I'm not going to philosophise about the year this time. It was bad.
Here are the Top 20 Albums of 2020:
YL, ZOOMO - BORN AGAIN [Hip-Hop] - USA
Disgracefully slept on underground hip-hop album. You're doing yourself a disservice by missing out on these East-Coast flavours.
LAURA MARLING - SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER [Singer/Songwriter] - United Kingdom
UK singer/songwriter creates a work of art. I cry a lot. The two are probably connected.
TONY ALLEN, HUGH MASEKELA - REJOICE [Jazz] - Nigeria / South Africa
Swansong project finally released from two late legends of African jazz music. Astonishingly brilliant performances from two men still excelling at the end of incredibly long careers.
BITCH FALCON - STARING AT CLOCKS [Rock] - Ireland
Best band name on the planet. One of the best underground LPs of the year too. Colossal female-fronted Irish guitar rock intensity.
ARCA - KiCk i [Experimental Pop] - Venezuela
Batshit insane and I love it. Gender-queer expression and a defiant rejection of any and all expectations you could levy Arca's way. It's a battering ram of experimental dance explosivity and 'La Chíqui' is still an absurdly good SOPHIE collaboration.
20. TOM MISCH & YUSSEF DAYES - WHAT KINDA MUSIC
One of the very first articles ever published here at SMPM was an obsessively detailed celebration of Yussef Dayes and Alfa Mist's 'Love is the Message'. In it, I described Dayes, Mist, Rocco Palladino and Mansur Brown as some of the "most technically impressive musicians currently playing." Now I'm no authority on who is, or isn't the best drummer in the world, but Yussef Dayes is indisputably in that conversation.
If there were any doubts about just how generationally gifted Yussef Dayes is as a drummer, this album puts them to bed. As a collaborative album made between the prodigious Tom Misch and Dayes behind the kit, What Kinda Music ends up as this staggeringly enjoyable fusion project, with some of the most offensively infectious grooves of the year. Misch and Dayes are an inspired combination, and after adding contributions from Freddie Gibbs, Kaidi Akinnibi and a return from Rocco Palladino, What Kinda Music stands out as a record with incalculable chemistry and some of the very best instrumental performances of the year.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Nightrider', 'Tidal Wave', 'Kyiv'
19. J HUS - BIG CONSPIRACY
There might not be any artist that matured like J Hus did in 2020. Returning with a developed sound and a refined lyrical approach, Big Conspiracy sparked 2020 with a cross-pollination of stylistic influences and a stupidly extensive guest list. No-one could've put it better than Micah Chudleigh did in his article for SMPM back in April:
The real takeaway from the album though, is the maturation of J Hus' storytelling. The sporadic mentions of his time in prison are more so vehicles to express change in mentality; his infamous Twitter rants centred around the power of words and here, he displays it. More militant, more anti-establishment, more aware of what it is to be a black man in the United Kingdom.
With every collaborator working at the absolute height of their powers. Between Burna Boy, Koffee, TSB and beyond, the whole project exudes an effortless confidence, but central to it all, the charismatic impetus of Hus invigorated this album as a project full of melodic ingenuity and rhythmic contagion. Where certain UK artists find themselves repeating the same sounds and approaches to exhaustion on their projects, the versatility of Big Conspiracy stands so tall.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Play Play’, ’Repeat’, ‘Must Be’
18. CLIPPING. - VISIONS OF BODIES BEING BURNED
There's something genuinely unnerving about Visions of Bodies Being Burned. A hip-hop album crossed with a slasher film, the October release of clipping.'s fourth LP provided the perfect album for a Halloween spent stuck indoors. Hearing floorboards creak, ghostly EVP recordings and fists battering against locked doors, Visions of Bodies Being Burned manages to craft one of the most hauntingly immersive experiences imaginable; constructing your very own log cabin retreat all while something incomprehensively terrifying looms in the shadows outside.
