Signal Boost: 15 More Tracks from 2020 You Should Know
Our Senior Editor’s favorite pre-released singles, album deep cuts, and tracks by unfairly obscure artists from the past few months.
There’s enough highly publicized new music released every day now to keep you busy for at least a year. Chances are you haven’t heard all of it—and if by some miracle of temporal tampering or unemployment you have, chances are you haven’t retained too much of it.
That’s why every month, our Associate Editor Mike LeSuer is going to be rounding up fifteen tracks to reiterate their importance in an unending stream of musical content. Comprised of pre-released singles, album deep cuts, and tracks by unfairly obscure artists, he thinks these guys could all use a little Signal Boost.
(See part 1 of this list here.)
Chrome Waves, “Hallow Dreams”
There’s a lot going on in metal right now—as a significant fraction of this article will go on to argue, and as a significant fraction of this column has argued—with various shades of metal and intensities of screamo reaching creative peaks in their appropriation of each other (shoegaze tends to be mixed in there too). Chrome Waves are among the countless bands involved in this movement of dislodging the term “black metal” from its sketchy, Norwegian past (you know, not sketchy because it’s Norwegian…I of course mean the Nazi thing) and rebuilding it from the ground up while remaining reverent to its origins. “Hallow Dreams” is plugged with traditional black metal guitar while taking a left turn at nearly every corner, from its spectral sung bridges, to its post-rock spaciousness, to the stirring strings that open the track—it’s all fresh.
As the Goth Boi Clique mythology continues to evolve from a smattering of SoundCloud collaborations to more music-blog-accessible solo records, those blogs continue to sleep on killer song collections by the likes of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and Fish Narc. The two rappers came together on the latter’s criminally unwritten about WiLDFiRE with the result being a sleepy banger stripped of the pop-punk appeal of the rest of Fish’s LP (not to mention Fish’s vocals) in lieu of a hard-hitting trap beat sprinkled with Nelly-feat.-Kelly-Rowland-like “Ahs” (and, of course, Adam McIlwee’s calling-card “Yuhs”). “808 SELECTiON” improbably pivots from guitar noodling and a skit-like discussion about production equipment into one of the year’s best fusions of punk and cloud rap in a year where the two genres felt more akin than ever.
In a year where I spent my entire eight-hour work day listening to music only to have little else to do when I was off work but continue to listen to music, the appeal of meaty comp albums appealed to me more than in any other year. It certainly helped that monthly Bandcamp Fridays provided the perfect opportunity for artists and labels to compile plenty of exclusive song collections featuring new music from favorite artists, as well as an opportunity to verse yourself in the music of those whose work you should probably be a bit more familiar with. Not only did the COVID artists relief comp The Song Is Coming From Inside the House force me to finally sit down with a Phil Elverum recording, but it also introduced me to one of the dreamiest tracks of 2020—a himbo love song from Girlpool’s Harmony Tividad. If you’re not immediately intrigued by this concept (introduced in the first lyric), you’ll be hooked the second the beat hits and gets paired with a transfixing guitar line that calls back to AOR-era soft rock.
The cool thing about shoegaze is that no matter how hard you crank the dial in either direction on its spectrum—from pop to ambient—it sounds sick as hell. Like, this deep cut from a Filipino shoegaze comp? If I had the technical know-how I’d edit this song into an infinite loop of the eighteen-second sound byte that essentially constitutes its ninety-second runtime and find it just as appealing as the equally bludgeoning chorus-verse-chorus of FLOOD Magazine dot com’s tenth best song of 2020. In direct opposition to the crisp recording of “Say Less,” which distinctly singles out each instrument, “Smoother” takes whirring guitar and muted drums and blends them—smoothes them?—into some perfect, unified, and unidentifiably shoegazy instrument before closing with discernible guitar feedback and pattering snare. Shoegaze as a liquid rather than a solid.
