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2021-01-08

MUSIC 2020 - my favorite albums




Ok, this is a little bit different than in previous years. Normally my process of compiling the TOP something of my favorite albums of the year starts as soon as I review my first record. Immediately after I've written about a release I put it into my list.
Of course for most of the year this ranking remains quite loose and often when I add an album I also change the position of another one. Only at some point roughly around the beginning of November it gets more serious as I re-listen to everything on my list from the bottom to the top and decide if #53 is really better than #54. At the same time I'm also starting to write paragraphs about the albums which will definitely make the cut.

And all that wasn't possible this year as November struck me hard with personal drama which hardly allowed me to write about or listen to anything.
When I finally started to look after my blog again - mainly as a much needed diversion from all the other stress - I concentrated on the suplementary music lists, which I had partly already prepared before November.

You can read them here:


But for this main course I have nothing at this point (beginning of January) - and there's no way I'm starting to work my way through all of it in the usual way now.

I thought that maybe I should just do a couple of shorter rankings divided by musical style: metal, jazz etc. The problem with that idea is that I'm particularily fond of albums which push and blur the lines between genres. But hell, what the fuck. In the end this is all about recommending shit I loved this year, so I'll just try it kind of that way in various chapters, but without the strict ranking part or something like a properly laid out plan.



Before I finally start here's the inevitable disclaimer:

This post totally represents my personal subjective taste and only features albums that are actually part of my collection. I have heard - or am aware of - many more great releases, including a huge pile of stuff on my wantlist, which I didn't have the mood or money to get yet and hopefully will get to harvest at some point in the not so far future.

So some artists like Blues PillsEmma Ruth Rundle & Thou (ordered colored vinyl, but the retailer didn't get enough copies), JesuKing Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, My Dying Bride, Napalm DeathPsychotic WaltzSumacUlcerate or Ulver (and whoknowswho I just forgot) might or might not be part of this as well, if I hadn't slept on their new stuff to date.





I. BEHOLD THE TOWERING TITANS OF TWENTY-TWENTY!



Yeah, let's get those right out of the way! These records exist beyond genre categorizations. They dwarf the world around them and will still last when we're all long gone.



First of all I'm of course starting with the one I try to sneak into almost every best-of-list this year. LAIBACH's "Laibach Revisited", part of their giant 5-LPs-plus-extras box set of the same name, could very well be the most laibachian Laibach release of all times. These radically reimagined early 1980s' classics of the Slovenian collective bring together various eras of their sound in the most impressive way. Other than the rest of the box this double album is also available separately as a digital release.
(But even if you own that box, I still strongly recommend to extend it by former Laibach member Sašo VOLLMAIER's short supplementary album "Kind of Laibach", on which several of the same tracks are reprised as themes of heavy piano compositions.)


If you look at the parts of the sum, NEPTUNIAN MAXIMALISM's three-albums mammoth release "Eons" is already impressive. But there is better drone out there, there is better doom, better psychedelic music, and there's certainly better jazz.
Yet the uncompromising primeval grandiosity in which the Belgian collective weaves dark and light, Sunn O))) and Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and Swans and so much more together in this highly avant-garde and monolithic debut is just as mighty as it is unique. I've read that many critics - even though they love this work - find it hard to access, but that's not my experience at all. Maybe it's challenging if you're not acquainted with certain elements like the strong free jazz influence. Personally I find it extremely easy to immerse myself into the cosmos of "Éons". The artwork and packaging of both the CD and vinyl version is fittingly stunning.

Even though this article is supposed to be about studio albums and this one has already been at the top of my favorite live albums category, the vast relevance of TRIPTYKON's Roadburn collaboration with the METROPOLE ORKEST just has to be acknowledged here again. Because Thomas Gabriel Fischer's "Requiem" is not just a great live documentation of some show, but a monumental doom legacy which sets a new high standard of artistic integrity for any metal band working with a classical orchestra in the future.    

The hardest working band in Scandinavian rock music, MOTORPSYCHO, has put out a new double album this year and naturally "The All Is One" once again sees the Norwegians rocking heavy, masterly, tasteful and just larger than life. Especially the album inside the album "N.O.X.", which could almost have been written by Magma, is another pinnacle in Motorpsycho's oeuvre. Be prepared to shake your whole body with your mouth wide open in amazement!

It's hard to imagine that 2020 has seen another record from Norway, which albeit leaning stronger towards jazz fusion not only shares a lot of spirit and influences with "The All Is One", but is partly even superior in its musical language. Enter
HEDVIG MOLLESTAD's masterpiece "Ekhidna"! Anyone who has ever seen or heard the prog/jazz/blues/rock/metal guitar player with her regular Trio knows that she's a virtuoso - here she also proves that she's just as stellar as a composer and arranger.

