The best albums from the worst year ever.
Here’s a write-up of my favourite ten albums from the last twelve months, ranked in reverse order.
10. Julianna Barwick - Healing is a Miracle
I’ve been a fan of Julianna Barwick’s ethereal vocal compositions for over a decade now (Jesus… time flies, huh?) With her previous offerings, I always found myself loving 50% the tracklist but growing increasingly trigger-happy with the skip button for the other half. With Healing is a Miracle, she’s made the holistic, can’t-miss-a-single-song record I’ve been waiting to hear. Where, previously, Barwick would sing in predominantly hushed, librarian-esque tones, on Healing, her voice sounds more powerful and present than ever before. There’s a wide array of moods on display on the record too - as well as the wistful, melancholic textures we’ve come to expect from the singer, (on tracks like ‘Oh, Memory’ and ‘Safe’), there’s also the deep unease of ‘Flowers’ and the uplifting, bass-filled, wall of sound on album-opener, ‘Inspirit’. PS: I challenge you to listen to the title track and not shed at least one tear the first time you hear it.
9. Envy - The Fallen Crimson
According to their Bandcamp, The Fallen Crimson sees the Japanese post-hardcore veterans at “their most dynamic and progressive… [and] finds the band perfecting their past, exploring their present, and pondering their future.” If I’m honest, I am still making my way through Envy’s extensive back-catalogue so I’m going to take the blurb’s hyperbolic claims on face value. What I do know is that this record is epic in its heady scale and ambition. Their melodic-meets-thrash style hits that sweet spot for me between catchy and, at times, brutal. Post rock doesn’t get much more cinematic than this.
8. Arca - KiCk i
I’m assuming that for basically all people reading this article, the artistic powerhouse that is Arca needs little-to-no introduction. Her fourth full-length album marks a new chapter for her, having fully graduated from the ‘producers who sing’ camp into the upper echelons of experimental pop diva-dom. On KiCk i, the sonic signifiers of club, reggaeton, trap and avant-pop blur in Arca’s impressionistic sound design and poignant lyricism. The sombre balladry of 2017’s Arca is still intact, (especially on tracks like ‘Machote’ and ‘Calor’), but, here, it’s juxtaposed with more playful, club-ready tracks like ‘Mequetrefe’ or the Rosalía-featuring, ‘KLK’. If it wasn’t for one track that really didn’t gel with me, (sorry, SOPHIE), KiCk i would probably have taken the top spot on my list, in all honesty!
7. Oliver Coates - skins n slime
Cellist and Mica Levi-collaborator Oliver Coates came into his own on the RVNG Intl.-released, skins n slime. At the heart of it, skins n slime is a sludgy, doom-rock record with a twist: it features 0 guitars. Mangling his instrument’s sound through a dizzying chain of effects, often rendering it unrecognisable to what we audibly associate with a cello; the end result is a stirring and blissfully abrasive slice of contemporary classical music.
6. Mamaleek - Come and See
In 2020, the highly secretive, post-everything metallers, Mamaleek, released their seventh album via experimental imprint, The Flenser (who’ve previously released works by Have A Nice Life, Wreck and Reference, Planning for Burial etc.) I described this hard-to-place record as “Wu Lyf making hardcore” to a friend and I’m not sure I’m going to get more succinct than that. Really enjoyed these sprawling, mostly +6 minute noise/punk freakouts that’ll certainly keep you guessing as to where each song is going and how the anonymous duo plan to get there.
5. Floral - Floral LP
Having been distracted with their slowcore and other mathy side project, a whole five years after their second EP, the Californian duo FINALLY added a full-length album to their discography. Floral LP is a record that was well worth the wait and one that deftly showcases Nate Sherman and Ty Mayer’s virtuoso control of their instruments. Math rock critics often bemoan the lack of a sung ‘focal point’ in the genre but, on this record, certainly, Floral’s expressive guitar/drum pairings often makes for a more emotional listen than a lot of bands who possess lead singers! A record with more ideas than a Badiou essay, Floral LP is a dynamic and ebullient listen from start to finish.
4. Samuel Organ - Complex Habitat Systems
A self-released tour de force, Samuel Organ (fka Mount Bank), “walked the fence between serene and grotesque” with his Complex Habitat Systems record. Despite its liner notes mentioning that these songs were recorded over a four year period whilst in Europe and Australia and that the producer “never found a home” for them, there’s a cohesion and a highly consistent vision to what Organ is doing on this release. Blending OPN-esque piano melodies with the infectiously buoyant instrumentation we’ve come to expect from Samuel and his Activia Benz label-mates, Complex Habitat Systems almost sounds like the lovechild of Selected Ambient Works and PC Music Vol. 1. High praise indeed!
3. DJ Lostboi / Torus - The Flash
Linked thematically by “the rare sight of the sun giving off a bright green lightburst into the horizon,” The Flash is a post-rave triumph of pure, emotional ambience. Across eight minimalist soundscapes, the split sees the pair conjure up a deep, meditative beauty through their use of trancey synths, reverb-drenched samples and a lot of Auto-Tune. Definitely a record to be consumed in one sitting.
2. Mahria - Analemma
Recorded mainly in 2013, released in 2017 and then rereleased on tape by Zegema Beach in 2020, Analemma is a bittersweet epilogue from a screamo band that no longer exists. An intense and frantic listen, I think you can hear Mahria’s influence in a lot of modern emoviolence bands (EG Nuvolascura, Frail Body, To Be Gentle - to name a few). The riffs come thick and fast, the drumming is next level and Corby Burnett’s screamed vocals are out of this world. Non-hardcore fans: approach with caution - this record might give you a heart attack.
1. Bod [包家巷] - Music For Self Esteem
Clocking in at 1 hour 37 minutes, Bod [包家巷]’s Music For Self Esteem is easily the longest listen of my 2020 list - but what a listen! Producer Nich Zhu wears their heart on their sleeve on this LP which loosely chronicles their life from Portland college days to a brief spell in Los Angeles, (‘LA Was Worth the Struggle but I Had to Leave’ certainly sounds like a “grinding death machine”) as well as commemorating the labels that have helped Bod [包家巷] grow into the artist they are today. Veering from elegantly mournful compositions like ‘If Warp Doesn’t Sign Me I’m Quitting Music’ to the ferocious ‘Periodical Acceptance of Chaos’, throughout Music For Self Esteem we get a fragmented audio-portrait of the artist; 37 tracks that are “recombinations of who I am as I’ve existed as a collection of my past,” as Zhu puts it. As the opening song title suggests, Please Listen to the Whole Album It’ll be Rewarding I Promise.
I hope you enjoyed this end-of-year roundup and that the loud guitar albums didn’t put you off too much.
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