2020s Miscellany

This page collects album reviews for 2020s artists of whom I’ve only reviewed one or two albums.

Ichiko Aoba | Fiona Apple | Azana | Caribou | Nick Cave and Warren Ellis | Destroyer | DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, and Tresor | Baxter Dury | Chloe x Halle | The Flaming Lips | Fleet Foxes | Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra | Flock of Dimes | Childish Gambino | Gabriel Garzón-Montano | Grimes | Cassandra Jenkins | King Krule | Natalia Lafourcade | Dua Lipa | The Microphones | Ela Minus | Victoria Monét | John Moreland | Róisín Murphy | Kate NV | Owen Pallett | Perfume Genius | Poppy | Porridge Radio | Katie Pruitt | Dawn Richard | Porter Robinson | Olivia Rodrigo | Jeff Rosenstock | Rina Sawayama | Run The Jewels | Tiwa Savage | Jazmine Sullivan | Moses Sumney | Yves Tumor | U.S. Girls | Waxahatchee | The Weather Station | Jonathan Wilson | Steven Wilson | Wobbler

Ichiko Aoba

Windswept Adan

2020, 9/10
Kyoto folk musician Ichika Aoba has been releasing albums for a decade – she was still a teenager when Kamisori Otome came out in 2010. She plays classical guitar – earlier releases like 2013’s o were centered around her guitar. On Windswept Adan she submerges her music in ambient strings and electronics. Billed as a “soundtrack for a fictitious movie”, it’s gorgeous. Aoba’s talked in interviews about how a lot of her songs come to her in dreams – she told Japan Times that “the dreams I have are like movies: They even have opening titles and credits at the end.”

The most accessible song is the most upbeat – ‘Sagu’s Palm Song’ is built around joyful guitar lines. There’s diversity in the textures – the piano in ‘Parfum D’étoiles’ has touches of jazz and classical. Even though the lyrics are in Japanese, songs like ‘Dawn in the Adan’ and ‘Adan No Shima No Tanjyosai’ don’t sound as Asian as you might expect – the guitars and strings aren’t far removed from what you might find on a 21st century Vashti Bunyan record.

Windswept Adan is a gorgeous album, a folkie embracing new sounds to widen her palette without losing her core appeal.


Fiona Apple

Fetch the Bolt Cutters

2020, 8.5/10
Fiona Apple’s been around for a long time, releasing her 1996 debut album Tidal at the age of 18. But she’s not prolific – Fetch the Bolt Cutters is only her fifth record, making each Apple release feel like an event. April’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters has proved especially major – in a fractured music scene, it’s dominated conversations about the year’s best record.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters deviates from Apple’s usual piano-driven music in favour of a percussion-heavy sound. The percussion came from found objects including baked seedpods and the bones of Apple’s deceased dog. Apple often initiated the tracks from basic recordings on her phone and, despite contributions by band-mates like bassist Sebastian Steinberg and multi-instrumentalist David Garza, the tracks retain the raw feeling of demos. Model Cara Delevingne, Apple’s sister Maude Maggart, and Apple’s dog Mercy are also credited with vocal contributions.

Musically, Fetch the Bolt Cutters resembles 1980s Tom Waits, as well as tracks like ‘Hot Knife’ from Apple’s previous record The Idler Wheel…. Apple is a more supple vocalist than Waits, however, and it’s her dramatic cabaret-style singing that gives Fetch the Bolt Cutters a distinctive flavour. First track ‘I Want You To Love Me’ is piano-based, but features some of Apple’s most extreme vocalising with her high pitched machine-gun impersonations at the conclusion.

Apple’s fascinating lyrically, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters moves is both insular and inspirational. Some songs are directly inspired by minutiae in Apple’s life; in the case of ‘Drumset’, by bandmate and engineer Amy Aileen Wood borrowing Apple’s drumset without asking. The title is taken from an episode of TV series The Fall, and serves as a metaphor for freedom. Apple references another female auteur, Kate Bush, on the title track, singing “I need to run up that hill, I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.”

Most of these tracks are memorable thanks to Apple’s striking lyrics and vocal experiments. ‘Heavy Balloon’ addresses depression and uses a jazzy template with unexpected key changes. The stacked vocals on ‘For Her’ are effective, almost a capella apart from some percussion. ‘Relay’ rollicks along on a bed of percussion as Apple declares that “evil is a relay sport”.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters may not even end up as my favourite album from Apple. Nonetheless, it’s a notable addition to a fascinating catalogue that marks Apple as one of the most significant acts to emerge in the 1990s. Releasing a record that sounds somewhat original is an achievement in a congested market.


Azana

Ingoma

2020, 9/10
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed the fertile South African house music scene. It’s known in South Africa by the name amapiano, Zulu for “the pianos”, and originated in South African townships like Soweto. Amapiano is now in the mainstream, blending house sounds with soul and pop. One of the leading figures in the house scene is producer Sun-El Musician, who enjoyed a prolific 2020, producing acclaimed albums from Mthunzi and Simmy as well as releasing the epically long three-hour album To the World & Beyond under his own name. Perhaps the most notable record from the SunElWorld stable in 2020, however, was Ingoma, a record by 19-year-old newcomer Azana.

Ingoma sits in the intersection of soul, pop, and house, and it’s lovely. Azana describes her vocals as “my voice is Rich and soothing. It sounds like Royalty.” It starts gently – ‘Okhokho’ functions like an opening prayer, evoking Azana’s Zulu heritage. The more upbeat material is on the second half – ‘Ngize Ngifike’ and ‘Umoqondana’ emphasise the house beats. The highlight, though, is the lovely ‘Your Love’, built around a shimmering keyboard riff. It’s simply a terrific pop song, with a great verse melody, memorable chorus, and wordless hook, delivered with Azana’s creamy vocals.

Ingoma is a gorgeous debut, and ‘Your Love’ is my favourite song of 2020.


Caribou

Suddenly

2020, 9/10
I’m sure I’m not the only music fan who prefers music with obvious human emotion. Accordingly, electronic music can be a tough nut to crack – you can enjoy the sonic experimentation, but not emotionally connect with it in the same way as with music fronted by a human voice. Caribou’s Dan Snaith solves this dilemma by adding his own homespun vocals to his tracks, providing an easy way in for fickle fans like me.

Suddenly isn’t unlike Eno’s vocal albums of the 1970s – you can dance to it, and instead of star turns from guest musicians like Robert Fripp and Phil Collins, it’s the vocal samples that provide the spark. But Eno and Snaith share an interest in marrying textural experimentation with succinct songwriting, topped off with their endearing vocals. Snaith’s gentle voice often recalls Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue.

Suddenly is Snaith’s tenth album, including records as Manitoba and Daphni. The twelve songs were developed from nine hundred 30-second draft ideas. Snaith holds a doctorate in mathematics, in Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols, but there’s emotional heft communicated by his gentle voice as well.

Snaith covers a lot of stylistic ground on Suddenly – the immediacy of the dance-pop on ‘Never Come Back’ contrasts with the intimacy of ‘Like I Loved You’. The verse of ‘You and I’ recalls the 1980s-flavoured sophisti-pop of The 1975, but the chorus spirals unpredictably. Often it’s the mellowest material that works the best – ‘Ravi’ extracts every possible ounce of beauty out of its gentle groove. Snaith’s textural experimentation is at the forefront on pieces like ‘Sunny’s Time’ and ‘Cloud Song’.

Suddenly is a superlative album of smart dance-pop, delivering textual experimentation and memorable hooks.


Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Carnage

2021, 8.5/10
As this website is effectively one person trying to write about vast swathes of popular music, I often ignore the late-period catalogue of artists. Legendary artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen tend to enjoy massive acclaim for whatever they release. The groundswell behind Nick Cave’s recent releases, however, became so consistent that I checked in with Carnage, the first Cave record I’ve heard since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Cave comes from the town of Warracknabeal in rural Australia, but he’s carved out a place for himself in popular music – his work with the Bad Seeds make him the 12th highest ranked album artist of all time in the Acclaimed Music aggregator, close behind household names like The Beatles, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin.

