Words by David C. Obenour
David C. Obenour is the founder and editor for Off Shelf. Prior to that, he served as the editor and co-publisher of Ghettoblaster’s print magazine, and wrote as a contributor for Under the Radar, The Big Takeover, Filter, Devil in the Woods, Metro.pop, and a number of other current and long gone publications.
If You’re Dreaming is unassuming. It opens hushed and only occasionally raises from it’s feeling of pleasantness. But leaving it there would be doing a great disservice to these songs. Throughout the album are beautifully arranged parts with melodies that hit just right. Burch also shines as vocalist, bringing to mind Aimee Mann’s control of emotion and intonation. Pleasantness is not a slight here, but a remarkable achievement of thoughtful balance.
Warmth is a great adjective to describe Widowspeak’s album, Plum. From it’s welcoming, almost Americana-inspired melodies, to Molly Hamilton’s breathy and Stevie Nicks-like vocals – there’s a nearness to the album that sets the songs at ease. This undercurrent flows throughout a progression of emotions that tracks the album remarkably well as a singular work. The comfort in creation is evident and the songwriter pair have hit a stride that’s exciting to look forward to with future albums.
Under the Spell of Joy is gob-smackingly good. Working from a genre that notedly deals in decades old revisionism, Death Valley Girls have inhaled deeply and exhaled excitement, joy, mystery, and life back into modern psychedelic music. Guest musicians on saxophone and wurlitzer are perfectly utilized to enhance the vibe as songs build and crest with the zeal of a live performance. For all of the talk of cosmic connectedness, they seem to have really opened something special on this album.
For all of the left-field music that struck me this year, none was further out than Irma Vep. Giving it a listen solely on the premise of usually liking Welsh musicians and thinking it’s funny how often he retweeted Liam Gallagher, chance paid off handsomely. His self-described zenith release for this project, Embarrassed Landscape is a lofi triumph of swagger and psychedelia. Songs build and crash, change course, ride out a jam, and change courses again. Brilliant.
Alternating between pastoral acoustic and mind-melting distortion, Ben Chasny continues to explore the outer reaches of song and guitar. Setting the album’s climate from the very beginning, Companion Rises blurs the line between synthesizer and guitar as distortion phases with spacey sustain. Thoughtfully exploring theory and upending structure, or sometimes repeating what started as a misstep until it finds purpose in the exploration, jams lead listeners through unknown sonic landscapes. Every album is a new adventure.
Silver Tongue is the most fully realized pop album to come out this year. Pop in the sense that after taking a step back from appreciating Torres’s evolution as a songwriter and lyricist, you realize the masterfully crafted melodies and arrangements – hitting perfectly every time. The vignettes of a relationship are perfectly sequenced and resonate with the highs and lows, the awkwardness and the comforts. It’s hard to imagine a better album than this, but given the trajectory she’s on it’s exciting to anticipate.
I don’t pretend to be a jazz expert, or even all that well-versed. I can’t talk about Gil Scott-Heron’s lasting importance or how percussionist, Makaya McCraven’s reimagination of Heron’s I’m New Here works from a deeper understanding of the genre. However, hearing We’re New Again – all of this is apparent. Heron’s voice is rich and full of poetry and stories from a fascinating life. McCraven’s beats and samples are complex, but never get in their own way. A fascinating work that requires repeated and further examination.
3. Ismay – Songs of Sonoma Mountain (self-released)
Ismay is a remarkable story-teller. Living in rural California, their day-in-a-life-of-a-cowbirl songs are masterfully crafted to embody the scene and spirit of their surroundings. With field recordings, mesmerizing finger-picked guitar and hushed vocals, the richness of place conjures up other phantom senses of the smell of a field and the warmth of a night fire. Simply beautiful. Stunning.
In a year filled with fear and loathing for how truly shitty things have gotten, The Unfit’s self-titled debut is a blistering thesis of trying to find meaning. There’s anger at society, culture, politics, media and, most importantly, the realization of personal short-comings in the midst of it all. It’s telling how many times iTunes tells me I listened to this (it’s… a lot), but each time I was able to release a little bit of that pent up anger and anxiety. Which is exactly what I needed in 2020.
1. Guided by Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field (GBV Inc)
Surrender Your Poppy Field is as filled with unrelenting hooks and mind-bending melodies as a Mel Brooks film is full of jokes. If Doug’s guitar howl on “Volcano” doesn’t light something inside you, turn it up and listen again (and again). While other musicians chose to delay this year, Guided by Voices released three albums and opened up the vaults to fans with the weekly Hot Freaks subscription service. I subscribed and I make no apologies. My mind is wired in a way that all of this clicks, hard, and makes me absurdly fortunate to live in the same space and time in the universe as Robert Pollard. Long live rockathon.