Welcome back to RIFF’s year-end album roundup! If you’re joining us just now, you’re here early enough to catch up on Part one.
Like the rest of our massive seven-part series, Part 2 is as musically diverse as West Oakland, which might explain why Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams appear alongside Crack Cloud and Benny the Butcher, who should be known much more for his talent than getting shot in Houston last month.
We each pushed our boundaries compiling these albums, and we hope it guides you into new territory as well.
60. Soccer Mommy — Color Theory – Loma Vista Recordings – Josiah Skallerup
Color Theory certainly has more of Sophie Allison’s signature introspection and alt-rock virtuosity, but this time she’s also doubling down on the daunting and difficult feelings in her life. “Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes” is a slow jam that makes use of floating and reverberating guitars to slowly drift lazily through her thoughts and memories. We, as guests inside her head, can feel her aching and longing. “Lucy” is clearly a stand-in for the devil, and Soccer Mommy struggles with doing the right thing when confronted with temptations. She’s lonely, sad, regretful and doing her best to get through it all. When she pairs those feelings with interesting and unique instrumentation, she creates moments greater than the sum of their parts. This allows plenty of catharsis, healing and growth to spring forth.
59. The Soft Pink Truth – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? – Thrill Jockey – Alex Baechle
Drew Daniel’s unconventional house music side project, The Soft Pink Truth, has never shied from surprise moves. Having forayed into punk and black metal covers, Daniel’s approach is nothing if not unconventional. For Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? Daniel delves into post-rock textures and Susumu Yokota’s evocative soundscapes. Conceived as a complete statement to combat pettiness and wrath, the ambient Shall We Go On… represents a holistic foray into the mystical
58. Jacob Collier — Djesse Vol. 3 – Decca – Max Heilman
The third installment of Jacob Collier’s Djesse series explores a third respective approach to music. Vol. 1 took a more expansive, classical approach, Vol. 2 went full folk and now Vol. 3 embraces synths and Auto-Tune. The only clue anyone would need about Collier’s chosen style should be the T-Pain feature. Collier shows no compromise in this instrumental environment. His compositional mind remains as virtuosic as ever, showing once and more all that computers can be used effectively and tastefully—not as a crutch. With a plethora of solid guest spots, this album also spotlights Collier’s ability to play well with others. It works as a solid pop album, and an elevation of an often reviled development in the musical landscape.
57. Loyal Lobos — Everlasting – AWAL – Roman Gokhman
Colombian singer-songwriter Andrea Silva, who writes and performs as Loyal Lobos, spent more than two years working on her first full-length record, Everlasting. The effort was well worth it. Silva grew up influenced by South American folk icons like Mercedes Sosa and Silvio Rodriguez, but after moving to Los Angeles, she began to incorporate synth-pop, rock and American folk into the mix. But mixing those styles so well, the album isn’t any of them. At times, she sounds like Joan Baez, Julien Baker, Lana Del Rey and M83 all at once. At others, the rich sonic tapestry recalls The National. And she doesn’t bend to the oral constraints of American pop; three of the highest-grade, mesmerizing carats on this album are sung in Spanish—paired with arrangements that will make you question why we expect music from other lands to have certain sounds.
56. Benny the Butcher — Burden of Proof – Griselda Records / EMPIRE – Tim Hoffman
Benny The Butcher’s Burden of Proof delivers a harrowing look at the tribulations the rapper has endured as a drug dealer, contrasted by his climb to success in the music world and as a businessman. He addresses the loss and trauma of losing his loved ones while examining the lack of credibility and recklessness toward such sensitive subject matter he sees in his peers. The honesty and wisdom he imparts to listeners delivers a cautionary tale regarding how the other half lives. There’s no romanticizing street politics here.
Country and rock mainstay Lucinda Williams triumphs again with the daring Good Souls Better Angels. The Grammy-nominated album finds her battling bad luck, failure and demonic forces. Trump takedown “Man Without A Soul” skewers dishonest leadership, while the punk-inflected “Wakin’ Up” provides a harrowing journey through the depths of a nightmarish relationship. Backed by the rough-and-tumble Buick 6, Lucinda Williams shows what it means to be still fighting in 2020.
54. Crack Cloud — Pain Olympics – Meat Machine – Max Heilman
More of an artistic conglomerate than a band, Crack Cloud embodies the true potential of post-punk as a movement. Forget about the revival. These people know how to sound catchy and creative while retaining a dark underbelly of anger and frustration. It’s very much punk music, but there’s so much more to Pain Olympics than directionless rage. In fact, the group’s intent is partly to help people overcome drug addiction. They approach taboo issues head-on, refusing to compromise their radical perspective. Check out “OUSTER STEW” to understand just how committed Crack Cloud make other art-pop acts like XTC seem like a walk in the park.
53. Bruce Springsteen — Letter to You – Columbia – Tony Hicks
There’s Bruce Springsteen and then there’s Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Letter to You comes from the latter and, though not one of their greatest records, it’s still more than welcome in 2020. Just hearing familiar musical souls coming together with some joy while exploring where their collective lives are now is more than enough. Springsteen sounds more like Bob Dylan than ever at times, which certainly isn’t the worst thing at this point in life.
52. Jahari Massamba Unit — Pardon My French – Madlib Invazion – Tim Hoffman
The latest collaboration of Madlib and Karriem Riggins as nu jazz group Jahari Massamba Unit offers a sardonic wit with each of its song titles, both in their crassness and with the allusions to French culture and wine. The freeform stylings play into the subversive elements for which jazz was known in its heyday, with the duo bringing its all. Pardon My French is like fine wine, where the complex dueling elements create a sophisticated blend of styles that will take your breath away. Dare I say it’s a bit pretentious? If so, it’s winkingly so.
51. Sault — Untitled (Rise) – Forever Living Originals – Max Heilman
This collective has kept itself busy over the past year, releasing powerful protest anthems to complement this time of social uprising. Sault takes from multiple generations of soul, R&B, funk, hip-hop and jazz to create the ultimate anthem for Black empowerment and an unstoppable push for racial justice. From the gospel-tinged bounce of “Son Shine” or the Afrobeat jam of “Strong,” Untitled (Rise) reveals more of its musical intricacies with each listen. The message, however, is never abashed. Sault stands in solidarity, radicalism and defiant joy in the midst of the powers that would silence it.