2020's Best New Albums & Reissues (so far)
I wasn’t exactly expecting things to get *better* in 2020. After all, this isn’t my first rodeo. However, as the balls dropped on January 1st, I wondered if there might at least be some sort of recalibration, a moratorium on the endless slew of bullshit that came to swallow the planet whole throughout the last decade.
But no! Nope! No way Jose! Actually, things have got a whole lot worse! You can spin it whichever way you want, but the fact of the matter is that the first half of 2020 has been a complete and utter shitshow! I’d like to think things will improve in the second half of the year, but I know they won’t! In fact, it’s probably not going to get better for ages and ages!
Some interesting stuff has happened in Norman-land, all of which you would have been forgiven for missing as life as we knew it ceased to be. We’ve welcomed new members of staff into the fold (hi Tom! hi Sam!). We’ve run more features, including illuminating interviews with Rian Treanor and Gregory Euclide. We’ve worked really hard to get everyone’s records sent to them during the pandemic - well, actually I’ve just been writing snarky copy from the comfort of my own home, but the office crew have put in constantly hard shifts over the past few months. Yes, while the world may have ground to a halt, cogs have kept turning in LS11.
And there’s been lots of music to sell, The release schedules have dropped off a wee bit, but we’ve still had plenty of sonorous tidbits to cram into our lugholes. Let’s have a lil recap.
One of the year’s most welcome musical reinventions has come from Nicolas Jaar. While he’s always been a whizz on the electronics, rarely can we recall Jaar making work as visceral and vital as ‘2017-2019’ and ‘Illusions Of Shameless Abundance / Alucinao’, the pair of records he dropped earlier this year under the name of Against All Logic. German avant-industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten are another group whose sonic reinventions caught us a little flat-footed - on ‘Alles In Allem’, their first studio full-length for a generation, Blixa Bargeld et al curdled their once-ferocious style into something shadowy and insidious. Craven Faults also wowed with debut LP ‘Erratics & Unconformities’, the producer’s latest revolution in kosmische.
Even if we couldn’t hit the club for most of 2020 there was still a shedload of great dance music which emerged before the pandemic - and some, defiantly, during it. India Jordan is one of the clubsphere’s breakout stars at the moment, the promise they’ve shown over the past couple of years exploding into the life-affirming club takes of their ‘For You’ EP, while DJ Python made similarly big waves with the gorgeous “deep reggaeton” bath ‘Mas Amable’. Though Emma-Jean Thackray is best known as a jazz polymath, her ‘Rain Dance’ EP featured dancefloor-friendly groovers alongside the horn-tooting. Bassweight bossman Pinch put the young pretenders in their place with long-awaited sophomore LP ‘Reality Tunnels’. Personally I also loved Mutant Joe’s Lil-Ugly-Mane-goes-electro set ‘Operation Chaos’ and the darkside drum ‘n’ bass of Mark and Christoph de Babalon’s spilt EP for A Colourful Storm.
Voyages into rock’s outer regions also threw up some thrilling finds. Horse Lords’ ‘The Common Task’ has been an enduring favourite here at Norman Towers, its fervid instrumentals gutting math-rock for parts and blending them with NYC minimalism, Devo-core and Sahel blues. Rarely does one hear a record at once so utilitarian and so utopian. Karkhana’s "free Middle Eastern music" sounded similarly righteous on ‘Bitter Balls’, as did Slum Of Legs’ eponymous LP of zany noise-pop. Also, we’re not sure if the foreboding drones of Golem Mecanique’s ‘Nona, Decima et Morta’ counts as rock per se, but this record certainly hit with the force one generally associates with metal acts like Sunn O))).
