Farewell the Plague Year

Yet another 2020 listicle, and what a year it was.

Well, it appears that people actually like when I write things, so I guess I’ll be making a better attempt to write things here now. Thanks for the support! Now, a little less formal of a newsletter than last week’s.

Pros: 2020 was the best year that was.

This year was a banner year for me. My more mature band, Infant Island, released not one, but two full-length albums (and a compilation album) – the culmination of two years’ hard work. These both were commercially successful, now on their second and third pressings (respectively), and critically acclaimed following a PR campaign I cobbled together myself. Many thanks to Andrew at BrooklynVegan, Tom at Stereogum, and Ian at Pitchfork in particular for their many kind words. Thanks also to the good people at Dog Knights, Acrobat Unstable, and Zegema Beach for making all that possible.

I also kicked off a new band, Mattachine, with my amazing boyfriend of over two years! We released an EP which also got lots of love from Stereogum and BV, and was released by Zegema Beach. Double thanks to all of you, I guess!

On top of all the music stuff – I got into graduate school at the University of Virginia, working towards my master’s in “Media, Culture, and Technology.” Take from that program name what you will, I’m taking “meme scholar” from it. I also finished my first semester in ages with a perfect 4.0 GPA, which feels great to my little primal reptile brain.

Cons: 2020 was the best year that could have been.

Elephant in the room – there’s a pandemic happening. Had to cancel two months of tour in the United States and Europe (including a spot on Fluff Fest), as well as a prospective Japan thing and lots of local shows I had booked. Didn’t play music with my band for 8 months. (Also, haven’t hugged my parents in almost a year now.)

(Content warning for the above video. The smallest town in the U.S. to get tear gassed!)

My car broke a bunch of times. I turned 22. I got tear gassed by local police (multiple times). I lost a job. I moved to a new city – hours away from my friends, bandmates, boyfriend, and family. I moved into a new house with strangers from Craigslist (got lucky there, thankfully). I sat in an uncomfortable chair for hours and hours on video calls for school, going thousands of dollars into debt for ZoomU. Not even getting into the farce of this year’s electoral politics, there are probably a ton of other things I’m missing.

I don’t pretend that my experience has been the worst this year, after all I’m still alive and (relatively) healthy. I have to remind myself though, just because I’m still here, and things could be worse, that doesn’t mean that my life in 2020 hasn’t been immensely shitty.

Enough about me though, where’s all that good music the pandemic era was supposed to give artists the time to record? (This is a take I’m sure someone disconnected from music with a blue check had back in March.)

Forget recording music, I barely had the energy to listen to music. The stuff which did manage to filter through though is pretty incoherent in theme and sound – so it doesn’t really feel right to compare them. Thus, I give you, dear reader, an unranked list of some albums I liked this year, in order of release date…with short snippets to accompany them! (Yes, I know I published most of this list in BrooklynVegan last week, but I didn’t have blurbs with those!)

Soccer Mommy - color theory (Loma Vista) | 2.28.2020

Ah, music from the before times. Color Theory is just the most recent entry in my Soccer Mommy stan streak. While most of the praise I saw for this album was focused on the excellent first single “circle the drain” – a perfect pop song, in my estimation – I feel like that view of this entry in her discography misses the forest for a particularly tall tree. The 90’s grunge vibe that Sophia Allison channels on this album doesn’t just harken back to the halcyon days of contemporary culture writ-large: pre-dot com burst, pre-housing crisis, pre-9/11 – it took on a double-layer of nostalgia as soon as coronavirus hit. The anti-social seclusion of Allison’s teen bedroom melancholia suddenly became incredibly relatable, something most young-ish people have experienced at some point this pandemic, with 52% of young adults living at home in a COVID-ridden world.

