50 Best Albums of 2020

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Actress – Karma & Desire

Somehow Actress made his most sonically cohesive album while pairing up with a host of collaborators, including alt-r&b hero Sampha, who brings a warmly human presence to several tracks along its sprawling course. In a way, Karma & Desire reminds me most of his divisive (but to me 2014 AOTY) Ghettoville – they’re both lengthy excursions through a unified soundscape, but while the older album felt like the detritus of techno’s past melted down and bubbling like murky beat lava, this one feels like a sleekly constructed vehicle for traveling into the future.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Call Super – Every Mouth Teeth Missing

While the signature clarinet sounds are relegated to a single track this time around, Call Super still brings some of the most idiosyncratic, instantly identifiable techno in the world on his third album. Its predecessor, Arpo, was my number one album of 2017. This time the rhythms and textures are even more inviting, though no less surprising – constantly ducking expectations and flowering in novel ways, it’s electronic music as alive and unpredictable as a wild animal just now discovered in some strange forest.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Digitonal – Set The Weather Fair

“Born in the eclectic chill out rooms of 90’s London clubland, Digitonal has always had a deep gene pool of influence. Dobson’s background as a choral scholar and early music specialist gave a formative grounding in western classical harmony before discovering the minimalism of Reich, Glass, Nyman and Bryars hidden in amongst the more adventurous electronica of the late part of the century. The synth-laden soundscapes of Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream gave way to their natural heirs, Global Communication, Orbital and The Future Sound of London, whilst a night with Warp Records in ‘94 opened up the door to the rhythmic and melodic experimentation of Plaid, Autechre, and Boards of Canada. Digitonal found their peer group in the indie bloom of 00’s Electronica with cult favourite Toytronic Records and artists like Proem (who Dobson has collaborated with as R84D), Bola, Kettel and Ochre providing reference points that guided the development of Digitonal’s sound. ”

If any part of that origin story intrigues you, you must listen to Set The Weather Fair now.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Longtime Optimistic Underground favorite OPN returns with an album that blends the radical alien-pop of 2018’s Age Of with the yearning, mysterious, journey-through-a-black-hole synth sounds of the earlier albums that made his name appear across a broad swath of my record shelves – all while folding in the spirit of R Plus Seven, his midi-masterpiece high water mark from 2013. So yeah, it’s pretty damn good.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Emily A. Sprague – Hill, Flower, Fog

I have a feeling that Emily A. Sprague enjoys spending time in cosmic-tinged warmly rendered video games like Fez and Stardew Valley, the kind of experiences that invoke starry-eyed wandering as much as internal questing and questioning. If not, she really should – this music could soundtrack those exploratory, heartwarming experiences better than almost anything else out there. I want to go for a hike in some mystical space every time I hear it.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Domenique Dumont – People on Sunday

People On Sunday is an original soundtrack to the 1930 silent film variously known as Menschen am Sonntag, Les Hommes le Dimanche and People On Sunday. The film is a key work of interwar German cinema, based on a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Part documentary, part fiction, People On Sunday follows a group of characters going about their business in Weimar-era Berlin over one weekend and shows normal life in Germany before dictatorship.

“Working on this score strengthened my belief that the time we currently live in, although far from perfect, might be the best time to be alive. All the bells and whistles, all the advantages that we have the opportunity to enjoy in the 21st century, are things people couldn’t have dreamt of only a hundred years ago. At the same time, we haven’t yet transformed away from our sense of humanity. As absurd and optimistic as it may sound, we are living in a utopia compared it to what came before and, perhaps, what is to come. Somehow this movie made me think of the present more than the past.”

I don’t really share their rosy outlook for the immediate future, but I do think they’re onto something important here.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

XDB – Inspiron

Cinematic, patient, slow building, occasionally rapturous dubby techno / deep house: Inspiron is the improbably-first album from a producer who’s been dropping tracks for almost 15 years. Like virtually all my favorite genre exercises, it’s built more for home listening, for chilling alone lost in thought, than for any real dancefloors. But that’s perfect for a year in which we’ve all spent more time at home than we ever have before. Straightforward in its pleasures, this one deserves to be caught on the radar of far more listeners.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower

Ana Roxanne describes her creative process for the album as beginning with “a drone element and a mood,” then intuiting melody, syllables, and lyrics incrementally, like sacred shapes materializing from mist. As someone who’s been super into the album for the past month, that sounds exactly how it feels.

