In addition to his own annual music review, my friend Tracy has compiled blog posts in which people reflect on their music from 2020 in a list. He asked me if I had done a post of my own too and the answer was no (and is yes now, that you read this).
I didn’t buy a whole lot of new music in 2020 (and as it happens, I didn’t find everything so very noteworthy either, of course), so chose to deviate from Tracy’s approach a little bit — only a few of the albums listed below were actually released in 2020, and some of the older ones I only found in 2020. Some of them I had for quite a while longer, but all of them got a lot of plays last year (yes, I created an auto-playlist in foobar2000 with a search query for that).
The year was weird (does this need to be said?) and I stuck to a lot of music that I was already familiar with. And yes, it’s a lot of calming and soothing stuff. With some dark, some eclectic, some aggressive and some upbeat things in there, for when the mood demanded it. It was really strange how my brain was almost “stuck” on a certain album for days or sometimes even weeks. There was one album I’d listen to, repeatedly, until I felt “saturated”, perhaps (“worn out” is the wrong expression) and could move on to the next thing.
That was how I used to listen to music, anyway, in my youth. I didn’t run around and buy dozens of records a year. When I spent what little money I had on a record, it’d better be worth it, and all new music that I bought (even the bad stuff, which might explain my taste, haha) became a prized possession that needed to be listened to a lot.
Except for putting the 2020 releases that I really liked and played a lot at the top, the list is in no particular order. Maybe it expresses a little bit of preference or perhaps importance to me during this year, but it is by no means a rating of any rational kind. What’s available on Bandcamp is linked to it there, otherwise the link goes to the master release on Discogs and if there’s an individual track I’d like to recommend, I link to YouTube if it really can’t be avoided. 😛
Anna von Hauswolff — “All Thoughts Fly” (2020)
On her latest album, the drama and sometimes pompous arrangements from previous albums, with guitar and drums, and even her excellent singing are all gone — the latter being a bit of a pity of course. What’s left is the pipe organ, and maybe some synth and effects (I’m not even sure if that’s what I hear, these organ sounds are pretty far out). It’s absolutely incredible that she made the choice to follow her heart and instinct and go that route.
The repetitions and slow builds of the music are engaging, very satisfying and calming at the same time. Take the slow and brooding buildup of “Sacro Bosco“: the delicate tones and wailing melancholy are countered by the powerful, churning bass sounds of the pipe organ, and then there’s this “organ glitter”, like discovering a lively stream in a dark forest where the light plays on the water. The juxtaposition of brilliant overtones and droning bass is like light and darkness. It continues into a few simple, goosebump-inducing harmonies (better on the second listen when you know what to expect — the release of this tension!) before it all dies down and withers away, into nothing but hissing winds. So, so good.
Half Waif — “The Caretaker” (2020)
Whether Nandi Rose belts out a smashing love declaration to her husband (Siren) or lets the listener in on her darker moments, it’s always with a voice that carries so much confidence and hope. The voice says that in the end, everything will be all right. The lyrics seem personal, real, direct and honest. They’re touching, and to have this honesty and voice of hope in 2020 was wonderful.
We’re always eager to compare and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a mixture of Björk and Kate Bush here and there, but that doesn’t do Half Waif justice. I can honestly say that I haven’t heard anything quite like it before.
Rachel Morais — “Order in Chaos” (2020)
The debut EP from Malaysian solo pianist Rachel Morais served as a reminder: I really like solo piano! My love for it began with George Winston’s “Winter”, on a cassette that my stepfather had forgotten in my car when he borrowed it (his was being serviced). Order in Chaos, with only 5 tracks, is way too short of course, and I hope there will be more.
Anna Morley — “Visceral” (2019)
The vibraphone is an underappreciated instrument — I love its sounds and harmonies. Berlin-based Australian Anna Morley plays it, and sings as well on this smooth, relaxed, and warm, slightly jazzy album. Easy and pleasant music, great to wind down. Goes extremely well with a dram or two of single malt. 🙂
Chris Spheeris & Paul Voudouris — “Passage” (1982)
I discovered this new age/meditation music in 2018 (“already”) and since then, it has been my most-often played album. I go to it to calm down and relax. It works so, so well, from the bubbly, lively arpeggios of the first track, into the deep and slow meditation of the third one. I previously wrote a little bit about it here and in the meantime, there are three listings of it on Bandcamp?! Kinda weird, but it probably speaks to the appeal that the music (still) has.
José González — “Veneer” (2006)
I found this in my friend Joe’s Bandcamp collection and knew that I would like this a lot right when I heard the refrain of the opening track for the first time. The intimacy, simplicity and combination of acoustic guitar and soothing voice reminds me a little bit of early Leonard Cohen (except that González sings nicer, of course — which, ahem, isn’t hard, considering Cohen’s often more spoken “singing”). The entire album is so gentle, so quiet – and quite entrancing at the same time.
Boy Harsher — “Careful” (2019)
This retro-sounding synth pop that glows and pulsates red in the dark is from… Massachusetts?! Whaaaat? The instrumentation is almost hilarious: fake synth panflutes, booming electric tomdrums with a ton of reverb, gated snaredrums, sampled orchestra blasts, detuned synth pads – a blast from the 80ies propelled into the 21st century and polished black. It’s fantastic just because of that and I admire the restraint it must have taken to actually leave it like this, and NOT take it any further.
Take the little 7-note ‘melody’ in “Lost” — it almost makes me lose my mind. The album has the potential to wear itself out more quickly than I’d like all in all (does this have any depth at all?!), but when the mood was right (and in the first half of the year 2020, it often was), the gloomy melancholy that is driven through the darkness with stomping beats and sequencer basslines hit the spot damn well.
Various Artists — “I Am The Center” (2013)
This compilation was first mentioned in my “Musical Meanderings” post from summer 2019, and even though I do not exactly think of New Age as one of the genres I’d have a strong preference for, this compilation is very enjoyable because it covers such a broad variety of it (which makes the more typical representations of New Age tolerable as well😉). Another one of those releases I kept coming back to last year. The first few tracks pull me in, and then I can just glide along.
Steeler — “Strike Back” (1986)
Ah, the good old days of Thrash Metal. Strike Back is perhaps one of the damn best German albums of the genre and that era. Definitely the best one the band made, before they went more mainstream (with the follow-up “Undercover Animal”, which is meh) — and then broke up. The lyrics are partially nonsensical, partially hilarious (why didn’t they ask a native speaker for help?!😂), but the music totally kicks butt. I think I repeatedly listened to this album for almost two weeks… (opener: “Chain Gang“).
Ubar Tmar — “Eigou Kaiki” (2002)
A leftover from the end of my goa/psytrance days. And okay, to be quite honest: I only listen to the first two tracks, Cosmo Drome to warm up, and then Souran-Bushi (as loud as possible😜). This is Japanese psytrance and more melodic, curious and explorative that typical representations of the genre. It’s fat, rich and emotionally positive.
Souran-Bushi has the ability to instantly lift my spirits. With its voice samples it is almost comical, but it’s also touchingly melodic and in a way, cute even. What a combination! This in your face happiness was sorely needed during the first few months of the pandemic, when even all of our local parks and preserves were closed, and we were pretty much stuck at home most of the time.
And that’s all.