Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

4 Mar

Dimensional Stardust seems like the kind of album that would enjoy a good paradox and so it’s lucky that it brings one to the table itself. It is, at one and the same time, wildly novel and numbingly familiar. The album is a parade of fantastic soundscapes. Not only does it accurately evoke space, but it evokes space as interesting. This is not the untouched void. It is instead an explosion of shapes and colors. You can see the comets and nebulae and galaxies all whorling around with even the occasional life form drifting through.

“Sun Core Tet,” for instance, keeps a simple foundation, albeit complicated by shapeshifting instruments, but then puts so much color into the space left open. It is somehow strongly reminiscent of Saturday morning science fiction, especially due to the vibraphone and flute work. I’ve heard many musical representations of the wonder of space, this is the only one that really brings in the childishness of wonder. The good dynamic energy of the later “Parable of Inclusion” further builds this feeling.

There’s also a strong classical vein to this album. The sparse leading instruments and heavy use of polyphony do a lot to build this and there’s no real soloing here. It’s a very crafted album, which is a strength for how clearly the album speaks but a detriment as well. There’s a lot in this album that could use the inspiration that comes from the improvisation that defines space jazz.

“Autumn Pleiades” for instance, sounds like post-rock more than anything else, and as often happens with that genre, falls too far into repetition. It could have really used a little surprise somewhere. Similarly, “The Careening Prism Within” is just too predictable and it feels like the voiceover in “Abstract Dark Energy” never ends.

It’s a shame that this strain of predictability mars what would otherwise be an excellent album. In fact, if you’re looking for something in the vein of your favorite post-rock album, but with parts significantly more challenging, this album is tailor-made for you. If your tastes are more general, this album still paints some very vivid visuals, even if they could use some additional variety as well.

Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2021

2 Mar

We are two months into the Year After. Cases are declining worldwide and vaccines are on the way. However, the cultural issues that rose to boiling point in the turbulence of 2020 are still at a steady roil. It’s a strange, bittersweet time in the world, and in that context, we took a look at the five best songs from this past month.

5. “So Pretty” by Reyanna Maria

Our first reaction to Reyanna Maria’s tinny beat and sultry, swaggering rap on “So Pretty” was vibes of fellow Aussie Iggy Azalea. “So Pretty” was the flavor of the month on TikTok this month – which means this song is already more popular than you can possibly fathom. With all the outright mentions to lady parts on recent cultural phenoms like “WAP”, it’s almost coy to hear Maria talk about her “kitty cat” and all the way it makes her man feel. Even if you’re not listening to the lyrics, though, this one’s a bop. If clubs come back sometime this year, expect this one to be on the playlist – until it’s inevitably dethroned by yet another TikTok super-hit.

4. “Spirals” by Django Django

British band Django Django occupies a strange space in the experimental-mainstream music divide. Although their music is decidedly art rock – strange textures, unpredictable speeds, all that jazz – they also manage to feature regularly on everything from the FIFA 13 soundtrack to, well, the FIFA 18 soundtrack. “Spirals”, from their fourth album Glowing in the Dark (out in February), is a psychedelic romp through what we assume is a timeshare in Kevin Parker’s head. In here you’ll find strong basslines, echoey vocals, punctuating cymbal crashes, and so on. If you like Tame Impala, especially “Elephant”, you would likely like this track.

3. “you were right” by Bass Drum of Death

Bass Drum of Death mixes the lean-and-mean tones of Royal Blood with the bombastic rock of Queens of the Stone Age; so if that sounds like your jam, then read on. If you can believe it, the “band” has even fewer members than two-piece band Royal Blood; for Bass Drum of Death is simply the moniker of one-man drummer/guitarist/singer John Barrett. (There are a few others who join on tour, but it’s all mostly from Barrett’s head.) “you were right” is a tight, bluesy jam with an unmissable bass line, emphatic vocals and some excellent licks – and it’s all from one dude!

2. “CANCELLED” by slowthai feat. Skepta

Reader, if you are a regular on Top Five Records, then you know that we write quite frequently about the reigning British troublemaker known as slowthai. The London rapper is brilliant, funny, incisive, and more than a little problematic. We’ve already written about his fiasco at last year’s NME Awards (which produced a great track called, of course, “ENEMY”) but he wasn’t done being cancelled at that point. After a year of being in the public’s grinder, slowthai reacts by coming out with a song titled (what else?) “CANCELLED”, featuring the inimitable grime legend Skepta.

