Nothing says 2020 like a stinging nettle toastie. Apparently its quite delicious – unlike 2020. Aside from an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented, 2020 taught us that we all have a stake in protecting and supporting the music we love, the artists who make it and the industry that surrounds it, because when it comes to government assistance they’re all very low down on the priority list – particularly those that are more forward thinking and risk taking.
As usual we’ve asked our writers what floated their boats this year, and as usual its a complete incoherent mess. Few of us seem to be able to follow instructions and keep to the allotted 5 releases (this writer included), only one artist has been mentioned twice (see if you can work out who), and one writer totally ignored music and gave us his top 5 toasties – and yes the stinging nettle toastie is included (apparently its less stingy after you boil it).
We love the chaos. Not all of this music came out this year, but we had to encounter it this year for the first time for it to be on this list. So don’t be afraid, jump in, there’s a lot to wade through here and we’re not going to make it easy. All we ask is that if you find something new and amazing please find a way to give back and support the artist or label as directly as possible because as income from touring and crappy day jobs dried up this year they need it more than ever.
Bob Baker Fish (Features Editor)
Pinkcourtesyphone – Leaving Everything to Be Desired (Room40)
Beautiful elegant sound art that is musical, evocative and highly emotive. Its gurgling electronics, woozy brass and strange sonic activity that I don’t quite understand makes my heart soar. It reminds me of a faded ballroom. I’m not sure why a faded ballroom would make my heart soar but it’s 2020 so we don’t ask questions.
Phurpa – Hymns of Gyer (Idealogic Organ)
One of my favourite albums of all time is David Hykes Harmonic Choir’s Hearing Solar Winds, which is a bunch of hippies sitting around throat singing in a highly reverberant room. It’s absolutely amazing. But sometimes it’s not evil enough. That’s where Phurpa come in. They are a bunch of Russians sitting around throat singing in a highly reverberant room. But they’re also into black metal and the shamanistic rites of various ancestral cults in pre-Buddhist Tibet which seems to give them just the right amount of evil.
Shackleton and Zimpel – Primal Forms (Cosmo Rhythmatic)
Like being born. Then dying. Then being born again. And then dying again. But in a good way. I’ve been a fan of Shackleton for a long time, but have only recently started stalking Polish clarinettist and composer Waclaw Zimpel who also put out a couple of solo releases this year. His work with James Holden is similarly transcendent, but this ecstatic journey of prog electro acoustic experimentation is just cosmic.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is (Ninja Tune)
Such an amazing beautiful confusing album. I can safely say this got me through repeated lockdowns. I first caught Thundercat at Womadelaide a couple of years ago and it was a terrifying mix of lame balladry and frenetic jazz fusion. This is not that, rather its this incredibly lame, incredibly earnest incredibly genius funky outsider music. Every song is perfect. He is a conundrum and an enigma, but he will help you if you let him.
Madeleine Cocolas – Ithica – (Someone Good/Room40)
The lasting impact is of stillness, peace and calm. It’s warm, emotional and quite delicate, but it really creeps up on you until you’re totally immersed. Ocassionally an album comes along that just lets you sink right into it. This is that album. So special.
Praed Orchestra! – Live in Sharjah (Morphine)
Epic 13 piece orchestra of extraordinary musicians in the United Arab Emirates bulking up some of Praed’s tunes, though also splintering off into all new weird and wonderful directions. Praed are one of the most overwhelming bombastic duos around. Guess what happens when you add a further 11 more musicians to the equation?
Jason Heller (Associate Editor)
Chris Smith – Second Hand Smoke (It Records)
Melted timeless fried country ambient blues blown through a broken speaker found on the side of the road that has been sitting in a haze since the last Chris Smith record. This is a very excellent album, and you should have already bought it by now. Outstanding.
Eves – Looking For Glass (Music Company)
A sublimely exquisite album that seems to recall the past and predict the future at the same time. Active ambience and incredibly engaging synthesis, I think composed on modular synth with probably something else going on, it is hard to quantify, but absolutely essential.
Curanderos/Bardo Pond – Raven’s Head (Nullzone)/Adrop (Three Lobed)/On The Ellipse (Fire)
Ok it wouldn’t be a year end list from me without some Bardo Pond, and this year has been up there with the goods. All three Bardo and related releases that I managed to intercept this year are incredible in their own rights. The new Curanderos tape on \\NULL|ZØNE// might still be on my way due to Covid related postal issues but it’s a damned good psych out of a more stripped back kind. Three Lobed released Adrop/Circuit IV on vinyl for the first time and that was yet another mind melter, but I have to say that the RSD reissue of On The Ellipse probably caps off the year as this is one of my all time favourites. As always buy all of the Bardo Pond and related you can get your hands on.
