Albums of 2020

It should be easy for me to do this, to just wade back through my Albums of the Month posts for 2020 and pick my favourites, but there are many records which I only discover in the act of putting together an end of year list. This year in particular, with the lack of touring and the demise of many music publications, it has been much easier to miss things. I found the rise of Bandcamp to be particularly heartening, although it created the unusual side effect of making me buy more live albums than I ever did before, and I’m sure that was also a result of me missing live gigs so much. 

So here is a list of my ten favourites – and the reasons why – including a couple of releases which I have not featured on here before. As always these are ordered alphabetically by title.

By The Fire – Thurston Moore (Daydream Library Series) September 25th

The Thurston Moore Group have made some of the most interesting rock music of the last half-decade and By The Fire is their zenith, perfectly combining the classic indie-rock of prime period Sonic Youth with the more experimental leanings which have informed TM’s solo work since. In terms of overall look and feel, By The Fire has much in common with last year’s instrumental epic Spirit Counsel. This is a remarkably varied and fascinating rock record as it moves between intricate guitar music (the 12 minute ‘Siren’), powerful indie rock (‘Breath’, ‘Hashish’), and delicate introspection (‘Calligraphy’) before joining it all together whilst still pushing the boundaries (‘Locomotives’, ‘They Believe in Love’).

England is a Garden – Cornershop (Ample Play) March 6th

Released just as the pandemic was starting to hit, this double album became the soundtrack to those sunny Spring months when the first UK lockdown took hold. If you’re going to make a comeback, do it like this. Cornershop’s first album for quite a few years managed to build on the very best elements of their back catalogue and refine them into an utterly glorious whole. This is the record they’ve always threatened to make, and whilst it didn’t deviate too much from the sound of their mid to late 90s records, it came across as a much needed burst of joy and celebration.

Inner Song – Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound) August 28th

A record which I have turned to many times since its late summer release. It is strange that an album which begins with a cover version (Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’) should succeed as such a powerful original document but Inner Songs builds into something special – skirting around the edges of techno and indie-electronica, with the astonishingly strong ‘Jeanette’ and the dreamy, other-worldly collaboration with John Cale, ‘Colour of My Sky’. 

Microphones in 2020 – The Microphones (Bandcamp download) 7th August

This is a remarkable thing. Following two intense but often beautiful records (as Mt Eerie) dealing with his grief after the passing of his wife, Phil Elverum has returned to his original band name for this new release which is one long 40+ minute song. Once again it’s a very personal record, reminiscing mostly around his formative years in the music world, telling a story of how his life evolved.

Peoples Motel Band – Chris Forsyth & Garcia Peoples (Bandcamp download) 20th March

This emerged on the first “Bandcamp Friday” around the time we realised that the live music industry would be in a precarious state for  a long time to come. It started a ball rolling which meant I bought so many live albums I could do a separate list for those alone! This is one of the best live recordings I have heard in recent years. Recorded September 14, 2019 before a packed and enthusiastic hometown crowd at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, it concentrates on the songs from Chris Forsyth’s excellent 2019 album All Time Present plus the tour-de-force Dreaming in The Non-Dream and gives them a fresh lease of life, it fizzes with a remarkable energy and virtuoso playing, like prime Television but more wigged-out. 

Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers (Dead Oceans) 19th June

It is clear from her releases so far that Phoebe Bridgers possesses an immense talent and Punisher only serves to consolidate this. This time around she has expanded her sound from the delicate indie-folk of her debut into something more expansive. She has a lyrical skill in using a banal fact or incident to capture an emotion which some find hard to describe – “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ she told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” is one of my favourite lyrics of the year. I’m not sure how she managed, but this record is both sad AND apocalyptic yet it does not leave you feeling bleak, and I guess that’s a skill in itself.

Rough And Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan (Columbia) 19th June

Surely one of the biggest surprises in this whole ridiculous year was not just the release of a Bob Dylan album, but the release of a Bob Dylan album which held its own with his major works. That’s what Rough and Rowdy Ways was. As well as the hard hitting yet restrained musical arrangements, there was a lot going on here lyrically (and a myriad of cultural references and current social comment) and no doubt Dylanologists have much to pore over. The teaser track ‘Murder Most Foul’ was remarkable enough, but the rest of this record can hold its own with that.

Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee (Merge) 27th March

Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee has been making brilliant albums for a while now and Saint Cloud is no exception. It is a more organic record than its predecessor, the fine indie rock album Out in the Storm. This record is deeply rooted in the country and folk of the American South but it still sounds like Waxahatchee. She crafts a song as well as anyone, it’s hard to think of which of her contemporaries can match her.

Songs for Pierre Chuvin/ Getting Into Knives – the Mountain Goats (Merge) 17th April/ 23rd October

Band of the year, really, and not just because their 2005 tune ‘This Year’ has become an anthem for our times. In March they finished what would be their most elaborate record for years, Getting Into Knives, and were planning a tour when the pandemic struck. As a means to make some money back for his band and crew John Darnielle unearthed his ancient Panasonic tape recorder to record a brand new set of songs which were released on cassette for fastest turnaround. It ended up charting! Six months later the main album emerged, an elaborately produced collection of songs up there with the best of their recent work, and the two night live stream to promote it – now released on Bandcamp as the Jordan Lake Sessions – was the best gig I streamed all year.

We Will Always Love You – Avalanches (Modular) 11th December

The last great record of 2020 may well be my favourite, and it suits this year perfectly. This pandemic has led to the loss of many people and many things and this album, recorded mostly before 2020, has sadness and loss as its central theme. It begins with a voicemail, a goodbye note, from a woman who has presumably passed away and the entire ‘Pink Champagne’ section (actually the album’s working title) quotes heavily from the lyrics of the late David Berman, specifically from his Purple Mountains swansong. Having said that, this still sounds like The Avalanches – though this time there are more guest appearances than ever – over 20 I think – there is an incredibly skilled balance between dark and light elements in their sound. Sad elements can still come with a catchy tune.

Others worth a mention and your attention…..

