Signal Boost: 15 Tracks from December 2020 You Should Know
The month’s most discourse-worthy singles, according to our Senior Editor.
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 Senior Editor Mike LeSuer rounds 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.
The only context I really have for awakebutstillinbed is seeing them open for Joyce Manor, Jeff Rosenstock, and AJJ at the Hollywood Palladium last January, an evening with a haha-what-the-fuck energy radiating from each of the bill’s four DIY punk bands as they took to the historic stage in front of a sold-out crowd. While they still seemed pretty confident onstage, the opening single to the EP ABSIB dropped on Christmas morning oozes uncertainty, with vocalist Shannon Taylor punctuating verses with “I don’t knows” before erupting into punky rasps—a considerably more existential scenario than the party vibes I first experienced the band in, though just as engaging.
Travis Miller’s music excels most when it inhabits—as it usually does—one of two extremes: pure bliss or utter hopelessness. The former takes shape on several of his tapes as Lil Ugly Mane, an avenue for broad experimentation within several genres, which coagulate as some unique brand of hip-hop spawned on heavily clicked corners of SoundCloud. The latter hit its peak on his intense debut as Bedwetter, in which he bluntly addresses self-loathing and insecurities through his inimitable vocals that recall a young, pissed-off El-P. For some reason he chose the Bedwetter moniker to release a LUM B-side and one of his most blissed-out loops to date. “Headboard” blends George Clanton’s passions for chillwave, grunge, and dream pop, while Miller’s vocals sound more relaxed than ever.
Black Wing, “Vulnerable”
OK, I’m new to the Have a Nice Life mythology—it seems to me like what’s going on is two dudes were in a really dark place and made a really good album about it and it became really popular on stupid parts of the internet? And then (at least) one of the two dudes got better, and now people are mad at him for it? No Moon, the second album from HANL’s Dan Barrett’s darkwave side-gig, is full of plenty of the dark energy that made Deathconsciousness a meme-worthy cultural moment. Even the ecstatic synth interlude feels weighed down by the utter meaninglessness of our dumb little lives, the jittery, staccato keys forming a whirlwind panic attack over a doomy drum track. Goosebumps, man—and I can’t tell if it’s the “good music” kind or the “horror movie” kind.
Covey, “Cut on the Crease”
As someone whose favorite character on The Office in high school was Jim, my frame of music reference from that time period is pretty limited, so forgive me here—but with “Cut on the Crease” being my introduction to Covey, the distinct, soaring vocals remind me of my first experience hearing Will Sheff sing, and there’s something very Antlers-y about those rousing horns in the song’s final act. I know both of those reference points are pretty far off from what this music really is, but honestly I’m struggling to tack this onto anything more contemporary (all the YouTube comments refer to “the TikToks”…help me out zoomers?). Seems like an added bonus that their music video game is just as unique.
Eyedea, “Kill Your Crush (Live at First Ave.)”
Before Bowie marked his passing with a chillingly prescient LP, Michael Larsen gave a similarly eerie signoff in the form of a heavy final recording made even heavier a year later when the rapper known as Eyedea died just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. By the Throat, a stark turn from his and producer DJ Abilities following a much more light-hearted contribution to the THPS soundtrack, ended with a song that felt like a finale on a scale much grander than what a thirty-minute record typically includes. It’s still a little chilling hearing newly unearthed audio from the rapper—particularly live recordings, such as this one, which recalls the slam-poetry recitations of peers like Sage Francis in the era of Eminem’s monopoly on white-guy emcees.
for your health, “birthday candles in the effigy”
With the amount of dread-on-main permeating our feeds in the time since Daughters wrote the official soundtrack to contemporary anxiety in 2018, it makes sense that more and more bands seem to be gravitating into this same ominous sphere. While for your health (s/o Steve Brule?) swap Cave-like sermonizing for slightly, uh, more stressed-out vocals, and the back half of “birthday candles” ventures into emo circles, there’s something distinctly Sadlerian about the jittery, heavy guitar from the outset. The first track from the group’s debut LP may set the stage musically, though does little to prepare you for the onslaught of successive witty, mid-aughts pop-punk song titles.
After recording some of the year’s goofiest verses for the likes of Quelle Chris and Sen Morimoto, Joseph Chilliams managed to close out the year with a song and video hitting the surprisingly sweet spot between wholesome Christmas track, earnestly loving R&B banger, and “69” joke. It’s like an SNL digital short, only it’s so sexy that you’re like, “Haha damn, actually, yeah bro, let’s.” The angelic, cooing accents of Morimoto push this single into holiday classic territory—something to bust out every December as you proposition your lady in front of your kid while posing for a Christmas card.
