ACL 2020 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year

After all the chaos of 2020, there’s some solace found in the fact that the artist who scored our Album of the Decade at the beginning of the year now receives our Album of the Year award at year’s end.  The album ~ along with many others on this year’s list ~ offers comfort, reassurance, and healing.  Look down the list, and one will find lamentations, declarations, protests, and a suite on climate change: an aural summation of the year we’ve just endured.

We have an even gender split this year, and half of the albums listed contain some manner of vocals, which is unusual for us as we prefer instrumental music ~ the voices were used in creative ways, from recitations of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the words of a famous sculptor to heartfelt, comforting songs to ~ we can’t believe it either ~ full-out screaming.  But isn’t that how we felt this year?

Some of these albums were recorded before the pandemic, others during, but all continue to give us something positive at the end of the year, whether empathy, entertainment, or escape.  We are grateful to every recording artist for sharing their creative gifts: where there is imagination, there is always hope.  Now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Top 20 Albums of 2020!

1) Julianna Barwick ~ Healing Is a Miracle (Ninja Tune)
Not just our favourite album of the year – and the only one that was voted for by all our writers – but arguably the most necessary release of 2020. We’re not claiming Healing Is A Miracle as the end to all maladies but, in a year when our health took a battering, both physical and mental, spending a half-hour or so listening to Julianna Barwick made everything alright in the world. Signed to a new label (Ninja Tune) and recording in her new house in Los Angeles, it seems that Julianna Barwick had fresh inspiration and could draw on a broader palette than previous. The ethereal voice is at the heart of everything still, but here there was a little bit extra. A choir of multi-layered Juliannas easing our troubled brow? The delicate addition of her friends Mary Lattimore, Jonsí and Nosaj Thing? An album you could fall into and drift, cushioned on a wave of gorgeous tones? Yes, please. Our only complaint would be that it was too short: an EP of three longer versions offers an even more immersive experience. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

2) Nazar ~ Guerilla (Hyperdub)
Nazar’s rough take on Angolan kuduro made a strong impression on us during Unsound 2018. We raved about Enclave, Nazar’s debut EP on Hyperdub. “Now we just have to wait for his full-length,” I said. And Guerilla doesn’t disappoint. Nazar uses the additional length to deliver his definitive statement, moving between the deeply personal and more abstract. The music benefits from being stripped down, so when Guerrilla hits, it hits big. Guerrilla has a clear if at times impressionistic narrative, moving through a range of moods and scenes. Nazar’s father, whose voice featured prominently on the EP, is the titular guerilla, a Rebel General during Angola’s long civil war. And yet Guerrilla is not his father’s story, but seems to be told from Nazar’s perspective, through sound, voice, and dance. And this is dance music. I can’t imagine anyone not moving when this is playing. It is a shame that this album dropped just as the pandemic was forcing clubs to close. Nazar’s music is not a nostalgic channeling of the past, it’s not “tradition + techno,” it doesn’t even sound like 2020. Nazar sounds like the future. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

3) Mary Lattimore ~ Silver Ladders (Ghostly International)
The cosmic scene on the cover of Silver Ladders signifies some kind of glorious interiority where the outside world stops feigning superiority. The hushed vignette complements Mary Lattimore’s bare-bones harp compositions that were conceived out of nothing short of the sublime: a deep climb into the Adriatic Sea, a turbulent takeoff, a group of swimmers nearly dying in riptide. Recorded and produced with Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, the album takes these romantic images of grandeur and collapses them into fragile, sweeping soundscapes. Teetering between drone and classical folk, the album explores the abundant overtones in short staccato arpeggios, developing an earnestly unique sound palette for ambient music. The results are intoxicating, like getting sucked into the glimmering ocean by a mermaid but only noticing their soft, singular voice.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

4) William Basinski ~ Lamentations (Temporary Residence)
Given the catalyst and context that birthed William Basinski’s opus Disintegration Loops, it’s easy to think of Lamentations as a spiritual sequel that, at the very least, deserves even more attention than any of his other recent records. After all, what musician could better foreground grief as a meaningful vessel in a year where most of us could not pause to stop our own lamentations? Basinski uses abundant biblical imagery in his latest archival deep-dive, perhaps alluding to diminishing returns of religion (“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”) and in turn, the bleak absence of the abstract “good”. His craftsman tape-delay work has— somewhat ironically— never sounded sturdier, providing some semblance of hopefulness in the decayed operatic voices in “O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow” that mildly cut the bitterness. As Richard Allen pointed out in our original review, there is an empathetic edge to the record’s ghostly chill that only arises from a recognition of universal loss. We are all in our own form of mourning, and this is an invitation to revel in it.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