Antarctica – Flat Worms, Blue Hearts – Bob Mould, Concret – Bailter Space, Coriky – Coriky, Gold Record – Bill Callahan, Healing is a Miracle – Julianna Barwick, Heart’s Ease – Shirley Collins, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – Oneohtrix Point Never, Names of North End Women – Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree, Off Off On – This is the Kit, Out Of My Province – Nadia Reid, Suite for Max Brown – Jeff Parker, Untitled (Black is) – SAULT, The Universe Inside – The Dream Syndicate

Albums of the month, October 2020 edition

I haven’t had a chance to write up the individual albums this month, so for now I’m just going to post my picks from October and their respective Bandcamp embeds.

L-R upper: Oneohtrix Point Never, The Mountain Goats, This is the Kit
L-R lower: Andy Bell, Laura Veirs, Songhoy Blues
L-R upper Mr Bungle, Mary Lattimore, lower Sun Ra Arkestra, Matt Berninger, SUNAC

It wasn’t until I previewed this page and scrolled through the selections that I realised what an eclectic selection October provided. There’s another wonderful album from Oneohtrix Point Never, tinged with sadness yet also reflecting and referencing a lot of his previous work, a big production number from the Mountain Goats which could add some new recruits to their fanatical following (I’d include myself in that don’t worry), a remake of Mr Bungle‘s early songs which is classic thrash with a modern sheen, and some lovely ambient music from harpist Mary Lattimore. Not forgetting strong solo efforts from Andy Bell (Ride) and Matt Berninger (The National), and the first new recordings in an age from the Sun Ra Arkestra which perfectly encapsulate where that magic collection of musicians are coming from nowadays. There’s so much going on.

Don’t forget there is another Bandcamp fee-waiver day on Friday 6th November so feel free to take advantage of that and grab some of these releases.

Getting Into Knives – the Mountain Goats (Merge)

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp)

May You Be Held – SUMAC (Thrill Jockey)

My Echo – Laura Veirs (Bella Union)

Off Off On – This Is The Kit (Rough Trade)

Optimisme – Songhoy Blues (Transgressive)

Serpentine Prison – Matt Berninger (Concord)

Silver Ladders – Mary Lattimore (Ghostly)

Swirling – Sun Ra Arkestra (Strut)

The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo – Mr Bungle (Ipecac)

The View From Halfway Down – Andy Bell (Sonic Cathedral)

Albums of the month, September 2020 edition

All Thoughts Fly – Anna Von Hausswolff (Southern Lord)

Recorded in Örgryte New Church, in Gothenburg, January 2020 this is a departure from Anna’s full band work given that it is an instrumental record featuring only the pipe organ from that church. It expands on an idea she had on her previous (great) album Dead Magic, where she included a solo church organ piece, ‘The Marble Eye’. All Thoughts Fly isn’t a minimal album as such, as the organ has such an incredible range it is quite overwhelming at times, and amongst all the drone and heavy ambience there are some powerful melodies.

American Head – The Flaming Lips (Bella Union)

I had moved on from the Flaming Lips when they began releasing those cover version albums, and whilst there were moments of psychedelic magic in their last couple of records, American Head is their first release for a while which I can get fully behind. Strongly influenced by Neil Young’s early 70s singer-songwriter albums, a comparison often reinforced by Wayne Coyne’s vocals of course, they also capture the overall vibe of that era too. Just like those cover version records, the weight of rock history weighs heavy here, as American Head is inspired by stories of the early life of Tom Petty, and the Lips’s songs imagine a world where a pre-fame Petty hung out in the midwest and made psychedelic jams.

Blue Hearts – Bob Mould (Merge)

Don’t be fooled by the Blue Note label homage in the artwork, this is the most intense and punk-sounding Bob has sounded since Hüsker Dü split in the late 80s. As he says himself, Blue Hearts is a protest record, an angry record, railing against what is happening in modern day USA. Previous album Sunshine Rock was an uptempo and fairly happy record, but Mould describes Blue Hearts as “the catchiest batch of protest songs I’ve ever written in one sitting.” Recorded at Electric Audio with his familiar rhythm section of Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster this album crackles with an energy which underlines the anxiety of Mould’s lyrics.

By The Fire – Thurston Moore (Daydream Library)

In terms of overall look and feel, By The Fire has much in common with last year’s instrumental epic Spirit Counsel, yet it also returns to the noise-rock tuneage of his first two releases as the Thurston Moore Band (The Next Day & Rock n Roll Consciousness) and even late period Sonic Youth. This is a remarkably varied and fascinating rock record as it moves between intricate guitar music (the 12 minute ‘Siren’), powerful indie rock (‘Breath’, ‘Hashish’), and delicate introspection (‘Calligraphy’) before joining it all together whilst still pushing the boundaries (‘Locomotives’, ‘They Believe in Love’).

Do The Duvet – Naked Roommate (Upset The Rhythm

This synth-based post-punk funk act grew out of the Oakland band The World but they’re now well established in their own right. Centred around the duo of Amber Sermeńo & Andy Jordan this debut album is a dub-infused collection of material influenced by the stripped down late 70s and early 80s experimental bands. Back then those bands got in the charts and, given the infectious qualities of tunes like ‘Je Suis Le Bebe’ and ‘Mad Love’ here, in a parallel world there’s no reason why Naked Roommate shouldn’t be up there too.

Find The Sun – Deradoorian (Anti)

Although I try not to compare artists with other artists, this second full-length solo record by Angel Deradoorian (once of Dirty Projectors) reminds me of likes of Can, Moondog (the meandering ‘The Illuminator’) and even Bongwater. It should come as no surprise that she was scheduled to tour it in support of Stereolab before everything went wrong. Motorik-beats are dotted throughout, though the haunting melodies (‘Monk’s Robes’ in particular) evoke the psychedelic folk music of the late 60s.

Free Humans – Hen Ogledd (Domino)

Hen Ogledd comprise the individual talents of Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington and this is double album is very much the sum of its parts. This is a sprawling effort both in terms of its musical pallette (disco-pop, ballads, folk and psych-rock) and subject matter (Gaia theory, pet cats, wild swimming). The album feels a bit long, many of the tracks clock in well over 5 minutes and some, such as ‘Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, are a hard listen, but thankfully gems such as ‘Crimson Star’, the lovably weird ‘Paul is 9Ft Tall’ and the catchy ‘Trouble’ make up for the more annoying quirks.