Besides its achievements as a horrifically unsettling project of violent imagery and supernatural scariness, what you have here is an undeniably excellent hip-hop record. It's one of the best sounding albums of the year, combining colossal percussion with these sharp, grating sounds that scream "oh crap, a bunch more bad stuff just happened". It's exact, calculated and creepy as hell. You should play it every October.
DEMONIC MANTRAS: 'Say The Name'
17. GENGAHR - SANCTUARY
God, I really love Gengahr. You couldn't name a better UK band for shoegazey tones or filthy basslines than this London four-piece, and the songs on Sanctuary just *scream* shiny indie rock goodness. The first four songs in particular are relentlessly fantastic music, transitioning from the swelling vibrancy of 'Everything & More', through the long-awaited album release of 'Atlas Please' and 'Heavenly Maybe' - undoubtedly one of the very best songs of 2019.
Something about Jack Steadman's involvement on this project really seems to have accessed a new peak to Gengahr's creativity. The percussion is stupidly precise, complimented with an irresponsibly fantastic collection of instrumental performances. It's just a selection of fantastic songwriting and I'm desperate for a world in which I can be in the same room as Gengahr making music again.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Atlas Please', 'Heavenly Maybe', 'Never A Low'
16. SONGHOY BLUES - OPTIMISME
Pay attention. The world's best rock band comes from the Sahara. For those of you unfamiliar, Songhoy Blues are a Malian blues rock group who formed in Bamako after being displaced from northern Mali by Ansar Dine extremists in 2012. In response, Songhoy Blues crafted a sound of resistance, expressivity and joy in a synthesis of sounds from Fela Kuti to Jimi Hendrix.
With Optimisme, Songhoy Blues have the best traditional rock album of the year, hands down. From song to song, Garba Touré proves himself as one of the greatest living guitarists on the planet, while Aliou Touré screams into the microphone with inimitable tenacity. Every song sounds like it should end with a guitar getting set on fire, or smashed to pieces on their stage. It's so, so good. Nothing else had the energy, the intensity or the contagious positivity of Optimisme this year, and if you haven't heard it yet you need to rectify the situation.
TRY THIS SONG: 'Worry'
15. WESTSIDE GUNN - PRAY FOR PARIS
I am unapologetically biased to the East Coast. If you give me a big lad from New York rapping about the subway on top of sleepy drum-heavy beats, I'm going to listen to it every day for a month. So when an East Coast rapper releases something genuinely brilliant, I get properly excited. Pray For Paris sounds like a long-lost tape, submerged in cryo-stasis from 1994 and unearthed (gratifyingly) to be enjoyed in 2020. It's a project that would've excelled in nearly every era of hip-hop music. It produces an echo; a shadow of Illmatic and Liquid Swords, but - every now and then - washed over with almost chill-hop sensibilities.
It's a relentlessly compelling experience, and that's without even mentioning how uniquely brilliant Westside Gunn's delivery remains throughout every track. The lyricism demands attention, all gnarled through a distinct vocal tone that pierces through an embarrassment of production riches. Read the feature list of Gunn's collaborators on this project to find a seemingly unending scroll of absurd talent: DJ Premier, The Alchemist, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, Freddie Gibbs, Joey Bada$$ and more make up a ridiculous selection to furnish one of the very best hip-hop projects of the year. But it's not even being carried by its features, it's just a whole team of stupidly talented musicians taking turns to elevate the project to incredible heights. It's so, so good.
SURPRISE! IT'S TYLER, THE CREATOR: '327'
14. YVES TUMOR - HEAVEN TO A TORTURED MIND
The highs of Heaven To A Tortured Mind are so astronomically brilliant that it was entirely impossible to forget Yves Tumor in 2020. 'Gospel To A New Century' earned its spot as our favourite song of 2020, but upon digging a little deeper into the debauchery and funk-goddyseys of this record, the album reveals an astonishing creativity from the mind of an enigmatic inventor. While some moments of Tumor's psychedelic experimentations might not land with the same quality as the record's outrageous highlights, the periods of excellence within Heaven To A Tortured Mind are some of the very best songs the year.
