Albums of the Month: April 2021

Clockwise from top-left: Flock of Dime’s Head of Roses, Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! (illustration by William Schmiechen), and The Armed’s Ultrapop

April was an absolute feast for the ears. More albums went up for serious consideration than any other month so far, not just for the top spot but even just to make the shortlist. Here are some of the very best.

WARNING: All albums and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain bad language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend or disturb some.

To skip to The Contenders (2-10) and Honourable Mentions (11-20) please click here

Album of the Month

The Armed – Ultrapop (Hardcore/Noise Rock, Sargent House)

WARNING: Things are about to get loud.

Some revolutions don’t stay revolutionary for long. When the genres of punk and hardcore punk emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, they represented some of the most sonically and politically incendiary movements in music. They flagrantly transgressed established norms of what music could, and should, sound like, largely appalling older generations and exciting younger generations with boundless new sonic and lyrical possibilities. However, after the initial period of anarchic creativity passed, both genres inevitably became more firmly established and rigorously defined. So did the particular sonic characteristics that were recognised as differentiating them from other styles of music. Expectations formed. In many cases the process was exacerbated by the genres’ links (at least in theory) to revolutionary and progressive politics, meaning the sounds associated with these genres took on something of a moral quality to many fans. These sounds were deemed to be ethically superior to sounds from more mainstream genres judged to have given up any pretence of integrity to greedily wallow in capitalist excess. Experimentation outside of punk’s established parameters, especially in those ideas of more mainstream genres, was tantamount to betraying not just a musical project but also a righteous political cause. It was to be met with the most indignant disgust and rejection, a process that most of us are all too familiar with as “selling out.”

Like all music genres, punk and hardcore have heterogenous groups of fans and artists whose levels of devotion differ from person to person, as does their openness to other genres. At the same time, it would not be an exaggeration to say that even today both genres appear to inspire greater numbers of singularly devoted followers compared to most other genres. And the most fervent of them can be some of the loudest and most virulent detractors in all of music towards those acts who diverge even slightly from the established path. As a result, whilst the past thirty years have seen a remarkable breakdown in the rigidity of the artificial boundaries between most genres for both listeners and artists, as a whole punk and hardcore remain some of the most sonically and philosophically insular styles in music. Having once been the cutting edge of musical rebellion, the young revolutionary has turned into a middle-aged, change-averse conservative in terms of musical experimentation.

The Armed are evidently fed up with the stuffiness and entirely self-imposed constraints that the gatekeepers of punk and hardcore music have placed on everyone else operating within these scenes. Describing themselves simply as “a punk rock band from Detroit, Michigan,” they’re a famously secretive act who go to sometimes impressive lengths to keep listeners and the press in the dark. Nevertheless, the statement announcing their new album Ultrapop’s release could not have been much more forthright: “Ultrapop… is an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in ‘heavy’ music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible.”

In spite of the impression given by this rhetoric combined with the album’s tongue-in-cheek title, Ultrapop is absolutely not a pop record (and it’s amusing to think of rushed adults picking this album out as a last-minute present for their young, Taylor Swift-loving relatives after seeing the title and bright orange cover). It’s not even a mainstream rock album. But the intentionally exaggerated title does convey its blatant, conscious subversion of punk and hardcore orthodoxy, whilst also suggesting the kind of exasperated terminology that purists might use whilst denouncing the record. Ultrapop takes The Armed’s usual mix of hardcore and noise rock and infuses it with specific elements and more general musical philosophies from gernes which are usually deemed off limits to heavier acts. It’s a risky endeavour that threatens to alienate them entirely from a large and vocal section of their ‘home’ genres. Likewise, the sheer abrasiveness of most hardcore and noise rock means that only a relatively small number of fans from more mainstream genres are likely to embrace it either. But many open-minded fans exist in all parts of the musical spectrum, and those who are prepared to hear this album on its own terms will find a dizzyingly brilliant synthesis of these wildly disparate approaches to music.