Gold Record- Bill Callahan (Domino)

Whilst Bill’s previous record, the acclaimed Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, focused on his life as a parent of young children, Gold Record seems to beam him into the future, imagining himself as a older man. It helps that his voice seems to drop an octave with each album. Gold Record is a gentle acoustic album full of short stories. My favourites change with each listen, but ‘Pigeons’ is a definite highlight (‘Well, the pigeons ate the wedding rice/ And exploded somewhere over San Antonio’ is the opening line) as is ‘The Macknenzies’ which paints a picture of the minutae of domestic life. ( “I’m the type of guy/ Who sees a neighbor outside/ And stays inside and hides”). Love this.

Sun Racket- Throwing Muses (Fire)

This new album from Throwing Muses reminds me of that period around the release of Red Heaven in the early 90s when they were keen on turning it up and covering ‘Manic Depression’ in their live shows. Sun Racket is a solid, powerful collection of tunes played by a cracking indie-rock band, and as always Kristin Hersch’s voice still dominates proceedings. For the all the neat grunge-style riffing on the likes of ‘Bo Diddley Bridge’, the magic still happens in moments like the unexpected vocal arrangements on ‘Bywater’. A welcome return.

The Ascension – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)

Sufjan Stevens is one of the finest musical artists of our times and although The Ascension may lack the raw emotional impact of its predecessor – the masterpiece that was Carrie & Lowell – it is still a mighty piece of work. This time the acoustic guitars are kept in their cases and most of the accompaniments are drum machines and Prophet synths, a decision which has meant that The Ascension is awash with electronics – a marked contrast to the previous record. There are catchy pop tunes, some very ambitious arrangements as we may have come to expect from Sufjan, and moments of introspection as on the stunning title track.

Albums of the month, July/August 2020 edition

A Hero’s Death – Fontaines DC (Partisan)

The Dublin band have side-stepped the difficult second album syndrome by changing things around, including scrapping the original recordings which they had made last year in LA. A Hero’s Death finds the band sounding more introspective and less anthemic, delivering a more grown-up sounding album in contrast to the youthful energy we heard on their classic debut Dogrel. Kudos for not repeating the formula, and also for creating a record which suggests they could be around for years to come.

Bedroom – bdrmm (Sonic Cathedral)

Bdrmm’s obvious influences date mostly from before this young Hull band were born – 80s-era The Cure and Ride in particular – but they have built a solid foundation for something special here. Following a couple of strong singles last year, this debut album consists of ten new songs. Some nicely layered wall-of-sound pieces sit well with snappier indie-pop tunes, and whilst the music may evoke the heyday of shoegaze, bdrmm manage to update it so it sounds contemporary. Bedroom manages to feel both insular and invigorating at the same time.

Bent Arcana – Bent Arcana (Castle Face)

As if the Oh Sees weren’t prolific enough, here comes Bent Arcana, a band assembled by their king pin John O’Dwyer. Alongside him are Peter Kerlin (of Sunwatchers & Chris Forsyth band), plus drummer Ryan Sawyer, Kyp Malone on modular synth, Brad Caulkins and Joce Soubiran on tenor sax, Tom Dolas on keys, Marcos Rodriguez on guitar, Laena “Geronimo” Myers-Ionita on violin and Andres Renteria on percussion. The music is improvised and sits squarely within the twin 70s influences of kosmische music and fusion-era Miles. Mighty stuff.

Blackberry – Peter Broderick (Erased Tapes)

A sweet surprise of a release (the vinyl doesn’t appear until October) from multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick. Blackberry is a bedroom recorded folk-pop album with all instruments and lead vocals by Peter. He has been working with the Arthur Russell archive and a lot of this music bears the late Arthur’s influence. Although recorded in London last year, it’s an album in love with the countryside, foraging for food (‘Wild Food’) and family life – the lengthy ‘What’s Wrong with a Straight Up Love Song’ is both a celebration and a documentary of his relationship with his wife Brigid Mae Power.

Healing Is A Miracle – Julianna Barwick (Ninja Tune)

There’s something very apt about releasing an album called Healing is a Miracle right now, isn’t there? Julianna’s fourth full length has a positive power in its finely sculpted minimalist music and choral arrangements. ‘In Light’, a collaboration with Jónsi from Sigur Ros is almost anthemic but the rest of the album is gentle by contrast. ‘Oh Memory’ with Mary Lattimore is a highlight as is the choral beauty of ‘Flower’, whilst closing track ‘Nod’ (with Nosaj Thing) spirals and floats with a quiet power.

Heart’s Ease – Shirley Collins (Domino)

The follow-up to the revalatory comeback that was Lodestar does not disappoint and makes a strong case for people who say Shirley Collins is creating the best music of her career – at the very least equalling her early 1960s albums which helped build the foundations of modern English folk music. There are impressive new songs here but with her Lodestar band she revisits material which she had recorded long ago, in particular ‘Wondrous Love’ (originally recorded in 1958) and now given a fresh arrangement to suit her lower voice. The closing drone and birdsong of ‘Crowlink’ is one of the strongest pieces here and suggests that, at the age of 84, Shirley has still more to offer. A national treasure indeed.

Inner Song – Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound)

Postponed from it’s original release date in May, Inner Song further expands Kelly Lee Owens particular mix of dream-pop and electronica, whilst her lyrics deal with some heavy subjects such as climate change (‘Melt!’) and personal loss (on the wonderful ‘Jeanette’ dedicated to her late grandmother). The headline grabber is her collaboration with John Cale where his unmistakable tones tell a tale of their shared landscape in English and Welsh, and in a album full of very strong moments it is a genuine highlight.

Jump Rope Gazers – The Beths (Carpark)

The second album from New Zealand indie-pop act The Beths hasn’t been as well received as their debut, but I actually like it better. Certainly it’s mellower and less punky, but it suits them and the title track reminds me a little of The Sundays, as does the acoustic track ‘You Are a Beam of Light’ and closing song ‘Just Shy of Sure’ hints at the striped-sunlight-sound of the Go-Betweens. Lovely stuff.

