While it is easy to encapsulate 2020 as a year of challenge and global crisis, the last twelve months have also spurred a great deal of reflection, community resilience and spirit. Initiatives like Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, Snow Patrol’s Saturday Songwrite and Bandcamp’s Bandcamp Fridays have shown what pure intention and dedication can create, especially when combined with community.
As is usually the case the music of today reflected the times in which it was created, which seemingly struck an even greater level of resonance in 2020 due to the heightened circumstances of the everyday. Musicians were particularly displaced this year, cut off from their scheduled touring regimes and placed on hold until further notice. But adapt, they did. Moving business digital — and even more innovative.
The mainstream turned joyful as some of our most celebrated pop icons rekindled their roots and took to the dancefloor with added sparkle (looking at you, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga,) while on the other side of the spectrum records created during quarantine surged with unprecedented possibility, which in some cases prompted additional collaboration and surprise turns (i.e. Dua Lipa’s Club Future Nostalgia and Taylor Swift’s folklore).
Our End of Year review takes in the last twelve months and reflects on its highlights, the Bitter Sweet Symphonies team has selected a gathering of personal favourites and notable releases to produce their Albums of the Year list.
Nominations and reviews by Jill Guthrie, Annie Jo Baker, Paul Cook, Chiara Strazzulla and Charlotte Holroyd.
The Struts – Strange Days
This third offering by glam rock darlings The Struts has 2020 written all over it, not only because of the strange circumstances of its creation as a lockdown project, but also because of its lyrics and sound. The latter is a clever reconciliation of classic and innovation, with some tracks sounding like they’re straight out of the mid-Seventies (it is, I have commented elsewhere, the best Rolling Stones album the Stones never wrote), some very sharp-edged guitars, and a huge leap in the quality of production since their last record, putting frontman Luke Spiller’s impressive vocals back in the spotlight they deserve. There aren’t many bands left who can have this genuinely classic approach to the rock guitar sound without coming across stiff, and it’s a pleasure to find it delivered in such a polished way. It’s an energetic album with a lot of heart and featuring an impressive array of guest artists, and an excellent showcase of the maturity this band has reached, sounding crisp and bold and sincere in its feeling. It’s also less poppy compared to its predecessor, which is a better fit for the band’s mood. For a band that has always been in top form when playing on stage, this record manages to finally translate that same energy to the studio without losing any of its punch. Title track ‘Strange Days’ channels the mood of this year perfectly, but if you’re looking for a stand-out song then it has to be ‘I Hate How Much I Want You,’ featuring Phil Collen and Joe Elliott of Def Leppard fame and delivering a perfect balance of rough and polished which shows pretty well that glam is far from dead.
HMLTD – West of Eden
Throughout their career HMLTD have shown a refreshing audacity in the way they’ve been building (and deconstructing) their own sound, defying the constraints of genre and establishing the fact that they truly sound like nothing else – including themselves. Their debut album West of Eden achieves the impressive goal of taking all of this and wrapping it up in a package that is articulate, coherent, and capable of telling a very relevant tale (or tales: there are more than one). It’s a brave record and a very mature one, playing around with a variety of suggestion from country to techno through pop and punk, with cutting vocals, disquieting distortions and some of the best lyrics heard on any album this year. This is definitely the kind of record that deserves more than one repeat listen, partly because of a production that is attentive to the point of obsession and partly because of a layered songwriting, both meaning that with each new listen new details will jump out that one might have missed before. The mood ranges from angry to heartbreaking and from personal to political, sometimes at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. It is as much of a contemporary album as one can get, both in the way that it gives you the impression of witnessing the evolution of how music is going to sound like in the future, and in how urgently relevant its themes are. There’s more than one earworm in there, and some beautiful oddities, but no other track represents this album as well as ‘Blank Slate,’ which has some Bowie-esque vocals, definite anthem potential, and will make you want to throw away your books and riot in the squares.