These two gentleman have collaborated before – on our 2019 Song of the Year “Inglorious” – and the fireworks are in full flow again here. Skepta readies the stage for slowthai with his opening verse (“How you gonna cancel me? Twenty awards on the mantelpiece / Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury / Girls in the crowd got their hands on me,”). And slowthai does manage to get one more in against the pearl-clutchers at NME: “See you throwing stones in your glass house / Evidently nothing is going the way that you said it would be / Middle finger to my enemy.” Classic.

1. “Rainforest” by Noname

As we wrote about in our review of Noname’s debut album Room 25 (2018), the Chicago rapper’s music is really like nothing else out there. Noname (real name Fatimah Warner) is exceedingly literate and blessed with a natural, soulful flow; in fact, she began her career in slam poetry. On “Rainforest”, she centers her thoughts around the damage being done to rainforests and works her way up from there. What causes human beings to trade nature for profit? What makes them believe that that’s a fair trade? What causes that sort of cognitive dissonance?

Through deft turns of phrase, she follows the chain: from exploitation (“They turned a natural resource into a bundle of cash / Made the world anti-Black, then divided the class,”) to forced rehabilitation (“How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?”) and all the way to her own full-blown reaction (“Dyin’ on stolen land for a dollar like that ain’t fucked up / It’s fuck they money, I’ma say it every song / Until the revolution come and all the feds start runnin’”). Noname lies at the intersection of rap and spoken-word poetry, and this song is a great example of her output and talent.

Celeste – Not Your Muse

24 Feb

This review is for the 12-track international edition of Celeste’s Not Your Muse. The international deluxe edition features an additional nine songs that we highly recommend you check out.

British pop singer Celeste’s star has been on the up-and-up for the past couple of years. Starting off her career providing vocals for the likes of Avicii, Celeste built a name for herself in the British music press with a pair of well-received EPs – The Milk & the Honey (2017) and Lately (2019).

By the time Lately made its rounds around the world, the singer pretty much became an unstoppable force. Tastemakers of all swathes, from GQ to the prestigious BBC Sound of… poll, named Celeste as a breakthrough act for 2020, and she didn’t miss.

In January last year, she released “Stop This Flame”, a rambunctious jazz-pop number centered on her powerful and impassioned vocals. Her second single of the year, “Strange”, is a beautiful, downcast ballad that falls somewhere between an emotive Paul McCartney-penned Beatles track and – on the modern end of the scale – the whispered stylings of one Billie Eilish. And we’re not the only ones who thought that, for the track seemed to have brought in the talents of Billie’s Grammy-winning producer brother Finneas on the next single “I Can See the Change”.

If you thought that was the extent of Celeste’s star-making year, then you would be wrong. She then went on to perform three songs for The Trial of Chicago 7, a star-studded Aaron Sorkin-directed venture focused on the tumultuous anti-Vietnam war years. One of those three songs – “Hear My Voice” – is now nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Celeste closed off the year with a duet on the latest Pixar film Soul (“It’s Alright”) for which her soulful, playful vocals are perfectly suited.

So, yeah, Celeste has had one hell of a breakthrough year.

With so many well-known singles that have had their time in the sun, there was always a risk that Celeste’s Jan. 2021 debut album Not Your Muse would not hold up in its entirety. Luckily, that’s not at all the case. We’ve already spoken about the alluring “Tonight Tonight”, a poppy-yet-pensive track that sounds like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” set to an alt-rock drum beat. Another stand-out track is “Beloved”, where Celeste’s deft vocals and the romantic strings bring to mind a dramatically broken heart in, say, snow-covered Christmastime Paris. (Or something equally bittersweet.) The more rock-infused “Love is Back” sounds like it could be a hidden B-side to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” – and really, could there be a greater achievement for a young British jazz-soul singer?

As we wrote in our song review for “Tonight Tonight”, Celeste feels like an artist who’s just on the precipice of household status – think Adele the year before 21 was released, or Lizzo right before “Juice” came out. Not Your Muse is an ode primarily to Celeste’s magnificent voice; but also to her genre-bending sensibilities across jazz, soul, R&B, pop and even rock. It’s early, but we can see this being one of the best debuts of 2021.

