OK, you know the drill by now. Rather than try and rank records or compare apples with oranges, we’re just giving you as many as we can of the most exquisite sounding records that came out recently – the ones that make your loudspeakers sing. This time, our lineup includes some urbane, electronically enhanced songwriting from New York, apocalyptic drum ’n’ bass visions, the sound of war in Angola transformed by dance rhythms, and some of the most perfect UK soul you’ll hear this year (or any other year, for that matter). Make some time for these, because you’ll want to listen properly to every last one.
Photay – Waking Hours
It’s not often you come across something that sounds as simultaneously familiar and brand new as this. New Yorker Evan Shornstein is in some senses a classic, introspective singer-songwriter – but the electronic sounds he integrates his songs into are simply mindblowing. They’re as radically digital-sounding as the most hardcore avant-club music, yet that integration into the record is so total that it is never jarring. Like the classic Laurie Anderson rebooted with mega computing power, it’s beautifully futurist, but vulnerably human at the same time.
Theo Parrish – Wuddaji
The Detroit legend Theo Parrish has never worried about sounding futuristic. His house-centred grooves are built around vintage drum machines, a Fender Rhodes electric piano and other classic sounds, while being informed by old blues, soul and gospel. You can even hear the background hiss of the analogue tape recording here. Yet, with a crackling intellect and the same kind of black Dada freedom as the mighty Sun Ra, he twists and manipulates every rhythm into new forms. His production shows dazzling understanding and love of each instrument, sound and frequency. These are grooves for good times, but the highest of high art all at once.
Glassio – For the Very Last Time
New York-based Irish-Iranian dream-pop producer Sam Rad deals in real classicism. He writes gorgeously melancholic songs in an electro-pop tradition that runs from the Pet Shop Boys and New Order through Goldfrapp and Junior Boys, right up to the present. They are so lavishly composed, produced and orchestrated that they couldn’t possibly sound retro. Rather, it’s like the writer has found the correct medium for his personality, and is excelling at every aspect of it.
Krust – The Edge of Everything
Bristolian DJ Krust’s return as an album artist was hotly anticipated – it’s a decade and a half since his last full length – but nobody quite expected this. While this album is, in its rhythms at least, the dark drum ’n’ bass he’s known for, in reality, its structures owe more to prog rock, post-rock and the darkest film soundtracks. The way DJ Krust’s ideas evolve over the album’s 77 minutes are forbidding, sometimes dumbfounding, and many found it heavy going at first. But stick with it: Krust’s apocalyptic vision is more ambitious than ever, and the pure sonic dramatic impact of this record – which was mainly mixed by younger generation Bristol bass star Joker – is staggering, especially when you turn up the volume.
INVT – MIRADA
INVT is a vastly prolific “dynamic duo making music and clothing in Miami”. They also have one of the most complete aesthetics we’ve come across. Outside of fashion, they incorporate visual art and graffiti – another album from this year “MUNDOS” comes with a great book of Florida graf designs – and their music shows a deep and broad understanding of soundsystem culture. Jamaican dancehall and dub, British jungle, garage and dubstep, and multiple strands of Afro-Latin culture are all boiled down to their most basic ingredients and delivered with incredible understanding of how frequencies and rhythms move bodies.
Russell EL Butler – A Talisman to Ward off Dysphoria
2020 has thankfully seen a little more appreciation of dance music’s thinkers and radicals – and Brooklyn-based Bermudan producer Russell Ellington Langston Butler is certainly both. Their ostensibly lo-fi analogue grooves – examining the interfaces between house, dancehall, electro and more – have been built around themes of transformation and migration, and frequently reference Octavia Butler novels. This quartet of four long beatless pieces is, as the title suggests, built around affirmations, a record about feeling comfortable in one’s skin. But it’s the opposite of anodyne: this is the sound of someone who has put long and deep thought into how they want to feel – and it is truly entrancing.