Cabbage – Amanita Pantherina
It has been very interesting to watch the way Cabbage have been working on their sound through the years. The impression is that they have refined an idea they have always had, which is now emerging in its most clear-cut and powerful incarnation yet in this third record. Amanita Pantherina is named after a mushroom that is both beautiful and poisonous, an apt definition for a record that is elegant without losing its edge and which does not shy away from the occasional foray into the psychedelic. Cabbage have by this point one of the most well-defined voices in the landscape of alternative music, delivering a sound that can be choppy and woozy, energetic and fine-tuned at the same time, with a hint of late ‘60s woven through it and a keen eye to the future. The band’s punk influences keep echoing clearly through this record, compounded by something more melodic and rather visionary that it would be completely unfair to just describe as post-punk. It is not a departure from their previous works, but neither is it a simple continuation; more so one has the feeling of something evolving, captured in the process of some kind of metamorphosis, with a deliberate hint of incomplete that is as promising as it is daunting. It’s a challenging but rewarding record which grows with every listen, with stand-out guitar riffs throughout; the rhythm section is also worth listening out for. Both introduction to the album and excellent example of its craft, ‘Get Outta My Brain’ is probably the track you want to start with.
Sorry – 925
Easily my most listened album of 2020, Sorry’s 925 is another debut that burst onto the scene with a bang and made its presence felt in spite of a tour curtailed by the COVID crisis. If there was any doubt of how lively and interesting the London alternative music scene is right now, it should be dissipated by the existence of a record like this; moody, cohesive, cheeky, capable of a sticky darkness in some places and of a liberating airiness in others. With a distinctive sound that borrows in equal measure from grunge and jazz and blends it all together through one of the cleanest productions of any record this year, this is an album that draws you right in and keeps going at a hammering, relentless pace straight through the end. It has an ability to evoke an atmosphere that is unique to it – through the interplay of female and male vocals, through the dropping of a little distortion in exactly the right place, through a hint of brass or a burst of guitar, through a use of repetition that is pointed but never too much – something that is rare in more experienced bands, and all the more striking in a debut. In a year where a lot of new music has been outwardly, socially oriented, this is a more intimate kind of album, offering a glimpse of feelings private enough to feel at times vaguely uncomfortable, yet intensely relatable. While it is a record that has to be listened to as a whole and in the right order to be fully appreciated, a song from it that lingers just like the lazy obsession its lyrics portray is certainly ‘Snakes,’ which has clever writing, haunting vocals, and some very interesting guitar bits.
October Drift – Forever Whatever
Straight from the off Forever Whatever demands your attention, a lingering jolt of high-pitched feedback will do that to you. ‘Losing My Touch’ is a stable opener; for long-term listeners it’ll be familiar, for new acquaintances it offers drama with a visceral one-two punch. It quite sums up October Drift’s core values as well. Gauzy, earworming hooks that carry a perceptive lyrical sensibility pummelled by charging wall of sound. Yes, this is an album that’s loud and ever-changing. Sonically it’s a melange of grunge, emo, indie rock and balladry – it all features and fits cohesively.
This is the band’s first full-length effort, produced by Editors’ Justin Lockey and released via his label, Physical Education Recordings – and its impact is distinguishable. The band has never sounded this palpable or alive in a studio recording before. It is the closest match to a live show we’ll get for the remainder of this year, and the record buzzes because of this. Fuzz, distortion and overdrive live in close contact, transitioning widescreen moments into stacked visages of heady intensity. It’s a beautifully immersive feeling.
Even lyrically Forever Whatever captures this sense of robustness, the themes are bleak and sometimes solemn but they never lose all hope or fight. Kiran Roy’s powerful fragility might be the most stunning aspect of the album altogether; he can scowl, he can roar, but he can croon and caress (‘Naked’ is all that’s needed to prove this). No doubt about it October Drift delivered the goods with Forever Whatever, what’s more envious than a rock band who can squall and squawk while also speaking directly to the heart?
Broken Hands – Split in Two
Broken Hands’ sophomore offering is a distinctly different beast to debut album, Turbulence. Firstly the band upped stakes and signed a major deal which gave them access to top tier producer Julian Emery as well as the touring schedule of a fully-fledged rock outfit, taking in tours at home and across Europe, Canada and North America.
Their sound evolved too, now a picture of refinement and maturity. Everything about this second album sounds larger and wider visioned, simply because it is. There are songs with brawn and bite as well as moments of true introspection and sensitivity, the album’s surprise is its broad sonic palette. It tests your wits but never challenges your commitment, the quality of the work is that consistent that you don’t want to miss a moment.
Each track has its own sparkle and runs a thread of the overarching story through it. Split in Two is a record that contemplates human nature and all the psychological emphasis that that brings. It also zones in on the conflicting, sometimes distressing, pressures of life on the road. All this set to a steady upswell of soaring Americana, riffy alt-rock, melodic indie and grungey half-time grooves.