I don't think that I've purchased any album old or new this year, which sounds anywhere near the ambitious collection of intelligent earworm songs that is "The Quiet Earth" by THE ACADEMY OF SUNI still find it hard to label this diverse work from Nick Hudson, who also co-created my favorite - and totally different - download-only album of the year. Post punk meets 80s synth pop meets singer/songwriter piano artrock? Partly akin to Cohen, Bowie, Cave, PalmerBush, Amos, but never losing its own identity in the process, this album is pouring  with artistic vision.

Wow, this section has already grown longer than expected and there are still some candidates clearly worthy of being featured here. But let's close this with the hands-down best fucking metal album of the year!

On "Alphaville" IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT marry Voivod, The Residents and New York City within a context of abrasive, excessive, uncomfortable, disharmonic, jazzy black metal and adorn it with cineastic choirs, classical influences, barbershop vocals, teiko drums and whatever else fits into their unscrupulously brutal retrofuturistic concept. This knots your mind and just absolutely slays!





II. BASH AND BRUTALIZE MY BLACKENED SOUL!



Imperial Triumphant already set the brainfucking tone for the following bunch of 2020 favorites. Apart from certain jazz artists my preferred more is more music these days mostly manifests in the shape of black metal being soaked in avant-garde for maximal synaptic overkill. Music that mangles and mindfucks fucks you, but does it in a cathartic way, before it spits you out innocent like a cleansed baby.


ORANSSI PAZUZU as guests on many end-of-the-year lists are an obvious opener here. And what can I say (again and again)? The hype around these Finnish black metal meets psychotic psychedelic masters couldn't be more justified. "Mestarin Kynsi" is a sick, hypnotic and innovative masterpiece and definitely ranks among my top 5 metal releases of this year.

There have been albums however that went much further into diverse sonic worlds, where part of the evil madness is that you can never be sure what sounds and influences might come into play at any given moment.

French prolific multi-instrumentalist hermit Asthâghul aka ESOCTRILIHUM seems to thrive under covid quarantine conditions. "Eternity Of Shaog" is yet another multi-faceted collision of demonic spheres. The album is more "musical" than and not as maelstromy as its predecessor "The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods" though. So if you're missing that element of super exaggerated cacophony here, you might find some of it in the following avant-garde black metal project from Brazil...

Yet what BRÍI has put onto tape in four mammoth tracks on "Entre Tudo que é Visto e Oculto" goes far beyond an amalgam of extreme metal and brutal noise, as it just as importantly embraces tangerine dreamish ambient, meditative robot voices and trance-enducing club beats among lots of other crazy influences which come together much more fluid than you would expect.

Dialing down the atmospheric evil a bit and jumping right into the ball pit of blatant silly fun while still keeping the music top-notch, there's no way around IGORRR's "Spirituality And Distortion". Death metal, breakbeat, cembalo, chanson, opera, polka, accordeon music... If it's seemingly impossible or too stupid to mix - Igorrr has it on this double album and it rules!    

Of course as every year some of the most insane releases bear the hallmarks of Otto Kokke and René Aquarius, who have unleashed sick shit not only as Dead Neanderthals, but also in other bands and projects. Excluding the new year's eve EP "Cosmic Slime" here, my favorite neanderthal-related recordings are the following tape trinity of lunacy, with each and every album being a top contender for the number one spot of sick sick sickest shit of 2020:


At its core there isn't much new or "out there" on
"Nightmare Traversal" by CRYPTAE. Most of this is just pure rotting, fundamentalistic old school death metal with a pinch of grindcore. But the distortion is so excessive, its sound is so misanthropically ferocious that it initially feels like something completely different and alien. What a frenzied and oppressive beast!

Another duo featuring René Aquarius is PLAGUE ORGAN. Their fourty minutes long one-track album "Orphan" can probably only be loved or despised as a nerve-racking abomination. The description "meditative sounds and ominous drones mixed with throat singing, buried under a relentless annoying thrash rhythm" can only theoretically scratch on the surface of what this really is. If you pull it off to get into the zone, this album can take you to unexpected places.

"Sleep Forever"
, a collaboration of both Dead Neanderthals members with black metal musician Vitriol (Ulveblod) under the moniker MILTVUUR takes you to one particular place. Combined with horror synths, black metal guitars and samples this is probably the most disturbing display of the classic Neanderhal sax & drums extreme free jazz. 
As I said in my review: Satan's cover version of John Coltrane's "Ascension". A Butterfahrt through hell. Terminal buffet with well done children roast inclusive. 





