Top albums: 2020 (pt. 1)

Shit year in general - great year for music.

Now into my third year of this tradition; here’s a write-up of my favourite albums from the last twelve months, ranked in reverse order. Here’s the first part: #20 to #11.

Jam City enjoying lockdown

20. Zora Jones - Ten Billion Angels

After years of mixtapes, collaborative projects and a lot of remixes, Fractal Fantasy’s ‘fairy squadmother’ FINALLY delivered a full-length solo release for us to sink our teeth into. Ten Billion Angles realises a vision Jones’ has been refining for the best part of a decade; mixing her and (label co-head) Sinjin Hawke’s unique synth-driven sound with cyborg-sung R&B vocals. Far more so than on her previous output, Zora’s voice is placed front and centre on this album, working to great effect on lead single ‘Paranoid’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Melancholy Princess’.

19. Playboi Carti - Whole Lotta Red

Another highly anticipated release - Playboi did his best to save 2020 by dropping Whole Lotta Red on Christmas day this year. Following on from his superb debut, Die Lit, this record sees Carti refine his high-pitched, Thugger-esque ‘baby flow’ (which you will have heard on Tyler, The Creator’s ‘EARFQUAKE’ and pre-Red single, ‘@ MEH’). Including just three features (Kid Cudi, Future and Kanye - WLR’s exec. producer), for most of this release you get a lot of Carti going absolutely ham on the ad libs. When it works, it works but when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t: (‘I take my shirt off and then the hoes stop breathing’ and ‘Jump out the house. Jump out the house. Jump out the house…’ spring to my mind). However, as Playboi Carti songs have never exactly been about lyrical prowess, I think we can let him off for the odd dud line across this 24-track offering.

Where Whole Lotta Red comes into its own is in its embrace of playful, almost trancey beats that perfectly complement Carti’s new high pitched delivery -check out ‘Control’, ‘King Vamp’, ‘Beno!’ or ‘Sky’ and you’ll hear what I mean. Is it as good as Die Lit? Probably not. Is it nonetheless excellent rap music that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible within the genre? Yes, absolutely.

18. RXM Reality - blood blood blood blood

Warning: listening to blood blood blood blood by Mike Meegan, aka RXM Reality, might make your brain implode. The Chicago producer’s third album released on Hausu Mountain certainly carries on the label’s mission of championing ‘music as a force to both challenge listeners and entertain them in equal measure’. blood blood blood blood is a noisy, nightmarish assemblage of samples and stutters that’s almost completely devoid of ‘regular’ time signatures (in a good way). One of those releases where you have no actual clue how the fuck any of it was made.

17. Scratch DVA - Outro’s

Multi-genre wizard and Twitter hero, Scratcha DVA had a brilliant 2020. Even though the clubs were closed, he got us all moving in our bedrooms with the final instalment of his gqom-focused DRMTRK project. He also rounded off a triptych of mixtapes that paid homage to the dying art form of the hip-hop skit. Outro’s many voicenotes range in subject matter, from Kush Jones’ more serious musing on tweeting about the end of the world to humorous moments; DJ/producer A.G. explaining why she bailed on hanging with Scratcha on ‘I Ws Hi and I Ws Lying’ being a highlight. Far more in keeping with his 2016 concept album than his club-ready DRMTRK EPs, Outro’s weaves countless musical ideas via lush pads, cinematic strings and pitched percussion around these spoken snippets and vocals from singers like DemiMa and Rae Rae.

16. Rian Treanor - File Under UK Metaplasm

With File Under UK Metaplasm, Rian Treanor has had a pretty good stab at predicting what mainstream electronic music might sound like in a thousand years’ time. It’s clear that growing up near Sheffield, the birthplace of Warp Records and the Algorave scene, as well as being the son of Mark Fell goes part of the way to explaining how Treanor ended up making these frenetic, other-worldly sonic mutants. Another strand (to help you grapple with the nutty tracks you’re hearing) is the producer’s recent experiences of attending Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival. Thoroughly inspired by the syncopated possibilities of dance music on display there, after the festival, Rian headed back to his studio, threw rave, singeli, footwork and early grime references into a hadron collider and created some pretty mad results. I’m not sure I’ve done the album justice here but I’m not sure that words can, to be honest.