As for rock’s mainstream, The Strokes made a pretty good fist of reigniting old fires on ‘The New Abnormal’ and The Orielles continued their ascent towards the top of the indie pyramid with the upbeat ‘Disco Volador’. Shopping did something similar to The Orielles on ‘All Or Nothing’, though despite including poppier synths and a meatier production style the trio’s music maintained the sense of wiry angst which had so thrilled on previous records. Khruangbin were professionally chill not once but twice, Porridge Radio’s ‘Every Bad’ made good on their years cutting teeth in the DIY punk circuit, and Phoebe Bridgers conquered all with her emo-folk opus ‘Punisher’.
That Bridgers album is just one of several superb singer-songwriter sets to have come to the fore in 2020. Perfume Genius’ ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ is the latest collection of fragile, tragic, incredibly beautiful queer-pop ballads in a career full of them. BC Camplight’s ‘Shortly After Takeoff’ was no less affecting but ran his ruminations through black comedy and Wilco-esque struts. ‘Watch This Liquid Pour Itself’, Okay Kaya’s bedroom-pop exploration of sad sex and bad sex, and Pictish Trail’s whimsicial ‘Thumb World’ were equally witty and rewarding outings. Finally, hats off to Sonic Boom, who, on his first album for three decades, combined the spiritualised sonics of his old band Spacemen 3 with some hard-won wisdom.
We could have predicted some of the records which have struck a chord with you all during the past few months. New albums from electronica baes Plone and Dalham were always going to cause excitement in these parts - there was particular glee over the former’s ‘Puzzlewood’, their first full-length for more than twenty years. A critical frenzy around her new LP ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ has seen strong sales for another returning hero Fiona Apple, and who isn’t partial to fresh material from post-rock tinkerers Cavern Of Anti-Matter? Finally, Neil Young has got round to releasing an album called ‘Homegrown’ that’s been gathering dust since the mid-70s, which unsurprisingly has shifted oodles of pre-orders.
Sleaford Mods’ disdain for The General State Of Affairs is evergreen at this point, so their decision to release compilation ‘All That Glue’ during the lockdown both chimes perfectly with isolation moodiness and also reminds one of a world beyond social distancing, one of pub-chat and pints consumed inside rather than out. Speaking of such things, The Chats’ stupid-genius ‘High Risk Behaviour’ LP has also shifted a fair few units since it emerged, beer-soaked and stinking of tabs, in late March.
However, the popularity of some releases has caught us cold. Chief among these is Hania Rani’s ‘Esja’, a surprising success that has sold scores of copies despite offering up the sort of classical piano tinklings that, while pleasant on the ears, don’t tend to sell big. Rina Sawayama’s sort-of-eponymous debut LP kind of came out of nowhere too, but this album of polished and confrontational ultra-pop has been a consistently big seller. Then there’s Squid, a post-punk group tipped for big things for some time now but whose sales of their debut Warp single ‘Sludge’/‘Broadcaster’ suggest they might be on their way to bonafide stardom.
And then there are the reissues - popular at all times, but perhaps even more so now, as we reach for items of familiarity while navigating an uncertain epoch. Mind you, by far and away the best-selling re-releases of this lockdown have been the doom-laden proclamations of Joy Division, followed closely by similarly gloomy forecasts from The National, PJ Harvey and Rowland S. Howard, so maybe we’re wide of the mark with that theory. At least new editions of Joe Hisaishi’s stirring Studio Ghibli soundtracks provide some balance on that front.
“What would the UK be without grime, garage, old-school jungle?” These words, tweeted out by music journalist Gabriel Szatan, were written on a placard at one of the Black Lives Matter protests held in London in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Szatan’s unequivocal caption hit the nail on the head; “nothing”.
But not just grime, garage and jungle, of course, and not just the UK either. Two-tone ska, hip-hop, soul, reggae, jazz, dancehall, rock ‘n’ roll - so many of the musical styles that we hold dear are indelibly entwined with black culture and the black experience. As dearly as one may love these sounds, one must never forget the histories that have birthed them - histories which, for all the great art they have inspired, are also intimate with suffering.
