Billy Nomates – ‘Billy Nomates’ (Invada Records)
Just like her impressive first single No, the debut album of Tor Maries aka Billy Nomates is an empowering declaration of refusal: No to incompetent politicians, no to not being taken seriously as a female (musician) and no to dead-end jobs. But however inspiring and clear she sounds now, it took Maries some time to find her lane. She was in several bands during her twenties, but nothing seemed to go anywhere. After three years off music, attending a Sleaford Mods gig luckily inspired her to write and record music again.
Next, Geoff Barrow (Portishead, Beak>) signed Billy Nomates to his Invada Records label and produced her self-titled record. The Nottingham duo were early supporters, and frontman Jason Williamson even appears on Supermarket Sweep. That song is just one example of Maries’ DIY mixture of razor-sharp lyrics with sparse yet energetic arrangements. And although the songs’ topics are grim, there are many funny moments, too, such as Maries’ sneering at her boss in Call in Sick and the wealthy Hippy Elite, which, among many other things, turn this record into one of the most exciting albums of the year. (Jessi Schmitte)
Eddie Chacon – ‘Pleasure, Joy and Happiness’ (Day End Records)
During a drunk hangout with one of my best mates in the early summer of this year we found ourselves stumbling upon short-lived 90s soul pop duo Charles & Eddie and a few of their songs besides the inevitable 1993 one-hit-wonder Would I Lie To You. Spoiler: Most of it tried to follow the same pattern and obviously failed. We later found out that Charles Pettigrew sadly passed away almost twenty years ago and my mate began digging for what Eddie Chacon has been up to. In an act of pure coincidence Mr. Chacon resurfaced to music after already retiring from it many years ago. The result is anything but a retro affair, instead a burst of new energy and a fresh start that doesn’t feel like somebody with 35-year long career in music on his shoulders.
It’s not an ‘old man’ record at all and it’s not even trying to revisit the sound of the artist’s previous releases. Instead it sounds more like a gentle bedroom R&B pop album somebody in his early 20s would record these days. If you happen to love James Blake, Rhye and Frank Ocean than Pleasure, Joy And Happiness is your album. The Frank Ocean reference isn’t entirely surprising because Eddie Chacon recorded this album Frank’s longtime collaborator John Carroll Kirby (who also worked with Solange before). This record feels like a gentle summer dream. It’s a tender, reduced and raw affair, perfect material for intimate moments and to me quite easily the most surprising comeback of the year. (Norman Fleischer)
All diese Gewalt – ‘Andere’ (Glitterhouse)
These days, Max Rieger can be counted to the most interesting musicians in the German alternative/independent scene. He works in many different projects which locate their styles in various genres (e.g. Die Nerven, Obstler) and produces music for hyped German independent newcomers like Mia Morgan, Ilgen-Nur, or Stella Sommer. On top of that, the talented artist has his very own project called All diese Gewalt.
Three years ago, Rieger released his first solo album called Welt in Klammern as All diese Gewalt. Whereas the record had been marked by spherical and blurred post-rock vibes with strong drums, guitars and some electronic elements, his new album Andere goes into another direction. The musical journey takes the musician over to clearer structures and lyrics, catchier hooks, and more pathetic and cinematic soundscapes. Although Andere sounds a lot different than its predecessor, there still are similarities findable: both records bring out a subliminal, dark attitude. Even when Rieger uses catchier elements, this gloomy undertone still finds is way to the surface. And this gloominess is exactly what makes his music special and outstanding of other musicians. Even though most of our readers will not understand the German lyrics, Andere still is a great recommendation as the emotions behind the music will find their way even without getting the vocal’s message. (Miriam Wallbaum)
Pillow Queens – ‘In Waiting’ (self-released)
Fontaines D.C‘s A Hero’s Death might be the record that drives the big car in Hollywood, but as good as it was, it still wasn’t the best album to come out of Ireland this year. Pillow Queens are a band that took a few years to grow into who they are today, but once they got to the album stage they had it all worked out, and In Waiting is as strong an opening statement as a band can make.