Kevin Richard Martin – The busiest person in lockdown 2020 (Intercranial Recordings)
Somehow Kevin Martin managed to release seven new albums this year. Seven! He released a new Bug record (with Dis Fig), a King Midas Sound EP, five volumes of Frequencies For Leaving Earth, another EP or two… probably a bunch more staff that I missed, several mixes, I can’t keep up! As always it is always a good idea to grab everything you can from Kevin, and this year it was easier to do that as he started his own label. Well done Kevin, you deserve a lie down.
Paul Kidney Experience/Acid Mothers Temple – Split (Kasumuen)
Ok there were heaps more things on my top list of 2020, including not dying, but I have to spare a place for this monster of sonic brain-meltingness. PKE dive into their deep and dark psychedelia, immanentizing the eschaton, or something close to at least, while AMT throw everything down into a 20 minute workout of Sabbath’s classic The Wizard. What do you think it sounds like? Exactly. I think there are like 5 copies of the second pressing of this left, so you should get one.
Seb Chan (Founder)
This year Bandcamp Fridays were a doorway into a whole lot of new music. They were one of the few bright moments in a tough year.
Sault – Untitled (Rise)/Untitled (Black Is) (self released)
Two unexpected and much welcomed albums from UK’s Sault. The first of these arrived as a Pay What You Want release on Bandcamp shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the beginning of the Black Live Matter movement. The second came at the end of the Northern Hemisphere summer. Both were full of lively grooves and a surefire mood changer in the depths of a Melbourne lockdown winter. Aesthetically they reminded me a lot of when I first heard Massive Attack’s Blue Lines all those years ago.
Speaker Music – Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu)
DeForrest Brown Jr’s album for Planet Mu was incendiary and remarkable. Noisy, chaotic, it takes takes the ideas of Black sonic rebellion on a continuing electronic trajectory from Underground Resistance to the future – keeping its lineage with free jazz intact. It was also a useful proof that music journalists don’t always just write about music.
Azu Tiwaline – Magnetic Service (Livity Sound)
In a year without many active dancefloors, there were some really great new percussive and interesting tracks released. One of the new discoveries for me was young Tunisian producer Azu Tiwaline whose Magentic Service EP on Bristol’s Livity Sound was just one of five of her releases this year.
Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower (Kranky)
New York-based Filipino producer Ana Roxanne makes delicate ambient electronic music with floating synths and processed voice. In a harsh year these sounds over this mini album for Kranky, following up her ~~~ EP of last year were an effective balm.
Horse Lords – The Common Task (Northern Spy)
I found Baltimore’s Horse Lords through browsing the Bandcamp purchases of Musicophillia, a fellow music obsessive. Musicophillia has been making little internet mixtapes for nearly 20 years now, connecting the dots between post-punk and contemporary Black music, experimental and other sounds. Anyway they’ve always been a great source for new sounds and Horse Lords was an unexpected find. A bit like Battles, Horse Lords make muscular instrumental ‘rock’ influenced by everything that isn’t ‘rock music’ – the sound of early 80s NY No Wave is extrapolated out in all sorts of directions with influences from pretty much every genre and geography.
A big year for music, more hours available for listening too, somewhat breaking that Ground Hog Day feeling, thats my upside for the year. It’s always hard coming up with just five releases for the whole year, and as usual I cheat to get a few more in…. I always try to support artists directly, the usual obsession with vinyl, oh, and a tape… Peek what I consume/play over at https://www.instagram.com/timbremill/
Jay Glass Dubs – Soma (Berceuse Heroique)
Otherworldly melting pot of dub. First heard Jay Glass Dubs a few years ago when a track caught my ear, sounding like Primal Scream produced on another planet. A steady release of killer 12s and remixes led to their new album Soma, a claustrophobic yet uplifting experiment in dub and so much more.
Pokus – Pokus (Pokus Music)
Whispers of a UK jazz resurgence was documented on a great compilation released on Soul Jazz Records Kaleidoscope (New Spirits Known And Unknown), Pokus showed up on the companion 12”, which led me to searching out their only album. Great drums and forward thinking electronic jazz experiments.
Group Modular – Time Masters (Polytechnic Youth)
Their debut eight years ago with The Mystery Of Mordy Laye set the template for more psychedelic library-esque moods, Time Masters does not disappoint. Drums on point, heavy on the synths, strangeness abounds.
Free The Robots – Datu (Astral Travels Records)
Field recordings and sounds from other worlds really make Datu stand out from the crowd. A tightly produced instrumental hip hop album, just oozing of ancient cultures, no disrespectful reappropriation here, beautifully crafted songs that take you to other more exotic places.
A great year for compilations, reminding me of picking up obscure compilations in the 80’s only knowing one or two of the bands, getting switched on to some incredible new artists. I couldn’t choose just one, ranking these three as EQUALLY incredible, a great jumping off point to discovery.