Rating: 8/10

Best songs: “Love is Back”, “Tonight Tonight”, “Stop This Flame”

Hiromi – Spectrum

20 Feb

It’s very hard not to understate just how impressive Spectrum is. This is an overview of the past decade of musical learnings by Hiromi, an impressive enough conceit, but to tell you that misses the point. The incredible thing about the album is not the range of music here, but how the whole comes together. It’s not just that her familiarity with all of these threads, it’s that she has internalized them and, having digested them all, can now synthesize something wonderful. This is not just an album more than the sum of its parts, it is an album that developed new building blocks and then made a cathedral from them.

“Kaleidoscope” starts the album out in a Baroque manner, but then goes everywhere it can imagine. There are some threads in there that feel like they escaped from an action movie. “Rhapsody In Various Shades Of Blue” doesn’t stop at mixing in Gershwin and Trane, but even fits The Who in there. You can even see the namesake’s walk in “Mr. C.C.”

It almost goes without saying, but Hiromi is a highly accomplished pianist and this album makes full use of her ability. “Spectrum” is a tour-de-force of dexterity as the song hurtles through intelligent and challenging counterpoint at a breakneck pace. She then balances that with an incredible warmth that radiates through the piano in slower pieces like her take on “Blackbird.” Her rendering of the refrain here is lovely and her excursions express a beautiful wanderlust.

Spectrum is unquestionably the work of a visionary and a virtuoso. It is absolutely masterful jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s even an album that I would recommend to beginners. Due to its assimilation of showtunes, swing and even classic rock, it gives the novice plenty to latch on to. More simply though, it is just a delight to listen to and an album that you are richer for having heard.

Tommy Flanagan – The Cats

11 Feb

1957 was one of those hot periods for jazz. It was a time when you could throw together a bunch of jazz players who happened to be in Detroit and you would get something like The Cats. This is an album chock-full of clever, engaging solos. It’s never aggressive and very listenable no matter who you are. It’s also as sharp as you can ask for.

The album shows you its quality right from the opening of the excellent “Minor Mishap.” It’s a good opening. It’s fun and open-ended and immediately sets you up for interesting things to come and then Trane’s solo is excellent. Coltrane is not as aggressive here as he would very soon become, but you can see him reaching toward it and he’s just having fun with this album anyway.

That fun follows in “Ecypso” where his solo adds to an already great song. The upbeat refrain here is a great way to set the tone and then the noodling piano solo at the start follows it really well. Together, they give the song a good club jazz vibe and the rhythm really bolsters that. Idrees Suleiman is bubbly and having fun here. His solo puts a smile on your face, but there’s intelligence to spare with it and Kenny Burrell puts down a very cool solo as well. It plays things a little predictable in parts, but it’s enjoyable enough for that to be only a minor burr.

Later, “Tommy’s Tume” is just very jazzy jazz. Jazz is already inherently very cool and some jazz is cooler still. This is that jazz and fun to boot. Burrell speeds up in the middle of his solo for a very clever touch, the bass gets a chance to shine and finally Trane comes in for a very smooth touch.

The Cats is not the best that hard bop has to offer. “Solacium” does miss the mark a little, even if it is still music that I’m always glad to have on. The album is just a little too relaxed to really hold its own at the highest level. However, it’s still just wonderful music and one that can be approached from any skill level. This is a collection of jazz masters doing what they do best and it’s no surprise that they are some very cool cats indeed.

Top Five 20 Minute Albums From 2020

1 Feb

Much though one might want to escape the idea of music as a commodity, nothing is that free of context and in the streaming era and the era of #content, it’s all too easy to let an album sprawl. Here, we have five albums (and one bonus one) that take only about 20 minutes each.

Bonus: Silversun Pickups by Toy Soldiers

Silversun Pickups are a band with a history for me. They were one of my first ventures into developing a music taste beyond what played on TV. It’s fun to find a band that you can tell people to check out and Silversun Pickups was that for a much younger me. There are worse bands that I could have chosen.

