FAVOURITE ALBUMS OF 2020

Despite the weirdness and social and political fracturing of 2020, there were still plenty of great albums that saw the light of day – and that light was a salvation for many. You can check out our Post To Wire (alt-country, cosmic Americana & dark folk) Favourite Albums of 2020 HERE and Favourite AU & NZ Albums of 2020 HERE.

Here are our 40 favourite albums of the year, ranging from alt-country to electronic, ambient to indie rock, post-punk to soul.

* Full disclosure – I worked on the publicity campaigns for the Golden Fang and Buddy Glass albums

40. Khruangbin – Mordechai REVIEW

39. Jessica – The Space Between REVIEW

38. Choir Boy – Gathering Swans

37. Buddy Glass – Wow & Flutter

36. Darren Cross – Keeping Up? REVIEW

35. Cinder Well – No Summer

34. Arbor Labor Union – New Petal Instants

33. Califone – Echo Mine

32. Shopping – All Or Nothing

31. Baxter Dury – The Chancers

30. Luke Vibert – Presents: Amen Andrews

29. Cable Ties – Far Enough REVIEW

28. The Phoenix Foundation – Friend Ship

27. Blake Scott – Niscitam

26. Thurston Moore – By The Fire

25. Makaya McCraven – Gil Scott-Heron – We’re New Again: A Reimagining

24. Billy Nomates – Billy Nomates

23. Brian Eno & Roger Eno – Mixing Colours

22. Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling REVIEW

21. The Bats – Foothills

20. Suicide Swans – Through The Years

19. Bill Callahan – Gold Record

18. Jeff Tweedy – Love Is King

17. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

16. Neil Young – Homegrown

15. Rose City Band – Summerlong

14. Golden Fang – Here. Now Here.

13. Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today REVIEW

12. Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers REVIEW

11. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy REVIEW

10. James Thomson – Golden Exile REVIEW

On our favourite AU/NZ album of 2020, Thomson delivers his most accomplished work to date… ‘Sunday Girl’ is the closest Thomson’s got to a pop song, ‘Roll Away The Stone’ is smoky, winding blues, while ‘See The Wheels’ could roll on forever with its effortless groove. ‘Fatal Ribbon Highway’ is a dreamy slow dance, cosmic, heavy-lidded and sparkling and just one example of the diversification Thomson has brought to his impressive songwriting on Golden Exile.

9 Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern

A new name for us and what a way to announce your arrival. Restrained songwriting with some exceptional lyrical content, Die Midwestern is built on poetry of the finest quality, delivered in a wonderful roughed-up country voice.

8. Moodymann – Taken Away

We couldn’t stop listening to this when it came out. Like a mix of D’Angelo circa Black Messiah, soul-jazz and futuristic electronic space funk. It was all in the rhythms, the breaks and the soul of it all. Deep hypnosis par excellence.

7. SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is)

An album (and its follow-up UNTITLED (Rise)) completely of it’s time politically and socially, yet timeless in its blend of soul, funk, r&b, trip hop and more.

6. RVG – Feral REVIEW

Feral found them presenting a fuller sound with even greater depth and clarity in the guitars and the spotlight still firmly on Romy Vager’s declamatory yelp and melancholic musings.

5 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions REVIEW

For us, Isbell was off his game on his last album The Nashville Sound but here he’s fully resumed his mantle of one of the finest songwriters of his generation. Lyrically and melodically there are gems galore right across Reunions. It was one of those albums that constantly inspired repeat listens throughout 2020.

4. Coriky – Coriky

Coriky are half of Fugazi (Ian Mackaye & Joe Lally) with Amy Farina (The Evens) and it’s the iconic DC band that they swerve closest to in the stop/start, quiet/loud dynamics and lyrical repetition, though it’s a less caustic, more intimate and organic vibe overall. Great drum sound on this damn catchy and gently visceral record.

3. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

The Irish quartet sought to find different angles to approach their second album after the success and touring of Dogrel. They were hugely successful too. Widening their palette, going for denser guitar textures and rhythms that dug deeper and with more insistency. The vocals were just as earnest if more detached, observational and aloof. The key success to the album was that they showed they weren’t one trick ponies and look to be in it for the creative long haul.

2. Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

Once again Bob brought the element of surprise with this immense piece of work. Bold, literary, graceful, funny and highly moving. We thought his muse may have taken an early retirement with the endless touring and American songbook albums taking up his creative real estate. But no, Bob was back, hunched over his typewriter, casting an eye over the last century of pop and political culture, weaving in heartache and devotion. Nobody can bring together universality and the minutiae quite like the master.

1. Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach

An intoxicating blend of post-rock and indie rock that in my mind ranged threw up comparisons to Talk Talk, Lift To Experience, Talking Heads, Wild Beasts and Radiohead. This was an album that created a sonic world to escape to, with heady and evocative ideals and some incredible dynamics in the arrangements.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cable Ties – Far Enough

Cable Ties

Far Enough

Poison City Records

Cable Ties’ debut album introduced a band built on fiery punk passion and melodic post-punk intensity. Now, three years later, they taken that template and made the loud parts louder, the hooks catchier and pushed their visceral and primitive 70s rock shapes more to the fore.

Sonically, the band’s sound still recalls the stinging guitar leads and interesting song shapes of Sleater-Kinney and the brittle energy of Bikini Kill, but things are most interesting when they counter the short sharp bursts of punk energy with deep digs into repetition and heavy riffing. Krautrock insistency combined with the distorted wash of guitars on the seven minute Lani and the pummelling, deconstructed noise aspects of the equally long Anger’s Not Enough make for hypnotic listening.

Jenny McKechnie’s howls of critique and dissent still ring loud and clear, blending with the personal when she sings lines such as “My uncle Pete, he’s complaining ‘bout the Greenies, he says they’ve gone too far and I say Pete, they don’t go far enough.” She’s been writing political songs since she was singing folk songs in her bedroom but now she has the perfect vehicle for them. Far Enough is the sound of a band locked in total unison, taking chances and playing with righteous clarity. Anger is indeed an energy.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Jessica – The Space Between

JESSICA

THE SPACE BETWEEN

INDEPENDENT (via Bandcamp)

One half of folk-noir duo Jep and Dep (also featuring Darren Cross of Gerling), Jessica’s debut album takes the sound forged from that musical partnership and crafts it into her own ethereal and immersive world. Cross is still on hand as producer and engineer but it’s clear from the outset that this is Jessica’s singular and personal vision.

Devoid of drums, the eleven songs drift and creep along like mist on a moor. Heavily draped in resonant reverb that creates an ambient, cathedral-like atmosphere, the billowing vapour trails hanging heavy in the air, shrouding her songs that explore the themes of death, loss and memory – formed from her experience as a survivor of a mass shooting in Strathfield, NSW when she was seven.

There’s a half-grasped memory quality to many of the songs, buried in a hypnagogic haze, while others such as ‘Womb Tomb’ are lifted skyward and ‘Has It Come To This’ has the DNA of a classic torch song.

Vocally, Beth Gibbons (Portishead), Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) and Aldous Harding’s early work are clear influences on the way Jessica hauntingly layers her voice. By playing electric guitar, she avoids straight folk and creates more emotionally visceral textures, bringing to mind PJ Harvey and the more elegiac playing of Mick Turner (Dirty Three). Time and the listener’s full attention are essential to fully appreciating the depth and expansive beauty of The Space Between.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Darren Cross – Keeping Up?

Darren Cross returns with a new album called Keeping Up? In recent years he’s explored folk noir with Jep and Dep, his own eclectic solo albums and a pair of instrumental acoustic folk albums under the moniker D.C Cross.

Here he orbits planet Gerling closer than he has since the band split back in in the late 00s. It’s still a totally different musical creature but the synthetic/humanistic/subtly anarchic blend that band explored at times is still rippling through Cross’ DNA.

There’s a cosmic nostalgia at play. Dreamy, fragmentary and hypnagogic in the feelings it portrays and the visage it conjures up, this is Kraftwerk disconnected from their machines and cast into an interstellar dream state. Hi-brow, lo-fi – allowing the machines to wonder and reflect. There’s a sense of suspended reality, a remove from the chaos of reality, pressing pause on the VCR, cleaning the hard drive, looking for a way to process and cope with the avalanche of data we consume and are unwittingly fed with each day.

Drum machines are treated like arhythmic heartbeats, lazily loping along with a melancholic funk in their step. Synths wash and cascade like ultra slo-mo and woozy waterfalls. There’s an overwhelmingly immersive quality to the music. Drug-like, womb-like – that intrinsic memory of holding your breath underwater as a child and feeling at peace in the aquatic cocoon.

Keeping Up? is a battle for optimism in the face of decreasing digital odds. It’s a non-smoking area for mental health and a dystopian glance back at the malaise of the industrial age.

ALBUM REVIEW: Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

Protomartyr

Ultimate Success Today

Domino

Once more Protomartyr take the four elements of rock ’n’ roll – guitar bass drums and vocals, and twist, caress and mangle them into a new version of the band’s ever-evolving sound. On their fifth album that sound is more urgent, disillusioned and anxious amid the record’s dystopian assessment of modern America.