Various – Respect The Unexpected – In The Age Of Sci-fi (Kashual Plastic)
I don’t think I knew of any of the artists on this dark and moody compilation, but its track after track of top quality psychedelic electronic experiments. I had to go back and seek out the labels previous compilation, filled with the same quality, but a stark originality. My ears certainly enjoy these sonic treasures. The label has also previously released a compilation of historic Australian experiments from the Masking Tapes label of the 80’s.
Various – Rhythmia Vol.1 (Euphonic Rhythms)
Another fantastic compilation packed with mostly unheard artists, dishing up 13 sonic experiments from Best Available Technology, Sunun, Birthmark and Withdrawn, Christoph De Babalon to name a few. Euphonic Rhythms donate over 50% of profits, so really worth supporting, volume two has just gone up on Bandcamp for pre-order, jump on in.
Buddy Peace – Desert Sessions Vol.2 (self-released)
A compilation/mixtape of killer Buddy Peace jams. Always blurring the boundaries between mixtape, production and mpc experiments. Nicely released on cassette tape, together with volume one. Always hits the spot, and probably the nicest guy on the planet.
Annette Brissett: Love Power (Wackies)
I played Lovers Rock all year and never tired of it. This was an album of killers and her 12″s are even better.
Larry Heard – Sceneries Not Songs, Volume 1 (Alleviated)
Essential. Aliens also amazing from same period.
Various – Erotiques New Beat (Mental Groove Records)
Should have jumped on New beat years ago, I love it! Slow dank chuggers, played in memory of non-Belgian Andrew Weatherall who loved this stuff.
Roy Haynes: Out of the Afternoon (Impulse!)
Perfect tidy-yet-ramshackle jazz.
Beverly Glenn Copeland: Transmissions (Transgressive Records)
Almost medicinal the effect Copeland’s music had this year.
Taras Bulba – Going West A Joyful Dub Odyssey (Reverb Worship) (Misophonia)
Going West A Joyful Dub Odyssey was a rush of cosmic and psychedelic krautrock that I didn’t know I needed.
Klara Lewis – Ingrid (Editions Mego)
Been following her work for some time now, and she never disappoints. Ingrid is so well-layered that her cello dissection becomes haunting.
Franco Cinelli – Track Dos (self released)
House Maestro Franco Cinelli goes in deep with his alias Psyfunk, on an analog jam-exploration of the outdoors of the dancefloor. The brainy odyssey in Track Dos just made it for us.
David Toop – Possibly It Was Only The Coming Of Certain Indefinable Hours (Room40)
Though all of Aparition Paintings is a delight, ‘Possibly It Was Only The Coming Of Certain Indefinable Hours’ has something special that you can barely feel until it fades away.
Michael Brückner – Two Cups Of Coffee (self released)
Michael Brückner sets a trip where it’s all about the mood.
Julianna Barwick – Inspirit (Ninja Tune)
Had Julianna Barwick’s Inspirit on repeat for a while this year. This sound collage with her excellent voice manipulations takes you somewhere else.
Autechre – m4 Lemma (Warp Records)
‘Sign’ is Autechre’s return to the album format after more than 7 years, of course there’d be gems in it. ‘Th red’ and ‘esc dec’ are also melodic highlights here. Otherwordly.
Ela Stiles – Songs on Harmonium (Bandcamp)
I cannot go past a mysterious woman with a harmonium, and I am a big fan of Stiles and her work. This is a terrific record, pop songs that will later be released (as I understand it) with pop arrangements, but presented here with voice accompanied solely by harmonium. Very beautiful.
Chris Smith – Second Hand Smoke (It Records)
Smith is an extraordinary guitarist, songwriter, arranger, with a great sense of sound and ability to craft abstract hooks into wonkily beautiful vignettes. All his records are of a very high standard, but this is his best yet. Recommended unconditionally.
Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble – Voices of Angels (BIS Records, Sweden)
This spectacular collection of (largely) modern classical music for string ensemble with harpsichord is organised thematically around angels and otherworldly visitations. As well as a fabulous work by Australian composer Brett Dean, it features two works by 89-year old Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whose deeply spiritual compositions inhabit a sound world entirely of her creation and are riveting. The surround sound recording is extraordinary too.
The Go Gos – Documentary d. Alison Ellwood (Polygram Entertainment)
I was a teenager in country NSW in the 1980s and far too busy trying to look like a member of Echo and the Bunnymen to take much notice of the Go Gos, who I remember well as being hugely popular. This extremely well-made documentary includes great archival material and footage, brutally honest interviews and a lot about the LA punk scene, as well as the perils of becoming international sensations before the world is ready for you. The Go Gos are great songwriters and musicians, utterly deserving of this nuanced, serious treatment of their artistic achievement.
Bonnie Mercer – Female Cop Recordings (Bandcamp)
Bonnie Mercer is one of my all-time favourite guitarists, always super interesting, intense and compelling. This 3-song release finds her, for the first time, writing and singing songs. Why have we not heard this voice before?! Dark and brooding, it’s yet another exciting direction for this consistently enthralling artist.
