2020 was not a great year for music overall. Ask anyone whose livelihood depends on it. And to celebrate the wondrous glut of studio material we got this year seems perverse as well, given that so much of that material came out of Bandcamp’s First Friday sales—during which the local platform waives its fee of proceeds in order to benefit artists during COVID-19—or was released in lieu of the tours through which artists generally make their money.
You might not even know how much music came out this year given that most year-end lists tend to cycle through the same tentpoles; do you really need to be told again that RTJ4 and Fetch the Bolt Cutters are great? This list focuses on the experimental end of the spectrum, especially as found on Bandcamp. Except for Atobe, King Krule, and appallingly rich pop stars Ariana Grande and Grimes, all the artists in our top 20 operate out of Bandcamp, and all these albums can be found there. If you’ve saved any of the money you usually spend on door and drinks at shows, put it to use. (For more great music from this year, see John-Paul Shiver’s picks here.)
I hear in Joshua Chuquimia Crampton’s music what it means to be a musician in 2020. It’s to be alone with your instrument, as Crampton is with his guitar. It’s to put yourself through a sort of masochistic ritual, visualized through Crampton’s violent strumming; he seems to be engaging in a self-flagellating process of purification just by performing. It’s to try to find an escape from the end of the world, and The Heart’s Wash positions itself as a healing album. And it’s to retract deeper inside yourself. When you’re jamming with friends, music is a form of communication, and it resonates outward. But when you’re playing alone, you’re a cosmonaut.
The Big Thief singer arrives at her breakup album just as she’s reached the peak of her powers as a songwriter, and these songs (and instrumentals) aren’t about self-pity but about the real-time process of recovery. On Songs, crushing loss coexists with undefeatable desire and the inexorable natural processes Lenker has long delighted in writing about. Instrumentals comprises two meandering New Age compositions, shot through with the sounds of the sylvan cabin in which she recorded them. Songs and Instrumentals are as tactile as the earth beneath your feet, yet Lenker always comes across like a hard worker rather than a psychedelic auteur.
Workaround feels like it was painstakingly assembled by tiny robots working with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. Each instrument gleams antiseptically, free of reverb. But these sterile sounds somehow combine into an album bursting with life and depth, whose predominant emotion is joy rather than the clinical curiosity of the clicks-and-cuts music that influenced it. Surprises pop up around every corner; this is a musical world with room for koras, tablas, saxophones, and vocoders while still proceeding along the clear lines of a Mondrian painting. Plus, it sounds like nothing the Londoner’s done before. File her under “capable of anything.”
It was only with Yes that Shinichi Atobe confirmed that he is, in fact, a producer from Japan and not the alias of one of Berlin’s dub-techno legends. He’s taken great pains to distance the human aspect from his music, and his work reeks of abandonment and decay. Even as he’s moved towards the bright sounds of Chicago house, an appealing eeriness blows through his work, from the spaghettified marimba on “Rain 3” to the piano on “Lake 2” that sounds like a snatch of Muzak floating through a decaying mall. His productions feel like lean-tos built from whatever’s lying around; it doesn’t matter what goes into the construction as long as it stands.
Florian T M Zeisig works in the storied ambient tradition of dance music not made for dancing—which makes sense given that he worked at the coatcheck of a Berlin club before the pandemic. Coatcheck is ambient music as workingman’s blues, filtering drunken conversations and snatches of house and techno through the sober and patient ear of a club worker who dreams of one day taking the stage. It helps that Zeisig has a deft ear for sound design. This is one of the most amniotic ambient albums since Gas’s Pop; it’s what you want to feel when you let yourself fall asleep on the job, except it’s 40 minutes long and no one is giving you any shit.
For the last 20 years, Mike Cooper’s music has combined slack-key guitar, field recordings of water, and harsh, piercing electronics to comment on the inevitable drowning of the world. His work has always been uneasy, but it’s here that it becomes truly scary. The sound of flowing water is so overwhelming as to be almost sickening; people shout insolubly, bits of metal clang together sadly in the floodwaters, and Cooper plays guitar as if sadly overlooking it all from a ledge. Like the Caretaker’s Everywhere at the End of Time, Playing With Water represents an irreparable crack in the artist’s catalog. You could listen to Cooper albums casually until now.
If Three doesn’t melt your brain within five seconds, it’ll probably be a non-starter. The long-running jazz-fusion trio is heir to Miles Davis’ ‘70s experiments in rhythm, stasis, and texture, and like the Prince of Darkness at his most Luciferian, the Necks aren’t afraid to leave the 20-minute mark in their dust. “Bloom” opens the album with a percussive vamp that sounds like nothing so much as a bunch of bones caught in a tornado. “Lovelock” pays tribute to both a late contemporary and Miles’ own elegy “He Loved Him Madly.” “Further” is one of the most achingly beautiful funk tracks since Parliament made Motor-Booty Affair. And that’s it. Three.