There’s a desperate, pleading quality to singer Joe Casey’s words and the band complement and elevate his voice perfectly. With thrilling sonic veracity they lay down high velocity, post-punk textures, with balanced amounts of nuance and noise. 

Jazz legend Jameel Moondoc guests on alto sax as well as other horn and cello players. On ‘June 21’ the female voice of Half Waif is a symbiotic foil to Casey’s wearied mantras as they work up a clanging krautrock noise. ‘Processed By The Boys’ documents the insidious creep of authoritarianism, the brilliant rush of ‘Michigan Hammers’ rails against exploitation for financial gain, while closer ‘Worm In Heaven’ is Casey looking back from the other side, contemplating one’s legacy.

There’s a lot to bum out the listener on this record yet musically it’s full of life and life-affirming creative protest. It’s a band finding new and thrilling ways to channel their music and convey their hopes and fears. It’s a full-blooded state of the nation address from the heart and soul.

Christopher Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Khruangbin – Mordechai

Khruangbin

Mordechai

Dead Oceans / Inertia

After a busy few years touring and riding the wave of attention that their last album Con Todo El Mundo brought them, Khruangbin retreated to their Texas studio to begin work on their third album. Earlier this year we got a mixed bag EP with Leon Bridges but that was a stop gap. Mordechai is the band spreading their wings wider and drawing together stronger thematic qualities.

The other noticeable change on Mordechai is that most tracks feature the vocals of bassist Laura Lee Ochoa. Previously they were predominately an instrumental trio but here they’re playing vocally-enriched songs without losing any of that wandering, free-spirited musicality that has defined them. Ochoa’s lyrics are fragmentary in nature, mantra-like and perfectly in keeping with the drift and hypnotism of the music. Thematically, many of the songs deal in the idea of memory – Time (You And I), One To Remember, So We Won’t Forget all deal in the concept of remembering. 

Musically, Ochoa, Mark Speer and drummer DJ Johnson cast their poly-sonic net even wider. From African and Asian guitar funk to Jamaican dub, cosmic jazz to tropical psychedelia, they pull from all manner of pan-global sounds. It’s still a thrilling concoction that sounds otherworldly, eternally infectious and upbeat in spite of its melancholic soul. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: RVG – Feral

RVG

Feral

Our Golden Friend/Fire Records

RVG’s new album finds them presenting a fuller sound with even greater depth and clarity in the guitars and the spotlight still firmly on Romy Vager’s declamatory yelp and melancholic musings.

Quality Of Mercy already had the defining ingredients of the RVG sound – The Smiths-like insistency and nimbleness of the rhythm section, those sparkling, chiming and shimmering guitars and Vager’s voice a commanding strident force out in front. What Feral does do is highlight some sharper songwriting with more space and dynamics, in a wider, more sonically detailed sound courtesy of producer Victor Van Vugt. 

You can particularly hear the sound of The Go-Betweens and Echo & The Bunnymen amid the jangly post-punk and garage rock. It’s simple, melodic indie guitar pop but those guitars sound perfect in the way the notes tumble and cascade from the speakers, all frantically free-falling and forlorn. 

I Used To Love You is a heartbreaking ballad par excellence with its ache and swoon perfectly conveyed, while Photograph sends the listener out on a high. Tentative at first, it builds into a glorious rallying cry. On Feral, Vager’s dissection of how it feels to be sidelined and disenfranchised is treated poetically and ultimately there’s a sense of hope and resilience that rises from the near perfect musical backdrop.

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Telemachus – I Am Delicious And Cute. So I Will Go Buy Again

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There’s some incredible sound design and programming going on in this track from South London-raised, producer Telemachus. His new album Boring & Weird Historical Music came out on 22nd May via High Focus Records and this is just one example of the splendid way he pulls different genres together while still allowing a glorious vacuum of space to exist around and within his music.

As he himself puts it: ‘the album certainly rewards a thorough and engrossed listen, but equally the general atmosphere is pleasant enough to play for your auntie when she comes for tea.’

Telemachus came up via the UK hip hop scene but was equally attracted to the sounds of grime, jungle, jazz, soundtracks and trip hop. Here he filters and distils them all into one trance-inducing collection of songs that sound both tribal and born from dark urban streets. Sounds hang suspended or cosmically drip from the speakers in a mist of digital drizzle and organic contact points. Jazz guitar and bass riffs pop up like funk meerkats before being subsumed back into the slow swirling miasma.