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30 albums that save 2020

The coronavirus pandemic, music in streaming, locality, Bandcamp Fridays, and 30 albums that made 2020 a little less frustrating.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

2020 will be remembered as a tough year for music in Poland and globally: cancelled concerts, artists deprived of income possibilities, left in a tough and unclear financial situation. All of a sudden, it turned out how close Poland is to the U.S. in terms of the (lack of any) thought-out support for the art sector, and how far we are from Germany, whose government immediately offered a sensible support package.

Help often came thanks to efficient organizers. The Quarantine Concerts Experimental Sound Studio sessions struck gold (and managed to collect USD 90,000 for artists), and Firlej Online concert series organized by the Wrocław club Firler struck silver (artists received regular concert fees). The former were played live, the latter pre-recorded – just like Boiler Room’s “Streaming from Isolation” and “Domówka Dwójki”, which jointly hold the bronze medal on my personal podium.

The pandemic has shown that both methods have their pros and cons, but also that no streamed concert will be able to replace contact with live music. Creating temporary TV studios or transferring concerts from the stage onto the computer screen without any changes is pointless, so we still have a lot to learn about best to exploit this form. However, had it not been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have heard Shabaka Hutchings covering the music of Barbadian calypso singer Might Gabby, Aaron Diloway creating a foley room using found objects and hens or Moreno Veloso playing a ballad on a plate. Or Hubert Zemler and Gaba Kulka reinterpreting the music of Kraftwerk, and Piotr Damasiewicz turning a forest into a concert hall.

Bandcamp also came to the rescue, as definitely the most artist-friendly music distribution platform. It waivered its fees on #bandcampfridays, and many labels and artists adjusted the releases of their albums accordingly, often selling out (well done Astigmatic Records!). It’s a shame that PayPal, which operates payments on the platform, didn’t join in the campaign.

The pandemic and music in streaming have shown that locality may finally compete with pop – since we have so many tabs on our browser to choose from, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing in your rehearsal room like Trupa Trupa for the “Tiny Desk (Home) Concert” series, on an island like DJ Kampire at Nyege Nyege or with funny visuals like Dadalu at Cuarentena Fest.  “Keep the local and make it global” said Eblis Álvarez last year – and in 2020 these words came true.

In Poland, we became more aware of protest songs because of the Women’s Strike. With thousands of women shouting in the streets the same message as Siksa in her lyrics, many people finally took to the duo: their album made it to ‘top of the year’ charts and Siksa were also nominated for the Paszport award of Polityka magazine.

In recent months, I’ve beaten my record in terms of articles for Polityka Weekly, I reviewed albums for Radiowe Centrum Kultury Ludowej and made my radio debut on Radio Kapitał – Poland’s first community radio. Thanks to a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the city of Gdańsk, I made a series of conversations titled Apteczka Muzyczna. Considering the feedback, we still want to talk about the music sector.

On this website, I reviewed 60 albums, about one per week. I spoke to Mary Halvorson, Lea Bertucci, Kate NV, Wacław Zimpel and João Pais Filipe (the latter interview will be published shortly), not just about music. However, I mostly listened – below you’ll find my top 30 albums of 2020.

SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET Pedernal, Relative PitchReview

Pedernal is a meticulously composed record, yet one that leaves room for a breather and some frivolity. There’s room for an ingenious composer and for instrumentalists following written out notes, but also bringing in their own element.

ALE HOP The Life of Insects, Buh Review

Ale Hop decided to craft a sonic concept of insect habitat. She cumulates sounds, combining metallic, quasi-percussional layers with dense bass. The whole veers towards sound design, meticulous post-production, and focus on details.

BASTARDA Nigunim, Multikulti Review

Bastarda lead us through their world with profound reverence, far away from the profane, maintaining the narrative potential of the nigunim. They are able to convey the full emotional load of this timeless music in their own inimitable style.

BLÓM Flower Violence, Box Review

Blóm’s message is a scream feminist and queer issues, gender identification, socio-economic aspects. They go beyond their punk rock sound, entering the field of improvisation, quasi-electronic sounds, and almost danceable moments.

BŁOTO Erozje, Astigmatic Review

This is what’s vital here: the swinging, trance, urban rhythm, with a clear groove, reminding me a little of hip-hop. Błoto builds evocative visions but subsequent layers of soil also reveal a turmoil of buzzing emotions, with the music drilling ever deeper. Plus for the prophetic cover for 2020. 

BROM, Dance with an idiot, Trost | Review

In theory, Brom’s point of departure is free and jazz music, but the practice is completely different. The powerful sound, the constant playing with conventions, and tracks with no trace of waffling sound invigoratingly fresh.

CHICAGO UNDERGROUND QUARTET Good Days, Astral Spirits | Review

The quartet’s eclecticism is crystal clear here: sharp and concise rhythmical playing juxtaposed with the open form of effect-laden guitar passages. Brilliant fluency, fantastic instrumentalists, consistent and colourful narratives and solos.

MARION COUSIN & KAUMWALD Tu rabo par’abanico, Les Disques du Festival Permanent Review

Marion Cousin and Kaumwald move Iberian songs from the collective regional memory into a broader context, as if wanting to engage listeners in a peculiar game. The lyrical layer is used as a vehicle to communicate content that is much less pleasant.

KIKO DINUCCI Rastilho, Mais Um Review

Rastilho is a personal comment on the contemporary world, the simplest possible gesture: reaching for an instrument, playing, and looking towards the samba tradition to make a statement about Brazil under Bolsonaro’s rule.

THE DWARFS OF EAST AGUOZA The Green Dogs of Dahshur, Akuphone | Review

Third The Dwarfs Of East Agouza album leaves more room for abstraction, open forms and departing from clear-cut structures. The trio contemplate music, exchanging moves that take on a mantra-like form – this is their best album to date.

