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Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment [Blue Note]

Ambrose Akinmusire seems particularly mature as an artist and particularly within the "jazz" tradition because his work, daring and modern and moving easily across boundaries, is still grounded in some of the core jazz values. Those are the primacy of blues playing, the vitality of distinctive and individual sound, and healthy and creative engagement within the popular music of the time, and engagement with his culture, socially politically. He is individual enough to evade facile comparisons to his predecessors. Still, in how he stands as part of this tradition, he is reminiscent of folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, as well as Cecil Taylor or Julius Hemphill. He had inherited much, and work like on the tender spot of every calloused moment if giving a great deal back as well. -- Will Layman

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Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela - Rejoice [World Circuit]

Rejoice, the vibrant new album by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and the late South African flugelhornist and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, has had a long road to its release. The sessions began in 2010 in London, but because of conflicting schedules, the two musicians never got around to resuming work on the project. The unfinished recordings remained in an archive until 2019, a year after Masekela's death. Then Allen and producer Nick Gold revisited the tapes and added the finishing touches Allen and Masekela had discussed—keyboard, percussion, and vocal overdubs. The final product is something Masekela no doubt would have approved, a spacious, uncluttered sound centered on drums, flugelhorn, and bass, with a saxophone on three tracks, understated keyboards, and chanted vocals by Masekela and Allen. The long-delayed release indeed is an occasion for rejoicing, while also for regret that the two master musicians only collaborated once, and never will again. -- George De Stefano

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Amnesia Scanner - Tearless [PAN]

So immersed in the center of experimental electronic music and audiovisual art, it was exciting to think about where Amnesia Scanner would refocus their conceptual lens onto after the turn of the decade. Intriguingly, their latest 2020 full-length Tearless hones their typically obscure modes into their most precise concept yet. That is, the 10-track album aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene. It offers limited, ambiguous answers through words, as expected, but it powerfully speaks about our divisive world through artistic and aural choices. Its globally connected featured artists bring together the voices of climatic hotspots, from Europe, South America, to the United States. And, its experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore mimics the popular chaos that bombards the dominant consciousness. Tearless is, as Amnesia Scanner told, "a breakup album with the planet".

More precisely, the album is a breakup with the planet under the dominant rule. Along with the globally connected voices of Lalita, LYZZA, and Code Orange, Amnesia Scanner builds anthems of anger that transform into inspiration for resistance. Just remember, as Oracle assures on the closer "AS U Will Be Fine", "If we can help you lose your mind / You will be fine, You will be fine." Then, perhaps, we must lose our dominant mind to reimagine the failing Anthropocene. -- Hans Kim

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Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters​ [Epic]

What makes Fetch the Bolt Cutters such an extraordinary, surprising, and downright essential record is how it isn't about Apple so much as it's about other women: their friendships, their hangups, and the relationships they end up trapped in, mixed with Apple's pathos and gravity. It is a thundering, angry, and pointed album that feels liberated by the fact that the target of her wit and barbs isn't mainly herself or her lingering insecurities, no. This time around, she sets aim at the men who have never had to face any consequences for their actions -- and then proceeds to go for the jugular.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters isn't Apple's defense, her polemic, nor her confession. Bolt Cutters is her pummeling focus on the ills of the world: both the big ones we see on TV and the ones we see in our close friends. Bolt Cutters would be praised for its rawness and its bloodletting were it not for the fact that it is also charming, so considered, and so unapologetic for being the rattling, risqué record that it is. It's bold, it's demanding, and it might very well go down as the finest full-length Fiona Apple has ever made. -- Evan Sawdey

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Jehnny Beth - To Love Is to Live [Caroline]

Jehnny Beth's (Savages) solo debut feels like a really good book. Each track gives you a deeper dive into a complex and multifaceted, destructive character. The conflict between the cranial and physical lays out a gripping melodrama as the two vie for control. Beth's narrative and sentiment echo that of Mr. Duffy in James Joyce's The Dubliners , who "[...] lived a short distance from his body". The separation of thoughts and urges, need and want, mind and body is a thick and troublesome vein at the center of To Love Is to Live.

If To Love Is to Live had to be described by a single word, it would be 'oxymoron'. Beth's very human conflict is tackled in a truly Shakespearean fashion. Shakespeare famously had a passion for the oxymoronic. When Romeo cries out "Oh Loving Hate!", or when Lennox acknowledges MacBeth's actions in "pious rage", or the "joyful trouble" that MacDuff inhibits when hosting King Duncan, each points toward a confused but amplified truth. These paradoxes show the duality of our emotions and actions. Beth's oxymoronic musings are on innocent sex, natural luxury, and fragile strength. -- B. Sassons

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Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher [Dead Oceans]

It feels inaccurate to call Phoebe Bridgers' latest record, the consistently great Punisher, her sophomore album. Doing so brushes over two significant releases -- 2018's boygenius, an EP alongside Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus that plays to all three of their respective strengths, and 2019's Better Oblivion Community Center, an unexpected collaboration with Conor Oberst that found her expanding on the sounds of her solo debut, 2017's Stranger in the Alps. Still, at 25, Bridgers is, by all metrics, an artist at the beginning of her career, though Punisher sounds more like the work of a time-tested veteran perfecting a style she's been honing for years.

Great songwriters build fully realized worlds in their songs, but on Punisher Bridgers is often able to do it in just a few lines. Other writers might look to the past or towards the future to make sense of the disturbing present, but Bridgers is determined to embrace the moment on its own terms. It may sound bleak and illogical, but at least it's honest. -- Kevin Kearney

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Car Seat Headrest - Making a Door Less Open [Matador]

Making a Door Less Open invests in the psychic thickness of life's tiny, everyday moments. Think Proust's madeleine chased with light drugs and distortion pedals. Using stark compositional contrasts to explore the twin faces of joy and sadness, the project marks a notable shift away from the lo-fi net grunge Toledo pursued on Car Seat Headrest's numbered albums in the early 2010s and toward a new set of genre-bending experiments with future funk and electropop.

