In a year where venues have been closed and dancefloors off-limits, it stings even more to sit and reflect on what has surely been an incredible year of music. Whether it be the swaggering disco-indebted returns, indie-pop masterpieces or uncompromising sonic adventures for unprecednetd times, music this year has seen a broad range of exceptional releases. This is my Top 10 albums of the year. I hope you enjoy!
Chaos and a Dancing Star — Marc Almond
Black Sunrise/Dreaming of Sea/The Crows Eyes Have Turned Blue
On his 27th solo album, Marc Almond confirms that he is still one of our most exceptional living talents. There is enough experimentation here to feel as if Almond is a singer unfamiliar with the idea of going stagnant — tracks such as Black Sunrise and Lord of Misrule are grand prog-influenced epics complete with shredding guitar solos and expansive scores. But Almond has always been at his most powerful when backed by a simple piano, his tender proto-gothic torch singer soul shining through. Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, with its simple piano backing and nonsensical automobile inspired imagery, seems like a tender-hearted paean to his idol Marc Bolan, whereas other tracks such as Hollywood Forever and Dreaming of Sea are as gorgeous as they are understated. The album’s closer The Crows Eyes Have Turned Blue feels like it operates in similar territory to Bowie’s Lazauras — a bittersweet reflection on mortality, shaded with orchestral flourishes and soft electronic beeps. For Almond to be releasing such vital music in his 40th recording year is something truly to be celebrated.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind — Yves Tumour
Medicine Burn/Kerosene!/Super Stars
Yves Tumour has long been a fascinating, if enigmatic, figure. Traditionally hidden behind walls of dissonant noise or tranquil ambience, Heaven of a Tortured Mind presents something entirely new — Yves Tumour as rock star. Heaven… sounds like a classic rock’n’roll album beamed in from another dimension — outbursts of discordant noise still erupt from many of these tracks, but there is a smooth sheen here that is entirely new, emphasising Tumour’s take on jazz and soul. Super Stars and Greater Love are positively romantic in their soulfulness, whereas album centrepiece Kerosene! Is appropriately scorching. For those who have more challenging tastes, Medicine Burn and Identity Trade will excite with their ear splitting interjections. Heaven of a Tortured Mind manages to be soulful, sexy and terrifying all at once, proving once again that Yves Tumour is an unstoppable musical force.
Shadow of Fear — Cabaret Voltaire
Night of the Jackal/Universal Energy/What’s Going On?
The first album from the Sheffield based industrial pioneers in over 20 years is a perfect synthesis of all that makes them essential. It’s a bold, experimental yet danceable collection that blends the wheezy industrial experimentation of their earlier releases, with the house drenched funkiness of their mid-80’s output. Retaining the often apocalyptic tone and subject matter that became the band’s staple, final remaining member Richard H Kirk refrains from using his own voice on the record, instead weaving clipped vocal samples through a surprisingly broad range of electronic rhythms. Highlights include the dance-influenced paranoia of Night of the Jackal, the nightmarish plod of Microscopic Flesh Fragment, and the sprawling techno-house epic Universal Energy . The most radical track here has to be the closer What’s Going On?, which interlopes the refrain from the Marvin Gaye track into a lopsided, mechanical funk. This is an album that not only solidifies the Cabaret Voltaire’s status, but adds to it as well.
Sawayama — Rina Sawayama
Dynasty/Akasaka Sad/Who’s Gunna Save U Now?
Rina Sawayama’s debut was certainly one of the most hotly anticipated of the year, and she did not disappoint. Sawayama is not an artist concerned with binaries, in either her music or her lyrics, and the material here slides giddily between its inspirations of 90’s R&B, early noughties metal and dancefloor ready electropop — often within the same song. Breakthrough single XS of course steals the show, a batshit crazy anti-capitalist dance track that interlopes grungy metal interjections into a runway ready, 90’s flavoured pop song - a wining formulae repeated on Dynasty and STFU!. But diamonds are scattered throughout this track listing, and honestly each one of them feels like they are deserving of praise. Akasaka Sad is bizarre, lopsided dance track, Who’s Gunna Save U Now? is an empowering sing-along rocker destined for huge stadiums, and Chosen Family is the album’s requisite yet hugely successful teary-eyed ballad. On this near perfect debut, it feels as if Rina Sawayama has fully emerged into the well rounded popstar that she was always destined to be.
Chromatica — Lady Gaga
Gaga’s return to her dancefloor roots is slightly insidious. On the surface, Chromatica is a near perfect dance record, with a maximalist, 90’s flavoured sheen. But listen a little closer and you’ll find that Chromatica is Gaga’s darkest record since The Fame Monster. Many of the tracks here deal with heavy subject matter, from trauma (Replay) to debilitating depression (Fun Tonight) to reliance on antidepressant medication (911). The latter is perhaps the most bizarre track here, with a pounding motorik beat and robotic vocal that is closer to Kraftwerk than Katy Perry. It is this subversive mix of the personal and pop that helps Chromatica feel essential, even when it cannot be enjoyed in the clubs that it was so clearly engineered to dominate. But there is necessary lightness here as well, from the triumphant Rain on Me to the deliciously camp, catwalk-destined Babylon. Gaga is an artist who has built a career on combining the more overblown and ridiculous aspects of pop culture with an earnest emotional reverence, and in that sense Chromatica is perhaps the most ‘Gaga’ Lady Gaga album to date.