Sweet and dreamy indie-rock that pulls off the anatomically curious feat of wearing its heart and soul on its sleeve, it’s a stunner of an album, full of personality, where every song feels like uncovering a little treasure. Very few bands could write a song with the emotional swell and grace of Holy Show, and then put it at the front of an album – luckily, they knew they had another as good as Donaghmede to bring the curtain down. What happens between those two isn’t bad either. (Austin Maloney)
Dua Lipa & The Blessed Madonna – ‘Future Club Nostalgia’ (Warner)
In 2020, there was no possible way to ignore Dua Lipa. There were her numerous colorful quarantine hairstyles, late-night shows appearances, recent digital show ‚Studio 2054‘ and of course Future Nostalgia, her second album which made Lockdown No. 1 a bit more bearable. Even for those who found the sultry disco-pop bangers too mainstream, Dua found a way to make it more accessible for proper ravers. She asked her Glastonbury-acquaintance The Blessed Madonna to rework Future Nostalgia into a house club mix. The Kentucky-born House DJ and producer acquired household names from House’s present and past such as Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, Moodyman, Mark Ronson or Yaeji. For the indulging remix of Levitating, she even invited Madonna and Missy Elliot for features.
Playing this star-studded mix at home, one could almost forget the fact that we’re living in a worldwide pandemic that forced to cancel all (legal) raves in 2020. With bedroom raves replacing real ones, Future Club Nostalgia was the perfect soundtrack for an immersive and carefree dance at home. Nevertheless, it also proved once more, how well House producers can rework mainstream pop hits. Even though the mix seems a bit too loaded at times, these fifty minutes can be played all over again. At least until the real clubs open again. (Louisa Zimmer)
Riz Ahmed – ‘The Long Goodbye’ (Mongrel Records)
Until this year I’ve only heard rumours of actor Riz Ahmed‘s actual musical skills. Well, they’ve carried him to several prominent European festivals before so the fact that I didn’t take them too seriously is on me. The Long Goodbye even dominated my Spotify Wrapped Up – and that doesn’t lie, right? The British actor/rapper managed to create something that, in all its immediacy, managed to contain what I feel must be a tormenting state: What it means to be „foreign“ all of a sudden although you’re home. The Long Goodbye comes in a shape of a breakup album but essentially deals with the alienation that Ahmed is confronted with as a UK citizen with Pakistani ancestry. With all the focus on the US and its elected clown in the past year: what happens in the UK is far more troubling. This rather short but enormously rewarding, angry, dedicated and musically rich record comes from someone within all that. Listen. (Henning Grabow)
Spunsugar – ’Drive-Through Chapel’ (Adrian Recordings)
Even after decades of music consumption there’s still certain types of music that manage to instantly trigger something in me. And “gloomy goth rock with post-punk influences” is the sort of sound that falls under this category. With its powerful and dark energy the debut album by Swedish three-piece Spunsugar was destined to end up on my personal end-of-the-year list but somehow managed to slip through my fingers when it was released in early October. Drive-Through Chapel is a delicate affair of pulsing power-pop with dark undertones. There’s a lot of energy coming from these eleven tracks but also the typical gritty affair you might enjoy from bands like Bauhaus but also White Lies. There’s something quite poppy in the band’s sound, maybe because singer Elin Ramstedt delivers these melodies with a certain sweetness.
The musical surroundings however are a different affair – Spunsugar feel like a mixture of The Cure‘s darkness, Slowdives‘s love for hazy guitar walls and the industrial heaviness of Health in-between. Tracks like Happier Happyness, Run and Time Enough At Last are carried by speed and determination and even more slowed down pieces like Video Nasty still kick really heart due to the production that is on-point and still gritty enough to add some darkened flavour to the sweet melodies that lie underneath. In the press release the band used a really great description to describe their sound: “Imagine if Alternative Nation on MTV 1997 and a drum machine fall into a cotton candy machine. The cotton candy wheel breaks and derails.” And yeah, that sums it up pretty well. Spunsugar are a hidden treasure of 2020, waiting carefully in the dark to be discovered by cool people like you. (Norman Fleischer)
Stream it ► Spotify / ► Apple Music / ► Bandcamp
Mavi Phoenix – ’Boys Toys’ (LLT Records)
Usually I am not really into Trap, Cloud-Rap, or the overuse of autotune. But 2020 showed me a new site of my personal music taste: I started listening to Mavi Phoenix’s latest record Boys Toys and instantly liked it. Although I would classify the music as a genre which I normally do not listen to, Boys Toys got me from the first moment on. The album is not – like many other Trap or Cloud-Raps records – about superficiality or more appearance than reality, but rather about the struggle with the own person. Mavi, who was born as a woman, decided to live his real self and started the transformation from a woman into a man.