These humble demos from Joshua Chuquimia Crampton’s sister Elysia take on more heft together than most albums twice their length, which is in keeping with the short but almost unreasonably content-rich albums she’s been making for years. Beginning with a humble charango ditty in line with the Andean folk traditions she usually explores under the C-C name, 3 Demos enters an abyss with “Family Court Demo,” which sounds like an endless industrial landscape burning up like a crisp of paper, and “Fired Fort Demo,” the sort of track that begs to be described hyperbolically—like the voice of God, or a meteor hitting Earth, take your pick.
Bandcamp’s First Friday sales led to an unbelievable flood of interesting music, and no one has put out more this year than Sarah Davachi. In addition to the album Cantus, Descant, the Mills graduate’s put out four EPs and a live album this year, totaling six hours of consistently great ambient drone music. I like Davachi most when she’s summoning sounds from one instrument, and Gathers proves one of my longtime favorite adages: music made on a single instrument is usually more convincingly spiritual than music made on many different instruments, because the spiritual presence being generated is larger than the sum of the actual sounds being made.
The Mancunians in Space Afrika have yet to produce an album that sounds like their previous one, and they’ve yet to disappoint. Their third full-length, taken from a live session on the wonderful British radio station NTS, interrogates the currently-chic dystopian aesthetic that essentially amounts to a fetishization of poverty and surveillance. You’ll get plenty of rainy Blade Runner blues made of foggy alleyways and towering skyscrapers, but you’ll also get voices—mostly Black—speaking about the need to protest, or just wanting the police to feel what they feel, or flatly intoning the word “look” like the Biblical command to “come and see.”
The irresistible and intimidating Bill Callahan released his latest album a song at a time, which makes sense for one of this country’s most reliable living repositories of great songs. Here, we get “The MacKenzies,” the eeriest tale of a man being absorbed into a family since Woman in the Dunes; a limo driver’s sage advice to two giddy newlyweds on “Pigeons”; the most grin-inducing delivery of the word “tortillas” in all of rock ’n’ roll (not that it has much competition) on “Cowboy Song”; and a hagiographic blues about Ry Cooder that’s absolutely ridiculous but is sung with enough conviction that we really feel his respect for the musician—“him and Wim.”
It’s easy to be skeptical about the ginger kid with the leonine roar who was subject to so much hype early this decade, but he’s been one of rock’s most consistent artists for the last ten years. Man Alive! is his take on post-punk, a genre often reduced to malaise and machismo but which was rock’s most forward-thinking bastion in its prime. If the first few tracks are primo British headbutt music, it’s during the diseased indica sprawl of the second half that this man really comes alive. Archy Marshall has always identified with horror movie monsters, and never has he sounded more like the Gill-Man than when his head emerges from this sea of pollution.
Chill-out music lost its connection to the human world in the last few years as streaming reduced all music to the role of furniture. Ana Roxanne mounts a counter-tradition by making ambient music that’s inescapably hers. The New York artist is always either singing or playing an instrument here, and though “A Study in Vastness” is as refreshing to dive into as a pool of warm water, “Camille” is shot through with a shocking confrontation between an authority figure and a pleading subordinate. Because of a Flower could’ve been mindless mood music. Roxanne sacrifices this level of listening to challenge, and potentially connect with, the listener.
These two drastically-different albums—one an ambient two-fer filled with aching voices, the other a hyperkinetic collection of crust-punk covers—are in fact companions to one another. Am I Free To Go? rages explicitly at the machine, weaving in breakbeats and samples of desperate Amazon workers to illustrate one response to living in a failing capitalist hell. Shall We Keep On Sinning posits an alternative response: surrounding yourself with people who share your experiences and can empathize with your pain. Like the sainted DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues, it’s a beautiful piece of music that reminds us “suffering is in here with us.”
No album this year has better drums than the second outing from Brian Piñeyro’s “deep-reggaeton” project; you could eat off these snares. As the eight pieces that comprise this 48-minute suite twist and turn, individual sounds jump out like fireworks: a vocal sample suspended in air, a chord that sounds like a cloth being yanked off a table as its contents stay undisturbed. Though Mas Amable might seem far from the solo-instrument projects extolled higher on this list, it likewise proves you don’t need much to royally fuck with a listener’s head.
This former church singer-turned-ambient loop artist usually likes to weave her voice into heavenly, uplifting walls of sound. Healing is a Miracle seems more like an emanation from the earth, her voice more hesitant and less overwhelming as a persistent rumble hums beneath. Even high-profile guests like Jónsi and harpist-in-demand Mary Lattimore don’t shatter the illusion of an inexorable, natural process. Though this is one of countless ambient albums this year that position themselves as alternatives to end-of-the-world madness, the gassy, mossy quality of these nine short tracks reminds me of methane escaping from a thawing permafrost.