Lyrically, the record's ten songs—discrete episodes exploring everything from style biters to Hollywood superficialities—all add up to a sense of where inner life and the outer world meet. Through daydreams, interior monologues, and unanswered addresses, the band explore the frequent (and often unacknowledged) commingling of despair and silliness; so too do they focus on the ways that the surreal and the fantastic are increasingly structuring the contemporary mundane. -- Jonathan Leal

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Caribou - Suddenly [Merge]

Life, by its very nature, is unpredictable. We all try to draw up the best map we can to guide us through the day, but there will always be routes and paths that can't possibly be anticipated. For Daniel Snaith, the man behind Caribou, the five years that separated the critically acclaimed Our Love and new album Suddenly were characterised by unforeseeable changes as his closest, most intimate relationships evolved and reformed. It's this idea that lies at the heart of both his most wildly experimental and yet touchingly heartfelt album to date.

There is a strange dichotomy at the heart of Suddenly. While it's probably his most willfully experimental album to date, his soft, distinctive vocals flow through every track, binding the whole thing together. Shifting from clattering samples to lush electronics to moments of soul-stirring beauty tracks never stay in the same sonic space for long. Just like life, the joy comes from the sheer unpredictability of it all. -- Paul Carr

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Céu - APKÁ! [Six Degrees]

Céu's APKÁ! continues her journey into electrified space while taking even more time to find moments of softness. Blissful interpretations of late-night dance music styles and high-heat MPB make for a multidimensional release of soulful energy, replete with the effortless sophistication that Céu exudes in every album. Céu has long been an internationally-renowned creative force, as potent in her most easy and straightforward moments as in her most forward-facing and electric.

APKÁ! has elements of it all: loud, quiet, sober, and utterly vivacious. But this is hardly a simple recap of her career to date. Every second of APKÁ! is fresh and new, and Céu, 15 years into her global fame, continues to grow and try new things with a trustworthy team and wisdom that shows in how well-informed her creative choices ultimately are. Céu's vision works on a cosmic scale, and I continue to anticipate what could come next eagerly. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

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Cubicolor - Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night [Anjunadeep]

Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night sees Cubicolor continuing to explore the textured, gently evolving sonic terrain of Brainsugar in more intimate detail. Although shaped by loss, uncertainty, and self-doubt, the songs on Cubicolor's second album never linger in the same emotional space for long. Throughout, the band uses the music to process negative feelings before channeling them into something more positive and uplifting. Musically, their meticulously crafted soundscapes morph from plaintive electronic pieces into uplifting dance tracks in the space of a single song. Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night is a richly drawn, triumphant record and testament to the fact that sometimes you have to go with your gut and start again. -- Paul Carr

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Die Wilde Jagd - Haut [Bureau B]

To enter the mind of German electronic musician, Sebastian Lee Philipp is to venture into a lush techno-jungle, a dark space pulsing and throbbing with life. Nowhere is this more in evidence than Haut, the third album from Philipp's project Die Wilde Jagd. Sparse rhythms bloom into complex worlds of sound, a cacophony of creatively adapted noise and samples which assume a harmonious, rhythmic consistency merging the natural with the electronic.

The impenetrable, leafy undergrowth of this aural jungle hums with cleansing winds and buzzing cicadas. Tymbal organs and wing flicks sing to the beats, clicks, and scratches of a deeply rooted, naturalistic techno. Life here accords with harmony all of its own, and the attentive listener inevitably finds themselves in sync with this world of lush soundscapes. Haut is a concept album; a soundscape best listened to in its entirety, allowing songs to merge into each other. -- Hans Rollmann

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Sam Doores - Sam Doores [New West]

Sam Doores deftly pulls together old rock 'n' roll, classic New Orleans-style R&B, and strains of folk and country, along with some experimental touches. The result is a subtly enveloping album that pulls a listener further into its noirish mysteries with each listening. Sam Doores might not reach the practically stratospheric heights of Los Lobos' 1992 masterpiece. Still, any song from Sam Doores' album would sound wonderful juxtaposed with anything from Kiko, on what would clearly be a killer playlist of cosmic American music.

While Sam Doores is certainly a moody album, there is also a level of jauntiness that courses throughout the record, particularly on "Had a Dream" and "This Ain't a Sad Song". As New Orleans-inspired music goes, Sam Doores isn't what you're likely to hear while you're sucking down frozen hurricanes on the most touristy blocks of Bourbon Street. But hearing Sam Doores emanating from a dusty old jukebox while enjoying a shot or two in a local joint a few blocks away from the French Quarter? Now, that would be perfect. -- Rich Wilhelm

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Drab City - Good Songs for Bad People [Bella Union]

Bella Union's latest great hopes, Drab City, offer a glamorously disheveled form of creepy art-pop from the union of early 2000s witch-house pioneer, oOoOO, aka San Franciscan Chris Dexter Greenspan, and the Berlin-based Bosnian-Muslim producer Asia aka Islamiq Grrrls. With their enticing debut album, Good Songs for Bad People, the duo have honed a woozy late-night style that plugs into a mind-melting synthesis of dream-pop, trip-hop, dub, jazz, doo-wop, and soundtrack vibes. Their glitchy songs of violence and paranoia radiate a deranged elegance that's both succinct and off-kilter.

The duo employ an array of blissed-out ingredients: jazzy, David Axelrod-meets-Barry Adamson arrangements, quivering flutes, spy flick guitars, mellotron strings, smeary synth textures, rumbling bass, low-slung hip-hop beats, and mellifluous vocals. The ominous music on the band's bleak debut positions them as eager heirs to the sonic lift-off Broadcast's laser-guided radiophonics and the spectral breakbeats of Portishead's torch song future blues. -- Michael Sumsion

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Greg Dulli - Random Desire [BMG]

"Desolation / Come and get it," sings Greg Dulli in the opening lyrics of Random Desire, a devil's come-on only he can sell. The couplet sets the tone for what's to come, a signpost both beckoning you in and warning the faint of heart it's their last chance to turn back. For Random Desire, the debut solo record (of sorts) from the veteran Afghan Whig/Twilight Singer/Gutter Twin, is a soundtrack for pensive late nights alone, raking over regrets, forfeited love, and forsaken chances. Depressing as that may sound, the song cycle isn't one to wallow. On the contrary, it has a reflective victory about it, the kind that comes with years separating you from the painful experiences and the knowledge that while they linger with you, you've survived them. There's a sense of fighting through the haunt of bitter memories of smiling despite the ache.

