Best of 2020: Apologies For The Break In Transmission

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.

Best of 2020: 14. This Is The Kit ‘Off Off On’

I’ll admit that it took Kate Stables’ run off performances last year with The National, following her appearance on their 2019 masterpiece ‘I Am Easy To Find‘, to make me fully realise how fond I am of her work as This Is The Kit. In particular, 2017’s ‘Moonshine Freeze‘ was a record that had slowly grown on me with its approach to melody, but a new producer and vocal sound for ‘Off Off On‘ ensured it became a firm favourite almost immediately. 


Anyone who spent even a brief amount of 2020 in the company of 6 Music will know ‘This Is What You Did‘, but this is really not all that representative of the album as a whole. Opener ‘Found Out’ does share some of the gnarly, whirly plucking of that first single, but ‘Started Again’ is a wonderfully metronomic yet woozy drift across a misty landscape. ‘No Such Thing’ was compared to Tortoise in the press release and this link certainly holds up in terms of the deliciously hiccuping drum patterns deployed. It also has a chorus which focuses as much on the sound of its words as the words themselves, with a drawn out delivery of “I do not see that; why should I see that? Why should that be? I did not say that; why would I say that? That would not be.”

A similarly musical approach to the lyrics is taken on the title track, reflecting on a friend’s serious illness and the hospital visits prior to his passing. The pattern of the words “Off Off On” are given weight by the neighbouring phrases such as, “Breathe out. Breathe in, but breathe out. Both ways, you’re leaving.” The syllabic echoes and the lulling delivery combine to capture those moments remarkably. 

The laconic swagger of ‘Was Magician’ saw it recently elevated to ‘single’ status with an intriguing narrative drawing on influences across literary fiction and musical contemporaries, while ‘Slider’ is a magnificently soulful piece which slowly intensifies until a saxophone solo from Lorenzo Prati somehow picks up where Stables’ words left off. It’s a hugely textured record which sounds confident and perfectly sculpted. There’s a Simon Armitage comment about poetry that I especially love which I think is pertinent when considering This Is The Kit’s approach to lyrics this time around:

“Prose fills a space, like a liquid poured in from the top, but poetry occupies it, arrays itself in formation, sets up camp and refuses to budge.”


Having expressed my fondness for the record, I then had the pleasure of conducting a lengthy Zoom chat for a piece that ran on the Clash website back in October. To add a little context, I’ve included some excerpts below: 

You have a different producer this time around, Josh Kaufman, and would it be fair to say that the vocal sound is pretty different for you?

I’m someone that always makes a fuss about reverb but Josh, god bless him, put his foot down. There are less effects than there were – we sort of came to a compromise – but I’m really pleased that he insisted because it makes it different. I think my main problem with reverb is that at a gig, when the sound engineer doesn’t know your music, they just decide to put loads on because you’re a female. That’s where my reflex against reverb comes from, but when it’s used carefully and thoughtfully it’s obviously a really great tool. 

On ‘No Such Thing’ from the new album, aspects of the delivery sound almost like a vocal going down some stairs with the angular way the notes are drawn out. There’s also a counterpoint on ‘Start Again’ with two distinct, simultaneous parts.  Is experimenting with your voice something that excites you?

I really like messing around with vocals and with the rhythm of them and I’m really fussy about harmonies. Un-thought out harmonies annoy me, so I’m quite fussy about which ones get used. Luckily, Rozi [Plain] and Jamie [Whitby], who do the backing vocals in This is The Kit are really good; they come up with things I like. I really enjoy it when people aren’t singing the same words: the kind of cacophonous effect. Also, part of it is because it’s fun to set me, Jamie and Rozi the challenge of then doing that live. It takes quite a lot of training sometimes for us to be doing one thing and then trying to do another on top – we try and make it as difficult for ourselves as possible. Sort of brain gymnastics trying to ward off the Alzheimer’s. 

How did you arrive at the album name ‘Off Off On’? Is it something about the title track that elevates it to being used for the whole record or is there another reason?

There’s this thing I have with words, just what it feels like when you say them. Sometimes that’s all you need to decide, the feel of words in your mouth, and I guess I’m a little bit drawn to things that are, not tongue-twistery, but just have that sensation. I just enjoy saying Off Off On and I find it funny when I have to introduce a song and say “this is a song on ‘Off Off On’” and I find it funny saying “this is a song off of ‘Off Off On’,” you know. It’s just me getting my own kicks, really. Don’t know if I should be owning up to this!

