“When someone isn’t there any more, the empty space is charged with emotional power. As if the act of vanishing leaves behind an ethereal, supernatural signature. As ever, the closing of one door leads to the opening of another. Without the experience of loss, this album would not be in existence and that is a silver sliver of light in an otherwise clouded sky. Everything at once, then nothing …” – ‘The Sound of Someone Leaving’ Liner Notes
It’s that time of the year again. Like you haven’t suffered enough, the list with my favourite 2020 releases, which I find worthy of your attention (and your credit card) is here. Amidst a second wave of the pandemic, where our social reflexes have been stretched to the limit, one of the positives in this mess is that home listening is no longer relegated to background music until dinner is ready; it’s become a routine to look forward to, a refuge and a remedy. So, I would like to take the opportunity once again to thank all artists and record labels for gracing this relentless year with their beautiful music, channelling isolation and insecurity into works of art, safeguarding the passion and the romance. A complicated epoch triggers complicated emotions and music can be the nostalgic reminder of simpler times.
Bandcamp has launched an initiative to support the many artists, who have seen their livelihoods disrupted by the pandemic this year. On the first Friday of every month since March, they have waived their revenue share and plan to continue accordingly in the next year, on February 5th, March 5th, April 2nd, and May 7th. More details here.
Due to the ridiculously large amount of great music, this end of year feature list will be divided into two parts, in order to accommodate for as many releases as possible. The first part covers the non-d&b section, from modern classical and retro ambient to nu jazz and progressive rock vignettes. Supplemented with liner notes and comments, the common theme revolves around the vicious pendulum of ephemeral happiness and heartbreak. The merit of music writing is to live and breathe through various shades of shifting interpretations, so every listener can conjure their own imagery and vision.
Without further ado, let’s start my personal highlight reel, ordered by date the records were added to my collection (which more or less coincides with the official release date). I have also attached links for preview/purchase, however in most cases the physical products have already sold out.
‘Black Sarabande’, the follow up to Haigh’s 2017 album ‘Creatures of the Deep’ for the Brooklyn-based label Unseen Worlds, echoes his brilliant retrospective compilation of early works spanning the period ’84-’89 titled ‘Cold Pieces’. Eleven emotional and fragile piano arrangements with the addition of light percussion blur the lines between composition and improvisation. I only hope that Robert Haigh wears again his Omni Trio hat for Over/Shadow, the new project established by Simon and Sean of 2 Bad Mice alongside an array of former Moving Shadow artists (more about that on the second part of the list).
Favourite Track: Stranger on the Lake
James Clements’ spectacular return to d&b for Samurai Music has probably eclipsed his other output, but this has been yet another prolific year. ‘Zenith & Nadir’ is released on his own label Auxiliary and picks up the narrative from his Silent Season saga. Pivoting on celestial concepts, ASC channels his everlasting passion for science fiction and cinema pondering if extraterrestrial life/intelligence might be possible and whether it could persist long enough (surviving the erosion of time) to communicate with other civilizations. Better listened on a flight above 36.000 feet.
Favourite Track: Meridian
In theatrical dance, movements are often accompanied by other elements, such as masks, costumes, acting, recitation, even film to help communicate the dramatic content. ‘Music for Dance & Theatre Vol. 1 & 2’ are the first two issues of a mini-series of EPs initially created for or inspired by dance and performance. Now that live theatre and dance shows are suspended for the foreseeable future, the series can be considered as an imaginary dialogue with the avant-garde and experimental work in dance, re-imagining music and singing in a different context.
Favourite Track: Gerard Stokkink – Yellow Turtles (taken from Vol. 1)
‘Simulcast’ is the instrumental companion to Tycho’s 2019 Grammy-nominated album ‘Weather’. From an etymological point of view, ‘simulcast’ is a portmanteau of ‘simultaneous’ and ‘broadcast’; like a live feed played on multiple screens across places and time zones. Inspired by his surroundings in his quest to find balance between city life and nature, specifically the US west coast, where the photograph for the album artwork was taken, Tycho’s latest offering adds an escapist pleasure to a mundane reality.
Favourite Track: Cypress (a re-worked instrumental version of ‘Japan’ from the ‘Weather’ LP)
This is the first collaboration between the Past Inside The Present label founder Zach Frizzell (zakè) and frequent contributor Drew Sullivan (Slow Dancing Society), who has also engineered other PITP releases. ‘Mirrored’ reflects on those dusty, imperfect sounds and blemished memories of the past, which inevitably represent our human nature and are often more interesting than their sterile counterparts. ‘Anamnesis’ is a Greek word that stands for memory or recollection. By definition it can be unreliable, or a fictionalized version of the past, partly constructed by truth and partly to comply with a simplistic archetype. The sustain effects of muted piano keys and guitar chords are so vibrant that give life to the sound that created them, before they are sent off into the ether.
