Categories
ambient electronic opinion pop rock

Best albums of 2020

This post is dedicated to Martin Ploeg who died in 2020.

Since I stopped writing for music magazine OOR, making lists seems pointless. My taste is changing constantly and I love so many different styles of music that it is impossible for me to do justice to the diversity of cool albums I listen to.

Why posting a list of best albums of 2020 then? Good question. Music journalist and longtime friend Harry Prenger asked me to compile one and I felt like making a list because of this crazy year of working from home, not going to concerts and using music to give structure to a new daily practice without one.

2020 was a rough year for me. I left my teaching job at the Maastricht Academy of Media Design and Technology and wasn’t sure if my own Studio Hyperspace would provide enough work. My father died after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease and I found myself in lockdown in a new unknown city.

Looking for new challenges in a world that seemed to have stopped spinning is difficult. I started STASIS to have an outlet to keep writing about pop culture. In November the Fashion Institute Amsterdam (AMFI, a part of HvA) asked me to help them set up a new master programme for changemakers in the fashion industry and just before the Christmas holidays, I got an offer by the new International Music Academy Lab of Inholland to join them as a learning director. The coolest job ever. E.V.E.R.

So professionally, 2020 turned out to be a great year after all. Personally, it was rough. Music played an important role to keep me happy and focused.

The following eleven records were important for me during the numerous train travels to my father in the deep south of The Netherland and, after he passed away, making the best of the situation.

Special shout out to Adorno. You are my best friend. I absolutely love your hairy fur touching my cheeks when I’m half asleep.

Okay, let’s go.

Apneu – Silvester

Been following this indie band from Amsterdam since the beginning and their third album is an absolute classic. It’s catchy, moody, tight. The production by Ralv Milberg lifts the album to a next level. But it’s the songwriting that makes Silvester stand out. Read my STASIS review here.

Applescal – Diamond Skies

Not only the missing link between the ambient techno of the Border Community sound and Dutch trance, but also a perfect medicine for missing out on parties and concert. Diamond Skies captures the moment in which the rave becomes you and you become the rave. Read my STASIS review here.

The Bug & Dis Fig – In Blue

The only interview I did this year was a Zoom call with Kevin Martin aka The Bug. In Blue reminds me of other work of The Bug but also serves as a perfect sonic representation of being in lockdown. The thin, high-pitched and ghost-like vocals of Dis Fig, give the album a melancholic feel that triggers me to listen to it over and over again. Read my STASIS review here.

Jessy Lanza – All The Time

An absolute sucker for slick, catchy and sweet pop music with a microhouse feel to it. Jessy Lanza is the best. No idea why I didn’t wrote about this excellent album here at STASIS. Listen to All The Time at Bandcamp.

Hunter Complex – Dead Calm and Zero Degrees

Always loved the music by Lars Meyer aka Hunter Complex, but this album is different than his previous work because there is no nostalgia anymore. Meyer has found a way to use all kinds of sounds and tropes from the past to come up with something that is 2020 at its core: a post-nostalgic ambient synthpop masterpiece. Read my STASIS review here.

Coriky – Coriky

Maybe this is a bit of a nostalgic pick. Coriky is the band of former Fugazi (and Minor Thread) guitarist and singer Ian MacKaye. Got to think of it, my love for Coriky isn’t rooted in nostalgia: this debut album is indie rock at its best. Wonder why I didn’t write about the album for STASIS. Listen to the album at Bandcamp.

Vril – Bad Manners 4

Dancefloor oriented project by Vril aka Ulli Hammann for the Berlin-based Bad Manners label. The album is a registration of a perfect early morning set (think 3 am) in the ambient techno room of Dekmantal or another cool electronic music festival. Also, didn’t review this one for STASIS. Listen to the album at Bandcamp.

We Are Joiners – Clients + Carriers

Sort of compilation of the first two EP’s by an indie duo from the city of Groningen. Love the slacker atmosphere. Harry Prenger also can’t get enough of We Are Joiners. Really curious what they are up to in 2021. Read my STASIS review of Carriers here.

Europ Europ – Slow Train

Ancient and timeless, that’s Slow Train. It’s like It’s the musical expression of Das Abendland‘s struggle for survival. The soundtrack to go with the ritual cleansing of a romantic past that never might have existed. Maybe, Dutch anti-modernist politician, Thierry Baudet should listen to Europ Europ and fall in love with Europe again. Read my STASIS review of here.

Vladislav Delay – Rakka

For me, Sasu Ripatti never made a bad album. His work as Luomo is unique and unmatched. As Vladislav Delay, he is more experimental. Rakka is an exciting blend of ambient, industrial, techno and dub. A perfect soundtrack for an underground dance party in your mind. Read my STASIS review of the song ‘Rajaa’ here.

