ATR's Best Albums & EPs of 2020...So Far
Updated: Sep 18
Written by Joseph Lu, Kasih Azhar, and Zim Ahmadi Edited by Zim Ahmadi Banner by Joseph Lu
Here’s an unranked 2020 list of the best albums and EPs from around the world collectively written by all of us at ATR. Thanks to Joseph and Kasihs’ widely differing tastes from mine, this list is as diverse as it could possibly get for us. Whether you like catchy pop or something experimental to challenge your sensibilities, you’re bound to find something you like below. Of course, considering the almost-infinite number of music out there we can’t be fully comprehensive and would love to hear from you for any album suggestions you think should definitely be on here. It’s been a strange time for music (and humanity) but 2020 so far has been a great collection of these weird experiences, whether these artists acknowledge it or dismiss it. Most of the albums and EPs for me are here because they stuck with me even after so many weeks (and even after the world as we know it has technically ended). One of the saddest things is that I haven’t been able to chronicle every album that I love - there are albums from February I haven’t really listened to yet, or have listened to but not fully reviewed. Both of which I’ve regretfully omitted for the sake of (attempted) conciseness and just because I think it’d be really disingenuous to pretend that I’ve wholly analysed and engaged with an album when I haven’t. This list also includes Honorable Mentions, albums we thought were great but slightly missed the mark, at least in comparison to all of the other great records in this article. I don’t know why you decided to read the editor’s notes, people normally skip to the list, but if you are, I love you and I wish you a happy listening! -Zim-
Demo Kawe - No Good
GENRE: HARDCORE PUNK / POST-HARDCORE
From the people that brought you Killeur Calculateur and Dirgahayu comes punk rock band No Good and their 10-minute album Demo Kawe, with them doing everything in their power to convince you they don’t give a crap. But alas, their crisp and clean-cut performances give them away. Much of the drumming and bassing in this album is highly syncopated and leans closer to funk than they do punk. I’m talking about the climactic final breakdown on Koya Biso. Or the meditative bassline on Che Using which sounds like Tame Impala’s Half Full Glass of Wine on PCP. The badly recorded vocals also colour much of their punk aesthetic with the frontman sounding like he’s trying to burst out of the mix with his thick Kelantanese accent and spit into your face. Though I’m not sure if the title implies a reissue is in the works, especially considering the mixing in this album sounds better than your average Black Flag song. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I laughed) -Joseph-
Listen to Demo Kawe here.
Deathcare - Lurkgurl
GENRE: LO-FI / ALT-INDIE / ACOUSTICA)
As a longtime fan of Lurkgurl - or Khadijah Juswil, a virtually prolific Malaysian indie singer-songwriter; the release of her fourth album “Deathcare” came to me as a total treat.For the last two of her last few albums; “For real?” (2017) took a more whimsical dig at experimenting with her lo-fi sound and Demo Days toyed around more with guitar riffs - but this album feels more tied down to reality, with a more grounded direction that feels slightly more sombre (than usual) and haunting with every softly sung lilt in her voice. Deathcare feels more homely than ever, like a lone hand extended out into the darkest corners of the universe, offering not much more than comfort in loneliness. Between soft guitar-led instrumentals and catchy acoustic bangers, it feels like moments of peace are slid in between songs in place as a palate cleanser to the next track in line. Ranging at only 20 minutes, there’s only so much that I can really say in order to sell this album to you- so i’ll get straight into what I personally find interesting about this album. Don’t gloss over certain segments because of the album’s overall lullaby-like quality- listen closely, and you might catch onto a poignant line or the gentle ascend into a swirling whirlpool of sound. The central theme of the album is, well, Death. The soft expressionism in finding comfort in the concept of passing is relatable, and her songs have evolved beautifully. Lurkgurl explains- “Icarus” deals with the fall into excess, hedonistic indulgence, use of substance to fill a yearning for inner peace one might otherwise approach through faith or some form of discipline”. She tries her hand at a love song too, and writes about her experiences with sleep paralysis. Considering that she produced 4.5/5 of an entire album under a week out of her catharsis, Lurkgurl does a great job at articulating some of the weight in a cohesive way- all the while retaining that raw quality to her music, and the grandioseness from her growth. As “Shores of death”- the closer track of the record sets in, a rush of piano keys trail along as Lurkgurl sings about the banalities of life and leads our way out of Deathcare in a rush of emotions. -Kasih- Listen to Deathcare here.
Epoch Vultures EP - Epoch Vultures
GENRE: Experimental Post-Grunge / Grunge / Hard Rock Although calling themselves Experimental Alternative Death Dangdut might mislead you into thinking they don’t take themselves too seriously, this band from Kuching has a level of mastery over the post-grunge genre that I haven’t heard in years. The 4 tracks of their self-titled EP seem like the best primer for the range of hard-rock they’re able to wield - Travesty has a good old alternative hard rock feel, Bleed Dry’s guitar riff and tone sound like a post-punk revival classic from the early 2000s, ‘Kosher Delight’ has the air and graces of epic fantasy stadium rock with Middle Eastern-inspired guitar melodies and funk, while ‘Lunacy’ is the biggest star of all - if said star was an insane, post-grunge gem incarnate. ‘Manic’ is the word that keeps floating around in my head when I think about Epoch Vultures. They’re connoisseurs of the climactic song arrangement where every tracks ends on a satisfying note in the form of wacky guitar crescendos, mad vocal deliveries and graphic lyricism that’s fun to sing and rock to, e.g. the refrain in ‘Travesty’: “I am choking on my own umbilical cord”. -Zim- Listen to the album here
Margasatwa – Margasatwa
GENRE: NEO-PSYCHEDELIA / PSYCHEDELIC POP / INDIE ROCK
Margasatwa is the crowning achievement of Malaysian band Margasatwa. Much of their deep cuts in this thing borrow the language of Malaysia’s psychedelic yesteryears. You hear tribal drumming underneath the Jiwang-inspired vocals on the album opener Gemersik Hilai, some crunchy funky guitar playing in Hadirmu, and final track Setelah Itu also takes a few pages from (Dato') Siti Nurhaliza’s book. Their most accessible track Ego however is and arguably the best representation of the band, with its lush textural production that put them somewhere between psychedelic rock and adult contemporary. I've seen this band live and can tell you the frontman Kimal puts on quite a show with his hair swaying in every direction. Then again, every member of the band has a hairdo made for headbanging. -Joseph -
Listen to Margasatwa here.
