The 15 best albums of Q1 2020

Joss Cope
Joss Cope makes an album of the year – photo by Graveyard Virtanen

With large parts of the world in lockdown and the music industry with its reliance on concerts for income being hit harder than most, now is a good time to spend some quality isolation time with albums and forget about that Spotify playlist of instant pleasures.

While you technically can stream full albums, I would urge you to buy as much as you ever can on Bandcamp, since they pay more to the artists than any other online platform. I also take that as an excuse to introduce more than ten top albums this quarter.

But while I am still in unpaid promotion mode, I should mention that one of my best friends, and partner in all things Strange Days, Iwamoto-san, has recently upped his latest project Mizuki da Fantasia on Bandcamp. While the albums are not new for this quarter, their digital distribution is, and some of you might indeed like the combination of analog synths and Mellotrons with Japanese female vocals!

And now on to my favourites this quarter. In alphabetical order, as always.

cabane – grande est la maison

No this is not a Sean O’Hagan album, but you could have fooled me. Although he is only an arranger, just like on Susan James’ ‘Sea Glass’ from 2015, his presence looms large and the result is even more mesmerising here than on that album.

In fact, Sean has co-written two of the tracks, the LP intro song ‘Tu ne joueras plus à l’amour’ and also the duet ‘By the sea’, with Thomas Jean Henri Van Cottom. They are obvious highlights, but the quality is quite high throughout, despite the fact that the male singer is Bonnie Prince Billy, someone I wouldn’t necessarily listen to in other contexts. The female vocals are very nice and are handled by This Is The Kit songstress Kate Stables.

Thomas Jean Henri is from Belgium and it seems he has been active as a musician and producer since the mid 90s, but I haven’t heard any of his previous releases.

You need to get the CD-R version of this album by the way, since it starts with a track not available elsewhere, ‘Qu’as tu gardé de notre amour?’ Else the answer to that question might well be: This song!

Euros Childs – Gingerbread House Explosion

OK, this isn’t Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, the band Euros had when he was young and full of dreams. But although he may not be as young anymore, the dreams are still there. And the music. And the humor. 

Just like with the Gorky’s, Euros continues to pay tribute to Canterbury bands. And what could be a better way than to take a sweet melody and a text about the moon and use it to make fun of Richard Branson? Although – or maybe because – Branson started Virgin Records, he wasn’t always popular with the musicians: Kevin Ayers seduced his wife, and Mike Oldfield had a go at him on his Amarok album. But Euros takes a more naive – and funnier – approach!

If that isn’t enough for you, the album is available as a free high quality download on his website. Irresistible.

Joss Cope – Indefinite Particles

Although ‘Unrequited Lullabies’ from 2017 was a great surprise and made my top ten list of that year, I have to say that ‘Indefinite Particles’ is even better. You can read my full review here.

Having grown up on music from the 60s and early 70s, and having been part of the punk and post punk scenes, Joss channels all of that and moulds it into something that is simultaneously timeless and very personal. The melodies are great and the lyrics are even better.  Although not necessarily straightforward, the texts touch on many burning issues, not least the climate crisis. But rather than whine, Cope makes you think constructively in these dystopic times, while managing to simultaneously be quite Lewis Carrollesqe and whimsical.

One for the ages. Unmissable!

The Dowling Poole – See You, See Me

I have a soft spot for Willie Dowling that won’t go away, and have followed him from his glam rock outset in The Grip, to Honeycrack, Jackdaw 4 and onwards. And that I like Jon Poole goes without saying. (Although I have no interest in the Wildhearts, a band they have both played in.)

‘See You, See Me’ is an album driven by protest against the rise of anti-democratic politicians around the world. And it is quite inspired; ‘See You, See Me’ is their best album so far. 

Messrs Dowling and Poole play strutty, high octane pop that kind of crescendoes all the time. As it is overly energetic and jam-packed with vocals and choruses, it can be a bit tiresome to hear at first, but gets easier with repeated listening.

They are incredibly talented and many of their twists and turns are as memorable as they are unexpected. And once you start finding your way around their sonic mazes you are already humming along and can’t let go anymore.

Dungen – Dungen Live

I have never been a fan of live albums. Why do people want to hear lesser versions of songs, in worse sound quality, while neither being able to feel the energy on the floor nor sharing a beer with your friends? Sorry, I don’t get it. 