Supervision — La Roux
Do You Feel/Automatic Driver/Gullible Fool
La Roux may not be the most prolific popstar of our age, but she is certainly one the best. Her latest album Supervision, much like the two albums that preceded it, riffs off 80’s throwback motifs. But whereas her debut sounded like angular Depeche Mode synthpop, and Trouble in Paradise tackled disco and funk, Supervision feels indebted to the cheesier end of 80’s pop. Everything I Live for sounds like it could have been ripped straight from an early George Michael solo album, whereas the chunky synth stabs and prominent baseline on tracks such as 21st Century and He Rides are pure 80’s radio fair. What elevates the material here is La Roux’s song writing, which as always is concise, catchy, but with a lyrical sting. Automatic Driver and Do You Find both contain insanely catchy hooks that on closer inspection positively ache with yearning and regret. Closing track Gullible Fool wraps up the album perfectly, a 7 minute mini-epic with a breezy slow burn opener and a triumphant, hands in the air funk outro. Supervision would certainly be the album you’d want played if you were drowning your sorrows at Club Tropicana.
Powys 1999 — Stats
Come With Me/Kiss Me Like It’s Over/Out of Body
Stats’ debut album Other People’s Lives was one of my top albums of 2019, and so I’m thrilled to see that they’ve refused to take their foot off the gas in 2020. Powys 1999 feels like a natural progression from their debut, all the elements that made their debut sparkle emphasised and amped up to 11. The dance grooves in particular are much harder than before, with tracks like Come With Me, Naturalise Me and Out of Body just begging to be experienced in a jumping crowd. But Powys 1999 also sees the band experiment more through their ballads, playing around with unexpected styles and approaches. Travel With Me Through This Ghost World has the slightly unnerving edge of a haunted fairground ride, whereas album closer If Only is a genuinely moving release of energy. The centrifugal point of the album is Kiss Me Like It’s Over, an apocalyptic dance number that builds slowly over an incessant, pulsing rhythm. The drily funny lyrics and delivery of lead singer Ed Seed tie everything together, presenting a dance-pop album that is unafraid to take risks that almost inevitably pay off in spades.
Kitchen Sink — Nadine Shah
Club Cougar/Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love)/Kitchen Sink
Nadine Shah has been quietly consistent since her 2013 debut Love Your Dum and Mad, with every release being absolutely essential. Kitchen Sink continues her perfect run, picking up the spiky post-punk energy of 2017’s Holiday Destination and merging it seamlessly with a smoother jazz flavour. Opener Club Cougar sums up this transition perfectly, blending a big band horn section with buzzing guitars and background yelps and hollers. Debut single Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love), one of several tracks here that deals with misogyny and the oppressive rumour of the biological clock, marries sardonic lyrics with an incessant, propulsive rhythm. But though Shah’s artistic voice remains just as biting as it’s ever been, there is a definite feeling of release here that is altogether new. Buckfast is a loose and funky character assassination of a deadbeat partner, whereas closer Prayer Mat is a gorgeous, perfumed slow burner. The album’s highlight and emotional centre point has to be Kitchen Sink, an ode to suburban outcasts (forget about the curtain twitchers/gossiping, boring bunch of bitches) crooned beautifully over a sparse, jazzy arrangement. Kitchen Sink is yet another classic in the Nadine Shah cannon, a perfect blend of pathos, humour, and perhaps the most beautiful voice being committed to record today.
True Opera — Moor Jewellery
True Opera/Look Alive/Working
True Opera sees the combined talents of two underground legends, Moor Mother and Mental Jewellery, exploding in a tectonic supernova. Both artists are challenging, boundary pushing and exciting in their own right, but together they have created something incredibly special. Their first album as a collaborative project immediately feels like a noise rock classic, with all the requisite splintery guitars, crashing drums and wailing feedback, and yet never seems to head where you expect it to go. Opener and standout True Opera provides perhaps the albums only moment of respite in its threatening, drum heavy opener — once the guitars explode forth, you are thrown head first into a void that never lets up over the following half an hour. Look Alive manages to feel both sludgy and urgent all at once, whereas the cacophonous mix of shredding guitars and shouted refrains on Working feels as if the track is only just barley keeping itself together through sheer fore of will. Weaving throughout the mix is Moor Mother’s husky, defiant voice spouting kaleidoscopic poetry concerning eugenics, the plight of trans youth and declarations of resistance. True Opera feels urgent and necessary, a fitting backdrop for equally fractured and radical times.
Heavy Light — U.S Girls
4 American Dollars/Overtime/Woodstock ‘99
U.S Girls, the stage alias of singer/songwriter Megan Remy, started life as an uncompriminsing industrial project. On Heavy Light, Remy has completed a complete stylistic 180, crafting a warm and soulful record that still manages to have a whisper of unease. Though not quite as exceptional as the artist’s towering 2018 masterpiece In a Poem Unlimited, Heavy Light still astonishes with a host of songs that balance catchy hooks with deceptively sinsiter messages. Opening track 4 American Dollars breezes by like a forgotten hit from Bowie’s Young Americans, yet its lyrics are a sneering idictment of wealth inqequality that is positively dripping with sarcasm. Overtime is a propulsive soul number, complete with howling sax solo, detailing the betrayal of discovering a lover’s transgressions from beyond the grave. And Quiver of the Bomb is an apocalyptic prophecy that has all the bombast of a glittering showtune. Though Remy may have refined all the wheeze and static out of her early tapedeck compositions, her bizarre take on pop music still makes use of collage, sounding as if someone is shuffling through radio stations. The most obvious example of this is Woodstock ’99, a simple yet effective piano ballad that inexplicably becomes a Macarthur Park cover in the middle. It is decisions like these that keep listeners on their toes — though be sure, ballads like the goregous Denise, Don’t Wait have a much broader appeal. U.S Girls is a fascinating and chameleonic artist, who continues to prove that she can be a maestro of whatever musical whim takes her fancy.