#20 Anyone Around – Jessy Lanza
Album: All the Time
Released: Jul 9, 2020
In 2013, Jessy Lanza released her brilliant debut album Pull My Hair Back. With songs like Fuck Diamond and Kathy Lee, Lanza assured listeners of her ability to merge the gentle tones of her singing and an intense production without being swallowed by ambition. The Canadian further demonstrated the conviction found on PMHB once more in 2016 on Oh No; this time, Hyperdub’s finest established the synth as her principal tool over the drum. 2020’s Lick in Heaven firmed this route, arriving at an LP riddled with pop and disco tracks that utilised Madonna-like melodies over Lanza’s usual harnessing of electronic reverb.
Pop itself has seen new avenues opened up in the past couple of years; Charli XCX has welcomed glitch into the scene, while Taylor Swift has dialled her own sounds back to acoustic subtlety. The cool younger cousin of these pop overlords, Lanza confirms the righteous place of disco in the mainstream. Anyone Around achieves what none of Kylie Minogue’s attempts managed on DISCO (2020): a modern sound that does not behave in deference to the original 70s and 80s motions. Lanza rearranges disco sounds so intricately throughout the album and the production may well be the most impressive aspect of her work here. The vocals are perfectly airy and do not intrude on their musical counterparts: rather, they operate alongside the gorgeous beats so as to highlight each individual sound.
#19 The Adults Are Talking – The Strokes
Album: The New Abnormal
Released: 10 Apr, 2020
Track #1 on The Strokes’ first album in seven years and their best since Room on Fire (2003) is one of the most fierce openers in their discography: a list that includes Is This It? (2001) What Ever Happened? (2003) You Only Live Once (2006) and Macchu Picchu (2011). Incidentally, three of those songs were the best on their respective albums: The Adults Are Talking makes it four out of five. Julian Casablancas’ vocals return to their understated best and his falsetto is perfectly placed to denote the fantastic climax of the track itself. At over five minutes long TAAT represents a departure from the snappier pop tracks of their first two albums, whilst being the first in a long time to fully capture the brilliance that made The Strokes such an instant phenomenon in the first place.
Crucially, Julian and co. find a new tone on this track. After the poor Comedown Machine (2013) it might have been tempting to return to the stripped back, rock-pop that brought them their success. Instead, The Strokes quite rightly trust their artistic process and, although it took us a while to get here, discover an extremely gratifying sound that will hopefully shepherd a new approach in their next LP. As an indicator of just how tight this song is, it manages to make the woeful music video that arrived on December 1st somewhat enjoyable.
#18 Mess – SASAMI
Released: Mar 12, 2020
LA multi-instrumentalist Sasami Ashworth embarked on a successful solo career after her departure from Dirt Dress (see: Revelations) and Cherry Glazerr (of Had Ten Dollaz fame). Mess is neatly summed up by SASAMI in the following statement: “I started making my self-titled album almost three years ago. Since then I’ve fucked other people, healed bad relationships, broken new good ones, found more joy, more anger and everything in between. Mess is where I’m at now.” To those who will enjoy this track, it will be for the unfiltered displays of frustration that make it so reminiscent of the 90s grunge scene. That music like this is still being made is a source of joy and anguish: joy in that the musical landscape still provides a voice to talented songwriters, but anguish in that the exasperation of 90s rock was never converted into optimism. Certainly, pessimism is alive and unwell and it hasn’t sounded self-depreciating in thirty years.
#17 His Rope – Burial, Four Tet, Thom Yorke
Released: Dec 11, 2020
A collaboration sent from the heavens above was certain to produce interesting results. 2011’s Ego from the trio was a perfect dance floor anthem that made use of Burial’s unusual tempo and fractured Thom Yorke’s vocals beyond instant recognition. It ended up being one of the largest songs of the decade. His Rope, the B side to the equally excellent Her Revolution, belongs far from any shuffling feet. It is a bleak, unnerving masterpiece that has been slowed to a trudge. The muffled kicks contribute to the unshakeable air of constraint and the occasional electronic wails resemble something like a civil defence siren. Yorke, meanwhile, maintains a sanguine tone that rises narrowly above the ominous backing and touches something like hope; that might be the case were the lyrics not routinely hinting at morbid thoughts.
This is an extraordinary track for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. That, in the studio, Burial didn’t insist on something danceable; that Four Tet didn’t wish to include a semblance of his upbeat ripples and that Thom Yorke, well, sings like Thom Yorke, is paradigmatic of 2020’s danceless misfortune. Une année sans lumière gets what it bloody well deserved on this track.
#16 Sohaa Gb3k3 – Onipa
Album: We No Be Machine
Released: Mar 20, 2020
Onipa’s debut LP is brimming with afrofuturist grooves and electronic dance rhythms. The title track, also the album’s opener, discusses humanity’s toxic relationship with the gadgets upon which it now depends: a relationship that grows stronger with every viral video, every new iPhone, every government advert trying to discourage hobbies and promote cybersecurity. Sohaa Gb3k3 is the album’s arresting pinnacle. Against the light dancehall rhythm of Makoma several tracks earlier, Sohaa burns with a percussive intensity that shakes the listener into that golden vice between rocking the f*** out and a gentle bop of the shoulder. Onipa’s music is intent on speaking to/of the human experience in the technological era: to do so, the group cherry picks technology’s most redeeming qualities and arranges them in the form of music. In the instrumentation, we get a sense that technology can be wielded for good; in the lyrics, an explicit demand that we open our eyes to our fading human essence.