It’s as good a reason as any! The lyrics of the title track involve lots of mirrored phrases – such as “breathe out, breathe in, but breathe out / both ways, you’re leaving, both ways” – and clustered syllables. Is the sound of the words as important as the words themselves? 

For me, it’s such an instrument, the English language. Well, any language, but the English language is the language that I have learned. It’s a musical instrument, language, and it’s really fun to play with it and to make sounds with it.

I notice I’m not the only one to detect a jazz sensibility in this record. Was that a further aspect of changing your sound?

I think it just happened by accident; it’s just a kind of weird alchemy or chemistry between the people in the room at the time. I feel like there’s probably one particular track that gets people’s jazz radars going called ‘Slider’, because we got our friend Lorenzo Prati, who’s a really amazing musician, to play sax over it, all the way through. 

We were all just sat there in the room, not listening to the track, just listening to his saxophone playing and it was amazing. It was so important for me that we kept as much of that as possible. It was incredible being in that room and we were all totally silent, because there was no separation, no booth or anything. Maybe that track flags up a bit of jazz, or just the horns in general, I guess. Having horns just nudges you a bit closer to jazz. But not in a bad way – I’m happy that people hear that in it.

 ‘Was Magician’ is at least partly inspired by Ursula Le Guin. How was your reading over lockdown? Plenty of people said they found it hard to concentrate.

Mainly I couldn’t read, but then I had about a week or two where I could only read or I had to be existing in a book rather than in reality. I could only read Ursula Le Guin! I couldn’t read anything else. She’s written so many books that there’s still stuff I haven’t read. It was familiar in that it was her voice, but in stories that were new to me.

Buy ‘Off Off On’ from Crash Records

Best of 2020: 15. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

It’s possible I’ve overplayed it. It might be the numerous, useless vinyl pressings I tried or the not especially great sounding CD copy I resorted to after abandoning the turntable. It might just be a little too much during these incredibly bleak times. Whatever the reason, ‘Punisher’ has slipped down my list somewhat in the last month or two. When I first heard ‘Kyoto’, I found it hard to imagine the album not being in my top 5 come the end of the year. I know, who thinks like that? Well, me. And possibly you, given you’re reading an in-depth countdown of the albums of 2020 according to one, not especially punctual, bloke and his natty but underused blog. It is a blistering song and one of the finest of this year, from the swift interjection of the drums and jagged guitar over the noodly background through to its standing-strong-in-the-face-of-a-gale start to the chorus. The long horn section, the slow bits as it descends back to the verses and the gradual additional layers as it progresses all make for a song that can be played at least a dozen times in a row without even vaguely grating.


‘Garden Song’ is a track which makes plenty of writers get the ‘ethereal’ twitch. It is one of the great cliches of music writing and vastly overused, meaning that most of us run for the hills whenever it bubbles up from our subconscious, like ‘oeuvre’ and pissing ‘sophomore’. But I think that word probably does belong with ‘Garden Song’, given its constantly bubbling-under verses and its sort-of chorus. It’s the kind of song you need to be inside, without a sense of what is coming from the left and right speaker or headphone. When it swirls around you, it is meditative and remarkably personal.

The title track fits in with the largely sparse tone of the album despite feeling rather slight, while ‘Halloween’ continues in that fashion but possesses a nagging chorus. Its opening lyric “I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night” got rather mangled by the year’s events and I can’t hear it without thinking about a certain tweet I vividly recall from MSNBC broadcaster Katy Tur – who wrote an incredible account of Trump’s rise to power, ‘Unbelievable’ – describing New York’s horrific early days with the virus when she posted “The sirens seem worse than usual tonight.” It was distressingly simple, hugely emotive and a pithy encapsulation of where so many places were, had been or would be again. I know that’s not the song’s fault, but it’s forever attached in my mind.

The story in ‘Moon Song’ typifies the observational honesty of Bridgers’ writing, an aspect which aligns neatly with the media narrative around literary fiction of late. It takes a magnificent swipe at Eric Clapton and references a potentially entertaining row about John Lennon. ‘Savior Complex’ has a precise combination of strings and vocals that is arguably the most beautiful thing on ‘Punisher’, while the fever dream fairground shuffle that starts ‘I See You’ is a very special hook indeed. The knowingly epic conclusion of ‘I Know The End’ rubs me up the wrong way though.

