March took a dark turn with its album of the month, but there were plenty of musical wonders to be found both in the light and the shade. Here are some of the very best albums I’ve found.
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) or Honourable Mentions (11-20) please click here
Album of the Month
NYX & Gazelle Twin – Deep England (Electronic/Experimental, NYX Collective Records)
With each passing day England feels like it is becoming a less welcoming place. So many different individuals and groups who reside in it suffer its wrath, some on a near-daily basis, despite having done nothing wrong. Many of us who are rarely on the receiving end of such abuse, but are nevertheless appalled by it, have spent recent years trying to convince ourselves that this is a recent trend that appeared almost out of nowhere in 2016, or maybe 2010, but surely no earlier than that. England was kinder before then, wasn’t it? And, if so, maybe this particularly cruel era will disappear just as quickly and easily as it seemed to arrive.
However, it is nearly impossible to look at the reality of this country’s history and not reach the conclusion that the prejudices and bigotry that have boiled over in the past decade are much, much older than that. Many of them have infected English society for more than half a millennium, and have been far more widespread than a “few bad apples” that can be briskly waved away without implicating a broader problem. However, for just as long as these blights have existed, those that have controlled the production and recounting of England and Britain’s history have responded precisely with collective denial of reality, firstly by saying that these things weren’t prejudices at all and then by increasingly downplaying their prevalence in the UK. This misinterpretation, in some cases sincere but in others mendacious, continues to inform the teaching of this country’s history today, shaping and distorting the worldview of most English politicians and citizens alike. England ishome to millions of good, kind people, and it is certainly not the only country that prefers self-aggrandising myth to less flattering truth. Nevertheless, the spectacularly misinformed brand of self-‘understanding’ held by so many has undeniably been a major contributor to the disastrous situation in which it currently finds itself.
As depressing a start to a review as that may be, establishing the relationship between England’s collective denial of its own historical reality and the chaos of today provides useful context for listening to Deep England. This collaboration between Leicestershire-based Elizabeth Bernholz (a.k.a Gazelle Twin) and “electronic drone choir” NYX creates a fascinating “electronic-choral expansion” of the former’s 2018 classic Pastoral, with four tracks from that album “radically reworked and presented alongside original compositions by NYX, Paul Giovanni and William Blake.” In doing so, they seek not only to “cry our rage” at the current state of this land but also to warn against the perils of revisionist history and placing all your chips in doomed schemes based upon it. For the purposes of this album, the Ponzi scheme under investigation is the concerted effort to drag twenty-first-century British society backwards to some mythologised but illusory “ancient future” called Deep England (a term originally coined by academic Patrick Wright).
This notion of intentionally and disastrously trying to recreate a past that never existed as the basis for a people’s future informs not only Deep England’s lyrical content but also its dramatic sonic shift from its parent album Pastoral. Many of the lyrics found in Deep England are drawn directly from Pastoral, which inevitably means that some of the sharpest lyrical critiques of England’s regressive lurch found here are repetitions or repurposings, as we will see later on. But Pastoral’s claustrophobic, agitated tangle of synthesizers, vocoders, and processed beats firmly placed it in the decade of its creation, as did references such as “eating from bins outside supermarkets.” Deep England, in stark contrast, sounds centuries older, “rooted in English pagan and sacred music” to bring to life a society that exists in the future temporally yet in the past culturally. From the very earliest seconds, antiquated church bells ring, medieval-sounding woodwind instruments flutter, and saintly choirs soar, setting a musical tone that recurs throughout.