With Split in Two, Broken Hands made the transition we always knew they were capable of: a mainstream worthy album befitting of an international audience delivered equally with an unbeaten live show.
Genevieve Dawson – Letters I Won’t Send
A debut album takes time to form, it’s an honour just to reach the hallowed milestone. For Genevieve Dawson, her first collection was a five-year process – and is indebted to the warmth and generosity of collaboration. Whether it was musician friends lending gear and equipment to aid in the recording, or St. Luke’s Church gifting its space as an alternative to a conventional studio experience; every choice, every happenstance led to the eventual attainment of Letters I Won’t Send, and its cosy ambience.
Everything about this record feels lived-in, from Dawson’s lyrics to her musical cohorts’ very coordinated efforts. This ensemble nature travels through the album like beautiful set pieces in period films, oozing sophistication and expertise – nothing can compare to the woozy sensuality of a sax solo or the swell of a richly-crafted string progression. It’s about detail. It’s about collective unison simultaneously as it’s about nuance in the whole. Every song is stroked by closeness, and it’s not the kind one can achieve through any given approach other than a non-approach. This music is more elemental. Tangible. Honest.
Dawson’s writing isn’t a solo standing in this setting, when combined with musical backing from her collaborators it becomes a living, breathing world. Full of hard-won truths, gentle admissions and humanity.
Genevieve Dawson’s Letters I Won’t Send possibly couldn’t have landed at a better time – of course, this is excluding all the tremendous plight that the global pandemic has caused – yet in a year where people have been disconnected from each other and searching for comfort, an album like this one, somehow managed to occupy that sweet spot. Of welcoming warmth and easy company, it has it all. The record symbolises a journey of closure and personal growth, the literal process of moving on and letting go – which I think we can all agree is universal and healing, especially in this time. Letters I Won’t Send isn’t an upbeat joyride nor does it boast a bucketload of three minute pop songs but it does have heaps of heart and consciousness – and I think we should prioritise those aspects above anything.
The Howl & The Hum – Human Contact
Human Contact, the debut album of York’s The Howl & The Hum, carries a clever confidence and cohesion that belies the band’s infancy. The four-piece manages to reinvent the wheel (of sorts) with what is possible on a guitar record, shifting perceptions and creating an experience completely unique and self-contained. While the band’s music has always worn an intellectual mark – a type of storied sophistication and romanticism that places sonic diversity directly in line with quality song writing and artistic fluidity – what is present on Human Contact is more than just a band achieving what they set out to do, it’s a resounding validation of their combined talents and an encouraging assertion of future intent.
The band invites disruption into their music, their choices aren’t straightforward or regular rather their ambition warrants rumination. The album’s thirteen tracks delve into dark pop, indie electro, FM anthemia, languid rock, stark balladry and syncopated structure while a firm grasp of singer-songwriter intuition holds fast throughout. It’s an incredible feat that the album covers so much ground musically, and lyrically, with themes of loss, isolation, pride, loneliness, love and mental health interspersed throughout.
‘Hostages’ is a pearl of sepia-toned nostalgia, it uses sardonic humour as a form of disguise (fitting considering the track’s unmistakable spy thriller theme,) while an air of wistfulness unfurls initially it’s a feeling that gradually fades into detachment and listlessness. There’s an ache to it, of like, “Hey, I always visualised this with you… and now it’s over.” It’s the age-old tale of young love gone awry, but in the hands of TH&TH it is a bracing epic of melodrama cloaking casually intimate vignettes.
‘A Hotel Song’ evokes Joy Division’s ‘Disorder’ almost instantly, and for a song that tackles men’s mental health maybe this is an obvious hint to what lyrically follows. An important track in every sense: challenging, confronting, and again threading the album’s core themes in one. ‘27’ retraces the lyrical steps of past songs in its opening bars: “You said it’s not you, it’s me/ With a revolver in my teeth,” (echoing album opener ‘Love You Like A Gun’); “And we left in separate cars,” (referencing ‘Hostages’). It is a clever technique, one which is rarely used – and when well utilised, is very effective. ‘27’ is the most out-and-out pop moment of the record, featuring all the swirling glory of Blossoms’ hooky melody lines but still intriguing and solemn in its signature TH&TH methodology.