Cave’s been prolific, with more than 40 years as a recording artist – an album with The Boys Next Door, three with The Birthday Party, seventeen with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and two with Grinderman. Carnage is Cave’s first studio album with long-term collaborator Warren Ellis – Ellis is also a member of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and the pair have previously recorded soundtracks. Cave’s style has aged well, with his stock in trade his baritone voice crooning literate lyrics about God and mortality.

There’s some feistiness on the bluesy ‘Old Time’, while the violence of ‘White Elephant’ recalls Cave’s fascination with gore in his earlier works. The cinematic balladry of the title track is much more typical of this project, focused on lush and luxurious ballads.

Every song on the back half of the record feels like a majestic album closer. The stately piano and strings of ‘Albuquerque’ are gorgeous, like a Jimmy Webb song. Ellis’ string arrangement is glorious on ‘Lavender Fields’, the perfect foil for Cave’s sonorous baritone. Cave’s one of the best lyricists in the popular music canon, and ‘Shattered Ground’ is gorgeous with “There’s a madness in her and a madness in me/And together it forms a kind of sanity.” ‘Balcony Man’ is the actual closer, and it’s suitably grandiose with its choral backdrop.

Clearly, I’ve erred in ignoring Cave’s last 15 years of work and I have some catching up to do.


Chloe x Halle

Ungodly Hour

2020, 8/10
Chloe and Halle Bailey were born in Georgia, but moved to L.A. in their tweens. A Youtube cover of Beyonce’s earned her attention, and they were signed to a $1 million record deal. For a young R&B duo, they’re unusually self-contained – they provide a lot of the instrumentation, and Chloe Bailey is the primary producer on most of these songs.

Even when the material on this sophomore record is generic, the singing sounds great. The siblings harmonise beautifully – there’s something magical about two voices, similar yet distinct, singing together. The record’s a little flat when they’re trying to make a hit single, even though ‘Do It’ is grand.

The beat’s modern, but ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’ is reminiscent of a torch song, while ‘Don’t Make It Harder On Me’ is a lovely R&B piece buried deep in the second half of the record. The almost acapella ‘Overwhelmed’ shows off the sisters’ vocal chops.

Halle Bailey is set to play Ariel in a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, and the two sisters are set to become megastars.


Destroyer

Have We Met?

2020, 7.5/10
Destroyer have the most misleading name in popular music. What you expect is death metal or perhaps a KISS tribute band. What you get is a man sardonically purring and bleating his twisted insights over smooth yacht rock.

Like many music fans, I first encountered Dan Bejar as a member of The New Pornographers. He’d contribute three twisted songs on each record to contrast with the classicist power-pop of A.C. Newman. Bejar hasn’t performed with The New Pornographers since 2014, and his solo albums have received more attention than his parent band over the last decade. In particular, 2011’s Kaputt often turns up on best-of-decade lists.

Have We Met backs Bejar with smooth pop sounds – it recalls music from the turn of the 1980s. The glacial beauty of Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon surfaces in the mellower songs, while the title of opening track ‘Crimson Tide’ instantly recalls ‘Deacon Blue’ from Steely Dan’s smooth 1977 album Aja. The most immediate track is ‘Cue Synthesizer’, with Bejar languorously commanding his band. “Cue synthesizer. Cue guitar. Bring in the drums. Cue fake drums.”

The production, from New Pornographers’ bassist John Collins, is superb – the bass is warm and punchy, and the other instruments are warm and inviting. The best tracks utilise lush arrangements, like ‘It Just Doesn’t Happen’. Bejar also has charisma to fall back on – “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors” is a great line to open the record with.

I’m not yet sure where Have We Met sits in Destroyer’s discography overall, but it’s an engaging and charismatic record.


DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, and Tresor

RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE

Amapiano producers Kabza de Small and DJ Maphorisa, known as Scorpion Kings, pair up with South African vocalist Tresor on Rumble in the Jungle. Congolese-born Tresor has an intriguing back story as to how he ended up in South Africa:

Goma was ravaged by a volcano eruption and we lost everything in 2001. Lost both parents when I was 17 in 2003. My family was divided among relatives so we could survive. In 2007, I took a major leap of faith on my own and travelled throughout Africa by foot, car and train. I even crossed a crocodile-infested river and walked crazy African wild parks.

Tresor Raziki, Instagram post

Rumble in the Jungle is 98 minutes long – most of the tracks ride their grooves over six or seven minute tracks. Without much stylistic variation it can drag, but there’s no real drop in quality – closer ‘Love Like a Weapon’ is one of the key cuts. The record is multi-lingual but often the African-language tracks are stronger, as they carry a mystique.

Tresor isn’t usually an Ampiano artist, but his smooth and flexible vocals work with the smooth backing – it makes sense that ‘Folosade’ is a tribute to Sade. The vocals are especially impressive on ‘La Vie Est Belle’, showing Tresor’s astounding range.

It’s long and lacking in variety to take in during on sitting, but the coupling of exquisite Amapiano production and Tresor’s remarkable voice throws up some magical moments.


Baxter Dury

The Night Chancers

2020, 3.5/10
Even if you don’t recognise the name, if you’re a fan of music from previous generations you might recognise Baxter Dury appearing with his father Ian on the cover of New Boots and Panties!!

Following in a parent’s footsteps has often been a tough road in pop music. Baxter Dury’s never matched his father’s critical acclaim, but at the age of 48 he’s been enjoying some attention for his recent albums. As on 2017’s Prince of Tears, Dury presents his spoken monologues backed with smooth synths and female backing vocals. It’s like a cockney Serge Gainsbourg, and a full album of this approach is wearying.

Dury starts out on the wrong foot with me – ‘I’m Not Your Dog’ opens the record with the charmless line “I’m not your f***ing friend”, before using the female vocals for a French chorus.

Dury’s lugubrious hipster shtick is effective on the title track, with its dramatic synth string flourishes – it helps that Dury’s vocal delivery is less amelodic as he talk-sings about being left with the crumbs of his spare thoughts.

Maybe it’s just too specifically English for me to enjoy, but no matter how animated his oratory I find it difficult to enjoy more than a couple of Baxter Dury tracks at a time.


The Flaming Lips

American Head

2020, 7/10
Oklahoma City’s The Flaming Lips have been around since the early 1980s. They made their name in the 1990s with psychedelic alt-rock releases like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and In A Priest Driven Ambulance. Their legacy defining work is generally considered to be 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, where they employed a symphonic sound behind Wayne Coyne’s emotive voice. Songs like ‘The Spark That Bled’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ were masterpieces. The Soft Bulletin is often found near the top of best records of the 1990s lists, drawing comparisons to The Dark Side of the Moon and Pet Sounds.

The Lips have dipped back into the grandiose textures of The Soft Bulletin again often since that landmark record – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was another ballad-heavy record, and new record American Head also recalls their 1999 masterpiece. At the same, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, as song titles like ‘You N Me Sellin’ Weed’ and ‘At The Movie on Quaalades’ indicate. Coyne’s goofiness has always been an endearing aspect of the band, stopping them from being overcome by bathos. Here his quirky storytelling provides a different topping on the Soft Bulletin sound.

Even on their sixteenth album, The Flaming Lips are still writing memorable melodies. Coyne’s voice navigates the pretty tune of ‘Flowers of Neptune 6’, underscored by pedal steel, while ‘When We Die When We’re High’ is an instrumental with plenty of melodic ideas. Country artist Kacey Musgraves acquits herself well, dueting with Coyne on ‘God and the Policeman’.

American Head isn’t as essential as the best Flaming Lips records, but it’s an enjoyable echo of greatness.


Fleet Foxes

Shore

2020, 9/10
For some bands diversity is overrated. No one complains when The Ramones or AC/DC make the same album over and over again. Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes fall into the same category, making ornately harmonised folk-rock – I can’t imagine them making any other kind of music. Shore, their fourth record, gives them a brighter production. This accentuates their retro stylings and Shore recalls a 1970s record by America or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Most of these songs are irresistibly pretty – all melody and harmony. Shore was released on the autumn equinox, appropriate for a record that’s often themed around communion with natural phenomena; song titles include ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ and ‘Sunblind’. Pecknold had recorded most of the music for Shore before writing lyrics – most of the words were inspired by post-lockdown trips into the Catskill Mountains and Lake Minnewaska.