DUBINY Vanie Ruta 1982-1988, Modernizations1000HZ

An archival postcard from the past that couldn’t be better. 1000HZ reminds us of music that draws from Belarusian folklore, the golden age of big-bit, but also proto-disco-polo, fighting with the later right-wing hegemonization of this genre.

PRISCILLA ERMEL Origens Da Luz, Music from Memory Review (polish only)

A compilation of archival recordings by Priscilla Ermel rediscovers her rich and unnoticed legacy. And significantly widens the image of the Brazilian music scene of the last century.

ГШ (GLINSHAKE) Flexible Schedule, Incompetence Review

Glintshake combine art-rock influences, breakneck post-punk riffs, freedom, and improvisation, but manage to lock these crazy sonic experiments within a convincing framework. Their music is full of unbridled vigour and non-cliched hit factor.

SARAH HENNIES The Reinvention of Romance, Astral Spirits Review

The key are loops, fumbling in a broken pattern or just routine. These repeatability, returning echoes, transformations from which Sarah Hennies managed to extract the essence and beauty, we will notice when we embrace the whole with our ear.

HORSE LORDS The Common Task, Northern Spy Review

Throughout forty minutes, Horse Lords combine microtonal harmonies, polyrhythms, minimalism, mathematical structures, dance potential and an algorithmic approach that sometimes reminds me of the Orange Milk roster.

KATE NV, Room for the Moon, RVNG Ltd | Review | Interview

This album is rooted in avant-pop, on the other, in the aesthetics of the Russian borderlines. KATE NV contemporary narrative mixed with phantasmagorical images of childhood turns into a truly captivating record of the here and now.

KRÓLÓWCZANA SMUGA ODRAPDORAP, Opus Elefantum Review (polish only)

Królówczana Smuga continues the oral tradition on a micro scale using electronics, guitar and beats. Thanks to non-obvious music and extravagant image, it strengthens the message of discovering the secrets of Biłgoraj and its surroundings.

JOHN KOLODIJ First Fire • At Dawn, Astral Editions | Review

John Kolodij has made a musical impression of the dawn and dusk. I like the detailed sound and impression of infinity, but also the manner of capturing moments and the sonic visualizations of the coming of day.

YANNIS KYRIAKIDES & ANDY MOOR Pavilion, Unsounds | Review

The whole album is a mosaic of sound elements, not just an example of attentive improvisation, but also a skilful selection of material based on counterpoints. An open, intuitive, but also very poetic cooperation, coherently showing the duo’s development and musical explorations.

LUMPEKS Lumpeks, Unzipped Fly / Bôłt / UmlautReview (polish only)

Lumpeks look for common points between jazz and polish tradition music, creating a colorful contemporary story marked by folk melodies and improvisations, balancing between the avant-garde and the ludic character.

YOSHIO MACHIDA & CAL LYALL Premeditation, By the Bluest of Seas

Music full of tranquility and contemplation for a strange 2020 played on a five-string banjo and gamelan. Yoshio Machida and Cal Lyall have created a subtle, outsider work that delights with its beauty and tranquility.

MERIDIAN BROTHERS Cumbia Siglo XXI, Bongo Joe

A fascinating futuristic vision in which new technologies are used to play the cumbia. The rhythmic structure is audible, but the band immerses it in a krautrock, highly electrified, and sometimes disco-like manner.

PAISIEL Unconscious Death Wishes, Rocket

This album is a colossal sound, overwhelming the walls of sound and a percussive mantra that keeps growing. João Pais Filipe is skillfully building tension and  German Julius Gabriel enhances his saxophone with effects, which makes it sound like guitars plugged into amplifiers.

PIMPONO ENSEMBLE Survival Kit, Love and Beauty Review

On Survival Kit, the ensemble led by Szymon Gąsiorek, one of the most interesting young composers of the moment, presents an attractive follow-up to ideas from their debut album. It is a tumultuous, complex story that utilizes a number of intriguing solutions.

PRAED ORCHESTRA!, Live in Sharjah, Morphine Review (polish only)

Praed Orchestra! offers an epic musical journey through various corners of the globe: from Egyptian reigning shaabi, desert-sounding guitars, experimental electronics, to the rural atmosphere of the Austrian Nickelsdorf, the annual meeting place of free-jazz.

SARMACJA Jazda Polska, Byrd Out Review

Sarmacja is marching between polish national ecstasy, exhaustion and anger, weekend joys and the mundane greyness of everyday life in the provinces. It is a rhythmical landscape of small-town Poland, painted in dub rhythms using dense strokes of bass.

SIKSA Zemsta na wroga, Antena Krzyku Review

Siksa enters the part of Polish reality that’s often overlooked, unpleasant, as ordinary as it is terrifying. Zemsta na wroga (Revenge on the enemy) is a remarkable personal diary that paints an image of our times, the frightening and often marginalised world of women.

WOJTEK TRACZYK Runo, Pawlacz Perski Review

Traczyk strips the double bass from its lyricism; instead of looking for melodies and pleasant sounds, he opts for the heaviness. Here he is drawling out sounds and trying to tame the mighty-sounding wooden giant.

NATE WOOLEY Seven Storey Mountain VI, Sound American Review (polish only)

Nate Wooley reworks the folk message, drawing on improvisation and collective playing. Based on the song “Reclaim The Night” by the folk singer Peegy Seeger, condemning sexual violence, he created a monumental story with a group of great musicians.

WACŁAW ZIMPEL Massive Oscillations, Ongehoord Interview

On Massive Oscillations Wacław Zimpel delineates a broad perspective: that of a composer who might rely on different tools at various stages of the way, yet keeps following his path, firmly oriented towards surprising results.