You know what kind of year it was. 2020 took us all prisoner, locked-in hostages to a perfect storm of nightmares via pandemic, social & racial unrest, unemployment and beyond. Music took the hardest hit of its modern life, with tours cancelled, venues closed and album cycles purged. Live music was our collective release valve, and we’re all badly hurting for a return to celebration.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of new music to celebrate in 2020. And despite wonderful new offerings from Bartees Strange, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Hayley Williams, Phoebe Bridgers and beyond, I’m not here to bring you a long ranked list of albums that stood out among others this year. This just wasn’t a year that standard margins and measurements applied to.
We held on to what we could to get through, clinging to those little life-raft rings in the darkness in the middle of the ocean. And in the process, it seems the role of Music has changed. Now, listening to Fiona Apple’s nearly-perfect Fetch the Bolt Cutters record feels indulgent, a nostalgic return to that odd Springtime when we were baking bread at home and growing weird mustaches in our pajamas all day, wondering if we were gonna have enough toilet paper to get us through the week.
Fiona exquisitely soundtracked the first phase of quarantine, totally by accident of course. But as that nervous buckle-down neurosis gave way to frustration, anger, and a buildup of potential energy & adrenaline, our ears turned to another release that hit not long after – and the timing of it couldn’t have been written better. Back in June, America was collapsing under the weight of racial injustice. The March deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor put the pressure cooker on high in terms of race relations in America, filling the streets of every major city and giving rise to a revitalized Black Lives Matter movement. The protests that broke out nationwide in May in response to the police killing of George Floyd was a boiling over that we hadn’t seen in a generation, at least.
As militarized authorities brutalized protesters and cop after cop continued to walk free for flagrant, heinous and frequently murderous assaults on civilians in high-profile cases, Run the Jewels decided they’d seen enough. Infuriated and deeply hurt by what they saw, they spoke out in the best way possible – by releasing their enormously anticipated RTJ4 early to meet the moment.
Opening with a fitting cacophony of thunderous chaos, RTJ4 smashed all doubt and expectation. It’s the modern era’s Fear of a Black Planet. It’s Rage Against the Machine’s first album. It’s a Molotov cocktail thrown into the Oval Office with a blunt-tipped smirk and ’90s-era Schwarzenegger catch phrase. Packed to the rafters with a whole lotta guests, airtight arrangements and explosive energy, this is an album-sized mascot for fucked-up times.
Vulnerably honest yet fiercely determined, RTJ4 marks the moment when Mike & Jaime finally get in the ring with the world they’ve been warning us about, finely tuned and nuanced to offer a clarity of conscience, a motivating empowerment and a new kind of bat signal in these fucked up times: “For the holders of a shred of heart, even when you wanna fall apart / When you’re surrounded by the fog, treading water in the ice-cold dark / When they got you feeling like a fox running from another pack of dogs / Put the pistol and the fist up in the air, we are there, swear to God.”
There’s no gauge for the rejuvenating potency in finally hearing a voice of defiance against the constant blizzard of neurosis & hopelessness that permeated every fucking fiber of our being during the first half of 2020. And that voice wasn’t here to console us. It reminded us that we’re not getting out of this by taking hands off the wheel in the hopes someone else will come through to fix it all. It’s up to us.
There could be no more fitting message for 2020.
RTJ4 is Antiquiet’s Album of 2020.
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Rob Sheridan of High Level, Nine Inch Nails
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Scott Reeder of Kyuss & Fireball Ministry