We have reached the halfway point of 2020. In the past, we would use this time to pause, light up the grill and enjoy the summer, bathing ourselves in the glorious new music that this year has yielded. Not in 2020. As we struggle with COVID-19, music is now a balm, a way to get past the days of being stuck at home with scared children, binge watching Netflix and waiting for November so we can vote Donald Trump out of office. Please allow us to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap. And while there are some significant absences, we hope this feature will inspire you to seek out some of the smaller names here. What a fucking time to be alive.

5 Seconds of Summer – CALM [Interscope]

With their fourth studio album, 5 Seconds of Summer continue to solidify their path away from teen-oriented punk music and toward a solid, grown-up pop album. CALM is engaging and loveable, even for listeners who might not consider themselves fans of the group. They have most certainly found their groove as a band, and it’s evident from start to finish on this album. There isn’t a single filler track, which is not only the mark of a perfect pop album but of an album where all of its central elements are working together. The production is refined and sophisticated, while also not trying too hard to be something it’s not. If it wasn’t clear before, CALM showcases 5SOS’s incredible range and eclectic taste. The album goes places where their previous work simply did not, making it incredibly satisfying for even the most uneducated of listeners. From learning to love and embrace the mistakes of our former selves on “Old Me,” to the pure pop perfection of “Wildflower” (a song so good that you can almost forget the world is in a crisis while listening to it), while also still not straying too far away from their punk roots on “Teeth,” 5SOS’s latest record is the perfect easy, breezy listen for a sunny afternoon this summer. – Jeffrey Davies

Algiers – There Is No Year [Matador]

Depending on how you listen, There Is No Year is either a continuation of the strident, politicized music Algiers have made for years, or it’s a departure from that for more personal material. The correct answer lies somewhere in between; after all, the personal is political. While There Is No Year allows for a more apolitical expression, Algiers commit to it with the same fervor and passion that they seem to apply to everything. What’s truly different this time is how the band approaches the topics they choose to speak about this time: while their previous albums were fiery and energetic, There Is No Year takes that energy and multiplies it tenfold.
Furthermore, there’s a clarity to the album that adds new dimensions to the band’s performances. Singer Franklin James Fisher has always had a commanding voice, but the crispness of his delivery on songs like “Dispossession” gives his words so much more power here. It also pairs well with the band’s eclectic approach, and this album shows them at their most musically omnivorous with their embraces of glitchy electronics, jazz, and soul. Algiers could have continued writing dissonant, anti-establishment polemics for the rest of their careers and found an audience, but while that rage certainly hasn’t died out, There Is No Year shows that the band’s musical ambitions are more varied than that. – Kevin Korber

Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman [37d03d]

With Bonny Light Horseman, Anaïs Mitchell, Eric Johnson and Josh Kaufman effectively reinvented folk music. A loose swing infects the grooves; instead of static readings trapped in time they head for the spaces in between the notes, wringing emotion from every one. Slurring and extending phrases Mitchell sings these songs as if they were being sung for the first time. Plucked notes are replaced by strummed chords, there’s a swing to the rhythms, a constant wondering about where things are headed.

A perfect example is “Blackwaterside,” previously appropriated by Led Zeppelin as “Black Mountain Side,” as it gets stood on its ear, adding piano and voices to the mix. The result is both muscular and fragile at the same time, with the vocal chorus and sax solo bringing tears to the eyes. Rather than being relegated to a stuffy old bookshelf, the songs on Bonny Light Horseman breathe, capturing both the air and the imagination.

The elements of folk music are simple, yet the possibilities endless. The choices that Bonny Light Horseman make create a new dimension, whether it’s a line spoken rather than sung or rewriting a line to create a more relevant setting. Not only do they keep the music alive and vibrant, they create the bridges for the next generation. – Bob Fish

Caribou – Suddenly [Merge]

There’s something for everyone on Suddenly, Dan Snaith’s latest album as Caribou. Are you a fan of Caribou’s IDM roots? Look no further than the hauntingly immersive synths on opener “Sister,” or the sleek, dream-inducing “Like I Loved You.” Is Daft Punk’s spacey funk house more your thing? The groovy “Lime” and celebratory “Ravi” have got you covered. If all else fails, just try to resist the head-swinging, foot-tapping, soul-sampling jam “Home.”

