List: Top Ten for the First Half of 2020

In a format identical to last year’s list as well as 2018’s, here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2020. As always, the order is of little importance.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia (Warner, Mar 27)

Though it came of little surprise based on the strength of the three singles, Dua Lipa’s sophomore spectacular is one for the ages. This is an impeccably crafted modern pop record, swirling infectious disco grooves and neon-lit synthpop bliss to complement one of the most amazing voices of our time. This is my most-played album of the year by a mile, and I doubt that will change in the next six months. Get used to a female alpha.

The Serfs – Sounds of Serfdom (Detriti & Wasted Tapes, Jan 15)

The debut Serfs LP is perhaps the crowning achievement of the vicious vortex of creativity that swirls around members Dakota Carlyle, Andie Luman, and Dylan McCratney throughout their various bands and side projects. A love letter to minimal synth mystique, DIY cassette obscurity, and catchy songwriting swathed in enticing darkness. Original review

Seth Cooke – Selected Works for No-Input Field Recorder (Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Apr 29)

I would say something like “there’s not much I can say that I didn’t already cover in my fabulous review”… if that were actually true. One of the many reasons why I fell in love with this release is how much it makes me think, and I really don’t believe there’s a limit to the paradoxical ponderings that are unavoidable when one is faced with Cooke’s eccentric approach. But I also believe that regardless of all that, this is a beautiful and unforgettable collection of music. Original review

Komare – The Sense of Hearing (Penultimate Press, Jun 25)

When I was sent this record I was instructed (redundantly, if it isn’t already obvious) to get stoned before I listened. Which I did, but it might not even be necessary because The Sense of Hearing is so drugged-out and surreal that it probably gets you high all on its own. This LP expands on the previous self-titled cassette in virtually every way, scraping the dirt and mold from the cracks of long-forgotten music and smearing it through the air in hazy, spectral strokes.

Antibodies – Can You Ear Me? (Steep Gloss, Mar 22)

Fluxus bizarro masters Brandstifter and Dirk Huelstrunk team up for an enigmatic adventure into surreal sound poetry and churning electronics. The six tracks scramble and stumble with a strong-armed deliberation, all mutated melodies, ranted nonsense, throaty mouth sounds, and endless layers of processed curiosities to get hopelessly lost in.

Vilgoć – Granice (Szara Reneta, Jan 20)

Granice is one of those genre-defining releases that only come along every decade or so. This single 36-minute-long track by a Polish mainstay is the loudest, fullest, most brutal and crushing example of static noise I have heard in a long time, and it renders me completely awestruck and immobile for its entire duration every single time I listen. A masterpiece, truly.

ZelooperZ – Gremlin (self-released, Mar 18)

Ever since I feel head over heels in love with the glorious vice-ridden delirium of ZelooperZ’s HELP mixtape, I’ve come to appreciate each of his successive albums for unique reasons. Gremlin is a fantastic example of what I love most about the young Detroit rapper (that others seem to view as flaws): a succinct yet sprawling sketchbook-like structure, skeletal trap assemblages, hilarious one-liners, and oodles of the dark, hedonistic claustrophobia that seems to permeate all of his work.

Wake – Devouring Ruin (Translation Loss, Mar 27)

Wake’s 2018 LP Misery Rites was one of my favorite metal releases from that year, but nothing could have prepared me for their follow-up, the stunning behemoth of extreme metal mastery that is Devouring Ruin. Stretching out nearly double the length of its predecessor, this monstrous album transposes the Calgary quintet’s penchant for furious deathgrind to a much wider arena of blackened atmospherics and cathartic post-metal climaxes.

Nathan Corder & Tom Weeks – Diamondback (self-released, Apr 17)

The final installment in these two Oakland improvisers’ trilogy of terror is a must-hear for even the most experienced skronk-heads. This hour-plus affair is an absolute wonder to behold, whether you interpret it as the sound of two adventurous wind musicians collaborating or the desperate, squawking final breaths of conventional music as it is mercilessly beaten to death. Original review

Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You? (International Anthem, Mar 20)

This seething current of cracklingly high-energy jazz is anchored by the hypnotic utterances of Camae Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother, whose fruitful and superb year is easily topped off by her second record as a member of Irreversible Entanglements. The constant interplay between Luke Stewart’s bass and Tcheser Holmes’s percussion is a fluid but steady backbone for the restless compositions that unfold. A powerful and likely long-enduring document of our times.