Random Desire is striking in its unified exploration of what comes after — years after — a heartbreak. Not a mere collection of 10 songs, it is an album in the classic sense, each track as essential as a chapter in a book or a scene from a movie. It shows that while the hurt and loss are still there and remain felt, they're like a scar from what could have been a mortal wound. And while Dulli might have sung that he's got things to do before he fades away, Random Desire proves he's neither fading away or burning out any time soon. -- Cole Waterman

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Dustbowl Revival - Is It You, Is It Me [Medium Expectations]

Dustbowl Revival's newest release, Is It You, Is It Me, undertakes the personal and political. The Americana ensemble are candid in their responses to divisive political conversations, all the while setting their missives to masterful instrumentation. Yet the album is not entirely composed of grandiloquence. Dustbowl Revival also holds space for quieter and tenderer musical narratives. With the signature duel harmony of Z. Lupetin and Liz Beebe, in addition to the lush sound led by Connor Vance, Matt Rubin, Ulf Bjorlin, Josh Heffernan, Is It You, Is It Me is a revelatory album.

Dustbowl Revival don't settle for wimpy commentary: the album is packed with fearless censures. In "Enemy", Dustbowl Revival take on the disunity caused by politics. Beebe sings a powerful and vulnerable tale of a daughter lamenting her parents who "made him king / But they forgot the crown / Please pass the salt." Beebe is crestfallen by their beliefs; the disconnect is the proverbial salt poured into her wounds. The track reflects the generation who lost their parents and family to the likes of Fox News' divisive rhetoric. Dustbowl Revival captures the emotional toll created by the discord. -- Elisabeth Woronzoff

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Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways [Columbia]

Bob Dylan didn't say anything for a while. Sure, he gave a Nobel speech. And he put out three albums (including a triple-album set) of pop standards as if his whole career had made a simple arc from Woody Guthrie to Frank Sinatra. But since 2012's Tempest, we've had little new from one of the foremost songwriters of the last 60 years. He must have been saving it up. After surprise track releases this spring, Dylan unveiled Rough and Rowdy Ways, a record with a decade's worth of words assembled like a strange jigsaw puzzle. It's a bleak record, with the music often hushed and distanced, but its hidden wit and surprising formal care make it another remarkable entry in Dylan's voluminous discography.

By the end of "Murder Most Foul", Dylan has delivered a meditation on nearly every topic imaginable (we could double the size of this review by uncovering the religious material). The wordplay will keep critics arguing, as to whether playing for "the king on the harp" refers to Little Walter, B.B. King (hinted at by the Lucille reference), or Saul and David. The heart will keep fans returning. Bob Dylan didn't say anything for a while. When he did, he said it all. It's just going to take us some time to hear it. -- Justin Cober-Lake

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Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans [Text]

While Sixteen Oceans at first appears accessible to the point of being a little bit bland and formulaic as if Four Tet is leaning into his modus operandi, repeated and sustained attention reveals that there is a subtlety here, belying the initial immediacy of some of the music. The first two tracks, "School" and "Baby" come out of the traps with some straight-ahead dancefloor tropes before we transition to something more meditative with the rather nominatively determined "Harpsichord", which glides into "Teenage Birdsong". This appears to be where we get the first sign of something slightly tired and belated, as the fluted melody feels somewhat trite and facile, perhaps exposing the possibility that Kieran Hebden's previously richly upholstered bag of tricks might, after all, be getting a little bit threadbare.

However, the following "Romantics" offers what seems to be a blend of the two preceding tracks, offering pizzicato and simple melody over a simple and subdued beat. It synthesizes the ambience of "Harpsichord" and the pop sensibility of "Teenage Birdsong", as if he is showing us his workings and the possibilities of musical intertextuality within a mini-suite of three songs. What first appeared obvious and facile and, frankly, kind of disappointing, suddenly seems to be more interesting and mysterious, as if we have been seduced by the trap of aural immediacy when what lies beneath is as textured and sophisticated, while also just as accessible, as you might expect based on Hebden's previous output. -- Rod Waterman

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Georgia - Seeking Thrills [Domino]

Inclusivity, love, unity, and, most importantly, having a bloody good time. They're the things that lure us back to the dancefloor time and time again. At its all-embracing, life-defining peak, the clubbing experience should be a euphoric, coming together of like-minded souls under dazzling strobe lights. On her second album, British artist Georgia has managed to bottle that feeling as she joyously celebrates the dancefloor and all who inhabit it.

Musically on Seeking Thrills, Georgia distills her various influences, pulling in synthpop, disco, Chicago House, and 1980s Detroit techno with sprinklings of UK garage, dancehall, and even post-punk. It's a heady, energetic fusion of sounds with Georgia taking things back to basics as she constructs sounds from analogue synths and simple drum machine beats. The whole thing is designed to take you back to the comforting, sticky floors of the dancefloor, where the only thing that matters is you and the music. -- Paul Carr

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HAIM - Women in Music Pt. III [Columbia]

"Give me a miracle, I just want out from this / I've done my share of helping with your defense," HAIM sing on "Los Angeles", the opener to their third studio album, Women in Music Pt. III. At this point, we're used to the band's tendency to shift between multiple different genres—sometimes in the same song—ranging anywhere from soft rock to pop-rock, to experimental synthpop. But this time around, something's different. The group's easy, breezy summer afternoon melodies are still there, but they've lost a lot of the gimmicks. In their place, we are treated to a brand new dose of vulnerable lyrics and refined production, which makes Women in Music Pt. III immediately feel like something that is intimately and uniquely theirs.

With Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM have learned the power of turning inward and inviting others on the journey to self-discovery. As pop singer Marina Diamandis once said, "Don't trust a perfect person and don't trust a song that's flawless." Our flaws are what make us more experienced, relatable individuals, so by learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, HAIM have created their best work to date. -- Kevin Kearney

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Marla Hansen - Dust [Karaoke Kalk]

Dust is that stuff that makes you sneeze. It gets in your eyes, covers your shelves, and is a general nuisance. It's what happens to all of us when we die. Dust is also that magical element in the air that dances and glistens in the sun. Marla Hansen opens her new release (her first in 12 years) with the title song about "Dust". The lyrics are cryptic. Hansen sings them in a high, breathy voice that seems to reenact blowing the dust around in some strange way. She elongates vowels and lisps through consonants. That may be because Hansen has settled in Berlin and now sings English with a German inflection, but that oversimplifies the aesthetic effect Hansen consciously creates. This track and the album as a whole shimmers and sparkles like dust in the bright light. -- Steve Horowitz

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Horse Lords - The Common Task [Northern Spy]

The music of Horse Lords – like all the best music – can be tough to categorize, but it's also a study in contradictions. Their music contains elements of math rock, krautrock, free jazz, minimalism, and other styles that may be a hard pill for the average music fan to swallow. While those genres may bring to mind bespectacled musicologists hunched over inscrutable sheet music, or perhaps Berklee students creating their brand of brainy jam music during a break in classes, the band have found a way to make these intricate, puzzle-like compositions soar with an electrified intensity that's uniquely engaging.

