Best Albums of 2020 (Part 1)

by 5:4

i’m sure i’m not alone in being somewhat impatient to see the back of 2020. It’s been a horribly testing and demoralising year, and of course there’ll be some way to go into 2021 (and likely beyond) before life starts to settle into whatever version of ‘normal’ eventually prevails. But not everything about it has been a disappointment: here’s the first half of what have been for me the 40 greatest highlights of the year. Each of them, in the darkness of 2020, has been a badly-needed beacon of brilliance.

40 | Marina Kaye – Twisted

It took me a while to realise why each time i listened to French singer Marina Kaye’s Twisted, i felt simultaneously rapt yet uncomfortable. But it hit me recently that it’s due to its intimacy: more than most, these songs feel like the most intense one-to-one conversations, as if Kaye were singing directly to us – or as if we were listening in on an extremely frank, private conversation. As such, there’s the fascinating impression that encapsulated in Kaye’s words is an entire world of emotion and feeling – yet at the same time expressed so personally that the world has been shrunk down to the size of just two people. In ‘7 Billion’ that’s precisely the point: a laid-back, dreamy reflection of addictive love and how “There’s seven billion people in the world / But still I choose your heart attack / I love you when it hurts”. Many of the songs reflect similarly conflicted notions of pleasure and pain emanating from love – the album is called Twisted, after all – another reason why its ostensible bliss feels discomfiting. And at times the intimacy is downright intimidating, nowhere more so than in ‘Scream’, articulating the terrifying prospect of vengeful rage over a light, lilting metre. The line “This is murder” doesn’t sound remotely hyperbolic. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

39 | Tõnu Kõrvits – You Are Light and Morning

“Though his music bears no meaningful resemblance to impressionism, i’ve come to realise that Tõnu Kõrvits has a special gift for capturing the same kind of semi-swooning balmy haze that so often permeates Debussy’s music. It’s a consequence, i think, of this askew nature of his writing, the way that his harmonic language is sufficiently slanted that it sounds heady, even somewhat intoxicated, though due to weight of emotion rather than artificial stimulants. Indeed, far from being impressionistic, there’s almost something expressionistic about the way these ostensibly warm, even ‘safe’, songs are pulled out of shape so relentlessly and so strangely by their underlying passion and poignancy. The result, as so often in Kõrvits’ work, is a complete melding of comfort and discomfort that is utterly fascinating; not a lot of music makes you feel like you want to cry tears of joy and sadness at the same time. […] Ultimately, what you take away from You Are Light and Morning perhaps depends more than it usually does on what you bring to it – where you’re at, as it were – and whether its dark elements resonate with more or less weight and plausibility than its light elements. It’s a remarkable kind of ’emotional chiaroscuro’, one that feels all too true to the vicissitudes of life, love and nature.” (reviewed in December) [CD/Digital]

38 | Páll Ragnar Pálsson – Atonement

“On first contact [with Lucidity], it’s tempting to consider that there’s something ironic about the idea of clarity or revelation coming from its tangled textures. But, it seems to me, the essence of what makes all five of these pieces tick is to be found in this piece. There’s the distinct sense that what we’re hearing, what the ensemble is doing, is less about cause than effect: an inner response to an outer stimulus, like a mind or soul being made to shake and resonate by something external. It’s rather like hearing the output of a seismograph – not an unreasonable analogy for a composer who has also written pieces titled Quake and Afterquake – with each instrument’s tremulant material the indication of some deep, profound movement. [… Wheel Crosses Under Moss] develops into a paean celebrating the importance and necessity of weakness, tenderness and pliancy, which are held to be “expressions of the freshness of being”. Perhaps this indicates that the tremulous nature of so much of the material in these pieces – the twitching pens of the imaginary seismograph – are a demonstration of that acute sensitivity, reacting to the slightest wafts of external stimuli, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. […] There’s no indication that the five pieces on this album are a cycle, yet their similarities suggest a close kinship that makes them sit exceptionally well together and illuminate each other. Taken together, they’re a superb demonstration of the potency and poetry of Páll Ragnar Pálsson’s smaller-scale music: understated but powerful, strange but deeply personal.” (reviewed in May) [CD/Digital]

