BEST OF 2020 The Best Albums of Spring 2020 By Bandcamp Daily Staff · July 03, 2020

Three months ago, I wrapped our Best of Winter roundup by saying, “These are the best albums of the most surreal winter on record.” Well, we’re heading into summer now, and things aren’t any less surreal. I’m not going to try to sum up the last 90 days, but what I can say is that a number of the records in this list speak not only to the present moment, but also contain truths that will resonate far beyond it. These are the best albums of Spring 2020.

Read last year’s “The Best Albums of Spring 2019.” 

Wilma Archer
A Western Circular

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Continuing a winning streak that began with Burd, Wilma Vrira’s stellar collaborative LP with Odd Future affiliate Pyramid Vritra released last spring, A Western Circular solidifies the London producer (née Will Archer) as a beatmaker destined for greatness. Every track feels both hi-fi and homespun: electro-acoustic guitars brush against bristling chamber strings, the textural frisson amplified with psychedelic synths and skronky horns. Archer’s standalone alchemy is rendered even more potent by the album’s diverse cast of A-list guests; his team-ups with MF Doom, Future Islands’ Samuel Herring, and Sudan Archives, in particular, speak testament to the producer’s knack for weighing ornate instrumentation against organic voices, reaping the benefits of both on highlights like “Cheater” and “Last Sniff.” A Western Circular is hi-fi listening of the highest caliber, approachable enough for casual listeners but refined with audiophiles in mind.

Read our interview with Wilma Archer.

Zoe Camp

Armand Hammer
Shrines

Armand Hammer recalls an era of underground New York rap when the group Cannibal Ox was prevalent and the El-P-led Definitive Jux label was the gold standard for avant-garde hip-hop. The focus, it seemed, was to spit the craziest bars over the hardest beats—like a cipher-style battle in album form. And while Shrines embodies the tension of modern-day America, it’s also a lyrics-first record with a strong rewind factor. You have to lean in to catch billy woods’s and ELUCID’s idiosyncratic rhymes, and there’s no skipping the back-story, which is depicted in the album’s showshopping cover art: in 2003, it was discovered that Antoine Yates had a 425-pound tiger living in his Harlem apartment. Near the end of “Pommelhorse,” we hear Yates’s brother describing the ordeal to a reporter: “My brother wanted to build a utopia, because when he looked around all he [saw] was destruction in our neighborhood.” For a duo that’s made a career of releasing bleak, dystopian hip-hop, Shrines is even more claustrophobic than their previous work, scoring the destruction Armand Hammer has seen throughout the world.

Read our Album of the Day on Shrines.

Marcus J. Moore

Jake Blount
Spider Tales

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Banjoist, fiddler, and student of American music, Jake Blount turns the stereotypical perception of Appalachian folk on its head with gorgeous musicianship and deeply considered scholarship. The stunning Spider Tales carefully, joyfully unearths the Black and Indigenous roots of old-time mountain music and re-centers the voices of the marginalized within the grand canon of Americana. But even without the weighty underpinnings, Spider Tales is just a wonderful listen that’s both fresh and timeless all at once, with a mix of instrumental and traditional songs of hardship that resonate through almost every strain of popular American music, from gospel to blues to bluegrass to country. Spider Tales takes its name from the trickster god Anansi of West African folklore and there is something of a sly and playful vibe to the record, which seems to delight in its own existence. Don’t miss the chilling, mournful cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” that’s just as much Kurt Cobain as it is Lead Belly in its haunting ode to those lost and never found. Blount feels this music in his bones and thus so do we.

Read our Album of the Day on Spider Tales.

Mariana Timony

Tim Burgess
I Love the New Sky

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I want to preface this by saying that if you’re under the age of 35, you’re probably not going to want to fuck with this record. But for everyone else dragging worldly baggage in tow, I Love The New Sky is a lovely, uplifting listen that’s the perfect embodiment of Tim Burgess’s cheerful disposition and passion for music in all its forms. With a jovial kitchen-sink approach, Burgess cartwheels from poppy to proggy to psychedelic to baroque, dropping references to all his favorite records (the Cure comes up twice, once musically and then lyrically) and sticking to a resolutely sunny outlook that feels like a bold choice in these days of gloom and doom. When the chorus comes in on anthemic pep talk “I Got This,” it’s hard not to feel just a bit better about your circumstances, whatever they may be, and heaven knows we could all use a little of that. God bless Mr. Burgess.

