2020 was a year for the history books. Fortunately for us, the music world did not take nearly the hit in quality that its film and TV counterparts did.
Before we say any more about 2020, let’s review what we had to say about the state of experimental music in past lists. In 2015, we acknowledged the name of the game to be hyper-connectivity in late capitalism. In 2016, that experimentation never means total abandonment of tradition—that pop is immortal. In 2017, we stated the reverse to be equally true: that the avant-garde has thoroughly permeated the mainstream and that experimental music is as wide open and indefinable as ever (2018). In 2019, we pointed out a pattern in the music: that the personal is political, experimentation by no means necessitates alienation of the self or of society.
In 2020, the message is this: all of the above. To overcome this dis-ease, this ideological polarization, we must practice pluralism. We must continue to experiment, to oscillate between and beyond poles to find solutions. Ultimately, we dedicate this list to our creatives out there for dutifully exploring these disparate corners in pursuit of a happier and healthier tomorrow.
As always, we followed our heart with the choices we made. The list includes a broad range of sounds from a diversity of artists, some near-unknown and others highly acclaimed. We know we cannot satisfy all. The important thing is that you walk away both excited and challenged to dive into something new.
15. DJ Cactuar – Bolsonaro Obaluaê [Independent]
We naturally take comfort in the familiar. Likewise, we often turn away from forms and concepts we cannot easily identify. But for some, these curiosities just as well may draw us in. It’s why Bolsonaro Obaluaê makes for such an enticing package for us global Northerners: familiar sonic landmarks wrapped in a foreign mythos.
Let’s parse out what we can. Bolsonaro is Brazil’s tyrannical president, while Obaluaê is the spirit of healing for the West African Yoruba people (who have a prominent Brazilian community). The cover depicts an animated figure, sporting a straw costume and other Yoruban ceremonial items, making it rain with a flurry of Ben Franklins. From all this and the spoken word samples—a quarrel on the Brazilian legislative floor and later, a blessing for Obaluaê—we can at best infer some clash of the political and spiritual.
As we listen, we find that Bolsonaro Obaluaê crystallizes its musical influences as much as it shrouds its ideological ones. The album comprises a single, 22-minute suite that unfolds through subtle psychedelic transformation. It cycles through spaced-out synth music of the ’70s, pastoral Japanese ambient of the ’80s, and grandiose post-rock of the aughts. The product makes for some mellow and wondrous sightseeing.
DJ Cactuar has but a shadow of an online record. But Diego Alves from Recife, Brazil is by no means hiding. The artist posted Bolsonaro Obaluaê to several Reddit communities with the heading: “Favelas artists aren’t aprreciated [sic] on favelas [Brazilian slums], maybe they can be appreciated here.” So, curious listeners, why not prove Alves right? — A Noa Harrison
14. Tashi Dorji – Stateless [Drag City]
If there’s any record label that can come through with some major under-the-radar releases, it’s Drag City. Best known as the label for legends like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bill Callahan, and Joanna Newsom, they have a track record of highlighting the guitar music happening at the margins. In 2020, they struck gold twice with Bill Nace’s Both and Stateless by the Bhutan-born, North Carolina-based Tashi Dorji.
Stateless is barebones guitar improvisation: no drums, no planned melodies—just messages sent from Dorji’s mind to his strumming fingers. It can come across as off, like an untrained kid going to town at Guitar Center for 54 minutes. Even if confounded, give it a proper listen, and you’ll soon see that Dorji’s got an ear. Take the impactful “End of State – Pt. III”, with its steady rhythm, sudden shifts, and unwieldy note-playing that just keeps piling up. It’s Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” theory in practice, the notion that spontaneity yields truth.
The way his guitar is miked captures the natural texture of fingers lifting off strings to produce something warm and wholesome. The choice of acoustic guitar sometimes seems played-out (think, the infamous “guy that kills the party”), but Tashi Dorji’s music will rekindle your love for the instrument. In this way, “Stateless” builds wonderfully on traditions forged Robert Johnson and John Fahey. — Andrew Cox
13. A. G. Cook – 7G [PC Music]
- in 49 subtitles
- the listening party for a cultural movement
- a true testament to the power of the avant-garde to lead the charge
- a moratorium on the album format
- the 11th hour for A. G. is the dawn of a new sound
- And just like that, a net label birthed a revolution.
- The man behind the curtain emerges, to say exactly what his music has said all long.