It breaks an unwritten rule of Signal Boost to cover more than one song that fit into the same weird niche category, but frankly it’s December, and I’m in the Midwest, and it’s hard to avoid dredging up the dirty-snow universe of The Flenser at all times. While Dan Barrett’s music faces the heaviness of existence head on, Thom Wasluck’s is a more passive doom, repurposing shoegaze for a doom-metal audience. The extended opener to his recent EP comprised of tracks originally written and recorded over a decade ago promptly sets the scene for anyone new to Planning for Burial’s agenda: scuzzy, snail’s-pace bass riffs underline wandering, post-rock guitars and somewhat muted drums.
I’m not surprised that Pictureplane is the reason I found out about the burgeoning (?) goth-cholo movement, nor am I surprised that he can be spotted enjoying a glass of wine by candlelight (mid-day) in a graveyard in the new video for PRAYERS’s 2017 collaboration with the purveyor of cool. Weird to learn “Trust Issues” has been out in the world for three years without any indication of this unequivocally rad and completely unique vibe catching on outside of the electro duo’s music taking off outside of their native Southern Cali.
Ric Wilson, “Trunk Music”
Chicago, undeniably, has had the strongest music scene in the country for some time now, but 2020 seems to be the year folks outside the city seemed to really take notice. From edgy post-punk to blistering noise rock to left-field hip-hop—you listened to that Chilliams track, yeah?—it’s been a big come-up for deserving artists like Ric Wilson to get national attention with a killer Terrace Martin collaboration this year and the handful of singles that followed. The last of which swaps the soulful funk of Martin’s production for a trumpet-guided beat courtesy of Wilson’s cousin over which the rapper penned verses about cancelling Stacey Dash and listening to Smashing Pumpkins really loud (in addition, y’know, to some more important and relevant things).
There’s a certain canon of songs that are seemingly impossible to fuck up a cover of—“If It Makes You Happy,” “White Flag,” “Running Up That Hill,” “True Love Will Find You in the End,” etc. Which isn’t to diminish the accomplishment that is AJJ’s Sean Bonnette covering the Daniel Johnston staple, as his band has proven capable of covering tracks on the opposite end of that possible-to-fuck-up spectrum. But like his strange kinship to Jeff Mangum, Johnston seems like an apt subject for the terminally anxious vocalist to channel, commendably replicating the earnest optimism of the original. I think the Dido track would make a great B-side. (Support the Phoenix arts space The Trunk Space and buy the full comp this track appears on here.)
Sibille Attar, “Dream State”
I’ve spent the past week working my way through a book of Q&As with David Lynch, and one thing I admire about that dude is his ability to reduce the impossibly complex feature length films he’s made into simple and surprisingly evocative words like “beautiful” and “haunting” and “mystery” in his cagey interviews. Similarly complex—and seemingly inhabiting the same unconscious wonder—is the pre-album single “Dream State” from Sibille Attar’s forthcoming falling-back-in-love-with-music project A History of Silence, which, yes, could very easily be summed up as “beautiful” and “haunting”—less of a mobius strip than Lost Highway and more of a carousel spiraling the same motif for its lengthy run time while slowly climbing up into the ether. [Dave Lynch voice] Good deal.
Taking Meds, “Unplug”
If you pen a song as cinematically unhinged as “Unplug,” I think it’s your moral duty to follow it up with a music video that channels that same energy. Half a year after introducing the track, Taking Meds gave us a visual interpretation that dilutes the song’s urgency with some light-hearted horror that, personally, hits close to home as someone from Erie, PA. The song itself proved to be the highlight from the group’s July The Meds You Deserve EP, channeling the assaultive post-punk of METZ alongside peers like exhalants and the similarly cheeky Blacklisters.
Through Sand, “New Ways”
I just found out who Hum is (sorry) when they returned over the summer after twenty years to reclaim their throne as the definitive shoegaze/alt-metal fusion group in a year that saw heated competition from Nothing, Deftones, and plenty of others. In the tail end of 2020, the niche genre seems more vitalized than its late-’90s heyday, with countless acts hopping out of the woodwork to give the vets a run for their money. One such band boasts ex-members of metalcore group Shai Hulud and hardcore punks Gouge Away to contribute the needed heft—though, as “New Ways” proves, the project is distinctly ’gazy at its core.
Well, Tunic didn’t get the opportunity to shred at New Colossus after all, but this year we did get A) their first new single since last year’s perfect debut, B) news of a follow-up to that debut, and C) a video of their singer’s face being splashed with condiments. While I guess I’m most excited about B), and C) certainly has some appeal, it’s A) that’s most pressing—nobody’s produced music that expresses just how cold winters in Winnipeg are (since Venetian Snares) quite like the aggressive—yet neat—hardcore of Tunic, which somehow replicates the energy of dropping your dignity and sense of safety and sprinting the last quarter mile home to escape the singe-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures while dodging ice patches. “Exhaling” is certainly no exception.