Part Prince, part Funkadelic, part sleep-paralysis sex demon, the sheer confidence of this record is downright ludicrous. No-one sounds as self-assured in acts of lurid flexibility as this funky genius, and despite none of the LPs songs quite living up to the staggering artistic statement that is the album's opening track, tunes like 'Kerosene!' 'Hasdallen Lights' and 'Dream Palette' had me returning to this LP constantly; dragged down by the ankles into the hedonistic hell where Yves Tumor resides.
THE BEST SONG OF 2020: 'Gospel To A New Century'
13. KEEP DANCING INC. - EMBRACE
Ever since releasing his review for this record back in November, it's become a regular conversation between myself and Fin Cousins to talk about just how exceptional this album really is. A fusion of sounds somewhere in the vague vicinity of Talking Heads and Depeche Mode, this debut LP from Parisian synth pop prodigies Keep Dancing Inc. is a keyboard assault of confident musicianship and an astonishingly adept ear for radio-ready brilliance.
All hits. No misses. I kept waiting for Embrace to run out of steam, but with sparkly sequin synthesisers and laser-precise grooves, purpose-built for road trip adventures and dry-ice dancefloors, it refused to stop. It’s the way 'Start up Nation' ignites the album. It's the way 'No Milkshakes in Hell' descends into chaotic catharses. The bass on 'Uncertainty', the guitar work of 'Could U Stop', the pad soundscapes of 'Moving On', etc. etc. It's ridiculous how much this project has to offer, and how well realised each and every one of its ideas proves to be. All in all, Embrace stands out as an incredible achievement from the underground, and an indicator of just how essential Keep Dancing Inc. could prove to become.
TRY THIS SONG: 'Start up Nation'
12. RINA SAWAYAMA - SAWAYAMA
SAWAYAMA shouldn't be possible. Britney Spears and Slipknot were not meant to mix, but somehow, in the alchemy of Rina Sawayama's fusion of late 1990s pop-sensations, RnB excellence and the metal of the turn of the millennium, this album is an outrageous fusion of sounds that shouldn't work together.
Somehow, the connection of nu-metal and ultra-clean pop perfection is made to sound like a totally effortless combination of styles, which leads me to the only possible explanation: Rina Sawayama is a time-traveller, a witch of musical incantations, and quite possible the most offensively overlooked artist in the recent history of the Mercury Awards. The album is near faultless, and that opening five track run is staggeringly brilliant. Just try not to enjoy yourself amidst the perplexingly effortless music that is SAWAYAMA.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'XS', 'STFU', 'Who's Gonna Save U Now?'
11. KELLY LEE OWENS - INNER SONG
Man, what was it with monochrome female UK songwriters releasing covers of 'Weird Fishes / Arpeggi' this year? Regardless, I'm so here for it, and Kelly Lee Owens' album opening re-conception of the Radiohead classic sparked Inner Song into gear as one of 2020's most fascinating electronic projects. Sparse, airy and shimmering, listening to Inner Song is like watching a supernatural entity manipulating the elements right in front of your eyes. Its ethereal, but methodical, moving softly, yet always travelling with a definitively particular purpose in mind. Our very own Sam Harding said it better than I ever could:
Written in the span of a single month, the clarity of her vision — one that encompasses the ebb and flow of the natural world around us as well as similar tides of pain and healing within— feels like an outpouring of ideas and an insular work of the subconscious all at once. Against the backdrop of an increasingly synthetic and virtual world, Inner Song is an invitation into a lush, dreamy and occasionally dazzling realm of grey matter.
It's no ambient record, though. Kelly Lee Owens doesn't take a back seat at all in the production of these 54 Cymru beats and clever constructions. It's a world of soundscapes and clever sonic palettes accessible to only the most ingenious of creators, and it is every bit the album we've come to expect from an artist as pronouncedly talented as Kelly Lee Owens.
