Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s New Releases, Part One

What was said about the reissues of 2020 is even truer for the new releases of the year; this list could’ve easily been doubled. This is partly because there was just so much more time for listening.

10. Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner (Jagjaguwar) & Lewsberg, In This House (12XU) Give a listen to the latest by Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Nap Eyes, and you might agree; vocalist and songwriter Nigel Chapman is a pop auteur. His tunes and delivery are a big part of the reason Snapshot of a Beginner made this list. But unlike many pop auteurs, Chapman is also fronting a full-fledged band, which leads us to the other major aspect of the record’s success, specifically that the playing is often superb, as Chapman seems to thrive on the sturdy rapport of the participants.

Jaded fucks might grumble, before retreating to their bunker of solitude to frown at the wallpaper, that Rotterdam’s Lewsberg are merely an art-punk/ post-punk extension of moves the Velvet Underground dished out over half a century ago. Bet you’re glad you’re not a jaded fuck. As for Velvets influences (or Beatles, or Stones, or Byrds, or Cheap Trick, or Thin Lizzy…), what’s the problem, exactly? Lewsberg’s take on VU is pretty unique however, seemingly as heavily impacted by “The Gift” as other bands are by “What Goes On” or “Sweet Jane.” In This House also brings Plurex Records to mind, and that’s just great.

9. Gwenifer Raymond, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain (Tompkins Square) & Mary Lattimore, Silver Ladders (Ghostly International) On her 2018 debut You Never Were Much of a Dancer, Welsh guitarist Raymond was already prodigious. She was also in the thrall of the American Primitive, a circumstance which elevated the record to knockout status. As Raymond’s fingerpicking remains dexterous, her melodic chops are sharpened (this is a beautiful album) and she’s even travelling into experimental territory, which opens up all sorts of possibilities going forward.

Raymond is a master of six strings, but as a harpist, Mary Lattimore has 47 to contend with, and she once again handles them with aplomb on Silver Ladders, which documents her collaboration with Slowdive guitarist Neil Halstead. His playing on the record (he also helped produce), along with a bountiful infusion of synth, expands the instrumental palette without minimizing Lattimore’s presence in the framework. There are a few times where her plucking takes on an almost electronic glisten, which is just one delightful aspect of an LP as vast as it is concise.

8. Sam Burton, I Can Go With You (Tompkins Square) & Sylvie Simmons, Blue on Blue (Compass) Burton’s no rookie, as he’s been recording for nearly a decade, with his first full-length Until Returning released in 2016. This is his third, and it’s a singer-songwriter beauty that sounds like it was made nearly fifty years ago. Seriously, if Light in the Attic or Numero Group or hell, even Tompkins Square released this as a lost record cut in a makeshift studio behind a poolhall in Des Moines in the autumn of 1969, people would be pissing their pants over how great it is. Check it out, and try to stay dry…

Blue on Blue is Sylvie Simmons second record, with her debut Sylvie issued in 2014 by Light in the Attic, but she’s been active on the scene since the 1970s as a writer, specifically a rock writer; we’re talking Sounds, Creem, Kerrang!, and MOJO. Records by rock writers are always of interest, but few are in fact all that special. Simmons’ pair are amongst the very best, partly because she defies expectations so gracefully. That ukulele is her instrument is exactly the sort of info tidbit to make a newbie a doubter, but she plays it and sings exquisitely (never cutesy) as her songs are consistently superb.

7. Thiago Nassif, Mente (Gearbox) & Groupe RTD, The Dancing Devils of Djibouti (Ostinato) Brazilian vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Nassif navigates the line between pop accessibility and sonic disruption with utter panache. He can also recall the psych-tinged grooving of Tropicalia and the sound of New Wavers getting dance club funky. Arto Lindsay produced Mente, a good fit as much of the record can resonate like tracks from an unreleased ZE Records album heard on a Soul Jazz compilation, but in reality, Nassif’s album is weirder than that, even at its most pop-inclined.

Up to now, Ostinato Records has been primarily known for their archival releases of a largely African focus, but Groupe RTD are a current band from Djibouti, where Ostinato’s founder Vik Sohonie traveled in hopes of reissuing some of that small country’s musical history. Instead, he got hip to Groupe RTD, a nationalized band that Sohonie was allowed to record within a very short span of time. Djibouti neighbors Ethiopia, which is noteworthy, as folks who dug the Ethiopiques series will almost certainly enjoy this too, though the blend of groove heat and melodic finesse offers a distinct flavor.

6. The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go on Sinning so That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey) & Phillip Sollmann, Monophonie (A-Ton) Intended to have some tangible relationship to dance music a la house and rave, but with added conceptual layers, The Soft Pink Truth is the project of Drew Daniel, who is also half of Matmos alongside M.C. Schmidt. Matmos put out a whopper of a 3CD set this year with The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form, but The Soft Pink Truth edges it out through a gripping blend of club sounds, experimental techno and even “broken” Minimalism; see “Sinning” for evidence.

German composer Phillip Sollmann’s Monophonie utilizes the concepts and instruments of 19th century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz alongside those of 20th century avant-garde titans Harry Partch and Harry Bertoia, though it’s also important to note that as Efdemin, Sollmann has a solid background in experimental techno. Utilizing the just intonation tuning system places this remarkable 2LP undertaking within a certain tradition (think NYC and drones), but ultimately only to an extent, as the cycles of repetition help to push the music outside the shadow of any specific tradition.

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