Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters
In an NPR interview, Apple described how the motivation of her critically acclaimed masterpiece was to urge listeners to “fetch your tool of liberation. Set yourself free.”
The album is an example of how the personal is frequently political. For instance, when Apple sings, “Kick me under the table all you want. I won’t shut up,” she is referring to an uncomfortable dinner party, but it can apply to any scenario where someone attempts to silence your voice. On “Relay,’ she speaks out against toxic influences, including a pointed rebuke of social media influencers (“I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure”).
Apple also shows empathy for the trauma of others, like on “For Her,” which was composed—with permission—about a friend who used to intern for a Hollywood producer. The unsettling lyric, “Good morning. You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” takes on greater relevance in the #MeToo era.
Even though the songs were written and recorded before the global COVID-19 pandemic, the album is impactful because it perfectly encapsulates the feelings of anxiety and isolation that many experienced. And currently, everyone feels the urge to reach for the metaphorical bolt cutters.
clipping. – Visions Of Bodies Being Burned
This is the experimental hip-hop trio’s sequel to their 2019 horrorcore masterpiece “There Existed an Addiction to Blood” (which was one of the best protest albums of 2019). Just like the predecessor, the tunes effectively employ horror movie themes to explore sociopolitical issues.
The intent of the music is summed up on the album’s Bandcamp page: “There’s a well-worn adage in film scholarship that says: Every era gets the monster it deserves—meaning during each period of history, different monsters come to embody the specific sociopolitical anxieties of the time: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and antisemitism, Godzilla and the atom bomb, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and McCarthyism, Anne Rice’s vampires and the AIDS crisis.”
“While these figures are largely reactionary, clipping. intentionally recast their figures of monstrosity through the lens of an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-colonial politics to address the struggles of our current era.”
Examples of recasting figures of monstrosity to provide social commentary include “Pain Everyday,” which is a call-to-arm the ghosts of lynching victims to haunt the heirs of their murderers, and “Eaten Alive,” which uses swamp monsters to analyze environmental destruction and gentrification.
Another album standout, “Body for the Pile,” tells the tale of three police officers who are murdered. It is a poignant reminder that unchecked police brutality can’t continue to go on without there being any backlash.
The album makes for an uncomfortable listening experience, but waking up to real-life horrors is necessary.
47Soul – Semitics
47Soul makes dance music for resistance. The band is composed of members from Palestine, London, and the United States that perform a style of music they dubbed Shamstep—hip hop and electronic styles combined with Middle Eastern-influenced melodies.
It features British Iraqi rapper Lowkey, British Palestinian rapper and singer Shadia Mansour, Jordan-based musician The Synaptik, and Tamer Nafar, known for founding DAM. Both The Synaptik and Nafar are Palestinian rappers.
Many of the tracks connect the Palestinian struggle to struggles for justice and liberation throughout the world through lyrics in Arabic and English. “Border Ctrl” calls for an end to the “Mexico-Bethlehem wall.” On “Hold Your Ground,” Lowkey delivers a verse that name-checks Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and alludes to the poisoning of discourse along with “censorship that never stops.”
Deliberately, the album reclaims the word “semitic.” They note “semitic languages” include Hebrew and Arabic. People who speak the languages “mixed a lot.” Arabs can be semites, and the album confronts many of the political, theological, and geographical themes that allow apartheid and occupation to persist in Palestine.
Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
Irreversible Entanglements is a liberation-oriented free jazz collective that pushes boundaries, both lyrically and sonically. Their sophomore album, “Who Sent You?” builds on the sound they created for their debut album in 2017.
Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother), Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, Tcheser Holmes, and Luke Stewart describe the album as a “holistic jam” of “infinite possibilities coming back around.” It explores traumas in past eras that still have a deep impact on Black lives in America while also turning toward a future of Afrotopia, when oppression no longer holds so many down.
“At what point do we stand up? At the breaking point? At the point of no return?” declares Ayewa on “The Code Noir/Amina.” “At what point? At what point do we pull each other up, up out of the void, up out of a hell? At what point? At what point? At what point do we give a shit? Do we stand up and say something?”
The void of 2020 and the hell of COVID-19, paired with ongoing terror of violence by the carceral state, has been felt in the extreme. A protest song on the breaking point for oppressed people could not be more poignant and called for in these times.
Another track “No Más” revolves around the concept of Africans fleeing Earth to escape oppression. “No más. No more. No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer, divide and oppress, define our humanity.”
This is jazz music that encourages Black people to reclaim their dignity, a poignant listen in a year that demanded clarity from music.
Billy Nomates – s/t
“I’ve never really had money, but I was the poorest I’d been a couple of years ago after working a load of minimum wage jobs.” That’s what Nomates told NME.
Nomates’ working class experiences influenced the British indie rocker’s stunning self-titled debut. She skillfully uses her scathing wit to denounce capitalism, apathy, hypocrisy, and misogyny.
Standout tracks include “Supermarket Sweep,” and “Call in Sick,” which address the monotony and exploitative nature of low-paying jobs. Elsewhere on the album, the satirical “Hippy Elite” comes off like a catchy, modern-day version of Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” And on “Fat White Man,” Nomates indicts white males, who use their privilege to force their will on others.
Then there is “FNP,” which stands for “Forgotten Normal People.” The lyrics not only make it clear that the elite doesn’t care about lower class people, but it also features a rousing call to arms for the forgotten masses, who must stand together and force those in power to acknowledge them.
David Rovics – Notes From A Failed State
One of the most prolific and hardest working protest musicians is David Rovics, who has released a new album just about every year since 1999. This year, the guitarist and folk singer released two albums.
