2020 albums of the year etc.
If you’re reading this then it’s highly likely I would have shared my “AOTY” list with you anyway. Lucky you! But I thought it was worth writing a few bits of spiel about some of that music to go alongside that nice picture with all the different artworks on it. Loads of music coming at you at once can sometimes seem impenetrable, especially with little or no context for its brilliant and weird variety, or time to easily fit it into your life. So I hope that by writing this, the albums I mention will find their way a little easier into your head. If they give you even half as much as what they’ve given me, then it will have been worth doing. I’ve listened to more than 300 albums from 2020, helped by the fact that, for obvious reasons, I’ve had a lot more time to listen to stuff. Particularly working from home means I have the space and freedom to fill my ears with as much weirdness as I can stand. Music, especially these albums, has/have kept me going and give/s me something to look forward to each day. It’s a source of energy, joy, thought, reflection, bafflement and motivation. Perhaps you’ll get something similar from at least one of these albums.
Also it’s worth saying that if you really love any of these albums (or any others for that matter), please consider buying them directly from the artist or label if you can afford it. Generally the best place for this is Bandcamp, and I’ve included links where relevant. As you probably know, on the first Friday of each month, Bandcamp waive their share of purchases, so all money goes directly to the artist/label. I think it’s really important to sustain the music/art/publications/whatever that you love by paying for them what they are worth (and what you can afford to pay). Artists are workers, and like almost all workers, do not get paid the true value of their labour. Many of those I’ve included in this list are not very well known, and rely on purchases of their music (or gig tickets, merch, etc) to live. Streaming services like spotify, youtube etc do not (and never will) pay artists fairly because it is simply not in their business interests to do so.
I’ve noticed a tendency amongst various websites and publications to contextualise and qualify their lists amidst all The Bad Stuff that has happened. I’m not gonna bother with that because yeah, we know things are Really Bad out there. Surely there’s been enough discussion about what exactly has been so bad – can we not focus, for a change, on the things that have allowed for survival through it so far? I also don’t feel like it’s worth ranking these albums, besides presenting a simple unsorted Top 25, and a subsequent bunch of “also very good albums”. Even though numbers are cool and fun, I don’t find it helpful to rank albums or rate them with a number out of 10. I’ve opted to rate them with a word (out of 10) instead, which is not a very good joke or anything but I found it fun to do, so there. Behold – The Good Stuff!
Able Noise – Recordings
This Dutch/Greek guitar-and-drums duo sit on a line between lo-fi indie rock and minimalist experimental improv. Using all sorts of warps and weird noises, they piece together ghostly impressions of songs, forming a gaseous haze of intimate spontaneity. There are no song names or even separate tracks, only adding to the mysterious atmosphere, where conventional structures and balances of sound feel just out of reach. It’s a bit wonky and disorientating but in a gentle, modest way.
“Deconstruction” out of 10.
Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower
I thought I’d stumbled across an obscure revelation when I came across Ana Roxanne’s ~~~ some time last year. Turns out I was just one of many who had quietly congregated around her serene, spiritual call. Her music is everything I want “ambient” music to be – uncomplicatedly beautiful; prioritising equally both texture and melody; warm, inviting and emotionally open; enormous and infinite while still somehow intimate and close. I love her soaring vocal lines, the analogue hum of the droning synths, the integration of “non-musical” found sounds, the unapologetic evocation of soulful, religious music. Though these key components are still just as prominent as on the previous release, Because of a Flower brings an organic expansion to Roxanne’s core sound. There’s gently pulsing synths on Suite pour l’invisible and —, plinky plonky synthetic drums on Camille, cavernous warmly plucked bass on Take the Thorn, Leave the Rose. This is truly soothing, healing music. Suite pour l’invisible in particular is so, so lovely.
“Harmony” out of 10.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
There’s not much insight to this album I can give that other (far superior) music writers have leapt to provide. Being the cliche music obsessive-contrarian, I was initially sceptical of the gushing praise, and was underwhelmed upon the first listen (or two). I had been led to believe it was some kind of difficult experimental avant-garde enigma. No! It’s a pop album. Yes, one with some unusual arrangements and structures, but very much a song-based album with many memorable great lyrics, universal themes and catchy melodies. If that’s not pop then I don’t know what is. Anyway, it’s great. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
“Consensus” out of 10.
Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
It appears I’m not the only one who has been forced into an admission that, yes, I had got Haim all wrong. Aside from a handful of songs, I hadn’t taken much notice of them. And to be honest, my opinion on their first two albums hasn’t really changed. But this one is a different matter. It’s just full of bangers isn’t it, no messing about. Or, at least when they do mess about, it’s got plenty of character and provides a good balance to the more straightforward moments of satisfying pop goodness. I think a lot of this comes down to them being braver with their choices of arrangements and sound palettes. By bringing in more instrumental variety – sax, synths, drum machines etc – to mix with a wicked knack for a funky little riff, on-point vocal harmonies and big catchy choruses (all obvious qualities they’ve shown before), they’ve made an irresistible and potent mix that surely has won over many sceptical hearts and minds. Also, to point out the obvious, it’s well cool that they’re sisters isn’t it? I’m a Haim fan and you can’t prove I ever wasn’t. More of this please.
“Bombshell” out of 10.
Handle – In Threes
Given that Handle contains members from the (sadly now split) Manchester no-wavers Duds, the taut and frantic nature of In Threes’ brief 25 minutes should come as no surprise. Like the aforementioned band, this is heavy on the jaunty, propulsive percussion and rumbling bass riffs. The (non-Dud) vocalist and synth player Leo Hermitt brings important new elements though – snaking fuzzy synth lines and, most prominently, their abstract geometric poetry delivered with declarative and expressive precision. It’s a hyped-up breakneck ride across sharp rhythmic terrain.
“Cowbell” out of 10.
Hen Ogledd – Free Humans
In any sane and just world (i.e. definitely not this one), Hen Ogledd should be a big deal. To me, they are. They deserve it, and you (yes – you!) deserve them too. Like their previous album Mogic, Free Humans is a joyous grab-bag of colourful, kaleidoscopic and baffling takes on pop and non-pop music, scaled up to an 80 minute whirl. I am grateful for how they show a wilful disregard for the rules of what catchy, uplifting music is supposed to sound like and be about. I am grateful for how they allow their characters as individuals and as a group to have moments to shine. I am grateful for their sincere, empathetic goofiness. I am grateful for their warm, kind and optimistic love for humanity. It’s fun and serious and instinctive and carefully considered, all at the same time. I can’t imagine listening to a song like Trouble and not feeling even in the slightest bit uplifted. Do yourself a favour and love Hen Ogledd as much as I do.
“Bwganod!” out of 10.
Horse Lords – The Common Task
Horse Lords have been one of my favourite discoveries of this year. The cascading, flurrying microtonal riffs, the propulsive audio-jigsaw of polyrhythms, the note-perfect precision, the outrageous insistence in the importance of the 3 R’s – repetition, repetition, repetition (RIP MES). So much going on, so enthralling, so great. This is what rock music is supposed to sound like in the year 2020 (The Actual Future). This is a glimpse of the utopian, egalitarian society we were promised, but which has been stolen from us by those who alienate us from the product of our labour… Umm… Did I mention there are bagpipes too?? There’s bagpipes too. The only flaw in this album is that there isn’t enough bagpipes. I love bagpipes.
“Freedom” out of 10.
Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
If I were to award a prize for best label of the year, there’s no doubt I would give it to International Anthem (and who says I can’t?). Having only previously heard Angel Bat Dawid’s The Oracle from last year, this year I’ve been discovering one-by-one just some of the many great albums they’ve put out by Irreversible Entanglements, Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, Damon Locks – Black Monument Ensemble, Jaimie Branch… And 2020 releases by Alabaster DePlume, Angel Bat Dawid and Tha Brotherhood, Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger, Rob Mazurek – Exploding Star Orchestra, Jeff Parker and Irreversible Entanglements again. At the more intense end of the free jazz spectrum, IE’s music needs to be played LOUD to achieve its full effect. Centred around the inimitable spoken-word delivery of Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), IE create a claustrophobic and raw sound. The wailing brass, strident double bass and skittering, propulsive percussion provide the perfect setting for Ayewa’s trademark fiery poetry, facing down perpetrators of racial injustice, pulling at threads of historic social trauma and the intergenerational embedding of power structures.
“Tumult” out of 10.
Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
Another International Anthem release. Laid-back and shimmering R&B, jazzy guitar explorations, shuffling funk grooves… This album casually covers a lot of ground in a short timeframe. A mostly instrumental suite, it’s an inviting and easy-going ride full of light, space, intrigue, personality and charm. Apparently these fragments were pieced together from live recordings and drum loops, and certainly it has that distinctive hybrid feel – and you get the sense that Jeff Parker finds a lot of joy in any stage of the music-making process. And why wouldn’t he when it sounds this good?
