Best Of 2020 – Dan Obstkrieg: Only Kindness Matters

For reasons largely unknown, I gave myself precise word limitations for the blurbs which follow. For those of you playing along at home, this means that I wrote 100 words exactly for each metal album, 20 words exactly for each metal EP, and 50 words exactly for each non-metal album. This totals 3,700 words, a sum which conveys no numerological significance whatsoever. Given the arbitrariness of how each of us encounters art, it seemed a fittingly arbitrary constraint. I have long been drawn to the mathematics of music; writing may be the best kind of song I can muster.

I said “reasons largely unknown,” but that’s disingenuous. This is something tangible within my control, an equation I can solve.

This has been a difficult year, its human tragedy so great that it overawes our comprehension. In this rupture, music has been a balm. It makes us less alone, even (and perhaps especially) as the world’s math becomes fractal rather than algebraic. Whoever you are out there, I love you.

In no particular ranked order, here are some honorable mentions before diving into the formal list:

Aara – En Ergô Einai; Afterbirth – Four-Dimensional Flesh; Ahna – Crimson Dawn; Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment; …and Oceans – Cosmic World Mother; Armagedda – Svindeldjup Ättestup; Atramentus – Stygian; Cryptic Shift – Visions from Enceladus; Cytotoxin – Nuklearth; Dark Forest – Oak, Ash & Thorn; Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus; Depravity – Grand Malevolence; Devangelic – Ersetu; Fates Warning – Long Day Good Night; Forlesen – Hierophant Violent; Fuck the Facts – Pleine Noirceur; Grafvitnir – Death’s Wings Widespread; John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity; Korgull the Exterminator – Sharpen Your Spikes; Molasses – Through the Hollow; Paradise Lost – Obsidian; Question – Reflections of the Void; Sacred Outcry – Damned for All Time; Seven Spires – Emerald Seas; Shards of Humanity – Cold Logic; Töxik Death – Sepulchral Demons; Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still; Valkyrie – Fear; Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost.

HANG ON TO EACH OTHER

20. Helion Prime – Question Everything

Now on their third singer in three albums, Helion Prime recovered in a huge way from the misstep of their last album with the impossibly catchy Question Everything. The band’s thoroughly modern (and only slightly prog-leaning) power metal has symphonic and orchestrated touches to spare, muscular rhythmic guitar work, and Mary Zimmer’s rich alto vocals, which give each of these pieces the bulletproof hooks they need to linger. Add to that a lyrical conceit where each song focuses on a different skeptic, scientist, or iconoclast, and the result is a marvelous album from one of American power metal’s leading lights.

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19. Neptunian Maximalism – Éons

Conventional wisdom might hold that, hey, in these attention span-starved times, rolling out a debut recording that runs more than two hours across three discs is a touch… off. The Belgian collective Neptunian Maximalism instead gleefully damns the torpedoes, sets sail for choppy waters, and proceeds with one of the purest demonstrations of late of the meaninglessness of genre designations. Yes, there are free jazz squalls, doom riffs, rumbling sheets of drone, heady skronk workouts, and layers of hallucinatory noise. But more than that, there is music, pursued with headlong abandon and a love above nearly all else of density.

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18. Khthoniik Cerviiks – Æquiizoiikum

My unwavering line of approach to the vowel-abusing barbarians in Khthoniik Cerviiks is “Hey! You got some Voivod in my Katharsis!” On album number three (and their finest to date), their woozy blackened ferocity is as sideways as ever, but with a noted uptick in spindly melodic fragments, as in standout tracks “Δt” and “Kollektiing Koffiin Naiils.” I’ll be honest: a black metal band with an intro called “Welcome to HAL” is always going to catch my attention; Khthoniik Cerviiks brings it home by backing up their noise-smeared clatter with precisely the kind of rightness to underscore its utter wrongness.

