5. Loma – Don’t Shy Away [Sub Pop]
When Loma finished-off a run of dates in support of their self-titled debut album at Sub Pop’s SPF 30 festival back in 2018, it felt like an ending. As the strains of the record’s lead single, Relay Runner, rang out, front-woman Emily Cross strode into the crowd, walked through them and launched herself straight into the Pacific Oceans, as send-offs go it was pretty damn cool. Having played to their biggest ever audience, they admit they kind of considered they might never return, they had other irons in the fire; Emily headed to Mexico to work on visual art and the most recent Cross Record album, Jonathan Meiburg began work on a new Shearwater record and Dan Duszynski was squirrelled away working on other people’s records. Then they heard Brian Eno liked their music, and a seed was sown, one way or another the trio were drawn back-in, back to Dan’s home in rural Texas, back where they made their debut album, and the threads of their second album, Don’t Shy Away, began to weave.
Don’t Shy Away opens with a hypnotic whisper on opening track, I Fix My Gaze, where, to a backing of synth-bass and clarinet, Emily seeks out freedom, even when she’s trapped inside four walls, “stuck beneath the rock, I begin to see the beauty in it”, she notes, which undeniably has a certain resonance this year. Across the record, Loma once again took to the idea of writing through consensus, the three creators swapping instruments and ideas, the songs given room to slowly evolve. This gradual evolution is particularly evident in Emily’s voice, which has a certain unearthly quality to it, partly because of the unique way it is produced, recorded at twice the speed and then slowed down, Emily then having to teach herself to replicate the sound when the band perform live. It was a discovery they made by accident, and one that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it never sounds less than magical. Don’t Shy Away is one of those ideal second albums, a record that shows subtle evolution from their debut, without losing the essence of freedom that comes with a record made with a lack of expectation. While these tracks still sound like Loma, they sound more confident than ever, whether it’s on the discordant howl of Ocotillo, or Thorn, which fuses spoken-word with choral vocals, to create a track that is equal parts weird and wonderful. Probably the stand-out moment though is Half Silences, a reminder that for all their idiosyncratic creativity, they remain capable of writing a brilliant pop-song, this one is like Relay Runner’s more laid-back cousin, with its easy bass-pulse and beautiful shuffling drums. Oh, and as I mentioned him earlier, what of Brian Eno you ask? Well he really does like Loma, so much he produced the rather excellent closing track, Homing; I guess sometimes fate does have a way of working things out, and in Loma’s case I’m very glad it did, now someone get to persuading them album number three is worth making.
4. Anna McClellan – I Saw First Light [Father/Daughter Records]
“What is it ‘bout being me, that I don’t understand”, so sings Anna McClellan on Con S Sewer, the opening track on her sparkling new album, I Saw First Light. It’s a track that sets a scene of what’s to come, it places our protagonist at the heart of a journey of self-reflection and discovery, that flows throughout the album. Music is not a new thing in the life of Anna, who started performing aged just seventeen, and hasn’t stopped since; I Saw First Light marking a return for Anna, two years on from the release of the acclaimed Yes and No. To record the album, Anna left a stint in New York and returned to her native Omaha, spending two weeks with a cohort of fellow mid-westerns. While the record to some extent charts her journey away from home and subsequent return, the spirit of exploration is applied to both the internal self and the external world at large.
It would be easy to pigeon-hole I Saw First Light as some sort of coming-of-age album, that would though, do the record a disservice. While there are moments, like the excellent bluesy-squall of Trying Too Hard, where Anna focuses in on her personal growth, asking, “I’m trying extra just to be myself, the verdict’s out on if it’s really working”, yet this is not a self-obsessed record. Across the record, Anna sets herself as part of a wider story, on Pace Of The Universe, to a backing of woozy sax and meandering keys, she sings in a surprisingly gentle lulling voice, “let’s share in our collective agony”. As she mulls on the lies we’re told from on high and all the spin that is applied, the track ends on the line, “let’s phase out all this deceit, find something real to believe”. She seems to share an exasperation held by many, a desire to skip out the nonsense and to get to the point, and it’s in Anna’s most straight-talking moments that many of I Saw First Lights joys exists. That is never more clear than on the album’s stand-out moment, Feel You, it is a song of personal connections, yet more than that it is about having someone to navigate this big messy world with, as Anna sings, “all this bullshit of building a wall to hell with borders, let the empire fall”. You can feel the exasperation building up in her, how isolationist politics is creating a world without hope, towards the song’s close she praraphrases REM, “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel just fine”, the biting, “just” adding a certain shrug of acceptance in the face of the apocalypse. The album closes on the stripped back fuzz of No Wind, a playful slice of bedroom folk in the mold of Kimya Dawson, it is a charming finale, a send off that ends with the quietly crushing final line, “I believed you when you said it would be fine”, before slowly the music drifts away. This is an album littered with subtle treasures, songs that scratch the surface of humanity and sound great doing it, an album to treasure from a songwriter getting better with every release.
3. Torres – Silver Tongue [Merge Records]
Torres will perhaps always be the sound of 2020 for me, back in March, her show at Oslo in Hackney was the final one I attended before the world screeched to a grinding halt: it was a pretty good way to sign off. The show was in support of Silver Tongue, the fourth album by Torres, aka New York-songwriter Mackenzie Scott. Her first album for new label, Merge Records, it was in some ways Mackenzie’s most straight-talking effort to date, and from one of the decades most potent musical voices, that’s saying something. Self-produced, Mackenzie has spoken of how liberating she found the experience, “I made exactly the record I want, and it feels very me”.