Maths Balance Volumes – A Year Closer (Penultimate Press)
This record reels you into its world of found sounds, old-timey folkiness, droney organs, wonky torch songs and intricately spliced narratives. Each song is its own strangely apocalyptic universe.
Hedvig Mollestad – Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)
Exceptional slice of progressive jazz rock. The twin guitar/trumpet attack here is exhilarating – noisy, thematic and dense, all underpinned by the vibrant drumming of Torstein Lofthus (Elephant9)
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (Century Media)
Landmark album for dissonant metal maestros Imperial Triumphant, including this century’s best use of a barbershop quartet.
Lemna – Storytelling #1 / Reminiscences Of Inner Scenery (Horo)
Every Lemna release is a beautiful surprise. Cinematic and brooding excursion into rhythm and texture.
Neptunian Maximalism – Éons (I, Voidhanger Records)
Ambitious and sprawling psych odyssey. Not always successful but almost always interesting. I find myself coming back to disk 2 the most but submersion in the full two odd hours is essential for the full genuinely psychedelic impact.
Nicola Cruz – Iridescent Dubs (Self Oscillation)
Understated release from Cruz, with the opening track Organologia seeing him venturing into early Murcof territory. Clicky percussion and dub synth stabs abound, glued together by Cruz’s immaculate sense of rhythm.
At this rather raggedy end of 2020, I’m fairly sure that quite enough has been written about the endearing qualities of this past calendar year….! What I can however safely say – without everyone running away screaming – is that the power of music is real, and it can help one overcome all manner of trials. Speaking for myself (and this is my top 5!) my list definitely made the turgidity of recent times more bearable. Also, as for previous editions of this fine Top 5 survey, what I’m playing (instrument wise) influences and directs my listening – and vice versa. And somehow, with little in the way of record fairs and the like, I’ve managed to grow and diversify my vinyl collection with musical artefacts old and new. So, as instructed by Mr Bob Baker Fish, here be my 2020 list – and as per usual, in no particular order :
GoGo Penguin – GoGo Penguin (Blue Note/Decca)
Don’t be put off by the fact that they have a name that sounds like a kid’s computer game, nor that they are on a label that many thought had died and gone to heaven decades ago – GoGo Penguin are innovative, dynamic and layer genres in a deft, virtuosic manner. Winners of the Mercury Prize a few years ago, GGP have moved from strength to strength and demand your attention. They performed one of the best live gigs I experienced this year (admittedly a pay per view) playing most of this, their latest album. Some favourite tracks are Atomised (see link), Kora, Signal in the Noise, … and well, the whole album really!
Hildur Guðnadóttir – Chernobyl -Original Soundtrack (Deutsche Grammophon)
Composer, classically trained cellist and collaborator of Sun O)))), Múm and Ben Frost, to name a few, Guðnadóttir straddles experimental and ‘mainstream’ alike with her recent soundtracks for The Joker and the devastatingly compelling Chernobyl. You know when a soundtrack is truly successful – and not just because it has won some flashy awards – because after only a few bars it thrusts you back into the emotions, the action, the story that the music portrays, underpins and complements. When my employees were WfH and I had my studio to myself, this album was on high rotation. Then my team returned… and I discovered that this is music definitely not suitable for an occupied open plan office…..! But still – it’s a must listen – regardless of how ‘unsociable’ it might be.
Gyorgy Ligeti – Lux Aeterna (Harmonia Mundi)
No doubt an influence on Guðnadóttir somewhere along the line, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna becomes a true musical landmark in this recording by Capella Amsterdam. Lux Aeterna first broke into the wider public’s consciousness via the soundtrack for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but instead of becoming some kind of pop culture relic, this key work by Ligeti remains enigmatic and entrancing. Compulsory listening if you are branching out your listening habits into 20thC and contemporary art music.
Werkha – Colours of a Red Brick Raft (Tru Thoughts) and SheBeKeke/ Werkha – Ephemera (Griot City Records).
Werkha’s Colours of a Red Brick Raft is a 2015 release, a highly listenable, well crafted and sparky electronic / synth / drum and bass driven album by Mancunian musician Tom Leah. This I discovered by chance after tripping over the superb track ‘Falling through the Wall’ in a random playlist discovered during the now-forgotten Easter lockdown. Fast forward through Werkha’s releases list to this year, and his collaboration with SheBeKeke (Keisha Thompson) where he produced her very new album Ephemera, a much more challenging spoken word / free jazz / electronic genre bender that captures some beautiful vocals and expert instrumentals.
