And so we say goodbye to 2020, and while few will miss the tribulations we’ve been through, none will forget it. Thankfully, the memories aren’t all bad because of the embarrassment of musical riches the year gave us. To round off our selection of 48 incredible-sounding records that have either soothed us, given us catharsis, or helped us understand the world around us, here are the final twelve. They’re every bit as great as those in parts one to three: from raw noise to open-skies Americana, avant club to pop-house, Romanian-Scottish post-folk to Algerian desert dub, there is truly something here for every mood and context.
Raymond Richards – The Lost Art of Wandering
Of all the records to provide mental salve for jangled nerves this year, this, produced by eclectic DJ Lovefingers, has been one of the most effective. An ambient record built around Richards’ pedal steel guitar with a little harmonica, it audibly harks back to ambient classics – Brian Eno’s work with Daniel Lanois, The KLF’s Chill Out – but ultimately makes its own space. Every track is named for an American beauty spot, and it feels like a road trip in a dream, the sounds singing endlessly of wide open, starlit skies and unfolding vistas.
Various Artists – Alterity
An altogether more manic kind of musical mental travel is captured on this compilation from Houndstooth – the London club scene’s experimental label. This is a whistle-stop tour of international club music from China (Shanghai’s radical audio-visual artist 33EMYBW), Brazil (the ultra hypnotic LYZZA), Algeria (Deena Abdelwahed), Uruguay and Ireland (a collaboration between Mondevideo’s Lila Tirando a Violeta and Cork’s Lighght), and many more places besides. It covers a huge range of tempo and rhythm, but is united by a sense of agitation and unease, deep bass and glassy slithering synths, and ultra-finessed production. This is brilliantly strange and tricky music for strange and tricky times.
Dua Lipa – Club Future Nostalgia
One of the most uplifting stories of the year in the world of pop was Dua Lipa truly finding her voice. From making generic pop, the success of the 2019 Calvin Harris collaboration “One Kiss” led her into freeing her disco diva – and her Future Nostalgia album embraced that fully with infectious grooves, natural sass and her English accent sounding far more natural than her previous transatlantic tracks. Then, the addiction to the groove was taken one step further, with the remix project Club Future Nostalgia. Overseen and blended together by American expat in London, The Blessed Madonna, it brings together house legends – Masters at Work, Mr Fingers, Moodymann – and younger talents such as Jayda G and Midland. This is a demonstration of just how good dance pop can get, and feels like a party in itself.
Babe, Terror – Horizogon
São Paulo producer Claudio Szynkier has an impressive body of work under his belt already, but this is by some measure his best album yet. Already confined to his apartment before Covid due to an autoimmune illness, his musical exploration of isolation began in 2019 and felt eerily right for 2020. His records have often explored fuzz and distortion, both of which are present here, but there is also stunning clarity, with orchestral swells and other instruments weaving in and out of the mists. There’s an entire feature film that Szynkier made of his home city descending into lockdown – and together with the music it’s one of the most overwhelming artistic experiences created last year.
Keleketla! - Keleketla!
One of the greatest losses to music this year was the legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, but there’s some consolation in the fact he was doing great work to the end, even at the age of 79. His rolling beats appear on half of this vast collaborative album, and provide its backbone. Keleketla! was originally a joint work between UK dance pioneers Coldcut and a collective of South African jazz and rap musicians, but expanded to encompass LA, Brooklyn, Lagos, Paris and West Papua. A long, long way from lowest-common-denominator global fusion, it’s an endlessly ambitious celebration of dancing and defiance.
patten – GLO)))
Many electronic musicians jettisoned beats for ambient experiments while confined in lockdown this year. But London’s always prolific, always diversely experimental multimedia artist patten had to go several steps further. After releasing his lockdown ambient album Glow, which is beautiful in its own right, he decided to make an evil twin. Cue GLO))). The odd lettering pays tribute to doom drone gods Sunn O))), and the record is an exploration of the most crushing guitar distortion imaginable. This is strictly for the hardy, but its explorations of raw and jagged textures are quite remarkable, and if you go along for the ride you will be left feeling mentally exfoliated, and even refreshed.
