Many have accepted that 2020 was a year fraught with challenges, with many even considering it to be the worst year ever. However, one shining light amidst the darkness is the number of excellent musical releases that managed to divert our attention away from the world, even for just a moment.
For one, a lot of legends made their way back to the public consciousness: Bob Dylan gave us his first original song since 2012, Sun Ra Arkestra released their first studio album after 20 years, The Psychedelic Furs came out with a new record since their 1991 release World Outside, and of course, the triumphant return of Fiona Apple. A lot of newer names also came forth with brilliant music.
The fact that the world was mostly confined to their homes throughout the year — out of necessity and conscience — may have contributed to the number of excellent releases in 2020. Due to a lack of touring schedules, musicians had more time to create in their respective spaces, some of them creating songs that reflect their conditions. Art was therefore created through their solitude.
Within that context, and the fact that we have spent most of our lives by ourselves that year, it feels right to give you a list of favourite albums from 2020 with a specific focus on solo releases. The albums in this list were chosen because I feel these albums were rather overlooked and should be given more spotlight. So even though I adored Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Inner Song, and Rough and Rowdy Ways, all of them are not included in this list because they’ve all deservingly gathered enough praise as they are.
1. Frank Ene – No Longer
My best musical discovery in 2020. It’s a dark, sensual album with notably tight basslines that flows sweetly. Imagine Nick Cave’s baritone over the compositional style of Jean-Claude Vannier. Histoire de Murder Ballads?
2. Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
Four years after Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker dedicated his album The New Breed to his father, he returned in 2020 with Suite for Max Brown, this time dedicating it to his mother. This album mixes jazz with everything that Parker deems possible. And for him, as heard on the songs here, nothing seems impossible.
3. No Joy – Motherhood
One can find an amalgam of sounds on this album: trip-hop beats, acid house-inspired fills, even metal style distortion, and, of course, the shoegaze-y atmospheres that have come to define No Joy as a whole (now with Jasamine White-Gluz operating on her own). Has there ever been a shoegaze album this liberating and fun before?
4. Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction
This album offers you Aoife Nessa Frances’ distinctive songwriting style supported by the fluency in mixing her favourite sounds, from psych pop, acid folk, tropicalia, to hauntology. It’s like a meeting between the new and the nostalgic.
5. Sonic Boom – All Things Being Equal
The fact that this is Peter Kember’s first official album under his legendary Sonic Boom moniker should itself be celebrated. Moreover, he has become more transcendental with lyrics such as “Make it about the way that you live/Make it about the way that you give” and “What we see is what we strive to be/What we need is more simplicity”.
Despite the relative creative triumph for musicians, the same cannot be said for those working in film. With cinemas around the world still closed due to pandemic protocols, the number of new films being released dropped significantly. Production schedules were also affected greatly, such as The Batman, which suspended production after star Robert Pattinson was diagnosed positive.
Thankfully, there are some parties who were able to adapt to the situation or provide solutions. Producers began to hold premieres on streaming services. Film festivals were held virtually. Approaches such as Bioskop Online, which shows both old and new local films, came to the fore. Also, a handful of bold directors chose to create films which aimed to respond to the pandemic itself (Mati Diop’s short film In My Room is, for me, the best such film released).
The initiatives mentioned above served to connect films with their viewers in a different way. So even though there was a significant decrease in quantity, there certainly wasn’t any shortage in quality.
This list features films that were truly released in 2020. So I did not include, for example, films that were screened commercially in 2020, but have had its film festival premieres in 2019. That way, I can fully appreciate and showcase the works that was born last year.
1. David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)
This concert film — documenting the Broadway performance of David Byrne and his supporting musicians — arrived at the right moment. Its concept is undoubtedly sophisticated, the contexts hit the mark, but most of all, its existence seems fated to entertain the world in the current situation. It’s a film that can be watched many times, at full volume, anytime we need a nice push for the day; which is probably often, considering the weird time we’re living in.
2. The Woman Who Ran (dir. Hong Sang-soo)
This is Hong Sang-soo’s attempt — his seventh collaboration with actress Kim Min-hee — to whittle cinema to only its most essential aspects. Three stories, three casual conversations between women, and three men that threaten to ruin the moment. Repetitive, minimalist, and simple yet adept at presenting complex themes. It’s the type of film that can inspire you to make your own.
3. DAU. Natasha (dir. Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel) / Dear Comrades! (dir. Andrei Konchalovskiy)
It’s hard to separate these two Russian films when it comes to my personal viewing experiences along 2020; both take place in the gruelling Soviet era though each has its own way of presenting it. DAU. Natasha is part of a colossal project referred to as the Stalinist Truman Show, while Dear Comrades! has the sensibilities of classic cinema completed with black & white cinematography. One is enveloped in a bleak and cold atmosphere, while the other contains black humour that can make you smile with pity. A devastating double feature waiting to happen.
4. Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
I refuse to describe this film as one that talks about alcoholism, escapism, and the causal relation between the two. Because in in its core, Another Round is a celebration of life in all its good and bad.
5. Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)
A contemplative statement towards anti-capitalism that can coax its viewers to reflect on their own life decisions. However, I doubt that Nomadland would be this effective in its presentation without Frances McDormand as the main character. Is she, dare I say, the best American actress of the past decade?
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