Best Albums of 2020, Honorable Mention
The following list compiles those albums that I think deserve a positive word or two, but which did not make the final cut into my top ten albums of the year. They are in no particular order, and just because I write more about one than another does not necessarily mean one is better than the other. At this point I will also reiterate that my criteria for deciding and ranking albums is entirely personal. (Am I interested in what this artist is doing? Do I understand it? Does it resonate with my aesthetic preferences across media in a meaningful way? etc.) So without further ado please enjoy these honorable mention albums, and please give them a listen if you have the chance. And one more thing: support independent music!
Private Mountain – STRATUMI (СТРАТУМИ)
For their second album of the year for Élan Vital Recordings, Private Mountain (Dimitar Dodovski and Toni Dimitrov) move into significantly more melodic territory while adding depth and complexity to their sound. Though their music has always been about exploring natural landscapes by creating Drone / Field Recording environments, on Stratumi I think those spaces feel much more cohesive and therefore immersive. But in addition they have found a way to incorporate slow-moving melodies—typically piano- or synth-driven—that heighten the emotional effect of their Ambient technique. For example, on “Liquid Culture,” one can listen to merely the atmosphere of the track and feel it progressing naturally as a rainy afternoon might, or one may hear the melodic developments of the piano as if one is listening to a piece by Satie. But somehow the whole is greater than the sum of those two parts. In that sense Stratumi advances the music of Private Mountain to new levels objectively more impressive than their previous work. But the album is also subjectively effective in the sense that I am moved by its purpose and execution. These are both rare feats in Drone music, and for that I feel the need to praise their work here, even though I can’t call it one of the top ten albums of the year.
Choice Tracks: “Glow,” “Liquid Culture,” “Water Stratum (In The Dark)”
The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You
The new Avalanches album takes many unexpected risks. They bring in featured artists from every corner of the world and every crevice of pop new and old. They throw these artists together on tracks that range from gaudy to bizarre. All the while they’re sampling songs and sound bites taken from throughout the past hundred years in recorded sound. Some of the interludes here are not much more than brief samples paired with ambient tinkering; others are reworks of quotations; and still others are audio-visual sound experiments. And while not all of these risks work perfectly, they have somehow still created a really good modern Pop/Electronic album worthy of their past output.
The album’s key strengths lie in its dedication to its touching-albeit-lofty theme, which connects death and loss to the cosmos and science fiction through sound recording (the album references the Voyager Golden Record frequently to tie these ideas together). The garishness of this conceptual structure would be enough to make the album distasteful were it not for its excellent singles, which stand on their own well enough to forgive any ostentation. And the frequent bridging between “low” and “high” art compliments this holistic and open-minded embrace of sound across a spectrum of genres (see especially “Solitary Ceremonies,” “Pink Champagne,” “Running Red Lights,” “Born to Lose,” and “Music Is The Light”). I suppose that effort constitutes an additional risk that sometimes pays off in spades. “Running Red Lights” may be one of the catchiest and most emotional tracks The Avalanches have ever made, not to mention that it’s by far the best Rivers Cuomo song in over a decade.
These merits are not, however, enough for me to oversee the album’s occasional disappointments, typically where the features don’t carry their own weight (Jamie xx, Tricky). And other tracks feel pointless, littered with forgettable melodies and redundant genre explorations. These kinds of tracks commit a sin significantly worse than anything you’ll find on 2016’s Wildflower: they don’t expand upon the world in which the album is supposed to envelope the listener. It’s a sin that, while venal, holds this album back from my top ten list.
Choice Tracks: “We Will Always Love You,” “The Divine Chord,” “Solitary Ceremonies,” “Interstellar Love,” “Music Makes Me High,” “Take Care in Your Dreaming,” “Gold Sky,” “Running Red Lights”
Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello
Be Up A Hello is an exciting, unique, fun, and experimental album, but I am not sure if I can call it a great Squarepusher album. It hits everything you’d expect from its premise: Tom Jenkinson is going back to basics with all analogue synths, acid workouts, 160bpm breakbeats, lush melodies, killer bass, and he’s updating those sounds for 2020. But Squarepusher has never before been the kind of artist to rehash his past so shamelessly. And the album’s structure really doesn’t help his case. It feels like he wrote seven Squarepusher tracks, two ambient interludes, and them threw it all on wax randomly. I might have left this album off my Honorable Mentions list and instead placed it on the Disappointing Albums list were those songs not so good. The cute brightness of “Oberlove” and “Hitsuno” recalls Damogen Furies‘ “Stor Eiglass” and Ufabulum‘s “Unreal Square” but adds a certain stately reservation and romantic softness that somehow improves upon those latter-day hits. Acid rinses “Nervelevers” and “Terminal Slam” hit even harder than most of his ’90s classics. “Speedcrank,” “Vortrack,” and “Mekrev Bass” do Damogen Furies ten times better than Damogen Furies actually was. So I guess this is Squarepusher honing his craft, writing stronger “pop” songs, and revisiting his past methods with new eyes, and I think it largely pays off despite the audible dust on his old synths.
Choice Tracks: “Oberlove,” “Hitsuno,” “Nervelevers,” “Speedcrank,” “Terminal Slam”
By Isak McCune