Microphones in 2020 – the Microphones (PW Elverum & Sun)

Following two intense but often beautiful records (as Mt Eerie) dealing with his grief after the passing of his wife, Phil Elverum has returned to his original band name for this new release which is one long 40+ minute song. Once again it’s a very personal record, reminiscing mostly around his formative years in the music world, telling a story of how his life evolved. It’s an extraordinary affecting piece.

Old Flowers – Courtney Marie Andrews (Fat Possum)

Whilst there is nothing new in a songwriter using the experience of a relationship gone wrong to mine a wealth of material, there is a perverse joy in hearing such a thing done well. Coupling the stories with such achingly lovely music such as this can’t really fail. Comparisons to greats such as Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell are not just hyperbole.

Ultimate Success Today – Protomartyr (Domino)

For many they may have peaked with 2017’s mighty Relatives In Descent but the good news is that Protomartyr have followed it up handsomely with this release. Ultimate Success Today is a tough and brooding record, the songs are anxious and tightly-wound. Maybe less immediate than some of their previous releases but no less intense.

Whole New Mess – Angel Olsen (Jagjaguwar)

This album of heartfelt solo performances was the blueprint for Angel’s well received and expansive 2019 album All Mirrors, though instead of being tacked on to a “deluxe” edition of that record, it has been given a release of its own. You can see why as well, the songs come across very differently in this raw form, the big arrangements removed and Angel’s voice soaring over everything, often wavering into the red.

Albums of the month, June 2020 edition

My favourites from June, listed alphabetically by title. Nearly all of them are available via Bandcamp so head there and get these musicians paid!

All Things Being Equal – Sonic Boom (Carpark)

Much has been made of the 30 year gap since Pete Kember’s last release under his Sonic Boom monicker, but it’s not like he has been idle. There was Spectrum, E.A.R, and plenty of varied production work (Cavern of Anti-Matter, Teebs). The fascinating thing about this new release is that it manages to sound like a contemporary record, but it could also follow seamlessly from Spacemen 3’s last release Recurring, with an added dollop of Beach Boys melody. This album originated as instrumental jams and was considered strong enough to be released as such, but over the last couple of years Kember has added vocals to them. The finished package stands up well with his very best work.

Coriky – Coriky (Dischord)

Another “return” of sorts, for Coriky is as close as we are likely to get to a Fugazi reunion, although musically this is closer to Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina’s duo The Evens. That’s mainly down to the similar vocal interplay between the couple, but Joe Lally from Fugazi completes the trio, adds those pregnant pauses and dubby bass lines that hint at their old band. Genuinely exciting to hear them pull songs into strange places again.

God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It – Backxwash (Grimalkin)

At a mere 22 minutes this will annoy album purists but it certainly feels like a substantial release. Backxwash is a black transwoman and this album is an ominous and haunting record that translates the pain and anger of being an outsider. I guess this sits within the horrorcore subgenre of hip-hop although it was the clever use of classic rock samples which first caught my ear (Black Sabbath, Patti Smith Group, Led Zep, to name but three). Its power comes from how she articulates the darkness by confronting the demons in her life (organised religion,marginalisation, drug abuse) with a twin attack of noisy samples and powerful words.

Goons Be Gone – No Age (Drag City)

After their searing 2018 release Snares Like A Haircut, this new album finds No Age adding a Velvet Underground/ Modern Lovers influence to their experimental mix of post hardcore and shoegaze. It’s still just the trusty duo of Dean Allen Spunt and Randy Randall making all this noise, but it’s more of a mixed bag this time, sequencing those more traditional songwriting influences beside their expansive and creative noise-scapes.

Head Above the Water – Brigid Mae Power (Fire)

I mean it as a complement when I say that I’m surprised that this is only Brigid’s third full length album; she sounds like she has been around a lot longer than that. Head Above the Water is co-produced by Power, her husband Peter Broderick and esteemed Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts (who also features further down this page). This is a folk record too, but it’s also tinged with Joni-like jazz elements and modern psych-folk. There’s is less reliance on the reverb and drone which was prevalent on her debut, and at times it has the sharp focus of someone like Low.

Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers (Dead Oceans)

It’s clear from her releases so far that Phoebe Bridgers possesses an immense talent and Punisher only serves to consolidate this. This time around she has expanded her sound from the delicate indie-folk of her debut into something more expansive. She has a lyrical skill in using a banal fact or incident to capture an emotion which some find hard to describe – “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ she told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” is one of my favourite lyrics of the year.

Rough and Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan (Columbia)

Surely one of the biggest surprises in this whole ridiculous year is not just the release of a Bob Dylan album, but the release of a Bob Dylan album which holds its own with his major works. That’s what Rough and Rowdy Ways is. As well as the hard hitting yet restrained musical arrangements, there’s a lot going on here lyrically (and a myriad of cultural references and current social comment) and no doubt Dylanologists have much to pore over.

RTJ4 – Run the Jewels (Jewel Runners/ BMG)

Killer Mike and El-P’s fourth full-length as Run The Jewels, a collaboration some thought might be short lived when it was dreamed up by Adult Swim early last decade. RTJ4 is an urgent and important release, so it’s no surprise the digital-issue has been brought forward. The vinyl won’t be out til September. They rage against the racist police state and the ruling class, twin targets for their vitriol on much of their releases to date, but now they are in sharp focus; much of their humour has taken a back seat, though the camaraderie between the duo is still there.

Sideways to New Italy – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (Sub Pop)

Anyone who has heard RBCF’s single ‘The French Press’ or their debut album ‘Hope Downs’ knows that these guys have a knack for writing killer tunes. They haven’t messed with their formula for this second album. Their core of three singer-songwriters and guitarists (Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney) have delivered 10 slices of jangly indie-pop, and although the overall vibe touches on homesickness and tour fatigue, their energetic approach continues undaunted.

The Songs of My Boyhood – Alasdair Roberts (Drag City)

Do any of you remember Appendix Out I wonder? In the mid-90s they were the alias of Alasdair Roberts, before he struck out under his own name. Alasdair rarely touches that material but now, whilst sheltering in London he has turned his hand to some old Appendix Out songs and given them a freshen up. Newly recorded at home, this release highlights his skills in re-interpreting songs, making the songs themselves seem relevant in these strange times.

