Top Ten Albums of 2020
The following albums are all, at the very least, incredibly important to me and how I have experienced the past year. If you haven’t heard any of these records, it is my considered opinion that you correct that as soon as possible. I will also take this opportunity to reiterate the request I always make: please support the music you listen to monetarily. Even the worst bands put a significant amount of effort into the art they make. That deserves more than that fifth of a cent Spotify pays per stream.
10. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
If Grimes has lost her left-field, underground touch, she sacrificed it for new gods. Namely those of glam and shock and Pop with a capital P. If Mechanical Animals was Marilyn Manson’s drug-addled, Metal-infused take on Ziggy Stardust, Miss Anthropocene is Grimes’ Ecofascist, Space-X-infused take on Omēga. This album is unfortunately much more than just a soundtrack for the apocalypse, as some music writers might lead you to believe. It’s Grimes entry into Pop-Stardom, and it pays its dues accordingly—particularly to the ’90s (see especially the centerpiece “My Name Is Dark”). Grimes take on Alt. Pop draws significantly more from Industrial and Alt. Metal than it does from ’80s Goth or ’00s Emo. “4ÆM” is probably the closest she’ll ever get to writing a proper Drum ‘n’ Bass (via t.A.T.u.) track and “IDORU” wouldn’t sound altogether out-of-place on one of those early Björk albums. Her more contemporary influences can be heard on songs like “Violence,” for which i_o programs a Darkwave beat worthy of Crystal Castles’ III; hi-hats across the record reflect the currently inescapable influence of Trap and Footwork (but see especially “Darkside”); “Delete Forever” sounds almost like an open letter to Taylor Swift re the state of Country Pop in the shadow of internet decay.
The decision to inject variations on current Pop trends into an updated ’90s Alt. aesthetic is ultimately not as risky or innovative as Grimes’ last two records, but it pays off handsomely regardless. The result is a Pop album that feels unique but is at the same time rife with context clues and threads left by patchwork. To me this is much more interesting than the relatively monotonous (if riskier) Art Angels, whose inconsistent songwriting and sometimes bland production felt saccharine in ways I didn’t enjoy as much as Grimes earlier work. Here, she has tempered her taste for bubblegum songwriting with a variety of bitter flavors.
The more intricate and atmospheric production manifest even in the album’s earlier moments does come at a cost, however. For the sake of world building, Grimes leaves a great deal more instrumental space on this album than on her previous efforts, which were marked by tight, bouncing Pop melodies throughout. Consequently some of the tracks here overstay their welcome with redundancy and underdevelopment. It takes some maturity to let one’s songs breath as well as “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” but by the fifth minute of “IDORU” I am exhausted with those pump-organ-like octave arps. Ballads like “New Gods” and “Before the Fever” presume our attention rather than earn it. Even “My Name Is Dark,” for all of its merits, would work better without its minute-and-a-half breakdown/coda.
These grievances have weighed heavy on my mind as I have considered this list, and I have thought occasionally that this album doesn’t deserve to be in my top ten. But I like Grimes; I like what she’s aiming for artistically on Miss Anthropocene; and I think I still appreciate the ways in which her weirdness shrines through on such a high-profile album. She achieves her goals here and does what she wants in a significant way. That’s more than satisfactory.
Choice Tracks: “Delete Forever,” “My Name Is Dark,” “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around”
You can learn more about Grimes on the 4AD website.
9. Leon Chang – Return to Birdworld
For his second proper album, the Weird Twitter celebrity Leon has (literally) doubled down on his video-game-pastiche premise, this time spreading his work over two-discs worthy of the classic double-(to-quadruple-)album JRPG soundtracks of the ’90s and ’00s. While this may sound like just another tired exercise in nostalgia-mining typical of American Japanophilia, I think what distinguishes Return to Birdworld is its apparent effort to update and expand upon that JRPG sound, particularly by re-mixing the tropes of video game music with other electronic styles. And surprisingly, this premise is most impressively executed when Leon borrows from those contemporary genres upon which video game music has already had some influence.
