(Seb Painchaud, the main man behind the Montréal band Tumbleweed Dealer, has very expansive and very eclectic musical tastes, and a way with words, and so for a fifth year in a row we asked him to share a year-end list with us. As in every other year, his list pulls us off our usual beaten paths by highlighting some favorite releases that are way outside the usual metal lists.)
Throughout this cursed year of plague and idiocy, I kept coming back to one cosmic realization whenever I mass-consumed new albums: ‘Music does not exist in a vacuum’
It took the literal descent into madness that was the last twelve months for me to finally admit this to myself. I had always liked to believe that music is some sort of absolute truth with an exact value that doesn’t fluctuate once you’ve discovered it. But as I used my search for new releases to either escape my reality, to try to understand it, or to seek some way to relate to it, I had to finally admit to myself that whatever music is put out there at any point in time it becomes intertwined with that period in human history. It’s judged against what has come before, it’s used in relation with what is happening right now, and it will impact what has yet to be written.
photo by Catherine B Photografie
Sorry if that got more philosophical than my usual vulgarity-filled rants, it’s been a weird year. Plus I just got done binging ‘The Good Place’ on Netflix. So for the sake of consistency, let me say this: 2020 can suck a huge fat fucking donkey dick while it takes it up the ass by a motherfucking gorilla with a shit covered dick. Wear a fucking mask, stay the fuck home, get vaccinated, think of others, stop being racist, let people dress how they want, fuck who they want and use the pronoun they fucking want and just generally stop being such an entitled, selfish fucking big bag of dicks of a species ’cause we are literally ruining the fucking world right now, and the world is where I keep all my fucking music!
That being said, here are the albums that left a mark on me over the last 300-plus days, collections of songs that will forever recall these uncertain times and act as a reflection of them.
I’ve decided not to rank them, as that would defeat the purpose, so they’re presented here in an order meant to bring variety more than increasing quality.
Black Pumas – Black Pumas
First, before we concentrate on the gold nuggets in the pile of rat feces that was 2020, an album I slept on HARD last year. This album is the epitome of sweet, laid-back, soulful tracks. The fact that I discovered it through the deluxe edition released this year tricked me into having them on my list for months before I made the agonizing discovery that it was originally released last year, triggering an OCD response in my brain when I realized the omission of this album on my previous list is an unacceptable offense for music lovers everywhere. So here it is, I’ve made amends, I can forgive myself and finally sleep at night.
Circus Trees – Delusions
So I promised myself I wasn’t gonna do this, that I was going to stick to albums I spent the year listening to and not sneak in a last-minute addition I discovered on someone else’s list, but this is too good not to mention. These three sisters play grungy, depressive slowcore. It’s a bit doomgaze without the reverb, a bit grungy without being ’90s, a bit of that modern mix of everything gaze and post that True Widow does minus the southern vibe. It’s bleak and desolate but trudges away mid-tempo just enough for you to slowly nod your head to. It’s repetitive enough to be hypnotic but still manages to be lively enough to keep my attention (and I have a musical attention deficit). The kinda thing that makes you think of dark autumn nights or of sad Chandler looking at the rain through the window. Could this BE any sadder? If you like the stuff Emma Ruth Rundle did with Thou, this is a ‘cleaner’ alternative with a similar vibe.
Deep Energy Orchestra – The Return
I love the meeting of Indian music and jazz. It has so many possible variations depending on how you mix both potent ingredients. In this case, this bassist-led band is obviously groove-centered, mixing fun fretless walking lines with Indian percussions for a swirling, hypnotic center over which soloing instruments float and hover, including Trey Gunn‘s Warr guitar. It’s like a modern take on the more eastern music influenced Mahavishnu Orchestra tracks (and even more John Mclaughlin’s Shakti project) that manages to make this eclectic meeting of different musical climates take on a quite memorable form. I dare you to listen to “Moksha – IV. The Return” and not sing gibberish along to the track’s vocalizations.