But ‘Dungen Live’ is something completely different. Rather than the actual songs, we get the improvisations and bridges – all the stuff that the studio albums don’t provide. And there is no attempt to hide the piecemeal approach; sections cut from one to the other without much ado, hardly even a fadeout/fadein. 

But with this kind of quality, there is no need for pimping. 

Reine Fiske’s guitar playing is brilliantly wide-eyed throughout, and although these tracks are jams, there’s is a keen melodic sensibility from the whole band, not least the keyboards. Very Nordic and very poetic. An instant classic.

Eyeless in Gaza – Ink Horn / One Star

Back in 1981, Caught In Flux was one of my absolute favourite albums. It opened my ears to the full potential of creativity that the post-punk scene had unleashed. 

Since then, I have tried to keep up with everything that Martyn Bates and and Pete Becker do, either solo or jointly as Eyeless in Gaza; we are talking dozens of albums. And amazingly, despite their signature sound with Pete’s rhythms and Martyn’s otherworldly vocals floating on top of synths and keyboard sounds, they never seem to run out of ideas.

On the contrary, ‘Ink Horn / One Star’ is inspired and explorative – and surprisingly full of pent-up tension. A fantastic record that is every bit as good as that album that changed my life almost 40 years ago. It was officially released late in December 2019, but it is too good to ignore just because it isn’t strictly speaking a 2020 album!

Bill Fay – Countless Branches

My favourite Bill Fay album will forever be his collection of 60s demos ‘From The Bottom Of An Old Grandfather Clock’, although his albums from the 70s were also exceptional. 

However, I have been a bit slow in warming to his re-emergence as an active musician in the 2010s. His records have been good, but I just haven’t found myself wanting to put them on very often. However, it feels like Fay has reached the logical conclusion of his trajectory on ‘Countless Branches’: Everything that isn’t absolutely necessary has been peeled away and discarded, and left is the very essence of his music. Often that means just a voice and a piano, but it works incredibly well. There is a bonus disc with slightly more arranged versions of a couple of the tracks – and they actually pale in comparison!

Field Music – Making A New World

On ‘Making A New World’, the Brewis brothers seem to move full circle and get closer to their early albums; the music is more angular and arty and the funk has been bottled up and stowed away in a single track, ‘Only In A Man’s World’, sounding very much like a lost Talking Heads song. Stylistically, it might have gone down better on David Brewis 2019 School of Language solo album ’45’ – about another man’s world, namely Trump – but it is nevertheless a great track.

Whereas the earlier albums were full of charm and pop-sensibility, you get the feeling that here the band is in full control of their powers. That loss of innocence makes the album a bit harder to love, but even harder to dismiss. 

Originally commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, the album is an ambitious 19-track conceptual song-cycle about the first world war. But that would be impossible to figure out if you didn’t know it. Progressive pop may be the album’s core, but it also blends in some wistful mellow sections that work nicely as conduits for emotional time travel.

Although brand new, this album, together with all previous albums are now available as pay-what-you-want downloads on Bandcamp, so don’t miss them! 

The Greek Theatre – When seasons change

I suppose it is just as much the name as the music, but when I listen to this, I can’t avoid thinking about the UK band Nirvana. They not only share a Greek connection but also  maximalist approach and vocals that have a dreamtime feeling. 

On this third album, the core duo of Sven Fröberg and Fredrick Persson inhabit a parallell 1970s universe that expands with light speed in all directions while remaining peaceful and pastoral at its core. Beautiful!

The Homesick – The Big Exercise

After its 60s and 70s heyday, Nederpop has a lot to live up to, but on their second album, the Homesick certainly do. Not that it sounds like it did back then at all. But there is abundant sense of invention and melody here. And while you can easily spot influences such as Field Music and other art pop bands, there is also a lot of fun going on. While definitely a pop album, it only reveals its charms after a couple of listens, so hang in there and you will be amply rewarded!

Dan Lyons – SubSuburbia

After listening to this and being incredibly impressed, I am thinking that I need to give Fat White Family another chance, since since Dan used to play with them. If it is in any way similar, it must good!

What you get here is a strange but interesting collision of styles. Imagine a classic 70s British eccentric fronting an introverted 80s post-punk outfit and you might get a hint of what I mean. Then combine that with a strong dose of modern decadence – something Dan might well have picked up as a member of Pete Doherty’s touring band.