Hitting in February, this album remained on repeat through the spring for me, as I drove hours back and forth, to and from my mechanic’s shop to get my beater of a Prius fixed for as cheaply as possible. My weekly routine: buying non-OEM parts off eBay and risking a trip longer than I should with busted fuel injectors – windows down, sunglasses on, breeze blowing across my freshly blue-dyed and shaved head, speeding down country roads through the bright green oaks and birches of Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Favourite tracks: “circle the drain,” “royal screw up,” “yellow is the color of her eyes,” “lucy,” “stain,” “gray light”

Blithe Field - Hymn for Anyone (Self-released) | 04.23.2020

I’ve been a Blithe Field proponent for several years now, and once surprised Spencer Radcliffe at a show by buying a copy of Face Always Towards the Sun rather than the record he was on tour for (I ended up buying that too at a later date). Where Days Drift By, his 2018 effort under this moniker, was a perfect listen front to back – Hymn for Anyone is a bit more of a mixed bag. The more explicit acoustic instrumental work here, excluding the maybe ill-fated guitar ‘solo’ on “Stem Growth” which felt a little too psychedelic and indulgent for my taste, shows Radcliffe continuing the expansion of his sonic palate and experimenting more and more with folk-like sounds rather than the bleeps and bloops and loops of his earlier work.

Hymn for Anyone is also maybe Radcliffe’s most mood-coherent piece as Blithe Field yet, taking a more eerie and, at times, straight-up horror-esque tone compared to the bittersweet feeling arrangements he’s become known for. The out of time music boxes and low growls of “Wharf at Dusk” and the tape-warped “Phone Booth Under Street Lamp” (even if I disagree with the guitar arrangement choices here) show his work taking a more atmospheric approach than ever. Still, I think the sparser, more emotional piano-based tracks are what keep me coming back for more. The man knows his way around a keyboard, that much cannot be disputed.

Favourite tracks: “JTEL,” “PUMC,” “I Love You Rhonda,” “Deep Canyon Blues”

The Bilinda Butchers - Night & Blur (Zoom Lens) | 05.08.2020

Lots of things drew me to this release, although I’ll admit that initially I wasn’t as into the album itself as much as I was the sick merch. As a longtime Bilinda Butchers fan, I think I just wasn’t expecting this direction from them – which, when combined with the turmoil of the moment when it was released, felt on the whole a little too nonchalant. Still, later in the year, once things had started to cool off both atmospherically and socially, I found myself bumping BBZ’s dream pop-via-Dance Dance Revolution take on 2020 more and more.

From front to back, Night and Blur revels in its lasciviousness. Equal parts horny and cool, it invokes Matrix soundtrack-worthy big beat, heavy D’n’B, new age synths, and their trademark DI-acoustic guitar crooning and somehow manages to synthesize the bunch. All of this is contextualized with choice little slice-of-life samples sprinkled throughout, from the iPhone clicks outside a club at the end of the title track to the negative anecdote in “Lights Out” about negativity, all of which imbue this album with a sort of casual affect – something which I think most people could use right about now.

Favourite tracks: “Rie,” “Lights Out,” “See Ya,” “Low”

This Will Destroy You - Variations & Rarities: 2004 - 2019 (Dark Operative) | 05.01.2020 & 07.03.2020

Taking a peek behind the curtain of an artist you admire’s writing process can sometime feel disillusioning, especially in a music culture which seems to value ever more the “lo-fi demo” recording. This Will Destroy You managed to have the opposite effect on me with the two (and a half) compilations of extras they released this year. Truly, TWDY is one of my favourite bands, not because of their earlier more straightforward post-rock material, but because of the experimental approaches to the genre they’ve taken since then. These demos are sparkling shards of that approach – drone and noise heavy, even on the older tracks forgoing the calculatedly clean approach the songs became, somehow endearing familiar songs even further.

These releases were fraught with internal strife of some unknown variety seemingly following the split between the remaining original members and the lineup additions from Tunnel Blanket and Another Language, resulting in several tracks’ removal. While usually drama of this variety is something I love to watch, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the band. When I listen to these songs, particularly those removed from the initial release, I can’t help but feel the animosity lurking in them. Even in their comparative simplicity to the rest of the band’s discography, these little grains of TWDY are something visceral to behold.