Take for example the early track “Sesame City,” whose excellent mix of Jazz chords, tight broken beats, and slight glitching immediately recalls the music of Flying Lotus. Here Chang is purposefully channeling FlyLo’s documented penchant for video games and feeding it back into a setting of video game pastiche. But the song doesn’t stop at that: its refrain uses the kind of cheap string synths and fake-sounding harps you might recall from “Theme of Love” before slowly glitching back into its upbeat melody and eventually adding raucous “EDM” synths. The track is a celebration and mashup of all these different gaudy electronic genres, but it is blended together so expertly (and so unmistakably), one can’t help but drop one’s jaw a little. This is the heart of the awe in Return to Birdworld, but many of the album’s 30 tracks each go about their respective pastiche in a uniquely different way. Another highlight in a similar vein is “The Cat of Sundrop Bay,” whose main conceit lies in the mixture of Happy Hardcore elements with more technical chord progressions. Its live Jazz piano falls effortlessly in line with buzzing synths that might have come from a Sonic game. Other tracks apply this formula to other electronic genres, like U.K. Garage (“Save Point), Drum ‘n’ Bass (“A World Descends Into Chaos”), Grime (“In the Hall of the Mad Toad King”), Bro-Step (“怪物”), and Trip-Hop (“Double Crossed”).
Interspersed between these kinds of tracks we find others that may be said to serve a world-building function. These songs interact much more directly with their source material. “The Ruins of Enoki Village” is not far from the kind of song you might hear in an early dungeon in a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game, and it doesn’t pull any genre-blending punches. Its remarkable quality is instead in how closely it resembles JRPG music. For example, the sliding pitch bends you hear in the chorus’s strings (entering at 1:05; the bend is first heard at 1:24) recall one of Mitsuda Yasunori’s signature moves in the Chrono series. Indeed if I had to name one single soundtrack whose influence most pervades throughout Return to Bird World, it would be Mitsuda’s work for Chrono Trigger (and perhaps also his Acid Jazz interpolation of that music on The Brink of Time). That, and there’s a near-quotation of Uematsu Nobuo.
The album explores its central idea so deeply and with such loyalty to its source material that I often find myself simply calling it a JRPG soundtrack. It feels so closely tied to that genre of composition that I cannot help but imagine that I have played this game before. But the album’s vitality also speaks to its ability to simulate the experience of some artwork greater than itself, which gives us as listeners the opportunity to consciously place it in the context of contemporary Electronic music. In other words, it straddles the bounds between that which it mimics and an album in its own right; this liminality is actually what makes Return to Bird World a great album in my mind. By expanding upon the object of its pastiche, it imagines The Album as a much wider and more expressive Genre of music, something that can be wrapped up in another costume and heard with a new breadth that resonates with emerging media, like video games. I’m not saying this is some transcendent masterwork of multi-media brilliance; but I do think it’s important to imagine music beyond the narrow walls of The Album, and The JRPG Soundtrack gives Chang the footing for just such an imagination.
Choice Tracks: “Return to Bird World,” “The Ruins of Enoki Village,” “Sesame City,” “The Cat of Sundrop Bay,” “Save Point,” “A World Descends Into Chaos,” “The Mushroom God,” “In the Hall of the Mad Toad King,” “A Nap Under Plum Blossoms,” “Fight at the Forgotten Shrine,” “Lonely Bird,” “The Tale of Bird World”
8. The Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr
Two years ago, Billy Corgan re-enlisted original SP members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain to reform the band with the most complete original lineup since the Machina years. They then put out a short album to tease the reunited band and promote a tour, but Cyr is their first serious endeavor to create a Smashing Pumpkins album worthy of their golden-age double albums in terms of both ambition and experimentation. And as anyone familiar with Corgan’s past work might expect, it seems he has called back Chamberlain—one of the greatest drummers of our time—and Iha—an expert guitarist who rocks as hard as any of the ’90s other major players—just to make a Goth New Wave album. And not only that, but he taught himself Ableton Live and uses more synths and drum patches here than on Adore. And it’s great.
