Features Reviews Year End

Some of Your Favorite Musicians’ Top Releases of 2020

This challenging year, in keeping with the tradition I started in 2019, I’ve asked several musicians you probably dig to join me in sharing their recommended releases of 2020. In addition to my own selections, the musicians featured are a mix of returning and new contributors:

  • Jay Wadley (composer of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, James Schamus’ Indignation);
  • Trevor Gureckis (composer of M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, Bloodline);
  • Graham Reznick (Shudder’s Deadwax, releases on MONDO/Death Waltz, and Burning Witches Records, and others);
  • Le Matos (composers of Turbo Kid, Summer of 84, Exode, releases on MONDO/Death Waltz, and Vehlinggo Presents, and more)
  • Mecha Maiko (a Vehlinggo regular with releases on Oro, NewRetroWave, and Vehlinggo Presents, and more)
  • Immortal Girlfriend (captivating synthwave duo from Milwaukee, Wis.)

You’ll find the format to be a bit loose. For example, some chose five singles and some chose five albums — others selected more than five of anything. Some chose studio albums from specific artists, others focus on scores and soundtracks, and some mixed them up a bit. One person explained their choices and others didn’t. Regardless of their approach, I’m listing the musicians in alphabetical order — with my 12 recommended releases placed at the very end. And ultimately, the bottom line is everyone had fun. I hope you also have fun exploring their selections.

graham reznick
From the cover art for Graham Reznick’s ‘Suspicion/Don’t Go.’

Graham Reznick

“My top releases this year, in no order.  (Disclosure: I avoided releases from labels or artists I’ve directly worked with, otherwise this list would be 100 entries long!)”

1. Valium Aggelein — The Black Moon (Numero Group) — An obscure Duster side project; one of my favorite albums of all time. This is a meticulous new remaster of the original tapes and a ton of never-before-heard material.  It’s not “new music” but it’ll be new to most people.  If you dig fuzzed-out delay pedal soporific space-adelica, this is very much for you.

2. Behind the Sky — Portals: A Kosmische Journey Through Outer Worlds and Inner Space (Compilation, Behind the Sky Music) — Absolutely killer compilation of cosmic synthesizer from a ridiculously brilliant pool of talent, including Steve Moore, Steve Roach, Ian Boddy, Polypores, and more.

3. The MicrophonesMicrophones in 2020 (P.W. Elverum & Sun) — Phil Elverum absorbs the past 20 or so years of his life and work and transforms them into a dizzying, 40-minute odyssey through the gut-wrenching paradox that hits hard with middle age, when every past version of yourself still exists all at once. I’m right there with you, Phil.

4. N Chambers — Facets (Love All Day) — Norm Chambers has an infectious zeal for using sonic experimentation to redefine rhythm, melody, and tear down the psychoacoustic establishment.  Playing this double LP at top volume will alter your perception of reality, guaranteed.

5. Max De Wardener — Music for Detuned Pianos (Village Green) — If 2020 was a film, insistently plucked detuned pianos tumbling through gorgeous landscapes of hope and despair would be the score.

6. Polypores — Azure (Castles in Space) — On Azure, Polypores (aka Stephen James Buckley, who has released a BUNCH stuff this year, all great) manages to find the rare balance between “ambient” and “constant sonic engagement.”  Perfect for eyes open or closed.

7. Little Wings — Rosy’s Own (Perpetual Doom, Moone Records) — Kyle Field of Little Wings recorded live, loose ,and raw out in nature on a mountain ranch.  It’s the most chill gosh-darned thing imaginable, and it all feels like it’s being performed just for you.  This is the first release from the fledgling, eclectic Perpetual Doom label. (All their releases are worth checking out!)

8. Keith Fullerton Whitman — Various cassettes (self released) — Whitman has been responsible for so much mind blowing synthesizer fury and audio decimation, and over the course of this past year he’s released a ton of it on cassette.  It’s all excellent, aggressive, and sounds like nothing else on earth.

9. Grandaddy — The Sophtware Slump…On a Wooden Piano (Dangerbird Records) — I wouldn’t have believed you could improve on the original, but Jason Lytle manages to do it in the most delicate and thoughtful way possible.  If you love The Sophtware Slump, or you don’t, or you’ve never even heard it, you really should hear it performed on a wooden piano.

10. Emilee Emiko — Emilee Emiko EP (Perpetual Doom) — Another fantastic release on Perpetual Doom.  The whole EP is wonderful, and the song “Quiet” is probably my favorite single track of the whole year.  The lyrics (“If the world’s gone mad well so have I; I put up a good fight.”), the arrangement, the production, and Emiko’s double-tracked voice all create a perfect storm of sun-stoned horror and propulsive pop determination. An exceptionally prescient reminder that sometimes it’s OK to take a time out and not be so hard on yourself.

immortal girlfriend synthwave
Immortal Girlfriend. Photo by Weston Rich.

Immortal Girlfriend

Kevin’s Picks

Will’s Picks

jay wadley i'm thinking of ending things
Composer Jay Wadley.

Jay Wadley

Le Matos is Jean-Nicolas Leupi (left) and Jean-Philippe Bernier (right).
Le Matos is Jean-Nicolas Leupi (left) and Jean-Philippe Bernier (right).

Le Matos

Jean-Philippe Bernier

Jean-Nicolas Leupi

Mecha Maiko Let's review
Hayley Stewart is Mecha Maiko. Photo by Duncan Foy.

Mecha Maiko

trevor gureckis servant
Trevor Gureckis, composer of ‘Servant’, ‘Bloodline’, ‘The Goldfinch’, and more.

Trevor Gureckis

Bonus: Scores that should have gotten release, but didn’t.

  • Jay Wadley — I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Adem Ilhan — Avenue 5
aaron vehlinggo the rise of the synths
Aaron Vehling of Vehlinggo, as featured in the synthwave documentary ‘The Rise of the Synths’.

Aaron Vehling of Vehlinggo

These are just some of the releases (scores or otherwise) that stuck out for me this year — presented in alphabetical order:

BTW, here’s last year’s.

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