Albums of the month, May 2020 edition

Ballet of Apes – Brigid Dawson & the Mothers Network (Castle Face)

A slow-burning and impressive solo debut from Brigid Dawson, who I’m sure many people know from her work with Thee Oh Sees. This record operates at a less intense pace than that association might suggest, and has some jazzier, bluesy influences amongst the indie-rock. “I am glad to send this, our very homemade album out into the world,” says Dawson. “To me it is a testament to friendship, the joy of collaboration, and a gentle sticking it to the man. It was recorded with my friends in front rooms, gnarly rehearsal studios, and basements in Rye, Australia, Greenpoint, Brooklyn and San Francisco, California. I do hope you enjoy it.”

Don’t Let the Ink Dry – Eve Owen (37d03d)

It’s perhaps unusual to lend your vocals to a very well-known band – the National – before you have released much of your own work, but here is Eve Owen’s debut album at last. (It’s also unusual to use that phrase “at last” when Eve is still only 20 and has all the time in the world.) Recorded over the last three years, and produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, this is a finely-crafted collection of folk melodies with some occasional electronic touches.

Four Against Fate – the Nightingales (Tiny Global)

The Nightingales of 2020 bear little resemblance to their original punk-era work, although the charismatic and idiosyncratic vocals of Robert Lloyd are still at the heart of it all. This album has captured in the studio much of the magic of their recent live shows – gigs which won them a fresh batch of new fans, myself included. In the live setting, led by the brilliantly creative drumming of Fliss Kitson they propel themselves through a set of varied post-punk tunes without stopping, and that is what this record feels like. I should have seen them twice of this tour by now, but Four Against Fate is a great consolation instead.

Future Teenage Cave Artists – Deerhoof (Joyful Noise)

In the 25 years they’ve been together Deerhoof have always pushed the boundaries of what we expect from a “rock” band. FTCA switches between the band’s myriad influences – a classic rock riff here, an RnB tune there – and comes up with something which still sounds like Deerhoof, yet also expands our expectations. Their promotional info talks of this album as a reaction and a mark of resilience to the rapid changes in our society, “a sonic and lyric funeral for a way of life that is never coming back—an afterparty, back when the doomsday clock hit midnight.”

Home Time – Darren Hayman (Fika)

The prolific output of Darren Hayman (he has even released something new as I type this) means that it can be tricky to keep up with everything he does, but Home Time feels like a “proper” project, an album to take time over, to reflect and absorb the songs within. Some of his more spontaneous releases have thrown up some gems, but here it is clear that he has refined things for this release. It is a “concept” of sorts, in that all the songs are about the end of relationships. Musically, this is an acoustic record, recorded to 8 track, with the major accompaniment to Hayman’s familiar vocals, the delicately arranged backing vocals of Hannah Winter and Laura K, which work incredibly well. Warmth, sadness and some good tunes, and one of the best records he has made.

Mirage Mirage – Spirit Fest (Morr Music)

The third album in as many years from this collaboration between Saya and Ueno from Tenniscoats and Markus Acher, the singer of The Notwist. Like their previous records this is experimental and often seems improvised, but at the centre of it all there is a sense of fun; of musicians collaborating for pleasure. And don’t be alarmed by the experimental tag, there is a pop sensibility to Spirit Fest and they aren’t afraid to write good tunes as well.

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius (Matador)

A much-acclaimed fifth album from Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) and, whilst he has hardly put a foot wrong in his career so far, Set My Heart… is definitely a peak of sorts. Produced by Blake Mills and featuring luminaries such as Jim Keltner on drums, it has an ambitious, cinematic sweep and some delightful melodies, whilst the lyrical focus is on the delights and constraints of the human body.

Strange to Explain – Woods (Woodsist)

Like the Deerhoof release up the page, Woods’s new record was written and produced a while ago, yet it’s release into this strange, new society feels very timely. Ironically, in terms of their sound, it’s almost as if they have reset themselves to a decade ago and the release of their At Echo Lake record. It’s a gentler record, there aren’t any guitar wig-outs and mellotron features a lot throughout. This is also the first music we’ve heard from Woods since they appeared as Purple Mountains with the late David Berman on his final album, although I’m told Strange to Explain was completed before that.

The Mosaic of Transformation – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (Ghostly)

In common with the Perfume Genius album, this latest from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is inspired by the human body, albeit from more of an internally focused, yoga viewpoint (typical title “The Spine is Quiet in the Center”). Not only is Kaitlyn a Yogi, she is also a classical pianist and an expert on the Buchla modular synthesizer, an instrument which dominates proceedings. Layers and waves of New Age inspired synths drift around occasional reverb-heavy, dreamy vocals. Yes, this could be regarded as background music, but if you listen loud it is beautifully overwhelming.

The Weight of the Sun – Modern Studies (Fire)

A lot has happened since Rob St John released his acclaimed solo album Weald nearly a decade ago. most notably his collaboration with Neil Pennycook from Meursault and others, Bastard Mountain, and now this, his third release as part of Modern Studies. Rob has also written a lot about nature and it’s clear to see that has inspired Modern Studies too – landscapes, water, mists are prevalent in the lyrics and the overall feel. The core of the group is the vocal interplay between Rob and Emily Scott, which reminds me at times of folk-influenced Tindersticks.

Albums of the month, April 2020 edition [Bandcamp special]

[above illustration by Emma Shore]

***all albums are available via Bandcamp, who are once again waiving their fees on May 1st. Please follow this link for much, much more music on offer on that day. ***

Antarctica – Flat Worms (Drag City)

Embarrassed Landscape – Irma Vep (Gringo)

Joy – Seazoo (Big Terry)

Oh Yeah? – Sunwatchers (Trouble in Mind)

Ready for the House – Junk Drawer (Art For Blind)

Shortly After Takeoff – BC Camplight (Bella Union)

Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling (Partisan)

Songs for Pierre Chuvin – the Mountain Goats (Merge)

The Universe Inside – the Dream Syndicate (Anti)

Viscerals – Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (Rocket Recordings)

Albums of the month, March 2020 edition

With the entire world facing this COVID-19 pandemic crisis it may seem futile to try to round up a list of the last month’s new albums. When the world starts to fall apart people cling to any semblance or order or normality that they can find, so for me Friday’s regular batch of new albums was a small but important thing to look forward to. It was an added bonus that March threw up some very good albums indeed.