Separation - Patriots
GENRE: EMOCORE / NU METAL / POST-HARDCORE / METALCORE Patriots’ debut album might come off at first as your typically sanitized, overproduced metal, but what it does best to me is polish that format to almost near-perfection. Pop mosh is the name of the game - and it’s catchiness, headbang-worthy riffs and heart which makes Separation hard to put down. Amidst the breakbeat drums and the belligerent guitar-bass salvos are piano pieces that play a significant role in the mix. They’re calmer connectors or denouements to the band’s rock artillery. And when they stand out by themselves - like in the coda of Senseless or the beautifully heartfelt song about death and loss in Hourglass - they stand out like a monument to emotional sincerity - no flashy gimmicks needed. Separation is also great because of the layers of immersion. These are stories meant to make you visualise a narrative, even if it’s lodged in between killer solos and breakdowns. You find those layers in the Japanese vocals in Sumire, or the apocalyptic, demonic voices in ‘Reckoning’. An amazing moment of that latter song is when all the instruments, bell sounds, and cries come together in-sync for a gut-busting ending. The band seamlessly switches between languages and styles (praise the urgent whispers in Reach: “Engkau takkan tenang” and the rap parts of Hasut. If you’re a fan of alternative rock and looking to explore metal that’s not too rough on the ears, Patriots won’t be a bad start. They find powerful emotions in impactful compositions - and Separation is just the right amount of cheese and substance. -Zim- Listen to Separation here
Malaynials - SKITS
GENRE: BLUES ROCK / HARD ROCK / NOISE ROCK
It’s great to see for their second album, SKITS have matched up with the charismatic Endee Ahmad, whose growly vocals bring out the Tom Waits in each track. There’s an interesting mix going on here with passages which sound like a blend of Camel’s Mirage (1974) and Mogwai’s Young Team (1997). But despite the sonic variety, SKITS keep to the same blueprint. The guitars and bass pivot around the blues scale and every now and then you hear some Morello-inspired glitches. The real appeal of this album however is the shameless camp. When it’s not dishing out some grade-A heavy metal, the guitars are chilling with vocals in the same register, giving the choruses a much-needed climactic push. Many tracks move at this comfortable walking pace almost as if Endee is cheering on everyone to sing along. But if you’re idea of a good night is a karaoke session with four guys pouring out some good honest-to-God Malaysian dad rock, Malaynials is the way to go. -Joseph-
Listen to Malaynials here.
re: - mutesite
mutesite won many hearts with their 2016 EP re:start which if I’m not mistaken was one of the bestselling Bandcamp releases in Malaysia for a good length of time. And with their debut album re:, we see them heading in a direction that is both calculated and adventurous. They’ve swapped out their 2010 Japanese post-rock aesthetic for a myriad of textures. In Hooey we hear some nice midwest emo riffs until the synthesiser crescendos us to the end. Somewhere around the 2 ½ minute mark, there’s a Cream inspired blues breakdown. There are some nice warm djents on cacophony followed by some very unexpected beatboxing. Another highlight is the appearance of jazzy songstress Frances Tsen taking on the duty of lead singer. If you’ve ever wondered what a mutesite radio single would sound like broken clouds is a good example. The final track esiotrot finish the album off with some spicy crunchy indie guitar strumming before the piano takes over with some closing chords that sound like the outro of a Taiwanese rom-com. But even with a larger sonic palette, you recognize its mutesite because of their polyphonic composition style - the drums, guitars, and piano all intermingling with each other like a double date dinner that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Listen to re: here.
Skyscraper Towards the Sun - Golden Mammoth
GENRE: PSYCHEDELIC ROCK / GARAGE ROCK / PROGRESSIVE ROCK
Skyscraper Towards the Sun is Golden Mammoth’s second LP album. Their overall sound fits in quite nicely with the pantheon of contemporary psychedelic gods: Tame Impala, King Gizzard, and Candy Claws with driving basslines that sit in that cheeky bluesy space that the Beatles are known for. If you weren’t too happy with The Slow Rush, maybe give Golden Mammoth a go. There’s not much to say about Skyscraper Towards the Sun other than it’s a damn well-executed record. The mix is superb, every note is crisp and clear while also sounding cohesive (no doubt, having a tight performance also helps) The songwriting is exactly what you’d expect from a seasoned band. Build-ups are where they should be. Vocals don’t interfere with the chemistry of the instruments. And at times, the band skirts with different genres like the jazzy piano lick in Wishful Mortal or the flamenco guitar breakdown in Lap of Luxury. But now that Golden Mammoth has proven that they can do psych-rock as good as the big boys, I can’t wait to see where to go next. -Joseph-
Listen to Skyscraper Towards the Sun here.
狂 (Klue) - Gezan
GENRE: NOISE ROCK / POST-HARDCORE / EXPERIMENTAL ROCK
If you’ve been following Gezan for a while now, you would be familiar with their experimental J-rock repertoire. But it’s hard to describe what genre this little monster fits into. Tracks like Soul Material and I call back to their older material - sounding like someone sarcastically singing the outro music to an obscure anime series. But most of this album is pure anarchy down to the naming conventions. Most tracks are carried by the groove of bassist Carlos Ozaki Santana and drummer Ishihara Loscal in a combination that makes them sound like Melt-Banana’s edgelordy cousin. The main highlight however is the vocalist (better known as MahiToThePeople) who brings a certain rawness with his primaeval growls and shrieks throughout every song. And paired with the dissonant melodies of guitarist Eagle Taka, this thing sounds more like a Japanese version of Daughters than they do for One OK Rock. -Joseph-
Listen to 狂 (Klue) here.
