Soundtrack for self-isolation: In 2020, these 10 music albums were the ultimate salve for the year's many wounds

In a crisis year, these were the albums that kept us sane, distracted us, comforted us, perked us up, and saved us.

Prahlad Srihari December 30, 2020 16:24:10 IST
Soundtrack for self-isolation: In 2020, these 10 music albums were the ultimate salve for the year's many wounds

Even without COVID, 2020 was a rough year, a cosmic disaster. We braved Biblical locust plagues, cyclones, and wildfires. Let’s not forget celebs singing “Imagine”, and “X Æ A-12” — the Grimes baby formerly known as “X Æ A-Xii”. The music industry had a rough year too. With concerts and festivals cancelled, it faces a projected $30 billion loss. It’s a miracle the music hasn’t stopped. Thankfully, the artists adapted as well as they could. Charli XCX and Taylor Swift, for instance, made a virtue of necessity, recording whole albums while stuck in lockdown. But they were in no way helped by penny-pinching streaming services. Despite Spotify and Co. accounting for a majority of all music revenue, they refused to provide artists a greater cut of royalties. (Read what Nadine Shah had to say about the matter.)

Music remains the ultimate salve for all the wounds left by 2020. The most trying crisis of our time has obviously coloured our listening habits and preferences. More than usual, I found myself drawn to the reassuring warmth of Nadine Shah’s Kitchen Sink and Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. Laura Marling’s Song for Our Daughter was another comfort record. Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now and the self-titled debut EP by Working Men’s Club, were lift-me-up synth records and offered endless hours of escape. When I spiralled into an anxiety cycle or a thought loop, Yves Tumor’s Heaven to a Tortured Mind and Porridge Radio’s Every Bad helped drown out the noise. When I craved the peace of a Buddhist monk, Pavel Kolesnikov’s Bach: Goldberg Variations did the trick. What is it they say: “Once you go Bach, you never go back”?

This “Best of 2020” playlist has been curated after a careful survey of over 100 records. These albums kept us sane, distracted us, comforted us, perked us up, and saved us. Consider this the essential soundtrack of self-isolation.

10 | Sawayama — Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama’s debut record is a joyful exhibition of musical avant-gardism. The Cambridge-educated pop chameleon switches between different vocal registers and musical styles, without losing the essence of what makes her so damn unique. “Tokyo Love Hotel” describes the culture clash of having been born in Japan and raised in the UK. In “Akasaka Sad”, she explores intergenerational trauma. She experiments with synthpop in “Bad Friend”, gets her Korn on in “STFU!”, and channels her inner Britney in “XS”, shedding her artistic skin as it best suits her musical palette. Sawayama was the burst of colourful energy we needed to power through a dreary year.

9 | Women in Music Pt. III — HAIM

HAIM’s third studio album is full of tracks which provide varying degrees of blissful escape. On the backbone of a stunning production, the three sisters build a gorgeously detailed soundscape. If “Don't Wanna” and “The Steps” apply more or less the same Haim formula for hooks and instrumentation, “3 AM” and “All That Ever Mattered” sees them experiment with more off-kilter sounds. A darkness also haunts the album as Danielle opens up about her depression in “I’ve Been Down” and “I Know Alone”. On the whole, it sounds like a catch-up conversation on a road trip with an old friend.

8 | What's Your Pleasure? — Jessie Ware

Jessie Ware dresses her new album in disco glamour, recalling Daft Punk’s musical turn in “Random Access Memories”. Riding the velvet rope where disco meets funk, Ware gets the party started with the Technicolor anthem “Spotlight”. In “Soul Control”, she shimmies into Midnight Star territory. The party reaches its rapturous peak in “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”, before shutting the whole thing down with the soulful closer “Remember Where You Are”. What's Your Pleasure? makes for an intoxicating jaunt within the parameters of dance music. While it might not rewrite the canon, it will surely enrich it.

7 | Every Bad — Porridge Radio

Reports of rock’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Women have been at the forefront of its renaissance for a while now, and the 2021 Grammy nominations were well-deserved recognition for the artists who brought the spark back to rock. But the Recording Academy seems to have forgotten about the Dana Margolin-led Porridge Radio, who dropped one of the most memorable records to come out of the DIY ecosystem. Punk in style and Lou Reed-esque in spirit, Every Bad makes for a cathartic listen as there’s a PJ Harvey-like vulnerability to Margolin's lyricism. Her hopeful repetition of “Everything’s Fine” like a mantra on “Circling” is all one needs to hear during an anxiety attack. “Sweet” is another highlight, a scream of fresh air that carries the echoes of The Dresden Dolls.