“Fusion” out of 10.
Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet!
Whizzing through a pacy sequence of ideas, this exploratory and bright album probes towards percussive, repetitive electronica while remaining grounded in jazzy looseness and spontaneity. Fusing hip hop beats with jazz instrumentation is nothing new of course, but Georgia Anne Muldrow seems intent on bringing openness and an organic eclecticism. In doing so she creates a lively variety where a shift from jumpy synth-funk to a sparse piano ballad feels natural and engaging.
“Bop” out of 10.
Meridian Brothers – Cumbia Siglo XXI
I can’t say I know much about Colombian cumbia music (anyone got any recommendations?), and so the fact that this is a supposedly “futuristic” take on the style goes right over my ignorant head. Still, I love the wacky and chaotic energy going on here. Thwacking drum machines, choppy guitars, rubbery bass and sideways smears of synth all add up to a synthetic and occasionally unhinged bounce. It includes probably my favourite cover version of the year – you’ll know it where you hear it – which always makes me smile, as does the totally unnecessary bleeping of swear words which, again, being in Spanish as they are, I wouldn’t have picked up on either.
“Pichaman” out of 10.
Ono – Red Summer
Chicago post-punk survivors Ono unflinchingly present us with harrowing details from across America’s historical and ongoing deliberate war against its own black populations on Red Summer. Confrontational accounts of assaults biological, chemical and physical are relayed through a time-warp, vocalist travis embodying many generations of victims of state-sponsored racist murder. The sound is appropriately messy, ugly and distorted, full of muck, chaos and noise. There are visceral moments of cathartic near-release: notably I Dream of Sodomy – a terrifically funky track that would be irresistible to dance to were its subject matter not so horrifying; and Syphilis – atop its creepy, loping groove, travis reels off the list of white presidents who oversaw the use of black men as unwilling subjects of biomedical research in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
“Systemic” out of 10.
Rob Mazurek – Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust
Though densely layered, there is a glossy brightness that shines throughout this album. The most sparkling timbres are provided by flautist Nicole Mitchell and vibraphonist Joel Ross, with the fuzzy megaphone-esque vocals of Damon Locks cutting through to provide a rawer edge. Though to pick out any particular performer is perhaps unjust, as this is a monumental group achievement – a triumph of spontaneous precision, instrumental interplay and compositional playfulness. Occasional noisier passages provide heft and a thrilling unpredictability. To some it may sound like a cross between jazz, contemporary classical and psychedelia, but to me it sounds like Dimensional Stardust, and it’s delightful.
“Effervescent” out of 10.
Sarah Davachi – Cantus, Descant
Sarah Davachi never seems to put a foot wrong. Always minimal and intentional, she finds a delicately balanced ambiguity and restraint. That perhaps makes it sound like small or emotionless or cold music – it isn’t. It’s timeless and enormous, a perfect capturing of mood using the most minimal of tools. Compared to her previous releases, with the exception of perhaps Gave in Rest, this is as close as she’s come to song-like forms, with relatively brief pieces and in a couple of cases – Play the Ghost and Canyon Walls – vocals. When I listen to this I feel grounded, centred and calm, more in touch with deep time and the universe. Which is pretty cool, if you ask me.
“Pacific” out of 10.
Sault – Untitled (Black Is) & Untitled (Rise)
I was late to Sault’s double–whammy party last year and I’m glad to say I’ve not made the same mistake this year. Again, these are albums that seem such obvious choices that it’s hard to know what to say about them. I just find it really remarkable how the group manage to cohere so many styles and genres into a seamless whole (or two wholes, I guess). They achieve a perfect balance of slickness and rawness, of anthemic universality and uncompromising revolutionary intent. I appreciate their insistence on letting the music speak for itself. Dispensing with names, live performances, publicity, marketing and industry bullshit allows us to appreciate and focus on the brilliant music. That’s what we’re here for. Just listen already!
“Untitled” out of 10.
Sharhabil Ahmed – Habibi Funk 013: The King of Sudanese Jazz
Strictly speaking none of the music on this compilation is “new” this year, unless you happen to be very clued in to Sudan’s music history. Which I am not… yet (again, recommendations are welcome). Sounding like a mix between surf rock, early r’n’r and ethio-jazz, this isn’t something you or I might naturally categorise as “jazz”. But when Sharhabil Ahmed pretty much single-handedly pioneered the genre in Sudan, in the process claiming the official (and unceded) title “The King of Sudanese Jazz” and creating such buoyant and satisfying music, who cares about genre tags? This is seriously fun and energising music and Argos Farfish is an all-time banger.