On The Common Task, Horse Lords packs a great deal of variety and a seemingly endless amount of possibilities into 41 minutes. It's the sound of a group that is infinitely curious. This isn't your uncle's moody, downbeat krautrock – it's a breathless celebration of the power of band dynamics. -- Chris Ingalls

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Inventions - Continuous Portrait [Temporary Residence Ltd.]

The combined forces of Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) produce pretty much what you would expect from these two artists. Their duo project Inventions capitalizes on their strengths, resulting in a gorgeous sonic adventure. The layered ambient drone of Eluvium and fractured anthemic vibe of Explosions in the Sky make for very compatible bedfellows.

This successful conflation of ideas becomes apparent from the very beginning of their new album, Continuous Portrait (their long-awaited follow up to 2015's Maze of Woods). On the opening track "Hints and Omens", a few seconds of laughter are followed by bursts of melodic electronics and low piano note fiddling, and soon the sweeping, sustained chords of your typical Explosions in the Sky composition unfold. It's a fitting, almost reassuring introduction to an album filled with moments of strangeness, comfort, and bold creativity. -- Chris Ingalls

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Jason Isbell - Reunions [Southeastern]

Jason Isbell's Reunions has the difficult task of following up the strong Nashville Sound without repeating it. Isbell is, of course, up to the challenge. He's one of the most consistently excellent songwriters in the country and rock landscape, and he's savvy enough to know he needs some musical curveballs this time around. But also veteran enough to not stray too far from what he does best. Interestingly, he chooses to open the album with its biggest track, the nearly seven-minute-long "What've I Done to Help". It's a song that rolls along on a quiet, chugging snare drum beat and complementary bassline, as well as lead guitar and organ flourishes.

Overall, Reunions doesn't quite achieve the heights of Southeastern or The Nashville Sound, but that's only because Isbell has set the bar so damn high for himself. This is an excellent album in its own right, and I can't imagine any Isbell fan being disappointed by it. The 400 Unit are in fine form this time out, with keyboardist Derry deBorja being used particularly well throughout the record. It's already a candidate for one of 2020's best. -- Chris Conaton

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Ital Tek - Outland [Planet Mu]

While Ital Tek's Bodied was written in snatched moments during periods working on other projects, the writing of new album Outland took place in self-imposed seclusion as he grappled with the joy and heightened anxiety of becoming a new parent. As such, Outland is a much more restless and jittery album, born from sleepless nights and overwhelming emotional fluctuations. While it broadly exists in a similarly rich and vividly constructed world as Bodied, the tracks on Outland see Ital Tek navigate much more extreme and unpredictable sonic terrain.

By delving deeper into the world he so distinctly rendered on Bodied, Ital Tek has made his most accessible album to date without compromising his unique musical vision. It's an album of contrast and tension as tracks veer between extremes as if constantly searching for some kind of indefinable resolution. Ambitious and profound while remaining compelling unpredictable, it's a constantly shape-shifting, all-encompassing musical experience. Outland is, quite simply, a masterpiece. -- Paul Carr

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Nicolás Jaar - Cenizas [Other People]

On Nicolás Jaar's Cenizas, his "groundedness" is more literal than it's ever been. The album's title, Cenizas, is Spanish for "ashes" or "cinders". There's a track called "Rubble", where, on top of a sax solo, we hear the sound of actual rubble falling. There's another entitled "Mud", where Jaar sings, "And no one could hear / The cry from the ground", followed by a three-fold repetition of "There's something in the mud". His singing, here, bears a submerged quality, like his voice is struggling up from under the instrumentation, or underground. This phenomenon crops up often on Cenizas. It makes for a more subdued listen than most of his recent music.

But don't be mistaken: Cenizas may not go harder than Jaar's previous records, but it does go deeper. This is a somber, murky record, for late-night car rides rather than the club. It's less immediate, less punchy than albums like Sirens and Space Is Only Noise. There are no dancefloor bangers, in the manner of Jaar's recent work as Against All Logic (his other alias). Only two tracks are what you'd call beat-driven: "Mud" and "Faith Made of Silk" (and those two are hardly what you'd call "clubby"). Cenizas is an album that prefers to hover on the fringe of things, woozy and ambient, dangling us over an abyss but never quite dropping us in. -- Parker Desautell

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Sunny Jain - Wild Wild East [Smithsonian Folkways]

Perhaps best known for leading Red Baraat, the Brooklyn-based bhangra band known for their electric live shows, dhol player and composer Sunny Jain is unstoppable on new album Wild Wild East, where he mixes jazz, a multitude of Indian folk and classical traditions, cinema sounds, and surf rock. Taking on immigrant and diaspora experiences, this is Jain's chance to represent himself, his family, and countless other Americans made to feel out of place because of their ancestry. He seizes the opportunity and soars.

Creatively and ideologically, this is a perfect storm for Jain. Even in his already formidable body of work, Wild Wild East stands out as an album that not only deserves to be heard, but needs to be listened to. An understanding of the stories he tells here with such musical brilliance is liable to change hearts and minds for the better. Sunny Jain is the cowboy we need today, blazing new trails ahead into a sonically marked sense of community. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

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Pokey LaFarge - Rock Bottom [New West]

The expression "rock bottom" usually refers to the lowest stage a person reaches before realizing that he or she must change to survive. The assumption is that one has lost everything and has nowhere to go but up. It's unclear what Pokey LaFarge suffered through. His latest release, Rock Bottom Rhapsody, offers clues, but the connections seem more thematic than conceptual. That said, the record offers glimpses of living life on the edge, finding redemption, and then weathering life's problems. The narrator has changed, or maybe more accurately been scarred, by his experiences.v

The album begins with a short, formal instrumental introduction led by sentimental strings appropriately called "Rock Bottom Rhapsody". That sets the melancholy mood before plunging into the despair of "End of My Rope". LaFarge is "making light of his misery" to a 1950s rock beat ala Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. Because this song comes so early on the record, you know he's going to survive. The lyrics also suggest that LaFarge's musical performance will be part of his cure. -- Steve Horowitz

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Sondre Lerche - Patience [PLZ]

Unlike the dynamic Please and the lushly produced Pleasure, Patience features some of Sondre Lerche's quietest and most atmospheric compositions. His voice and a gently played nylon string guitar form the core of "I Love You Because It's True" and "Why Would I Let You Go", the latter a career highlight. The Van Dyke Parks-arranged "Put the Camera Down" finds Lerche, his voice in heavy reverb, singing amid a constantly shifting string section. Closing number "My Love Is Hard to Explain" is at its core a new take on the jazz standard, a style Lerche explored on 2006's Duper Sessions, but with its spacey production it takes on a more abstract quality.

