MDR’s Top Albums of 2020

Well then. What a year. As 2020 *finally* draws to a close, most of us will be glad to see the back of a year that threw so much of what we know and love into turmoil… 

As daily life changed, so to do did our listening habits. With live music decimated, our listening habits shifted as we increasingly enjoyed music in spaces other than the dancefloor or festival site.  With life slowing down, and less hustle and bustle to distract us, there was greater scope to not only enjoy albums, but to enjoy them in their entirety, from start to finish in one sitting.

Either way, despite all the terrible things to happen this year, there were plenty of great albums released, and with the help of our MDR community, we’ve drawn up a list of the favourite releases to grace our ears this year. From the comforting ambience of the Eno brothers, to the radical, politicised music of Speaker Music, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into!

HodgeShadows In Blue (Houndstooth)
Chosen by Simon Denholm (SSID & Curator of DRIFT Mix Series)

Despite my show, DRIFT, being focussed on ambient and downtempo music, I have selected an album on the clubbier end of the spectrum for my favourite of 2020.

Hodge’s Shadows In Blue was released in April, just as lockdown got into full swing, and initially I became frustrated that I could not experience the pulsating rhythms on a proper club sound system. This led to me listening to the album in an entirely new way and thinking about the project as a whole. The songs flow brilliantly together, from the initial drop in to the infectious melody in ‘The World Is New Again’, via the whirling percussion and strings of the ethereal title track, to the driving drums of ‘Ghost Of Akina’ at the end of the album.

For me, Shadows In Blue provides a cohesive and enjoyable listening experience which reassured me of the state of dance music in the UK rather than remind me of the emptiness of clubs. If producers like Hodge are making albums like this, then we’re in a better state than we’ve ever been!

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Luke Vibert – Rave Hop (Hypercolour)
Chosen by Rich Furness (Host of Bongo’s Bingo & Resident DJ at Chibuku & Abandon Silence.)

25 years on from his first ever release, Luke Vibert continues to thrill and astound, and like Paul Woolford’s relentless release schedule last year, surpassed all expectations by dropping not one, not two but THREE albums at once on Hypercolour back at the start of summer (and a further Breaks and Loops album on Balkan Vinyl later in the year!), with this one undoubtedly a highlight.

Vibert’s ability to conjure up such fresh sounding music from a sound palette of very familiar rave, Hip Hop and breaks samples is an incredible skill in itself, and across the albums fifteen tracks I couldn’t help but think he may have just kick started a fresh new genre albeit one that recycles familiar tropes into a distinctive new style.

With its varying tracks, spellbinding synths and non stop groove, it’s definitely an album that deserves listening to from start to finish to fully feel its effects.

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Roger Eno & Brian Eno – Mixing Colours (Deutsche Grammophon)
Chosen by Yvonne Page (Vinyl Queen at Dig Vinyl)

In a year filled with uncertainty and anxiety, like many others, I found myself consistently reaching for the comforting sounds of old favourites. But it was also a year of finding distractions from the stressors of life and ways to keep ourselves entertained during newly discovered downtime. For me, this meant really immersing myself into the research and preparation of each of my MD radio shows. Through cultivating these shows, I discovered many new artists, albums and songs, though one stood out as a firm favourite. Released in March, the new album from Roger Eno & Brian Eno, Mixing Colours, is (surprisingly) the first full album the brothers have made together.

While the old favourites I reached for time and time again over lockdown (Pet Sounds, Steely Dan, Funkadelic), were comforting for their familiarity, Mixing Colours is comforting in its beauty, calmness, and ability to soothe an active mind. I’ve always had a deep love for classical music, and even as a young child was drawn especially to artists with a strong piano presence. In university, I only studied and wrote papers to a playlist featuring the likes of Max Richter, Phillip Glass and Debussy. So perhaps my love for Mixing Colours is due in part to how reminiscent it is to me of this whole other world of comforting favourites. 

The compositions are harmonious, gentle and build slowly – sometimes meditative, while other times close to haunting, though never distressful. Their intricacy is beautiful and layered, but never distracting, making it lovely music for accompanying any sort of activity with it’s soothing presence. The stand out track (and one of my most played songs of 2020) is ‘Quicksilver’, while ‘Spring Frost’ and ‘Ultramarine’ are also highly recommended.

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Azu Tiwaline – Magnetic Service (Livity Sound)
Chosen by Kristian Birch-Hurst (Trieste & founder of Erbium Records)

It’s never a bad day when one of your favourite forward-thinking labels meets with a truly unique musical personality – and that’s exactly the case with Azu Tiwaline’s Magnetic Service release on Livity Sound.

