As most of my substack subscribers either are connected to me via social media and/or know me in the offline world, you probably are aware that my mother died last Sunday. I will write about all this eventually (I was very fond of my mom), but not now. One of my least kind aspects is the ambivalence I hold for the majority of personal essays, particularly those that deal in music and trauma. It’s a popular mode these days and I won’t pretend my antipathy speaks to a healthiness on my part. Some of those who choose to go down that route are beautiful writers who have undergone terrible tragedy. Some of them are mediocre writers with the bad luck to live in the world. I’m not sure where I stand on that spectrum. Probably, like most writers/humans, closer to the middle than I’d care to consider. Regardless, the beautiful essay about how music saved me will have to wait for now. Anyway, I’ve been mainly listening to old Sade, the new Jazmine Sullivan, and Bad Religion’s No Control. Hardly the stuff of mourning. I’ve been avoiding Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball like it’s my job.
Speaking of jobs (and relative health), I haven’t stopped writing. I can feel paralysis coming and I’m trying to get as much done as I can before it hits. I also don’t want to think about living the rest of my life without my mother and need the distraction. So I’m sending out this newsletter. I (genuinely) apologize if its framing triggers any anxiety or grief or makes you sad in any way.
Having said that, I don’t really have it in me to finish all the album write-ups I was working on. I’m sure you understand. I had intended to devote only a sentence or two anyway, but that’s not really my nature so the write-ups that are there are as long and meandering as a regular reader will expect. I can’t do that for the rest. Just don’t have the juice. BUT, I realize that artists use these writeups, even those in niche newsletters, as a form of promotion. And that these days coverage is hard to get. If your album is listed here, that means I dig your album. I would have said all sorts of stuff guaranteed to make you feel validated and that would even potentially be useful to you in the future. I feel guilty to not have done that. SO… I have a solution. If you’re album is listed here and there’s no writeup next to it, you have my permission/blessing to use the following:
“(insert album name here) is a wonder. The (insert album number here) record by (your name here) has been on constant rotation throughout the past year. Even as a new dawn of peace (or darkness) ensues, even as we enter a new era of American Exceptionalism (or Imperialism), I feel (album name) will stand the test of time.”
The artist should then feel free to continue the writeup with one (1) of the following: either A. “Completely unlike anything that’s come before, (album name) feels like a new sound being born; sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes jarring, always transformative.” Or B. “(album name) doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but (artist’s) bracing communion with a primal (punk) (or if the band is punk, ‘soulful’) energy makes the old feel invigoratingly, almost terrifyingly, new again.”
Hope that helps.
Anyway. Here’s the End of The Year List essay I was working on. For obvious reasons, nobody can get mad at anything I say. Even the stuff about Sault.
EOY LIST/ESSAY 2020
I don’t mind that the last widely discussed voice in rock and roll twitter conversation, at the end of 2020, is the guy from Eve 6. He’s pretty funny. Also, Eve 6 guy is- by the only standards for these things that matter (one’s own)- a failure. So, unlike most zoomers/millennials preemptively advertising their shortcomings, his self loathing feels earned. It’s also unlikely he’ll be milkshake ducked. He’s already an admitted Jesus freak, his views on pop and punk are no more tedious than any other man his age/background, and if he subscribed to the corniness of Elizabeth Warren scapegoating, he’s as entitled to that trope’s lazy allure as anyone who just discovered the body politic during the Trump years. And, I mean, Bernie would have won (as well).
During Eve 6’s brief heyday in1998, I was- depending on the haircut of the company I was in- mainly listening to Nashville Pussy or some moth/goth shit. So I’ve never actually heard Eve 6. My opinion of the man is untainted by either nostalgia or irony. We all knew that as soon as a Democrat was elected, there was a danger of a return to pre-2016 status quo. If that happens, at least it’s being spearheaded by a white dude with the wherewithal to know his own limitations, and who will (like me! I’m not being mean!) be dead sooner than later. As types go, Eve 6 Guy isn’t close to the worst online distraction we could hope for.