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17. Katavasia – Magnus Venator

Although the Greek black metal scene is stranger and more heterodox than the standard shorthand allows, there’s little denying that “Greek black metal” as a Platonic ideal is one of the more readily identifiable styles in the field. The galloping, the regal mid-tempo, the stately melodicism, the impassioned, theatrically spat vocal cadences: Katavasia’s got it all. What they also have on their second album Magnus Venator is an even more lovingly rendered sense of, well, the brashness of rock and roll. This album lives its bone-deep history while steadfastly refusing to be a museum piece. Call it “Greek yes metal.”

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16. Enslaved – Utgard

Whatever other superlatives one might lob, so total is their mastery over the shapeshifting triumph of their progressive black metal that Enslaved are, above all else, a band with nothing to prove. And yet, for as unavoidably familiar as the elements of Utgard are, Enslaved still seem intent on finding new ways to till their acreage. The almost subliminal instrumental and rhythmic counterpoint that claws its way up out of the last third of “Sequence”? I haven’t seen Enslaved work that move before. The mark of this peerless band is that they knew it too, and had to find it.

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15. Katatonia – City Burials

The scope of The Fall of Hearts felt so all-encompassing that it was difficult to see exactly where Katatonia might tread next. At first, City Burials seems to have pulled all that range skin-tight, then given it only the space of a deep breath’s width to play within. The result is a less immediate Katatonia album, but one which rewards close listening with fresh, aching detail that one could have sworn wasn’t even there the last time one approached. Jonas Renkse’s vocals are in the finest form of his career, leading the band into resplendent darkness, step by trudging step.

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14. Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities

Straw person argument alert: You might see people out there bellyaching that Incantation’s latest album suffers from an overly clean production. These people, as a rule, are dour, no-fun-havers with rutabagas for ears. Undeniably, the sound on Sect of Vile Divinities is both less murky and less sharp-edged than usual for this death metal institution, but the result of that added power and clarity is actually to highlight the fact that Incantation’s foundational, epochal, almighty, mucky lurch is baked into the songwriting. As long as McEntee and company put finger to fret, these riffs will flow like an everpuking stream.

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13. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

The counterintuitive downside of being a total innovator in one’s field is that over time, the innovation comes to be taken for granted. If you’re a major tech company, your solution is planned obsolescence; if you’re the Finnish psychonauts in Oranssi Pazuzu, your solution is, “Fuck you, try this.” Early in the course of the pandemic this year, a large contingent of the Last Rites crew watched Pazuzu’s livestream performance of Mestarin Kynti, and I feel like I’m still occasionally clutching at furniture to steady myself from that headlong descent into the miasmic inner abyss. They will take you places.

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12. Katalepsy – Terra Mortuus Est

The thing about Terra Mortuus Est is, it’s really stupid in exactly all the smartest, dumbest, most perfect ways. If Suffocation is just a touch too cerebral, Katalepsy is here for you, boo. These Russians have struck essentially the perfect balance on their third album between whip-smart technical/brutal riffing and composition and caveman-dumb, thrillingly idiotic tough-guy beatdowns. Imagine all the different genres of people you’d rather not meet in a mosh pit: Terra Mortuus Est is all of them at once, and it is so great. Music to win friends and influence people, if those people are voluntarily lobotomized.

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11. Sólstafir – Endless Twilight of Codependent Love

In today’s edition of Damning With Faint Praise, Sólstafir really faltered with the greyed-out tedium of Berdreyminn. On their latest, however, the Icelandic journeymen revitalized themselves hugely, and put together easily their finest album since Svartir Sandar. “Her Fall from Grace” can take a hike, but otherwise this is a brilliant and surprisingly diverse set of songs from a band too easy to write off as one-note, from the shit-kicking fiery explosion of “Dionysus” to the noir lounge of “Or.” “Úlfur” rides an outro riff so engrossing, I picture the band still out there, following that line past the mountains.