“The experience of identifying as intersex informs the album on levels both sonic and thematic, from spoken word texts borrowed from tonal harmony textbooks to cinematic dialogue samples and castrati aria allusions. It’s an appropriately interstitial vision of ambient songcraft, a chemistry of wisps and whispers, sanctuary and sorrow, conjured through a fragile balance of voice, bass, space, and texture.”

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Chicago Waves

This album is a straight up recording of a live improvised set between the Los Angeles jazz scene veterans, but you’d never know it on a blind listen. Chicago Waves echoes the towering heights of 1970s spiritual jazz, the kind of achingly gorgeous, heartrending music that should feel instantly familiar to fans of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry, all shimmering beauty and otherworldly gravity. It flows like a single piece, billowing and bursting and lulling and washing ever onward – the title, referencing their days spent commuting along Lake Michigan in Chicago for the gig, is especially apt. In some ways, this is an unexpected delight and in others, this is almost the full length release I’ve always wanted from Atwood-Ferguson after hearing his string arrangements in Flying Lotus albums going back to 2010’s Cosmogramma. Big shout out to Jen for tipping me off to the album just a few weeks ago – she’s always got spot-on recommendations but this was a total grand slam.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You

I never expected The Avalanches, who made my desert island album two decades ago and then promptly disappeared, to come back in 2016 with a beyond-worthy followup album. I definitely didn’t expect them to return only a few years after that with another follow-up – especially one that’s even better, more cohesive, more emotional than its predecessor. We Will Always Love You is impossibly groovy, tugging my ears along for the ride even as the deep undercurrent of sadness becomes apparent. It’s woven through the entire sequence, this dark blue tone that rises and flares up occasionally in the lyrics and startling moments of grace, given counterpoint by the infectious rhythms that span multiple tracks, uniting a seeming grab bag of contributors and vocal features. This may not topple the legendary Since I Left You as the best Avalanches album, but it’s the more singularly defined listening experience. While that one begins with post-breakup melancholy, it ends in ecstatic flight. Here, we never escape the sadness that permeates life now; instead, we grapple with it, fold it into the fun, transcend it. The only analogue I can find is the music of DJ Sprinkles. While they sound worlds apart, they both similarly evoke the melding of depression and ecstatic catharsis on the dance floor, never shying away from the dark reality of life but also never wallowing. If there’s any chance of some sunlight poking through the clouds at the end of this dismal year, it’s this album.

Buy and listen on the Avalanches site.

• • •

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Top 10

16 thoughts on “50 Best Albums of 2020

  1. I’ve been waiting for this post since summer. There was so much great music this year you could certainly make another top 50
    Of different records. Appreciate your work dude

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your list, as always, is on point this year, David. You can really tell you live with these albums, and it’s reflected in your writing. I would say it was an exceptional year for ambient and experimental music, but I wonder if my opinion is heavily influenced from the difficult personal circumstances most of us faced this year. I think I actively sought out abstraction in my listening as an escape/distraction. I probably discovered more new artists than in any prior year, so there’s one 2020 bright spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Gabe. I think I’ve tended toward this music more than average for a long time, but it began with a lot of the same reasons that I’ve seen so many others getting into it in 2020, as refuge, as healing, as escape. I always want to share what’s been helping me, and it felt like this past year more people were on the same wavelength as far as music, and that’s indeed a very positive thing nestled in the trash fire of a year <3

      Like

  3. Pingback: 50 More Best Albums of 2020 | Optimistic Underground

  4. You know how there’s always this small bakery or restaurant close to where you live that does some amazing food. And in your lifetime you try many other places and some are amazing but you always have to come back to this one small place. Because it’s got nothing to prove, its not trying to sell you anything, its personal, the owners just have a great taste and are good at what they do.
    Well I feel that what you are doing here is just that. In a time where everyone wants to be big, you’re just focused on sharing something good. Thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Memory Coalition [mixtape] | Optimistic Underground

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