Hirashi Yoshimura – Green

Reissue of the 1986 ambient album by Japanese producer Hiroshi Yoshimura. The album sounds like it has been released on Kompakt records by a hipster Scandinavian producer who just moved to Berlin. Love it, even the green vinyl. Listen to Green at Bandcamp.

What are your favourite albums of 2020? Let me know.

Categories
electronic

Puttylolian – BE iDVW

Last year Julian Hermans died at the age of 12. A year earlier, he debuted with the bouncy fast dance track ‘Touwtjespringen’. Despite being ill for years, he worked together with bass producer Subp Yao and was planning a debut album. He also worked on the cover art of the album. Designer Guus Prevoo of Homo Ludens guided him in the artistic process.

His parents have been important driving forces of the creative scene in the city of Heerlen since the ‘culturele lente’ started in the early 2000s. Eva-Katrien founded important art and design initiatives like ‘Zachte G’ and ‘Dutch but not from Holland’. Maurice is a well-known local musician and debuted in the early 90s with the indie band Cowboys of the Sky.

Julian was a creative talent. In April 2019 he debuted as Puttylolian with ‘Touwtjespringen’. A few months later he was the youngest DJ ever at the local Daddy’s Cool festival. In the week before he died of the consequences of an acute cerebral hemorrhage, he came up with his moto be mad! Hence the title of his debut album: iDVW is like mad! upside down.

Heerlen-based and well-known producer Subp Yao aka Gert-Jan van Stiphout, took all the fragments, snippets, beats, and piano tryouts to his studio and, with help of Maurice, forged them together in sixteen tracks that do justice to the musical talent Julian had.

Although BE iDVW sounds like a collection of ideas, it clearly shows just how gifted Julian was. His influences range from hip hop, electronic dance music, piano music, experimental stuff, and rock. The dub in ‘Mijke heeft een leef Hoofd’ is incredibly poppy and gives a glimpse of what Julian could have achieved.

The making of this album must have been an intense, emotional, and painful process. The result is a beautiful tribute to Julian and an artifact that makes sure he and his budding talent will never be forgotten.

BE iDVW by Puttylolian can be ordered on Bandcamp.

Categories
ambient electronic

Fridolijn – Chapter Two

Although Fridolijn van Poll considers triphop as one of her major influences, her music has mostly been described as jazzy dream folk. Echos of Portishead and Massive Attack are definitely there: her sound is floating in a pleasant, distancing mood. She has been described as the heir of Nick Drake. On Catching Currents, she floats – yes, definitely a reoccurring word – between the softness of Joni Mitchell and the dreamy, untouchable sound of minimalist composers.

Earlier this year the singer-songwriter from Amsterdam released Chapter One, a collection of three songs somewhere between dreampop and folktronica. Follow-up Chapter Two just came out and takes the electronica influences even further. Together with actor and composer Lieuwe Roonder, Fridolijn crafted three moody, dreamy songs that rub against ambient house. The songs have two versions: a vocal and an instrumental one.

Fridolijn’s voice has distinct qualities and gives the songs a dreamy feel and on the moody side more depth, but to be honest, I absolutely love the instrumental versions. ‘Once More’ as instrumental for example sounds like quality microhouse from Cologne and could earn a place on one of the recent compilation by Kompakt.

The same goes for ‘Forever Maybe’ and ‘If Your Heart Were A City’. The slowed-down rhythm of the first one is mysterious and distant and would be a cool edition to next years Velvet Desert compilation. ‘If Your Heart Were A City’ is more ambient and moody, like the work of producer The Field.

Can’t wait for Chapter three.

Chapter Two by Fridolijn is released by Freija Label / Lab Music.

Categories
electronic

The Bug & Dis Fig – In Blue

Just before the lockdown in early March, Kevin Martin moved from Berlin to Brussels. After ten years in the capital of Germany, he and his family were in for a change. For Martin, used to super-diverse Brixton, Berlin turned out to be a bit too mono-cultural.

Last month we spoke about his move for cultural magazine Gonzo (circus). Read the January/February issue (only in print) if you want to know more. His dancehall sound system and regular night Pressure remain at Gretchen, a club located in Berlin’s Kreuzberg area. Due to the covid-19 measurements, Martin still has to find out if Brussels is ready for his dancehall madness.

Before moving, Martin recorded a couple of albums. Last year he released Wrecked, as Zonal and together with long-time collaborator Justin Broadrick. Sedatives, a solo album under his own name Kevin Richard Martin, came out just a couple of months ago. I’ll link to the albums below.

Although US-born Felicia Chen aka Dis Fig lives in Berlin, she and Martin recorded In Blue without meeting each other in the studio. Last year, Dis Fig released Purge, a dark, rough, in times bombastic, industrial, experimental noise album on which Chen uses her voice mostly as an instrument.

