Great tunes, pity about the year etc. Nobody needs another half-assed attempt at summing up 2020, so let’s just get stuck into the soundtrack.
40. SEX SWING — Type II
Working from home for nine months this year I got to properly soundtrack my shifts at the newspaper rather than get pummelled by rolling news bulletins and endless Champions League and GAA matches. I generally went for eight-hour ambient stretches, but I ended up down a few rabbit holes that left my better half bemused the odd time when she’d walk in. Her take on Type II was, “It sounds like all the wires in the house are melting”, which just about nails it — with added early Swans malevolence.
39. ELIF YALVAC — Mountains Become Stepping Stones
Composer Elic Yalvac ventures far from her native Turkey for an album inspired by her travels to the outposts of Norway and Iceland. There’s a lot more sonic eruptions than your typical ambient glacial pieces, from the snow-crunch glitches to the oppressive drones. Proof that it’s not all about gazing at the stars when you’re at the edge of the world.
38. ANNA VON HAUSSWOLF — All Thoughts Fly
Swedish composer and singer Anna Von Hausswolff knows her way around a church organ — and used one liberally on her 2018 gothic dirge-pop album Dead Magic. A church pipe organ takes centre stage on this wordless follow-up, which elevates her gothic tendencies to new heights. The title track is a clear highlight — an almighty, immersive 12 minutes, with its hypnotic repetitive cycles sounding like an end of days Steve Reich.
37. ALPHA CHROME YAYO — 19th Hole
I generally dip in and out of the Twitter cesspit, trying to keep it strictly music while avoiding every shite second and third-hand argument. But one unfailing corner of good vibes I’ve jumped into this year is Alpha Chrome Yayo’s stream of 90s ephemera, Japanese anime and unapologetic new age synth worship. The Belfast producer is prolific — 26 releases in two years, with all of his works in progress shared through brilliantly curated video snippets.
His Bandcamp is rammed with high-concept synth and vaporwave releases — it could be an album about a video nasty ice cream van, an aural 70s cookbook, a collection of ghost stories or an ode to Japanese city pop.
My favourite is probably the best craic of the lot — a concept album about a virtual golf course. 19th Hole flits between chillwave grooves, high-gloss MIDI-funk, speech synthesised raps and more double entendres than the Viz Christmas party.
36. LITURGY — Origin of the Alimonies
There are plenty of symphonic black metal bands, but this could well be the first confirmed black metal opera. Black metal is a scene with an entry policy as strict as Berghain on New Year’s Eve — with Deafheaven deemed ‘controversial’ for looking like they might get their clothes in H&M. But Liturgy’s Hunter-Hunt Hendrix is a fearless disrupter, once publishing an academic Transcendental Black Metal Manifesto, which railed against the “atrophic, depraved” black metal of Europe.
She says Origin of the Alimonies is nothing short of “an opera that addresses the origin of all things”, informed in part by her transitioning gender in the past year. There’s plenty of sweeping woodwind, dissonant strings and even harp among the Wagnerian intensity, shrieks and blast beats (or ‘burst beats’ as she prefers), in one of the year’s most intense works.
35. DENISE CHAILA — Go Bravely
From underground hip-hop figure to undisputed culture queen of Ireland with cover stories in all the major publications, transcendent live streams and an inspirational appearance on the Late Late Show, Denise Chaila ruled 2020 on her own terms. Go Bravely is strictly a mixtape, but it’s a thrilling mission statement, with her poetic flow that veers from fantastical to profoundly introspective, backed by MuRli’s infectious jazz and Afrobeat-fuelled productions.
34. SUNKEN FOAL — Hexose
In April, Dublin producer Dunk Murphy aka Sunken Foal landed a concept album about sweets at the perfect time — well into lockdown when all dietary bets were off. There’s also a certain extra nostalgia in the Warp/Rephlex ambience that recalls Global Goon or Boards of Canada, or some stately sci-fi soundtrack. He opened it with a synth soundtrack about Caramac bars, which was the oddest childhood nostalgia jolt I had all year.
33. ROBERT HOOD — Mirror Man
Even when he’s not creating joyous gospel-fired house with his daughter Lyric as Floorplan, Robert Hood’s creations have had a real evangelical fervour in recent years. The Detroit pioneer and former Underground Resistance Minister of Truth launches some high-grade militant techno on his latest album, with defiant anthems like Ignite a War and Nothing Stops Detroit offset by more delicate sci-fi ambient interludes.
