Photo of Pond by Matsu, courtesy of Grandstand Media.
1. Pond | 9 (Spinning Top Records)
It’s been four years since they graced us with The Weather. As is the custom these days, they released a few tracks as singles in the lead up, and it only made the anticipation harder to bear. Such a move bears potential for disappointment, spoiling all the highlights and giving a big reveal of filler. Not so in this case. The band withheld several treasures, such as the sorrowful, “Gold Cup / Plastic Sole,” and the singles shine even brighter within the flow of the project in its entirety. Jay Watson and Nick Allbrook’s distinct styles gel more beautifully than ever before. It’s emotional, thoughtful, and exciting with a tinge of mourning.
2. Ty Segall | Harmonizer (Drag City Inc.)
This synth-heavy album is a pretty big departure for Segall in terms of instrumentation. The vibe, however, is the confident, bratty, blowing-his-own-mind Ty that I love. Crunchy, buzzing, throbbing, with sassy vocals and guitar flourishes that at times remind of Queens of the Stone Age. Here, Segall is putting that fuzzy reverb to visceral use. As he tells us in the title track, “I wanna hear you touch my eardrum/ I wanna hear our tongues make friction.” Get some good headphones or surround sound for this one. You’re meant to feel it.
3. Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real | A Few Stars Apart (Fantasy Records)
I realize I am way late to the Lukas Nelson party. I only just learned of him while watching Willie’s “Come And Toke It 4/20/20” special. And when Lukas and Willie gave us the duet, “Angel Flying Close to the Ground,” it brought a tear of awe to my eye. This album offers that balm for the soul from beginning to end. Lukas’ voice has the sharpness, clarity, and sweet resonance of his father’s as a young man. And the lyrics are entirely the ‘it’s going to be ok’ that we all needed this year. They are love songs, songs of humanity, and songs of wonder. “We’re just a few starts apart/ You’re not alone.” Thanks, Lukas.
4. Night Beats | Outlaw R&B (Fuzz Club Records)
Dark cowboy music. Riding off into the sunset music. Easy Rider music. Lower your brim over your eyes while sitting around a campfire music. “Hell in Texas” embodies it. “Shadow” resonates with it. Thanks to all that eerie reverb, Night Beats has always been my go-to for late night campfire music, and this album delivers. Add a good dose of groovy shimmy in “Never Look Back,” featuring Robert Levon Been from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the psych vibe is complete.
5. Shannon & the Clams | Year of the Spider (Easy Eye Records)
How I love this band, and this album just makes me love them harder. Year of the Spider brings together all the gritty doo-wop and garage punk sounds the band has experimented with over the years, plus Shannon Shaw’s smooth crooning solo work, and adds a new polish that makes this one exciting addition to the catalog. “Midnight Wine” has the moody harmonies and organ runs to give you chills. “Mary, Don’t Go” ends in a church revival. But “In the Hills, In the Pines” has a unique gloss that shows the progression of their sound over time. I honestly wouldn’t even recognize them in “All of My Cryin’” if I didn’t obsess over their vocal quality. This is a band that is constantly developing without completing reinventing themselves, and this album is a triumph.
6. Tune-Yards | sketchy. (4AD)
A little time in quarantine seems to have resulted in moments of personal growth for many of us. Merrill Garbus puts her expert percussion looping and harmony layering to task here like a self-help book for cynics. The rhythms are entrancing and the powerful vocals (honed during her time as an acapella singer) will give you chills. Check the sweet “hypnotized” for a heartwarming vibe and “be not afraid” for strength. If you like to drive around town screaming out your feelings with ear-splintering volume, this is just the thing for you.
7. John Dwyer | Moon-Drenched (Castle Face)
It’s hard to choose just one of John Dwyer’s experimental projects to be released this year (see also Witch Egg and Endless Garbage) but I think this one takes the cake for me. It feels loosely composed but with a definite destination in mind, just given some freedom in how we get there. The experimental turns it takes along the way are reminiscent of Miles Davis’ masterpiece, On the Corner. Sometimes it’s a single, remarkable sound that makes a song for me—this album is full of them. The satisfying sound of a marble dropped on a hard surface pings precisely a few times before landing at the start of “The War Clock.” The experimental jazz turn covering Dwyer’s three releases this year brings along a long list of collaborators that has opened my listening to new artists and styles. That’s even more than I could have hoped for.
8. CULT OF DOM KELLER | They Carried the Dead in a U.F.O. (Fuzz Club Records)
It’s got that cold, industrial gloom of old school 4AD bands—alternately sparse and overdriven. The combination of screechy, clanging noise and distant, tinny vocals is moody af. “I die every night/ But I’m born again,” repetitive as a mantra in “Cage the Masters.” The elements are taken apart and put back together in new configurations. “She’s Turning into a Serpent” is exactly as slithering and sinister as its title suggests. Put this on in a dark room with some good surround sound and zone out in another dimension.
9. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets | SHYGA! The Sunlight Mound (What Reality? Records)
This feels like their tightest and most consistent album yet. They’ve leaned on their inspiration from the complex melodies of Muse (“The Terrors”) and Temples (“Tally-Ho” and “Whiff”) and upped the classic ‘70s rock guitar flourishes, resulting in grandiose anthems throughout. It’s kinetic energy right out of the gate and maintains momentum start-to-finish. This album is a lot of fun, and you can imagine all the sweaty bodies bouncing around a pit to this once we can have pits again.
10. Boogarins | Manchaca Vol. 2 (OAR)
I really want to put their Levitation Sessions album on this list since it didn’t land in my hands until 2021, but it was officially released last year, in November 2020. So, this pick is kind of a two-fer. Boogarins captured my heart when I first encountered them on the riverside stage at Austin Psych Fest in 2014. Their sound incorporates simple plucking, lots of effects pedals, and dreamy, teasing vocals with jazzy drums and a whole toybox full of experimental sounds. The sunny “Derramado” coherently demonstrates much of this range while “Rolê Torto” dives off the deep end of pedal-play. The final track, “Far and Safe” featuring Erika Wennerstrom (Heartless Bastards), soothes like a lullaby. Manchaca Vol. 2 is subtitled “A compilation of Boogarins memories, dreams, demos and outtakes from Austin, TX,” and we have the Covid pause to thank for this chipper, trippy collection surfacing. When you find yourself lamenting the end of the last track, don’t forget to catch up with that Levitation Sessions album. | Courtney Dowdall