Read our Big Ups with Tim Burgess.

Mariana Timony

Conway the Machine
No One Mourns the Wicked

It is hard for me to describe my level of obsession with the Griselda crew (And before you ask: yes, I got one of the Pray for Paris LPs, and no, I didn’t use any special Bandcamp sorcery to get it). It’s like they’re scientifically engineered for music nerds like me to fixate on: a small crew out of Buffalo, New York with tendrils and connections that spiderweb outward to other crews; it’s like the bulletin board in that Always Sunny meme. Musically, they play right into my sweet spot too: they are hip-hop classicists for fans of classic hip-hop—that means crime narratives, grainy production, stunningly constructed bars, and charisma for days. And like the early days of Wu-Tang, the projects just keep coming. This collaboration between Griselda’s Conway the Machine and blogger-turned-producer Big Ghost is like their nine millionth album in the last five years, but the quality shows no signs of dipping. After a bracing intro that samples a mob movie at length (like I said, hip-hop classicists), it is on: a snarling guitar lick, a deep, sluggish beat, and Conway dishing out dense, head-spinning rhymes, one after another. The album runs for 25 minutes, and not one of them is wasted: the swooning orchestral soul backdrop for Conway’s deliciously braggadocious rapping on “Fake Love” (“I been getting money, but just in case they forgot/ I uploaded 50 bands on the ‘gram just so they could watch”); the tense ‘60s strings-and-horns noir setting of “Bricks to Murals” that leaves plenty of room for Conway to free associate (“The way I’m rhymin’ remind ’em of Ready to Die Big.”) The Griselda crew could collectively make 950 more records that sound just like this one, and I would still be begging for 950 more.

J. Edward Keyes

ESOCTRILIHUM
Eternity of Shaog

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The second in a line of sci-fi-inspired concept LPs from French multi-instrumentalist Asthâghul (aka ESOCTRILIHUM), Eternity of Shaog is perhaps best framed not as a collection of songs, but rather a sequence of Lovecraftian passages, translated from some alien language into hallucinogenic, blackened death metal (literally: all but two songs have the word “passage” in their title.) Doomed astronauts possessed by omnipotent gods, trans-dimensional beasts with infinite teeth, infinite dead universes trapped beyond time: these are but a few of the set pieces studding the hour-long spectacle, though a lyrics sheet isn’t necessary to reap the main benefit of Shaog‘s otherworldly mind control: its catchiness. Songs like “Exh-Enî Söph (1st Passage: Exiled From Sanity)” and “Shayr-Thàs (6th Passage: Walk The Oracular Way)” offer a teachable lesson in how to maintain inertia during the long haul, breaking up the incendiary rhythms with generous melodic breaks—and on “Shtg (4th Passage: Frozen Soul)”, a plaintive piano interlude. Give in to the absurd, intergalactic story beats, and enjoy the ride.

Zoe Camp

Fire-Toolz
Rainbow Bridge

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A musical sendoff to Angel Marcloid‘s dearly-departed cat Breakfast (featuring posthumous meows from the late feline herself!), Rainbow Bridge spins the Chicago multi-instrumentalist’s grief into a web of competing extremes and labyrinthine mash-ups unlike any other in her career thus far. In contrasting the black-metal gristle and cybergrind glitch-fests that dominated albums past (“Gnosis .•o°Ozing”) with dreamy swathes of new age-inspired ambient (“{Screamographic Memory}”), Marcloid has essentially blessed us with a post-apocalyptic Pure Moods: a listening experience equally seething and soothing, deeply transportive from start to finish. That said, her escapism doesn’t come at the expense of contemplation; speaking to Bandcamp prior to Rainbow Bridge‘s release, Marcloid reiterated that, for all the album’s fantastical tones, hers is an empathetic work indebted to life’s cruelest truths: “I don’t like to bury things, or harden…I have a tendency to soften instead.” Rainbow Bridge is the sound of Fire-Toolz at her most untamed, but also her most intimate—a commendable labor of tough love.

Read our Big Ups with Fire-Toolz.