Those musical stylings are more often associated with rose-tinted odes that paint pre-Industrial Revolution England as an idyllic paradise, an expectation that seems at first glance to be confirmed by the inclusion of a rendition of William Blake’s Jerusalem in the tracklist. However, there is no warmth nor nostalgic comfort in the music here. Instead, the melodies are often austere, combined with repeated motifs like sinister low-register drones and a host of increasingly monstruous manipulated voices. The atmosphere created is closer to a barren underworld than sunlit uplands. Even the most conventionally ‘pretty’ or ‘catchy’ melodies, such as the rustic woodwind instruments and pagan-esque ritual chants in Fire Leap, have a distinctly haunting quality to them. (Those with a keen memory will recall that the track is actually a reworking of an eery fertility ritual of the same name from the 1973 film The Wicker Man – not exactly the kind of community most of us would really want to be emulating if at all possible). Jerusalem’s original glorification of “England’s pleasant pastures,” meanwhile, is flipped entirely on its head, starting out as a gorgeous choral performance but turning increasingly dissonant before being joined by satanic laughter and tortured moans. By the time we reach the album’s title track we are confronted with a wretched creature obsessively wailing “My silver cloud… My cul-de-sac,” concluding with a genuinely terrifying roar of “My England.” Tellingly, when presented with the reality of their journey backwards, not one voice heard in Deep England sounds contented, fulfilled, or happy.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough for Team Deep England, under all the trappings of a simpler past, it would appear that the ‘abominable’ creations of modernity are not completely absent. Instead, glitchy voices continue to haunt the hellscape produced, auto-tuned, pitch-shifted, or subjected to some other modern technology often cited as evidence of the alleged inauthenticity and inferiority of contemporary society. In Folly they swirl around a lost-sounding voice which repeatedly asks “What century is this?” The same question was asked in Pastoral, but there it seemed more like a mocking rhetorical question: “What century is this? Are we in 2018 or 1818?” Here, in Deep England’s context, it sounds more like a genuine question, its asker unable to determine what time period they’re in, past or present, as they wander a land that time forgot, one that lacks any meaningful identity or positive distinguishing features. Not only is Deep England a deeply unpleasant place even for its supposed beneficiaries, then, but questions also arise as to whether it will ever succeed on its own terms to get rid of all the ‘corrupting’ modern trappings. Almost certainly not. The more it tries, the more it simply it plunges itself into the terror.
If all of the above gives the impression that Deep England is an overwhelmingly unpleasant, unlistenable endurance test that one would only subject themselves to in order to support its political point, that would be a misconception. Quite the contrary, sonically and compositionally it sounds fantastic. Many of the lead and choral vocal arrangements are breath-takingly dramatic, ranging from powerful and resistant to anxiously uncertain to grotesque. Whilst there isn’t any instrumentation that could be described as cheerful or soothing, interspersed amongst the glitches and outright dissonance are numerous occasions where the tragedy of the situation is conveyed by moments of steely, mournful beauty. The whole album is captivating in much the same way that a good thriller or horror film can contain unpleasant themes or scenes yet can still be exceptionally well-written and/or beautifully shot and acted, producing an incredibly satisfying whole. It’s not easy-listening or a dinner party album. But listened to in the right conditions, the overall effect is an experience that is cathartic and invigorating.
Though the musical directions discussed above alone would suffice in effectively suggesting that the path towards Deep England is not the wisest of the options available to us, the lyrics are clearer still. In a move that would appear counterproductive at first, a substantial portion of the album’s airtime is given to the advocates of England’s regressive lurch towards the past. Both those who genuinely want to see England return to a previous era (“Much better in my day, No Locked Doors, No Foreigners”) and those cynically backing the project for personal gain (“I sit on the throne, I gather your soul, Eat your debts… Waiting, stoking, scratching, picking”) have their voices heard. But they are not validated as having ‘legitimate concerns’ or ‘telling it like it is’ in a disingenuous attempt to claim ‘impartiality.’ This is not even a platform from which they can be beaten in debate in the marketplace of ideas, an infuriating blind spot of liberal complacency. The voices that speak these words, warped into terrifying nightmares worthy of their content, make their lack of compassion, and even sense, abundantly clear to any listener.