Favourite Track: Anamnesis
Dennis Huddleston’s productions are a seductive, compelling and powerful interplay between music and images; dreamy, introspective and emotive, where the abstract intersects with the tangible. ‘Wave Variations’ is an album inspired by tidal movements, both literally and as the standard metaphor for the constant fluctuation, the rise and fall of anything in life. Instead of epic crescendos and 10-minute-long tracks, this time around 36 has opted for a more minimal approach with a collection of shorter vignettes, without compromising the rhythmic grace and emotional subtlety of his previous works. Ten wave patterns slow down and compress forcing their crest higher in the air until they dissipate crashing dramatically onto the shore.
Favourite Track: Eighth Sequence
“There are many things about this place that I find unusual. One of the things I find fascinating is how quiet it gets. It’s the quietest place…”
Quiet Places is a new project by acclaimed UK producers Dennis White, Charlie May and Dave Gardner. ‘Volume 1’, conceived and recorded during a whisky-inspired late-night laptop jam session in Somerset England, is an hour-long sci-fi lullaby; a collage of stark contradictions, from the absolute stillness and serenity to an all-engulfing sonic experience. Endless space and emptiness – albeit with an underlying sense of beauty and timelessness – create the perfect context for self-reflection. The otherworldly monologues, textures and serene melodies capture imagination even in the most remote and silent places.
I was on vacation in a secluded place by the sea in southern Greece, when I first listened to the digital version of ‘Volume 1’, until the vinyl version was made available to Europe. Despite the low streaming quality, I could sense there was something really special that deserved my undivided attention.
Favourite Track: Track 3
Mammal Hands are a jazz trio (Nick Smart on piano, his brother Jordan Smart on saxophone and Jesse Barrett on drums and percussion) which formed in Norwich in 2012. I discovered them after a friend’s hint (GoGo Penguin with a spiritual twist were his exact words) in 2017 and was lucky enough to watch them play live two years later at the 19th Jazz festival in Athens.
‘Captured Spirits’ is their 4th studio album, showcasing the emotional range of three like-minded musicians with a dazzling understanding of jazz, electronica and cinematic rhythms. The album’s concept further explores recurring themes in Mammal Hands’ work regarding existence, collective consciousness and past experiences from our ancestors transcribed into our genetic code and potentially defining who we are today. Especially, the opening track ‘Ithaca’ is a nod to the country island of the legendary Greek king Odysseus (or Ulysses in the Latin variant), the protagonist of Homer’s epic poems.
Favourite Track: Ithaca
Enlisting musical trailblazer Peter Hammill on vocals and a wide array of acclaimed musicians, including the 50 piece Chesterfield Philharmonic Choir, Paul Weller (piano and guitar), Ray Fenwick (lead guitar) and Brian Hopper (sax), FSOL’s psychedelic alter ego makes a stunning return with a symphonic space rock odyssey in 6 epic parts, touching on the perennial philosophical theme of mortality/immortality. Near death experiences or simply the fear of death project the realization that life is fragile and precious. In ancient Greek mythology, gods had human traits and vices. The defiance of gods by mortals (hubris) resulted in exemplary punishment or eternal torture; immortality hasn’t been always a blessing …
The stunning art has been developed during the course of two years and is designed by Gavin Penn.
Favourite Track: Physically I’m Here, Mentally Far, Far Away
Ihnmost is the side project of Simon Huxtable (known to the drum & bass circles as Aural Imbalance) to accommodate for a more nostalgic electronic sound drawing from his rich production palette. The enclave of devoted fans will recognize the nuances from his drum & bass background and his delicate excursions for Greta Cottage Woodpile, Short Trips, Stasis and LaLuna. The album title suggests fresh pastures and new beginnings, but I’d still argue that there is a modern-retro approach with allusions to 90s ambient electronica. An elegant amalgamation of signature cinematic, melodramatic pads, subdued percussion dynamics and ethereal chimes that gently sway in immersive ambience create a soundscape unbearably fragile and intimate. The beautiful illustration on the sleeve is by Anne Liberte (artwork) and Sonia Malpeso (design).
