Friday, 18 December 2020

Albums of 2020

2020 ... Some year the 2020 eh?  😒

'Nuff said about the year in general, I’m sure everyone's sick of it and the endless analysis that has gone and is yet to come ... we all have our experiences and memories of 2020, I have many but not for here and not for now.

For many, music has been extra special in these times and we will all have our particular reference point albums and tracks that will never fade due to the circumstances.  

Hence the reason I thought I’d dust off this old site that no-one ever reads to share my albums of this particular year.

As always, rules include no re-issues, no best-ofs & no live albums ... had I missed that last rule, The Twilight Sad would probably be #1 here, Mogwai would have more than one entry in the list and there would probably be a cheeky wee Arctic Monkeys entry!

Having said that ...

20: Man of Moon - “Dark Sea”

Seems like an age since I saw these guys supporting The Twilight Sad at Glasgow Barrowlands in 2015 and, despite a few great single & EP releases since, this is their debut album ... well worth the wait!

19: Fontaines DC – “A Heroes Death”

The debut 'Dogrel' was #4 on my albums of 2019 list and I know many people consider 'A Heroes Death' as a development & improvement.  Its different, and it's still great but not as big a deal for me as the first one, sorry!

18: Tim Burgess – “I Love the New Sky”

Not sure if I would have given this as much listening time had it not been for Tim's Twitter listening parties and the impact those had, and continue to have, on people generally as part of Covid restrictions.

I think this is one of the albums I listened to most in the mid-part of 2020 and will continue to revisit.  One album aside (later in this list), this is probably a key Covid musical reference point for me. 

17: GoGo Penguin – “GoGo Penguin”

One of those bands that just seem to do it for me every time ... the jazz / electronica / post-rock fusion always threatens to run out of steam and stop delivering but never does!  

Possibly one their best offerings but just up against big competition this year!

16: Muzz – “Muzz”

One of several albums discovered as part of my weekly Spotify 'Release Radar' playlist that probably wouldn't have otherwise known about.

A 'supergroup' of sorts comprising Paul Banks (Interpol), Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) and Josh Kaufman (The National and others) that sounds pretty much as you would expect that combo to ... this is not a bad thing!

15: Rival Consoles – “Articulation”

My first exposure to Ryan Lee West's Rival Consoles was 2018's 'Persona' and when 'Articulation' dropped this year I gave it a few listens over a weekend where I think there were several good releases so it kinda passed me by.

One of the tracks came up on a playlist a month or so later than made me go back and listen again ... I'm glad I did!

14: Bruce Springsteen – “Letter to You”

I was a fan of the Boss in my (much) younger days and saw him live for the first time just a few years ago but much of his later work has passed me by.

Maybe it was the timing of 'Letter to You', maybe it was watching the accompanying 'making of' film but whatever it was it struck a chord and hooked me.

It will never be 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' but that is a pretty high bar to be fair!

13: Phillip Jon Taylor – “Essential Maintenance For Human Happiness”

Paws frontman Phillip had multiple DIY releases this year, this and an EP under his own name plus an experimental electronica offering under the Coping Mechanism moniker.

While all well worthy of your listening time, this is probably the strongest and most varied of the three.

Phillip's challenges, drivers and approaches to recording are well documented if you take the time to look. His music and lyrics are deep, insightful and make you just want to buy the guy a beer and chat ... I genuinely believe that after all this madness, if you find yourself in and around Dornoch's stunning coastline, he'd be up for the visit.

Meantime, buy the guy's music will ye!  [Phillip's Bandcamp]

12: Nyx Nótt – “Aux pieds de la nuit”

Another alter ego of Arab Strap frontman and poet Aidan Moffat that focuses, exclusively, on his musical creativity as opposed to his normal lyrical genius.

Distantly reminiscent of his L. Pierre output, this wanders around alt-Jazz / pseudo-classical instrumental territory in a way that is completely hypnotic in the right listening circumstances.

If you struggle with the opening of the album, stick with it until pretty much bang on the 4 minute mark of second track "The Prairie' ... something beautiful happens, trust me! 

11: Daniel Avery - “Love + Light”

Dropping out of nowhere in the middle of 2020, this schizophrenic electronica kaleidoscope includes everything from rave pulse beats to pseudo ambient chill.  On the first few listens, it's really tricky to work out what it's trying to be.

With room to breathe, and an acceptance that it's all over the place, it turns into a strangely coherent and engaging listen that will make you want to dance and chill out all in the same hour! 

10: Echo Machine – “Instant Transmissions”

Forming from the remnants of The Mirror Trap, Dundee's Echo Machine hit my radar early in 2020 when I heard they would be playing an in-store session at Chameleon Records in Aberdeen.  

That led me to checking out the album and heading along to the in-store which I think is technically my last pre-Covid lockdown gig!