Man Alive! - King Krule
GENRE: FREE JAZZ / ALT-INDIE / ELECTRONICA
As probably one of the most exciting releases this year, the king returns three years after the ethereal and conceptual release of “The Ooz” (2017) with the magnetic chimera that is “Man Alive!”. King Krule returns with a vengeance so deeply ingrained that his rat poisoned, tar-caked vocal chords sound even more inhuman with every growl- the same boyish rage is back, but he’s grown up now and the years have done him in. The entire album seems to take place through voicemail messages and distorted conversations, echoing a ringing telephone calling out from the middle of nowhere. The album is a testament to the transitions of life; Cellular, Supermarche, Stoned Again and Comet Face are individual paintings of Archy’s life- engraved impermanence. Between a blaring horns section that ducks and weaves through the heavy bass, guitars wailing and trip-hop- the album makes a turn towards a romantic fleetingness in the second quarter. The world is doused in the shades of his inner reflections and tinged blue within the empty soundscape- tracks Perfecto Miserable and Alone, Omen 3 will take you on a train ride through Archy’s hushed think-pieces about love and loneliness. His voice has a tenderness to it that feels more grounded, but the world of Man Alive! is constantly blooming along, just as he lives. Man Alive! isn’t just an expression of survival- the quiet triumph of the human spirit that so desperately claws onto whatever they have in their lives, continuously lives on in the changes and sacrifices people make. He’s still growing up, and while he’s articulating the sorrow he’s endured through his early life; the arrival of his daughter, Marina presents itself as an opportunity to find meaning through the senselessness of his life. Though he has a family to come home to, it doesn’t mean the drowning never stops. The difference this time however, is that perhaps he finally has a reason to keep afloat. -Kasih- Listen to Man Alive! here
RTJ4 - Run The Jewels
GENRE: HIP HOP / RAP / CONSCIOUS RAP RTJ 4 coming out during the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd is not just a musical snapshot of the present. Like every one of Run The Jewels’ albums, Killer Mike and El-P are broadcasters of an ongoing bulletin of a 400-year-plus American history and the racism it contains. There are no frills here, no bullshit. The anti-establishment lyrical hip hop that the duo does so well is a direct-to-heart-and-mind missile. What RTJ 4 does so amazingly as a musical opus is exceed expectations of quality. Every album of theirs is met with claims that “this is their best one yet”, and “how can any act do that 4 times in a row?”. To me, and to many other reviewers, they did exactly that. On top of the powerfully consistent verbal acrobatics (“We accept the role of the villains 'cause we been villainized”
“Stomped to the dirt of the Earth, we still will arise”), RTJ 4 has some of their best production - the master turntablism and old school feels of DJ Premier, the incredible presence of Dancehall artist Cutty Ranks on Holy Calamafuck (the epitome of RTJ braggadocio) and unlikely features that end up adding so much incisive ominousness & layers like soul icon Mavis Staples and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age on pulling the pin. They made a track with Zack de la Rocha and Pharrell Williams work with one of the best hooks in hip hop this year on JU$T. RTJ4 is not just timely, it’s an indelible remarkable chronicle of a zeitgeist. -Zim- Listen to RTJ 4 here.
Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
GENRE: INDIE ROCK / INDIE FOLK / FOLK ROCK “Let the dystopian morning light pour in”, sings Phoebe Bridgers in her song ICU, a perfect sentiment to summarise the emotional breadth of Punisher. Although Bridgers have established herself as a connoisseur of sad, heartbreaking tunes since her debut in 2017, Stranger In The Alps, and wearing her Elliott Smith influences on her sleeves, her latest album is a collection of poetic simplicity that ranges from the triumphant to the desperately lonely. All of this happens mostly simultaneously. Like in the song Kyoto, the lyrical depth in which she sings about dissociation from every place she visits (a poignant nod to anyone with travel anxiety), is also complemented by hearty horns. However, Bridgers’s forte is still in the inexplicably depressing: Garden Song is a nightmarish yet wistful take on growth, The Moon Song is a desperate elegy for a destructive, adulterous relationship, and Savior Complex is one of the most emotionally complicated love song I’ve ever heard. The true soul of Punisher that makes this a great achievement, not just for Phoebe Bridgers, but for the whole genre of emo indie, is how much she’s evolved far past her minimal singer-songwriter roots. The whole album is a cinematic experience fueled by fully-fleshed out productions - case in point, the multi-act epic of the final track I Know The End or the line “place to hide in plain sight” in Punisher laced with reverb vocal effects that make her sound like she’s drowning in an encroaching silence. Apocalyptic, while covering all bases, sorrow-wise. What’s more, Bridgers show she can still kick a proper tune with no elaborate worldbuilding, all delivered with her ethereal singing in the song Graceland Too, where she reunites in beautiful harmonies with her friends and supergroup, Boygenius, featuring Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. This album puts a heart on my heart so often and has left such a prominent scar on my spirit. And I welcome all of it. -Zim- Listen to Punisher here
Dystopia: The Tree of Language - Dreamcatcher
GENRE: K-POP/ SYMPHONIC METAL / POWER POP
At the risk of being twitter-bombed by the BTS ARMY, I think we can all agree that modern K-pop borrows quite liberally from Western music. That in mind, it was only a matter of time that K-pop and Metal flirted with each other. Thus we see Korean girl group Dreamcatcher (which totally didn’t rip off their name from Dream Theatre) and their debut album (even though this is their second release) come blasting in with chuggy guitars and boomy drums. Just don’t go into this thing expecting screamo vocals and Slipknot-level breakdowns. Being a pop album, the metal parts often sit in the back. And there are cuts like Jazz Bar and In the Frozen which don’t stray too far off from the winning formula. But bands like these are capitalist at heart and if you would personally like to see more Korean bands with that Babymetal philosophy, support Tree of Language by buying their merch. -Joseph-
Listen to Dystopia: The Tree of Language here.