Much of what I loved about her marvellous debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’ is present here, although the songwriting is clearly a step up and a more cohesive soundscape holds this record together more effectively than her debut. In some respects, ‘Punisher’ suffers slightly by meeting the very high expectations I had for it. It hasn’t exceeded them but it’s still a special record and one I’m sure will be well served by some distance from 2020.

Buy ‘Punisher’ from Banquet

Best of 2020: 16. Pet Shop Boys ‘ Hotspot’

The moment when it became clear to me that Chris Lowe was part of the choreographed dancing in the video for – one of the singles of the year – ‘Monkey Business’, was typical of the utterly unencumbered joy that this band can proffer. Their collective sense of humour is legendary, highlighted magnificently in the recently reissued Chris Heath tour biographies ‘Pet Shop Boys, Literally’ and ‘Pet Shop Boys Versus America’, as well as their glorious reissue sleeve notes and DVD commentaries. Neil Tennant’s love of words makes him an exquisite lyricist, whether dipping in to early totems like ‘It’s A Sin’ or 2016’s beautiful ‘The Pop Kids’.


A new PSB album is always cause for excitement, although January felt like the least appropriate time to unveil a record containing ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’, ‘Happy People’ and faintly ludicrous closer ‘Wedding In Berlin’. As it happened, a combination of needing dependable delights in early lockdown and the beautified editions of those two superlative books landed ensured it was a pretty prominent soundtrack to the early summer months. The variety of tones and fluctuation between mid-paced wist and synthetic banger is magical, managing to meld the best aspects of a number of late-period Pet Shop Boys albums. The pure pop nous of ‘Yes’ is here, as is the precision programming of ‘Electric’, and the more measured inclinations of ‘Release’ and ‘Elysium’ make an appearance also. 

‘Happy People’ has trademark reverb-heavy talky verses, falsetto euphoria from the chorus and then a frenetic middle eight build before it signs off with what seems to be a warped loop of church bells foreshadowing the final track. Excuse me while I play it six more times before moving on. It tees up ‘Dreamland’, which features Years & Years’ Olly Alexander and was the first single release from the album. Tennant and Alexander’s voices meld effortlessly on a buoyant, polished pop track which focuses on refugees amongst some more conventional love song vocabulary.

‘Hoping For A Miracle’ and ‘You Are The One’ can both seem a little slight when doing your cursory flick around the new releases on a Friday morning via your preferred artist-screwing streaming platform. It’s remarkable how much your mood at that point can dramatically affect the chance a new release gets. After my initial listens, both left little mark and I will confess I was rueing the low-key to upbeat ratio somewhat. However, as is so often the case with Tennant and Lowe, subsequent listens presented them more favourably as part of the constructed patchwork of ‘Hotspot’. Given their attention to detail with so many things, it seems logical to still take the tracklists of PSB albums as part of the process too. 

All of which does rather raise the issue of what is going on with the aforementioned ‘Wedding In Berlin’? It struck me as having been appended to a distinct album, without really forming much of a link with what had come before. Built around a sample from Mendelssohn’s ‘TheWedding March’ that seems to cut off just before you’d anticipate and punning on the name of an area of Berlin called ‘Wedding’, it feels a little frothy and throwaway. Discovering, via their commentary in this year’s ‘Annually’ book, that it was actually an audio wedding present for a friend whose ceremony they could not attend and that producer Stuart Price believed a stylistically tweaked version could work in these sessions did add some helpful context. It makes me smile a lot more now than it did at first, but it’s still a moderately ludicrous ending to an album. But I wouldn’t change it, much as I wouldn’t change them. The creative freedom and refusal to worry too much about what is expected is central to their ongoing appeal. Long may that last. 

Buy ‘Hotspot’ from Five Rise Records

Best of 2020: 18. Hen Ogledd ‘Free Humans’

As somebody who is pretty obsessed with music, I have a fairly constant internal jukebox which picks out little bits of melody here or whole songs there with which to occupy the flexible territory between conscious distractions and the sub-conscious. Yes, this includes standard earworms, of course, but I’ll sometimes transpose songs across genres and imagine unusual cover versions. I’ll blend similar hooks and blatant rip-offs, Jive Bunny style, into one big tune. It’s often noisy, mostly welcome and frequently becomes the menu for what I’ll listen to next. It is all the fun of music with none of the constraints. And that’s what ‘Free Humans’ sounds like to me.


