Best albums of 2020: #5 Secret Machines “Awake in the brain chamber”

This COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives and for the most part, we have looked at these changes negatively. But are there some positives to be found in this new normal? One that I can think of right off the bat is that it brought us a new Secret Machines album, their first in twelve years.

Secret Machines were originally formed in 2002 by brothers Brandon and Benjamin Curtis and fellow Dallas, Texas musician Phil Karnats, when the three of them relocated to New York City. Their debut album, “Now here is nowhere’, was met with buzz and critical acclaim when it was released in 2004. Its big, kautrock-influenced prog sound even found a fan in David Bowie and they ended up getting calls to tour with Muse, U2, and Oasis. The sophomore album, 2006’s “Ten silver drops”, followed up on the promise of the debut and this is where I caught up with them, falling as hard for them as did Mr. Bowie.

Unfortunately, fortunes changed for the band when Benjamin decided to leave to the group to pursue a project called School of Seven Bells with the Deheza twins. A third Secret Machines followed but felt a bit stalled to me. Regardless, I still went to see them when they rolled through Ottawa in 2008 and yeah, I was bowled over by the intense and explosive performance. I kept tabs on them for a while and there was word of a new album being worked on in 2010 but it ended up being shelved for being too depressing and the band went inactive. Besides word of Benjamin Curtis’s death in 2013, seeing Brandon Curtis performing with Interpol in 2015, and Runout Groove Records* issuing the band’s first two albums on vinyl in 2016 and 2018, news this summer of a new Secret Machines record is the first thing I’d heard about the group in a decade. So yeah, it was a surprise.

The band is still just the two still-living original members, though a number of additional musicians appear on “Awake in the brain chamber”, including a beyond-the-grave performance by Benjamin Curtis. The album has reportedly been in the works, off and on, for many years, but really only started to solidify after Brandon Curtis started working with Josh Garza again in 2018. And it is possible that the only reason we hearing this year is because of the opportunity the band to release it without the pressure to promote it, afforded by this pandemic.

Okay. So that’s a lot more words than I had planned on writing for this album but I think the backstory for it is almost as important as the sound of it, which by the way, is excellent. Have a listen to and read more words on my three picks for you below and see what you think.


“Everything starts“: This first track illustrates the most marked difference between this album and Secret Machines’ earlier work. At just a smidge over five minutes, “Everything starts” is the longest track on a tighter, more compact album, where it might’ve been the shortest by a long shot on earlier works. And they’ve done this without dispensing with the big, ambient space rock sound. It acts as a tribute to frontman Brandon Curtis’s brother Benjamin because they built the song around the deceased musician’s guitar work. Drummer Josh Garza has said this about it: “When I close my eyes and listen to ‘Everything Starts’ I see three guys in a room playing music. I see Ben, Brandon and me… we’re all playing our instruments, we’re all smiling and it’s probably a bit too loud.” And as sad and troubling as the lyrical subject matter is, Josh’s image is beautiful and satisfying.

“Dreaming is alright”: Track two on the album starts off with Josh Garza’s pounding and punishing drums. His self-described ‘bashing away’ style of drumming is a big part of this group’s sound and forced Curtis to rethink many of these recordings when he decided that they would form the basis of a new Secret Machines album. Here it pushes the song into overdrive, forcing the guitars and the synths to keep up, racing down a darkened highway, just barely hugging the curves and staying on the road. It’s dangerous and precarious but the title brings us back to just this side of optimism. Brandon sings words that evoke holding hands in the face of a disastrous apocalypse and turning the page to tomorrow when today seems hopeless. Yeah, dreaming is definitely more than alright.

“Everything’s under”: This final track features more of the driving and relentless drone that had critics calling them krautrock acolytes in their early days. And yeah, it rocks. Totally abandon with arms a-flailing, the drums are punished and synths wash over you like a tsunami and that’s exactly as Secret Machines would have it. But here, as on the rest of “Awake in the brain chamber”, it’s served up in a morsel manageable for the rest of us mere mortals, not dragging it out as they would have in their previous lifetime. The chorus sums up the feeling of this album best, the succinct injection of the passion and energy of it all: “We’re gone, gone, gone beyond… everything’s under control.” Indeed. Let’s just hope this spells the start of something bigger and doesn’t end up just being an excellent post script for the band.

*Runout Groove records is a vinyl only label whose monthly releases are voted on by fans. The fact that they are chosen every time one of their albums comes up to be voted on shows that Secret Machines’ fan base is very much alive and well.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Strokes “The new abnormal”
9. Venus Furs “Venus Furs”
8. Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”
7. The Beths “Jump rope gazers”
6. The Rentals “Q36”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Vinyl love: The Strokes “The new abnormal”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The Strokes
Album Title: The new abnormal
Year released: 2020
Details: 180 gram black vinyl, hard plastic sleeve, foldout poster

The skinny: Just a couple of days ago, I launched the countdown of my top ten albums of 2020 and this is the album that kicked it all off at number ten. I picked up this 180 gram pressing of The Strokes’ sixth studio a couple of days after the first Record Store Day drop back in August. I went into one of my favourite local shops, Compact Music, looking for something else but walked up to the counter with this record. I remember the owner commenting on how it was his last copy and how the packaging was original but impractical. I love the cover art by Basquiat, a nod to the New York City band’s home, and the foldout poster that was included. But of course, the real prize is the music, the new wave glam vibe on the band’s first new album in seven years is, in my opinion, their best work since their now iconic debut.

Standout track: “The adults are talking”

Best albums of 2020: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Good morning everyone! And happy Thursday!

We’re finally nearing the end of this trash can fire of a year we call 2020. And not a moment too soon.