I should probably listen to Eve 6. No reason not to. Hold up.
OK. Listened to Eve 6’s big song. Not bad! No Nashville Pussy or Gunga Din to be sure, but what is?? Can’t Hardly Wait soundtrack worthy if not Ten Things I Hate About You. I’d have probably fought hard to open up for them at Don Hills during their early aughts decline.
While I’m being excruciating, I should comment on some notable omissions to my EOY list. It will come as no surprise that I didn’t include Taylor Swift (I like my neo folk like I like my Heathcliff The Cat; singing offkey from atop a fence), Fleet Foxes (apparently they’re a different band than Foxygen), or The 1975/Tame Impala (they put out albums this year, right?). But the omission of others may seem weird. Basically; I want to like Phoebe Bridgers. And I do like her lyrics. But if I wanted my sad songs to be subtly sung, I wouldn’t be so pedantic about the term “emocore.” I also wanted to love (instead of merely like) the Oranssi Pazuzu album. I love all their previous albums but just couldn’t grasp this one. My main shame, however, is… I just can’t get into Sault. I’m fucking sorry. Maybe it’s the anonymity, maybe it’s the adulation from quarters not known for their funkiness, maybe I’m just an idiot… I dunno. There’s something that feels off here. Sault isn’t bad. AT ALL. i'm just saying it’s possible that a number of people who might be thinking of this anonymous UK vibe collective as a vanguard of some sort of revolutionary (either aesthetic or political) sound are young enough to possibly have been conceived in an American Apparel dressing room in 2004...while something very similar to Sault was playing on the store speakers.
You can’t yell at me. My mom, remember? Save it in your drafts. I’ll be ready for critique sometime in 2034 I imagine.
Anyway, here’s some albums that came out in 2020 that I did adore. With only a few exceptions, I bought all of them. List is alphabetical order. I honestly don’t have a “favorite” album BUT I will say, since a lot of other albums on the list got love elsewhere or were too noisy/out of fashion to reasonably expect a lot, I was genuinely shocked at how few other EOY lists included No Home or Slum of Legs. I thought they’d both be on most. As always, I have NO idea how any of this works. Also, full nepotism disclosure; I’m friends/friendly with about 1/5th of these artists. Of course it affected how I viewed their albums. And their albums affect how I think of them as humans. This year, they’re good.
Let’s dive in! (btw I had to remove some links to make this mailable. Please search out and buy all albums!)
Algiers There Is No YearWrote about Algiers at length for The Washington Post. If you can’t get past the paywall: Algiers, perpetually underdogging like it pays, are one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands. With There Is No Year, our roller-death-disco-agit-dance-punk heroes streamline their post-everything impulses and make pop music so smartly boombastic that it could only be as popular as it deserves in a world so just as to render bands like Algiers unnecessary.
Angel-Ho Woman Call If you love the Disco Not Disco comps, ZE Records, and Kid Creole in all his permutations, Cape Town’s Angel-Ho has you covered (in glitter). Effortlessly ebullient anthems for freaky angels. Mutant disco but in the Magneto “mutants as humanity’s betters” sense. Paradise is glistening. Just like we always prayed it would be.
Armand Hammer ShrinesWrote about Shrines here. Everybody else wrote about Shrines everywhere else. As well they should. Critical consensus is hell, but nobody explores the hell that is other people like Elucid and billy woods so it’s about time they got invited to the damned party. The only two writers for whom my jealousy is more about their skill than their success.
Bad Operation s/t Pop-ska in the heartache tradition of The (English) Beat rather than the (sometimes but not always justly reviled) third wave. That being said, if Moon Ska Records had put this out in the ‘90s, Evan Dorkin would have devoted a triptych of praise to it. Music that is equally useful for the kicking over of statues, kicking against the pricks, and falling in love and making rude babies.
