It’s been a while – over 140 days since my last music post to be exact. Back when I still had the energy to put pieces together I knew an elongated burnout was pretty much inevitable and just pretended to plan around it. In other (more honest) words, I just wanted to milk whatever energy I had for as long as possible in the hopes that it’d somehow be useful in future. This “plan” was fundamentally flawed on multiple levels, as best evidenced by my false assumption that this burnout would sync up with a return to normality. For God knows what reason I thought that I’d be able to swap this place out for normal friendships, fading off into the distance in a world where I don’t have to know who Stephen Donnelly is and where I don’t have opinions on every record with a synthesizer of some sort in it. However, as we’re still stuck in this hellscape (as well as the fact that this blog makes potential internet friends view me as way cooler than I actually am) I’ve intermittently thought about trying to tie up loose ends on here – I’ll probably never get back to writing as much (or as soppily) as I did back in May or June but there are certain records and artists I’m mad at myself for never getting to cover. This piece is the culmination of that urge – I’d initially planned on putting a series of posts together but eventually amalgamated whatever I had composed into one uncurated mess. I’ve never really liked the tone of year-end lists and have intentionally avoided trying to structure this piece like one – these aren’t the best records of the year (or even just a list of my favourite ones), they’re just records my friends are now sick of hearing about. Does this distinction change or mean anything? Probably not. Here’s the music I’ve been obsessively thinking about lately, for better or for worse.
A.G Cook – 7G
The main thing you need to know about A.G Cook is that he won – the current sound and style of pop music are heavily indebted to his record label and it’s very easy to forget how marginal his work was just five years ago. It could be argued that Cook’s sound reached peak saturation this year – Charli XCX released another amazing collection of earworms, people slightly younger (and significantly more annoying) than me now refer to everything as being hyperpop, and I’ll eventually have to work out who Dorian Electra is. It’s through this lens that ‘7G’ begins to make sense – the behemoth seven discs this record consists of serve as both a victory lap for the British producer and as the blueprint for something larger. Cook has always fascinated me due to how fundamentally contradictory his work seemed – his music thrives in the grey areas between his disparate influences, creating something that’s hard to formally identify but easy to become obsessed with. ‘7G’ follows in this tradition, serving as an uncurated dump of loosely divided tracks that were floating around A.G’s laptop for the last few years. This lack of curation loops back to the point of providing some form of narrative – it feels as if we’re being given a candid gaze into what makes A.G tick, creating a really exciting debut album in the process (even if I wouldn’t trust anyone else on the planet to pull something like this off).
Back when I still had the energy to write words into my WordPress install I was slowly starting work on a piece about ‘7G’, going through each disc individually in a weird attempt to determine what aspects of Cook’s creative genius I could be the most annoying about. I aimed to somehow condense the statement A.G was trying to make down into something shorter, dodging the guitar section I wasn’t overly keen on in the process. However, as time progresses I begin to feel weirder and weirder about dividing up this record – while I may still get way too excited by AG Drums or Extreme Vocals it’s just odd to hear them in isolation. I originally intended on ending this hypothetical piece on ‘7G’ with a cliffhanger, stating that A.G was likely to use this debut as a catalyst for something greater. Those next steps arrived fairly rapidly, with Cook releasing his “second debut’‘ the night before my last birthday (rendering what little I had put together useless in the process). ‘Apple’ is a solid record (with an amazing cover of one of my favourite songs of all time) but it’s yet to grip me in the same way as it’s counterpart – the utter audacity of ‘7G’ makes it feel more significant than it’s polished cousin. A.G’s debut record is like ‘NTS Sessions’ but for people who spent their 2017 hanging out in dodgy LGBT discords, if that sentence doesn’t fill you with dread you’ll probably love this album.