15. Decacy - Non Cambierà

A very solid debut EP from Italian emoviolence/screamo 3-piece, Decacy. One and a half years in the making, Non Cambierà is a masterclass in emotional hardcore dynamics. The EP moves from frantic and dissonant breakdowns to more measured, harmonious phrases rapidly and with little warning. Despite being sung in Italian, I weirdly get an innate sense of urgency when listening to this record. Its lyrics revolve around the subjects of “inner struggle, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, heartache, hopes and dreams. In essence, being 18 years old.” WHO CAN RELATE?

14. Elysia Crampton Chuquimia - ORCORARA 2010

According to the blurb for her installation at the 2018 Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement festival, which the songs of ORCORARA 2010 soundtracked, “Through this work, Crampton recounts with sonic immediacy an American story of an encounter and romance with zero.” This love-letter to nothing is a dizzying mixture of grand piano melodies, idiosyncratic sound design and brilliant guest vocals, (both sung and spoken). This complex but rewarding avant-garde release is dedicated to Crampton’s friend Paul Sousa, a man “who while incarcerated, worked years as an inmate firefighter across the Sierra Nevada of California.”

13. Liturgy - Origin of the Alimonies

Liturgy is the brainchild of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, a big-time lover of philosophy, opera, black metal and classical music. These four passions get almost equal representation on her new surprise-released album, Origin of Alimonies. As we’ve come to expect from a Liturgy roll-out, there is some dense, Wagnerian philosophy to engage with (if you so wish). The record soundtracks an upcoming video-opera which is billed to be about “the origins of all things.” There is, of course, the black metal signifiers of blast beats and Hunt-Hendrix’s intensely screamed vocals - so far, so ‘Liturgy’. As a new addition to the bands’ sound, there’s also heavy usage of a chamber ensemble, consisting of flutes, horns, organ, harps and strings, that really amps up the drama and the dread of Alimonies (especially the first two tracks, which are freaking TENSE).

12. Skee Mask - ISS006

Munich-based club chameleon Bryan Müller, aka Skee Mask, continued in his habit of churning out a large volume of varied music with the fifth and sixth instalments of his ‘Ilian Skee Series’ on Ilian Tape. I enjoyed ISS005‘s blend of breakbeat, grime, dubstep and electro but, for me personally, the producer really came into his own with the beatless compositions of ISS006. Tracks like ‘Frogsplash - Reshape’ and ‘Mbass123 - Excerpt’ are some of the most expressive and melancholic ambient works I have honestly ever heard. Even on this ‘non-dance’ release, Skee Mask’s knack for rave sonics shines through on every track: blistering sub bass rubs up next to thick layers of dub echo and modulated synthesis, a bit like a jungle tune slowed down to 10% speed with the breaks omitted.

11. Jam City - Pillowland

Stepping further away from his origins as basically the architect of the thorny ‘deconstructed club’ genre, with Pillowland, Jack Latham has finalised his musical transition from visionary producer to weirdo popstar, (a trajectory that 2015’s A Dream A Garden definitely hinted at but never fully confirmed). Pillowland is a retrofuturist tour de force which sees Latham meld dreampop, 70s guitar psychedelia and contemporary hyperpop synths and melodies. Every track is an infectious fantasy that depicts an artist growing more confident in both his song structures and vocal skills. Despite Pillowland’s audible optimism, Jam City’s lyrics paint a picture of someone who’s still unhappy with the political settlement they find themselves operating within.

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my best of 2020 review. Part 2 to follow in the next few days!

I write sins not tragedies. Music/film/theory found in the trashcan.