Well, twenty-twenty has been a year. I’m not here to cover what’s happened outside of music so don’t worry, but one thing COVID-19 couldn’t stop is the relentless tides of music. It did, however, slow them down somewhat, but people cope, adapt, create nonetheless, and, in the end, borne art into the world.
I reviewed, or rather recommended, 175 albums released in 2020; all formats included, I’ve tracked 2,853 releases! Compare this to 2019’s 2,589 and you can see how this is one domain almost untouched by the pandemic. Last year, I had the brilliant idea of putting together a top-2019 of 2019, this year, I’m going to keep it more realistic.
To the 175 albums I wrote about, I added some I didn’t write about but about which I had good memories, raising that number to 250. Yes, I am aware that putting all of those albums in one post would be absurd, and in the end detrimental to my goal, which is to trick you into listening to music most people wouldn’t. Therefore, I went through the list and selected only the albums about which I still had a strong feeling of liking them. It’s far from a perfect system; when you listen to so much music in a year that you barely have time to listen to the same album twice if you like it, you forget things along the way, as the albums don’t have time to leave a deep enough impression on you. So, what I have here might not even be the albums I liked the most out of 2020! Simply put, it’s the albums I remember the most. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that while the year is over, my discovery of albums from 2020 is far from done! For example, I’m still waiting on my copy of the Japanese progressive death metal act 五人一首, which didn’t release outside of Japan!
While this list is rather succinct, I think it’s of great quality, and I really want you all to listen to every single one of the albums on this list, because I really feel like they are essential listens, experiences of pure joy on their own. It’s not a ranked list, it’s in chronological order, there really are no favourites here. With that said, I hope you’ll enjoy what I curated for you.
Cocanha – Puput (Pagans)
I fell in love with the Occitan folk trio Cocanha with their previous album, I ès ?, and only fell deeper with the release of Puput. The three women sing with energy and euphoria polyphonic compositions in the folkloric tradition, accompanying themselves with hands, feet, and stringed tambourine. They also like to experiment with temperament from time to time, and voice is the best instrument to experiment with when you control it so masterfully. Case in point: move to about 2:20 in “La sovenença” and rejoice in the beautifully horrific harmony there!
2021 take: I still go to this album from time to time for a festive, upbeat, and folky good time. It never got far off in my head, and it’s always a pleasure to go back to it.
ႢႨႭႰႢႨ ႫႨႵႠႻႤ – ႵႠႰႧႳႪႨ ႫႨႩႰႳႿႤႫႨ (Rare Noise)
You read that right: Georgian Microjamz is exactly what you think it is! Giorgi Mikadze, the keyboard player in 2017’s album of the century, Mikrojazz!, is back with boundaries-breaking new music. ႵႠႰႧႳႪႨ ႫႨႩႰႳႿႤႫႨ (Kartuli mik’rujemi) / Georgian Microjamz is a fusion of avant-garde jazz and traditional Georgian music. The fact that all of this album is designed and performed using xenharmonic theory is just mind-boggling. The various temperaments exploited on there are not just a gimmick, but truly serve the compositions. Thanks to guitarist David Fiucziyski and bassist Παναγιώτης Ανδρέου (Panagiṓtēs Andréou), who break no sweat burning through these unconventional tunings, the band is complete with masters of the craft. The album comes out on February 28, be sure to grab it, and be ready to see it on the year’s end list!
2021 take: I was right! It’s on my list! That album still is a creative masterpiece.
David Hertzberg – The Wake World (צ)
The Wake World is a new contemporary opera work by composer David Hertzberg. It’s a surreal and hypnotizing musical journey on two discs that starts up relatively slowly, but ends up being quite astonishing and gripping. It’s difficult to put such a massive and ethereal piece into more words, so I strongly suggest you watch this video and listen to the whole thing for yourself. Sit down comfortably, put your headphones on or plug in a good sound system, and let yourself sink into this magical experience. I’ll end with a quote.
I think the opera is pretty whacky.
— David Hertzberg
2021 take: I haven’t been into opera much, this year, but this one was always on my mind. It’s such a surreal, psychedelic experience at times that it defies the mind. Truly a life-changing work.
Serpents of Pakhangba – Serpents of Pakhangba
Serpents of Pakhangba is the latest project of multi-instrumentalist and composer Vishal J Singh, of Amogh Symphony fame. This new quartet errs into the sounds of avant-prog, noise rock, and free jazz, and the coalescing result of this bizarre amalgamation is truly more than the sum of its parts. The album comes out late May!
2021 take: I’m glad that this project exists. It’s quirky, innovative, and challenging, and it’s also a whole lot of fun! I already can’t wait for more.
باب لبلوز / ⴱⴰⴱ ⵍ ⴱⵍⵓⵣ – Nayda! (Real World)
Moroccan “new Gnawa” group Bab L’ Bluz‘s debut album, Nayda!, is a modern interpretation and hybridization of traditional Gnawa music with psychedelia, pop, and funk, and the resulting product is utterly infectious and intoxicating! There are a few slower, mellower songs more typical of desert blues, but a large portion of the record is highly energetic, made to dance or bob your head in trance. Every one of the ten tracks here are masterfully thought out and executed, presenting us with a flawless album that both pays homage and challenges its roots and paves the way for something new and transcendental.
2021 take: That’s one of the albums I’ve listened to the most, that’s for sure! It’s just like velcro to your ear, it sticks!
Washed Out – Purple Noon (Sub Pop)
2021 take: I haven’t written about this album in 2020! I guess I figured it was too mainstream or well established already so they wouldn’t really benefit from my meagre exposure, but here is their album on my year-end list! Purple Noon is another album that got a lot of spins, the band’s shoegazy atmospheric pop is delicate and perfectly put together. It’s a great album to sing along to (a rare sight on this site!)
Jacob Collier – Djesse, Volumes 1 to 3 (Decca (UMO))
ⅩⅪ century musical genius Jacob Collier is back with the third instalment of his Djesse suite. On Volume 3, Jacob explores contemporary, so-called urban, music—whereas 1 was a foray in jazz fusion, and 2 had stronger folk music vibes—with pop, R&B, rap, and funk heavily represented. In this new turn of events, there are a lot of influences crisscrossed all throughout each composition, which usually have unusual song structures, which often include very short passages of other genres, making them almost seem like a musical collage or mosaic (listen to “In My Bones” for a good example of what I’m talking about here). The result is an engrossing and utterly venomous record that will get stuck in your head for a while.
2021 take: I don’t like to idolize anyone, but Jacob Collier is an exceptional musician. I’m not blindly in awe in front of everything he does and every word he speaks, but most of the things he does musically are very impressive and really good. Case in point, three completely different albums that are all essential listens of 2020.
Orchestre national de jazz – Rituels (ONJ)
I jokingly referred to the album as “jazzeuhl” on our inside group, but there is definitely some truth to that. The Orchestre national de jazz from Paris, France—not the Texas one—regroups some of the country’s best jazz musicians and composers. They usually play the relatively standard repertoire of jazz, or pieces rather like it, but since 2018 the orchestra is under the direction of Frédéric Maurin, renowned for his eccentric and ambitious projects. Thus, in 2020, we find ourselves with a double release from the ONJ: the aforementioned Rituels, and the more standardly typical Dancing in Your Head(s) (which we won’t discuss). Rituels is a massive and quasi-hallucinogenic ninety-minute auditory experience reminding one of many of Zeuhl’s unique traits as a genre, as well as some exploratory classical composers like Чайко́вский (Tchaikovski) and Gershwin. It’s a rapturous ritual, best gone through in one sitting, basking in it, letting it flow through you and alter you completely. One of the year’s best albums.
2021 take: If there was only one album I’d keep from this list, this would be it.
Beaten to Death – Laat maar, ik verhuis naar het bos (Mas-Kina)
Beaten to Death have been generally very difficult to categorize, but I think I’ve got just the right term for them: post-grindcore. Yeah, it’s new, but I think it conveys the band’s sound better than anything else I’ve come across. Their brand of music is relentless, heavy, hectic, and sometimes dissonant, but it’s also very melodic, sometimes atmospheric, and also pays great attention to harmonic progression. Their newest project is the Laat maar, ik verhuis naar het bos album, which is “vinyl only” and “will never be sent out for promotional or press reviews”. Well, one month after I ordered my copy of the vinyl, I received a promotional copy of the album (not the vinyl, not yet)! Well, I guess they meant that only for the vinyl mix, then? Anyway, the digital version of the album will be split into four EPs, each representing a forest: Mastbos, 青木ヶ原 (Aokigahara), Østmarka, and Endor (yes, the Star Wars one!) Each one will be released two weeks apart, starting on November 13 all the way to December 24. This is some of BTD’s best material to date (and their material is always fantastic), so be hyped for when this hits!
2021 take: These Norwegians really are something! An extreme album from beginning to end, and it’s so good to be hit by it.
Cut the Alligator – Niopee’s Call (Musiques têtues)
And now for something different… Cut the Alligator is a French ten-member funk band redolent of the seventies, but with a definitely modern twist. It’s not usually the type of album that’s featured on this website, though we’re not new to funk, but I was so enthralled by the utterly infectious grooves and melodies that I just had to share my complete enjoyment with everyone! Do you long for a stellar album to jam and bring good vibes with it? Look no further.
2021 take: This album helped me more than once remain awake when night driving. It’s soo groovy!
Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies
I will never claim to fully grasp Liturgy‘s convoluted world and cosmogony, but I’ll repeat my love and admiration for its music. With Origin of the Alimonies, I think we’ve got their most diverse and mature collection of works yet. It’s got more atmospheric passages, heightened by a rather large cast of musicians, still some electronic manipulation (glitches and repeats, for example), and a good deal of rhythmic intricacies. It might just be my favourite Liturgy record!
2021 take: My favouritism towards this album has only widened the more I listened to it. Which is, admittedly, not as much as other albums on this list, but I always managed to be impressed every time I went back to it.
Сва да ра – Зареница
Ukrainian folk-djent project Сва да ра (Sva da ra) just released two albums on the same day! Here, I won’t talk about Pilgrim; although it’s nice and all, it’s Зареница (Zarenica / Zarenitsa) that steals the spotlight. As always, it’s singer Юлия Шевель (Julija Ševel’)’s presence that is on top of it all. Her voice and technique are beautiful and flawless, and gracefully put in the spotlight thanks to Денис Зубарев (Denis Zubarev)’s compositions and recordings. It’s a perfect way to get into Eastern European folk music, from a metal point of view.
2021 take: A strong and memorable album that got quite a lot of plays from me! It’s melodic and heavy, and while there’s room for improvement that can be imagined on repeated listens, it’s a solid record that bodes well for the future of the band.
五人一首 – 死人賛歌 (Bang the Head)
Note: this video is a performance from the band’s debut album, released in 2000.
Japanese avant-garde death metal legend 五人一首—thereafter Gonin-ish—has released a new full-length album, some fifteen years after their magnum opus 内視鏡世界 (Naishikyō sekai), released in 2005. However, it’s not as clear-cut. Indeed, their new album, 死人賛歌 (Shibito sanka)—translated loosely as Dead Hymn—was released on December 9, but only in Japan. Moreover, nowhere is there any sort of stream to be found, not even a little teaser or trailer! So, you’ll have to trust my word and judge based on almost twenty-year-old videos. Thankfully, you can find their sophomore release on streaming services. But now, let’s talk about Shibito sanka. Gonin-ish is known for their wild and energetic performance, eclectic compositions, and special blend of harsh vocals and Japanese folk-influenced melodies. On top of that, one of the remarkable features of the band is their use of piano to supplement the dense aural world they create. Well, all of these elements are back, and, finally, with a production worthy of the music. Before Shibito sanka, Gonin-ish’s production seemed rough and often seemed to peak on record, which was to the detriment of the listening experience. However, on this new album, I haven’t heard any peak, although there is plenty of compression going on, and the mix and overall production is done with the greatest care and suits well the band, even though I’d personally favour a more organic and dynamic production. Finally, I’ll retroactively include Shibito sanka on my 2020 AOTY list; it’s that good! If you want it, however, you’ll need to import it from Japan and wait a few weeks for delivery, and that’s quite unfortunate. Give music to the people!
That’s already it? Yeah, I guess! I know I’ve accustomed you all to an absurd amount of music, but what’s here really is the best of the best of the bestest. Tell me what you think about my list, and what your album(s) of the year is/are!
Yeah I couldn’t resist, here’s all the 250 albums I’ve loved this year. No embeds but links and all! Cheers!
Aiming for Enrike – Music for Working Out (Pekula) [math rock, noise rock] Bandcamp
An Anderson – Rude Unraveling [progressive rock, math rock] Bandcamp
Galia Social – Part 1: The Rise of Galia [progressive rock, jazz fusion] Bandcamp
Pestilength – Eilatik (Red Door) [avant-garde death metal] Bandcamp
Frank Macchia & Brock Avery – Rhythm Abstraction: Azure (Cacophony) [jazz fusion, progressive rock] Deezer
Cthulhu Rise – Last [progressive rock, jazz fusion] Bandcamp
Thermohaline – Thermohaline [avant-garde black metal] Bandcamp
John Zorn – Beyond Good and Evil ([צ (Tzadik)]) [avant-garde jazz] Label page
Thy Catafalque – Naiv (Season of Mist) [progressive rock] Bandcamp
Tricot – [真っ黒 (Makkuro / Pitch Black)] (Avex Entertainment) [math rock] Spotify
Thoren – Gwarth Ⅱ (Drylands) [avant-garde death metal] Bandcamp
Meganeko – Eclipse [electrocore] Bandcamp
Sightless Pit – Grave of a Dog (Thrill Jockey) [experimental sludge metal, noise] Bandcamp
The Motion Mosaic – Avant-Garbage [mathcore] Bandcamp
Ill Considered – 9: East/West (CNM LDN) [experimental jazz, spiritual jazz] Bandcamp
Orchards – Lovecore (Big Scary Monsters) [indie rock, math rock] Bandcamp
Brian Marsella – Gatos do sul ([צ (Tzadik)]) [jazz fusion] Video
Onipa – We No Be Machine (Strut) [Afrobeat, pop] Bandcamp
Aeternam – [القسم (Al-qsm)] [progressive death metal] Bandcamp
Wake – Devouring Ruin (Translation Loss) [deathgrind] Bandcamp
Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind (Warp) [alternative pop, R&B] Bandcamp
Sitar Metal – Sitar Metal [progressive metal] Bandcamp
Cataèdes – Les Affæmmées : Contes d’outre-amante (Antiq) [experimental folk] Bandcamp
Agamemnon Moustakas – Exaggerations [free improvisation] Bandcamp
Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi (Nuclear Blast) [progressive black metal] Bandcamp
Frank Macchia & Brock Avery – Rhythm Abstraction: Gold (Cacophony) [jazz fusion] Deezer
Cassowary – Cassowary (Fat Possum) [nu jazz, funk] Bandcamp
Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still (Dēbēmur mortī) [blackened death metal] Bandcamp
Tuscoma – Discourse [blackened post-metal] Bandcamp
The Hirsch Effekt – Kollaps (Long Branch) [progressive metal, mathcore] Bandcamp
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (Inside Out) [progressive metal] Video
[كميليا جبران (Kmylyā Jbrān / Kamilya Jubran) & Werner Hasler – [وَ (Wa)] (Akuphone) [experimental electro, world fusion] Bandcamp
Stephen Weigel – [🎧👂🔜🖤💗📛🎲🎰🎮🥇🚴🌫👂👂💘 (Headphones Ear Soon with Arrow Black Heart Growing Heart Name Badge Game Die Slot Machine Video Game First Place Medal Bicyclist Fog Ear Ear Heart with Arrow / Top Secret)] [experimental electro] Bandcamp Review