The Howl & The Hum persuasively convey prowess on Human Contact, demonstrating a deft handle of emotional fluency and range. In all, a brilliant first step.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
I’ve always thought the music world revolves around great pop. The rock n roll of the ‘50s, Motown and Merseybeat in the ‘60s, Glam and disco in the ‘70s and the shiny synth-led sounds of the early ‘80s.
And it’s that latter era that Dua Lipa chooses as the departure point for Future Nostalgia, a glorious evocation of a different period that avoids tumbling into pastiche by coating the reference points in a slick modern production sheen.
Instead it harnesses much of what was good about the decade and builds a modern pop record that more than lives up to its title, sounding both like a pop template for the next few years but with one ear firmly tuned in to sounds of the past.
There are any number of truly killer pop cuts on the album which stand up to repeat listening. It’s quality song writing with an ear for radio-friendly hooks and an eye on the dancefloor.
‘Don’t Start Now’ bounces along on the kind of bubbling bass line that will have had Daft Punk gnashing their teeth behind their helmets, while ‘Physical’ has an earworm chorus that burrows in and refuses to leave sounding both completely fresh yet fantastically familiar at the same time.
‘Break My Heart’ with its skittery, stutter delivery, ‘Levitating’’s electro-disco smarts and the dancefloor euphoria that suffuses ‘Hallucinate’ would mark them out as the finest cuts on many other records, while here they just help form part of a coherent and beautifully constructed whole.
Halsey – Manic
We’ve all had plenty of time for introspection during the long, often lonely, days of lockdown and pandemic-driven restrictions, and if this album had been written and recorded as a response to lengthy periods of enforced self-examination you wouldn’t have been surprised.
Yet its release in January just about pre-dates the first signs that we were entering a different world. A world of confusion, of angst, of more questions than answers.
It’s intensely autobiographical and the lyrics speak of contrary emotions. Take ‘clementine’ and its chorus of “’Cause I don’t need anyone […] I just need everyone and then some.”
Relationships, too, come under Halsey’s forensic gaze and with lines like, “No, you’re not half the man you think that you are […] ‘Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you,” there’s an anger and a sadness at play.
Where Manic scores highly is that it plays across numerous styles effectively. It’s almost like listening to the output of a particularly clued-up radio station. Country-lite, pop, r&b, piano balladry are handled with some panache and Halsey stated publicly that she wanted this record to be nothing like its two predecessors.
It says something for her command of her output that a track like ‘3am’ has a massive pop-friendly sound that would work for any number of chart-bothering artists, but the lyrics are at the darker end of loneliness, poor choices and self-loathing.
It’s interesting that Alanis Morissette turns up as a collaborator on the track ‘Alanis’ Interlude’ as she’s very much part of the DNA that would have helped create this album.
Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
Hearing the first track off this album I was almost rushing to my vinyl collection to make sure I hadn’t already got it somewhere else. The incredible familiarity of ‘Valleys,’ marrying elements of early ‘80s electronica, Detroit house and the kind of vocal you last heard on records by The Normal was startling. And, I must stress, startlingly good.
I guarantee that anyone who was listening to New Order, Cabaret Voltaire and early Human League back in the day was suddenly and magically transported back when the crunchy ‘A.A.A.A.‘ kicked in with its heavily treated vocals and martial rhythm.
If you’re too young to have experienced it, then this is a more than ample substitute because it’s absolutely the real thing and not a lazy homage.
The quality barely drops across the whole piece and it’s an incredible achievement for teenager Syd Minsky-Sargeant who, not long before this project came about, was tasked with rebuilding the group’s line-up after numerous band members jumped ship.
By the time you get through the rush of epic album closer ‘Angel’ and its 12 minutes-plus running time all you really want to do is put the whole thing on again.
Since it’s been released, we’ve been denied the chance to hear it where it would sound best – either performed live or booming out of club speakers – but hopefully both won’t be far away.
This could be the most exciting British release of at least the last five years and the start of something truly wonderful.
Caribou – Suddenly
Few albums this year can have been as inventive and rewarding as Suddenly – the first long player recorded by Dan Snaith under the Caribou name for five years.
Like a homemade quilt, there are lots and lots of great ideas stitched together; some fully formed into an entire song, others being just a snippet of a track that meanders in another direction while you’re still processing the bit you’ve just smiled and nodded at.