Favourite tracks: “Arena,” “Fair Breath,” “Many of Them,” “They Move on Tracks of Never-Ending Light (Concept)”

Lady Gaga - Chromatica (Interscope) | 05.29.2020

I can’t help but feel that T.a.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said” (another obsession of mine this year) and both Blade Runner movies were on the moodboard for the now iconic “Rain On Me” video. Gaga and Ari really did that. Chromatica as a whole was the feel-good but kinda moody pop album I really needed this year. Between the downright stupid-good “Stupid Love” and the nasty Blackpink K-pop crossover event of “Sour Candy,” I’ve listened to songs from this album so much this year. While there are as many duds as there are hits, this felt like the follow up Artpop (another underrated Gaga entry) deserved.

Chromatica would have been best appreciated by some in a normal year on a dancefloor after 2 AM, I settled with screaming along to it after 8 PM driving (as so much of my year was spent) between my boyfriend’s house and mine. After all, what place is better to privately exude shameless pop music fandom than the seclusion of one’s own car, in the middle of nowhere horse country – somewhere you can truly dance like nobody’s watching and sing like nobody’s listening.

As the basic Twitter gays have cried, and Chris DeVille echoed in his crowning Best Pop Songs of 2020 Stereogum column: “Justice for Chromatica!”

Favourite tracks: “Rain On Me,” “Sour Candy,” “Stupid Love,” “Alice,” ‘Replay,” “Plastic Doll”

Hum - Inlet (Earth Analog) | 06.23.2020

Hum was honestly one of those fuzz-laden “shoegaze classics” which I never understood. People sung their praises endlessly, and I guess that one song was pretty OK, but the whole package just never appealed to me for whatever reaon. I’ve liked a lot of the production work Matt Talbott has done, and his Cloakroom b-side feature was great, but Hum itself always struck me as sounding a little too close to POTUSA for my liking (don’t hate me for that comparison please). Inlet, heralded as their surprising-and-triumphant return, sold me on them (just this album though).

Like a less-gonzo Ovlov, and less-pop oriented Hum’s previous albums, Inlet is a slow, sludgy shoegaze ride in a genre-environment which has recently seemed to prioritize faster takes on the genre. While indulging in a snappy riff here or there on tracks like “In The Den” and “Step Into You,” the bulk of the album is long-runtime experiments in what Red House Painters would have sounded like had they actually pulled off their rock songs. Doom-y, Earth-like, chugging passages with lofty near-synth guitar leads are what make this album shine – and where Talbott’s disaffected vocals were a hindrance of the band’s 90’s output, here they sound appropriately wizened.

Favourite tracks: “Waves,” “In The Den,” “Cloud City,” “Desert Rambler,” “Folding”

Nø Man - Erase (Quit Life) | 08.24.2020

It’s sometimes hard to sing the praises of your friends without shame, but when I say Nø Man released the best hardcore album of the year – I mean it. No song from Erase overtsays its welcome, and each has their own incredibly catchy hook. From the opener’s “Time flies with fresh meat, fresh meat on the butcher block. Won’t you dive with me? Won’t you die with me?” to the penultimate “Yeah you’re the only one, boy you’re the golden son.” frontwoman Maha Shami flexes her chops both as a lyricist and a clearly intelligible vocalist, overcoming one of the main challenges of harsh vocals. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that intelligibility neccessarily requires a trade off in heaviness – clearly it doesn’t.

The lyrics and vocals aren’t the only impressive element of Erase though, as the band itself churned out its most technically impressive and sonically punishing riffs to date for this one. Written like the true contemporaries of Jane Doe-era Converge that they are, the three piece which backs Shami proves its efficacy almost two decades after their time as Majority Rule, writing faster, more off-kilter, and more hardcore songs than their previous endeavour ever did. Like a snake’s body, sliding its way through the grass, the instrumentals on this album have a way of providing the perfect prelude to the vocals’ inevitable, deadly bite.

I’m also going to give my superlative for best lyric of the year to “Shots Fired” – in which we get “I’m gonna need a bigger knife.” [pause] “I’m gonna need a fucking bigger knife!” Instant classic moment.

