10 Favorite Ambient/Electronic Albums of 2020

Plus film/TV scores, and some additional albums, and some hesitations

This is a list of my 10 favorite ambient/electronic albums of 2020, plus some extras. These are the ones I returned to again and again as the terrible year persisted. As I’m not much of a list-maker, I need to note that the concept of a top 10 list becomes ever less meaningful to me as time progresses. The fact is, much of the music I enjoy takes other forms: one-offs on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, videos on YouTube and Instagram, live sessions on Twitch and elsewhere, not to mention in-context music as a part of television series, movies, and video games. Much as rock, which once upon a time largely defined popular music, is now just one small genre among others, the LP itself is just one format among myriad. Many years I don’t even make a list of favorite albums, but this year I did. There was too much music, and I recognize that whittling it to a list of favorites is of use to people trying to make sense of the embarrassment of riches (cultural if not economic) that is the post-Bandcamp recording industry. The first two records below are my favorites of the 2020, and the other eight appear in alphabetical order by artist, and then there’s a list of other albums that were highlights of the year, and then some scores (TV and film). And I may add a few additional favorites before the clock strikes midnight on December 31.

Snow Catches on her Eyelashes by Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. What could be the film score to a slow-burn science-fiction noir, all otherworldly tonalities transmuted through digital processing. Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet) is among the guests.

Drift by Underworld and the Necks. Available as a standalone album, this deep, subtle groove of a set was a highlight of Underworld’s recent Drift box, and of the expansive YouTube video series from which it originated.

Cantus, Descant by Sarah Davachi. A collection of experimental, atmospheric music for organs, recorded on a variety of them in Amsterdam, Chicago, Vancouver, Copenhagen, and Los Angeles.

Third Album by Markus Floats. There is a propensity for joy on Floats’ Third Album that is absolutely intoxicating, notably on the the bubbly “Always.” What makes such moments all the more striking is the mass-like seriousness that comprises the majority of this rich, wide-ranging, deeply rewarding collection.

Harbors by Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong. With roughly 50 strings between them, Wong (cello) and Fullman (Long String Instrument, accounting for the remaining lion’s share) make resonant music together.

Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) by Jon Hassell. The Fourth World master returned with his unique blend of sensuously digital set pieces, a sequel to 2018’s Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One).

Silver Ladders by Mary Lattimore. At once lush and austere, fragile and full-bodied. Such are the wondrous contradictions in her hypermodern (improvisational and digitally enhanced) employment of the harp, an instrument generally associated with dusty antiquity.

Double Bind by Geneva Skeen. Rather than intimate drones for their own sake, this album uses them as the foundation for often orchestral-scale pieces that explore anxious minimalism, urban tension, and intergalactic exploration.

Stolen Car by Carl Stone. The master sampler rips source material to shreds and then reformats the ribbons of the originals into entirely new, ecstatic works.

We Have Amnesia Sometimes by Yo La Tengo. The long-running indie-rock band dug its way out of quarantine with a series of instrumental explorations.

Other favorite albums from 2020 included: Loraine JamesHmm. ▰ Ana Roxanne’s Because of a Flower. ▰ r beny’s Natural Fiction. ▰ Scanner’s Warp & Weft, made with sounds from Jogging House’s Reel Feels sound pack. ▰ Jeannine Schulz released a lot of ambient music this year, and it’s hard to single out one set in particular. There’s a bunch at jeannineschulz.bandcamp.com, plus Ground . The Gentle, on the Stereoscenic Record label. ▰ Lloyd Cole’s Dunst. ▰ Thys and Amon Tobin’s Ithaca. ▰ Nils Frahm’s Empty.

And there were a lot great scores this year, key among them: Devs (credited to Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and the Insects, aka the duo of Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk, and benefiting from pre-existing tracks by Steve Reich, as well as Jan Garbarek in collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble). ▰ Rutger HoedemaekersNo Man’s Land (he’s best known, perhaps, for his work with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir on Trapped, and definitely check out The Last Berliner from 2019). ▰ Warren EllisThis Train I Ride (the rare film he’s scored solo, rather than in collaboration with Nick Cave). ▰ Ammonite by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (they also collaborated on The Old Guard). ▰ ZeroZeroZero by Mogwai. ▰ Industry by Nathan Micay.