Although Cyr might not stand up to Siamese Dream or Adore in terms of culturally pertinent experimentation, it does push the band’s sound in a logical new direction, and I think its Disco-y Post-Punk and Indie New Wave elements actually follow quite naturally from both Monuments to an Elegy and Machina. But unexpectedly, to explore these genres Corgan has limited himself to writing Pop songs. So here we find, perhaps unexpectedly, some of the tightest, brightest, and most refined tunes Corgan has written in his now thirty-plus-year career as the frontman of SP. He also does away with some of the signature elements of what you might think of when you think of a Smashing Pumpkins album. There is no seven-or-more-minute jam song. There are not the blatant genre-pastiche tracks you find on the second half of Mellon Collie or Adore. Instead, Corgan finds himself locked to a DAW grid using digital synths and drum kits and then limits himself to at-most five-minute-long songs. Attendant with these limitations comes, in my opinion, an interesting experiment in songwriting, pushing the envelope in a much finer formal direction.
Opener and prototypical track “The Colour of Love” demonstrates my above assertion at a cursory glance. It’s a four-minute verse-chorus-verse track with slight variations in intensity between each subsequent verse and chorus. Something like this song could be found on basically any New Order or Depeche Mode album, but remarkably it sounds like nothing the Smashing Pumpkins have ever released before. The bright digital hiss and rigid beat, not to mention the backing vocals, all feel like an SP that has lost it’s rawness and heart—and I think this is purposeful! “The colour of your love is grey,” after all. This track is a setup for Smashing Pumpkins’ take (or parody or failed attempt—call it what you want) on modern Pop music, which I think Corgan (correctly) diagnoses as something indebted to ’80s composition and innovations.
Subsequent tracks apply this premise to various other genres: Industrial (“Confessions of a Dopamine Addict”), Dance / Disco (“Cyr”), and Dark Wave (“Wrath”). These are all genres SP has taken on before, but the way Corgan updates, tightens, and draws his approach in line with the theme of Cyr impresses me nonetheless. The lyrics to these songs apparently continue the kind of Byronic-hero motifs of Monuments to an Elegy mixed with the literary aspirations of last year’s Cotillions, which appeals to my basic love of Romanticism I guess. The album picks up steam and rocks a bit harder for tracks like “Anno Satana” and “Wyttch,” which could well be the only songs on which Iha really plays.
But the album really takes off in its second half, where Corgan apparently doubles down on the Pop-iness and tightness of the tracks. “Starrcraft” is the only SP song to use an 808 handclap, yet it maintains the authentic and romantic propulsion of something like “Disarm.” “Purple Blood”‘s beats sound like a sequel to “Ava Adore,” but its restrained and touching refrain feels surprisingly mature. Post-Punk bop “Save Your Tears” keeps the hits coming. The verse of “Telegenix” may be the closest Corgan ever gets to rapping. Finally we arrive at “Tyger, Tyger,” Corgan’s Blakean take on Beyoncé-like rhythm Hip-Hop / Pop. The song is little more than Corgan and his backup vocalists doing acrobatic tricks over an electronic beat. It’s one of the weirdest and most daring experiments SP has made in decades, and as the album’s penultimate song it’s a closing gem.
Which isn’t to say that Cyr is some brilliantly innovative record. It’s a Pop album that mixes several influences in an interesting way, which is probably the most anyone can say of most Pop albums. What impresses me about Cyr in particular is its unique place within the Smashing Pumpkins catalogue and what that means to me in 2020, decades after this band supposedly lost its luster. This is a ridiculously good comeback from a band I adore, and I think it’s a wonderful album for anyone interested in contemporary developments in Pop and Post-Alternative music too.
