Drone / modern composition
After last year’s stunning album The Sacrificial Code by Kali Malone, it’s now becoming clear – and I realise how unlikely this may sound to some – that there’s something unexpectedly interesting going on in the realm of modern organ music. My two favourite albums of 2020 are performed almost exclusively on instrument. On All Thoughts Fly, Anna von Hausswolff abandons her gothic pop sensibilities and produces incredible textures using pipe organs that seem to rear above you like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cantus, Descant by Sarah Davachi is a less terrifying affair, but no less overwhelming. It features six different organs in the US and Europe from reed to pipe organ, and despite running at 80 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome even considering the accompanying live release Figures In Open Air, with its two central hour-long performances in Chicago and Berlin. Galya Bisengalieva of the London Contemporary Orchestra manages to fulfil the promise of her 2019 Eps while also being utterly surprising with Aralkum, an instrumental concept album apparently concerning the shrinking Aral Sea, and evoking her textures for Actress. There’s a similar tone on Oliver Coates’ performance of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Sky / Three High Places, the patient, accumulating layers on Harbors by Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong, and in the outstanding analogue drones of Music for Cello and Humming by Judith Hamann, which also features Sarah Hennies.
In terms of less readily identifiable drones, Finnish techno prodigy Vladislav Delay comes up with the annual goods with Rakka, and also a wonderful, doomy dub collaboration with Sly & Robbie entitled 500 Push-Up. My final two favourite drone albums are Double Bind by Geneva Skeen, and the surprisingly organic Oehoe by Machinefabriek, featuring Anne Bakker on (wordless) vocals and violin.
Folk / primitive / field
Gwenifer Raymond’s take on Fahey-esque primitive Americana is heightened by the knowledge that her melodies in Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain are inspired by the Welsh valleys and folklore. Laura Cannell continues a terrific run of form with the distinctly folk-horror collection The Earth With Her Crowns. Beholder by Julia Reidy offers dizzying, ringing guitar textures in which I can lose myself for hours, and similarly the more fragile improvisations on Welsh harp on Telyn Rawn by Rhodri Davies. Dirty Three drummer Jim White, along with Marisa Anderson, provides more immediately digestible melodies in The Quickening, though still as complex as his best work. Kate Carr proves herself to be one of the most interesting current field recordings artists with no less than three releases this year, the pick of which are the stunning Fabulations and The Thing Itself and Not the Myth.
Weird / psychedelic / hip hop
This year, all of my psychedelia needs unrelated to Sun Ra were catered for The Totemist by Ak’chamel, The Giver Of Illness, which sounds like Sunburned Hand of the Man with heatstroke. Love/Dead by Olan Monk defies easy categorisation, though I suppose it’s much minimal techno as anything, though so dark and strange that it’s as if all the lights go out as soon as it begins, and equally so with Metal Preyers by Metal Preyers, which Boomkat describes as ‘chopped & screwed gristle meets ballistic singeli and mutant electro-acholi’, which, though baffling, is presumably accurate. Visions of Bodies Being Burned by clipping. is as hallucinatory as hip hop gets. Finally, Scis by Oval is a more enjoyable album than the new Autechre, for me, and certainly more frantic.
Vocal / pop / indie
The Night Chancers by Baxter Dury may not make me as deliriously happy as his earlier Happy Soup, but it’s still chock-full of his self-deprecating wit, and contains some of my favourite lyrics of the year: Carla’s got a boyfriend / He’s got horrible trousers / And a small car … Carla’s got a boyfriend / I might take care of him, to be honest. Similarly, Pillowland by Jam City doesn’t quite hit the heights of their earlier Dream a Garden, but prods the same hauntological parts of the mind, so that you could convince yourself not only that you’ve heard each track before, but also that each was in fact a key part of the soundtrack to your childhood. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius features soaring melodies and straightforwardly brilliant songwriting. Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad is rough and enthusiastic, and a useful reminder that Mica Levi was already excellent within Micachu and the Stripes before she became Britain’s best composer of film scores. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never is surprisingly direct, melodic and memorable, featuring plenty of guest artists and vocals. Finally, Laura Cannell makes another (very different) appearance in this list under the name Hunteress, playing around with synth pop on The Unshackling, and succeeding wildly.
The artist I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose compilation Transmissions: The Music Of Beverly Glenn-Copeland I found staggering – a bizarre array of styles, equal parts inspirational and mawkish, and an odd sort of forward-hauntology in which e.g. Massive Attack tracks are evoked ahead of time, and a sense that the songs alter each time I listen to them. Other than that, I loved Temporary Residence’s anthology Field Works: Ultrasonic featuring Felicia Atkinson, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Machinefabriek.