Albums of the Year... So Far - Elliot Burr

Albums of the Year... So Far - Elliot Burr
Grimes – Miss Anthropocene (February 21)

 

 

Elon and X Æ A-Xii. Glad we’ve got that out of the way sharpish. Evidently, much of the furore around Canada’s synth-pop heroine has concerned her personal life and bizarre naming preferences, a shame considering it has pushed the esteem or even the simple acknowledgement of her fourth LP to the bottom of the metaphorical toy box. And so, it must also be brought to public attention that Miss Anthropocene not only ranks as a vital puzzle piece to the evolving Claire Boucher canon, but also a positive release from the early 2020 period that lies almost like a land before time, minus the dinosaurs. 

Not that it would be out of the question for Boucher to craft luscious, heady soundscapes around encounters with dinosaurs considering the katana swords, anime and space discovery that make up her visual imagery. Once again addressing the theme of love that she had sworn to abandon through the innocent and cherubic IDORU, alongside laments on opioid addiction, to the downright cryptic lyrical splatterings on Violence, it’s a wild ride through a vague concept of apocalyptic climate change channelled through Roman mythology. Why? Because Grimes. 

And yet, while not coherently following Grimes’ vision, the concise 10-song package skips through levels of dark electro-pop not reached since her seminal Visions record, with added indie rock and nu-metal thrown in for good measure. Pulsing beats not only make us miss the clubs in trying times, but the swirling black clouds of synth work that Boucher utilises accentuate feelings of anger, sadness and impending doom that ultimately proved prophetic. Her experimenting with drum n bass breaks in 4ÆM is pulled off with aplomb with no reason for it doing so, Delete Forever is a subtle, acoustic-led number that sounds unlike any Grimes material that precedes it, and you’ll miss me when I’m not around exists almost like a poppy Art Angels artefact with less melodrama and overlapped vocal takes that elevate her production chops. 

Grimes’ evolution as a producer and songwriter has been documented with esteem over the past decade, and for all the slight missteps in experimentation along the way, mostly Boucher hits the mark when releasing exactly what she feels like. She’s always owned her space and eccentricity; Miss Anthropocene is a perfect encapsulation of Grimes’ often confusing artistic vision, but we shouldn’t have it any other way when the tracks slam like they do.

 

Code Orange – Underneath (March 13)

 

 

If, on the eve of worldwide lockdown, you didn’t feel like you were being dragged headfirst through a VR-simulated cage filled with glass, petrol, and surrounding darkness, then I guess you weren’t actively listening to Code Orange’s fourth record. 

Far from just boiling Underneath down into being the biggest ball-buster of a record to be unleashed thus far, it also stands as a monumental piece of work to redefine heavy music and elevate metal related genres from outcasts to serious art forms. Pittsburgh’s Code Orange have been pushing their unique brand of glitchy, aggressive hardcore far beyond the boundary for some time since dropping their ‘Kids’ moniker, and this LP has shown that pretentiousness can certainly pay off when in the right hands. Part horror film soundtrack, part moshpit relic, part art installation, Underneath has an air about it that seems completely alien despite very heavily drawing on the now five-piece’s influences. The opening of Last Ones Left is just about as close to primetime Slipknot as I’ve ever heard from another band, and that’s saying something.

Discomforting atmospheric soundscapes can certainly compare to game changing industrial hero Trent Reznor, and Code Orange have taken a page from the Nine Inch Nails handbook on how to completely control their contrasting vocal takes. Whether that be Jami Morgan’s guttural yells (now established as their full time frontman), Shade’s deathly growls, or Reba Meyers’ anthemic choruses, it’s a complete aural assault on the senses. Even the catchy commercial metal hints on The Way I Am or Sulfur Surrounding are quickly subverted in a way that only Code Orange can muster, as the listener is jostled between the ropes through screeching scream queen samples, whispered vocals, white noise, sudden cut-outs of sound and idiosyncratic drum pummelling throughout the whole damn journey.

The influence of collaborators Chris Venna and Greg Puciato on the production and songwriting processes respectively highlights the ambition of a band leading the charge for originality in a saturated market, much as the latter’s Dillinger Escape Plan achieved throughout their reign. Cutting through all preconceptions of metal and hardcore is a tough ask, but Code Orange set out to do so and, well, smashed it basically. Making it out of the other side of the pure depravity crafted by the quintet is a workout, particularly as it feels like being placed into a video game of industrial decay, having to navigate its course guided by lyrics of isolation and alienation. It really could not have dropped at a more apt time. 

