I began my yearly Pop music wrap-up with Part 1 Saturday, re-capping most of my thoughts about the year in general and broached my favorite 25 songs of the year. Part 2 continued with my favorite LPs 175-101 listed, and then capsule reviews of 100-51 (in 25 LP increments). Today I continue with Part 3, my favorite LPs listed 50-26 with brief reviews to each record (the final installment, Part 4, covers records 25-1 and is here). Enjoy and Happy listening.
26 – 50
Neptunian Maximalism – Éons
‘Maximalism’ is a good start in understanding the smorgasbord of Belgian collective Neptunian Maximalism’s newest 2 hour epic into the depths of frenetic Jazz Metal hybrid. It’s a total immersion of the senses, where noisy drone can intersperse with jazz fusion drum breaks and sludgy psychedelia. Enough ideas for an entire career probably, I don’t imagine the three listens I’ve done of this this year are anything near what it’ll take to unlock the dense hallucinatory delights here. I look forward to trying.
Brandy – The Gift of Repetition
From the drop of the needle, New York punks Brandy announce their sophomore release in grand style. With the pounding ‘(Wish You Was) Madball Baby’*, one of my tracks of the year, the album is memorably rocking, evoking earlier times when effortless, exciting rock burst from our dials on a regular basis. Now relegated to streaming sites, Brandy lose none of their snap and pop, and most of what is here (‘UFO’s to Heaven’, ‘Text Home’ and especially ‘Clown Pain’) is nearly the equal to that great lead off.
*I often paired ‘(Wish You Was) Madball Baby’ with Sweeping Promises’ ‘Blue’ on playlists this year to wonderful effect.
Clear Channel – Hell
Hell is quite a provocative title, in a mere four letters feeling appropriately of this year. The tunes spill forth similarly forcefully and anxious, but given the bouncy post-punk leanings, the space between the players (it’s a magnificently produced affair) allows an air of approachable accessibility, grabbing instantaneous admirers when the needle is dropped on any of the standout tracks; ‘Shark Attack’ is yearning and wails, ‘Hot Fruit’ is bouncy and bubbles as one of the dance cuts of the year (in a world with ‘WAP’ this might sound tame but it’s not), while ‘Baby Blue’ is martial in beat, but finds a deep groove overtop. It’s a heck of a debut for the Washington D.C. trio, enough that you can imagine yourself silly at the heights coming.
Shuck – Petrichor and Rainbows
Manchester’s Shuck started from members of some great bands (Gnod, Ghold, etc) with a singular purpose: to play unadorned, straight ahead rock music hard and heavy. Their initial release, 2018’s Wunder ep, hinted at the power their debut, Petrichor and Rainbows, makes abundant. Its distortion is dense and grooves all over the place, ‘Animals’, the pounding ‘Dissolve in Piss’, and the propulsive ‘Life After People’ being highlights.
Sex Swing – Type II
More horror inducing drama on the London bands second full-length offering, or perhaps one would be more apt to say, ‘offing’ as this is primal music with real menace. Each track a further excursion into the darkness of post-punk soundscapes where Metal extends a welcoming hand. Highlights are immense; the droning ‘The Passover’ that ends squealing like a pig, the brooding ‘Garden of Eden / 2000 AD’. Then there’s ‘Valentine’s Day at the Gym’ which, on title alone, conjures unstated, unknown scares of delicate minutia. It doesn’t disappoint. You’ll also want to check out the remix Type II, dubbed Passovers, where a bunch of their glitterati friends have a go at the tunes too.
Slift – Ummon
The history of metal is an interesting one because generally concerned, the handful of initially heavy bands in the genre’s birth era (say, 1967-1973) were unique enough to the point that their difference to the others eventually birthed many of the popular strains of metal we see today. For example, Black Sabbath gave us Doom, the Who the noisy experimental hardcore stuff, Led Zeppelin the hard rockin’ blues adjacent stuff, etc. I bring this up now as Blue Cheer would be see as the primary sludge psych metal forefathers, a sound that after about a minute of Ummon’s raucous first track ‘Ummon’ we see 50 years evaporate to a complete straight line. It rips and the three piece band keeps the momentum bristling everywhere, even when the tracks balloon to over 10 minutes (the multi-layered ‘Citadel on a Satellite’) or slow things down to moody, trippy atmospherics (the dense sludge of ‘Altitude Lake’). When live shows are allowed again, Slift is at the top of my must sees.
Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Surely one of the darkest records of the year, a fact the newest Ulcerate tipped when the title, Stare Into Death and Be Still was unveiled. A quick reading of song titles reenforces this; ‘There Is No Horizon’, ‘Drawn Into the Next Void’ and ‘Exhale the Ash’ being of particular note. You spend the grueling, often cathartic record looking for bright, little glimmers, ‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’ occasionally having a bright, searing guitar poke out from the murky black sludge, but don’t be fooled. If you want optimism, look elsewhere, here is a great brooding Heavy masterpiece and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Set-Top Box – TV Guide Test
Perhaps the biggest problem with Negativland wasn’t that they ripped off music samples and stock footage sources without payment or credit, but that they didn’t rock enough. Set-Top Box seeks to correct that wrong with their chaotic, punkish debut LP, TV Guide Test, a smorgasbord of playful sampling and snappy hooks from trash culture of the (distant and not so distant) past. Some are drone-laden analog deconstructions (‘Infomercial’, ‘Industrial Estate’), others riff-laden blasts of Craig Baldwin like-grunge (‘Alien Game’, ‘Company Time’, ‘Terrorvision’).
Es – Less of Everything
While I understand that saying a singer reminds me of a mix between John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux is quite lofty praise, but there isn’t much else I can think of when I hear Maria Tedemalm’s wail on London’s Es debut LP. The tunes don’t do anything to diminish such a reading either, chock full of tales of anxiety and existential angst, Less of Everything would have been fine coming out on Factory in 1980, but here it is in 2020 brimming with confidence. ‘Chemical’, ‘Foundation’ and ‘Kingdom Come’ are particular highlights.
beehoover – Low Performer
While I liked the vibe beehover’s Low Performer put out from the instant the needle was dropped, there is a slight shift in track 3’s ‘Army of Good Evil’ where you almost physically hear the German two-piece band drop the hammer and accelerate into fourth gear. From then (it’s at 1:30 for those listening at home) its even more grindingly real, martial stomp distorted power music, and I loved every bit.
Melkbelly – PITH
I suppose I remarked on Nothing Valley’s overt 90’s aesthetic when I highlighted Melkbelly’s noisy, wonderful debut for 2017’s year end wrap up. Here, the songs seem sweeter on their surface, a fact lyrical readings skew even if Miranda Winters vocals sound otherwise, but they’re bouncing rollicking events, full of zooming, effects drenched guitar riffs and spastic Keith Moon-via Math Rock drumming. In ‘Kissing Under Some Bats’ they’ve made a genuinely iconic song, nearly 8 minutes of everything they can do so well.
Jav Is (Jarvis Cocker) – Beyond the Pale
Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
James Dean Bradfield – Even in Exile
Paul Weller – On Sunset
Morrissey – I Am Not a Dog on a Chain
Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface
Cornershop – England Is a Garden
Chuck Prophet – The Land That Time Forgot
the James Hunter Six – Nick of Time
Neil Young – Homegrown
Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers
Sinéad O’Connor – ‘Trouble of the World’ (single)
the Damned – The Rockford Files (ep)
Throwing Muses – Sun Racket
X – Alphabetland
The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
Midnight Oil – The Makarrata Project
The Waterboys – Good Luck, Seeker
Jayhawks – XOXO
Close Lobsters – Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols
A Certain Ratio – ACR Loco
Here, a few more cheats, I must be in a mood for this portion of the list. Here I offer two selections, but really over 20. Much ink, both actual and pixel, has been spilt on the effects of the internet and streaming on the music industry. I’ve long thought a largely unexplored outcome was the hundreds of careers of aging musicians through the years. Every year the great records of older rockers—save the odd one here and there—are largely website releases now, or fodder for review in the most esoteric of blogs found in honor of bands whose greatest triumphs were 20, 30, or 40 years prior. The idea being that the internet has sped everything up, the abundance of choices, many available for free streaming relishing the new and the shiny, relegating the ‘primes’ of very good bands to a year or three, artists spit out into an industry easier to make and distribute records, but a heck of a lot harder to rise above the tyranny of endless abundance. Perhaps this was always the case, but I do think it’s gotten worse, so here’s several, from artists (solo and bands) from the ’70’s-’90’s, of which you could probably name many more. All are recommended.