OBSERVE MY BLIND WELSH PATRIOTISM: 'Corner Of My Sky ft. John Cale'
10. MJ COLE - MADRUGADA
Almost 17 years had passed without a studio album from legendary UK garage producer MJ Cole. A defining voice in the early 2000s UK sound, the return of Cole might've been expected to signal a shared two-step revival with The 1975's Notes on a Conditional Form. Instead, MJ Cole's re-emergence in 2020 was about as distinct a stylistic shift as imaginable, trading garage beats for a soft, methodically introspective piano-led orchestral album.
Madrugada feels like an album that MJ Cole has always been building in the background. A phenomenally gifted pianist, Cole's classical training breathes life into a record that sounds as through this artist has always made beautiful string-accompanied piano music. Tobie Tripp's contributions as a violinist and arranger are invaluable to the design of Cole's eye-watering soundscapes - and when listening to Madrugada its hard not to lose yourself in the overwhelming beauty of its music. You cannot miss out on this album. It should be on when you study, when you cook, when you clean, when you’re sad on the underground and happy in the sky. It’s everything and deserves to accompany you wherever you go.
WATCH THIS: 'MJ Cole Presents Madrugada'
9. LIANNE LA HAVAS - LIANNE LA HAVAS
Lianne La Havas is infectious. When she's having fun, you don't have an option. You're a hostage in the grip of one of the world's most gorgeous voices, and you're having a great time. Like, look at her smile, man. I can't have a bad day when listening to Lianne La Havas. It's entirely impossible not to be having the best 50 minutes of your life when plugging into this record.
Lianne La Havas might just be the best vocalist on the planet. Her voice is a force of nature, just as effortless while escalating in intensity as it is when accessing unspeakably gorgeous low resonances. Her capabilities as a singer are frightening. She's like a perfectly engineered weapon of mass musical destruction, sliding through vibratos and gigantic belting melodies exactly calculated to both break glass and charm animals to do her bidding. This woman is a fairy tale princess of sheer musical ability, and this album just makes it impossible to deny what she is capable of.
There’s no great over-arching narrative to this self-titled record. It’s just relentlessly perfect music-making. 'Bittersweet' is one of the year's best album openers, 'Read My Mind' is beautiful and 'Can't Fight' was our pick for the 11th best song of the year. Every song is just a love letter to the experience of love, gorgeously written in a melodic cursive accessible to only the most astonishingly talented individuals. But nothing, nothing comes close to Lianne La Havas' re-imagining of Radiohead's In Rainbows classic on 'Weird Fishes'. In just one subtle augmentation (adapting the song to a filthy half-time groove) this re-invention of a modern classic just proves how much Ms. La Havas really has to offer. It's just so, so good.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Read My Mind', 'Can't Fight', 'Weird Fishes'
8. SAULT - UNTITLED (RISE) & UNTITLED (BLACK IS)
Ok, cheating here, but both of SAULT's two landmark projects from this year deserve a place on this list. Fused together by a connective un-nameness, Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is) proved essential listening in a year dominated by weaponised ignorance and racists emboldened by governments powered by institutional racism and anti-blackness.
SAULT remain shrouded in mystery. Who are they? Where in the UK are they from? Why are their albums simultaneously untitled, and named? I ponder these questions every night. While I do that though, we are offered two of the most versatile, dynamic and mercurial projects of the year. SAULT defy classification. They are part disco-revival, part house and funk fusion, layering percussive styles and melodic inspiration in the celebration of an identifiably distinct blackness across cross-genre experimentations.
Its unflinching in its protest writing and persistent in its determination to speak freely across a selection of eye-wateringly brilliant musical ideas. It combines all these seemingly disparate musical avenues and languages into these two cohesive assertions of identity - all in a political landscape dependent on enforcing racial difference as immutable oppressive fact. It's an unmissable collection of songs from 2020, and a soundtrack to resistant non-compliance against systemic racism and violence against black identities.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Bow', 'I Just Want To Dance', 'Free'
7. CARIBOU - SUDDENLY
Caribou came back. This sparks joy.