Mix: Well Good, Because I Probably Couldn’t Afford It If It Wasn’t

The title of this mix is my preferred alternative to the classic punchline response to being informed of the genre commonly called free jazz: “I sure as hell wouldn’t pay for it” (which I think originally came from a Steve Lacy quote). I’ve gathered my favorite examples of the adventurous new traditions in contemporary freeform jazz music, from potent poetics and progressive arrangements to all-out cacophonous carnage.

Irreversible Entanglements, Berlin Jazz Festival 2018

00:00. Irreversible Entanglements – “Who Sent You – Ritual” [excerpt] from Who Sent You? (International Anthem, 2020)

04:06. Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid & Joshua Abrams – “Wattle and Daub” from Ithra (Aerophonic, 2018)

09:13. Galaxxu – “Care Bears Countdown” [excerpt] from Every Meanest Particular (Orb Tapes, 2019)

14:41. Dave Liebman, Adam Rudolph & Tatsuya Nakatani – “Premonition” from The Unknowable (RareNoise, 2018)

17:32. Joshua Abrams, Tyler Damon, Forbes Graham & Ava Mendoza – “I Closed My Eyes” [excerpt] from Sometimes There Were Four (self-released, 2020)

23:12. Fuck Lungs – “The Indian Name for ‘White Woman with Tattoo of Bird’ ” from Fuck Lungs (Already Dead, 2016)

26:05. James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor – “Radiance” from Live in Willisau (Intakt, 2020)

28:52. Jon Irabagon, John Hegre & Nils Are Drønen – “Fukuoka” [excerpt] from Axis (Rune Grammofon, 2017)

33:16. Reid Karris Group – part III of May 12th 2018 (self-released, 2019)

35:47. Simone & Bucko – “Live at the Chapel” [excerpt] from Simone & Bucko (Dismal Niche, 2020)

Review: Government Alpha – Pathogens (ochiai soup, Jun 17)

I’ve been listening to Yasutoshi Yoshida’s Government Alpha project for as long as I’ve been interested in noise music. Venomous Cumulus Cloud was one of the first harsh noise records I heard, even before I discovered future standbys like C.C.C.C. and T.E.F., but I also never lost interest in new releases as I did with Merzbow et al. Yoshida’s recent works aren’t simply rehashes of the classic high-octane pedal abrasion that made him famous; instead, you can tell he’s still very much interested in exploring and refining the craft, approaching each album with a unique methodology. Though I’m a fan of the (relatively) more reserved proceedings of Arrogant Ghosts and Insanityranny, I’m grateful that Yoshida has turned back to his eardrum-shredding roots with stuff like last year’s Vandalism and now Pathogens. The two “Regenerative Signal” tracks wrestle entropy from simple feedback loops while “Visualization” gets right down to business with densely-packed waves of caustic distortion, high-pitched squall, and iconic GA electronic oscillations. This latter track is easily one of the best examples of harsh noise I’ve heard in a long time and really reminds me of why I love this stuff so much in the first place, endless depths of enthralling textures and viscerally impacting chaos. Another unsurprisingly fantastic release from one of noise music’s most stalwart presences.

Review: Valentina Magaletti & Marlene Ribeiro – Due Matte (Commando Vanessa, Jun 11)

Due Matte is an enticing album for me in several respects. It initially caught my eye due to the presence of Valentina Magaletti, a renowned contemporary percussionist with an impressive resume and a recent Noise Not Music favorite with Sulla Pelle. Joining Magaletti on this release is Gnod member Marlene Ribeiro, with whom I’m much less familiar. The first document of their collaboration also features one of my favorite examples of those bizarre medieval paintings you see cropping up as macros every now and then; the framing of the two women, the homogeneity of the color palette, and the emphasis on the rich purple background makes it a both humorous and poignant selection for the cover design. Needless to say, by this point I (and hopefully you) am all in to see what the hell is going on with Due Matte. The label describes it as an “exercise in tropical concrete [sic],” and there’s definitely some choice processing going on to render these whimsical sounds so ambiguous and alien, but for the most part I feel like I’m hearing what’s really going on between the two musicians: just some very well curated percussion interplay, occasional vocals, possibly a bit of layering to produce soft intimate worlds of wonder. Certain tracks, however, display the beautiful results when more dissective techniques are used, like the calming drift phases of “Big Circle, Small Circle.” This hits a similar spot as Plastic Moonrise’s Papier Mâché: mysterious but always comforting, lightweight yet full of depth, perfect for sluggish afternoons.

