To state the obvious, it has been a strange year for music. It has also been a strange year for the EP format, previously a favourite of the DIY-community, the onset of various national lockdowns have left band’s largely unable to either record or write together. The result is that solo-artists and home recordings have come to the fore and dominate the musical landscape, as this first list of the best releases of 2020 reflects. What’s clear looking back over the year is that despite everything, there was still room for some remarkably good music to find its way into the world, an eclectic and intriguing set of releases fit for this, or any, year.
20. Fast Blood – S/T [Self-Released]
19. Yumi And The Weather – Some Days [Small Pond Records]
18. Rosehip Teahouse – Fine [Big Indie Records]
17. Lindsay Munroe – Our Heaviness [Self-Released]
16. Jeremy Tuplin – Happiness [Trapped Animal Records]
15. Hamburger – Teenage Terrified [Specialist Subject Records]
14. Rebecka Reinhard – Whale [Crowds & Power]
13. Ciel – Movement [Box Bedroom Rebels]
12. Mumble Tide – Love Thing [Nothing Fancy]
11. Captain Handsome – I Am Not An Animal [Reckless Yes]
10. Rachel Angel – Highway Songs [Public Works Records]
The open road has long been a source of inspiration behind so many records, the way it charts where we were and where we’re going, the sense of freedom, the rush of casting off the past and embracing whatever is waiting for us. It is a feeling perfectly encompassed in Rachel Angel’s EP, Highway Songs, which was released in August this year. The follow up to 2018’s Not Enough, the record finds the Miami-based artist focusing on the journeys she has made and how she has changed along with her changing scenery.
Musically, the record’s five tracks take in elements of outlaw-country and traditional American-folk, from the easy, slide-guitar led Mexico, to the strutting, twang of the title track. The record charts struggles, both personal and societal, from chronic illness, to a family holiday interrupted by a huge earthquake. Throughout these difficulties though, Rachel always chose to push-on, to step out of her comfort zone and embrace the toil, as she sings on the closing track, “ain’t nobody going to break my stride, ain’t nobody going to bring me down”. The record’s highlight is also its opening track, Strapped, charting the freedom of a relationship ending via a hypnotic repeated guitar-line and hazy, fever-dream-like vocal delivery. On Highway Songs, Rachel Angel seems to roll with the punches, embracing change, even when it isn’t always the easiest thing to do. The result is a record that feels afraid of nothing, an open-hearted celebration of where her life is going to take her next.
9. Why Bonnie – Voice Box [Fat Possum]
What should have been a break-out year for Austin-quartet Why Bonnie might have turned into something of a damp squib with the cancellation of a vast array of tour dates, yet there were still a lot of reasons for positivity. Freshly signed to Fat Possum Records, the band released their new EP, Voice Box back in April, their first new material since they crashed into my EPs of the year back in 2018 with the acclaimed, In Water.
Described by front woman Blair Howerton as a record that, “encapsulates a disconnect between my inner and outer world“, Voice Box was a record about claiming your right to expression, and of learning to use your voice as an outlet for the feelings inside. The record marked something of a sonic departure for Blair and her bandmates, the dreamy shimmer of In Water, replaced by a more immediate, hook-laden sound reminiscent of Soccer Mommy or Snail Mail. From the driving opening track, Bury Me to the album centre-piece Athlete, Voice Box is a record that finds Blair almost revelling in her own struggles, embracing mistakes and “learning to laugh when you fumble”. The record’s finest moment comes with the the title track, which adds a certain 80’s pop-quality to the music, sounding like the band could be soundtracking the best high-school prom you could ever imagine, as lyrically Blair dissects sexism and its attempt to silence female voices, “I’m too reckless, won’t keep quiet like the world has always wanted me to, but I do“. If there’s any justice in the world, Why Bonnie’s moment will come: they’ve never sounded more ready for whatever opportunities come their way.
8. Firestations – Automatic Tendencies [Lost Map]
A band never short of ambition, Firestations began the year with a 77-minute long track for the wiaiwya label, and ended it embarking on an ambitious multi-EP project for Lost Map. The first of three EPs planned for release in the coming months, Automatic Tendencies is part record, part mix-tape, part art-project, with original songs combined with remixes, zines and even a Firestations branded re-usable chip fork. All of which would be just nice asides if the music wasn’t as compelling as anything the Walthamstow-based band have ever shared.
