Listening: 2020 in Review

December 6, 2020
Popol Vuh band members
The core members of Popol Vuh: Daniel Fichelscher, Florian Fricke, and Djong Yun.

It's been a great year in listening to music for me. This is mostly due to the fact that I've been working from my home office, so I can play music on my stereo all day. Spotify was kind enough to tell me what albums I listened to most in 2020, so I thought I'd share them here along with some reflections. Writing up this blog post has given me a lot of gratitude for the listening experiences I was fortunate enough to have this year.

Einsjager & Siebenjager cover art

Popol Vuh - Einsjäger & Siebenjäger (1974)

Over the summer I did a deep dive into krautrock music. If you're not familiar, krautrock is the broad term for German art rock from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s. I've been a fan of the big names in krautrock for many years, such as Can, Neu!, Cluster, Kraftwerk, Faust, La Dusseldorf, and Guru Guru. However, there were so many other artists that I had never gotten around to listening to.

Of all the new krautrock artists I listened to, Popol Vuh made the biggest impression on me. It was a strange experience. I had listened to their first four albums and really only found Hosianna Mantra to be compelling. Then I came to their fifth album, Einsjäger & Siebenjäger. I thought it was good but didn't pay close attention to it at first. I listened to it a couple more times and started to be impressed by it.

Then I played it again and took a nap on my couch while it played. I was in one of those half-sleep states infused with the music, and I felt so comforted. As I woke up from the nap I realized I was completely in love with the music. Popol Vuh was all I wanted to listen to for the next couple weeks. I came to find so many awe inspiring, deeply powerful moments in their music. From the achingly pretty chamber ballad "Maria (Ave Maria)" to the proto-Television electric guitars of "Einsjäger und Siebenjäger" to the hypnotic chords of "Söhne des Lichts" to the exuberant chanting of "Der Tod des Cobra Verde".

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Música Esporádica - Música Esporádica (1985)

I forget how I stumbled on the label Music from Memory, but at some point this year I listened to a bunch of their albums on Spotify. They specialize in reissuing obscure yet fairly accessible avant-garde music from the 1980s. The album I liked best was 1985's Música Esporádica by the ensemble of the same name. I don't know much about this Spanish ensemble, but there was a week when I had their album playing on repeat.

The music is percussive, atmospheric, and entrancing. Two things make the music stand out for me. One is the vocalists whose harmonies blend in beautifully with the rest of the ensemble, as showcased on "I Forgot the Shirts". The other is the ensemble's embrace of digital synthesizers, which sound dated yet perfect.

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Lifted - 2 (2019)

The start of 2020 marked the end (or technically "hiatus") of Tiny Mix Tapes. I actually cried when this happened because TMT had guided so much of my music listening and discovery over the past decade. In the wake of TMT, I looked for another source of reviews of electronic and experimental music and found Resident Advisor. Thus, much of the new music I checked out this year I learned about from Resident Advisor.

All this is to say that I learned about Lifted's 2019 album, 2, either from TMT or RA. I can't remember which. The point is that 2 is a revelation, a masterwork of post-production. As I think about it, 2 sounds like the digital, postmodern evolution of Música Esporádica. I won't say much more about the music so as not to ruin the element of surprise. As I write this, I see that Lifted has put out an EP this year called 3.3. Listening now, and it's fantastic.

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Ashra - Blackouts (1977)

Another favorite from my krautrock exploration. Ashra was Manuel Göttsching's solo project after Ash Ra Tempel ended. I actually didn't care for Ash Ra Tempel's music or Göttsching's guitar playing up until the mid-1970s, but then something must have happened artistically for him. He somehow transformed from a boring blues noodler into a sonic visionary.

New Age of Earth from 1976 is just as good as (though more celebrated than) Blackouts from 1977. But Blackouts is the one I keep coming back to. While New Age of Earth is innovatively ambient, Blackouts is funky and fun. For my money, Göttsching made a quantum leap forward with these albums and blew past some of the big names of the era like Kraftwerk and Cluster. Sadly, Ashra's next album, Correlations from 1979, is a disappointing mix of more commercial music that hasn't aged well. Let's not forget his return to glory, however, with 1981's stunning E2-E4.

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Nathan Micay - Blue Spring (2019)

I found this album on Resident Advisor earlier in the year when I was looking to get acquainted with contemporary electronic music, especially the more poppy and danceable genres. Blue Spring is straight up candy. At one point I blasted "Ecstasy Is On Maple Mountain" in my living room and Kallie walked in. Her eyes grew wide, a big smile came to her face, and she started dancing. "WHAT'S THIS?!" she yelled.

Just because I call it candy doesn't mean that it lacks substance. The music is all very well written and produced. I just mean that it doesn't pull any punches when it reaches for ecstasy.

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Kali Malone - The Sacrificial Code (2019)

I first started listening to this at the end of 2019 when we were still living in Minneapolis. For a couple weeks this album was the soundtrack to my commute down to Northfield every day. It put me into such a reflective, strange emotional state during the drive, and it still does every time I listen to it. On paper this might not seem like the most compelling album: an hour and 46 minutes of slow, repetitive organ music. But there is something utterly profound and magical that Malone is doing.

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Mark Fell - Multistability (2010)

As you might have read, I spent a couple months studying and implementing the algorithmic techniques Fell used on his 2010 album Multistability. I first listened to Fell's music several years ago and found it overly conceptual and tedious. However, when I started learning how to make computer music last year I returned to Fell's music and found a new beauty in it.

Yes, the tracks on Multistability are endurance tests. This is because on each track Fell isolates and patiently explores different variables in his quest to investigate his ideas about rhythm, repetition, and tone. It's easy for my ears to gloss over when listening to his music, but when I listen attentively I discover a sound world of dynamic subtleties. There's much more going on here than might initially meet the ear.

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DJ Python - Mas Amable (2020)

I only started listening to Mas Amable a few weeks ago, but it quickly made it on my list of most listened to albums of the year. It's really all one long piece that evolves from track to track. The centerpiece of the album is the transfixing "ADMSDP", which comes about 26 minutes in. Something about the way the snare drum comes into the track absolutely thrills me every time I hear it. Honestly, that single moment makes the entire album for me, and I think it's brilliant. And then there are LA Warman's woozy vocals. So good.

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Various Artists - Kulør 006 (2020)

Kulør is a label that showcases Danish electronic artists. The music on this compilation album exemplifies what I think of as one of the leading strains of contemporary leftfield electronic music. It's natively digital, precise, clean, air tight, amply post-processed, and vaguely poppy yet slightly unsettling. The highlight of the album for me is Varnrable's "Cold Bright Hard Light". Those bold opening synths get my bloody pumping. Her other tracks on Spotify are also compelling, so I'm looking forward to her first album whenever that comes out. Other favorites on this album are "Look" by Sofie Birch and "Dares Soar" by X & Yde.

Eurodrome cover art

Alameda 5 - Eurodrome (2019)

Let's cut right to the chase. Do you like Can, Talking Heads, and Brian Eno? Do you wish they all jammed together circa 1979? Eurodrome is probably as close as you'll get. Except of course that Alameda 5 are a Polish quintet who recorded these jams nearly 40 years later. I'm not disparaging them for sounding derivative though. Listening to this album for the first time was a rush. And they do add their own personal touch with their harmonized vocal style.

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