Take the opening title track, for example. After a few discordant thuds, it is mostly built upon pristine, synthesizer arpeggios, sweetly harmonised vocals, and the kind of bass more often found in dance music. During these moments it’s more like a warm, almost vague-sounding slice of dream pop that we might find on a Beach House or Kero Kero Bonito record than punk. But any sense of peace or relaxation is consistently interrupted by recurring passages drenched in grating feedback. A balance is immediately established between pop instrumentation, highly melodic composition, and what your parents might describe as ‘horrible noise.’ The traditional separation between these realms shown to be no more than one of the “artificial tensions” mentioned in the vocals. It’s something of an entry test, with guitarist and vocalist Adam Vallely telling Apple Music “putting this song first is incredibly intentional. If you don’t like this, you might as well get the fuck out right now.”

Having just settled into this particular manifestation of The Armed’s unconventional marriage of sounds, second track All Futures pulls the rug out from under our feet completely. At this point Ultrapop switches to a noticeably different, more aggressive instrumentation where the hardcore elements of The Armed’s sound come to the fore. Many of the verses continue to be sung but in a much more detached style that is often distorted. Moreover, the choruses are mostly shouted, screamed, or frantically yelped at a disorienting pace. Relentlessly pummelling drums maintain the impressive feat of keeping time and maintaining a groove at an intense tempo whilst also frequently sounding like the world outside is collapsing around your ears. The guitars are soaked in distortion, often screeching and howling through the speakers. The Armed might be trying to pull punk into unusual shapes, but at the same time they’re not abandoning the ferocious energy and strangely pleasurable dissonance that make it so compelling at its best.

In fact, during this slightly delayed opening salvo the experience is so intense that listeners might reasonably ask whether the talk about subverting punk norms was all for show, or merely confined to the opening track before reverting back to business as usual. However, under the highly abrasive exterior there is a sweet underbelly where the pop and mainstream rock elements can be felt, perhaps most clearly in the jubilant melodies and the relative accessibility of the songwriting throughout the album’s first half. Aside from the vocals and apocalyptic drumming described above, the fiery run from All Futures to An Iteration is propelled by laser-guided melodies in many of the individual guitar and bass parts as well as the underlying chord progressions. These are far more upbeat and easily digestible than would usually be considered acceptable in a hardcore or noise rock album. The chorus of All Futures, for example, is a warped version of the kind of meaningless but cathartic chant that pop music thrives on, playing almost like a deranged relative of the main hook from The Flaming Lips’ Yeah Yeah Yeah Song. The guitar lines and vocals in the verses and pre-choruses of A Life So Wonderful wouldn’t sound out of place on a Strokes record. After pummelling listeners for a minute and a half, Mansuga Vapours’ reaches a climactic ending that sounds choral or orchestral. The list goes on. In fact, really only at one point in the entire first half (Big Shell) do the compositional foundations underpinning these songs get anywhere close to uncomfortable melodically.

Once Big Shell ends the initial run of pop-tinged euphoria, the second half of the album generally moves away from the major-key power melodies towards a decidedly darker tone. Fleeting moments of overt pop influence remain, such as the indie disco beat that occasionally makes an appearance in Where Man Knows Want,or the ghosts of Kanye West’s Runaway that haunt closer The Music Becomes a Skull. But more often a different set of taboo influences surface amongst the gloom. In particular, pop music’s adoption of technological manipulation and intentionally ‘glitchy’ sounds from various forms of electronic music makes a recurring appearance. Synthesizers continue to feature; true, this is not an absolute first for a punk record, but this instrument and the genres it is associated with still remain much-maligned for purists. Similarly, in the likes of Average Death and Where Man Knows Want the ferocious live drums remain but are mixed in with twitchy processed beats and robotic drum machines. The ragged guitar riff on Faith in Medication is deconstructed and pan between both speakers to give a choppy, disorientating feel. In particular, the first three minutes of penultimate track Bad Selection are a jittery mix of vocoders, turbulent synths, and relatively clean guitars before a heavier sound emerges for the final forty-five seconds.