Make no mistake, though. Suddenly is a shining example of how experimentation and accessibility are far from mutually exclusive. Snaith pulls the strings of a multi-faceted marionette as he tempts chaos throughout the record. EDM rock anthem “You and I” opens with a twinkling atmosphere, but erratic vocal loops usher in an epic psychedelic breakdown. On “Sunny’s Time,” static lurks under a somber, contorted piano melody before the song bursts into another Burial-esque vocal sample. Fuzzy synths and glaring electronics create a startling anxiety as a brassy saxophone reaches a tumultuous climax.

The production offers surprises at every turn, but perhaps the greatest strides Suddenly makes are in Snaith’s vocals. While on previous albums Snaith hid behind his music, here he sings with a soft self-assurance that beautifully complements the album’s wild instrumentation. This newfound confidence has empowered Caribou to craft his most direct songs yet, often following a verse-chorus structure that gives his sonic experimentation an alternative rock feel à la Alt-J.

Suddenly dexterously blends its many influences with suspenseful and engaging songwriting and production to create a captivating listening experience. Caribou has crafted songs that are familiar, yet they defy expectations at every turn with sample and production choices that could only come from an artist as well-versed as Snaith. It’s exhilarating, soothing and fun, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an audience Suddenly wouldn’t please. – Aaron Paskin

Cerca – Mod Pink Relic [Self-released]

Released just weeks before the world shut down, this experimental ambient album was a comforting accompaniment to self-isolation. Inspired by organic sounds that he grew up with around the Chesapeake Bay, Brooklyn-based Darren Hoyt treated natural timbres as just one hue on an evocative musical canvas that uses 21st-century electronics to evoke the past. Cerca’s influences are audible; the ambient washes suggest Brian Eno, dense electric guitar swirls recall Popul Vuh, but a distinct voice comes through, steeped in European ancestors and American myth. These cinematic instrumentals would be equally at home in a new Kelly Reichardt film as in a vintage Werner Herzog parable about man’s eternal battle with nature, swirling reverb evoking the waterways of Hoyt’s childhood. Which makes this autobiographical album an adult’s dream of boyhood on the bayside, full of all the wonder and danger that the natural world offers to anyone with open eyes and ears. With hints of birdsong and the wind that, as Hoyt told Spectrum Culture, he remembers blowing through the bulrushes behind his childhood home, Mod Pink Relic electrifies the sound of the swamp and lights up nocturnal journeys along ancient tributaries, weaving the past and the present into gorgeous, soothing music. – Pat Padua

David Grubbs & Taku Unami – Comet Meta [Blue Chopsticks]

The record begins in unassuming territory, two undistorted electric guitars unfurling jumbled yet glassy, complementary yet dissonant post-rock measures that resemble rivers floating suspended in the air, sentiments that are both fully formed and feathery-light. Two minutes into the title track of Comet Meta, though, you get the sense you’re listening to something not just sonically pleasant but important. There, David Grubbs and Taku Unami – appearing on the duo’s debut for Grubbs’ Blue Chopsticks Records – break down the measures in hyper-pressurized space, with one guitar providing rapidly fingered scales and arpeggios as another repeats the title’s main theme, if only with a bit more urgency. It’s nothing short of masterful – and a trope the musicians reprise throughout the recording.

Grubbs and Unami are never at a shortage for ideas but what makes Comet Meta such a delectable meal for longtime fans is how it seems to take stock of both musicians’ catalogs while plunging ever forward. Unami’s electro-acoustic sound work, the undulating waves of it all, hints at the finest “isms” of Grubbs’ Gastr del Sol days and Grubbs is a savant here on both guitar and piano. In short, the new record, just six pristine songs long, is not only by Grubbs but of him. Comet Meta, in fact, might not just be a brilliant successor to Grubb’s 2017 solo LP Creep Mission but also one of the more defining works of Grubbsian experimental post-rock. If that doesn’t get you drooling in anticipation, nothing will. Here’s a bold statement: in 10 years, we’ll still be comparing Comet Meta to the brightest work phantom-blues guitarist Loren Connors ever has recorded. – Justin Vellucci

Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of [Terrible]

Lorely Rodriguez flew down upon the 2010s on the wings of her lofty soprano, which she channeled into unusual rhythms and set above unconventional productions. Her debut, Me, served as a fiercely independent manifesto, while Us provided a more straightforward, accessible experience between ruler and her subjects (listeners).