Positions is a perfect pop album in the most conservative sense. Its songs average under three minutes, and they float by like ‘50s confections instead of the signal cutting out abruptly like on a SoundCloud demo. The strings aren’t the ham-handed Hans Zimmer kind but swooning orchestrations that trill and flutter with her voice, the tension of the bows audible. Grande does her usual serene, unbothered thing, and if Positions doesn’t break any new ground (it’s basically her Bedtime Stories), it’s at least heartening to know that pop-craft like this still exists.
Miss Anthropocene isn’t about being a wrathful goddess of climate change at all. It’s about being absolutely stone-cold crazy for a guy, and “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth” and “Idoru” are barely-controlled fantasies dressed up in the language of cyberpunk, backed by some of the most awe-inspiring pop productions of the year. The catch is that the guy she’s crazy about is Elon Musk—and that a lot of her daydreams involve escaping the death of the human race through tech and money. I don’t blame anyone for being appalled by the mere idea of it, but it’s a guilty pleasure in the 2020 sense. I’m repulsed by it, but I’ve heard nothing like it.
The late Harold Budd may forever be associated with Brian Eno, who produced and played on much of his seminal work, but his most prolific collaborator was Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie. The title Another Flower might be a joke about how little their formula has changed across eight collaborations, but while you get the mix of skeletal piano and swooning guitar here that you get on all their other albums together, the subtle wrinkles in the formula are what make Another Flower intriguing. Like on “November Day,” during which you can actually hear Guthrie’s fingers on his strings instead of the squall of effects he’s usually content to generate.
The last few years have been wonderful for ambient country music, with artists like Suss and Chuck Johnson building whole albums around the steel guitar’s ability to evoke O’Keeffean landforms and sinking slivers of Western sun. Roped In might be the most delightful evocation thereof. Steel guitarist Barry Walker and acoustic guitarist Patrick McDermott dance around each other on an album as intimate as a campfire session and as immersive as any studio masterpiece; the persistent count of “one-two” reminds us it’s really just two dudes having fun.
Honorable mentions: Teno Afrika’s Amapiano Selections, a mission statement for South Africa’s new deep-house revolution; George Clanton and Nick Hexum’s self-titled and Washed Out’s Purple Noon, reminders of the ongoing wonderfulness of chillwave; Richard Dawson’s Republic of Geordieland, a slight but satisfying Bandcamp compilation from Britain’s best, burliest folkie; Destroyer’s Have We Met, with the slinky Dan Bejar grumbling above a sea of fog; Drakeo the Ruler’s Thank You For Using GTL, a brilliant concept album about rap kayfabe recorded over the phone from jail; Fire-Toolz’ Rainbow Bridge, a progressive metal epic bursting with queer-as-fuck Internet optimism; of1000faces’ Astronomica, an ambient adventure in space; Jayda G’s Both of Us/Are U Down, two disco slow-burners that take on classic-album grandeur by themselves; Nathan Salsburg’s Landwerk No. 2, a guitar-collage album whose pall of static feels as ancient and immovable as the land; KeiyaA’s Forever, Ya Girl, an insular soul album from New York’s cryptic new rap scene; Roedelius’ Wahre Liebe, a career highlight for the octogenarian synth wizard; Sparkle Division’s To Feel Embraced, the first William Basinski album that sounds how he looks and talks; Taylor Swift’s Folklore, whose snowy reverb is the best fit yet for her writing; Thundercat’s It Is What It Is, which turns down the memes and turns up the bass; Yves Tumor’s Heaven for a Tortured Mind, which remembers when rock ’n’ roll was sexy; and Lucinda Williams’ Good Souls Better Angels, 12 righteous prayers of anger from the insanely consistent country singer.
A few great local albums: E-40’s The Curb Commentator 1 and 2, his latest ongoing series; Catapult Stevens’ Songs from a Trebuchet, a lovely indie-rock EP for Casa de las Madres; Double Libra’s Total Sincerity Forever, which feels at once classic and futuristic; Field Medic’s Floral Prince and Sespool’s Before the Fog Covers Me, two brothers with two takes on emo on the opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum; Secret Secret’s Secret Secret, from a local DIY supergroup with sass and fire; Juicebump’s Hello Pinky!, a steel-cage death match between Devo-Core and radio interference; Joel Shanahan’s Frozen Clock Hovering, a formidable package for an even more formidable album; Sun Kin’s Private Time, sophisti-soul as smooth as silk, and its remix album Public Time; and Squadda B’s Return of Dogand Cloud Blitz, two fuzzy odysseys about what it means to be a career musician in a place increasingly hostile to artists.