On other occasions more explicit warnings come from an outsider’s perspective. From the opening lines Bernholz howls “You won’t see your old home again, You won’t see the old ancient… Will you become the saint you want to be? Spreading your disease.” There is no rebuilding the England from the 1950s, the 1500s, or anywhere in between, even if you were so misguided as to want to. Those seeking to drag us there will always be thwarted, not by ‘lefty traitors’ or ‘cowardly saboteurs’ but instead by the historical reality that the England of their myths simply never existed. All that path can lead to is countless lives (including, perhaps, their own) ruined in the process of trying.
Deep England, then, is not just an exceptional record, but also an incredibly important one, a superb example of the culturally electrifying potential of art when it documents and eviscerates its surroundings in the hope that it might lead to a change for the better.
Equally important is its bold musical experimentation. It takes a considerable amount of courage to attempt to fuse the historically diverse musical elements found here into a single integrated world, and exceptional talent to do so with such great success. It really sounds like very little else in music at the moment. Certainly, it is both the most ambitious and satisfying release of the month.
In its illustration of the perils of revisionist histories I think Deep England is illuminating to its comrades resisting the creation of Deep England as well to those who are building it. England’s continued process of misreading its own history (and passing down those misreadings from generation to generation) has meant that, to a great extent, we have been living in a “post-truth Britain” for centuries now, even during the relatively more progressive periods. Britain was not a utopia between 1997 to 2009, nor during its membership of the EU. Racism, sexism, classism, and all the many kinds of bigotry that openly and unashamedly set policy today also very much existed and ruined the lives of our fellow citizens then too. We can’t afford to fall into the trap of overlooking those uncomfortable truths and lionising an era as the perfect society just because it was less flagrantly awful than what has followed it. We must not not be reduced to simply muttering “it was much better in my day” under our breath too.
2. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (Singer-songwriter, June Tunes Music, inc. Under Exclusive License to Fantasy Records)
The skinny: From its opening notes of warm, sparkling piano, The Moon and the Stars has the feel of an instant classic. The brand of Americana that June weaves from a “tapestry of folk, soul, gospel, country, blues, psychedelia, and time-bending symphonic pop” immediately provides the album with an innately timeless feel. Alongside her serene acoustic guitar playing, June’s magnificent voice has an undeniable star quality. It’s bluesy and full of character but also incredibly versatile, remaining compelling from a quite whisper (Fallin’) to full lung-busting capacity (Call Me a Fool). Her songwriting is of an exceptionally high quality throughout, and I expect this one to make the higher reaches of a lot of end-of-year lists.
Standout tracks: Two Roads, Call Me A Fool (feat. Carla Thomas)
For fans of: Brittany Howard, Janis Joplin
3. New Pagans – The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All (Alternative/Post-Punk, Big Scary Monsters)
The skinny: Belfast quintet New Pagans come roaring out the gates with their debut album The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All. Defiant explorations of “past and present issues surrounding relationships, equality, history, and gender” are packed into a taught, explosive mix of alt-rock and post-punk that’s brimming with hooks and choruses. In particular, in amongst the abundance of great performances, there are a number of memorable guitar riffs (Harbour, Lily Yeats) and basslines (Bloody Soil, Christian Boys) that stick in the mind long after the record has finished playing. The band won ‘Best Live Act’ at the Northern Ireland Music Prize 2020 – now armed with the terrific material found here, they’re sure to be a must-see whenever they’re playing in your local area.