Infant Island, “Signed in Blood”
As we near the ten-year anniversary of Sunbather—and the general consensus that black metal is a respectable genre worthy of critical consideration outside of metal circles—2020 has seen a similar (though not quite as momentous) movement in screamo, with the term shedding its Hot Topic connotations and instead signifying a fusion of black metal, hardcore, and other extreme genres. I noticed Infant Island’s Beneath has been popping up on writers’ year-end lists with the caveat that they’re not usually into this kind of thing—which makes sense, considering doom-ambient tracks like “Signed in Blood” prove to be experiments in intense, haunting sound design rather than shrieky hardcore (“Content” is the best shrieky hardcore track on the LP, for the record). In contrast with peers like Portrayal of Guilt, whose records hardly last an intense ten minutes, the appeal of Infant Island is the immersiveness—in addition to the sheer terror—of the listening experience.
For obvious reasons, 2020 was not a big year for shit-talk raps. Never has there been a year with more audio samples of “riots” or the police violence that incited them eerily preceding heavy verses that speak to Black life in America. This left the lane wide open for Fijian rapper Jesswar to wrecking-ball her way back onto the scene in October with a single that targeted an itch that went mostly unscratched this year, being the exact type of banger I’d queue up on my phone if I’d ever stepped foot in a gym. The rapper refers to the track as an “eruption” in the face of Australia’s pseudo-diverse music scene—though it’s a discharge that was surely heard all the way over here in the States.
If ever there was a time to get into ambient music it was 2020. (I mean, I didn’t, but I would certainly endorse your decision if you’d done so.) I did, however, spend plenty of time unwinding to pop (and white, cis, male hetero-patriarchy) deconstructionist Kelsey Lu’s “I Respect You Black Man,” a gentle piano piece spanning over nine minutes and incorporating audio from a Sun Ra interview covering the difficulties of making a career as a Black musician (and which appears on this cool pro-care, anti-cop comp). Rather than the interview covering the whole track, it cuts out after three minutes, providing six and a half minutes of slow, pedal-dampened piano over which to consider the barely audible clip of a genius artist commenting upon the deliberate erasure of his legacy in a capitalistic popular culture that ascribes little value to his music. It works as well as a somber eulogy for all the Black artists who died while still unknown as it does a twinkling celebration of their work, which in many cases has been posthumously reconsidered.
For some reason I was recently remembering a mutual friend I’d made on last.fm some time around a decade ago with whom I had a brief DM convo about our similar, “weird” taste in music with the other user telling me how their younger sibling would refer to it as “that weird internet music.” I just looked this exchange up and it turned out they’d found me through my interest in Be Your Own Pet, and their most listened to artists were Deerhunter and Real Estate. I’m sure the fragments that make up the dizzying near-two-minutes of “GOATMEAL” were all swimming around the internet in some iteration in 2010—as trance, drum & bass, rap, and proto-EDM recordings—but the overcaffeinated marriage of these then-disparate soundbytes and its undeniable appeal to a pair of teens who rarely listened to anything outside of groups of mopey white dudes must have been completely unfathomable. I mean, we were just getting used to MGMT.
Mamaleek, “Eating Unblessed Meat”
The folks in Mamaleek wish to remain anonymous and that’s OK. That’s good even—it’s been awhile since we’ve stuck with the whole “anonymous artist” thing without it being revealed a few months later that it’s just Flying Lotus or whatever. It also seems apt for their context within the Flenser catalog, largely comprised of music that feels fully removed from popular culture and internet presences and also mortality. Like their labelmates, Mamaleek excel at dirges rather than songs, kicking their latest album (named after the Soviet Union’s most distressing contribution to film) with a war-ravaged epic doing new things to metal while an unnamed vocalist exhibits the absolute perfect voice for a hardcore band. I swear to god if Flying Lotus is behind this…
MOZIAH feat. Still Gosling, “PROBLEM”
We didn’t get a new Vince Staples album this year but we did get a.) some memorable VS verses on Boldy James, Aminé, and Reason singles and b.) the spirit of Vince all over the playful final track to MOZIAH’s ¡ZYEBOI! EP. The improbably bouncy and lyrically hard-to-keep-up-with “PROBLEM” is an enticing shift from the Haitian-American rapper’s finessed neo-soul on preceding projects and the EP that followed, switching from R&B ambiance (filtered through a Nintendo Wii on the latter release) to a beat-heavy and overly wordy team rap alongside Columbus emcee Still Gosling, the pair name dropping everyone from J.K. Simmons to the cast of Matchstick Men to Steve Brule. Take your time on that new album, Vince.
