Jack's Favorite
Albums Of

Here we are at the end of another year. Playlist is up, too.

Dougie Poole – The Rainbow Wheel of Death

Wharf Cat Records / February 24

Dougie's 2020 record The Freelancer's Blues was huge for me last year in terms of horizon-expanding and also just sheer airtime. I was psyched to learn that he had a new one coming out and I was psyched post-facto to find that it's great. The Rainbow Wheel of Death pulls from country and bluegrass music's storytelling roots to build a sweet little house you can really lay around and vibe in. There's a cast to the whole record of letting things ride on without you—the writing "invites the mourning of past selves looking back from a plateau of growing ennui and acceptance," according to a note I wrote down while listening to it at work. In this way, Poole embodies the attitude of checking out from the world's ongoing horrors that many of us have had to embrace to survive the last few years. As Beth David Cemetery describes, sometimes all you can do on your way to a family funeral is envision the hors d'ouvres. There's no edgy doomerism here; just a gentle companion and a sharing of the knowledge that you're always at the end of a journey to here, and that all there ever is to do is keep going.

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ACTIVE PRESENCE – d a y t o n a

buiness casual / March 17

One of my favorite music experiences is when I find something that sounds unlike anything else I've ever heard. As I hear more and more stuff and that range expands, I worry that I'm running out of novel sounds; that eventually I'll have heard everything. And all the time I'm proven wrong on that front. ACTIVE PRESENCE, who I discovered through their previous record early this year, is making stuff that somehow fits in the cracks between things I understand and exposes exciting new territory in a niche I didn't know existed. Draw a line between MIDI demos, circuit-bent toys, Giant Claw, plunderphonics, and wall-of-noise experimentation, and this is roughly at the midpoint. There are moments of classic vapor, segments of glimmering noise, and points where the whole structure collapses into a frantic audio salad (in a good way). The overall plot feels like wading between islands of comfortable, beat-driven sample loops through channels of experientation and fluidity. Both a hugely engaging front-to-back listen and a great collection of banger tracks.

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Louie Zong – Mineral Hall

February 10

I am amazed every time at Louie's ability to capture an extremely specific vibe with total clarity and respect. Mineral Hall is the soundtrack to an educational CD-ROM game that you played in the computer lab, forgot the title of, and have carried around ever since as just a few faint images and a sense of haunting emptiness. Listen to it and you can see the crunchy prerendered backgrounds and primitive 3D hallways materialize, hear the barely intelligible bitcrushed narrator explaining different crystal shapes. One of my favorite kinds of art is artifacts from a slightly different world; objects and ideas that seem nearly real with a little adjustment of what you consider reality. This record is an artifact smuggled into our timeline from an adjacent one where the only difference is that the translucent iMacs at your elementary school came loaded with a virtual rock museum.

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June 1

I saw a post years ago where someone described MF DOOM as "someone to whom being the best was so easy it was boring, and who was thus driven to just fuck around at the top." I think KNOWER occupies a similar role in the post-digital jazz-funk scene. Already responsible for one of history's hardest bangers, they (Louis Cole and Genevieve Atradi, supported by Jacob Mann, Sam Wilkes, and about eighty other musicians crammed into one house) have refused to stop doing insane stuff. KNOWER FOREVER feels like the peak that's all been building to. It's bonkers to write a song with the instantly-slamming bassline of I'm The President and get bored with it so quickly that you add lyrics about giving Mount Rushmore tits and namedrop the TR-3B in verse two. It's crazy to hear someone demonstrate the songwriting and song-playing ability to pull it off in a way that's not just listenable but addictively so. There's a collective, multi-mind musical genius behind KNOWER, and the kicker is that it has no interest in making its genius more palatable to you specifically. A work of art and a truly unstoppable record.