Zoe Camp

Nick Hakim
WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD

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Don’t be fooled by Nick Hakim’s velvety timbre and lush instrumentals: WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD is a rebellious album that takes humanity to task. He thinks people are too apathetic, and that they don’t care about their neighbors. On “QADIR,” the album’s stirring centerpiece, Hakim honors his late friend by envisioning his pain. “WTMMG” likens U.S. leaders to drug pushers who want us dependent on their product. “Why do we trust these fools?” Hakim asks on the song. “Don’t give in to the master plan/ Burn it down, light that shit up in flames!” When Hakim’s not storming the castle, he’s wrestling with his own place in the world. “DRUM THING” finds him wanting to leave all the BS behind—“This place is making me go crazy,” Hakim quips—and “ALL THESE CHANGES” is about climate change and living underwater. Those looking for the old Hakim might find him on “WHOO,” the album’s sensual closer, yet the lyrics reveal deeper vulnerability: “I stopped abusing myself around you/ I started using myself around you.” Hakim’s second LP is murky, passionate, beguiling and beautiful—just like life itself.

Read our interview with Nick Hakim.

Marcus J. Moore

Hum
Inlet

Heavy melodic rock in 2020 would not exist without Hum, full stop. Twenty-two years after their last album, the Illinois outfit’s juggling act of shoegaze, emo, and alternative rock, as captured on four consecutively awesome albums throughout the 1990’s, has become a gospel revered from all sides of the spectrum, their tradition carried on by a new generation of downtrodden space-grungers (CloakroomNothing), ’00s post-hardcore titans (Touché Amoré, La Dispute), and even black metal bands (Deafheaven), among countless others. Their surprise album Inlet couldn’t have come at a better time, in part because the molten riffs and melodic drive built into entrancing tracks like “Desert Rambler” and “Waves” mute outside distractions like some riff-powered remote control (and god knows we could use one of those). More significantly, it’s their most polished album to date, balancing the largesse that made them famous with subtle quality-of-life improvements; Matt Talbott’s vocals, for example, carry slightly more weight in the mix this time around, thereby enabling his poetry to land a cleaner, more direct blow to the heartstrings than on albums past. It’s said that all teachers will inevitably become the students (and vice-versa), but if Inlet‘s any indication, Hum will be always be the wise ones.

Read our Album of the Day on Inlet.

Zoe Camp

NNAMDï
BRAT

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Experimental musician and multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has undergone various iterations as an artist over the last decade—at one point, he was part of eight different musical projects. He received critical acclaim with his 2017 project DROOL and collaborated with other Chicago bands including Ohmme. BRAT is the first album under his new moniker NNAMDÏ. Fresh, irreverent, and bombastic, BRAT pairs Ogbonnaya’s unique sound with a larger message about recognizing your own needs—whether they are considered selfish or not. “There’s no need to pretend you’re OK if you’re not,” says Ogbonnaya on “It’s OK,” and he tells listeners “I’ve been changing with my aging,” on the upbeat “Everyone I Loved.” BRAT is a declarative project by a singular artist.

Read our interview with NNAMDï.

Diamond Sharp

Kate NV
Room for the Moon

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Room for the Moon, Kate Shilonosova’s third album as her solo alter ego Kate NV, is prismatic electronic avant-pop, drawing inspiration from ‘70s and ‘80s Russian and Japanese pop, fairytales, and other childhood comforts. Made during “the loneliest period of [her] life,” it reads very much as Shilonosova making the joy she wants to feel. It’s cerebral, non-linear music, without the direct emotional line the best mainstream pop songwriting draws out, but it communicates instantaneously to the head and heart nonetheless; much like a child’s innate bluntness, it doesn’t need a narrative to get its point across. The springy, incredibly ‘80s bassline that holds down “Ça Commence Par” could feel tritely whimsical in less careful hands, but in Shilonosova’s, it bounces through polyrhythms, playing off of her straightforward vocal delivery. The spark-like synth accents in “Marafon 15” light against dreamy arpeggios; “Lu Na” has an insistent beat, but a genuine sense of delicacy, Shilonosova wordlessly sing-songing against intertwining synth lines. It’s clearly beholden to its influences—I hear lots of Yellow Magic Orchestra, for instance—but also sounds like nobody else could have made it. Some sweets can be a sugar rush without much other substance, but Room for the Moon is a complex confectionary that not only pleases on first listen, but gets only more delightful the more you dig into its construction.