Soakie - Soakie
GENRE: HARDCORE PUNK / PRIMATIVE / SNEER
I’m gonna say this right off the bat - Soakie’s music might just make you shit yourself. If you’re not up for staying through the high-pitched shrieks of vocalist Summer, nor the absolutely brain hemorrhaging hardcore political punk that is at the core of this album’s existence - you might either be an incel or your ears are already broken by the second track (EDITOR: We forgive you for the latter reason, not the first). Released on Valentine’s day earlier this year, “Soakie” is one of the most exciting feminist records that is not just reminiscent of the bikini kill/riot grrl era, but it also holds up a candle to the album’s overall composition itself. The personality shining through blatant rage is hyper-infectious - yes, even if it's distorted screaming for the most part, and as aptly mentioned on their bandcamp description; “a vocalist that sounds like she has been chewing on glass everyday since birth”. But Soakie’s album is awesome because it really doesn’t give two fucks about who is listening. It spares no second getting right to the point- it’s high energy all the way and Summer’s repetitive hooky lines are absolutely catchy and most definitely provocative in all (good) ways. Whether it's a screeching croon or a cheeky, childish squeal, her voice is definitely a star in every sense of the word. Don’t worry too much else about the composition, because the feminist driven concept for this album has laced every single song with a distinctiveness of its own. Its explosive introduction with “Nuke the Frats” (which paints a very entertaining image), Summer snarling “There’s too many fucking boys on stage” at the start at “Boys on stage”, the antifa disdain in “Ditch the Rich” and the flippancy in “What’s your Gender” are just one of the few highlights that this album has to offer. Sometimes it borders on being satirical, but then I remember, oh wait. It’s 2020, but women still don’t have equal rights and men are still toilets. The tracklist is packed from start to finish with a maelstrom of punk and the thematic content feels entirely present and new- it ranges from calling out the patriarchy, to denouncing the financial elite and celebrating gender fluidity. There’s not even that much being said, but the message gets across anyway. Give this album a chance, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Damn, this is actually pretty chill”. -Kasih-
Listen to the album here.
Song For Our Daughter - Laura Marling
GENRE: FOLK POP / FOLK Listening to this album again and again always feels like an honour. Laura Marling’s seventh studio album feels like the culmination of all the elements that make her great throughout her decade and change as a songwriter. In Song For Our Daughter, she hones the lyrical spirit of Joni MItchell, Paul McCartney, the illustrative character-unveiling chanteuse of Bob Dylan, and - as she’s stated in an interview with Evening Standard , - Leonard Cohen in the song ‘Alexandra’. It’s an honour because Song For Our Daughter is a gift of self-affirmation, confidence and steadfastness. Marling uses the persona of a fictional daughter to convey messages of self-love and hope, but also as a channel for life’s unfairness. The minimal production on the album allows room for beautiful candour, not to mention the fact that it emphasizes all the gorgeous vocal, guitar and string melodies in the tracks. Even if it’s less adventurous than some of her previous works like Semper Femina or Once I Was An Eagle, this album is unmistakably Laura Marling especially in her lyrics. “There’s the funny self-deprecation of Strange Girl (“Call yourself a socialist just to have something to defend/Oh young girl please don’t bullshit me”), the quivering severity of the eponymous track (“Lately I’ve been thinking about our daughter growing old, all of the bullshit that she might be told/ There’s blood on the floor/ Maybe now, they’ll believe her for sure”), and the deceivingly prosaic quaintness of For You which she performs with her boyfriend (“I thank a God I’ve never met, never loved, never wanted/ For you”). This album is the sonic equivalent of a warm embrace, a friend that never lies to you and always sticks by your side, even when it’s difficult. -Zim- Listen to the album here.
Xronial Xero - Camellia
GENRE: J-CORE / ELECTRO / BROSTEP
Some might not know that Japanese hardcore is also a musical genre (in which case, you’re welcome). But to the seasoned J-core fan, there’s a couple of reasons why Camellia’s Xronial Xero stands out. For one, it is almost completely synthesized, down to the Vocaloid singers in most tracks. This is doubly impressive with songs that lack basic structure, like the 6-minute banger Z:irnitra, which to me sounds like Dance Dance Revolution tried to cover Meshuggah. And while synthesized music isn’t new to anyone screwing around with FL Studio, one can also appreciate how this is the first time Camellia is collaborating with a legion of artists, all who bring much needed variety to the album. You hear passages of metal in =El=Dorado=, EDM in Madd Bleepp and modern classical in Gunkyouzouteki Soseiriron – not to mention the brostep sprinkled throughout the rest of the album. Ultimately, Xronial Xero the album is a buffet for anyone who thinks 300BPM is too slow. -Joseph-
Listen to Xronial Xero here.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
GENRE: INDUSTRIAL BAROQUE POP / EXPERIMENTAL
So far, there has been no other pop album released this year that’s as unpredictable and as exciting as Fetch the Bolt Cutters. In fact, it subverts a lot of traditional pop structures, with Apple using her limitations (such as not knowing how to cut tracks properly on GarageBand) to create a collection of songs that feel improvisational and organic. It’s an audio documentary of her day-by-day, accentuating that personalness with random hums and vocalisations at the end of some tracks or even dog noises at the end of the title track - all true to the statement she’s made where she considers her “home a part of an ambience”. Yet, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is not a haughty, pretentious art piece. Her songwriting also gets personal. In tune with the notion of liberation and “freeing yourself from situations in life you’re stuck in”. Her ability to use personal experience as a launchpad for larger commentary is impeccable. Throughout the tracklist she covers topics like depression (Heavy Balloon), voicing out during awkward social situations (Under the Table), how women are expected to compete and destroy each other for the benefit of men (Ladies) and the visceral snipe at Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault case (and the experience of sexual assault in general) where she sings “ “Good morning,you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” (For Her). Somehow in between all of this, Apple has also managed to make her funniest album. My favourite song hands down is Relay - a military march that is the epitome of the record’s percussive foundation that takes a jab at social media influencers (“I’ll resent you presenting your life a freaking propaganda brochure”). True to punk’s ethos, the DIY charm of Fetch the Bolt Cutters only makes every word of Apple’s performance more incisive. -Zim- Listen to Fetch the Bolt Cutters here.
Music for Self Esteem - bod [包家巷]
GENRE: SOUND COLLAGE / AMBIENT POP / MODERN CLASSICAL
There’s a joke I sometimes hear that if you don’t know what to say about an album, you say it’s an experience. As in “it’s not an album, it’s an experience”. In the case of Nick Zhu (aka bod) and the cinematic Music for Self Esteem, that description is appropriate. To reference Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement (a fancy word for background music), many of these songs are better appreciated when you listen passively. Because this whole thing plays out like a movie and not just because of its 90-minute runtime. The titular track for example opens with fluttering pianos backed by a sample of crashing waves. Suddenly we hear a lady mumbling to herself in Mandarin accented by the clinking of teacups and some rushed footsteps. Almost every track follows this structure shifting from soundscape to soundscape, with everything culminating together into what might be a soundtrack for the greatest movie never made. This is what they mean when they say it’s not an album, it’s an experience. -Joseph-
Listen to Music for Self Esteem here.
Innocent Country 2 - Quelle Chris & Chris Keys
GENRE: HIP HOP / ART RAP / ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP The main reason why Innocent Country 2 is on this list for me is because it’s a great gathering of all the boundary-pushing, lyrically intriguing hip hop artists right now that I respect so much. Earl Sweatshirt, billywoods, Pink Siifu, and Denmark Vessey are some of the many wonderful rappers on this album - complementing Quelle Chris’s already amazing critique of culture that can both be satirical and serious. Then you have the nuances in the Soulquarian-influenced production, helmed by Chris Keys knack for detail in between the simplicity of synthpads, keys, drums, bass and horns. Occasionally you have amazing contributions by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, giving further depth to this album’s sounds. Innocent Country 2 is the audio form of a movie, and all of its cinematic elements are built upon that production. In fact the first track is the trailer to the rest of the track-list. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes heartbreakingly profound and real. But since Quelle Chris aimed at creating this album as a healing tool that acknowledges the sufferings of the world, I say he did a stupendous job at it. It’s a piece of art that captures the past in Polaroid perfection, but also a message for the future. To leave one of the many standout moments in the album, this lyric by Big Sen: “And err’ybody’s fed up. And people don’t know what to do, so we make our art and art is beautiful. But art is also the truth. So we know, you know?” -Zim- Listen to Innocent Country 2 here
The Common Task - Horse Lords
GENRE: EXPERIMENTAL ROCK / MATH ROCK / KRAUTROCK
This is one of the strangest math rock albums I’ve come across in a while. Describing the aesthetic isn’t all that hard. If Phillip Glass composed for a four-piece instrumental math-rock band, the Horse Lords is what I imagine it would sound like. The effect each song has on you however is a different matter. On a bad day, when you’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed and haven’t yet had breakfast, each song can be vomit-inducing. On a good day, it’s the same thing but at least you kind of feel like dancing. The Common Task is as frustrating as it is meditative. What draws you in are the polyrhythms. The way each instrument repeats while bouncing off each other induces a hypnotic state, almost like throat-singing several mantras at once. Paradoxically, the polyrhythms also deter the experience, especially when its three or more instruments are stacked on each other. The overall effect feels like an M.C. Escher painting but instead of stairs, escalators are moving in varying directions and speed. Some textures are intentionally grating like what I assume is a dying frog at the 2 ½ minute mark in People’s Park or the snarky glitchy fax tone in the opening of The Radiant City. All this alienation is intentional of course. There’s a certain fatigue that comes from having your attention come and go every 10 seconds or so, almost like hopping a marathon with one leg. Whether this is healthy, I’m not sure. But no matter how good your speakers, do not listen to this in your car. -Joseph-
Listen to The Common Task here.
Windows Open - Dirty Projectors
GENRE: INDIE FOLK / INDIE POP There’s a song about a fanatic dictator supporter in this EP, and it still manages to be one of the most beautifully cloudy, dream-like, whimsical folk tracks. This first instalment in the Dirty Projectors’ series of 5 EPs set for release this year is led by the vocals of Maia Friedman. It’s more than just fluffy, wonderfully sung tunes - the little glitches and nuances in the production and the quietly resplendent strings make up the ultimate dreamland experience - before you’re hammered into the casually poignant lyrics that is. Windows Open is the apocalypse if it was painted by impressionists with a penchant for bright colours and dark thoughts. -Zim- Listen to Windows Open here.
Fist Me 'Til Your Hand Comes Out My Mouth - Crywank
GENRE: FREAK FOLK / EXPERIMENTAL ROCK / LO-FI INDIE
It’s hard to believe these are the same guys who came up with the modest hit Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday and Everyday Is Stupid (2013) – a soft sensitive exploration on depression guaranteed to warm the hearts of any hopeless romantic-cum-hipster. This album however is a complete left turn for the band. It’s self-depreciative but with a dash of psycho – sort of like if Bright Eyes joined the church of Satan. It’s technically a double album. The I Love You but I’ve Chosen Me series is more conventional; Melody and rhythm still take precedence and there are some good catchy tunes, albeit dissonant in a Joy Division sort of way like Yellow Donut Doggo. The second half is a slow descent into crazy town. There’s a lot of experimentation transitions as well as some disturbing samples. I’m listening to Life in the Chalk Basket now and behind the Trout Mask Replica guitar work, you can pick out some sort of organic being violating the room. Some songs toy with electronic textures, colouring the soundscape with an eerie chimerical texture similar to Xiu Xiu’s Girl with Basket of Fruit (2019). It’s an ugly album born out of modest intention. So rare it is to watch a band completely let go of the reins and run willingly straight into a brick wall. It’s a shame this is supposedly their last album.
- Joseph- Listen to Fist Me 'Til Your Hand Comes Out My Mouth here.
Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 1 - Natalia Lafourcade
GENRE: BOLERO, POP, MEXICAN FOLK
Mexican singer-songwriter, Natalia Lafourcade has such an interesting discography. Her last truly alternative/pop rock album was Mujer Divina, Homenaje a Agustín Lara in 2012. After that, you can see Lafourcade diving deeper into Latin folklore and traditional music, culminating in her critically acclaimed 2017 album Musas. Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol 1 is just another feather in her cap. Although it’s not an album made entirely of originals, with some songs taken from her 2015 album, Hasta La Raiz, including the title song, all of these recordings are fresh from her concert performance in November 2019 which she did for the reconstruction of The Documentation Center of Son Joracho. From there, so much new life is given, to the extent that Un Canto Por Mexico is the most passionately romantic album I’ve ever heard so far this year. As if Lafourcade on her own isn’t already powerful enough to dominate this entire record with her singularly gorgeous voice - Un Canto por Mexico just keeps on giving and giving with seamless collaborations and amazing musicianship (with Los Cojolites at the forefront of all of the songs and the new bolero, folklorish twist imbibed). Her duet with Leonel Garcia on ‘Ya No Por Vivir’ contains breath-taking chemistry - the way their voices weave around each other and the naturalness of it all radiates like the summer sun. The album does justice to all of it’s classic covers too, like the mournful and minimal Cucurrucucu Paloma - a huapango (Mexican folk dance) staple originally released in 1954 by Tomas Mendez. This album has beautiful serenades, tons of festive tracks and sorrowful waves to ride on. -Zim- Listen to the album here
Dhakar EP - Deena Abdelwahed
GENRE: ELECTRONIC / TECHNO / ARABIC POP
Blending the old and the new isn’t a particularly new concept. But what Tunisia-born Deena Abdelwahed succeeds in Dhakar is achieving prosody. While most producers choose to recycle tribal loops from imbrokeandwontpayforsamples.net, Abdelwahed has constructed from the ground up, swapping out Arabic percussion with timbres familiar to most hip-hop producers. Ah’na Hakkeka for example has a bassline that makes me expect that Kanye West and Lil Pump to burst in with Roblox costumes. But I’m not merely praising the mix, the composition itself seems to be otherworldly borrowing from the realms of industrial hip hop, and UK dance and Arabic pop – each element lingers on in a space that is dark, dizzying, symphonic. The closing track Zardet Sidi Bagra is mixed like a recording of a Mad-Max ensemble marching through the Sahara Desert at night. In the end, Dharkar is a gothic portrait of two worlds meeting.
