Best Records of January 2020 Squarepusher, Squirrel Flower, Algiers, Craven Faults and more
Meet the new decade, same as the old decade. We're only a month in and the 2020s have already served up some classic musical fayre. Dig into ten of the choicest morsels below...
How has January been for you? Cold and grey and grim? Yep, same here. It feels as if this has been the longest January on record, an endless slog of overcrowded buses and dark walks to work and no booze, parties or anything else resembling fun. But hey, we made it! Blue Monday has been conquered! There's the merest, faintest whiff of spring in the air! Good work everyone - things are looking up.
And even in January’s darkest moments there has been great music to get us through. The first weeks of the new decade have seen the release of many fine records - some from old favourites such as Bill Fay and Dan Deacon, some brought to us by upstart newbies like Squirrel Flower. There were so many that we couldn’t fit them all in one article - keep an eye out for our round-up of January’s hidden gems - but for now let’s beat the blues by revisiting ten of the biggest and best LPs to emerge this month. Let me be who I am, it’s time to kick out the Jans!
Yeah you heard me. This ain't a game. I don’t care who you are or where you come from - I’m gonna claim my crown. I Was BORN Swimming. We don't play out here!
… Ahem. Not sure what came over me there. Also, the tough guy act doesn’t really fit for ‘I Was Born Swimming’, the first LP from Ella O’Connor Williams’ Squirrel Flower alias. Indeed, these sensitive songs come very much from the nexus of emo and grunge, sonic territory not especially known for macho bluster. Acts like Codeine, Mitski and Frankie Cosmos are recalled by heartfelt rockers such as ‘Red Shoulder’.
Bonny Light Horseman is the sort of project that gets seasoned folkies all hot and bothered. Some of the finest talent in modern folk is on display here - the trio comprises of celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, Eric Johnson of Fruit Bats/The Shins/various film scores and The National/Craig Finn/The Hold Steady hired-gun Josh Kaufman. When riding in tandem they make spare, beautiful music, their voices ringing clear and true atop the gentle pattern of guitars, drums, banjo and piano. The harmonies on songs like ‘Bright Morning Stars’ are just brilliant.
If you’ve had an orchestra to hide behind in the past, releasing music that’s mostly just you and a piano ends up sounding like the bravest thing in the world. Bill Fay is used to making brave decisions, mind, his return to music after four actual decades is one that might not have paid off. His songwriting was strong enough to make it so, and it’s certainly strong enough to pull off the more stripped back instrumentation on ‘Countless Branches’.
‘What, the same Keeley Forsyth who was in ‘Corrie’?’ Yes, the same Keeley Forsyth who was in ‘Corrie’ - and ‘Happy Valley’, and ‘The Bill’, and ‘Casualty’, and even ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’. As well as ‘Debris’ being a real change of pace for this actor-turned-singer, it’s also a triumph of a record, one born from a period of depression so severe that it temporarily rendered Forsyth incapable of moving her tongue. Working with Matthew Bourne, Forsyth creates soundscapes that hover on the edge of avant-garde songcraft and pure ambience. These set the scene for some extraordinary vocal performances - Scott Walker, Moses Sumney, Marianne Faithfull and Nico are just a few of those invoked by Forsyth’s husky quaver.
If you’re a rocker with Something To Say, the line between righteous fury and grumpy moaning is rather fine. If you’re a middle-aged rocker with Something To Say, that line becomes thinner still. Kudos, then, to Drive-By Truckers, who despite being well into their third decade playing together have managed to make a state-of-the-nation address distinctly more impassioned than grouchy in the form of ‘The Unraveling’. Atop Springsteen-adjacent Americana the veteran band take their country to task again and again, demanding a better world for their children in the process.
Dan Deacon is someone who believes music is for everyone. In the past he’s created an app that turns his crowds into participatory light shows, he leads conga lines through venues, and he makes music that, for all its idiosyncrasies, is fundamentally warm and inviting. Deacon’s spent a few years honing his soundtrack work, but with ‘Mystic Familiar’ we get to witness his kaleidoscopic and joyful chaos once again.
There are a lot of psychedelic rock bands out there (some might argue that there are too many psychedelic rock bands out there…). That said, no matter how many freaky-deaky rockers the scene might produce, it may never spawn an act as original, as daring, as full of verve as OOIOO. ‘Nijimusi’, the first LP in 6 years from YoshimiO and company, is another celebration of psychedelia and free composition in their truest modes. This fun, playful, daring music brings a whole host of adjacent groups to mind - Throbbing Gristle, The Mars Volta, Goat, Zun Zun Egui, even a little ESG. However, ‘Nijimusi’ proves that even after all these years there is still no outfit quite like OOIOO.
Ever since emerging in 2017 with the ‘Netherfield Works’ EP - the first release of his ‘Lowfold Works’ trilogy - Craven Faults has proven to be an enigmatic artist who makes enigmatic music. After completing the Lowfold Works run in 2019, Craven Faults kicked off the new decade with debut LP ‘Erratics And Unconformities’. A potent brew of kosmische synth experiments, minimalist arpeggiation, pastoral techno and the dark satanic mills of Craven Faults’ native northern England, this is an album of moody and magnificent electronics. Will ‘Erratics And Unconformities’ be remembered as the first classic record of the 2020s? We wouldn’t bet against it.
One of the more vitriolic modern indie bands, Algiers sharpen the spears once again on new LP ‘There Is No Year’. Their stylistic blend remains somewhat unusual - caustic post-punk and barbed industrial synth-pop seem like a natural fit, but there’s also a distinct whiff of classic soul that comes in from leftfield. Throw in a rather apocalyptic outlook on The Current State Of Affairs and the result is a sort of darkside take on Alabama Shakes - a good thing in our book, and a channel they work with great passion on ‘There Is No Year’.
Meep moop! Zorp! Squeng-cthkung! *Drums which sound like someone throwing a million ball-bearings onto a marble floor*. Yep, that’s right, Squarepusher’s got a new album out. A half-decade on from his previous record ‘Damogen Furies’, the breakcore pioneer known to his mum as Thomas Jenkinson has strapped in his synths to once more ride roughshod through the outer edges of the ravesphere. Some of ‘Be Up A Hello’ is chirpy, almost maniacally so, while other tracks channel paranoia. Whatever the vibe is, you can tell in an instant that ‘Be Up A Hello’ is all Squarepusher.