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). Yesterday’s Part 3, covered my favorite LPs listed 50-26 with brief reviews to each record. Today’s final offering is my favorite 25 records of the year. Enjoy and Happy listening.
1 – 25
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The great Fiona Apple, whose last great album, or any album for that matter (everyone of hers is) was 2012, a length of time that feels like a millennia, so, as the world reached for the keys to collectively lockdown amidst a global pandemic it was magnificent that she’d appear, asking for some bolt cutters to break everyone out. Fetch the Bolt Cutters did just that, initially so—it set the cultural chatter buzzing, reaching near unanimous praise everywhere, before settling in quickly to treasured favorite. In a year that felt like a decade, the LP aged quickly, assisted by countless listens throughout the year, each time revealing a new wrinkle, a new line, a new bracing emotion. I loved it, my favorite tracks—‘Under the Table’, ‘I Want You to Love Me’, the confrontational, brilliant ‘Heavy Balloon’, the beautiful ‘Cosmonauts’, all masterful. Then there’s ‘Relay’ my favorite of all, which ends to the clattering of drums and Apple’s Indian War Whoop over discordant, dragged strings, before it stops and she trills beautifully like a bird. Tremendous.
FACS – Void Moments
FACS, following the equally impressive Negative Houses, are a band that rarely place a wrong foot. Each release a set of measured tunes, impeccable sequencing and production. Case in point, their newest, Void Moments, might contain my favorite moment in rock for this year—as the great ‘Teenage Hive’ winds down, the swirling guitars and atmospherics that have been washing back and forth between left and right audio channels fades into a bubbling bass line and a growing drum coda fade out. It’s all mixed to impeccable perfection, placing the song in rarefied air. But that’s not all, there is a swirling intensity in all the songs, sounding like there are whole worlds of space between the players that make up ‘Casual Indifference’, or the slinky melodrama of ‘Version’. It’s all a big spatial noise, and sometimes, in a tune like ‘Lifelike’ you hear them physically wrestle the noise into shape, creating Pop. Another highlight for the Chicago greats.
Dope Body – Crack a Light
Whenever underground heroes reunite the best you can often hope for is a series of blistering, successful shows, the thought of a new LP pushing your luck. Thankfully, Dope Body was able to squeeze an album of new material, a (somewhat) rare Noise release with a steadfast attention to riffs and noise passages as catchy hooks. Not only as good as ever, Crack a Light often amounts to the greatest work of their career; the boogie stomp ‘Clean & Clear’, ‘Jer-Bang’s metallic cacophony, ‘The Sculptor’, which you could see being an alternative radio hit in 1995, before ending with the 1-2 punch of ‘My Man’ which storms in like tidal wave and ‘Known Unknown’, the murkiest club hit of the year where no one could go dancing.
Sweeping Promises – Hunger For a Way Out
Much of what you’ll read about Boston’s Sweeping Promises wonderful Hunger For a Way Out will contain a faint whiff of the little PR the indie band has pushed out (mostly via their bio contained underneath their bandcamp album page) about their LiLiPut/Kleenex love and decidedly DIY approve to recording the LP. The initial claim—a love for post-punk’s female forbearers—is obvious enough, a clear love is here in Sweeping Promises great set of bouncy tracks (‘Hunger for a Way Out’, ‘Cross Me Out’, ‘An Appetite’) that never belie the album’s clear menace laying right underneath (‘Trust’, ‘Upright’). But perhaps the the second one, about how much a DIY undertaking this album was I see cracks. You’d think it wouldn’t sound this full, this dense, and yet, on something like ‘Blue’ (my favorite track on the record) this is a major sonic single; rhythm as deep as a cavern and piercing guitar and vocal falsetto’s sharp enough to pop a soaring zeppelin. They might as well continue on their own, this sounds wonderful.
Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today
Most of Protomartyr’s releases have made my year end lists, a statement on both my fandom for the Detroit post-punks and how they’ve grown with each release over the years, each LP growing slightly in my opinion over the one that preceded it. I remarked then that 2018’s Consolation E.P. might then be the zenith at the time, and I imagined, when all is said and done, will be my favorite thing they will ever do. A weird thing to say I suppose, but how else can I state how absolutely mad I was for it, especially the two tracks that pack the wallop on side 2. Given that Ultimate Success Today was the first release since then, I waited with eager anticipation and it doesn’t disappoint; the most sonically and musically varied release of their careers, bridging towards art-rock while remaining steadily in abrasive noise rock post-punk. Highlights include the slashing ‘Processed By the Boys’ which has a sinewy, ultra cool guitar running through the bridges, the, what, Spanish inflected ‘The Aphorist’, the raucous ‘Michigan Hammers’, ‘Modern Business Hymns’ and, finally, the moving, ‘Worm in Heaven’ a parting shot from the grave from someone who’d died inside well before that. There, the band channels Morphine and Kelly Deal, who’d previously helped make Consolation E.P. such a barn burner.
