20 albums from 2020

I would like to apologise to those of you who have followed this blog in the past. Halfway through 2020, I simply ran out of steam.

My work stress was at an all-time high. The looming Brexit made me feel less enthusiastic about music, given that much of the stuff I care about likely would be behind an import tax wall come 2021. The pandemic and the climate crisis certainly didn’t make things better. Then my sister died in October.

The pain from my sister’s death is still very much there, but I have decided it is time to crawl up out of that dark hole I dug for myself. I will try to find some work-life balance in 2021. Boris gets his divorce but remains fuck buddies with the EU, meaning no import taxes. Vaccines are coming and the man who in himself is an affront to the colour of orange is going, so maybe the world will now act on the Paris Agreement at long last.

And, importantly for this blog, whatever 2020 was like for you, it has been full of great music. That is a cause for celebration – and here are my 20 favourite albums of the year. I can’t rank them as they are all incredibly good, so I present them in alphabetical order.

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. 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.

Arch Garrison – The Bitter Lay

Laid back and mellow yet whimsical and playful. Arch Garrison is Craig Fortnam’s side project with James Larcombe when not busy with the North Sea Radion Orchestra. While suffused with an acoustic six-string folk feel, the music trickles forth like a calm brook, constantly branching out and forking in an unhurried and understated way. Almost inherently self-effacing, this music is easy to pass by but has that world-in-a-grain-of-sand quality if you just stop and listen for a change.

Compared to the previous album, Larcombe’s contributions are more understated – but remain a key part of what makes Arch Garrison such a unique experience.

Army of Moths – By Word of Moth

Army of Moths refer to the sound they make as a “racket” – and indeed it is. The influence of the Cardiacs is not only evident in the layered sound, the chord sequences and the falsetto voices, but also in the dedication of the album to Tim Smith who sadly no longer is with us. However, they add enough personality, witty twists, oddball ideas and strong songwriting to the mix to make the album stand fully on its own. 

Clocking in at a full hour, the listening experience can be almost disorientating, akin to being at a wonderfully crazy circus show. Don’t mothball this one!

Barringtone – Bonanza Plan

Twelve years on from the first Barringtone single and 15 years from his first album, back then with electro pop band Clor, Barry Dobbin is finally, finally back with a full album again. Not sure if that was the plan all along, but what a bonanza it is! Although this time the sound is as scaled down to the basics of guitar, drums and bass as the complexity is scaled up with math-rocky angularity and unexpected time signature changes, the catchy melodies remain intact. Singular in vision and execution and guaranteed to reward your efforts.

Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a lot of noise 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! 

Bingo Harry – Bingo Harry

Discovered by Martin Bramah of the Blue Orchids, who covered  their song ‘If They Ever Lay A Finger On Us’ on their album 2018 album ‘Righteous Harmony Fist’, this is as far as I understand not yet a proper Bingo Harry album. Instead it is a collection of demos done with Bramah for an aborted album. But while decidedly low-fi, there is nothing here that feels unfinished; instead the primitive approach feels just right for this set songs that more than anything remind me of Tyrannosaurus Rex before they went glam or even pop. Still, this stuff is more focused and less naive. Although the music sounds like it could have been made any time during the last half century, it has that unusual spark of originality that makes you perk your ears.

Peter Cat – The Saccharine Underground

If your idea of observational lyrics is ironic humor that first makes you laugh at the absurdity of what is said and then laugh again at the bitter truth of the same thing, then you need to check out Scottish musician Peter Cat’s debut LP.

Take the track ‘If you can’t live without me’ with the obvious question: ‘Then why aren’t you dead yet?’ Story-telling is definitely the name of the game and The Divine Comedy are definitely a reference here. But you need to go back to an album like ‘Promenade’ with tracks like ‘The Booklovers’ to find the same contrived-yet-natural humour. It has taken Pater Cat more than five years to assemble this album, but it was certainly worth the effort.

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. Having grown up on music from the 60s and early 70s, and taken part in the punk and post punk scenes, Joss channels that into something timeless yet 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 being very Lewis Carrollesqe.

One for the ages. Unmissable!

Anna von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly

It is not often that I find myself with my hands in the air all the way up front by the stage next to a bunch of death metallers at concerts, but with her gothic angst Anna von Hausswolff draws a rather diverse crowd. 

Her new all instrumental album takes its inspiration from a park of statues in the Italian city of Bomarzo commissioned in the 16th century by Pier Francesco Orsini in mourning of his dead wife. The album is recorded using only the baroque organ in Örgryte New Church, and conjures up visions of disfigured monsters or the underworld in a way that both attracts and disgusts. Fascinating.