What we have here musically, then, is a record that takes the template of hardcore and noise rock and filters it through a mindset that the most dogmatic of punk fans would consider anathema to it. Accessibility and technological manipulation can be musical virtues rather than sins. They don’t necessarily have to represent inauthenticity or commercial greed, and they can actually enhance the raw possibilities of punk and hardcore rather than diminishing them. In some ways this is not entirely unprecedented territory for The Armed. 2018 album Only Love started to incorporate some elements similar to the ones discussed above, but to nowhere near the same extent. Given the tone of the press release cited above, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sheer extent of the mainstream influences in Ultrapop constitutes a stubborn doubling down on the premise in defiant response to criticisms of that album.

The aforementioned press release is also instructive in underscoring The Armed’s awareness that this album is going to inevitably result in not simply rejection from parts of the punk and hardcore communities, but more specifically questions about their artistic integrity. It seems unlikely to be coincidence, then, that questions of authenticity and its absence are a major recurring theme in the album’s lyrics. In fact, it almost everywhere (again, Big Shell is arguably the exception that proves the rule). On numerous occasions the focus seems to be pre-emptively directed toward the near-inevitable debate that will confront the album’s release. All Futures addresses coming to terms with accusations of betrayal in advance (“Taboo appropriation just because we wanted to, I’m anti-anti, ain’t I, But I’m coming around, I’m feeling OK, I’m changing the locks and I’m seeing All futures, destruction”). An Iteration, meanwhile, seethes“I fell for some Psuedo-sophisticated, Poet laureate-posing young white saviour, He sang to me, A blue collar emulation, An accent so affected, so midwestern,” either skewering another artist (real or imagined) more worthy of the backlash or possibly even imagining the perspective of one of The Armed’s detractors. Perhaps worst of all, closer The Music Becomes a Skull appears to understand that in a business as fickle as the music industry, any raise in profile that The Armed earn from Ultrapop could be fleeting and even less sincere than anyone arguing over its punk credentials (“To those men he appears as a God, From his post he descends to applause, Congratulatory handshakes, Compliments and goodwill overflow, ‘What a brilliant show… Now get off’”).

These considerations of authenticity are not confined just to the world of music. We meet many unnamed characters throughout, but, with almost no exceptions, all interactions and relationships are clouded by deception and the act of hiding one’s true self from view. In Real Folk Blues the central figure is said to “Pander to trendless patrons, Washed up with no remorse”; The “prancing disaster” of Average Death is reduced to eternally “Dance for your captor, Always an actor”; one of Bad Selection’s protagonists “talks subliminal, A textbook criminal … Sometimes invisible, He’s a friend, He’s a thief, He’s a star, He’s a ghost.” This deception even colours the closest relationships described (“Sherrie, You’re the only one who gets me, Thievery, The highest art”) as well as the seemingly most transparent ones(“My former actor, He was the closest one I had, The sharpest reflection, He was the truest glass, My own words, Blue eyes and fake laughs”). It’d be fascinating to know whether this near-monomaniacal focus on authenticity represents an anxiety about the record’s reception, a defiant thumbing of the nose at those purists who are likely to decry it, or the authors’ broader worldview on human relationships (or a combination of all three). Given how famously secretive the band are, the chances of truly knowing seem slim. More important than that, these considerations are written in an incredibly engaging manner, full of intrigue, cryptic references, and vivid wordplay.

In both its musical and lyrical content, then, Ultrapop is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be true to oneself, no matter how those around you perceive your motives. More than that, it’s a completely engrossing forty minutes of music. Whether it will win over many hardcore and noise rock fans to its celebratory cause ultimately won’t be clear until some point in the future. Such is the way with taking risks and trying to break down walls. More accepting fans of both will find an album that injects a huge dose of fun in amongst the exhilarating fury. Ultrapop is also unlikely to impress music fans that are generally averse to or dismissive of shouted vocals, abrasive sounds, and other ‘noise’ in their listening tastes. But for those who have not yet dipped their toes into the world of heavier music this is likely to be as welcoming an entry point as you are likely to hear. For listeners that enjoy and can find value in the smooth as well as the rough, it hits an amazing sweet spot. The songs here are some of the most exciting and melodically engaging that I’ve heard in a hardcore-adjacent album since At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command or Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish. They point to a different trajectory than the one hardcore and noise rock are currently on, one with the potential for greater cultural relevance in the 2020s. Whether anyone else follows is up to them.