Andrew Weatherall – pretty much anything
One of the many losses borne by the year that has been, Andy Weatherall remains a long time personal favourite. Once when he came to Sydney, my devotion was such that I endured a very late night set while heavily pregnant! Introduced to his work via 80s remixes of New Order (did you think I’d let a Top 5 go by without mentioning them?), followed by Madchester and some early 90s MBV worship, and topped off with lashings of NME issues (purchased at the local newsagent’s each week for the princely sum of $2.50), Weatherall was always enigmatic. He struck me as a curious bear, a bower bird, a ferret, a soothsayer, a raver, and a genuinely gifted listener. Yes – listener. The level of listening he cultivated is core to his impeccable mixing, timing, layering and soundscape approach to the signature beats and grooves. RIP AJW.
Jerrah Patston – Sounds Like Rain (Ice Music)
2020 has been a fucked year. Globally and personally: we had a pandemic and political bullshit and I had a beloved cat die. Jerrah Patston’s Sounds Like Rain offered a moment of delightful respite from the onslaught. Aided by The Holy Soul’s Sam Worrad – who has worked with the songwriter for some time – Patston presents enthusiastic songs about bagpipes, local pools, Coney Island girls, food courts and cricket. It’s a clean-cut version of the view askew approach you’d find in classic acid pop, except it comes from a nice guy from the Blue Mountains.
I honestly have never encountered a musician so thrilled to be performing and recording as Jerrah, and it’s an absolute treat given that most of the stuff I like is made by curmudgeons for curmudgeons. This one is a joy, for real.
Howard Stelzer – Invariably Falling Forward, Into The Thickets Of Closure (No Rent Records)
Erstwhile tape-guy and maths teacher Howard Stelzer dealt with the vicissitudes of 2020 by releasing a three-disc album of collaborations from names such as Antony Milton, Peter Wright, Windy Weber, Sarah Hennies and Audrey Chen. With each of the dozen tracks named for a colour, there’s a veritable palette of sonic offerings here, from Barry Adamson-esque dub joints to field-recording excursions to dying-universe dark ambient sonic wrangling. Though the type of track – some with VOCALS, no less – varies from shade to shade, there’s always the sense of Stelzer’s sure hand behind it all, teasing the capstans and tensioning the tape.
With thirty-odd years of magnetic wrangling behind him, Stelzer has released something that offers nods to much of his other work, but which is sustained by the human connection of friendship and teamwork. It’s a cheering take on the year, frankly.
The Magnetic Fields – Quickies (Nonesuch)
Inspired by the poetry of Lydia Davis and Stephin Merritt’s own book of Scrabble poetry, Quickies is an album that delights in a short time. Got 48 minutes? Then you’ve got time for 28 songs, some as short as 12 seconds. Merritt and collaborators burn through tunes with autoharp, harmonies and the smart bastard approach that fans of The Magnetic Fields have come to expect. There’s wry moments (‘Favorite Bar’), there’s happy moments (‘The Best Cup Of Coffee In Tennessee’) and there’s outright dumbass moments (‘The Biggest Tits In History’, anybody?) which ensure time spent flips from sorrow to joy repeatedly.
For anyone with a zonked attention span, Quickies is a real gift.
The Mountain Goats – Songs For Pierre Chuvin (Merge Records)
This year did something intervening decades could not: it sent John Darnielle back to his Panasonic boombox to band out some tunes. Yep, we’re talking primo All Hail West Texas, pre-4AD low-fi songs-with-commentary laid straight to wobbly cassette tape.
The collection of ten songs, each written in 90 minutes per day, are just Darnielle and a guitar. He’s singing about pagans, though as ever his words could apply to you, too. The playing is direct, often mining the same repetitive propulsion that fuels earlier TMG tunes – hell, there’s even another ‘Going To’ tune. But it’s enough: the feeling that we’re eavesdropping is compulsive.
(Sorry, John, but this one’s better than Getting Into Knives.)
Bolt Gun – Begotten (Art As Catharsis)
It is doom? Ambient? Noise? None of the preceding? The answer is ‘yes’. Begotten is thoughtful horror for this benighted trip around the sun. It’s difficult to encapsulate why this album is great – it’s a bit like being ground to paste by a colliding asteroid, but in a good way. It’s intelligent music that invokes visceral reactions: metal clangs and the universe, howling, draws your attention to the encroaching void. It’s difficult to pigeonhole, though Bolt Gun have shares in the same kind of epic misanthropy the rebooted lineup of Swans explored. Regardless, it’s grim as fuck and a sobering tonic, best consumed in one depressive slug.
Here are five favourite toasted sandwiches:
Gluten-free vegan tortilla
While it could be fun to do something Mayan with mayonnaise, I have invented the most accessible toastie ever.
Salad sandwich within a toasted sandwich
It’s like a tasty game of pass the parcel but better, because it proves you can make friends with salad.
Toasted peach pastry
I’m sharing this now because if you started eating these during quarantine, you would now want to kill me.
Grilled Jamon toastie
If you like ham, then you’ll like having ham cooked on the outside of your toastie.
Stinging nettle toastie
Nettles are so versatile and so tasty. Nettle beer would be a good accompaniment and is also highly recommended.
Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics (Meat Machine/Tin Angel)
I only became aware of Canadian collective Crack Cloud this year when I heard their 2018 self-titled debut. This turned out to be great timing as it was followed in 2020 by their amazing sophomore effort, Pain Olympics. Using their post-punk roots as a foundation, Pain Olympics is the sound of a band in full creative blossom. The tracks are still tight and punchy but now incorporate more unconventional elements, veering into unexpected directions. Accompanied by a slew of DIY videos produced within the collective, Crack Cloud appear like a scene all of their own and it would appear we have only just scratched the surface of what they will produce.
Party Dozen – Pray For Party Dozen (Grupo)
Sydney duo Party Dozen are a ferocious live force, one that is difficult to capture unless experienced first-hand. The pounding drums and cacophonous saxophone are flanked by various guitar and electronic samples triggered in real-time by drummer, Jonathan Boulet. Their 2017 debut, The Living Man, was a good introduction to Party Dozen’s music but didn’t quite capture the thrill of their live show. 2020’s Pray For Party Dozen not only achieves this but also highlights the more nuanced elements of their sound. Bouncing from the sludgy guitar led ‘Play the Truth’, to the motorik synth of ‘Auto Loser’, to the all-out assault of ‘Gun Control’, there is never a dull moment.
Tetema – Necroscape (Ipecac)
Having been a Mike Patton fan since the early days of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, his staggeringly prolific career has had innumerable highlights. But due to the sheer volume and wildly varied nature of the output, it is difficult to approach every release with enthusiasm. Tetema, the collaborative project between Mike Patton and Australian composer/artist Anthony Pateras, is truly exciting and unique, which is saying something considering its chronological position in the Patton canon. The wildly ambitious music, a melting pot of frenetic percussion and buzzing, pulsing electronics provide the perfect canvas for a typically eclectic Patton vocal performance, drawing from his overflowing bag of vocal tricks.
Clown Core – Van (8===D)
The disturbing, confounding, and utterly hilarious Clown Core videos that pepper YouTube actually add context to music that is otherwise like some fever dream. The obvious jazz chops of both members (who each have more conventional music releases under their given names) are worked into unhinged, short-attention span vignettes full of dirty synth bass, furious drums and saxophone lines that dabble in circus like buffoonery, peppy funk runs, and delicate jazz flourishes. All in complex, yet no less catchy time signatures. Be sure to consume both the audio and visual elements of this outfit. It’s a wild ride.
Armand Hammer – Shrines (Backwoodz Studioz)
The hip-hop project of Billy Woods and Elucid has gone from strength to strength. From a couple low key releases in the early 2010’s, the duo really hit their stride on 2017’s Rome but the blueprints were there from the beginning. The idiosyncratic beats and samples set the scene for the two rappers inimitable flows; the soapbox delivery of Billy Woods and the grimy hustle of Elucid, a perfect pairing whose verses meld seamlessly together.
Peter Hollo (Website Editor)
Five Cellists for 2020 (This year was so long that Five now equals Twelve…)
This year it was a toss-up between resurgent jungle & drum’n’bass or… cellists! I’m a junglist4lyfe, but I’m also a cellist (4lyfe) and this, it seems, was the year of the cello. Read on & click through if you didn’t realise why the cello is the fucking best. (Actually, if you look carefully, there are 15 cellists mentioned… but who’s counting, at this point?) Most of these descriptions are adapted from Utility Fog playlists.
Louise Bock – Sketch for Winter VII – Abyss: For Cello [Geographic North/Bandcamp]
US multi-instrumentalist Taralie Peterson has been making experimental music for a couple of decades, notably with her duo Spires that in the Sunset Rise with Ka Baird (check out their marvellous album from 2020 while you’re at it). She plays saxophone, clarinet and contributes voice (often processed), but she’s also an accomplished cellist, and that’s highlighted on her latest album. Discordant multi-tracked cello is by turns rhythmic and mournfully slow. Lines overlap and intertwine, and occasionally other instruments appear, including some very abstracted guitar from Kendra Amalie on “Oolite”. It’s unsettling and gorgeous.
Lucy Railton – Forma [Portraits GRM/Bandcamp]
This year, Editions Mego teamed up with Ina-GRM for a series of works commissioned by and recorded at the legendary musique concrète studios of Ina-GRM. On a split 12″ with Max Eilbacher, you can find this astonishing work by 23-minute work by English cellist Lucy Railton. It starts off more sound design than cello-focused (unsurprisingly), but there are extended techniques and also gorgeous recitativo on cello, Serge synthesiser, and some beautiful organ performed by Kit Downes as well. And then there are buzzing, growling motors, followed by an utterly gripping passage of squeaking cello tones and see-sawing, fluttering processed sounds that could be a voice or a dog barking, or something entirely artificial. Just absolutely not to be missed.
