Over the next few weeks I will be posting lists ranking the best music of 2020 based on my personal taste. These lists are technically independent of A Voice for the Background because their scope will go beyond Underground Ambient/Drone music (also note: A Voice for the Background does not post ranked lists). That said, not all music released in 2020 is eligible for these lists. Obviously I can’t listen to everything, and some music I have heard I don’t know well enough to thoroughly discuss in this format, so I restrict myself to ranking the releases I bought physically (on Vinyl, CD, or Cassette) in 2020. Likewise, when I rank music videos and the like, the condition is that music contained in the video has to be released physically in 2020, and I have to own that physical release.
In light of these restrictions, you may think my lists are somewhat limited in scope. If you think I should expand my listening choices, I encourage you to give me music recommendations!
Moreover, this year I won’t be doing “Best Artwork” because many of my CDs from 2020 are back in the U.S., so I can’t accurately evaluate which was best. Likewise I won’t be doing “Best Shows I saw this year” because I didn’t see any shows this year! The first show I bought tickets for this year (Squarepusher playing in Nagoya) was canceled because of the pandemic, and I haven’t felt comfortable going to a show since then (in fact, that Squarepusher show was just cancelled a second time).
All of that said, below are my “Trivial Lists”—trivial because I only own one release for each of these categories, so they win by default.
Best Soundtrack of 2020
- Ushio Kensuke – Japan Sinks: 2020 Original Soundtrack
I spent a great deal of time this year getting into Ushio Kensuke’s work as Agraph, and this obsession happened to coincide with the release of the Netflix anime Japan Sinks: 2020, a rather unremarkable remake of a movie based on a book of the same name from several decades ago, the twist this time apparently being that the whole show is a big advertisement for the now almost certainly doomed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. So while my reasons for watching this show were admittedly more musically motivated, I can say I think the music made it all ultimately worth the effort. Ushio’s unique blend of classically trained piano composition and Autechre-influenced glitch techniques create textural music that lends itself to soundtrack work, and despite the sometimes boringly straightforward orchestral arrangements, his signature sound shines through the anime’s oftentimes incoherent and off-the-wall propagandizing. My only negative critique of the soundtrack itself is perhaps of its over-reliance on recurring chord structures. Many soundtracks are, musically speaking, little other than album-length variations on a few motifs that are supposed to tie the work together, but in this case it almost feels like Ushio just repeats the same four chords for 2 hours. That said, and in spite of its place atop a “trivial list,” I would honestly recommend Ushio’s work to anyone remotely interested in contemporary developments in experimental electronic music, but maybe you should start with his Agraph albums.
Choice Tracks: “Days,” “A Shelter,” “Senpai,” “The Way We Were,” “Prayer,” “Mari I,” “In A Dream,” “Reprise -based on ‘CREEK’-,” “Mari II,” “Attack of Legends Theme,” “Ayumu II,” “Rising Suns -theme from JAPAN SINKS 2020-,” “Rising Suns, Again”
Here’s a link to Ushio Kensuke’s official website.
Best Previously Unreleased Album of 2020
- RX-101 – Serenity
This is the second year in a row RX-101 has appeared as the only entry on this list, and its context differs very little from last year’s entry. Serenity is the fourth in a series of archival releases collecting music made by Dutch producer Erik Jong between 1997 and 1999. This work and last year’s “Dopamine” are labeled as full albums, and I have therefore categorized them accordingly. But in stark contrast to the ambient leanings of “Dopamine,” Serenity (ironically) veers back toward the hardcore acid techno we hear occasionally on RX-101 first two compilations, and because of that apparent step backward, I have found this year’s release to be his least compelling so far. Which is not to say that I dislike the album, but its pastiche of early Aphex Twin (closing in on Polygon and Caustic Window levels of techno, and sometimes with an early µ-ziq-like industrial sensibility) has come to sound less like a tribute to a bygone era and more like a rehash of itself: this marks, after all, the fourth year of these releases.
That said, it is not absent of surprises, and I do recommend the tracks below to those interested in approaching the project from its most current release. The album is probably the eeriest thusfar, and its strange mix of harsh percussive clanks and chilly electronics gives one the dread feeling of being alone and afraid, like being the only person in an abandoned hospital at midnight. Even its most reassuring tracks fail to comfort and can only promise a brief respite from whatever horrible force chases the listener. Maybe its track titles and ambient space most recall in my mind Playstation 2 video games like Unreal Tournament. Something grabs at the image of those lo-fi outer space environments filled with the unending anxiety of recurrent death.
Choice Tracks: “Serenity,” “Many Expectations,” “Hearts Utd.,” “Zesnulzesbeezes,” “Sunset 101,” “Goodbye a6”
Best B-Sides and Outtakes Compilation of 2020
- Baths – Pop Music / False B-Sides II
Will Wiesenfeld’s second compilation of “B-Sides” draws from unfinished tracks he made during the Obsidian and Romaplasm sessions. They are “false” because he finished the tracks and added lyrics before release, which makes the work as a whole feel thematically cohesive in spite of the compilations mixture of styles. By that I mean one can stylistically distinguish which era each of the tracks came from because of the vastly different moods captured by Baths’ last two albums. On at least one occasion (“Veranda Shove”) he actually self-samples (or just remixes) a track off the Ocean Death EP (from the Obsidian era). The attendant feelings of recognizable familiarity and strange incongruity almost give the compilation an air of uncanniness inconsistent with its often optimistic tone, but which ultimately heightens the dreamy quality of the lyrics (see especially “Mikaela Corridor”). We are left with an “album”: something cohesive but sprawling, something interesting but random, something touching but disappointing. As a die-hard fan of Baths I enjoy that experience, and I think it gives me deeper insight into his compositional process while also fulfilling my appetite for more Baths music. But at the same time there is some compelling dissatisfaction to Wiesenfeld’s take on “B-Sides”
Choice Tracks: “Tropic Laurel,” “Mikaela Corridor,” “Wistful (Fata Morgana),” “The Stones”
By Isak McCune