The Devil Always Builds a Chapel There: A Look Back at My Favourite Music of 2020

Despite spending more time at home last year than I perhaps have since my university days, spending quality time with new music seemed somehow more challenging than ever. Home-schooling the kids, buying and selling houses, a spell of mental ill health, challenging circumstances at my day job and a bout of Covid-19 from which I’m still to fully recover made for a helluva time on a personal level – perhaps it’s just called “being a grown-up” but looking back, my default cultural voracity was definitely checked a little (my bank account has at least thanked me).

This is not to say I wasn’t paying attention, though. If anything, my focus was possibly keener, meaning the relatively small amount of new music I was exposed to received improved attention. The few hours I have had between the kids going to bed and hitting the hay myself have largely been spent immersed in promos, recommendations and rabbit-hole discoveries as usual, just fewer of them and in a less manic fashion.

I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to the Underscore writing team, of course. Diego, Emmerich and Lindsay are invaluable colleagues who have all submitted stellar work and picked up the slack superbly whenever I’ve been weighed down. They do it all for nothing, too – if they were anything like in their right minds they would have scarpered months ago. Thanks, guys.

And thank you to the readers as well, although I think you might number even fewer than the writers. I hope you enjoyed reading what we had to say and share, and that you can stick with us in what is already beginning to look like just as hellish a year as the last. On top of our usual reviews, interviews, premieres and features, there is lots planned, not least the long-awaited continuation of our Yellow Swans oral history, and a bunch of new guest playlists from some of our favourite artists. Look out for them soon.

So here goes. My year in music as far as I remember it. Perhaps not as wide-ranging as it could or should be, but I hope you all find something you enjoy regardless. Take care out there, everyone, and keep on loving one another. 

Cryptae, “Nightmare Traversal” (Sentient Ruin Laboratories)
The prolific René Aquarius released outstanding work with Plague Organ and his main gig Dead Neanderthals last year, but nothing he contributed to hit quite as hard as the vicious Nightmare Traversal, the continuation of the scuzz-crusted Cryptae journey he shares with Kees Peerdeman. 

Right from the start Cryptae get their filthy claws around your throat, and they’re not in the business of letting go. Forever twisting, and unremitting in its ability to slash out nastily from whichever grim corner it has thrown itself into, Nightmare Traversal combines elements of death metal, crust punk, sludge and grunge, and tosses in a few razor-sharp electronic edges in for good measure. The roiling atmosphere is almost sickeningly oppressive at times, and yet I’ve smiled as much at this album as I have any in the past 12 months. For all its growling, thrashing violence, it’s so much fun

Common Eider, King Eider, “Egregore” (Cold Spring)
Continuing the somewhat murky theme (and here’s another act that managed multiple releases in 2020), the increasingly dark and enigmatic Common Eider, King Eider let free a duo of esoteric missives from the caves of the Pyrenees. Group leader Rob Fisk teamed with Cober Ord‘s Yann Arexis for both, with the chilling Egregore edging out Palimpseste by the merest wisp of ritual smoke. 

Based around the occult concept of bringing non-physical entities into conscious existence through the sheer will of a populace (Twin Peaks fans will be aware of something similar in The Return‘s use of Tulpas), “real-life” examples of Egregores include Slenderman and even Santa Claus. Often these creations are brought to life almost unknowingly, but it is possible to conjure them intentionally too, and the four eerie tracks on Egregore represent Common Eider, King Eider’s own ritual attempts. It’s dark, cold, slow-moving, and intensely atmospheric – by the end you’ll need to step outside the cave for air. 

Angel Olsen, “Whole New Mess” (Jagjaguwar)
Although it was recorded before 2019’s magisterial, string-laden All Mirrors, the release of the stripped-back Whole New Mess last year couldn’t have been better timed.  Landing in August, just when we needed its aching intimacy most, Olsen’s first solo album for just under a decade features many of its predecessor’s songs performed with nothing other than a guitar for accompaniment and the singer’s voice foregrounded to the point it feels like it might explode the mic. 

A lo-fi gauziness, imbued with crackle, flicker and glitch,  gives Whole New Mess the dusted lustre of an excavated slide show.  Elements flare and dim as they strain and tilt for focus, the scenes of a life clattering past in exhausted obscurity, playing out to abandoned theatres. Magically, Angel Olsen found herself performing in very similar circumstances to celebrate the album’s launch – her beautiful Cosmic Stream events were a perfect comfort throughout the year for which I am hugely grateful. If All Mirrors was the widescreen fantasy, Whole New Mess is our tattered reality. 

