The Best Music of 2020, Pt. II
Last time around we visited some trends of past-revivalism and revanchism in indie rock, Fiona Apple, and The Soft Pink Truth. This time around I want to explore other spheres.
Starting with what is more or less the sleeper favorite of mine for the last year: Kate NV’s Room for the Moon, wherein the most exciting of Russian pop artists traded the gnarly guitars of her band Glintshake for a synth-and-drum-programmed restaging of a very particular corner of the 1980s. It evokes European omnivores from Lizzy Mercier Descloux to Kraftwerk, Japanese city pop (especially its artsier cousins, like the group Mariah), and numerous other urban tendrils. On the one hand, it’s a perfect reconstruction of the aesthetics of that past, now recombinant. On the other, it is somehow too perfect to actually exist in that era. Unmistakable and unique and more—it uses its retro-reconstruction in a different way from most indie acts, who merely bring the drama of the past to bear on the present: the function of this album’s signifiers (saxes, drum machines, that eerily particular bass sound, the unmistakable synthesizers) is to do something trickier, to lift the listener directly out of the modern context they’re in, to suspend the listener in some magic musical space in between now and then, to spirit you off to a zone in which the imagined global front of popular music past can envelop you anew. Listening to it, one gets endless pictures of speed trains, glass landscapes, shiny cities, kitschy television commercials, MTV, neon, and something like the rest of the world’s sleeker answer to a plastic Reaganite America. The song “Plans” above all. I love that song. In an alternate universe, Kate’s music might have soundtracked a thousand wild educational videos, or perhaps a grand discotheque in the waning days of Perestroika. Is this another way to inch forward, perhaps? Novels have done this routine for a long time—using an imagined articulation of past eras to cast a careful eye to the present, and so on to the future. Someone like Kate NV doesn’t simply make great Pop, they aestheticize their fantasies, projecting their private paradises into the collective unconscious in hopes of steering some lonely souls towards greater pleasures, far from the more prosaic, deadening ideas which might siphon it away instead. Such is the greatest goal of Pop.
Speaking of Pop—let's praise , in short, what I believe to be the most adventurous (and likely best) album by a (relatively) mainstream pop artist in years: Charli XCX’s how I’m feeling now. Nothing proved to me the stupid, deaf ears of our so-called music critics than the blasé receptions it met with early in the year. Taking the inspirations of past collaborations with artists like Sophie and A.G. Cook, and current co-onspirators like 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady, she finally surpassed the promise she once had as a potentially future-leaning pop star. This is likely why the album was shrugged off: the music press trumped her up for so long as some galvanizing “Pop Star of the Future,” despite her hits being relatively steady Top 40 music (with exceptions) which had thus far only gestured towards the new sounds bubbling beneath, they completely missed the fact that she’d actually, finally done it. All the hyperreality slowly invading pop music with the emergence of Vaporwave and the whole PC Music roster finally reached its grand crescendo in how I’m feeling now, which in some meaningful sense is the Ultimate Hyperpop Album. It is also, importantly, the most human. Charli uses the extremes given her by that musical context, but imbues it with paeans to wonderfully small-scale pop themes, like sticking with her guy and getting wasted and worrying about someday being alone. It’s her curation of sounds and ideas that does it: Charli has become the only really forward-thinking pop star in the world and if that sounds like heresy, so be it. The album has been her least successful (peaking at 111 on the Billboard Album Charts) and it is precisely because of this, though a pop star she remains. Listen to a giddy, bonkers song like “Claws” and tell me the average person would warm up to it. It’s difficult to say. Mainstream-capable pop music hasn’t really sounded like the future since Timbaland fell off fifteen years ago—Charli’s sorely unappreciated victory is worth celebrating at least for that.
Yet in the land of most electronic music, the shared experiences of popular longing become more difficult to express and discuss. Simple fact of the digital age. Here’s the second of the big points/themes that arose conscious for me last year: for electronic artists, it is far more difficult to establish something specific to themselves, something that makes them memorably and unmistakably them. Once instrumental/vocal timbre and natural acoustic space are either augmented or removed from the equation entirely, the human ear has a harder time recognizing tones and sounds, tying them to something real and tangible, truly processing it. Electronic music at its dullest falls into a kind of musical version of “haptic dissonance,” the scientific term for how digital screens interfere with our memory and object recognition whenever we try to read from them. And it’s hardest to succeed on instrumental music alone, more so the more experimental (which, let’s be frank, is mostly a euphemism for absence of cohesion) it becomes. So, the best artists evolve extraordinary ways of marking themselves, of building singular worlds for themselves and their chosen priority of synthetic sounds.
Is anyone more a master of sidestepping this digital limbo than Oneohtrix Point Never? I’ll admit that the last thing I expected of him last year was his cheeky “Magic” version of an out-and-out pop album, but given his dalliances with The Weeknd and scoring for the Safdie Brothers, perhaps it really wasn’t so surprising. Still, it’s OPN, our hero-pioneer of what Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher once considered a new chapter in Derrida’s concept of “hauntology.” Far from mere retromania, or the kind of fantastical thesis (and ultimately purer vision) of a Kate NV, OPN’s world is a conglomeration of pasts that never wholly existed. From album to album, through project after project, he’s strolled through the prisms of Vaporwave, Glass-ian classical minimalism, Aphex-style ambient, mountainous vintage synth compositions, Hyperpop, New Age mixups, and whatever the TV-commercial sci-fi landscape of Replica was. With Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, he finally put them all together and constructed another minor masterpiece, a collage which makes a serious case for his being the most influential single musical artist of the last 15 years. This music is heaven and hell for writers—every track is worth a thousand words. One moment you’re in the middle of criss-crossing found sound above buttresses of Vangelis synths, the next you’re skipping across dizzy water droplets, into Madlib stutter-samples, and further into a vocoder-ed riff on Enya. A single track can transform from the aural equivalent of a warped VHS, squawking vague commercial patter at you, to a cascade of shimmery harpsichords, to full-on Toronto R&B. And true to the paradoxes of 2020, this somehow landed the man on Fallon.