“Jazz” out of 10.
Staraya Derevnya – Inwards Opened the Floor
A lot of the noisy sounds that clutter this album feel so tactile and in the room. You can really hear the textures and the materials of the clattering, pattering percussion. Such a focused, dank air of suspense, littered with ominous drones and menacing funk, would be enough to put you on high alert were there not also a real feeling of freedom and abandon. This openness and fluidity allows for a very organic flow to the harrowing exorcism of, say, Flicked the Ash in Kefir. ‘Chirik’ Is Heard From the Treetops is another great example of this contrast – while ramping up the coiled intensity, the band are also doing bird impressions. The mournful Burning Bush and Apple Saucer manages to be rather touching, finding subtle emotional shades within the chaos. The band, for all their noisy avant-garde sensibilities, are clearly intent on turning these inclinations towards drama and allusive mystery.
“Chirik” out of 10.
Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques
Good old Steve. Middle age seems to be treating him very kindly indeed. After the “electronic” album Groove Denied (which I maintain is not really that electronic – the first few songs are misleading!), this album has a more straightforward, laid-back vibe. The marketing for this one is “acid folk”, which is fair enough I suppose. There’s lots of breezy space, 12 strings, acoustic bass and some flutes dotted about, amongst other assorted bits. It’s great for a warm sunny day. It’d be easy to dismiss an album this far into a musician’s career as somehow lacking in ideas or intrigue and, although of course Steve’s not reinventing the wheel here, he still writes a killer song and knows how to keep things feeling fresh.
“Traditional” out of 10.
Still House Plants – Fast Edit
Still House Plants’ third full-length release is fractured and provocative, dealing in compositional uncertainty and textural experimentation. Each group member takes an idiosyncratic approach to their playing. Drummer David Kennedy often foregoes steady repetition in favour of dynamic variations in emphasis and texture. Guitarist Finlay Clark similarly turns what other instrumentalists would regard as stutters, fills or even mistakes, and turns them into the central point of the composition. The result is a brittle and stubborn exploration of non-riffs and non-beats – small musical motifs which are picked up, poked, prodded, bended and snapped in half, before being thrown away again, or ungraciously jammed together like ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach’s voice meanders from a crooning melisma to a sandpaper sing-speak at will, always maintaining an authoritative presence whose meaning is somewhat opaque. The results are messy, intense, restless, nagging and ambiguous. They’re a totally unique band.
“Process” out of 10.
Sun Ra Arkestra – Swirling
Around the time of Peak Lockdown, I decided that it would be a good idea to listen to the entirety of Sun Ra’s enormous discography (or at least as much as is available freely online). Despite only making it to around 70-odd albums before suffering Jazz Fatigue, I can confirm this ridiculous ambition was, overall, a great idea. Turns out humans can only absorb so much cosmic sound wisdom in one go, but boy does it feel good. By October, when the Arkestra released Swirling – their first studio album since Ra’s departure from Earth 27 years ago – I was fully ready for another dose. What we have here, in the form of new recordings of classic Ra compositions, is conclusive proof that the Arkestra are still one of the greatest bands on this (or indeed any) planet. Led by Marshall Allen (a mere 96 years old), the Arkestra sound as vibrant, energetic, joyous, wild and essential as they ever did. It’s the next best thing to seeing them in person – a genuinely mind-altering and uplifting musical experience, I assure you – which hopefully will be possible again in the near future.
“Seductive” out of 10.
U.S. Girls – Heavy Light
What can I say… Heavy Light is a whirlwind 37 minutes of plastic soul and psychedelic funk – a camp, grandiose, surreal, sincere and ambitious set of songs. Meghan Remy’s lyrics, along with the multiple voices in the spoken-word collage interludes, excavate memories of childhood, loss, trauma and heartbreak. But it never sounds remotely bleak or deflated. Instead it is a cathartic and triumphant experience full of brave vulnerability and steadfast commitment to theatrical levels of (dis)honest storytelling, living up to its oxymoronic name. The arrangements are full of brilliant little tricks and bizarre left turns. There are so many delightful moments – too many to pick out so here’s just a few… The funky, joyous propulsion of 4 American Dollars; the metallic noises that overwhelm State House (It’s A Man’s World); the simmering intensity of And Yet It Moves/Y Se Mueve; the archly melodramatic ballad Denise, Don’t Wait; that bonkers vibraphone solo in the middle of Born to Lose; “I’d stab a lamb in the back for you, dad”… And so on. It took me a while to get under the surface of everything that’s going on here, but it never fails to impress. I still don’t really understand it – there’s some kind of underlying, non-linear narrative that stubbornly refuses to reveal itself. I can’t help but picture it as a totally mad psychedelic musical with a disjointed and near-incomprehensible plot – a total commercial failure but an artistic triumph, the best musical (n)ever made. I hate to use the word “masterpiece” but this album apparently compels me to use it.