Choice Tracks: “The Colour of Love,” “Confessions of a Dopamine Addict,” “Cyr,” “Dulcet in E,” “Wrath,” “Anno Santana,” “Wyttch,” “Starcraft,” “Purple Blood,” “Save Your Tears,” “Haunted,” “Schaudenfreud,” “Tyger, Tyger”
You can learn more about The Smashing Pumpkins on their website.
7. Tobacco – Hot Wet & Sassy
Black Moth Super Rainbow frontman and lo-fi genius Tobacco returns for his hardest rocking album to date, which is especially impressive if one considers how many guitar-free tracks you’ll find here. Which is to say, it seems that Thomas Fec has indeed taken the influence of Nine Inch Nails to heart since they toured together a few years ago and Trent Reznor made a Tobacco song. Reznor is even featured on “Babysitter” here (although you may not hear him until the song’s final moments). But what I’d like to assert is not just that Fec learned how to up his amp feedback and engineer glitchier beats, but in fact that he has departed slightly from the Tobacco project’s original footing in Hip Hop music. Rhythmically and compositionally speaking, these tracks could be the most straightforward Pop Rock he’s created so far.
Album highlight “Chinese Aquarius” exemplifies this. Neither its synth bells, nor its simple rock beat, nor its guitar riff, nor its vocal harmonies, nor its soft bridge show any signs of Tobacco’s once assured status as an (albeit weird) Experimental Post-Trip Hop producer. And by no means is this song an aberration within this collection, despite the album’s occasional flirtation with Electro (see “Jinmenken”).
But it is not the decision to make an Experimental Rock-oriented album that earns Hot Wet & Sassy a place on this list. What interests me more is how well he has carried over his woozy tape-hiss aura to this new musical style. Perhaps you could find the nauseating synth tone of “ASS-TO-TRUTH” and “Poisonous Horses” somewhere on his previous two albums, but I assure you you’d never hear anything like “Pit”‘s sharp Industrial glitching, although it is also recognizably Tobacco. The delayed beat of “Road Warrior Pisces” has more in common with ’80s Hair Metal than any downtempo beat I’ve ever heard, but at the same time only Fec could make this kind of banging, voluptuous instrumental Electro jam.
What further excites me is Tobacco’s deeply matured lyrics and aesthetic sense. Long gone are the days of Fucked Up Friends, where he could sing “Eat the sun / chew gum” as carelessly as he sings on BMSR’s Dandelion Gum. There is an abstruse, occult darkness to Hot Wet & Sassy, not just in its astrological titles, but also in its obsession with mystical beasts and horrifying monsters. This is reflected in the album’s strange unresolved chords (as in every fourth chord of “Mythemim,” throughout “ASS-TO-TRUTH,” and elsewhere). I think this deepens and intensifies the horror elements he first introduced on Ultima II Massage. It also makes for the most technically interesting work in Tobacco’s catalogue.
These feats grant it a place here, but I am slightly disappointed with how thoroughly it abandoned the tape experiments of the now certified-classic Sweatbox Dynasty. I appreciate the sacrifices a die-hard weirdo like Fec must have made to create such a Pop-y album, but I fear now that he has pushed his sound too far back into the musical world. His best albums have been made it what seems like a universe all its own, and this one I think doesn’t live up to my expectations on that front.
Choice Tracks: “Centaur Skin,” “Pit,” “Headless to Headless,” “Chinese Aquarius,” “ASS-TO-TRUTH,” “Babysitter,” “Road Warrior Pisces,” “Mythemim,” “Motherfuckers 64”
6. Keys for Eclipse – Downpour
I have already written extensively about this album in my review from last year, but I will reiterate here how incredible Downpour is. It’s a one-of-a-kind work of genius from an indie producer I just happened to stumble upon by way of his label, and it is texturally and atmospherically some of the best Ambient music I’ve heard in quite a while. Its darkest moments conjure imagery from Poe, its lightest from Wordsworth. It is at once earthly and ethereal. It engages with all of my senses, and I feel it is already so attached to my memory (maybe it’s déjà vu?) that it regularly awakens those dreams (or nightmares?) that hide in my waking unconsciousness (or sleeping consciousness?)? Just listen to it.