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AND ANY FUCKING THING YOU LOVE

10. MY DYING BRIDE – THE GHOST OF ORION

Feel the Misery, now five years in the rearview, was a shockingly vital resurgence from My Dying Bride. And while this British conglomerate of unshakable despondence remains fish-barrel shootingly open to self-parody (Hello, “Tired of Tears”!), their latest triumph The Ghost of Orion actually underscores in dramatic fashion a truth too easily overlooked: My Dying Bride has nearly always undergone fairly drastic shifts between albums. This latest set of gloomy missives hardly exceeds a simmer throughout, but its open-textured sprawl approaches a heartbreaking calm. A beguiling, forlorn, beautiful, quite nearly ambient, and stunningly restrained outing from this truly peerless act.

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9. SWEVEN – THE ETERNAL RESONANCE

Morbus Chron’s second album pointed the way, but The Eternal Resonance follows the map straight off the edges. Cunningly, Sweven’s debut is actually more straightforward in instrumentation than the swan song of Robert Andersson’s former band, but the atmosphere is richer. It has the burnished instrumental sheen of Jester Race-era In Flames and the baroque architecture of early Opeth, yet sounds like neither. If Sweven the album was Pornography, then The Eternal Resonance is halfway to Disintegration. It doesn’t sound like any of that, though; it sounds like death metal dissolving in dark waters, howling that it might echo forever.

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8. HAVUKRUUNU – UINUOS SYÖMEIN SOTA

Havukruunu have been on an impressive upward trajectory in their still-young career, and album number three is easily their most accomplished outing. The shadow of their countrymen in Moonsorrow certainly still looms large in these songs, but there are complementary echoes of Bathory, Windir, Saor, and many others. More to the point, though, even though the album rarely eases up in its aggressive approach, even the most blisteringly fast passages are animated by a firmament-rending sense of epic melody. Black metal had a somewhat down year in 2020, but nobody else flew the flag of triumph as joyously as Havukruunu.

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7. SÖLICITÖR – SPECTRAL DEVASTATION

Seattle’s Sölicitör live exactly at that thrilling nexus which makes speed metal such a knotty thing to define: not quite thrash or NWOBHM, and nor are they power or straight-ahead trad. What they are quite definitively on Spectral Devastation, however, is an absolutely killer speed metal wrecking crew, like cyborg biker dirtbags in the best dystopian movie that doesn’t exist. Sounding like they’ve mainlined Motörhead, Satan, Omen, Stained Class, Riot, Cerebus, and all the rest, Sölicitör’s broken-bottle melee thrives especially on Amy Lee Carlson’s snarl and some completely blistering dual-guitar heroics. Why kill ‘em all if they’re clamoring to join?

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6. PHARMACIST – MEDICAL RENDITIONS OF GRINDING DECOMPOSITION

The party line is clear, and the party line is not wrong: the Japanese gorefiends in Pharmacist love Carcass. In particular, they love Carcass circa Symphonies/Necroticism, which is patently one of the finest possible death metal stakes to lay claim to. Rather than sheer homage or pastiche, however, this staggeringly accomplished debut album succeeds not because of what it reminds the listener of, but by how easily the listener can forget ever wanting to listen to any other death metal. Disgusting tones, fantastically complex and satisfying riffs, and a sneaky sense of delirious melody? Get your… [sigh]… prescription filled.

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5. THY CATAFALQUE – NAIV

If you’ve encountered Tamás Kátai’s Thy Catafalque even casually – particularly over the last decade or so – it should come as no surprise that the project’s latest album, Naiv, is a peripatetic display of bafflingly juxtaposed genre agnosticism. What Naiv underscores, however, is that no matter how seemingly freeform his musical impulses, Kátai has a singular gift for joining them in such a way that the arc of the whole bends toward revelation. I still don’t know what Kátai is after, but each time I submit to this beautiful, multiform journey, I feel that much closer to some kind of truth.

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4. WORM – GLOOMLORD

If we’re being honest, a band can go pretty far with a canny combination of cover art, album title, and musical atmosphere. (The kids call that “aesthetic.”) On that meager count alone, Worm’s second album Gloomlord had a leg up from the very start of the year. And yet, the true strength of Gloomlord lies in its songwriting, which serves up hugely satisfying gloops of swampy, decrepit doom/death, but also backs it up with deliciously chewy riffs while making ample space for some frankly stunning guitar solos. A recent signing to 20 Buck Spin bodes well for future decrepitude.