Favourite Track: Sleep Walk
‘The Time It Takes’ is Keith Kenniff’s (aka Helios) 8th studio album under his minimal piano-based ambient alias Goldmund. Perhaps the most poignant and dramatic album of this list, Kenniff gracefully scrutinizes the proverbial ‘time heals all wounds’. Loss and grief are at the epicentre. Sorrow never truly leaves, but changes shapes and intensity. After the first tragedy (loss) comes the second, the dissipation of memory of what’s been lost. Regret is more powerful and draining than gratitude, those words that were never said, the unresolved inner battles, the dreams never shared. And time passes, relentless and unforgiving. But, just like waking up from a fervent dream, there are still glimmers of hope; somehow, sometime everything’s gonna be alright.
Favourite Track: The One Who Stands By
‘1995’ is an album by Austrian remix celebrities Kruder & Dorfmeister that was written in the hazy days between 1993 and 1995. K&D pressed up 10 copies then and gave four away to some suitably eccentric individuals. Fast-forward a quarter century, one of those copies resurfaced and K&D painstakingly reconstructed every track of the album, time-travelling to the halcyon days of 1995. I attach K&D’s account verbatim, taken from their fb page:
“1995 took shape as an album already in the hazy days between 1993 and 1995. We were two dudes in their early twenties that had no other responsibilities than to get up in the morning (or midday…) and make music 24/7.
In 1994 we just release the G-Stoned EP and this was doing the rounds, bringing us onto the turntables of music lovers all over the world. This was a pure and innocent time. Every day a new adventure peeked into our tiny flat via the fax machine or the landline phone while the beats were cooking in our studio – remix this amazing artist – go to that amazing city for the first time – London – New York – L.A – Munich – Berlin – Prambachkirchen – making new, now lifelong friends along the way – tremendously fun times.
Why we did not release that album then you may ask – well we could tell you now, that we knew back then, in 2020 a record like this would be exactly what was needed – and there might be even someone believing that – but no – the answer is rather simple – Time flew by much faster than we could have ever imagined – we were busy remixing everyone and their grandmother and in 1996 we did the DJ Kicks and toured the world two times. 1998 we released the K&D Sessions and have been on a never-ending tour since then more or less…
From a certain point in time on, we totally forgot that we made those tunes… During an evening session in late September 2019, while we were digging deep to find some vintage K&D stuff in our archive, a white label test pressing fell in our hands. Normally you have a test pressing made:
1. To check that your album sounds great
2. To make sure everything you want is on there and in the right order
3. To see that there is no mechanical fault in the pressing.
Once finished, the pressing plant puts a white label on where you can write your info. That’s why you call them Test Pressing or White Label. Some crazy dedicated DJs did test pressings back then just to play out edits of music they did or to present some special unavailable tunes. We had this pressed back then in 1995 to hear how some of our new tunes sound on vinyl and to play our new stuff out to the lovely people that came to see us in the clubs. This was what you had to do in a time before you had CD players in a club – we had to break our piggy banks that were hiding in the corner, trembling of fear, to have a few records pressed. Still feel awful about that, but it had to be done…
The first time we played it out, was at the now legendary ‘That’s How It Is’ night that Gilles Peterson was holding at Bar Rhumba in London. This was pretty exciting for us, as it was our first of many nights there, and just to see that whole red hot and beautiful London scene getting down and deep into our grooves was certainly a magic moment for the K&D diaries. The test pressing we found in 2020 was one of the ten copies we pressed up in 1995, we gave 4 copies away to some like-minded friends back then, never to be seen again”.
Favourite Track: Swallowed The Moon
After completing the score for the TV series ‘Defending Jacob’, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds returns with his 5th studio album; his most personal to date, set against a background of a world thrown into chaos. Enlisting friends and collaborators Bonobo, Josin and JFDR, ‘Some Kind of Peace’ was half-written prior to lockdown and completed at Arnalds’ harbour studio in Reykjavik. It’s a refined portrait of the ugly face of human vanity in direct contrast with a craving for internal peace, contemplation and redemption. His contemporary classical panoramas bear as much in common with azure watercolours as with electronic music. The closing vignette is a spoken-word passage from the late American singer Lhasa de Sela musing on the idea that the sensation of being born is the same as dying.
Watch a ‘behind the scenes’ video for ‘Some Kind of Peace’ here.
Favourite Track: We Contain Multitudes
“Now more than ever it feels important to be putting out dance music with deliberate acknowledgment of its history.” – TEED
This is the first 12” from Bonobo’s new label Outlier, formed in partnership with Ninja Tune. The name is inspired by the eponymous event series and festival stage takeovers curated by Bonobo. Although Bonobo and TEED have been playing at each other’s shows and exchanging demos for a few years already, this is their first collaborative release; a lively throwback tracing the line from NYC disco to warehouse raves. The breakbeat-driven lead track samples Chris Wiltshire’s iconic vocal line ‘I can’t take the heartbreak’ from the ‘83 disco anthem ‘Weekend’ by Class Action, whereas the flip-side is an instrumental sunset-hued house number. In the words of Simon Green: “One for the dancefloors in a time when they’re dearly missed.”