With I’m Your Empress Of, she invites said subjects to join her plunge into the throes of all manner of despair. “Look how many times she’s represented herself in each one of you” is spoken by her mother, Reina, who names one of her daughter’s strongest songwriting assets. Through her music, Rodriguez permits us to confront and even indulge in our vices, using the tumble from our fall to pick up the speed. Despite its heavy themes, sonically, the album glides, whipping headlong towards heartbreak on the Eurodance beats and shimmering percussion. The songs’ Auto-Tune only pushes their sound skyward even as the lyrics dredge up tragic confessions, (“Void”), hedonism (“Love Is a Drug”) and unattainable romance (“Hold Me Like Water”).

On one hand, it’s a distraction from the pain, but on the other it’s a way to exercise them free. “I get off on being awful to myself” is a sentiment shared as the album closes with “Awful,” a morbid yet truthful sentence, which feels especially potent as we sit at home stuck with the company of our thoughts. I’m Your Empress Of provides a chance to square off with personal demons, but mercifully lets that battle play out on a dancefloor. Break a sweat, and maybe break some bad habits in the process. – Mick Jacobs

Field Works – Ultrasonic [Temporary Residence]

Stuart Hyatt, better known under his Field Works name, took a strange route to his latest release, Ultrasonic. He began by joining with National Geographic to record the echolocations of endangered bats. The field recordings needed to be brought back down into the range of human hearing, at which point Hyatt gave them to his collaborators with little instruction, trusting them to do what they do best and make wonderful music. Even once that compositions were completed, Hyatt’s work continued, as he developed a track sequence that would pass through four phases – dusk, forest, field and dawn – to thematize a night in the life of a bat. With over a dozen artists involved, the album could have been a disjointed string of tracks, but Hyatt sculpted a remarkable listening experience.

Of course, the story behind the album only matters so much if the music itself doesn’t warrant attention, and the pieces on Ultrasonic do. Certainly the bat sounds play a role in the record’s uniqueness, offering something unusual for both foundation and texture, but each musician creates something effective. Kelly Moran’s “Sodalis” provides a highlight, her brief runs on the keys providing the shape of partnered flight. Eluvium’s opening “Dusk Tempi” builds into something nearly orchestral as the night awakens. Other tracks utilize a more minimalist tradition. Chihei Hatakeyama provides the sheen of his recent work even composing something that (without instructions) feels made to order for the “Dawn” side of the record. Ultrasonic comes with almost endless nuance and a source that comes from outside our regular aural universe, making it one of the year’s most remarkable and unforgettable releases. – Justin Cober-Lake

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters [Epic]

Fiona Apple couldn’t have known during its creation that her masterpiece of a fifth album would become the soundtrack to a pandemic, and she the Patron Saint of Mass Quarantine. But, she’s long been practicing social distancing (well before that term became everyday parlance), and Fetch the Bolt Cutters purposively sounds homegrown (because it mostly was). Its title track inadvertently voices the frustration felt by cooped-up listeners around the globe: “Fetch the bolt cutters,” she sighs, “I’ve been in here too long.”

It’s hard to argue that Apple has been underappreciated. Her debut album was met with huge commercial success, and it and every album after garnered critical acclaim. And yet, Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels like an inflection point, a long-overdue coronation. More than two decades after the release of Tidal, it’s now conventional wisdom that Fiona Apple is a bona fide genius. By contrast, critics started casually applying the term to Kanye West right around when he dropped his sophomore record.

The music itself is extraordinarily intricate and dense, her lyrics emotionally alert and remarkably specific (especially with regard to #MeToo themes, and also the idiosyncrasies of relationships, romantic and platonic, with men and women). At first blush, these songs are “difficult.” They wend and take unexpected detours above a bed of swirling piano phrases, stacked vocals, clattering percussion and actual pet sounds. Though no one would mistake them for Top 40 bangers, they reveal a fundamental tunefulness more and more with each replay. “Under the Table,” a languid Sondheimian showstopper, features Apple’s finest chorus since “Paper Bag.” “Newspaper,” with its ethereal chanting and timpani thumping, is almost menacing and utterly mesmerizing. “Cosmonauts,” a love song of sorts, feels like a weird sibling to her earliest hits.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters will always be inextricably linked to the spring of 2020. It arrived just in time – while America’s political apparatus came undone before our eyes – to meet the moment with virtuosity and grace. – Peter Tabakis

Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans [Temporary Residence]

There are very few electronic musicians making music as consistently rewarding as that of Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet. More than two decades in, the creator of such classics as Pink, There Is Love in You, and the underrated Morning/Evening, is still coming out with vital records which stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his best work. His newest, Sixteen Oceans, projects an inner peace that felt all too necessary when it was released this past March. Sixteen Oceans is buoyed by the energy of club but at its core it is something intimate and calming. It’s not an ambient record, but it often feels like one—at times its synth melodies have all the warmth and melancholy of Boards of Canada or Hiroshi Yoshimura. Both through its wonderfully suggestive titles (another thing it shares with ambient music) and its subtle sonic textures, the record manages to evoke the vastness of its titular oceans alongside the minuteness of an “Insect Near Piha Beach.” It’s a masterclass in balance—between oceans and insects, yes, but also between beat-driven tracks like “Baby,” ambient vocal and synth hymns like “4T Recordings” and even short sound sketches like “Bubbles at Overlook 25th March 2019.” On releasing his album in the middle of a global pandemic, Hebden said, “Weird going on about this right now with crazy times in the world. But when things are intense I always turn to music.” In the midst of turbulent times, far from a distraction, Hebden’s newest record is a little bit of grace. – Tyler Dunston

Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown [Nonesuch]

Released back in January – a place that now constitutes another world in continuity with, but separate from, our present – Suite for Max Brown is a perfectly balanced jazz record. It is that rare combination of “accessible” – that is, not too out-there for non-jazz listeners – and interesting. You could throw it on repeat at a social gathering or sit and mull over it alone through headphones. This is down to the prodigious talents of Jeff Parker. The genre-hopping guitar player and multi-instrumentalist – just as at home in the Chicago Underground Quartet as he is in Tortoise – has an ear for hooks that do the unexpected. When the guitar erupts in “Build a Nest” or emerges from the fog of “Del Rio” it is a revelation. And while the horns take center stage for most of “Max Brown,” it is the guitar that anchors the epic, 10-minute closing track of the album.

But Suite for Max Brown isn’t just the Jeff Parker show. All of the musicians assembled here mesh phenomenally even as the album – track by track – shapeshifts into new styles and forms. The percussionists Jay Bellerose and Makaya McCraven are the secret weapon to more than a few of these tracks, pulling of the difficult feat of gluing the songs together while delivering enigmatic rhythmic expressions. Written in dedication to Parker’s mother (who features prominently on the cover) and featuring his daughter Ruby on the opening track – and the only one with vocals – the album is a moving, surprising and singular accomplishment that will outlast the long, strange year into which it was born. – Ian Maxton

Lavinia Blackwall – Muggington Lane End [Self-released]

There’s something profoundly comforting about a great, solid melodic hook in the midst of some of the most unprecedented times any of us have ever seen and likely will ever see. When everything feels as though it’s coming apart at the seams, a well-structured song can be a welcome – if temporary – relief from the horrors of our current state of affairs. Lavinia Blackwall – former lead singer of Trembling Bells and all around sublime, classically-minded vocalist – manages this feat and more with the release of her debut solo album, Muggington Lane End.

In just under 45 minutes, Blackwall and company manage to pack in a lifetime’s worth of impeccable hooks, spot-on ‘60s folk rock replicas that give the originals a run for their money and one of the most incessant ear worms of the year in “Troublemakers.” From the woozy opener “Nothing Is Wasted” through to the jangly “When Will All Come to Light,” Muggington Lane End is filled with songs that sound as though they’ve existed for at least half a century, lost somewhere to time and only just now coming to light. And while each wears its influence proudly, the album as a whole retains a gloriously timeless quality that helps make it feel at once instantly familiar and delightfully fresh and new. To be sure, 2020 has been a shit year, but Muggington Lane End manages to be something of an exceedingly welcome silver lining. – John Paul

LEYA – Flood Dream [NNA Tapes]

Flood Dream, the second album by the Brooklyn group LEYA, is a study in contrasts, especially the juxtaposition of the sublime with the unpleasant. Harpist Marilu Donovan and violinist Adam Markiewicz create music that feels as if it was born from a fever dream, pieces where beauty twists and contorts into moments of visceral horror. Compositions such as “INTP” and “Mary” exist as tiny worlds unto themselves. Between Donovan’s detuned harp and Markiewicz’s arpeggiated strings, the vocals bleed through not dissimilar to what the Cocteau Twins were doing in the ‘80s.