Gloe – Dead Wait
Blue Swann Records-type post-hardcore meets doomy shoegaze. It manages to match the gazy grand atmosphere and infuse it with a healthy dose of progressiveness. It’s mostly mid-paced in its tempo but filled to the brim with melodies and interplay. The vocals are mostly clean and just have this ethereal calming way of soaring over the more complex rhythms of the drum and bass and the note-filled unorthodox approach of the guitars for the genre. Words fail me, but the opening song will succeed in winning you over, trust me.
Zopp – Zopp
If the name ‘Canterbury’ evokes an immediate soothing response in your brain like it does in mine, then read no further, just click play and enjoy. If you need further explanation, this UK city became the birthplace of, and synonymous with, a smoother, more melodious while still adventurous brand of jazz rock in the ’70s. Caravan being it’s probably most well-known purveyor, the style has underrated classics by Gilgamesh, National Health, and what many consider the innovators of the subgenre, Soft Machine. All of which I strongly recommend you check out. These guys tap into that vein of experimental yet calming musicianship and streamline it into a modern rendition of that classic sound.
It’s a grower, only because its laid-back calming vibes tend to relegate it to background music for your thoughts, only once in a while commanding your attention more directly with a harder, catchier groove (see the opening of “V”) before going back into its comfortable musical nook. But you will find yourself going back to it again and again, eventually appreciating properly the fact that it lulls you into a trance and rocks you gently within it.
Coogans Bluff – Metronopolis
This album has a fun duality to it, alternating between proggrier while still catchy songs (think Mastodon meets early-era King Crimson) and more straight-up southern rock ones, once in a while switching up the formula by having both vibes coexist in the same song. It keeps you guessing and never disappoints. You think you’ve wrapped your head around the multiple layers of their ’70s sound by the end of the opening track’s sax solo, but then when track number two starts off with a riff recalling Lynyrd Skynyrd, that’s when you see they still have some surprises up their sleeves.
The album seems to alternate between these at every song by design, a bold move that pays off as a full album of either would not have had the same impact. It’s not just the separation that makes it interesting, but the nods that the songs have to the yin of their yang (didn’t mean that to sound sexual…). Like having a mellotron back the chorus of a catchy song or a Kansas-type riff in a context more akin to Jethro Tull, it seems they set out to create as much enjoyment as they could out of the fact that they just couldn’t agree on a singular sound.
Yves Rousseau Septet – Fragments
Do not let the upbeat artwork fool you, this is some dark, at times dissonant, jazz. I have no idea who Yves Rousseau is nor who makes up the rest of his septet, and I often wonder if they have member rings or a secret handshake, but what I do know is that they definitely have an interest in classic progressive rock. Although they are clearly a jazz band, it’s all structured closer to progressive rock songs than anything from the jazz realm.
Highlighted by a beautiful rendition on double-bass of the vocal lines from In The Court Of The Crimson King, arguably one of the genre’s biggest classics, they navigate their songs with a riff-like structure with instruments freaking out more than soloing. The guitars are definitely not your typical jazz affair, reminding me more often of the soundtrack to the Deathnote anime’s main theme (so basically Tubular Bells that it clearly rips off) than the kind of leads you’d expect. It’s a massive, heavy, loaded album that is hard to wrap your head around but that really pays off once you do.
Girls On Bread – Knowledge Is Power
As their Bandcamp description so aptly puts it: ¡A mathematical power trio! What sets these guys apart from all the other Math Rock bands? Absolutely fucking nothing. Then why is it on this list? Well, what the fuck sets you apart from anyone else? We all do the same shit, some of us just do it better than others. My point being, these guys bring nothing new to the table, but they deliver quality and precise execution, and more than anything, memorability. These songs are earworms. They give you that instant warm fuzzies only midwest math rock can (from all the way in Athens!) with just the right amount of tappity tap explosions. The sound is clearly established in the first song, but they somehow manage to keep it fresh until the end despite the absence of vocals. Sure, Covet is great and all, but I jammed this album at least twice as much this year. In the genre, it’s clearly album of the year.