Neptunian Maximalism, “Ptah Sokar Osiris”
Not sure how Neptunian Maximalism were able to figure the math on this, but “Ptah Sokar Osiris”—one of sixteen tracks on the album it appears on, its tracks averaging a runtime of six minutes—is quite possibly the only recording that can boast an exact composition of 33 percent jazz, 33 percent heavy psych, and 33 percent black metal, with stoner rock, improv drone, and dark ambient fighting over the remaining 1 percent. The menacing monolith of a nine-minute instrumental (unless you count the indistinguishable black metal incantations that mark the intro) is utter controlled chaos, progging its way through hellish corners of its uniform sound to—frankly—reveal itself to be the sound John Dwyer’s chased on every individual album he’s released in the past decade at once.
Shilpa Ray, “Heteronormative Horseshit Blues”
There’s a certain nostalgia inherent to Shilpa Ray that violently clashes with the heteronormative horseshit she so often sings about. I think that’s the point of Shilpa Ray—much in the same way Tyler, the Creator has begun dressing like the exact type of octogenarian white dude who has been the most racist to him his entire life, the Brooklyn-based Ray has co-opted a sort of Rat Pack aesthetic (if not punctuated with a Blue Velvet–like question mark in regard to its blatant anachronisms) in order to call out the type of violent masculinity that inhabited such circles. “Heteronormative Horseshit Blues” falls in a long line of such blues-via-garage-punk singles from Shilpa, which feels in equal parts indebted to the soaring vocals of Nick Cave as it does her West Coast counterparts like Shannon and the Clams. And “Blues” feels like her greatest feat yet, tackling centuries of misogyny while remaining cool as hell.
$ilkmoney, “Did You Getcho Check, Lil Brah?”
I have the distinct memory from early 2020 of thinking that something occurring on a national level was quite possibly the dumbest thing that’s ever happened. Since then, of course, so many impossibly stupid things have transpired that I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking of, but with news of a looooong-awaited second stimulus check worth half the amount of the already-skimpy first installment making the news I can’t help but think this particular facet of the ongoing saga of the U.S. government finding new ways to kill us off during the pandemoc may be what I had in mind. While plenty of artists made quick turnaround of this frustration, nobody elucidated their frustration and exhaustion quite like $ilkmoney, immediately noting how the immigrants and dependents were skipped over on payments before invoking the March TP shortage. It’s a reminder that we’re not only experiencing 9/11 levels of death every single day, but also Katrina levels of racist neglect.
Tiny Little Houses, “Richard Cory”
“Richard Cory” is a remake of a remake of sorts, adapting Simon & Garfunkel’s track of the same name which itself adapted an 1890s Edwin Arlighton Robinson poem—perhaps even filtering it through the punky stylings of The Menzingers. But where Robinson’s nineteenth-century Cory was “schooled in grace,” Tiny Little Houses seemingly set their remake in their own DIY scene, spinning the all-too-familiar story of the classmate for whom everything seemed to come easy, praising the socialite’s habit of bringing beer to the hang when no one else could afford it before disappearing into a post-grad six-figure income. And where Simon & Garfunkel’s take on the poem felt irreverently upbeat, the Melbourne group emphasizes the tragic conclusion with post-hardcore crescendos and the oddly pleasing injection of a chorus that recalls The Polyphonic Spree—anything but quiet and understated.
Uboa falls somewhere in the vast chasm between Lingua Ignota and Black Dresses, reappropriating the latter’s dysmorphic, body-conscious subject matter and abrasive sounds to match it for the former’s grandiose, overly dramatic classicism. Which is to say, Xandra Metcalfe experiments with both these artists’ strongest suits while incorporating the harsh noise and apocalyptic ambient particularly suitable for 2020, and a certain existential query attributable to Swans. Crescendoing into glitched-out electronics and hoarse screaming, “God Unbounded” is pure angst—a cathartic listen in a year when your neighbors bought up all the pasta sauce and toilet paper in March before struggling to understand (or care about) mask safety protocol.