Rainbows in the Dark: Ian’s Best of 2020 List for Nonmetal

Best of 2020

This past year has seen some of the most exhilarating and emotionally deep metal that I’ve seen in a while, but what about the non-metal side of things?  Well, fortunately we’ve had just as many pleasant surprises on that front, and just as much music that will ultimately be talked about for years to come.  It bears repeating that I am humbled that I am in the position to be able to talk at length about all of this, and boy there sure is a lot to talk about.  From deep, brooding atmosphere to technical wizardry to lo-fi indie glory, polished folk and everything in between, there’s a lot to get into, so strap in as we bring you the very best of all things non-metal and metal adjacent.

Jonathan Hultén – Chants from Another Place

Definitely not the album that I was expecting from the (sadly now former) Tribulation guitarist, Chants from Another Place nevertheless left me thoroughly impressed with the songwriting, instrumental and artistic talents of Jonathan Hultén.  Layers of deep, haunting vocals interspersed with acoustic guitar strums and gentle accompaniment swirl together in an ethereal, transportive collection of folk songs that effectively blend together old-school sensibilities with modern flair.  It’s truly Hultén’s voice that is the star of the show here, with lush harmonies everywhere, all performed and compiled by Hultén, and a range of styles from bluesy belting, light whispers and strong, deep chanting.  Not to mention that all the artwork for the album and the music videos were done by Hultén as well, this album is clearly a passion project from start to finish, and the passion is immediately felt.

To read the full review by the wonderful Angela, click here.

Steve Von Till – No Wilderness Deep Enough

Another solo album I did not expect from a guitarist in a band that sounds nothing like the solo work here, Neurosis’ Steve Von Till put out another in a long string of deeply meditative, poetic albums.  I will fully admit I knew nothing about Mr. Von Till’s solo work before listening to this, and the reason I picked it up was from our very own Josh for an Audio Thing that never materialized due to scheduling conflicts, but I’ll tell you one thing: once I listened to it a few times because I was asked to, I listened to it a lot more because I wanted to, and then I went back through all his other solo albums because of how blown away I was with No Wilderness Deep Enough.  More ambient than his other works, here he trades acoustic guitar for ambient string samples and waves of sparse synthesizers, truly allowing his voice and his poetry to shine through.  Angela and I took a drive all the way from Chicago up to Wisconsin one night (because there isn’t a whole lot we can do to get out of the house), and listening to “The Old Straight Track” as the sun was setting through a forest of trees gave me such a powerful, transcendental sense of peace that I still look back on when I need it.

Ols – Widma

We spent a lot of space here talking about Widma, and with good reason.  The dark, brooding, kinda spooky atmosphere crafted here is, certifiably, unlike anything else I have heard all year.  Widma is an album that revolves around the metaphorical connection between the end of autumn and the dying of the earth and the end of human life and the decaying of the mind.  Centering the whole affair is the wonderfully terrifying Anna Maria Oskierko, who wrote all the music, played all the instruments, and provides the wails, chants, harmonies, growls and even rapping found in every crevice of Widma.  From tribal percussion, delicate woodwinds and light strings to deep bass, psychedelic vocal augmentation and hair-raising field recordings, every piece of the puzzle fits in exactly where it needs to go, and the effect is immediately being transported to the middle of a forest where a witch serenades you as you slowly lose your mind.  In the best way possible, of course.

Watch the video for “W ciemny las” here, then go listen to the full album here, and finally check out the full review here.

clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned

Building off the spooky theme established above, we come to the cinematic (in every sense) Visions of Bodies Being Burned by LA hip hop trio clipping.  Visions of Bodies Being Burned is the companion piece to 2019’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood, and further explores the lyrical themes of horror and classic slasher films, and mixes classic hip-hop production with minimal samples (almost all of which are recorded by the band as opposed to purchased or sourced), harsh noise, industrial beats and experimental arrangements, all anchored by the inimitable flow and lyrical prowess of frontman Daveed Diggs (who, in addition to his accolades here, has also won a Grammy and a Tony for his work in Hamilton, and has a new song in partnership with the Disney Channel).  You know it’s real when some of the samples used are field recordings taken from the actual site of the Black Dahlia murder and live recorded EVPs, and when those are meshed with abrasive blasts of noise and feedback, it becomes the perfect canvas for Digg’s clever turns of phrase, warping classic hip-hop stereotypes into narratives that recount some truly gruesome moments in slasher cinema.

Mizmor and Andrew Black – Dialetheia

Dialetheia is an album that truly encapsulates the spirit of 2020.  When ALN’s Mizmor, of which Andrew Black is a live member, was shut down from touring due to the Unpleasantness, the duo endeavored to stay creative and keep the sense of connectedness that they were both missing, thus giving us the sprawling ambient work that is Dialetheia.  Trading files back and forth over email in lieu of being able to actually go into the studio together is not exactly ideal, but the time, care and contemplation that went into the two tracks that span over half an hour in total is immediately apparent.  Ambient, atmospheric electronics take center stage here, weaving together spare acoustic and electric guitars and psychedelic touches that are immersive and evocative.  Throughout the whole soundscape, there is a deep and striking sense of all of the isolation, separation, frustration and loss that is inherent to this year, but there is also a feeling of resilience and genuine connection.  We might be lonely, but we’re not alone, and Dialetheia is a testament to just that sentiment.

For more thoughts, check out Vincent’s review here.