The second album from the now established four piece configuration of the band, ‘Free Humans’ is infectious, erratic and genuinely unique. Hen Ogledd combines the musical and vocal efforts of Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Sally Pilkington and Richard Dawson, whose fabulous album ‘2020’ made it into last year’s list. It will, even with one listen, remind you of dozens of songs, bands and genres but only in a fleeting fashion for each. Recorded over only three days, it contains an almost insultingly high number of ideas and is instantly loveable. The synth pop singalong of ‘Trouble’, for which Bothwell takes the lead, has a charmingly route one call and response approach to hollering its title. Once you learn that it is also the name of Dawson and Pilkington’s cat, the lyrics “Trouble is the name of my shadow” and “draped around my shoulders, finery” take on a clearer meaning and the delivery of the song’s name is situated in context.

‘Crimson Star’ deploys Dawson’s really rather affecting falsetto for its chorus and, just as it did on his previous solo album, it wins me over unreservedly. The combination of accent, the limit of his range and the joyous build to that melody is one of the pure pop pleasures of this dour year. Telling the tale of a nostalgic intergalactic cruise ship singer, it conjures glorious imagery in lines like “over tarry seas, through meadows of verdant ruby goes flapping the shape of a memory,” that lingers long in that mental jukebox of mine.

While some songs are far more conventionally poppy than others, the less conventional and textured tracks worm their way further into your affections over time. Davies takes centre stage on ‘Remains’, where the hook is “Good evening, radio audience” and synth washes do battle with noodly guitar parts and chiming percussion. It doesn’t sound like much – or at least not like anything endearing – written down, but the repetitive final section has a transcendent quality to it. One of the great talents of this particular working group is their ability to ensnare the listener and then elevate the music slowly but surely to a point of genuine delight.

Each of these songs deserves a mini-essay of their own, such is the diverse nature of ‘Free Humans’. ‘Time Party’ briefly goes Scissor Sisters at one point – and is bloody great for it – and then, just as you’re enjoying that, it’s the fucking Pet Shop Boys. Honestly, I implore you to listen to this album and see what it does for you. It won’t please all comers, but be sure to give it your full attention before making any judgements.

Oh, and don’t miss ‘Flickering Lights‘. It commences with an instrumental passage played on a church organ that features the celebratory, gradual ascension present in much of their work, but which is much more pronounced when performed with such a particular signature. The lyrics that are then delicately intoned by Dawson are stunningly beautiful. I know I’m quite fond of a touch of hyperbole but this story of a bereaved partner continuing conversations and imagining a familiar presence has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. It is pure, it is poetry, it is perfect.

Buy ‘Free Humans’ from Banquet

Best of 2020: 19. Owen Pallett ‘Island’

I have tended to struggle with “I could listen to them sing the phone book” as a description of an excellent voice over the years. If that were true, I wouldn’t get annoyed by moments like the ending of The Divine Comedy’s ‘Other People’ or numerous Paul McCartney songs. As a rule, the words matter, both in terms of their cohesive semantic purpose and their syllabic scansion. We’re only ever a few steps away from being the Outhere Brothers or Muse otherwise. And yet, when it comes to Owen Pallett, their voice really does possess a stirringly instrumental quality that bypasses my critical muscle and just makes me swoon. 


One of many surprise drops, as I believe we must now describe record releases that are defined by their streaming-led initial appearance, during the summer of lockdown, ‘Island’ was instantly available upon the announcement of its existence in late May. It is an immersive hour which builds on the use of instrumental interstitials deployed on several occasions during 2014’s triumph ‘In Conflict’, by embedding four such orchestral passages amongst nine more conventional songs, two of which reappear as alternative versions at the record’s conclusion.

Pallett has previously demonstrated their pristine knack for sharply transitional movements during songs and the truly magnificent ‘The Sound Of The Engines’ refines this process further. Can I make sense of the lyrics? – “Woke up in an ambulance, beaten and bleeding / The sound of the engines, oh, I am a wound un-healing” – possibly not, but it is an astonishing listen. Every time it seems to be taking a melodic arc away from the direction the listener might greedily desire, it swoops back with an emphatic confidence. 