Standout tracks: Harbour, Natural Beauty
For fans of: Wolf Alice, Honeyblood, Cloud Nothings
4. Fimber Bravo – Lunar Tredd (World/Electronic, Moshi Moshi)
The skinny: I’ll admit,I shamefully didn’t care hugely for steel pan as an instrument until relatively recently, when I discovered the fascinating history of their invention and popularization in Trinidad and Tobago as processes of resistance to colonial oppression. Fimber Bravo, legendary performer of the instrument and founding member of the Twentieth Century Steel Band, touches on that history and makes it crystal clear that Lunar Tredd is a continuation of that revolutionary musical legacy with its opening words (“They ban our slave drums, and whip we… They ban steel pan, and they jail we… And we still shout ‘You can’t control we’”). Bravo’s masterful playing of the instrument is present in every track, but crucially he skilfully “integrat[es] them in leftfield improvisations with Western pop and electronic sounds” so that they complement the songs rather than dominate them. In doing so, he demonstrates the steel pan’s unexpected adaptability, sounding no more out of place in slower-paced, moodier pieces such as Santana’s Daughter and Caribbean Bluez (In the Shadow of Windrush) than they do among infectious high-tempo grooves and major keys. Lunar Tredd is a stellar mix of music’s past, present, and future.
Standout tracks: Can’t Control We, Call My Name
For fans of: Twentieth Century Steel Band, Bakra Bata
5. Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – HARAM (Rap, Backwoodz Studioz)
The skinny: Ascendant rap duo Armand Hammer (Billy Woods and Elucid) combine forces with one of the most talked-about producers in rap The Alchemist (responsible for last year’s The Price of Tea in China with Boldy James and Alfredo with Freddie Gibbs), and the results are an utter triumph. In those releases mentioned above The Alchemist has proven conscious about and skilled at creating music that complements his collaborators’ strengths and styles. This trend undoubtedly continues with Haram, where he craftsa dark, dingy sonic landscape perfectly suited for Woods and Elucid’s musings on murky matters. In fact, at many points both the music and the words feel so dense and cryptic that their inner meaning appears almost impenetrable (“A thousand plateaus, a constellation of prisons, An ocean of archipelagos, an algorithm… Voices in the ventilation float different, Foucault call collect sound like long distance… Use to be they bail you out for lynchin’, Now it’s Chinese Boxes you disappear in the system, Ad Seg”). Yet Haram remains utterly captivating and rewards each repeat listen with some new insight or feat of the English language.
Standout tracks: Scaffolds, Stonefruit
For fans of: Quelle Chris, Boldy James, Hermit and the Recluse
6. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth (Singer-songwriter/Alt-Pop, House Axiety / Ourness)
The skinny: Every once in a while, a record will come out with such a dazzlingly diverse spectrum of ideas and styles that you simply have to marvel at how it all manages to hold together. But on his debut album Smiling With No Teeth Ghanaian-Australian artist Genesis Owusu makes it all look so easy as he revels in the possibilities of such musical diversity. He throws elements from rap, post-punk, R&B, electro-pop, funk, and more into the pot, switching between them not only between songs but also within them too. The result is an exhilarating kaleidoscope of a record, and the ten-track run from The Other Black Dog to Whip Cracker is utter perfection.
Standout tracks: Drown (feat. Kirin J Callinan), I Don’t See Colour
For fans of: Young Fathers, Anderson .Paak
7. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – Theory of Ice (Indie-Rock/Folk, You’ve Changed Records)
The skinny: Theory of Ice is likely one of the most representative titles for an album’s prevailing mood this year. Made by supremely multi-talented “Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the album’s numerous lyrical references to wintry nature (e.g. “Faint ice as membrane, Sprеads sound across skin”) are reinforced by the part-sung, part-spoken-word vocal delivery and the musical stylings throughout. A beautiful, haunting glacial feel permeates the music of the opening three tracks, in particular the solemn piano chords of Break Up. From Surface Tension onwards a somewhat brighter, warmer sound develops (such as the Bon Iver-esqe guitars of The Wake), but ultimately they still feel reminiscent of those icy first days of spring. The lyrics also explore the coexistence of the indigenous Michi Saagiig (part of the larger Anishinaabeg nation) with their natural surroundings and the “tragedy and… resistance to ongoing colonial violence” they experience. The continued relevance of Willie Dunn’s I Pity the Country (covered here) speaks to the vital political necessity of Betasamosake Simpson’s work. But the poetry of her lyrics, the moments of profound human connection described in them, and the beauty of the accompanying music are all equally valid reasons to enjoy this album.
Standout tracks: Viscosity, I Pity the Country
For fans of: Cassandra Jenkins, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Jenny Hval
8. YUNGMORPHEUS & ewonee – Thumbing Thru Foliage (Rap, Bad Taste)
The skinny: Don’t mistake YUNGMORPHEUS’ understated flow or dry humour for a laid-back outlook on life. The tone and the delivery might be smooth, but there’s no shortage of anger and ruthlessness in his words as he castigates societal blights such as racism, inequality, and those that perpetrate the two. Whilst YUNGMORPHEUS’ excellent bars are worth the price of entry alone, the colour and intrigue provided by producer ewonee’s selection of old classy samples elevates this record to another level. Drawing from soul, jazz, blues rock, and even chanson, the tracks move from lush and melodic (Sovereignty) to sparse and mysterious (Table for One, Middle Passage) and even downright funky (Fistfulofgreens). It’s one of the best rap records of the year so far.
Standout tracks: Fistfulofgreens, The Rat Race
For fans of: Pink Siifu, Medhane
9. Dvne – Etemen Ænka (Metal/Rock, Metal Blade Records)
The skinny: At sixty-seven minutes Etemen Ænka is a whopper of an album, and its running time is not the only aspect of the record that trends towards the epic end of the scale. Most of the excellent individual songs break the six- or seven-minute mark, they’re often composed of multiple linked-but-distinct sections, and when the five-piece band are operating at full-throttle they produce an absolutely humongous sound. The vocal delivery is a mix of sung and bellowed, but mostly this album is actually a more accessible example of metal, often forming a bridge that genre and hard rock. For example, fans of Muse’s heavier riffs (e.g. Assassin) might well enjoy the guitar work in the likes of Court of the Matriarch and Omega Server. Whether you’re a diehard fan of metal or someone who is looking for a good gateway album into the genre, this comes highly recommended.
Standout tracks: Omega Severer, SI-XIV
For fans of: Mare Cognitum, Cult of Luna, Mastodon
10. Rahiem Supreme – The 9 Diagrams (Rap, 659706 Records DK)
The skinny: If you like dusty beats with intentionally lo-fi production values in your rap music, then The 9 Diagrams is just the album for you. It sounds raw and unpolished in the best possible way, like it’s come straight out of a basement studio recording with as little post-production added as possible (similar to the “sound” of Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers or, for an example from another genre, The Strokes’ Is This It?). Rahieme Supreme, meanwhile, sounds permanently switched on. His delivery is engagingly passionate and animated regardless of whether he’s rapping over relaxing mood pieces (Spiritual Spare of Jewels, Kabbalah) or harder beats (Yukaton).
Standout tracks: The Sun Splashed (feat. Ankhlejohn), Spiritual Spare of Jewels
For fans of: Ankhlejohn, Wu-Tang Clan
11. Tune-Yards – sketchy (Indie-Pop, 4AD Ltd.)
12. Noga Erez – KIDS (Pop, City Slang)
13. The Antlers – Green to Gold (Indie-Rock, The Antlers under exclusive license to Transgressive Records Ltd.)
14. Really From – Really From (Indie-Rock, Topshelf Records)
15. Nubiyan Twist – Freedom Fables (Jazz, Strut Records)
16. IAN SWEET – Show Me How You Disappear (Indie-Rock, Polyvinyl Record Co.)
17. Jane Weaver – Flock (Indie-Rock, Fire Records)
18. Alice Phoebe Lou – Glow (Indie-Pop, Alice Phoebe Lou)
19. Bernice – Eau de Bonjourno (Indie-Pop, Telephone Explosion Records)
20. The Anchoress – The Art of Losing (Rock, Kscope)
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