Boys Toys is a record about the fights and prejudices transgenders must deal with every day when they only try to be themselves. It is about the expectations your friends, family and the whole world around you arouse and the fact that you cannot fulfil them because it is not who you are. It has been a hard step for Mavi to be himself and shout it out to the world. But with his musically statement, the rapper can be a role model for many people who must fight the same struggles as he does. On Boys Toys Mavi transformed his struggle into twelve catchy songs which mix pop – and rap-elements with strong and honest lyrics. Definitely one of the hidden treasures of 2020! (Miriam Wallbaum)
Christian Lee Hutson – ‘Beginners’ (ANTI-Records)
With so much going on this year, it was easy to lose track of all the brilliant releases that have been put out by artists all around the world. One album that should definitely not go unnoticed – in case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet – is Christian Lee Hutson’s Beginners. An intimate, subtle and well-crafted work by the Californian songwriter who presents ten empathetic folk songs to us on his third album. Produced by his friend and collaborator Phoebe Bridgers, it is a vulnerable, but comforting collection of songs that is carried by a great deal of melodies and Hutson’s soft-spoken voice telling stories of love, mundane struggles and all kinds of human fallibility that one has to deal with in their adulthood.
If you have been a fan of Better Oblivion Community Center, Boygenius or Phoebe Bridgers, you might have come across Christian Lee Hutson’s name before with his name appearing in the songwriting credits of several of their songs or Hutson being the opening act of BOCC’s tour last year. A creative environment he perfectly blends into. It only feels natural that Beginners features some of Hutson’s talented friends lending a hand to him, e.g. like Conor Oberst on harmonica (Get The Old Band Back Together), his Bright Eyes bandmate Nate Walcott on trumpet and keys as well as being in charge of the beautiful string arrangements and Lucy Dacus appearing in the choir. An ensemble lead by Hutson that brings a lot of warmth into our homes for sure. (Annett Bonkowski)
Pip Millett – ‘Lost In June’ (+ FOURS)
It is no secret that the UK has proven to be a hot spot for contemporary RnB. The Manchester-born singer Pip Millett condenses the essence of the mellow musical outputs that we came to love to so much on her EP Lost In June. The minimal instrumentation of the songs and the emotive vocals are diving into melancholic yearning that it almost pains you while simply listening – but don’t we all love that kind of heartache sometimes? Especially the gentle ballad Ava inspires to experience the emotions of the singer almost firsthand. Her vocals are warm and smooth as she serenades a loved one, encouraging them to grow through hard times. “You have always got a shoulder”, she croons and Lost in June feels a little bit like that; a musical shoulder for hard times. The EP is rich in musical textures and even though the instrumentation is kept to a minimum, Pip Millett knows how to use stripped back tunes and breaks intentionally. Heavenly Mother has a more present beat and bassline compared to the former but still sounds uniquely like Pip Millett. Seems like we should have gotten Lost in June sooner!! (Liv Toerkell)
Jouska – ‘Everything Is Good’ (Koke Plate)
I first heard Jouska back in 2018 at a show at Kvarteret in Bergen at Vill Vill Vest festival. There were a lot of good bands at that festival, but they stood out by a mile, because they had their own style that came from nowhere else but their own heads, a sort of weird, neurotic art pop that came to life with melodies melted and reset in new shapes. A couple years on, and their debut album Everything Is Good landed, and delivered on all the promise they showed back then.
