11 Nihiloxica – Kaloli (Crammed Discs). Ugandan drumming through a techno lens. This project started when the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble in Kamapla, Uganda, started playing at a local nightclub in between and during DJ sets. Word spread to Belgium, where a jazz drummer wanted to capture the synergy on tape. After a couple of EPs, this is the debut full-length, featuring two drum kits and electronics augmenting the vivid percussion, for a 21st-century Olatunji experience, a next-gen Congotronics, that doesn't in any way feel like the original tracks are being overshadowed. It's a great record, but on a personal note, it's also a very productive record: for writing, for walking, for housework, for whatever it is you need to do. As long as you're somewhere you can turn it up loud.
And check out this beautiful video made for the Polaris Prize:
13 Marlaena Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed! (Flemish Eye). Wrote about this earlier here: It's a good sign when the opening track on your debut album is a song of longing on par with "Nothing Compares 2 U." Yes, this Edmonton performer's "I Miss You" is that good, and so is the rest of the record. Moore has no shortage of great lyrics that document fragility ("You came to see my harvest and you wanted it for free / Now this empty garden is all that's left of me"), and she often delivers them with a voice with just enough waver that you think she might break, but her inner strength pulls through every line. Moore's an incredible torch singer, as closing waltz "Tiger Water" demonstrates, over guitar feedback, vibraphones and snare brushes. "Imposter" borrows from Roxy Music's "More Than This," likely unconsciously, but the album is full of equally killer melodies all her own. "Xmas Oranges" is a total earworm, an acrobatic melody set to chugging cellos and a beguiling chorus: "Christmas oranges / I don't care for sticky citrus / You can't tell the difference between love and fatal interest." Producer Chad Van Gaalen, who's known for an often-hazy and psychedelic '90s aesthetic in his solo work and for others, helps Moore deliver a vivid and colourful sonic backdrop for songs that are part Patsy Cline, part Liz Phair, part Angel Olsen. It's hard not to be impressed with the chutzpah of the album title, but it turns out to be entirely accurate. I can't wait to hear more from this woman.
Also, I'm a sucker for one-shot videos (well, three in this case), no matter how goofy.
15 Wye Oak – Horizon EP (Merge). A few years back, this Durham-via-Baltimore duo covered Pat Benatar's "We Belong" for a radio session (watch it here), and it was stunning. That song makes me weepy at the best of times, and Wye Oak managed to make it their own. They didn't have a youth choir behind them at the time, but they do here: the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who commissioned this work. Normally I find the use of kids choirs in pop music treacly (Benatar notwithstanding), but here they take Jenn Wasner's songs of alienation and dislocation and, to state the obvious, make them sound a lot less lonely, like all those Italian apartment-dwellers singing songs together during the first wave of the lockdown. Of course, these aren't catchy pop songs or simple folk anthems; this is Wye Oak, in all their glorious subtlety and complexity. Almost 15 years into their career, they continue to surprise. I'm extremely grateful they got to record this when they did, before it was no longer possible.
16 Deerhoof – Love Lore (Joyful Noise). This band is prolific at the best of times, and the pandemic made them even more so. In addition to a live album and a collection of odds and sods, they released a new album of original material, Greg Saunier covered Voivod's Angel Rat acoustically, and then finally this album of eclectic covers arranged into four long medleys. WIth such output, Deerhoof are more than easy to take for granted, which is why Love Lore is likely getting more attention than the original album released this year: we know what Deerhoof sound like playing their own songs, but what happens when they unleash their powers on others? Only Deerhoof would attempt Ornette Coleman, the Knight Rider theme, Eddy Grant, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kraftwerk and the Jetsons theme on the same record, rubbing up one another and reinvented in the most magical way. The greatest rock band of the 2000s is still alive and kicking.
17 Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Sony). This is an uneasy listening record centred around piano and voice and searing lyrics, and yet for me the main appeal is the production, the percussion (drummer Amy Aileen Wood, and percussionist David Garza) and Apple's rhythmic choices, especially on tracks like "Relay," "Newspaper" and "For Her." Apple's strong personality dominates the discussion about this record, which is hardly surprising: it's the most visceral post-#MeToo record to have a large audience, a solidarity message and warning to other women about predatory behaviour, and she laments "yet another woman to whom I won't get through." But it's the band—including bassist Sebastian Steinberg and Apple's own piano work—that I keep coming back for.
18 Nels Cline – Share the Wealth (Blue Note). As much as I love guitarist Nels Cline's playing, in Wilco and elsewhere, I never know what to expect from his solo records. I loved his Blue Note debut Lovers in 2016, a deliberately pretty and "accessible" journey through a varied songbook, everything from Rodgers and Hart to Gabor Szabo to Annette Peacock and Sonic Youth. Share the Wealth is considerably more adventurous, skronky and noisy at times, filled with swing and verve and prog turns and itchy-scratchy avant-garde tumbles into the unknown—in the case of the aptly titled 17-minute epic "Stump the Panel," all in one song. And yes, it's also pretty, as on the relatively straightforward "Nightstand" and "Passed Down." Featuring staple Zorn players Brian Marsella (keys) and Cyro Baptista (percussion), Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Zorn, Tuatara saxophonist Skerik, and Cline's long-time drummer Scott Amendola, this particular lineup had never played together before recording this album in two days. Cline originally intended to take the sessions and splice them up, but there was so much magic there he didn't bother. With players like this, there's no need for sleight of hand.
19 Sault – (untitled) Rise (Forever Living Originals). Nobody appears to know anything about this British act: whether it's an actual group, or a collection of studio musicians, or some kind of community arts project, or what. What we do know is that this is their fourth full length in the last two years, and the one before this, untitled (Black Is), managed to feature Michael Kiwanuka on one track; otherwise, everyone is completely anonymous. Each record is better than the last, and this features more complete songs rather than sketches, alongside killer grooves throughout. The sound can loosely be labelled soul, tied to no particular time period: big gospel/disco/R&B vocals, either by female soloists or in groupings, lush string sections, live rhythm section, and tasteful arrangements throughout. The raison d'etre, however, is to write songs that speak to the current/eternal unrest: "Fearless," "Street Fighter," "Uncomfortable," "Scary Times"—you get the idea. They sound all the more essential because so very few others appear to be doing this, or at least doing it this well. Closing track "Little Boy" is heartbreaking.
20 C. Diab – White Whale (Injazero). This album is the musical equivalent of escaping from the current shitshow to a Pacific Coast cabin during a rainstorm and just droning out with bowed guitar that sounds like a one-man Godspeed filtered through Loscil and Martin Tielli. It's not just bowed guitar, there are a few things going on here, none of which are ambient or soothing, but this does have a powerful catharsis of calm, if that makes an iota of sense. This is a very interior record, released during an extremely interior year, and it's been on high rotation for me since its release in June.
Why the Melvillian title? Here's what he says in his artist statement:
“The hope for security, for accountable humanitarian leadership, for affordable housing and fair income, for understanding, things which we learned were natural pieces of a progressive society, now seem like humanity’s great white whale in a darker, regressive world, once appearing on the horizon only to disappear again into the deep.
“It’s my hope that White Whale, for what it’s worth, will lend a small hand to the listeners’ emancipation from inward fear and sadness and feelings of unworthiness. And help you realize what it is you need to do in order to have that conversation, or make that move, and two steps forward in crushing that which seeks to crush you.”
Get I get an amen?