Mabe Fratti – Pies Sobre la Tierra [Tin Angel Records/Bandcamp] / Planos para Construir [Hole Records]
It’s always wonderful to discover new cellists. Guatemalan musician Mabe Fratti, now based in Mexico City, uses her cello along with synths, effects, and her voice to create experimental music of a truly compelling nature. Her cello will produce scratchy rhythmic bowed patterns, murky drones, jazzy basslines, or bright melodies. She’s clearly interested in experimenting with sound, and one of the things I love about listening to these works is how she’s quite capable of creating gorgeous, pure song (see the first track tonight), but she’s happy peppering these around collections of pure weirdness – tape manipulation, field recordings, strangely processed vocals etc.
She’s also keen on collaboration, and just as I was catching up with the stunning Pies Sobre la Tierra (“Feet on the ground”, originally released in 2019), she’s released Planos para Construir (“Plans to build”), which saw her handing pieces of music over to various musicians and writers, and after some back and forth this album arose.
Marianne Baudouin Lie – Atlantis, Utopia & Ulvedrømmer [Particular Recordings]
The new album from Norwegian cellist Marianne Baudouin Lie is unusual in that all the compositions (commissioned by Lie) use the musician’s voice as well as cello. An educator and researcher as well as a cellist working across classical, improv and contemporary music, Lie covers a lot of ground in the commissions for this album. The “Ulvedrømmer” of the title are “Wolf dreams”, depicted in a “one-woman musical” written with fellow cellist Lene Grenager; in saxophonist Eirik Hegdal‘s Concertino per violoncello et voce, each “Take” calls for the cellist to use her voice in a different way, such as double-stopped cello chords moving exquisitely between dissonance and assonance with her vocal drone.
Bridget Chappell – Undertow [Heavy Machinery Records/Bandcamp]
Naarm/Melbourne artist Bridget Chappell would have fitted into my “jungle” theme for 2020 too, with the ute-sampling deconstructed jungle breaks of the single “Toyota“, under their Hextape alias (highly recommended, along with the re-released 2 Fast 2 Furious album, originally released late last year). But they also released this fascinating album under their own name on adventurous Melbourne label Heavy Machinery Records. This work was commissioned by the City of Melbourne and uses their Open Data Platform to sonify contemporary & historical data about water management, along with manipulated samples of the Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr Park. The location of the Federation Bells was once underwater, and the colonial aspects of water management can’t be ignored, as well as the environmental aspects. Colonialism and climate change are central to Chappell’s practice, and it’s great hearing these come out alongside Chappell’s cello playing and love of rave & industrial beats.
Joana Guerra – Chão Vermelho [Miasmah/Bandcamp]
This is the debut of Portuguese cellist Joana Guerra on Miasmah, the label run by another cellist of the “acoustic doom” persuasion, Erik K Skodvin. Other than a certain queasiness, there’s no great similarity with Skodvin’s work here though – Guerra works her cello into arrangements with violin, vocals and percussion, where peaceful pizzicato gives way to sawing sul pont bowing, see-sawing glissandi, dramatic vocals and more. It’s an idiosyncratic blend of contemporary techniques with traditional & non-traditional song. Another great unusual cellist to add to the list!
Clarice Jensen – The Experience of Repetition as Death [130701/Bandcamp]
Contemporary classical & avant-garde cellist Clarice Jensen’s debut album also came out from Miasmah (in 2018). Her droney, minimalist, deeply evocative works perfectly suited that label, but it’s lovely to see her second album picked up by Fat Cat’s post/neo-classical subsiduary 130701. Jensen is both an accomplished interpreter of contemporary classical composition – including with her American Contemporary Music Ensemble (sporting the great acronym ACME) – and also a performer outside the classical world with artists such as Björk, Dirty Projectors, Blonde Redhead etc. Her solo work is mostly centred around cello layered and looped and effected, and I never tire of the different ways that cellists around the world make use of these techniques. Jensen can build massive tectonic drones, but also might construct shimmering waves of broken bowed chords and emphatic pizzicato notes, or embed the cello in chorusing effects that make it sound like an organ. At other times, the pure acoustic cello sound is layered through reverb for a kind of smeared-out, slowed down baroque music.
Helen Money – Atomic [Thrill Jockey]/ Bandcamp]
Alison Chesley, as Helen Money, is a pioneering, genre-smashing doom cellist, who I’ve been a fan of for many years. Despite her great history of punishing riffage and layered cello distortion, and some great collaborations including one with Jarboe, this album floored me. The riffs are there, but there are also beautiful passages of gentler stuff, multiple cellos with piano and ambient synthesisers & crackling electronics (provided by producer Will Thomas aka Plumbline and also heavy music legend Sanford Parker). There’s maximalism and minimalism here, from a true master.