Music lives and dies on the strength of its ideas, and listening to Everything Is Good feels like sinking into a ball pit full of them. The Norwegian duo take a lot of genres for a spin on this album, and its short run time is the listener’s little adventure through their take on them, from the thumping mutant dance music Born In Cash, to the radio static doo-wop of Beat Up Your Baby, to the sensory overload of opener Everything Is Good that crashes into the bubbly pop of Because I Really Don’t Mind. The syrupy beats and synths makes for songs that float and drift like a lava lamp, but that come together when they need to in moments of perfect clarity. The production tricks, the originality of the style and the numb alienation in the mood that flows through the record would make it very easy to come across as too smart and cool to connect with, but there’s also a real heart and soul in these songs, a real sense of reaching out to try and find something meaningful in the noise and fuzz of the blurred and cold world that we find ourselves in. Jouska sounded like no-one else back in 2018 – in 2020 they still do, and even better than their old selves too. (Austin Maloney)
Deep Sea Diver – ‘Impossible Weight’ (High Beam Records)
The Seattle-based indie pop-rock connection Deep Sea Diver rarely falls short in delivering a fused and energetic roar of sound, led by the thunderous voice of Californian songstress Jessica Dobson, who is noted for having worked with The Shins and Yeah Yeah Yeahs before embarking on her solo journey. Soundwise, the third full-length Impossible Weight hits exactly that sweet spot and is a worthy follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed Secrets. It is also Dobson’s most personal work to date, as it delves into the „sublime highs and mesmerising lows“ of the inner life of the artist, filling the void of critical self-examination with floods of empowering sonic worlds.
Shattering The Hourglass is a worthy opener, as it stretches its pensive lyrical manner on to a charged narrative about the struggles of holding on when you really do not have the strengths to. The subsequent Lights Out, although more rushing and energetic in its design, also features a delightful blending of Dobson’s tender vocals and a roaring rock drive. Yet, the ultimate groove is saved for the title track Impossible Weight, featuring guest vocals of Sharon Van Etten, on which a peak of emotional discomfort (“A million times tongue tied / Spit it out, never mind / I think I’m addicted to the fear“) is met by a soaring roar of voices and guitars. To say that this duet achieves addictive harmonies would be highly underrated. As for all the shadowlands this record thrives to pass through, it is the exploding and uplifting energy Deep Sea Diver manage to craft, which makes these songs a joyful venture at last. (Andreas Peters)
Klô Pelgag – ‘Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs‘ (Secret City Records)
I was drawn to this record purely because of its cover only a few weeks ago but I can now proudly proclaim that I am now a true admirer of Chloé Pelletier-Gagnon’s artistic vision. It is the second visual and musical artist from Quebec I’ve encountered and became obsessed with in the past few months – the other one being Rita Baga, a contestant and finalist on Canada’s Drag Race. Klô Pelgag’s attention to detail regarding harmonies, concept, inventiveness and courage is so incredibly structured that it surpasses not only barriers of language but of the future of how we create. I know this all sounds too good to be true but if you watch ‘La maison jaune’ or ‘Melamine’ you will see exactly why I’m seemingly exaggerating. The spectrum of instrumental references varies from track to track and the record is layered from many perspectives: it is an atmospheric collection, a coherent experience, an overwhelming visualisation, and a fluctuating introduction to Pop, Electro, Folk, and Disco; and I guess it is also an impressively crafted lyricism that I don’t linguistically understand the nuances of. On this fourth release (one EP and two albums), she is the composer, co-producer, lyricist, and arranger of ‘Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs’. I have not yet had the chance to dive deeper into Klô Pelgag’s evolution and discography but I’m really excited to listen to a lot more Frech Canadian in the near future. (Anna-Katharina Stich)
Juniore – ‘Un, Deux, Trois’ (Le Phonographe)
Retro French noir meets upbeat 60s psychedelica brought into a contemporary context by Juniore’s third LP Un, Deux, Trois. The French band conjure a mysterious cinematic vibe with their moody arrangements of intertwining instruments. From reverbed guitars to twangy organ parts, the songs on the record shift in style but maintain a cohesive mood of gloom. Like a thick red velvety curtain, the album opens on Soudain inviting us into the world the band lay out ahead in the shape of the eleven songs.
En Solitaire is a dramatic ballad topped by the vocals sung in French by the uniquely restrained voice of vocalist Anna Jean. While La Vérité Nue takes on an almost theatrical upbeat vibe and layered vocals that could also be included in a 20s cabaret show. Bizarre is what the title gives it away to be – a colorful trip through a different (musical) universe. The entire record, Un, Deux, Trois is an escapist journey and a welcome distraction from the sobering experience of 2020. (Liv Toerkell)