32. MR BUNGLE — The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
Before Mike Patton joined Faith No More and then became the world’s most adventurous reprobate musical polymath, there was Mr Bungle. But even before Mr Bungle’s far-out explorations into skatalogical jazz, metal, lounge and carnival lunacy, there was this 1985 thrash demo recorded by a bunch of teenagers on a tape recorder in a sweaty practice room.
For Mr Bungle’s first album in 21 years, Patton roped in Trey Spruance to re-up the demo, calling on Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo (his old Fantomas and Dead Cross buddy) for some thrash Big Four energy.
The puerile teen trolling has been preserved (‘Anarchy Up Your Anus’, ‘Spreading the Thighs of Death), but this one intense thrash thrill-ride, with Patton retching his fucked-up ideas through his six octaves.
31. WIRE — 10:20
As the first real post-punk band before post-punk, Wire have always been about deconstruction and reinvention. Whether it’s jumping the gun on electronic experimentation, periods of ignoring their whole back catalogue or re-drafting songs like ‘Drill’ and ‘Pink Flag’ into half-hour shape-shifting beasts with up to 30 guests on stage. And let’s not forget they’ve got the best one-minute song of all time in ‘Another The Letter’.
They already started 2020 with the brilliant Mind Hive, and followed it with 10:20, a collection of ‘stray’ songs that couldn’t fit on any of their 15 studio albums or their many compilations. There’s nothing scrappy about it though, veering from the floaty motorik reworking of ‘Boiling Boy’, the nervy punk intensity of ‘Underwater Experiences’ or the ambient guitar textures of ‘He Knows’ or ‘Wolf Collides’. Rarely for a band 44 years in, their latest album works as a perfect jumping off point into their world.
30. GOLDEN ASHES — In the Lugubrious Silence of Eternal Night
Golden Ashes is just one of the projects of one-man brain-wrong black metal figure Maurice De Jong, aka Gnaw Their Tongues. Over his 110 (and rapidly counting) releases he ranges from avant-garde noise to wretched primitivism, with Golden Ashes at the epic, symphonic end of the scale.
The album hits that disorientating sweet spot, when heavy music gets so intense it becomes a weird, white noise ambient surrender.
29. XIBALBA — Años en infierno
Headbutt hardcore, brutal 90s death metal and prehispanic imagery meet head-on in this fourth album from California’s Xibalba, with a title meaning “Years In Hell”. You’ll be all over this if you’re into Brujeria, Nails or Bolt Thrower.
28. COUCH SLUT — Take a Chance on Rock’n’Roll
What a deceptively joyous title — sounding like a naive, innocent celebration in the vein of Wesley Willis. There’s not much joy on this half-hour open wound of a record, as Megan Osztrosits vomits out images of abject horror on top of sludgy hardcore noise.
On ‘In a Pig’s Eye’ she retches: “They said, ‘These things, they don’t just happen’… They took my dress… They swabbed my white car…I hope they’re dead now…I hope they’re fucking dead now.” Turn this up to 11 when ‘fuck the police’ just won’t do.
27. ONO — Red Summer
After 40-odd years in the Chicago uber-underground, ONO might be finally oozing out from the shadows with this spectacular album. It’s too hard to pin down, but a radicalised industrial Butthole Surfers/Funkadelic hybrid is a starting point, fronted by a 74-year-old cross-dressing performance art poet called travis. Main composer P Michael offers this in an interview in Wire magazine: “I say it’s industrial with a pig’s foot in its mouth. You take Throbbing Gristle and shove a pig’s foot in Genesis’s mouth, and you get ONO, with the funk.”
26. KING KRULE — Man Alive!
On King Krule’s third album, Londoner Archy Marshall comes up with another slithery nocturnal left turn — with nods to Neu!, half-shrugged half-raps, loose jazz, ragged funk and Bowie-style sax abstractions. The first really great album of the year came out in January, which has started to feel like a century ago.