Current Favorites: Maraš, Buckley, Ristić, Hoedemaekers

Heavy rotation, lightly annotated

A weekly(ish) answer to the question “What have you been listening to lately?” It’s lightly annotated because I don’t like re-posting material without providing some context. I hope to write more about some of these in the future, but didn’t want to delay sharing them. (This weekly feature was previously titled Current Listens. The name’s been updated for clarity’s sake.)

Svetlana Maraš’ Ear I Am is an ever-shifting survey of antic sounds, industrial mechanics, and playful noises, all with a sense of rhythmic flow, even if that rhythm is, on occasion, purposefully quite subtle. The six-track album is a live recording, taped back in 2017 on the first of February at the Ear We Are Festival in Biel, Switzerland. She is based in Belgrade, Serbia.

Linda Buckley’s “Loom” is a ferocious heave of mechanical trance state, until it isn’t, until the gear gnashing briefly disappears and all that’s left is the trance itself. And then the burners power up, and the machines go at it again. Thrilling. She is based in Dublin, Ireland.

The 17th album in the great 20×20 series is another set of 20 tracks, each 20 seconds long. This latest, Do Not Go Gentle by Manja Ristić, alternates between degraded recordings of Dylan Thomas poems with snatches of string instruments, rattly percission, and field recordings. She is based in Belgrade, Serbia.

Rutger Hoedemaekers’ music for the TV series No Man’s Land is a beautiful expanse of tension-laden stillness. He’s probably best known for his work, with Hildur Guðnadóttir and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, on Trapped. I can’t find much of this excellent score in embeddable form on non-commercial streaming services, but it’s at music.youtube.com and spotify.com. (If those links fail, please let me know.) Also recommended is his The Last Berliner score, which I’ve had on repeat the past few months. Hoedemaekers, originally from the Netherlands, is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Current Listens: Fullman + Tenet + Funki Porcini

Heavy rotation, lightly annotated

This is my weekly(ish) answer to the question “What have you been listening to lately?” It’s lightly annotated because I don’t like re-posting material without providing some context. In the interest of conversation, let me know what you’re listening to in the comments below. Just please don’t promote your own work (or that of your label/client). This isn’t the right venue. (Just use email.)

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NEW: Recent(ish) arrivals and pre-releases

Best known for her Long String Instrument, Ellen Fullman is heard in late-1980s musique-concrète mode on Music for the Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom, due out October 16 from the Besom Presse label, based in Los Angeles. One track is already available for streaming. Listen as a stereo recording of lapping water lapses into a rhythmic pulse.

The director of the new thriller Tenet, Christopher Nolan, may prefer we see it in theaters, but at least its score is online, courtesy of the record label WaterTower Music, for those of us maintaining significant social distance. Music by composer Ludwig Göransson.

Funki Porcini is a favorite from way back at the dawn of electronica, and his latest does not disappoint. Motorway opens with cinematic beats before proceeding through a mix of lush ambience imbued with a sense of intimacy, surveillance, and drama.

IM-OS: The Journal of Improvised Music – Open Scores

Edited by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen

Now in its second year, the online journal IM-OS is a wellspring of experimental composition. The initials stand for Improvised Music – Open Scores, and there’s a slightly longer description on its homepage, im-os.net: “new music journal focused on improvised music, open scores in various forms like prose, graphic and action notations.” There have been four issues thus far, two in 2019 and two this year, all edited by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen. All are available as free PDFs.

The most recent, dated Spring 2020, includes a graphic score that approaches the rhetoric of current sitting U.S. president as a composition (see the graphic above) and a deck of cards from Dennis Báthory-Kitsz (see sample set below).

The second issue included an essay by Adam Wasażnik connecting such games as cribbage and Monopoly to music-making, and the third had an 80-card “mathematical music” game composed by Samuel Vriezen on the occasion of composer Tom Johnson’s 80th birthday. (Frequent Disquiet Junto participant Glenn Sogge has a card-based composition in the second issue titled “Gestures for one or more percussionists.”)

Check it out at im-os.net. More from Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, who is based in Finland, at soundcloud.com/jpkervinen and from Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen, who is based in Denmark, at intuitivemusic.dk. (Thanks to Colin Drake for having introduced me to the journal.)