Okkyung Lee – Yeo-neun [Shelter Press/Bandcamp]
New York cellist Okkyung Lee is perhaps best known for her involvement in the Downtown jazz scene and the noise scene (for the latter, particularly a stunning album with Burning Star Core’s C Spencer Yeh and Lasse Marhaug). Marhaug as producer also helped realise the incredibly intense sound on solo albums such as Ghil. But earlier work like Nihm and Noisy Love Songs (For George Dyer) released by Tzadik demonstrated her skills at melody and arrangement, and those come to the fore on Yeo-Neun, her latest album. It’s the most melodic and accessible since those early Tzadik albums (without the obvious jazz inclinations), and very explicitly references her Korean background, both in titles (Kang Kyung-ok is a Korean comics (Manhwa) artist) and in the music itself. So classical composition, Korean traditional music, and certain elements of noise & improv all get combined into something shiningly gorgeous. Shelter Press seems like an ideal home for these sounds.
Nick Storring – My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell [Orange Milk Records/Nick Storring Bandcamp]
I’ve admired Toronto cellist Nick Storring for some years, and not just because he’s a cellist; he’s one of those versatile musicians who’s made everything from extreme glitchy electronics, unfettered folk, dark indie with Picastro, and sumptuously orchestrated contemporary classical & sound-art, such as his last few works. His new album My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell is released through the great Orange Milk Records (check that Seth Graham artwork!) and it’s exquisite. He presents it as an homage to Roberta Flack, although the music is all original, but you’ll find the connection in the emotiveness, the lush jazz voicings, and some lyrical references in track titles. Like last year’s Qualms and 2014’s Gardens, Storring plays all the bewildering array of instruments, building up an orchestra, a house band, and whatever else he needs for these pieces. These magic dreams are still utterly spellbinding, and well worth your time.
Oliver Coates – skins n slime [RVNG Intl/Bandcamp]
The previous solo albums from English cellist Oliver Coates have either been performances of contemporary composers, or, generally, have mixed layers of his pristine & processed cello with beats & electronics. For his new album, again on RVNG Intl., Coates drops the beats, instead delivering a selection of tonal drones, repeating ostinato phrases, and interpolated elements of processed sounds, the cello at times sounding like a synthesiser or a distorted guitar or even voice. Right at the end, frequent collaborator Malibu, the French ambient artist and singer, contributes evocative spoken word to the final track.
Luigi Archetti & Bo Wiget – Weltformat [Die Schachtel]
This snuck in from last year, as it was not the easiest to get hold of! As is clear, I love finding experimental cellists of all sorts, so I have no idea how Bo Wiget remained in the periphery of my awareness until now. His duo with fellow Swiss experimenter Luigi Archetti, with Wiget on cello and Archetti on guitar and both on electronics, is right up my alley, with extended instrumental techniques rubbing up against glitchy production, minimalist electronic tones, and disembodied passages of neoclassical harmony. Die Schachtel, the in-house label of Italian online experimental record store SoundOhm, released this new album 10 years after the last of their trio of low tide digitals albums for the legendary Norwegian label Rune Grammofon. As it happens, I had heard cellist Bo Wiget before: in 2007 he released a duo album with Belgian cellist Simon Lenski, best known as a member of the genre-destroying band DAAU (Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltung) – avant-garde cello & electronics also, but with very different results from the Archetti / Wiget pairing. And in 2017, a solo album from Wiget featured alarming avant-garde vocals along with his acoustic cello: another idiosyncratic take on playing this great instrument.
Belbury Poly – The Gone Away (Ghost Box)
It’s an album about fairies made with hautological synths. Concepts like this make me weak at the knees. Amazing record.
Vieo Abiungo – At Once, There Was No Horizon (Lost Tribe Sound)
William Ryan Fritch’s messier alter ego is a beautiful album no matter what words you use. Actually now I feel bad about saying messy. Is loose ok? The man is a genius.
Whirlywirld – Complete Discography 1978 – 80 (Sorcerer)
Long overdue reissue of this incredible music from Ollie Olsen.
Various – Gritty, Odd & Good: Weird Pseudo-Music From Unlikely Sources (Discrepant)
Francisco Lopez at the controls – or something like that. After this if you told me he was out DJing in town I’d go, but I’d be terrified. This is seriously weird and schitzo. I love it.
Plone – Puzzlewood (Ghost Box)
They are back and I am a child again.
Harold Budd + Robin Guthrie – Another Flower
My mate Elliot messaged me today to tell me Harold Budd had died. It made me quite sad. RIP Harold Budd, you made some beautiful music.
Griselda – WWCD (Griselda Records)
Huge record. All original instrumentals and all grimy raps from Buffalo NY.
DJ Nigga Fox – Cartas Na Manga (Principe)
Step deep inside the sunrise rave vibe.
ovrkast – Try Again (do more)
Chill beats, introspective raps, nice and short.
Folk Music of China – Volume 8: Folk Songs of the Kazakhg & Kyrgyz Tribes (Naxos World Music)
I got the tip to listen to this from the folks who run the very website you’re visiting. It is quite nice.