The Contenders

2. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince (Chamber Folk/Classical, New Amsterdam)

The skinny: Vulture Prince is an enthralling mix of musical styles from across the globe, including both Hindustani and Western classical music, jazz, ambient, and even reggae. It’s an intricate reflection of a life lived in both Pakistan and the USA as well as Arooj Aftab’s journey from an entirely self-taught female guitarist to a multi-talented composer, singer, and instrumentalist via her studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. If all this sounds a little outside of your wheelhouse, don’t be deterred – there are plenty of traditional mainstream Western musical reference points. The gently fingerpicked guitars and harp on tracks like Inayaat, Mohabbat, and Suroor give them a sound not entirely unlike folk. Saans Lo’s ambient beauty, meanwhile, is built around an electric guitar passage that would fit very comfortably as a more reflective number on an indie rock album from the likes ofThe National. The attention to detail in these delicate compositions is astonishing, certain flourishes or harmonies briefly transforming the repetition-based foundations before disappearing as quickly as they arrived. Whilst the vocals are mostly non-English, there is a wistful quality in Aftab’s singing (and the music behind it) that transcends language barriers and conveys the themes of “revisiting places I’ve called mine… places that don’t necessarily exist anymore. It’s about people, friendships, relationships—some relationships that were unexpectedly short term, and how to deal with that.” Take the plunge – Vulture Prince is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful albums you’ll hear this year.

Standout tracks: Inayaat, Mohabbat

For fans of: Joanna Newsome, Julia Holter

3. GOJIRA – Fortitude (Metal, Roadrunner Records Inc.)

The skinny: For a band that’s firmly in its third decade together, there are no signs that French metal act GOJIRA (the Rōmaji spelling of Godzilla) are simply going through the motions. Fortitude is a serious competitor to The Armed’s Ultrapop as the loudest album featured this month. However, like many of the best metal acts, Gojira are not content with simply playing as heavy, fast, and/or loud as possible either for its own sake or to show off. Instead, they often balance their technical virtuosity and crushing sound with either a winning sense of adventure or intensely-focused songwriting. For example, the guitar riffs are chunky and skilful, but many of them have a melodic quality (Into the Storm) and inventiveness (Sphinx) which is indicative of a more general tendency for subtle experimentation throughout Fortitude. There’s no shortage of double kick drums and thumping beats, but at other points the drumming forgoes traditional metal tropes for an assertive groove. Vocalist Joe Duplantier appears equally capable of richly harmonised choruses as he is of formidable growls. Fortitude is a phenomenal album and comes especially recommended for those listeners who prefer their metal sweetened by just a little colour.

Standout tracks: Born For One Thing, Hold On

For fans of: Mastodon, Metallica, Meshuggah

4. Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses (Indie Rock, Sub Pop Records)

The skinny: Flock of Dimes is supposed to be the solo side project of Wye Oak frontwoman Jenn Wasner. But on the basis of Head of Roses,it might have overtaken her day job artistically. The album blends a range of distinct strands within indie rock, excelling at Bon Iver-style glitchy vocoders (2 Heads and Hard Way), light synth pop (Two), pensive country (Walking, Awake for the Sunrise), piano ballads (No Question, Head of Roses), and colossal, melancholy anthems (Price of Blue). The albumalso showcases Wasner as a supremely talented lyricist and expressive vocalist. Outstanding opener 2 Heads starts with the striking introspection of “How can I explain myself? I have two heads inside my mouth, Four eyes crying as they laugh, And both will waste away by half.” A similarly poignant vein runs through the whole album. With Head of Roses, Flock of Dimes has emerged from under Wye Oak’s shadow and is now a ‘must-listen’ project on its own merits.

