502’s mandatory 2020 music round-up

A soundtrack to the end of the world.

While we’ve been waiting for the vaccine we’ve had no choice but to occupy ourselves by consuming media of all forms, but we thought this would make a more interesting article than one about Netflix box sets. Everyone has been trapped in their rooms, including your favourite artists: they’ve had no excuse to not to do their jobs and release some bangers. So, we’ve rounded some up some pals to give you their unwarranted and unprofessional opinions on the standout musical releases of the shit-show that was last year.

Check out a taster from these albums and some standout singles from 2020 in a little Spotify (I know yuck) playlist we made, just for you!

Self-titled - Duma

Depending on your temperament, this piece will either seem to you like Dog Star Man (1964) or Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Either way, this album will hypnotise and mesmerise you as it slowly drags you down into its dark, dank depths. Layers of textures crash together, battling for control. It is as if the underground Nairobian metal scene that produced this work is itself being manifested, forcing you to notice its presence and once it has you - it never lets go. The opener, “Angels and Abysses” is a mission statement preparing you for the journey ahead. With the abrasive comes beauty, the constant abyss the listener finds themself in is interrupted often but fleetingly with the ‘Angels’ on the album. The ‘Angels’ are the traditional African drum patterns, stabbing synth patterns and almost dark trap instrumentals scattered throughout. The fifth track ‘Uganda with Sam’, for instance, sounds like if Cradle of Filth made a lounge track for a dive bar in Baal’s lair: a winding, eerie synth arpeggio and an almost twisted jazz drumline are dismantled by an unrelenting computerised blast beat - never ceasing on its own accord, the original beat has to interrupt its interruptor. ‘Sin Nature’ is an ode to IDM, overlapping percussive lines tease and pull against each other, jittering hi-hats ring whilst high synth stabs pierce through the wall of sound - all dying down before techno-inspired pounding bass drum hits reign half way through the track. For 30 seconds, you get a moment of Berghain before tumbling back into the dense instrumental darkness. This piece is potent and a must for anyone who needs a shot of musical adrenaline to wake them up.

Owain Johnson

I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep - Ghostpoet

Obaro Ejimiwe’s last output Dark Days and Canapes seemed like a steady descent into the unease and unrest of modern times. With, I Grow Tired… Ejimiwe seems to have become intimate with the darkness he finds himself in, it is a perfect reflection of the year 2020. Most tracks centre around a repeated riff or refrain, as if we were stuck in a room with each song. Textures are added and instrumentals are built on but due to the repetition the stagnant feeling remains in the air. The opener, ‘Breaking Cover’, starts with a driving bassline that persists throughout the remaining playtime - whatever ideas and thoughts arise, we as a listener are constantly reminded of the lack of change to our environment. One might think this could offer a stale listening experience but Ghostpoet’s production on this work is him at his best. The early electronic elements of his music are crafted seamlessly into rich instrumental textures - an obvious introspection and reflection of his earlier works has taken place. Perhaps mirroring the introspection we have all done during the lockdowns. ‘When Mouths Collide’ is a perfect example of this, a meandering detuned synth line is paired beautifully with bass and a jaunty drum beat - swelling to a pretty piano underneath Poet’s lyrics, ‘Hold on my lover, Slipping away from me again’, the synth and drums pile back on becoming more frantic and harsh - the lover has slipped away again. Poet’s vocal performance is masterful, and he further cements his own poetic style. In ‘Rats in a Sack’, the instruments fade and we are left with Poet and a drum refrain - where other rappers would instinctively use this as a fast breakdown section, he instead lumbers with the drums, leaning in and out with his lyrics. This is well worth a listen and will always be a perfect emotional reminder of such a stagnant yet constantly evolving year.

Owain Johnson

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak) – Slauson Malone

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak) is a continuation on the ideas first presented in Slauson Malones’ previous album: 2018’s ‘A Quiet Farwell, 2016–2018 (Crater Speak)’. It feels wrong to talk about Vergangenheitsbewältigung without mentioning its predecessor. A Quiet Farwell was a busy, almost hectic album, it felt… full. Like Slauson’s mind was overflowing with ideas and emotion, all of which he managed to get across in its comparatively short runtime. Chaotic sampling, electronic elements and layers of hip-hop and jazz influence came together to create something that sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard. I don’t mean this in a bad way - the album is incredible. Vergangenheitsbewältigung in comparison is like the quiet after the storm, reminiscing on the chaos of the first album. Many of the songs continue ideas and motifs created on the first album but this time they’re accompanied by stripped back acoustic guitar and piano. The chaos of the first album is referenced here, as are the hip-hop and jazz elements that made the first so great, but they’re not the focus of Vergangenheitsbewältigung by any means. Despite its similarly short length the ideas here don’t feel as cramped and bursting to get out. By being a more subdued continuation of the first album, Vergangenheitsbewältigung finds its own sound without losing any of the magic Slauson initially created. It’s hard to find the words to describe both of these albums, Slauson is doing something that few others are right now, and you should most definitely check him out.

