The 10 best albums of Q2 2020

I am not sure why I put myself through this pain every quarter. Selecting favourite albums inevitably means taking away several albums that are really great. This quarter that includes releases by Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Iris Viljanen, Tim Burgess, Bananagun, OHMME and Robert Sotelo just to mention a few.

Still, it forces me to pick the albums that really matter the most, although I am sure that you, dear reader, would make other choices. Music taste is personal!

Aksak Maboul – Figures

With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece.

Although I initially struggled with the rhythmically monotonous parts and skipped to the more National Health sounding passages, repeated listenings have made me capitulate and reconsider. There can be variation also in repetition. That idea also works quite amazingly for the vocal parts of this album. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.

Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.

Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a racket on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.

But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.

Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future! 

Doomshakalaka – Doomshakalaka

Don’t buy this thinking that you will finally get another Hot Club de Paris album. Now in his 30s, Paul Rafferty has moved on from the life affirming racket of his XTC math rock days and embraced a less quirky and somewhat more anthemic indie-rock world view.  

And rather than looking forward, he his now looking backward at his lost youth and revisiting important moments and memories.

This about-face is also reflected in the band name. The expression boomshakalaka is used in baseball for a slam dunk and more generally to express something powerful and joyous. But it probably originates from a nonsense word passage in the 1969 Sly and the Family Stone song ‘I Want to Take You Higher’. 

Since Rafferty is no longer on a joy trip, he simply switched the boom for a bit of doom.

As a result, this is an album that doesn’t reach out. But with repeated listens, the tunes grow on you and you start noticing all the devilishly nice details. Quite a lovely thing.

Massimo Giuntoli – Tender Buttons

Massimo Giuntoli often combines classical and popular music in a way that remains accessible while clearly being avant-garde. On his latest album, he has set poems from American Paris expatriate Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection ‘Tender Buttons’ to music. Or maybe I should say: to piano. There is really not much else here than a rather harsh sounding piano (although there are a few other keyboard sounds) and Massimo’s voice, sometimes in splendid solitude; sometimes in dialogue with itself.

As I listen my head fills with modernistic images from silent movies. The melodies are quite varied and capture the strange juxtapositions in Stein’s words to great effect. 

I believe Massimo would prefer to be compared to Robert Wyatt, but as far as I am concerned this is more akin to what Peter Hammill might experiment with. 

Magic Bus – The Earth Years

Even the first few drum beats of the brilliant new Magic Bus album ‘The Earth Years’ capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.

The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track; titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’, it seemingly describes an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain. The track resonates very much with our current state of isolation and inspires me to participate in my mind; a true head trip for the year 2020.

Once and Future Band – Deleted Scenes

The Once and Future Band are from Oakland and you can somehow hear that. Close to the West Coast but less frivolous and harder working. Their second album continues on the path that the first staked out, and we are still very much in a 1970s world where Paul McCartney sets the rules and Steely Dan pulls the punches.

Although the sound is rather maximalist, there is a genuine attention to detail that just puts a big smile on my face, although listening to the dramatic vocals almost can feel like a guilty pleasure at times. Thankfully, they have thrown in a few less enticing instrumentals so that I can catch my breath.

OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole

Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were. 

Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.

As always a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless a bit surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.

Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus – Songs Of Yearning

If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ certainly is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation and release of ‘Beauty Will Save The World’ in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987.

The new album has a gorgeous pan-European feel despite being British. Songs are sung in multiple languages and there is a strong sense of centuries deep cultural grounding. Don’t miss the companion album ‘Nocturnes’ either!

Kavus Torabi – Hip To The Jag

Knifeworld and Gong band leader, member of a handful of other bands, record label owner and now also solo artist. Kavus certainly keeps busy. But luckily, it is all done with inspiration and attention to detail. If you, like me are a sucker for his signature songwriting style, you will get it in its purest form here.

And just like on the latest Gong album ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ Kavus is on a journey that is as spiritual as it is lysergic. On ‘Hip To The Jag’ the lyrics become more personal as he tries to reconcile life with death and searches for mystic revelation.

The album ends with an over 9 minutes long drone where the music seemingly aims for a universal resonance point, like an interstellar standing wave.

A strange and beautiful album.

Zopp – Zopp

If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.

Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.

Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.

Best mini album of Q2 2020

Modern Nature – Annual

Almost a year after their brilliant debut LP, Modern Nature are back with a follow-up mini album. The silence has grown even further and reminds even more of ‘Laughing Stock’ era Talk Talk. However, the music here is less dramatic and more free-flowing, focused on capturing an atmosphere of annual recurrence.

The instruments include cello and saxophone; they are beautifully recorded and given space to breath in their analogue splendour. Jack Cooper’s voice is an ever present companion, whispering softly in your ear. On ‘Harvest’ Kayla Cohen of Itasca takes over lead vocals, but the softness remains the same.

Finally, on ‘Wynter’ we are back to the theme from the opening track, making the stillness and lack of motion complete. Breathtaking.

Best single of Q2 2020

Dullards – Unlucky 4 U / Grand Pier

Those (few) of you who are following my posts know that I have turned into quite a Roger Heathers fan. Well here he is back again in a new constellation as one half of the Dullards, an “experimental melodic glam rock power pop band” according to their Bandcamp page. 

‘Unlucky 4 U’ is a 50s pop pastiche mixed up with bits and pieces of power chords. Worthy of Roy Wood, it also features vocals that sound as if they have been recorded in a room on top of a helium factory.

‘Grand Pier’ on the other hand is a sweet ditty that hops and skips along on a summery melody while being contrasted by a panicky lyric.

Nothing dull with the Dullards!

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