Lockdown also necessitated that Pecknold recorded without the rest of the band, but even without his bandmates he reels off 15 consecutive tracks of gorgeous folk-rock. My favourite is ‘A Long Way Past The Past’, beautifully harmonised with horn punctuations. The evocative acoustic guitar riff of the opening ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ sets the tone, while ‘Can I Believe You’ soars with its sophisticated instrumental hooks.

Shore is gorgeous and timeless – a great Christmas present for an ornery uncle who thinks that no-one’s made worthwhile music since the mid-1970s.


Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra

Promises

2021, 9/10
Floating Points is a Manchester-born electronic music producer. Pharaoh Sanders is an octogenarian jazz saxophonist who cut his teeth playing with John Coltrane on albums like Ascension – Ornette Coleman described Sanders as “probably the best tenor player in the world”. The London Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1904 and claims that they’re the most recorded orchestra in history. These representatives of three different genres come together on Promises – Sanders initiated the project after enjoying Floating Points’ work and requesting a collaboration. I’d classify the result as a jazz album, although it also has elements of minimalism and the term third stream describes crossovers between classical and jazz.

Often niche genres like jazz or metal are overlooked in the mainstream of critical discourse, but occasionally a record will jump onto the mainstream radar. Promises has become a consensus critical favourite this year, and it’s also reached #6 on the UK album charts. Writing about jazz is outside my scope – I can’t really do much more than compare it to Miles Davis’ 1969 masterpiece In A Silent Way, but there are better reference points from those more knowledgeable about jazz than me.\

Promises is built around a gorgeous keyboard motif from Floating Points, played on harpsichord, synth, and piano. The piece builds toward the climactic ‘Movement 6’, where the strings take the central role. Sanders also contributes vocals to ‘Movement 4’.

I’m not qualified to rate Promises in the context of the free jazz spectrum of the last sixty years, but it’s a gorgeous record all the same.


Flock of Dimes

Head of Roses

2021, 9/10
Jenn Wassner is known as a member of Wye Oak and Bon Iver, but she also releases her own music under the moniker Flock of Dimes. Baltimore’s Wassner covers a lot of ground on her second record as Flock of Dimes. While the primary mode of expression is Americana-tinged tracks like ”Walking’ and ‘Lightning’, she dabbles in rock and electronica as well.

Like a lot of current records, Head of Roses was inspired by the pandemic – Wassner experienced the end of a long-term relationship, and the ensuing lockdown gave her a lot of time to reflect. Most of the songs on Head of Roses were written between March and June 2020 as the world grappled with Coronavirus.

There’s an impressively strong triple punch to open Head of Roses. Wassner’s vocals are only accompanied by woozy synths on ‘2 Heads’, and it serves as a prelude to the epic rocker ‘Price of Blue’. The spiralling melody and moody guitars of ‘Price of Blue’ have shades of Neil Young with Crazy Horse or Built to Spill. The skittery electronica of ‘Two’ is tuneful and catchy despite the unusual 7/8 time signature.

The rest of the record tends toward gentle Americana, but it’s still lovely and tuneful. The pretty ‘No Question’ goes into sophisti-pop territory, while Wassner’s layered vocals sound beautiful over the electronica of ‘One More Hour’.

Wassner is adept in multiple genres on Head of Roses, and I look forward to exploring her catalogue further.


Childish Gambino

3.15.20

2020, 6.5/10
Donald Glover has established himself as a multi-talented superstar, topping the singles charts in 2018 with the politically charged ‘This Is America’, playing Lando Calrissian in Star Wars’ Solo, and voicing Simba in The Lion King remake. He started his career as a writer for 30 Rock before playing Troy Barnes on Community. He launched his music career as Childish Gambino, a title he created on a Wu Tang name generator website.

3.15.20 is Gambino’s fourth studio album. Given his celebrity status, coupled with a long running length and lazy song titles (most songs are named after the timestamp they start at) it’s easy to perceive 3.15.20 as an indulgent hobby record. But despite a bit of bloat, it’s often enjoyable. Gambino’s clearly a fan of Prince and Marvin Gaye, and he’s able to produce an impressive falsetto. 3.15.20 finds a comfortable middle ground between classic soul and a modern sheen, and while it doesn’t reward close listening, but it makes for fun background music.

There’s upbeat pop on ’35:31′, where Gambino’s whoops are propulsive and fun. Ariana Grande adds backing vocals to ‘Time’, and it’s one of the record’s highlights with a soaring chorus. The closing ’53:49 (There Is Love In Every Moment)’ is suitably climactic, showing Gambino’s immense talents as a vocalist – he delivers energetically rapped verses and a beautifully shredded falsetto in the chorus.

It’s a little loose and meandering to be a great record, but 3.15.20 is a fun listen.


Gabriel Garzón-Montano

Agüita

2020, 7/10
Gabriel Garzón-Montano comes from a Colombian and French heritage, born in New York City. It’s not just the naked-in-nature cover that recalls the Moses Sumney album that I reviewed a few weeks ago – they both use R&B as a jumping off point for their experimental ideas. The Sumney album has received more attention, but I prefer Garzón-Montano’s more succinct record – he’s able to deliver the pop hooks amongst his eclectic explorations.

Gabriel Garzón-Montano told American Songwriter about the eclecticism – “I’ve got three distinct piles, one being the Latino Urbano hitmaker, one being the whimsical impressionist, and then the third is the debonaire leading man.” Garzón-Montano’s an avowed Prince fan – the cover is a tribute to Lovesexy – and there’s plenty of Prince in the guitar solo in the opener ‘Tombs’. He’s claimed that he needed stimulants to record his bravado-fuelled rap for the title track – delivering the reggaeton track in Spanish. On ‘Moonless’ he’s introspective, remembering his mother’s passing when he was a teenager.

Agüita is ambitious and wide-ranging but enough of it connects to make it worth the effort.


Grimes

Miss Anthropocene

2020, 8/10
It’s more than four years since Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, last released an album. In that time her profile has increased dramatically, dating tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk and becoming pregnant with his child. Along with the early leaks of Miss Anthropocene, it feels as though the side-stories have overshadowed the music.

Miss Anthropocene is a concept album, named after the “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change”. It’s darker than Grimes’ previous record, the pop-laced Art Angels – the music follows the lyrics. Grimes told Lana Del Rey in Interview Magazine that the album is a “a modern demonology or a modern pantheon where every song is about a different way to suffer or a different way to die.”

Grimes is an auteur – she’s known for recording techniques like overlaying fifty different vocal tracks over each other. ‘Delete Forever’ is based around an acoustic guitar part, but was created entirely from samples. Due to the dark nature of the record, the hooks on Miss Anthropocene are more subdued than on Art Angels. There are upbeat moments like ‘You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around’, but a lot of the material is darker, closer to post-punk than pop. The hooky ‘We Appreciate Power’ was slated as the album’s first single in 2018, but it doesn’t fit the dark mood and it’s instead a bonus track on the Japanese edition.

Miss Anthropocene is dark and oppressive, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes features on ‘Darkseid’, breaking up the oppressive darkness with her distinctive voice. The pop side of Grimes is relatively subdued, and the most energetic piece, ‘You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone’, is buried in the middle of the second side. Your enjoyment of Miss Anthropocene probably depends on your tolerance for brooding ballads ‘New Gods’ and ‘Before the Fever’, and moody soundscapes like ‘Idoru’.

As usual with Grimes, Miss Anthropocene is able to offer both arty weirdness and pop hooks. The balance is firmly tilted towards the former on this record, but it’s still a fascinating concept album with plenty to reward repeat listening.