Jes Skolnik

Koreatown Oddity
Little Dominiques Nosebleed

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If you’re looking for a reference point for the excellent new record from The Koreatown Oddity, may I humbly suggest the three records De La Soul made with Prince Paul. (I do not say this lightly; De La Soul are one of my favorite groups of all time.) For one thing, the album has a sense of humor: “Name one motherfucker that didn’t start as an infant, I’ll wait,” the rapper born Dominique Purdy deadpans in the first song—then immediately adds: “No, I won’t” and carries on with the verse. It has skits—like the one where a music journalist asks Purdy the cringeworthy question, “So, what’s your favorite Korean barbecue spot?” It has dense, looping production that draws heavily on the sound of old soul and funk. But above all, it has a narrative storyline that purports to be about one thing—two car accidents Purdy suffered as a child—but is really just a device to sneak in weightier topics. The L.A. riots of 1992 and the sickening creep of gentrification serve as parallels to Purdy’s injuries, scarring his hometown in the same way the crashes scarred his face. He juxtaposes images of childhood bliss—in one clever moment, a song in which a young Purdy is playing a Nintendo game stops short; you hear Purdy blow into the cartridge and re-insert it, and then the song starts up again—with images of hovering helicopters and people on rooftops with machine guns. In that way it’s also like those early De La records: it uses a humorous front to smuggle in a sobering message.

Read our interview with Koreatown Oddity.

J. Edward Keyes

Okkyung Lee
Yeo-Neun

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New York cellist Okkyung-Lee’s Yeo-Neun unfolds like a flower rendered in watercolor, its gentle blending of composition and lightly dissonant improvisation mimicking the chaotic yet always divinely arranged design of the natural world. Accompanied by harpist Maeve Gilchrist, pianist Jacob Sacks, and bassist Eivind Opsvik, Lee approaches her songs with a delicate, meticulous touch that is nonetheless deeply expressive and really quite emotionally intricate, its surface placidity occasionally broken by the strange and sometimes alien sounds she wrings from her cello. There’s a formality to the proceedings that is nonetheless airy and free-form in its approach. The juxtaposition never feels forced or heavy-handed as Lee’s more avant-garde expressions never overwhelm the contributions of the players. An absolute stunner of an album, Yeo-Neun reveals more and more with each listen, living up to its title, meaning “the gesture of an opening” in Korean.

Read our Album of the Day on Yeo-Neun.

Mariana Timony

Jackie Lynn
Jacqueline

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Jackie Lynn might not be a star in this dimension, but she’s a legend in the dream world conjured up by musician Haley Fohr, also known as Circuit Des Yeux, on her second outing as the titular Jacqueline. Originally a solo endeavor on 2016’s Jackie Lynn EP, Fohr fleshes out the concept on this sophomore LP with the help of the Bitchin’ Bajas as her backup band. The genre framework is country, but Fohr’s vision is far too sweeping to be limited to tales of whiskey and roadhouse blues, though there’s plenty of that. Jacqueline has real musical depth, its references a deeply layered mix of all American genres, from neo-folk to pop to synthwave to straight pop. But it’s Fohr’s regal vocals that take center stage throughout. Evoking the soulful presence of a road-worn diva emoting for the drunks in a backwoods dive bar, she leads us through the poetic narrative of Jackie Lynn’s life on the road with inspiring leonine regality that lingers like clouds of cigarette smoke.

Mariana Timony

Moodymann
Taken Away

No DJ or producer makes the soul and R&B roots of house music come to vivid life as well as Kenny Dixon Jr., aka Moodymann. Nobody would deny that other giants of the subgenre don’t acknowledge it, but Dixon’s grooves lack the sleek, precise production often favored by others. They’re pretty simple affairs, built around looped samples; they crackle and pop, as if being played on a turntable with a dusty needle, and have an inherent warmth. Opener “Do Wrong,” an immediate standout, brings out the expressly spiritual aspect to a plaintive Al Green sample (from “Love and Happiness,” while the Reverend was still making secular music), adding gospel claps and choruses. The followup title track also lifts its eyes to heaven, adding a silky, sensuous bassline and smooth synth layers for a noir feel (police sirens thread through the line “Lord, if you take him away, I don’t want to live;” one can imagine the sharp grief animating the singer, the feel of holding a loved one’s hand as they lie unconscious). Dixon is notoriously elusive and enigmatic, but when your work has so much personality, so much humanity, it makes sense to keep as much of yourself hidden as possible. Perhaps this is what keeps his music sounding continually fresh and vibrant—a tough accomplishment when you’ve been putting out the same style of music for over 20 years, but one Dixon achieves easily.