Billy Nomates s/tThe sound of Marianne Faithfull seeing through Mick’s bullshit early on and opting to take up fronting Sleaford Mods instead of heroin. Or maybe in addition to hard drugs; Nomates interrogate bad decisions in a way that feels lived. The record is Tina-tuff speechifying over the Mods’ primitivism, through a prism of warm(er) synths, chiming funk, and basslines so fluid as to almost feel fretless. If the New Romantics wasn’t a boys club deathly afraid of hip hop, maybe we’d gotten something this burblingly sharp decades ago. Now will have to do.
Black Curse Endless Wound This year was not a big metal year for me. As one of those (correctly) despised poseurs who got into heavy metal late and through hardcore, I will occasionally go months where almost all the metal I hear sounds either the same or like lesser versions of last year’s model. That’s not to say it is lesser. Undoubtedly lots of great metal came out this year (and god knows I don’t apply those standards to hardcore) but I just couldn’t get past song three on a lot of it (the fact that “song three” on some of these loafs was twenty-five minutes in is neither here nor there). But Endless Wound is a joy from start to finish. It’s possible that the band members would bristle at “joy” being attached to the album, but I couldn’t care less about the required superlatives of grumpiness that are to be properly attached to this subdivision of rock music. Or maybe Black Curse would be cool with it and I’m being needlessly defensive and applying my own bullshit to the band, who well may be total sweethearts. Anyway. Endless Wound is endlessly dynamic and exciting and crustily ripping when it’s not doomily crushing and the singer does more than three things with his mouth and does them all real well and the album is easily as fun and soul satisfying as I imagine ritual sacrifice is for people who really enjoy ritual sacrifice.
Blimes & Gab Talk About It I heard about this duo a while back from Gary Suarez’s highly regarded Cabbages newsletter, thought they were reasonably sick, and bought this album after Gary listed it on his EOY list. I bought it even though it isn’t on Bandcamp, which is saying plenty. Talk About It is an atypically sunny album for my usual taste, but the beats are subtly sophisticated, occasionally veering into Cali psych territory, while Gab and Blimes are so deft and charismatic in their back and forth that I don’t notice I’ve been smiling for almost an entire album until I see my face in my phone.
Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways Why not, right? Maybe I’ll get that RS internship yet. Not Desire by a thousand miles, but still pretty tight. Works best if you think of it as a Frederick Seidel book on tape. Not available on Bandcamp.
Cargo Cults Nihilist Millennial More tuneful than the Dylan album (that the lyrics on Nihilist Millennial are better should go without saying) but also not in an entirely different universe either. An honest attempt to describe, with a fair amount of humor, the world as it is. Plus blues solos. Before I give Wrecking Crew PSTD of the bad old ‘80s when white writers would patronizingly try to justify rap by calling it “Newark’s Dylan'' or whatever, I’ll stop the comparison that I promise was alphabetically determined. Or, if Cargo Cults likes the comparison, I stand by it. Anyway, Alaska and Zilla Rocca jauntily play the roles of chain smoking anti-heroes to the hilt; acerbic mystical detectives with hearts of gold that all the cynicism and boom and bap in this fallen world can’t hide. Hellblazer shit, and not the bad movie or worse TV show. We’re talking the original, top shelf Jamie Delano run.
Chloe Alison Escott Stars Under ContractWrote about Stars Under Contracthere. When I pitch my 33/3 book about Excott’s band Native Cats (whose single was tied with this and this for single of the year), I’m going to posit that she was middle named after Elvis Costello’s second best song, which is why she’s made a career of being wordy, dissatisfied, and occasionally mean but only in the way that circumstances demand her to be. The truth of this assertion is questionable; Escott’s half shell is more Trish Keenan than any Elvis there ever was. But on Stars Under Contract, Escott takes Costello’s classicist reverence for the Western songbook and lets the bouncing red ball do it’s own thing, jostling the piano candelabra till its flames singe the songbook pages. Or maybe that’s the singer’s heart. On sleeve, as one would hope. And if Escott didn’t want mixed metaphors describing her record, she should have written duller songs.