Cassandra Jenkins

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

2020, 8/10
I’d never heard of Brooklyn’s Cassandra Jenkins before her sophomore album, but she’s well-credentialed. She was set to tour with Purple Mountains before David Berman’s suicide and has also worked with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and The Fiery Furnace’s Eleanor Friedberger. Berman is referenced on ‘New Bikini’ – “After David passed away/My friends put me up for a few days/”

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature sounds dubious on paper, an indie-folk record that celebrates nature, adds monologues about how men have lost touch, and incorporates the kind of new-age textures you’d expect on a 1980s Van Morrison record. But it’s lovely in practice, pretty and warm. Jenkins’ voice is intimate and she’s a good enough lyricist to keep things interesting, casually dropping the word “panoply” into ‘Crosshairs’ and titling a song ‘Ambiguous Norway’.

Jenkins’ main collaborator is producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman. Kaufman’s a member of Bonny Light Horsemen and who has worked with The National, Taylor Swift, and Josh Ritter. The arrangements are often key with lovely woodwind parts, while the dual lead guitar parts on ‘Ambiguous Norway’ are gorgeous.

The minimalist, meditative ‘Hailey’ is lovely. Lengthy closer ‘The Ramble’ brings the Van Morrison 1980s textures to the fore – with the saxophone and the exploratory atmosphere, it could have come from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has gained a larger-than-expected following – collectors have found it difficult to locate a physical copy – and it’s surprisingly endearing and effective.


King Krule

Man Alive!

2020, 6.5/10
Archy Marshall started young, releasing his debut album 6 Feet Beneath the Moon on his 19th birthday in 2013. Marshall grew up in a creative household – his mother is an artist, and his godfather Dave Ruffy drummed for Aztec Camera. Marshall’s music recalls post-modern acts like Beck and Pavement, offering moments of emotional resonance among songs that blend disparate styles. In King Krule’s case, alongside punky alt-rock, there’s a surprising jazz influence and traces of 1990s trip-hop.

Krule’s voice is malleable, rising in intensity to a tousled yowl at times. He’s best on abrasive tunes like ‘Comet Face’ and ‘Stoned Again’, where his gravelly voice and the deep bass combine to create a face-melting blast of low-pitched noise.

In contrast, the slower material isn’t melodic to hook me in, but Krule’s synthesis of jazz textures with a raw punk sound is often fascinating. He’s emotionally resonant in songs like ‘Please Compete Thee’, and his atmospheric guitar playing also distinctive.

Two records into my King Krule experience I’m still unsure whether I’m a fan, but his aesthetic is distinctive and fascinating.


Natalia Lafourcade

Un Canto por México, Vol. 1

2020, 8.5/10
Natalia Lafourcade has been around for a while, releasing her solo debut as a teenager in 2004. She’s been successful in Latin America, scoring #1 albums and winning Latin Grammys, but it’s taken longer to raise her profile in the English-speaking world. Duetting with Miguel on the Coco soundtrack has helped boost her reputation. Lafourcade started as a pop-rock performee, but as her career’s progressed she’s delved into more traditional Mexican music.

Un Canto por México, Vol. 1 was released as a fundraising album – proceeds go toward the reconstruction of the Centro De Documentación Del Son Jarocho, in Jáltipan de Morelos, damaged by a 2017 earthquake. The setlist originated at a benefit concert, before being recorded in the studio. Although it’s all new recordings, Lafourcade revisits songs from her back catalogue and takes on folk standards. I don’t have any background in Mexican folk music to analyse this record adequately, but it’s lovely – Lafourcade’s voice is warm and perky, and the arrangements are authentic and soulful. Favourites include the sparse ‘Veracruz’ – the moment when the rhythm guitar enters just after the 90 second mark is magical. The flamenco guitar of ‘Sembrando Flores’ is also lovely.

I have no idea how Un Canto por México, Vol. 1 compares to other Mexican traditional music, but there are lots of great tunes.


Dua Lipa

Future Nostalgia

2020, 8.5/10
Pop music has become a much more respected art form in the past decade. Records like Taylor Swift’s 1989, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, and Robyn’s Honey have attained the acclaim usually reserved for more critically favoured musical genres. Dua Lipa’s an obvious candidate to cross from mainstream radio to critical credibility. She enjoyed a provocative duet with St. Vincent at the 2019 Grammy ceremony, while her husky vocals and eastern European heritage make for an interesting pop star. Lipa was born in London, but her parents are from Kosovo, where her father is lead singer in a rock band.

Future Nostalgia is Dua Lipa’s second album. Its pop has a clear influence from 1980s synth-pop and traces of disco, like the string stabs in ‘Love Again’. Lipa particularly excels at upbeat pop songs, my favourite of which is ‘Levitating’ – the descending vocal melody suits Lipa’s range, and the hand-claps are invigorating.

There are other terrific pop tunes too – ‘Cool’ uses the husky textures of Lipa’s voice to great effect, while ‘Break My Heart’ samples INXS’s ‘Need You Tonight’. The opening title track steers close to disco, with Lipa charismatic in the rap section, while ‘Don’t Start Now’ has a funky bass line and a glistening verse melody.

The upbeat pop songs are great, but Future Nostalgia wavers when Dua Lipa diversifies. The lustful simmer of ‘Pretty Please’, the gimmicky ‘Good in Bed’, and the limp closer ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ are all flat spots in an already brief record. There’s also a sense that Lipa hasn’t yet developed enough of an individual personality – her lyrics don’t go far beyond generic tales of lust, even if the record’s got enough great tunes to stand proudly.

Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia doesn’t quite have the consistency of other recent acclaimed pop albums, but it hits some great high points.


The Microphones

Microphones in 2020

2020, 8.5/10
It’s been a tumultuous few years for Phil Elverum – in the last five years he’s become a father, lost his wife to cancer, and come through a brief marriage to Michelle Williams. Microphones in 2020 is his first record as The Microphones since 2003’s Mount Eerie – in the interim he’s recorded as Mount Eerie.

Microphones in 2020 is notable for its format – it’s one single song, 44:44 in length. It’s clearly not the most lucrative form of presentation in the pay-per-play era of 2020, and it’s pointedly not on Spotify.

The stage is set by a seven-and-a-half minute acoustic introduction – it’s mesmerising and gorgeous, two acoustic guitars out of phase with each other. While a long track often consists of a bunch of shorter tracks stitched together, Microphones in 2020 is one long song. There’s an organ-driven interlude around the 26 minute mark, but that effectively functions as a bridge. Otherwise it’s Elverum delivering stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a repeated chord sequence, but it’s engaging all the same, with Elverum’s lyrics and arrangements keeping the lengthy song entertaining.

The long acoustic song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics recalls Mark Kozelek records like Benji – an impression reinforced when Elverum namechecks Red House Painters; “Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters, Sonic Youth, This Mortal Coil.”

Microphones in 2020 is a risk-taking record, a single long song, but it’s rich and engaging.


Ela Minus

Acts of Rebellion

2020, 9/10
Gabriela Jimeno started her career as the drummer for Colombian hardcore band Ratón Pérez – they became big enough to play at festivals like SXSW. She moved to the US, where she became interested in electronic music and worked making synthesisers.

Her techno-pop is often retro-tinged – she aims to make music that she can recreate live on stage, working with an array of hardware synthesizers. She’s influenced by Radiohead and by 1970s electronic legends Kraftwerk. Like Kraftwerk, she’s not singing in her first language, and she has a slightly stilted delivery that’s part of her appeal and which also recalls Brian Eno’s vocal records from the 1970s. “Today I woke up at 7….pm” is the opening line to ‘Dominique’. Improbably, her vocals are simultaneously assertive, pretty, and robotic.

Minus originally planned a double album, but honed a wide selection of tracks into a tight 34 minute record. Peaceful instrumentals like ‘Pocket Piano’ give Acts of Rebellion balance, but the distinguishing feature are the vocal tracks. Minus’ vocals are mixed low on ‘Megapunk’, subsumed into the track’s electronic urgency. Helado Negro duets with Minus on the pretty ‘Close’, and the pulsating portrait of disconnection on ‘Dominique’ is the disc’s most memorable piece.