Read our guide to Moodymann.

Jes Skolnik

Angela Munoz
Adrian Younge presents Angela Munoz Introspection

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Introspection is the dazzling collaborative debut album from Angela Munoz, backed by prolific producer Adrian Younge. At 18, Munoz is a virtuoso talent whose music sounds advanced beyond her years. Munoz collaborated with Younge’s and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s The Midnight Hour ensemble, and the group premiered her hypnotic song, “Bitches do Voodoo,” on their 2018 self-titled album. Munoz hypnotic sound carries over into her debut with the striking opener, “Don’t Show It,” which pairs her voice with Younge’s expert arrangement. The dreamy “Top Down,” shows off Munoz’s silvery voice and the sensual, “I’m In Love,” shows of Munoz’s honest storytelling style. On Introspection, Munoz shows that she’s an old soul with a distinctively modern sound.

Diamond Sharp

Ohmme
Fantasize Your Ghost

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Chicago duo OHMME’s singular artistic vision comes into greater focus on second full-length Fantasize Your Ghost, an arty and ambitious release from musical twin souls Sima Cunnningham and Macie Stewart. The record is more elastic and fully integrated than the band’s excellent, but somewhat more fractured 2018 debut, though it retains it’s chaotic sense of leap-of-faith uncertainty that stems from Cunningham and Stewart’s background in vocal improvisation. Yet overall, Ghost is a very accessible record, packed with huge dream pop hooks and lush production reminiscent of weirdo mid-90s alt girl rock. There’s still experimentation, but it comes with a ceiling, allowing the listener plenty of space to luxuriate in the coiling interplay of the duo’s voices without fear of being blasted off into the unknown. Consistently in dissonant harmony with each other, Cunningham and Stewart prove nimble enough to seamlessly weave their weirder impulses into sonic tapestries that shimmer and lull, even on the record’s more outré moments. Especially on the record’s most outré moments.

Read our interview with Ohmme.

Mariana Timony

ONO
Red Summer

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Chicago experimental group ONO were heretofore one of the city’s best-kept secrets; they’ve been a loose collective since 1980, but 74-year-old lead singer travis and bandleader P. Michael have always been constants in the mix. Their sound mixes psychedelia, industrial, gospel, and 20th century avant-garde approaches with travis’s spoken-word poetry, which makes no bones about racism and homophobia, always front and center—it’s a heady brew that still sounds both of and ahead of its time. Red Summer bridges 1619, when the first African slaves arrived on American shores, with 1919, when white nationalist violence erupted across the country in a particularly intense way, including in Chicago, and, of course, with our present day. “Tar Baby,” a cavernous cut full of ominous sonic details (a pulsing choral vocal that feels held in midair in the background; scrambled guitar lines; hissing and ticking percussion; metallic scrapes and squeals) against which travis’s booming voice echoes, is an ode to the Haitian revolution; “Syphilis” indicts the Tuskegee experiment while making it clear that its horrors carry through to today. There are few groups as singular as ONO, and fewer still who can loop history into the present in such a visceral, immediate way; while ONO have been relevant, been visionary, perhaps Red Summer is the album that could spring them out of the Chicago underground into the broader appreciation they’ve always deserved. Perhaps the world is finally catching up.

Jes Skolnik

Oranssi Pazuzu
Mestarin Kynsi

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The fifth studio effort from Oranssi Pazuzu ranks among the most sinister psychedelic albums ever recorded, a kaleidoscopic blend of haggard black metal, astral-gazing minimal synth, and devilish kraut rock. In condensing their previous, prolonged fugue state down to its giddy, fucked-up essence on Mestarin Kynsi, the Finnish metallurgists have also, ironically enough, made themselves endearing to a wider audience. On centerpiece “Uusi teknokratia,” they toggle between eerie techno and hellish black metal with nefarious glee, unleashing Godzilla-sized shrieks and solos as airy synths chatter in the background like a demonic peanut gallery; later, on “Taivaan porrti,” they splice the methodical coldness of no wave with the earthy spirit of ’60s avant-prog, culminating in a hulking, transcendent finale. A metal album amenable to both hippies and heshers—now that’s not something you see every day.

Read our Album of the Day on Mestarin Kynsi.