Having become something of a festival favourite, it’s a pity that we’ve been denied the chance to hear some of these tracks gracing fields and tents this summer. Aah well, roll on 2021.
There’s all kinds of wonderful songwriting at work here with the straight up, house-inflected dance-pop of ‘Never Come Back’ showcasing a mainstream accessibility that isn’t often associated with the artist.
‘Home’ is a satisfying slice of modern soul built around a classic r&b sample from the Gloria Barnes song of the same name, and then there’s the woozily gorgeous ‘Like I Loved You’ which I suspect would be residing near the top of the charts were it to be covered by someone like Sam Smith.
Beautiful melodies abound – see ‘You and I’ as a prime example – and the feeling of old school rave euphoria about ‘Ravi’ towards the end of the album should see it become a favourite of the Caribou live set.
LOLAWOLF – Tenderness
She may not be Diana, but actress and Lolawolf frontwoman Zoë Kravitz is unmistakable. Together with drummer and producer Jimmy Giannopoulos, the duo released their much-awaited sophomore album Tenderness this past July. With a mere seven tracks to its name, the release envelopes the listener in a wave of tender electro-pop and smooth R&B. Known for their unique mix of the genres, the Brooklyn-based duo have once again “got the whole house” in the palm of their hand.
From the jazzy synth of opening track ‘Heart Attack,’ to a beat-heavy hook in ‘Whole House,’ the cleansing palette of ‘Girl Crush,’ and the distorted production of ‘Do Ya Think’ and title track ‘Tenderness,’ the album plays through a single concept of an emotional state – craving said tenderness. The vulnerability of content soars with Kravitz’s crooning vocals on each track, evoking reminiscent feelings in a mix of shedding the skin of your former self and the melancholic warmth of a summer’s night. The songwriting and stripped production have a timeless, almost ethereal quality, something that can be strongly felt in closing track ‘It Was Real.’
But at the heart of it all, nestled in the pocket of the album, is leading single release, ‘Not Diana.’ Balanced perfectly on the edge of electronic embellishment and rhythmic soul, the track personifies the act of needing vulnerability and wrestling with conflicted hearts and intentions. The effortlessness of the synth harmonies melting into Kravitz’s infectious register creates a dreamy soundscape in which to lose oneself. The overall refinement of production and performance poured into Tenderness is perhaps the duo’s best work yet.
Hannah Georgas – All That Emotion
In her fourth full-length album, Hannah Georgas packs all that emotion into her music and ties it up neatly with a dreamy bow. The Canadian indie-pop singer-songwriter has been a favorite since her debut album back in 2010, seen as a promising talent to watch. With each release she has delivered, as we arrive at what we might call her strongest collection to date.
Refined in both sound and songwriting, the album takes you on a personal journey through the changes of life and relationships, unmasking Georgas’s true feelings in a vulnerable display of emotion. It reads like a diary from one discovery into the next, soft and dreamy, both comforting and lamenting at the same time. From a more playful electronic setup in title track ‘That Emotion’ to the pulsating rhythms of tracks like ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Change,’ the soaring harmonies of ‘Habits’ and the stripped vulnerability of closing number ‘Cruel,’ the production value crafted by Aaron Dessner adds a blissful backdrop to each story in accompaniment to Georgas’s wistful and expressive vocals.
The album is cohesive in thought and feeling, but really shines in third single release ‘Dreams,’ uplifting the emotional thread to a celebratory high. “I only thought I could find you/ In dreams I’ve had,” Georgas breathes in soft mid-tones. As she sings of a relationship that seems too good to be true, a glimmer of hope rests in her words as they float atop the ethereal dance-pop nostalgia. The lyrics echo the heart of the album, and the idea of breaking down the barriers of the heart to find that you are deserving of love. And not just in dreams.
Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming
The transient lifestyle of being on tour is well-suited to some more than others, resulting in a sophomore album that is superbly lost to an inward dreamy state of mind. Detroit native, Anna Burch first appeared as a solo artist in 2018, with her playful folk-rock and indie-pop infused debut, and has now mesmerized us once again with the serenely introspective follow-up, If You’re Dreaming.
