Jesus fucking Christ, we made it. Well, at least I made it, and mostly in once piece at that. Here’s how my brain survived the apocalypse.
1. Nihiloxica – “Busoga”
What does pounding your head mean to you? Whether it’s the throbbing of your skull around a dehydrated brain, or a grooving body in a nocturnal nightclub, or quarantined limbs yearning to bust loose, Nihiloxica stresses movement and rhythm above what you would prefer to call poetry or art.
2. clipping. – “Something Underneath”
The kings of horrorcore hip-hop took a break from Broadway stardom to drop an earth-shattering new double album as powerful as the last. Here they even make some sizzling forays into the world of hardcore-adjacent light-speed rapping that characterised their earliest material.
3. Moor Mother – “Act 2: Circuit Break”
If you came here to relax and forget your troubles, you came to the wrong place. In a prophetic, schizophrenic soliloquy, Moor Mother unravels a dense, spiralling poem about the pains of being othered in a society that demands a hyper-actualised self, and the triumph of fighting back, century after century.
“Give us back our ugliness… an ugliness of our own design,” she demands as horns bleat and blare like klaxons at the end of the world. Guitars and drums squeal in bursts throughout while saxophones wail like birds in an alien jungle, drawing from free jazz traditions of Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane to forge a wholly new ritual of rarefied anger and joy. It’s a deeply cerebral noise with a primal grip on your throat.
With the free jazz joyous chaos that emerges, like a lost jam session with Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler wailing and howling, Moor Mother delivers elliptical commands and aphorisms. She speaks in a free association style like Alan Ginsberg’s stream of consciousness poetry, but with the steady self-assuredness of a warrior-preacher delivering a sermon cum battle cry. The surface boils but never spills over. Even among paranoid (and probably accurate) ravings about the “colonisation of the universe,” a clear-eyed consistency holds.
4. Backxwash – “Black Sheep”
Absolutely haunting production and powerful poetry from Ashanti Mutinta, an award-winning Zambian-Canadian rapper. Don’t sleep on this—no, seriously, you have a concussion now. Stay awake.
5. Duma – “Kill Yourself Before They Kill You”
This has been a great year for music from Kenya. Duma cranks out absolutely unforgiving, nightmarish industrial sounds with a taste of grindcore and gabber alike. Your ears may never recover from such a bloody beating.
6. Nandele Maguni – “Tato”
The album has some of the hardest bangers ever to bang in 2020, but true to our 2020 reality, it’s not a feverish rave of non-stop bangers. Rather, Nandele stews each song in an ambient montage of loose ideas until the sonic lipids heat up and render over the tough sinewy bass, cooking deep-fried dance tracks in their own juices. (Read our full review of Plaffondeinst).
7. Kcin & Brendan Clark – “Machine”
New Landscape is the sound of a world in ruins, with no familiar directions or common signifiers to guide us through the wreckage. Alarm bells, air raid sirens, nuclear submarines and evil drones rust in the forgotten vaults of a long-dead civilisation. Our ears can scarcely distinguish between sorrow and joy anymore—there’s nothing left to mourn.
8. Horse Lords – “Against Gravity”
Baltimore’s favourite baroque-funk Krautrock bangers busted out some new noise when nobody was looking, and now I can’t look away.
9. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – “Minimum Brain Size”
Just a fucking ripper from the seven boys down undah. If you have the cojones to admit “I’m so lonely” to millions of adoring fans, I certainly trust you to execute a microtonal, polyrhythmic groove that blends blues and classical Arabic modalities into a new world of psychedelia. And in lieu of their cancelled stadium appearance at Berkeley’s Greek Theater, this trust has paid off in spades.
10. The Chives – “Fairies Wear Boots”
The words “garage rock” are almost guaranteed to put me to sleep. Yeah, I get it, the sixties happened. But add a dash of punk, and maybe “Black Sabbath cover drenched in bong water and beer suds,” now we’re cooking with induction.
11. George Crustanza – “Ignorant”
“San Francisco punk rock” sounds like an oxymoron in 2020, at least as unusual as “socially-conscious Seinfeld aesthetic,” yet here we are. This oxymoron takes less than a minute to punch you in the face.
12. Ley Lines – “Screen Damage”
Holy fuck, what is even going on here? Is that really just one guitar and one drumkit making all that racket? I’d sooner believe it was a sentient fax machine murdering a family of rabid hyenas.
13. Bison Squad – “Sought High Ground”
Absolute kings of power electronics from Western Pennsylvania—these freaks are going to be doing big things in the coming years, and their self-released tapes are mostly already sold out. If you’ve missed the bandwagon so far, get onboard quick before you miss the stampede.
14. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “Carrying Gravity”
Remember Altar Eagle? Imagine if they teamed up with Stars of the Lid to play Mario Kart for an hour and you’re in the general vicinity. Smith sometimes sings, but mostly she intones like a worshipper enraptured.
15. Galya Bisengalieva – “Moynaq”
This album is shockingly subtle for the weighty subject it takes on—a concept album about the ecological destruction of the Aral Sea. Nevertheless, this Kazakh violinist takes on the tragedy of the world with dignity and love, expertly using silence and space as an instrument in itself.
16. KMRU – “Klang”
Few electronic ambient composers dare for the cinematic extremes of Charles Ives symphonies composed for choirs on mountaintops – KMRU deftly rises to the challenge. Neither too cloying nor too humble, it’s an essential tonic for an uneasy equanimity. (Read our full review of Peel).
17. Toshimaru Nakamura & Mark Trayle
What exactly did you expect from the progenitor of no-input noise? This series of duets with Mark Trayle is a deep, engrossing conceptual journey through electronic sound as a platonic ideal, heartless and devoid of feeling yet somehow whimsical and winking all at once. The variety of buzzing, humming, screeching and wailing would be best suited for an audio installation in an art gallery, with little speakers hidden behind corners and hung from the ceiling. Pretty soon you’ll forget where the sound is coming from or where you’re going.