While both artists are classically trained, this approach is only part of the koan of the Flood Dream. Lots of dreamy space exists between the notes, a bardo of sorts where the listener can exist, suspended like the sounds of Donovan’s ethereal harp. This is not music for the uptight avant-garde, though. An element of noise exists, the discordance just enough to attract fans of abstract metal groups such as SUNN O))) or Wolves in the Throne Room. Flood Dreams’ treasures reveal themselves gradually. This is not traditional pop music. The patient listener will find much to admire in LEYA’s world, a haunting place of misty memories and lost dreams. – David Harris

The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin [Merge]

And alone in my room/ I am the last of a lost civilization.” Those words were written by John Darnielle – otherwise known as the Mountain Goats – way back in 2005, but it perfectly captures the state of Darnielle in the earliest days of shelter-in-place. Surrounded solely by his family and with his touring wings clipped, he spent 10 days writing and recording Songs for Pierre Chuvin, with each song centered around the titular author’s history of the last of the ancient pagans as Christianity took hold – and he committed it all to the lowliest of formats: the furtive cassette tape, so easily forgotten. Best of all: that tape cracked the Billboard 200 chart after selling 3,000 copies. 2020 truly has everything.

Everything about Pierre Chuvin feels lonely. Even in the most upbeat songs – “When Olympius Returns” is destined to be a barn burner when the rest of the band get their hands on it on a stage, and “Going to Lebanon 2” simmers with quiet intensity – sorrow exists in the margins, with Darnielle coming to terms as best as possible with society’s upheavals. “Give me back my community,” he sings on “Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons” and promises he’s “Headed somewhere better/ If I have to crawl there on all fours” in the crushing, self-referential (but never self-aggrandizing) “Exegetic Chains,” one of the best songs he’s written in years.

When you listen to the latter, notice the way he fails to maintain the optimism of “This Year”’s refrain as he gently warps it, his voice barely above a rumble: “Make it through this year/ If it kills you outright.” Despite ordering it so early in quarantine, three months later his resignation resonates exquisitely. It’s not quite defeat, but it’s close. Could any mix of emotions capture the atmosphere of this year better more perfectly? Probably not – yet somehow, it still feels strangely comforting in Darnielle’s hands. – Holly Hazelwood

Nero Di Marte – Immoto [Season of Mist]

As an extreme metalhead, I often find myself pining for albums I can recommend to people who think they hate metal. Nero Di Marte’s latest album is a rare case where I feel like I can recommend it to any fan of experimental music. These Italian veterans are no stranger to weird metal, but they really run the stylistic gamut here. Immoto is arguably the most melodic album Nero Di Marte has made, but the band’s compositions have only gotten more left-field. It’s just as easy to recommend to fans of spacy, improvisational post-rock as it is to those who fancy walls of distorted guitar riffage.

Instead of bulking up its songwriting, Nero Di Marte dials back their arrangements without sacrificing their avant-garde edge. It’s a bold statement – considering avant-metal’s bigger-is-better tendency – revealing new, compelling facets of the band’s musical chops. During quieter passages, drummer Andrea Burgio and bassist Giulio Galat find a jazz fusion cadence, while guitarists Sean Worrell and Francesco D’Adamo embark on protracted, textural explorations. Even when songs boil over into cacophonous riffage and blinding aggression, Worrell’s voice retains a palpable melody in its guttural delivery. Perhaps this band’s best attribute is the fact Worrell’s voice both augments the experimental instrumentation and adds some rafts of beauty within a churning ocean of discordant heaviness. It’s not every day a band evokes Gorguts’ Colored Sand and Sigur Ros’ () on the same album, but I’m happy to recommend it as a compelling extreme metal crossover. – Max Heilman

Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi [Nuclear Blast]