The subtlety of songwriting lends well to the wistful lilt of Burch’s vocals and the particular bounce to her cadence. Coupled with a blend of genres and finely crafted instrumentation, the album is wholly reminiscent of the nostalgic alternative indie-rock of the 1990s, as well as her folky roots. If You’re Dreaming plays like a reel of summer daydreaming when the air is warm and innocent and the sun is bright, the perfect setting to contemplate relationships and tired self-isolation after the party’s over. Languid and hazy melodies follow in tracks like ‘Jacket’ and echoing interlude ‘Keep it Warm,’ while the sweet layered harmonies of ‘Every Feeling’ allow the listener to deeply explore individual sounds, giving way to old-timey, saxophone embellished soft-rock numbers like ‘Not So Bad.’
The album comes together flawlessly, in part because of its confident start with ‘Can’t Sleep.’ As the opening track, it launches the listener into airy riffs with a hint of bedroom-reverb and the ethereal crystalline vocals of an insomniac. The easy atmosphere carries over patiently and steadily throughout the album, making it feel quite timeless. As if floating on a dream through Burch’s mind, our feet have barely touched the ground.
Seafret – Most of Us Are Strangers
Two years ago, Seafret lured us into both the dark and light corners of the heart and mind with their EP release Monsters in anticipation of a second album that has finally arrived. Their sophomore record Most of Us Are Strangers takes all of the twists and turns of the duo’s career, as Sedman and Draper continue to write from the heart with a vulnerability that carries the album on the back of personal experiences and change.
From the first breathy tones of their early work with roots in acoustic indie-folk, to the primal veracity of their last EP, and now with a hint of the mainstream, Most of Us Are Strangers settles into a slightly more produced and stylized Seafret-sound. Introducing the collection in a sparsely decorated soundscape of guitar and electronic nuances, title track ‘Most of Us Are Strangers’ focuses on what it would mean to reveal one’s true self to familiar faces, while following track ‘Be My Queen’ echoes their more vibey and aggressive persona alongside the brooding ‘Monsters.’ Interspersed with ballads like ‘Unbreakable,’ the album also moves between the mainstream sound of ‘Magnetic’ and back to their acoustic roots with melodic tracks such as ‘Lie to Me.’
And then, in the midst of some of the darker tones of the album, the familiar ‘Can’t Look Away’ falls in a pool of light. More up-tempo and visceral, the soaring melody sits on the edge of something hopeful and falling into the heat of the sun. It holds a small piece of every sound on the album, all with Sedman’s raw cadence and Draper’s rhythmic fingerpicking at the heart of it.
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
This is, without a doubt, my favorite album of the year. My Spotify Wrapped made fun of me for it. The day it was released, back in January, I knew I was listening to something incredibly important, an album-long anthem for the end of all things. It felt prescient of something I couldn’t understand. I listened to it a dozen times in one week, at one point forcing a friend to hear “the important parts” as I drove them to the bus depot, trying to spread the gospel of Wolf Parade.
I didn’t expect a pandemic to follow, but I sure did find myself listening to it on repeat, driving around my city at dusk, grounding myself with eschatology.
Its mix of traditional instrumentation and synthesizers build a dark velvet canvas of unashamed decadence and degeneration strung through with gold thread of love. Because for all its apocalypse, it’s a beautiful album. While even the gentler songs, like ‘As Kind as You Can,’ are soaked in pain and fear, Thin Mind’s vision of the end of the world is as beautiful as it is miserable.
It’s not so optimistic as to be about some mythic silver lining, but it does recreate what the storm chaser feels when they stare down a tornado on a flat plain, all the awe and fear and excitement one sees at the end.
A song recommendation: ‘The Static Age’ – This is perhaps the easiest track to sing along to. As with just about every other song on this album, I can’t tell you for the life of me what it’s about, but the mood generated is that of a Shakespearean tragedy. The lyrics present a maddening optimism as the instrumentation flows as if to drive you insane, ‘80s-esque synthesizers building a glittering pace while traditional instruments sharpen a heavy, soul-churning edge.
Annie Jo Baker
Halloweens – Morning Kiss at the Acropolis
This was my second emotional support album of lockdown. And it’s very different from Thin Mind. I had praised its first single ‘Hannah, You’re Amazing’ in my 2019 End of Year tracks list for its intense listenability and plain perfection, but this album is much more than eleven renditions of ‘Hannah, You’re Amazing.’
Because there’s as much humor as there is sincerity. Even the most sincere, most emotional tracks are often simply very funny. For instance, album opener ‘Rock Bottom Rock’ is about a very bad day, perhaps even a depressive episode, but in a self-aware, humorous way: “This morning I just sat/ with videos of cats/ got chocolate on the burgundy bed seat.”