“Notes From a Failed State,” released in June, opens with “Precipice,” where he sings about being on the edge as the state pulls the rug out from under lower class people. He refers to mass graves dug for “essential workers.”
Many of Rovics’ songs tend to be specifically topical. “Essentially Expendable” is a more focused song on “essential workers” that centers on the story of Jason Hargrove, a bus driver in Detroit who died from COVID-19 eleven days after he shared a video expressing his anger over a coughing passenger.
“Each Couch By The Street,” “Don’t Pay The Rent,” and “Rent Party” speak to the looming eviction crisis that still persists for millions of Americans while Congress goes above and beyond to keep corporations afloat (even offering them tax breaks for “three-martini lunches”).
The majority of the songs were written in April and May and largely deal with the pandemic. One song deals with the uprising around George Floyd’s death. Others tell stories known to the left but ignored by the media establishment.
As the movement troubadour sings on the album’s concluding track, “It’s a future of uncertainty, but our liberation can only be as free as our imagination.”
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 4
And every day
on the evening news
they feed you fear for free
And you so numb
you watch the cops
choke out a man like me
until my voice
goes from a shriek
‘I can’t breathe’
Those lyrics from the album track could have easily been a reference to the murder of George Floyd. But the song was written before that incident and referred to the dying words of Eric Garner.
This exemplifies what made the fourth album by the dynamic rap duo of Killer Mike and El-P so momentous. The album provided a prophetic time capsule that perfectly captured the political climate of 2020 while also expressing the frustrations of continuing to observe systemic injustices.
Another example of this was “JU$T,” which features the poignant line, “Where murderous chokehold cops still earnin’ a livin’. Funny how some say money don’t matter. That’s rich now, isn’t it? Get it? Comedy. Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food. Get killed and it’s not an anomaly.”
The album included several guest spots, including pioneers of socially conscious music like Rage Against The Machine’s Zack De La Rocha (“JU$T”) and Mavis Staples (“pulling the pin”). Their presence helped connect past generations to the present and offer lessons for the future.
SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is)
Consider this SAULT’s spiritual contribution to Black people and the African Diaspora in 2020. Through this collection, the British rhythm and blues collective spoke to the hardship and trauma of Black life while agitating for revolutionary change.
The release came weeks after George Floyd was murdered and was dedicated to “all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism.” It received widespread acclaim and was one of the best out of a slew of music put out as the world witnessed a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests.
“Black Is” features a number of collaborators, including Cleo Sol, an R&B singer-songwriter, and Michael Kiwanuka, another R&B singer-songwriter. Many of the songs use subdued beats or a sparse rhythms to create memos for the movement.
For example, “Hard Life” points to those threatened by Black freedom yet insists things will change if people stay the course. “Wildfires” confronts police murder and says, “We are dying, it’s the reason we are crying.” Yet, there can be no backing down. “We will never show fear.”
An Afrobeat sound distinguishes “Bow” from most of the tracks. The song goes through a roll call of countries in the African continent. “We got, we got, we got, we got rights. We got rights.”
Together, the tracks powerfully celebrate those who threw off their chains in a moment when so many were awakened to injustice.
Toots & The Maytals – Got To Be Tough
Toots Hibbert, one of the forefathers of reggae and ska music, died in September at the age of 77. Before his death, “Got To Be Tough”—his first album in a decade—was released in collaboration with his longtime band, The Maytals.
Much of the music is a kind of fusion of reggae and rock. On “Just Brutal,” he says everything you do is just brutal, and he does not know what the world is coming to. It’s dispirited, but then he follows it with, “Got To Be Tough,” a spirited call to stand up to the hard times.
“Freedom Train” contains an upbeat keyboard riff that provides a backbone for Toots to address the state of the world for working people. He pairs it with a message to climb aboard the train to freedom.
Those who watched director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” film anthology, which told stories about West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s, were introduced (or re-introduced) to Toots and the Maytals. Their landmark song, “Pressure Drop,” from 1969 was featured in “Mangrove.”
Toots never wavered while creating positive vibrations. “Be careful of what you speak and what you doing. It’s not complicated. Don’t take life for granted, be careful, be strong,” he said in one of his last interviews. And remember, the pressure’s going to drop on you if you’re doing people wrong.
War on Women – Wonderful Hell
Many of the best protest albums of 2020 expressed the frustration and anxieties that many feel in the present political climate. “Wonderful Hell,” released right before the United States presidential election by the feminist hardcore band War on Women, was such an album.
It skillfully blends the band’s aggressive musical attacks with the incisive lyrics and impassioned vocals of Shawna Potter. And even though there is plenty of justifiable anger, that anger is directed in a positive way.
Lyrics such as “The fire, the embers, the ash are not the end. If you want it then you’re gonna have to build it yourself,” (“The Ash Is Not The End”) and “There’s got to be a better way. Than giving up and wallowing. Let’s raise some wonderful, beautiful hell. And make this world worth living in” (“Wonderful Hell”) serve as calls for collective and constructive action.
Another album standout is “White Lies,” which contains the potent line, “We politely request you get your boots off our necks.” By exposing the efforts to whitewash systemic oppression, the band plays their part in being allies.
Even though there is understandably a collective relief and elation over President Donald Trump’s defeat, the reality is that Biden is also an older white man with a history of sexual assault accusations known for supporting the status quo.
There will be plenty to remain angry over under Biden, making the music of War On Women all the more essential.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “There Is No Year” – Algiers | “South Somewhere Else” by Nana Grizol | “Ghosts of West Virginia” – Steve Earle | “Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger” | “We Are Sent Here By History” – Shabaka & The Ancestors | “Spirit of Hip Hop” by David Strickland | “Heavy Light” – U.S. Girls