Without always being overtly political, Automatic Tendencies is a record that reflected heavily on cultural identity and our place in the world. It looked at both connection and distance, and how the water that surrounds our small island is seen as a border, when it could equally be viewed as a way of connecting with the world at large. This was never more evident than on Small Island, a love letter to open-minded inclusivity, a quietly fitting soundtrack for the return of Brexit to the news, while opening track New Devices seemed to offer a sigh of disillusionment at the slow pace of progress, while hinting at an unwillingness to wait for hope. Elsewhere, there were more personal moments, with Bedford Levels hinting at the isolation of not buying into the status-quo and Greenmount tackling the all-encompassing feeling of directionless, even if it does set it to possibly their most danceable track to date. Musically, this feels like subtle progress for Firestations, they seem almost more confident in their own vision now, more sure of their creative journey, even if the rest of the world feels more unstable than ever. Ambitious, articulate and really rather wonderful, Automatic Tendencies feels like the start of something special.
7. Sister Wives – Gweller Ein Gofid [Do It Thissen]
Coming together in 2018, the music of Sheffield’s Sister Wives seems to be less written and more hewn from the natural landscape around them, coming out wild and powerful as a perfect connection between humanity and the planet below. On their debut EP, Gweler Ein Gofid (See My Grief), the bi-lingual quartet flit between Welsh and English, while infusing their music with the sounds of post-punk, prog and primal psychedelia.
It may have been only three songs long, yet Gweler Ein Gofid was a record that carried a great weight behind it from the bassy pulse of Rwy’n Crwydro to the fuzzy stomp of Mi Ddaw Yr Haul. Gweler Ein Gofid is not a record that makes its point in an indirect fashion, the constant eminent thump of the bass-drum permeating the entirety of a record that hits straight for the rib-cage, racing in through your ears and rattling your bones with its jarring, thrilling noise. This is an EP that sounds like a manifesto, a statement of intent that marks Sister Wives out as a band that demand and deserve your immediate attention.
6. Rosehip Teahouse – Chillin’ In The Void [Sad Club Records]
Appearing twice on this list, Cardiff’s Rosehip Teahouse seemed to be an act suited for the gentle chaos of the year; their blend of emotive bedroom-pop carried a great weight, a voice in your speakers that seemed to speak directly to your soul. While Fine, released earlier this month, was a fascinating diary of the recent years of vocalist Faye Rodger’s life, it was Chillin’ In The Void that seemed to really stick with me. The record was made in a single night, Faye recording with Alice Low of Low’s Museum, to produce a snapshot of the loneliness and emotionally draining nature of lockdown.
In some ways, Chillin’ In The Void was a return to the earliest Rosehip Teahouse recordings, back to charming DIY-home recordings, of working without rules or expectation and just seeing what could be created in that moment. The record opens with the gorgeous meander of It’s The Wrong Time, a beautiful introduction, Faye’s vocal a reverberating whisper presented atop a buzz of Casio-like organ and burbling flickers of keys. As the song progresses, Faye seems to almost sink into the music, her words gradually lost beneath the waves. While never a record that shouts from the rooftops, it does offer some more immediate thrills, from the rhythmic guitar-led strut of Regretting It, to the Beach House-like drone-pop of enigmatically titled, Thought Number 3. The record ends on perhaps its most surprising moment, Light footed, for once; a song that belies it’s bedroom-pop origins to emerge as a gorgeous slice of jazzy-folk, combining a flutter of guitar and a charmingly subtle saxophone line into something Midlake or Crake would be proud of. In a year where many a DIY-musician chose understandably to hold back for less confusing times, Rosehip Teahouse struck-out and by doing it entirely on their own terms, they made a huge impression on the musical landscape.
5. Tomberlin – Projections [Saddle Creek]
Back in 2018, Tomberlin, aka Los Angeles via Louisville songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin, caught the ear of many with her acclaimed debut album, At Weddings. Having spent the next two years touring with the likes of Andy Shauf and Pedro The Lion, this October Sarah made a delightfully subtle return with a new EP, Projections. Co-produced by Alex G, and bandmate Sam Acchione, Projections saw Tomberlin’s sound subtly evolve, taking the muted minimalism of At Weddings and adding subtle swells of instrumentation, creating a more percussive and expansive whole.