One other thing to note is that the schedules and revenues of the music world are in disarray and many of the bands here had hoped to earn some money and promote their new records by touring, which of course is impossible at the moment. It would be cool if anyone reading this page and enjoying the albums considers buying them via Bandcamp or ordering from your favourite record shop. I know that all of these releases are streaming but that won’t put food on the table of the musicians and their families. So if you are fortunate to still have some disposable income please buy at least one of the albums on this page. I have included a Bandcamp embed where possible. Dig in!

Ambertron – Mint Mile (Comedy Minus One)

Following up a strong run of EPs, Mint Mile’s eventual full length debut is an epic double album. Led by Tim Midyett, who is currently part of Sunn o))) but probably better known as a mainstay in the Nineties indie-rock act Silkworm. Mint Mile will certainly appeal to fans of Silkworm, as the songs have that same sense of taut, sinewy, angular rock; sometimes it’s bleak and introspective, sometimes it’s joyous.

Container – the Wants (Council)

The debut full-length release for the New York post-punk trio of Madison Velding-VanDam, Heather Elle and Jason Gates, two of whom are also in the ace Bodega. They’re not a million miles from their other band, as the choppy, uptempo songs here could easily fit on a Bodega record. They are distinctive enough to merit inclusion in this list though.

England is a Garden – Cornershop (Ample Play)

Well, if you’re going to make a comeback, do it like this. Cornershop’s first album for quite a few years manages to build on the very best elements of their back catalogue and refine them into an utterly glorious whole. This is the record they’ve always threatened to make, and whilst it doesn’t deviate too much from their mid to late 90s records, it comes across as a much needed burst of joy and celebration, which makes it hugely essential right now.

Heavy Light – U. S. Girls (4AD)

No bandcamp presence for this one so consider buying it directly from 4AD. Meanwhile here’s the promotional video. Heavy Light expands the U.S. Girls sound even further, it’s produced by Meg Remy herself and recorded live with 20 session musicians. On first impressions it is a smoother, less visceral record than predecessor In A Poem Unlimited, but it’s a very impressive addition to their catalogue.

Illusion of Time – Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini (Phantasy)

A collaboration between our favourite shoegaze/ techno artist Daniel Avery and the acclaimed experimental musician and Nine Inch Nails synth whizz Alessandro Cortini, this is a beautiful work. Shifting between gentle ambient and pulverising noise with seemingly minimal effort. One to get lost in.

Let It All In – Arbouretum (Thrill Jockey)

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Arbouretum return with their ninth album and it’s one of their best. The last couple of records had leaned closer to harder rock but on this one they are firmly back in the world of psychedelic folk. Dave Heumann’s excellent guitar work is central to it all of course (as are his lyrics) and the band are in top form, touching on straight forward rock, kosmische music and melodic textures worthy of the Byrds.

Out of My Province – Nadia Reid (Spacebomb)

New Zealander Nadia Reid’s third full-length, which she describes as her “travelling album”. Although on the surface it’s a lusciously arranged (Matthew E White is the co-producer) collection of songs about love there is a restlessness to it which makes sense of her description. She mentions Canada, Germany and even Stansted Airport without revealing the whole story. An intriguing record which I’m sure I’ll return to a lot this year.

Peoples Motel Band – Chris Forsyth & Garcia Peoples (self-release)

Chris Forsyth’s previous album All Time Present was one of my favourite records of 2019, and normally I wouldn’t include a live reversion of it in a list like this, but this is an invigorating collaboration with Garcia Peoples which gives the material another jolt of energy. Also this was intended as an album to sell on their upcoming tour, which has all had to be rescheduled, so buy a download of it, it’s immense!

Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee (Merge)

Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee has been making brilliant albums for a while now and Saint Cloud is no exception. It is a more organic record than its predecessor, the fine indie rock album Out in the Storm. This record is deeply rooted in the country and folk of the American South but it still sounds like Waxahatchee. She crafts a song as well as anyone, it’s hard to think of which of her contemporaries can match her.

Social Crutch – Gold Cage (Felte)

Social Crutch is the debut full-length album of this Los Angeles-based post-punk-tinged slow-core trio. From that description you might imagine that they sound like Galaxie 500 or Yo La Tengo, and you would be correct. Downbeat songs, interweaving male and female vocals, and a lot of fuzzy guitar loops are at the heart of this, and it totally works.

Albums of 2020 so far, January/ February edition

I thought about stopping this monthly round-up as the new year began, but by the end of January I found myself drifting into list-compiling mode and I was still enjoying it. January 2020 saw a huge number of releases which potentially interested me. I had 37 in my “to listen” list, and a lot of them came out on January 31st which was annoying if you were trying to compile an end-of-month round-up. February had the same problem, with many new releases on the 28th. I had 64 albums to listen to from January and February, whereas I had 39 for the same period in 2019. Thankfully I’ve been able to cut them down into this manageable list. As usual, it is in alphabetical order by title. Dig in!

Debris – Keeley Forsyth (The Leaf Label)

This is a debut album from someone who has worked for most of her adult life as an actor (she was in Happy Valley, amongst many other things) and it’s a remarkable, unsettling and surprising listen. It deals with trauma and depression; she turned to music after an illness left her with paralysis of the tongue and she was unable to act. Matthew Bourne is her chief collaborator on this minimal work which has echoes of Nico’s solo albums and Scott Walker’s Tilt.

Deleter – Holy Fuck (Last Gang)

It seems such a long time since Holy Fuck have released anything I had almost forgotten them. This is their fourth album and it’s as good as anything they’ve released; in fact it serves as a good introduction to the band and may even win them new fans. Deleter moves slightly away from noise-rock towards more danceable electronica and the guest vocals from Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Nicholas Allbrook (Pond) and Angus Andrew (Liars) complement this really well.

