Catch-Up: Albums We Didn't Review
Ben Wheadon briefly runs through 13 excellent albums from 2020 that missed out on reviews from the team at SMPM
Listen to a song from each of the albums in this list with the spotify playlist below:
ARCA - KiCk i
I don't really know where I could possibly start with Arca. When an artist is involved in the production of albums like Bjork's Utopia, Kanye West's Yeezus and FKA Twigs's LP1, you know their music is going to be great, and you know there's going to be some fucking weird stuff on it.
KiCk i is aggressive, eccentric and brilliant. Fusing the sounds of pop, industrial hip-hop and the music of Arca's native Venezuela, this album is frenetic wizardry from this maestro. The project switches from gamelan-esque instrumentation on 'Nonbinary' to blisteringly experimental production on the excellent 'Mequetrefe'. There's just so much to dig into on KiCk i and to dedicate deserved attention and adoration towards that I can't possibly do the album justice here in a short rundown.
Basically, If you like Bjork, you'll fuck with this record. If you like SOPHIE, you'll fuck with this record. If you like Yeezus, Rosalía or JPEGMafia, you are going to fuck with this record. Go listen to 'La Chíqui'. It's one of the best tracks of the year. Seriously. Just try and tell me I'm wrong.
MJ COLE - MADRUGADA
This could very well be my favourite album of 2020. Returning from a 17 year wait, MJ Cole's third studio album was about as wild a shift in style imaginable, trading in the artist's history of UK garage DJing for an entirely instrumental, piano-led record. Named Madrugada, a Spanish word meaning the hazy temporal space that exists between midnight and the first light of dawn, this album is a triumph of atmosphere and emotion. Layering Cole's piano alongside stellar string contributions from Tobie Tripp and a sparingly utilised orchestra, this album is as tranquil as it is utterly captivating. 'Cathedral' is already one of my favourite tracks of the year, hands down, but what is more alarming is the utterly ridiculous consistency that this album maintains for the entirety of its 45 minute run time.
There is a fantastic sense of time and place expressed through the exceptional performances housed within the instrumental spaces of Madrugada. Crescendos fly with enormously gratifying confidence. Low reverberations from double bass parts shake through the mix, all swirling around the impossibly intimate realisation of Cole's piano, with each minuscule detail of the instrument's sonic character phenomenally identifiable through even the worst of headphones. The press of the pedal, the breath of Cole and the creaking of wood delivers this album with a serene timbre, unmatched by anything else 2020 has had to offer so far. I highly, highly recommend Madrugada.
BIBIO - SLEEP ON THE WING
My friends know this abundantly, but I love folk music, and Bibio's latest record satisfyingly scratched a desperate personal itch for warm-toned guitar melodies and organically oak-hearted instrumentation in 2020. I'm a sucker for found sounds and field recordings, so hearing Sleep On The Wing overflowing with gorgeously captured birdsong, running water and even the subtle whirring of background noise behind Mr. Wilkinson's meticulously intertwined guitar efforts provided a deeply rewarding listening experience this year.
The LP isn't doing anything particularly revolutionary when it comes to folk music, but in all honesty it really didn't need to. This album is heartwarming, expressing itself with a joyous enthusiasm for the sights and sounds of traditional folk songwriting through beautifully choreographed strings, woodwinds, and (occasionally) the human voice. Often an instrumental LP, Sleep On The Wing sits pleasantly on top of your shoulders, whispering delightful musical ideas into your (hopefully) receptive ears. A few songs are perhaps guilty of lasting a little too long, but there is a lot to love in Bibio's newest LP. Check out 'Oakmoss' when you get the chance, it should offer an excellent litmus test on how much you're going to love this charming exploration of the sounds of the English countryside and the music that has flowed from its rolling hills for centuries.
THE STROKES - THE NEW ABNORMAL
A new album by The Strokes in 2020 really wasn't supposed to be this good. Nearly 20 years on from igniting the popularity of indie rock in the consciousness of mainstream music with 2001's Is This It, the time of Julian Casablancas and his New York ensemble seemed to be done. Even with 2011's excellent Angles and the compelling EP Future Present Past in 2016 ('Oblivius' is one of the band's greatest ever songs, fight me) I would honestly be lying if I said I anticipated The New Abnormal to be as welcome an addition to The Strokes' discography as it is.
There is definitely a maturity on show from the band, and that's certainly a good direction to head towards. Casablancas sounds tuneful and sincere, with some help from excellent production. The emphasis on electronic instrumentation suits the band to a tee, and the guitar tones (as ever) are expertly accomplished. While I'm not going to sit here and say that The New Abnormal is a masterpiece of a record, it is an interesting continuation of a band that looked increasingly consigned to the past. Fans will enjoy it, and sceptics will likely find themselves at least a little embarrassed that they thought The Strokes were done for. I know I am.
