2020 In Review – The Writers’ Verdict
The highs and lows of 2020, as captured and aggregated by Juno’s team of dedicated reviewers, not to mention a host of top recommendations
TOP 10 ALBUMS
1. Kehlani – It Was All Good Until It Wasn’t (Atlantic) (cover image above)
2. Byron the Aquarius – Ambrozia (Axis)
3. Mac Miller – Swimming In Circles (Parlophone)
4. Zenker Brothers – Cosmic Transmission (Ilian Tape)
5 OMAR S – Fuck Resident Advisor (FXHE)
6. 21 Savage – Savage Mode II (Sony BMG)
7. Theo Parrish – Wuddaji (Sound Signature)
8. Fleet Foxes – Shore (Anti)
9. Santilli – In Circles (Mad Habitat)
10. Jessie Lanza – All The Time (Hyperdub)
Well, what a year. As expected, with more time on their hands, artists certainly got busy. After an initial dip, the rate of release of new music was way above where it normally would be (and will likely continue to be that way well into next year). While we might have imagined everyone would ditch their club bangers and make that new age ambient soundtrack no one ever asked for, many didn’t.
Maybe out of sheer hope and will for things to change, plenty of artists kept on doing their club-ready do despite dance floors remaining painfully deserted. Omar S, of course, kowtows to nothing and no one, including a global pandemic, so came on strong with his unusually varied full length Fuck Resident Advisor which touched on raw funk, aching deep house and sumptuous sunrise sounds. Fellow American Byron the Aquarius did a fine job of taking us all away from the day to day with his stunningly expansive fusion of jazz, techno, traditional instruments and synths of his debut for Jeff Mills’ Axis.
UK artist Instinct remained at the spearhead of the garage revival (second only to electro as the most popular sounds of the year?) he has been instrumental in since day one with his face melting fusions of throwback bassbin botherers and slick future kickers, both in 12″ and LP format. Labels like Germany’s Time Is Now also served up a steady stream of high quality and inventive garage tackle to keep things moving, and also in Germany, Munich’s Zenker Brothers offered a second album that somehow hybridised techno, breakbeat, ambient and drum & bass into a smoggy, expertly swung soundtrack that would turn anyone’s living room into a sweaty backroom. Would any of these albums have sounded any different without a global pandemic, or have we missed out on anything because of it? I’d argue not.
TOP 10 ALBUMS
1. Hodge — Shadows In Blue (Houndstooth) (cover image above)
2. CAR — Crossing Prior Street (Ransom Note)
3. Mood of Departure — Roadmap (Ornaments Germany)
4. Various — Sharpen Moving (Timedance)
5. Various — Sowas Von Egal 2: German Synth Wave Underground 1981 – 1984 (Bureau B Germany)
6. Vatican Shadow — Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era (20 Buck Spin US)
7. The Ambientist — 1-6 (Reality Used To Be A Friend of Mine)
8. Julianna Barwick — Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)
9. Ben Lukas Boysen — Mirage (Erased Tapes)
10. Lau Nau / Matte Bye — Signals (Time Released Sound US)
On the face of it, less said the better — energies should be spent on the monumental systemic problems, gaping holes in support and ethical shortcomings 2020 laid bare, rather than looking back at the year itself. In reality, if 2020 taught us anything it’s to keep talking, even that means starting conversations ourselves.
Lots of good music was released, and at times records were rightly drowned-out beneath the din of discourse that had been decades coming, from sexual predators to whitewashing beats and history, and those issues give us lots to consider and more to act upon. But, amazingly, there have also been some positives.
Music has been one of the pandemic’s biggest casualties in terms of industries, yet the response shows creative and lateral thinking, and determination. Networks expanded and developed as collaboration moved entirely online, rendering location irrelevant. Community strength continues to be evident in the passion surrounding the plight of culture itself, and particularly the fury that has met an absence of the focused assistance its spaces need. Will 2021 be better? Pandemic-wise it has to be, surely? In other areas significant improvement is harder to imagine, but allowing hope to die is never useful.