Sly & The Family Drone, “Walk It Dry” (Love Love Records)
The sound of S&TD getting down to business, Walk It Dry compacted all that’s great about the UK’s premier noise quartet – squawking sax, harsh radiophonic racket, earth-fracturing drums – into laser-focused blasts of thundering anarchy like “Shrieking Grief” and “Bulgarian Steel,” while still leaving room for longer, creepier explorations such as the groaning heavyweights “Sunken Disorderly” and “My Torso is a Shotgun.”
The album prises apart Sly’s many jagged facets and lets them breathe as unique and clear-eyed entities; easier on the ear to the uninitiated, sure, and less trying for those with short attention spans, but no less thrilling for it.  It’s just such a shame we haven’t had chance to experience this live yet… 

Nathan Salsburg, “Landwerk” (No Quarter)
Despite being recorded in late 2019, no album soundtracked the pandemic quite like Landwerk.  Inspired by Leyland Kirby‘s work as The Caretaker, Salsburg selected a series of choice 78s (he has the dream day job as curator at The Alan Lomax Archive) he could utilise affecting fragments from in order to create new compositions. An admitted amateur on the technological side of such an undertaking, and “bereft of home recording equipment,” Salsburg nevertheless imbues his crackling loops with great emotion and mystery, aiding their passage by playing his guitar over, through and around them. 
The result reminds me a little of  Lutto Lento‘s loping Partition – Salsburg can never have imagined how the impoverished death march of “Landwerk II” in particular would end up resonating a few months down the line. 
 

Various Artists, “The Harry Smith B-Sides” (Dust-to-Digital)
The importance of The Anthology of American Folk Music on cultural history – and my own education – is hard to overstate. Along with Alan Lomax, Harry Smith sits somewhere atop my personal pantheon of people I’m ridiculously envious of. 

In truth, I’m still some way from having fully digested The Harry Smith B-Sides, a follow-up I wasn’t expecting at all but one that makes complete sense now that it’s here. Give or take the odd (much debated) omission, this deluxe set presents the music from the opposite side of the 78s Smith chose for his original collection; so where Dick Justice’s rendition of “Henry Lee” opened the first volume in 1952, his “One Cold December Day” begins proceedings here, and so on. Like its legendary predecessor, it runs the entire tonal and emotional gamut from protest songs to ballads, jug bands to gospel congregations, and country to Cajun, and it is no less revelatory. If today’s young guns cherish it with anything like the reverence Dylan et al did Smith’s original collection, well… well they fucking won’t, will they, but thank God for Harry Smith and all involved for bringing this incredible music to the wider world. 

The Mountain Goats, “Songs for Pierre Chuvin” (Merge Records)
John Darnielle dusted off the old boombox for the first time in almost two decades, forced to record on his lonesome in a bid to raise money for the bandmates and touring crew who’d been robbed of income thanks to the pandemic.  For fans like me who still crave the crackle of the RX-FT500 albums, it was a godsend at the very start of the UK’s own lockdown.

Written and recorded in the space of 10 days, Songs for Pierre Chuvin is based around the story of paganism’s demise as told by the titular author in his Chronicle of the Last Pagans.  With subtle hat-tips to tMG classics throughout and Darnielle’s self-effacing commentary, there’s plenty for the die-hards to wink at, and, with conceptual ties to modern-era glossies like In League With Dragons, more recent converts are sated too. Its themes of isolation and existential threat chimed perfectly with the early days of a hell we’re still living; listening again as I type, it remains as effective – and affecting – almost 12 months later. 

Sparkle Division, “To Feel Embraced” (Temporary Residence)
An entirely unexpected change of pace for legendary ambient loop-master William Basinski, but also kind of the music he looks like he might make (in this case alongside his studio assistant Preston “Shania Taint” Wendel). Emmerich summed To Feel Embraced up nicely when he compared it to a kind of beat tape – there are definite hints of Flying Lotus and J Dilla to tracks like “For Gato” and “Slappin’ Yo Face,” for example – but I also like to experience the album as a slinky jazz journey into Lynch-land, especially with the skwonky “Queenie Got Her Blues” and the Caretaker-esque “Sparkle On Sad Sister Mother Queen” shutting things down before the time-slippin’ “No Exit” crack-up, which was surely designed for the Red Room. A genuine, joyous surprise in a year so bereft, and one that’ll play out differently each and every time you spin it.

Definitely my cover art of the year, too. 

MF DOOM, “Operation: Doomsday” (Fondle ‘Em Records / Sub Verse Records)
Just when we were about to escape into a new year, news broke to remind us that a calendar flipping over changes nothing. It’s absolutely right to say no other artist had the same impact on my education in rap that DOOM did – to hear of his passing as I was preparing to get into bed early on New Year’s Eve felt like a kick in the guts too far. His discography played me into 2021 and my side of the bed remained untouched for several more hours. (If he could’ve got his hands on some of those ill Sparkle Division beats…)

I saw him live only once, and he was absolutely terrible. As disappointed as I was at the time (it didn’t help that Company Flow and Portishead absolutely stormed the same show), it seems somehow fitting to look back and wonder whether it was even him onstage. An enigma to the very end – he had actually died on Halloween – he left us just where he wanted, as baffled and intrigued by the man behind the mask in death as we were rapt throughout his brilliant life.