25. SPARKS — A Steady Drip Drip Drip
Some 50-odd years into a singular, glorious career, brothers Ron and Rusell Mael’s 24th album is another deep dive into the sublime, the absurd and the strangely poignant. Suburbia is a recurring theme in the Sparks world — from the hippo in the back garden pool in ‘Hippopotamus’, to ‘Suburban Homeboy’, and the cover of Indiscreet, with the pair amid the wreckage of a plane crash in a middle America driveway. On Lawnmower, the clueless protagonist gets one up on the neighbours with his “jaw-dropper” garden gadget. Meanwhile, his girlfriend’s leaving him: “It’s me or it’s that lawnmower.” Beautifully weird, as always.
24. DANIEL LOPATIN – Uncut Gems OST
From Replicant Vangelis floatiness to maximalist vaporwave and degraded VHS idents, Uncut Gems is one of those scores that elevates the film and also works as a singular album on its own terms. It might even be Daniel ‘Oneohtrix Point Never’’s best album yet, but that’s probably the memory of the film doing the heavy lifting. The title track is the most Blade Runner of the lot, with some late-70s cosmic Tangerine Dream… dreaminess.
23. MAKAYA McCRAVEN — We’re New Again — A Reimagining
What pressure — jazz drummer and producer Makaya McCraven had a job of taking the vocals of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s swansong masterpiece album I’m New Here, and resurrecting the samples into a new LP on its 10th anniversary. The spiritual, cosmic jazz and blues here is a perfect complement to these tales of Scott-Heron hanging on for one last shot at the title, and We’re New Again feels like a more grounded tribute than Jamie xx’s remix album We’re New Here.
22. JEHNNY BETH – To Love Is To Live
Savages leader Jehnny Beth has sidestepped her band’s noise-punk intensity on her debut solo album, woven from a wider palette of gothic electronics, piano, drones, spoken word passages and field recordings. It’s no less intense, but the blistering chaos or operatic drama is often sidestepped by electronic ambience, birdsong or tender piano interludes.
21. SHABAZZ PALACES — The Don of Diamond Dreams
Shabazz Palaces’ show in Dublin’s Sugar Club last January finally marked that axis point where they left the hip-hop realm and were beamed into a Sun Ra portal — and that’s not just because Space Is the Place was projected behind them. This is another cosmic funk missive from rap’s outer limits.
20. CLIPPING — Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Visions of Bodies Being Burned is Clipping’s sequel to 2019’s horrorcore-themed There Existed an Addiction to Blood. The LA hip-hop act double down on the blood and guts and add even more gory details, with Foley sound effects and video nasty synth interludes that would have the Elm Street kids skulling down triple espressos trying to avoid a murderous slumber.
19. WILLIAM BASINSKI — Lamentations
In my Spotify Unwrapped for 2020, William Basinski’s ‘Melancholia II’ was my song of the year — a year filled with loads of much-needed ambient and drone time-outs. Lamentations came at a perfect time, the middle of winter in the most wintriest of years. The gentle looping and decaying classical and opera loops here evoke that same misremembered nostalgia as listening to The Caretaker, who can trace everything back to Basinski’s masterpiece The Disintegration Loops.
18. SPECIAL INTEREST — The Passion Of
“SODOMY ON LSD!” screams Alli Logout (what a name!) on Disco III — a gabber-punk riot of a song that seems to be taking place in a power plant meltdown, with industrial synths sounding the alarm. This is one of the most straight-up viscerally thrilling albums of the year — if only we could see these reprobates blow a few speakers in a basement somewhere. Maybe next year.
17. BLACKLAB — Abyss
Blacklab’s Yuko Morino says they got the name from Black Sabbath and Stereolab, but she and her co-conspirator Dr Chia Shiraishi are way more in thrall to the molten Iommi riffage and occult leanings of the Birmingham dark lords.
This is a face-melting mainline of ‘dark witch’ sludge/doom metal — halfway through the eight-minute first track ‘Insanity’ you’ll sell your soul after hearing Yuko retch her lungs out.
16. MOLCHAT DOMA — Утонуть (Monument)
Belarussian cold wave synth act Molchat Doma have had an epic year since I first saw their majestic half-hour set in a pub at Tallinn Music Week 2019. They’ve signed to Sacred Bones, had gushing profiles in sites worldwide and even soundtracked that viral video, “Hanging bats upside down look like a goth nightclub”. Their new LP is another melancholy synth epic — the drama just keeps coming.