Discussing the inspiration behind the record, Sarah suggested Projections was an album of questions, asking both what brings human beings together and crucially what keeps them apart, a record that muses on solitude, while extending a hand to anyone feeling alone. Despite its fuller instrumentation, Projections is actually in many ways a lighter record than its predecessors. Opening track Hours beginning with a skeletal flutter of guitar before slowly sinking into fuzzy distortion and the warmth of double-bass, while the record’s lead-single, Wasted seems to fuse her folk tendencies with an almost latin-rhythm track, the brilliant combination reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s more expansive moments. Perhaps the highlight arrives with Sin, a celebration of true love and Sarah’s queer identity, that sets out to reclaim the Biblical language used against the wider queer community with the repeated refrain, “I don’t mind sinning if it’s with you”. Sarah has spoken of feeling uncomfortable when the success of At Weddings found her leaving her restrictive religious upbringing and heading out into the world, perhaps Projections is the sound of a young person making sense of their place in the world, the answers might not all be there yet, but it’s a record with the willingness to ask questions, beautiful, honest and ready to go wherever this journey takes it next.
4. Le Ren – Morning & Melancholia [Secretly Canadian]
Le Ren is the musical pseudonym of Montreal-based songwriter, Lauren Spear. Back in July, Lauren teamed up with Secretly Canadian for the release of her debut EP, Morning & Melancholia. The record is writ large with loss and mourning, tackling the death of Lauren’s ex-boyfriend some two years ago, and how she has subsequently carried the weight of their shared memories. Across four tracks, Lauren seemed to openly discuss her pain, yet also found a way to smile despite it, the sound of someone who knows the darkness and still manages to find something beautiful in the world to hold on to.
Musically, Le Ren’s sound has a timeless quality, finding inspiration in the Canadian folk-tradition, as well as musical behemoths like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Morning & Melancholia makes an instant impression, with opening track Love Can’t Be The Only Reason To Stay, a brutally honest reflection of how even, “at the end of all things”, love isn’t always enough, as to a perfectly straight-forward arpeggiated guitar Lauren sings, “I loved you ’til you beat my heart black and blue, but I just can’t stand to be treated that way. No, love can’t be the only reason to stay”. Elsewhere, the theme of the engulfing nature of loss is laid equally bare, the beautiful How To Begin To Say Goodbye is like a drifting cloud of grief, while the country-twang of If I Had Wings deals with her inability to move on, “as the years roll by, I might lose my mind but I won’t let you leave”. Morning & Melancholia is a record that exists in the darkest moment of loss, yet in its unflinching willingness to explore the multitude of feelings that creates, it was an extended hand to anyone in the same boat, a reminder that there’s no right, or wrong, way to grieve, you just find a way to carry on.
3. Skullcrusher – S/T [Secretly Canadian]
Based out of Los Angeles, Skullcrusher, aka Helen Ballentine, took up the piano aged just five, however it was many years later that the idea of writing her own songs, let alone becoming a full-time musician crossed her mind. It was only after moving from her native New York to the West Coast that music began to take over, quitting her job in a gallery, and channeling the new found freedom into the pursuit of her musical vision. The first result emerged back in July, with the release of her self-titled debut EP.
Across the EPs four track, Skullcrusher explore a wide array of musical ideas and genres, from the Phoebe Bridgers-like emotive folk of Places/Plans to the shimmering atmospherics of Day of Show, with its beautifully layered fusion of electronics and brass. To the fore throughout is Helen’s vocal, hushed and perfectly produced, it is almost always met with a close harmony, creating a feeling of a multitude of voices bouncing around your headphones, like gentle waves breaking around you. This is not a record of certainties and grand statements, instead Skullcrusher feels like a series of questions being answered, the collection of small moments that shape who we are, and allow us to find our place in the world. Helen has suggested the record is influenced by everything from Czech new-wave film to Nick Drake, from ambient electronica to quitting her job, in that sense it was, in the most positive way, a thoroughly modern record, a diverse amalgam of the ideas that are now easily accessible to us all. From that array of influences, Skullcrusher somehow finds a logical thread, a creative streak entirely of her own imagination; it may only be a brief introduction yet it hinted at a very special talent, one with no limit to where her music might take her.