It had been some time since Canadian producer Dan Snaith had released music under the Caribou moniker, and in the six years since previous album Our Love, it might've been a wonder to hear if Snaith's newest record would still express itself with the same paralysingly beautiful music as before. Suddenly did better than that. It's the best LP Snaith's ever made.
Suddenly exists in the half-spaces. Paradoxically distant, cold and emotionally reserved, while splaying its heart decoratively upon its sleeve, its a listening experience like skating serenely on a frozen lake, all the while destructively crucifying yourself for regrets and past mistakes. But its a celebrative record, too. It houses a multitude of conflicting feelings, meanings and histories, all interspliced confusingly - just like how emotions really work.
It's just such a comprehensive depiction of how life and love actually work, all while sounding extraordinarily brilliant. Nearly every song has a fantastic shift, a volta of creativity that marks each track as a narrative of imaginative songwriting decisions. Songs melt away into ulta-processed piano echos, or ratchet up into these all-encompassing moments of total intensity. It's constantly reinventing itself, refusing to sit still while Snaith provides the best vocals of his career on top of achingly perfect musical scenery. Almost without fail, each and every tune exhibits a producer with an overabundance of talent and inventiveness, and I cannot imagine anyone on earth that could listen to this record without enjoying themselves.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Home', 'Lime', 'Like I Loved You'
6. FREDDIE GIBBS, THE ALCHEMIST - ALFREDO
It‘s one of the world's best producers with one of the greatest rappers of all time. The result was never in doubt.
It was entirely impossible for a collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist to return anything other than a work of genius. Gibbs' delivery is outstanding, constantly shifting and morphing between totally different flows while stitching each and every one together without even a single syllable out of place. His pockets are filled with an endless supply of inventive approaches to rap, and the manner in which he blends his disparate rhythms is mindblowing.
But The Alchemist? Jesus. These instrumentals offer so much for each of the wordsmiths involved to play with, elevating the styles of Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, Tyler the Creator and Conway the Machine for some of the best bars of each of their careers. He pushes them beyond themselves, but it's not like he's compensating for sub-par rapping with bombastic, attention-demanding production. Instead, The Alchemist stands in the wings, orchestrating a perfectly reserved bedrock of sounds to furnish the spaces on the fringes of fantastic MC performances. They never take attention away from his collaborators, instead decorating around the album's performers - adding, and never subtracting, from some of the most impressively constructed raps of the year. He's Bob Cousy to Freddie Gibbs' Bill Russell. An endless, selfless provider, ready to give everything he can to let his team-mates excel. The result is a duo for the ages.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'God Is Perfect', 'Something To Rap About', 'Skinny Suge'
5. NEPTUNIAN MAXIMALISM - ÉONS
Éons is a bombardment of information. Totally overpowering: all senses of space, location, comprehension are lost, floating down the stream of Neptunian Maximalism's colossal behemoth of a two hour noise rock, eastern tinged, fusion of a musical supernova.
Seriously, look at the cover art. It's stupidly brilliant. The best album art I’ve ever seen. This hyper-vibrant painting from Japanese artist Kaneko Tomiyuki embodies everything there is to obsess about in the majesty of Éons' supermassive intensity. It spirals out of control, digressing in ornately colourful directions, all while the sound of drums ignite entire arsenals of percussive ferocity.
It's essentially a Dark Souls boss theme of inescapably violent instrumental barrages, and I can't get enough of its awesome scale. Divided into three acts, not unlike Kamasi Washington's The Epic, there is a real sense of mythological storytelling interwoven into the tapestries of the terrifying scope of this project. A fusion of eastern influences and the legacies of western noise rock, there is no album that sounds even close to the gigantic scale of Éons, and I cannot wait to stare deeply into the demonic swirls of its cover art when I get my hands on a vinyl release - as soon as I can actually afford a copy.
TRY THIS SONG: 'Heka Hou Sia'
4. KING KRULE - MAN ALIVE!
I must have heard the same 5 words a thousand times in February:
"Archy Marshall has a child?!"