37 | Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

“If there’s one artist whose work is always guaranteed to beguile, intrigue and fascinate, it’s Walshe. Above all, she is endlessly refreshing, presenting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways that are often as hilarious to experience as they are engrossing and confusing. […] The extent to which it’s obvious in these 17 tracks that their origins lie in Jennifer Walshe’s vocal cords varies extremely widely. Not that that matters, of course; what’s more important here isn’t the fidelity of the process but the evolution of the process, the ongoing strenuous effort being made to attempt to parse, understand and reproduce – and then beholding the startlingly marvellous results in all of their discombobulating ineptitude. The most far-removed are practically impossible to fathom: Gregorian chant rendered into gusts of synthetic wind; Jacob Senleches and John Dunstable draped and filtered into dense, spasmodic fugs of unclarity; Adam de la Halle transformed into a complex swirling maelstrom with glass-like motes glistening on its surface. […] Most striking of all is part of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, the closest these pieces come to something unmistakably vocal: a chorus of sustained tones that clearly have the makings not only of a choral texture, but even harmonic progressions. There’s something heartbreakingly poignant about it.” (reviewed in February) [Digital]

36 | Ulver – Flowers of Evil

It’s a bit of a ballsy move, referencing one of the greatest movies ever made on the artwork and some of the greatest poetry ever written in the title. On the one hand, Ulver’s Flowers of Evil doesn’t live up to these elevated allusions – but then, not many albums could. On the other hand, it does a lot to consolidate their role in being able to convey urgent ideas and feelings in highly accessible ways, not unlike the artists they invoke, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Charles Baudelaire. This urgency seems at first more textual than musical: in a similar but more subtle way than on 2017’s The Assassination Of Julius Caesar, Ulver have again embraced an additional reference point by adopting a gentle synth-pop attitude. This conducts itself with a restraint that makes these songs almost meander rather than race. Yet Kristoffer Rygg’s vocals – as they always have over the years – move through these agreeable textures in a way that often undermines them, exploring, critiquing and lamenting among other things the atomic bombings of Japan and the Waco massacre. Far from being a hodgepodge of elements and allusions from yesteryear, Flowers of Evil is music for and of our time, compelling and thought-provoking. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

35 | Greg Reason – Dreams of Winter Snow

While it’s been a pretty dismal year for cogent, powerful, or even vaguely talented ambient music, Australian musician Greg Reason’s Dreams of Winter Snow has shown it’s possible to tap into genre archetypes while remaining fresh, individual and imaginative. In this respect, it’s no criticism at all (far from it) to say that these seven tracks are all primarily about atmosphere – and among the most immersive examples i’ve experienced all year. Opening track ‘Foggy Morning’ leaves us drifting in a semi-static white haze, while ‘Glistening’ conjures an environment where guitar chords tremble and expand to fill the space with vibrating colour, coalescing into a rich tapestry of complex pitch. ‘Grunewald’ delicately tilts the tone of the music towards a troubled and chilly soundscape, wistful and with a whiff of melancholy, while final track ‘Into Night’ answers the opener by ushering us towards sleep, borne aloft and cushioned by small overlapping waves made from reverberant guitar strands. Just exquisite. [Digital – free download]

34 | Giona Vinti – Niente è Vero, Tutto è Permesso

Taking its inspiration from “the figure of Hassan-i Sabbāh, leader of the Hashishin (from which the word “assassin” comes from), a Persian Ismailite sect”, Giona Vinti’s Niente è Vero, Tutto è Permesso takes us on a tour through diverse electronic worlds. Some are all about evolution and shape-shifting: ‘Afyonkarahissar’ is like looking through a telescope at far-away sights while continually varying the clarity of focus, whereas ‘A Colloquio con il Veglio della Montagna’, erratically propelled along by a pulse that flickers in and out of existence, is filled with a mixture of vague clouds and precise pitch pulses that seem to be chemically reacting to each other, creating ever new combinations. By contrast, in ‘Divina Ossessione’ – one of the highlights of the album – though it displays some erratic similarities, nonetheless projects unstoppable momentum and not merely a shifting but an intense gradual honing and clarifying of its elements. Though absent for the first half, pitch emerges and dominates in the latter half, buzzing, zipping and shining through the beats until they’re overwhelmed. Shorter but yet more impressive is ‘La Quiete prima della Catastrofe’, a rotating slab of electronica like a cross between a gemstone and a magnet, its glittering surface accumulating more and more quantities of sound until it become an astonishing sound object, indefinable yet glorious. [Digital]