2. Jane Blanchard – Still, Again [Gerry Loves Records]
Originally from the city of Fredericton in New Brunswick, Jane Blanchard recently made the life-changing move across the Atlantic to settle in her current home city of Edinburgh. After settling into the Scottish music-scene, Jane caught the ear of self-described, “tiny DIY record label”, Gerry Loves Records, and in July they combined for the release of the excellent, five-track EP, Still, Again.
Many records start with a whisper, a slow fade-in that welcomes us into their world, Still, Again does the exact opposite; opening track Missing Me exploding into life, a cacophony of distorted guitars and pounding drums, it feels like a clarion call, demanding its listener to instantly pay attention. Recalling the likes of Squirrel Flower or Magana, Missing Me is a wonderful combination of delicate melody and expansive noise, yet it is not a trick that Jane Blanchard seems to fall back on. Instead across, Still, Again, Jane takes us off wherever her mind is headed, the title track is a slinky atmospheric number with a nod to Radiohead, while Take Me Home is stripped back and deliciously raw. Still, Again served to introduce Jane Blanchard to her new homeland, it was a thrilling hello, and hopefully the start of a truly beautiful friendship.
1. Zelma Stone – Dreamland [Self-Released]
A Bay Area native currently living in San Francisco, Chloe Zelma Studebaker is the songwriter behind Zelma Stone. Aged fourteen, following the death of her brother Brett in a car-accident, Chloe turned to songwriting as a way to process her grief. Over the subsequent decade, Chloe has suffered a number of other losses; her mother, grandfather and a close friend, and has always turned to music to face up to her grief and attempt to find a way through it. Much of that raw feeling is present in her latest EP, Dreamland, released back in April, a record that despite it’s heavy inspiration, managed to feel distinctly full of life, a compassionate piece that reminds us not to be afraid of death and the unknown.
Dreamland opens with the remarkable Fly, a track dedicated to Chloe’s grandfather with the aim of channelling his favourite songwriters from Elvis Presley to Patsy Cline. If, at its heart, this is a timeless pop-song, its exterior is given a somewhat more modern sheen, as a prominent bass-line propels the song forward, accompanied by the reverberating twang of electric guitar. It is perhaps lyrically that the track truly shines, it transports us to a scene of Chloe at her grandfather’s side, almost willing him to move on, to leave this world behind and embrace whatever comes next, “you’re old and your body’s getting ready to die, I say just take it in, let us feed you some pumpkin pie”. It’s a line that is initially shocking, yet as the song progresses, you feel the love with which it is delivered; Chloe picturing him as a guest of honour at, “a party on the other side”, where so many loved ones are waiting with open arms. It’s a remarkable introduction to the record, and one of the most moving songs you could ever hope to hear.
Across Dreamland, Chloe seems to try and piece together her loss, not wallowing in the sadness, instead questioning it, and trying to make sense of it. The title track, existing in the muddled perspective of the half-awake mind, is presented from the viewpoint of two narrators, Chloe and her brother, picturing what life would be like should he suddenly return, it ends with a surprisingly poised howl, “here he comes again, back in Dreamland”. While many of the songs on the record find Chloe speaking to others, on the initially stripped back Body Talk, it’s written like a letter to herself, a reminder to take care of herself and not always be in a rush, “slow down greatness don’t let go, I’m your body and I’m telling you no”.
The record ends with the remarkably straight-talking We’re All Gonna Die, the sort of song only one who knows loss as well as Chloe does could write. With it’s strutting guitar-line and steady drums, in contrast to its title, it’s actually a rather upbeat number, a reminder to jump in feet first and make the most of your life, ending with the conclusion, “we’re gonna be fine, and we’re all gonna die!” It’s a perfect send-off to a most remarkable record, for all the darkness within it, Dreamland is an EP that crackles with life, as Chloe herself puts it, “grief is something you shouldn’t walk away from because it will always follow you. You won’t heal unless you face it”.
If you enjoyed digging into my favourite EPs of the year, you can read my pick of 2020’s finest albums, HERE.