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George Clanton – Ooh Rap I Ya

July 28

I was fortunate enough to go to New York this summer for ElectroniCON, the festival put on in Queens by George Clanton's label. The vibe was excellent, and George was incredible: not just on stage but in his commitment (as a performer, planner, and emcee) to making sure everybody was having a good time. You simply love to see it. Ooh Rap I Ya is drenched in this relentless positivity; a daring ability to find the good in anything, even if it's the catharsis you can squeeze from verbalizing what hurts (Punching Down, explicitly a diss track aimed at an unnamed hater, is the most fun track on the album). Sonically, Ooh Rap I Ya doesn't necessarily go out of its way to break the mold—it's more of Clanton's patented trip-hop/grunge/vapor blend—but it's hard to deny that it isn't a damn good mold. It's sick to hear somebody chase the same vibe in search of perfection, and nobody else is doing this sort of thing nearly as well.

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Oneohtrix Point Never – Again

Warp Records / September 29

I talk with my partner pretty often about whether electronic music can have a meaningful emotional impact. They don't disagree that it can, but the music they turn to for emotional catharsis is often much more literal than mine (I have been to multiple Boygenius shows this year). I think that expressing an abstract feeling with digital sounds & often without words assisting presses artists to expand and recombine their toolsets in exciting new ways. Daniel Lopatin, the man behind Oneohtrix Point Never, is a master of this practice. Blackbird Spyplane compares him to "James Ferraro, as a connoisseur of contemporary garbage sounds [...] finding beauty in a seemingly soulless computer sound-effect." On my first listen this was a big part of the message I recieved: that everything can be special or meaningful to someone, including the most digitized and "soulless" sounds. OPN tells AnOther that Again is meant to sound like a collaboration between his present self and early-20s self; a meditation on self-discovery and uncertainty. So I listened again and found myself gleaning those themes just as richly from the same tracks. To me, taking stock of your initial reaction to something and then comparing your own takeaways to the artist's intent—seeing what emerged from the uncharted space between artist and audience colored by both parties' pasts—is a powerful and cool way to experience art in general.

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Woody Goss – High Loon!

April 30

Woody is the absolute man. I've long been a fan of his work with Vulfpeck as well as Woody & Jeremy, so when he dropped a solo album this spring I gave it a cursory listen, thought "this is pretty neat," and moved on. And then I kept coming back to it again and again for the next 8 months. The arrangements are simple; there's no attempt to dazzle or overwhelm you. But the synergy, the groove, that intangible Jazz Magic that elevates simple ingredients into great songs, is present in troves. There's a Guaraldiesque balance here between the unexpected and the comfortable: chords progress roughly how you'd expect, but instruments pop in and out improvisationally. This balance makes High Loon! a great pick for active, academic listening or as background texture: not distracting, but deeply rewarding when you do give it your whole attention.


Alan Palomo – World of Hassle

Mom + Pop / September 15

Alan Palomo's 2009 and 2015 albums as Neon Indian are both deeply embedded in my all-time favorites, and I can admit that some trepidation shaded my excitement when I heard a third was in the works. It would have been easy to retread the hits and hedge toward a Night School sound (I would have eaten this up gladly, as we know). Instead, Palomo brings us his best album yet, one that feels less like completing a trilogy and more like blowing the door wide open to an entire new career. World of Hassle is a world braised in American tackiness and myopicism: 1980s echoes of nuclear anxiety and suburbanization underlie an overall sound that abandons the samply blur of Neon Indian for a striking, almost-painful clarity. Thematically, World of Hassle vacillates between working hard to forget the titular hassles—the Mac DeMarco track is described as "Leisure Suit Larry does Ibiza"—and the inevitable anguish when they catch up—The Return of Mickey Milan buries the sordid lede of a washed-up pop idol under its high-energy hook, and Nobody's Woman seeks cold comfort in the predictable misery of a dead-end relationship. The end result is a bittersweet masterpiece: goofy, sure, but crushingly authentic in exactly equal measure.