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3. GRAYCEON – MOTHERS WEAVERS VULTURES

I wrote a whole florid mess of words about why I love Grayceon’s latest album so fervently, so here I’ll be slightly more concise as to why you need to give this band your attention: these songs stick with you. They have a life and independent emotional weight of their own. One of the marks of a truly great, engaging album is that the sounds hover close and the words run deep. Mothers Weaver Vultures gave me a lot to feel about love, anger, and our responsibility to each other, and it did so with heavy riffs and beautiful playing.

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2. BÜTCHER – 666 GOATS CARRY MY CHARIOT

Do you like Slayer? Bütcher likes Slayer. Do you like Kreator and Bathory and Nifelheim and Mercyful Fate and Aura Noir and Exciter and Celtic Frost? Bütcher does, too. 666 Goats Carry My Chariot is 2020’s undisputed champion of hellish blackened thrashing speed metal, and if you have ever felt allegiance to this beautiful cantankerous thing called heavy metal, you owe it to yourself to hear this record. These Belgian maniacs aren’t afraid to push their songwriting past pure speed, as the title track pulls a few epic Bathory moves. This is a band to watch, to envy, to hail.

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1. CIRITH UNGOL – FOREVER BLACK

Much ink will be (rightly) spilled to point out the remarkable fact that Cirith Ungol’s Forever Black is the band’s first album in 29 years; more still will be spilled to tell of how it strengthens their legacy and clarifies their lineage; too little will be spilled in grateful celebration of this unalloyed triumph. Like all the very best Ungol, Forever Black is both alien and familiar, classicist and new, fleet and leaden, magical and earthly. Like all the very best heavy metal, it is possessed of a wild-eyed fervor and an abiding love. This is a faith worth keeping.

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THERE ARE SHORT SOUNDS

10. Lamp Of Murmuur – The Burning Spears of Crimson Agony

A darling of the raw black metal underground for deserved reason, this demo bests the full-length for this particular knucklehead.

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9. Tzompantli – Tlamanalli

Doom-crawling, muck-treading death metal straight out of Aesop’s famed “slow and painful loses the race; all life is suffering” fable.

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8. Romasa – Insufferable Cave of Rotting Aspiration

Know how most “sludge” is just regular-ass doom with half the riffs and twice the pedals? Romasa is throat-ripping bile.

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7. Midnight Dice – Hypnotized

Seriously catchy, bulletproof trad-leaning metal that might be thrilled to be called glam while also busting you in the jaw.

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6. Kneel – Infinite Worship, Slaves Eternal

Punishingly fast and coruscatingly raw black metal, a bit like if Judas Iscariot did speed and sat on a beehive.

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5. Moldé Volhal – Into the Cave of Ordeals

A rampaging, one-man Norwegian black metal demo which balances sheer intensity with epic, melodic riffs that recall Forteresse or Belenos.

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4. Wampyric Rites – Reflections of a Frostbitten Moon

Punishing rawness, frantic blasting, and uncannily melodic riffing collide with acoustic guitars and atmospheric synth excursions. Lamp of What Now?

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3. Morbific – Pestilent Hordes

Filthy, clattering death metal from Finland with a hefty dose of, well, Finnish death metal. What’re you goddamned waiting for?

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2. Dauþuz – Grubenfall 1727

Sweeping, grimly determined German black metal with thematic focus on mining and caves. Being a niche of one guarantees preeminence.

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1. Lör – Edge of Eternity

Just an astonishing range of ideas stuffed into this 31-minute celebration of bright, complex, progressive, joyful heavy music. Don’t miss.

