Best Music of 2020 Day 2: Best Compilations

You may find it curious that the following list only has two entries. If so I would direct you to read the guidelines for my best-of-the-year lists that appear at the top of my Day 1 post.

Best Compilations of 2020

Élan Vital Recordings / 2020

2. Panicdemia Compilation

Élan Vital Recordings’ output since its establishment in 2019 has consistently impressed me, and in many ways it appeals to my most basic preferences when it comes to Ambient music. The label’s artists often make their own dark, eerie, or paranoid worlds that frequently draw from Techno and Industrial palettes while keeping a unique sound by using compelling instrumental or compositional twists. The Panicdemia Compilation follows this outline very well, and it therefore intimates the essence of the label perfectly, in my opinion. Each artist sounds like himself here, from Michele Andreotti’s sketch of scorching heavens to WHΛLTHISИEY’s landscape of haunted hills. Perhaps my greatest issue with the compilation has to do with this individuation: it feels sprawling and disjointed because of the vast shifts in tone, mood, and instrumentation from song to song. Regardless, the highlights certainly make the album worth it for me, and it acts as a nice hors d’oeuvre for anyone interested in diving into the larger Élan Vital catalogue.

Choice Tracks: “Rhucle – Clear Ash,” “Carlo Giustini & Toni Dimitrov – Centauro,” “Motorpig – Einmal Mehr,” “Michele Andreotti – Tiny Fat Dog at the Kitchen Door,” “Teruyuki Kurihara – Grid,” “WHΛLTHISИEY – di:p”

  1. Heights

Here, the Spanish ambient label ARCHIVES brings together various musicians from their greater community to create a tonally consistent and coherent piece of breathtaking subtlety. Heights‘ artists here wax ruminative, and most of the tracks lean toward the Drone-ier side of many of their respective bodies of work. Exceptional songs still only feature the occasional repeated sample or looped electronic piano motif. Highlights like Warmth’s “Growth” and Shuta Yasukochi’s “Decade” feature little instrumental or dynamic motion other than several excellently executed chord changes, and this minimalism only heightens the tracks’ emotional impact, so to speak. I actually got this compilation for the Snufmumriko and Conor C. Ellis features—in fact I’ve written about both of those artists before—and while I was thoroughly satisfied with their songs’ unexpectedly sedate languor, I found even more songs I loved from artists I had never heard before. This is to me one of the marks of a truly worthwhile and effective compilation.

Overall I see the Heights’ tone and composition as a spiritual successor to Stars of the Lid’s brand of exceptionally slow-moving melodic drone music, although generally these artists stick to electronic instrumentation. “Simancón”‘s ghostly waltz, a three-note melody played on electronic piano, may be the closest the record gets to a “catchy” tune. Most songs focus on wave-like motion and modulation, anthéne’s “Eastern Standard Time” falling on the fast side of things and Andrew Tasselmyer’s opener “Columns” falling on the slow. Each artist clearly tries to distinguish his or herself with small markers, for example Spheruleus’ sparse guitar and the saxophone and vocals on “L’Isolée,” but I think what strikes me as Heights‘ true strength qua compilation is its ability to maintain the mood in spite of these variations, which conveys to me that the work was assembled with a singular artistic vision in mind. This is one of my other criterion for a excellent compilation, and with that, it takes the top place on this list.

Choice Tracks: “Conor C. Ellis – Canyons,” “Snufmumriko – High Pasture,” “David Cordero & Miguel Otero – Simancón,” “Warmth – Growth,” “Shuta Yasukochi – Decade”

By Isak McCune

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