However badly this year has treated us – and in the UK, it has treated those working in the arts very badly indeed – we have still been lucky enough to hear an astonishing amount of great music. Before joining ArtMuseLondon, I would normally assemble a couple of ‘round-up’ posts for my own blog ‘Specs’ at the end of each year: one for recordings/albums, and the other for live events. To do the latter for 2020 seems almost cruel: there have been fantastic efforts at keeping live music going, far and wide – but choosing between them, introducing some kind of ranking, when they are all pioneers, all trying to find creative ways out of this mess… that’s not for me this time.
Discs, of course, are a slightly different matter. I still haven’t placed them in a ‘hit parade’: these are my twenty favourite albums from the year (whittled down, agonisingly, from a significantly larger longlist). They’re in alphabetical order, for scrupulous fairness, and all genre boundaries have been completely, deliberately ignored.
Where I’ve written about an entry before, I’ve quoted from that piece and included a link. But one great thing about making a list like this is the ‘second chance’ it gives me to include some terrific releases I wasn’t able to cover at the time. For those, I’ve added a bit of new background. I hope you enjoy the ‘top 20’, and discover something new.
Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela – ‘Rejoice’
Sadly, we can’t have these giants of African music back in person, but for just under 40 minutes ‘Rejoice’ (extant tapes of their first collaboration) feels like a resurrection. Masekela’s trumpet playing is eloquent and exuberant, but even more so it’s Allen’s unmistakeable Afrobeat – no-one has ever quite matched him and here he’s more or less playing ‘lead drums’ – that makes your heart leap.
(When news broke of Allen’s death, I posted a playlist on the ‘Specs’ blog, here: https://adrianspecs.blogspot.com/2020/04/tony-allen.html)
Anakronos – ‘The Red Book of Ossory’
“This brilliant suite of songs practises its own apparent witchcraft, seducing you more or less straightaway with its beauty – which doesn’t fade after repeated listens. But as the debut album from Anakronos grows more familiar, it reveals and revels in layer after layer of sinister chills and thought-provoking arrangements and effects.”
Kate Arnold – ‘Rota Fortunae I’
“KA’s weapons of choice are hammered dulcimer, violin, drum – and vocals … On your first few plays, it will be enough to appreciate the gorgeous tunes, beautifully played and sung. However, if one of your chief joys when listening to a record longer-term is to focus intensely on various elements of the arrangement and production, marvelling at the precision with which it’s been assembled – these 20 minutes are going to reward you for months, then years … This is magical, magnificent, meticulous music, feeding the head while filling the heart.”
Belbury Poly – ‘The Gone Away’
Belbury Poly are part of the ‘family’ of associated acts that record for the Ghost Box label. Ghost Box is perhaps the most recognisable home for ‘hauntology’ artists: acts that mostly use synths and analogue equipment to produce tracks that sound, for some reason, arcane or bygone, bringing to mind old TV themes, incidental music or soundtracks. Ghost Box record sleeves have a house style to match, referencing evocative artefacts from ancient Penguin paperbacks to hallucinatory posters. Belbury Poly’s music is propulsive and agile, while rarely using beats, giving rise to their hallmark sound on the border between uplifting and unsettling.
Stef Conner – ‘Riddle Songs’
“…this is not so much historically-informed, as historically inspired performance – and we are not listening to a reconstruction, some kind of attempt at reanimating a lost artform. This is brand new writing, brand new music – and it sounds like it. Conner is quick to flag where she references known early motifs and these can range from taking harmonic inspiration for a mnemonic rhyme from medieval Latin recitation settings (the splintered ‘Rune Poem’) to incorporating drones to simulate bagpipes (‘Song-pack’). But while at pains to acknowledge these launchpad characteristics, Conner is not reliant on them: instead, they are a springboard for her own compositional verve and flair.”
Elsa Dreisig, Jonathan Ware – ‘Morgen’
“Dreisig has a voice of bright clarity and affecting gentleness, capable of heartstopping volume and soft poignancy … The programme was democratic enough that each composer was also represented by a solo piano piece. This introduced some further variation, for sure, but also drew one’s attention to Jonathan Ware’s spectacular, charismatic playing, a feat of some stamina (the entire programme with virtually no pauses) as well as sensitivity … Ware’s distinctive touch enabled the three composing styles to meld successfully into a flowing narrative, and allowed Dreisig the storyteller to find the poetry’s heartbeat.”
Roger Eno and Brian Eno – ‘Mixing Colours (Expanded)’
“A record like this gives the lie to any notion that ‘ambient’ music need be featureless or unstructured. In ideal conditions (dark room, headphones), ‘Mixing Colours’ is a handsome, near-definitive statement of beauty in subtlety, and a lesson in collaboration where the artists know exactly when to hold back, and understand what makes their creative partners shine.”
Mahan Esfahani – ‘Musique?’
“I can’t help but think that this is an almost perfect harpsichord album, achieving what I believe Esfahani is aiming for: proof, if it were needed, that the instrument is not stuck in the past … Esfahani guides us along a particular path, gradually introducing new elements into the mix until, by the end, we’re ready for the harpsichord to soundtrack the apocalypse.”
Heather Leigh – ‘Glory Days’
“It is an experimental work – with 13 tracks in around 30 minutes, it can work perfectly well – in fact, works best, in my view – as a suite or cycle of songs united by its central idea. Leigh buys into Boomkat’s brief, bringing whatever’s around her: synthesiser and cuatro feature alongside the pedal steel, resulting in a record suspended between analogue and digital, acoustic and electric … This unique, uncompromising record presents Leigh’s mind to you a little like a transistor radio. We’re turning the dial, stumbling across transmissions that are fully-formed, perfectly realised, complete. But they already existed before we arrived, and they are still there now.”