Plus, the band took advantage of the tough hand they were dealt by broadcasting their album release show to an empty audience over the internet, being one of the first acts to respond to the pandemic in such a way. The bleeding edge has never sounded so heavy. “Down we go!”.

 

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now (May 15)

 

 

The lockdown has been a huge blemish on this year. That said, the world’s reaction to the disaster through widespread community has been admirable, and online collaborations between artists still looking to use their isolation time wisely with digital tools has proved extremely worthwhile, particularly for hyperactive pop sensation Charli XCX. Already on the ascent to become one of the planet’s most cherished and respected popstars, how i’m feeling now builds on her repertoire, serving as another testament to her extreme versatility. 

That’s right, Charlotte Aitchison vowed in April to write, record, and distribute a new record within six weeks, all from her dwelling in Los Angeles. As past Charli XCX releases have shown, her collaborative partners are instrumental in accentuating her talent for writing catchy hooks and crafting ‘time capsules’ of sound by providing stunning production techniques far beyond that of traditional pop. Isolation wasn’t stopping Charli from teaming up with her usual bubblegum production buddies A G Cook, BJ Burton, and Danny L Harle, and adding one half of 100 gecs/producer-in-demand Dylan Brady again – hell yeah. A month and a half later, how i’m feeling now was released, on time. Outstanding.

Charli, using many of these same collaborators and being met with acclaim, was my least favourite of her releases for a while. Favouring the slap-dash, gut-feeling tunes that had been thrown into the pot for the Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 mixtapes, this latest release is much in the same class. The rushed timeframe did nothing to diminish some of her most experimental, catchy and original dance hits, in line with her and PC Music’s best work. Charli’s ‘angels’ fanbase were also given a huge role in assisting her with lyrical ideas, choosing favoured tracks, designing singles artwork, all signalling a pivotal role in the importance of social media for blurring the lines between artist and fandom, particularly with everyone living in a reclusive situation. 

The beats on this thing are outrageous, for starters. pink diamond goes ‘real hard’ as the songstress boasts, claws builds on Brady’s sugary sweet nonsense and dancefloor headbanging aesthetic, anthems couldn’t be more bombastic a cut if it tried. And amongst these soundboards are some of her most complete ideas, snapshots of her thoughts during isolation exemplifying her love life as a whole. forever and 7 years dictate the solidification of Charli and her boyfriends’ enduring relationship in lockdown, with all doubts removed in jungle-inspired i finally understand, all delivered with emotional rigour. Numerically named bangers C2.0 and party 4 u are fun and despairing in equal measure, perfectly sharing the universal longing to hang out with friends and lovers once more, whilst closer visions caps off the effort with a Track 10-style leaning. Donk and euphoria. 

I’ll forgive Charli’s overuse of “nice” as an adjective; time was not of the essence here, and yet her and her pals have crafted the truest portrait of corona isolation that will endure as a masterpiece in distant collaborative effort and expert production. Once more it becomes, as she aims, another landmark in futuristic pop.

 

Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (June 3)

 

 

Well this is just, for want of a better word, mahoosive. In all senses. The tag team duo of Brooklyn’s El-P and Atlanta’s Killer Mike have been rocking the hip hop scene for the past decade, blending their individually excellent flow wizardry and informed political standpoints into a well-oiled machine. Their stance as ‘the older gents making waves amongst a younger generation’ has never been out to get them, instead presenting them as wide heads that still bring the youthful ruckus through razor sharp storytelling and El-P’s bombastic production. 

There seemed not to be a more appropriate time for the world to finally see another Run the Jewels release materialise. Whilst taking further time between albums than usual, the drop of RTJ4 was earlier than billed, but spurred by a response to the horrendous examples of police brutality that have once again been brought to light. Killer Mike himself gave an impassioned speech surrounding the issue, a must-watch educational snippet on social media platforms, and a call for political reform through music is not something that RTJ have ever shied away from. At this point, and only reinforced by the release of this fourth collaborative record, Killer Mike and El-P join the pantheon of great political spokespeople in music. Drawing on the anti-police standpoints of NWA in times of unrest, or the victimisation of the underrepresented à la Rage Against the Machine, RTJ still balance these urgent, large-scale topics with a manner that doesn’t seem overtly preachy, but instead uses cheek and wordplay to entertain and educate listeners in tandem. 