Acts of Rebellion is an amazingly accomplished debut record, with Minus marrying memorable songwriting to her electronic mastery.


Victoria Monét

Jaguar

2020, 7/10
Sacramento’s Victoria Monét has been around for years without releasing a full-length album. She grew up singing in church choir and featured on Nas’ Life Is Good in 2012, while she was still a teenager. She’s built up a resume as a songwriter, most notably co-writing on Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next album, but has only released a handful of EPs as a solo artist.

It’s debatable whether Jaguar qualifies as an album – at 25 minutes, it’s too long for an EP, but more like a mini album. Monét has told Apple Music that Jaguar is the first of three installments of a full-length record.

Monét’s voice is warm and honeyed, and she employes creative arrangements. ‘Go There With U’ features a guitar solo that would fit on a 1980s AOR track, while ‘Ass Like That’ drops an elegantly harmonised chorus into an ode to booty fitness. ‘Experience’, with guest spots from Khalid and SG Lewis, joyfully evokes the feeling of a 1970s roller-disco – as the video helpfully illustrates.

There are enough ideas on Jaguar to fuel a full length album – hopefully the next two installments are just as good.


John Moreland

LP5

2020, 7.5/10
John Moreland wasn’t always an Americana artist – he grew up playing in hardcore bands. When he started his career as a solo artist, he played music inspired by the country-folk of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As its title implies, LP5 is Moreland’s fifth album.

The production, from Centro-matic drummer Matt Pence is crisp, and the musicianship is lovely. Moreland is an accomplished guitarist – there’s gorgeous guitar picking on ‘In Times Between’ – and there’s an unexpected Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet solo on ‘A Thought Is Just A Passing Train’. Between his deep, gravelly voice and literate lyrics, Moreland’s often reminiscent of Springsteen’s acoustic material.

Moreland’s often circumspect, and the most memorable songs are the morose pieces like ‘I Always Let You Burn You To The Ground’ and ‘Fever Breaks’. The instrumental ‘For Inchiro’ is also lovely, and perhaps an interesting avenue for Moreland to explore where he’s not constrained by his vocal limitations.

I have my doubts about John Moreland’s stylistic range, but LP5 is a lovely record, full of thoughtful words and pretty arrangements.


Róisín Murphy

Róisín Machine

2020, 7.5/10
It’s been a significant year for disco-revival – Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue, and Ireland’s Róisín Murphy have all released disco flavoured albums. Murphy started her career in trip-hop act Moloko in the 1990s, and she’s known for her eccentric art-pop. She brings the same off-centre sensibility to this disco record.

Róisín Machine is Murphy’s fifth album, but it’s effectively self titled – the album title helps everyone pronounce her name, while ‘Murphy’s Law’ is a key track. It’s also notable for its long genesis – ‘Incapable’ was written in 2010, while ‘Simulation’ was released as a single back in 2012. Murphy has released two albums in the meanwhile, but Róisín Machine collectsMurphy’s collaborations with producer Richard Barratt, and it makes sense as a coherent record.

The longer tracks wend their way through different sections like twelve inch singles. ‘Murphy’s Law’ is the centrepiece here, my favourite track of the year, with Murphy’s husky and theatrical vocals backed by house piano and scratchy guitars.

‘Murphy’s Law’ is invariably the song that I want to hear when I switch on Róisín Machine, but Murphy’s odd and charismatic disco is always interesting. ‘Narcissus’ is a compellingly odd reflection on the Greek legend, while ‘Incapable’ gets a lot of mileage from its simple keyboard riff.Róisín Machine hits a nice balance between approachable tunes and off-centre weirdness, a personality-driven disco record.


Kate NV

Room For The Moon

2020, 8/10
Moscow artist Kate NV is was born as Ekaterina Shilonosova in Kazan, and also serves as vocalist for the post-punk band Glintshake. Room for the Moon is her third solo album, but it’s seen a marked increase in her profile. It’s a concept album about the moon, occupying an art-pop space comparable with Cate Le Bon or Kate Bush. Room for the Moon is kitsch and infused with childlike wonder, but it’s also substantial musically.

Kate NV eschews rock textures, instead combining electronic rhythms with orchestral instruments. Post-punk bass-lines share space with Japanese 1980s synth-pop. She sings in four different languages – French, Japanese, English, and Russian.

Room For The Moon starts meekly with instrumental tracks. Second track ‘Du Na’ percolates with a smooth late night jazz feel, and the record doesn’t reach a full head of steam until the rhythm enters on fourth track ‘Ça commence par’.

Unusually, the poppier songs are clustered in the second half of the record – ‘Telefon’ has a 1980s flavour with a great vocal hook and synth part. ‘Plans’ is built around a fretless bass that’s constantly in motion, while ‘Lu Na’ recalls Steve Reich with its interlocking synths.

Room for the Moon is a fascinating record that combines disparate musical traditions into a playful tribute to the moon.


Owen Pallett

Island

2020, 9.5/10
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name Owen Pallett, you’ve probably heard the Canadian composer’s music. Over the last two decades he’s amassed an impressive resume as a violinist and arranger, appearing on records by R.E.M., Frank Ocean, Taylor Swift, Robbie Williams, Arcade Fire, and HAIM. Island is Pallett’s first solo record since 2014’s In Conflict.

The acoustic guitar picking and orchestration are reminiscent of Nick Drake – Pallett received a note of acknowledgement from Drake’s estate in appreciation of Island. Pallett’s voice isn’t as distinctive as Drake’s hushed whisper, but his orchestral arrangements, as played by the London Contemporary Orchestra, are phenomenally good.

Island picks up the story of Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, first encountered on 2010’s Heartland. At the conclusion of Heartland Lewis disavowed his creator, Owen, while at the start of this record he’s washed up on an Island.

The beautiful orchestral arrangements would make the record a keeper anyway, but the songs are good too. The acoustic guitar and orchestration of songs like ‘Transformer’ and ‘Fire-Mare’ is the most common mood of Island, while the solemn melody of ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ resembles a Church hymn, even though the lyrics certainly don’t. The galloping percussion of ‘A Bloody Morning’ provides a jolt on energy on a mellow record. The record ends with band versions of ‘Paragon of Order’ and ‘Fire-Mare’, and they’re also gorgeous even without their strings.

Island is gorgeous, a supremely talented arranger letting his muse run freely over a beautiful record.


Perfume Genius

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

2020, 7.5/10
Mike Hadreas has been releasing albums as Perfume Genius since 2010 – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is his fifth full-length. Hadreas has told interviewers that creating and performing the dance piece The Sun Still Burns Here has changed his approach, making his music more extroverted and universal. He nanes Townes Van Zandt, Enya, and the Cocteau Twins as influences on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Perfume Genius is a gifted arranger – his atmospheric chamber-pop songs boast creative string parts. The impossibly ascending coda to ‘Jason’ is a moment of arranging brilliance. Chamber-pop is Perfume Genius’ most distinctive style, but I find his voice overly querulous on the slower tracks like ‘Moonbend’ and ‘Borrowed Light’.

I prefer Perfume Genius when he’s aiming for the pop jugular. ‘Describe’ marries heavy guitars and great pop instincts, while ‘On The Floor’ bounces along joyfully. The straightforward pop of ‘Without You’, and the big dramatic strings of ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ are also keepers, and ‘Nothing At All’ balances pop hooks with personal confession.

I don’t love all of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, but the songs that connect are excellent.


Poppy

I Disagree

2020, 7/10
On her third album, Boston’s Poppy explores an unlikely pop-metal crossover. Like Grimes, she’s adopted a dystopian image for her public persona – it’s not surprising that the pair collaborated on Poppy’s previous album Am I A Girl? The pop-metal sound of I Disagree is intrinsically gimmicky, but the results are sporadically excellent.

The best pop-metal tracks are at the start – ‘Concrete’ combines majestic Brian May-style guitar with an unusual vocal melody and even stranger lyrics. The title track and ‘Bloodmoney’ are abrasive, while ‘Fill The Crown’ and ‘Bite Your Teeth’ are the most schizophrenic mixtures of pop and metal, careening between different sections with reckless abandon. The metal elements are absent from ‘Nothing I Need’, but it’s a lovely piece of smooth pop, while the lead guitar in ‘Sick of the Sun’ is a nice touch in a pop song.

