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10 Favorite Ambient/Electronic Albums of 2020

Plus film/TV scores, and some additional albums, and some hesitations

This is a list of my 10 favorite ambient/electronic albums of 2020, plus some extras. These are the ones I returned to again and again as the terrible year persisted. As I’m not much of a list-maker, I need to note that the concept of a top 10 list becomes ever less meaningful to me as time progresses. The fact is, much of the music I enjoy takes other forms: one-offs on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, videos on YouTube and Instagram, live sessions on Twitch and elsewhere, not to mention in-context music as a part of television series, movies, and video games. Much as rock, which once upon a time largely defined popular music, is now just one small genre among others, the LP itself is just one format among myriad. Many years I don’t even make a list of favorite albums, but this year I did. There was too much music, and I recognize that whittling it to a list of favorites is of use to people trying to make sense of the embarrassment of riches (cultural if not economic) that is the post-Bandcamp recording industry. The first two records below are my favorites of the 2020, and the other eight appear in alphabetical order by artist, and then there’s a list of other albums that were highlights of the year, and then some scores (TV and film). And I may add a few additional favorites before the clock strikes midnight on December 31.

Snow Catches on her Eyelashes by Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. What could be the film score to a slow-burn science-fiction noir, all otherworldly tonalities transmuted through digital processing. Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet) is among the guests.

Drift by Underworld and the Necks. Available as a standalone album, this deep, subtle groove of a set was a highlight of Underworld’s recent Drift box, and of the expansive YouTube video series from which it originated.

Cantus, Descant by Sarah Davachi. A collection of experimental, atmospheric music for organs, recorded on a variety of them in Amsterdam, Chicago, Vancouver, Copenhagen, and Los Angeles.

Third Album by Markus Floats. There is a propensity for joy on Floats’ Third Album that is absolutely intoxicating, notably on the the bubbly “Always.” What makes such moments all the more striking is the mass-like seriousness that comprises the majority of this rich, wide-ranging, deeply rewarding collection.

Harbors by Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong. With roughly 50 strings between them, Wong (cello) and Fullman (Long String Instrument, accounting for the remaining lion’s share) make resonant music together.

Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) by Jon Hassell. The Fourth World master returned with his unique blend of sensuously digital set pieces, a sequel to 2018’s Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One).

Silver Ladders by Mary Lattimore. At once lush and austere, fragile and full-bodied. Such are the wondrous contradictions in her hypermodern (improvisational and digitally enhanced) employment of the harp, an instrument generally associated with dusty antiquity.

Double Bind by Geneva Skeen. Rather than intimate drones for their own sake, this album uses them as the foundation for often orchestral-scale pieces that explore anxious minimalism, urban tension, and intergalactic exploration.

Stolen Car by Carl Stone. The master sampler rips source material to shreds and then reformats the ribbons of the originals into entirely new, ecstatic works.

We Have Amnesia Sometimes by Yo La Tengo. The long-running indie-rock band dug its way out of quarantine with a series of instrumental explorations.

Other favorite albums from 2020 included: Loraine JamesHmm. ▰ Ana Roxanne’s Because of a Flower. ▰ r beny’s Natural Fiction. ▰ Scanner’s Warp & Weft, made with sounds from Jogging House’s Reel Feels sound pack. ▰ Jeannine Schulz released a lot of ambient music this year, and it’s hard to single out one set in particular. There’s a bunch at jeannineschulz.bandcamp.com, plus Ground . The Gentle, on the Stereoscenic Record label. ▰ Lloyd Cole’s Dunst. ▰ Thys and Amon Tobin’s Ithaca. ▰ Nils Frahm’s Empty.

And there were a lot great scores this year, key among them: Devs (credited to Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and the Insects, aka the duo of Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk, and benefiting from pre-existing tracks by Steve Reich, as well as Jan Garbarek in collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble). ▰ Rutger HoedemaekersNo Man’s Land (he’s best known, perhaps, for his work with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir on Trapped, and definitely check out The Last Berliner from 2019). ▰ Warren EllisThis Train I Ride (the rare film he’s scored solo, rather than in collaboration with Nick Cave). ▰ Ammonite by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (they also collaborated on The Old Guard). ▰ ZeroZeroZero by Mogwai. ▰ Industry by Nathan Micay.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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One Comment

  1. Dietmar Sittek
    [ Posted December 28, 2020, at 1:18 pm ]

    My favorite album of the year and equally the favorite ambient album is by Ferr “As above so below”. Proved, that a Trance DJ (Ferry Corsten) is able to produce some magnificent ambient music as well. I will have a listen of your favorite ones as well ;)

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