As black metal continues to expand in jagged, amoebic tentacles redolent of the genre’s increasingly unreadable band logos, Oranssi Pazuzu certainly don’t qualify as the most outré group connected to the style. But few black metal or BM-adjacent bands can claim their broad accessibility; the group would be equally at home sharing a bill with blackgaze stalwarts Deafheaven as they would stoner-psych heavies like High on Fire. Mestarin kynsi finds the band dramatically expanding the sonic palette that was already stretched wide on breakthrough Värähtelijä, using the rasps and blas tbeats of black metal as anchors from which to explore strange folk-prog, chamber-symphony metal and even a dose of Motörhead-esque pure rock. Ample space in the mix gives even the most pulverizing riffs a spacey, abstract quality, while the unpredictable song structures can see a track careen from white noise to ‘80s electronic soundtrack to tribal percussion. Dance music and tremolo picked guitars exist in some form of hellish harmony, and the odd collision of forms would seem prankish were it not possessed of a unifying logic of experimentation. As they reach the absolute limits of what could even be called metal, Oranssi Pazuzu nonetheless reaffirm themselves as some of the brightest luminaries of a genre that has experienced a massive creative revival. – Jake Cole

Roedelius – Wahre Liebe [Bureau B]

If you want the best of Roedelius, look for the stone head. The albums in the 86-year-old German composer’s Selbstportrait series consistently rank among the best in his discography, conjuring deep nostalgia at a time when many other synth albums tried to imagine the future. Wahre Liebe is the seventh Selbstportrait and the second best in the series behind its predecessor, 1995’s phenomenal Diary of the Unforgotten, which places it pretty high in Roedelius’s half-century catalog as well as the canon of German kosmische synth music as a whole. This is a marvel.

The essence of the Selbstportrait series remains unchanged: simple, melancholic synth pieces with few or no overdubs. But Wahre Liebe expands what a Selbstportrait album can contain. “Aus weiter Ferne” is an excursion into ominous depths not often seen in these simple collections – only Unforgotten’s “Hommage à Forst” is longer within the series – and an electric piano casts wine-dark chords on “Wahre Liebe” and “Vormals.” “Geruhsam” and “Mitgewalzert” are typical Selbstportrait synth pieces in sound and structure, but they move with an unusual doggedness, and the latter does something very interesting at the end.

Everything feels a little heightened on Wahre Liebe. The dark parts are darker, the sad parts sadder, the happier parts almost incongruously bright. There’s less the sense that this is a casual exercise for the composer than that he’s returning to well-known terrain with the full strength of everything he’s learned since then. – Daniel Bromfield

Run the Jewels- RTJ4 [BMG]

How the hell do they keep doing this? How is it that Run the Jewels always drop new music right when it’s needed the most? When Killer Mike and El-P released their inaugural Run the Jewels mixtape, it was an electrifying jolt of hardcore hip-hop – practically a lost art in the rap scene of 2013. The sequel came out in late 2014, as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, and when the threequel dropped in the final days of 2016, Donald Trump was weeks away from being sworn in as president. RTJ4, released earlier this month, arrives in the wake of a pandemic and some of the most heated protests against police brutality in generations. More than any other work of art from the last six months, RTJ4 captures the sound and fury of living in the United States in 2020.

Even as they’ve grown from over-the-hill underdogs to legitimate rap superheroes, Mike and El have held tight to what’s made them such vital voices: the righteous political indignation, the uproarious punchlines, the beats that’ll rattle the contents of your skull. But the stakes feel higher than ever on RTJ4: Virtually every track finds the duo locked in battle with the police and the American oligarchy, from the interminably bleak (and hauntingly prescient) “Walking in the Snow” to the Mavis Staples-featuring “Pulling the Pin,” a crushing admission that their war may already be lost. We’ll just have to wait and see how dire things are when Run the Jewels return with RTJ5, but no matter what the fire next time brings, as long as they’ve got a bullet and a boombox, they won’t give up the fight. – Jacob Nierenberg

Torres – Silver Tongue [Merge]

Mackenzie Scott has crafted several excellent, bold and raw albums as Torres, but Silver Tongue feels like the first time she’s fully comfortable in her own skin. Melding great guitar work to rhythmic textures, her latest album is the sound of a heart beating and blooding pumping through veins. It’s the sound of that heady, exhilarating and terrifying feeling of being in love. But this isn’t a saccharine approach to romance. Instead, Torres digs into the hardships and effort needed to make a relationship last.