No. I’m not meant to do that at 24, am I? That’s frighteningly close to how old I am, and I'm only just old enough to start regretting my life choices. I’m not ready to be a real person yet, and King Krule having a baby instilled a deep existential sense of dread in my heart. Luckily, his music didn’t lose a single slice of the despondent marble-gargling that I’d come to love.
With Man Alive! King Krule finally delivered a project level to the promise of his outrageous talent, and produced one of the essential post-rock albums of the 21st century so far. It's a really hackneyed turn of phrase to say, but I've really never heard an album like this. It's amalgamation of electronic arpeggios, processed beats, gutturally deep basslines and a trademark semi-disinterested vocal delivery from Marshall is simply so compelling in its distinction amongst the crowded sphere of UK indie rock. But more so than The Ooz, or 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, Man Alive! sounds like the fulfilment of King K Rool's potential, and the most well-rounded and well-realised sonic project of his career.
Listening to Man Alive! is like succumbing to something. Like shoving your head beneath murky standing water, all while whispers of barely discernible groans swirl perturbingly from ear to ear. It always feels as if it's about to explode into action, but holds back, leaving its listeners in this stasis of a deliciously constant musical uncertainty. At any moment it sounds like the songs might just break apart, or descend into some decimating cacophony of indie rock, but it never does. It stays resolute, painting a dingy portrait of impeccable design, spitting bloody teeth and stripped electrical wires out of Marshall’s mouth and right back into yours: gaping wide and desperate for more.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Cellular', 'Stoned Again', 'Alone, Omen 3'
3. PHOEBE BRIDGERS - PUNISHER
Punisher tears me to pieces, and all I can do is come back for more. It's almost masochistic to fall in love with an album like this, an album that breaks your back underneath an incalculable weight of emotional anguish and recollections of trauma. It's a coming of age for Phoebe Bridgers, an artist who was already at the forefront of musical creativity after 2017's Stranger in the Alps, but in truth, it's one of the best singer/songwriter albums of the last ten years.
I adore the menacing, A Moon Shaped Pool echoes of its opening instrumental. I love the transportive melancholies of 'Garden Song' and how it fades into the soaring triumphs of 'Kyoto', all while keeping cards in its back pocket, never fully revealing Bridgers' utterly apocalyptic ability to evoke gorgeous misery through the rolled tones of its instrumentals until the album comes to an end. She constantly finds these novel ways to break my heart in seven different directions, and stacking the sadness of 'Punisher', 'Halloween', 'Chinese Satellite', 'Moon Song' and 'Savior Complex' all in a row should be recognised as a near-war crime of melancholic songwriting. It's devastating, but its so impossible to stop listening. It is harrowingly difficult to process the emotions summoned by Bridgers' writing, but somehow the music remains entirely captivating; an album just waiting to soundtrack moments of coming-of-age cliché and wistfully watching raindrops slide down the window on a misty car drive.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Garden Song', 'Chinese Satellite', 'Savior Complex'
2. MOSES SUMNEY - GRAE
Moses Sumney's græ is frighteningly good. Released in two parts across early 2020, it is the most lusciously gorgeous album of the year, drawing orchestral sounds together with pop sensibilities, experimental harmonies, vocal deliveries and breath-taking composition in a project of intensely intelligent engagements with identity, isolation, race and personhood.
The mesmerising desirability of Sumney's project can't be boiled down to one outstanding element. Of course, Sumney himself offers up one of the year's very best vocal performances, capable of impossible intimacy while simultaneously wrenching doors off of their hinges with the sheer force of his voice. But to focus too much on Sumney's own performance would be guilty of overlooking how astonishingly magnificent this record really is. Harps ascend, cymbals detonate, rhythms cascade, falling over one another in apparitions of musicality, fading in and out from the shadows in a phenomenal testament to a talent that must not be ignored.