Taken as a whole, Please, Pleasure, and Patience represent Lerche's finest work as a musician. Together these records show that there is no definitive answer to the question, "Who is Sondre Lerche?" The joy of Patience, and the place Lerche is at in his career right now, is that he's still exploring that question and finding new answers, just as we are too. -- Brice Ezell

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Les Amazones d'Afrique - Amazones Power [Real World]

Les Amazones d'Afrique's Amazones Power is a heavily electronic installment anchored in a powerful low end of bass and percussion throughout. It fits the weighty themes that abound as Les Amazones speak out in favor of equality, especially where women are concerned. Songs of contemporarily relevant issues like female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, and global disconnect invoke the old: folklore, Yoruba deities, ancestors. Past and present thus fit together seamlessly in Les Amazones' messages for creating a better future for women across the world, with the sounds here as reflective of the group's progressive mindset as verses and choruses.

A fitting end to the album, "Power" features not just the members of Les Amazones already present on the album, but a number of women from Africa, Europe, and South America joining in to summarize the album's core cause: "We want to be free!" It's the perfect culmination of the collective's messaging, a straightforward and poignant anthem with the simplest of desires – universal equality – at its heart. Once again, Les Amazones d'Afrique are essential voices bringing bold truths and much-needed perspectives to the world. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

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Son Little - Aloha [Anti-]

Son Little (real name: Aaron Earl Livingston), one of many current artists remaking soul music in their distinctive way, gets right to work on his new album Aloha, hitting listeners with the super catchy and decidedly sexy "Hey Rose". "Hey Rose / Your soul is the picture," Little sings, "But your body is the frame / But the frame is exquisite / And you taste just like your name." While those lyrics could be the most disastrous romantic lines ever, Little conveys them perfectly, his raspy but likable voice accompanied by minimal guitar chords and handclaps. Even within the seduction, there is a sense of foreboding: as the song ends, the couple are "engaged in lovers games", but the singer then pleads, "can I hold you till these dark dreams fade?"

"Hey Rose" is one of those album-opening songs that is so engaging that it might take listeners a while to get beyond it and settle into the rest of Aloha. But as the album unfolds, it becomes clear that Son Little is doing his best to balance feelings of ecstasy and despair. -- Rich Wilhelm

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Helen Money - Atomic [Thrill Jockey]

Chicago-based cellist Alison Chesley is accustomed to providing the sonic equivalent of accent marks and highlights on other people's statements of intent. She has appeared on some 150 LPs, offering the bowed weep and illuminating scope of her instrument to the likes of Anthrax, Russian Circles, Bob Mould, MONO, and many more. But, when operating under the moniker Helen Money, Chesley has taken a more prominent and, frankly, forward-thinking stance, using emotive compositions to blend the humble nuances of post-classical with the vitriol and venom of metal and post-hardcore.

Chesley has taken a little bit of a new tact with Atomic, the Helen Money LP out recently via Thrill Jockey Records. There is a connective tissue among the record's 11 tracks, but it's stretched over raw bone and little else. Or so it seems. The compositions give the impression of sparseness, of vulnerability, often belying the careful constructions and conceits at work within. And, yes, while there is a wonderful kind of shuddering nakedness to it all, Chesley also writes her theses large, digging in the soil for deeper truths about connection – both of the human and musical variety. -- Justin Vellucci

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Mourning [A] BLKstar - The Cycle [Don Giovanni]

The Cycle is the latest from Mourning [A] BLKstar, an Ohio-based collective boasting three lead singers, horns, and insistent, portending grooves, There's no way not to recognize this band's roots in Afrofuturism; it's also impossible to hear them as anything other than starkly original. And for anyone who's kept up with them since their debut, the mood has gotten noticeably darker, something The Cycle makes clear.

This album's spring 2020 release exposes music that can't help but seem like a reaction to the current moment. It demands an end to systemic racism and its representative monuments, alongside the inequalities brought to center stage by COVID-19, render this country once and for all as a nation forced to finally take a look at the rotten stench of economic and racial apartheid. Part of The Cycle's in-the-moment feel also comes from the fact that this is largely a live-to-tape record, capturing the buzz and hum of their Cleveland, Ohio studio and using that undercurrent to fantastic, vibrating effect. The Cycle is necessary, secular gospel for the healing of a truly damaged nation. -- Brice Miller

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Mute Duo - Lapse in Passage [American Dreams]

Recorded at Chicago's Jamdek Studio in the summer of 2018, what Mute Duo wrests from the somewhat unconventional instrumentation on Lapse in Passage is stunning. It's like David Lynch baked in the Texas heat. It's the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy-inspired fever dream. On "Derived From Retinas", the music begins slowly and deliberately, with sparse percussion pairing well with Wagster's pedal steel runs. A light drone is heard underneath, and the insistent, unsettling rattling of piano notes move in and out. The song works well as an introduction to Mute Duo's sound – dark, brooding, deliberate, adventurous. -- Chris Ingalls

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Myrkur - Folkesange [Relapse]

Myrkur's Folkesange makes heavyweight use of its acoustic palette and has an evident kinship, in terms of compositional structures and vocal styling, with Amalie Bruun's other major statements. It also highlights folk music as the binding agent for the intriguing hybrid of black metal, pop, and folk she has invented and pioneered.

Myrkur has always made room around bass-drums-guitar for Icelandic fiddles, Hardanger fiddles, Swedish nyckelharpas, the talharpa, the stråkharpa. On Folkesange, Bruun makes traditional instrumentation the core but does so without ostentation. On something like "Ella", she shows her self-assurance and deft control by using instruments as the delivery mechanism, rather than the focal point. Frame drums are a murmur under her vocal intro, then are gradually overwhelmed by an aching string section. A striking intervention is made by a plucked mandolin, which tinkles out a phrase delicate as the first rain on a tin roof. It's in these moments where ideas fly in out of the blue that one can see this is the work of a skilled composer operating way beyond sophomore square patterns of verse-chorus-verse.