Vikingur Ólafsson – ‘Debussy / Rameau’
With two previous albums devoted to Bach and Glass, you might expect this pianist to be interested in patterns and connections… And here, with Ólafsson combining two different composers on one disc for the first time, we hear this in full effect: the skilful sequencing and bravura performances foreground the thrillingly modern in Rameau and give some unexpected context for Debussy. It’s a real treat, every note.
Anna Prohaska, Julius Drake – ‘Paradise Lost’
A breathlessly exciting art song recital exploring temptation and punishment through the Eve(rywoman?) character as set by some 20 composers. Prohaska holds the theme together above Drake’s dazzling versatility, whether dancing around her in Messiaen or Reimann, or creating implacable thunder beneath – in one case, thanks to the inclusion of the greatest lied of all time, Schubert’s ‘Auflösung’.
Natalya Romaniw, Lada Valešová – ‘Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul’
Welsh soprano Romaniw has been gathering international acclaim for several years now, but I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform through her recent association with ENO (twice live, in ‘The Women of Whitechapel’, ‘Madam Butterfly’ and – remotely, along with thousands of others – at the drive-in ‘La bohème’). Inspired by her Ukranian heritage through her grandfather, this album presents a beautiful range of Russian/Czech art song: along with the impeccable Valešová, Romaniw utterly inhabits the repertoire.
Fatma Said – ‘El Nour’
A brilliant example of an artist taking the opportunity to make an album fully representative of their own tastes, strengths and heritage. Rather than reflect a single recital scenario, the soprano places European art song accompanied by piano or guitar alongside traditional Middle Eastern folk song with chamber ensemble.
Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton – ‘The Contrast’
“It would be easy to say (and I’m sure I often do) how gorgeously the music is both sung and played, just like their previous releases. But this CD has an envelope-pushing atmosphere to it. Perhaps because it’s all in English, it is clearer than ever how the timbres and colours Carolyn Sampson chooses to foreground in her voice enrich her interpretations of the material. And Joseph Middleton seems to deploy an even greater array of styles than usual, often at the same time – his control of the dynamics of the piano feels almost supernatural at times, whether tip-toeing around the vocal or thundering beneath it. It contains the most fiercely contemporary material they’ve yet recorded, and they’ve matched it with slightly older works that may also carry a hint of a challenge, but yield deep rewards.”
Rosemary Standley – ‘Schubert in Love’
The folkish purity of Standley’s vocals spearhead unnervingly addictive arrangements of Schubert lieder as near-cabaret ensemble pieces. It’s a captivating listen, sounding at times as if recorded by ghosts. Particularly in certain tracks (the selections from ‘Winterreise’, say) the settings nail, in a more modern style, that elusive intersection between the sinister and beautiful.
Sieben – ‘20:20 Vision’
“As so often, the fundamentals are much the same… a few guest contributions aside, he works with only his voice, violin and a loop station placing a range of electronic effects literally at his feet. But yet again, from these apparent limitations comes an unexpected, unpredictable record. It clearly fits snugly into one of the most stubbornly original bodies of work I’ve ever come across – but it’s a knotty, thorny beast: provocative yet endearing, funny but bitter, pushing you away while winding you in.”
Trees Speak – ‘Ohms’
If you like the eerie soundtrack work of the Radiophonic Workshop, and the ‘motorik’ beats of psychedelic/electronica bands like Can or Neu!, then Trees Speak should suit you very well. Intriguingly, however, they tend to avoid endless epics – instead, their short attention span means you career from one musical idea to the next at a rate of knots. They’re so productive, in fact, that ‘Ohms’ is only their first album in 2020: the follow-up, ‘Shadow Forms’ is still superb, but dialled down a tad, not as furiously fertile.
Tunes of Negation – ‘Like the Stars Forever and Ever’
Sam Shackleton – or as a recording artist, simply Shackleton – is an elusive character to pigeonhole, emerging around the same time as dubstep but largely producing a fascinating, atmospheric body of work that combines subterranean electronica with mesmeric, ritualistic percussion. Now, he’s formed a band, which emphasises this latter aspect of his sound with extra percussion and keyboards. (And as if that wasn’t enough, guest vocals from Heather Leigh – see above.) You’ll think and move.
Xuefei Yang – ‘Sketches of China’
A release as important as it is appealing, this masterpiece is perhaps Yang’s greatest labour of love, not to mention a colossal achievement. While she has always used her international platform to champion Chinese music in concert and occasionally in the studio, this album realises that intent in a true ‘magnum opus’: two discs long (CD copies can be found on import but the UK release is high-quality download), ranging from arrangements of traditional music through to contemporary works – for example, Tan Dun’s ‘Seven Desires’). For questing ‘Western ears’, and any lover of guitar music, I would say this is indispensable.
Zombi – ‘2020’
After too long an absence, this instrumental duo return with the powerhouse drumming intact and the atmospheric synths boosted by gargantuan guitar riffs. If you’ve ever wondered what might happen if Vangelis was trapped in a studio with Led Zeppelin, now’s your chance to find out. Immense.
PS: Some music to finish. Near the start of the above list, you will have read about Kate Arnold. Her follow-up EP (‘Rota Fortunae II’) is due early next year, but sneaking into 2020 ahead of time is her release of the lead track, ‘Just Born’. I hope you like this taster for what I confidently predict will be one of the records of 2021…