Covet – technicolor

Covet have been on my radar for a while, and technicolor sees the band step up their game of mathy, upbeat and super catchy rock to a new level that is mathier, more upbeat and catchier, but also the most accessible they have ever been.  Spearheaded by the ever-bubbly and incredibly talented Yvette Young, technicolor showcases all of the technical flair that the trio is renowned for, without being so showy that it could turn listeners off.  There are moments of jaw-dropping fretboard annihilation here, but it always comes second to landing a really great melody.  technicolor also sees Young take lead vocals for the first time on a few tracks, and her voice is just as lovely as you would think it would be.  Rounded out by some exceptionally rock-solid performances from the rhythm section, it’s just a great, fun listen and one that has stuck with me when I needed something to smile and bop to.

For the full review, look here.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

Thundercat is, by my estimation, one of the absolute finest bass players today, in any genre, and he’s certainly covered more than a few of them.  From a brief stint in Suicidal Tendencies, to working with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly, to being a part of Flying Lotus and beyond, there is nothing at all that this man can’t do, but surely what he deserves much recognition for is his jazz/funk/soul/R&B solo work, and on It Is What It Is, it’s never been more concise and also broader.  Technical chops notwithstanding, It Is What It Is sees Thundercat branch out more as a songwriter, delving into deeply emotional topics on cuts like “Fair Chance” and the title track (which is dedicated to and features an unreleased recording of the late great Mac Miller), and then turning right around with songs that are genuinely funny and honest, like the dual singles “Black Qualls” and “Dragonball Durag,” the latter of which may have the best music video released all year.  It Is What It Is doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it tries to do a lot in the short time it hangs around, but in that time what we see is an artist much more comfortable being themselves, whether they’re singing about the struggles of being black and finally getting some wealth, unrequited love, or unsuccessfully trying to woo someone while covered in cat hair.

The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin

Of all the surprises, good, bad or otherwise, that 2020 threw at me, the one I expected the least was the literal resurrection of the old Panasonic boombox, long thought completely unusable, that made The Mountain Goats lo-fi indie champions.  I think someone else that this was a surprise to was frontman John Darnielle, but when life cancels all your tour plans and leaves your bandmates and roadcrew stranded without an income indefinitely, sometimes the only choice you have is to rise to the challenge.  By standing the boombox on its side, the whir of the tape heads that made the thing unusable was quieted to the dull hum that used to be an integral part of the sound of the band, and in this simple act, it seemed like the floodgates of inspiration were at once opened for Darnielle.  Divine inspiration coupled with the strong desire to put out a release specifically to raise money for his tribe leads to some of the best, most memorable songs the band has put out, all in a format that feels so achingly familiar.  There’s an honesty and an enthusiasm here that is the most immediately apparent than it has been in a long time, and the hum of that old boombox, mechanically subdued as it is, is like a warm pair of sweatpants, fresh out of the dryer.  I could sink into it and be comfy forever. 

The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives

Well, if you’re an astute follower of the band or of myself, you probably saw this one coming based on the last album.  I don’t really think you can take one and not the other, even though they are worlds different from each other.  Where Songs is made up of lo-fi, one take playthroughs given in off-the-cuff, at-home recordings, Getting Into Knives showcases the other side of what this band does best, which is polished, clean and wonderfully touching indie songs that have only grown in scope since they first transitioned out of the “one-guy-and-his-guitar” phase.  What ties both of these releases together is, as always, the unparalleled lyrical genius of John Darnielle, and on cuts like “Picture of My Dress” and the title track, you would swear that an entire novel was packed into the span of a three minute song, and the emotions are no less deep here.  The music continues the expanded instrumentation that really kicked in on last year’s In League With Dragons, but the focus is more on the core of Darnielle, Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster and Matt Douglas, which makes this feel more like a classic tMG album than their most recent works, whatever your opinion of them is.  I have no doubt that Getting Into Knives is going to be mentioned in the same breath as Tallahassee or The Sunset Tree years from now.

Osi and the Jupiter – Appalachia

This is the EP that convinced me that I can’t overlook EPs this year.  Pig Destroyer, Kardashev, of course Zeal and Ardor, all of them put out small releases that touched me deeply, and they definitely should not be overlooked, but there is absolutely nothing that I have felt this year that compares to the first time I pressed play on “They Ride Through the Sky on Horse Drawn Chariots.”  Awestruck doesn’t even begin to cover it, I was absolutely dumbfounded, and it’s a feeling I’ve been chasing through all the different genres of music that I explored this year, and in general.  Much different from the Nordic folk that the duo is known for, Appalachia nevertheless taps into the primal, natural feelings and wistful nostalgia running deep in the hearts of Sean Kratz and Kakophonix.  The former’s plaintive vocals, down-home acoustic guitar playing and meditative, ambient synth waves ground the three songs in hard-rooted tradition, while the latter’s deep, hauntingly gorgeous cello lines provide the emotional resonance and soaring melodies.  It is truly an indescribable listen.

For the full review, click here.

So there it is.  If you’re looking to expand your horizons beyond the scope of metal, these are the ones to get to.  Moreover, these releases stand up there with anything metal that has been released in terms of emotional depth, songwriting and raw power.  It’s been a hard year, but the music has definitely made it easier to get through, and for all the downs, there have been more than a few amazing surprises like the ones on this list that have shown just how much there is to still be hopeful for.  It can’t be overlooked that quite a few albums on this list, and other lists in and out of metal, wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for everything being what it is.  Things are far from ideal, but clearly we can make the best of what we have, and put out some killer releases while we’re at it.  Here’s to more.

­– Ian

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