Gnod – Temple ov BBV
Radar Men from the Moon – The Bestial Light
Gnod, this time partnering with Radar Men From the Moon for their newest, unleash a metaphysical concept album of sorts about Dutch mid-60s psych guru and scientist Bart Huges. Bart believed that by drilling a small hole in the skull in precisely the right spot would give that person a high to last the rest of their lives. Psuedo-science hogwash be damned, the resulting collaboration over 4 days led to 5 tracks destined to create ear worms and burrow into the cerebellums of any within earshot. The best, ‘The Other Side Of the Night’ is one of the tracks of the year, a filthy, bass driven epic that pummels deeper and deeper for nearly 10 agonizingly glorious minutes. Radar Men From the Moon, meanwhile, went it alone on their newest, the scathing, confrontational The Bestial Light. Representing the more industrial noise tract of post-punk, it’s a scraping rocker; ‘Piss Christ’ full of, well, piss and bile is angsty agitation, while ‘Eden In Reverse’ is thickly riffed in angular shards as wounding as broken glass. And this is just the warm up, ‘The Bestial Light’ and the tearing ‘Pleasure’ show their considerable power, a remarkable boast when they do the relatively hummable ‘Self’ in-between. A run—the entire second half of the record—that shows as consistent a run on a rock record as I heard this year.
Hey Colossus – Dances / Curses
Becoming a fan of Hey Colossus with 2017’s The Guillotine, I was somewhat disappointed that its follow-up, Four Bibles left me so ambivalent. Over time my initial problems have mostly diminished, no longer thinking that its overly accessible sound and temperament were a sign of a band losing the zip on its fastball, but coming to terms with the idea that something as emotional wrought and musically breakneck as The Guillotine is a harder act to follow then most crazed fans would assume. That and, oh yeah, they’re back with another absolute stunner, the stuffed Dances / Curses, which takes wonderful stabs at their complete aesthetic. There’s the noise rock past in ‘Medal’ a chugging piece of aural filth, while elsewhere they again approach accessibility, this time with nuance and edge (‘Dreamer Is Lying In State’, ‘Nine Is Nine’, ‘Revelation Day’). They’re at their most intoxicating when they’re the droning juggernaut, swelling to Herculean peaks, though. For this LP that’s the grand ‘A Trembling Rose’, which is an extended jam squeezed into an endless drone and ‘Tied In a Firing Line’ which is the sound of a less bombastic Tool, a ferocious band bereft of ego and not fussing over the edges for months (or years) on end. The music, though complex and thoughtful, seems fresh and urgent.
Arbor Labor Union – New Petal Instants
At the dawn of the 70’s country rock starting getting weird quick, but psychedelic forays plucked on banjos playing songs from a hundred years prior unfortunately was a much more niche market than thumping, boogie blues rock so we generally don’t recall the Hampton Grease Band with nearly the same regularity as, say, the Allman Brothers. The Arbor Labor Union’s newest disc, the wonderful New Petal Instants attempts to right all that by going even further into the abstract via a hefty infusion of post-punk. In sorta ends up becoming similar to a cleaner Country Teasers (is that Tripping Daisy?), an angular, jangly collection of eccentric hoedown stompers (‘Big Face in the Sky’, ‘Give Us the Light’) that can summon consider oomph (‘Lasso’, the single ‘Flowerhead’, and ‘Crushed by Fear Destroyer’) or meandering introspection (‘Riddle Snake Blues’, ‘How Long Was I Gone’) if necessary. Several albums in, they’ve settled nicely into an original aesthetic, the opening 30 seconds or so of ‘Crushed by Fear Destroyer’ where a perfect guitar tone strums itself into a boogie groove is one of the rock moments of the year.
Adulkt Life – Book of Curses
2020 features heavily in London’s Adulkt Life new LP Book of Curses, less a comment on how I think it’ll age (magnificently) than his steely determination in recounting an extremely difficult year. Sometimes it’s heavy, abrasive condemnation (‘Stevie K’), sometimes it looks around with the stock-taking of ‘Taking Hits’ and sees empty heads ‘full of shit’ and barren fridges with no food. Then there’s the fearful, ‘New Curfew’ that moans, ‘I don’t know what to feel, when I hear sirens outside… anymore’ before an eerie close promises that what is coming is ‘hopeful’ rot. It’s all delivered with bracingly tremendous rock though, so we bunker down and await the passing of the storm. Or not.
Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Upon dropping the needle on ‘Born Confused’, the opening stunner on Porridge Radio’s second LP, you think you’re in familiar waters of Britain’s indy jangle past of the 1980s, but by the time the tempo fully kicks in they’ve shifted to something altogether different. You imagine the track about a distinct 2020 phenomena—trapped indoors from a global pandemic reducing the malaise of millions of minds to endlessly doom stroll and pick arguments with strangers online to fill the time. It’s quite sick, and the tracks emotional resonance battles through, that by track two, ‘Sweet’, the bands considerable volume and power has cleared the decks.
Idles – Ultra Mono
Given I’m entirely in the bag for this band, it’s a futile endeavor to be non-partial. Of course, rock n’ roll is built on the backs of a rabid, devout cult of followers, so I’d never see this as anything but a supreme badge of honor: I can still get quite whipped into a frenzy over fuzzy, distorted poetry played at aggressive volumes. I say this because Idles are at the precipice where many ‘cool’ kids claim they’re no longer vital, or interesting as a band. Ah, the weather, when this stupid, changes in an instant. Who cares, this is another great LP, not dissimilar from the first two, and while I think I’d heard at least half of it in the buildup of singles and videos (their video presence remains really wonderful) I was feeling the hit rate was roughly half; ‘War’ is killer (the guitar break being, essentially, what I think a guitar break should be, which is a polite way of saying there is a ton of the Captain’s ‘Lively Arts’ guitar solo aesthetic in there), same for the touching ‘A Hymn’ and the shoegaze via Slaves (who’ve never done shoegaze but maybe they should) of ‘Grounds’. But, out of the gate was ‘Mr. Motivator’ which I remained largely ambivalent about, fearing the album would show the band slowly bleeding out of ideas. But no worries, the album frequently breaks in (musical) tone and pace, and that’s where it demolishes any charge of monotony and really exhibits thrilling results; the deep, nearly rap groove of ‘The Lover’ that evolves to Metal riffs or ‘Reigns’ and ‘Danke’, which both ramp up an anxious year with increasing volatility. I may prefer Joy as An Act of Resistance, my favorite album from last year, but that matters little. Another treasure.
Uniform – Shame
Deafkids/Petbrick – Deafbrick
I’m not altogether sure why I feel these two records are comparable. Sure, they’re sonic blasts with piercing earache inducing bits of distortion, but they emote very differently. Shame, a brutal piece of industrial dirge features confessions as open as the best emo records, while Deafbrick buries any semblance of understanding deep in the mix, our faintest understanding of its emotional content conveyed via expressionistic textures of noise. But, on many days when I play one, I play the other, so they’re grouped here. Shame is another tremendous leap forward for Brooklyn’s Uniform, a band that has grown considerably in a few short years. The addition of a drummer Greg Fox on 2018’s The Long Walk feels fully settled now, tracks building as brutal distorted riffs collide with pounding rhythms (‘Delco’, ‘Life in Remission’, ‘This Won’t End Well’ and the epic ‘I Am the Cancer’ being highlights). Deafkids partnership with Petbrick isn’t dissimilar, the squalling noise now given ample backing to let the songs become massive excursions of noise cacophonies; ‘Sweat-Drenched Wreck’, ‘Mega-Ritual’ and ‘Free Speech for the Dumb’, each louder than the last.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Given the heightened political nature of the last 4 years, and Killer Mike’s increasingly visible (and vital) role expounding a voice for those in the marginalized left, a statement from the great Brooklyn based group was an event unto itself this year. Their newest, the magnificent RTJ4 came with great fanfare and each song a virtual essay like evisceration of the prevalent societal ills of today. There’s more than enough—police brutality, racist police forces, systemic poverty, media industrial complex, a White House that openly embraces White Supremacy, growing inequality, and on and on—to fill an album, but still Killer Mike and El-P must work fast and feverishly to contain it all in a high wire act for the ages. Countless guest spots highlight, but for me the standout tracks, ‘holy calamafuck’, ‘yankee and the brave (ep. 4)’, the energetic ‘goonies vs. E.T.’ and the explosive ‘the ground below’ show all that Run the Jewels need are themselves and a pair of bellies full of considerable amounts of bile.