Bruun has soldered together her own musical form and created a back catalog almost entirely made up of highlights. It's because she's devoted sweat and labor to achieving mastery over composition, over conducting a band, over how best to use her voice and a wealth of instruments. -- Nick Soulsby

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ONIPA - We No Be Machine [Strut]

The duo behind London-based group ONIPA -- "human" in the Akan language long spoken across much of modern-day Ghana -- couldn't have known that debut full-length album We No Be Machine would be slated for release at a time of such isolation as this. Still, it's more than serendipitous that, at a time when social distancing has suddenly and necessarily become a practice at the forefront of our global consciousness, ONIPA emerges to take us on an Afrofuturist journey centered around the idea of strengthening community. In an age marked by the availability of virtual spaces and, at times, a corresponding sense of disconnection from one another, ONIPA is here to meld the electronic and the flesh-and-blood in thrilling ways.

To listen from start to finish to We No Be Machine is to take a tour of Africa, to experience living and ever-changing traditions that stretch through time and space. Pieces like the opening crisply rapped title track and starkly echoing "Hey No I Say" reach toward the future with ringing synths even as they find Onipa grounding in percussive analogs. Meanwhile, the brighter sounds of "Makoma" entwine tropical dancehall and modern highlife with retro-pop sounds from southern Africa, playful rhymes, and warm vocal harmonies. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

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Pantha Du Prince - Conference of Trees [Modern Recordings]

On Conference of Trees, Pantha Du Prince has taken the electronic elements of his sound and rooted them in nature. It's a bold project that benefits from the creator's focused vision as he invites the listener to piece together imagined conversations between trees. It encourages us to engage with our own experiences and memories as well as further our appreciation of forests and woodlands. It also serves as a stark warning that our forests need to be protected at all costs. When we destroy a forest, we are not felling individual trees; we are forcibly dismantling whole communities.

Lead single "Plus in Tacet" immediately transports the listener into the heart of the forest. As xylophone and gliding strings entwine with a throbbing beat, it evokes the awe-inspiring majesty of nature. Album closer, "Lichtung" (meaning glade or clearing in English), is a meditative, expansive piece. Pantha Du Prince uses the natural ebb and flow of the organic instrumentation to amplify the silence. -- Paul Carr

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Pearl Jam - Gigaton [Republic/Monkeywrench]

It's not a total surprise that Pearl Jam's new album, Gigaton, comes a whole seven years after Lightning Bolt. What's more surprising is that it's the sound of a band completely liberated by any idea of what a Pearl Jam album should be. It's impassioned, inventive, and easily one of the most enjoyable records of the band's career.

"Who Ever Said" opens the album with uncharacteristic, swirling arpeggiated synths before the familiar growl of expectant guitars. On first listen, it's a fairly straightforward uptempo rocker, the kind that opens the majority of Pearl Jam albums. However, dig deeper, and it's something more. It's a statement. It's the group exploring the space between the distorted chords and spiky riffs, adding unexpectedly rich, musical layers. Sprightly '60s garage rocker "Super Blood Wolf Moon" continues in the same vein with the band emboldened by a transfusion of new musical blood.

Gigaton sounds like Pearl Jam convincingly doing their very best to not sound like Pearl Jam. Liberated from their past and their expectations, the band have freed themselves to take some long overdue risks. -- Paul Carr

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Perfume Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately [Matador]

There wasn't necessarily much clutter on Perfume Genius' No Shape, but if there was, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately clears it. The music here is more barren and minimalist than ever, but that's not to say it is stripped back. While the set-up of choice for early Perfume Genius was Hadreas duetting with a single instrument, he's steadily gotten more comfortable tacking on ingredients without bloating the tracks. This impulse was at its most daring on No Shape. Now, it's no longer an impulse but a mastered skill. While past Perfume Genius has either been an exercise in restraint or indulgence, the album's maturity stops it from being either.

You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words but the tones that adorn and deliver them. That's the thing. Mike Hadreas cares so much it hurts. He makes art that's reaching for a utopia where healing and embracing yourself brings forth a state of bliss. Regardless of whether he got there when making these songs or if he gets there while performing them, his ability to purge himself on every track is contagious. You don't have to go there with him to enjoy this album, but don't be surprised if you do. -- Max Totsky

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Whitney Rose - We Still Go to Rodeos [MCG Recordings]

These are glorious days for fans of female country rock music. During the past year, there have been wonderful new releases by old and new favorites including Michaela Ann, Ingrid Andress, Brandy Clark, the Highwomen, Eilen Jewell, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, Erin Rae, Caroline Spence, Tanya Tucker, Molly Tuttle, Letitia VanSant, Kelly Waldon, Hailey Whitters, Yola, and others. It's impossible to overstate the musical richness occurring during these times; it's like the British Invasion when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who took the world by storm. This time, the music world has been conquered by women whose guitar-based sounds recall the splendors of the past and move them forward with a kick in the butt.

Whitney Rose's We Still Go to Rodeos stands out as among the best of these contemporary albums. Rose wrote the dozen stellar tracks (there's not a bad one in the bunch) that range from traditional country ballads to rocking rave-ups. She's empathetic to those who have drawn a bad hand in life ("Just Circumstance") and hard-hearted towards bullies ("Better Man"). Rose isn't afraid to be romantic ("We Still Go to Rodeos") or cynical ("Believe Me, Angela"). Even though she offers different perspectives on life and performs in a variety of styles, the songs share a singular personality. Rose has a distinctive independence that shines through no matter what role she assigns herself.

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Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation [Tao Forms]

Pianist Matthew Shipp has performed improvised solo piano often in a storied career. And, although Shipp is often heard as a knotty and "out" downtown player, The Piano Equation finds him celebrating his 60th birthday with logical grace. Performing 11 freely improvised pieces, he nonetheless has produced a recording of great beauty and logic, creating distinct performances that are simultaneously shocking and beautiful, equally classic and daring.