Ulver – Flowers Of Evil
Swords, machine guns, flowers, and peacock feathers. Fuck, now it’ll be stuck in my head all day again.
This was another grower. The name Ulver bears a heavy weight of nostalgia for me. Bergtatt was the first black metal album I ever got into. Nattens Madrigal was the first album with the bitting raw production I ever enjoyed. And Perdition City was the first electronic music album I ever obsessed over (best walking alone at night in the city album EVER!). Although I enjoy and respect their quest to always evolve, when they delved into ambient music they lost me though. I just need my songs to have more… music. I need my attention grabbed.
And boy did their new single grab it, with the song, with the videoclip, with the announcement of the upcoming album. Then it came out, and I loved it… or at least, the first half. I found that after the first 3-4 songs there was a notable decrease in quality that only picked up on the last track. I wasn’t planning on having the album on the list. But through the power of those first tracks I kept revisiting the album, and my enjoyment started getting longer and longer, my appreciation of the album going deeper and deeper into the later tracks, until I couldn’t even remember which tracks I had disliked at first.
Now I just feel stupid for ever doubting this amazing album, as it is grade A from beginning to end. They took everything they learned over the years and used it to create an album that can only be described as dreampop. Or nightmarepop. This is the kind of album where your favorite track changes every time you listen to it. It might not leave the mark on me that the previous Ulver albums I named did, but that’s just a reflection of the point where they are in their careers and where I am as a music fan, because objectively, this might be their best album ever.
Takuya Kuroda – Fly Moon Die Soon
It’s a pretty reductive exercise to explain my existence in link with my musical appreciations while keeping to albums released within the year. It’s such a small part of my sonic journey since the last list and gives a glimpse into just a portion of what I discovered. I’m constantly stumbling down different rabbit holes from recommendations (shoutout to the great peeps in the NoGenreBias Facebook group!) and random youtube clickings. This album tied up a big part of my year when it was released.
First, through a random message from Arsis bassist Noah Martin, I discovered the magic that is Casiopea (open another tab, go to youtube, write “Casiopea Mint Jams”, and jam that the second you are done with this article – you’ll thank me later) and J-Jazz as a whole. I’ve always found that anything from Japan is always just ‘more’ than anywhere else. Their Jazz Funk is just funkier, their grind grindier, and their death match wrestling more ultraviolent. You can hear that they’ve put the idea of funk on this insane pedestal and that their music is an over-the-top caricature of what they think plays in the streets of New York at 2 AM, especially the stuff from the ’70s and ’80s where traveling there to experience it (and probably be disappointed by the reality of it) was less accessible. A few months later I found a jazzier tangent of that branch in artists like Hiromasa Suzuki, Akira Ishikawa and Masaru Imada. It was all I listened to for weeks
When I was at the peak of this musical obsession, Takuya Kuroda released a new album that was promptly recommended to me. I could hear the evolution of everything I had been in love with lately culminate in this album. It built upon that legacy with a much more modern grasp on the genre. It nods to electronic music and hip hop while never abandoning its roots. This album fulfilled that voyage into the musical past for me, brought me right back to appreciating modern artists, and kept my head nodding for the rest of the year.
Mäleficentt – Night of Eternal Darkness
I know, I know, the name, the artwork, the production… but stay with me. These guys obviously play Black Metal. It’s a genre I love because you can either play it straight and kvlt, ripping off the first or second wave, depending on how trve you are trying to be, or you can take the genre to completely different places resulting in a myriad of subgenres. But rarely do bands do both. Almost never do you hear someone playing ‘traditional’ black metal with just their own slightly different spin on the details while keeping the main formula intact.