the Orange Peels – Square Cubed
Here, a cheat, but hear me out. Square, the masterful debut Pop album from the Orange Peels came in 1997, gained some great press and went. The Orange Peels, Allen Clapp’s thrilling band, moved quickly on, releasing a number of bright, effervescent guitar Pop records over the following years. But, as far as I’m concerned, they never topped Square, and really, if I’m brutally honest, they never even came close. Of course, this is a statement on the debuts brilliance, so when Square Cubed came, a remastered reissue of that record with additional tracks and different mixes of seminal tracks it sounds nearly as original as it was then. So here I put it, not in the reissues list, but on its own amongst the sparkling and new. Now 40 tracks, countless treasures exist—the chiming ‘All the World Could Pass Me By’, ‘Something Strange Happens’, the lush ‘I Don’t Mind the Rain’, ‘Spaghetti-O Western’, the echo-drenched ‘Didn’t You Know’ amongst about a dozen others in various incarnations.
Wasted Shirt, Ty Segall, Black Pus – Fungus II
Being a fan of all three of these bands over the years, especially the prolific Ty Segall, I’ve long thought he had a pure piece of noise anarchy in him at some point—the Live in San Fransisco disc from the Ty Segall Band purports that version of ‘The Hill’ after all—and it’s finally here with Fungus II. Here, they closely mimic the manic intensity of Lightning Bolt and it’s tuneful too: ‘Purple One’ is pretty menace before its violently slashing close and ‘Fist is My Ward’ is volcanic, the sound of lava racing down the mountain. If that wasn’t enough, their outfit for thick Black Sabbath riffage, Fuzz, is back with III, a continuation from the previous’ II, a record that I absolutely loved in 2015, wearing out ‘Rat Race’ there in particular. This time around, it’s ‘Mirror’ that cooks, while ‘Time Collapse’ (love the extended guitar break here) and ‘End Returning’ harken to the epic, slow builds of their grizzled forefathers. Similar, especially in the heavy passages, is Viscerals, the newest from England’s Heavy Psych legends, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (sometimes abbreviated as PigsX7). It’s their usual, bracing, stoner blast, but here the songs are nearly uniformly shorter, the howls brighter in the mix—you’d never say this is accessible, but in a world where rock wasn’t relegated to the fringe, ‘Rubbernecker’ could get at least as much airplay as Mastodon, and ‘World Crust’ could get some Alternative radio play.
Naked Roommate – Do the Duvet
Oakland’s Naked Roommate emerge with their first full-length, a bristling record of post-punk for the new decade. Featuring the usual bubbling bass and staccato, noodle guitar lines, Do the Duvet adds club beat and pulsing electronic rhythms to the mix, creating an intoxicating blend that merges into a very cohesive whole. I like ‘Repeat’ and ‘Je Suis Ie Bebe’ and the ethereal ‘Fill Space’ best, but really there’s not a false step here.
Rash – Hivemind
After releasing one of my favorite hardcore releases in recent years (Skinner Box, 2016) Rash is back with another salvo of intense punk brutality. Like Skinner Box, for me their distinct edge is their willingness to play in experimental textures like noise (‘Hivemind’s swirling close, ‘FTT’, the daring ‘Interlude’ to ‘White Waste’ interplay which skids to a halt for ‘Healing’ brutal second half, a trio that forms the artistic peak of the LP) or delve into genuine grooves that are, dare I say hummable (‘Beautiful World’, the bass driven ‘Down the Hole’)?