5) Phew ~ Vertigo KO (Disciples)
Phew has spent the last half decade exponentially expanding her oeuvre from progressive post-punk into unpredictable drone. Her latest record, Vertigo KO, is largely a collection of previously unreleased tracks from this new era, but it plays much more cohesively than an average B-sides collection (if you could possibly call it that). Alternating between daringly anthemic synthesizer soundscapes and intense, claustrophobic vocal explorations, the record is only tied together through a necessary urge to maintain the avant-garde— and to push further left of center. Her looped and distorted vocals create a schizophrenic haze of multiple Phew’s conversing with each other into oblivion, and the occasional skittering techno beat adds texture to her magnificent, clouded world. It’s a sampler record of the sheer creativity of her recent output, which is slowly stacking up to be the highlight of her 40 year career.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

6) Richard Skelton ~ These Charms May Be Sung Over a Wound (Phantom Limb)
It’s a little surprising that Richard Skelton’s musical exploration went deep into electronics, banishing the usual acoustic instruments he utilises, on the same release he saw his work issued on vinyl for the first time in a decade. One might have thought that last year’s Border Ballads would have been a more suitable candidate for long-player status. It’s an indication of Skelton’s consistency over the years that musical format – and for once, releasing through another record label – is a subject for rumination. Most of his usual traits are present on These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound: the titles are from a suitably arcane source, the artwork is beautifully stark and monochrome, the drones develop slowly, although they are more concise than the glacial speeds on his long-form work. Listened to on headphones, with the volume cranked up, it’s an intensely heavy experience, the slow shifts and occasional drum beats providing an overwhelming experience. Is it an object lesson in the loss of nature to industry and technology? Possibly. Is it yet another Richard Skelton masterpiece? Certainly. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

7) Galya Bisengalieva ~ Aralkum (NOMAD Music/One Little Independent)
Straddling the line between drone and modern composition – it was originally reviewed in the former genre, I suspect that it would have done equally well in the latter category during the end of year votes – Aralkum is that most timely release, a concept album about an ecological disaster. Covid is bad, certainly, but it’s a minor blip compared to the environmental and ecological disaster we are hurtling toward. The Aral Sea was only a few years ago the fourth largest lake in the world – human exploitation of this resource has rendered much of it a desert. This is a truly terrifying scenario and Galya Bisengalieva goes some way to providing a musical picture of what has happened. Her violin – stark, plaintive – sits in the middle of thoughtfully assembled soundscapes; the mind’s eye does a lot of work here, but you can sense the fishermen out on the water in the opening piece and the desolation that comes after. Divided into three sections, Aralkum does end on a positive tone for the future but not one that is certain. It’s a bold, ambitious work that underlines Bisengalieva’s talent as a composer and sound artist. It’s not an easy listen – nor is it meant to be. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

8) Jon Hassell ~ Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya)
The arrival, two years ago, of Pentimento Volume One – Listening To Pictures was a surprise late addition to Jon Hassell’s oeuvre, some nine years after his previous album. 2020 has seen the arrival of the second part and, because Hassell is in poor health at the moment, there’s an inescapable sense this might be his final statement. It’s possible to read too much into this as Seeing Through Sound is less raging against the dying of the light and more of a thoughtful continuation of his recorded work over five decades. The distinctive trumpet floats sparingly above carefully arranged textures of percussion and sparse bass; indeed, on a couple of tracks, there’s no trumpet at all. It’s all about creating a coherent mood, painting pictures with sound. The album ends, fittingly, with “Timeless” – an apt word as Jon Hassell’s trumpet has added its sublime tones to numerous records as well as his own visionary works and his music will live on. Nobody else has succeeded in sounding like him, and although the style he works in is continually changing, he has remained brilliantly consistent: both volumes of Pentimento are a testament to that. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

9) Phill Niblock ~ Music for Organ (Matière Mémoire)
The then 86-year old artist snuck in this massive record just shy of New Years, so let’s count it as a 2020 release. Niblock has been a fixture on the scene since the ’60s, his NY loft still an important venue. But when he switched from working with tape to ProTools, his music became more aggressive and dense, his penchant for maximalism sought out new potentialities. The two compositions on Music For Organ are in some ways a departure from his more recent work, more static and less muscular. In fact, both compositions are live recordings of organist Hampus Lindwall accompanied by pre-recorded tape layers from other organs, each with anagramic titles. The playfulness of the titles isn’t reflected in the music, however. The mass of organ drones and overtones are best at high volume. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