In keeping with this, the whole project’s instrumental playground is wild, bass-heavy, beat-switching greatness which serves as a bouncy, headbanging romp. At times mosh worthy aggression, it’s at times haunting with well implemented sampled vocal cuts and the extremely notable production marvel of pulling the pin, managing to fuse El-P’s technical doctoring, Mavis Staples’ soulful voice, and guitar licks and backing vocals courtesy of Josh Homme. The features fit the all-killer-no-filler package that the two rappers have crafted; the Pharrell and Zack de la Rocha featuring JU$T is a perfect centrepiece, reiterating the thought-provoking “look at all these slave masters / posin’ on yo’ dollar” refrain before letting the RATM frontman fire off his own vehemence, the likes we’ve rarely heard since The Battle of Los Angeles. Elsewhere, the duo open up about widespread poverty, sex workers rights, and so much more to stress the need for tolerance, and the power of community in the face of adversity. And with such ever-changing and impressive flows stemming from both performers, it’s impossible to tear yourself away from the tapestries they thread. Especially in 2020, these compact documents serve as relevant mirrors to society: necessary, vigorous, engaging and rallying. 

Just as RATM once asserted back in 1991, “we’ll settle for nothing now, we’ll settle for nothing later”, this record proves that musicians are a key factor in voicing important issues that must be faced time and time again to spur change at every level. With RTJ4, Run the Jewels have not only done more to solidify their own legacy as inspirations for social justice, but created a record that acts as an important time-stamp that we must still reflect on for some years to come. The call for change continues.

 

Wiley – The Godfather 3 (June 5)

 

 

Has he retired? Wiley’s word can never be taken verbatim. 2017’s Godfather, aptly named as the ‘comeback’ record from the grime originator, returned greatly to his classic eskibeat brand, and even back then was tentatively named as Richard Cowie’s final hurrah. This, for fans of the genre that had awaited a return to form from Wiley, may have been dismayed, before he then released the dichotic follow up shortly after. More music, indeed, but Godfather II acted as half recall to its predecessor, half pandering to the commercialised grime/pop hybrid that has soundtracked its revival to mixed reviews. But we’re not here for that small blip, but instead another Wiley reinvention/retirement relic. 

The Godfather 3 could laughably be compared to the flop that concluded the epic film trilogy, but luckily this is by name alone. Its origins were also borne out of a strange scrapping of an unreleased project – Full Circle – some sort of crossover transatlantic dancehall smash featuring Nicki Minaj and Future among others. A&Rs and the wider music industry are claimed to have scuppered the progress of the record, features not being approved etcetera etcetera. And all of this on top of various social media rants, beefs with Drake and Stormzy, and jabs at Ed Sheeran. Wiley’s never far away from the mic even when he isn’t delivering some irresistible earworms. 

Whether that’s the Wiley record that we wanted or not, he surprised us with the drop of The Godfather 3, which instead acts a perfect encapsulation of what the rapper does best. There’s a humongous array of grimy instrumentals, with slices of the maestro’s eskibeat stylings inserted here-and-there for maximum assertion of his position as genre figurehead. Quite frankly, grime is a far more saturated field than the days of Dizzee Rascal’s debut blowing up and Roll Deep’s The Avenue appearing on ‘The Box’, yet the tried and tested formula set by Eskiboy himself serves as a refreshing reminder of what made the genre great. Alla Dem could fit snuggly into the Rules and Regulations track list, and we still hear the vocal assertions of Roll Deep entourage alumni Scratchy and the irrepressible Flowdan alongside veterans and newbies alike. D Double E will never not fit Wiley’s production ear (Bars), and West London and South London showcase the eponymous areas’ rising talent. 

Wiley has had a knack on the first and third Godfather projects to laud the past glory of grime; a centrepiece of this release being the at-first-sporadic-but-you-can’t-help-but-love-the-effort Eskimo Dance, essentially a 13 song mix of aficionados given 8 bars each over some classic garage and grime instrumentals. But with this ‘final’ record (…), he reflects on how well the artists have built a scene from the ground up purely from work ethic, word of mouth, and youthful appearances on Rinse radio (originally pirate material). That’s not to say that Wiley forgets the bad and the ugly of his whole career throughout this bloated spread of 22 tracks, but the slower cuts feel from the heart, and there’s an admiration for grime’s godfather passing on his legacy (Light Work) amongst lyrics expressing his dislike for Marmite on toast and porridge. 

A mixed bag it may seem at face value, but as the ferocious beats and powerful spitting performances bury deep, it truly showcases the scene’s history and future to come. It is clear that Wiley’s so-called retirement is a passionate devotion to what he has constructed and, arguments aside, he hopes to see grime’s torch carried ahead by excellent young talent. Then again, a fourth surprise instalment or project anew would never be out of the question. As his moniker suggests, Wiley may have more tricks up his sleeve yet.

 

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