33 | Liquid Transmitter – Meander

“Both the title and the artist’s pseudonym are well-suited to the six tracks on this album. They operate in a way that sits on the cusp of what we perceive to be active or passive decision-making, and throughout there’s the distinct impression of sound objects behaving like liquefied matter. […] It would be reasonable to think of each of these compositions as a ‘diatonic liquid’, the motes of pitch floating in each one being aligned to and for the most part limited by its respective modality. This effectively bestows on each piece a unique colour palette, so perhaps it’s not too fanciful, considering the combination of liquid, floating and colour, to say that Meander is somewhat akin to the behaviour of a lava lamp. […] The highlights of the album in part achieve more by doing less. ‘Meander 4’ is the simplest of all six pieces, as if tiny blobs of ink were being dropped into liquid and dissolving into it. Like ‘Meander 1’ its range of tones is limited, but the exquisite delicacy of them gives the impression of being heard at a microscopic level, suspended by quantum buoyancy. […] The sense of perspective in all six tracks is palpable; it’s not so much like looking at a lava lamp as actually floating within one, perceiving the bobbing pitch motes up close and from a distance. As such, in both a literal and a figurative sense, Meander is extraordinarily immersive, as well as being some of the most beautiful ambient i’ve heard in a very long time.” (reviewed in April) [Digital]

32 | Deborah Walker – Starflux

“It opens with Starflux, a work for solo cello in which two simultaneous actions are performed: regular repetitions where the four strings are struck near the nut, and a slow glissando down the strings from the nut to the bridge. This results in an engaging contrast of dull thuds overlaid with continually shifting and dancing overtones […]. Sometimes reverberation makes its presence felt, and occasionally certain pitches become extruded, but otherwise the music is held in this tension of opposites. The second track, Banda Starflux, is an electronic response by Walker to this piece, in which she sets out to explore the effect if more of the overtones were audible than tends to occur in practice. Her simulation of this is an expanding network of sine tone descents, initially parallel but becoming (or at least seeming to become) more convoluted over time. Eventually the clear sense of descent gives way to a more abstract environment of quasi-random shimmering pitch collisions, the nature of which evokes the world of bells and their complex harmonics. Final track Pharus Novae […] is a reinterpretation of these two pieces, where they are overlaid. The real and the imaginary thereby become integrated into a new, hyperreal version of Starflux in which its potential harmonic richness is allowed to fully ring out. […] Very appropriately, considering the original work’s title, the ethereally floating sine tones now become stars and constellations floating in space, driven along by the earthy clunk of the cello, resembling a motoric machine driving everything along at the centre of the universe.” (reviewed in December) [Digital]

31 | Zeynep Gedizlioğlu – Verbinden und Abwenden

“the consistent central idea is entirely summed up in that title, which the composer translates as “connect and reject”. The particular way this tends to manifest in Gedizlioğlu’s music can be heard writ small in Sights of Now […]. Every time i listen to the piece i find myself gravitating away from the details of the tempestuous dialogue going on at the music’s surface, focusing instead on this broader action of expansion and compression going on beneath. It doesn’t take much of a leap to hear this inner flexing as an articulation of the ‘verbinden und abwenden’ idea, the expansion pulling things apart and away from each other, causing the music to slow and falter, the compression pushing them closer together, resulting in rapid bursts of frantically interconnecting ideas. […] This push-pull tension of connection and rejection finds both more simple and more complex expression in the larger-scale works on the disc. The 20-minute piano concerto Blick des Abwesenden makes the pivot of this tension rest on the all-important relationship between soloist and orchestra. […] Momentum is constantly thwarted, the piece progressing in a parade of lurching fits and starts, oscillating between determination and resignation. […] i find myself focusing more and more on the surface of Blick des Abwesenden, following all the details of its connection-rejection interplay. In some respects it’s by far the most complex work on the disc, yet despite that it’s the one i’ve returned to most. It’s a puzzle – yet it’s also blisteringly vivid and immediate.” (reviewed in June) [CD/Digital]

