As 2020 writes itself off and leaves trails of a brave new world behind, I believe its musical output is worth taking a look at from a contextual standpoint rather than the usual year-in-review write-up.
In a scenario this close to science-fiction, exceptional material prevails through cohabitation with its environment and its capacity to communicate emotionally with the listener or push one's imagination to its limits. This is something that oddball producers and curators of pure breed electronic music have always been fantastic at, as opposed to the often too-explicit and confined-within-genres producers of, let's say, dance, pop or even alternative music, which usually thrive when times are great, not grave.
This year unfolded as the perfect setting to produce, release, or research music that's both innovative and imaginative enough to soundtrack a year spent in thick air for a character caught somewhere between a dystopic present and the false memory of a utopic past. For those of us who live in our heads, the act of suggestion is the name of the game, turning open-ended music into necessary goods.
Whether we like to admit it or not, this is a post-clubbing era we live in, and within it a whole new listening culture emerges. And as it pushes through the shallowness of the dancefloors it manages to establish new aesthetic rules that were once considered to be unfashionable anywhere other than on the outskirts of the music culture.
Based on these ideas, a list of this year's most notable releases, reissues, and unearthed material came naturally.
In high demand material from Music From Memory’s Jamie Tiller and Tako Reyenega that go through a tremendous licensing effort and superhuman detective work to release a masterful triple LP that brings homage to the early-1990s Chill Out Rooms across Europe. As a consequence of the rise in popularity of Acid and following the Second Summer Of Love in 1988, the clubbing culture across the continent expanded to accommodate a chemically enhanced generation of ravers.
This, in turn, meant that house and techno would occasionally step away from the loud and energy-filled big rooms to work on the minds rather than the bodies of those who were there to experience what it had to offer. The result was mind-altering and transcendental, often visually aided and CGI filled but also short-lived and sparse in the end, disrupted by the arrival of jungle and hardcore. Nevertheless blissful.
Virtual Dreams tells the story of its existence through extremely hard to find material from one-off projects or offshoots from leading producers David Moufang, Mark Pritchard, Marc Hollander, Roman Flugel, Max Loderbauer or Richard H. Kirk. An essential record for anyone brave enough to embark themselves on an MDMA-fueled trip through dance music’s recent past.
An article published by The Guardian in June 2020 suggestively named ‘A Reconsideration Of The White Male Cowboy: The Rise Of Ambient Country’ spoke about an emerging evolution of the seeming simple-mindedness of traditional country music through the eyes of the underground ambient, noise, and post-rock scenes. As weird as it may seem, a whole new bout of experimentalists dropped their character definitions for a chance to revive and reposition a genre historically focused on storytelling. Lovefingers’ ESP Institute is unsurprisingly one of the first to jump on this boat. This is one for the open spaces as much as it is one of the most interesting albums released this year, and evidence that a new genre is getting coined right before our eyes.
Following a string of excellent singles for his Superconscious label comes Mic Wills a.k.a Fantastic Man’s debut LP on Japan’s Mule Musiq; a deeply crafted example of new-world dancefloor music. 'Utopic' moves along the lines of the abstract house and fourth world while intentionally slipping into schizophrenic breakbeat and peak-time acid at times. To the untrained ear, the album may seem, at first, like a big step sideways from what Wills generally does.
However, as it unfolds, it becomes stimulating and opens up towards a more discerning ethos on the dancefloor, requiring quite a bit more from those who choose to expose themselves to it. Don’t worry, once fully understood and accepted as a new norm, it gives back tenfold.
Green has been everywhere this year. The spectacular re-release of this 1987 Japanese cult classic on Light In The Attic sent record shops and collectors on a frenzy as Hiroshi Yoshimura’s name, one that was largely unspoken-of outside of his home country until now, finally echoed across European and American borders.
Until his death in 2003, Yoshimura was a master of ambient and library music and a polymath par excellence: composer, designer, historian, whose commissioned or artistic work always blurred the lines between sound, architecture, and everyday life. 'Green' was his most beloved creation made using crisp and clear Yamaha FM digital synthesizers, in his own words, convey the comfortable scenery of the natural cycle to wherever the listener is. Beautiful in its truest sense, meditative, and detailed to the point of perfection.
Another reissue comes from the electronic masterminds Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton under their Global Communication guise. '76:14' has earned a lot of praise since its inception in 1994, coming from directions as diverse as its atmosphere. Tipped as the album of the decade, an ambient masterpiece, or one of the best dance music albums of all time by literally everyone involved in music journalism, '76:14' is an enduring tour de force that circles techno, breakbeat, electronica, shoegaze, and even dub while retaining its full cinematic complexity. A rare kind of must-have record which, thus far, has only been surpassed by Richard D. James’ 'Selected Ambient Works'.
It was probably one of 2020s' very few upsides that Adrian Sherwood and Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah’s indisputable masterpiece got a much-anticipated vinyl repress for the first time since 1990. 'Songs Of Praise' is a high priority record. Even though it's more mainstream than what AHC released during the 1980s, it is an essential piece in understanding the band’s prolific catalog of reverb plate dub, synthesized reggae, religious chants, and percussive escapades, as well as Sherwood’s production-genius. It’s no wonder people have gone to extreme lengths for this one, including calling it one of the best albums ever created by any human being.
Even though this is not Richard H. Kirk's main achievement in 2020, a title rightfully owned by Cabaret Voltaire's first album release in 27 years, the fact that Music From Memory sister label Second Circle managed to cop the publishing rights for this shockingly-fresh material from 1992, makes it one of the label's most solid accomplishments thus far. Balearic melodic lines, analog electro drum patterns, and reimagined ethnical vocals are on full display here, as Kirk uses one of his lesser-known monikers to envision music that still manages to be quite ahead of its time.
Never before heard sounds created by Japanese twin brothers Satoshi and Makoto using exclusively a Casio model CZ-5000 digital synthesizer/sequencer somewhere in the vicinity of Tokyo, in the Kawasaki region during the 1990s. The outcome is a positive, head-in-the-clouds, almost The Orb-esque take on ambient and experimental music that amazes through its sheer simplicity. The second in a series of two sound dictionary/library volumes released exactly three years apart on Young Marco's Safe Trip institution.
Antinote’s Dang-Khoa Chau morphs into his new-age ambient alter-ego with 'The Goddess Is Dancing'. Different from his anterior impeccable home-listening outings on ”Melody As Truth” and ”12th Isle”, ”The Goddess Is Dancing” is less Balearic and far more spiritual and tribal. It progresses along the lines of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ritual explorations in a bid to rewrite and energize folk music (the whole album roots itself in the ancient Hau Dong ritual, carried out in the temples of North and Central Vietnam).
Despite its centuries-old inspiration, the album is anything but out of date referencing ambient house and downtempo in a way defined and perfected by the likes of Move D and Suzanne Kraft. Initially released on cassette tape on the ever astonishing Good Morning Tapes bijoux label, the album was also made available on an obligatory vinyl format early this year.
The definitive album of the obscure group O Yuki Conjugate rehashed 34 years since its actual recording, through the means and knowledge of the ever-excellent Emotional Rescue label. Composed over four days in a studio in Leeds, Into Dark Water cuts in line ahead of the rigors championed by its contemporary Japanese counterparts such as Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ”Music For Nine Postcards” or Masahiro Sugaya’s ”Horizon”. The album is taking more of an experimental look at ambient as filtered through the lens of a post-industrial, Thatcher-led Britain. The percussive resilience of Ba-Makala and the almost breathable spatiality of Ascension are clear highlights of the album.