“Audacious” out of 10.
Valentina Magaletti & Marlene Ribeiro – Due Matte
A delightfully spooky release, the result of a collaboration between two fixtures of the UK underground, its pieces are full of percussive rattles and ominous drones of unknown origin. There’s not a lot to hold on to, as you’re led through a fog in slow motion, displaced in time and going who knows where. I know that sounds abstract but so is the music.
“Icky” out of 10.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Saint Cloud sounds like a gentle and fresh breeze on a beautiful sunny spring day. A record of bright, clear and elegant indie-americana, squeezing casual hope out of calm reflection. Shiny, twangy riffs, shuffling drums, commanding and controlled vocals, splashes of piano… Everything is in its right place, perfectly paced and cohesive. It’s a seasonal album that doesn’t translate to the current winter darkness. Bring it out of hibernation when the clocks change and let it drift across the room – you’ll see what I mean.
“Sanity” out of 10.
Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why, but something about this album really gets to me every time. I think maybe it’s the combination of the precise and exploratory instrumentation, and singer John Rossiter’s sometimes warbling, sometimes declarative vocals, that creates a determined, assured and loving vulnerability, with enough unpredictable twists and turns to never let you forget the overwhelming weirdness of contemplating the moment and the world around you. Maybe. That doesn’t really cover it though. And therein lies the trouble with trying to convey the intangible connection you can have with music, using only flimsy words. With each listen I feel the thin barrier that separates me from the rest of the world (and all the people in it) being eroded, as I become permeable and diffuse. It’s like a hug. It’s an expression of human connection and it’s irreducible and irreplaceable. On Root and Crown (one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard this year), Rossiter sings “every record needs a thesis, needs a crisis or campaign” and, to be honest, I don’t know what this record’s thesis, crisis or campaign is, but I feel like I do – and that’s what counts.
“Faith” out of 10.
The following albums are some that I’ve come across in the past few weeks, thanks to other lists – especially The Wire’s and The Quietus’, which are both always reliable sources of adventurous modernity. I’ve really enjoyed these a lot, but haven’t had enough time to get to know well enough to include on the main list. This doesn’t mean I think they aren’t as good! They’re just too new to me at the moment. Given some more time to absorb, I would have likely included them amongst my favs. Come back to me in a few months and we can reassess.
Anna von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
Moor Mother – Circuit City
Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle
Siti Muharam – Siti of Unguja (Romance Revolution on Zanzibar)
And in case that’s just not quite enough music for you, here’s the best of the rest… Those that didn’t make it into my top 25 but which I got plenty of enjoyment out of and would stand up for in a fight, if it came down to that. I hope it doesn’t, but you never know these days.
- Adrianne Lenker – songs & instrumentals
- Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1
- Anna Hogberg Attack – Lena
- Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction
- Armand Hammer – Shrines
- Ashley Paul – Ray
- Bulbils – all 50 bandcamp releases*
- Calabashed – Behold a Black Wave EP
- Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
- Datblygu – Cwm Gwagle
- Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure
- Dougie Poole – The Freelancer’s Blues
- Emma-Jean Thackray – UM YANG 음 양 EP
- ГШ (Glintshake) – Гибкий график
- Hailu Mergia – Yene Mircha
- Jockstrap – Wicked City EP
- Laura Cannell – The Earth With Her Crowns
- Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
- Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders
- Mermaid Chunky – Vest
- Oksun Ox – I Don’t Care I Already Told You
- R.AGGS – //TAPE 1//
- R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
- Rhodri Davies – Telyn Rawn
- Richard Dawson – Republic of Geordieland
- Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History
- The Silver Field – Sing High! Sing Low!
- Sonic Boom – All Things Being Equal
- Tidiane Thiam – Siftorde
…and so on.
*If you’re not sure where to start with these, other than at the beginning, message me and I’ll hook you up with some great stuff.