The skeleton for In Blue dates back to 2018 when Martin recorded songs for a radio show. Early on in his explorations in music, he fell in love with dub and dancehall. Most of his recent projects are excursions to the borders of those genres. As The Bug, he combines a more studio scientific approach to dub and dancehall with a deep emotional longing for the dance floor. Both are equally important, although they seem to be extremes.

On the album In Blue, Chen uses her voice much more in a songlike vocal structure. Her vocals are thin, high-pitched and ghost-like, giving the deep fuzzy and noisy basslines the necessary counterbalance. Without them, the minimal dancehall rhythms, stripped from all melody and warmth would sound too rough and alienating.

Martin mixed the album in his new home studio in Brussels during the lockdown, and that makes it easy to interpret In Blue as a claustrophobic reaction to the isolation and loneliness fueled by the hopeless situation of being confined in your own home. In the last song ‘End In Blue’, the only thing left is the airy vocals of Chen on repetition. Martin and Chen refer to the sound of this album as ‘Tunnel Sound’: a foggy, melancholic meltdown of narco-dancehall, zoned soul and dread drenched, electronic dub. 

The result is as beautiful as it is scary.

In Blue by The Bug & Dis Fig is released by Hyperdub.

Additional links
Wrecked by Zonal is on Bandcamp.
Sedatives by Kevin Richard Martin is on Bandcamp.
Purge by Dis Fig is on Bandcamp.

Categories
electronic

Egopusher – Beyond

In a way, Egopusher reminds me of the past. Don’t know if that’s a compliment for the duo: the press release of Beyond pinpoints the album as a soundtrack for (in)possible futures. That makes sense. The future already happened. So, my reference isn’t that strange.

What past or pasts does Egopusher bring back?

First of all, that of the pre-covid19 club culture. Beyond is a celebration of optimism, confidence and anticipation. It reminds of club nights with maximum techno. Techno that, in contrast for minimal, doesn’t leave any room for individual expression but is so dominant that it dictates every centimetre or inch of the dance floor. A totally immersive experience. I love it.

Beyond also reminds me of the carelessness or even recklessness of the 1990s. The sound on the album is open and maximal. Grotesque, even. In contrast to Egopusher’s first album Blood Red (2017), there are no limitations.

Egopusher is drummer/producer Alessandro Giannelli and violinist Tobias Preisig, both living in Zürich. In the press release, Giannelli notes that the album makes him think of a soundtrack to a sci-fi film that would be directed by Sofia Coppola. There is also a familiarity with the esthetics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, probably one of the best know sci-fi movies. The movie is open, explorative, boundless and moody, just like Beyond.

In contrast to the maximal character of the sound employed by Giannelli and Preisig, there is an emphasis on details. Rhythms slowly change, maybe grow is a better metaphor. The blend of techno, trance and ambient is in that respect similar to the work of James Holden and his Border Community record label.

Beyond walks the thin lines between the club, trip, kitsch and contemplation. In the two centrepieces – ‘Re-Entry’ and ‘Elenor’ those elements blend together brilliantly. The synthetic sounding drums and synths and cliché hand claps match perfectly with the neo-classical elements.

The ambient trance of ‘Faint’ and ‘Sheen’ is like a baroque version of Wolgang Voigt’s GAS.

This is a beautiful trip into the past or futures that we once dreamt of.

Beyond by Egopusher is released by Quiet Love Records.

Categories
electronic film

EELF

I love YouTube.

It’s one of the best inventions of this century. For me, the platform functions as a time machine. With a few clicks, I can visit the 1981 concert of New Order in New York, see and hear AC/DC perform with singer Bon Scott back in 1977 and turn my living room in a club with a perfect DJ-set full of rare records by My Analog Journal or enjoy the futuristic 80s visions by Are Sounds Electrik?.

YouTube makes the world smaller.

James Hoffmann makes me extremely happy with his coffee fetishism and Will Yeung vegan ramen is delicious and so easy to make.

But the channel I love most is EELF.

Since 2017, EELF (Andrius from Lithuania) has been combining hand-shot video material from the 1990s that he finds on YouTube with new electronic music found on platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The combinations are exciting and unusually beautiful. The EELF channel is already close to 22 million views. Despite the old visual material, the conjunction with new music (which often sounds retro) does not feel nostalgic.

Maybe that’s also because the nineties, like the eighties, never really disappeared. The 21st century is characterized by the lack of a narrative of the now and the future. In that respect, we still live in the eighties and nineties. That last decade was postponed in 2001. It looks like it’s starting up again.

EELF’s YouTube channel is a success. In the beginning, he combined lo-fi house with film scenes. It was fun, but something was missing. The combination had to be more than just a gimmick. Sound and image had to support one another, had to lead to something unique. It all came together when he started using found VHS material from YouTube. New lo-fi house with amateur video clips from the 1990s was a perfect fit.