Toy Soldiers achieves what it sets out to do. It’s competent 2000s era alt-rock. It’s not quite up to the standard of their first three albums, and there are points that just don’t quite reach the emotion they grasp for, but it’s still very listenable. They’re in their comfort zone throughout and the result is solid music. It finishes before you really notice anything from it, but there are very few complaints to have and it’s just nice to see this band again.

5. THE ALBUM by BLACKPINK

K-pop is a visual art form and if you’re only listening to BLACKPINK, you’re missing out on a lot of their charm. This is especially true with “Ice Cream” where a delightful Selena Gomez fits into a classic K-pop music video seamlessly.

They’re at their best with “Lovesick Girls.” It’s not really meant to be scrutinized, but it’s a good, frothy time. It’s got a great chorus, a wonderful conceit and it’s excellent pop. Some songs don’t land quite as well. Cardi does nothing in “Bet You Wanna” and “Pretty Savage” is unintelligent. However, the swagger in “How You Like That” is great and “Crazy Over You” is them doing what they do well. Overall, this is a fun album and BLACKPINK are just too likable to ignore.

4. 1999 by Rich Brian

I don’t know if there’s anyone that I’m quite as excited to see new stuff from as Rich Brian. He’s like Aminé in that I just like seeing him do stuff, but somehow even more likable. The singles of “DOA” and “Love In My Pocket” augured well for the album, but sadly the rest just doesn’t hold up. Rich Brian is absurdly talented, especially for someone of his age (guess why the album is titled 1999), but he hasn’t quite found the consistency yet for even a 20-minute EP.

The singles are just so much fun though. He’s got a great ear for sound and an incredible agility in his music. His weaponization of irony is sharp, funny and makes for exceptional music. His music videos are top-tier. There’s no question that he’s going to figure out how to put it all together soon.

3. Drop 6 by Little Simz

When Little Simz raps, there’s a momentum to it. This is in part just the velocity she’s capable of and the absurd degree of comfort she has when rapping, but it’s more than that. It’s the craftsmanship in her bars. The artistry in how each song is put together and how the pieces connect is compulsive and clever.

It’s thus a shame that this is another salvo from this corner of rap that just slightly misses the mark. This particular brand of London rap is skilled and confident and unceasingly cool, but it lacks an approach vector and Drop 6 doesn’t break the mold. In its focus and its purview, it lacks anything to grab on to.

At least, anything save for its prodigious skill. She’s far too good to ignore and there is more than enough in this music for it to stand on its own.

2. Honeymoon by Beach Bunny

Sometimes, a band can just emerge fully-formed with a debut album. Some artists need a while to figure out who they are. Beach Bunny seems to have the complete picture already though. This is power pop able to stand with anything out there.

They do sometimes take a path too easy. “Sometimes I like being on my own / I’m afraid of winding up alone” in “Cuffing Season” is basically cheating and “I always end up in second place” in “Racetrack” is extremely self-indulgent, but the music is done well enough to carry it over the line from puerile to resonant.

With talent like this, it’s easy to overlook minor blemishes. Beach Bunny is fun and exciting and the Honeymoon period is only just starting.

1. Music in Eight Parts by Phillip Glass

2020 marks 50 years from the writing of this score. In 1970, Phillip Glass was still only making music part-time. His heyday as one of the most celebrated composers was still to come, and yet he was making absolutely unforgettable music. Music In Eight Parts was considered lost for nearly half a century until it was rediscovered in 2017 and then released by the Ensemble in 2020.

The music is astounding. A single thread is taken and twisted and teased through the most winding of tunnels. The use of counterpoint is unbelievable. This music starts with something immediately comprehensible and proceeds to challenge you beyond what you should be able to follow. This music is a strenuous listen and it leaves you lathered at the end, but is exhilarating throughout. It feels like it packs in the same 20 minutes as much music as the rest of this list combined and leaves room to spare. The eight parts are not named for nothing. This is a masterpiece and an album well worth its spot in the Phillip Glass repertoire.

Monthly Playlist: Jan. 2021

31 Jan

A new year, a new hope and – depending on where you live – the same old lockdown. One thing keeping us going is of course the music, and so without further ado, here are the top five tracks of this month.