I Disagree doesn’t always feel substantial, but it’s a fun record that combines two disparate genres to interesting effect.


Porridge Radio

Every Bad

2020, 5/10
Porridge Radio are an indie guitar band from Brighton. Every Bad is their fifth album, but their first for a high profile label (Secretly Canadian) and their first since 2016. 1990s revival is popular among rock bands at the moment, and Porridge Radio seems to specifically takes its cues from early PJ Harvey – their music shares the same abrasive edge. Front-woman Dana Margolin has a distinctive haughty and austere voice, which suits the approach.

With little in the way of melodic interest or extroverted instrumentation, Every Bad lives or dies on the strength of Margolin’s lyrics and vocals. It’s a mixed bag – for every incisive observation, there’s a painfully obvious line like “Take me back to bed/And shoot me in the head” on ‘Pop Song’. The problem is worsened when Margolin deals in spoken word.

Despite my misgivings, there’s at least one excellent song – ‘Don’t Ask Me Twice’ unexpectedly launches into a genuinely memorable and unexpected melodic chorus. The drumming is fantastic, giving the song a heavy industrial feel in the introduction, before dropping out for the first verse. Margolin’s lyrics also shine ends with the tagline “Oh, I don’t know what I want/But I know what I want.”

The abrasive indie-rock of Every Bad isn’t tuneful enough for my liking, but there’s potential for more enjoyable records from Porridge Radio in the future.


Katie Pruitt

Expectations

2020, 9/10
Katie Pruitt grew up in Atlanta, and was raised Catholic. Her debut album Expectations, released at the age of 25, is focused on coming-of-age issues. Pruitt writes about the tension of growing up LGBTQ in a conservative household. Songs like ‘Normal’ and ‘Expectations’ are open in their portrayal of Pruitt’s experiences.

What’s it like to be normal?
To want what normal girls should?
God knows life would be easier.
If I could be normal, then trust me, I would.

Pruitt’s voice is warm and full, with a pleasant rasping edge and a southern accent that recalls Stevie Nicks. This impression is augmented by the first single ‘Expectations’, which taps into the same warm pop/rock as Fleetwood Mac, with lead guitar that recalls Lindsey Buckingham. She uses her voice wisely, often singing within herself, but able to launch to dramatic emotional climaxes. These songs are robustly written, and Pruitt’s also a strong lyricist (“But her body’s my temple and her soul is my savior” is a great line), but she has the vocal ability to invigorate lesser material.

‘Expectations’ taps into an upbeat pop/rock sound, but much of Pruitt’s material on the rest of the record is more restrained. There’s classy and straightforward country on ‘Normal’ and ‘Lovin’ Her’. The moodier pieces like ‘Grace Has A Gun’ and ‘My Mind’s a Ship That’s Going Down’ recall Julien Baker, who covers similar thematic territory in the intersection between LGBTQ and faith. Pruitt cites Brandi Carlile (see the handy chart below!) as an influence, and her admiration for another golden-voiced Americana artist makes sense.

Since Expectations is so autobiographical, it will be interesting to see where Pruitt goes with her next release. She’s clearly a talented vocalist and emotionally honest writer, so I’m expecting more great things.


Dawn Richard

Second Line

2021, 8.5/10
We’re living through a golden age of arty R&B at the moment, with artists like Janelle Monae, Jamila Woods, and Frank Ocean making great music. Dawn Richard started her career as a member of Danity Kane, and has released a string of critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records over the last decade.

The title of Richard’s sixth album is a reference to a tradition in New Orleans, where parade watchers can dance along in a second line. The album is interspersed with interviews with Richard’s mother, recalling her Louisiana heritage – Richard’s family left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Richard grew up in New Orleans – her father is Frank Richard, lead singer of 1970s and 1980s soul-funk band Chocolate Milk.

Second Line isn’t an especially coherent album. Richard’s an imaginative artist who’s able to deliver everything from pop bangers like ‘Boomerang’ and ‘Jacuzzi’ to atmospheric and arty material like ‘The Potter’ and ‘Perfect Storm’ – always my ideal of an enjoyable artist.

Richard’s possibly too full of ideas for her own good, but she’s making consistently strong records.


Porter Robinson

Nurture

2021, 7.5/10
Porter Robinson’s sophomore album has taken a while to emerge. The North Carolina artist started his career making EDM, but changed direction to alternative synth-pop. Porter’s work on Nurture often recalls the electro-pop of The 1975, on songs like ‘Trying To Feel Alive’ and ‘Get Your Wish’. He’s more inclined to process his vocals – he often switches up his voice an octave on Nurture, giving it a feminine quality. Despite the synthetic textures, it’s often a vulnerable record with Robinson expressing vulnerability.

Robinson’s attempts at variety are appreciated, like the glitchy ‘Dullscythe’ and the acoustic folk of ‘Blossom’, where the feminised vocals are in full effect. But Nurture is a record that I cherry-pick for highlights than listen to the whole thing – the best moments are the high energy yet vulnerable pop songs. ‘Look At The Sky’ is stuffed with synth hooks and an uplifting chorus, while ‘Something Comforting’ is a great example of Robinson’s ability to blend introspection and propulsion.

The best songs on Nurture are very strong, and hopefully Robinson’s next album doesn’t take so long.


Olivia Rodrigo

Sour

2021, 7.5/10
Olivia Rodrigo came to prominence as an actor, appearing in Bizaardvark and High School Musical. She signed a recording contract in 2020, and has quickly become a pop superstar – her debut single ‘Driver’s License’ debuted at number one on Billboard, while third single ‘Good 4 U’ also debuted at number one. Her debut project was initially slated as an EP, but was quickly upgraded to a full album after the success of ‘Driver’s License’.

Rodrigo is supported by producer and co-writer Dan Nigro, who’s previously produced excellent pop songs like Sky Ferreira’s ‘You’re Not The One’, Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘When I Needed You’, and Caroline Polachek’s ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Rodrigo’s only 18, and hasn’t necessarily found her own style. There are echoes of other 21st century female artists like Paramore, Lorde, and Taylor Swift, while the bridge of ”Driver’s License’ sounds like Lana Del Rey. Sour is also brief at 34 minutes, and every song is about the same failed relationship.

But that’s the bad news – it’s easy to take Rodrigo’s side on these tales of romantic angst, as she’s a likeable and talented vocalist. There’s at least an EP’s worth of excellent songs. Along with the three singles, there’s a strong opening with ‘Brutal’ – like ‘Good 4 U’ it’s a guitar rocker with Rodrigo spitting out a laundry-list of complaints – “And they’d all be so disappointed/’Cause who am I, if not exploited?” ‘Traitor’ is also strong, a piano ballad that rhymes “date her” and “traitor”. The second half of the record is less memorable, making Sour a strong debut but not an all-time classic.

Sour has made Rodrigo into a pop superstar, and hopefully she delivers a classic pop record to match her newly found status next time around.


Jeff Rosenstock

No Dream

2020, 7.5/10
Long Island retro-punker Jeff Rosenstock released his fourth solo album in May 2020. In his late 30s, he already spent time as the leader of The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! before going solo. His 2016 solo album Worry was a breakthrough with Rosenstock’s anxiety resonating during an unprecedented period of US history. Rosenstock’s punk recalls the 1990s – at his least abrasive, he’s a bit like early Weezer, and sometimes he’s reminiscent of Bob Mould’s 1990s work with Sugar.

Due to its homogeneous nature making full length punk albums hold attention isn’t easy, but it’s a skill that Rosenstock has acquired. While it’s not as strong as Worry, on NO DREAM he’s able to vary intensity and use enough hooks to keep things moving. On ‘Old Crap’ he’s keeps up momentum using only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, while ‘Honeymoon Ashtray’ is also acoustic. The rockers on side one are most memorable though – ‘N O D R E A M’ adds a psychedelic swirl to the guitars, while ‘State Line’ is rapid paced and full of hooks.