Mothboxer – Accelerator

David Ody is back with another Mothboxer album, and, reliably, it’s a keeper. Whereas the songwriting still borrows an idea or two from the XTC songbook, the music itself is based on fat and rhythmic guitar riffs. Add to that a layered and spacey production and you get a heady mixture.

While maybe not as instantly hummable as the previous proper album ‘Open Sky’ from 2018 (depending on how you count last year’s ‘Time Capsule Vol. 1’) there are nevertheless tracks that jump right out at you, such as the short and sweet ‘Under Water’, the slow-starting and dreamy ‘Thinking About It’ or the power poppy ‘Funny How It Is’. 

But after a couple of listens, tracks like the brooding and hazy ‘Any Time’ also start revealing their considerable charms!

Pea Green Boat – The Unforgettable Luncheon

If you have read this blog before, then you probably know that I am a big fan of the Godley and Creme era of 10cc. And if you know that, then you know that I love this album too. Playful and all over the place, yet serious and focused when it comes to hooks and structure. An album that might be as challenging to the listener as to the musicians trying to nail all those twists and turns, but nevertheless a minor masterpiece. Without doubt one of the best albums of the year. Read my full review here.

Rustin Man – Clockdust

When Paul Webb reappeared after a 17 year absence from the record business with a great introspective record that didn’t feel rusty at all, few probably expected him to follow up just a year later with an even better record. Yet here he is, and just as last year there is a Robert Wyattesque shimmer of melancholia over the whole thing which makes it irresistible for me.

Oh, yes, you are supposed to mention that Webb used to be the bassist in Talk Talk in reviews like this as well. So there you go!

Wax Machine – Earthsong of Silence

This must be my greatest new find this quarter. Wax Machine come from Brighton by way of Brazil and play with their ears to the ground and their minds attuned to the vibes of the cosmos. In their attitude to music, they remind my of psychedelic hippies Jouis, but their music is more in a jazz vein. It is all beautiful and quite wistful, with lots of flute and an unusually melodic drummer.

There is no heaviness, on the contrary this is all played with a featherlight touch. The music is primarily instrumental, although the vocal tracks are very nice and humorous: The charming and very British ‘Time Machine’ is a prime example, and it puts a smile on my face that is so broad that I really have to make an effort to pull the corners of my mouth down again.

And the refrain on the only really noisy track here obviously has both vocalists screaming “Silence” at the top of their lungs. That goes without saying.

Too bad that the album is released on US label Beyond Is Beyond, since that puts a physical copy behind the various tax walls that our protectionist leaders are erecting everywhere. By the way, debuting on a US label reminds me of another British band with a very similar name… oh, yeah, the Soft Machine. I am sure they know about them.


Best live album Q1 2020

Field Music – Live at Tapestry

If you have read this far, you are aware that I have already had one Field Music album in the best of Q1 list. You also know that I said I don’t like live albums, despite already listing one there.

Nevertheless, I can’t resist this one, recorded in 2006 almost right in the middle of their first two albums. OK, the versions here aren’t as good as what they put on those groundbreaking albums. But this live session does manage to evoke the same spine tingling magic as on the studio recordings. Angular and spiky at one moment, soft and tuneful in the next; Field Music really were the best band in the world at that point in time.

And, importantly, we get to hear almost half of the second album (well, five out of twelve tracks to be exact) recorded almost a full year before it was released.

Again, as with all Field Music albums on Bandcamp right now, it is available at any price you choose.


Best EP Q1 2020

Real Terms – Housework

Any band that lists Hot Club De Paris as one of their key inspirations should get your pulse racing. And the Real Terms debut EP is indeed brilliant. Full of bouncy pop melodies, yet played with a math rock approach, their music is thorny and convoluted while remaining eminently catchy. As an effect they create a sound that paradoxically combines confinement and freedom at the same time.

My only concern is that two of the songs on this EP have been available digitally since 2017, and the track ‘Tightrope Walkers’ was released as a free download in October 2019, making ‘Esperanza’ and ‘Scared of Everyone’ the only new numbers here.

Maybe this indicates how difficult it is to write material of this caliber, and if so, will we eventually see a whole album of new material? I certainly hope so!

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