2020 has been a truly terrible year, but there has been some decent music. On the off chance that anyone was vaguely interested, I thought I’d list off some of my highlights from Anno Corona:
10. The Slow Rush by Tame Impala
This one’s a grower. Not as big a jump sonically from Lonerism to Currents, the latest from Kevin Parker sticks to its synth-psych precedent with dips into disco and more of an emphasis on groove than its predecessor. Instrumentally it is finely crafted, although markedly less progressive than Currents. With a lack of iconic, stand-out singles, the album is better appreciated as a unified aesthetic with common themes of insecurity, ageing and feeling out of touch.
‘It Might Be Time’ is the standout track here. Rhodes keys are jangling centre-stage backed by an aggressive synth bass and booming drums. Thematically it’s about coming to terms with one’s inadequacy, however much that might hurt.
9. Mordechai by Khruangbin
Not quite reaching the heights of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo, the Thai-funk influenced Texan trio’s follow-up still delivers some fantastic grooves, branching out into more vocals-focussed tunes. Khruangbin is one of those bands that is hard to describe to a friend. They have a distinctive blend of spicy Latin funk-rock plus a raft of world music influences ranging from Ethiopia to Thailand to Africa’s West Coast. Mordechai lacks the forward momentum of Con Todo even though the infectious spirit of that record comes through on a select few tracks.
A highlight for me is the song ‘Time (You & I)’, which is definitely one of my top songs of the year. What a bassline, what a tone, what a joyous sentiment.
8. Protean Threat by Oh Sees
John Dwyer is as productive as ever, releasing yet another album with the Oh Sees in 2020. A much tighter effort than last year’s Face Stabber, this album is also subtly political, critiquing surveillance capitalism and technocracy in a summer that saw global protests, taking on a violent character in the US. It perhaps doesn’t go as hard as Face Stabber’s most abrasive moments, but it is more cohesive and takes fewer diversions, making for an ideal album to stick on at the gym for an unrelenting 40 minutes or so. With the gimmicks pared-back, Protean Threat is much more focussed, if less eccentric. It’s classic Oh Sees – furiously paced garage rock with fantasy flavours.
‘Terminal Jape’ at a blistering two minutes and 20 seconds probably best sums up the album. Its riff isn’t the most original but thematically it has some great lines about facial recognition technology – “all adults/must line up/your visage must be chronicled”.
7. K. G. by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
The spiritual successor to 2017’s Flying Microtonal Banana, King Gizzard’s latest revisits the notes between the notes. It doesn’t really have the anthems of its predecessor – no Rattlesnakes, Nuclear Fusions or Sleep Drifters here, but it explores new areas, particularly acoustic cuts and some Turkish house experimentation on ‘Intrasport’. Thematically it’s also looser than the band’s highly conceptual previous work.
My top pick from this record is ‘Straws in the Wind’. I always enjoy an Ambrose track on a King Gizzard album and this one is no exception. The timbre of his voice and the bluesier inflections give his songs a refreshingly different feel. Trebly acoustic guitar lines at acute intervals coupled with a countermelodic bassline really immerse you in the eastern microtonal soundscape.
6. Suddenly by Caribou
I was aware of but hadn’t really got into Caribou before this year. Five years on from his last release, Caribou’s latest album Suddenly seems like as good as any introduction to his work. Each of its tracks, be they five minutes or a 30-second interval, is finely crafted and invites you into a world that could only be his. Skirting the boundary between singer-songwriter and producer, Caribou brings the best out of organic samples, infusing them with an electronic edge.
‘Sunny’s Time’ is a great example of how he manipulates a piano sample to make it express much more than a plain recording could achieve. The tension he works into the descending melody by distorting pitch bends invites you to rise and fall with the line.
