The Albums of 2020

I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.

Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.

Number One: 

Lunatic Soul: Through Shaded Woods

 I reviewed this album earlier, so details of the songs can be found there, but in that review I focused more on how it fit in with the whole Lunatic Soul story/music arc, and only briefly mentioned how it impacted me as just plain music. I still don’t consider it among the best of Lunatic Soul writ large, but I think I need to talk more about my response to it.

 Through Shaded Woods fills me with a joy that I can hardly describe–it is by far the album that has given me the most pleasure this year. I am a long-time fan of folk-rock, and while most of the artists in this genre have music that is upbeat and rocking, or beautifully mournful and melodic, or lush with percussion, or irresistibly primal, somehow Mariusz Duda, reaching into a deep Slavic folk past, has managed to accomplish all of this at once. I am bewitched: I can’t seem to play the album enough. Lunatic Soul is a musical journey that nothing else in my listening life has equaled, and I am happy that this album has joined the collection.

 And as a bonus, there is the astonishing “Transition II”, also reviewed earlier, very different from the main album but just as miraculous, perhaps even moreso. Duda has a particular skill in crafting long songs — some of the most beloved Riverside tracks are the epics: “Second Life Syndrome”, or “Left Out” for example, but I think that “Transition II” is on another level again. I might be willing to claim that this is one of the best things he’s ever done, full stop.


The rest:

 Puscifer: Existential Reckoning

A single from Maynard James Keenan’s solo/vanity project appeared in the spring, and I liked it enough to flag for follow-up; the second one a few months later was good enough for me to preorder the album. Up to that point I had never mustered up any interest in Puscifer, but the album turned out to be worth the pre-order risk. Very smart indie-electronic pop, with lots of vocal play between Keenan and singer Carina Round.  Most of the songs address science denial, political posturing, and other modern social ills…and some don’t.


All Them Witches: Nothing as the Ideal

 I find this Nashville stoner/psych outfit to be hit and miss: I have liked the occasional track but have not had much luck with entire albums. However, Nothing as the Ideal is strong and consistent, full of density and atmosphere, and did fulfil the promise of the first couple of singles early in the year. “Saturnine and Iron Jaw” kicks off the album with doomy rock that chugs along once it gets going, and the rest of the album largely follows this trajectory — tracks that start slow and gather momentum as they develop.  Overall I find the album a bit slow-going, but I listen to it more often than I initially thought I would.  


Maciej Meller: Zenith

Riverside’s guitarist used the musical downtime of 2020 to complete a solo album. While he is relatively to the Riverside lineup he is an old and experienced hand in Polish rock, having been a long-time member of the band Quidam. I knew nothing of Quidam however, and really had no idea at all what to expect from Zenith. I was quite pleasantly surprised: a very strong, melodic proggy album full of atmosphere, hooky themes and excellent support from the various contributors. It also isn’t Riverside-reminiscent at all, which I think speaks to Meller’s vast experience in the business.


Body Count: Carnivore

 This was an early 2020 release, and while it has been surpassed by a couple other albums, it still holds up. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said about it back in June: heavy and brutal, anchored by the powerhouse duo of Vincent Dennis (a.k.a. Vincent Price) and Will Dorsey, Jr. on bass and drums respectively. The tracks feature various guests: Riley Gale (Power Trip: Gale died on August 24, 2020, after the video was made), Jamie Jasta (Hatebreed), and Amy Lee (Evanescence). The songs are the standard Body Count themes — life in the ‘hood, institutionalized racism, discontent and anger. There is also the tribute track to their influences, in this case “Ace of Spades”, sounding more Mötorhead than Mötorhead. 


Seeming: The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity

 I don’t find this album quite as nuanced as the last one (Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual); still, it is an album that opens itself up gradually, rewarding repeat listens, although maybe it is a bit self-indulgent. Indie/electronic pop with strong vocals providing lyrically obscure observations on the state of the world and survival. Topics include climate change and political inertia (the rage of “The Flood Comes for You”), social justice, and just getting by in a world turned upside-down (the mantric “Remember to Breathe”). I like it when I play it, but I have to remember to play it, rather than finding myself drawn to it.


Die Krupps: Vision 2020 (released in 2019)

German industrial metal, from the old guys. The album was released in 2019, and the vision for 2020 was of a society in dissolution: we’re not quite at that point yet, but the prescience is perhaps a bit unsettling. Vision 2020 is heavy and relentless, but smoother and more consistent than their last album, 2015’s Metal Machine Music (if one ignores the rather odd cover of Genesis’ “The Carpet Crawlers”). This has not been much of a year for heavy offerings that interested me, so this goes some way to filling that gap.

Mariusz Duda: Lockdown Spaces

 What do you do when your band has no gigs and no rehearsals and is not yet ready to begin their next album, your solo project album is almost finished, and you can’t go anywhere? Why, you surprise your fans with a brief album of sparse electronica, evocative of distance and forced isolation. Lockdown Spaces bloops and bleeps along, almost completely digital, cool and airy, both ominous and hopeful, and as far from the lushness we normally associate with Duda’s music as it may be possible to get. It is not the most challenging music Mariusz Duda has ever made, but it gives us a glimpse of the breadth of his ideas, and is very much a soundtrack for the social reality of 2020.