Amnesia Scanner – Tearless
‘Tearless’ is an utterly fucked record, something that’s clearly drawn the ire of people who spend too much time on RateYourMusic. The Finnish duo have seemingly spent the last five years curating some of the most cursed content humanly possible, with the visuals accompanying their discography including a dog biting it’s own tail ad infinitum, a loop of a robot getting kicked over and over and an extremely distorted Wojak. Amnesia Scanner started out releasing more straightforward techno under the name Renaissance Man and their musical progression has felt like a gradual departure from the limits of club music – a process that arguably reached its logical conclusion with this record. The group have flirted with pop in the past but these flirtations pale in comparison to ‘Tearless’ – this is just straight-up pop music, cheesy lyrics and all. One of the main things I find exciting about Amnesia Scanner is how grotesque their sound design is, tracks seem almost sickly sweet as a result of a hellish combination of pitch-shifted atonal vocals and blown-out synth patches in a way that eludes any non-pretentious description. If you’ve ever eaten half a tube of Pringles and felt utter dread two hours on as you scrolled through your phone, just imagine that but with occasional attempts to rip off Shakira songs.
‘Tearless’ is a record that only makes sense in this current cursed timeline, something best shown by the fact that its original release was postponed due yet another racist murder in America. According to a press release from the band, this record was based around “experienc[ing] Earth at a time when collapse is emerging as the prevailing narrative” – something we’ve all arguably done a lot more of over the past few months. AS’s work has always given off an apocalyptic vibe (just look at the cover of their self-titled) and this record is no different – the whole project sounds like the tackiest aspects of 2000s Europop being stretched out and left to rot after a climate catastrophe and I find that morbidly interesting. Some of the main complaints around ‘Tearless’ relate to its short length, inconsistent tracklisting, and overly radio-friendly sound (by AS standards) – all issues that plague the thirty-minute runtime to some extent. However, when things fall into place this record is genuinely exciting – as best shown by single ‘AS Acá’. Whatever qualms I had about janky pacing (and/or supposedly selling out) were pretty much cancelled out by this track, it’s essentially just a dystopian Shakira banger and that’s objectively hard to dislike. The production on this song feels relatively minimal and mirrors Arca’s self-titled, whatever percussion that seeps through the mix feels nearly clinical and helps create a sense of overwhelming dread. ‘Acá’ (and this record as a whole) feels melodramatic, defiled, and vaguely queer – what else do you need from weird pop?
Nazar – Guerrilla
I feel like each year there’s at least one record I wish Mark Fisher was around to cover – Nazar’s Hyperdub debut gets to hold this honour for 2020. The Manchester-based producer uses the term “rough kuduro” to describe his creative output, going on to describe his work as an attempt to “weaponise” the local style of his native Angola in order to expose the rampant inequality and seedy underbelly that underpins their society and collective history. ‘Guerrilla’ serves as the intensely personal corollary of Nazar’s output, with the record being an attempt to understand and deal with the fierce Angolan civil war his family fought in. To say that this album is intense would be an understatement – Nazar delivers some of the sharpest and most caustic techno of the year, something that shouldn’t surprise you given the subject matter. ‘Guerrilla’ is a near-constant onslaught but an oddly intricate one at that – it never verges into complete chaos and every minute detail feels deliberately placed. One of the things that impressed me about this record the most was how meticulous the sound design and mixing felt – percussion slices and grates, tracks border on being claustrophobic, and whatever brief moments of respite you encounter are genuinely arresting. Interlude ‘Mother’ is unironically one of the most calming and beautiful tracks of the year, if anything just because of how harsh the tunes it’s sandwiched between are. ‘Guerrilla’ is an engaging work as it captures the active contradictions inherent to civil war in a thoroughly human way, that and the fact it clearly slaps while doing so.
‘Bunker’ is the closest thing to a traditional banger on this record so it’s natural I’d try talking about it. London DJ Shannen SP features on this track, flowing over a janky beat based around the sound of a gun cocking. Tuneless vocal samples slide across this track, providing an oddly flimsy rhythm in the process. This song was inspired by the experience of Nazar’s siblings during the 1992 elections, hiding from the government with foreign journalists from the (relative) safety of a barricaded hotel. One of the main things that struck me about the track was how impressionistic it felt – I initially tried describing ‘Bunker’ as being cinematic but that arguably misses the whole point of Nazar’s work. This tune (and record as a whole) isn’t a celebration or condemnation of the civil war – it doesn’t have a set narrative arc, it doesn’t pass judgement, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood director. However, what it does provide is an incomplete, specific image of the trauma spurred on by armed conflict – as Luke Cartledge describes for ‘The Quietus’, “this is a record with conflict, displacement, trauma, and tension woven into every seam, and [is] all the more powerful for it”. Nazar’s music is significant as it directly gnaws away at the idealised view of armed struggle common amongst extremely online ideologues – the details that get collectively omitted and the costs that are accrued in the process of conflict take centre-stage. This is a work that arguably cuts through the pretentious lens of analysis, there isn’t any secret meaning to the experiences outlined and trying to make things overly abstract borders on being distasteful. As a writer covering ‘Guerrilla’, “silence is preferred” – something that hints towards just how important this release is.
Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red
I can’t tell if I’m obsessed with Carti or the idea of Carti – his work means a lot to me as it serves as the only real gateway between the stuff that I write about on here and the stuff people I actually know in meatspace listen to. In practice this just makes Carti a battering ram, with his eccentricities letting me shoehorn in (largely unwanted) references to records and artists I’d feel half-embarrassed to recommend otherwise. Essential to this constant shoehorning is the idea of “weird Carti” – the rapper has constantly pushed at the limits of pop, as best evidenced by his infamous use of baby voice and the near-constant comments on from random normal people on Instagram calling him sus. Carti’s previous release ‘Die Lit’ felt like the perfect balance between the two Cartis, it was weird enough for people on Pitchfork to be concerningly pretentious but poppy enough to put on a Bluetooth speaker while hanging out with friends. This uneasy coalition made the two year wait for ‘WLR’ morbidly interesting – it felt more like a collective experience than an insular, niche thing. You could log off and still hear about the spectacle (or in this case Mario Judah), something that I appreciated (and took advantage of) a fair bit.
‘Whole Lotta Red’ will either be looked back on in a half-decade as being way ahead of its time or as our generation’s equivalent of Brokencyde. The twenty-four tracks that make up this record are unapologetically weird – songs blur into one another, production is caustic to the point of seeming overblown, and Carti sounds like he should be in that awkward clip of goths being interviewed on the *’Late Late Show‘.* During my first listen I jokingly tweeted that WLR was “Bladee for my straight friends who don’t listen to music (but in a good way)” and that brain-melting comparison feels scarily apt – production is the main draw, vocals take a while to get acclimatised to, and any track could probably kill a Victorian child upon exposure. It’d be an understatement to refer to this record as being indulgent, it feels as if Carti is fully leaning into a bit without much care for the listener – something that’d explain the hour-long runtime and inconsistent tracklist. One of the funniest things about the release of WLR was watching people on Twitter freak out during their first listen, the second half of this record is significantly more coherent than the first and watching people find out as such in real-time was an experience. As I’m putting this piece together it’s still unclear what the general consensus around this record will be – stans seem to be alternating between bipolar extremes, the top review on RYM is just that Kid A copypasta, and I’m yet to hear the opinions of my non-online friends in person. However, it’s clear that Carti has made a statement with ‘Whole Lotta Red’ – what said statement means will take a few more weeks to decipher, slow down, and add reverb to though.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Daniel Lopatin is one of the most interesting people releasing music today, and I’m not just saying that to make up for spelling his name wrong in my last zine. Oneohtrix Point Never’s discography consists of some of the most forward thinking and enthralling electronic music of the past decade, something my friends are painfully aware of considering how frequently I freak out about his work to them. One of the most impressive things about Lopatin’s work is his ability to perfectly execute theoretical concepts through song – the hauntology seeping through ‘Replica’ or the Freudian angst of ‘Garden of Delete’ feels a lot more intuitive than this sentence would imply and each release of his has a distinct, unique energy. With this record Lopatin set out to do two things, emulate the experience of live radio and condense the various eras of his work down into fourty-seven minutes. I initially came into this record quite sceptically, after all how do you summarise a career of constant flux in a vaguely coherent way? The answer is simple, with some of your most captivating and comprehendible work to date.