Joan of Arc – Tim Melina Theo Bobby
Joan of Arc have always been pretty hard to pin down, and their newest is no different; a collection of beautiful evocative, shape-shifting tunes that upon first listen I found myself constantly stopping for re-listens. ‘Karma Repair Kit’ got it the most, a dreamy piece of Pop, the melodies soar into its follow up, ‘Creature of Being’. The whole thing is grand Pop though really, ‘Feedback 3/4’, and the scratching, soaring ‘Something Kind’, and the country-leaning ‘Destiny Revision’ being of particular note.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Waxahatchee’s previous record, 2017’s Out in the Storm, was a singer-songwriter LP draped in a thick layer of fuzz, and though I came to it later, has become a record I like a great deal. Given it was the entry point, you’ll excuse me for thinking the follow up would be a further excursion into the sludgy abyss. Instead, she again writes the rules and releases a laid back set or contemplative and often beautifully serene tunes. Given the country inflections throughout in place of distortion, she’s safely at home in the singer-songwriter LPs of the golden early 70’s era. But I like this more than much of that stuff, ‘Can’t Do Much’ is a beautiful Pop song, ‘Lilacs’ is eminently hummable and pretty. But the album grows when it contradicts the cheeriness; ‘War’ is chugging and honest admitting the “war with herself” while ‘Hell’ self-reflects openly from its first bar. Perhaps the best collection of Pop tunes this year, between this, Lydia Loveless’ Daughter and Hazel English’s Wake UP! you have my version of a good time at the honkey-tonk.
Cry Out – More Echoes of a Question Never Answered… Why? (12”)
The posthumous release of Rosie Davis’ side project, Cry Out, makes you mourn the passing of a real punk icon; in just 4 tracks she spans the anarchy punk landscape of Crass (even the cover pays homage) and Flux of Pink Indians amongst others. It’s a true bedroom DIY project where a drum machine accompanies her frenetic guitar fury as she wails over the ashes, before ending over the bubbling post-punk inflected ‘Garden Song’. What a way to go out. RIP.
Heads. – Push
Berlin’s Heads. described their newest, Push, to be a ‘wall of sound, a monolith’ and it’s hard to not come away with that exact opinion after even just 20 seconds of listening anywhere in the record. Even the quiet moments, such as the droning build in ‘Empty Towns’ has a dense weight to them, and only draw extra emphasis on the brutally loud ones (‘Weather Beaten’, ‘Loyalty’, ‘As the Street Gets Deserted’) that grind you down to a fine dust to the point that by the time stuff like ‘Nobody Moves & Everybody Talks’ you just let it disperse you in its gale wind.
Nape Neck – Nape Neck
If Devo were a riot grrrl band, I think they would have probably sounded like Toronto’s Nape Neck. Each track is worthy of praise (‘The Praise’, ‘A Worm’, and ‘You Stand, You Sit’ most of all) but ‘Paperweight’ is a real highlight, it’s all snarling, jangly agitation, which both doesn’t change a lick over the songs runtime while also evolving into absolute madness by songs end. Not so much tunes and noise events corralled into danceable spasms.
Psychic Graveyard – A Bluebird Vacation
Psychic Graveyard made a minor name for themselves with last years Loud as Laughter, a dense, grimy slab of psyched up stoner blasts, and while I really liked it, there wasn’t anything to prepare me for A Bluebird Vacation’s sonic blasts. What more can you really say for a record that uses fireworks as music instrumentation (as they do in the title track) or an overall sense of drug induced delirium that cloaks the record where guitar is less a vocal point, if used at all. Thus, field recordings, dense layers or static and anarchy provide the bedrock for a pretty loud, screeching LP full of highlights, the grinding ‘Backyard Full of Laughter’, ‘NO’, the burrowing earworm ‘People Dislike Me’ and ‘Animal I Can’t Avoid’ chief among them.
Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle
Two of the Hip Hop albums I most looked forward to this year were Mourning [A] BLKstar’s newest and Thundercat’s It Is What It Is, and my feelings on both are largely down to their sample pools. While I liked much of Thundercat’s production sonically, his album, for the most part sounded like a 70’s soft rock Soul album, with his (often wonderfully) vocal flourishes brimming alongside. Mourning [A] BLKstar’s The Cycle, meanwhile, tethers itself very much to the same era—the 1970s—but with the thudding drums and brass, sounds like it has more in common with, say, 24 Carat or Black Heat’s 1972 self-titled classic.
Sault – Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise)
The unknown British music collective is back after 2019’s wonderful 5 and 7 dual releases (which made my list a year ago) to produce another timely duo, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). You’ll hear people say artists aren’t prolific anymore, but in the span of 24 months, Sault has produced an astonishing 4 LPs of first rate stunners.