15. 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
14. Actress – Karma & Desire [Ninja Tune]
The music of Darren Cunningham—aka Actress—has always placed a special emphasis on texture. It’s full of clicks, glitches, static-crackle, and synthesizers so corroded they sound like they’ve been run through a feed chopper. His last major-label LP, AZD (not counting this year’s self-released 88), was centered around the concept of chrome, and nearly every sound bore some association to it. On his latest album, Karma & Desire, the main theme seems to be the human voice itself.
Here, the human voice functions more like an instrument than an addendum to the music itself. That is especially evident on tracks like “VVY”, where Sampha’s vocals are little more than indecipherable murmurs gliding sleepily around the main piano lead. On “Angels Pharmacy”, Zsela sings “destiny is stuck in heaven blowing nitro” in a half-whispered, spoken-word delivery that, coupled with all the steamy, emission-like synths, makes it seem as if the song really is blowing nitro. The repetition of “in heaven” continues onto the next track, “Remembrance”, and goes on for so long that it begins to sound like gibberish. This is probably the point. Karma & Desire is not interested in the voice as an object of lyricism or lingual clarity but as a tool of hypnosis or religious cadence. The focus is on the raw texture of the voice itself, not what it says. — Parker Desautell
13. 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
12. 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 all together 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
11. 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