The opening track, once you get past the production (spoiler alert, you’ll come to appreciate it) is actually more post-punk than anything related to Norway in the ’90s, and when the second song hits off, the melodies have a distinct feel, reminding me of obscure classic Mystic Forest‘s Green Hell, and the drums have a catchy, almost punk at times, vibe reminiscent of Imha Tarikat, with the production letting his subtle hi-hat play shine through (go to 2:05 of “The Light’s Last Gasp” and see what I mean). The bass is inaudible and the vocals standard and drenched in reverb, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The guitar work is classic in its rhythm and picking (i.e., tremolo picking 24-7) but the note choice has a little something much more modern to it. The drums have their fair share of blast beats, as any card-carrying black metal drummer would play, but then throw in some more straight-ahead beats. The whole thing ends up being insanely catchy without sacrificing the overall atmosphere.
Aditya Prakash Ensemble – Diaspora Kid
I’ve mentioned before my love of Indian music intermingling with jazz. This album fits the same description, but sounds nothing like the aforementioned one. Aditya Prakash is a vocalist, and this is his band, but I would not call the music vocal-based at all. He clearly got insanely talented musicians and the songs were polished as instrumentals before he added vocals as a garnish. The vibe is different on every track yet the album manages to be consistent. From the jazzier “Greenwood” opener to the prog metal of “The Warrior”, which evokes Gordian Knot (RIP Sean Malone) to my ears more than anything India or Jazz related, everything manages to be catchy and fun while defying categorization. The kind of music only someone with varied tastes and a love and appreciation for all genres could make. It’d be easy to write it off as a merger of two cultures and sound, but it goes so much deeper than that.
Monophonics – It’s Only Us
Last year I gushed all over their lead singer Kelly Finnigan‘s debut solo album, with reason, and now it’s like he brought back everything he learned. This is their best work ever, and that’s saying a lot because their 2012 release In Your Brain is a desert island for me. They took their lush instrumentals and added the hook-centric formula of his solo album and combined them into something that’s as much retro as it is relevant today.
Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
Taking the meaner elements of hardcore, punk, and grind and mixing them together into a potent solution that bubbles over with anger, the strength of this album lies in the way they subvert expectations by setting up a typical transition and then going into a completely different vibe than what it would usually go into. Individually the riffs, although fucking badass, are fairly standard, but the order in which they are strung and the way they flow into each other makes for a unique experience. They do everything to make you believe a breakdown is on the way only to break into a D-Beat, or set up a black metal type intro just to completely ignore it and go into a straight-ahead punk vibe.
Best way to kill 16 minutes that doesn’t involve your mom and 11 minutes of me apologizing for my performance.
R.A. The Rugged Man – All My Heroes Are Dead
I’ve said for years now that R.A. is the best rapper ever, hands down. No one can touch him. But his albums wouldn’t appear if I made a list of my 50 favorite hip hop albums ever. He was always the best rapper ever, killing anything he was featured on, decimating other MCs who dared be on a track with him, who made good albums with a handful of great songs. This all changed with this one. It’s not just an amazing album. It’s his ultimate album. Every facet of his sound is perfectly represented. From the raw honesty of songs that talk about how he’s a changed man from being a father, something I relate to intensely, to songs about school shootings and then songs about the world’s biggest, dirtiest vagina. From old school vibes to chopper style & catchy hooks, he brings in everyone and beats them at their own game.
What kind of man brings in Immortal Technique for a lyrical track and outdoes him ?!?
What kind of man brings in the Wu Tang Clan and drops it old school harder than all of them combined?
Nay, not a man but a god. I’d say he can retire now, but it’s every other MC that needs to retire now. The game’s over, he killed it.
Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music
It almost feels unfair to include this on the list because I could listen to Yussef Dayes drum over the sound of paint drying and I’d still love it. Ever since I heard his brand of electronic music influenced drumming on his 2016 album Black Focus with Kamaal Williams I’ve been infatuated with his sound. But I dare say, this album right here is even better. Where he carried the weight on that record, here Tom Misch is no slouch, and rather than a straight-ahead jazz album, we get to hear his amazing rhythms on airy, catchy songs, producing a sound so unique you’ll ask yourself What Kinda Music Is This, then you’ll remember the title of the album and you’ll realize you fell right into their trap. With nods to jazz, pop, hip hop and everything in between, this album isn’t defined by its genre, it defines a new one.
Empathy Test – Monsters
Atmospheric. Minimalistic. Synthpop. All words I never thought I’d use to describe one of my favorite albums of the year. The opening title track sets the mood but cannot prepare you for the following song, “Empty Handed”, probably my song of the year. That chorus just burrows its way into your head. The whole album is just so well done. It’s pop, but it’s perfectly constructed. It’s synthpop without being overly ’80s. Its modern yet timeless. Even though the arrangements are simple, they are always evolving, building up, releasing at the perfect time. The vocals are subdued yet strong and confident. You can hear all the hard work that went into making this seem effortless. If Stranger Things had a crossover with Trinkets (such an underrated show), this would be the soundtrack. I watched a lot of Netflix this year…
The Pineapple Thief – Versions Of The Truth
How can a song be both beautiful and catchy while being menacing as fuck? Listen to ‘Leave Me Be’ off this album. The intensity they get out of that ‘We’re coming to get you’ line without a trace of actual heavy music is a masterclass in song-writing in and of itself. Every song seems to have that one line like that. Progressive Rock gone pop. A modern take on Rush’s Animate minus the ’90s vibe.
It reminds me that I love hearing amazing musicians make beautiful, simple, well-written music.
What it lacks in variety it makes up for in just about everything else. They have a formula they stick to, but you won’t mind. The guitar melodies floating over the rhythm section’s syncopations leaving all the room for big keys and vocals to shine. Pay attention and you’ll hear how great these musicians are. Hiding the complexity of your music is harder than flashing it. They don’t shred or have blast beats or even any solos, but the sheer amount of details put into this music that seems so simple is astounding, and whether you listen closely enough to notice or not, it pays off to even a casual listener with the atmosphere it creates.
Beach Bunny – Honeymoon
Unapologetically emo/pop-punk without being juvenile (think Adventures but less grungy), this is the musical equivalent of that one teen movie you love so much (Scott Pilgrim Vs The World anyone??). The guitars and bass have just enough riffiness to them that you don’t overdose on the catchiness but they know when to go into full pop-punk mode. This album was an escape from the complicated problems of the world this year. Something about hearing the singer talk about a boy who doesn’t love her any more makes you forget we got these massive issues dangling over us right now. Her vocals are perfectly imperfect, the music underneath it carrying her melodies perfectly.
There’s two kinds of people in this world, the ones who freely admit they enjoy the catchiness of tracks like “Promises” and “Ms. California” and those who lie to themselves and the world around them.
Run The Jewels – RTJ4
This isn’t a bold choice I know, it’s topping just about every goddamn list out there. But bottom line, it’s the album of the year. Not just in the sense that it’s the best album released this year, but in the sense that this album IS 2020. It encapsulates this difficult year that we all barely survived. The release of the album and Killer Mike‘s impassioned pleas sum up how anyone with a shred of compassion felt at that time. It’s an album that challenged my stances that apathy makes me immune to blame and made me realize that, to paraphrase a famous quote, all evil men need to prevail is for good men to not punch a nazi in the mouth at every chance he fucking gets. It’s a powerful album with a powerful message. It’s a reflection of how disjointed our society is. It’s the hope that maybe, since enough people seem to get and agree with this message, there might just be a small sliver of hope that 2021 isn’t just 2020 Part 2 – Electric Boogaloo because as we know, except for maybe T2, the sequel is always worse than the original.