Favourite tracks: “Dive,” “SOS,” “Secret,” “Cut Out,” “Pray”

Sumac - May You Be Held (Thrill Jockey) | 10.2.2020

Would you believe me if I told you that the first time I listened to this album was in the shower? Easily one of the strangest showers I’ve ever taken (not that I made it through this whole behemoth, what a waste of water that would be, but at least the time that I did get though.) Clearly taking cues from their recent collaborations with Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino, Sumac on May You Be Held relieves themselves from the burden of any meaningful song structure which might have remained from their previous, already nebulous full length Love in Shadow. This album consists of a six minute introductory track, followed by two coming-up-on-twenty minute songs, and one eight minute song, and a nine minute outro. The thing is a multi-movement work combining the sounds of sludge metal and harsh noise with the sensibilities of free jazz, unpredictable and wild. It’s a wonder how (and if) they play these new songs in any kind of consistent manner live. Then again, when usually that would be a detractor, for Sumac it’s a point of intrigue.

The trio’s ability to pull on each of its members’ strong suits simultaneously and in unexpected ways is its strongest and most consistent element. Even though these songs may appear tediously long to the uninitiated, Sumac’s brand of sludge ignores the genres propensity for repetition (and the boredom prone to ensue) – between the uncountable chugs of Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook, broken drum solos of Baptists’ Nick Yacyshyn, and Aaron Turner of Isis and Old Man Gloom (who also released two unhinged records this year)’s imagination defying guitar and vocal distortions there is never a moment to go up for air, save for the bookending ambience.

Favourite tracks: “May You Be Held,” “Consumed”

Nothing - The Great Dismal (Relapse) | 10.30.2020

This is a callout post. Nothing is stealing Virginians’ valor with the title of this album. The Great Dismal is my swamp.

Nothing is yet another band I was late to the party on. Something about their first few albums just didn’t click for me; now, given, that may have been a product of the endless hype I heard from everyone in my life about Downward Years To Come and its 2014 and 2016 successors. Two years ago they released Dance on the Blacktop though – an album which my mom compared to The Cure and I got. Now, after a lineup change, adding members of Cloakroom (a perennial favourite of mine) and Jesus Piece, they’re after my own heart, dropping maybe the best (here comes the buzzword) heavy shoegaze album I’ve heard to date. Everything about this album suits the time it was released: in the middle of a hopeless political moment at the end of one of the worst years in collective memory. The Great Dismal is tailor made for the pandemic.

The sullen instrumentals across the board along with frontman Dominic Palermo’s ever-so-slightly affected vocal delivery and lyrics give the whole thing a sense of downtrodden hopelessness and ennui which I absolutely feel right now. When Palermo croons that he’s “been talking to the ceiling for so long” on “Catch a Fade” or states “Send the bombs, we've had enough of us. Face the facts: existence hurts.” on “Famine Asylum” – I fucking feel it. Nothing treats the whole matter-of-being in 2020 like the sick joke it is. I just had to laugh when they did a get-out-the-vote campaign themed after Bernie Sanders in mid-October in conjunction with the eponymous track fixating on “convoluted narratives.” Or, when the first single, “Say Less,” had a shopping jingle sampled at its front…during a time when wantonly shopping is irresponsible and out of reach for most people.

There are moments of what feel like total sincerity sprinkled throughout though, not the least of which is the album opener, “A Fabricated Life,” which feels a little more like a scored suicide note than a song. I cried. (Several times.)

Favourite tracks: “A Fabricated Life,” “Say Less,” “Catch a Fade,” “In Blueberry Memories,” “Famine Asylum,” “Bernie Sanders”

Soul Glo - Songs to Yeet at the Sun (Secret Voice) | 11.06.2020

It’s been said to death, but Soul Glo truly are the most innovative hardcore band out there right now (once again, I’m not just saying this because they’re friends [@Ruben, if you’re reading this]). For whatever reason (🧐🧐🧐), they’ve been called a “screamo” band for a while now, and have been relegated to the margins for it – on Songs to Yeet at the Sun though, I feel like they’re finally getting the larger scale attention they deserve. Not only is this their crispest sounding release to date, production-wise, but it’s also their most sonically challenging and engaging, contrary to the…uhh…basic comparisons they tend to receive.