 5. “Vintage” by Blu DeTiger

Blu DeTiger (unbelievably her real name) is a 21-year-old NYC DJ whose added color is that she also plays a mean bass. She released two songs in 2020 (but don’t let the low rate fool you – as a Gen Z DJ-slash-female-bassist, DeTiger is, as you would imagine, big on TikTok). Last week, she followed those up with the expectedly bass-heavy track “Vintage”. The gist of the song is that DeTiger is stuck in a love/hate equation with a throwback boy who loves all things 00s and 90s (which, for someone born in 2000 like herself, is vintage I suppose). Overall, the Tame Impala-esque bass line paired with DeTiger’s slightly aloof vocals makes for a cool, fresh track.

4. “Typhoons” by Royal Blood

After the massive thumping hit that was last October’s “Trouble’s Coming“, Royal Blood have finally expounded further on said trouble. The two-member rock band’s third album Typhoons will be out on April 30th, and the title track was released earlier this month. “Typhoons” is classic Royal Blood from start to finish: a dense, hard-hitting production between Mike Kerr’s bass/guitar gymnastics and Ben Thatcher’s simply tireless drums. Also notable were the Foals-like jagged elements on the chorus vocals, as well as the more layered sounds in the pre-chorus and outro portions. At this point, these two are such a ruthlessly efficient sound machine that any audible change implies significant experimentation, so this is a promising taste of the upcoming Typhoons.   

3. “Tonight Tonight” by Celeste

Almost exactly a year ago, Celeste was named as the BBC’s Sound of 2020 – an annual poll of the most likely new act to breakthrough to the mainstream. The prediction was echoed by everyone from GQ to Gucci, and by all measures, they were correct. The British singer-songwriter has had a glamorous year (despite everything), including an Oscar-nominated song for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and an end-credits duet with Jon Batiste on the new Pixar movie. Earlier this month, Celeste released her hotly-anticipated debut album Not Your Muse, from which “Tonight Tonight” is a standout new track. On this song, Celeste’s nostalgic, slightly melancholic vocals meld seamlessly with brisk, modern jazz instrumentals – something that has been done before, for sure, but there’s a certain undeniable freshness that she brings to the table. Keep your eye on Celeste – she’s on her way to household-name status, if she isn’t there already.

2. “No One Knows” by The Vaccines

“No One Knows” from the Queens of the Stone Age’s landmark 2002 record Songs For the Deaf ranks among the best songs of the decade. It’s no easy feat to cover the track in a refreshing manner that’s also respectful of the original’s relentless, raw energy – but The Vaccines have done more than alright here. “No One Knows” takes QOTSA’s hard-hitting LA-cool-meets-leather-jacket vibes and turns it into a dream-pop, mellow track with a pared-back version of that famous beat. This one-off cover is apparently from their upcoming Cozy Karaoke EP and a prelude to the fifth album that they’re seemingly set to release in 2021 – good stuff so far!

1. “Don’t Be Dumb” by Dizzee Rascal feat. Ocean Wisdom

There isn’t much breathing room on the new track “Don’t Be Dumb”, a collab between UK grime legend Dizzee Rascal and compatriot rapper Ocean Wisdom. The entire track is structured like a no-holds-barred cypher, with Dizzee and Ocean Wisdom exchanging zingers and brags at speeds that your brain can just barely process. And as if that wasn’t enough, the track is loaded with Dizzee’s trademark deep, bouncy grime beats. This is the kind of track that makes you (rightly) wonder why you don’t listen more to UK rap. Our pick of the year’s tracks so far.

Adrianne Lenker – songs

10 Jan

A lot of indie rock likes to use gentleness to disarm before it strikes. It’s a way to lull you into a placid mood before it lacerates you with insight. songs has moments as sharp as any of them, but is still delicate and somehow reassuring. One of the major cultural trends to recently emerge is that of wholesomeness, but that brand of wholesomeness feels inextricable from naivety. songs doesn’t hide its intelligence, but tempers it with immense gentleness and so does more to rejuvenate than any amount of shallower media.

It’s with “ingydar” that this is at its best. The song takes transience and distills it. It has a fantastic sense of place and it’s very evocative. It takes the repeated “everything eats and is eaten” and shows you that it is not a cruel statement of Darwinian logic, but instead one of profound beauty.