6 | songs and instrumentals — Adrianne Lenker

Adrianne Lenker’s double album is a worthy successor to Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. and Two Hands from 2019. Isolating herself in a cabin in Massachusetts following the cancellation of the Big Thief tour, Lenker serves an honest portrait of loneliness during lockdown. She pulls you inside her head with the welcoming grace of her voice. Add an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder to the equation, you’ve got yourself two miraculous records that are calming and curious at the same time. It’s a masterclass in minimalism.

5 | Heaven to a Tortured Mind — Yves Tumor

Yves Tumor, on the other hand, is a master of maximalism. In his new album, you will hear free jazz, shoegaze, soul, post-industrial, glam rock, funk and more. Often, you have no idea what you're listening to, but trying to figure it out is what keeps you hooked. The opening track, “Gospel for a New Century”, samples a Korean funk track before he adds a boom-bap percussion rhythm to it. In “Identity Trade”, guitar and saxophone riffs clash for clout. “Kerosene!”, which features the lush voice of Diana Gordon, unleashes a guitar solo as flammable as its title. The music can be deceivingly tranquil one moment, take off like gangbusters the next. It’s volatile in a way that is perfectly suited to our volatile times. The album is also less than 37 minutes long and suits our shortening attention spans.

4 | Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple

What a luxury it was that we got Fiona Apple to talk us through isolation this year. It’s not coincidence that her first album in eight years, mostly recorded within the four walls of her home, came to us when we’re confined to our own homes. It was meant to be. Songs about her fears, foibles and desire for freedom are woven into ambient sounds of barking dogs and stove top drumming. Her voice becomes an almost physical presence, and ensures we’re hanging on to each word. Often, the tempo runs counter to some of these melodies, and the structure turns on its head, as the lyrics alternate between humour, anger, pain and liberation. But there’s never any doubt the record truly came to save us all.

3 | Volutes — Snowdrops

Following their collab on Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's Manta Ray, French musicians Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry released an exceptional debut album, an opus of neoclassical rhythms with a cinematic grandeur to it. The seven tracks are haunted by the sounds of the ondes Martenot (that piano-theremin lovechild you hear on Radiohead's “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “How to Disappear Completely”). It gives the record folk and futuristic overtones. But it never feels like effect-seeking, and the further you get into the record, it in fact helps crystallise the melodies. Listen to how it joins forces with the piano and strings on “Trapezian Fields” to give it a meditative quality, and how it builds an otherworld atmosphere with the mellotron in “Éloge De L’Errance.” Volutes is an album you take time to get to know because there are so many layers to it that open and unfold only through re-listening.

2 | Source - Nubya Garcia

Don't mistake Nubya Garcia's technical virtuosity for stiff formalism. There's a spiritual depth to her artistic vision as she blends Caribbean and Latin American styles in her stellar debut. The British tenor saxophonist adds and subtracts instrumental layers throughout her record, showcasing the still infinite rhythms and possibilities of jazz. The intensity of “Pace” acts as a counterweight to the intimacy of “Together Is a Beautiful Place to Be”, but both feature such infectious hooks it proves just how seamless the chemistry is between her and the backing musicians. In a year where Brandee Younger & Dezron Douglas dropped Force Majeure and Moses Boyd gave us Dark Matter, it was the (my) jazz record of the year.

1 | Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) – Sault

Anonymity as always adds allure. But it's not the only reason Sault have come to be one of the defining acts of the year. Placing the finger on the pulse of the Black Lives Matter movement, the British collective dropped two albums that galvanised the crusade against racial injustice. They draw from Motown and Batucada, evoke the moods of Massive Attack and Philly soul, and serve a call to action with introspective spoken word and liberating R&B melodies. There is an anger and energy to their music that make Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) the ideal albums to soundtrack a revolution.

Honourable mentions: Debussy • Rameau — Víkingur Ólafsson, Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers, RTJ4 — Run the Jewels, Song for Our Daughter — Laura Marling, Yeo-Neun — Okkyung Lee

Best reissue: Palo Alto — Thelonious Monk

Best unreleased recordings: Joni Mitchell Archives — Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963–1967)

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