‘A Bloody Morning’ is propelled by an ominous, muscular soundstage that steps away from the more sweepingly balletic tones that dominate elsewhere. It opens with the darkly humorous lines “Started drinking on the job and the job became easy / Keep my hands upon the wheel and my eyes to the sea” and evokes the ensuing storm with dense, threatening orchestration. The proverbial calm that follows the tempest appears with ‘In Darkness’ which offers advice to a troubled mind, telling them they “don’t need to die to be forgiven,” atop a resolving string motif. 

There is an overarching narrative at play that will be familiar to fans of Pallett’s previous work. The Lewis figure – a violent 14th-century farmer – that took off his shirt on 2010’s ‘Heartland’ and went into battle with his deific creator, the character Owen Pallett, at the end of that album returns a decade after his initial victory and the aforementioned storm represents an explosive reckoning for his feelings about that moment. A reconciliation of sorts means that ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ – and you wonder why this hasn’t been all over the 6Music playlist – not long before the balm of ‘In Darkness’.

I can’t claim to fully understand it, but that was my point at the start. With Pallett, I’m not sure it’s necessary. Their work is absorbing, exciting and challenging but somehow familiar too. Whatever the specifics of the story at its heart, this is unshakeably human music.

Physical releases have finally been announced, including a DominoMart exclusive vinyl set which adds a demo LP to the standard 2LP edition. Buy it here. 

Best of 2020: 20. Bill Callahan ‘Gold Record’

When writing my much more sensible fun-size countdown last year, I commented that I found Bill Callahan’s ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ a little unwieldy given its breadth. It never did ascend to the kind of position occupied by ‘Apocalypse’, ‘Dream River’ and many Smog albums. Having broken a long period of  silence with that double album, it was something of a shock to then find him announcing another record so soon thereafter. The enjoyably titled ‘Gold Record’ was a much more immediate delight, with its languid, finger-plucked jackanory for tired adults tone.

golden record

Having published the magnificent lyrical collection ‘I Drive A Valance’ and an epistolary work of fiction, ‘Letters To Emma Bowlcut’, in the last decade, the blurring of the lines between songwriter and plain writer is ever more pronounced across these ten songs. Some are new pieces, others simply never fitted the times when they were written and ‘Let’s Move To The Country’ is a new take on the track from 1999’s superb ‘Knock Knock’, with some telling lyrical additions to finish sentences and update the story. Where once Callahan may have been more angular and less open, fatherhood and the all-encompassing embrace of family life would seem to have reshaped his perspective.

The narrative drive of ‘The Mackenzies’ steps between those two worlds, with an older man rushing out of his house to help a younger neighbour with car trouble. The latter then reflects,  “we never met before, despite living not door. I’m the type of guy who sees a neighbour outside and stays inside and hides. I’ll run that errand another time.” The joys of the resulting communal experience leave their mark, even as the older family’s tragic loss is revealed and the narrator is given a new role. It’s beautiful, both in terms of how it is delivered and how it is constructed.

‘Breakfast’ has a couple of the rather wonderful moments that occur from time to time in Callahan’s work where it sounds like there is some sort of performative power surge. The most notable occurs around the thirty second mark, where things seem to very briefly get caught up in a strong breeze against which the vocal stands strong. Opener ‘Pigeons’ invokes Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen while focusing on the life of a wedding limo driver. Not only is his delivery of the word “limo” so on brand it’s quite magical, but it also contains some stirring lyrical economy: “well, they seemed like a match so I stopped looking for cracks in their road and just drove.”

As ever with Bill Callahan, this doesn’t work as backing music. The songs are laden with beguiling details, eloquent nuance and musical inflections that reward the dedicated listener. Similar to many of his albums before this, ‘Gold Record’ seeps into one’s consciousness and offers a commanding, immersive experience if given the chance. Anything that forces you to only do one thing in these times is very welcome indeed, but this writing will far outlast our current concerns.

Buy ‘Gold Record’ from Raves From The Grave

Best of 2020: 21. Georgia Ruth ‘Mai’

Years of record buying instills in you a sense of which names to trust when it comes to considering new purchases. At the start of this year, the pretty heavyweight trio of the Bubblewrap Collective label, Radio Wales legend and all round good bloke Adam Walton and singer-songwriter Georgia Ruth coalesced around me in referencing the latter’s then-forthcoming album, ‘Mai’. I wrote at length previously about my love for her debut Week Of Pines and the follow up, ‘Fossil Scale’, was also a delight, so I was always going to be on side. However, there is something enjoyably heartening about splendid people working with and championing splendid people.


