This list’s separation from the upcoming Favorite Albums list is not intended to disparage or unfairly disadvantage musical works with shorter durations. I just had way too many favorites this year that didn’t seem to fit amongst a list of full-length albums, and it got to the point where I felt they needed their own list. Here are the things I liked most this year whose contents could fit on a 3″ CD.
UVC – Wisdom from the Zoo (Hologram, Aug 2)
This mysterious Philadelphia hermit/bridge-troll has not only proved their mettle in esoteric curation this year with the newly minted Born Physical Form small-batch tape label, but also in artistic creation itself via three brief cassettes and one CDr, Wisdom from the Zoo, as UVC (a moniker that we’ll probably be hearing a lot more about soon enough). Careless tape wobble and intimate clatter blur the lines between action and environment in a queasy but beautiful cycle of mundanity. Original review
Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (Closed Casket Activities, Jul 24)
One of the loudest new voices in modern hardcore blaze through the eight tracks of their debut LP in less than 17 minutes. Latching onto a novel unity between the band’s occasionally disparate stylistic leanings, it’s an incendiary stampede of pummeling d-beat, death metal chug, and of course brutal breakdowns, culminating in what might be my new favorite cover version of all time. But you’ve probably heard enough about it by now. Original review for Earlyworm newsletter
Encoder – Noise from the Deep (nausea., Apr 25)
One of only two tapes put out by Angelo Bignamini’s nausea. imprint this year, Noise from the Deep is thus far the only release from Italian project Encoder, which I know little to nothing about. The four tracks are drawn from an “impro session with field recordings and other ‘machines,’ recorded in [the artist’s] kitchen” and trace a strangely total comingling of surroundings and soundmaking. This is a difficult one to internalize or even remember once it’s over; one’s brain seems to instinctively realize that this music is not for human comprehension.
Zhao Cong – Fog and Fragments (presses précaires, Nov 17)
Chinese sound artist and contemporary classical performer Zhao Cong casts a soft gaze to the ephemeral for Fog and Fragments. The tape presents a pair of tracks consisting of fleeting improvisations with spray bottles, paper products, small appliances, and her own voice couched between and within stretches of meditative silence both “authentic” (ambient) and “pure” (digital). Original review
Ola Nathair (self-released, Mar 29)
Residing somewhere between the screeching miniature metalwork of Jin Sangtae, the spontaneous tabletop electronics of English, and the gnashing digital squall of Gert-Jan Prins’s Mego CDs, the music of Ashcircle member Ola Nathair (Ciaran Mackle) is as immediate and violent as the most piercing harsh noise yet as kinetic and gestural as the most considered improvisation. His short, squalling self-titled digital EP is an enthralling mess of looping feedback stabs and sampler abuse.
Doldrum – The Knocking (self-released, Nov 13)
The Knocking is the debut EP from Denver-based trio Doldrum, promising newcomers whose sound seems to me like a different take on bands like Zeal & Ardor’s approach to “old America” black metal; where Z&A’s style is based in spirituals, work songs, and early soul, Doldrum’s resides in the moldy caverns of the occult and unexplained. These confused but anguished spirals of dread sound like they’re beamed straight from a shadowy shack or haunted coalmine in 19th century Gothic frontier hell.
Genghis Cohn – Spole Mump (ANA, Mar 20)
The enigmatic Genghis Cohn follows up the tape-macerated bedroom pop of last year’s Dybbuk cassette with a 7″ full of more formless contact mic muck, songs fragments, and throwaway vocalizations. This music fits into the “outsider” category more soundly than most others because of its complete lack of convention, and for that reason it’s utterly fascinating. I’m not convinced the individual known as Genghis Cohn is even human, but (hopefully) more on that later.
Jamison Williams – Silly Symphonies, Vol. 1 (Orb Tapes, Jan 21)
On Silly Symphonies, Vol. 1, prolific sound artist and classic Disney lover Jamison Williams serves up two short tracks of sparse but magnetic improvisations using only game calls. The tiny tape has both the fluid, gestural unpredictability of my favorite abstract vocal pieces and the exploratory abandon of a wonder-filled toy chest dive, all filtered through the tinny artificiality of manufactured duck quacks and birdsong. Original review
Kobol – Void (self-released, Jan 1)
From the chilly northern shores of Norway comes a slab of deep-space-inspired powerviolence (the title of “Gravity Bong” being my favorite manifestation) by formidable newcomers Kobol. Slamming and slashing through 15 tracks in the duration of a single 7″, Void shrouds lightning-fast blast beat frenzies, tough guy bellows, and thick thrashing downtuned guitars within a dark, slightly muffling production style that still allows the sharpest hits to stab through.