Choice Tracks: “Landscapes,” “Haze,” “Downpour,” “Two Part”
5. Autechre – Sign
Sign is not the musical revelation some hail it to be, but it is a satisfying and surprising new direction from a duo who never cease to surprise. Which is not to say that the reincorporation of melody and soft pad-synth sounds into Autechre’s palette necessarily constitutes a surprise. This return to melody is actually something I see anticipated throughout the NTS Sessions, and in a perfunctory sense, weren’t people commending the return of Amber-era Autechre back when Quarstice came out thirteen years ago? I feel like the time when it was edgy and cool to do something melodic in an Experimental Electronic scene filled with (formalist) German Techno influence has long past (maybe 15 years ago?). But Sign‘s strengths go far beyond those matters of petty shock value that mainstream music critics love to extol. What I find amazing about Sign is that one can listen to its “songs,” I mean its melodic moments, as many times as one likes and still feel like one has only seen the tip of the iceberg so to speak. It feels like the soundtrack to a culture of surfaces, and no one dares to look deeper than that. What lies beneath Sign‘s chrome sheen is the labor of a thousand mechanical synapses per second, each filled with the terror of human domination, human entropy.
This holds true from the album’s opening moments, in which we hear a percolation of extreme glitches for a minute and a half before the album’s first chord. And even when it enters, it doesn’t clear the world of this digital static; it melts into it. The cooling promise held in that chord is like some ersatz panacea, produced only to give the impression of resolution. The track’s stumbling Hip Hop beat provides little support, fading in and out of sight, as if its only mocking the idea of dance or joy. These are the only two readily retained sounds in “M4 Lema,” but they make up perhaps 5% of the song’s actual content. What remains is the rubbish of our age of so-called information, which informs us of nothing.
Later songs like “Esc Desc” convey a more elegiac minacity, full of strange mixtures of chords both wistful and threatening. This carries and nearly escalates over for four minutes without appearing to change, although it is constantly shifting in ways that are hard to understand. This Protean approach to expressing tragedy or evil in understated, droning melodies amounts to one of Autechre’s most poignant and urgent artistic developments in decades. We find it again on “Metaz Form8” and “R Cazt,” which approach more traditional melodies in spite of their uneasy motions.
I do think Sign is one of Autechre’s best albums in a long time. I think it approaches the kind of cutting-edge eminence we find on works like Amber, Confield, and (my personal favorite) Draft 7.30, although in terms of its tone, Sign shares much more with Garbage. This suggests a continuity between their early and later work that I find interesting and important to establish some context for their more extreme experiments, like the NTS Sessions or Gantz Graf. But having tied together their work so nicely here, I was happy to hear it so untied on November’s Plus.
Choice Tracks: “Esc Desc,” “Gr4,” “Psin AM,” “R Cazt”
4. Joan of Arc – Tim Melina Theo Bobby
After 26 years, Joan of Arc has finally called it quits. As a band, their work has mostly been a vehicle for frontman Tim Kinsella’s off-the-wall brand of Midwest Emo, which has ranged from the terrifying to the hilarious, sometimes played as non sequitur and other times with a straight face. The most recent incarnation of the band has been with this album’s titular four members, Tim Kinsella, Melina Ausikaitis, Theo Katsaounis, and Bobby Burg, who have released a final trilogy of albums over the past four years (all during the Trump era, and often touching on political themes related to his administration). Tim Melina Theo Bobby is the last in that trilogy; it seems to be the last for the Joan of Arc project as a whole; and it’s a fittingly strong conclusion and goodbye from a perennially challenging and inventive band.