Mourn – Self-Worth
The fourth album from Spanish indie rockers Mourn is perhaps their brightest, and best, yet. Like the previous one, it’s engulfed with all the textures of the bands they used to love—90’s post-rock and riot grrrl—but they up the ante with a killer set of tunes and some of the cleanest rock production of the year. I guess I used to take records that just sounded great for granted, but this one sparkles; those drums in the first 45 seconds of ‘I’m In Trouble’, the enveloping twin guitars throughout ‘Gather, Really’, ‘The Tree’ which swirls and swoons like the Cure for moments, ‘Stay There’, and the touching ‘The Family’s Broke’. This is what should be blasting from mainstream rock radio everyday.
Sumac – May You Be Held and ‘Two Beasts’ (single)
The last couple Sumac records have placed in my year end roundups and I bet if I went back and looked at the capsules pieces written for them I’d have said with each one that I wasn’t sure how they’d top them, or go deeper and grander within their ultra thick, brooding approach to Metal. Yet, here they are again, with two releases—‘Two Beasts’ is a single, but at nearly 19 minutes it’s longer than a few EPs on this list—that advance their sublime mix of primal and cerebral metal aesthetic.
Casual Nun – Resort for Dead Desires
Casual Nun has, if I were to hedge, a place in my annual top LPs for several years now—2017’s Psychometric Testing By… is one of my favorite noise releases ever, driven by ‘Stripes’ sinewy guitar noodles, I’ve waited for their next LP to see the immense promise captured. Their third, and first since a pair of split releases does just that. Cloaked in fuzz, haunting melodies emerge from ‘Pink Celestial Heron (pch)’ while ‘Zeotrope’ and ‘Heavy Liquid’ bring punkish fury into the mix (‘Heavy Liquid’ a particular standout, evoking a glorious period in the career of the Stooges while sounding like Black Sabbath at their most voluminous). It amounts to a dynamic listen, the whole thing always sitting on a razor sharp knife’s edge, the appropriately named ‘Sleet Knife’, for example, bursting forth in the second half showing the band’s consistent, considerable power.
The Cowboys – Room of Clons and Lovers in Marble (ep)
I like this record a considerable amount, it’s anxious and tight and highly eccentric, but really the last 30 seconds or so of ‘Wise Guy Algorithm’—some of my favorite moments of the year on record—would have been more than enough to place it here. But then you listen further (‘A Killing’, ‘Everybody in the World is Happy’, ‘Sweet Mother Earth’, the chord change in ‘The Beige Collection’) and you hear a band of considerable musical and lyrical wit beyond a single trick. If Devo and Sparks had a kid in the bandcamp era, this might be it. As if that wasn’t enough, a few months later came Lovers in Marble ep, a 5 song run-through of country tinged dreamy Pop. They claim it was their stab at Loaded era Velvets, or better yet, recently departed Emmitt Rhodes, and after spinning ‘Song for the Girls’ and ‘The Bell Rings Less’ you hear majesty. The boys are on quite a roll.
Other Lives – For Their Love
For Their Love, the magisterial new LP from Stillwater, Oklahoma’s Other Lives often recalls the lush, foreboding orchestral folk LPs that Wally Stott oversaw for Scott Walker in the late 1960s as many have noted, but a lot has happened since those masterpieces, which Other Lives absorb and build upon. As warming as it often is, there is menace buried under the soundscapes; ‘Cops’ speaks of “cops rushing into a home to return a lost wallet” and we assume it’s going to go about as well as most high profile police engagements did in 2020, while ‘Dead Language’ is a twirling Western vista of deceit, and ‘We Wait’ swirls in strings, patient for memories that may never come. Everyone’s a treasure here, and that will only grow as the years pass.
24 Carat Black – III (1974/2020)
After 24 Carat Black released 1973’s Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth they must have felt both on top of the world, and sadly somewhere near the bottom. The later part of the statement is obvious—the album is a grim reminder of the place African American’s sat in the social hierarchy of (1970’s) America, a perfect album to sit along the much more heralded statement works like War’s The World Is a Ghetto, Maggot Brain by Funkadelic and the first few Curtis Mayfield LPs. But the album didn’t move many units sadly, so while they may have felt at their creative peak, it remained the sole example of their brilliance on record. Eventually what was in the can for a second LP, Gone—The Promises of Yesterday was issued in 2009, 35 years late. Then, magically 2020 now has III, another album from the mid-1970s previously thought lost forever. Given the supercharged nature of the racial relations the world over in 2020, 24 Carat Black’s message is as pertinent as ever, but rather than the dark, grim world laid out in Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, III is a soothing, if sad, record of catharsis and growth. It’s remarkable, a run-through of the statements here—the sad, trill of ‘I Need A Change’, ‘Someone to Somebody’ and my personal favorite, the bass gurgle mysticism of ‘You’re Slipping Away’—reveal a band lost to time, but one that never lost its ability to capture the moment at hand.