15. RUN THE JEWELS — RTJ4
RTJ 4 was recorded last year, but it immediately felt like a petrol bomb lobbed at the shitstorm that 2020 has been. It arrived in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and ‘walking in the snow’ even has a lyric about Eric Garner’s death in depressingly similar circumstances in 2014. RTJ4 feels like insurrection fuelled by frustration, fury and fist-up wisecracking, from a pair who should never go back to being solo artists. It’s 4-0 to El-P and Killer Mike — even if RTJ3 didn’t feel as crucial, they’re back in the room. And they still don’t really have a single dud track over four records.
14. FREDDIE GIBBS & THE ALCHEMIST — Alfredo
As the modern gangsa rap MVP, it’s a wonder it took Freddie Gibbs so long to make a full-on Mafia record. But even though Alfredo’s puppet strings in linguine artwork nods to The Godfather, there’s no pander to the Italian-American mob, but rather blaxpoitation gangsters and anti-heroes, weaving between the Alchemist’s opulent loungey beats. On ‘Scottie Beam’ he even nudges in a timely Gil Scott-Heron reference: “The revolution is the genocide / Look, your execution will be televised,” before Rick Ross wafts in on a cloud of cigar smoke.
13. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN — Letter To You
I’ve been a Bruce lifer ever since my ma bought me the Born in the USA tape for my 7th birthday and helped me wear the tape out. A lifetime of dog-eared vinyls, double figure gigs and indoctrination of family members later, and Letter To You has got me more Bruced up than I’ve been for decades about an album. It’s the first record he’s recorded live with the E Street Band since 1984’s Born in the USA, and that “testifyin’, death-defyin’” energy and vigour is all over it. This record couldn’t have come at a better time for Bruce fans stuck in the middle of a second lockdown, but there’s a bittersweet edge, as we’re all just imagining these songs live, being counted in with a “WAN TWOOO THREEE FAAAWH” howl.
12. THE EXALTICS & HEINRICH MUELLER – Dimensional Shifting
High-concept space science electro from The Exaltics and Heinrich Muelller, aka cult Detroit electro figure Gerald Donald, who re-spawns some hyper-kinetic moves from his Drexciya and early Dopplereffekt playbook. There’s a lot of rugged electro belters here, offset by some celestial ambience and sci-fi detours.
11. ROISIN MURPHY — Roisin Machine
Watching Roisin Murphy dancing round her living room all through lockdown and the Roisin Machine release countdown, you know she’s bursting at the seams to sing these songs live in one of her Grace Jones-inspired performance art extravaganzas. I’ll be piling into that dance tent when she finally takes this on the road. A few of these songs have been knocking around for years, but Roisin Machine never feels like odds & ends. It’s a genuinely spiritual celebration of house and disco that hits transcendent levels on track 2 Kingdom of Ends and doesn’t come down.
10. KEVIN RICHARD MARTIN — Frequencies For Leaving Earth Volumes 1 to 5
Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin leaves aside his bass-churning dancehall alter-ego for an inner space ambient trip that’s no less intense and shape-shifting. One album of this could’ve been a profound, cosmic prescription to offset all the chatter of 2020, but he ended up releasing five volumes — which morph from distant sub-bass vibrations and transcendent church organs, to celestial drones, oversaturated gravelly textures and hypnotic white noise.
Volume 1 opens with ‘I Left My Body’ and Volume 5 ends with ‘Fuck This Planet’, so you can guess it’s a serious trip. I really can’t pick one so load them all up and go travelling.
9. RISING DAMP — Petrol Factory
Arriving a few weeks into the first lockdown, Michelle Doyle aka Rising Damp’s debut album was a caustic state of the nation howl, threaded with industrial, noise, post-punk and body horror. Doyle picks the scabs off our usual Irish hang-ups about misogyny, gombeen politics, economic folly and gimme gimme gentrification. It has two 20-minute songs as well — the title track is a tense industrial drone and ‘The Bank’ is the 20-minute tech-noir centrepiece, with Doyle chanting: “STEEL…CONCRETE… DIE.” It gets a right Throbbing Gristle electrocution in the second half, as if TG were desecrating a Bernard Hermann score.