Review: Chris Crack – Cute Boys (The Rise of Lil Delicious) (self-released, Jun 13)

Chicago-based rapper and producer Chris Crack is well known for his provocative and often hilarious titles for his work; one of my favorite projects of his, last year’s Crackheads Live Longer Than Vegans, included cuts like “Black People Can’t Be Racist,” “I’m Grammy Nominated Tho,” and “My Ex Was a Garden Tool.” Crack’s colorfully-dubbed tunes also have the raucous, unhinged energy to match that of their names, somehow living up to the high expectations introduced by hard ass phrases like “Chipped My Tooth Eating Pussy.” Cute Boys (The Rise of Lil Delicious) is the young musician’s second release of 2020, following on the heels of April’s White People Love Algorithms, but if 2019 is any indication then there are many more to come. Since Crackheads Crack has been steadily toning things down a bit, leaning into the soulful, reverb-washed jazzy beats that compliment his subdued ranting flows so well, and Cute Boys is probably his most relaxing record in a while. This time, that mood is actually matched by the content of the track titles; in an unsurprising choice to respond to the current state of our country, the rapper’s headings hit much closer to home than usual, with emotional, supportive claims to the tune of “Black People Are Flawless,” “Sex Workers Over Cops,” and “White Lies Cost Black Lives.” I once heard Crack’s lyrical approach described as “eccentric ignorance,” which would be a good way to describe a lot of the other projects I’ve mentioned, but here he is more engaged with the world around him than ever, acknowledging realities and denouncing injustice amidst his typical repertoire of comedic self-absorbance and surreal hedonism (though he does drop the word “r******d” at least once, which needless to say I’m not thrilled about—hopefully he’ll have some “Post Nut Clarity” and update his lexus). Careless ableism aside, Cute Boys is a new favorite from Chris, and probably the album of his best suited for a lazy afternoon.

“Cinematic, so don’t forget to paint.”

Review: Amethyst – The Journey (Vaknar, Jun 12)

I’ve been thinking about New Zealand a lot lately, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I actually want to move there or to just have a nice cup of tea with Jacinda Ardern. For Jonathan Bergen, a.k.a. Amethyst, it seems to have been the latter, for in 2017 the Berlin-based artist dramatically relocated to a new residence in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Unfortunately, this journey that gives the newest Amethyst release its title was cut short by tragedy and hardship, and Bergen was forced to return to Germany despite having already found a new home. I don’t listen to as much straightforward ambient music as I used to, but Amethyst is a project I consistently return to because of its tendency towards both harsh catharsis and singular emotional weight. There are so many things buried beneath the cold keyboard melodies, plopping raindrops, distorted voices, and creeping distortion—withdrawal, regret, nostalgia, appreciation, despair, isolation—that it all blurs together into one multifaceted mass of poignancy whose effects are impossible to avoid. In my opinion, Bergen relies a little too heavily on melody on The Journey (the final track, which features heavy electronic percussion and screamed vocals, is by far the weakest), rather than turning to the dynamic brilliance of more abstract releases like 대지, but even with an occasionally banal simplicity this full-length has a lot to offer.

Review: James Hazel – Concessions (for my father) (Precarious Texts, Jun 9)

I first want to acknowledge that Concessions (for my father), James Hazel’s new release, made me aware of a new imprint/project called Precarious Texts, which pledges to become “a space that re-turns [sic] to and re-emphasises “class” as part of the intersectional prism and supports practices within these spaces.” In a time where socioeconomic stratification is more ingrained than ever, there can never be too much acknowledgement of the  reality in which we reside. Hazel concedes that while making Concessions he was “located in relatively stable space/time” in objective terms; instead, the qualifying precarity in his life is an emotional one, an empathic one, formed by the deep connection Hazel feels to his immediate family, his ancestors, and the countless marginalized workers that have fought the same battles long before him. The exhaustion and defeat, the enshrouding malaise, the tiny beaten and battered beams of hope of the oppressed existence are translated to sound through minimal groupings of sources and an old tape recorder. Hazel’s frail transmissions hang in the dusty air with aching grace, slowly dissipating into blankets of soft whispers and woozy warbling. This album is a masterclass in evoking emotional weight via entirely abstract means. I was brought to tears several times by the volatile feedback currents in “Sensual Objects”—it’s one thing to absorb the sadness from an affecting lyric or somber melody, but it’s entirely another to feel unnameable emotions well up from the depths of yourself when witnessing something whose sorrowful beauty you can’t even describe.