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Video Age – Away From the Castle

Winspear / October 27

This could be a perfect album. I think it is. This is a perfect album. Video Age is already one of my favorite bands, and they've broken new ground both further folkward (The guitar & piano combo on In the Breaks conjures Joni Mitchell) and further electronic (mid-backside reprise A Knight Shining With No Armor feels like a missing OPN track). Everything in between is equally excellent—I probably listened to the title single once a day for most of the fall, and caught myself singing it while washing dishes or whatever at least as often. In an era where pop music (to the extent it can still be umbrellaed) races to be more "hyper-" and always more extreme, VA's commitment to a slow-and-steady sound has evolved from a creative choice to a cultural statement reinforced by their songwriting topics. Mostly benching the romantic this time, Away From The Castle weighs the slings and arrows of modern life—endless routine, alienation, the search for purpose—against the futility of trying to outrun them. "Pull me back, let that slingshot set me free / Telephone rang, I thought a scam was likely," goes the chorus I've sang to my empty apartment a hundred times.

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Milk Talk – Milk Talk

November 8

No other word for it: This album fucks. Around 2017 I was a massive fan of The Hair Kid, and it wasn't until this year I found out what he's been up to since then: teaming up with Japanese vocalist Q.i. and making absolutely nasty synth-funk. Milk Talk is the rare group making synthesizer-driven and clearly retro-inspired music that avoids the pitfall of just mimicking its inspirations: instead, their airtight grooves and avant-garde production sounds like it's from the future if it's from any time at all. The variety of sounds in six-minute ballad Pixelated Girl, all held together by a face-scrunching bassline, is worth the price of admission alone. The interplay between Kid's disco-tinged compisitions and Q.i.'s dreamy, often oddly cathartic (the first and last tracks here especially merit reading the lyrics) voice performances is constantly in flux; sometimes fully melded and sometimes intentionally at odds but never leaving the pocket.

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Up next is some stuff I missed when it came out but really got into this year, which given my slow rate of finding stuff is only a fair concession to myself.

Psymon Spine – Charismatic Megafauna

February '21

This is one that really took over my whole scene for a couple weeks in January. Spotify played Jump Rope for me at random and I was instantly mesmerized by Psymon Spine's fusion of current-wave dance progressions with a kind of neo-bloghaus crunch and texture. It's one of those albums where all the parts are equally weird in a balanced way, and the end result hits big time. The casual vocal performances, the impeccable synth work, the outlier sixth track that sounds like a blown-out Parquet Courts song: it all rocks. I probably describe things as "fun" without elaborating further too often, but I gotta say it: This record is fun as hell.

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Drugdealer – Hiding in Plain Sight

October '22

I have developed a kind of aspirational idea of a New Vibe over the last couple years; one that probably started with an uptick in thrifting and getting into Dougie Poole. Hiding in Plain Sight is central to my vision. It's permeated by a '70s-stained groove but doesn't get too bogged down trying to imitate: the mixing is clean and precise, the layering is all intentional. Instead this record takes the best things about its inspirations and pushes them to the present with unshakable vision.

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Nate Mercereau – Joy Techniques

July '19

Honestly nuts that this one took so long to reach me, given my growing appreciation for stuff that bigtime shreds. As soon as I found this I blasted through Nate's whole catalog, which ranges from intricate synth-and-guitar work to some really dreamy, jammy live stuff. Just about that full spectrum shows up on Joy Techniques, a record so complex and interbraided and sonically diverse that it's got "replay value" in the way people mean that about a video game. I've probably put this album on thirty times this year and I notice some new rhythm-switch or melody every time. Just take There You Are, a six-minute journey that crosses fuzzy synth cloudiness, overdriven guitar shredding, rock-solid drum work, and a bouquet of riffs stacked back-to-back—all credited to Mercereau. Insane! Joy Techniques is a musical version of those ancient Inca stone walls where huge rocks were cut to fit together perfectly. It's incredible, it's seamless, and I have no idea how they pulled it off.

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Thanks for reading this. I hope you dig these records as much as I did. If you think I missed something this year I'd like, send it my way!

Script courtesy of Luke Haas.

Type set in Inter by Rasmus Andersson.

Thanks to Lauren for proofreading assistance.