It took me a minute to make what’s admittedly a very short end of year list. As much new music as I’ve listened to this year, I was preoccupied and exhausted by the year that wouldn’t end. Music has been a year of comfort food for me: a mix of longtime favourites and records sent from friends with notes saying “I think you’ll love this.” It’s my bias that I read exhaustion into every record I’ve heard this year. Whether my lens translates these records into something more dour than they’re meant to be, that’s my fault. They’re still five albums well worth diving into.
Deerhoof, “Love-Lore” (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Any Deerhoof recording would have pulled me out of my intense 2020 depression, but Love Lore is something special. Medleys of truly odd bedfellows that elicit pure joy. I did not expect an Ornette Coleman cover as lead to an album that spends time with Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, the Muppets, the B-52s, and Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” Deerhoof transition into each new passage flawlessly: taking on something like 40 songs in 35 minutes is a feat in itself, but there’s no point where transitions are awkward, or clunky, or seem anything other than completely natural.
I admit to not giving this album a philosophical listen until I’d listened to it on a loop for several days. I let myself be wrapped the blanket of glee it provided. As it’s a free digital download, I missed the Muindi Fanuel Muindi essay meant to accompany it. In part: “Love-Lore is a funeral for futures obliterated by projections from a toxic past, A Threnody to the Victims of Probable Futures Never to Come.” And suddenly, it’s there: the Cold War promises of a rosy, robotic, digitised future never did arrive. Deerhoof tackling the Jetsons theme isn’t just goofy fun; it’s integral to the message, a reminder to stop hanging our hopes on the futures we were assured would come. Instead, there’s a present to live in—a nasty gloppy stew of a present we’re resigned to live in, but one that still gives us bits of joy.
Sweeping Promises, “Hunger for a Way Out” (Feel It Records)
Hunger for a Way Out was “recorded quickly in an unoccupied concrete laboratory, predominantly with our single mic technique, fall ’19-spring ’20.” I can’t get that note out of my had as I listen, though when I’m not staring directly at it I remember “laboratory” as “underground bunker.” Such is my own characterisation of 2020.
This album is perfect, so good it’ll likely be on regular rotation for years to come, and I don’t think I’ll be able to extricate 2020 from my listen. Hunger for a Way Out is spare, reverberant post-punk with hints of new wave, and a bassline that’s deceptively danceable. Lira Mondal’s voice is urgent, and the frustration and weariness of the lyrics come through. You can take the lyrics at face value, or you can do as I did, and project all of your Trump- and pandemic-related fears into those lyrics as you dance, exhausted, dreaming of your own underground bunker.
Lithics, “Tower of Age” (Trouble In Mind Records)
Lithics’ Mating Surfaces was my favourite album of 2018, and for the year following, I jammed it into the ears of any friend who would listen. Birthday, Christmas, graduation? Mating Surfaces. You’re welcome. I’ve found my next all-occasion gift with Tower of Age. It’s equally as good as its predecessor without duplicating it.
The guitars on Tower of Age interact a little more loosely here, less synced than in past, providing for a more free sound. As in past, the Gang of Four comparisons are there, but there’s more than that here. The rhythm section continues to be not just steady but sharp—not just a compliment or container for guitars and vocals but deliberate and unreplaceable. I am a sucker for lyrics that have you puzzled and over-analysing for days, and Tower of Age is, again, my kind of record. “a chess player, a famous poet, a calligrapher offering a raisin to the moth”: nothing could make me happier. I’m fairly sure Tower of Age is going to hold over to be on any “Best Of” list I do for 2021, just because.
Adulkt Life, “Book of Curses” (What’s Your Rupture?)
I admit that my excitement in picking up Book of Curses was equal parts curiosity and comfort food. Adulkt Life is fronted by Chris Rowley, formerly of Huggy Bear, probably in the top-five of bands of bands that knocked me on my ass and radically changed the way I listened to music, let alone viewed the world.
There’s something comforting in the intensity of Chris Rowley’s vocals as 2020 closes. Book of Curses came out in November, but I had the previous ten months’ (four years’?) anger to process. The band backs and matches that anger, that intensity. They’re so intertwined I can’t imagine one piece without the other. This isn’t Huggy Bear 2.0, and shouldn’t be. But for my money, it’s the most comforting anger of 2020.
Cindy, “Free Advice” (Mt.St.Mtn / Paisley Shirt Records)
Most of the records I loved this year were angry, urgent, or both. Cindy’s Free Advice was neither. Melodic, deliberate, and quiet, it had me leaning in a little bit closer to the speaker as I tried to hang on Karina Gill’s vocals. There are Velvet Underground and Galaxie 500 nods here, but ultimately it’s in its own category.
Save “Wrong Answer,” the closest Cindy gets to outright rock, Free Advice takes its time to get where it’s going, with lovely melodies and plaintive backing vocals piping up at unexpected moments along the way. It’s a record I’ve spent four months with—you don’t listen to Free Advice. You spend time with it—and I find more to spend time with on every listen.