First, Shipp is playing here with a technical precision and brilliance that are unassailable. Before digging into questions of melody or harmonic invention, this recording demonstrates mastery of the piano itself. Shipp's lines ripple with precision when he needed them to, and they slur like saxophone licks as required. They thunder and ring, strum and strut. He elicits overtones from the instrument to make the performances more orchestral, and he uses the piano pedals to create startling effects. His ability to shift from loud to soft or from rumbling distortion to chiming bell-like thrill is a pure thrill.

What Matthew Shipp has done on The Piano Equation is a profound achievement. He has distilled his piano style into something sharp and distinct—very possibly the most concise and cogent statement of his pianistic sensibility. Shipp has demonstrated how free improvisation can produce results that get right to the essence without almost any wasted notes. -- Will Layman

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The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? [Thrill Jockey]

The Soft Pink Truth's Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? comes a bit out of nowhere and is surely the most impactful release Drew Daniel has ever made, Matmos included. Daniel's evolution goes beyond the introduction of thematic weight into his craft; he realized the entire aesthetic had to change to meet the new demands. Where once existed comical 4/4 dance beats is now subtlety in pace. Big DFA Records-style drumming is replaced by percussion that is always carefully-considered before being used. Brazen vocal samples are cast aside for an angelic chorus of Colin Self, Angel Deradoorian, and Jana Hunter throughout the album. The danger in throwing out your old clothes, so to speak, is that your new clothes might not fit right. Instead, the new garb of spiritual ambient techno illuminates Daniel's artistic style to its fullest extent.

The album came about as Daniels questioned what type of music felt right for this moment. The Trump presidency has startled many into self-reflection and activism, and this has come through often in protest music. The associative emotion with protest music is what Daniels pondered on, and he went against rage – not altogether but just from his viewpoint as a white male. Shall We Go on Sinning then becomes an album of anti-rage – not necessarily peace but a recognition of turmoil and finding solace in what is still left to find joy in: community and music. May it keep going on. -- Andrew Cox

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Squarepusher - Be Up a Hello [Warp]

Tom Jenkinson consistently released albums under the Squarepusher moniker throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and much of it is very good and builds naturally on the stylistic signatures of his 1990s output. It's unfair to deem Be Up a Hello a return to form, since Squarepusher's M.O. is a sound in constant flux (see: Hello Everything). In many ways, this is a throwback record sure to be enjoyed by deep-2000s techno purists, with gnarled four-to-the-floor crankers like "Nervelevers" and "Terminal Slam" deserving strobe-blasted warehouses and cheeky-but-glowing write-ups in Muzik.

Album highlight "Vortrack" is a ghostly breakbeat barrage crammed with hi-hats and dripping slippery acid squelch. Nightmarish synths reverberate within the maelstrom, offsetting gut-hook percussion stabs with puffs and billows of minor-key distress. The uninitiated may only hear chaos. Whereas electronic heads will discern a technically remarkable sound designer upending cities and regurgitating the architecture into jagged shards of stylized wreckage.

A perpetual experimentalist, Jenkinson consistently delivers electronic albums jam-packed with ideas and vibrant tone color, of which Be Up a Hello slots in as yet another example of the creative colossus that is Squarepusher. This record feels especially important, though, because it asserts that what some would consider an outmoded sound palette can still be mined for fresh ideas, that IDM in its golden-age variety has yet to reach its zenith. -- Kyle Cochrun

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Tennis - Swimmer [Mutually Detrimental]

Tennis' latest album, Swimmer, shows that they've continued to move forward. It's a distillation of everything they do well and further establishes them as a dynamic, sophisticated pop act worthy of even bigger rooms. If there is a narrative for Swimmer, it's that these songs were written in response to the kind of grief that comes with getting older: persistent illnesses, aging parents, and unexpected deaths.

The result is an album that asks big questions about faith and commitment, yet never stumbles into self-righteousness or self-seriousness, likely because the band has a way of disguising even the most dramatic forms of anguish as something lighthearted. Take "Runner", one of the record's catchier singles, where Moore sings from the perspective of Lot's wife, damned for glancing at Sodom and Gomorrah, over a cheerfully woozy synth. Likewise, "Need Your Love" could be mistaken for a straightforward love song until Moore's tone shifts from giddy to grave, and the object of her affection shifts from lover to creator, highlighting the fine line between devotion and captivity. -- Kevin Kearney

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TENGGER - Nomad [Beyond Beyond Is Beyond]

The title Nomad may be a little too on the nose. The South Korean/Japanese couple that makes up the core members of TENGGER -- Itta on vocals and harmonium and Marqido on synthesizers -- take their musical cues from annual pilgrimages to exotic locales, translating their observations into lush, unique soundscapes. It's part electronic and part environmental, new age without all the desultory navel-gazing that goes along with that term, and wholly intoxicating. Combining synthetic sounds with those reminiscent of nature can be a tough trick to pull off convincingly. Fortunately, this is an area TENGGER knows all too well, and as a result, there are few if any missteps throughout the album's 36-minute run time.

Bliss is all over Nomad. The ten-minute closer "Flow" begins with the sound of lush chords chugging away as vocals come in and out and float over the layers of synths. The omnipresent flow of water makes another appearance. Ever so slowly, sounds build upon sounds, but it never seems overbearing. It's swaddling, enveloping. Nomad is music to get lost within. -- Chris Ingalls

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TORRES - Silver Tongue [Merge]

After the release of Three Futures in 2017—and an unceremonious record-deal termination shortly thereafter (4AD Records)—Mackenzie Scott (TORRES) nearly quit music. Calling the act of chasing commercial success a "delusional pursuit", she took three years to read, work, and otherwise climb her way "out of a tunnel", all the while reflecting on the future's veiled designs. The result of Scott's reflections is Silver Tongue, a new, self-produced work out now from Merge Records. The album—Scott's cleanest, most mature release to date—marks a new level of conviction for the entire TORRES project. Its nine songs, all evocative and transporting, strive toward a new vocabulary for connection, confidence, and queer love.