At its best, this is what the album manages to achieve. It takes the harder truths of life and, as if by magic, reveals the gentleness inside. It does mix that with a number of pieces that fizzle without much to say, but there’s still plenty in here well worth the listen.

Top Five Songs of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As a complement to my Top Five Albums of 2020 list, here are the songs whose endless replays helped me get through this year.

Honorable mentions

And now for my top five songs of the year:

5. “Your Love (Déjà vu)” by Glass Animals

Clocking in at #5 is this early single from British pop band Glass Animals’ Dreamland album that was released this year. As we talked about in our review of the album, the singles from Dreamland were really good and everything else was so-so. Well, “Your Love (Déjà vu)” is one of those ridiculously good songs in the first category, featuring crisp hip-hop like beats, electric vocals from singer Dave Bayley and an all-around fun vibe. This is as catchy as the Glass Animals get – don’t miss this one.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020 edition.

4. “The Adults Are Talking” by the Strokes

Over the year, we’ve highlighted “Bad Decisions” and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” from the Strokes’ The New Abnormal (2020) album on our Monthly Playlists; but as we come to the close of the year, it’s the album opener “The Adults Are Talking” that most stands out to me. The Strokes get your feet tapping and your head bopping along from the first seconds of the classic, clean drum line, and it only gets better from there. The icing on the cake is a particularly good vocal effort from Julian Casablancas, especially in the sky-high falsetto at the end. As the first sound you hear on The New Abnormal, “The Adults Are Talking” provided a symbolic sigh of relief to Strokes fans everywhere that the band is alive, well and perhaps better than ever.

Read our full album review here.

3. “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year (which, let’s admit, not a bad plan for 2020), you would have heard Dua Lipa’s mega-hit “Don’t Start Now” at some point. The irrepressible dance-pop number has graced radio stations, talk shows, award shows and all other COVID-ready media; in any other year, it would have likely been on the playlist of every club in the world. Dua Lipa’s entire Future Nostalgia album is an homage to the fun and vivacity of 1970s and 1980s music. And “Don’t Start Now” is the album’s shining disco ball of a crown jewel, with its pulsing bass line, Dua’s staccato vocals, random cowbell, handclaps and so on.

Read our full album review here.

2. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Perhaps the most talked-about song of the year – for one reason or the other – is “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The powerhouse song by the two reigning queens of rap instantly shot to fame with its sexually-explicit lyrics, inciting the wrath of right-wing ghouls everywhere. I consider “WAP” to be iconic, unapologetic and more feminist than most things that claim to be. Cardi and Megan spend the entire song detailing exactly what men should do to please them. The reverse has been covered in songs by men about women ad infinitum; so why should boys have all the fun?

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020 edition.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

As I mentioned on my AOTY list, Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was undoubtedly the best debut album of the year, and the brightest star on the tracklist is the gaudy, poppy “XS”. Rina’s whole vibe is a cool mixture of 90s / early 00s music across all genres, and this song follows that make-up too. Her breathy, slightly nasal vocals – reminiscent of Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears – sync perfectly with the rock-tinged instrumentals brings to mind the early 00s pop-rock acts (Good Charlotte, Simple Plan) which were all the rage back in the day. Lyrically, too, “XS” does well. As the name cleverly suggests, is a critique on the excesses of capitalism (“Cartiers and Tesla X’s, Calabasas, I deserve it / Call me crazy, call me selfish, I’m the baddest and I’m worth it”) – to which Rina cleverly alludes in the song’s music video. All in all, a great effort and – for me – the song of the year.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Apr. 2020 edition.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

End-of-year introspection has an entirely new depth in 2020. There was profound sadness, disappointment, discomfort, dismay – but also hope. Hope in the vaccines that have arrived at breakneck speed, hope in the stronger relationships that emerged out of quarantine, and hope in continuing to keep up whatever gave you joy in this hellish year. For me, the year was made better by the presence of the following five albums, plus a few others that I’ve highlighted below. Read on for my take of the Top Five Albums of 2020.