Rosenstock’s mining well-worn territory on No Dream, but he’s clever enough to do it well.


Run the Jewels

RTJ4

2020, 8/10
As the title implies, RTJ4 is the fourth album from the hip-hop duo of El-P and Killer Mike. Both had enjoyed moderate success for years before joining forces as Run the Jewels. Given the current political climate in the US, it’s more serious than previous records – El-P told Rolling Stone that it’s “all fire”. The record dropped in early June 2020, a couple of weeks after George Floyd’s death. Scarily, it contains a reference to an earlier victim of police brutality – the 2014 death of Eric Garner – with words that apply to Floyd as well “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe””.

That line’s taken from standout track ‘Walking in the Snow’. Over an ominous backing, the pair deliver other incisive lines like:

Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent
Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit
If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your Goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with

The non-stop intensity can feel oppressive, and the use of cameos is welcome. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha delivers the record’s most memorable hook on ‘Just’ – “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar” – even though Pharrell’s repeated “geddit” in the same song is grating. Mavis Staples adds gravitas to ‘Pulling the Pin’, delivering a pretty yet tense chorus.

RTJ4 is a timely record for 2020 – it’s not an easy listen, filled with tough beats and incendiary lyrics, but it’s the right album for these times.


Tiwa Savage

Celia

2020, 9/10
Nigerian singer and actress Tiwatope Savage was a late bloomer. While graduating with a degree in accounting, she also served as a backing singer for George Michael and Mary J. Blige. After spending her teens in the UK, she graduated from Berklee College of Music and returned to Nigeria to establish a performing career. Turning 40 earlier this year, Celia is merely Savage’s third studio album.

Celia covers a lot of bases – musically it encompasses Afrobeats, R&B, Soul, and pop. Lyrically it’s also broad, covering women’s empowerment, lust, and God. While Celia isn’t particularly explicit, it’s boundary breaking for a female Nigerian artist to discuss carnal matters. It’s a patriarchal culture; when Savage’s husband divorced her in 2016, he also accused his mother-in-law of witchcraft. The record is named for Savage’s motherand ends with the hymn-like ‘Celia’ Song’.

Savage’s vocals are outstanding, her honeyed voice helping this disparate collection of songs to achieve unity. Single ‘Koroba’ sticks close to Afrobeats, while ‘Temptation’ with Sam Smith feels Western. The uplifting and spiritual themes of ‘Glory’ and ‘Celia’s Song’ end the record on a sincere and beautiful note.

A record with a scope as wide as Celia is often asking for trouble – aiming to please everyone, but ending with noone satisfied. But Celia is exquisite, a multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating woman.


Rina Sawayama

Sawayama

2020, 7/10
Rina Sawayama was born in Japan, but moved to the UK at the age of 5. She’s a late bloomer, especially for the pop game, releasing her debut album at the age of 30. Her debut is brash and entertaining, running through autobiographical experiences like her family, helplessness in the face of climate change, and male privilege.

Musically, Sawayama is just as wild a ride, hitting a lot of genre points. What’s distinctive is the taste of mu-metal that pervades some of these tracks – ‘STFU!’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now’ feature crunchy guitars. She is also able to switch to Japanese, like in the second verse of ‘Akasaka Sad’. Opening track ‘Dynasty’ has thematic heft, brooding both musically and lyrically.

Not everything that Sawayama tries sticks – ‘Chosen Family’ sounds like the theme song for a shoddy 1990s teen sitcom. The other big ballad, ‘Bad Friend’, is terrific – Sawayama regretting the waning of a previously vibrant friendship. As you’d expect on a pop record, there’s breezy material like ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’, while ‘Xs’ punctuates a pop tune with buzzsaw guitars.

Sawayama is flawed, but it’s also filled with vibrancy – when it works it’s unique and exciting.


Jazmine Sullivan

Heaux Tales

2021, 7/10
Philadelphian R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan hasn’t made a record since 2015’s acclaimed Reality ShowHeaux Tales is a 33-minute EP that still reached #4 on the US charts. With an appearance singing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, Sullivan’s star is clearly in the ascendancy despite her slow release rate.

The eight songs of Heaux Tales are interspersed with monologues from Sullivan’s friends. I’ve never heard a record where the dialogue is so integral to the record, the interviews provide perspective on sex and empowerment. The interviews are often disarmingly pragmatic, matching Sullivan’s lyrics. In ‘Precious’ Tale’, Precious Daughtry states “I’m not dealing with anyone who does not have money/Because I know my worth”, before Sullivan opens ‘The Other Side’ with “I’ve got dreams to buy expensive things”.

It’s hard to become immersed in Heaux Tales as a musical experience when it’s so brief and interspersed with dialogue, but the songs stand up individually. Lead single ‘Pick Up Your Feelings’ mixes the smooth neo-soul of Lauryn Hill with a powerhouse vocal performance. The vocals are only accompanied by solitary guitar on ‘Lost One’, while Anderson.Paak cameos on the full production of ‘Pricetags’.

Heaux Tales is a little brief and unsatisfying musically, but it’s also effective at getting its themes across.


Moses Sumney

Græ

2020, 6/10
Moses Sumney was born in San Bernardino, California to Ghanaian parents. He spent his adolescence in Ghana, but is now based in Asheville, North Carolina. Græ is his second album, an ambitious double album that showcases his fusion between indie and soul.

Græ was released in two parts – the first in February and the second in May. I find the whole more impressive than enjoyable. He’s technically impressive on ‘Keeps Me Alive’, with its wide ranging vocal and accompanying himself on guitar. The lack of of hooks and stylistic variety makes for tough listening over 65 minutes.

There are some strong tracks nonetheless – the gospel-flavoured bridge on ‘Cut Me’ is a memorable moment. The more abrasive songs like ‘Virile’ are often the most effective, showcasing some grit in Sumney’s voice. Sumney’s joined by Thundercat on bass for this track, while Adult Jazz supplies the bass on ‘Cut Me’. ‘Colouour’, with its orchestrated introduction and tender vocal, is reminiscent of Vampire Weekend. The monologues from guest vocalists provide variety but interrupt the flow.

Græ is an ambitious effort with thematic heft, and Sumney’s vocals are technically impressive, but there’s not enough memorable material to sustain a 65 minute running time.


Yves Tumor

Heaven to a Tortured Mind

2020, 8/10
Yves Tumor is an American producer and vocalist, born as Sean Bowie in Miami and based in Turin, Italy. Tumour was raised in Nashville, and started making music to cope with “dull, conservative surroundings”; I imagine there weren’t many fellow Throbbing Gristle fans in Tennessee. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is Tumor’s fourth album.

Tumor’s an electronic artist, but the music’s abrasive enough to be accessible for rock fans. Tumor takes samples from John Wetton-era Uriah Heep and ‘Hangman’, from Jimmy Page and Roy Harper’s 1985 collaboration ‘Whatever Happened to Jugula?’ The industrial rhythms are propulsive, and there’s barely an ounce of fat on this quick moving record.

Tumor’s joined by New York R&B vocalist Diana Gordon for the wonderful advance single ‘Kerosene!’, and she does a great job of matching Tumor’s vocal intensity. Creative rhythms underpin songs like ‘Gospel For A New Century’, the opener where the stop-start rhythm track sounds like a technical malfunction. The second half of Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a little unmemorable and light on hooks, but it’s still an impressive record.

Yves Tumor’s abrasive electronica is a massive hit of adrenaline, and Heaven to a Tortured Mind is often thrilling.


U.S. Girls

Heavy Light

2020, 7/10
Meghan Remy grew up in Illinois, but moved her experimental pop project U.S. Girls to Toronto in 2010. Adding a poppy sheen to her music helped Meg Remy gain attention for her previous record, 2018’s In A Poem Unlimited; ‘M.A.H.’ sounded like a lost Blondie track. 2020’s Heavy Light feels like a good followup, rather than a great one.