III.  ISN'T HALF OF THIS ALREADY ABOUT THE J-WORD?


Jazz is definitely my number one music when it comes to adding classic albums to my collection. So most of my jazz discoveries of 2020 are actually from the 1950s up to the 1970s. But of course there is also some awesome new stuff, with most of my favorites (of which some have already been discussed above) being some kind of fusion or genre crossers.


The most bonkers - and thus the best jazz record to continue after the abysmal madness of Miltvuur - certainly is
"Allt Är Intet", a heavy jazz/noise/prog fusion tour de force to end all avant-garde jazz records by the immensly unique Swedish/Norwegian/Ethiopian quintet THE END. Especially the vocal acrobatics of this album are not from this reality.

If this was an all-genres TOP list like in previous years the following three masterpieces would still all have made it into the TOP 10:

After decades of being led by now ninety-six years young sax and electric wind instrument whirlwind Marshall Allan, the SUN RA ARKESTRA has finally released a studio album! "Swirling"  honors all those years the master has watched the legendary free jazz big band from the Jupiterian distance with vivid and fresh interpretation which surely make him proud.

Jazz mostly in instrumentation, while the atmospheric and hypnotically repetive nature of the three longtracks on "Three" also opens doors to post rock, psych and ambient, you're pretty safe just calling the style of Australian trio THE NECKS "post jazz". Anyone who feels somehow receptice to musical trance should give this one a listen!

With each of its four pieces backed by a different drummer jazz/dub/funk/experimental giant BILL LASWELL has gathered a true spiritual free jazz rock fusion supergroup on "Against Empire". Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock and Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith are only the biggest household names on this amazingly rich tapestry of musical perfection.

Urgent, deep and serious in its topics, yet sprawling infectious positivity is "Shaman!" by IDRIS ACKAMOOR & THE PYRAMIDS. Led by the saxophone veteran, who also plays the keytar and does spoken word and lead vocal performances, this double album is a catchy firestorm breathing the Africanisms of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane as well as exploding in soulful funk.

And speaking of soul...





IV. BATHE ME IN BEAUTY AND SOOTHE MY SOUL!  


I have no idea how I would have endured the struggles of this shit show of a year without music to catch me. This section is dedicated to the best records to embrace you with waves of longing, melancholy, beauty and/or transcendence. And for the first one we'll stay in the world of jazz for one last time:


The misleading thing about the term "doomjazz" is that it doesn't necessarily describe a jazz subgenre, but rather a form of ambient soundtrack or slow post rock music. The grand masters BOHREN & DER CLUB OF GORE however have never gone as full-on jazz as on the long-awaited "Patchouli Blue" before, while still cherishing those twinpeak-ish qualities which make you want to slowdance with Audrey Horne at the Roadhouse. Almost too beautiful to be true.

Ominously droning and definitely darker than "Pachouli Blue" - but then also heavenly illuminated when it wants to be - is ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF's magical organ-only instrumental album "All Thoughts Fly". When it comes to visceral excapism there are only few who can take it up with Anna, whose band Bada also released one of the best doom/drone/psychedlic albums of year with their self-tiled debut.

Related in its long-winding droning approach and its love for the details in the timbre of its instruments, yet aiming even more at a meditative effect  is "Ajaeng Ajaeng" by the experimental composer EYVIND KANG. While pieces like the title track, which only conists of two Korean court music zithers roaring and crackling around each other for half an hour, may seem challenging at first, this turns out to be an enormously soul-cleansing and peaceful experience.

So far all these have been instrumental albums. If you need a human voice to tell you that everything will be ok, none is more believable than that of epic post rock singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist A.A. WILLIAMS. Even though "Forever Blue" features some surprsingly harsh passages (partly with help of Cult Of Luna's Johannes Persson) this whole debut LP is a thing of perfect strong and vulnerable emotional beauty.

Man, consequent escapism is hard! Somehow Williams' melancholy is still rooted in this world.
What if I really want to go full fairies and fantasy? Enter MYRKUR's "Folkesange"! Giving herself fully to Scandinavian folk music (and pausing black metal for this release completely) the Danish artist exhales a feathery light clarity,  while the compositions still feel grounded in ancient substance. 




 


V. YEAR OF DOOM, YEAR OF GLOOM 



No, you cannot fully blind out how bleak and dark 2020 was. So fuck it, let's fully immerse in doom and related sounds of angst!