Standout tracks: Price of Blue, Hard Way

For fans of: Bon Iver, Jenny Lewis

5. Howie Lee – Birdy Island (Electronic/Chinese Classical/Jazz, Mais Um Discos)

The skinny: Birdy Island is an utterly charming release from Beijing-based producer/artist Howie Lee, “loosely based around [his] own long-formed concept of a floating Sicilian theme park, co-inhabited by both birds and ancestral spirits.” Built almost like the score to an unreleased film about this imaginary wonderland, Birdy Island threads continuities between ceremonial Taoist music, early Buchla synth experiments, and FWD>> nights at London’s Plastic People.” Its “almost exclusively acoustic yet broad sound palette” produces an incredibly luxurious music which, on tracks like Wave, Wave, Wave, captures the almost childlike wonder that you’d imagine any visitors to the island might experience.

Standout tracks: Time To The Sun, The Door of Aspiration

For fans of: Alex Wang, Joe Hisaishi’s Spirited Away soundtrack, Holly Herndon

6. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (Post-Punk, 4AD Ltd.)

The skinny: It is increasingly rare for a British guitar band to live up to the kind of unanimously positive hype that London post-punks Dry Cleaning have received. It is a very pleasant surprise, then, that New Long Leg not only matches the hyperbole but arguably surpasses it. Much of the attention has been placed on vocalist Florence Shaw; her spoken-word delivery and wry sense of humour differentiate Dry Cleaning from most of their peers. She more than justifies the recognition with a performance that mixes keen observation, hilarious deadpan humour (“The last thing I looked at in this hand mirror is a human arsehole”), and a knack for elevating simple phrases by setting them to subtly memorable rhythms (e.g. “simple pimple, stomach stab” in Leafy). At the same time, the spoken-word vocal style means there’s an onus on the rest of the band to give colour to these songs to avoid them becoming a little one dimensional. Fortunately, each member excels, with Lewis Maynard’s bustling basslines and Tom Dowse’s expressive guitars consistently competing to grab the listener’s attention. Rather than contradict one another, they remain in perfect sync and complement Nick Buxton’s grooves. I’m curious to see whether the style established here will remain fresh and exciting over multiple releases or whether Dry Cleaning will need to radically reinvent to hold our interest. For now, they’ve aced the first step and given us a hugely enjoyable debut.

Standout tracks: Scratchcard Lanyard, Her Hippo

For fans of: Fontaines D.C., Do Nothing, Interpol (musically)

7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! (Post-Rock/Instrumental, Constellation)

The skinny: Post-Rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor are the kind of band whose work I’ve always enjoyed tremendously whenever I’ve heard it, but whose back catalogue can at first appear daunting. Their consensus magnum opus (2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven) is just shy of ninety minutes long, and their tracks are often ten-to-twenty-minute long ‘suites’ of dark, instrumental post-rock. At a relatively brisk fifty-two minutes G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is one of their most approachable albums, aided by the fact that the mammoth suites are broken down to their individual pieces on streaming services. It’s still almost formidably grand post-rock, but there are also so many moments of breath-taking beauty throughout, as well as a number of melodic refrains that act as the album’s hooks. It’s hard to hear the seamless transition from the crunching palm-muted guitar and ascending refrain of Job’s Lament into the majestic sweep of First of the Last Glaciers without feeling a sense of awe, and that feeling returns to the listener at many other points. G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is a highly-recommended entry point for anybody unfamiliar with Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s epic musical vision.

Standout tracks: Job’s Lament, First of the Last Glaciers (preferably back-to-back!)

