2020 was not the best year but was made somewhat tolerable through some of the great albums released. Although there were a number of great, high profile releases from the likes of Fleet Foxes, Jessie Ware, Phoebe Bridgers, Destroyer, Run the Jewels, Bob Dylan, Charlie XCX, and Arca; some of my music highlights of the year came from albums that were easier to miss, and slightly more eclectic. In no particular order, here are 10 releases from 2020 you shouldn’t miss, curated by Alexander Devkota.
1. Descendants of Cain, Ka (Iron Works)
The follow up to 2016’s Honor Killed the Samurai finds Brownsville Firefighter/Rapper Ka, again, dealing with dark subject matters with intricate rhymes, lowkey delivery, and production comprised of long samples, often without much in the way of percussion. It’s an album without any obvious influence from the modern rap scene, without 808s, or star-studded features, and it’s no less engaging and brilliant for it.
(And the rest of Honor Killed the Samurai)
2. Songs / Instrumentals, Adrianne Lenker (4AD)
In the follow up to her last solo outing, 2018s Abysskiss, this pair of albums, Songs, and Instrumentals, come just one year after Lenker’s ridiculous 2019 with Big Thief who released two of the year’s best albums, U.F.O.F., and Two Hands, in May and October, respectively. Written and recorded in near-complete isolation in the wake of tour cancellations last year, both albums were recorded in a cabin in Massachusetts with an 8-track tape recorder and feature minimal overdubs, made up almost entirely of Lenker’s voice, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, and birdsong. They are direct, intimate, and brilliant.
3. The Passion of, Special Interest (Night School)
In their tremendous second album, New Orleans’ Special Interest blend no wave punk, techno, and industrial rock into an unruly, destructive force. It feels urgent, timely, and imposing from front to back.
4. Alles in Allem, Einstürzende Neubauten
More melodic than any of the band’s previous albums, Neubauten’s latest, and first full album in over a decade, is mature, richly textured, and compulsively listenable. The band’s experimentation lends itself to a thrilling sense of possibility as tracks unfold, the sonic pallet both incredibly diverse and consistently baffling in the effectiveness with which it is used. Paired with Bargeld’s evocative, abstract bilingual vocals, Alles in Allem is a brilliant example of a band refining its sound with age without losing any of the urgency and creativity of their earlier career.
5. Workaround, Beatrice Dillon (PAN)
In her debut for Berlin-based label PAN, Dillon’s abstinence from reverb defines the sound, lending itself alternatively, to a feeling of austerity, and a propulsive energy. The production features scores of intricate, polyrhythmic patterns, moving around at a constant 150bpm. With an economy of sounds, extending to rhythmic and melodic ideas which, eschewing the conventions of dance music, are often hardly repeated, the album deftly manages to touch on the fundamentals of numerous dance and electronic sub-genres without deviating from the core sound and instrumental palette. It’s an idiosyncratic electronic album that manages to remain hypnotising throughout.
6. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius (Matador)
On the back of 2019’s The Sun Still Burns Here, a musical and dance performance collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich (worth listening to for the soaring ‘pop song’, if for nothing else), Perfume Genius’ latest brings together an enormous range of disparate influences and styles, grounded by the superbly, precise production work of Blake Mills (whose 2020 album Mutable Set is worth checking out), and Mike Hadreas’ explorative and deeply personal song writing.
7. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp)
Named in reference to Boston’s Magic 106.7, the radio station to which Lopatin owes his moniker, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never follows his second soundtrack for the Safdie brothers, 2019s Uncut Gems, and carries over a broadly recognisable palette of digital processing, synthesisers, vocals, and instrumentation as seen on earlier albums. In combining this with a warped and fractured conception of radio programming, Lopatin has managed to create an album of fleeting, amorphous songs and interludes, switching constantly and disorienting through states of stasis and flux – it’s a captivating addition to the Oneohtrix canon.
8. Free Humans, Hen Ogledd (Weird World / Domino)
Made up initially of experimental folk artist Richard Dawson (whose 2019 album 2020 is well worth a listen) and avant-garde harpist Rhodri Davies, Hen Ogledd (named for the ‘old north’) started off making music that wasn’t a lot like the music found on Free Humans. In expanding the group to include multi-instrumentalist Sally Pilkington and art curator Dawn Bothwell, the band finds an experimental and exuberant synth-pop sound that expertly tows the line between experimental and accessible.
9. To Feel Embraced, Sparkle Division (Temporary Residence)
From the creator of The Disintegration Loops, the 5-hour, 4-album project of gradually degrading tape loops dedicated to the victims of 9/11 comes the perfect antidote to 2020. Five years in the making, To Feel Embraced is an album of forcefully joyful and explorative lounge jazz. It was shelved in 2016 as the duo (William Basinski and Preston Wendel) worried that such an album might be inappropriate in such a difficult year politically and environmentally. Although it is doubtful that the world is in a much more carefree state in either respect now, the joy of such an album is proof that art can find potency in an incongruity with the seriousness and joylessness of the world, as much as in an alignment.
10. Untitled (Rise), Sault (Forever Living Originals)
Just a few months after the similarly brilliant Untitled (Black Is), secretive British group Sault released another album and, bafflingly, it might be even better. Similarly toeing the line between a modern and classic sound, Untitled (Rise), in its danceable disco funk sound through to its powerful lyrics, recalls both the timelessness of great music and of the injustices that so often engender it.