10) Max Richter ~ Voices (Decca/Deutsche Grammophon)
ACL may be a home for instrumental music. But we also celebrate voices: sampled, processed, or otherwise lifted to the status of music. As one of its materials, Max Richter’s new work takes spoken fragments of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In various languages, the articles of this landmark document are held aloft. They ride high above the melodies and resonant underswell of the bass-heavy orchestra. As Richter reminds us, the rights enshrined in this document are worthy of soaring chorales and soprano accompaniment. Yet many of them are routinely withheld from individuals and groups across the spectrum of humanity. Statements of equality cannot themselves ensure a fair and just world. But as Margaret Fuller wrote in the 1840s of a different Declaration, they offer “a golden certainty wherewith to encourage the good, to shame the bad”. For those who’ve had enough talk, the wordless mix of this album is equally good at stirring the spirit. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

11) Sarah Hennies ~ The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)
To express sweetness and intimacy in music without recourse to conventional motifs is extremely hard, moreso when those states themselves are also subject to myriad visual clichés. Hennies’ achievement is that this Reinvention sounds sweet and intimate, and that it does not evoke a “perfect home” or a “perfect relationship”; it feels real, aligned with the complexity of love, the soft steps of spending long, long times with someone close. The tensions and the moments of closeness are framed without drama, their expressiveness emerging from slightness, from the rhythms of normalcy. There’s something precious, something pretty, something hard in the way those rhythms come to be, and the resulting music conveys well all those banal moments of hurt and contentedness that make up something unnoticed, something beyond the register of both consciousness and unconsciousness, where true love alone grows. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

12) KMRU ~ Peel (Editions Mego)
Judging from his Bandcamp page, Kenyan musician Joseph Kamaru has had a busy year. However, this full-length record was a leap forward, offering valuable breathing space to his organic ambient productions. The six tracks focus on ebbing loops of sound, with enough approach and retreat to stop from being drones. Initially, KMRU’s sound seems cleanly minimal; but as the long tracks swallow us up, we find hidden textures and details waiting for our senses to attune. Though otherworldly, this music has roots in field recording, and KMRU is inspired by snapshots of the places around him. Clocking in at an hour and a quarter, the album gives him scope to patiently develop his sonic negatives. Though it may refer to a metro station in Montreal, the title also invites the listener to peel back the layers and hear what’s underneath. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

13) Fire-Toolz ~ Rainbow Bridge (Hausu Mountain)
There’s only so many times that an artist comes along with a work that is genuinely fresh, contemporary, forward-looking, and exciting. This is one of such times. Rainbow Bridge decidedly puts vaporwave in the rear-view mirror, a style whose cynicism prevents it from ever achieving joy. Because the joy of its neon-warm repetitions needs to be drawn out by the wilderness of rage and melancholy, by a fury expressed in glossy colors, in the old-school shine of computer-generated images from the weird landscapes of graphics card box-art. The mystery at the heart of aesthetics we consider outdated is not an uncanny remnant of utopia unfulfilled, but the fiery growl of a potential only we, in the here and now, can give birth to. It is a monster, all excess of beauty, all excess of love, and it is ours to nurture and wield into superficial fantasies that will change us, and hopefully the world, to the core. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

14) Horse Lords ~ The Common Task (Northern Spy)
You may be looking at this list and wondering where the guitar bands are at. And here they are! It’s been a difficult year for musicians across the board, but especially the lack of gigs where most rock and jazz bands thrive (and sell their wares) has hit hard. There’s been no hum of the amplifier, no thud from the kick drum, no transcendental moment when a bunch of musicians gel into a single unit on stage and all’s right with the world. A lot of artists hit pause for 2020. However, The Common Task arrived just days before lockdown as Horse Lords were out of the starting gate early and found themselves unexpectedly soundtracking the world in chaos. The off-kilter polyrhythms and taut guitars seemed to capture the moment perfectly, always threatening to spin out of control; the cameos from a wide range of odd instruments kept things fresh (and sometimes, still bewildering) on repeat listenings. The side-long “Integral Accident” is part drone-work, part voyage into the kosmische; an expanded line-up weaving all elements together into an irresistible rush. It’s the release that we needed. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