For fans of: Sigur Ros, Mogwai

8. Lord Apex – Smoke Sessions 3 (Rap/Hip-Hop, Lord Apex)

The skinny: London MC Lord Apex constructs an ‘alternative rap’ sound that shares more with underground rap trends in the USA than his native city’s grime scene. Smoke Sessions 3 has a largely mellow vibe built around chilled-out beats and intriguing melodies. Highlights like I Need a Light and High Forever sound like a bizarrely compelling and futuristic version of lounge music. Lord Apex is often described as a keen student of both hip-hop’s history as well as the techniques of the underground’s greats like J Dilla and MF DOOM. The hours that he’s put in have obviously paid off, as his own flow is precise whilst also coming off as affable. It’s a perfect delivery style for his complex lyrics and rhyme schemes. This is one of the most exciting MCs in the U.K. right now, and I’d recommend any hip-hop fans that are not yet acquainted with Lord Apex’s work to rectify that situation ASAP.

Standout tracks: I Need a Light (feat. Smoke DZA), Like You Know

For fans of: Earl Sweatshirt, MF DOOM, Madlib

9. Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra – Kôrôlén (Mande Music/Modern Classical, World Circuit Limited, a BMG Company)

The skinny: There is a preconception in some music circles that the sudden addition of a string section or orchestra to an established artist’s sound is often a misguided move to add some sense of scale to otherwise undernourished material. Often such fears prove to be justified, but nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Kôrôlén (meaning “ancestral” in Mandinka). This is a pristine recording of a 2008 performance at the London Barbican Centre unitinglegendary Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, other eminent Malian musicians, and the London Symphony Orchestra.Diabaté is no stranger to making collaborations work, his renowned talent having seen him work with the likes of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, Björk, and Damon Albarn. So it is little surprise that he and LSO conductor Clark Rundell make sure that these dedicated arrangements mostly emphasise the delicate grace of his stunning kora playing. Playful touches like the snippet of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly during Cantelowes Dream add to the already considerable charm.

Standout tracks: Mama Souraka, Elyne Road

For fans of: Ballaké Sissoko, Ali Farka Touré, Rokia Traoré

10. Low Island – If You Could Have It All Again (Alt-Pop, Emotional Interference)

The skinny: Having lived in Oxford for the past five years, I can tell you that no local band since Glass Animals has garnered as much excitement and expectation as Low Island. Debut album If You Could Have It All Again lives up to these hopes, creating an immensely enjoyable hybrid of moody synthpop and more traditional British indie-rock. Spirited indie-dancefloor beats and bass-heavy grooves sit side-by-side with moments of quiet contemplation, and the lyrics move between deeply cynical (What Do You Stand For, Who’s Having the Greatest Time) and vulnerable (Hey Man, In Your Arms). There are hints of recent greats like LCD Soundsystem (What Do You Stand For) and Everything Everything (Spaces Closing In), but Low Island have crafted their own addictive sound and feel like they’ll be bursting onto national and international stages in no time at all.

Standout tracks: What Do You Stand For, Space Closing In

For fans of: Everything Everything, All We Are, Nation of Language

Honourable Mentions

11. Ryley Walker – Course in Fable (Rock, Husky Pants Records)

12. Dawn Richard – Second Line (Dance/R&B, Merge Records)

13. Julia Stone – Sixty Summers (Singer-Songwriter/Pop, Julia Stone Pty Limited)

14. Ochre – An Eye to Windward (Ambient/Instrumental, Christopher Leary)

15. Gotham (Talib Kweli & Diamond D) – Gotham (Rap, Javotti Media)

16. Balmorhea – The Wind (Classical, Balmorhea Music LLC, under exclusive license to Deutshe Grammophon GmbH)

17. Rata Negra – Una Vida Vulgar (Indie/Punk, Humo Internacional)

18. Hooveriii – Water for the Frogs (Rock/Psychedelic, The Reverberation Appreciation Society)

19. Khalab & M’berra Ensemble – M’berra (Desert Blues/Afrofuturism, Real World Records Ltd.)

20. Rogér Fakhr – Fine Anyway (Habibi Funk 016) (Singer-Songwriter, Habibi Funk Records distributed by Groove Attack)

21. Field Music – Flat White Moon (Indie Rock, Memphis Industries)

22. Zahara – PUTA (Alt-Pop, G.O.Z.Z Records)

23. Myd – Born a Loser (Alt-Pop, Ed Banger Records under exclusive licence to Because Music)

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