Mind Hive – Wire (Pink Flag)

On first impressions this comes across as a heavier edged return to the sound of their classic albums 154 and Chairs Missing, but Wire are never ones to dine out on past glories. After three noisy opening tracks (of which, ‘Cactused’ is surely one of their recent best) they dive into gentler melodic territory on ‘Off The Beach’, which recalls the likes of the Chills and maybe even the Go-Betweens. Nine songs in all, 34 minutes, and all of it taut as a drum, not a second wasted.

Mystic Familiar – Dan Deacon (Domino)

I thought we may have lost Dan Deacon to the world of soundtracks, but he has returned with this album (of songs!) and some magical performances to go along with. It is familiar Deacon territory – melodic electronica with classical flourishes. ‘Become a Mountain’ is a beautiful opener which threatens to surge into something huge at any moment, and ‘Sat By A Tree’ is an uptempo tune which captures the energy of his live shows.

Names of North End Women – Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree (Mute)

Ok, for a start this doesn’t sound like Sonic Youth (or even most of Lee’s post-SY solo work) and apart from some delicate acoustic playing, there are hardly any guitars on it. This collaboration with Raul Refree (who produced Lee’s last album Electric Trim) touches on avant grade electronica and ambient music, poetry and music concrete. It’s admirable that Ranaldo is still willing to take risks and push things forward this many years down the line, and it’s even better when it works as well as it does here.

Return to Y’Hup- The World of Ivor Cutler – Citizen Bravo, Raymond Macdonald and others (Chemikal Underground)

For “my generation” the late Ivor Cutler will be synonymous with the John Peel Radio One programmes, his soft Scottish tones often segued between slabs of experimental noise as a dramatic contrast. This gave Cutler a cult popularity when he was well into his 70s, and considering the line-up of musicians on this lovely tribute record, I have no doubt that they heard Cutler via Peel. The arrangements are fleshed out and I guess purists may baulk at some of the rock arrangements of his delicate melodies which were usually accompanied by harmonium or piano, but I think they’re quite charming and respectful. The most faithful is Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai)’s brief ‘The Path’, whilst in contrast Emma Pollock (Delgados) makes ‘Size Nine and a Half’ into an anthemic indie-rock tune, as does Pictish Trail with ‘Good Morning! How Are You? Shut Up!’. Ultimately with Ivor Cutler’s work the more eccentric it gets the better, and that side of it is best served by Heather Leigh’s sinister soprano on ‘Boo Boo Bird’, and Chris Thomson (the Bathers) and Rachel Sermanni’s duet ‘Who Tore Your Trousers James?’

Romantic Comedy – Summer Camp (Apricot)

Whilst not strictly a soundtrack to SC vocalist Elizabeth Sankey’s debut feature film, you will recognise some of these songs and instrumental interludes if you have seen it. Romantic Comedy works as an album though, and it sits together as a set very well, maybe because this is the first Summer Camp release to be recorded as a live band. Whilst the interludes are interesting the highlights of the album are to be found in some absolutely banging pop tunes like ‘The Ugly Truth’, the lovely ‘Women In Love’ and the Motown inspired future classic ‘Love of My Life’.

Stray – BAMBARA (Wharf Cat)

The fourth album from the Brooklyn based band and probably their best. They have honed their songwriting without watering it down; the lyrics come across as short stories or noir-ish vignettes which suit their edgy, sinister take on post-punk. At times this has the epic sweep of prime period Bad Seeds or Bunnymen with the widescreen expanse of Morricone. It’s pretty intense.

Suite for Max Brown – Jeff Parker (International Anthem)

A follow up to The New Breed (which now appears to be the name of his ensemble), this latest album from the Tortoise guitarist expands on those ideas and develops them into an even richer mix. Yes, it’s jazz – there’s a lovely interpretation of John Coltrane’s ‘After the Rain’ – and it’s experimental, but it is also quite accessible. His daughter Ruby Parker adds her dulcet vocals to opening track ‘Build A Nest’ and the edgy cool of ‘Fusion Swirl’ should keep Tortoise fans happy.

The Main Thing – Real Estate (Domino)

This is Real Estate’s fifth album and it’s a mellow, mature affair. It’s also their best record since Days. The Main Thing is not a major change of direction, though their jagged edges have been softened, but in an interesting way. There is a warm, mellow vibe from this record and I can’t decide whether it’s closer to Lindsay Buckingham or Air, but if you like the thought of Real Estate’s melodic indie-rock getting that treatment I think you’ll like this record. Lead single ‘Paper Cut’ (with Sylvan Esso) is one of the catchiest and prettiest pop songs I’ve heard in ages.

Albums of 2019

After posting a monthly update for the entire year it seems remiss that I have not done an albums of the year post. I revealed my choices via my twitter account around Christmas, and then recapped a top 9 for my instagram. Anyway, I have been nudged towards posting them here as well, by people who don’t use those apps. As is my recent habit, the 20 albums below are listed in alphabetical order by title. Enjoy!

2020- Richard Dawson (Weird World/ Domino)

I called this Richard Dawson’s third solid classic album in a row, and I would stand by that, with an added call for lead track ‘Jogging’ to be considered as an alternative national anthem in these dark and puzzling times. All of the songs come across as modern short stories, as snippets of people’s lives.

All Time Present – Chris Forsyth (No Quarter) 

A guitar player’s album and a lengthy one at that, Forsyth always keeps the melodies and riffs close to hand, rather than drift into endless improvisation. Although not credited to his Solar Motel Band, many of them are guest players here. There are vocals too; Chris himself sings on ‘Mystic Mountain’, and Rosali Middleton does a fine cameo on the epic ‘Dream Song.’ The closing 20 minute ‘Techno Top’ flirts with both the refrain of ‘Psycho Killer’ and the coda of ‘Marquee Moon’ before locking into an infectious groove.

Bad Wiring – Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage (Moshi Moshi)

Jeffrey Lewis toured most of the songs from this album for a few years, only to change the band name from Los Bolts to The Voltage before it came out. As you might expect if you seen them live, this is a cracking collection of indie-rock songs, up there with his very best material.

