Merry Christmas, everyone.
At least it was a good year for music.
Last year, I boasted about how “my listening habits are going sideways and backwards.” I was dreaming of a day when I would look at the various various best-of-the-year lists and not recognise a single release.
That didn’t really go according to plan. This year I listened to 99 new albums. I counted. And I only actively disliked three of them! I’ll tell you which ones if you pay me £10. Sure, many of them were unremarkable. But many more were… what’s the opposite of unremarkable?
Let’s look at 20 of the best. For my sins, I’m listing them in descending order of magnificence. That’s right. This is a ranked list. Ranked!
Tyler G. Holst – Crystal Clear
A new age ambient tribute to the “brilliant British diver” Tom Daly, evocative of those hazy sparkling summer days that were so perfect they don’t seem real in retrospect. Airy synths soaring over a bubbling backdrop of happy screams, splashes and chatter, all recorded in various covered or partially covered pools in Asia and Europe. It sounds like a glimpse of paradise. Heavenly.
Favourite track: Eternal Dreams
Blood Tower – Astral Folklore
Remember you said you were looking for a soundtrack to your hopeless quest through a bleak dark fantasy land? This is it. Picture crumbling cursed ruins, unspeakable blood rituals, maddening visions, and horses succumbing to despair as they drown in mud under a rotten sky. But it’s somehow fun! They call it Dungeon Synth, but it’s a lot less punishing than that name implies.
Favourite track: Yellow Tea With Hallucinogenic Properties
Badly Drawn Boy – Banana Skin Shoes
He’s back! A full 10 years since his last album, and he’s never felt better. On the first song on his first album he promised to put a little bit of sunshine in your life. He did it again. This is a strong collection of bright and optimistic funk and soul-inflected power pop. It’s great to hear him in such a good place. Because my word, did we need some positivity this year! Though he probably wasn’t intending for one particular line to sound so poignant: I’d like to take a look inside of your head/And see what are you thinking/First few rounds on me/What are you drinking? Ah, if only.
Favourite Track: I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness
Tiny Mouse – The Happiest Mouse Alive
In a heartwarming review of the emerging “comfy synth” genre, this was described, in so many words, as the soundtrack to a version of An American Tail where nothing bad ever happens to Fievel. It’s unabashedly friendly music. Happy melodies and an air of cosy wooziness, like watching CITV in your PJs having just walked home from school in the rain.
Favourite Track: Tiny’s Sleeping
Fire-Toolz – Rainbow Bridge
THE HOLOGRAM SPEAKS! Pristine corporate vaporwave rudely interrupted by blasts of brutal black metal. A possessed CD-Rom corrupting your hard drive with radical ideas, causing your motherboard to melt. It often sounds evil. Yet also profoundly sad, like a machine raging against itself. This is what Sims hear in their dreams.
Favourite Track: Dreamy #ex Code
Basil Kirchin – Everyday Madness
I don’t know when exactly these recordings were made. Sometime in the 70s, probably. But it doesn’t matter: They’re unstuck in time, unprecedented, peerless, and unlikely to ever be surpassed in terms of discombobulated oddness. Listen to that first track: ghost women singing, screaming, and gibbering in a language that sounds brand new, over a stately organ that could be lifted from a documentary about the Norwegian leather industry. The following two tracks are a bit more down-to-Earth, but you still have to content with nearly half an hour of unnerving clicks, smooth jazz and snuffling pigs. It’s not everyday you hear something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
Favourite Track: Electronic
Hexvessel – Kindred
One for antlered occultists to listen to while they weave figures out of wicker to cast into the fire. The first track, the brilliantly-named Billion Year Old Being, is a foreboding sinister Halloween prog ritual. The rest is more subdued nocturnal wyrd folk, the sort of songs Dandelion might write about Geralt’s bleakest adventures. It all makes me wish I had muddier boots and a lot more black in my wardrobe.
Favourite Track: Bog Bodies
No Joy – Motherhood
A deep breath of the coolest air imaginable; an immensely refreshing and beautifully uplifting mix of effervescent pop, 90s dance grooves, and cleansing waves of shoegaze fuzz.
Favourite Track: Four
EOB – Earth
It sounds like Radiohead at their rockiest mixed with Caribou at their most inspired, with shades of Talking Heads at their worldliest. There’s always a lot going on, even in the quieter songs – layer upon layer of magnificently inventive sound and virtuouso playing coalescing into an immensely satisfying whole. Of all the solo projects that have sprung from Radiohead, I believe this is the most nourishing to date.
Favourite Track: Brasil
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Haunting songs, beautifully sung, brilliantly performed, all sounding absolutely gorgeous. Ghostly orchestral folk, best absorbed while you float down a river through a forest wearing one of those flowing white Victorian gowns, navigating by the stars while trying to ignore the glowing eyes that seem to watch you from the trees.
Favourite Track: Am I Sleeping Or Am I Dead
Dijit – Hyperattention – Selected Dijital Works vol. 1
Trip hop is god-tier music, and it seems there’s a thriving hip hop scene in Cairo right now. Maybe I should move there. Or at least visit. Smoky drums, sleepy vocals, a languid pace throughout, but with strong North African vibes to set it apart from the Bristol-born beats to which it nods. Essential listening, as far as I’m concerned.