Remy’s often a provocative lyricist, and she’s doubled down on this aspect by including a few answer sessions with her bandmates on Heavy Light. Tracks like ‘Advice to my Teenage Self’ and ‘The Colour of my Childhood Bedroom’ are brief monologues that interrupt the flow.

The opening track, though, is great. ‘4 American Dollars’ recalls 1960s girl group fare with its organ and backing vocals, although it also has a contemporary sheen. It’s funky, and it closes with a memorable tag line.

I don’t believe in pennies, and nickels
And dimes, and dollars, and pesos, and pounds, and
Rupees, and yen, and rubles, no dinero

Other memorable tracks include ‘Woodstock ‘99’, which uses parts of Jimmy Webb’s ‘McArthur Park’, and ‘Born to Lose’ which again mines the blue-eyed soul sound.

Heavy Light is a little disjointed and disappointing after In A Poem Unlimited, but U.S. Girls remain vibrant and entertaining.


Waxahatchee

Saint Cloud

2020, 8.5/10
Alabama’s Katie Crutchfield hasn’t always been an Americana artist – she’s a talented young artist who’s able to switch genres. Her previous record, 2017’s Out in the Storm, was a furious album of cathartic guitar rock, recorded after heartache. Giving up alcohol and moving to Kansas City to join boyfriend Kevin Morby, Crutchfield reconnected with the country music that she rejected in her teens.

Crutchfield told The Guardian that she was influenced by artists like Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris in making Saint Cloud. Crutchfield has grown up through her music – Saint Cloud is her fifth solo album, but the first album she’s recorded in her thirties, and it reflects a new maturity and calm. She told Pitchfork that “I started to reject the idea that you have to live your life clumsily and be a big mess to write anything that’s exciting or interesting”.

Crutchfield’s imagery is straightforward and effective, and the folk-country arrangements are pretty with shimmering acoustic guitars and double-tracked lead vocals. Crutchfield’s voice has an emotional warble, and melodies like ‘Ruby Falls’ recall Gillian Welch’s work.

Although most of Saint Cloud is mellow and introspective, some of the best songs are upbeat. Crutchfield described ‘Hell’ to Pitchfork as “a little bit psycho”, but it’s based around a joyful acoustic strum, while ‘Can’t Do Much’ is straightforward and lovely.

Saint Cloud is strong all the way through, but some of the most significant songs are saved for the end. The beautiful ‘Ruby Falls’ is written about a friend who passed from a drug overdose, while the almost title track, ‘St. Cloud’, is sparse and unvarnished, a lovely conclusion.

Saint Cloud is a beautiful, timeless record that brings sunny personality to a well-trodden genre.


The Weather Station

Ignorance

2021, 9/10
Canada’s Tamara Lindeman has steadily been releasing records with The Weather Station since 2009. Ignorance, their fifth record, has raised The Weather Station’s profile considerably, changing tack from the acoustic folk-country feel of earlier releases.

Instead The Weather station mine the 1980s for a sophisti-pop sound; opener ‘Robber’ echoes elements from 1980s Talk Talk like the jazzy hi-hats and spurts of woodwinds. The piano vamps and atmospheric backing vocals in the climax of ‘Parking Lot’ recall Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 classic ‘Sara’, while the smooth sophistication of Roxy Music’s Avalon is another reference point. It’s a great backdrop for Lindeman’s poised vocals – her warm, assertive voice sometimes recalls Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. She’s supported by a cast of Canadian musicians, including Owen Pallett who provides typically accomplished string arrangements for ‘Wear’ and ‘Trust’.

I’m so enamoured with the music that I haven’t paid much attention to Lindeman’s lyrics. But while the music is often retro-inspired, her lyrics are contemporary in scope, often focused on the climate crisis. On ‘Atlantic’ she sings “With a wine in my hand, laid back in the grass of some stranger’s field, while shearwaters reeled overhead, thinking; I should get all this dying off my mind”.

Ignorance is gorgeous, the best record I’ve heard from 2021 thus far.


Jonathan Wilson

Dixie Blur

3

2020, 6/10
North Carolina’s Jonathan Wilson is in his mid-40s and not a household name but he’s exceedingly well-connected. He tours with Roger Waters, has produced Roy Harper, and played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dixie Blur is his fourth album, and it sounds piped straight in from the 1970s.

Wilson now resides in Laurel Canyon, but relocated to Nashville to record the Americana of Dixie Blur. More than anything, however, Wilson reminds me of British 1970s singer-songwriter Al Stewart, with his warm voice and finger-picked guitar; opener ‘Just For Love’ recalls Stewart’s ‘Broadway Hotel’ from 1976’s Year of the Cat.

Dixie Blur is so blatantly retro that it’s sliding toward irrelevancy. But it’s worth the price of admission just for Mark O’Connor’s gorgeous fiddle playing – O’Connor’s largely avoided session work over the past few decades, not enjoying the recording process. But Wilson coaxed him into playing by recording the tracks live in the studio, giving the music a warm and organic feel.

Dixie Blur is often more worthwhile for the pretty playing than it is for memorable songwriting. As well as O’Connor’s fiddle driving tracks like ‘So Alive’ and ‘El Camino Real’, Russ Pahl plays some lovely pedal steel on tracks like ‘Riding the Blinds’. ‘Oh Girl’ recalls the space rock of Pink Floyd, which makes sense given Wilson’s role playing Gilmour’s parts on Roger Waters’ shows.

Dixie Blur is lovely, although it’s more notable for the atmosphere and musicianship than for the songs.


Steven Wilson

The Future Bites

2021, 6.5/10
Kingston upon Thames’ Steven Wilson is beloved by vintage music fans, as a producer and a performer. He’s remixed classic albums like Roxy Music and Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair, while as a musician he’s best loved for Porcupine Tree, who mix classic progressive rock with post-Radiohead dystopia. His 2021 album The Future Bites has upset some long-term fans by straying closer to synth-pop than to progressive rock. It’s not unprecedented for Wilson – previous records like Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun also have prominent pop elements. Generally Wilson’s skillset – he’s an excellent guitarist and mediocre lyricist – is better suited to progressive rock, and The Future Bites is a mixed bag.

The most memorable track, ’12 Things I Forgot’, sounds uncannily like a track from English pop/rock band Keane. It’s tuneful, but Wilson’s most effective when he stays closest to his progressive rock roots, like the searing guitar solo on ‘Follower’. The atmospheric ‘Unself’, which feels like a Flaming Lips song, and the aggressive beat on ‘Self’ make for a strong beginning, but Wilson’s lyrics like “selfish acts…. between the sheets” aren’t as impressive. At almost ten minutes and featuring a Sir Elton John monologue, ‘Personal Shopper’ is more notable for its anti-consumerism tirade than for its music.

The Future Bites is often fascinating, but I’m confident that Wilson has made at least a dozen albums that are better.


Wobbler

Dwellers of the Deep

2020, 7.5/10
As much as I enjoy music from the heyday of progressive rock in the early 1970s, I don’t often dip my toes into the neo-progressive scene. While I don’t keep up, it seems that Norway’s Wobbler are one of the most beloved bands in the current neo-prog scene. Fascinatingly, they eschew modern technology, not using any instruments from beyond 1975. Instead of modern synths, they rely on piano, minimoog, and Mellotrons.

Progressive rock always requires a very strong vocalist, and Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo is a capable singer, with a high pitched voice than recalls Yes’ Jon Anderson and some huskiness a la Peter Gabriel. Even a vocalist of Prestmo’s calibre can’t pull off dopey lines like “Listen to the voices of the Naiad girls/Dancing by the pool, where the mighty river swirls.”

Lyrics are almost never the focus in progressive rock – the main appeal is from the rapidfire riffs and the keyboard arsenal of Lars Fredrik Frøislie, which recalls Rick Wakeman in his 1970s pomp. The two longer tracks outshine the two shorter ones – the impressive riffing of the fast-paced ‘By The Banks’ and the more atmospheric ‘Merry Macabre’ are the highlights.

Dwellers of the Deep is dangerously close to a 1970s Yes pastiche, but there’s enough quality to make it worthwhile regardless.

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