Braindrops – Tropical Fuck Storm (Joyful Noise)

“It feels spontaneous and messy, a frustrated howl at the state of the world, there is a desperation about it which makes it quite an unsettling listen. Musically it sits somewhere between noise-rock, Captain Beefheart and Missy Elliott,” is what I wrote when this came out in August. I like it a lot more now and I’ve been returning to it regularly, particularly the story-songs ‘Aspirin’ and ‘Maria 62/63’. A fascinating band.

Designer – Aldous Harding (4AD)

“This is a happier and more confident record, her singing seems less affected, the arrangements are often warmer and softer but at heart it is still delightfully minimalist, intriguing and often strange,” is what I said about Designer in April and I’m sticking by that.

Dogrel – Fontaines DC (Partisan)

“I’m not sure if they qualify as a “great band” just yet, but many great bands have a skill of bringing you into the world they have created with their music. Fontaines DC do this within seconds on this superb debut album when he announces “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind.” They don’t look back from there as they blister through some cracking material with as much energy as any of their contemporaries and songwriting skills to rise head and shoulders above them all. Comparisons to the Fall and the Pogues are deserved.” Those were my first impressions, and I’m pleased to say that it was the slow-burning songs like ‘Roy’s Tune’ that stayed with me all year.

Ghosteen – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Ghosteen Ltd)

This has become one of the albums of the year by consensus; it is in nearly all the main lists. For me, Ghosteen is too sad to listen to regularly. Some of Nick’s vocals are heartbreaking (‘Waiting for you’ is probably the most affecting) and the Bad Seeds take a back seat to the haunting, minimal arrangements.

House of Sugar – (Sandy) Alex G (Domino)

“A bite size review could never do this justice,” I said in September but I tried anyway. ” This feels like a magnum opus, like the zenith of a project that has been threatening to reach peak point for a few years now. Alex G has fused a musical world with the roots and country blues of the distant past, psychedelia and current digitised pop music.”

IGOR – Tyler, the Creator

I’m still surprised that I’m into this album, but IGOR hit me on first listen and has stayed with me. It has an ambitious production that wrong foots you every few minutes, not least because Tyler sings rather than raps. It sits well as a contemporary of Solange and Kanye, but most of all it recalls the same desperate, claustrophobic nature of Tricky’s Maxinquaye.

In League With Dragons – the Mountain Goats (Merge)

Whether it’s goths, crack den dwellers or a constantly arguing couple, John Darnielle has a knack for attaching his everyday story songs to many lives less ordinary. Dragons is the third in a series of loose concept albums (following the aforementioned Goths, and Beat the Champ, set in the world of pro-wrestling) and whilst its inspired and imaginative production courtesy of Owen Pallet gives it a fresh feel, once again it is JD’s lyrics which star.

Kiwanuka – Michael Kiwanuka (Polydor)

An impressive and ambitious release which will live on long after lists like this. A timeless, yet utterly contemporary album worthy of comparisons to the likes of Marvin Gaye. this cemented Kiwanuka’s reputation.

No Home Record- Kim Gordon (Matador)

An imaginative and surprising solo debut from Kim Gordon, “delightfully varied yet somehow immediately identifiable as Kim’s work,”  I said in my review. Beats, samples and even the odd Sonic Youth style burst of indie-rock.

Odds Against Tomorrow – Bill Orcutt (Palilalia)

His second “electric” guitar album, and less focused on re-versioning traditional music. Orcutt’s original pieces have a timeless quality to them. You can hear the jazz and blues influences through the prism of avant-garde improvisations and this results in some very beautiful music. 

Purple Mountains (Drag City)

Well, all that I had written in the draft of this post was, “maybe one of Berman’s best, and an early contender for album of the year.” I can’t believe he’s gone. The music will live on and hopefully be appreciated for years to come. For what it’s worth, this one and only Purple Mountains album features Berman with his band formed from the members of Woods, and it sits well with his very best work. Some great lyrics which have become more poignant since he left us. RIP David Berman.

Quiet Signs – Jessica Pratt (City Slang)

Jessica Pratt’s first album to be recorded in a “proper” studio, after two impressive lo-fi releases. If you loved the minimal stylings of those records like I did you will love this. There is very little added to Jessica and her acoustic guitar, yet the tracks seem more sculpted and refined this time. ‘Here My Love’ skirts around the old melody of ‘On Broadway’ with magical effect, and ‘Crossing’ has a pretty melody which sounds like a full choir could sing it. Utterly lovely from start to finish.

Reward – Cate Le Bon (Kemado Records)

I said this was “a quiet masterpiece” earlier in the year and that still holds up. Maybe her best album to date.

Schlagenheim – black midi (Rough Trade)

They survived the hype around them being a “music academy manufactured band” or something, and although I didn’t continue to listen to this as voraciously as I did when it came out it’s still a very promising debut album.

The Age of Immunology – Vanishing Twin (Fire)

Vanishing Twin’s sonic pallette is wider than on their 2016 debut, incorporating spacier elements, spoken word and very occasionally motorik-funk. Whilst it still seems like Cathy Lucas’s band, cameo vocals from other band members (the artist FKA Zongamin, Susumu Mukai’s dreamy Japanese narration on the title track is just one example). Lots to explore here; lots to get lost in, lots to love.

The Livelong Day – Lankum (Rough Trade)

A brilliant album which makes a nonsense of filing records by genre.  Deep down this is a traditional Irish folk album, but on the surface things are very different, very modern. There are lengthy unconventional arrangements and best of all, constant drones throughout. It is an extraordinary skill to mess with the tradition so much and still come out sounding like it does. 

Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery- The Comet is Coming (Impulse!)

Of all the acts which saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has graced with his incendiary playing (Sons of Kemet, Melt Yourself Down, etc) The Comet is Coming are my favourites. Unsurprisingly influenced by Sun Ra their mix of free jazz and electronics is a joy to behold. Moody jazz becomes spacey and psychedelic (‘Astral Flying’) and ‘Blood of the Past’ is intense and angry before giving Kate Tempest the chance to articulate some of the rage into words. As well as all this ‘Summon the Fire’ is the most straight-ahead banging tune I’ve heard all year.