We don’t need to point out that it’s been a strange year, but it’s worth noting one of the most interesting parts of it: how deeply people have been engaging with sound and vision. Whether we’ve been trapped at home in lockdown, or just looking for an escape or catharsis from the chaos of the world, we’ve forged whole new relationships to film, music and other art forms during this time.
That’s why we’ve gone digging for online experiences that are a little more than just beaming entertainment at you – the kind of thing we collect on the KEF Culture Hub. And it’s why we thought we’d do something a bit different from the usual end-of-year roundup on the Mixtape blog. Rather than try to rank the music of 2020, instead, over the course of December, we’re going to try and bring you as many of the year’s best sounding records as possible.
Some were big hits, some obscurities, some are pop and some are way out there. But what they share is that each has drawn us into its own world, providing some succour from the unpredictability and anxieties of this year. So make yourself comfortable and prep your ears, because the rabbit hole you’re about to jump down requires you to listen very carefully....
Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
In 2020, disco was everywhere: Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue and plenty of others all spun the disco ball. But reigning supreme over the (sadly imaginary) dance floor was Róisín Murphy, who returned to pure groove after a couple of more experimental albums. And she brought a secret weapon: Richard Barratt, a.k.a. Crooked Man, an old friend of Murphy’s from Sheffield where she began her career, is every connoisseur’s favourite producer, having brought his A-game as ever to this album. Be sure to get the deluxe edition, where he really gets to flex his mastery in the studio on the extended mixes.
Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
Of all the jazz artists of the younger generation that are shaking up London’s music scene, drummer Moses Boyd is one of the most inventive with his own releases. A rolling Afrobeat groove permeates his newest release, incorporating everything from gloomy post-rock and trip-hop to lighter-than-air dance sensibilities. This is a sonically dense album, one with instant impact; yet it contains secrets that only the very committed will uncover.
Tara Clerkin Trio – Tara Clerkin Trio
This is truly one of 2020’s great maverick debuts. It somehow manages to bring together Sun-Ra-style avant-jazz, ultra-detailed electronica and devil-may-care thrift store sample collage – all without disrupting a collection of plaintive indie-pop songs. With every fresh listen, you’ll find a perplexing new detail, but what leaps out most of all is Bristolian Tara Clerkin’s fantastic songwriting. Clearly a huge talent to watch closely.
Yello – Point
Louche Swiss electropop veterans Dieter Meier and Boris Blank have never lost their wit or groove, and these are as present and correct as ever 36 years after their first hit, “Bostich”. Even at the age of 75, Meier’s discombobulating chatter bubbles with energy, and the electronic grooves and soundscapes of this record sound fancier than ever. Glorious and decadent listening.
Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer
Australian lord of darkness Nick Cave’s songs of danger, loss, madness and redemption have always been an affecting listen. But alone with a piano and microphone, recorded in a hall in London’s cavernous Alexandra Palace, he really shows what a devastating performer he is. The film and album of Idiot Prayer are exquisitely recorded, leaving neither Cave nor the listener any place to hide.
Ty Dolla $ign – Featuring Ty Dolla $ign
This is not just a strong artist album from Los Angeleno Ty Dolla $ign; it also functions as a great survey of where US hip-hop finds itself sonically in 2020. Ty’s croaking, crooning style of half-rapping, half-singing is a great example of how post-trap music is stealthily channelling the oldest styles of the blues – and his production is extraordinary. It’s not just the obvious nods to experimentalism with left-field guests like Thundercat and serpentwithfeet on board; even an ostensibly straightforward track like “Lift me Up” with Young Thug and Future is worth cranking up your speakers for. The finesse and deeply weird sense of invention are intensely intoxicating.
Cucina Povera – Tyyni
This is easily Finnish-born electronic producer and voice artist Maria Rossi’s most ambitious album yet. It is described as an “unfurling mediation on the clash between nature and mechanical living”, and certainly the impossibility of working out what is digital and what is derived from Rossi’s eerie voice here draws you into a oddly contemplative space hidden deep in the uncanny valley. But for all the strangeness and unease, it’s also very, very beautiful.
Scrimshire – Believers
Cosmic jazz, neo-soul, poetry, Afro-disco, electronica – British producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Adam Scrimshire has blurred these kinds of genres together for many years now, but they come together better than ever on his latest album. It’s bubbling with guest vocalists, shifts between styles constantly, and yet it feels absolutely coherent throughout. In blending natural sounds and letting every instrument sing, the production is warm and welcoming. You’ll want to shut off all distractions and bathe in this one.
Lyra Pramuk – Fountain
As you might expect from someone who’s worked with pioneering AI musician Holly Herndon, the operatically-trained Czech-American Berliner Lyra Pramuk is a determined futurist. Her debut album on Iceland’s Bedroom Community label – home also to the likes of Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson – is a truly remarkable work. It is built mainly on drones and textures entirely derived from Pramuk’s voice, but built up into huge fantastical landscapes. It’s disorienting, no doubt, but massively rewards close and repeated listening.
Max de Wardener – Music for Detuned Pianos
This is a true duet between composer and instrumentalist. Recorded over a three-year span, ECM pianist Kit Downes improvised parts on specially-tuned pianos, which were then pieced together by De Wardener, who treated these pieces with immense subtlety to make a remarkably coherent album. His aim was to create “an elegant record that feels at once familiar, yet otherworldly” – he has succeeded and then some. There is also a remix version with a spectacular roll call of avant-electronic talent.
Wudewuse – Northern Gothic
Fancy some mystical Nordic “forest folk”? Of course you do. Sondre Bergersen Mæland, a.k.a. Wudewuse, and his band look like they might deliver terrifying pagan metal, but in fact their sound is extremely pastoral, reflecting Mæland’s upbringing in the forests of the Viken region of southern Norway. This record, inspired by the work of Russian occult outsider artist Nicholas Kalmakoff, builds gorgeously moody and entrancing psyche-rock atmospheres around Mæland’s fingerpicking, and feels entirely outside of time.
Jhené Aiko – Chilombo
R&B is in a fascinating place at the moment. As we’ve noted on Mixtape, artists in the UK and France are increasingly finding individualist modes of expression, and that applies to the mainstream of the USA as well. Jhené Aiko is the epitome of this, and on her third album, more than ever she treads her own path between organic neo-soul, the kind of wilfully avant-garde sonic character and structures pioneered by people like Frank Ocean, and the hyper-synthetic auto-tuned styles that have dominated pop in the last decade. This album, built around Aiko’s improvisations, ranges from ambient miniatures to bass-quaking epics, but all throughout, every tiny detail is perfectly placed to complete her vision.
Cover Image: Official Record Label
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs