Between Martin Garrix‘s Tomorrowland Around the Worldshowing and his one-hour marathon for the festival’s New Year’s Eve follow-up, there’s been a crushing measure of unnamed music introduced from the STMPD RCRDS vaults—18 IDs, to be exact. Garrix had originally disclosed that his Melodia stage appearance on 2020’s final evening would serve up nine unidentified releases, and on 2021’s inaugural day, STMPD RCRDS validated that claim with one more addition, bringing the grand tally to an even 10 IDs.
Pulling out Shazam and attempting to pinpoint the names behind the IDs in real-time is always entertaining, and Martin Garrix’s hour on New Year’s Eve as the clock crept towards midnight brought out the best in that. While we await official confirmation of just who is involved with the IDs in the coming weeks and months, a handful—if not all—of the unspecified tracks now seem to have a potential name attached. Fans, as well as some artists themselves, entered STMPD RCRDS’ Instagram comments to recognize Matisse & Sadko during the introduction, Julian Jordan at the 37-minute mark, Bleu Clair and OOTORO’s collaboration immediately following, DubVision at the set’s back end alongside the “Burn Out” acapella, as well as other speculated and confirmed inclusions from Aspyer, Julian Calor, Seth Hills, WILL K, MNNR, and maybe even something from Ytram at the 22-minute mark.
It remains to be seen if these predictions hold true, but all 10 of the IDs can be previewed on STMPD RCRDS’ post below, allowing fans to decide for themselves. Tomorrowland has also now officially made the relive function of the New Year’s Eve event available through January 14.
Run The Jewels are back with another music video supporting their critically acclaimed 2020 record RTJ4. Directed by Chris Hopewell of Jacknife Films & Black Dog Films, “Walking In The Snow” sees bedroom floor action figures of Killer Mike and EL-P spring to life in a macabre Toy Story-esque stop motion thriller. Directly in line with the source material, the latest RTJ video is packed with political statements, consistent with the veteran rappers’ career discographies.
“Walking In The Snow’s” video follows the group’s video for Cyberpunk 2077, the equally impressive and incredibly animated “No Save Point.” Additionally, earlier this month Mike and EL dropped off a new remix of “The Ground Below” featuring heavy rock influences courtesy of Royal Blood‘s Mike Kerr.
“So nasty that it’s probably somewhat of a travesty having me / then he told the people ‘You can call me, Your Majesty!’”
MF DOOM, your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, has died at 49. Hip-hop’s self-proclaimed supervillain, born Daniel Dumile, died on October 31 of 2020. A revered enigma until the very end, the world first learned of the legendary rapper’s death two months later on December 31 in an announcement by his wife, Jasmine, with a cause of death not immediately disclosed. Impossibly elusive and simultaneously exalted, DOOM was hip-hop royalty, and news of his passing is a travesty that has shaken the greater industry to a sobering, mournful halt.
Dumile, unequivocally one of hip-hop’s most inspirational forces, influenced multiple generations of rhymers and beat makers, largely from the shadows of the underground. Hidden behind his iconic metal mask—an homage to Marvel’s infamous Doctor Doom—Dumile’s prolific output defined hip-hop’s subterrain throughout the late 90’s and early aughts.
Born in London in 1971, Dumile moved to Long Island, New York at a young age. He would he soon start performing as Zev Love X, alongside his younger brother DJ Subroc as part of the hip-hop outfit KMD. The group fell apart after Subroc was killed in a car accident in 1993 ahead of KMD’s sophomore album. After the death of his brother, Dumile essentially disappeared, not to reemerge until the late 1990’s behind what would become his signature mask.
From there, DOOM would go on to launch a teeming catalog of music and beat compilations across various monikers and alter-egos. His 2004 joint project with Madlib under the Madvillain pseudonym, Madvillainy, stands as a paragon of hip-hop’s most richly layered beatwork and lyricism. Mm..Food, an anagram for MF DOOM, features some of the most intricately knotted rhymes schemes and dexterous wordplays ever pressed to wax. DOOM was equipped with lyrical shrewdness and sharp-witted wit that, to this day, hopscotch leaps and bounds over rap’s top rhymers.
DOOM’s output would slow considerably after the first decade of the new millennium, though by 2010, Dumile had six full-length projects under his belt, including The Mouse and the Mask alongside Danger Mouse. More importantly, DOOM’s output was capped by a level of influence and esteem that is nearly impossible to overstate. And despite his aversion of the public spotlight, DOOM was omnipresent across hip-hop even beyond his dying day. Long live the King, and
“Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.”
On December 5, 2020, an Instagram user by the handle of @greenice.rocks enthralled electronic enthusiasts on the platform with an IGTV video of a full orchestra performance of SLANDER and Dylan Matthew‘s now-classic “Love Is Gone.” After amassing thousands of views and attracting the attention of SLANDER’s Derek Andersen and Scott Land, the orchestral cover of the landmark 2019 love song has hit streaming platforms, offering an unprecedentedly poignant take on the Gud Vibrations release, which, to date, has only been available in the original and an acoustic format.
Just three seconds short of an eight-minute runtime, the orchestral rendition underscores the malleability of SLANDER and Matthew’s fateful meetup while expanding its emotive character. The cinematic cover extends 2020’s trend of orchestral conversions into the new year and can be found in its full symphonic glory below.
More than two calendar turns have come and gone since Hardwell last appeared on the music end to affirm his tenured standing as bigroom’s king, and exactly 10 months have lapsed since we last heard from the Revealed Recordings boss on social media. That status quo now is making a partial turn for the best for an unthinkably auspicious day one of 2021. In a completely unprecedented move, Hardwell and Blasterjaxx have formed a new one-two bigroom force of nature, Jaxxwell, to reawaken their long-lost collaboration almost three years to the date that it debuted at Germany’s staple venue, Bootshaus.
Blasterjaxx subtly reinstated the ID during Revealed Recordings’ virtual festival in September 2020 and confirmed thereafter that it would “soon” release, but all were left in the dark to speculate about when exactly “soon” was. Properly labeled “Bootshaus ID,” the linkup trilogy finale between Hardwell and Blasterjaxx (excluding “Fifteen” and following “Going Crazy” and “Bigroom Never Dies“), is concrete evidence that the genre that the two outfits helped pioneer is alive and well. While everyone is overwhelmingly thankful that the ID has been unchained as we wave goodbye to 2020, it’s currently unclear what, precisely, “Jaxxwell” entails, and if it alludes to an official relationship between the two or simply serves as a way for Hardwell’s hiatus to remain intact. Only time will tell, but for now, let’s celebrate New Year’s Day with some god-tier bigroom house.
When you can’t necessarily make sense of time, but feel the need to mark its passage, there is the entire discipline of music. David Abravanel returns for year-end Pairing Mode picks and words on why you should give them deep listening.
And with so many lists seeming like a weighing of value, here’s a list for fellow producers – one we hope you can just sit back and enjoy and feel again.-PK
I beg of you all to give yourselves a break. Whatever has gotten you through this year was worth it, and forgive yourself. Seriously, folks are far too ambitious and self-critical during this pandemic – just existing and surviving is all you need to do right now. We’ll all get to a better place soon enough.
Rather than go through a tedious listing process – which inevitably changes day to day – I’m just going to highlight some of the listening experiences I really enjoyed this year, focusing mainly on ones that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere. This absolutely is by no means an exhaustive list, so please save the “how could you forget [blank]” for a writer attempting the Herculean/Sisyphean task of trying to satisfy the poptimists & every niche.
As usual, these are simply in alphabetical order, but if pressed, my favorite album would be FRKTL’s Excision After Love Collapses, favorite track would be Cinthie’s “Bassline”, and favorite EP would be SOWALL’s Symptoms of Lethargy.
Actress – Karma & Desire (Ninja Tune)
It’s hard to think of an artist more appropriate to such a confusing and claustrophobic time than Actress. Good thing, then, that Karma & Desire is one of his strongest efforts. The familiar tropes are there – colorations of old technology, starkly minimalist loops – with the addition of guest vocalists who bring things to a less digital and more haunted human dimension. Actress is the kind of artist who assembles albums that are always more than the sum of their parts. Individual tracks have me constantly asking myself “can he do that? Strip it down that bare?” and the answer is also yes. Actress can always do it.
Alis – “Red and Blue” (self-released)
Sabina Plamenova has found incredible confidence in reducing the treatment on her voice in the past couple of years, leading to a new level of emotion in tracks like the skipping wall of sound “Red and Blue”. Hopefully, we’ll see a full album of these beautiful ideas in 2021, but for now, the Skylab EP remains the latest drop of reverberated sparkle.
Autechre – SIGN (Warp)
Autechre – PLUS (Warp)
Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello (Warp)
Like I was going to let these slip by. I don’t have much to add, but they’re all worth seeking out. I probably prefer SIGN to PLUS. Be Up A Hello is stronger than most critics gave it credit for.
Arovane – Gestalt (Puremagnetik)
Over the past decade, Micah Frank’s Puremagnetik label has quietly become a go-to for ambient and drone music that leans heavily on granular and spectral processing. In a sense, it’s an exquisite showroom for the possibilities inherent in Frank’s Puremagnetik plugins; in fact, most Puremagnetik releases come with exclusive free plugins.
Uwe Schmidt aka Arovane is well known for his more Autechre-style 90s glitch beats and for the downtempo turn he took in the 00s, but Gestalt is a side of Schmidt that’s calmer than anything I’ve ever heard. Stunning pads and drones are given plenty of space to stretch out (really people, leave room for these beautiful sounds – it works!), with ever-present beds of white noise and tape hiss. It’s comforting, uplifting, and inspiring music that makes you really want to grab the plugin and make more.
Badly Drawn Boy – Banana Skin Shoes (One Last Fruit)
Okay, I reached for a lot of comfort food in my listening this year, and Badly Drawn Boy’s first album in a decade certainly fit that bill. But posturing be damned – he’s a great singer-songwriter and this is his most varied set in a while. He’s an artist for whom regret and life lessons are favorite subject, so it’s unsurprising that middle age has only enhanced the quality of his songs.
From a similar perspective, check out Paul McCartney – McCartney III. It’s a lot of fun, and a nice reminder that he’s an enormous influence on so many rock singer-songwriters to this day.
Bokeh – Lenses Dances (Mirae Arts)
There are a few artists out there who really mine the space between beats – think ENA, NHK, or ETCH elsewhere in this rundown. That said, Bokeh (a collaboration between Anthone and EOC) delivered an incredible journey with Lenses Dances on the criminally underrated Mirae Arts label. If you’d told me these were 45s played at 33, I’d believe you – and without that slowdown lies a world of detail that keeps me coming back to these grooves. By the time the cool stab washes hit on closer “Embrace Aging Into Blue”, it’s like emerging from an iced-over lake.
Nicolas Bougaïeff – The Upward Spiral (Mute)
Happiness – it’s a choice, and sometimes a violently determined one. Such is the nature of the hard techno stomp and overdriven sequences that make up Nicolas Bougaïeff’s optimistic suite. Wake up, get in some cardio, tell yourself that you’ll tear down the walls for hope and happiness if you have to. We’ve got a long way to go and every reason to hope.
The Bug & Dis Fig – In Blue (Hyperdub)
I’ll be honest, it was hard to keep up with a lot of Kevin Richard Martin’s output this year, in part because well…it’s not the happiest music around. There were many times when oppressive bass weight and post-apocalyptic mist drones weren’t exactly what I wanted to hear. That said, stick with In Blue, because it’s more of that dark magic. Dis Fig’s vocals fit well with the formula, resulting in a more downtempo album. This one’s from the shadows.
Cabaret Voltaire – Shadow of Fear (Mute)
Richard H. Kirk’s first release using the Cabaret Voltaire name in a while implies a desire to have this album be more widely heard. While there’s more of a dance-industrial feel that some of his bleaker solo work, Shadow of Fear also benefits from right place/right time for gritty paranoia-ridden explorations of isolation and overload. Put this one on and do the angry dance – I promise you’ll feel better, really!
Cinthie – “Bassline ft. Gillian Allen” (Aus)
For starters, let’s just acknowledge that 2020 absolutely robbed this track. There’s climactic floor-filler potential all over this triumphant piano house slam from the multi-talented Cinthie. Cutting to the absolute ecstasy of a dropping bass (similar to yesteryear’s Tiga hit, “Pleasure from the Bass”), any normal year would have seen us all infected with explosive joy in Gillian Allen’s vocals every weekend throughout summer. As it is, let’s just enjoy the bliss responsibly and remember that no one can see what you look like dancing privately.
Oh, and do yourself a favor and pick up Cinthie’s debut album, Skylines City Lights (Aus). “Bassline” is the ultimate standout, but it’s a well-paced trip through house and techno, from acid to garage, celebratory to deep.
C. Lavender – The Myth of Equilibrium (Editions Mego)
Field recording has certainly had a moment for the past decade or so, alongside an uptick in ambient releases that only skyrocketed with the year of the pandemic and social distancing. For C. Lavender, space plays an essential role, elevated to that of a collaborator for her synth tones and digital edits. Essential headphone listening and a celebration of those acoustic phenomena that make you turn your head.
Deadbeat & Paul St. Hilaire – “Yesterday’s Dreams” (BLKRTZ)
How low can you go? Deadbeat and Paul St. Hilaire make a killer dub techno combo, but that’s nothing you didn’t already know. What about a bass line that’s so low you have to check if it’s in your ears and not just your chest? Seriously, I don’t know what exactly the notes are on this impossible deep dub bass, but I do know that “Yesterday’s Dreams” brings all sorts of emotion out. Deadbeat and Paul St. Hilaire delivered four long stunners with their album, Four Quartets of Love and Modern Lash, but this was the rill rib-shaker that I couldn’t forget.
Echaskech – Andromeda (Balkan Vinyl)
Hrdvsion – 666/XXX (Balkan Vinyl)
Elisa Bee – Orbit (Balkan Vinyl)
Three cheers for Balkan Vinyl’s graphic designer, who really went above and beyond with the covers of these (digital only) releases this year. Echaskech explored the outer reaches of space with a criminally underrated mini-album, Hrdvsion made a very welcome electro return, and Elisa Bee blew out some rave stormers. And those colors!
Electric Indigo – Ferrum (Editions Mego)
Following a debut full-length that focused on granular synthesis, Susanne Kirschmayr’s sophomore LP is all about the sound of metal (iron specifically, from the title). With a minimalist dedication to evolve timbres, Ferrum clanks, and thuds, and scrapes its way into your brain stem. I could write more about the sound design practices at play, but it’s honestly more fun to just appreciate the sounds with a little mystery. For a wonderful balance between exploratory sound design and insistent techno, check out “ferrum 7”.
ETCH – Strange Days (Seagrave)
Drumskull – Interlocked (Seagrave)
Seagrave had a fantastic 2020, and I’m very excited to hear what comes from the label next year. Two clear highlights were full-length albums from ETCH and Drumskull, both of which take jungle and distorted beats in spacious new directions. If you’re looking for dark mutations of bass music in a similar vein to Samurai/Horo or Ilian Tape, Seagrave is a treasure trove.
ETCH has been making noise for a decade, but Strange Days felt like a capital-S Statement from him. Beats are given room to grow (or disintegrate), alien digital basses weave beneath the surface, and the hi-hat game is super strong (an odd thing to notice, but just give “The Man With The Other Face” some time).
Drumskull is a bit more of a party, with acid synths and lots of four to the floor. Like ETCH, Drumskull is also a master at giving beats and breaks the space to breathe. “Negative 7” is such a beast in large part because the heavy break (from the Special Request/Shed school) gets the proper room. I know it’s a cliché to be writing for CDM and talking about mixes, but the space allowed on these Seagrave albums really makes an enormous difference when it comes to heavy beats and bass.
Lamin Fofana – Darkwater (Black Studies)
Lamin Fofana’s trilogy of releases opening his new label Black Studies (starting with 2019’s Black Metamorphosis and ending with this year’s Blue) reached a shadowy midpoint with Darkwater. Released during a time of renewed global attention to the racist systems faced by a global African diaspora, and inspired by a piece of same name by W.E.B. DuBois, Darkwater is a minimal late-night meditation. Fofana’s skill with sound design and arrangement is critical, as tracks like “Re-Enchantment” and “Plenum” push gorgeous pads and tense atmospheres to the front. In a year with so many stories to tell, Darkwater was an emotional witching hour whisper.
Figueroa – The World As We Know It (Nomark)
In 2019, Amon Tobin emerged from nearly a decade to release another full-length album, shortly followed by yet another. In 2020, it turned out he really had a lot built up, and the Nomark subscription was born on Bandcamp. It’s perhaps in the midst of an overload of new material (2020 included a new Two Fingers album plus several solo and collaborative EPs, and the resurrection of his old Cujo moniker) that it was easy to miss this album from Figueroa, Amon Tobin’s psychedelic project. It’s basically Amon Tobin letting out how much he loves Amon Düül and Faust, and the results are a tighter album than either of those acts ever dropped (not to mention benefitting from Tobin’s unparalleled mastery of technology and production). Or, approached another way, it’s the earthier Amon Tobin sound but with verses and choruses. Unexpectedly affecting – who knew there was a singer-songwriter waiting to burst outside of Tobin all these years?
It’s been a ride watching Sarah Badr reach new heights the last few years, and Excision After Love Collapses is an absolute triumph. Somewhere between ancient chants and futuristic digital cut-ups (very much “fourth world” technology here), FRKTL supplies beautiful voices, terrifying distorted drones, and percussion masterclasses. If you like the Sub Rosa label or anything Shackleton’s done in the last decade, you owe it to yourself to dive into this one.
HAND – Suburbœn (Elli)
It was an immense year for Elli, to say the least, and hard to pick a single album I loved more than the others. But HAND’s synth sludge really stuck in my guts. Like a string quartet dirge morphed to synths, with some unexpectedly light-to-the-touch percussion visits.
Leila – Like Weather (Modern Love / Thank U)
The demise of Rephlex saw a lot of diamonds lost in the digital age, perhaps none more buried than Leila’s underrated 1999 solo debut. After playing keys with Björk and some collaborations with the likes of 808 State, Like Weather was something else entirely. Classified as “trip hop” at the time, the term still fits but it’s also clear with our 2020 lenses that Leila was simply many years ahead of her time. From Jamie Lidell to Yves Tumor, you can hear echoes of Leila’s IDM-inflected songcraft frequently in the decades since Like Weather was released. Good to have this reissue to bring a classic back in print!
Lighght – Sorry I Can’t Go Out Tonight, I’m Too Busy Going In (self-released)
One for the frustrated ravers then, and boy don’t we all need it. Dance alone, maybe shed a frustrated tear, make it a TikTok challenge. These tracks will be there for you again and again.
Machinedrum – A View of U (Ninja Tune)
Is it possible that consistency begets expectation begets ignorance? I can’t figure out why I’m not seeing Machinedrum’s lean masterpiece on more year-end lists. It’s hard to think of an artist out there who better combines loves of classic jungle, healing cosmic sounds, and modern hip-hop like Machinedrum. These tracks should be on the radio (maybe they are and I’ve just missed it?), especially emotional nuggets like “Stars” or Freddie Gibbs’ efficient bars on “Kane Train”. All that plus some gorgeous cassette-sounding guitar melodies. Don’t sleep!
Drew McDowall – Agalma (Dais)
Dais had a great year, most notably with a beautiful reissue of Coil’s Musick To Play In The Dark. I’m not contributing anything new by singing the praises of Coil, but I do want to bring attention to surviving Coil member Drew McDowall’s dark granular/modular symphony, Agalma. Working with kindred spirits such as Catarina Barbieri and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, McDowall delivered an aural ceremony that’s essential for anyone interested in Lustmord, Fennesz, or of course McDowall’s former group.
Kevin McHugh – Telempathy Vol. 1
Really, 2020 survivors and departed souls, forgive yourself. This is the music to do it. Ambivalent/LA-4A goes ambient and introspective, and this is the piece you need to forgive and keep living.
Mohn – Mohn (Digital Edition) (Kompakt)
Wolfgang Voigt – Freiland Klavierwerk 2 (Profan)
The original Mohn album wasn’t that long ago (2009) and was also definitely available digitally, so I can’t say why “digital edition” is the signifier on the cover of this reissue. I can say that it’s a fine reminder of a generally slept-on album, and part of a great year for Kompakt revisiting its past while quietly some gorgeous new work from its stalwarts. Long-running collaborators Wolfgang Voight and Jörg Burger turned more towards ambient with Mohn, embracing opera samples, extreme pitch shifting, and a generally sluggish pump. You’re home now, enjoy the slowness!
Additionally, Wolfgang Voight updated his dissonant piano looping project Freiland Klavierwerk with a second installment. It’s compositionally a huge step up from the first, a delightfully insistent piece of music, and I could not possibly say why it hasn’t been discussed more in a year when dissonance would fit our collective frustration.
Róisín Murphy – Rósín Machine (Skint)
“Never had a broken heart / am I incapable of love?” about says it. Madonna may have claimed the title Confessions On A Dance Floor in 2003, but Róisín Murphy rules supreme when it comes to personal examination to a disco beat. Sometimes you have to scream and cry on the dance floor (or at home alone, with the music blaring). This is thick disco for dreams and tears.
Oval – Scis (Thrill Jockey)
Do you think Oval gets asked to cut up CDs with exacto knives the same way Billy Joel gets asked to play “Piano Man” every time he’s in front of a piano? All of which is to say, credit to Markus Popp for figuring out a number of new avenues the past few years that are simultaneously very much “Oval albums” without sounding like variations on a single Oval album. With Scis, Popp found a happy medium between the kitchen sink maximalism of his past few albums and the skipping rhythms on which he made his name in the 90s. Playful where he might once have been overwhelming, Oval is a celebration the likes of which I’m used to from Mouse on Mars. The skips are there, and it’s not so acoustic-dominated as to be overcompensating – it’s just a fun journey.
Patten – Glo))) (555-5555)
Patten’s been busy this year, releasing three excellent albums. Glo))) follows Glow, and, as the name implies, is a reworking of the tracks from the former. In this case, the reworking involved extreme levels of distortion. Dynamics and recognizable instruments are obliterated from Glow, and otherwise percussion-lite and rather relaxing album. It’s an incredibly unique and essential listen – what starts as a bluntly cathartic release slows becomes its own form of comfort and inspiration. A truly challenging and rewarding work.
Pole – Fading (Mute)
Pole has often been about architecture and nature – the crevices, the curves, the forests. Fading, then, was an unexpected turn towards the human. Sonically the palette is similar to prior releases, but the evolutions of the tracks – inspired in part by family members’ health struggles – reflect fragility and uncertainty. Conceptually obsessed with memory and image, Fading will be an appropriate listen to revisit as its own memory when this year (and, later, the pandemic) are behind us.
Jason Priest – Is Missing (Hard Disk Dust)
Easily my favorite escapism of the year. Antoni Maiovvi continues the saga of his post-punk disco martyr Jason Priest, now lost in the early-90s rave/Madchester haze. All of which is a prime excuse for an excellent set of songs that straddle The Cure, Depeche Mode, Chris & Cosey, and New Order. “Be Thankful, Billy” and “Gone Upstairs” demand inclusion in some kind of film – a proper Hollywood film this time!
Lyra Pramuk – Fountain (Erased Tapes)
I’ve already read loads of deserving coverage here, not to mention a few conversations with Lyra herself (in the interest of full disclosure, she’s an old friend and former colleague). I still don’t know how to accurately describe it. When “Xeno” reaches its climax I’m simultaneously afraid of being dragged away and feeling embraced by a creator. “New Moon” communicates optimism wordlessly. One of the most striking listens in a while, and certainly this year’s most human and connecting album.
Yehezkel Raz – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Artlist)
This one isn’t actually a soundtrack to a specific film (that I know of), but the title certainly fits. For years, Raz has quietly released a string of ambient beauties, crossing over with more percussion and a modern classical flare on Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The comfort of lying in bed and the wonder of staring at the sky – no other release this year so beautifully captured how isolation makes us aware of just how big the world is.
The Soft Pink Truth – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey)
Drew Daniel & friends mine the ecstasy and comfort of ancient religion for this contemplative masterpiece. DJ Sprinkles-esque piano themes, synths spiraling ever upward, beautifully muted horns, and the occasional voice. Put this one on and surrender to it.
SOWALL – Symptoms of Lethargy (SOWALL)
Sowall Lee is often described as a “beatmaker”, and while fans of the Low End Theory/Brainfeeder scenes will find a lot to love with her, it’s not the end of the story. She’s also an ace finger drummer (just check out the YouTube videos), an incredible ear with building melodies, and a singer.
SOWALL – “GAZE”
At five tracks and 21 minutes, I can scarcely think of a release this year into which I climbed so far to explore every nook and cranny. Sowall describes these tracks as “[A] collection of stories about powerlessness. It aims to empathize and uplift.” For me, the climax featuring Jung Min Kwak’s piano and Sung Jae Son’s saxophone on “GAZE” is what really clinches at 2020’s frustrated, hopeful heart.
Temp-Illusion – PEND (Zabte Sote)
I’ve listened to calming music and I’ve listened to music that provokes anxiety, but rarely have I really been afraid to put on certain albums. Even more rarely have I encountered albums which are enrapturing, but only after I’ve mentally prepared myself. Such is Temp-Illusion’s claustrophobic PEND, written as the Iranian duo of Behrang Najafi and Shahin Entezami considered the very real possibilities of war.
The beats are industrial (in the original sense) and glitchy, the crunching collapse of structure and technology. Fittingly, the sound design is all encompassing with loads of spatial movement. PEND will not serve you as background music. It will not comfort you. It will, however, bring you to a place of horror and fascination that is simply good for empathy. And the sound design is deluxe.
Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!” (Warp)
Yves Tumor really flexed as a songwriter on this year’s Heaven To a Tortured Mind, from noisy post-punk infected ballads to grungy cut-up funk, plus some absolutely superb guitar and bass work. “Kerosene!” is the killer, though – an emotional ride with call-and-response vocals between Tumor and Wynter Gordon. Topped with shiny Prince-style solos from Heavy Mellow, it’s a movie in a five-minute song. In a strong year for Warp (what else is new), Yves Tumor proved themself one of the label’s best signings of the past few years.
U-I – “Mycelium” (All My Thoughts)
I should start here by establishing that I had no idea U-I was Move D’s son until after several listens of his excellent album, Enter The Garden. And while I do recommend seeking out that album, “Mycelium” is the special track that has launched me into techno space in that rarest of ways (think of Kenny Larkin’s “Tedra”, or Carl Craig’s “A Wonderful Life”, or Stasis’ “Artifax”). It’s wonderful to hear a sublime bit of ambient techno coming at us anew in 2020. With its jazzy updates to the formula, Enter the Garden feels a bit like the shape of 90s-style chill electronic beats to come; after years of lo-fi playlists, it’s about time we saw this niche genre evolve.
Vladislav Delay & Max Loderbauer – ROADBLOCKS (Detroit Underground)
Admittedly, “put these people into a room and see what happens” is not usually my favorite genre. Overstuffed supergroup records with b-side filler songs and excruciatingly long jam sessions are sure to result. In this case, having a rhythmic chaos agent like Sasu Ripatti go up against one of the world’s greatest rhythm sections in Sly & Robbie results in the kind of heavy teetering beats and runaway effects sirens that keep the dub mutations constantly on the verge of collapse. I can only imagine how much fun it must have been when these ideas really came together!
Conversely, when it’s Ripatti sparring with Max Loderbaeuer (Sun Electric/NSI), it’s hard to know who has the rhythmic interest at heart from moment to moment. I gather that Loderbaeur leaned heavily on his Buchla rig for these sessions, and the result is what Ripatti described as their version of techno. You aren’t going to hear this in the middle of a tech-house set any time soon, but it certainly will fit some darker and more adventurous corners.
As a bonus, it’s been a busy year for our pal Sasu. He released the heavily distorted Rakka, and a fantastic and full-sound reissue of his landmark 2000 debut as Luomo, Vocalcity.
Windy and Carl – Allegiance and Conviction (Kranky)
Do you think there are certain artists that we just take for granted because of their consistency? Because they refuse to release duds and they never performatively went away? All of this is to say that Windy and Carl released an album this year, and in keeping with their track record it’s an excellent album. Expanding with more vocals (though not necessarily to “song” territory most of the time), we get a different kind of emotional side of the guitar/bass droniness from Windy Weber and Carl Loftgren. I imagine their home smells like incense and always feels warm, but sometimes they retire to a chilly attic or garden room and light some candles when they need the colder atmospheres.
For a more song-oriented direction from remarkably consistent bands we should all treasure more, I strongly recommend picking up Throwing Muses – Sun Racket (Fire) and Dog Day – Present (Fundog).
WZRDRYAV – West Coast Systems (Line)
As I’ve mentioned previously, 2020 was overrun with ambient options – a situation which makes it all the more impressive when something truly stands out. Perhaps it’s the sense of commitment in each piece, or the small dissonances and digital synths that suggest a feeling of elevation, but West Coast Systems truly brings something new to the by-now established game of granular synthesis workouts.
Selim X – VAGUETRACKS (Vaguetracks)
With the pandemic shutting down venues and travel overnight, a number of festivals got creative to try and approximate live music, panels, and screenings this year. None can be faulted for trying and failing, but for my money it was MUTEK SF that succeeded most significantly in creating an environment that felt natively online and also like a real multi-day event. Teaming up with Currents, MUTEK SF created a virtual space with a common area and four “stages”. It was one one of the more experimental of these stages that I discovered the mysterious Selim X aka Miles Jenkins.
With a discography often pursuing existential thoughts of life, time, and the afterlife, the “Vaguetracks” series emerged from X as something different – long tracks with a focus on breaks and ambient techno-ish melodies. You could tell me the Vaguetracks album was a lost 1993 gem that never came out on Fax or Warp and I’d probably believe you, though I’d also wonder why the drum programming is so much more evolved.
Wherever Tetsu Inoue is now, I really hope he’s heard Selim X.
0N4B – bar(a)ca (ANBA)
After last year’s Supra/Infra/Intra stayed in more ambient spaces, it was an interesting surprise to hear such insistent beats from Rami Abadir and Mostafa Onsy on bar(a)ca. Porting the duo’s expansive sound design to chugging pulse rhythms is a winning formula. If you liked Autechre’s PLUS album this year (and yeah of course you did) then you owe it to yourself to explore this one.
Thanks to David Abravanel for his ongoing contributions with Pairing Mode this year.
Moments of grace and trauma
Ed.: I am the person to say “don’t forget about!” – but I agreed with every single choice above, so can only add more. FRKTL and Lyra Pramuk in particular were favorites and some of the others we’ve touched upon elsewhere in CDM this year. So just as David read my mind, I feel these are releases he’ll be reminded of too, from my picks…
KMRU has been all over the place on lists this year, but it’s worth noting how he got attention and signed on Editions Mego – with an obsessively productive stream of exquisite, delicate ambient compositions. drawing water was a favorite for me, and it’s these miniatures that really make his work. Plus Joseph feels oddly like a neighbor even though he’s in Nairobi, thanks to his visits to Berlin, so all the same disclosures as with Lyra above.
glia’s burbling, organic work also flows with regular releases, but feels nonetheless full of detail and imagination – fully formed creatures. He’s also someone who’s gotten well-deserved attention this year, also from a steady flow of releases. But it’s simply wonderful, and this was a great magnum opus. (glia is also a monome / norns user.)
For more prolific sure-fire experimentalism, you can also head to Shanghai, where ayrtbh has had a wonderfully productive year – and ironically was one of the people who first described lockdown to me, but from the Chinese side of this pandemic. He’s also producing exquisite Max for Live patches. Let’s pencil-drop onto All services are suspended, but the sequence of output this year is basically my pick and is also on his Bandcamp.
Siavash Amini’s A Mimesis Of Nothingness runs deep – a well of beauty that reveals itself in new ways on repeated listenings.
I’m mentioning King Britt twice this week, but TBS 011 from The Buddy System Project I feel is essential.
ABADIR I’ll give a second nod, as the transcendent Liminal for me is like a composed, sequenced bath of color and texture. And Rami Abadir is doing something significant, too, in that he’s both a producer and editor at Ma3azef. After some significant gatekeeping by music critics, it’s refreshing to see the distinct role of music makers who curate and write – as that is a function that has a long musical tradition in many cultures and scenes. But that aside, this record stands on its own, which is what matters.
Dense, insistent, uneasy, there’s sofheso’s RATH, out on the Osaka tape label Birdfriend.
Ignaz Schick is a Berlin-based artist who, in the beforetime, I wound up hanging with not here but in Manila. That means I’ve seen this – so let me let his description tell you what you’re hearing – but Rotary Perceptions is a must. It’s kinetic sound sculpture for your ears:
This album is the only and at the same last official solo recording involving the artist’s Rotating Surfaces set-up in which different objects are played directly on the rotating plate of the turntable or other motors and are amplified with a small microphone. The objects could be bows, plastic spoons, gongs violin bows, metal sheets, polystyrene cones, dry leaves, etc. The friction of the objects, the materiality of the rotating surface and last but not least the pressure and angle of the object generate a vast arsenal of sonic possibilities. Schick has perfected the set-up up until 2012 and then returned to using vinyls from 2012/2013 onwards.
AGF’s sound imagination is an encoded manifesto, and this was wonderful. As she puts it – maybe a good New Year’s Resolution:
decolonize dreams, diversify hopes, decentralize the gods, heal within and without, dance in silence by yourself as often as possible, go-off the grid, anti-quantize, to freedom, perseverance and kindness!
Palestine’s Dakngot a feature here on CDM, but it remains for me one of this year’s most important releases, a portrait of pain and trauma that I return to and find now less arresting.
Years of Denial’s Human Tragedy is another release to me that can channel that kind of pain into something cathartic. But I think that’s part of the power of music.
From their description:
Throbs of a tragic condition, the actors have abandoned the stage and only the zeitgeist remains. Maybe we have contaminated ourselves and everything around. We are the ever expanding toxic population.
Group A– NO Recording II
Hyph11E – Aperture
They’re equally brilliant, and I’m out of words.
To all of you – I hope you find ways to grow in 2021, and in a year when we were kept apart to care for one another, ways of getting closer and more caring.
Thanks as always to David, as to a number of the artists here – to me the work that we do is really about these kinds of friendships. And to the readers of this site, who have been very often the friends I’ve never met.