Lizabett Russo – While I Sit and Watch This Tree Vol. 1
Romanian musician in Scotland Lizabett Russo is often tagged as folk, but she is way, way more than that. On her second album, her ambition is clear: singing in English and Romanian, and incorporating chamber classical, jazz and global instrumentation, her songs are always arranged with painstaking delicacy but demonstrate enormous power. You might hear echoes of everything from Kate Bush to Windy & Carl, but more often than not, you’ll be struck by the individualism and totality of Russo’s vision, and the perfectly controlled power of her voice.
Azu Tiwaline – Magnetic Service
This release by Tunisian producer Azu Tiwaline on Bristol label Livity Sound may only be an EP, but combined with her self-released Draw Me a Silence Part I & Part II, it effectively forms a strong and complete album. Her sound blends the Saharan percussion grooves of her home country with high-tech production and a dazzling understanding of the way Jamaican dub manipulates space, to produce a hallucinatory groove that feels outside of space and time. Tiwaline is a master of creating a sonic world that invites you to enter and in which you can totally lose yourself.
Moodymann – Taken Away
Like his Detroit compatriot and sometime collaborator Theo Parrish, Kenny Dixon Jr., aka Moodymann, is all about finding modernism in classic sounds. And on his 13th album, he’s sounding more confident than ever in his low-and-slow blend of blues, soul, disco and house. With full-on songwriting more upfront than ever, and a blend of the domestic, romantic and political (the distant sounds of sirens are a pointed but elegantly expressed comment on the everyday realities of Black American life), this record feels like a conscious soul album in the mould of classic 1970s records, yet its sonic understanding is entirely 21st century. “KDJ” has made another classic for the ages.
Ego Ella May – Honey for Wounds
We’ve remarked on the Mixtape blog about the extraordinary renaissance in UK soul music, which has been responsible for some absolutely dazzling records this year. Cleo Sol’s Rose in the Dark was one, and Ego (pronounced “Eh-go”) Ella May’s album, released on actor John Boyega’s UpperRoom label, was another. For one so young, she has an incredibly advanced sense of how the personal and political intersect, weaving feminism, explorations of belonging, identity, and British politics into her introspective lyrics without ever feeling didactic. These feel like a real person’s real concerns. All this is brought into being with a velvet voice and the cream of UK jazz and experimental beat production. It’s is a deceptively smooth record, comforting on the surface but with untold hidden depths.
Tenderlonious – Ragas From Lahore
Ed “Tenderlonious” Cawthorne is a one-man music machine. In addition to supervising the always brilliant South London label 22a, this year he’s released a tribute to 1970s Italian library music, a truly remarkable electronic album recorded in quarantine, a straight-up jazz EP in tribute to British legend Tubby Hayes, a contribution to the Keleketla! Album (see above) – and this incredible set of improvisations for which he embarked on a pilgrimage with Polish composer and keys player Marek Pędziwiatr to Lahore, Pakistan to record with instrumental quarted Jaubi. Of all the exquisite-sounding records we’ve selected this year, this has to be the pinnacle. Every tap of the fingertips on tabla drums, every inhalation as Cawthorne goes into another flute phrase, every undulation of Pędziwiatr’s synth drones feels sharply real in the air around you. A masterpiece of gentle power.
Scratchclart – DRMTRK EP X
Leon Smart, aka Scratchclart, has covered many bases in the UK underground, from grime and house music, to neo soul and radical electronica – and he isn’t standing still yet. His latest fascination is the spacious, sinister electronic dance sound of gqom from Durban, South Africa, which he pays tribute to here in track titles, sounds and a collaboration with Durban producer Citizen Boy. Still, there’s no mistaking this is a London record, thanks to the grime voices of master MCs Merky ACE, Mez and Trim, as well as Smart’s own distinctive way with sound. There’s dark ambience, there’s soul, and there’s a deranged sense of craft that gives up new details with every listen, yet always keeps the instant soundsystem impact of dance styles intact.
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