- Car Seat Headrest – Can’t Cool Me Down
Car Seat Headrest’s status as one of modern indie’s largest and most endearing bands has been secured by hugely successful and critically acclaimed albums such as 2016’s “Teens of Denial” and 2018’s remake of “Twin Fantasy”. Their latest album “Leaving A Door Open” is one of the more controversial records in their long discography, showcasing a band a little caught between appealing to their enlarged fanbase and continuing to innovate, alongside the songwriting duties shifting towards more members than lead vocalist Will Toledo. Lead Single “Can’t Cool Me Down” however is one of the more impressive aspects of the album. Having been played live for a number of years, the band converted the song into a introspective piece of synth-pop. The floating ethereal keyboard textures and synths that accompany Toledo’s pleading voice are delightfully lush and this combined with Toledo’s yelp has a strange similarity to the more anthemic side of James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem. The lyrics are as ever strangely gripping, but with less of the youthful angst that has generally accompanies Car Seat Headrest records. Toledo’s rough but emotive style is repurposed beautifully into the world of pop, suggesting the potential for arty, but more accessible records in the future.
- Protomartyr – Processed By The Boys
Within modern post-punk Protomartyr have stood out as an emotive, crushing outfit, capable of creating droning, atmospheric music that can stand up to the classic examples of the genre. “Processed By The Boys” is a violently contorted, noisy song to release as the single for an album, but the sheer intensity of it makes it unquestionably the album’s highlight. With slithering dissonant guitar present throughout alongside the rumbling bass, vocalist ____ launches into a polemic against the rising political authoritarianism across the globe in a fervour typical of Protomartyr. It is relentless and pounding, having as much in common with modern noise-rock like Swans or Daughters as it does the fatalistic gloom of 80s post-punk. The way ____ bellows the song’s title in the chorus is filled with a fury and vitriol that can take you slightly aback. As a band who have been among the most consistent of the last decade, “Processed By The Boys” can lay claim to being among their strongest ever tracks, a piece of furious, noisy punk that carries its political message with impressive gusto.
- Kelsey Lu – Morning Dew
Kelsey Lu’s “Blood” was an impressive, if slightly flawed debut from 2019. It showcased a huge variety of styles and sounds, with Lu clearly still working out exactly where she wants to progress her sound. Should it be with songs like “Morning Dew”, she has the potential to be among the 2020’s most compelling pop artists. “Morning Dew” is a mediative piece of chamber folk, utilising to the fullest Lu’s beautifully delicate vocal style alongside chiming acoustic guitar and spiralling woodwind. The minimalism of the track is partly what makes it so stark, a glorious and almost spiritual calm exudes from the song. Lu’s voice is cavernous and reverberant as the song’s spiritual romance becomes more apparent. The feeling of longing apparent in Lu’s lyrics is made all the more affecting by the beauty of the track’s instrumentation. Lu is showing remarkable levels of variety in her sound, with “Morning Dew” likely only one facet of an impressive pop career in the future.
- Moses Boyd (Featuring Poppy Ajudha) – Shades of You
Another Mercury Prize-nominated artist, Moses Boyd’s “Dark Matter” is a fantastic example of nu-jazz, incorporating Boyd’s dextrous, rhythmic drumming and a range of jazz musicians from the vibrant British jazz scene alongside genres from soul to afrobeat. “Shades of You” is very much the former, with Poppy Ajudha taking up vocal duties to scintillating effect on this single. The song’s strong retro-futuristic stylings are present, with the very modern drum sound mixed with a 70s filtered bassline, sometimes heavily effected vocals and shimmering keyboards. The lush, romantic feeling of the song is combined with the incessant rhythms that invade every part of the album, creating a strangely exhilarating feeling. Whilst other artists, from Sons of Kemet to Ezra Collective, have combined other genres with jazz to beautiful effect, arguably none are as varied or ready for wider listening than Boyd’s “Dark Matter”. Ajudha’s contribution on this album is arguably its highlight, a beautiful but hardly safe piece of pop.
- Stephen Malkmus – Xian Man
As the frontman of indie slackers Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has been at the forefront of indie music since the 1990s, and latest album “Traditional Techiques” is a fairly typical but classy jaunt into classic psychedelia. “Xian Man” was the album’s opening single and is the pick of an impressive batch of singles including the bizarre “Shadowbanned”. The song has a lazy haze to it immediately with the hypnotic guitar grooves and lead line sounding like a Middle Eastern blues artist like Tinariwen. Alongside this are Malkmus’ typically cryptic yet distinctive lyrics, showing the kind of lazy-sounding genius that has pervaded his career throughout. As the guitar becomes more and more fuzzy, the song ventures towards the acid psych sound of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix, without ever delving into the excesses of that sound. The manic soloing in particular cuts through the hypnotic calm of the song expertly, taking Malkmus back to the jarring noise-pop of Pavement records like “Wowee Zowee” and “Slanted and Enchanted.” Someone who could now be described as a legend of the US indie scene returns with an accomplished record and a single that could go in many of his most acclaimed records in “Xian Man”.