TOP 10 ALBUMS
1. Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club (Heavenly) (cover image above)
2. Luke Vibert: Rave Hop (Hypercolour)
3. Leah Kardos – Bird Rib (Bigo & Twiggeti)
4. J Zunz – Hibiscus (Rocket)
5. – Jane In PalmaSafety Net (Snake Free Roofing)
6. Krust – The Edge of Everything (Crosstown)
7. Various – Join The Future – UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91 (Cease & Desist)
8. The Nix – Sausage Studio Sessions (Moshi Moshi)
9. Tame Impala: The Slow Rush (Modular)
10. International Teachers of Pop – Pop Gossip (Desolate Spools)
Some years ago, one half of The KLF, Bill Drummond came up with the idea of national No Music Day. A day when, once a year, we would voluntarily abstain from all music in order to remind us precisely how important it was to our existence, It never really caught on, but it certainly came to mind during 2020, in many ways a No Music Year, an awful Groundhog Day that kept on taking. Much of this year was defined less by what happened than what didn’t. certainly, any hardened music hack – naming no names – that might have muttered about gig fatigue in January and February was left very much eating their words not long after.
One of the few events this writer witnessed lingered long in the memory, however. Max Richter’s spectacular ‘Voices’ premiered at London’s Barbican in mid-February, a piece based around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the ‘Voices’ featured reading from the declaration in the performance had been posted anonymously via the net after an appeal from Richter, many from countries where that act alone would be seen as a matter of sedition and endangered the safety of the contributors. It was a demonstration not only of the purity of the Declaration itself but also the concepts it crystalised had already been eroded globally.
The concept of loss, however, was most literally played out through the deaths of many of those we had taken for granted. The passing of rapper Ty in May from Covid aged only 47 was a shock even to those who had figured out it wasn’t just the old and infirm who were vulnerable from the virus. Tim Smith, lead singer of hugely underrated cult band Cardiacs, left us after suffering a second heart attack in July, precipitating a huge deluge of mainstream media coverage and mourning – massively ironic, given the way most of the industry had ignored the group for practically its entire career.
Who, too, would have thought that Andrew Weatherall would be departing the planet at the tender age of 56 after a fatal aneurism? He had, it seemed, only got going on a career that had taken so many twists and turns already, from NME writer and the corkscrew haired rave scallywag who turned Primal Scream into stars to the profusely bearded, heavily tattooed renaissance man obsessed with tales of the high seas that he was at the premature close of play. We’ll never know what he’d have done next, but rest assured, it would have been heroic.
TOP 10 ALBUMS >(IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is) (Forever Living Originals) (cover image above)
2. Roisin Murphy – Roisin Machine (Skint)
3. Space Afrika – hybtwibt? (Space Afrika self-released)
4. Nubya Garcia – Source (Concord Jazz)
5. Various – Planet Mu 25 (Planet Mu)
6. Krust – The Edge of Everything (Crosstown Rebels)
7. Charles Webster – Decision Time (Dimensions Recordings)
8. Craven Faults – Erratics & Uncomformities (The Leaf Label)
9. The Chi Factory – Travel in Peace (Astral Industries)
10. Jaga Jazzist – Pyramid (Brainfeeder)
You don’t need me to tell you that it has been a turbulent year for the music industry, and dance music in particular. The shuttering of clubs and the cancellation of festivals, combined with lockdowns in countries across the World, put an entire movement on hold with many producers, DJs, venue owners and events promoters scrabbling to survive.
The response from those inside and outside the bubble was mixed. It has been heartening to see music sales hold up well, with listeners choosing to actively support artists, but depressing to see members of our scene at all levels at each other’s throats on social media. The response to the Black Lives Matters movement, particularly within the music media, has largely been positive, too, with both writers and publications finally doing some much-needed soul searching about structural racism within the scene. There is still much to do, but we’re making some progress.
Musically, it seems more and more people have looked beyond sounds made for the dancefloor, instead gravitating towards ambient, contemporary jazz, experimental electronica and other notably meditative and immersive releases. Hard times call for soft music (as fellow scribe Joe Muggs would say), and it’s this much-needed escapism that has sound-tracked my 2020.