Bambara – Stray
This, their fourth and second on Wharf Cat, the band treads deeper into their Birthday Party/early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds sound. Some have lobbed accusations that it’s too derivative of such an iconic band, but then the Bad Seeds did their share of nicking too (Beasts of Bourbon, Blood Red River era Scientists, et al), and haven’t been penalized yet. This is meant to imply that the interchange of ideas, sometimes bordering on highway robbery, in rock n’ roll are relatively OK as it’s the basic DNA of the form, especially if it produces sizzling hot pieces of wax. Here, it certainly does, Stray a definite step above Shadow on Everything, which was good too, mixing their slinky, simmering goth balladeering (‘Sing Me to the Street’, ‘Stay Cruel’) with urgent, pounding intensity (‘Serafina’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Machete’).
Wailin’ Storms – Rattle
Rattle is something of a boogie rock sludge classic, a collection of howling sermons to base level Blues tales delivered with Western Noir single word titles like, ‘Rope’, ‘Grass’, ‘Teeth’ and ‘Crow’. There is a tonal consistency to it to the point that it all blends together, but to me it only adds to the authenticity of the vibe. You get great heavy riffs, then you get more of them. In a year like this, who wants less of good thing?
Slum of Legs – Slum of Legs
Brighton’s Slum of Legs make pretty interesting Pop music, as much a cut and paste job befitting a collage artist as a rock band. But where they are a rock band is itself a collage, a snip of the Fall here, a tear of the Raincoats there, but then, to paste it all down their genius is revealed: there’s a bit of folk English beauty akin to Sandy Denny’s pleading majesty of Fairport Convention here, and it opens the songs up to a plethora of deeper temperatures and potentials. So ‘Benetint & Malevolence’ is a punk mosh pit breaking out from a Renaissance Fair, while electronic textures turn ‘I Dream of Valves Exploding’ into soaring, but human synth Pop. ‘The Baader-Meinhof Always Looks So Good In Photos’ a kaleidoscopic melange of Pop spanning different eras all at once, to ‘White Leather’ and ‘Sasha Fierce’ where they sound like they’re playing as straight as they can, but the rock n’ roll it produces is anything but. As interesting and new a band as you’ll hope to hear this year.
Little Richard – Southern Child (1972/2020)
Ha, what is this? 2020 was a terrible year, most would agree, and if you needed a list, I’m sure even the dullest amongst us could easily name a dozen reasons for this. How long before the death of Richard Penniman, the god-given name of one Little Richard, would find itself listed? In early May, aged 87, did the terrible news break, and sadly, he’d long been past producing music worthy of his stature. But then, miraculously, came Southern Child, a record intended to be his third album for Reprise released in 1972 shortly after Second Coming, a concept LP that had the ingenious idea of pitting great 50’s artists with sleek, down home 70’s ones know for their studio session work. It’s good, or rather, I personally like Second Coming, but most (stupidly) didn’t, feeling it was too slick, too produced. Bleh, all Gods need a bit of updating here and there. Given econd Coming’s failure, Southern Child was ditched completely, needing almost 50 years to finally see release this year. The results are interesting, an artist of such a distinct sound adapting; ‘California (I’m Comin’)’ is funky and raspy, great when paired next to ‘If I Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out of Tune)’ where Little Richard croons a smooth country warble—the sound the Faces and the Stones were searching for on their low-key Americana roots LPs of the same time. The album’s cover—where we see the classic beautifully pancaked visage peering out from under a cow he’s milking!—speaks to the albums true intent, to establish Little Richard as a great country stylist (‘Ain’t No Tellin’, ‘Southern Child’) to a classic bluesman (‘Over Yonder’, ‘I Git a Little Lonely’). In short, to rightfully assert him as one of the greatest (re)tellers of the American music landscape. It wasn’t the first thing I spun when I heard the news of his passing (it was only available as bootleg at that point) but now that it’s here with an official release, it assists in telling a more complete, and accurate, portrayal of one of rock n’ roll’s truly brilliant, white hot supernovas.