8. MART AVI — Vega Never Sets
Estonian avant-pop visionary Mart Avi followed up his 2018 LP Otherworld with another triumph. From the intricate, delicate sound design, to his spectral vocal treatments, it’s another singular master-work. From meditative ambient pop to fractally electronica, psychedelic soul and the tech-noir New Jack Swing thrill of lead single ‘Spark’, there’s a performance art grandeur to everything on this record.
7. IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT — Alphaville
Alphaville is the wtf pile-up of wrongness you never thought you needed — avant-garde extreme metal, wayward, skronky jazz, lounge music and an actual barbershop quartet, knocked into mathematically impossible shapes. The masked NYC trio hit some weird sweet spot between Bernard Hermann tension, Meshuggah-like kinetic explosiveness and blissful black metal insanity.
6. BAXTER DURY — The Night Chancers
He didn’t pick it up off the ground, as my ma would say about kids who are just like their parents. Baxter Dury shares a swagger and a guttural Cockney turn of phrase with his old man Ian, but it’s more menace than music hall. There’s a resigned and beaten-down edge around his dark electronics, skewed dub-soul and spoken word sneers about petty jealousy, slum landlords and attempts at redemption. His first line on the album is “I’m not your fucking friend”, but then he spends the rest of the record trying to make it up to you. It trails off with the repeated chant: “Baxter loves you!”
5. WHITE BOY SCREAM — BAKUNAWA
Opera singer and composer Micaela Tobin dedicates this album to the myths of her Filipino ancestors: “May they never be erased.” On the 18-minute title track, she takes the form of the mythical dragon BAKUNAWA who’s on course to consume the world’s seven moons. Between soprano singing, Diamanda Galas-inspired incantations and screaming BAKUNAWA’s name, the dragon is eventually stopped by citizens rattling pots and pans — kinda like my own more recent ancestors in republican estates banging bin lids when the RUC were arriving in Saracen jeeps.
The dragon is eventually killed in a landslide of in-the-red electronic noise before it can eat the final moon. And that’s only the start of the album.
This isn’t some transient project for Tobin, and she isn’t dipping her toes in music as ritual, healing and protest. She’s a college professor in Los Angeles and runs voice healing workshops that help people find “empowerment through a resonant alignment of the voice and the body”.
4. SPEAKER MUSIC — Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
DeForrest Brown Jr’s latest album is a defiant, powerful work of sonic activism, informed as much by jazz, spoken word protest poetry and Detroit techno and electro as it is by decades of Black nationalism and a quest for autonomy. The album comes with a 60-page collection of essays (download here) and each of the 12 tracks is a rallying cry, from the polemicist titles to the volatile, shape-shifting beats, abstract horns and protest samples.
‘Techno is a Liberation Technology’ is one highlight — inspired by Drexciya’s origin myth of an underwater country formed by the unborn children of African women thrown off slave ships; the 400-year African-American story and techno’s migration from Detroit in the late 80s.
3. EARTHEATER — Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin
New York artist Alexandra Drewchin follows up her more regular off-grid electronic collage work with a new album that goes more acoustic, with harp, strings and acoustic guitar making a prominent entry. She hasn’t gone ‘folk’ though (maybe some of Angels of Light’s most psychedelic left turns might be a nod), but the delicate arrangements are woven through purring electronic effects and her supernatural vocal harmonies and overdubs.
2. LUCRECIA DALT — No Era Solida
No Era Solida (She Wasn’t Solid) is about possession — a concept album about a newly-spawned character called Lia who speaks through Dalt in strings of nonsense language, heavily processed and weaving into electronic abstractions. It has a few themes in common with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and often even nods a bit to Mica Levi’s detached, abstract score. But really, this is like nothing else out there — apart from her last album, which had a song about a Colombian demon El Borato that hugs you to death, sucks out your insides and blows up your skin bag like a balloon.
1. DUMA — Duma
You don’t get many albums that stop you dead in your tracks, but the debut from Kenyan duo Duma was a real Usual Suspects coffee cup smash moment for me. It’s a double-drop of extreme sonics and even more extreme concoctions — grindcore, metallic dub, breakcore, weirdo electronica, digital noise, dark ambient and spoken word incantations. Deranged and deranging, and totally addictive from the first ritualistic squeals and white noise retching.
These lists are hardly a science, and you could switch most of these places around, but No1 is way, way out there in front. It even had the best album cover of the year too.