But this also means that it is that time of year. You know which I mean. The time of the year that music writers and hack bloggers, like myself, try to come up with their lists ranking the best that the year had to offer. Many end of the year lists have already started popping up, some even as early as the end of October. I don’t blame these eager beavers for trying to rush the end of this year but I wasn’t one of those. I wanted to keep my list open, in case something brilliant was released in November* or I found an album released earlier in the year that I had missed. And it’s a good thing I did too because one album in particular came out of nowhere and snuck itself into the number nine spot just before I started writing this post.

This will mark my fourth year running doing end of year lists for this blog so I’ve pretty much got this process down to an art. Like last year, I decided to wrap things up with a final post on my favourite album on the final day of the year, and so to do that, Thursdays became the day of the week of choice for this series. As always, I am starting things off with an ‘honourable mentions’ post, this post, listing out albums 10 through 6, and will countdown my favourite five albums, one each week, for the next five.

Of course, I’ve cheated a bit with my photo at the top of this post. You may note that it shows three additional albums from 2020. These are albums in my vinyl collection that won’t appear in the list but bear mention nonetheless. I also featured two of these – Gateways Drugs “PSA” and The Exbats’ “Kicks, hits and fits” – in my Vinyl Love series over the last two weekends so go check those out too.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all the craziness going on this year, 2020 was another great one for new music. I had fears early on that the COVID-19 pandemic would have an impact on the ability of all our favourite musicians to continue to produce and release new music and that at some point during this year, the new releases would dry up. But this never happened. Indeed, the reverse seemed to be true and musicians everywhere seemed to become more productive and creative in the various states of lockdown we endured.

With all these excellent releases, I am sure I missed out on one or two so as we go through my own 10 favourite albums over the next month or so, I welcome your comments and thoughts and perhaps even your own top ten favourites in the comments space provided.

Let’s do this.


#10 The Strokes “The new abnormal”

Back almost twenty years ago, way back in 2001, New York City’s The Strokes released “Is this it”, an album often credited with reinvigorating indie rock and kickstarting a garage rock wave that would eventually morph into a post-punk revival. I’ve never thought they’ve been able to come close to the same energy that made that debut album so great and breathtaking but in my opinion, on “The new abnormal”, their sixth LP and first in seven years, they’ve come very, very close. The garage rock from the debut has given way to a new wave glam vibe but their knack for breathing new life into retro sounds is still very much alive. “The new abnormal” is indeed a temporary respite from these crazy times.

Gateway tune: The adults are talking


#9 Venus Furs “Venus Furs”

This self-titled release by Montreal-based Paul Kasner’s project, Venus Furs, is the album I mentioned above that just squeaked into this list at the last moment. Its relatively quiet launch back in July meant that I missed it until it received a positive review in one of my favourite magazines, Under the Radar, and the words there piqued my interest. Kasner’s perfectionist approach to this debut album has drawn favourable comparisons to Kevin Shields, Anton Newcombe, and Thurston Moore and yeah, listening to the eight songs on this neat package, you might catch whiffs of each. But you might also catch on to something else going on here: perhaps it’s a psych rock explosion that transcends space and time. A glass of wine, a rose, a special pipe, a lava lamp, and a jet pack to the next galaxy.

Gateway tune: Chaos and confusion


#8 Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”

It feels to me like this indie rock/folk trio led by Conor Oberst has been around forever but I’ve never found myself able connect with their music. I’ve checked in on the albums they’ve released over the last couple of decades and even seen them live once (and maybe twice). I know Oberst has always been a strong songwriter and he has a legion of fans that swear by him but I actually think it took his collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers last year on their project, Better Oblivion Community Center, for me to truly appreciate his worth. Maybe it was leftover shiny and fuzzy feelings from that album that had me falling for this one on first listen but given the reactions to this being a smooth next step despite the nine year separation between albums, I went back and rediscovered that maybe I’ve been wrong about Bright Eyes all these years. I definitely think “Down in the weeds, where the world once was” is either an accidental stroke of genius or a planned mess of perfection. Maybe both.

Gateway tune: Mariana trench


#7 The Beths “Jump rope gazers”

I admit that I was a bit disappointed when I first heard this sophomore release from Auckland, New Zealand’s The Beths. It was another of those cases of expectations raised beyond reconciliation by the band’s previous release, in this case their fantastic debut, “Future me hates me“. Their blistering set  that I had witnessed last year at Ottawa’s Bluesfest obviously didn’t help matters. However, I didn’t give up after the first listen and  my persistence has paid dividends, allowing the album to grow on me exponentially with time. Yes. “Jump rope gazers” has a lot of the same energetic power pop that made the debut so buzz-worthy but also has Elizabeth Stokes and friends slowing things down and getting personal with equally rewarding results.

Gateway tune: I’m not getting excited


#6 The Rentals “Q36”

I discovered this year that I’m a Rentals fan! Sure I remember liking “Friends of P.” back in the day but never bothered to check out the rest of the debut album, 1995’s “Return of The Rentals”. Then, I heard their 2014 album, “Lost in Alphaville”, in passing and thought it enjoyable as well. But it wasn’t until I listened to the new album (too late to the party to get a copy of the self-released, super limited vinyl) that I finally woke up. I immediately went back to acquaint myself with the complete back catalogue of the project by ex-Weezer bassist, Matt Sharp, and it’s all excellent. If you’re not in know (as I wasn’t until recently), I highly recommend starting out with this retro futuristic concept album that smacks of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie called “Q36”.

Gateway tune: Shake your diamonds

*As it is, I feel like there might be at least one noteworthy album released in December will not get its due from all the list makers (myself included) because of its late release.


Check back next Thursday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.