RINA SAWAYAMA - SAWAYAMA
Nu-Metal, Pop and R&B. I mean it. A cross-over episode that's somewhere between Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Evanescence, System of a Down and Wolf Alice. Seriously. I know it's an oft-cited hyperbole, but you have quite literally never heard anything like Rina Sawayama's SAWAYAMA.
This record takes the piss with how good it is. The guitars are devastatingly heavy, the drums pop with gritty arrogance and Rina sings on top of it with the super-precise vocal harmonies of an early 2000s girl group. I have absolutely no idea how this combination works this well, but it does. The album doesn't always stick to the insane multi-genre style of fusing manufactured pop perfection with bone-shattering distortion, flickering between a versatile list of styles and sounds with effortless capability, but the album is absolutely at its best when it just says "fuck it" and makes two utterly incompatible genres sound like they should have been paired from the start.
SAWAYAMA immediately stakes a claim for one of Dirty Hit's most interesting ever albums, and that's already up against some steep competition. It's amazing, I love it and I need to see Rina Sawayama live. Badly.
CHLOE X HALLE - UNGODLY HOUR
This album is good. Like, really good. Chloe x Halle's second studio album is a serious step-up in production, vocal performances and sonic style, proving that this duo needs to be paid serious attention to. The two are aged only 22 and 20 respectively and already proving themselves to be deserving of serious credit in the world of R&B with the release of Ungodly Hour.
The songs are produced incredibly well, the vocals are exceptional and the songs match the quality of nearly all of of the two's contemporaries. 'Forgive Me' slaps, 'Busy Boy' is filth and 'Tipsy' is fun as hell. I still feel that the two fall considerably short of the quality of a SZA or Frank Ocean when it comes to lyricism and general songwriting acumen, but Ungodly Hour is still a worthwhile use of your time in 2020.
GIA MARGARET - MIA GARGARET
Ok. A note for everyone that sends me their music to review: If you head to your local beach, record the sound of the waves lapping against the coast, and then put that recording into your song, I'm probably going to say it's a masterpiece. That being said, Gia Margaret's 2020 album Mia Gargaret demonstrates exactly what the value of naturally occurring sounds is when it comes to making wonderful music.
I did a full review for giglist back in June for this record, so I won't speak too much about this album here, but read this to sum up why I think this ambient LP is so special:
Mia Gargaret should be approached as an exploration of personal sensations from an artist stripped of her literal voice. So effectively do songs like ‘for Zoya in China’ and ‘3 movements’ elicit an overwhelming sense of calm through near-entirely instrumental methods, that by the time Margaret’s voice does emerge, healed and restored on final track ‘lesson’ it is quite remarkable that so much has been said in the 25 minutes prior without a word of hers being sung.
What should be appreciated on this album is a reflection of sorts – Gia Margaret, but not really. A parallel figure: Mia Gargaret – resembling herself in the mirror, or submerged in her watery cover art.
TL:DR - it's a really nice album
MOSES SUMNEY - GRÆ
Wow. Just, wow. This album is unmissable. Moses Sumney pulls absolutely no punches, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the year's very best albums.
Where do I even start with Græ? It is inventive, expansive, exciting, adjective, adjective, etc. Like the waterfall of the album's cover art, the sounds of this album flow together superbly, constructing a world for the album to inhabit that is at times intimately inviting, and at times other-worldly. For the entirety of Græ's 65 minute run time, the album remains deeply mysterious and alluring, wholly justifying its length with a wide-reaching bag of tricks and musical concepts. The album is relaxing enough to accompany you to sleep, but paradoxically remains bewitching enough that you can't ever stop giving it your totally undivided attention.
Albums like this are why I love music. A whole universe is contained within the music of Græ, just begging to be enjoyed, interpreted and adored. Fully anticipate seeing this album mentioned in December when we begin delivering our verdict on the best LPs of the year. Alongside Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Caribou's Suddenly and MJ Cole's Madrugada, I cannot recommend Moses Sumney's latest project enough as some of the best music 2020 has to offer.
NATALIA LAFOURCADE - UN CANTO
POR MÉXICO, VOL. 1
I bet you thought I was finished talking about folk albums! You thought wrong!
