In a year where live shows were impossible, there were plenty of great recordings to annoy your shut-in neighbors with. I’m posting this early because today is the last Bandcamp day of 2020. All of the links below go to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, except in the rare case where they haven’t wised up. Today, all of the money we spend on the site goes directly to the artists, none of whom could get paid on tour this year. Keep them creating.
The next newsletter is my year-end book list, so if you prefer those to records, sit tight.
ShrapKnel ShrapKnel (Backwoodz Studioz): More than any other record, ShrapKnel was the soundtrack to my sequestered year. Elucid dropped the dark beats, and they suit the sounds and styles of PremRock and Curly Castro so well: all of the menace as well as the finesse. If Clipse had been on Def Jux, they still wouldn’t be this dope. Record of the year. Easily. Peep the video for “Aaron McKie.”
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead X: The Godless Void and Other Stories (Richter Scale/Dine Alone): The Trail of Dead is one of my all-time favorite bands, and ten records on they’re still pushing their sound in new directions. Like Sonic Youth or Unwound before them, the Trail of Dead has always been able find new ways to be themselves, finding the limits of their sound and setting up camp there to record. The lead single, “Don’t Look Down,” had me hooked with its J. Mascis-ish guitar line and odd blend of upbeat-yet-melancholy lyrics. The sonic palette of Conrad Keely, Jason Reece, and company is an expansive post-punk, both arty and abrasive. The textures are plush, but the edges are jagged.
Sea Impermanence (Seer): I love Yob and Pallbearer as much as the stoner of any stripe, but doomy, dirgey post-metal hasn’t been this good since Isis was a band and not a terrorist organization. Sea is aptly named, and it’s easy to describe Impermanence in terms of waves, but sometimes that’s how it is. Let it wash over you. Soak in it. Choose your metaphor and dive on in. I can’t seem to play it loud enough.
Max Richter Voices (Decca): After I spent almost every night for a year falling asleep to Max Richter’s score for Ad Astra (2019), Voices came out. An hour-long reminder of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which opens with the words, “All human beings are are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Voices is as upside-down as the world: all basses, cellos, and, well… voices.
The Psychedelic Furs Made of Rain (Cooking Vinyl): It’s been almost 30 years since the last Psychedelic Furs record. While that kind of hiatus isn’t usually the run-up to a good record, Made of Rain is among their best. Richard Butler did a couple of great records with Love Spit Love in the 1990s (You’ve heard their cover of The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” in both The Craft and as the theme to Charmed), but nothing quite as consistent as Made of Rain.
Cargo Cults Nihilist Millennial (Wrecking Crew): A collaboration between Alaska and Zilla Rocca (2/3s of the Call Out Culture podcast crew), Cargo Cults is that perfect match of tracks to rhymes. Since his days in Atoms Family and splitting bars with Windnbreeze in Hangar 18, my man Alaska has always been mean on the mic, but his style has expanded in the meantime. Nihilist Millennial finds him in scathing form, cutting through these Zilla beats like a beast. That muscle is there, the blade is deadly sharp, and he’s more agile than ever (see BONUS BEATS below).
Jim Williams Possessor (Lakeshore): The original motion picture soundtrack to a film like Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor would have to be harrowing in the subtlest manner, and Jim Williams nails it. Uneasy listening.
clipping. Visions of Bodies Being Burned (Sub Pop): A companion to last year’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood, Visions… continues clipping’s Halloween horror hip-hop killing spree. Defenders of the horror genre always talk about how it reflects the anxieties of the time. Anyone who’s watched more than three horror movies knows that’s not necessarily true. Well, it is here. Straight rap isn’t challenging enough for these guys. Clipping use the guise of horror to tell stories about what’s really happ’nin’. Fortunately, it’s as dope as it is dark.
