As we said in the last entry of Mixtape’s 2020 retrospective, this has been a year for total immersion in music. And that has applied right across styles and sounds. From the urban music of Lagos to innovative Icelandic classical piano recordings; folktronica meditations on death and loss to defiant broken beat expressions of Black American identity; and field recordings made during global travels, to a laser focus on one dancefloor in one club, these records have captured and captivated us this year, and taken us to places we’d never have expected.
Olamide – Carpe Diem
The biggest story from West African music this year was of course Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall album, which proved Nigerian sounds could compete at the highest international level without capitulating to European or American styles. But there are plenty more talents in the explosive Nigerian music industry, and one album well worth your attention is the eighth release from Lagos rapper Olamide. The production, mostly by 18-year-old prodigy P.Priime, combines rhythmic complexity that harks back to the 1980s jùjú sounds of King Sunny Ade with huge soundsystem bass and dazzling futurist gloss.
Tunng – Tunng Presents... DEAD CLUB
English band Tunng have high ambitions on their eighth album since they emerged in the folktronica movement of the early 2000s. They’ve brought in philosophers, medics, rappers, Tuareg nomads and more to talk and write about death and bereavement on a lavishly packaged concept record. But what’s most interesting is that it fits perfectly in their catalogue. In fact they’ve always sung about loss and the passing of time, and this time round, it’s not the extra voices that make the record compelling, but the fact that their songwriting and luscious production are as good as ever.
Charles Webster – Decision Time
Charles Webster has been a bit of a legend in deep house circles for a long time, but he’s stayed pretty quiet since the turn of the millennium. This comeback, then, was hotly anticipated – but few predicted just how mighty it would be. His way with texture is second to none, but what makes it really special is how that is made integral to his song structures. Guest vocalists from the UK, US and South Africa – including legends like Shara “Unfinished Sympathy” Nelson and Prince and David Sylvian collaborator Ingrid Chavez – just add to the richness of the total experience.
Flora Yin-Wong – Holy Palm
London-based writer and musician Flora Yin-Wong has been releasing music for five years or so – but just individual tracks or remixes on compilations. At album length, though, her music makes exponentially more sense. These incredibly delicate, considered sketches made from processed field recordings steadily become more and more absorbing as you listen, before the final two quarter-hour pieces of raw sound recording draw you completely into Yin-Wong’s dream world.
Kay Young – Middle Matters
Southeast Londoner Kay Young is the full package: singer, rapper, spoken word artist and a truly extraordinary producer. Her live beat-mashup videos on Instagram are dazzling, and she attracted the attention of no lesser talents than Jay Electronica, and then Jay-Z, who subsequently signed her to Roc Nation. The independently released Middle Matters is only an EP at six short tracks, but its exquisite detail and restraint outshine most albums. It’s a subtly powerful calling card for a massive talent that you should be keeping a close eye on.
Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Chicago Waves
The Colombian-American mystic and musician Carlos Niño is a hugely influential figure on the Californian “beat scene” that bred Flying Lotus, Thundercat and many more. The multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is no less important in that world. Together, they have made one of the most remarkably cosmic records of the modern age. Listening to this impossibly gorgeous blend of Don Cherry globalist jazz, new age electronics and Debussy-like composition, it’s hard to fathom that it is just two people playing entirely live – but any such concerns are quickly dissolved as the sound washes over you like blissfully warm water.
Vikingur Ólafsson – Debussy / Rameau
Speaking of Debussy, here’s a surprisingly fresh approach to album sequencing from Deutsche Grammofon and the much-praised Icelandic pianist. He hasn’t just put the work of two French composers side by side, but interspersed them much like a DJ structuring a set. Even though the baroque geometries of Rameau and flowing lyricism of Debussy are separated by almost 200 years, in Ólafsson’s capable hands they become part of a greater whole, symbolically and musically, before brilliantly culminating in the finale of Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau”. Rarely has a solo piano album felt like such a complete listen.
Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
Perhaps surprisingly for an album that was made in a hurry (over a month in lockdown) and is full of bright musical colours and instant impact, how i’m feeling now really rewards close and repeated listening. As we remarked on Mixtape, Charli XCX is a figurehead for a new collision of pop and avant-garde club music, and she and her collaborators delight in strange and detailed manipulation of sound as much as any seriously-minded techno explorer.
Gagarin – The Great North Wood
Graham “Gagarin” Dowdall has had one of the most remarkable careers in electronic music. From playing percussion for the likes of Nico and John Cooper Clarke in the Eighties, through touring Russia with Aphex Twin at the start of the ‘90s and immersing himself in the grime scene as a youth worker in the 2000s, he’s continually absorbed new sounds and kept his own music fresh. His eighth Gagarin album is some of his best-ever work: filmic, mysterious, rich in compositional depth, but with the palpable excitement in sound-making that you’d expect from musicians a third of Dowdall’s age.
Afrikan Sciences – Survivors
Eric Douglas Porter is one of the more under-appreciated figures in electronic music – but his prolific releases (three albums, two EPs and two compilations this year) are never less than gripping. Survivors is explicitly inspired by the pressures and political struggles of 2020, and it bristles with strength and defiance. In a strange zone in between house music, jazz and broken hip hop, it sounds lo-fi at first – but in fact is made with such delicacy and invention that every rough texture, every rough-sounding drum hit reveals itself to be part of a grander expression, just as rough brush strokes can show complex emotions in an abstract painting.
E.M.M.A. - Indigo Dream
Emma Davies’ releases have been sporadic over the decade and change that she’s been making music – but her sound has evolved steadily over that time. Where her early work was full of the heavy bass and synth tones of grime, now that is sublimated into dreamy, soundtrack-influenced soundscapes. The title of Indigo Dream gives you strong hints of where you’re going here: this is like a dream of flying through richly coloured night skies, its synth chords and arpeggios wrapping around you like satin and velvet.
Chase & Status – RTRN II FBRC
If you’ve been missing clubs, raves and festivals, this might be too much to listen to, such is the yearning it will engender. Chase & Status’s Return II Jungle album of 2019 revisited the explosively creative era of 1992-95 when multicultural London parlayed rave into something fiercer, more complex, more intense and transformed music forever. Now, on this mix album for London’s fabric club, they’ve created something even better: 45 tracks old and new, enhanced and blended to demonstrate just how potent and relevant this music still is. It’ll make you want to push your speakers to their limits – and is the perfect example of how devastating sonic force and dazzling complexity can be part and parcel of the same package.
Cover Credit: Joe Okpako / Alamy Stock Photo
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