Listen to Dhakar here.
God Has Nothing Do With It Leave Him Out Of This - Backxwash
GENRE: HORRORCORE / HIP HOP The major reason this album is such a masterpiece to me is because of its capacity to be irreverent, dark and scathing towards organized faith while also acknowledging a necessary path to forgiveness towards it just so we can stop being self-destructive human beings. Life is hard. The genre of Horrorcore (I’m just really thinking of Hopsin and Ho9909, forgive my narrowness) has a tendency to be really corny because much of its inspiration - B-grade horror films, campy noirs - are usually trite as well. Yet God Has Nothing To Do With It is wall-to-wall emotional nuance. All of that aforementioned influence is used so perfectly - the Iron Man guitar sample, Ozzy Osbourne shouting “Oh, no no, please God help me”, the Eraserhead sample and all of the snippets of sermons and talks about forgiveness - fuel the narrative, on top of Backxwash’s already gruelling, relatable accounts found within her lyricism. Maybe anger is the predominant emotion, but the fury is far from hollow and uncomplicated. -Zim- Listen to God Has Nothing To Do With It here.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately - Perfume Genius
GENRE: ART POP / CHAMBER POP / AMBIENT POP
Whole Life opens the album with a slow chamber-pop ballad not unfamiliar to many long-time fans. But when Describe enters, we hear the murmurs of a distorted guitar, signifying a bigger change for Perfume Genius. This change however is complex to describe. It is not a reversal nor is it a doubling down. Rather like the blooming of a flower moving in every direction. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a vignette of slow quiet violence. There are some light sunny cuts like Without You and On the Floor which could’ve easily been mistaken as a Magnetic Fields or Belle & Sebastian song. But as the album progresses, you sense a semblance of some spirit that meanders its way through tracks like Moonbend, Some Dream, Just a Touch and Borrowed Light hiding beneath the bright textures and major chords. This spirit of alienation. Of bitterness. It is something that has always followed its host. But only now, has it made its appearance. Perfume Genius vulnerability indeed has bloomed. -Joseph-
Listen to Set My Heart on Fire Immediately here.
Peaceful as Hell - Black Dresses
GENRE: NOISE POP / GLITCH-TRONICA / ART PUNK The internal mania of self-doubt, anxiety, loneliness, and resentment finds its tumultuous embodiment in Black Dresses wildly erratic (emotionally) record. “I wanna give people a chance, but they keep bringing me down” (IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT) is the type of wisdom you find throughout the album - platitudes that can be found on ironic t-shirts, yet given power and impact with the expressive style the noise pop duo does all of it. Constantly being thrown around between grating glitch-tronica and cute pop refrains is what makes Peaceful As Hell captivating. Beautiful Friendship, Damage Suppressor, Bliss & Stupidity - all of it incessantly stimulates my brain; a paradoxical platter of catchy and harsh. Between all the screaming though is a message of love for an age where it’s become so easy to be a misanthrope. “I’m just a person, please be nice” (PLEASE BE NICE). I’m still a bit upset that they’ve broken up after TikTok-ers have misused one of their albums containing songs about the duo’s childhood experiences with sexual assault, WASTEISOLATION, for dance challenges and the subsequent harassment the band faced after they took the song down from streaming platforms. What a sad epilogue to this whole record. Still definitely worth a listen. -Zim- Listen to Peaceful as Hell here.
What's Tonight to Eternity - Cindy Lee
GENRE: HYPNAGOGIC POP / DREAM POP / LO-FI INDIE
You might recall a strange album that came out in 2011 titled An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. The entire album was mixed in a way that made you feel like you were lying down face up in a large gilded ballroom - a lone vinyl player set up in the middle of the room. Cindy Lee sounds a bit like that. Her voice is often muddied to the point of incoherence, lost to the saturated reverb of the room. And thus, the space becomes part of the harmony. Dividends only come after your first listen, when you can’t quite remember what the bassline from Lucifer Stand sounds like. You listen again to discover you were humming the wrong notes and eventually coming to the realization that the album you remember will only ever exist as a dream. What's Tonight to Eternity is designed to be re-listened ad infinitum. -Joseph-
Listen to What's Tonight to Eternity here.