Bubblewrap Collective, a Cardiff based record label, is the sort of institution to whose entire release schedule I would happily subscribe, safe in the knowledge I would receive everything they put out. Charlie Francis, Sweet Baboo, Ivan Moult, Eugene Capper & Rhodri Brooks and The Gentle Good have all had releases on their imprint and they currently have some very appealingly priced bundles available if you’re fond of your ears. At the same time they announced that ‘Mai’ would be coming out via them, Walton played a teaser track on his always excellent Saturday night show and a pre-order for the very limited initial vinyl run was placed.

The album had the misfortune of coming out just before the entire world turned to shit and had to battle back to the foreground once a degree of equilibrium had been found in the wobbly lines of lockdown. Returning to the town where she had grown up, Aberystwyth, following the birth of her son, Georgia Ruth wrote an album exploring the reshaping of the world that is triggered by parenthood and responding to the pastoral pull of place. Moving between Welsh, English and instrumental, language proves fluid as these pieces form a beautifully cohesive whole.

The bare bones of ‘7 Rooms’ considers that new arrival, with evocative imagery that somehow gives words to the purest of human emotions: “Between these two worlds I watch you through the dim light. You move like fire in the shadow; there is something bright in you.” My shameful lack of Welsh betrays the land of my father but I’ve always been a melody person and they are here in substantial numbers on songs like the glisteningly beguiling ‘Terracotta’ and title track ‘Mai’, which uses the words of a poem written by Eifion Wyn, ‘Gwn ei ddyfod, fis y mêl’ or ‘I know it’s coming, month-of-honey’. It took on unimaginable importance once the early summer months emerged from the initial shock of the big pause, despite the album sessions taking place in a week during spring 2019.

‘Close For Comfort’ might be the most direct route in, with its mix of infectious jangle and the forthright demonstration of Ruth’s phenomenally dextrous voice. It was what caught my attention on the ‘In Luna’ EP back in 2012 and continues to floor me now. Her ability to shift tone, intensity and intent is utterly hypnotic and it ensures the meaning breaks through even if you’re not fully cognisant of the lyrics. The mellifluous harp feels a little less prominent this time around, but it is foregrounded on the aching ‘In Bloom’, which uses the presentation of nature to explore the wider impact of a child upon a relationship.

As our mental health takes a battering, our certainties shift before our very eyes and the digital noise envelops us, albums like ‘Mai’ can transport us: to Aberystwyth, to memories of family experiences and to a deeply emotional response that pulls attention from what is damaging us.

Buy ‘Mai’ on vinyl from Drift

Best of 2020: 22. Jason Molina ‘Eight Gates’

I wish this album didn’t exist. It seems unlikely that it would have made it to release in this form were it not for the fact that Jason Molina died in 2013. Recorded in London during January 2009, it was the last studio session he would undertake and started a year that would end with a last minute cancellation of a planned tour with Will Johnson to promote their superlative collaboration ‘Molina  and Johnson’. Thereafter, little was heard of Molina until, in 2011, a family message was shared by his label, Secretly Canadian, that he was seriously ill and had been attending rehabilitation facilities. The confirmation of his alcoholism didn’t come until two years later, when the news of Molina’s passing brutally punctured an early spring day for many.

eight gates

I don’t know many people who quite like Molina. If his music clicks, it’s hard not to end up with most of it. There was always a Neil Young echo in there, whether on stark, acoustic beauties or the more full-bodied country-blues of much of his work as Magnolia Electric Co., but his voice is distinctive and oddly resonant. No matter the intensity of the backdrop, it can cut through from anywhere and command the room. The album ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’, technically the final album by his previous band Songs: Ohia, was when I first became aware of his work and almost all of his catalogue is in the space where I am currently writing this. Box sets, reissues and even Record Store Day 7″s are must buys, savouring every last bit of his output in the knowledge that it is finite.