30 | Bára Gísladóttir – HĪBER

“the broad tendency is for Bára’s bass to cohere into a kind of metallic sheet of noise the details and focus of which, moment by moment, are always changing. When this is given centre stage, as in opening track ‘SUĪ’, it brings to mind the more aggressive industrial work of David Jackman’s Organum. […] That being said, the bass is often used with great delicacy, heard to good effect in the gentle undulations and shimmering of ‘her palms faced down forever after’. But Bára’s tendency is to grind and squeal, to the extent that, in following track ‘VĒXŌ’, her instrument comes to resemble an unwieldy expanded form of electric guitar, at the centre of a thick morass of chaotic detail. These textures find a counterpoint in a layer of electronics that act in varying levels of sympathy with the bass. At their most benign, in ‘no afterlife thanks’, they provide a soft atmosphere of open air ambience replete with birdsong, by implication turning Bára’s instrument into an exotic new form of species, before transforming into a cloud of piercing shimmer like an extremely bright light. […] Most stunning of all is the peculiar kind of tension exhibited in ‘cusp day’, where Bára’s by now familiar palette of squally overtones are seemingly held in check by some invisible force, gently hinted at by the electronics in such a way – omnipresent but defiantly undemonstrative – that they sound almost numinous.” (reviewed in October) [Digital]

29 | Sophie Tassignon – Mysteries Unfold

Hitherto more closely aligned with free jazz and improv, Mysteries Unfold finds Belgian singer Sophie Tassignon moving her voice, and the context within which it sits, in an altogether more focused direction. Her first solo album, it consists of eight songs that include some radical rethinkings of existing music. The folk tune in Yuliy Kim’s ‘Gubi Okayannie’ is enclosed in an imaginary choir of sympathetic embellishments and decorations, while Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is both greatly simplified and complicated, the verses beginning stark and solitary, their latter halves and also the refrain given rich, searching harmonic accompaniment, which later explodes into a network of simultaneous reveries, all spun off from the tune. But Tassignon goes a lot further. ‘Don’t Be So Shy With Me’ suspends the melody in a mixture of soft electronic tones and surrounding voices that lightly impinge against it, simultaneously dronal while also spilling out in all directions. Beyond this, ‘Witches’ turns the Cowboy Junkies song into an act of sung and whispered spell-casting, and ‘Nisi Dominus, RV 608: Cum Dederit’ transforms Vivaldi into a contemporary song where Tassignon’s voice (real and processed) also takes on the role of backing singers and percussion. It’s all wonderfully inventive. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

28 | Kevin Gironnay & Julien Vincenot – Neglected Auguries

A continual question i find myself pondering in the four tracks that make up Neglected Auguries is whether i should be focusing on the combined overall effect of their respective elements or the nature and manner of the elements themselves. There’s a dual perspective at play here that’s extremely engaging. Like watching an algorithmic firework display the ear is constantly pulled between different fore- middle- and background, between depth and height, one moment lost in quantity, the next found again on the surface of another new sound emerging from who-knows-where. This seems in keeping with the nature of the composition process, described by Kevin Gironnay and Julien Vincenot as being “swiftly recorded last summer” and in which nothing was planned: “it just happened very quickly and it seemed fleeting, as if in a trance, with Gironnay on prepared guitar and pedals and Vincenot on live computer”. Yet sonically it’s a lot more – even a world away – from the arbitrariness of improv, Gironnay and Vincenot seeming to connect at a subatomic level such that where one ends and the other begins is impossible to determine. These are seamless, engrossing sound structures that, in the way they meld the massive and the meticulous, are just marvellous to behold. [Digital]

