The WFTP Top 10 Albums of 2020
10. Roger Eno & Brian Eno – Mixing Colours
Roger Eno is listed first on the cover of Mixing Colours, in front of his brother Brian. This order serves to indicate what to expect from the album, which is far more melodically focussed than Brian Eno’s typical ‘music for non-musicians’ approach. Roger’s compositions have a much more traditional feeling to them, with piano phrases returning now and then, almost giving some songs a pop structure. Brian’s input on the album is more textural, and it’s safe to assume his role was more as a producer than a songwriter. As with any collaboration, Brian Eno leaves his unique and inimitable mark on the music, without detracting from his collaborators abilities. This album’s delicate melodies and soothing tones give it a familiarly Eno feel, but undoubtedly one that differs from his recent solo works. This album sits nicely somewhere between contemporary minimal classical and ambient music. It’s a gentle and mellow listen that could cynically be considered more engaging than Brian’s ambient works, and maybe one that could ease a new listener into the more textural and tempo-less works in his discography.
9. The Flaming Lips – American Head
It speaks volumes to the state of the world that a band who usually sing about space, aliens and giant babies write an album about death, the damage that drugs have done, and ‘the sadness in the world’. It seems that Wayne Coyne, recently a father for the first time, has spent a lot of time thinking about his own childhood, and how it has shaped the man he is today. The song “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” tells the story of what might have happened if he hadn’t survived an armed robbery from his job at Long John Silver’s as a teenager. This kind of pondering is typical of the album, one which feels like the band are looking back at their lives and career and assessing it in today’s climate. Where an album like 2009’s Embryonic is filled with experimentation and strange ideas, or 2017’s Oczy Mlody is a mess of weird Sci-Fi lyrics and Miley Cyrus collaborations, American Head seems to know exactly what it is from start to finish. There are rarely moments that move from the mid-tempo piano ballad feel of songs like ‘Watching the Lightbugs Glow’ and ‘My Religion is You’ but this just leaves space for heartfelt lyrics and storytelling that Coyne hasn’t included on many of the band’s more recent work. It’s an album still firmly rooted in the world of The Flaming lips – full of drug references and dinosaurs – but one with a new and more mature character to it’s songwriting.
8. Bombay Bicycle Club – Everything Else Has Gone Wrong
After a five year hiatus, Bombay Bicycle Club went on tour to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of their debut, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose. They spoke of enjoying playing together, and how it felt odd to be touring an album as if they were a heritage act despite all still being younger than 30. They felt that they still had more to say as a band, and went back into the studio with John Congleton, impressed with his work on the three of St. Vincent’s albums that he produced. The result is a project that feels more direct than their previous album, So Long, See You Tomorrow, which was full of twists, turns, and samples from all over the world. Everything Else sees Bombay returning to more conventional song structures, with more focus on riffs and hooks than loops and samples. I was lucky enough to be at their Alexandra Palace show in February 2020, and it was clear to see that this album was instantly well received, with all the new songs being given the same electric response as old favourites like Always Like This and Shuffle. The rousing atmosphere at that show made clear to me that their audience’s interest in their music has been rekindled, just as the band’s has been in playing together.
7. Caribou – Suddenly
The first song I heard from Suddenly was Home, a song based around a sample of Gloria Barnes’ song of the same name and a breakbeat, doesn’t sound like anything Caribou has ever released. Choosing it as the first single suggested his desire to point towards a new direction, one drawing from different influences and a new sonic palette. Dan Snaith’s fifth album under his Caribou moniker is less dance orientated than previous releases, with more tender, introspective moments and textural experiments than heavy looped drum beats. His gentle falsetto is much higher up in the mix, and the lyrics are more vulnerable than before. Opening on Sister, a song in which Snaith promises he is changing, serves to prepare the listener for their new flavour of songwriting. An ambient textural experiment like Filtered Grand Piano follows Never Come Back the most uptempo and classically Caribou song on the album as if to remind us that’s the old him. The production throughout is clear, bright and colourful, with bendy piano arpeggios and ear worm melodies jumping out from every song. The project contains a sonic variety and range of moods that is previously unseen in the Caribou back catalogue – it will be interesting to see where Dan Snaith goes next.
6. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Haim’s first album was a solid debut, one that clearly showed their soft rock and R&B influences whilst also showing that they had something new and fresh to offer. Their second album seemed to be a diminishing return of the first, no thanks to Jack Antonoff, who seems to wash all the colour off many artists sounds (St. Vincent, Lorde, etc.) leaving them with a dulled version of their former selves. But for Women In Music Part III, named for their frustration of being repeatedly asked what it’s like being “women in music”, takes huge strides in the right direction. Now with Ariel Rechtshaid, Rostam Batmanglij (Formerly of Vampire Weekend) as well as their own Danielle Haim in charge of production, they’ve made an album full of variety, honesty and exciting energy. The lyrics speak more to the Haim sister’s specific personal experiences than their previous work, where a listener could often interpret the lyrics however they liked. The album still has a soft rock and R&B feel, but with the boundaries of each of those terms pushed in a braver direction, and mixed with some bolder production choices. Haim are clearly hitting their creative stride, as strong and fully realised songs like Summer Girl, Now I’m In It and Hallelujah were all just tacked on the albums end as bonus tracks, as if they were just lying around as spares. Whatever they do next is sure to be exciting and inventive, whilst remaining catchy and accessible – it feels like they are just getting started.
5. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
Opening an album with a cover of a Radiohead song seemed like an odd choice to me, but Kelly Lee Owen’s take on Weird Fishes/Arpeggi sets the tone well for what’s to come. No vocals are on the track, directing the listeners focus towards the detailed arpeggios and electronic layers that shape a cover that strays far from it’s source material. Thereafter, similar ambient techno instrumentation sits under introspective and lushly harmonised lyrics about dealing with life’s problems and coming out the other side. Instrumental songs show Owen’s love for techno and other electronic music, while adding a melodic sensibility that sets it apart from something you would hear at a club night. The detail and layered harmonies of Owen’s voice are what make this album so engaging, making it so you could listen to on repeat with new hooks and characteristics becoming apparent each time around.
4. Wilma Archer – A Western Circular
I was drawn to Wilma Archer’s A Western Circular as soon as I saw that he had collaborated with MF DOOM – which for me acts a high quality seal of approval. Reading the tracklist and seeing that Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring was featured on a couple of songs intrigued me further, with no real idea what to expect. This album, which opens with strings that remind me of a Mica Levi soundtrack, is full of surprises. It doesn’t really fit a genre classification – there are elements of R&B, Jazz and Hip-Hop, mixed in with some 80’s guitar solos and smooth horn sections. It plays like a mix of Archer’s favourite music, hopping around in different moods and instrumentation whilst still keeping one foot in a warm, vinyl-like vintage tone. The only thing that suggests this album was recorded in 2020 is it’s postmodern mixing of genres from the last 50 or 60 years. The standout songs have to be the ones featuring DOOM, Herring and Sudan Archives, who’s vocals add the icing to cake of Archers songs. A perfect amalgamation of familiar sounds mixed together and some creative production make for a great listen.
3. Osees – Protean Threat
Thee Oh Sees 23rd studio album, Protean Threat, manages to expand on their sound whilst still being instantly recognisable as the work of John Dwyer and his ever-changing line-up. This album was released under the Osees moniker according to Dwyer doesn’t mean anything – although it appears that the shorter the name, the heavier the music. The current line-up features two drummers, which are utilised to their full potential on this album. It’s full of driving beats and intense gnarled guitar riffs, with Dwyers yelping vocals occasionally morphing into a heavy metal growl. On most of their releases, you can barely hear Dwyer’s lyrics, as they are lost in a sea of effects, used to add a melody to the song. This rule is broken on parts of Protean Threat, with lyrics like “I think we could be better” clearly standing out from Persuaders Up! and “I’m all filled with nonsense since you talk so goddamn slow” from If I Had My Way – seemingly a song about Dwyer’s anger with the current state of the world. The production sounds cleaner than previous releases, but in no way is it softer. There are short and fiery songs like Dreary Nonsense and Persuaders Up! which are both distorted and heavy but tight and clear in their sound. The album is filled with ideas – there are even funkier songs like Said The Shovel and Canopnr’ 74 which stand out as the catchier tracks. It’s worth noting that this is just one of many releases from Osees this year, so even if this wasn’t your thing, there’s bound to be another change in direction soon.
2. Agnes Obel – Myopia
Myopia is the optometrical term for short-sightedness, which is a perfectly apt title for this album. The soft-focus and distant artwork is equally representative of it’s mood. Every sound on Myopia is beautifully soft and obscured in reverb. Obel’s singing is used so expressively that it often sounds more like an instrument than a human voice. Layered strings and piano arpeggios create a pillowy world to float through whilst picking out Obel’s isolating and forlorn lyrics. She has said the album is about trust and doubt, and you can sense that anxiety in it’s more tense moments like Island of Doom or Broken Sleep. There are elements to stop the listener from getting lost in the wash of texture – looped vocal samples, orchestral percussion and string instruments played staccato drive the songs forward, seemingly holding the other elements of the songs together. Obel’s use of unusual and specific language for song titles helps paint a more vivid picture of their desired meaning. For example, the uneasy instrumental piece Roscian, meaning ‘famous for being an actor’ in the context of the album, alludes to Obel’s mistrust of an unnamed character. On the other hand, another more menacing instrumental piece named Drosera, ‘a family of carnivorous plants’ leaves the listener with very little understanding of the pieces intended meaning. Either way, the album occupies a world of its own, and I will be listening to it for years to come.
1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters has topped very nearly every end-of-year list that I have read. I think this is totally justified. The album is 52 minutes long, and completely without a boring moment. The songs cover such a wide selection of Fiona’s experiences, everything from suffering with OCD as a child, sexual assault, mental health and relationship problems, all with fantastic rolling piano melodies, unusual percussion and rhythms and Apple’s powerful and husky vocals. The tone of the songwriting is very different from what you may expect from such a personal list of subject matter. There is no time for self-pity or sadness. The songs are filled with formidable power and strength, which occasionally turns to raw anger. Apple is now 43, and it sounds like she has come to terms with some of her life-changing childhood and more recent traumatic experiences. Adding to the intimate feeling of the album is its simple and clear production, use of (almost) only acoustic instruments, as well as the occasional dog bark or recording error left in. This gives it the feeling of a truly genuine expression, free from a producers polish to make it easier to digest. Apple was supposed to release the album later in the year than April, but felt it needed to be let out so people could listen to it and “feel free”. You can hear that energy throughout, and I think the overwhelmingly positive response to the album shows just how effective that feeling of freedom is, and just how needed it has been.
List by Alex Wilson