- Perfume Genius – On the Floor
Perfume Genius has shown a remarkable artistic evolution over the last decade and 2020 album “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” is just another exciting shift for the arty pop sound of Mike Hadreas. Whilst the noisy, emotive Americana-meets noise pop-meets ambient outburst of “Describe” is also remarkable, “On the Floor” is the pick from this record. The liquid instrumentation on this record, with a funky groove coming alongside fluid guitar leads and lush keyboards. The joyous, somewhat psychedelic instrumentation jars with the somewhat desperate lyrics and Hadreas’ fragile vocal style. As the chorus soars, the melancholy only becomes more acute, adding some of the mature, intelligent songwriting that Hadreas has brought to a number of his recent projects. There is also an anthemic beauty to this song that is vital in the context of “Set My Heart”, adding some light to a deeply personal and emotive record. Within the wide genre of modern art-pop Perfume Genius is increasingly among the leading lights, an inventive and emotionally powerful artist whose ability to make both compelling and fun pop is now surely an increasingly accepted reality.
- A Girl Called Eddy – Jody
The career of Erin Moran, or A Girl Called Eddy, is among the more intriguing of the artists featured in this list. Releasing her self-titled debut in 2004, it took her 16 years to release a sophomore record in the gleaming, classy “Been Around”, with Jody its beating heart. The song immediately recalls the lush and deceptively intelligent pop of Prefab Sprout and the yacht rock smoothness of Steely Dan. Moran’s velvety voice works excellent with the deeply narrative-focused and drole lyrics, creating a pop sound so smooth, yet pointed. As the song blooms into its outro with sax solos emerging out of the backdrop alongside an array of backing vocal lines, it becomes a joyous outpour despite the introspective lyrics of most of the song. The soul and jazz influenced pop of A Girl Called Eddy remains among the most polished and surprising albums of the year.
- Against All Logic (Featuring Estado Unido & FKA twigs) – Alucinao
Nicolas Jaar’s house project Against All Logic took a step towards the sound of albums like FKA Twigs’ “Magdalene” he has had a part in, replacing the smooth, lush deep house of debut album “2012-2017” with the abrasive, industrial tinged sound of “2017-2019” and the “Allusions of Shameless Abundance” EP for which “Alucinao” is a part. Featuring Twigs and the Brazilians of Estadio Unido, “Alucinao” is a propulsive, rhythmic track, filled with steel drums and spluttering, clattering synth dissonance. The heavily auto-tuned vocals actually add to the song’s appeal, creating a song both grounded in the “funk carioca” style of Brazilian dance music and in the increasingly expansive sounds of UK dance music and “deconstructed club”. Its 9-minute length feels half that, with the track rarely letting up for more than a few seconds before returning to the rhythmic onslaught and off-kilter synth screeches that continue and a frenetic pace. Bizarre and alien but with an infectious groove, “Alucinao” shades a number of other songs in an impressive year from Jaar, who has also released two solo albums, to enter this list.
- Pulsr – Cross Eyed
The local music scenes of small Connecticut town New Haven are increasingly filtering into wider knowledge, with bands like Them Airs releasing excellent, experimental indie music in this year. Pulsr’s debut EP “The Three” is harmed by a slightly dry, lifeless production and is clearly the sound of a band who are maturing, but “Cross Eyed” is an early highlight for the band. The prickly dissonant guitar chords shoot at seemingly at will, before the bellowed vocals come in, adding another layer of energy to the manic noise-rock on display. It hardly lasts long but is an exhilarating burst of energy, having a similar love for odd time signatures and stop-start guitar riffs as Them Airs or artists like The Jesus Lizard or Slint from noise-rock’s heyday. Pulsr are certainly a work in progress, but “Cross Eyed” is a superb introduction for the band.
- Document – The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
Another debut was the opening EP of Manchester post-punk band Document. Their debut single “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” is a fiery piece of modern post-punk. Opening with an echoey, pensive guitar melody before erupting into a sludgy distorted guitar frenzy, Document are a particularly aggressive and gothic take on the genre, with this only being accentuated by the barked vocals of the track. There is something in the noisy guitar contortions throughout this excellent release that sound like a more controlled version of Daniel Ash’s sound on early Bauhaus records, both exhilarating and gripping. As the song becomes more frenzied and dramatic, the cries of the vocalist become more furious, with the song’s long outro being among the most powerful pieces of modern post-punk in recent years. Document are a band that have been slept on this year, with their debut EP being a remarkable piece of post-punk that will surely only lead on to bigger things.