes; it’s not likely that Westside Gunn or many of his features (including half-brother Conway The Machine and cousin Benny the Butcher) will be invited to guest rap on country crossover singles. Sure, Freddie Gibbs is on here and so is Tyler, the Creator, but both of them serve to highlight the atmosphere rather than lend any sort of star-making power. This is pure grimey Wu-Tang inspired boom bap, putting the focus back on lyrics and flow and staking itself as decidedly and defiantly unfashionable.
#77: The Mountain Goats – Songs For Pierre Chuvin
In 2002 John Darnielle recorded All Hail West Texas using just himself, his guitar, and a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox – the same setup he’d used thus far to record every previous Mountain Goats record. Then he signed to 4AD and formed an actual band, and while they recorded some truly classic albums in that format the world seemed like a slightly more empty place without the old Mountain Goats. Songs For Pierre Chuvin finds Darnielle returning to that “man and his boombox” format for just under half an hour, sketching out a song cycle about the eponymous Chuvin’s book The Last Of The Pagans, which details the end of Greco-Roman pagan culture.
#76: Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
The British folkie’s seventh album features a collage of ideas snipped from Graham Greene, Robert Icke, Maya Angelou, Paul McCartney, and Leonard Cohen. She has a swing like Joni Mitchell in her prime and a graceful way with melody that sets her apart from a lot of her singer-songwriter contemporaries.
#75: Quelle Chris & Chris Keys – Innocent Country 2
The followup to the MC/producer pair’s 2015 album Innocent Country finds them both in find form, marrying QC’s conversational flow with CK’s warm, jazzy piano snippets and tasteful, restrained beats. Quelle is on his usual bit about trying to keep it together in a world that wants you to break apart, and in 2020 it’s like his time has finally come around.
#74: Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini – Illusion Of Time
In which the hard-touring DJ and the Nine Inch Nails bassist/guitarist/synth-master craft an album of curling, smoke-riddled ambient room-fillers. It’s a dreamy album where some of the dreams are industrial processes on the verge of becoming self-conscious, jagged and introspective while maintaining a rigorous sense of its own craft.
#73: Slift – Ummon
French space rock that remembers that there needs to be some hard rock for it to count as “space rock.” Slift clearly took the required lessons from old Hawkwind records and has crafted on Ummon the rarest form of tribute: one that rises above to make its own mark in its chosen field.
#72: The Chats – High Risk Behavior
The Chats are a perfect dead ringer for a first wave UK punk band, which is funny given that they’re an Australian band that released their debut album precisely when the first wave of covid hit the world. It’s mile-a-minute, exhilarating three-minute up-tempo punk rock. It doesn’t demand you grapple with the weighty debates of the day or draw lines in the sand while waving red flags; it pulls off what the Adolescents did instead, finding inspiration in the daily existence of being young, broke, and dumb.
#71: Nicolas Jaar – Cenizas
Cenizas was Nicolas Jaar’s first release of 2020 and (even though Telas was released in the high summer) nailed the year quite well. For one thing, Cenizas was recorded in isolation (self-imposed, rather than plague-imposed, at that). The atmosphere that he conjures up is spare, haunting, and filled with a deathly air, as though he is building a funeral march for some unknown procession.