Favourite Track: Mahragan Elahzan
Nubya Garcia – SOURCE
Capitals: The artist’s own. This is supremely uplifting outward-looking visionary jazz, with delicious dub and cumbia flavours to leave a highly rewarding aftertaste that’ll keep you warm for hours afterwards. An ode to the joys of creativity and collaboration, the fruits of a mind well-travelled, bursting with ideas. And like all the best modern jazz, it makes me feel like I’m cruising through a multicoloured deep space nebula in a solid gold spaceship adorned with fine art deco designs.
Favourite Track: Source
(Liv).e – Couldn’t Wait To Tell You
Mesmerising late night r’n’b; songs start suddenly and end just as suddenly, like intrusive thoughts or free flowing daydreams, with confessional vocals delivered in a hushed stream of consciousness. It sounds tired, yet vital – introspective without forgetting that there’s a whole world out there. One review on Bandcamp put it brilliantly: It makes me feel like I went outside this year.
Favourite Track: She’s My Brand New Crush
Myrkur – Folkesange
She’s stripped every trace of black metal from her sound, exposing the raw beating heart beneath, the elemental music of the ages, the Folkesange of the title. It sounds ancient; ritualistic; sculpted from rock and soil yet unnervingly otherworldly. And that last song, if you’re feeling at all vulnerable, will destroy you.
Favourite Track: Vinter
Doves – The Universal Want
That stirring, noble Manchester sound I love so much that, 15 years ago, it encouraged me to move to the city: sad, sodden, yet deeply romantic. These songs might sound like a messy soup to begin with, but close listening on headphones reveals their rich layers. The songs sound urgent, the vocals are dripping with regret, so it’s perfect for a pint and a cry. The arrangements are dense and meticulously arranged, yet the grooves are loose and easy-going, so repeat listens are endlessly rewarding.
Favourite Track: Mother Silverlake
Phish – Sigma Oasis
A mix of the sort of monster funk jams for which they’re (in)famous, and more restrained pieces of elegiac wonder. Leaves is my song of the year, a monumental torch song which has proved invaluable throughout this dreadful year. I’ve found myself returning to it whenever I’ve needed to come up for air. Indeed, the album is full of reminders that this too shall pass, and that good times will return. The opening track contains the lines: Take off your mask/The fear’s an illusion. I know he’s probably not singing about that, but these are still words the world needs to hear.
Favourite Track: Leaves (How did I ever manage without this song?)
Martin Grech – Hush Mortal Core
Of all the triumphant returns we saw this year, Martin Grech’s was the most unexpected and, ultimately, the most rewarding. He rose gracefully from an ornate coffin, guitar strapped low, ready to seduce and enthrall with a collection of operatic vampiric symphonies about lust and immortality. It’s a complex, full-bodied red of a record, independently funded, recorded, mixed, and released. If Martin’s able to create something this rich, this lush, effectively independently, then record labels should really be ashamed of themselves. What are they for, anymore?
Favourite Track: Sadness Is A Story Of Beauty Only A Dancer Can Tell
Wax Machine – Earthsong of Silence
Hazy sunsoaked jams, peaceful minds manifest, with exotic beats and intoxicating flute weaving in and out of the lurid green mists. It’s meditative, in that deep listening could induce trances. But the grooves are so infectious that you might struggle to sit still while soaking up these blissful rays. And in the middle of all this, they’ve somehow made room for a Rubble-esque slice of English psychedelic whimsy. A Time Machine?! Indeed.
Favourite Track: Birdsong
TENGGER – Nomad
Capitals, the artist’s own. This Japanese/Korean couple has found a way of crystallising in sound the spray from a waterfall, or the cool wisps of Cirrus that drift lazily above. Eurasia is the only moment that’ll jolt you from your reverie, but even that’s an uplifting tribute to visionary urbane Germanic kosmiche. The rest is spectral magnificence promising transcendence through immersion in nature. It’s music lovingly created with the express purpose of making you feel better about the world.
Laraaji – Sun Piano/Moon Piano
I’m cheating here, as this is really two albums. But they were both recorded during the same session, and as they’re both a collection of solo piano improvisations, they both sound essentially similar. This is pure joy and wonder, music to heal, to inspire positive dreaming and optimistic visions of the future. One man and one piano – an intimate listening experience that encourages you to lean close and connect. “My intentions in music” said Laraaji to Shindig magazine, “[are] to provide sound as a bonding experience, to feel a bond with the cosmos, to feel an absence of separation.” These recordings, then, offer the exact opposite of everything that made 2020 so hideous for so many.
In the same Shindig feature, Laraaji described these solo piano pieces as “sound paintings.” He said: “I use inner visualisation to guide my music. At times I might imagine angels dancing through the ether, somebody’s foot tapping in a happy mood, blood throwing through somebody’s veins, or someone sitting in a still meditation – not being interrupted by music, but being supported.”
So turn off the news. Put down your phone. Pour yourself something warming in your favourite mug. Sit somewhere comfortable, and put these albums on, loud. Every chiming chord could take you somewhere new, even if that’s just a little deeper inside of yourself, to the part of you that needs the most love right now. Sun Piano is bright and uplifting, Moon Piano a bit more reflective. Both are utterly captivating. I’d say they’re too pure for this world, were they not so necessary. And if that’s not enough, there’s also the Through Luminous Eyes EP, where Laraaji mixed these visionary improvisations with his trademark cosmic zither for the ultimate reminder that 2020 is but a blip, and there is still so much to live for.
Favourite Track: Shenandoah