Āversiō hūmānitātis – Behold the Silent Dwellers (Dēbēmur mortī) [avant-garde black metal] Bandcamp
Ivan – Silver Screens (Solitude) [atmospheric doom metal] Bandcamp
Them Moose Rush – Dancing Maze [progressive rock] Bandcamp
Arca – Kick Ⅰ (XL) [experimental electro, pop] Deezer
Escaping Aghartha – Oceanic Womb [blackened post-metal] Bandcamp
Brian Krock’s Liddle – Viscera [jazz fusion] Bandcamp
Potion & Those Darn Gnomes – Split [free improvisation, noise] Bandcamp
Spike Orchestra – Splintered Stories ([צ (Tzadik)]) [avant-garde jazz] Label page
[矢吹卓 (Yabuki Taku)] – Modern World Symphony, Number 3 [avant-prog, jazz fusion] Bandcamp
Zantilla – Zantilla [chiptune] Bandcamp
Doom Shrugs – Album 3 (Stupid Square) [experimental math rock, mathcore] Bandcamp
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (Century Media) [blackened death metal] Deezer
Chance [デラソウル (Derasōru)] – Goodbye Future Funk (Business Casual) [future funk] Bandcamp
Krallice – Mass Cathexis [avant-garde black metal] Bandcamp
Washed Out – Purple Noon (Sub Pop) [alternative pop] Bandcamp
John Hollenbeck – Songs You Like a Lot [avant-garde jazz] Bandcamp
Cytotoxin – Nuklearth (Unique Leader) [technical death metal] Bandcamp
Humavoid – Lidless (Noble Demon) [progressive metalcore, djent] Bandcamp
Exist – Egoiista (Prosthetic) [progressive death metal] Bandcamp
Mammal Hands – Captured Spirits (Gondwana) [nu jazz] Bandcamp
Kyler Boss – Entropic Fanstasy [progressive metal] Bandcamp
Art the Band – Art the Band [jazz fusion, progressive rock] Bandcamp
Fawn Limbs – Sleeper Vessels (Dark Trail) [mathcore, grindcore] Bandcamp
Panzerballett – Planet Z (Gentle Art of Music) [progressive metal, jazz fusion] Deezer
Dan Weiss’s Starebaby – Natural Selection (Pi) [experimental jazz] Bandcamp
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Holy Roar) [blackened post-hardcore] Bandcamp
Sbonk – Lamizuk [avant-prog] Bandcamp
Sumac – May You Be Held (Thrill Jockey) [post-metal] Bandcamp
Fred Pallem & le Sacre du tympan – Les Fables de La Fontaine (Train fantôme) [jazz fusion] Bandcamp
Odessey & Oracle – Crocorama (Dur et Doux) [experimental pop, progressive rock] Bandcamp
The Brooks – Any Day Now (Duprince) [funk] Bandcamp
Rabbit Junk – Xenospheres [digital hardcore] Bandcamp
Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep (Karisma & Dark Essence) [progressive rock] Bandcamp
Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo (Ipecac / Liberator Music) [thrash metal] Deezer
Old School Funky Family – Tonus ! [funk, Afrobeat] Bandcamp
The End – Allt är intet (Rare Noise) [avant-garde jazz] Bandcamp
Marshall Art – Ultimate [progressive rock, VGM] Bandcamp
Liquid Death – Greatest Hates, Volume 2 (Supplying Demand) [death metal] Deezer
Dirty Loops – Phoenix [jazz fusion, pop] Deezer
Plini – Impulse Voices [nu prog] Bandcamp
Dawnwalker – Ages [progressive metal] Bandcamp
New Age Doom – Himalayan Dream Techno (We Are Busy Bodies) [experimental drone metal] Bandcamp