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THERE ARE MORE SOUNDS

Again, truly a surfeit of wonderful sounds this year. Here are some additional honorable mentions:

Ambrose Akinmusire – On the Tender Spot of Every Callused Moment; Artemis – Artemis; ASC – Isolated Systems; Cloudkicker – Solitude; Collocutor – Continuation; Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans; Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions; Joel Ross – Who Are You?; Julianna Barwick – Healing is a Miracle; Leandro Fresco & Rafael Anton Irisarri – Una Presencia en la Brisa; Lorenzo Senni – Scacco Matto; Mala Rodriguez – Mala; Malena Zavala – La Yarará; Moby – All Visible Objects; Nduduzo Makhatini – Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds; Nubya Garcia – The Source; The Orb – Abolition of the Royal Familia; Photay – On Hold; Rob Luft – Life is the Dancer; Sad13 – Haunted Painting; Shabaka & the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here by History; Sibling and Heavenchord – Sounds of Silence; Steve Earle & the Dukes – Ghosts of West Virginia; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; The Soft Pink Truth – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?

30. Dan Rosenboom – Absurd in the Anthropocene

The trumpeter Dan Rosenboom had a prolific year, but Absurd in the Anthropocene stands out for its gleefully messy stylistic sprawl that pulls from jazz, funk, instrumental hip-hop, and the kind of fusion abstractions that mark a lot of Squarepusher’s more outré material. This one snarls, writhes, luxuriates in furrows.

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29. Khruangbin – Mordechai

Album number three from this Texas trio finds their uniquely laidback psych soul-funk in as fine a form as ever, still driven primarily by the focus on Laura Lee’s bass. Vocals play a much more prominent role here than in the past, but Khruangbin’s effortlessly cool and calming vibe sustains.

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28. Ben Lukas Boysen – Mirage

Ben Lukas Boysen is an almost preternaturally gifted producer, and on Mirage his meticulous compositions attain such a syncretic whole that it becomes folly to parse the genre or origin of each sound. Like Philip Glass scoring Blade Runner with a happy ending? No, but maybe. Sit with these sounds.

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27. Squarepusher – Be Up a Hello

Be Up a Hello is an ebullient, life-affirming, playfully anarchic return to form for Tom Jenkinson, and as such it’s tempting to place it alongside Aphex Twin’s Syro. It harkens back to early IDM landmarks like Jenkinson’s own Hard Normal Daddy, but dances with a light heart and lighter touch.

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26. Wolfgang Muthspiel – Angular Blues

Compared to the other guitar jazz trio album on this list, Angular Blues is knottier, denser, and more full of crosstalk. Brian Blade is one of the greatest jazz drummers at the moment, and his sparing intensity coaxes Muthspiel’s guitar into some fabulous tumbling dialogue. Like a harbor at dusk.

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25. Kölsch – Now Here No Where

The Danish producer Kölsch released perhaps the most unabashedly beautiful dance album of the year with Now Here No Where, which fuses bold, tech-leaning rhythms, trance-nodding ebullience, and enough strings and contemporary classical influence to remind the listener of Jon Hopkins or Nils Frahm.

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24. Bill Frisell – Valentine

Bill Frisell’s Valentine is a beautifully relaxed jazz trio with his guitar alongside Rudy Royston’s drums and Thomas Morgan’s bass. Even in the busier passages, there’s a warmth and openness that sounds like three friends with years at their back sitting around the table, catching up, talking shit, laughing easily.

Full album stream on YouTube

23. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

With apologies to James Brown, Bruce Springsteen has long since made a serious run at the title of hardest working man in show business. Letter to You is another full slate of sprawling E Street Band rock and roll, and very likely Springsteen’s best since The Rising. Riveting, vital rock.

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22. Ausklang – Chronos

The German trio Ausklang is a perfect fit for Indianapolis-based label Past in the Present, despite being a slightly more traditional band. Chronos is an assured, tremulously beautiful album of instrumental post-rock that flirts with ambient and contemporary classical, calling to mind Sigur Rós or Eluvium at their most rapturous.

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21. J Majik – Always Be

Despite a late-year album from ASC, J Majik’s Always Be is the glorious, head-spinning, breezy, nailgun-drumming, classicist drum and bass album of the year. Still, it’s almost certainly premature to hail a jungle revival, both because the style never quite died and because Always Be sounds like a new future.