Even prior to the explosion of protest this year we had braced ourselves for returns from heroes of politically engaged hip-hop. Run The Jewels have long been at the forefront of this conversation, and while the physical edition of their new LP ‘RTJ4’ may not be in shops for a few weeks yet the streams of the record which went online in early June left us in no doubt that Killer Mike and El-P had delivered another timely masterpiece of righteous invective. Mike also made an appearance on The Coup’s ‘Sorry To Bother You’ - confusingly not a re-pressing of the band’s 2012 record but a new LP presenting the score to bandleader Boots Riley’s film of the same name.
While the RTJ and Coup records burn with the same fires that have always raged in their music, others wore their disgruntlement in more arch ways. JPEGMAFIA’s ‘All My Heroes Are Cornballs’, which emerged in 2019 but made it to vinyl in the new decade, is a fractured noise-rap affair, but dig deeper than the glitching beats and wry lyrics and you'll find real ire to this music. Shabazz Palaces approached things from the other end of the spectrum on ‘The Don Of Diamond Dreams’, an LP which gave form and structure to Ishmael Butler’s astral-fonk musings and, in doing so, delivered the project’s best work in years. Somewhere between these poles we found Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Feet Of Clay’, an EP which crammed more substance into seven skeletal tracks than what many artists manage across several albums.
A couple of full-length link-ups also caught our ear over the past few months. Given how Quelle Chris and Chris Keys’ ‘Innocent Country’ LP has gained cult-classic status in the years since 2015, expectations were unsurprisingly high for the sequel when it dropped back in April. Fortunately this vivid and luxurious set delivered many times over - we should never have doubted them. Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats, two rising stars of U.S. hip-hop, also impressed on their collaborative record ‘Unlocked’.
Lisbon’s Príncipe continued to demonstrate excellence in club music even if the clubs themselves weren’t actually open. Label stalwart Nídia released a whole host of records, quickly following the considered LP ‘Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes’ and its accompanying 7” with an eponymous EP of hard-hitting Batida-techno combos. PML Beatz also came out of nowhere to wow us with their debut release ‘Pedra de 800 Kg’, a whirlwind of potent rhythm. Mind you, as brooding as ‘Pedra de 800 Kg’ could be, it had nothing on the darkness of Nazar’s ‘Guerilla’, a stunning record in which the Angola-born, Manchester-based producer attempted to make sense of the public and personal legacies of his homeland’s civil war through torrid Batida beats. There was a throughline of rhythmic fervour to records from both Nihiloxica and 79rs Gang, though the former blended Bugandan drumlines with techno techniques while the Bayou-based 79rs rubbed the exuberance of Mardi Gras against some ruminative, bluesy lyricism.
One of the best collections of dance music to emerge from the UK this year in fact contains no music from the modern day. Soul Jazz Records have a reputation for putting together superb compilations of jazz, funk, soul and reggae, but ‘Black Riot: Early Jungle, Rave and Hardcore’ showed that their knowledge of golden-age junglism is also second to none. Bringing things more up-to-date was Josey Rebelle, the Rinse FM DJ’s ‘Josey In Space’ mix demonstrating her impeccable and wide-ranging taste. And space(k) was the place once more as veteran Steve Spacek crafted a set of soulful, jazz-tinged house delights from nothing but apps on the ‘Houses’ LP.
Speaking of jazz, the British scene maintains the energy that has driven it to the forefront of the global conversation over the past few years. Moses Boyd’s ‘Dark Matter’ LP is surely going to be one of 2020’s headline releases, the album’s spiritual, pulsating milieu making good on the voracious genre-gobbling of the drummer’s earlier records. Alfa Mist also quietly nudged himself to the front of the conversation with the ruminative piano vignettes of ‘On My Ones’. Meanwhile, Shabaka Hutchings kept up his incredible rate of productivity - not only did the the British saxophonist deliver another masterpiece of ancestry-excavating jazz as bandleader on ‘We Are Sent Here By History’, he also contributed to one of of our surprise favourite records of 2020 so far, blowing down the reed on Sibusile Xaba’s superb Zulu folk LP ‘Nigwu Shwabada’.