Deafheaven 10 Years Gone (Sargent House): Before the lockdown, I had an elaborate plan to leave campus right after my last class on a Thursday evening, drive a rental car straight to Orlando, and catch Deafheaven on their 10 Years Gone tour. None of this happened, of course. They did record the retrospective set, live on a stage, and release it though. The collections gives me pangs of both remembrance and regret. I’ve seen them many times over their 10-year history, but I would’ve loved to have scrambled to Orlando to see them again. This whole set is stellar, but the versions of “From the Kettle to the Coil” and “Glint” on here are especially amazing. Still my favorite band.
Small Bills Don’t Play It Straight (Mello Music Group): Small Bills is a collaboration between Elucid and The Lasso. If you’re not already up on Elucid’s rapidly expanding catalog, this is a good place to start. The Lasso’s production gives him the perfect spot to think aloud, and that’s all the man needs. Listen up.
Amani + King Vision Ultra An Unknown Infinite (PTP): Hip-hop gets no darker—indeed no realer—than Amani and KVU. An Unknown Infinite is all frightful funk and nightmare grooves that get under your skin slowly, like the longest needles, while you’re chillin’ in the fire. Bleed and burn.
Zombi 2020 (Relapse): Five years was too long to wait, but Zombi’s latest is well worth it. I once described them as taking that 1980s era of Rush that Rush fans always complain about and running with it, but they’ve evolved eons past that. But much in the way that Rush dazzled as a 3-piece, Zombi is only 2 dudes. Look at ‘em go!
Aesop Rock Spirit World Field Guide (Rhymesayers): Aesop Rock long ago established himself as one of the most creative emcees of the 21st century. Labor Days remains everyone’s favorite and the classic release, but Bazooka Tooth was the turning point for me. His output since has always embraced the tradition of one and the innovation of the other, expanding his scope with every release. Spirit World Field Guide continues this expanse, showcasing his ability to be super weird and totally relatable at the same time.
Good Sad Happy Bad Shades (Textile): My tolerance for indie-rock has waned hard since the early 2000s, but Shades pulled me back a couple of decades. Formerly known as Micachu & The Shapes, Good Sad Happy Bad includes Mica Levi (a.k.a Micachu), who is also one of my favorite film score composers. Levi did the scores to Under the Skin (2014) and Monos (2019). I’ve been fascinated with composers in bands since Danny Elfman’s growing film work precluded his fronting my favorite band in middle school, Oingo Boingo. It seemed to a young me that the ability to make a mood with music, as with a film score, was handy in a band setting. Good Sad Happy Bad does just that. (My man Rollie Pemberton did this record a much better service on his newsletter here).
Zilla Rocca and Chong Wizard Midnight Sons (Chong Wizard): Another great pairing of beats and rhymes, this time with added comic-book imagery. Chong Wizard drives these tracks like a Cadillac, banging out a beat on the steering wheel while Zilla Rocca sits shotgun, riding the rhythms like a champ. Now, Zilla needs no help on the mic, but he gets it here from friends and heroes alike: Curly Castro, PremRock, Alaska, billy woods, Lord Juco, Denmark Vessey, Nature, and Malik B (R.I.P.). Hop in, let’s ride.
Uniform Shame (Sacred Bones): Guilt is private. Shame is public. As if taking a hardline on those definitions, Uniform set out to speak unspoken thoughts, to exposed raw nerves, to get it all out. It hurts and much as it helps. It’s a necessary roughness.
Tame Impala The Slow Rush (Modular): I know Tame Impala is a big music-snob punchline, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I like a lot of willfully uncool music (e.g., Oingo Boingo, Rush, post-Peter Gabriel/pre-I Can’t Dance Genesis, Peter Gabriel, etc.). You might find the presence of this record on this list a reason to discount the whole list, but as Kevin Parker sings on “It Might Be Time,” “It might be time to face it: You ain’t as cool as you used to be.”
Jesu Terminus (Avalanche): I’ve been following Justin Broadrick’s work since Godflesh’s 1989 record, Streetcleaner. If you know the scope of his output over the past 30+ years, Jesu feels like the culmination of his artistic vision. As heavy, droney, shoegazey, and catchy as anything he’s done, Terminus is a welcome addition to that lineage.