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20. North Atlantic Drift – Pillars

Each piece on this quiet, beatific album is a postcard from a friend you thought you’d lost. This duo favors slow, warm drones with washes of treble and pingings in the distance. Picture a ship, adrift at sea. Fog lifts and the sun dapples; this is that kind of church.

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19. Beatrice Dillon – Workaround

This is a curious and engrossing album of diverse, minimal, abstract percussive grooves. Too smooth for glitch, too propulsive for dub, too slow for footwork, Workaround feels like a set of experiments in walking sideways into chopped beatwork only to find your feet already know the moves. Deep, head-nodding rhythm.

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18. Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep

When categorizing the nooks and crannies of progressive rock, literally nobody happens to mentally arrange a spectrum with the ends anchored by “David Gilmour’s guitar tone” and “Rick Wakeman’s cape.” Were anyone to take up such that most hopeless of batons, however, one just might find Wobbler howling their Assent.

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17. Glåsbird Norskfjǫrðr

Glåsbird’s Norskfjǫrðr is possibly the most overwhelmingly tactile album on this list. Though ambient in overall effect, the bedrock strings and vanishing drones are speckled with taps, scrapes, birdsong, water. A deeply felt, imaginary found-sound journey along the craggy coastlines and remote cabins of Norway’s fjords. Cozy, immersive, transportive sound.

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16. Zara McFarlane – Songs of an Unknown Tongue

Neither quite neosoul nor jazz nor Afrofuturism, Zara McFarlane’s fourth album and latest for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings is a heady, mellifluous blend of contemporary UK jazz, Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and bass-forward electronic music. McFarlane’s voice lilts atop and around the groove, projecting both strength and vulnerability with ease.

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15. William Ryan Fritch – The Letdown

Evocative, off-kilter jazz noir is the order of the day from this darkly alluring album. Fritch summons ghostly melodic fragments with an undercurrent of percussive clatter that should appeal to fans of Bohren & der Club of Gore, Tom Wait’s Alice, or the more quietly menacing elements of mid-period Einsturzende Neubauten.

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14. Field Works – Ultrasonic

Each Field Works album revolves around a central theme, illustrated by the use of Stuart Hyatt’s field recordings. On Ultrasonic, a dream list of diverse artists in the contemporary ambient and electronic music scene take Hyatt’s recordings of the Indiana bat and twist them into gorgeous, diaphanous billows of sky-sound.

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13. Michael Olatuja – Lagos Pepper Soup

Bassist Michael Olatuja’s Lagos Pepper Soup is the most joyful, danceable illustration of the universality of music you’ll find this year. The album simmers with jazz, funk, soul, fusion, Afrobeat, and orchestral pop. This is a richly immanent experience, where divinity exists purely in the work of these many hands.

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12. Emma Swift – Blonde on the Tracks

The gorgeous lilt of Emma Swift’s singing (somewhat reminiscent of Jenny Lewis) is utterly magnetic throughout Blonde on the Tracks, a rich, straightforward, Americana-tinged set of Bob Dylan covers. Locating itself in a sympathetic, open-hearted place somewhere between Swift’s Nashville and Dylan’s Greenwich Village, this is a perfectly lovely album.

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11. Alvaro Rojas – Gran Kasa

Vancouver-based guitarist Alvaro Rojas’s latest, Gran Kasa, is a piquantly vibrant album of buoyant rhythms and overflowing melody. The primary idiom is jazz, but Rojas’s guitar underscores a fondness for progressive rock alongside Latin percussion and grooves, chamber strings, and echoes of everything from early Santana to contemporary UK jazz.

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10. Tyresta – All We Have

Written in the context of his mother’s death from cancer, Tyresta’s Nick Turner released the most heartbreakingly beautiful album of the year, filled with the kind of wordless grief that spills over into awe, the sharp pain which becomes a deep ache because it’s all love.

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9. Rïcïnn Nereïd

Rïcïnn’s second album Nereïd is a strange, beautiful, unpredictably choral piece of work with echoes of Dead Can Dance, Julie Christmas, Lotus Thief, and Bjork’s Medulla, in turns soothing and unsettling as it contrasts Laure Le Prunenec’s tumbling, acrobatic vocals with clattering explosions of sound. An aching, vulnerable, defiant album.