#15 The American Dream – Blu & Exile
Released: 17 July, 2020
The American Dream echoes the best of the past thirty years of hip-hop: the original bounce of Gang Starr, the straight-shooting bars of Mos Def, the observant quality of Nas, and the ability to ride a beat like Ol’ Dirty Bastard; inject the production and sampling of Exile and this track protrudes as one of the most enthralling pieces of music from 2020. The bars, by no means subtle, are measured and succinct. Through the speaker’s ironic demands for his life on this track—a platinum album, 88 million dollars, acting credentials, etc.—the California rapper exposes the flaws of excessive consumption in the forthright terms its destruction and lies warrant. This track is unremarkable in that it does not seek any new avenues for hip-hop; instead, it sees the genre’s fundamentals as its chief weapons of broadcasting. The dreamlike beats from Exile set the backdrop for the wishful thinking in the bars, eventually allowing the catchy-as-hell chorus to do itas own thang for a while, before returning to its floaty exquisiteness for the verses.
Thankfully, Blu does not make a reference to the American dream being ‘a nightmare for most;’ had he done so, this track would not touch the top 20. I jest, but there is nonetheless a point to The American Dream’s smart use of its own materials. It is unpretentious, immensely listenable, and devastatingly important.
#14 No – Billy Nomates
Album: Billy Nomates
Released: Feb 20, 2020
Tor Maries communicates in a way that few in our usual soundwaves can with her clarity and confidence. Switch on the TV and search the news channels for a voice that doesn’t belie vagueness and/or cluelessness. Where modern political discourse rests its weary head upon opposition and fury, Maries offers answers to questions that are best served with immediacy: “no to protein shakes and mirrors, yes to running at night fearless…” Her collaborators and fellow punk figures Sleaford Mods stylise their sound on a dramatically forced spoken word, which, past a couple of albums, can feel gimmicky and limited. No is punk in its current form, addressing issues from the steady head of someone who doesn’t need to shout. That is not to say punk ever needs to restrain itself; it is a method of conveyance that premises on instantaneous emotions, be that anger, rage, elation, or assurance. This track falls into that final category through the singer’s deadpan, penetrating voice and an unwavering conviction to right and wrong, black and white, yes and No.
#13 body – Gia Margaret, Alan Watts
Album: Mia Gargaret
Released: Jun 12, 2020
On this fleeting, blissful track—a listening experience that I hope stays with you as it has with me—Gia Margaret borrows the words of British writer and Buddhist interpreter Alan Watts (from a brilliant lecture entitled ‘Overcome Social Anxiety’). The context of Margaret’s album illuminates Watts’ words and propositions; having lost the use of her voice while on tour, the singer set about producing what would come to be a learning experience on this largely instrumental album. The final track, lesson, is a teaser at what to expect from her next album—one that will presumably include her primary instrument. But for the moment, Mia Gargaret plays like a diary entry of someone who is clinging onto a sense of self despite a dramatic blow to her character. In Watts’ lovely monologue, Margaret addresses herself with ideas she wants desperately to hear and take in: “the body isn’t a burden, but so long as you fight it, it is.” The vulnerability crystallised within this track is open and without shame and Margaret’s production is simply the sound of our sensibilities being plucked.
#12 Resynthesis (3D Binaural Audio) – Max Cooper, Kevin McGloughlin
EP: 3D Reworks 001
Released: Mar 31, 2020
[First of all, this piece of music requires a visual aid so here we go: Resynthesis (3D Binaural Audio) by Max Cooper and Kevin McGloughlin [Headphones Only] – YouTube]
Max Cooper is one of the most interesting artists operating in the UK: the explanations he gives of his incredible work are no more baffling than the music itself. Essentially, Cooper seeks to fully utilise available technology to provoke a deep sensory experience that goes beyond a typical musical encounter. In his own words, the artist sought “to create a spatial form which is musical in itself, so that the movements and positions work with the other elements of the music, traditional rhythms linked to spatial rhythms, and a varied but always listenable environment.” Well, I don’t know what that means, but I did certainly feel that Cooper’s intentions for this track were brilliantly executed by the astounding visual work of Kevin McGloughlin.
#11 Welcome To London (J. Sparrow remix) – Flowdan
Released: Jun 2, 2020
Former Roll Deep member Flowdan had his (already supreme) 2019 track thrown about by DEEP MEDi’s J. Sparrow. Through this reworking, the most hard-hitting aspects of the original are emboldened: even deeper bass, higher tempo bars, and crisper production. The bars tackle the daunting nature of London life outside the welcome experience of tourists. In 2008, L.V. and Dandelion took on Britain’s increasing surveillance budget on the track CCTV; unlike that release which carried a cool dub-reggae beat in order to get its message across, Welcome To London asks listeners to experience the same sense of dread and discomfort through deep dub-grime at an unwavering pace and energy.
Unsurprisingly, the track was a huge festival hit in the summer of 2019 (it wasn’t released formally until 2020, calm down) and hopefully, when the industry hits its resume button, this track will gain further traction.