I suppose at its heart, græ truly is a witness to the power of good songwriting. It's breath-taking to hear Sumney soar into these astonishing vocal pitches time and time again, but they're all born from this bafflingly impressive compositional acumen. 'Virile' is violently perfect. 'Gagarin' pitch-shifts his voice into a heart-wrenching realm of distortion, and 'Polly' switches everything up into a fantastic acoustic guitar ballad, and we still haven't talked about the second disc. It's offensive how much good music is on offer with græ, and for that it remains an utterly crucial album for 2020. Refrains of life advice, ranging from mediations on "isolation comes from insula," to "the recognition of my multiplicity" inject the album with an undercurrent of messages essential to engage with in a year where we all came to terms with precisely who we all are. It's an album of outrageous talent, and incomprehensible prescience. Moses Sumney is an icon, completely prepared to make the 2020s his own.
LISTEN TO THIS: 'Conveyor'
1. FIONA APPLE - FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS
When the 2020s come to an end, Fetch the Bolt Cutters should find itself as one of the defining albums of the decade. It's hard to describe just how impactful; how meaningful; how chaotically energetic Fiona Apple's return to music was in 2020, and how crucial it stands as an expression of personal experience and femininity in a world still haunted by institutional sexism and violence towards women.
It opened with a joke, feigning artificiality through a collection of pre-programmed keyboard drum samples before ripping back a curtain to the album's true sound. Authentic, acoustic and concretely tactile through piano performances and an array of percussive possibilities, Fetch the Bolt Cutters immediately declares itself as an album in total antithesis to the playfully stilted robotics of its opening seconds. It's an album of unapologetic honesty. Yearningly, Apple opens with a plea - "I Want You To Love Me" - before sliding into the utterly fantastic 'Shameika', all punctuated by Fetch the Bolt Cutters' unerringly phenomenal approach to percussion. Doors are slammed; walls crashed against with the desperation of Charlotte Brontë caricature. Apple is a caged being, unleashed with an irrepressible tenacity, growling, howling, harnessing the wind in an articulation of unrelentingly visceral impetus.
Every sound, pulse and vibration finds itself channelled through the vicious attacks of a singer downright demolishing any establishment, expectation, abuser or bully that makes the mistake of getting in Fiona Apple's way. It's an incredible invention of an almost undefinable sound. Double basses and pianos stitch together with dog barks and kitchen utensils as seemingly every object capable of conveying Apple's soul is tamed and moulded in her own image. It's staggering just how brilliantly Fetch the Bolt Cutters finds itself assembled in found sounds and traditional instrumentation, permitting an artist to exude sheer musical power.
What's more stunning though, is that it just keeps going. The vast palette of fantastically captured drum sounds demonstrates itself wonderfully from 'Fetch the Bolt Cutters' to 'Newpaper', but it is not at all reliant on gimmicks or experimentation prioritised over substance. As 'Ladies' kicks into gear, true production expertise makes itself inarguable. It's a bold, likely meaningless claim, but I think Fetch the Bolt Cutters might just have the best sounding drums I've ever heard on an album. They are outstanding, and 'Ladies' demonstrates just how talented a team of recording engineers this album has to boast (Apple herself responsible for a large portion of it).
But past the blistering intensities and incomparable intimacies offered through the design of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, its the lyricism that truly positions the record as amongst the most violently necessary political projects of recent memory. Psychological anguishes, trauma and institutional sexism are invoked throughout, as Fiona Apple provides the most insightful project of her career, but one that transcends personal experience and locates it in the wider contexts of societal injustices. Not dissimilar from the potent dissections of racism found in Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Apple's ability to position herself and her experiences into a wider political discussion of femininity, sexual violence and patriarchal oppression marks the album as a defining moment in popular music.
It is a stunning achievement, its sonic genius matched only by the scale of its successful engagement with sociopolitical issues supermassive in scale. There just aren't enough adjectives available to properly reflect the achievements of this album. It is by far the most resonant listening experience I had in 2020, and stands far and away as the very best album released in the very worst year imaginable. Like Fiona Apple said, "fetch the bolt cutters, I've been in here too long." Truer words were never spoken.
ASTONISHING DRUMS: 'I Want You To Love Me', 'Heavy Balloon', 'On I Go'
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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