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8. Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun

Matthew Halsall’s spiritual-tinged jazz is at once expansive and restrained. Throughout the album, the bass often anchors a mantra-like pulse while all manner of instrumentation – harp, flute, kalimba, shakers and other hand percussion, Halsall’s own trumpet – explores melodic variations like exhalations of gratitude. This is an album of radiant calm.

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7. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Finally, a Fiona Apple album where the long-standing directness and pungency of her songwriting is mirrored and thus strengthened by the sound. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is bold, nervy, open, and fuck-your-preconceptions confessional, all the while sounding like you’ve stepped into her piano’s soundboard, into her head, into her world.

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6. bvdub – Wrath & Apathy

Brock van Wey released four great albums this year (and may toss out another couple while I’m writing this). His spacious, restorative, warmly glacial ambient evokes nostalgia and longing with equal parts sharp detail and distant pain, and Wrath & Apathy sweetens the deal with some judiciously deployed blissed-out dub textures.

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5. Pantha du Prince – Conference of Trees

Conference of Trees is a sumptuous slow-burn from Pantha du Prince. Unfolding gradually with chimes, strings, and wooden instruments, it’s not until 20 minutes in that anything like a dance beat emerges. Contemplative, shimmering electronic music that spreads patient roots and slowly reaches for the sky – this is earth trance.

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4. Elder – Omens

Although Elder has inhabited a rarefied space for several albums, the feature that has truly marked their ascendence is just how seamlessly they weave together knotty progressive structure, earth-bound weightiness, and psychedelic dreaminess. Omens marks a higher plateau, as the warmth and fuzz sketch out limbs that grasp the sublime.

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3. Andrea – Ritorno

Andrea’s Ritorno covers a huge range of styles, from breakbeat and IDM to industrial dub and ambient. Most impressive of all is how the album’s vast scope presents a complete journey, like traveling from nocturnal lamplight to lamplight in a city where menace and hope dance just around the corner.

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2. Autechre – SIGN/PLUS

Every Autechre album is akin to stepping sideways into a parallel universe, where what initially feels inscrutable gradually unspools and resolves, like deciphering an alien grammar or fractal architecture. The latest tandem of SIGN and PLUS are no different; each summons a blizzard of silt, an ocean of mercury. Listen.

Autechre on Bandcamp

1. 36 & zakè – Stasis Sounds for Long-Distance Space Travel

I can’t think of an album that I listened to more (or needed more badly) this year than this elemental, ambient balm. With its richly suggestive title, it is a blessing to wade physically into the sounds of this album: the hum and the ping, the float and the thrum.

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Thank you for being here with us, friends. I don’t know how to name the unfathomable loss of so many people this year, from unparalleled musical geniuses to friends and neighbors and strangers throughout the world. I don’t know how to honor that, or what kind of valediction could possibly do anything but ring hollow, but the best I can say is: Do as much good and spread whatever love is within your power. Stay safe out there, because somebody needs you. We all need you.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

  1. That 36 & Zake album is remarkable, and one of the year’s best ambient albums. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out the album that Zake released in the fall, Orchestral Studies Collectanea. They work together as companion pieces, and considered collectively are, to my ears, the best thing in the “orchestral ambient” genre since …Tired Sounds Of.

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  2. Yep, that Orchestral Studies album is also quite wonderful. As you might have noticed, it was a bit difficult for me to not just list everything that PITP put out this year – definitely one of my favorite ambient labels currently going. (They also put out a couple EPs from T.R. Jordan that play more directly with the orchestral/chamber side of things.)

    Interesting point about Stars of the Lid. I’m trying to think of what else I would put in that same lineage in the recent(ish) past, and maybe the last slam dunk that comes to mind is Eluvium’s Copia, but that was certainly quite a while ago now.

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    1. The Become Trilogy (Ocean, Desert, River) from John Luther Adams springs to mind as a personal favorite in the orchestral ambient realm.

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  3. Thank you for the kind words!

    zakè

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