Eartheater – Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin
Like Photay, Eartheater combines radical club music electronics with singer-songwriter structures – but to altogether more disquieting effect, using her extreme vocal and compositional dexterity to examine hypersexuality, extreme states and post-human visions. This album, though, adds an organic warmth to all this, with acoustic guitar and string ensemble at the heart of it. Don’t expect comforting ballads though: this is still discombobulating, sometimes harrowing stuff, but the weird visions are rendered with crystal clarity.
Robert Hood – Mirror Man
The Detroit-born techno pioneer Robert Hood has had a fascinating career trajectory, and today works as a pastor in rural Alabama. His austere early work was highly influential, but rather than remain a cult figure, he has managed to parlay that into huge success in the international circuit. But he seems determined to use what he’s learned playing to big clubs and festivals for righteous purposes: his huge gospel-infused tracks as Floorplan (latterly a duo with his daughter Lyric) make no bones about putting black culture up front in an often whitewashed genre, and this year’s BLM-inspired “The Struggle” single is even more overt in its politicisation. This album is all electronic with less obvious signification – but it has a huge sense of purpose: all the sonic immensity of big festival techno, yet laser-focused and packed with groove. It’s also some of his very best work since the Nineties.
Cleo Sol – Rose In The Dark
The mysterious collective SAULT is one of the great stories of the moment, having released four albums in barely over a year to rapturous reception. Their genius is to take classic ‘70s soul and funk and make it sound like the newest thing in the world via radical song structures, vitally current lyrical messages, interwoven elements from styles like Afrobeat and postpunk, and incredible production. All of that, too, is present on SAULT member Cleo Sol’s first album proper: but it’s all put into the service of Sol’s voice and personality, so as well as the glory of the sounds themselves, there’s even more musical coherence here. For all the classicism, this is modernist – it’s a record that could only have come in the wake of D’Angelo and Solange. It’s also very British, not only thanks to Sol’s accent and slang, but a constant lovers’ rock undercurrent. This year’s SAULT albums are masterpieces, but Rose In The Dark is every inch their equal.
Richard Norris – Music For Healing
Richard Norris has been a musical zelig over the years. He has worked with Genesis P Orridge in the acid house years, with Soft Cell’s Dave Ball making club smashes as The Grid in the ‘90s, and with Erol Alkan as psychedelic groovers Beyond The Wizards Sleeve in the new millennium. But incredibly, he’s never released under his own name until the last couple of years, when he began quietly putting out modular ambient live jams. These quickly snowballed into Music For Healing, which consists of 20-minute tracks released weekly through lockdown in aid of mental health charity MIND. This album collects edited versions to fit a CD; if you’re hooked and want the full immersive experience, the long-form versions are still available too.
Nazar – Guerrilla
Nazar is an Angolan musician now living in Manchester, and is also one of the most advanced producers working in modern club music. This album is his attempt to come to terms with his country’s long and horrific civil war, and his own family’s part in it. Nazar’s manipulation of the sounds of weaponry, heavy vehicles, crowds and more into his “kuduro” dance rhythms is just dazzling, terrifying, but also inspiring in a swords-into-ploughshares way. As a testament to how traditions and innovation can keep people inspired despite the horrors of life, and purely as a listening experience, it’s hard to match.
Automatic Tasty – A Farewell To Reason
It may take you a few listens to get past the deceptive simplicity of this record. Irishman Jonny Dillon is a skilled folk guitarist, and makes great acid house records too. But in this stripped back electro-pop, he focuses on melodies so minimal and plaintively delivered that his songs almost feel like playground rhymes – but they’re so much more. Listen close, see how the groove interacts with the melody and the uncanny cleanliness of the sound world, and you’ll find the oddness of the lyrics and the insistence but unpredictability of the tunes work their way into the back of your brain and do really odd things to your thoughts. After a few weeks with this record, you’ll find yourself whistling it, and realising it’s become an obsession.
Cover Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Frieze Events Ltd.
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