Across the pond Makaya McCraven paid tribute to a legend with his reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s classic LP ‘I'm New Here’. While McCraven may be a relative newcomer, veteran Ethio-jazzer Hailu Mergia continued his late-career renaissance with ‘Yene Mircha’. Elsewhere the sounds of Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Wajatta may owe just as much to hip-hop, yacht rock and weirdo-beat as they do jazz, but the chops displayed on the records they released this year were undeniable. Something similar was going on on Kassa Overall’s ‘I Think I’m Good’, though Overall’s collection was also impressionistic and thoughtful in the same way as the most freeform sections of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ - an album which featured contributions from Thundercat and FlyLo, of course.
Overall’s album was just one of a number of singular records from singular artists. J Hus reminded us that he was the kind of Afroswing with the chart-topping ‘Big Conspiracy’. Moses Sumney’s grandiose double-LP ‘græ’ wasn’t all to my taste, but one cannot deny the exceptional craft of this space-soul odyssey. Sumney’s sound was slipped a valium on Yves Tumor’s ‘Heaven To A Tortured Mind’, a record that sounded like Prince if he had discovered black magic, while Naeem’s ‘Startisha’ was a post-Outkast smörgåsbord from the artist formerly known as Spank Rock. There was post-punk murk about both Ghostpoet’s ‘I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep’ and Algiers’ ‘There Is No Year’, though the former skulked Ian Dury-style while Algiers invoked the fear ala Protomartyr. And then there’s Devonte Hynes, whose superb recent run continued with his ornate score to underground cinema hit ‘Queen & Slim’ - a movie which, in hinging on the racial profiling of a young black couple by a police officer, was to remain tragically, infuriatingly relevant throughout the first half of 2020.
Those who have passed away
We’ve lost some honest-to-God legends of popular music these past six months. It is simply impossible to comprehend the influence of Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers and Little Richard. Whole genres would not exist without their innovations, and they crossed rubicons of vision and aesthetic which have brought about changes not just in musical styles but in the world at large.
In Tony Allen, Manu Dibango and Joseph Shabalala three giants of African music have left us. If you believe in G.O.A.T.s, Allen surely has a claim for being the greatest drummer who has ever lived - Brian Eno certainly thinks so. From his endless grooves which powered Fela Kuti’s awesome Africa 70 to the limber jazz records of his later years (which included a collaboration with Dibango), Allen’s prowess on the kit was singular.
Dibango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ was referenced (read: literally just copied) by Michael Jackson and Rihanna, but his contributions extend far beyond this cornerstone disco tune into the arenas of jazz, funk and the traditional musics of his native Cameroon. As for Shabalala, he won Grammy awards and helped to soundtrack South Africa’s emergence from Apartheid as leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - a group you’ll surely know through their involvement in Paul Simon’s incomparable ‘Graceland’.
Others may not be household names but their contributions to music are still mighty. Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ remains a watershed moment in popular culture, its ebullient ska pulse breaking down the door for the small island of Jamaica to take its place as arguably the single most important nation in 20th Century music. As a member of Mazzy Star, David Roback helped to define the sound and look of 90s alternative rock. Then we come to Andrew Weatherall, an artist whose energy, verve and aesthetic fearlessness has had an incalculable effect on alternative music in the United Kingdom and beyond.
Coronavirus, of course, has been behind many of this year’s deaths. Ty, who came close to winning the Mercury Prize with 2003’s ‘Upwards’ LP, passed in London. Everyone knows ‘Stacy’s Mom’, but beyond this iconic paean to adolescent horniness Adam Schlesinger leaves a vast and impressive legacy, from several records of sparky pop-rock as part of Fountains Of Wayne to the artfully crafted songs he wrote for TV shows like ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’. John Prine, another songwriter of rare gifts, was also taken by the virus, as was Dave Greenfield, whose keyboard work for The Stranglers gave us (among many other things) the inimitable ‘Golden Brown’ vamp.