Honorable mentions

  • What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware: Ridiculously fun, dance-worthy disco jam. (Full review here)
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels: Powerful, well-penned and a perfect soundtrack to the racial turmoil this year. (Full review here)

5. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. debuted in 2019 with the spectacular Dogrel (which also made it to my list last year), and followed it up in 2020 with a deeper sophomore album – A Hero’s Death. The album was written while the band was on a whirlwind global tour for Dogrel, and consequently highlights their thoughts on fame, identity, America and so much more. With mainstream success comes mainstream expectations; A Hero’s Death sees the band rebelling on tracks like “I Don’t Belong” and “I Was Not Born”. “Living in America” dissects the reality of the United States of America from the mythical land-of-the-free in Irish minds while “Televised Mind” comes back to the theme of the stilted thoughts in today’s consumerist world – a favorite theme of Fontaines D.C. (and punk rock bands everywhere). All in all, this is a great record that proves there’s a lot more to come from Fontaines D.C.

Read our full review here.

4. The New Abnormal by The Strokes

Few records have ever been as perfectly titled as The Strokes’ sixth studio album The New Abnormal. The album was announced in February – pre-pandemic – and by the time it came out in April, the whole world was in an entirely different place. In the wilderness years between their fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) and this one, the band released a sum total of three songs (plus a remix). Most of the members used the seven years to work on side projects and there were rumors that the Strokes were done for. Happily though, the situation now seems as far from that as it has ever been, because The New Abnormal sounds like a perfectly-curated playlist of the Strokes’ creative output – together and apart. There are of course the classic “Strokes-y” songs like “The Adults Are Talking” that could do pretty well on their earlier records; but there’s also tracks like the melancholy “At The Door” with its clear Voidz edge and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” with its touches of Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo work. On The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound like they’re working well together and having fun again, and that shows in the music.

Read our full review here.

3. Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

If you’re a pop / R&B star not named Billie Eilish, chances are you’ve tried your hand at dance-pop / disco this year. We had 80s-inspired music from Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and so many others, but none can come close to the disco perfection on Future Nostalgia. The album is pretty much just straight hits from top to bottom. The metaphorical strobe lights start flashing right from the opening beats of the bouncy, irrepressible title track; and it’s a full-blown dance party by the time we get to the massive hit singles like “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical” and “Break My Heart”. Dua has also excelled in live shows this year (of all years), taking and running with any opportunity she gets – see her stripped-back Tiny Desk session or her magnetic AMAs performance of “Levitating”. Future Nostalgia is fresh, fun, timeless and an instant mood booster at a time when we all needed it the most.

Read our full review here.

2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

SAWAYAMA by Japanese-English singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is, in my mind, undoubtedly the debut album of the year. Imagine a mixtape of all the music you illegally downloaded off Napster in the 90s and early 00s; but somehow all the tracks have magically mashed up across genre lines – that’s more or less what SAWAYAMA is. For example, “STFU!” sounds exactly like a Britney Spears cover of a Korn song, while “Dynasty” has all the harmonized pop extravagance of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, with a hint of Evanescence-style elven vocals. If those come off as odd mash-ups, it’s purely a testament to how well this album has been visualized, produced, mixed and implemented. Songs like “XS” and “Comme des Garcons” are crisp, campy, catchy and everything that good pop music ought to be. Rina’s confidence and integrity of artistic vision belie her discography length, and a legion of fans now eagerly await her next move.

Read our full review here.

1. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz

Until about late November, when we in the music review hobby start charting out our end-of-year lists, I honestly did not think of the new Gorillaz album on this list. Indeed, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez was just released a few weeks ago, and although they have been steadily releasing great singles all year, I didn’t think the combined package would hold up. However, the more I started running through Song Machine, the more I was certain that this was the album of the year.

On Song Machine, Damon Albarn has turned the traditional album-single release tradition on its head. Every song is a single in its own right, and has been more or less treated as such, each with a separate release date, music video, accompanying snippets and so on. Release mechanics aside, the music holds up too: every single song on the 11-track album is worthy of the listener’s attention. Moreover, one must applaud the sheer audacity of throwing together musicians across genres – for example, Elton John with rapper 6LACK on “Pink Phantom” – and creating something totally unique and magical. From the opening notes of the otherworldly title track (“Strange Timez” feat. The Cure’s Robert Smith) to the high-energy closing track (“Momentary Bliss” feat. British rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves), Song Machine is the closest we’ll get to an eclectic and electric music festival this year. Virtually of course – what else could it be in 2020?

Read our full review here.

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