‘Magic Oneohtrix Point Never’ is structured like a day spent listening to radio, consisting of various acts and generous amounts of static. Warp’s description of the record as being “maximalist baroque-pop within atmospheric glitter” is pretentious as all hell (and sounds like something you’d hear in Workman’s) but accurately captures what makes this record special, Lopatin is a very talented songwriter and hearing his unrestrained attempts to make off-the-walls pop music is genuinely exciting. ‘mOPN’ feels like an album you live around – one doesn’t pay attention to every single cringe-inducing joke made in your local station’s breakfast show so naturally these tracks also fade in and out, occasionally jolting you awake with poppy earworms. One of the main things that struck me about this record is how human it feels – Lopatin composed and recorded these songs during the initial lockdown in New York and that yearning for any form of human contact we all went through feels mirrored in the near-constant presence of the human voice (be it through vocals or ominous out of context samples). This is a fundamentally human record, something we arguably all need as we head into yet another series of rolling lockdowns.
One of the most interesting things about Lopatin (and something I think he is sorely underrated for) is his natural ability to capture the nihilistic, adolescent energy of any good pop song and channel it in a way that feels distinct yet effortless. This ability is best shown in ‘I Don’t Love Me Anymore’ and ‘Lost But Never Alone’, two of the best songs released this year. Lopatin described the former track as being “Frankensteined together […] partially a bratty pop-punk song, partially motorik, like psych rock that’s drum-machine-driven” – the fact that such a combination works (let alone works well) and feels genuine says a lot about Lopatin’s ability to create engaging music. He innately understands what makes a cheesy song slap and can escape the trap of pure imitation common amongst genres like synthwave as a result. This natural skill is captured through how effortless the lyrics seem – “Maybe nеxt year we’ll implode, wouldn’t that be nice for a change?” feels like the perfect distillation of pop music and I’ve set it as my Discord status an embarrassing amount of times.
bod [包家巷] – Music For Self Esteem
I don’t remember how exactly I stumbled upon this record but it’s haunted me ever since, if anything just because of how hard it seems to condense into a collection of sentences. Bod is a pseudonym for Nick Zhu, a Berlin-based artist who turned to music following relocating to Los Angeles. ‘Music for Self Esteem’ is a sprawling, hard to understand project consisting of audio, poetry, and video that loosely attempts to depict the contours of Zhu’s life following said relocation and his choice to leave for Berlin. In an interview with ‘The Fader’, Zhu talked about an urge to “remove people from the experience of listening to the album a little bit” – “I felt like I should really take advantage of the ability to make someone look at their phone [to ask] what is happening”. That idea of disconnection perfectly summarises the ninety-seven minutes of this record – ambient tracks suddenly cut into brief bursts of noise, poems jump between languages without warning, and some of the most beautiful sounding ambient music of the year is packaged with the disaffected irony of internet memes. One is very unlikely to fully take in this record and that’s arguably the point – four things are seemingly going on at once and revisiting them in isolation is oddly exciting.
Zhu’s work is amazing due to how oddly unique it is – his weird combination of faux-irony, delicate sound design, and so-called “deep-faked” vocals creates a sound palette that is simultaneously evocative and indescribable. As Zhu put it in that same interview, “there isn’t actually literal meaning in the music. Especially in Chinese, which is a monosyllabic language. It’s actually just gibberish. You cannot understand anything. With that, even when I play these songs out as gibberish, people still have visceral emotional reactions to it. That indicates to me that the music has effectively imprinted whatever moment of emotion I had when I made it”. I think some of the prettiest gibberish on this record arrives in ‘Dedicated to Yegorka (absolution)’, the closest thing to a straightforward banger in Zhu’s discography. His atonal and heavily autotuned vocals are barely coherent (and probably meant fuck all in the first place) but seem oddly poignant in the context of what came before. ‘Yegorka (absolution)’ feels like the first step forward, an initial attempt to move beyond an all-encompassing situation you desperately need to get away from. I tried explaining all this to a friend who heavily judged me after I queued this track in a Discord call without context and he just sighed, something that feels representative of my life as a whole.