Other great albums in the electronic realm found their special ways as well. Ana Roxanne’s Because of a Flower, for instance, turned out to be the best example of an ambient minimalism I’ve heard in a long time. Like Eno’s classic Music for Airports (the granddaddy of it all), she uses the physicality of real sounds (in her case, weighted keyboards, soft guitar twangs, percolating water sounds) to augment those electronics. Ultimately, it’s even more acoustic than electronic in its feeling, so when her remarkable voice (even when wordless it’s somehow recognizable) enters in, the listener is ensconced in a benevolent sound-world, in grand sympathy with a slowly evolving and undulating Nature. Aesthetically speaking, it's on the far tangible end of the real/unreal dichotomy always at work in electronic music. Now, for an example of how the other extreme often operates, consider Yaeji’s What We Drew. The producer known for her brilliant hip-hop/house mélange and cleverly affectless “Work it, girl” anthems runs up against some of the issues that come from working within those specific genre frameworks (a rigidly fixed grid of tempos and beats, little ability to improvise or really “compose”) but still stuns with proof of her complete control of those styles.
Somewhere in between lay two other fantastic records. The first being Jessy Lanza’s third record, All the Time, which saw her further refining the chilly R&B/footwork/house hybrid she’s been working on since 2014’s criminally underrated Pull My Hair Back. She finds a maximum of open space in which to interject her slippery, breathy voice, dancing interpolated 90s soul clichés around a pitched-up, hyper version of kitschy 80s pop. It’s subtle and a bit too perfect but still pure, unalloyed pleasure. The other is Yves Tumor’s Heaven to a Tortured Mind. Building off their masterful 2019 record, Safe in the Hands of Love, Tumor successfully crafted something like our first proper Apocalypse Rock, reverse-engineering a series of sex jams, Prince-ish guitar anthems, and stomping brass samples into a dozen anthems for the Anthropocene (take that, Grimes).
Perhaps even better than all of these, however, was the sophomore effort from the genius Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song. In just two albums she’s constructed the most forward-thinking dance music we have, working like a master painter in giant streaks of gray and blue and white, with her ethereal voice floating above. It’s austere and enormous—somehow both natural and completely electric. As if a rave were going down in a Tarkovsky movie, it blips and bleeps, but still moans and whooshes with an expanding, breathing worldliness I haven’t heard since Bjork’s landmark 90s albums.
Now, I’ve devoted so much time to electronic music simply because it continues to be the truest soundtrack to a very electronic world—not to mention the very busy inner
world which reflects it. Hip-hop does this, too (since it is also, by definition, electronic music) but like many genres that focus on singles and tie-ins, it has always had a harder time harnessing that incomparable energy into full, cohesive albums.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t happen all the time. After all, most radio pop music today is functionally hip-hop. And hip-hop in action is really only a fixed bed or framework of its own, which allows for an ostensibly infinite variation of content, style, and sound on top. Anything can be hip-hop, basically, so long as it happens within the framework. Playboy Carti can make joyful weirdo baby noises but because there’s a beat and a context, it’s hip-hop. The best hip-hop I heard in 2020 included tracks from him and Gunna and Denzel Curry and JPEGMAFIA and Megan Thee Stallion, but the album that clenched the top spot was Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn’s Pray for Paris, his goofy, Cocaine Don-aspiring nasal crowing neatly balanced against the smoothest, most luxurious beats this side of a classic Puff Daddy production.
Elsewhere, the debut of Chicago singer/producer KeiyaA, Forever, Ya Girl, brought what is likely the coolest, most exciting R&B update since Solange got serious (though R&B barely covers the territory she covers here). It’s an absolute virtuoso run through a series of deep, dense electronic collages and Baduisms, fragments of poetry and sampled voices, jazz, psychedelia, grime, and a constant pulsating sense of a woman making multiple traditions of Black expression entirely her own. So often such grand statements of personal intent and vision come across on record as rhetorically brilliant but skimp on real musical invention. Not so with her debut. Nothing last year made me want to cruise around the city blasting its tracks more, or caught me so suddenly in confrontations with a sober reflection, at the confluence of musical history and love, at personal and political struggles.
Nothing, that is, except for the most recent album from the anonymous London-based collective SAULT, Untitled (Rise), which seems to me to be the absolute summary of a decade of protest music and a dramatic settling of questions over whether music right now can really contain the large political implications of an apocalyptic era. SAULT—a group of artists who never give interviews, or release the names of their members—seem to declare that the answer is More: more Life, more Beauty, more dancing, more Love, more tears, more emotion, more Fun. Spanning everything from Philadelphia soul, disco, Afrobeat, jazz, and sweeping orchestral interludes, it righteously declares the kind of alignment I thought had gone out of fashion: that is, that art is in and of itself the highest form of protest, that the freedom to create and sing and dance are of life-giving importance: that these are precisely the ways we work out what it means to be free in every grander sense of the word. This is what pop music can do most profoundly—it can communicate through feeling alone an entire vision, an entire world of possibility. If SAULT’s music is any indication, another great shift is possibly happening, with the chance to put Pop back in the place it once belonged, to let it do for us just what our society has been engineered to prevent us from doing: imagining something better.