The line up has changed slightly since that set but the album remains a belter and worth checking out if you haven't done so already ... Storming synthwave from start to finish and reminiscent (in some parts) to the early output of countrymen The Ninth Wave 

9: Deftones - "Ohms"

I'll be honest and admit I have never been a Deftones fan and therefore was fairly non-plussed when the first new release in over 4 years was announced.

A close friend has been a big fan for years and always talks of the band in the same discussions as Tool and, given my appreciation of 'Fear Inoculum' last year I thought I'd give 'Ohms' a listen.

As instant as this should be from the outset that is 'Genesis', it took a few efforts to get through this in one listen.  Once it got its hooks into me though that was it ... many full spins later and I'm sold!

Still haven't gone back and listened to any of the back catalog yet though ... they say 'White Pony' is worth a listen??!! 😏 

8: Dextro - "An Hour is a Sea"

I can't remember what my trigger was in 2016 that made me go to Ewan's Bandcamp page and order 'In the Crossing' on vinyl ... could have been a Spotify playlist, possibly an online review, not sure but I'm glad that purchase came with a high quality download given that the vinyl is in danger of being worn out by overplaying!

When Ewan posted that an earlier album 'Winded' was available to buy & download on Bandcamp I was all over it ... he emailed me to say thanks and flagged that new music was coming.

A month later and 'An Hour is a Sea' was out and is also a piece of vinyl at risk of being worn out given its perfect balance of ambient soundscapes and structured electronica.

2 tracks, 1 each side of the vinyl, and 37 minutes of complete, lose yourself, perfection. 

7: Matt Berninger - "Serpentine Prison"

The first of two solo albums from the front men of bands that have been with me for a long time in my list this year.

My first exposure to The National was 'Boxer' when it was released back in 2007 and I would now count both the band and that album amongst my favourites (yes, 'Boxer' is a superior album to 'Alligator', no argument!)

Matt's first solo album doesn't depart too much from much of The National's output but, given his vocal style, I suspect that was always going to be the case.

One or two tracks aside, this is up there with anything from his parent band and doesn't push too many boundaries but it's a nice place to go and be comforted when that warm voice is needed.  

6: Hamilton Leithauser - "The Loves of Your Life" 

The second of those front men of great bands solo efforts in this year's list, Hamilton Leithauser, formerly of The Walkmen, released his second (or forth, depending on how you look at it) solo album with every track written around various characters that Hamilton has encountered in and around NYC over his lifetime.

A wide range of musical styles are used to tell the eleven stories, all of which vary significantly from the core sound that The Walkmen delivered ... that signature voice aside though.

And, no ... nothing that sounds remotely like 'The Rat' 😂 


5: The Psychedelic Furs - "Made of Rain"

I'll admit to 'discovering' The Psychedelic Furs circa 1986 when 'that' film came out with a great soundtrack including the title track 'Pretty in Pink'.

That led to me raiding the back catalog, which wasn't as easy as is it is these days young un's, and finding tapes of the first 4 albums.

1980's eponymous debut and 1981's 'Talk Talk Talk' blew me away and the latter is still one of my favourite albums and was one of the first albums re-bought when I rediscovered vinyl.

I saw them at the Playhouse in Edinburgh, circa 1987, on the 'Midnight to Midnight' tour and then lost touch with them until 'World Outside' was released in '91 that rekindled my interest.  I went back and bought the excellent 'Book of Days' that I'd missed in '89.

29 years later ... TWENTY NINE! ... and 'Made of Rain' appears sounding like it sits squarely in the time between 'Talk Talk Talk' and 82's 'Forever Now'.

Production is as polished as 'Mirror Moves' and 'Midnight to Midnight' but the tone is largely bleak and there are way too many minor chords to pretend this is an upbeat comeback!

First listens have the latter tracks feeling pedestrian but repeat listens (it needs to be listened to in one go) open up the initially shallower tracks and deliver what is an superb album by any standards but an outstanding one given the gap from the last one ... 29 years! 

4: Mogwai - "ZeroZeroZero"

There, of course, had to be a Mogwai album in the list ... a list seems incomplete without one!

Had live albums been allowed on the list, the '2018' release would have been on here, and up high, without a doubt given the quality of the set and the production.

Check it out their Bandcamp page.

'ZeroZeroZero' is a soundtrack album for the outstanding TV series of the same  name that follows a shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Italy and the complicated web of events and characters that it interacts with.

It's a brutal yet engaging series that has yet to officially air in the UK (thank you .nzb's) but one that I'll watch again when Sky Atlantic broadcast it in early 2021.

I'll admit that while I've loved the previous Mogwai soundtrack albums, I've never been a huge fan of the films or TV output they were created for.  'ZeroZeroZero' is different, it's the best TV I watched in 2020 without a doubt and I still picture the scenes while listening to the tracks ... this can sometimes be disturbing, "Summon the Sacred Beasts" in particular! 

Typically for a soundtrack album, the play order and multiple short tracks can affect how it hangs together as a final piece of work however this is mesmeric start to finish and just a shame it has proven so difficult for many to be able to appreciate along with the TV program and determine just what a great piece of art the two make together.