Where many (rightfully) slumped under the weight of the pandemic, 2020 marked a busy year for the Tunisian-born producer. Embracing a polyrhythmic sound that finds movement and intrigue in the irregular, and embellished with timbres that take root in the Saharan expanse and El Djerid region of Tunisia, Azu masterfully explores the spaces of home and beyond. Sonic motifs born out of desert sands, trance vibrations and our spiritual human connection to the natural world. Also in the mix is Paris-based sound artist Cinna Peyghamy, an ongoing collaboration that has seen both creators reach top spots on Vinyl Factory, Resident Advisor and Bandcamp listicles.

A chemistry all too apparent on tracks “Magnetic Service” and “Tight Wind”, where organic percussive patterns meet colourful soundscapes and dub meditations – a dual presentation that connects more like a solid whole. While Magnetic Service may only be four tracks long, it certainly does not lack narrative drive and character. The more uptempo-ed solo outings of Terremer and Tessiture communicating further the range of Azu’s powers as a flourishing producer. The hypnotic sensibility of the tracks placing one foot in the club and the other barreling into immersive enlightenment.

An inspiring release that takes pleasure in abandoning familiar 4/4 music structures. A hybrid experiment where the synthetic and biological merge; one that plays into the disparity and nuance, the light and dark that these contrasting sides ultimately represent.

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Fujiiiiiiiiiiita – KŌMORI (Boomkat)
Chosen by Jordan Swales (One half of experimental duo Twin Galaxies)

Another entry from Boomkat’s excellency Document Sounds series; a series releasing music from artists recorded during lockdown/the ‘Rona pandemic. This comes with a preface that I’ve only listened to this album once (it’s a very recent purchase), but it so perfectly captures a scene and concept that it falls to my album of the year. I’m heavily plagiarizing the words from the Boomkat description below, as it sets the scene nicely.

“Japanese pipe-organ builder and sound artist Yosuke Fujita recorded the pieces in a cave at the foot of Mt. Fuji and featuring his custom-built pipe organ in duet with a colony of bats indigenous to the area.”

KŌMORI.’, named after the Japanese word for bats, revolves around three long pieces, including one for organ and bats, an organ solo, and one created solely from bat calls, all neatly captured using a Sunken CO-100K microphone capable of recording up to 100kHz, and therefore able to net the bats’ ultrasonic echolocation techniques. 

“I’m always looking for new sounds. That desire is at the heart of my life, so it remained the same in the turbulence of the coronavirus. And, I’m also looking for inaudible sounds, so it’s natural for me to focus on the bat’s echolocation.

Bats were the source of the viruses causing Ebola, rabies, Nipah and Hendra virus infections, Marburg virus disease, and strains of Influenza A virus. Interestingly, coronaviruses and bats are locked in an evolutionary arms race in which the viruses are constantly evolving to evade the bat immune system and bats are evolving to withstand infections from coronaviruses. My music also has to evolve.”

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DJ Python – Mas Amable (Incienso)
Chosen by Alex Spiers (The Path)

The record that I keep coming back to in 2020 is Mas Amable by DJ Python. Recommended to me by an always in-the-know friend, I first listened to this relaxing in my backyard, enjoying some springtime sunshine.

Starting off with ethereal, Balearic ambience it slowly, but purposefully, moved through several ‘tracks’ that shared a similar smooth sound palette: adding and subtracting layers of synth pads, not quite house temp beats and little touches that reminded me of electronica from the 90s. Then the album tips as half whispered vocals from LA Warman appear on the album capstone “ADMSDP”.

Backed by a heavier, sparse woodblock rhythm that works alongside the questioning female voice, and leaves you a little discombobulated and pleasantly lost in its starkness. The album finishes with two tracks that transition out into Mmmmm which could have been released on Warp or DeFocus around the turn of the century. Mas Amble stands for kindness or care. Something we have needed an abundance of in 2020. 

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 P-rallel – Soundboy (Different Recordings)
Chosen by James Zaremba (Harvest Time)

It’s decisively London. West-London to be exact. P-rallel’s Soundboy is a vibrant ode to the rich mix of sounds coming out of the capital right now. An explosion of house, rap, soul, R&B and UKG flavours all tightly packed into a 6 track release, delivered with two stellar bonus tracks when bought on vinyl. 

The record features fellow Londoners by way of Greentea Peng, Louis Culture and a remix from IZCO, in addition to a load of other features that creates a snapshot of the city’s musical future.  

It’s an EP in length, so I’ve cheated really, but the IZCO remix of ‘Soulboy’ featuring the hazy vocals of Greentea Peng and the instrumental of the original track as bonus beats on the vinyl release really make this feel like a well rounded record. 

Something I’ve listened to on repeat on my long train journeys down to London this year and full of catchy melodies that remind me, always, of the capital.

Watch out for more in 2021…

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Bullion – Heaven Is Over (Jagjaguwar)
Chosen by Nina Franklin (Lupini & Club Dread)

Honestly, fuck this year. The Pestilence needs no dwelling on, but the ricochets of it naturally inform everything we’ve consumed/digested/spat up this year, and my listening habits are no different.