Closer to home, we lost beloved figures from Leeds music scenes past and present. Andy Gill made his name through his work in Gang Of Four, the band’s combination of jagged punk-funk and acerbic leftwing lyricism going from LS1 to the world in the 70s and 80s. Gill’s jackknife style of guitar playing influenced generations of musicians, some of whom - Red Hot Chili Peppers, Killing Joke, The Jesus Lizard, The Young Knives, The Futureheads - he would go on to produce albums for.
Alex T, who passed away in January, was a DJ who worked at Tribe Records in Leeds city centre and put on club nights across the north. He very much put in the work, constantly championing music he loved and turning people onto new sounds. If you went to a dance around Leeds, chances were that you’d find him there, either behind the decks or front left. A fund has been set up in his memory and a party is scheduled to be held in his honour later this year. He is missed.
Some artists from the U.S. were taken by some of that country’s endemic tragedies. Pop Smoke, a rapper with a voice so gravelly he made 50 Cent sound like Cliff Richard, was well on his way to becoming one of the country’s biggest pop stars when he was shot dead at the age of just 20 back in February. A couple of months later another rising rapper, Chynna Rogers, died from a drug overdose - the same cause of death that claimed the life of her friend and mentor A$AP Yams five years earlier.
And let us not forget that George Floyd was a musician. While he may have been killed in Minneapolis, Floyd made some considerable moves in the Houston hip-hop scene of the late-90s and early 2000s. He ran with the legendary DJ Screw, laying down bars under the name of Big Floyd as part of Screw’s Screwed Up Click, and also made the LP ‘Block Party The Album’ with his group Presidential Playas. He was friendly with Trae Tha Truth and moved in the same circles as Bun B. Listen to his words, and say his name.
In no particular order, here are the best things we've heard in this cursed year so far.
Sold out - sorry!
Heaven To A Tortured Mind
The experience of repetition as death
The Common Task
Shortly After Takeoff
All Or Nothing
We're New Again – A Re-imagining by Makaya McCraven
All My Heroes Are Cornballs
Sold out - sorry!
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Sold out - sorry!
Nona, Decima et Morta
All Things Being Equal
Room For The Moon
Against All Logic
The Soft Pink Truth
Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?
Erratics & Unconformities
In no particular order, here are the best things we've heard in this cursed year so far that were released in cursed years gone by.
High Violet (Expanded Edition)
Sold out - sorry!
Escape (Expanded Edition)
African Head Charge
Songs Of Praise
L’Œuvre musicale en 12 CD
Sold out - sorry!
The Weed Tree
Guided By Voices
Sold out - sorry!
Words and Music by Saint Etienne
1 2 3
Sold out - sorry!
The Empyrean (10 Year Anniversary Issue)
Calling From A Country Phone
Rowland S. Howard
Teenage Snuff Film
I'm New Here (10th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
Songs & Melodies, 1973-1977
The Divine Comedy
Here's some stuff that nearly made the Top 25 in this cursed year. But didn't. Random order.
Straight Songs Of Sorrow
Khruangbin & Leon Bridges
Shabaka & The Ancestors
We Are Sent Here By History
Watch This Liquid Pour Itself
Alles In Allem
Tongues Of Mount Meru
The Hex Of Light
Nah Nah Nah Yeh Yeh Yeh
Sold out - sorry!
John Chantler & Johannes Lund
- Vinyl LP (Johs & John 1)
- £18.99 £16.14 (saving: £2.85)
- In stock and ready to ship
- Limited edition
- Last copy
Sold out - sorry!
The New Abnormal
Sold out - sorry!
The Loves Of Your Life
Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela
Unknown Plunderer / End Times Sound
Sold out - sorry!
There Is No Year
Slum Of Legs
Slum Of Legs
Against All Logic
Illusions Of Shameless Abundance / Alucinao
Finally, here's a big ol' playlist of some of the choicest cuts from this cursed year. Enjoy!