Favourite track: Heartbreak
The label’s mantra from day one has been striking a balance between the nightlife sound system and the living room listening experience. ‘Time Capsule’ celebrates ten years of this ethos in a gorgeous 10×7″ box set, featuring ten of the label regulars including John Beltran, Aural Imbalance and founder Sanderson Dear.
Although ‘Time Capsule’ is painted on a wide musical canvas, I’d still argue that there is a gossamer thread that ties everything together and the result is marvellous. Whether you are flying on a commercial jet, packed like a sardine in a tube wagon, gazing absent-mindedly outside the window of a train compartment or you are simply at the secluded convenience of your own home, there are imaginary times and places only music can take you to.
‘Postcards from Canada’, a Stasis Recordings special feature is scheduled on the blog for next year.
Favourite Track: Glo Phase – Patina Sunset
Bonus Entries (CDs)
I discovered composer, sound artist and producer Phil Tomsett from his releases under the alias The Inventors of Aircraft for Serein and have followed him ever since. ‘The Sound of Someone Leaving’ is his third album for Fluid Audio and is a contemplative, study on absence and the ensuing deafening silence. A story so common that transcends time is captured delicately with Tomsett’s delicate and ethereal tones, accompanied by Aaron Martin who provides a beautiful, stirring cello. Voices dissipate into the cold night air like wayward sprites and regenerate like crystal flakes in the morning mist shaping a lone figure in the distance.
The beautiful deluxe package includes:
- 1 x vintage (circa:1882-1961) hardback clothbound book (re-assembled / screwed / bolted together into CD covers
- Pages of writing / images
- 20 x A7 polaroid style prints on luxury uncoated paper (designed by Craig Tattersall)
- 1 x A6 polaroid style print (designed by Craig Tattersall)
- 2 x hand stamped CDs
- 1 x library card
- 1 x vintage family photograph
- 1 x vintage book-mark
- 1 x antique 35mm glass slide
- 1 x celluloid negative photograph (wrapped in glassine bag / hand written envelope)
All of the above rest inside a string-tied stamped envelope.
Favourite Track: All Your Questions Answered (feat. Aaron Martin)
Fans of Ulrich Schnauss rejoice! Acquiring back all the recording rights, the highly esteemed German electronic music composer remastered and re-issued his entire back catalogue on his own label Scripted Realities. ‘Now Is A Timeless Present’ is a career-spanning retrospective 7xCD box set, including extensive reworks of his two latest albums, as well as a compilation of outtakes and demos. Later in the year Ulrich made also available on vinyl his 5 solo albums. The original pressings of his first two LPs on City Centre Offices (‘Far Away Trains Passing By’ and ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’) reach eye-watering prices in the second-hand market, so this year has been a golden opportunity to fill any collection gaps. The box design and album sleeves have also been reinvigorated by long term collaborator and visual story teller Nat Urazmetova.
The box set contains 7 CDs and 73 tracks in total:
- Far Away Trains Passing By
- A Strangely Isolated Place
- A Long Way To Fall (Rebound)
- No Further Ahead Than Tomorrow
- Now Is A Timeless Present (Outtakes, Demos & Fragments)
Favourite Track: A Forgotten Birthday (taken from ‘A Long Way to Fall’)
A selection of classic albums has been re-issued in 2020. Each one of them has been reviewed to death, so I will only attach a tag-line or a personal story.
A benchmark in ambient/electronica if ever there was one. Xeroxed by many emulated by few.
Favourite Track: 8:07
Echoes of my London days; this and Swayzak’s ‘fabric’ mix were my flatmate’s soundtrack on a daily basis. I would either have to love them or throw them all off the 5th floor. Clearly the former happened.
Favourite Track: Synkro
The original single was one of the first records I bought with my own allowance; re-imagined 27 years later.
Favourite Track: Dark Hours of your Being
“Honey, some people can’t be fixed”
Bonobo’s 4th album (and my favourite to date) celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special reissue with the same artwork featuring the iconic photography of the Lake District on the sleeve (Art & Direction Oscar & Ewan, photography by Pelle Crépin).
Favourite Track: All In Forms
The debut album of Keith Kenniff; hazy, faded-photo Boards-of-Canada-esque electronica presaged a future as bright as his moniker.
Favourite Track: Nine Black Alps
*Liner Notes on 2020 – Part II coming up later this month*