Ed Balloon – I Hate It Here (Deathbomb Arc, Dec 4)
For a long time I thought that LA trio Ed Balloon were British, not just because of frontman Edmund Oribhabor’s unique accent but also because of the grime flavors that are often present in his songs (I’m frequently reminded of Dizzee Rascal and Dean Blunt, especially on this new EP); I suppose that just shows how seamlessly eclectic the band’s music is. I Hate It Here both expands upon and consolidates the mess of promising ideas on The Dubs in an achingly short EP of infectious, effects-laden croons and inventive modern production.
Berlin Horse – All We Need of Hell (Room Tone, Jul 3)
I found myself discovering and listening to significantly less wall noise than usual this year, but the releases I did hear were, for the most part, memorably impressive and unique. Berlin Horse is probably my favorite new project from 2020, drawing me in with the superb Red Dirt in August and All We Need of Hell before that. The latter C20 is a wonderfully concise suite of two walls, one harsh and gnashing and the other subdued and meditative, that meld the textural creativity of more contemporary examples of the genre with the classic nihilistic punch of its earliest origins.
Bloodbather – Silence (Rise, Oct 9)
I was unsure whether Florida metallic hardcore band Bloobather could improve upon their debut Pressure, but with a new vocalist and renewed fury they prove once more than stylistic innovation is entirely unnecessary for quality. Silence even has the potential to bring in new fans who found former frontman Jeffery Georges’ vocals and lyrics too bro-y; I’m not sure who is serving up the screams here but their presence makes these tracks less cookie-cutter pit favorites and more eviscerating chaotic metalcore that survives beyond the mosh.
Daphne X – Água Viva (tsss tapes, Sep 4)
Named for the beloved novel by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, Água Viva is perhaps the more personal and less conceptual cousin of Henry Collins’ Prepared Rain; while both tapes explore the otherworldly headspace of water-assisted abstract percussion soundscapes, Xanthopoulou’s take on the technique is less hypnotic, passively-conjured cacophony and more intimately performative. Yet another superb entry in this artist’s diverse body of work.
Spoons & Bones (Czaszka, Jul 7)
The first recording from the duo of Piotr Łyszkiewicz (reeds) and Hubert Kostkiewicz (guitar) is an addictive slice of bite-size free jazz, full of fire and propulsion despite the proceedings being entirely percussionless. The two musicians’ streams of raucous, noisy noodling face off in a physical confrontation somewhere between hand-to-hand combat and sultry dance.
They Hate Change – 666 Central Ave. (godmode, Aug 13)
Tampa Bay duo They Hate Change are one of the most exciting and unique acts in hip-hop today, and continue to push that already lofty designation further with each progressively more creative release. As a whole, I don’t enjoy 666 Central Ave. quite as much as I do the excellent Maneuvers (released last year on Deathbomb Arc, which is also Ed Balloon’s primary label), but outside of the high standards the group has set for themselves it’s still some of the best hip-hop all year, embarking into new territory with complex breakbeat-influenced instrumentals.
eric – We Can’t Be Stopped (Trading Wreckage, Oct 31)
Again, there’s not much that can be said verbally about this one other than, well, “eric.” We Can’t Be Stopped is a concise but sprawling set of tracks from the Denton, TX solo “twisted sampler rock” project full of ersatz instrumentals, jarringly recognizable samples, mundane stream-of-consciousness rants, hollow sarcasm, and plenty of mistakes (“Betty” unceremoniously ends when the artist realizes their phone alarm has been going off the whole time). No caps when you spell the man’s name. Original review
Rolex 7″ (11 PM, Sep 4)
I initially checked this one out because of a rare and coveted comparison to Die Kreuzen, a comparison I wasn’t expecting to be at all accurate. But Rolex, hailing from L.A., make a strong case for their status as the modern heir to the legendary Milwaukee quartet, blending raw hardcore fury with mostly-clean guitars that scratch angular onslaughts of dissonant chords and an overall feeling of skeletal-ness that complements their arty intricacies.
City Medicine – Argentine Dogs (Regional Bears, May 13)
It was a tossup whether I included Grids, one of the countless self-released CDrs that Miami artist and curator Christopher David has released under his own name this year, or Argentine Dogs, his only City Medicine material in 2020, on this list, but I eventually decided on the latter because of the sheer number of times I’ve listened to it since its release in May. The C17 is over in a flash but keeps those “in the know” coming back again and again with its charismatically slipshod assemblage of auditory litter.
Binary – Fall from Grace Face Down (Wretched, Sep 6)
The last release from Binary is also by far the short-lived band’s best work. Thus, Fall from Grace Face Down is a crushingly bittersweet final offering that transposes the Philadelphia quartet’s penchant for scenegrind-influenced breakdowns and clean/harsh vocal trades into a gloriously chaotic frenzy of dissonant emoviolence. Along with that newfound presence of more classic skramz is a sharp, punishing beauty that pierces through the murk in the bookending tracks “New Year No Me” and “Care (Before Summer Swallowed Us).”