Andrea Keller's Five Below – Life Is Brut[if]al
Life Is Brut[if]al was easily my most listened-to ‘jazz’ album of 2020. This is a complex and ambitious recording of highly academic art music which is impressive and unique for a number of reasons. For instance - her sense of pacing and structure is put in the spotlight on the opening and closing tracks, both almost entirely linear journeys with little to no recurring elements which span 20 minutes each. Her incorporation of ‘free’ (presumably) improvisation into structured compositions, found all over the album but perhaps most notably on both the title track and ‘Youth Unleashed’, feels revelatory to me. This is all very well and good, and certainly is a large part of my appreciation of it. But most of all, and most fundamentally, I returned to this album because of its unrelenting earnestness and open heartedness – both in its quietest, most beautiful moments, and its most crushing, despairing ones. Somehow, despite all the headiness, the band never loses sight of this musical imperative. The meditative emotional landscapes explored here, to my ears, are ones rarely traversed in this genre of music this effectively. It’s an album that absolutely lives up to its title – and I love the title.
Adrianne Lenker – Songs/Instrumentals
This is going to be a recurring theme for many of the albums in this list – but I think one of the most important tasks for musicians recording and releasing music this year was to reflect and embody the circumstances in which it was made. In being vulnerable and revealing, the artist can (somewhat counterintuitively) evoke a universal understanding. By tapping into a shared experience that we all had this year, in our communion with art, we can bear our individual and shared pain, and learn from it together. You could easily throw this album(s) into the ‘sad-indie-folk-heartbreak-cabin-in-the-woods’ subgenre, but to do so would be to miss the nuance with which Adrianne Lenker connects her personal experience (detailed on ‘anything’ or ‘zombie girl’) to the universal (‘ingydar’). That connection between Adrianne’s experience and the world around her, contextualising her story in the natural world and the stars in the night sky (depicted quite literally on ‘instrumentals’, particularly ‘mostly chimes’), feels at once so comforting and so tragic. This music didn’t distract me from the trauma of this year, but it did make me feel so much less alone. (and those guitar voicings!!!)
Blake Mills – Mutable Set
Another recurring theme in this list is likely to regard musical craftsmanship, and the melding of technical virtuosity to feeling and artistic expression. Maybe it’s just my personal listening habits, but I think I can feel a shift in ‘popular’ music (I use this term very loosely) towards engagement with musical devices (harmonic, rhythmic, textural, etc) more commonly found in art music. Nowhere is this shift demonstrated more subtly and tastefully than on Blake Mills’ Mutable Set. This is a beautiful, melancholic and still album for fans of Elliot Smith, Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver, but the twist (at least for a nerd like me) is its beautiful orchestration (both electronic and acoustic) and uncommonly advanced harmonic and melodic language. To anyone looking closely, this is the work of an uncommonly gifted and virtuosic performer/composer, but most crucially, none of it is ever delivered in a musician-flex kind of way. Hot take incoming: Jacob Collier, please take note.
clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Here’s a change of pace. Earlier, we were talking about how one of the connecting tissues through this list would be personal vulnerability – but clipping. has always taken the exact opposite approach (one of their self-imposed ‘rules’ is to never use the first person). This isn’t something I’d usually advocate for (and no other album on the list operates in this fashion), but there’s a couple reasons why I think this works in clipping.’s favour: firstly, Daveed Diggs’ incredibly deft and articulate storytelling ability gives him a rare power to inhabit someone else’s world more convincingly than most (a connection here to be made to his burgeoning acting career!). Secondly, the conceptual rigour with which clipping. approaches each and every song gives their music such a sense of deliberateness and efficiency – not one thing is out of place or theme. And what a theme it is! These guys were BORN to make horror movie referencing-noise-experimental-conscious-rap. This is the second album’s worth of it in as many years (check out last year’s There Existed An Addiction To Blood) and I’ll gladly take at least another couple thank you very much.
Fire-Toolz – Rainbow Bridge
I think it’s safe to say (and maybe it’s just because hindsight is 2020 and we can’t see the future) that it’s very easy to feel like everything in music has already been done. Where to from here? How do we find new ways to express ourselves? I think Fire-Toolz is a perfect demonstration of the answer. We’re all simply an amalgamation of our influences – nothing comes from nowhere, but maybe you can find yourself in the continuum between these musical and artistic worlds you love so much. The sheer AUDACITY to combine electronic experimentalist sound-collages, with death-metal barrages, with new-age/synth wave/smooth jazz coolness here deserves praise in itself. This is certainly a jarring listen at first, but it’s mesmerising how Fire-Toolz manages to bring these disparate elements together into a cohesive sound world as you become more and more acclimatised to its incredibly unique aesthetic sensibilities. Maybe the titular ‘Rainbow Bridge’ is a reference to these bridges between genres – but it also references the passing of her beloved cat Breakfast, the reckoning with which makes up the bulk of this albums’ runtime. And anything to do with cats gets even more bonus points in my book.
Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan
In the latter parts of 2020, I started making it a habit to go on a (semi) daily walk in the nature reserve behind our house in the morning (side note: this was the year I realised the stablising power of consistent daily rituals). Ichiko Aoba’s Windswept Adan was the perfect soundtrack to those 30 minutes I saved for my own headspace. I don’t think I heard anything else this year that even came close to the graceful tranquility and still beauty this album conjures – but not that it’s simply mood music. Windswept Adan is another seamless genre-bending exercise which meaningfully incorporates art music aesthetics and techniques into a form typical of popular music. Folk music is combined with ambient electronics, field recordings, bossa nova, classical chamber music, and French impressionism ala Debussy or Ravel. All these influences are woven together into a cohesive statement where their sum is greater than the individual parts – transporting the listener to a beautifully otherworldly paradise (much like the album cover!).
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
One thing that’s always confused me is the jazz (and contemporary classical) community’s self-imposed distance from metal. Given each genre’s obsession with technical mastery and craftsmanship, focus on harmonic and rhythmic exploration, and their rich tapestries of sub-genres to draw upon and reference, there’s so much more in common between them than I think people care to admit or explore. And explore them Imperial Triumphant certainly does. As a brain-melting concoction of technical death metal, avant-garde black metal, jazz, contemporary classical, Japanese taiko drums, barbershop quartets and more, Alphaville may be the most overwhelming and strenuous listen on this list. But it more than justifies the demands placed on the listener through its unyielding swathes of creativity and mind-boggling performances (the drumming!!!) found in every level of every song. It all adds up to an appearance of unhinged, chaotic abandon – but the surgical precision required to even try and pull something like this off is so abundantly clear in every second. Give this record a shot.
Jasper Høiby – Planet B
One thing that I think musicians, especially jazz musicians, can neglect in their performative and compositional practice is the net societal value they offer through their art. Lots of people talk about the vital role arts play in society, but what specifically is that role? This has clearly has been a question on jazz bassist Jasper Høiby’s mind, and in 2020, those reflections culminated in the first installment in a four-album series with a new trio featuring saxophonist Josh Arcoleo and drummer Marc Michel. Planet B, musically speaking, is made up of electronically-tinged ambient improvisations bolstered by thought-provoking spoken word passages from philosophers and political activists, as well as spirited and incendiary, yet sensitive and responsive playing more typical of a modern saxophone trio. There’s also some intriguing implementation of overdubbing and studio trickery throughout (for example Reimagine and its reprise). I came away from this album musically satisfied and engaged, but also intellectually and emotionally stimulated (the spoken-word passage on the opening Story of Self has reverberated around my head ever since I first heard it back in March). This album doesn’t just give you great music, it offers you great ideas.
Moses Sumney – Grae
I vividly remember the first time I absent-mindedly put on Moses Sumney’s debut album Aromanticism in the car close to its release day back in 2017 and was immediately floored by his unfathomable vocal range and tone, as well as the delicate and lush instrumentals, featuring the stylings of indie-folk, art and post rock, electronica, soul, funk and more in equal measure (from memory, I immediately redirected my vehicle to the local record store to buy a copy on vinyl). Moses Sumney was love at first listen for me, and 2020’s double album grae takes the insular, contained and focused debut and explodes it outwards in multiple directions at once, expanding Moses’ sound and aesthetic into innumerable worlds of differing possibilities. His music is as beautiful, serene and progressive as it was when I first heard it, but now far, far more unclassifiable (read: the point, look at the album title). This album also features the single most memorable moment I’ve had listening to music all year: when I realised Gagarin was a re-working of Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s From Gagarin’s Point of View, I had to physically work to contain myself in the library I was studying in at the time. I know that’s probably just a me thing though.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
2020 was a year in which I finally realised and acknowledged the power of musical memory. Trapped in quarantine, or out of work and gigs for a good chunk of the year, listening to music took on a different significance to me – instead of always looking forward to new possibilities, through listening to old favourites, I often instead looked back to cherished memories and better times. Whilst Oneohtrix Point Never undoubtedly makes music of the future (any vertical slice of his vocal processing and sound design will tell you this), throughout his discography he has remained fascinated by the past and nostalgia. Having being made in quarantine in March-July 2020, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never doubles down on these themes like never before. Musically, it feels like a journey through the music of his albums past: the pop-orientated songwriting of Age Of, the almost-chamber-music and MIDI instrumentation of Garden of Delete and R Plus Seven, and the plunderphonics and sample manipulation of Replica. What feels different, however, is the soul-bearing that Daniel does here, beneath all those layers of programming and effects (the closer Nothing’s Special hits me harder emotionally than anything else he’s ever made). Daniel the person is cutting through Oneohtrix Point Never the musical project here more than ever, and the entanglement of his personhood though the fractured, surreal soundscapes that make up this album is endlessly fascinating and compelling.