In many ways, TMTB feels like a transcendence of the traditional Joan of Arc album. Its songs wrestle with (and sometimes reference) themes discussed on previous albums while demonstrating new growth (and derision) both musical and lyrical. The metaphysical lyrical content, odd structure, and creepy chords of “Creature and Being” could be taken straight from their classic In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust, but additional atmospheric elements (reverb, synths, drum pads, Ausikaitis’ backup vocals) add a depth to the song. Lyrically it seems to address the self-rationalizing doctrine of capitalism of which we are all victims (and therefore perpetrators). But its first-person narrative perspective deepens the song’s immediacy, compared to, for example, the paranoia of “Happy 1984 and 2001” (although the latter may be the superior song).
The album’s odd instrumental experiments also add a strange depth to the collection reminiscent of Tortoise. “Land Surveyor” and “The Dawn of Something” do not rank amongst JoA’s greatest songs, but they lend the album a dignified air not present on even their previous two albums, and I think it is exactly songs like this that incline me to put TMTB so high on this list.
That said, without the album’s uncontested highlights, “Karma Repair Kit” and “Cover Letter Song,” I would be hard pressed to justify its place here. The former stands out as one of their most genuinely beautiful songs since their golden age in the early ’00s. Kinsella’s lyrics measure the balance between a our ravenous childhood curiosity and the bureaucratic systems that undo it, one more tragic hypocrisy of modernity, and somehow the music captures both of these things in the song’s successive segments of wide-eyed wonder and then rigidity. “Cover Letter Song” stands out for its despair, I mean the awful labor necessary to produce every note you hear, even (and especially) when an artist is dedicated to making something uniquely brilliant in this age in which even the most lurid music makes no money at all.
Ausikaitis sings lead on three excellent songs here, and although none of them contain the same touching autobiographical prose of 1984, they do carve out yet another realm of experimentation for this endlessly unpredictable band. The imagery in “Rising Horizon” evokes something resembling a Yeatsian gyre (“a cone / angling down into a V” contrasted with a “dune”), which is then linked to a Miltonic ascension / descension metaphor (via Lucifer Rising, fear of a child’s drawing of a monster, and the vulture diving). It’s like a vorticist’s take on COVID, I suppose, and it makes for some of the most vivid and fresh songwriting I’ve heard on any album since 1984.
That imagery is perhaps extended into “Upside Down Bottomless Pit,” whose atonality and lyrical focus on liminal space and “bounds” recall “The Details of the Bomb” from Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain, an album equally frustrated with imprisonment in a Neo-Liberal world (or perhaps it’s the dog’s bark boundary of “Dead Together”?). But this time I feel like Kinsella’s anguish in the face of unjust justice and the crazed demotic hordes online cuts a bit deeper and offers even less solace. If this is really JoA’s last song, it’s a fitting farewell in the sense that all of the frustrations with society and government Kinsella once sang about have only gotten more apparent and more terrifying up to the point where there is nothing more to say. You can only stare at your phone and watch the “digital hive” in perplexed horror.
Choice Tracks: “Destiny Revision,” “Something Kind,” “Karma Repair Kit,” “Creature and Being,” “Feedback 3/4,” “The Dawn of Something,” “Cover Letter Song,” “Rising Horizon”
3. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
It has been difficult for me to decide what to do with this album. It is perhaps the most complete testament to the range and consistency of Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project over the past decade and a half. It has moments that take his music to extremely pleasant new heights in Avant Baroque Pop (“Long Road Home”) and others that almost lazily reiterate ideas we heard on Replica (“Wave Idea”) and Garden of Delete (“Nothing’s Special”). It’s so stark a difference across the breadth of the album that I find myself considering each side of Magic Oneohtrix Point Never as an album of its own. But does this not also speak to the degree to which the album achieves its premise?