15) Olivia Louvel ~ SculptOr (Cat Werk)
The interdisciplinary nature of SculptOr is a vast reserve for analysis and interpretation. Applying sculptural principles to texts and sounds, Louvel’s work provides a depth of listening that feels like an entire exhibition in itself. The way that the voice of sculptor Barbara Hepworth is transformed and shifted into Louvel’s own reveals the extent of this approach, in which all the qualities of sound become the subjects of aural abstraction. Abstract art’s major concern for the intricacies of formal relationships and the interactions between volumes and space is here reflected in Louvel’s meticulous organization of electronic tones and beats, always set against the ‘negative space’ of silence. The singing adds an entirely new layer of complexity to this set, in the sense that it is also the subject of creative manipulation: the swirl of the voice gives the more purely electronic sounds a character they would not have without it. Every track is a theme, and so each one is an entire artwork in itself. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

16) Sophia Loizou ~ Untold/A Tellurian Memorandum (Houndstooth)
What is the Untold that Loizou’s work is alerting us to? It is the connections, the integrations, the easy transitions that are too often opaqued under the notion that technology is somehow what separates us from nature. Rather, this project uses field recordings and electronic manipulation to reveal that it is precisely our “enhancements” what might better attune us to the quiet rhythms of the world around us. Every system is a system of life, and one of the things that makes Untold so special is its flow, the smooth and seemingly unlimited mixture of the sounds of animals, the sweep of the ocean’s waves, breakbeats, soft drones, and crackling electronics. The beat is the bridge to a higher perspective of our interrelations, one in which there is no longer a clear distinction between the roar of a lion and synth melody, in which it is possible to hear the natural world as inherently technological. There’s no telling that connection – you have to feel it in your speakers, picture it in your mind’s screen, peel back the barriers that do not let you connect with the circuitry of trees. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

17) Ian William Craig ~ Red Sun Through Smoke (FatCat/130701)
Ian William Craig had two albums on our Ambient chart, the other a collaboration with Daniel Lentz.  Our reviewers went back and forth, and there’s really no way to say which is better; on another day, they might have flipped positions.  Strangely (for an instrumental-minded site), the more vocal of the two gets the nod, because the lyrics ~ sparse as they are ~ are meaningful, and this year we need meaningful words more than ever, as we yearn to see hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, and red sun through smoke.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

18) Meitei ~ Kofū (Kitchen)
The last in a triumphant trilogy, this album continues an artistic growth we’ve been following at ACL since our 2018 “Music for Haunted Houses”. Like its predecessors, Kofū has elements of eerie hauntology. It also embraces plunderphonics and downtempo in its eclectic reconstruction of a lost/imagined Japanese past. This time, the focus is a feminine world of geishas and courtesans, sounding like a jubilant fantasia on the opening tracks. Yet there is a legacy of suffering here too, captured in mournful ambience and fragments of piano. This is beautiful, thoughtful music. While it subsumes us in the past, it is exciting to wonder what Meitei has in store for the future. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

19) Martina Testen and Simon Šerc ~ Biodukt (Pharmafabrik)
What does it mean to listen with your entire body? The experience of hearing is far from abstracted, and yet we tend to conceive of each sense as a separate way of interacting with the world. The idea of a Biodukt is one in which the rings of a tree serve a function akin to the marrow of our bones – to connect, to draw out a cartography of our inner networks as they tune in on our surroundings. These recordings of forests and shores in Slovenia and Italy serve to remind us of that conductivity we are made of, that the trees of the cover, which in a way look like natural ducts, are not unlike us. As their oxygen penetrates us, so we can pay attention to the swaying drones of their contact with the wind. That connection is a spiritual one, and if you listen closely you will be able to hear the hidden rhythm of the earth’s movement. Go ahead – let your body synchronize with the world. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

20) Xyla ~ Ways (Leaving Records)
Before COVID-19, when the nightclubs swayed all night with light and shadow, many of us preferred the comfort of our computer chairs and headphones. Even for us homebodies, 2020 has brought a longing, if only for the option of going out. Luckily, Xyla’s debut full-length offers a drive-thru tour of the best dance spots. In under forty minutes, she traverses techno, acid, IDM, house, bass, and footwork sets, with some ambient pitstops in the chillout room. What emerges is one beautiful album of electronic sounds, marrying double-time rhythms to spaced-out textures. Its allegiance is not to a single genre, but to quality control and a consistent artistic vision. (Samuel Rogers) 

Original Review

5 comments

  1. Michael

    Thanks for your work, guys. In a time when the little things became more important than ever, opening your website in the morning and listening to whatever you wrote about that day has been a great pleasure. Looking forward to discover what ever you will bring to my attention in 2021.

  2. A high quality selection – you know your stuff. 1/2 of these have or will feature on the show. How do i sign up for updates?

  3. Thanks for these lists – have discovered some great new sounds from here!

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