We all know, for our sins, that we will simply never catch all of the good music a year throws out even if we cast a wide net. Like a lot of folks, I listened to an ungodly amount of music to fill the void in 2020. I’d like to talk about some of those albums. Specifically, the ones that I thought deserved a bit more love when list season rolled around. I’ll move chronologically, even if I didn’t necessarily hear of the album at release.
Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline was a big surprise for me. A cinematic experience in sound, the eleven tracks see our narrator desperately try to win back the affections of ex-girlfriend Judy and not fall deeper into the self destruction of post-breakup blues. It’s a simple but infectious record of shimmying indie rock grooves, sharp character writing and Paul Simon-esque vocals that feel like sunshine, even when the subject is anything but.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know who Jeff Parker was prior to this year. That one’s on me. The advantage that gave me, however, was no expectations heading into the wonderfully abstract Suite for Max Brown. The Tortoise guitarist invoked a rare and sacred feeling in me on this journey through nu-jazz, that buzz you feel knowing you’re listening to something outstanding for the first time wondering to what extent it will be praised in years to come. I’ve already used a genre to describe this record, but truthfully I don’t know if that’s justice enough. It’s a tornado of ideas and they all work together to fortify each other. Get comfortable in the drum groove, and the horns will make themselves known. Somehow, you’re now hearing the guitar more clearly… This is special.
Nova Twins explosive debut Who Are the Girls? contains within it the raw punk energy essential in getting me through 2020. ‘Not My Day’ played all year, sure, but it didn’t deteriorate in punching power. Jason Butler’s got a serious eye for talent, signing these two young women to 333 Wreckords Crew; there’s a lot of mileage ahead if these massive tunes are anything to go by.
I reviewed a Nicolas Jaar project right at the start of the year, Against All Logic’s 2017-2019. It was about 6 months later that I realised he’d released another two LPs in that time. March’s Cenizas is a purification vessel. Jaar explores his own personal seclusion and self-admitted “ego”, and the ambient stretches are a mirror to him: rocked, unsteady, low-energy for the most part.
Summer follow-up (slightly breaking our chronology) Telas is the logical continuation of that story. It’s the entirely new creation, free from boundary, when the purgation is done. The two releases split 50-something minutes very differently, with the former opting for thirteen tracks and the latter just four. Be sure not to arrive expecting A.A.L or Space Is Only Noise, mind. These two works will be looked at in his catalogue as much their own era. Both are mesmerising, and I’d suggest listening in release order.
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Yves Tumor radiates a Prince-tier charisma on Heaven to A Tortured Mind. Maybe a lazy comparison… rock and R&B elements stitched together instantly recall the most prolific to ever do it, shock. Oddly, it isn’t the genre work that makes me feel this way, it’s the velour/velvet swaggering, the delivery, the cherry on top. This glam-face-on-a-soul-body is a huge departure from the previous work of Yves. Safe In The Hands of Love, for example, was a plunderphonic nightmare to hold still, constantly zipping off down roads less travelled every time it came close to an identity. There are at least some limits in place to the experimenting now. I’ll be honest, I think it’s actually more impressive to modernise/push a pre-existing sound further. Finally, I can’t not talk about it. Diana Gordon’s vocal take on the endlessly sorrowing refrain of ‘Kerosene!’ makes for a song of the year contender.
Hum have been a huge band in my life, and 1995’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut is in “things I’d swear on” territory. Saying that, even I didn’t expect the long-time rumblings of a comeback record to ever prove true. Good to see you this millennium! Inlet is the most unrepentantly dolorous the band have ever sounded, and I love it. Just as the guitar work of their 90’s catalogue was a grail to Deftones and Deafheaven, I predict the kings of “space-rock” may continue to influence the alt sphere in the coming years. Play ‘The Summoning’ at max volume.
Working Men’s Club’s self-titled record was purpose built for something it hasn’t yet experienced: indie nightclub dancefloors. At first listen, you’ll immediately understand how tracks like ‘Valleys’, ‘John Cooper Clarke’ and ‘Cook A Coffee’ will get lager-holding patrons bouncing their heads off ceilings. The Todmorden upstarts bow at the altar of New Order, The Human League and Pet Shop Boys, but rest assured nothing is stolen. The nostalgic synthpop palette brushed up for the raver of the day is going to hit a lot of people just right.
LA hip-hop trio clipping. have adventured through horrorcore once again with the putrid Visions of Bodies Being Burned. This album ticked a lot of boxes for me: from the gritted teeth intensity of Daveed Diggs‘ bars, to the maximalist production of Hutson and Snipes’ vision of a collapsing world. The extremity is enthralling, here’s a constructed hell I’m but a helpless passer-by to. The feature selection is just about the only thing that’s careful; Cam & China’s inclusion on ’96 Neve Campbell’ is a particularly perfect fit, and shit, is that Jeff Parker on my list again? Can’t say enough positive things. If you’ve a strong stomach, take the ride.
You’ve probably heard that one anecdote about The Avalanches’ 2000 record Since I Left You. It’s said that there are so many samples manipulated, that they haven’t all been found yet. Well, The Avalanches’ 2020 record We Will Always Love You came out less than a month ago and, with that in mind, forgive me if I’m still getting to grips with it. Since 2016’s Wildflower, critics have repeatedly noted The Avalanches’ focused move toward songwriting. This album is their greatest yet example of that, and narratively, it feels like an album too. The title track, early in the runtime, is a prologue. Blood Orange’s verse depicts someone a little weary of life. The next 20+ tracks, like to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, will showcase the wonders of the world to this placeholding misanthrope, via the duo’s beloved brand of zesty sonic sorcery.
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In my own year-end list, I talked about how difficult it was to narrow the field to the very best, and that’s true here too (there are still omissions, for your sanity). I understand not being able to squeeze everything in, as 2020 was an open buffet of astounding projects. By inclusion, I’m recommending these records, and I hope you get as much out of them as I did. What a tough act to follow for 2021 (in literally no ways barring music).