Lopatin gives us a tour through the echoes of a day listening to his favorite childhood radio station insofar as it remains an image in his adult mind (we hear the sample from “Imago” in this statement). Each of the record’s four sides are a different section of that day (morning, afternoon, evening, night). And all the album’s songs fit their premise perfectly. So on the one hand I have trouble arguing against the beauty of the album’s idea and its realization, but on the other I cannot help but hear in my rationalization of MOPN‘s weaker songs echoes of those critics of the “Eumaeus” chapter of Ulysseus who say it’s bad because it’s a parody of poorly written literature. Indeed “Tales from the Trash Stratum” feels like exactly that.
But then we have songs like “I Don’t Love Me Anymore,” which feels as urgent as it is timely, as fresh as it is moving. It is a horrific paean for our age of depression and easily my favorite song of the year. “Lost But Never Alone” (and its incredible video) is the consummation of Lopatin’s original hauntological vision, airing an ’80s downtempo new wave ballad through radio static. But the song creeps out of its state of remembrance into some immediacy in the chorus (and with this change comes hi-hat production you certainly would not have heard in the ’80s). The song captures something about both memory and recollection, an interesting new idea I have not previously heard in this kind of music.
Although it is an excellent album, MOPN‘s weakness is in its strangely divergent urges to create something new and reflect on the old. And yet I cannot call this a weakness, for it is also the album’s purpose.
Choice Tracks: “Auto & Allo,” “Long Road Home,” “I Don’t Love Me Anymore,” “Bow Ecco,” “Lost But Never Alone”
2. Autechre – Plus
Plus is somehow the most overlooked album of the year. Maybe people think of it as a collection of outtakes from Sign, or maybe they became so accustomed to the melodies of Sign that they stopped listening to Plus halfway through “Ecol4.” But to me Plus has a much more appealing narrative and dynamic motion, and if anything this dynamism is only heightened by contrasting it with Sign. Plus is somehow a dark shadow of Sign even as it resolves the latter’s portentous omen (the sign in question). Its as if Sign accurately predicts the world’s end, and Plus is everything after, in all its emptiness. The negation of Plus (indeed its name seems ironic) appears from “DekDre Scap B”‘s first note, which stands in utter defiance of Sign‘s first chord, if only in its impudence, its audacity to be extremely wrong. There is something extremely wrong with Plus.
But there is also a certain degree of worldliness about Plus that starkly opposes much of Autechre’s catalogue. “Marhide” is probably the first time Booth and Brown have used those 808 cowbell and woodblock sounds since Legofeet. Their hackneyed, readymade conspicuity simultaneously announces the song’s irreverence and references the newfound popularity of old-skool sampling following the rise of Footwork. Autechre’s strategy here is to at once make something avant-garde in its rejection of contemporary electronic trends while also commenting on those trends (and it’s worth mentioning that they made those trends).
Following the wasteland of “Ecol4,” we receive some release to the atonal tension of the album’s first half. But even “Lux 106 Mod”‘s ostensible security undoes itself in awkward chords that leave us on unsure footing. This leads into “X4,” probably the most satisfying and danceable Autechre song in decades. Its desperate shifting melodies emerge and submerge over the course of twelve minutes, rearranging in intensity and eventually subsiding into a downcast requiem. Late highlight “Esle 0” adds an almost hymnal amount of pseudo-organ to a melody resembling the sentimental yearning of Sign‘s more reflective tracks, and in doing so ironizes the melancholy of those songs as something maudlin and pitiful. It undoes whatever good faith you might have gained in Autechre through Sign.
Acid Techno closer “TM1 Open” throws us again into the fire of the album’s opening tracks with the added element of several insectile arp synths. It is perhaps the most outwardly disturbing piece here, and it’s a fitting end to what I can only call the abrogation of Sign.
I will add that while I find Plus a difficult listen, I think that, especially if read as an inversion of its predecessor, it is an intensely rewarding album. It was for me a step-by-step tear down of whatever aesthetic preferences may have drawn me to Sign, and I think through listening to this album I was able to expand my appreciation for what Autechre have been doing for the past decade. I walked away from Plus with a broader, more thoughtful taste in music, which is probably the highest praise I can give to an album these days.