TOP 10 ALBUMS
1) Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Keyboard Fantasies (Seance Centre) (cover image above)
2) Zenel – Extreme Sports (self released)
3) Various – Pluralistic Reflex (Byrd Out)
4) Georgia – Fuzzy Logic / Future Proof (YOUTH)
5) Jam City – Pillowland (Earthly Records)
6) Arca – KiCk (XL Recordings)
7) HTRK – Venus In Leo (Ghostly International)
8) Boof – Rebirth Of Gerberdaisy (BubbleTease Communications)
9) Star Searchers – Avatar Blue (Discrepant, Pacific City Discs)
10) MoMa Ready – Gallery S (self released)
With 2020’s lockdown came the sense of a warped passage of time, months passing as a blur of remote work, tea-drinking and attempts at meditation.
On one hand, to counteract any dread caused by this inertia, I developed a penchant for very soothing sounds. Recently, tastemakers seem to have started enjoying new age music again – perhaps in longing for a pure escape from all this noise, disease, and uncertainty. I followed suit, discovering Spencer Clark, whose album Avatar Blue conjured exactly that kind of vapourous fantasy. Similar visions were inspired by Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s Keyboard Fantasies reissue. My favourite album of the year, it’s hard to find music which achieves the same laid-back rapture as the songs Ever New and Slow Dance, even 34 years on from their initial cassette release.
On the other hand, there was hardly an absence of intensity. Arca’s KiCk i was her most juddering and penetrative album yet, featuring hyper-weird pop heavyweights Shygirl, Bjork, Rosalia and Sophie. Her bladed cover outfit – and the bullet-speed vocal chops on tracks like Riquiquí and Rip the Slit – certainly connote today’s sense of sensory overload and impending danger. Similar vibes were achieved on experimental duo Georgia’s Fuzzy Logic / Future Proof, a nightmare album blending seemingly generative, fickle stutters with motifs from grime and ruff sound.
Jazz was also intense, with virtuosic London 3-piece Zenel surprise-dropping their hybrid electronic album Extreme Sports in March. It evokes exactly what the title suggests; tracks Process Z and Zozo Is Zozo / The Curse – with breakneck live drums, buzzing basses and an effected trumpet – are exercises in merciless wizardry, the musical equivalent of halfpipe BMXing.
JUDE IAGO JAMES
TOP 10 SINGLES/EPs
1. Litia~Loe – Each Dawn Every Dawn [repress] (Mixed Signals) (cover image above)
2. Panther Modern – Ready (self released)
3. Visceral Anatomy – Modern Anguish (Oraculo Records)
4. Schwefelgelb – Die Stimme Draengt (Cititrax)
5. Andi – Corpse To Corpus (Aufnahme + Wiedergabe)
6. SDH – Against Strong Thinking (Avant!)
7. Sydney Valette – Brothers (Oraculo Records)
8. Crushed Soul – Family Of Waves (Dark Entries)
9. Cardopusher – Fed With Lies (Mechatronica Music)
10. Minuit Machine – Don’t Run From The Fire (Synth Religion)
The backdrop of California’s wildfires, expanding tent cities and the rising cost of living in the Bay Area may have been the inspiration for Houses Of Heaven’s Silent Places, yet inadvertently created a fitting theme for the advent of COVID-19 upon its release.
Incorporating industrial and post-punk leanings brought by frontman Keven Tecon’s background in outfits like Vaniish and The Soft Moon, and woven from a tapestry of noir lyrics, shoegaze guitars and complex techno beats. The Oakland-based trio perfectly captured the tension and malaise of a world in decline on their debut effort.
If you were seeking out more dark music for dark times, similarly, it sure was a perfect year for a new Lebanon Hanover LP. The gloomy duo snuck by just in the nick of time with their latest offering Sci-Fi Sky on Athens’ Fabrika Records. Their style of slick melancholia was as po-faced as ever, revising classic goth rock tropes into a modern dystopian soundtrack much like its title may suggest. Larissa Iceglass’s odes to isolation and the disaffected, complemented William Maybelline’s galvanising baritone that decried the banality of modern life.
However negative the outlook was, you could at times look upon the year’s turn of events with a wry smile and roll of the eyes while enjoying the bittersweet Gathering Swans by Choir Boy. The Provo, Utah-based quartet largely looked to ’80s New Romantic sounds for inspiration, and while some may think these nostalgic references have run their course lately, it was done far better than most others on their sophomore effort. Singer Adam Klopp’s themes of overcoming cynicism and nihilism, sung in an angelic voice, paired with the band’s serene musicianship that glistened all abound in neon-lit motifs – it may have just been this year’s most guilty pleasure.