SAWAYAMA - Rina Sawayama
GENRE: POP / NU-METAL From her previous mini album of pop perfection, Rina, I would think I would’ve figured out what exactly Rina Sawayama is about. But her debut SAWAYAMA pushes her pop persona to a whole new level by throwing a large net over a wider portion of early 2000s popular music: all the nu metal elements in SAWAYAMA feel so naturally complementary with the impeccably produced dance pop cuts. Her explorations of her British and Japanese identity (like the hilarious account of going out with someone with ‘yellow fever’ in STFU), friendship (Chosen Family) and self-love makes the album exceed all hollow expectations of most dance pop albums too. These aren’t empty homages; they’re filled with substance and style which are indicative of Rina Sawayama’s talent for earworms and punches - whether in nostalgic pop cuts, stadium-sized guitar riffs, nu metal tributes or even the momentary ode to dubstep in Snakeskin. In purely pop-influenced tracks like Bad Friend and Fuck This World, the music still shines as masterful embodiments of productioncraft combined with lyrical vulnerability. SAWAYAMA also has my favourite pop song this year (in the conventional pop structure sense), XS, a satirical self-aware bop about excess wealth and capitalism that has absolutely no right to be as catchy as it is. This album feels like I’m flipping through Channel V or MTV as a kid, waiting for Breaking the Habit to appear on the playlist while secretly vibing to Toxic. All hail Sawayama, our new pop queen. MORE. -Zim-
Cambridge-graduate Rina Sawayama is a shameless genre-bender who has been exciting the pop world with her noughties-era compositions and offbeat lyrics. If anything, this album demonstrates her insane range as an artist. She channels Amy Lee in Dynasty, Britney Spears in XS. Not to mention Chosen Family injects so much American Idol camp that Kelly Clarkson is pulling her hair she didn’t write it first. And while the mixtape approach to SAWAYAMA might be a turnoff for those looking for a conceptual album, most songs are bangers worthy of being the lead single. It’s also interesting that each listen rewards us with a clearer picture of Rina’s electric personality. But I think Rina shines when she isn’t trying to ‘emulate’ a genre. The fan favourite STFU! at times sound like it's being driven by a throwaway Limp Bizkit bassline. But to her credit, she engages more with genre conventions than most self-proclaimed genre-benders. Regardless, SAWAYAMA showcases Rina as an accomplished performer and curator of earwormy hooks, and is on track to the next big pop thing standing with the likes of Billie Eilish and Charlie XCX.
-Joseph- Listen to SAWAYAMA here.
Scramblers - Container
GENRE: INDUSTRIAL / TECHNO / ELECTRONIC
Just Ren Schofield defragging his hard drive for 29 mins. He also composed, recorded, mixed and mastered this album in a day. How’s that for a TikTok challenge. -Joseph-
Listen to Scramblers here.
Purple Moonlight Pages - R.A.P. Ferreira
GENRE: HIP HOP / OLD SCHOOL / JAZZ RAP / ART RAP As if Ferreira’s forte of creating engaging & immersive poetry isn’t already a supreme statement to the power of wordplay, references and emotional expositions, The Jefferson Boys and Kenny Segal knock it out of the park with their production that marries jazzy virtuosity and old school boom bap (re: ABSOLUTES). Sounds which are prominent, but still leaves breathing room for vocabulary. “The rhyme you’re about to hear isn’t the truth, neither is it false” announces the rapper/producer formerly known as milo, and with that preface, the album walks you through the tiny silly moments of life, like the wholesomeness of doing LAUNDRY or the unexpectedly biting lines after a cheeky flow in tracks like U.D.I.G. (“I have to be earnest, have you earned this”), OMENS & TOTEMS (“Professional rappers are only heard post-mortem”) or NO STARVING ARTISTS (“No starving artists, just artists starving. I have fallen off the wheel, I am no longer a starving artist”). Much like Ferreira’s other works under different names (such as my introduction to him and the bigger world of art rappers like Open Mike Eagle) was the release of So The Flies Don’t Come under the name milo), he effortlessly drops lines within a humorous context so that you gotta take a step back to realise what the song has done to you. Also, favourite music moment in Purple Moonlight Pages? The sax in NONCIPHER staying in step with Ferreira’s rap melody. Super gratifying.
-Zim- Listen to Purple Moonlight Pages here
Seership! EP - ELUCID
GENRE: SOUND COLLAGE / AMBIENT / INDUSTRIAL HIP HOP / INSTRUMENTAL HIP HOP
You might know Elucid as that dude that appeared on Billy Woods & Kenny Segal’s critically acclaimed 2019 album Hiding Places. But he’s also a decorated hip-hop producer known for taking an experimental approach to making beats. And while it makes more sense to talk about his latest album Shit Don’t Rhyme No More, I find this 28 min single much more interesting. Seership! comes from a subgenre of hip-hop that churns out long-form tracks using traditional beatmaking production methods. It’s basically Godspeed You! Black Emperor but you can rap over it. If you’ve listened to Lil Ugly Mane’s Third Side of Tape (2015) or cLOUDDEAD’s self-titled album (2001), you already know what to expect. Seership! transitions into various soundscapes ranging from synthwave to house to industrial. At the 15-minute mark, we hear our first human voice bursting through the heavily distorted drums in the background. At some point, the track transitions into jazzy samples before the track curl towards its end, closed by robotic vocal samples – mostly indecipherable. Seership! is not a record for everyone. especially not for people who have better things to do. It’s a listening experience fragmented not into tracks but into abstract cinematic scenes. If you’re looking for a cheap LSD trip, this is a good start. -Joseph-
Listen to Seership! Here.
Underneath - Code Orange
GENRE: Metalcore / Industrial Hardcore If you wanna know how it feels like to have a cyberpunk demon in your head, Underneath is your closest bet. Code Orange’s latest album is a significant evolution in their sound. Yes, they’ve always experimented with noise and other abrasive musical elements like doom metal, at least far more than usual for a band that started out as straightforward hardcore punk, but with Underneath, you get a fully fleshed out, impeccably arranged, and beautifully cinematic record. Did I say beautiful? I mean, unsettling. Like, really disorienting. One second you’re getting washed over by these amazing riffs, vocal performances and breakdowns but then seemingly at random you get the voice of little girls whispering things in your ears, a sudden pause, and glitch effects - all to throw you off your balance. The use of white noise in the production of Underneath is key in making it an immersive dystopian sci-fi. The details never feel like gimmicks because even the musicianship is massive and on point, like the explosive drums in You and You Alone or the atmospheric instrumentations in Who I Am. When the album takes its foot off of the gas pedal for a while, the (relatively) tamer metal cuts such as Sulfur Surrounding and A Sliver still stand strong with satisfying levels of aggression and distortion. Underneath it all, this record can be extremely eerie and uncomfortable - all in the best, air-punching, cathartic way possible. -Zim-
Listen to Underneath here.