- “a 49-song extravaganza of sketches, covers, and fully realized pop songs that purports to reveal the inner workings of his creative method.” —Pitchfork
- “ambitious” —Stereogum
- “an opus of pop, covers and electronic experimentation” —Resident Advisor
- “featuring covers of Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, the Strokes, Charli XCX and more” —NME
- “a gateway into the mad hatter’s mind” —The Line of Best Fit
- “7G peels back even more layers to unveil the workings of that process…. [of] deconstructing pop music’s formula.” —Our Culture
- “It’s a lot.” —The Needle Drop
- “funny” —Cook, Vice
- “ridiculous” —Cook, Vice
- “The ambiguous and the uncanny is almost the most real space.” —Cook, The Fader
- “a slightly more utopian version of digital culture because there’s no real turning back” —Cook, The Fader
- “It actually feels ideal for me to have two debut albums.”—Cook, Vulture
- “blurriness between whether it’s a slick production or if it’s a bedroom thing” —Cook, The New York Times
- “On a musical level, that binary is completely dissolved” —Cook, The New York Times
- Montana’s most unexpected release of 2020
- the logical endpoint of the PC Music sound
- A. G. Cook revealed to be just A thoughtful, hard-working Guy
- 40% more dangerous than 4G
- a cis-boy’s-dream-turned-queer-world’s-reality
- Self-made popstar actually has a lot of cool friends
- the appetizer to Cook’s real debut, Apple, released a month later
- a complete break from and continuation of the post-ironic framework Cook has built
- Sound design extraordinaire plays campfire songs in a closet
- pop music and the avant-garde cozy up during the pandemic
- The producer who never misplaced a note wastes our time for three-and-a-half hours.
- the annihilation and reification of the cult of the popstar
- a perfectionist’s slap in the face of perfectionism
- a satisfying subversion of the subversion that PC Music stands for
- an exercise in self-indulgence
- a record that, in saying everything, manages to say nothing
- the reason PC Music has always been a singles genre
- Cook sucks all the fun from a genre that should be nothing but.
- the sketchbook of a Charli XCX collaborator
- a leak from the posthumous vaults of Alexander Guy Cook
- really hard to talk about
- nothing short of unbridled genius
- a vibrant mural from popular music’s greatest innovator of the new millennium
- the product of a lockdown collaboration done right
- the opus we never knew we needed
- definitive proof that A. G. is anything but a one-trick pony
- the brochure for a cautiously optimistic, interconnected community of young creators
- a gift to the world from the father of hyperpop — A Noa Harrison
12. Lauren Bousfield – Palimpsest [Deathbomb Arc]
A palimpsest is a piece of writing material, like a parchment or tablet, reused after the previous text has been erased. In the art world, it’s evocation suggests the idea of reinvention. Bousfield underwent a most brutal form of forced reinvention, one that inevitably informs her artistic approach.
Bousfield’s previous album, 2017’s Fire Songs, was inspired by the deadly Ghost Ship art collective fire of 2016 and her own serious injuries from an apartment fire the same year. After devastating fires, people excavate what remains, physically and emotionally. With Palimpsest, these remains, still remaining despite their erasure, to become the objects of her primary study.
Palimpsest feels more emotionally-available than her earlier work, much released under her moniker Nero’s Day at Disneyland, which was a frenzy of glitchy breakcore. Bousfield still channels this sound but closer approaches art pop, with a heavier melodic presence, as with standouts like “Adraft” and “Crawling into a Fireplace Crackling”. With Palimpsest, Bousfield speaks to how we are all palimpsests. We cannot fully erase the scars and traces of our past, but still we write because we are the only parchment we have. — Andrew Cox
11. Loke Rahbek and Frederik Valentin – Elephant [Posh Isolation]
Two minutes into “Solina”, the opener to Elephant, the synths marbleize into a lush soundscape that just soothes the mind. Moments like these happen in every track of Loke Rahbek & Frederik Valentin’s second collaborative album. Maybe the prettiest album on our list, it skips across pleasant and melodic pastures, compared to the harsh, forsaken terrains of other albums here. Elephant still has plenty of character and raw emotion, delivered in a gentler manner. Not that the artists hold your hand all the way through; “Call Me by My True Names” features a distant and unsettling alien voice, while “The Heart of Things” foregrounds somber piano with the sounds of children playing. The song titles reflect the songs themselves: grand mood pieces played out in small, subtle gestures.
“Scarlett” is the standout track here. It builds an infectious microhouse intro with vocal loops, and really finds its groove once the steady drums kick in. The synths continuously rise and fall, leaving the listener in an unbroken state of bliss. In its last minute, the vocal loops return, creating a comforting full circle. Elephant succeeds in its most tranquil moments, inspiring us to sprinkle memories like autumn leaves and watch them float downstream. — Andrew Cox