Review: Wife Eyes – Primordia (Sour Orange, Jun 6)

Though I dropped from Krypton into the wonderful world of abstract music too late to truly appreciate its heyday, I miss the 3″ CD. Its capacity of just over twenty minutes ended up being a perfect length for many experimental sound creators and improvisers in the 90’s and early 2000s, with many artists (especially in the latter period) making use of the medium’s cheapness for self-released materials. I bring this up because it’s impossible not to think of 3″s when you see a single piece of music that runs about 20 minutes; it’s a particularly optimal duration if you pace things right, but unfortunately this niche art seems to have lost much of its prevalence. Delightful little slabs like Wife Eyes’ debut document crop up every now and again though, gifting listeners an easily digestible serving of sound still with plenty of room to get adventurous. Primordia is the first fruit of the duo collaboration between Matt Ackerman and Zachary Zena Giberson, and I think fruit is an apt metaphor because of how wonderfully colorful and candy-sweet this release often is. The track begins with some whimsical electronica, muscular throwback synths and sluggish collaging reminiscent of the “bunker jazz” of Women of the Pore, but Ackerman and Giberson have oodles of tricks still up their sleeves, which are revealed in a satisfying spectacle of quirky math-pop, spoken word, lounge grooves filtered through some sort of neon glycerin membrane, and anxious bell arpeggios that kind of remind me of that tense clock-tick music at the end of the Prisoner of Azkaban movie. Primordia is an entity of simultaneous conciseness and excess, the two spun together into a singular cocktail.

Also guys, I don’t care how similar the name is, do NOT let John Olson join your band.

Review: Daniel Menche & Anla Courtis – Cuspa Llullu (Moving Furniture, Jun 5)

Almost a full decade after their first outing as a duo with Yaguá Ovy, relentless sound experimenters Daniel Menche and Alan/Anla Courtis have returned to provide a successive dose of perplexing tandem tumult with their new Cuspa Llullu LP on Moving Furniture. Like Yaguá Ovy, the album is comprised of two side-long tracks that deal in varying levels of environmental abstraction. The dynamic, shifting crackle textures like impatient steps on dried fallen leaves are a welcome recurrence, like our headphones are sonic magnifying glasses scanning the microscopic hustle and bustle beneath our feet. At the beginning of “Sumaq T’ikraq,” however, these sounds are accompanied by much more open surroundings of seething metal tones and clanged harmonies, possibly the ominous yet spectacular noise of a junkyard slowly coalescing into a sentient being. The room afforded by these initial tinctures only grows as they (and the piece) progress, leaving an expanse of emptiness to be filled—which the hazy recording near the end only somewhat accomplishes, forming a tremulous space of languid drones lost in the breeze. The following “Achka T’asla” starts out with a particularly wet, sinewy example of the subdued, skin-crawling “lowercase walls” being explored by artists/projects like Alice Kemp, Clive Henry, or The David Scott Cadieux Center before following a similar trajectory as the previous track, comfortably expanding into something much more macroscopic and spatially complex.

Mix: The Outcast on the Ivories

Here are several fascinating instances of one of the oldest and most iconic instruments in conventional music making purposeful appearances in abstract soundscapes. Whether the piano is sighing gorgeous melodic resolutions, atonal chords, or simply being softly plinked every once in a while, these tracks all communicate a sense of loneliness and withdrawal.

00:00. Marc Baron – “Un lac” from Un Salon Au Fond d’Un Lac (Potlatch, 2016)

07:32. Pedestrian Deposit – “You Can’t Help Me” from Fatale (Hospital, 2006)

09:44. Graham Lambkin & Áine O’Dwyer – “One and One Is Three” from Green Ways (Erstwhile, 2018)

13:25. Paco Rossique – “Snow at Niigata” from The Visit of the Stranger (2017-2018) (Linear Obsessional, 2019)

18:07. Matthew Atkins – part 5 of Porous Inner Montage (Minimal Resource Manipulation, 2018)

22:24. barn sour – side B of horses fucked over the head with bricks (Careful Catalog, 2019)

26:08. Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet – “Lucy Song” from The Breadwinner (Erstwhile, 2008)

32:09. Ljudvägg – “Tids nog” from Varande (Purlieu, 2018)

34:24. clipping. – “Piano Burning” (comp. Annea Lockwood, 1968) from There Existed an Addiction to Blood (Sub Pop, 2019)