3: The Strokes - "The New Abnormal"

I expected nothing from the new Strokes album ... why should I?  Pretty much everything after 'Is This It' has had elements of genius lost in a soup of averageness.

When I heard 'At the Door' in advance of the album release it flagged the possibility of a different direction that was, initially, short lived when 'Bad Decisions' dropped and it all looked like we were heading for the same old Strokes.

On first listen to the complete album, the fist half suggested it was going to be another example of the previous post debut inconsistencies however when final track 'Ode to the Mets' ended, the first thing I had to do was go back and listen to the entire thing again!

I listened to the album non-stop for weeks and its those final few complex tracks that make this an utterly compelling listen that, to me, is by far one their best.

If I had to listen to one Strokes album today, it would be this one ... 'Is This It' wasn't a statement of finality after all!

2: Ben Chatwin - "The Hum"

I'm sure I must have heard Ben Chatwin tracks in the past, possibly on Spotify playlists when playing recommendations based on other stuff I listen to ... I must have, why?  because the net effect of Ben's style is directly aligned with several genres that I listen to day in day out but he manages to merge several of them at once!

I remember one Friday night in November (2020), trawling the new releases for the week on the usual recommendation sites and not coming up with much of anything interesting.

Then I found a reference to 'The Hum' somewhere and recall the terms 'analogue electronica', 'ambient'  and 'post-rock' in the same paragraph, it had to be checked out.

First track 'Transmission' washed over me as all good ambient offerings should do, then I was hit by the train that is 'Transistor' and I was hooked from there ... not just hooked on 'The Hum' but on Ben's music in general.

I'm now the proud owner of four of his albums on vinyl with 'Staccato Signals' being of equal quality to 'The Hum'.

Anyone looking at my page will see how much I've hammered Ben's music this year, he's my second most listened to artist ... and I discovered him on one dull Friday evening in November!

1: I Like Trains - "Kompromat"

When I Like Trains announced the upcoming release of the new album earlier in the year and dropped 'Dig In' as the taster track I knew it was going to be worth checking out but had not bargained for what was to come.

I've been a fan of the band since the iLiKETRAiNS days with debut ep 'Progress Reform' imprinted on the memory from the first listen and have appreciated pretty much everything they have done as the sound has evolved over the years.

A difficult band to get into initially given the slow, dour, plodding tracks of the early days and David Martin's vocal style that you either get or you don't ... think Mark E Smith meets David Gedge circa 'Seamonsters' trying to sing a register or two below anything comfortable!

The hook in the early days was the stories that the songs told and the knowledge that every track would deliver something of value, whether lyrically or musically if you just stuck with it.

Their last (non soundtrack) output in 2012, album 'The Shallows' and ep 'Beacons' suggested a lighter, more upbeat direction but then things went pretty quiet.

2016's decent soundtrack release 'A Divorce Before Marriage' looked to plug a big gap but, again, things went quiet.

Then comes 'KOMPROMAT', which, whether designed to be or not, is one of the most politik / social commentary 2020 appropriate albums out there.

My musically astute, but still going through his metal phase, 11 year old commented that this was The National meets the Twilight Sad with Mark E Smith on vocals when he first heard it ... go listen, he's not wrong and its high praise!

I won't bang on about the lyrics and the messages on this largely perfect album as I'll have misinterpreted the intent and layered my own 2020 experiences, anger and frustrations on top leading to me telling you the tracks are about topics they were never meant to be ... go explore for yourself: [Bandcamp]

A great footnote to this otherwise crappy year was nominating 'KOMPROMAT' for blog & podcast site 'Picky Bastards' end of year Twitter competition ... and it only went and won!

I'll probably give it another spin or two this evening to celebrate!

"The truth is I'm not sure how we got here"

The Ubiquitous Accompanying Spotify Playlist: 

Notable mentions:

In no particular order, well actually in alphabetical order to be correct, here's some (not all mind) other albums that I gave some serious listening time to in 2020.

There will be many I missed and some I will have forgotten but so be it:

  • …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – “X: The Godless Void
  • Andrea - “Ritorno”
  • Autechre - “SIGN”
  • Bright Eyes - “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was”
  • Blanck Mass - "Calm With Horses (Original Score)"
  • Car Seat Headrest - “Making a Door Less Open”
  • Caspian - “On Circles”
  • Crippled Black Phoenix - “Ellengæst”
  • Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini - “Illusion of Time”
  • Dogleg - “Melee”
  • Hum - “Inlet”
  • Jonsi - “Shiver”
  • Lanterns on the Lake - “Spook the Herd”
  • October Drift - “Forever Whatever”
  • Protomartyr - “Ultimate Success Today”
  • Public Enemy - "What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down"
  • Rafael Anton Irisarri - “Peripeteia”
  • The Smashing Pumpkins - "CYR"
  • Thurson Moore - “By the Fire”
  • Vatican Shadow - “Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era”
  • Wednesday - “I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone”

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