5. Lianne La Havas by Lianne La Havas
The lush textures, gorgeous instrumentals and soulful vocals developed and experimented with on her two previous records come to glorious fruition on Lianne La Havas self-titled album. More focussed, honed and compelling, it aptly distils the essence of this supremely talented songwriter. Not a word or melody is wasted here, everything is sincerely meant and delivered with an astonishing clarity of vision.
Essential listening from this album is the track ‘Bittersweet’, which opens the record. In no rush for the finish line, it luxuriates in a lush instrumental palate so you may savour every syllable.
4. Roisin Machine by Roisin Murphy
2018-19 was the year I re-discovered neo-disco with my fourth-year flatmate. In that mini-Renaissance of a Renaissance alongside classics from Sophie Ellis-Bextor was a remix of a tune by a band called Moloko. Little did I know that 2020 would be the year the frontwoman of the group would undergo a re-imagining of the style she had played no small part in the mainstream success of by releasing the deconstructed dub-disco of Roisin Machine. Perhaps it leans a little too hard into the “deconstructed-ness” of it all at times, indulging in the incremental progression of motifs just a fraction longer than necessary.
Thematically though, it is tightly focussed, while leaving room to attribute your own thoughts onto ambiguous lyrics. Over huge-sounding instrumentals, Murphy’s expressive vocals articulate the pain of isolation and the thrill of female desire under government-mandated solitude. Her voice is really another instrument and a crucial part of the aesthetic. She relishes each line and mixes typical disco tropes with a unique theatricality, which she feeds through a host of effects, particularly room-filling delay.
If I were to pick one track that sums up the album, it would be ‘Murphy’s Law’.
3. How I’m Feeling Now by Charli XCX
Although I’d liked a couple of her tracks in a semi-ironic way before, such as the infectious ‘Girls Night Out’ and the unavoidable ‘Fancy’, 2020 was the year I truly discovered Charli XCX as a serious artist. Quite simply, there is no one in pop music making the kind of sounds she is and to such a high standard. This is of course in large part down to her long-term collaborator, the producer AG Cook of PC music, but this in no way to belittle her contribution to the joint vision.
Listening to this album actually give me hope for the future of pop music and I am beginning to discern its influence on the charts already. Of course, this record has its bangers, but it really shines in its moments of melancholy. My current favourite is ‘Enemy’.
2. Swimmer by Tennis
I can’t exactly remember when I first heard Tennis, but I know it was an instant affection. The voice was the first thing that caught my ear I think; a curious combination of Kate Bush and Madonna, definitely of an earlier era anyway. Since then, it seems to have mellowed in the direction of Carol Carpenter with more of an emphasis on the nasal sweetness of delicate highs than the alto basement of her 70s predecessor.
Swimmer is in many ways an escapist sort of album, and in 2020 we have all needed a bit of escape. Away from the misery, the grief and the grey of this year Tennis transports you to balmy holiday resorts, shimmering coasts and cloudless skies. I love how unfashionable it sounds, how it unabashedly sticks to its minimalist, yacht rock aesthetic. The song writing is class and so are the lyrics, what more do you want?
For me, the title track is a good counterpoint to the disappointment of this year – “Some Summer you have planned for me/ Emptied into the sea”.
1. Women in Music Pt. III by HAIM
Sometimes I just sit back and think about how strange HAIM are and how they have achieved such massive mainstream success. Perhaps objectively they are not that weird, but in the context of pop music, as it stands, they are definite oddballs. HAIM’s 2020 release is unquestionably their best to date. I feel as if their approach to song writing has changed with this record. Instead of trying to craft the perfect pop song, they’ve begun to actually write about interesting topics, with the musicianship displayed on previous albums just naturally seeping in.
Women in Music, although the title seems semi-ironic, is in a lot of ways about just that. Well, not just that, but a handful of tracks do deal with the female experience of the music industry directly or indirectly. While ‘Don’t Wanna’ is clearly pop perfection and both ‘3AM’ and ‘All That Ever Mattered’ are quirky highlights, my favourite has to be ‘Man From The Magazine’ as an acoustic feminist anthem.