She makes those hazards clear from the get-go. “Feels like I’ve been on your heels for a lifetime,” she sings in “Good Scare” over pounding drums, but also fearful when her lover’s “eyeing all the exits.” The guitars of “Good Grief” snarl with the hurt of a temporary breakup. In the mountainous “Last Forest,” as her guitar weaves over skittering percussion, Torres worries about being stuck in an on-again, off-again cycle, singing, “Forgive me for being forward/ But have we done this before?

But Silver Tongue is ultimately about Torres working through those struggles and dedicating herself to the woman she loves. Over the country trot of “Dressing America,” she admits to sleeping with her boots on, “Should I need to gallop over dark waters/ To you on short notice.” On “A Few Blue Flowers,” she finds joy in good memories with her partner. But the best of these songs of dedication is the gentle “Gracious Day,” where Torres commits herself fully to the relationship, realizing that “When I look far down to the end/ It’s you that I see by my side.” It’s through this love and devotion that Torres was able to grow musically and emotionally, creating her best work yet. – Joe Marvilli

Whale Fall – It Will Become Itself [Self-released]

It started with a 2018 jam session for the Los Angeles-based Whale Fall, if a particularly sparkling one. To that recording – almost forgotten but serendipitously discovered in 2019 – mix in some gifted guest artists, then add a dash of field recordings from the band’s subsequent tour of China, and you have an album which combines the looseness and adventure of live performance with the beauty of thoughtful production.

Despite diverging from prior albums both in process and in style, It Will Become Itself doesn’t jar or disappoint. The genres here range through waves of jazz, industrial, ambient and hard rock, but Whale Fall’s trademark blend of post-rock is still the firm underpinning. The album builds on a bedrock of haunting keyboard and string melodies, J. Matt Greenberg’s heart-rending horn, Ali Vazin’s bowed guitar and Erik Tokle’s “atmospherics,” Aaron Farinelli’s nuanced percussion and Vazin, Tokle and Dave Pomeranz’s exploratory guitar and bass. It Will Become Itself gives a bit more rein to the drums than on previous albums, and Farinelli rises to the challenge; the album highlights his exceptional ability to run the gamut of style, speed, volume and timbre.

The album begins with a piano piece, “It Will Become Itself,” then bursts open with a grand full-band adventure in “El Caracol.” Stretching to 18 minutes, “El Caracol” explores a variety of styles and volumes, including a reprise of the piano theme during a quiet moment. Sophisticated lounge piano carries “The Well” (hints of The Style Council’s “Confessions of a Pop Group”!), while field recordings and a smash of cymbals bring an industrial feel to the opening section of “A Street Scene.” Always masters of a sense of transportation – realized as galloping and train-tracks on The Madrean, sneaking footfalls and global transit in Sondersongs – the movement here is dual: the listener feels both Whale Fall’s life-changing China journey and the more metaphoric journey implied by the title. As always, Whale Fall beckons us to come along for an extraordinary ride. – Valerie Polichar

Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind [Warp]

There’s a menacing undertone to Yves Tumor’s fourth studio effort, Heaven to a Tortured Mind. Dripping in humidity and aching with amorous hunger, its speaker envisions unsettling rituals of physical and spiritual connection. “Pure water from the fire/ Reflect my spirit,” Tumor sings on “Identity Trade” in fuzzed-out, naked phrases. The resonating incantation conjures the image of a looking glass, its frame the lips of a beast: even lost in some seductive gaze, under candelabra’s glow or awash in spotlight, one must get ready to get eaten.

The album is entrancing art rock at its finest, leading listeners along a winding route of apocryphal horn bursts, anxious synths, chamber-choir chants and evocative duets with, as Jake Cole’s review observed, “women who roar as often as they croon.” Portishead’s Third comes to mind as a fruitful point of comparison, with both albums equally insistent in tone and on the verge of getting lost in shadow. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is even more serpentine and ambitious in approach, a stunning leap forward into a more concentrated form of madness than the sort Tumor explored on the fragmented pop of 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love. Romance is just the right name for this all-consuming lunacy, and it’s a wonderfully energizing thing to feel its organ-churning presence in a year that has mostly consisted of gazing at smooth screens. – Jeff Heinzl

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