The Null Device

Records of 2020

Once again, at the end of this plague year, it's time to recap the music that came out over the past twelve months and soundtracked the year's events, or lack thereof. And while this year has been somewhat more fallow than previous ones, there was still good music, even if one didn't get to see it live. So here, as always, are the noteworthy records of the year:

With honourable mentions going to: 36 and zakè, Stasis Sounds For Long-Distance Space Travel (an ambient concept album, ostensibly intended to be programmed music for entering suspended animation for long space voyages; it came out before the pandemic exploded, though has only grown in relevance since), Aseul(아슬), Slow Dance (understated bedroom electropop from Korea), The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You (another four years worth of cratedigging and (perhaps more significantly) sample clearance paperwork brings another Avalanches record, and you know the deal: vintage soul/disco/lounge grooves and beats, with an all-star cast of guest appearances), Bananagun, The True Story Of Bananagun (fuzzed out psychedelic grooves tinged with Afrobeat and tropicália influences), Duncan Barrett, Raise The Effra! (the former Tigercats frontman continues his voyage into new-agey ambient electronics, and does so quite listenably), Glenn Bennie, Fade and Shimmer (Glenn of the Underground Lovers's solo outing takes the form of two EPs of shoegazey instrumentals; soft drones, electronics and reverb), David Bridie & All India Radio, Reconstructions (the Not Drowning, Waving frontman joins forces with Tasmanian triphopster All India Radio in a work of Eno-esque ambience, combining piano and electronics), Miles Brown, The Gateway (the thereminist from grindcore-turned-synthwave ensemble Night Terrors' solo effort goes into John-Carpenter-meets-italo-synthwave territory; 4/4 drum machines, pulsing synth bass sequences and coruscating arpeggios, and of course, the theremin; like the soundtrack to a lurid VHS film, or perhaps a video game), Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow Of Fear (now down to one original member, the Sheffield industrial pioneers deliver a project of uneasy beats for dystopic dance floors), Cable Ties, Far Enough (choppy, skronky high-tension garage punk from Melbourne, charged with adrenaline and incandescent with political rage; a Molotov cocktail tossed over the white picket fences of the Quiet Australians, or something like that), Carpenter Brut, Blood Machines OST (apparently a score for a scifi TV series, this sees the French horror-synth trio add some Vangelis to their John Carpenter influences), Cavern of Anti-Matter, In Fabric OST (Tim Gane's new one is a soundtrack to a Peter Strickland film), A.G. Cook, 7G (the PC Music impresario steps out from behind the glossy façade of his hyper-produced electropop with a 49-track box set of oddities, ranging from kid606-style breakcore to lo-fi pop; the artifice is still there, just not in the same order), Cuushe, Waken (returning after a five-year hiatus, the Japanese artist known for her chilled electronic pop steps it up a notch and takes it to the floor, with a new album propelled by driving beats), Haiku Salut, Pattern Thinker / Portrait In Dust (two soundtracks they recorded for short films; recommended for fans of múm, Jon Brooks or indeed their earlier works), Hamerkop, Remote (Annabel of New Zealand kosmische-pop project Bachelorette's new collaborative project, from her new home in Baltimore, Maryland; glistening synthesiser arpeggios, analogue fuzz and hazy reverb, though not quite as focussed as her solo works), Thor Harris, Doom Dub (what the title, and the skull on the cover, say; broken/distorted dub reggae with the theme of humanity's impending self-annihilation; Ben Frost and Lawrence English guest on tracks), Hatari, Neyslutrans (the Icelandic BDSM-themed industrial group who almost won the last Eurovision of the Before Times; generally snarly industriogothic EBM, with a bit of Squarepusher mixed into their Skinny Puppy), HTRK, Body Lotion EP (booming 808s and soft vocals drenched in postapocalyptic quantities of reverb, and underscored by grindcore bass; chilled and yet uneasy, in an almost Lynchian way), imugi 이무기, Dragonfruit (a duo from New Zealand, combining downtempo hip-hop, chilled R&B and Korean electropop influences), The Little Hands of Asphalt, Half Empty (London's indiepop powerhouse Fika Recordings brings us a slab of pastoral indiepop from Norway), Mighty Duke And The Lords, Caribbean Rollarama (a brass-driven party-rocking juggernaut from Melbourne, named after an outer-suburban roller link, where apparently Barack Obama now holds court, or so they say), Of Montreal UR FUN (hey look, it's Kevin Barnes TMI-ing about the exhilirating delirium of his new relationship and his anxiety about it, though this time in a (broadly) 80s-new-wave vein), Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song (driving electronica and the odd ethereal pop fragment from the Welsh producer; a bit like Dntel or early Autechre in places; with a guest appearance by John Cale), Popular Music, ...Plays In Darkness (a collaboration between Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls and Australian composer Prudence Rees-Lee, Popular Music's debut album is a love letter to the myth of cinema; comprised of music from cinema (from old standards to show tunes to music from genre cinema; Willow's Song from The Wicker Man is here, as is Marianne Faithfull's song from The City of Lost Children) rendered with electronics, piano, strings, denatured with reverb and delay, and made uncanny, and in its own way, very 2020; file alongside Misty Roses), Salt Lake Alley, The Way It Feels (summery, hook-laden indiepop from Sweden (I think), albeit on a Spanish label), Singapore Sling, Good Sick Fun With... (the Icelandic psych nihilists' latest album sees them pay tribute to early rock'n'roll, including a cover of Summertime Blues, done with their usual buzzsaw guitar and digital delays), Warm Digits, Flight of Ideas (more propulsive, modernistic electro-krautrock from the Newcastle ensemble; as usual, there are guests, and this time they include twee-punk shouters The Lovely Eggs and indiepop combo The Orielles; perhaps we can expect them to play Indietracks if/when that comes back?), Wedding Guns, Blood In Everyone's Type (a side project of Clue To Kalo with a 4-track EP of wonky grooves coalescing from disjointed loops; file alongside Caribou), Die Wilde Jagd, Haut (the post-krautrock electronica project's new release continues where Uhrwald Orange left off, only moving away from discrete songs, consisting instead of four tracks, each exceeding 9 minutes)