This conscious irreverence applies to the music as well. It’s pointedly not bound by genre, with tracks like ‘Rock Bottom Rock,’ which draws from the music hall tradition and crosses it with classic rock and adds the very faintest touch of new wave, or ‘Ur Kinda Man,’ which is a piano ballad with lyrics contrasting the purposefully misspelled title: “Can you pay for your sins in installments? Can you pay for what others have done?” Not to say that mixing genres or contrasting lyrics, titles, and instrumentation are the only things of interest here. Because even ignoring the dichotomies and anachronisms, within songs and from track to track, even considering those normal, the music remains stylistically and lyrically interesting, thanks in no small part to its blunt sincerity and self-awareness. Overall, it’s an eclectic mix of disparate stories told with exactly the kind of music needed. So if that’s music hall/classic rock/new wave, then so be it.
A song recommendation: ‘Lady’ – This one is particularly weird, even keeping with the rest of the album’s eclecticism. Even though I want to dance to it, with its staccato percussion and bouncy synths, there’s much more to it than that, with lyrics (“Don’t wanna be your man, ‘cause your daddy wouldn’t understand”) and instrumentation alike taking a melancholy turn at the end.
Annie Jo Baker
Kidsmoke – A Vision in the Dark
When it comes to gently perfect albums, I haven’t found a better one than Kidsmoke’s A Vision in the Dark. As a whole, it sounds like the sun-spotted surface of a lake on a breezy day, yet each track is still fresh and unique unto itself. Even though this is yet another record of dark-edged jangle pop, i.e. what everyone makes, rarely have I heard pop rock so symphonic.
Because “symphonic” is the best word I have. Despite the appearance of raw emotion and rough beauty, each track is meticulously layered. Everyone says the phrase “walls of sound” in reference to some album or another, but A Vision in the Dark is like a soft waterfall on your brain. Clear and cold and bracing, relentless and still gentle.
The vocalist sings in a quiet, androgynous voice, as soothing as it is haunting, like a sad lullaby. Yet the soft and cheerful traditional instrumentation is far from naive. Instead, it enhances the vocals’ melancholy, coalescing a subdued and content misery into something truly beautiful at first glance, and overwhelming at further inspection.
This is an album that you can appreciate on multiple levels. You can have it on as pretty background noise, you can dance to it and appreciate the sensation of the music itself, or you can shut your eyes and pay close attention and listen for everything going on. It’s wonderful any way you listen.
A song recommendation: ‘Rising Sun’ – In my opinion, this is the most intense track on the record, with quick, high guitar parts paired with a strong, empowering rhythm section contrasting lyrics like, “I’m a loaded gun,” and, “your days are done.” A refrain of, “I don’t want to follow,” flows into traditional rock ‘n’ roll edged guitar before an abrupt end, leaving the listener shaken and overwhelmed.
Annie Jo Baker
Ambar Lucid – Garden of Lucid
Ambar Lucid’s debut full-length is simply magical, like walking into a beautiful garden where the presiding priestess gives her spiel in song, like a chorus leader in a Greek tragedy. With her lyrics flowing between Spanish and English, she’s utterly unafraid to use exactly the phrasing she needs, whichever language it be in. Despite her young age (under twenty), her voice is mature—strong and versatile, and her lyrics just this side of eerie. The instrumentation and production alternate between spare, spangling embellishment and shaking, overwhelming dominance, sometimes within the same measure.
I knew going in that it was her debut album, yet the effect is that of a seasoned artist, and even with the growing subconscious assumption that it is, it’s still mind-blowing. Because it performs the astonishing feat of building a chilling tension the whole time, without either breaking or losing the listener’s interest. It’s not what you’re waiting for that makes your blood run cold—it’s the waiting itself.
I literally cannot picture the “basic” sound to the album. Each track is so different and yet all fit together so well. It isn’t a bunch of songs slap-dashed together—it’s just a truly powerful album from a truly powerful musician with both broad capabilities and endless nerve.
A song recommendation: ‘Universe’ – This intensely danceable track has both a funk to the bass and pretty, layered synthesizers. Meanwhile, the lyrics build something empowering but still morbid: “I belong to the universe/ I don’t belong to anyone else, no.”
Annie Jo Baker