Kevin Godley – Muscle Memory

I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten.

After ‘How Dare You’, the 10cc broke up and it was immediately clear that among all the talent, Kevin Godley was the real genius. I remember editing down the massive ‘Consequences’ on to a cassette tape to get to the music on that sprawling thing, and by the release of ‘L’ I knew Godley was my true hero.

So, when Kevin released his first-ever solo album this year, it was a big event for me. And, ever the inventor, Kevin with this album somehow anticipates lockdown, by reaching out across the internet for musical ideas from anyone and everyone, on top of which he adds his unmistakable touch and great vocals. Magic!

Homunculus Res – Andiamo in Giro di Notte e ci Consumiamo nel Fuoco

Palermo art proggers Homunculus Res are back with another anarchistic, esoteric, apocalyptic, catchy and fun album. Combining the spiritual heritage of Picchio Dal Pozzo with the Canterbury quirk of Hatfield & the North, they are certainly one of the most interesting bands around today. 

The title translates into something like “We go around at night and consume ourselves in the fire” which in its original Latin from of “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” is a palindrome (try it out!) of unknown medieval origin that also happens to be the title of a 1978 film by Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord. Compared to earlier records, the music is more dense but the rhythms are as jerky as ever, and once you find the melodies, you discover how sweet they are. Masterpiece!

July – The Wight Album

‘The Wight Album’ is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin. 

It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968 when the original and by now classic July album was released, yet simultaneously is very much of the present. What connects it to the here and now is of course the changed perspective on life as experienced by Tom Newman and Pete Pete Cook who are now two old men getting close to 80.

Paul McCartney – McCartney III

I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten. 

Macca has had his ups and downs since then, but here he continues his latter day purple patch in grand style. Although allegedly a cleaning out of leftovers, the album actually showcases Paul at what he does best – fooling around and inventing ingenious bits and pieces that take on a life of their own. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the track ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, which is well over 8 minutes of repeating the refrain over and over without ever losing its vitality. Magic!

Micko & The Mellotronics – 1/2 dove – 1/2 pigeon

If you don’t think they make art rock like they used to, this is the album for you. Heavily riff based with observational lyrics, bitten-off vocals and poppy melodies that never fail to pack a punch. I could line up references to everything from Syd Barrett via Roxy Music to Magazine here, but what really clinches it for me is the wistful revengefulness of ‘You Killed My Father’ with piano and twisted string arrangements by none other than the late Neil Innes. One of those albums that I absolutely had to get on vinyl, this music demands being held in your hands. 

Rock’n’roll, man!

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 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 surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.

Pea Green Boat – The Unforgettable Luncheon

If you have read the entries above, then you already know that I am a big fan of the Godley & 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.

Keiron Phelan – Hobby Jingo

Keiron Phelan’s second album takes the classic pop tendencies from his first one all the way. When I recently plugged this album at the Prog Fest Online event in Tokyo, I said that this a Kevin Ayers for the 2020s, and that is all you should know to rush off and get yourself a copy right away. The sound here is incredibly warm and friendly, and the tunes are very proper, with traditional structure and hummable refrains. To say that Keiron’s vocals are smooth is almost an understatement. Think europop or maybe Bacharach. All of this could easily have drifted into schmalz, but it simply never does. 

Pulling this kind of a warm fantasy off in our current dystopic times almost comes across as radical. If you just manage to open your heart to what is on offer here, you might find that it’s just what the doctor ordered. Wonderful stuff!

Sanguine Hum – A Trace Of Memory

After the wonderfully zany and circular story of the Buttered Cat trilogy of albums, I was expecting to have to wait years for the concluding part, ‘A Suitable Heir’. But instead 2020 gave us both the Archive Vol. 1 album and an album that takes us down memory lane rather than go on a storytelling spree.

And what a wonderful album ‘A Trace Of Memory’ is. Mellower, and more loosely played, yet somehow even more coherent and intense than their previous offerings. To me, this album works like a hall of mirrors that I can get lost in for hours, and that I will continue exploring probably for the rest of this decade. Ignore the prog rock label that some stick on this, and allow yourself to experience something that really moves beyond genres.

Tugboat Captain – Rut

Ahh! This is what it’s all about. Putting on a record and feeling your heart swell with delight. Tugboat Captain’s debut album has it all: memorable hooks, swooning melodies, humour and despair. With orchestral – ramshackle or otherwise – backing to boot. Recorded at Abbey Road – secretly, using free studio time – “Rut” manages to not sound derivative while unashamedly cherry-picking from pop history.

Although the use of an 11-piece choir as well as 13 additional musicians on various instruments lends grandiosity to the sound in places, there is no suffocating perfectionism or cloying production sheen. The DIY approach remains intact and the festive feeling of friends being invited along to make some magical noise is captivating.