The elephant in the room this year was, of course, Covid-19, which left little untouched. Shows and festivals were cancelled, recordings postponed, and some artists retreated to their home studios. Responses to the Rona varied; Chromeo recorded an EP, Quarantine Casanova, with song titles like Clorox Wipe and 6 Feet Away executed in their trademarked hypersexual Troutmanesque electrofunk style; meanwhile, the London disco allstars Article 54 followed up their Brexit-themed album of 2019 with a Rona-themed one in the same vein. Momus approached the subject less flippantly (though not, it must not be said, with complete earnestness). Shoegaze-adjacent ambient-electronic artist füxa captured the mood early on with an EP titled Sweeps & Beeps for Quarantined Peeps. And Darren Hanlon reminded us that we all cope in different ways.

Another recurring theme, which may or may not be unrelated, was a sense of liminal spaces. Some of that had been building up for a while (see also: vaporwave, and before that, currents in post-rock, shoegaze and ambient music), though it seems to have escalated. Haircuts for Men brought trip-hoppy instrumentals with moody chord progressions and titles like “My Wife Is On Tinder”, making a sort of desaturated vaporwave minus the consumer exuberance; not so much music for shopping malls as for the Backrooms. Cayn Borthwick , the saxophonist from Melbourne's NO ZU and Mighty Duke and The Lords, released a solo album of what could be described as post-punk lounge music: spacious, impressionistic soundscapes made of electronic sounds; sunny with a barely perceivable undertone of melancholia. And Eyeliner, (the vaporwave-adjacent side project of New Zealand synthpop artist Disasteradio) returned with Drop Shadow, a collection of disconnectedly upbeat music crafted with late-Shōwa-era digital wavetable synthesisers. And Popular Music's evocation of the film theatre could fall into this category as well.

The year was also a good one for rereleases, particularly in Australia. The legendary ambient/post-punk/avant-garde project Not Drowning, Waving and their sibling band My Friend The Chocolate Cake uploaded their back-catalogues to Bandcamp; meanwhile, Melbourne indie legends Lost & Lonesome started their own rerelease programme, uploading long-unavailable records by The Foots, Fred Astereo, Mid-State Orange and Lacto-Ovo, including two tracks recorded in 2003 and only mixed now; gradually, gaps in the historical record are being filled.

Were I to name a record of the year, it would be either Spunsugar's Drive-Thru Chapel or Thibault's Or Not Thibault.

One final note: you may have noticed that there are few major-label records here and almost everything has a link on Bandcamp. This is not just indie snobbery (not just — ed.), but rather an artefact of logistics in our time. These days, it seems that fewer and fewer new-release albums make it out to CDs, and of those, fewer and fewer make it to a local record shop. (The situation is particularly bad in Sweden, where I live, where Spotify seems to be to music consumption what the national oat-milk monopoly is to non-dairy coffee additives, and the big record shops mostly have a handful of new releases and a table of discounted “classic” records — if you have a gap in your Blue Öyster Cult collection, you're sorted — though JB HiFi in Melbourne was looking quite bare as well.) As such, my choices for getting something not on BandCamp are either to mail-order it to rip, paying postage (and often import duties) and waiting several weeks (as I did for the Momus album), or pay the full digital price for a lossy low-quality download from Apple Music or Amazon (which may be technically good enough for listening, except for the chagrin of knowing that the copy I paid for will forever lack those missing harmonics and transients, stripped out of it to shrink it down for 00s-vintage computer networks and MP3 players). This is enough of a psychological barrier to keep most of my purchases on Bandcamp (where, to be honest, some 90% of what I'm interested in can be found), with the herculean effort of ordering CDs reserved only for a handful of special cases, and the occasional gap filled at Rough Trade or Fopp on a visit to London (see also: Covid-19). (Of course, I could stream the records on Spotify and justify that as having “consumed” them this year, but that wouldn't be the same, would it? If you haven't bought a copy and stored it on a physical medium somewhere, it's not really in your collection, and is one record-label dispute away from disappearing forever as if it never existed.)

The good news is that more Bandcamp holdouts are joining; London shoegaze institution Club AC30 did this year, as did PC Music, Sonic Youth are putting their records up (starting from demos, live sessions and oddities like Ciccone Youth, though they've managed to get major-label-released albums like Daydream Nation up; I'm guessing it wasn't a Universal Music executive who made that call), and Melbourne indie veterans Underground Lovers are making noises about it (one remix compilation so far, with (hopefully) the possibility of back-catalogue to follow). So, if you're an artist on an independent label who don't do Bandcamp, ask them why the hell not?

If you use Spotify, there is the usual playlist here.

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