METZ Atlas Vending (Sub Pop): I really didn’t think they could do their thing any better than they did on 2017’s Strange Peace, but they’ve done it with Atlas Vending. The nonstop rock and noise you’ve come to expect from METZ is all here, but it’s more honed, more direct. Play it loud, or don’t bother.
Ben Salisbury, The Insects, and Geoff Barrow Devs (Lakeshore): Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and friends have done some stellar soundtrack work over the past several years (e.g., Ex_Machina, Annihilation, Black Mirror, etc.), and Devs is no exception. This is the sound of the uncertainty at the center of everything.
Armand Hammer Shrines (Backwoodz Studioz): If you’re like me, Arman Hammer’s 2018 record, Paraffin, is still in rotation, so Shrines is both welcome and frustrating. It’s just so much to digest. The lyrical heights of Elucid and billy woods are hard to reach, and their depths are hard to fathom. Climbing and diving at the same time ain’t easy.
Nothing The Great Dismal (Relapse): Nothing has never been shy about the bands and genres they love, but they always take their sounds to new places. Even with the lingering grunge grooves, The Great Dismal is easily their most My Bloody Valentine record yet. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing. Not even close.
Zeal & Ardor Wake of a Nation (MVKA): Mixing black metal with black gospel, Zeal & Ardor is a dirge of a different kind. There’s a darkness here other metal bands attempt but never achieve. Band leader Manuel Gagneux once said Z&A is an answer to the question, “What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” Wonder no more.
Various Artists Southeast of Saturn (Third Man): Nineteen testaments to the now-waning regional influence of record stores, record labels, and radio shows, the bands on Southeast of Saturn are the products of Play It Again’s inventory, Burnt Hair Records’ output, and Larry Hoffman’s playlists on WHFR. These heavily curated spaces helped create the spacey, shoegazey, dream pop scene in Detroit. From Astrobrite to Calliope (I used to play their second record, I Can See You With My Eyes Closed, a lot when it came out), Glider to Wendy & Carl (of course)… (Jordan Ryan Pedersen wrote this one up nicely over at Passion of the Weiss: Savor the results.)
Deftones Ohms (Reprise): It’s really unfortunate that Deftones were ever associated with the nü-metal of the 1990s. As a band that’s always run roughshod through several subgenres of heavy music, they never deserved the epithet. Ohms is their most consistent record since 2000’s White Pony. It’s a perfect Deftones vibe all the way through: all illicit, erotic joys and pill-blunted rage.
Bob Mould Blue Hearts (Merge): Unlike with Hüsker Dü or Sugar, Bob Mould doesn’t mind getting political on his solo work. And all the way back to “It’s Too Late” off of 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain, the anger rings loud when he does. There’s always been an urgency in Mould’s work, a sense that whatever he’s singing about needs to be taken care of right now. The tracks on Blue Hearts are no exception. Just check “American Crisis” for ample evidence.
Hum Inlet (Earth Analog/Polyvinyl): One of the few to truly escape hometown obscurity in the weird, second-wave, 1990s alternative land-rush, Hum came back this year and picked up right where Downward is Heavenward (RCA, 1998) left off. Their stargazer rock is as thick as space is black and just as vast, rumbling skyward like a delayed launch.
Liturgy Origin of the Alimonies (YLYLCYN): Say what you want about Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, she never fails to surprise. Over the past decade, Liturgy, her main musical vehicle, has gone from pretty straight-ahead American Black Metal (“Transcendental Black Metal,” in Hunt-Hendrix’s terms) to something completely unrecognizable by those standards. The Ark Work and Origin of the Alimonies are both leaps in different directions, and both are beautifully baffling.
Jason Griff and Scorcese featuring Alaska and DJ Chong Wizard puttin’ it down for Camp Lo. My mans is nice!
The next newsletter is my year-end book list, so if you prefer those to records, sit tight.
Thanks for reading!
Be in touch and such,