Chronophage th’pig’kiss’dWent so fucking long on this beast of a record that I can be forgiven if I don’t say more here. I do have 49 other albums to write about. That being said, relistening to this magnificent coil of doomed-to-end-friendship bracelets and razor wire bangles, I stand by every word. All 4,000 of them. Hell, I wish I’d gone longer. Chronophage deserves a newsletter so long it would make Glen Greenwald reconsider his position on editors. Chronophage deserves an entire Gutenberg substack bible. I wish I spoke another language, just so I could translate my essay into it. Chronophage makes me wish I could punch Homer in the face with a new oral tradition. Etc. Point being: th’pig’kiss’d is real, real nice.
Chubby and the Gang Speed KillsWhen Chubby signed to Partisan and their poor innocent publicist wrote to me to ask if the band was “on my radar,” I wrote back, “Are Chubby and the Gang on my radar? HOW DARE YOU. Motherfucker, name ONE music writer who fetishizes skinhead culture harder than I do!! NAME ONE. You think Ian Fucking Cohen listens to The Redskins??? I ASSURE YOU HE DOES NOT. Anyway. Yeah. I’m familiar. Keep me posted please and I’ll pitch to whomever I can.” I never heard back. Feel kind of bad about it now. Can’t expect everyone at Idles’ label to appreciate my entirely questionable sense of humor. Maybe I’ll apologize in 2021. New year, new me! Anyway, despite my crapulence, album still goes.
Cool Jerks EnglandSpeaking of Idles, Cool Jerks sound like what I thought that band would sound like when customers at the bar I worked at (and theoretically still work) recommended them. People described a band full of righteous tunefulness and thuggish intelligence. Then I heard Idles and realized that my customers were trying to con me into some bloodless Jesus Lizard cover band, minus the perversity and particularly lithe sense of rhythm that made Jesus Lizard more than a footnote in a particularly fallow time in shirtless-dude-rock history. Luckily Cool Jerks doesn’t sound anything like either Idles or Jesus Lizard (who, don’t get me wrong, I love… just not bands that sound like them). Instead, England is the record full of the threatening smarts and brutalist swagger I wanted all along. Cool Jerks have pulled off the most difficult of feats; combining hardcore and post-punk without sounding like an opening act at Woodstock ‘99.
Couch Slut Take A Chance On Rock ‘n’ RollCouch Slut is another band that truly understands noise rock. They know that, in its ideal form, it should sound like either punk rock played by Betty Davis’ band or Betty Davis songs played by the most funkless punk rockers in the by-the-hour rehearsal space. And the drums should sound like dinosaur eggs being rolled uphill and bassist’s strings should sound like literal sausage and the singer, in this case Meagan O, should sound like a combination of carnival barker and a therapist’s winning lottery ticket. On Take A Chance On Rock ‘n’ Roll, Couch Slut compress this hard fought knowledge into a dirgeful dissertation (a “dirgertation” if you will) on noise rock’s capacity to wallow in and transcend the pain that necessitates the best of it. Which Couch Slut is.
Death Valley Girls Under the Spell of Joy Searching for transcendence in other ways, Death Valley Girls use hard rock and psych to draw down the moon, the sun, and whatever UFOs lucky enough to get caught within the band’s tractor beam(s). Black pleather gurus of the decidedly Hoodoo variety, they’re pulling from the same folk traditions that their Cthonic/Chiffonic ancestors used to conjure Boyfriends Back and combining it with (The) cult heavy vibe esoteria that only the luckiest rock gnostics are privy to. Usually right before the rednecks with shotguns coming from the opposite direction pull their pickups close. But, still, getting free is worth the risk.
Fiona Apple Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Gulch Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
Ka Descendants of Cain
Moor Mother/billy woods BRASS
Rotting Out Ronin
Silent Era Rotate the Mirror
Sweeping Promises Hunger for a Way Out
Throwing Muses Sun Racket
Thanks for reading. Go call your mom if she’s alive (and doesn’t suck).