Now, I can't speak Spanish, but I can appreciate incredible music when I hear it, and that's how my interactions with the genius of Natalia Lafourcade have always gone. I might not be able to understand the words that Lafourcade speaks, but so effective is her ability to express herself through the delicate sound of her voice, and so wonderful is the quality of her traditional Mexican songwriting, that the language barrier proves itself wholly ignorable in the recognition of Lafourcade as one of the world's greatest folk artists.
Un Canto por México, Vol. 1 is a heavenly insight into the world of Mexican music, and is, very simply, incredibly happy music. Each song is a perfect balance of a sensitive soul backed by extraordinary musicianship and wonderful engineering. I love it. You will love it too. Open your heart to Lafourcade.
TOM MISCH & YUSSEF DAYES - WHAT KINDA MUSIC
There are smooth records, and then there's What Kinda Music. My love for Yussef Dayes is a long-standing one, demonstrated way back in December, with SMPM's second ever article on the site dedicated to a phenomenal performance of his alongside Alfa Mist, Mansur Brown and Rocco Palladino (he's a surprise tool that will help us later!). All this latest LP demonstrates is that Yussef Dayes is unquestionably one of the world's greatest drummers.
Made in collaboration with the prodigious Tom Misch, this album is a concoction of obscene appeal. It's a whirlpool of R&B, Hip-Hop and Jazz fusion, and dear god does the combination stick the landing. The album is an embarrassment of riches, filled with exceptional music, top to bottom, and it simply stands out as one of the most impressively performed projects of the year. Add to that notable contributions from Freddie Gibbs, bassist extraordinaire Rocco Palladino and Kaidi Akinnibi, and What Kinda Music sits comfortably at the top of my 2020 vinyl wishlist.
LAURA MARLING - SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER
Written at least partially in homage to Maya Angelou's book Letters To My Daughter, UK songwriting magician Laura Marling's latest LP Song For Our Daughter contains some of the most brilliantly realised songwriting of the year. Designed, like Angelou, around a conversation with a fictional daughter, Marling delivers her very best - time and time again. With an array of subtle instrumentation and interesting sounds, the music of the LP is all built with an aim to furnish the album's star attraction: Laura's brilliantly emotive communications of heartbreak, hope and happiness.
We loved 'Held Down' a lot when it dropped as a single, but my expectations for this album on the basis of that song were far exceeded by the quality of this record. Each song is an intricate expression with so much to say. 'The End Of The Affair' is a real highlight of the year, even in the crowded space that is music in 2020. I seem to have lived my life addicted to songs that make me cry, and whatever the implications of that may be, I'm glad I've got music like Song For Our Daughter to break me down in the most beautiful of ways.
ERLAND COOPER - HETHER BLETHER
There are few records that have emerged from 2020 that have sounded as mesmerisingly beautiful as Erland Cooper's Hether Blether. The final piece of the composer's triptych of albums dedicated to Cooper's home of Orkney, while 2018's Solan Goose committed the isles' native birds to song, and last year's Sule Skerry was designed to reflect the beauty of the North Sea, this year's album completes the trilogy with a dedication to the islands themselves, along with the people that inhabit them.
It's quiet, it's sparse and its utterly enchanting. Hether Blether is a serene expression of Cooper's love for his homeland. The recording is immaculate, with the capture of the album's piano parts striking with unerring immediacy and quality. Its strings soar over the tracks like the birds Cooper has spent a career emulating in his compositions. It is a truly exceptional album, and is arguably Cooper's best work yet. Layering the voices of Scotland on top of its music, both in a literal and metaphorical sense, Hether Blether manages to evoke a sense of guttural yearning for the soil it was composed upon, even in me, a Welsh student that's never even visited Orkney at all.
Listen to it now, and tether yourself to Hether Blether.
HAIM - WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III
I've never been HAIM's biggest fan, but this latest LP is undeniably enjoyable. I've never gotten as much from a Haim album as was contained within Women In Music Pt. III, and I'm glad there's finally an album from the group that I had a lot of fun with. I've always felt like I was missing out, unable to fully appreciate a group that undoubtedly boasted a great deal of talent, and now I feel like I'm finally on board following the quality of this record.
I think my positivity for the album largely revolves around how great the drums sound. Evoking a distinctly retro tone through songs like 'The Steps', 'Up From A Dream' and 'I've Been Down', with all my bias considered this is the best HAIM have ever sounded, and totally converted me from stupid HAIM-sceptic to a proper HAIM-appreciator. I'm sorry it took me so long to see what this group had to offer, and in a world where the music industry has finally begun making (incredibly small) strides towards ensuring that female musicians and bands receive the attention that they've always deserved, it's great that bands like HAIM are leading the way.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.
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