Zoe Camp

Lido Pimienta
Miss Colombia

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About halfway through Side B of Lido Pimienta’s excellent new album Miss Colombia, the scenery shifts. Up to that point, the album had been an exercise in exuberance, full of brightly colored songs with roots in both contemporary pop and R&B as well as Colombian styles like cumbia and bullerengue. But with the arrival of “Quiero Que Mi Salvas,” the clock hands turn backward; against a backdrop of chirping birds and gentle winds, Rafael Cassiani Cassiani of the 100-year-old group Sexteto Tabalá softly recounts the ensemble’s history and mission, which is to keep ancient Afro-Colombian musical traditions like son and lumbalu alive. And then something remarkable happens: Pimiento turns her record over to Sexteto Tabalá completely, trading the sheen of contemporary production for rugged field recording; when she returns for “Pelo Cucu,” she’s backed by La Burgos, another traditional group, on another song that’s little more than rhythms and group vocals. These three back-to-back numbers encompass nearly 15 minutes of runtime—a bold move in the middle of a rambunctious pop record. But it also highlights what makes Pimienta so special—she doesn’t just update traditional sounds, she makes space to present them in their purest form, and to force her listeners to pay attention. When the album returns to the present tense for its joyous closing numbers, it’s as if you’re hearing the music through a new filter, with a slightly better understanding of where it came from. It’s just one breathtaking moment on a record that’s full of them.

Read our interview with Lido Pimenta.

J. Edward Keyes

Pink Siifu
NEGRO

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Through free jazz, lo-fi punk, and hip-hop, Pink Siifu conveys unfiltered rage: he’s pissed at police who kill Black people with impunity, and he’s lashing at white people who want to take his shit. “Gon’ prosper,” he growls on “SMD.” “Pigs, they can eat a dick.” NEGRO is a fearless masterpiece that fully expresses the anger of living as a person of color in the United States. And by keeping the lyrics so raw, Siifu shows that it’s okay to be furious, and that you don’t have to lessen those emotions to make others feel comfortable. Songs “homicide/genocide/ill die” and “bebe’s kids, APOLLO” are blown out to earsplitting static, while “steal from the ENEMY” and “ON FIRE, PRAY!” unfold like old punk demos from the early 1980’s. In the end, NEGRO is tailored to a specific community, but everyone is welcomed—with caveats. “This [album] is for black people, but I know white people are going to fuck with it. I’m mad cool with that,” Siifu said recently. “I just want everyone to know, before they come through the door, that this is a black house and you have to respect my people.”

Read our interview with Pink Siifu.

Marcus J. Moore

Sault
UNTITLED (Black Is)

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Sault’s latest album arrived on Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the United States. It also dropped in the middle of a firestorm, with fed-up Black people seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, all of whom were killed by whites for no reason. Yet UNTITLED (Black Is) doesn’t feel vengeful; it scolds the police through glassy eyes and profound disbelief. “You should be ashamed,” goes a line from “Wildfires,” “take off your badge, we all know it was murder.” Elsewhere, the group denounces police violence through meditative mantras and repurposed protest chants. The real talk couples a monologue heard throughout the album, in which a Sault member details the complexity of Blackness. “We all know Black is beautiful,” a woman’s voice proclaims on the title track. “Black is love. Black is God.” The end of the album turns inward, and focuses on the enduring spirit of our community. Ultimately, UNTITLED (Black Is) honors Black people by presenting us as whole people. We have fears and insecurities like everyone else, but it seems others didn’t care about that until now.

Read our Album of the Day on UNTITLED (Black Is).

Marcus J. Moore

Lorenzo Senni
Scacco Matto

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There are any plausible number of reasons why I kept returning to Lorenzo Senni’s relentlessly chipper Scacco Matto over the last three months, but I think the main one is that it creates an entire alternate universe—carved, of course, with the Supersaw preset—where everything feels as safe and soft and calming as The Adventures of Lolo. The minute those tiny synth notes start skipping blissfully all over the top of “XBreakingEdgeX,” I am instantly full of joy. It’s considered a backhanded compliment to call something “childlike,” but that seems unfair—conjuring the innocence of childhood without coming off cloying is no easy task, but Senni does it again and again and again on this record. Every second of it is just unalloyed bliss: “The Power of Failing”—is that a Mineral reference?—is marathon music for 8-bit track stars, the synth bursts going off like fireworks in patterns specifically designed to provoke “ooh”s and “ahhh”s; the high-pitched synth line that bobs across the center of “THINK BIG” sounds like the distant whistling of some digital Doozer, off to work another day in the mines. Every note on the album is staccato, everything shines at 500 watts, and every song is an escape hatch to a world where the clouds are made of cotton candy, and the hardest decision is whether to play as Mario or Luigi.