In a normal year for EOY’s, I’d be going back through the Big Summer Anthems™ that everyone remembers someone ‘playing at Dekmantel,’ I’d probably be fondly remembering releases from bookings I’d have put on with ATHE, releases from artists I’d discovered from gigs put on by friends or festival stages accidentally wandered into. I’d be sifting through records I’d picked up after a recommendation and a chat with a clerk behind the desk at a record store, maybe from a visit to a different city.

With vastly less communal experiences this year, my listening has had so much less to do with those shared moments, and become so much more atomised and individual. I’ve found myself returning to a small handful of records again and again, wheeled on repeat as a comfort and finding a little normality in making a routine of listening.

A huuuuge portion of what I listened to was pop. Nothing angular, anxious or arduous. Just loads of gated 80’s drums and fluffy guitar lines. The closer it could sidle up to Balearic the better. I wasn’t alone in this by any stretch; my very scientific survey group of just my housemates concur. Even Spotify reported an increase in searches for “chill.” It’s an understandable contextual realisation. I mean, you want a club sound system to hear club music, right? But you don’t need a boofing system to listen to pop –  it’s for singing along to in the car, playing off your phone whilst you brush your teeth and it sounds wicked good out of your housemate’s bluetooth speaker.

Dance music’s pop-darling Bullion is perennially underrated, but – and I’m running the risk of sounding like a snob here, but heck – he really is the muso’s favourite. Let’s run a cursory short bio if you’ve yet to be introduced. One-time NTS resident and an East London staple, Bullion drifted off from nightlife a few years ago and moved over to Lisbon. He makes clever, cotton candy Baleari-pop with an art school wonk. . The fact he’s released on esteemed techno-adjunct labels ought to give away how weird his sound is – R&S, Whities (now AD 93), The Trilogy Tapes etc.etc.

Clocking in at a magisterial 15 minutes and 58 seconds, the EP is a teeny tiny bump of sugar – like a little petit fours or perhaps a pastel de nata.  It’s short enough to listen to the whole thing in your coffee break, or like, 5 times over in the course of baking a cake.

Heaven is Over is wry, playful, smart, exuberant, cutesy. It’s emotional and ever-so-slightly fragile. It’s world-weary. It’s just perfect for the times. The only word for it is groovy, and that’s not exactly a word that often enters my vernacular. If it were an internet sensation, it’d be a wholesome meme account. You just can’t help having a lil wiggle.

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Speaker Music – Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu)
Chosen by Benny Maths (Black Beacon Sound)

My album of the year is Speaker Music’s Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry. It is the most important and most powerful album I listened to all year. It isn’t an easy listen, but then nor is it meant to be.  Originally released on Juneteenth 2020, with Planet Mu having now put it out on vinyl, rhythmanalyst De Forrest Brown Jr. has created a suite of stuttering, insistent techno that repositions the genre as black music and as radical, politicised black music.

The album explores poet Tsitsi Ella Jajil’s concept of “stereomodernism”, or as she put it, “dubbing in stereo for solidarity.” Fragments of rhythms swirl continuously in a disjointedly relentless barrage of faltering drums that hold the piece together as synths, trumpets, saxophones, police scanners, poetry and news segments battle through to create a maelstrom of sonically challenging, provocative music that demands not just your attention, but your reaction as well. Accompanied by a 60-page booklet featuring the analysis and thoughts of Gamall Awad, Maia Sanaa, Ryan Clark, Syanide, Kehinde Alonge, Alexandra Mason and Ariel Valdez, DeForrest Brown Jr. pertains to Amiri Baraka’s Fire Music movement, making plain his activist intentions. 

Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry is a searing critique of the systemic and structural racism that seems to have forever plagued those who have, and continue, to suffer and die at its hands, with titles such as ‘Black Secret Technology is a Traumatically Manufactured and Exported Good Necessitated by 300 Years of Unaccounted for White Supremacist Savagery in the Founding of the United States’ and ‘American Marxists Have Tended to Fall into the Trap of Thinking of the Negroes as Negroes, i.e. in Race Terms, When in Fact the Negroes Have Benn and are Today the Most Oppressed and Submerged Sections of the Workers…’ challenging the listener to engage with this piece as much as the music does.

The most arresting track is quite possibly the first, drums crying out in bursts around 18 year-old Maia Sanaa reading out her poem, ‘Amerikkka’s Bay’, making plain the grim reality of black people being killed by the police, an unsanctioned brutality resulting in the victims horrendous and unnecessary deaths. “Too tight. Too tight. In the hands of his oppressor he feels the burden of his people’s strife.” With Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, Speaker Music has created an album that wants you to see what’s going on around you, asking the question, “What are you going to do about it?” An essential listen.

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