Autechre – SIGN/PLUS
Of all the groups that I’ve annoyed my friends with, Autechre are the hardest to talk about. The duo from Rochdale have spent the last few decades creating some of the most forward-thinking and expressive electronic music in a totally unpretentious way – one can’t write about their discography without seeming like a complete knob and I guess that’s half of the appeal. Sean Booth and Rob Brown initially met through a shared love of graffiti and early hip-hop and started making music in order to fill out their mixtapes – they never set out to change the musical landscape and that makes the fact that they’ve done so even more admirable. If you’ve spent any real time on music forums you’ve probably heard the same three or four trite complaints about their supposed inaccessibility, insane album lengths, pompous fanbase, and broken washing machine noises. However, once you give their work the time necessary to click it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s more to their music than the unfunny hard drive jokes. I spent most of 2020 trying to open up to Autechre’s sprawling discography – in the past I’d visit their work intermittently, mainly just looping ‘deco Loc’ every now and then until I found something else to do. I guess the new brand of hellscape we were dragged into this year made Autechre’s work slightly more hospitable to my fried attention span, it turns out that never being able to leave the house makes listening to longer records slightly easier. This choice to melt my brain with IDM was rewarded in early September, with Warp suddenly announcing the imminent launch of ‘SIGN’.
There’s an endless debate in the Autechre fanbase over whether ‘SIGN’ or ‘PLUS’ (a follow-up released the next month) is the superior record – in order to piss off both camps of fans I’ve decided to lump the two into the one entry. ‘SIGN’ and ‘PLUS’ feel like a rebirth for the duo – with the first few seconds of ‘M4 Lema’ feeling like the rubble left from the utter insanity of ‘NTS Sessions’. Autechre’s raw ability to create cosy textures and melodies is on full display throughout both albums, with their more overtly beat-focused material taking a less prominent role on ‘SIGN’. A comparison that is often made (and annoys the life out of Autechre fans) is one with ‘Oversteps’, Autechre have seemingly returned to noodling around ambient soundscapes and I’m all here for it. Tracks like ‘F7’ have been hilariously described by others as sounding like a “drunken Oneohtrix Point Never” and I guess that joke gets at what I enjoy so much about ‘SIGN’ – at its best moments this record feels like an insular, woozy celebration of the emotive aspects of electronic music I’ve gotten concerningly obsessed with over the past few months.
I feel like the time that I spent away from this Neocities was on some level shaped around the contours of Autechre’s two new albums, something I appreciate a lot more than I probably should. The release of ‘SIGN’ felt like the closest thing to an event one can have during the limbo before another lockdown – it’s initial broadcast lined up with Ireland crashing out of the Euro 2021 Qualifiers and having football-induced dread be cancelled out by my first listen to ‘r cazt’ is an experience I’m strangely nostalgic for. A solid three weeks after that were spent in a weird form of lethargy where my sole source of energy was derived from the excitement spurred on from this album – I’d lie in bed listening to ‘Metaz form8’ in the hopes of artificially creating warmth, shouting weird hot takes into the Autechre Discord as I watched myself waste away between case number announcements. I spent a solid day obsessing over the menacing bass that slides into ‘si00’, if anything just so I had something to do while feeling drained. Other fans viewed ‘SIGN’ as being a bit of a letdown, resurfacing comments made by the band earlier in the year about having prepared two records to send to Warp. I quickly discounted these rumours, if anything just because it reminded me of ‘NATION’. However shortly after this, ‘PLUS’ was made available to download following the leaking of its cover on the Discord I was trying too hard to call home.
According to a (badly Google Translated) press release sent out to Japanese fans, ‘PLUS’ serves as a collection of tracks that didn’t fit the final concept of its companion. However this doesn’t make it an uncurated mess of B-sides – I think ‘PLUS’ comes into its own when you view it as being the second disc to ‘SIGN’, even if I’m splitting hairs with this sentence. To say that this is one of the more danceable Autechre releases would be an understatement – ‘7FM ic’ feels like an attempt by aliens to make a rap beat, ‘X4’ reminds me vaguely of drill-and-bass, and closer ‘TM1 Open’ ominously bubbles away like my favourite Actress cuts. Something I feel is quite underrated about Autechre is their subtle ability to take the piss, something which is best embodied by ‘Marhide’ – one of the most controversial tracks they’ve put out in recent memory. ‘Marhide’ feels actively cheeky, it solely consists of 808 samples that gradually devolve into tape hiss and wind – at first I assumed this track was a fake inserted by a troll on Soulseek and that’s what makes it genius. Another great example of this is the opening of ‘M4 Lema’ – you’re set up to expect another hour of insane MAX/MSP-generated ruin, only to be faced with some of their prettiest work yet. It almost feels like two friends laughing at a laptop while making tunes together, something that gets to the core of why I get so excited by their work. Autechre still manage to subvert expectations (and give us music nerds the finger) over thirty full years on from their initial emergence, if that doesn’t make you excited for whatever follows these two albums I don’t trust you.