J. Edward Keyes

Speaker Music
Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry

Producer DeForrest Brown Jr. is also a journalist and multimedia artist, so it’s not a surprise that there’s an entire zine accompanying his latest record. The zine, which also features contributions from artists like Ryan Clarke and Alexandra Mason, frames Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry in conversation with Amiri Baraka’s concept of “Fire Music,” named for the 1965 Archie Shepp album, Black music inextricably connected to Black liberation. The text of Maia Sanaa’s poem “Amerikkka’s Bay,” which she performs undergirded by Brown’s skittering, pistoning rhythmic framework as the first track on the album, is also included in full. Brown provides no other synth layers or elements under or around Sanaa’s voice—only rhythm, rhythm that feels as born from the industrial age as it does jazz and soul, which, of course, have their roots in African folk musics. (Brown makes that connection clear in his own essay for the zine, in which he ties the origins of techno to Detroit itself several decades prior; he has an upcoming book on the subject.) This is a clear statement of purpose, and it also allows Sanaa’s words to be heard and felt particularly intensely and poignantly. The rest of the album builds from there; the following track, “The Man-Not,” adds another element or two to that same rhythmic bed; “Techno is a Liberation Technology” adds gorgeous horns, further cementing the techno-Black liberation jazz connection. (Likeminded collaborators like AceMo and Syanide also show up later on.) If this all sounds incredibly heady, it is—but that doesn’t mean the music doesn’t also communicate on a pure gut level, even the purely instrumental portions. A beautiful, thoughtful, elegantly crafted work from one of the most vital sound artists and theorists working today.

Jes Skolnik

Special Interest
The Passion Of

Punk’s over 40 years old now, so it’s not exactly easy to pull off sounding as singular as New Orleans’s Special Interest do. A product of that city’s underground, which seems slightly less genre-adherent than comparable punk scenes in larger cities, Special Interest’s sound is all thumping drum machine, grinding bass, synths—which can be airy and atmospheric, as on “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” or abrasive, as on standout single “Don’t Kiss Me in Public,” spidery guitar, and vocalist Alli Logout’s powerhouse vocals, which are performed with the kind of emotion and abandon only possible when you actually have control over your instrument. I got to see them live once, and it was unforgettable; their energy traveled through the venue like a current. While that experience is tabled for the moment, The Passion Of is the next best thing, capturing their dynamics as well as any studio recording could; they clearly brought their all to the sessions. This is perhaps oddly most palpable on the slower tracks, like the humid “A Depravity Such As This…” and the peculiar earworm “Street Pulse Beat.” On 2018’s Spiraling they went full bore the whole time, but here, allowed to stretch out a bit, the nuances of Logout’s vocal performance, the different kinds of depth and gravity they can give a simple phrase like “Release me,” pop into focus. So, too, does the band’s clear chemistry, how screeling no wave guitar lines can meet rhythmic bluntness and become slowly subsumed into a bed of noise so seamlessly one barely notices it’s happening. The Passion Of has gotten a fair amount of hype from platforms large and small, something I am generally allergic to, but in this case, it’s entirely deserved. Viva Special Interest.

Jes Skolnik

Moses Sumney
græ

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Other Vinyl

Moses Sumney’s second full-length project is a revelation. Whereas his debut, Aromanticism, was minimalist and shrouded in mystery, græ displays all of Sumney’s innermost thoughts front and center. Written after Sumney relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, græ addresses the liminal and transitional spaces of life—particularly one’s late 20s. On the industrial sounding and aptly named “Conveyer,” Sumney belies the conveyor belt-esque process of adulthood. On the “boxes” interlude, multiple voice-over guests including the author Taiye Selasi and Michael Chabon condemn the boxes society uses to regulate people. Themes of love, self-identity, and disappointment encompass græ, most notably in the deceptively upbeat lead single, “Cut Me,” where Sumney croons about the various outcomes of emotional pain. In the end, græ is all about embracing the frustrating gray areas of life for better or for worse.

Read our interview with Moses Sumney.

