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 James’ Hmm. ▰ 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 Hoedemaekers’ No 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 Ellis’ This 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.