Choice Tracks: “Dekdre Scap B,” “Marhide,” “Lux 106 Mod,” “X4,” “Esle 0,” “TM1 Open”
1. Nonlocal Forecast – Holographic Universe(s?)!
Angel Marcloid’s Nonlocal Forecast project appeals to all of my current preoccupations: Ambient-as-Pop, Metaphysical Prog Rock, Post-Vaporwave, Cringeposting, the 1980s, and most importantly Weather Channel music. Shortly after getting this album I found myself lying on my couch on an Partly Cloudy Sunday Afternoon. I’m currently drinking two cups of coffee a day, but on this particular day I forgot to have my second cup. I was overcome by the warmth of my room heater and the vague beauty of the sunshine pouring through the clouds into my narrow apartment. I flipped on the TV and turning to my local Japanese equivalent of the weather channel and took a nap. Smooth jazz soundscapes wafted over to me in my confused caffeine withdrawal, a soft unresolved throbbing in my head that is hard to differentiate from the tenderness I experience when my perpetual caffeine-fueled tension subsides. This feeling is the only way I can capture my emotional response to Holographic Universe(s?)!, although I didn’t realize this at the time.
Technically speaking, it is a perfect album. “We’re Smeared Across a 2D Surface (Part 0)”‘s AM Elec Piano Preset drops heavy chords that immediately transport us to a time we don’t really understand; if it were more commercial I could say this is the world of ’80s consumer culture invoked in Vaporwave. If it were less technical I might say it was one of those Muzak covers of a modern R&B hit. If it were less genuine I might call it a joke. But somehow Marcloid is able to convey her authenticity by avoiding these trappings and instead just making a brilliant song. More intricate tracks like “The Bubbling Up of Duality on an Autumn Night by a Forest Stream” move from the kind of sun-soaked chords you might hear on an early Peter Gabriel record into an unsettling eeriness recalling Porcupine Tree. These are ultimately the more emotionally trying listens, perhaps precisely because of how Marcloid has mapped these kind of lurid default patches onto evocative prog compositions.
On that I’d like to expand a little. Marcloid’s obvious technical expertise (especially with respect to her prog metal drumming) lends itself to writing realistic MIDI instrumentals. This gives an undeniably human composer’s touch to songs whose instrumentation might otherwise sound too drenched with the ubiquity of ’80s BGM commodities. But this mixture of individuality in composition and universality in timbre almost allows me to get closer to the musical theoretical side of the music, which is after all where this album shines most profoundly. But the presumption that underlies this feeling is that perhaps commodity music is to our time what the piano once was to classical composers in the sense that a “pure” song is something played on the “default” instrument. Here we have nothing but songs played by MIDI on factory setting keyboard samples. (Of course that is not entirely true, but that is the aesthetic the album attempts to convey. The most apparent exceptions are the vocal samples and occasional live guitar, saxophone, and hand drums, which also feature straightforward engineering.) Is this not “pure” music to us living in the age of digital reproduction?
In any case, it is the collision of this album’s affective songwriting and experimental delivery that so impresses me, and it does so in a way I am much more satisfied with than I was with 2019’s Bubble Universe!, which, while it is an exciting and experimentally effective album, feels too attached to the project’s conceptual novelty and is therefore relatively shallow in tone.
Holographic Universe(s?)! demonstrates Marcloid’s commitment to crafting cerebral experimental work beyond just her (equally brilliant but tonally frenetic) Fire-Toolz project. It’s a masterful and structurally complex piece from a promising and innovative voice in experimental music.
Choice Tracks: “Imprinted, Encoded, Shone (Emergence),” “Interactions Between Brains & the Foam of Potentiality,” “Extended to Disparate Fields,” “The Bubbling Up of Duality on an Autumn Night by a Forest Stream,” “We’re Smeared Across a 2D Surface (Part 0),” “My Incomplete T.O.E.”
By Isak McCune