Diamond Sharp

Tenci
My Heart Is An Open Field

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Apparel

Tenci’s debut album, My Heart is An Open Field, is an ode to the small, joyful moments of life. Tenci is the project of Chicago musician Jess Shoman who has been making music since she was 15. The blissful and tender folk songs on My Heart is An Open Field feel well-equipped to soundtrack the fleeting early days of summer. On the melancholy guitar-laden opener, “Earthquake,” Tenci tells listeners that “It’s been a long time coming,” and on the more upbeat “Serpent,” Tenci croons about, “Dragging on across the ground.” The titular track closes out the album with a soft guitar and flute that makes it sound like an adult lullaby. My Heart is An Open Field is a dreamy, delicate, and honest listening experience.

Read our interview with Tenci.

Diamond Sharp

Thundercat
It Is What It Is

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

When Mac Miller died of an accidental drug overdose in 2018, Thundercat made some serious life changes. “I had to acknowledge that I was an alcoholic,” he told VIBE. Not only that, his girlfriend left him. The devastation made him quit drinking and go vegan, and the resulting album, It Is What It Is, is Thundercat’s most clear-eyed LP to date—an efficient set of jazz, funk, and downtempo soul through which he dissects romantic heartbreak and Miller’s death. On “Innerstellar Love,” “King of the Hill,” and “Unrequited Love,” Thundercat pivots between sadness, annoyance, and acceptance when discussing the end of his relationship. Before the second half of the title track, he lets out a subtle “Hey Mac” before plucking the bass and letting the melody fade away. It was Thundercat’s way of letting Miller go. The album isn’t totally mournful, though: “I Love Louis Cole” details a crazy night of partying, and “Black Qualls” wrestles with bragging in the social media era: “Just moved out the hood, doesn’t mean I’m doing good/ Wanna post this on the ’gram but don’t think I should.” And it wouldn’t be a Thundercat album without a comedic quip that you can’t stop singing. Here, it comes on “Dragonball Durag,” a body rolling R&B cut: “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.”

Read our Album of the Day on It Is What It Is.

Marcus J. Moore

Ric Wilson, Terrace Martin
They Call Me Disco

Ric Wilson makes fun music. The Chicago rapper and poet is known for breaking out Soul Train lines amongst the audience at his live shows. Joining forces with the Los Angeles-based producer Terrance Martin, Wilson brings his singular mix of disco, rap, and R&B to They Call Me Disco. On the retro‘70s style sounding and bombastic opener “Breakin Rules,” Wilson tells listeners, “I start a ruckus wherever I go.” With an assist from BJ the Chicago kid, Wilson crafts a buoyant hometown ode to Chicago on the summery “Chicago Bae,” and on the woozy final track “Beyond Me,” Wilson asks listeners, “Do you just believe what your eyes see,” ending the album on a smooth and softer note. With its decidedly vintage, triumphant, and buoyant sound, They Call Me Disco is a funky good time.

Read our Album of the Day on They Call Me Disco.

Diamond Sharp

Yves Tumor
Heaven To a Tortured Mind

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

It’s been a joy to follow the musical shapeshifting of Yves Tumor over the course of the last four years. I first became aware of their music via 2016’s defiantly experimental Serpent Music on the consistently excellent German electronic label PAN. Since then, Tumor has simultaneously edged closer to conventional pop while also making music that doesn’t sound anything like conventional pop. Case in point: Heaven to a Tortured Mind, which is home to 12 songs that adhere to pop’s verse/chorus/verse structure (by comparison, at least, to the dreamy shapelessness of Serpent Music) while also warping them beyond recognition. It’s tempting to compare Tumor to Dean Blunt, another artist who feints toward pop tropes only to subvert them, except unlike Blunt, Tumor actually writes hooks. “Gospel for a New Century” sounds like a Prince cassette playing on a dying Walkman that’s stuck beneath a waterbed—it’s warbly as hell, but damn if that chorus doesn’t lodge itself in your brain. “Medicine Burn” is a showpiece for Tumor’s pained-lover falsetto and coheres around a ramrod bassline—the only solid element in the song. Tumor’s songs are like Shrinky Dinks, buckling in the heat, but still retaining their shape and bright color. On Heaven, Tumor boils together electro-funk, soul, and art rock into a gooey, oozing final concoction—it’s an album designed for immersion.

Read our interview with Yves Tumor.

J. Edward Keyes
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