Today EELF has a catalogue of about 800 of these combinations, the channel has around 147,000 subscribers, and Andrius spends two hours a day making new uploads.

Finding the perfect combination is a delicate operation. His latest upload is footage from a sailing trip in, probably, the early nineties. The camera is shaky. Clumsy zooming in and out too fast, too unstable. The soundtrack is provided by Carmel & Salomo’s ‘Happy Hour’, released two weeks ago on vinyl by the label R.A.N.D. Muzik from Leipzig. It fits perfectly.

Andrius’ tagline is ‘EELF is creating nostalgia’, but his combinations are beyond nostalgia. Yes, his video material is from the past and the brand new music he uses flirts with the heydays of rave and electronic dance music. However, the combination isn’t referring to the past. It’s much more an alternative reality, a representation of a world that could have been. Could have been the present. I would suggest calling this post-nostalgia: EELF’s productions make us aware that we can approach things today in a more open, conscious and naïve way without losing ourselves in the past or the future.

This is a new sort of pop culture that doesn’t fight the status quo but creates a different world. YouTube is full of channels like this, and they all deserve our attention.

Visit EELF’s channel on YouTube here.

Categories
ambient electronic

Applescal – Diamond Skies

There are so many layers to discover on Diamond Skies.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In a way, Applescal is the missing link between the ambient techno of the Border Community sound and Dutch trance. Like his other records, Diamond Skies lacks the strong melancholic element of Cologne ambient scene (The Field, Popnoname) but is full of grand gestures. The optimism and directness of James Holden are never far away. The trance influence takes the edge off. It never becomes sentimental, like for example Nathan Fake’s ‘The Sky was Pink’ does.

Applescal is Amsterdam based producer Pascal Terstappen and Diamond Skies, released on this own Atomnation record label, is his sixth album. This one is his most coherent and direct.

That’s the second layer.

The album sounds like dancing on a house festival somewhere in the woods near Amsterdam while the sun is fading away into the night but still feels warm on your skin. It makes you long for those golden moments. The moments you become the rave and the rave becomes you. Terstappen captured that feeling all too well. Maybe on purpose, because he finished Diamond Skies in Covid-19 lockdown.

In that sense, this a nostalgic album. Well, let’s replace nostalgic by the German word Fernweh. It’s not so much the longing for what once was (house festival in the woods, etc etc) but for what we’ve lost and eventually will get back if we’re lucky. The mood on Diamond Skies is that of longing for an alternative reality where we are still able to dance, watch the sun disappear, sip cold white wine, dance some more, and witness a beautiful sunset.

That makes me both sad and happy. That’s layer three.

Playing Diamond Skies loud on my stereo makes me long for a summer full of dance parties so much, but also makes me feel like I’m there. Opening tracks ‘Incognitana’ and ‘Legobeats’, played on high volume, suck you in and drown you in rave aesthetics. The subtle piano chords, playful synths and clouds of ambient melodies are incredible addictive.

Diamond Skies might be the most coherent and direct Applescal album, it is also his most sophisticated. Beneath the superficial and linear structure of the tracks, hides a moody and strong sentiment.

Come to think of it, maybe Diamond Skies is Fernweh because it emotionally connects to the best house party you’ve ever been to, and that might well be one that you’ve only imagined in your dreams.

This is an album for dreamers.

Diamond Skies by Applescal is released by Atomnation.

Categories
ambient electronic

Aārp – Propaganda

There is a thin line between a government that handles a crisis well and a government that takes advantage of the possibilities that disorder brings.

Due to the covid-19 the Dutch government introduced an intelligent lockdown. Citizens were not forced to stay inside but asked to do so in favour of fellow citizens. Prime minister Mark Rutte played to role of a fellow concerned citizen really smart. Is he transparent or is there a hidden agenda?

Governments have a history of misinforming society. Paris-based experimental musician Aārp got triggered by an event in Nantes: a young man drowned under strange circumstances after police ended a festival. After the incident was covered up by spreading misinformation and distorting the truth.

Propaganda is an album about misinformation, distortion of the truth and propaganda initiated by governments and other authorities. The tittle of each track is a quote taken from historical events that we remember as propaganda. The ‘Axis of Evil’ speech by George Bush in 2002 is a well-known example, but I’m sure you recognize all the quotes Aārp uses.

Musically he refers to the producers who influenced him when starting making music: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Amon Tobin and Oneothrix Point, to name a few. The lush sound, glitches and playfulness are present in every track.

Aārp operates between these influences and an open synthesizer sound that we consider to be typically French. The layers of analogue sounding synths and ambient atmosphere give this album a distant future- like feel. As if Aārp wants to warn us: this may sound like the future, but the message is one of the past. Be. Critical. Of. Authorities.

Propaganda by Aārp is released by InFiné.