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.

6 thoughts on “20 albums from 2020”

  1. Hi Michael,
    Great to see your blog active again! So sorry you have had such a difficult time.

    Early this year it seemed the world had gone so mad it couldn’t get any worse and then it proved in a big way that it could. Both Val and I are classified as “clinically extremely vulnerable” health wise so we have spent most of the year not being able to see family or friends which is especially hard because our elder son has lived in Norway for many years. However, he gave us some great news today in sending us a photo of his new Norwegian passport to match his new joint nationality which came through a few weeks ago. At least part of the family is becoming more European rather than less!

    I must confess I had not heard many of your top 20 albums but was delighted to see Kevin Godley and McCartney III included. You were so lucky to grow up with Ram and How dare you? Until the Beatles appeared I had to make do with Cliff Richard, the Shadows and Billy Fury. I would have loved it if my first live concert had been seeing the Beatles at the ABC in Blackpool but in reality that was my second. The first was Cliff Richard and the Shadows in the “Holiday Carnival” show. I did not buy Egypt Station, the first McCartney album I had passed on. I found the lyrics to Come on to me and Fuh you inappropriate for the age of his voice. The decision about McCartney III was taken away since I received it as a Christmas present and I’m really glad I did. Thankfully the lyrics seem much more age appropriate and the only disappointment is that he did not include more mainly instrumental tracks. It seems to me “When winter comes” makes a great companion piece to “Heart of the country” on Ram.

    Do take care of yourself and it’s good to have you back.

    Graham

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  2. Hi Graham,
    Thanks for welcoming me back here, very kind of you! Sorry to hear about your health situation. Let us hope that vaccines will make the situation a little better over the next few months, and that your son will soon be able to come visit you!
    A bit envious that you actually have seen the Beatles live! Agree with you about some of the tracks on Egypt Station, not my favourite album. Thematically, I agree that “When Winter Comes” does go well with “Heart Of The Country” – but it wasn’t my intention to compare the two albums. Ram is a highly professional affair recorded in New York, whereas McCartney / McCartney II / McCartney III are really just Paul on his own at home. Although I like most and love some of his albums after the Beatles, I don’t think Paul ever made an album which is as brilliant as Ram, really.

    Wishing you a Happy New Year!

    Michael

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  3. Thanks, Michael, and Happy New Year to you also.

    I will increase your envy a bit more by revealing that I did see the Beatles live again the following year (16 August 1964), this time at the Opera House, Blackpool. Although when I saw them in 1963 (a couple of weeks before “She loves you” was released) the other acts on the bill had been more variety style than pop, it was totally different by 1964. The show was opened by the Kinks who had released “You really got me” a few days before. I remember my father particularly disliking that record and my brother and I having a bet with him that it would get to No 1. We did hold him to it when it got there! Also on the bill were the Sorrows and the High Numbers – playing with their Who line -up. As a whole was not particularly impressed with them but was amazed by John Entwistle’s bass playing. I have often wondered if this was a factor in influencing McCartney’s bass playing to become more adventurous. Unfortunately the screaming was so load at both of the concerts that it was not possible to hear very much of what the Beatles were playing though it was brilliant to see them.

    I think there is good material on all of the post-Beatle McCartney albums but there are almost always problems as well. I have a fondness for “Off the ground” but that is probably partly because the Earls Court concert on the tour for that album was the first live gig I took my younger son to when he was aged 11. I wanted him to have a better start for his concert going than Cliff Richard!

    Best wishes,

    Graham

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    1. Hi again Graham,

      You did succeed in making me more envious! So, you have seen the Beatles not once, but twice! And with the Kinks and the High Numbers as opening acts to boot. Wow! Although you didn’t actually HEAR much of the Beatles for all the screaming, it must have been quite an experience!
      I agree with you that most of Macca’s albums are a bit uneven – but more often than not, I am willing to forgive him for that 🙂
      All the best,
      Michael

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  4. So great to see you back. This blog – and your end of year lists, in particular – play such a huge role in my music listening life.

    Thrilled to see the Spencer Cullum record there. I knew him as a pedal steel player (we met when he played a few gigs with me in the UK ten years ago) and so his record really took me by (wonderful) surprise. I hope he’s able to get more attention. And very happy to see McCartney III on this list. My first hop through that album – jumping from track to track – wasn’t encouraging, but when I finally sat down to give it a front-to-back listen, I really fell in love with it.

    Best of luck to you and I hope your – all of ours – 2021 is much better than your 2020.

    Best from NYC,

    Daniel Carlson

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