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce
It’s honestly so confounding how much Anime, Trauma and Divorce feels like a 2020 album when it’s actually about 2019. In the latter half of that year, a few things ended for Mike: his burgeoning comedy show The New Negroes was cancelled after just one season, his rap collective Hellfyre Club fell apart in the midst of recording and releasing a new project, and he divorced his wife (after a particularly impactful episode of Black Mirror?). There’s a couple things that make this album stand apart from other peak-relatable 2020 albums. Firstly, the vehicle of hip-hop, typically known for its braggadocious and hyper-masculine lyrical content, makes for a stark and memorable backdrop for Mike’s personal and revealing reflections, steeped in the everyday and mundane. Secondly, his wry and sarcastic sense of humour shines through and colours (almost) every moment of grief – somehow managing to soften the emotional weight of proceedings without taking away their resonance. That juxtaposition of humour and vulnerability made Anime, Trauma and Divorce essential comfort listening for me this year, healing me whilst still acknowledging 2020’s demons. And where else can you hear multiple tracks featuring a rapper’s own son??? Follow this link for the most wholesome rap show footage I’ve ever seen.
R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
Ever since I first heard R.A.P. Ferreira (formerly known as Milo) sample Bon Iver and announce that he ‘doesn’t feel the need to be the best thing ever’, I have felt him to be one of the most quietly profound voices in hip-hop today. There’s a sense of stillness and inner peace that pervades every corner of his music, where meditative reflection is conveyed through wordy, stream-of-consciousness lyrics referencing centuries-old philosophers, jazz musicians, Kurt Vonnegut, and the Coen Brothers, all probably in one verse. Purple Moonlight Pages may be my favourite album of his yet: it feels like yet another refinement and concentrated distillation of all the things I love about him most. Heady rapid-fire rhyme schemes open themselves up to fleeting moments of pure clarity and wisdom on verse after verse, track after track. This album leaves me scouring lyric pages like almost nothing else. I’d particularly recommend this album to artists (of any medium or discipline) – it feels like one thing particularly on Rory’s mind here concerns the challenge of creating a fulfilling life as one (eg ‘no starving artists, just artists starving to know’). And somehow, despite all these big-brain thoughts, the execution feels more effortless and unpretentious than ever.
Thanya Iyer – KIND
If there’s one album on this list I think everyone should immediately stop and listen to, it might be this one. It may be a perfect example of all of the running themes that have come up on many other albums on this list. KIND is an impossible-to-classify genre-less release, featuring elements of pop, neo-soul, indie-rock, electronica, and more. It marries popular music aesthetics to art-music compositional techniques and methods: whilst not a jazz album per se, much of the work of Iyer and her band was improvised, and the additional orchestration of brass, woodwind, choirs, and more show a painstaking attention to craft. It is one of the most texturally colourful, vivid and dense releases I’ve heard this year and is all the more beautiful because of it. And its lyrical content finds universality its examination of the personal – in this case an emotional and mental healing process, something we may all be doing after 2020’s horrors. This is one of the most under-appreciated albums of the year and a towering achievement (in my opinion), and you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Anyone that knows me knows how much of an influence Thundercat has been for me over the years as an electric bassist. It might be surprising then to hear that none of his studio albums before It Is What It Is honestly connected with me that much. Where the Thundercat live experience has always been a hyperactive spectacle of prog-jazz-fusion-shredding, the Thundercat studio album experience has relied less on his musicianship, and more on production and his voice which I have found to stand out less. So, what makes this time different? Firstly, while Flying Lotus has produced almost everything Thundercat has made as a solo artist, it feels like his influence has infected the music in a whole new way. Flying Lotus’ albums to me have always felt like a cinematic, linear journey (see here), and now Thundercat’s do too. This is an expertly paced listen where the surrounding context of each song elevates them, and each compulsively leads into the next. Whatsmore, whilst Thundercat has always relied on a chaotic Eric Andre-like persona, this album steadily peels back the layers over the course of its runtime. Towards the final act, songs like Fair Chance (mourning the late Mac Miller) and the title track show a side of Thundercat that we have never been privy to before – and it gives so much more depth to the kookier moments like the irresistible Dragonball Durag. It Is What It Is somehow made me fall in love with Thundercat all over again, in a whole new way.
Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
One thing that 2020 forced upon all of us, solicited or unsolicited, was abrupt and drastic change. I don’t know about you, but for me this was easily one of the biggest challenges of the year – I don’t think there’s yet been a moment where I could truly say I have embraced the hurdles the year dealt me, and opened myself fully to the change that it mandates. If Yves Tumor’s discography is anything to go by though, I don’t think they have the same problem. 2018’s Safe In The Hands Of Love (another favourite), to this day, is one of the most genreless albums I’ve ever heard: pop song structures clash with various strains of the electronic underground, with grunge and alternative rock, with harsh noise, and more. To borrow a statement from Moses Sumney’s grae, no-one embraces their multiplicity like Yves Tumor. As such, the character and sound of its follow-up was near-impossible to predict – but where 2018’s album gleefully hinted at the infinite possibilities of their ever-changing self, 2020’s Heaven To A Tortured Mind doubles down on just one – the glammed-up, flamboyant, sex-god, old-fashioned rock star (almost like a modernised David Bowie). This is an extravagantly fun, focused and concise listen that might make you believe that this was Yves Tumor’s singular authentic self all along. The craziest thing is, I can almost guarantee you their next album will sound almost entirely different.