Since I already snuck Bada into the text above we'll have to start this with the most existentially desperate sludge and doom chunk one could carve out the year. "Monad" by the Dutch two-basses-plus-drums trio FARER (ex-Menhir) pulverizes your body in slow motion and thrusts the remaining particles into the void, where they will suffer for the rest of eternity.

One of my earliest purchases of the year and still justifying my unconditional love for it is INSECT ARK's instrumental doom/drone album "The Vanishing". Yet another band without the usual guitars (Dana Schechter plays bass and lap-steel guitar instead) the duo's nightmartish sound among many other influences merges swansy grooves with the broad Western feel of Dylan Carlson.

Moving away from metal or even rock entirely the Polish sounds craftsman SAMUTEK delivers the soundtrack for an imaginary remake of "The Blairwitch Project" with the aesthetics of "Mandy", taking place inside the pitch-black jungle of Malaysia in the experimental dark ambient and drone collages of "Omamy". If phantasmagoric paranormal horror isn't a fitting mood for our times, then what the flute is?

A beast stylistically related to Farer, but leading its ultra-distorted sludge/doom premise to a conclusion closer to the epic form of SubRosa, while being unapologetically grim and punishing are VILE CREATURE. I
nfused with a personal and politically aware hardcore spirit "Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!" features one of my favorite metal songs the year with the second of its two title tracks. Feral!

A bit of a stretch in this section which doesn't necessarily scream for classic sword-wielding heavy metal are CIRITH UNGOL. But come on, these cult legends were predecessors and trailblazers of death and doom and above all their first studio full-lenth album after almost thirty years is one of the strongest comebacks imaginable. It's not rocket science, it's meeetaaaal, but boy, everything about "Forever Black" is fucking phenomenal!

And of course I'm also transitioning to my final segment....  







VI. ONLY ROCK WILL PSYCH US NOW!




Here are my standout recommendations in both hard and psychedelic rock, with both directions oberlapping here and there anyway:


It's no surprise that DOOL's "Summerland" has always been safe among my absolute favorites since its release in April. Even without even trying to write a second "Oweynagat" the Dutch dark rock band around charismatic leader Ryanne van Dorst stays on the top of their game. It's a shame that none of this material could be promoted live so far. With the traction of Dool's fantastic shows this album would surely gained a lot more of the attention it deserves.

There's no way to say Dool and then keep quiet about "Through The Hollow" from the band which has even stronger connections to the legacy of The Devil's Blood. Featuring none other than Farida Lemouchi on vocals MOLASSESS (now with an extra S at the end!) have released an incredibly strong debut double album filled with mesmerizing hypnotic occult rock that embraces Selim's memory, yet still finds its own voice.

Gathered in covid-proof distance around a car on a graveyard, as you do these days, LUCIFER continue on their path deeper into classic hard rock of the 1970s on their aptly titled third full-length "Lucifer III". Johanna's vocals still get better with each release, but on this one especially the crispy, powerful, yet still very vintage-spirited production fills my ears with joy. Not to forget that every song on "III" is a memorable hit.

My review of CAMEL DRIVER's "\ /" (aks "Camel Toe" or whatever you prefer the title to be) is probably one of my greatest writings hits of the year. And why not? Word about the bone dry, yet extremely fluid mixture of fuzzy power trio stoner rock, prog metal, post rock and Arabisms the Northern German instrumental group displays here, has to be spread far beyond the Baltic Sea desert. 

A titanic hybrid of D. Manhattan, Thanos and Conan dragging a ridiculously oversized sword behind him on a cold rock somewhere in the midst of space. One of the most noticeable and most fitting cover artworks of this year adorns the double album "Ummon" by the ultra-energetic French spacerock trio SLIFT. Injected with heavy doses of stoner rock, doom metal and punk the drive and rawness of this essential psych release severely (yet lovingly) kicks your small mortal ass.

Radar Men Against The Machine! The ever shapeshiftig Dutch RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON aka RMFTM once again morphed their sound and the result on "The Bestial Light" is the most urgent and aggressive the band has ever been. That's not only due to two drummers supporting the heavy bass and psychotic guitar licks and riffs, but also the result of adding a seriously angry shouter to the mix. This album is an excellently pissed brutal hate chunk with an unmistakable robotik kraut note.

After these two punishments let me end this whole long thingy with a comparatively rather mellow psych release by the Finnish band PERMANENT CLEAR LIGHT: "Cosmic Comics" masterfully moves from rubbersoulish Beatles worship over kraftwerkian synth rock to classic prog and jazzy vibes. An album just as dreamy as beautiful as diverse and intriguing.






And here's a YouTube playlist which features most of the albums and also stuff from my previous MUSIC 2020 segments.

     







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