27 | Erkki-Sven Tüür – Lost Prayers

The majority of my contact with Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music in recent years has been large-scale works, mainly symphonies and concertos. So i wasn’t sure what to expect from Lost Prayers, which explores four of Tüür’s chamber works, and even less sure as to whether it would make a similarly impressive impact. In a very different way, i’m left wondering whether this album has in some respects made an even bigger impact than his more obviously supercharged music. ‘Synergie’ for violin and cello features a beautiful balance between Tüür’s trademark energy and a potent lyrical strain. In keeping with its title, the instruments aren’t merely mutually supportive or inextricably connected (though they are, in both cases), but seem to be psychically linked. It’s fascinating to hear how the players communicate in this context, moving back and forth between trepidation and courage. The title work, Tüür’s Second String Quartet, is similarly intertwined, the players (the Signum Quartett) all seemingly tied together. The way they coordinate its highly elastic material is mesmerising, often pulling back to a world of ethereality – all quiet ricochets and glistening twiddles – before unleashing levels of power that practically distort everything. More than just ‘chamber music’, these are works with a powerful sense of inner relationships, and in which material sounds positively archetypal, less about ideas than the definition of ideas.

26 | Autechre – SIGN

“on SIGN there’s a recurring sense of distance, of elements arranged and positioned and doing what they do with different proximities. As always, there’s plenty going on in the foreground, but there’s a surprising amount happening further away. That’s surprising enough, but what compounds that surprise is the remarkable fact that what’s governing a lot of this more distant […] behaviour on SIGN is that it’s often rooted in harmony. […] Despite this surprising and impressive emphasis on pitch and harmony, the metallic-edged beatronics that arguably typify Autechre most are represented on SIGN. […] But this kind of thing doesn’t seem to be the point of SIGN, and in fact a couple of the tracks go completely the other way. ‘Metaz form8’ hands over entirely to a kind of sombre but fizzing harmonium-like dirge, whereas in ‘psin AM’ its solemn low chords are propelled along by the barest of dull beats. […] The most impressive tracks on SIGN are those that open and close the album, because they manage even more than elsewhere to embody this balance of new and old ideas. ‘M4 Lema’ is a delirious slab of sputter and glitch, among the most tactile and muscular things Autechre have ever created, yet, in keeping with the overall tone of SIGN, its irregular poundings are shot through with brilliant bursts of harmony that cause them to fall briefly silent. ‘r catz’ seems to pick up where Quaristice‘s ‘Altibzz’ left off (same timbre, same key), though transformed into a grand closing statement, its chords rich, resonant and final, coloured from above and below with equivocal hues of shadow and light.” (reviewed in October) [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

25 | SWR Vokalensemble – Baltikum

“of the seven works featured on the disc, almost all of them attain some kind of breathless magic. […] Plonge by Lithuanian Justė Janulytė [is] a deliberately hypnotic piece, setting a couple of lines from Baudelaire’s short poem L’Avertisseur […]. Combining 12 voices with a solo cello […], Janulytė sets up a never-ending panoply of mesmerically-shifting harmonic colours. […] Like Odysseus confronted by the sirens, it’s impossible to turn away, we become lost in the continual stream of gentle glory washing over us, and pulling us in. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Litene by arguably Latvia’s most renowned composer, Pēteris Vasks. It’s not often one hears choral music that projects a kind of white-hot rage, but that’s precisely what’s captured in the 10 minutes of this two-movement work. […] The musical language here, rather different from the lushness that often permeates Vasks’ work, is a complex product of aleatoric techniques. In the first part it emerges as a form of lullaby, but which erupts two-thirds through into a rabble of accusatory outrage. […] Perhaps most impressive of all are the Three Poems by Fricis Bārda by Latvian Maija Einfelde. […] Einfelde turns Bārda’s “whirlpool” into a veritable wormhole, transporting us (down or up) into another realm of heady elation, where the music becomes semi-static, the singers now seemingly held in place due to an intoxicated combination of bliss and wonderment. Baltikum is easily one of 2020’s most outstanding choral releases, one that, in addition to exploring ineffable heights, has the courage to plumb unfathomable depths.” (reviewed in December) [CD/Digital]

