Well, that was unfortunate, wasn’t it? On reflection, it was crazy to try and do a full length countdown last December. After the year we had all faced and juggling a proper job alongside various other writing, the time just wasn’t there. I stumbled on until 2020 was almost extinguished and then admitted defeat. Sadly, this left thirteen albums unaccounted for and the list jarringly incomplete.
With the intention to do a more lightweight format for the 2021 list, it seems only right to put to bed its predecessor, however briefly, before moving on. Forgive the brevity, but I’ll annotate as we go and see if I still agree with my views from twelve months ago. Epic level naval gazing, I know, but a few of you have asked so hopefully this will scratch that itch as well as allowing my completist urges to be sated.
13. Roisin Murphy – ‘Roisin Machine’ – A phenomenal record which feels like a collection of full length, heavy disco tracks pulled together into something seismic. Great sleeve too.
12. Douglas Dare – ‘Milkteeth’ – A record I took a little while to fall in love but for which I fell hard when it did click. It’s all about the purest, most remarkable vocal performances you’ve heard in some time. Mostly piano accompaniment. Fabulous artwork. Still holding up incredibly well despite the distance.
11. Kelly Lee Owens – ‘Inner Song’ – An absorbing album which necessitates the right conditions to click. Sadly, I never found a decent vinyl copy of it but the music itself is excellent. It has tremendous space in the cover of Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’, beguiling vocal layering for ‘On’ and shimmering phases to ‘Jeanette’.
10. James Dean Bradfield – ‘Even In Exile’ – Good old Jimbo. The piano work on this would go on to inform this year’s ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’. With lyrics from a different Jones brother than in his day job (Patrick, Nicky’s older sibling) and a back story which helps to put it all in context, this felt a little like a trip through the sensational guitarist’s record collection. I did a lengthy review for Clash, if you’d like to know more.
9. Matt Berninger – ‘Serpentine Prison’ – A gorgeous album which has aged almost as well as Berlinger himself. While it’s obviously ‘the bloke from The National’, he opts to use his voice in different ways. Early lyric “my eyes are t-shirts, they’re so easy to read” had me and tracks like ‘One More Second’, ‘Silver Springs’ and ‘All For Nothing’ beautifully highlight the influence of Booker T. Jones as producer. Check out the deluxe edition tracks too, especially for the sensational version of ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’. Vinyl roulette required for GZ discs, but a stunning record. Should have been higher, on reflection.
8. Alabaster DePlume – ‘To Cy And Lee: Instrumentals Vol 1′ – Technically a compilation of sorts, but it works splendidly as body of work. Released by the always excellent International Anthem and available as a Pallas pressed vinyl edition, this music is remarkably lyrical for something with no words. A hugely eloquent saxophonist and inspired arranger, DePlume’s work here is stirring and often transcendent. Everyone I’ve ever recommended it to seems to love it, so you may as well join the club if you haven’t done so already. ‘Whisky Story Time’ or opener ‘Visit Croatia’ should suffice at winning you over.
7. Sault – ‘Untitled (Rise)’ – The second of two flat out fantastic albums delivered by elusive soul collective Sault in 2020. In the context of lockdowns, limited socialising and a shuttered music scene, instant and unexpected releases took on a whole extra layer of meaning and impact. Having become known for their genre-melding approach, it was no surprise to find electro soul, pure disco, wide-panned Brazilian percussion, squelchy funk and much more besides in this potent collection of songs. They reflect on ‘Scary Times’ before finishing on the shuffling majesty of ‘Little Boy’, which offers some hope in resilience.
6. Wilma Archer – ‘A Western Circular’ – Early in the first lockdown, BBC 6 Music adjusted its schedules to reduce the number of people in the studios each day. The biggest perk from all of this was the decision to extend Gilles Peterson’s imperious Saturday afternoon slot to four hours. It broadened his playlist even further and established a fierce bond with those listening in very dark times. His approach was so very human and his subsequent book collecting much of his work in those times is deeply affecting. One of the records I discovered thanks to him championing it during those broadcasts was ‘A Western Circular’. A new moniker for Will Archer, who had previously traded as the rather less appealing Slime, this is spacious, righteous, epic soul and more. Instrumental when it needs to be, elevated by guest appearances at other times, it’s a potent, commanding listen. The late MF Doom leads on ‘Last Sniff’, while Future Islands’ Samuel T Herring delivers understated beauty on ‘The Boon’ and ‘Decades’. The standout, though, is ‘Cheater’ which features Sudan Archives. Nimble but insistent, it is glorious. A great, somewhat underrated release from last year.
5. Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – If I’m honest, I’ve not been back to this one very much in 2021, despite being wowed by it at the time of release. One of many albums to appear digitally before we could get our hands on a physical copy, it seemed to draw the majority of online discourse into its orbit for a few days. The Waitsian percussion and raw piano is what most cut through with me, although the lyrics – helpfully and sensibly given their own booklet in the vinyl edition – are remarkable. The scale of the drums and the visceral thud of the piano on ‘Under The Table’ still delights and there’s so much happening across these thirteen tracks. It was the album that prompted some of the best music writing of that year and these two pieces from Laura Snapes and Jenn Pelly are worth reading if you haven’t already done so.
4. Alice Boman – ‘Dream On’ – A quietly haunting, woozily hypnotic record which had already charmed me prior to the start of end times, ‘Dream On’ suddenly became a balm during those early months of trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. There are hints of Stereolab and Broadcast in here, along with the Cocteaus and Aldous Harding also in the mix. It seemed to perfectly capture the isolation and emotional claustrophobia that we were facing, despite existing before it had all happened. I watched a recent interview with Damon Albarn in which he argued, in typically lackadaisically mystical fashion, that artists often write about things before they happen as they are channeling events around them. However much one might chose to buy into that, ‘Dream On’ is incredible and its reverb-heavy, funereal pace mixed with heart-melting beauty and timeless reference points make it a very special album indeed. While many missed it, every time I mentioned it online it prompted comments from those who had fallen hard for ‘Dream On’. ‘Wish We Had More Time’ and ‘The More I Cry’ will give you the idea, but 2020 in a record would probably be this.
3. Laura Marling – ‘Song For Our Daughter’ – I will never not be slightly in awe at how many incredible records Laura Marling had released before she turned 30. She continued the trend with the first release of her fourth decade, which was another album contextualised by lockdown. Released five days after Marling announced its existence, having opted for a revised approach once it became clear that the pandemic might be sticking around (oh, how little we knew), it was digital only for a few months. After the poise and drama of ‘Semper Femina’, this was different. In some respects, it feels a little like Marling flexing all of her many styles in one stunningly concise document. Her vocal seems to pull away from the tired rhythm of ‘Held Down’, while ‘Strange Girl’ picks up some of the playful, jazzy shuffle from ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. The orchestral delicacy of ‘Blow By Blow’ is strikingly, sincerely beautiful. Closer ‘For You’ points elsewhere, though we probably shouldn’t be foolish enough to try and predict where Marling will head next.
2. Sault – ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ – To return to that Saturday afternoon lifeline provided by Gilles Peterson, it was the very first week that he returned to his 3pm start that he decided to play an album in its entirety. His social channels had captured the excitement around a new release he had received early that morning, which would turn out to be Sault’s third studio record, but it wasn’t until he got on air that afternoon that you knew you were going to be part of something. Who knows how many of us were on their Bandcamp page for its release the following Friday as a result of this infectious enthusiast, but here was a crossing of the platforms as old and new coalesced thanks to the urgency, potency and immediacy of these songs. Pandemic politics and the destructive rapidity of populism has accelerated news cycles to the point where it might seem like a reach to draw the mind back to events of the summer of 2020, but from the closing section of opener ‘Out The Lies’ this felt like a righteous commentary that expected the listener to keep up. While the wonderful, genre-bending soul-centred mix of sounds I mentioned above is present here too, this record was so much more than just a collection of songs.
1. Taylor Swift – ‘folklore’ – It might seem a little jarring to have another record above one which so vividly represented a moment in time, but no album came close to the presence ‘folklore’ had in my 2020. Released with almost no warning just as I was concluding a week away in Wales in the early stages of lockdown easing, my first listen was early on that Friday with the Pembrokeshire skyline to accompany it. Like so many of the titles I have written about above, it seemed so of the moment, so implicitly of 2020 that it resonated in ways it took me a long time to identify. The involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner clearly played its part, with aspects of this album feeling of a kind with so much of my favourite of 2019, his band’s ‘I Am Easy To Find‘. Swift’s gift as a songwriter is surely her capacity for concise but intricately painted narratives. Lines like “the wedding was charming if a little gauche, there’s only so far new money goes,” in ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ lodged quickly, amongst fantastic key changes and the perfect drop out at 2:48 before returning for a soaring conclusion. The understated piano and strings of ‘Seven’ are naggingly seductive, making it a song that never seems like a standout only to suddenly switch to firm favourite status after half a dozen plays. Despite a shoddy vinyl pressing, it’s an album to which I have returned a great deal in 2021. No doubt, ‘evermore’ would have been in here somewhere too had it been released a little earlier and I tend to think of them as a piece. However, ‘folklore’ is the superior record to these ears and, in a year of unique albums, it still feels like something that will have indestructible longevity.