Lyrically, Silver Tongue traces the difficulties (and rewards) of trying to create a future tense with a new partner. In effect, it explores a geography of intimacy that many American 20-somethings are themselves trying to navigate. "Are you planning to love me through the bars of a golden cage?" she asks on the album's opener, "Good Scare". "You make me want to write the country song folks here in New York get a kick out of" ("Good Scare.") "I've saved records of your tenderness that you say don't exist." ("Records of Your Tenderness", a rhythmically intricate song that rhymes, subtly, with Björk's "History of Touches".) -- Jonathan Leal

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Trees Speak - Ohms [Soul Jazz]

There is an issue with regards attempting to describe the peculiar noise of Trees Speak, as generic shorthand terms like "drone", '"imaginary soundtracks", and "psychedelia" appear disingenuous and reductive in the face of music that's tantalizingly elusive and frequently difficult to pigeon-hole. Trees Speak are a creative nexus, hailing from Tucson and led by the visual artist Daniel Martin Diaz, who excel at a gloriously dense, giddy, and translucent type of instrumental music. Their sound anchors itself to the meditative glow and vintage mood-scape of prime movers in the orbit of the 1970's avant-garde whilst illuminating a synthesis between the earth, the cosmos, and the heavens. As serene as it's spooky, it's best consumed as one sprawling piece, with your eyes closed.

Their sophomore album, Ohms, is a delicious helping of woozy momentum stitched together from immersion in ominous synth lines, cyclical structures, and spooked psychedelic vibes. Evidently in thrall to art-house horror soundtracks as much as the space-age folk of the 1970s, Ohms spins numerous sonic plates with aplomb. This album is flecked with echoes of Italian Giallo, John Carpenter, Silver Apples, and murky sci-fi as it nods to fellow crate-diggers such as Beak and Emeralds. -- Michael Sumsion

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Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind [Warp]

When you consider the idea of linear artistic development, you very rarely find a musician moving from idiosyncratic noise artist to more conventional rock star. However, on new album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind, genre-straddling, multi-instrumentalist Yves Tumor revels in the persona of full-blown rock god.

Nevertheless, as you would expect from an artist who came to prominence with the warped ambient collages of Serpent Music, this reinvention is anything but ordinary. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is just as dizzyingly inventive, but it's also his most realized, song-driven album yet. Thankfully, that hasn't come at the expense of his experimental, avant-garde sensibilities. Throughout the album, songs frequently shift from big rock numbers and soulful funk jams to paranoid freakouts as he assaults melodies and slashes at hooks.

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor clearly relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Whereas on previous albums, he would obscure himself behind the music, here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars. -- Paul Carr

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Jessie Ware - What's Your Pleasure? [Interscope]

Unencumbered by the weight of expectation or reinvention, Jessie Ware reclaimed her love for making music. In the process, she created one of the year's best records, the rapturous What's Your Pleasure? Not since her dazzling 2013 single, "Imagine It Was Us", has Ware aimed her sights so squarely upon the dance floor, although she hinted her return to the genre with 2018's euphoric house track "Overtime". Save for a few intoxicating mid-tempo excursions — the slinky, tear-stained torture and carnal bliss of darkly filmic "In Your Eyes" and "The Kill", a pulsing, post-midnight drive through the shadows into the morning light — her fourth full-length outing is an endless parade of disco-pop escapism.

What's Your Pleasure? is also a reminder that no matter how stunning those pipes are when they are unleashed on a soaring ballad, like past singles, "Say You Love Me" or "Alone", they mesmerize even more, underpinned by a pounding four-to-the-floor beat.

Over the past two years, Ware rediscovered her muse, balanced her personal life with her professional, and unknowingly gifted her fans with the ultimate post-COVID-19 soundtrack to dance away the pain, confusion, and heartache of this tumultuous moment in time. One minute the record conjures up images of sweat-drenched strangers writhing under a shimmering mirror ball, and the next, it's a joyous, hands-in-the-air celebration of love and life. Leading up to its arrival, Ware discussed the record's genesis, saying, "I wanted it to be fun. The premise was: Will this make people want to have sex? And will this make people want to dance?" Yes, is the resounding answer. Mission accomplished, and it will be fascinating to see what she cooks up next. -- Ryan Lathan

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Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud [Merge]

Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield is an outspoken Lucinda acolyte, even writing an homage to Car Wheels for its 20th anniversary. "When I discovered Car Wheels, I fully realized how powerful it can be to embrace the contradictions and the unknown because that is the only path to making something that is truly original," she wrote. "As a songwriter with some parallels with Lucinda, two women from the Deep South, it makes me emotional to think about what she did just in making this album. It's everything I ever set out to. It's proof it can be done."

It's no coincidence that Crutchfield wrote these words at the same time she was writing Saint Cloud, her excellent and inspiring new album. Crutchfield uses her admiration of Williams as a starting point, but Saint Cloud is an original statement that's a high point in an already impressive career.

More than anything, Saint Cloud relies on clarity, both in sound and in spirit. Every instrument sounds pristine, abandoning both the distorted haze of Out in the Storm and the lo-fi buzz of earlier records, like 2013's Cerulean Salt. In the absence of studio effects, Crutchfield's voice is pushed to the center; it's more pronounced and emotive than ever, sounding at home with the country twang of songs like "Can't Do Much" and "Hell". And in processing her sobriety, Crutchfield's words are also clear-eyed and honest about her past mistakes and her limitations. "I'm wiser and slow and attuned / And I am down on my knees, I'm a bird in the trees," she sings on "Fire." "I can learn to see with a partial view." -- Kevin Kearney

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Lucinda Williams - Good Souls Better Angels [Highway 20]

Man I got a right
To talk about what I see
Way too much is going wrong
Right in front of me

These lines, from "You Can't Rule Me", the first track on Lucinda Williams' searing new album Good Souls Better Angels, set the theme and tone for the rest of the record, the singer-songwriter's 15th studio release since her 1979 debut, Ramblin'. The album opener is loosely based on Memphis Minnie's rollicking 1937 blues of the same name. But whereas Minnie was laying down the law to a greedy and domineering lover, Williams' ire is aimed at what's been going wrong since a former TV game show host and shady real estate mogul took up residence in the White House. Williams is pissed off and pained by what she sees and feels, and out of those perceptions and emotions, she's made the rawest, angriest music of her four-decades-plus career.

The album's 12 tracks, nine of which Williams wrote with her husband and co-producer Tom Overby (Greg Garing's "Down Past the Bottom" is the only one contributed by another writer) aren't topical broadsides. Even "Man without a Soul", about you-know-who, doesn't name the target of its ire. And some of the songs focus on individual and interpersonal matters—depression, drug abuse, domestic violence. Gone, however, are the story-songs for which Williams is famous—no recollections of a child "in the backseat about four or five years", no drunken angels shot through the heart, no poignant portraits of a dejected Memphis Pearl reflecting on her life's disappointments. -- George DeStefano

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