24 | Tristan Perich – Drift Multiply

No matter how many times i dive into the seemingly impossibly deep pool that is Tristan Perich’s 70-minute Drift Multiply, i come away having encountered many new things while failing to find things discovered previously. This is due to Perich’s hypnotic, quasi-minimalistic texture building, where seemingly nothing (or everything) is still and moving at the same time, suspended yet fancy-free. In such a context, what constitutes an idea? Our ear is pulled towards the mass effect (which brings to mind many precedents, Terry Riley being perhaps the most obvious), yet every time i listen to Drift Multiply i’m made yet more aware of all the tiny tendrils of inner activity that combine to form this effect. Small morsels of gesture, undulating motoric rhythms and, occasionally, longer strains of melodic thought, are all to be found semi-hidden in its by turns becalmed and turbulent structures. Excitingly, Drift Multiply isn’t afraid to veer away from its minimalistic anchor, allowing both pitch and rhythm to become abstracted to the point of fuzzy noise, before reforming into a blazing latter half that, at its height, evokes the dazzling infinitude of kosmische musik. [CD/Digital]

23 | James Tenney – Acoustic Phenomena / Hymnic Sounds

While Wandelweiser releases tend to present disinterest as a virtue and extensive material content as some kind of irritating postmodern clutter, the pair of works by James Tenney featured on this album are an unabashed exploration and celebration of the subtle frictions arising from never-ending lines of slowly-moving pitch. i mentioned before about the paucity of engaging (or even modestly adept) ambient music this year, and fans of the genre would be much better served to spend time with this instead. Harmonium #2 – for Lou Harrison, composed in 1976, gentle allows its palette of tones to develop and mingle, hinting at an idea of harmony but stopping short of ever defining it. Over the longer-term, too, there are possibilities of structure though, again, when things occur and the ebb and flow of the collisions remain elusive. None of this matters: we’re pulled into the midst of these circling tones and left revelling at their pulsating variations of light and shadow. The more recent Critical Band, composed in 1988 and revised in 2000, pares things back such that everything lingers around a focal point, leading to gentle clusters shimmering at continually varying rates. That may not sound massively interesting, but it also proves to be irresistible. Like a paean to the harmonic series, over time the work clarifies to an understanding of consonance and stability that, when it arrives, feels truly momentous. [CD]

22 | Jónsi – Shiver

It’s been an extremely difficult year for personal relationships, and that sense of dislocation from loved ones gives Jónsi’s Shiver an extra layer of poignancy. Without wishing to overstate things, there’s something gently therapeutic about this album, both in terms of sometimes acting as a soothing balm and sometimes as a parallel to our own experiences: pain lessened and / or pain shared. Of course, spending time with Jónsi is in many respects to feel like entering another world entirely, one clearly like our own in some ways – with its own pleasures and pains – but, somehow, lit completely differently. In this respect, Shiver also acts as some modest escapism. Perhaps one its greatest strengths is the way it holds all of these possibilities of engagement in tension at once. But quite apart from all this, it’s easily Jónsi’s most mature work to date, unafraid to meld abrasion and fantasy, juxtapose love and pain, fuse order and chaos, resulting in radical new forms of lyricality but which crucially retain the power to move and speak directly to both the head and the heart. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

21 | Somatic Responses – Explorer // Stayin’ home vol 2

i’ve been a fan of Somatic Responses’ music for many years, though it’s been impossible to keep up with their prolific quantity of releases. During such a locked-down year as this, it’s been especially invigorating to spend time with Explorer, the second of the Welsh duo’s Stayin’ home albums. The energy in their electronica is often unbridled and unchecked, feeling like huge currents of electricity free to fizz and burn amok. On Explorer, though, there’s both a greater sense of control at play, channelled into wildly careening but coherent structures, and also a clearer sense of perspective, in which the frantic foreground beats and bass are situated in a much larger, and more variegated, landscape. None of which should suggest an easing off of intensity: ‘Bounty Hunter’ stomps its beats with the ferocity of a giant and laser pulses pulverise whatever remains, while ‘Cold Overlap’ and ‘Andromeda Galaxy Hero’ each fly along relentlessly, continually transforming their shape as they do. However, ‘Zenith’ is the real highlight, its slower pace used as the basis for a beautifully multi-faceted acid-infused track where lyricism spirals outward from its turbulent core, grounded yet continually reaching up to the skies. [Digital – free download]

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[…] was nourished by subsequent encounters with Gísladóttir’s solo album HĪBER (one of my best albums of 2020) and, the following year, her double album with Sverrisson Caeli (one of my best albums of 2021) […]

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