Thoughtfully engaging with the politics of our moment, despite having been written and recorded before the summer’s protests, Songs is a masterclass in complicated vocal and instrumental arrangements, delivered at incredible speed. Sure, you can hear the screamo influence here and there, but they sound more like moments of Discorance Axis than Saetia. Even these parts are tempered immediately with asymmetrical punk beats and riffs á la Botch, twisting into previously unheard combinations of heavy subgenres, not even touching the vocals. Speaking of, Pierce Jordan RIPS through this EP, giving us dedicated Soul Glo fans a recorded confirmation of what we’ve seen live so many times: fast, furious, and articulate damnations. He’s the #1 screamer in the game right now, hands down. The sustain of those high shrieks is totally beyond me. It’s also worth mentioning the deviation of “2K,” which flexes Jordan’s rap prowess alongside Archangel, one of Richmond’s finest.

In a year when I didn’t listen to very much hardcore – this is something I kept coming back to again and again since I got the early mixes back before COVID took over. There’s something new to hear on every listen, from the beehive guitar flourishes on “Mathed Up” to the frantic piano-and-sax accompaniment in the latter section of “29” – Songs to Yeet at the Sun is the gift which keeps on giving.

Favourite tracks: Ok, there are only five short songs on this. It’s only 11 minutes long in total. You can do it.

Sadness - holding (Self-released) | 11.08.2020

Sadness released a few EPs this year, and as usual with black metal releases, they were varying levels of hit or miss – which was sort of a shame because this band in particular has released some of the best ~post-black~ material in recent memory; their album I want to be there ending up one of my favourites of last year. In November though, my faith was reaffirmed when holding came out.

Holding, like its precursors, takes the “atmospheric” of “atmospheric black metal” and runs with it – building giant, somber walls of ambience built out of This Will Destroy You-style synth pads and washed out tremolo picking to great effect. Here, Sadness channels the grandiose clean choruses they’ve become known for and utilizes them to greater effect than ever before. Sing-along black metal? Yes. Further to this pop-affect, there are 90’s chorus-y guitar hooks and leads sprinkled across holding – lending it an earworm quality which most metal bands can’t capture for their lives. All of this, and still they somehow manage not to sacrifice their emotive roots. The lo-fi, intimate guitar and keys sections which punctuate these songs feel human and fallible, dynamically situating Sadness not just instrumentally, but emotionally as well.

Favourite tracks: There are only three on this one!

DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ - Charmed (Self-released) | 11.25.2020

Truly the light at the end of the tunnel, DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ has one of the most bizarre aesthetics I have ever witnessed: MS Paint Sabrina the Teenage Witch fanart…via web 1.0 flash animations? The sounds they (she?) produce under this moniker are just as conceptually confusing, but somehow familiar. The 31-track(!!) Charmed, is the latest, crowning work of their discography thus far, taking their TV-show sampling deep house vibe to new heights. The way that Sabrina builds tracks up from pop fragments into raging dance-floor bangers is truly unparalleled, and unprecedented among their would-be peers.

Their compositional instinct and technical skill isn’t the only thing which sets DJ Sabrina apart, the feel of these songs is fully different from any other electronic music out there right now. They’re almost saccharine positive, like the burgeoning hyperpop genre, but with the emotional sincerity of fellow deep house acolytes like DJ Seinfeld and DJ Boring (despite the genre’s ironic taxonomy). Emotionally sincere positive music? In 2020? What?? I’m just as surprised, but Sabrina acts almost like a foil to Burial’s deep, depressive future garage – constructing complex and dense happy house, with catchy, sample-based lyrical snippets littered throughout its runtime, while still evoking that hauntological feeling. The timing couldn’t be better too. As the seasonal affective disorder sets in, after a particularly terrible year, Charmed reminds us that the future can still be better; that things can still be good; that we spend “Too Long Looking Back.”

Favourite tracks: “Right Now,” “Charmed,” “Charmed Life,” “Too Long Looking Back,” “Next To Me”

That’s all folks! Sorry if you came here expecting a screamo list based on the title this week. I honestly didn’t get to listen to as much music as I would have liked this year, so feel free to tag me on Twitter (@rudenshiold) with whatever you think I’d like that I missed. Thanks for a…year, and hopefully your holidays are/were safe and hopeful!

No recommendation for the week, since this whole article was music recommendations. Cheers to a better (or probably just as shitty) 2021.