Silver Tongue is at its core a record about desire, how it ebbs and flows as relationships blossom and subside, and it is a record that pulls no punches, whether chasing the person of her dreams on Good Scare, or cuttingly writing to a lovers new partner on Two Of Everything, “to the one sharing my lover’s bed, it’s not my mission to be cruel, but she don’t light up the room, when she’s talking about you”. Throughout the record, these thoughts and desires are underpinned by quite possibly the most musically eclectic Torres release to date. The fantastic Good Grief, dialled up the crushing guitar-playing and steady grungy-drums, before descending into a howl of feedback, while the title track has a certain music-box-falling-down-a-flight-of-stairs quality and Last Forrest combines skeletal electronics with moments of howling, expansive guitars. Perhaps the album’s finest, and certainly most surprising moment comes towards its close with the frank beauty of Gracious Day; Mackenzie’s vocal dances atop a gentle finger-picked guitar and subtle string flourishes, as she lays her heart on the line, “I don’t want you goin’ home anymore, I want you comin’ home”. This record felt like a real moment for Torres, a songwriter digging deeper into the human psyche than ever before, and coming out the other side with her most compelling record to date.
2. Tugboat Captain – Rut [Double A-Side Records]
“Please excuse me while I demonstrate my feelings to the room”, so opens Rut, the third album from London indie-pop darlings, Tugboat Captain. It might sound throwaway, yet in a way it’s a mission statement for the album that follows, because Rut is a record that digs into the heart of what it is to be young and lost in the modern world; it’s an album about feeling out of control, of pursuing your dreams and seeing doors slammed in your face. The irony here then is that in many ways Rut is also a dream come true, recorded at Abbey Road, it is the hugely ambitious orchestral-pop record the band have always wanted, a sonically luxurious slice of hi-fi wonder, a million miles from recording in a front room in Battersea, without losing any of their home-spun charm.
Across its eleven tracks, Rut is like an explosion of ideas, a band suddenly working without constraints, and throwing a veritable kitchen sink of ideas at every track; the oddly prescient No Plans (For This Year) sets feelings of stasis to an arsenal of horns and guitar bombast, while C’mon Haribo is a plea to move on and get a grip, set to a scuzzy-pop wonder and Rut…Waking Hour sounds like the lost middle ground of Sufjan Stevens and glam-rock. A personal favourite is Damned Right, starting off with a certain Americana swagger, it takes a turn for the transcendent, as it swells on strings and brass, before ending with a communal crescendo, as a choir of voices chime together, “wake up every morning, and I’m toying with the hope that I won’t”, it’s an arena-worth singalong for an entire generation down on their luck. The record comes to a fitting close on Day To Day, a sprightly pop-song that nods to the likes of Trust Fund or Los Campesinos!, the upbeat musicality sitting in contrast to front-man Alexander Sokolow’s tale of just scraping by, “I’ll set the bar pretty low, each day’s a success if I can pay for my own smokes and I am resigned to never own my home, I’m not designed for hope”. In some ways Rut is a fitting response to the world it was birthed into, the sound of a band pushing every penny of their near-zero-budget and not letting anything dim their ambition; they might have been scraping by, yet that didn’t mean they weren’t thriving in spite of that.
1. Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming [Full Time Hobby / Polyvinyl]
Remember January, 2020, in some ways it feels a lifetime ago, and in others it seems like just yesterday, that was when Squirrel Flower, aka Massachussets-based songwriter Ella O’Connor Williams, released her magical debut album, I Was Born Swimming out into the world. The album was the follow up to Ella’s two acclaimed, and very different EPs, 2015’s Early Winter Songs From Middle America and 2018’s fabulous Contact Sports. If those records were enticing introductions, on I Was Born Swimming, Ella knocked all expectations out of the park.
The album opens with I-80, as a whisper of acoustic guitar gradually gives way to the roar of the open road, and a cacophony of pounding drums and intense, guttural guitar playing join Ella’s vocal, an intense howl, as if she’s trying to be heard over a din all of her own creation. While joined by an impressive array of musicians, throughout there’s no doubt who the star is; Ella’s haunting vibrating vocals and soulful guitar playing that feels like an extension of her very being, always seem to exist in the very centre of the musical storm. From the clattering menace of Red Shoulder to the poised precision of Eight Hours, the guitar playing throughout is jaw-dropping.
There’s a lovely progression to the album, seeming to start with a chaotic whirl of noise, before sliding into the more gentle and thoughtful second half, the wonderful Home in particular, with just Ella’s voice and warm buzz of guitar, is almost a folk song, a lilting reminiscence of a youth, of falling asleep in cars and being carried into the waiting warmth and safety of home. Towards the record’s close, even when it gets loud, as on the wonderful Streetlight Blues with it’s reflections on a relationship coming to close, there’s a control to it, a sense that everything is falling into place, even if it is falling apart. That sense of completion is brought full-circle on the gorgeous title track that closes the album, it goes back to Ella’s birth, “born swimming in blue water, didn’t ever need another”, it touches a theme that permeates much of the record of being torn between wanting freedom and a desire to be routed with a sense of home. The two sit uneasily together at the heart of the album, trying to exist together but often finding one must give way to make room for the other.
It may not have led to the year of international touring and adoring hordes of new fans it should have, yet the impact of I Was Born Swimming never dimmed, it remained the stand-out moment in a year of great albums, it’s a record I can’t help but fall in love with every single time I press play, that’s why it is a fitting album of the year for this, or any year: put simply it’s masterpiece.