Best Music of 2020 Day 3: Best EPs

You may find it curious that the following list has only four 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 EPs of 2020

Universal Music Japan / 2020

4. RADWIMPS – 夏のせい ep

To follow-up their 2018 album Anti Anti Generation, J-Pop experimental rockers RADWIMPS have put together a collection of their cleanest and most concentrated pop efforts yet for 夏のせい (natsu no sei, translated as “Blame it on Summer”). This may have to do with the impetus for its release, I suppose: the title track was made originally for a TV ad and it certainly sounds like it. Stylistically the EP picks up where their last album left off, departing from their signature guitar madness and focusing on tight piano balladry mixed occasionally with current American Hip-Hop influence. ココロノナカ (kokoro no naka, “In My Heart”) sounds like a trap remix of one of those ubiquitous nostalgic Japanese piano melodies (nostalgic because of their heavy use of 6th chords and also because of the contexts in which these songs are played: goodbyes, when public spaces close, graduations). Needless to say the EP is hit or miss, but I did like the vulnerable lyrics and rapping on the tracks below (respectively).

Choice Tracks: “Light the Light,” “新世界”

You can learn more about RADWIMPS on their website here.

Warp Records / 2020

3. Squarepusher – Lamental EP

This companion to Squarepusher’s latest album came as a surprise this March, and it remains a mysterious gem to me today. The opener is a ’80s-drenched, disheartened techno track à la Jean-Michel Jarre. I knew Be Up a Hello was Squarepusher’s back-to-basics album but here he might be turning the clock back a little farther. “Detroit People Mover” is a beatless album cut in the same vein, conjuring a dejected sadness across all four-and-a-half minutes. Then, suddenly, “Les Mains Dansent” gives us a delicate classical guitar piece most reminiscent of some of the solo bass songs on Ultravisitor. The album closes with a remix and then the original version of “Midi Sans Frontieres,” an Anti-Brexit song he put out back in 2017. He made the stems available and suggested people remix the track as a sign of solidarity in spite of the current political climate in Europe, so it is appropriate that he has included his own D’n’B remix here, but it doesn’t exactly fit with the EP’s first side. Overall the tracks are remarkable, but I can’t say they form a coherent work.

Choice Tracks: “The Paris Track,” “Les Mains Dansent,” “Midi Sans Frontieres (Avec Batterie)”

Warp Records / 2020

2. Bibio – Sleep On The Wing

Bibio takes his Nick Drake tracks from Ribbons to further heights on this follow up, adding layers of intricacy to the pastoral imagery evoked by his plaintive guitar work. There is a certain depth to the music here that evokes the darkness of night far more than his last album, although that darkness is never portrayed as evil or of-the-city (as the cover artwork might imply). This is simply the night to Ribbons‘ day, and it twinkles as such. But I should say by diving into this classic Folk sound and eliminating much of the Funk and Electronic influence we find on that album, Bibio perhaps loses some of his individuality. For this reason the best songs are undeniably those in which he uses unconventional and lo-fi recording techniques to evoke nostalgia (most noticeably and effectively on “Lightspout Hollow”). Although even this may be little other than nostalgia for his own past work, considering how central these production methods were to his first three albums. In that sense I have trouble accepting Sleep On The Wing as a particularly inventive or new piece from this beloved artist. It’s good, but it’s more of the same.

Choice Tracks: “Sleep On The Wing,” “Lightspout Hollow,” “Oakmoss,” “The Milky Way Over Ratlinghope,”

Virtual Dream Plaza / 2020
  1. 2814 – Voyage / Embrace

On their most recent release, “vaporwave” (really Ambient Techno) superstars 2814 have doubled down on their classic cyberpunk Seinen-Anime aesthetic, creating some of their most methodically progressive (and longest) tracks yet. For those unfamiliar with their work, think Global Communication or B12 meets the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack. But whereas their previous albums often relied on hypnotic and slightly acidic techno melodies, “Voyage” is mostly driven by heavy, prolonged chords, textural samples, and a measured ceremonial rhythm. Its “melody” synth doesn’t enter until four minutes in, and even then it only repeats two notes. “Embrace” loses the beat and samples in favor of instrumental development, but its synths are still sparse and easily differentiable. It’s a downcast ballad for the lonely hearts in 2814’s crumbling dystopia. Indeed, the greatest difference between this EP and their previous work is the sheer weight of its forlorn sadness. Which is to say, this is an incredibly depressing work of Ambient Retro-Futurism. It at once ensnares us in its nostalgic yearning and somehow maps that aesthetic space onto the currently dismal forecast for humanity’s coming century. And I will admit that on a personal level, this nexus of memory and helpless pessimism spoke to me as an American living in Japan in 2020, watching America (sometimes literally) burn from afar and often taking walks along the deserted, occasionally derelict streets of this country. It’s worth recalling that any aesthetic sensibility that succeeds in reclaiming the past and throwing it into the future ultimately says more about us in the present than it does about history.

Choice Tracks: “Embrace”

By Isak McCune

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