Floppy Disk Overdrive - Master Boot Record
GENRE: CYBER METAL / CHIPTUNE / THRASH METAL
Italian cyber-metal artists Victor Love & Keygen Church come together as Master Boot Record to bring us Floppy Disk Overdrive. The concept behind this album is simple enough although it is baffling to explain how the combination came to be. It’s basically your paint-by-numbers thrash/death metal but for some reason, every note sounds like a HP printer going through a guitar amp. Still, there are some interesting points in this album. The first part of RAMDRIVE.SYS goes into some very post-rock territory and FDISK.EXE could’ve easily been done by Kavinsky. I do think the 68-minute runtime is way too long, especially since every song sounds like they were cut from the same cloth. But if you’re a long-time fan of Anamanaguchi and want something darker, Floppy Disk Overdrive is a good start.
PS these guys also recently released the VirtuaVerse.OST which was better-received but I haven’t gotten around to hearing that yet. Check it out if you want more cyber-metal. -Joseph-
Listen to Floppy Disk Overdrive here.
BRAT - NNAMDI
GENRE: ART POP / ALTERNATIVE R&B / TRAP / HIP HOP / MATH ROCK / ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP
BRAT is the best example I’ve had in 2020 so far of a pleasant surprise. First track I’ve ever heard from NNAMDI was Gimme Gimme, so I went into BRAT expecting a less-than-serious, bouncy trap album. Turns out, it’s that and so much more. The introduction, Flowers to My Demons, is already an emo acoustic cut that somehow transitions seamlessly into fun, bass-heavy trap song Gimme Gimme. NNAMDI showcases every trait of a person who’s just not just going on a genre-roulette for the sake of it, but uses his eclectic grasp of math rock, R&B, and hip hop influences as tools for expressing different emotions. There are extremes of humour in songs like Bullseye, where NNAMDI sings about being self-obsessed, or also the slightly more ominous SEMANTICS. Already armed with a captivating personality in his performance, BRAT also has a lot of interestingly arranged compositions with productions you think shouldn’t go together, but do anyway. The warm keys in Everyone I Loved feels miles apart from the grand composite electronic orchestra of SEMANTICS, let alone the pure math rock of Perfect In My Mind. There's a wide emotional range as well: a lot of darkness such as depression and self-effacement, funny punchlines and heartfelt moments like in the watery self-deprecating love song WASTED. So much can be found under all of these sophisticated instrumental layers - and NNAMDI just keeps on giving in every track.
Listen to BRAT here
We Are Sent Here by History - Shabaka and the Ancestors
GENRE: SPIRITUAL JAZZ / JAZZ POETRY
It’s great that spiritual jazz is making a small revival (I’m referring of course to The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet’s recent releases). I think one thing that sets this album apart is the narrative polyphony. Much of the chaos in each track occurs because no one-voice is speaking. Perhaps an allusion to our current political climate? The opening track seems to imply so. Sometimes these voices play out in unison - such as in Run, The Darkness Will Pass when we hear a lady and oboe share the same passage. But much of the album is spun out of a cacophonous texture - akin to a busy night at the pasar malam. But like any good wind instrumentalist who uses human inflection to their advantage, Shabaka Hutchings understands the power of melody and its spiritual connection to the human voice. Even in the most intricate of compositions, the human voice remains the centrepiece. Only words can make sense of noise. There’s something empowering in that.
Listen to We Are Sent Here by History here.
Juillet - En Attendant Ana
GENRE: INDIE ROCK / DREAM POP / GARAGE POP (Firstly, I just want to point out how appropriate that I’m writing this in July, since ‘Juillet’ is the French word for that month). Sometimes the reason music feels so compelling before you can even articulate the words for why is due to its comfortableness. Even before I finished listening to Juillet, I knew it was starting to fill my unfounded need for good old jangly indie rock with a helping of delicious schmaltz. The more I listen to this French band’s latest LP however, the more I realise its appeal does not stop at reverb goodness. The songs are composed and produced with such richness and focus that it’s easy to get caught in that simplicity. A lot of wonderful things actually go on. The horns in tracks like In/Out, the triumphant melodies of Somewhere and Somehow’s synths and the arrangement in moodsetter instrumental, When It Burns are just a few examples. I almost made the mistake of calling this album a cliche on first listen just because the vocalist sounds like Molly Rankin from Alvvays. I’m glad I stuck around. Listen to cuts like Enter My Body (Lilith) and you’ll notice how effectively Juillet acts as a conduit for their influences ranging from post-punk to trendy dream pop soundscapes.
-Zim- Listen to Juillet here.
Myopia - Agnes Obel
GENRE: CHAMBER POP / ART POP / AMBIENT POP
Agnes Obel is like the quiet little sister to Julia Holter and Weyes Blood (even though she’s older than both of them). Her compositions are often understated because of its minimalistic arrangements and slow transitions. And while some may judge this album to be less adventurous than her critically acclaimed Aventine (2013), there is much to be enjoyed in Myopia. Much finesse goes into this album’s delicate design. In Broken Sleep for example, the background vocals seem to climb over the lead melody resulting in a tense track in battle with itself. And Island of Doom, which features pitch-manipulated vocals encircling Agnes Obel’s own voice, creating a sort of downwards momentum that incites the feeling of sinking at sea. There’s also a bit of math rock going on in the title track Myopia with the main melody seemingly cut short making for a nervous and jittery backdrop. But the ultimate takeaway from this album (and its predecessors) is that introversion does not hinder execution. The only drawback is subtlety and for many, that is beauty in itself. -Joseph-
Listen to Myopia here.
The Pandemic Songs - Hamell On Trial
GENRE: ANTI-FOLK Out of all the music that has come out from the lockdown during the pandemic, Ed Hamell’s 9-song opus is probably the funniest. I can’t remember the last time I laughed after listening to an album, let alone have it be about the weirdest, most severe thing to have happened to everyone in 2020. There are so many moments in The Pandemic Songs, - characterised by Hamell’s abrasive, fast-paced, wit - that sound like it comes straight from a man whose slowly going mad and just about able to keep it together. That’s what makes the album such good company. Deep inside we all need an outlet for our crazy, isolated selves. Well, you could let Hamell voice your frustrations for you as he sings about running out of soap, wishing death upon Trump supporters who refuse to follow lockdown rules and the general paranoia arising from these fucked up times. -Zim-
Listen to The Pandemic Songs here