The announcement of ‘Eight Gates’ came after the release of a lo-fi recording of ‘Live At La Chapelle’ from 2005 hinted at the very faintest signs of barrel scraping beginning to occur. As a result, trepidation was instilled ahead of early listens to this brief album. But, over twenty-five minutes, these nine songs prove themselves to be well worthy of a standalone release. Box set padding they are not, instead evoking aspects of another UK-based project, ‘The Lioness’ from 2000. As Molina’s music so often did, it captures the sound and space of the studio across a mixture of solo acoustic pieces and those augmented with mournful strings and wide-panned, open drums.

‘Shadow Answers The Wall’ features that expansive percussive drive that was a familiar presence on many of his records, pared with a groping bass line that asserts an air of malevolence. It is somewhat at odds with the occasional bursts of birdsong that pepper the album in reference to several green parrots who frequented his yard at the time. That he would surely have never opted for such a recurring motif himself serves as a reminder that ‘Eight Gates’ arrives in memory of and not as the start of another chapter.

Understandably, it is possible to find oneself reading far too much into lyrics that were never designed to carry the weight of their eventual circumstances. Take ‘The Mission’s End’, which concludes “this at the mission’s end, we’re all equal along this path.” Tempting as one obvious interpretation might be, the latter phrase actually offered some light in the middle of 2020, Molina’s well-loved violin of a vocal emitting a unifying nod to humanity’s endurance.

‘She Says’ is demonstrably the product of an early studio run through, prefaced by the comment “roll me for a few minutes here; see what I get,” although the rest of the slightly too route one pre-song chat feels like a blunt instrument: “The perfect take is as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it.” ‘Fire On The Rail’ proceeds against a distant, driving hum and ‘Be Told The Truth’ is elevated by a droning, aching accompaniment.

What I would give for a fully realised new album by Molina, in any of his guises. This is more than just a nod to past glories, a clearing of the decks, but ‘Eight Gates’ is not quite a Jason Molina album in the conventional sense. Despite this, it is still a striking, satisfying and sometimes saddening listen. In this year of all years, considering what is missing is perhaps as important as knowing what is there.

Buy ‘Eight Gates’ on CD from Drift (Don’t buy the vinyl – it’s noisy or warped or both)

Best Of 2020: 24. Keeley Forsyth ‘Debris’

Pretty much anything from prior to March doesn’t feel like it happened in 2020. It is almost as if the overwhelming sense of the inevitable that descended in the middle of that month was a hard reset on the year and it just rebooted in some sort of actually-not-all-that-safe mode. Looking back on those initial weeks, it’s noticeable how a number of releases from the first quarter have been re-cast by what followed. 


I remember my first listen to ‘Debris’, early one Saturday morning in late January. It was prompted by the pretty emphatically positive notices it was receiving from trustworthy types on Twitter and I had missed any PR build up. The biographical details supplied with its release – most striking was the use of music as a form of communication following a period of serious, incapacitating illness – added to the sense that this might be something special, something different. Reviews and features referenced late-period Scott Walker and the mesmeric Aldous Harding. Fine points of reference but there is different, more sparse production at play here that makes for a sharply compelling listen.

Forsyth’s voice is unlike any other I can recall. At times, especially on the title track which opens the record, it almost sounds like a string instrument at play. It is front and centre of this album and the accompaniment is minimal, with harmonium, cello and deft synths offering occasional embellishment to guitar and piano. ‘Look To Yourself’ possesses a hypnotic and metronomic quality, evoking the sense of a timeless folk track, and its refrain “we are only human” has felt rather fitting as the months have worn on. 

Centrepiece ‘Lost’ is a brave and visceral inclusion, starting with the lyrics: “Is this what madness feels like? The smooth space after all boundaries have been dissolved. Where there is wind, high wind, but no tall trees for it to grapple with.” The lines are initially sung-spoken at breathy speed before opening up, with a whirling wash of sound anchored by the indefatigable harmonium almost pushing up against the vocals. It is truly incredible. Even after dozens and dozens of listens, I don’t think I’m even faintly close to fully experiencing everything it has to offer. 

No words I can write here will adequately conjure what you will experience by hearing this album. For some, it will be too raw, too stark, too other to fit with their musical palette but, where it clicks, I suspect it will stay. I don’t play it that regularly, as it does seem to pull events and emotions into its orbit without too much effort, but it hasn’t retreated too snuggly into the racks just yet. And I feel I should conclude with a word on that concise but faultless title. For the writer, for the performer, for the listener – this is all about the bits that are left behind. 

Buy ‘Debris’ from Sister Ray