Even Oxen – The Goat Lamb of God
I started out my year on here talking about Bersain Beristan’s work so it feels natural to try closing things out with it. Even Oxen makes music for an audience that doesn’t really exist and there’s something beautiful about it, his lo-fi worship music is barely acknowledged outside of 4chan’s cursed music board and whatever details about his art that remain online are fairly sparse. This lack of any real narrative surrounding his work creates a certain intimacy – in a world where even underground artists to some extent prioritise being seen as a Brand(TM), it’s genuinely refreshing to hear an album only intended for those in a local parish or those stuck browsing the same brain-melting website. This intimacy is furthered by Beristan’s skill as a songwriter, in the past he’s talked about using a dying laptop and an old install of Audacity to record his work and seeing how easily he overcame these limitations made me feel a bit guilty about the amount of VSTs I was trying to torrent at the time. Even Oxen’s best work escapes the boundaries it was created in, often quite literally as the occasional blasts of harsh noise annoy the life out of those standing anywhere near my bedroom. Their art feels like a perfect combination of Sufjan Stevens, Jeff Mangum, and unreleased Alex G songs while somehow being even more explicitly religious. ‘The Goat Lamb of God’ is a raw, unrestrained reflection of Beristan’s faith that I was very unlikely to stumble upon but am extremely grateful to have discovered.
Something I constantly feel weird about when writing these music posts is the idea of creating false narratives around the musicians I’m obsessed with – whenever I write about smaller artists I get concerningly paranoid about how I frame things, imagining each person in question judging me after they google their own name. This anxiety was felt most acutely in the weeks following my initial piece on Even Oxen – the whole post was based around their disappearance from the internet and was penned as a post-mortem only for ‘The Goat Lamb of God’ (and their previously deleted back catalogue) **to appear out of nowhere shortly after. At the time I toyed with the idea of reaching out to Beristan to see if he was down for an interview – he had ominously changed his bio to state that he “made lo-fi worship music from 2015-2020” and I thought that his implied retirement would provide a nice narrative arc to make up for my cringe-worthy early prose. I never ended up sending the email I had drafted to the musician and in some ways I’m oddly happy that I didn’t, if we’ve all learned anything from this year it’s that narrative arcs don’t actually exist and trying to force them onto something just leads you to imagine that things will be over a lot quicker than they actually will be.
Even Oxen released another (amazing) EP this month, I’m unsure if this cancels out their retirement (or if said retirement was ever an actual thing) and at this stage I don’t want to pretend to have any answers on it. One of the main things that I’ve crashed into over and over during the four months since I stopped writing is that all engaging music has to be a constant, collective, living thing (and that bending it to create a narrative isn’t optimal). In the past the music press was arguably based around the idea of translation – the experience of a record, concert, or movement you were unable to directly encounter was captured in some incomplete form through text, allowing you to understand the intensity from a distance. I guess to some extent my work from this year was the inverse of this – I was looking at the artists I love from the outside in, trying to deify and make stories out of their work between all-nighters and solitary drinking sessions. However, this system of reversed translation falls apart once you escape the so-called “Oedipod” experience Mark Fisher railed against – what point is there in insularly pontificating over Bandcamp releases from three years back when the strongest emotions I’ve gotten from art are from demos sent on by Twitter mutuals, emails I’ll probably never respond to, and chance encounters I can’t reference in any more depth due to how small this country is? In the crudest of terms, this blog broke the second I realised that the musicians I wrote about could text back and perhaps that’s for the better. As we edge towards another year of the enforced solitude that kept this site running I hope that whatever comes next is able to break beyond this weird form of translation I’ve constantly indulged in – even if in practice that just means having slightly different Chrome tabs open. There’s a lot more going on outside of the building (and headspace) I’ve been stuck in this year, I just need to work out how to capture it.