Joel Footring

Bluenote: Reimagined – Various Artists

It’s safe to say that the UK jazz scene is in a great place at the moment. 2020 saw releases from Moses Boyd, Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes, Yazmin Lacey, Alfa Mist; the list goes on. For me though, Bluenote Reimagined was the standout release. That’s not to say that the individual releases we saw this year were lacking in quality, but Bluenote Reimagined felt significant for UK jazz as a whole. Bluenote is a heritage jazz label that’s been around since 1939, releasing music from some of the heaviest hitters in the game: we’re talking Coltrane, Hancock and Davis here. Bluenote: Reimagined is exactly what it says, reimagined versions of classic songs from the label’s back catalogue by some of the most exciting UK jazz artists making music right now (this isn’t the first time Bluenote have experimented with music from their archives: see Shades of Blue from legendary hip-hop producer Madlib). Alfa Mist, Ezra Collective, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and a host of others make contributions to the track listing, covering and reworking music from the label’s previous releases. Influence from other genres can be felt across the album; R&B vocals from Jorja Smith and Yazmin Lacey and electronic beats from Emma Jean Thackray immediately spring to mind. Importantly though, this collaboration feels like a celebration, and to some extent validation, of the UK scene; now internationally and culturally recognised for the consistent quality of its output.

Joel Footring

Visions of Bodies Being Burned - clipping

Clipping’s music should not work; yet, somehow, their music successfully harmonises disparate influences: those of noisecore, film scoring and hip-hop. In their 2020 release, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, an accompanying album to their previous year’s release There Existed an Addiction to Blood, Diggs, Snipes and Hutson envision a world of horror through a gargantuan atmosphere of noisecore and ambient sounds, and dizzyingly labyrinthine raps. Clipping’s conjoining of different influences extends to their well-chosen features as well, a highlight being Cam & China’s infectious vocal supplement on ‘’96 Neve Campbell’. This malleability to their sound, without fear of digression, showcases Clipping’s extraordinary ability to successfully realise a concept. Diggs’ inclusion of humour is also notable: he rhymes “fool a g” with “eulogy” on ‘Check the Lock’, cleverly sticking to the morbid theme of the song; additionally, stressed syllables in his rhyme structure arrive at humorous ends, such as “Teeth sharp like collar, bone hard like dick” on ‘Something Underneath’. This briefly disrupts the dark and frenzied nature of Diggs’ narrative, which is allowed to rest for brief bits of humour in the otherwise rigid horrorcore storyline. Indeed, this is only one facet of Digg’s rap skill. His versatility, and his ability to fluctuate the speed of his elocution, is incredibly impressive. Finally, Clipping’s vision is no clearer on their song ‘Pain Everyday’: the song builds to a kaleidoscopic end that harmonises the sharp rapping of Diggs with Snipes’ orchestral backing and Hutson’s invocation of glitch. A satisfying and rich experience, Visions of Bodies Being Burned is a fearsome experiment that all hip-hop lovers should try out.

Stavros Ktorides

Alfredo - Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist

Alfredo sees Freddie Gibbs collaborate with the Alchemist in what was an unexpected release; however, it has since proven to be an invaluable addition to the rap genre. Freddie Gibbs, coming off his critically acclaimed collaboration with Madlib, Bandana, demonstrates his two experimental ventures with Madlib were no fluke: his technically advanced rap skill and wit still intact, he complements an in-form Alchemist, and in doing so proves his inexorability in today’s rap scene. This is immediately apparent from the first track, ‘1985’: Alchemist’s smooth rock-style beat seamlessly dovetails with Freddie’s wordplay. A song that concludes with Freddie self-appraising his influence on the rap game, it implores that his ascension in rap is a self-aware one – one which is necessitated by speaking his dominance into existence. This is not to downplay Alchemist’s contribution to the album: calling on tightly produced and textured beats, Alchemist constructs what are undeniably layered backings for his counterpart. Another crucial element to the album that Alchemist formulates is its gentle and widely sourced interludes, which help establish a fluid narrative arc to the album. The album gives its most vital message in the song ‘Scottie Beam’: “The revolution is this genocide / Yeah, my execution might be televised”; these are words that would later be inscribed on the placards of innumerable protestors during the Black Lives Matter protests. Referring to police brutality, Freddie narrates a communal experience of inequality, which results in the song having an emotional and empowering charge. Freddie also cites the film Queen and Slim (2019) in ‘Scottie Beam’, a film that not only echoes the song in its narrative, but also its stylised swagger. That is to say, overall, the album’s focus, flow and message contributes to Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist’s growing enshrinement in rap glory.

Stavros Ktorides

Supply & Demand - Lord Apex & V Don

2020 saw UK hip hop blossom like never before, commanding international respect and recognition of chart toppers and underground figureheads alike. Lord Apex’s hotly hyped second mixtape of the year is no exception. Following on from January’s gloomy effort Darkskies, Supply & Demand sees the West London sensei link up with Harlem producer V Don for eleven tracks steeped in uniquely fresh nostalgia. The body of work feels like a narration of Apex’s transition from cult favourite to a rapper to be reckoned with on the global stage. Themes of identity struggle and coping with change are present throughout, from the dramatic outset of Level Up - “Raised by the blocks but still classed as a hipster” - to the retrospective ramblings heard on Life Goes On. V Don’s piano-forward production style lays down a sublime canvas for conscious yet cheeky wordplay. Highlights include the irresistibly catchy Summer Murda, in which delicate backing vocals accompany an expertly crafted hook while Apex recounts a car chase through a hazy dreamscape. Belize, featuring CJ Fly of Brooklyn’s Pro Era collective, is a firm personal favourite. The transatlantic pair deliver solid verses over a beat evoking 1970s detective drama energy, rounding off the tape’s trio of tracks featuring established US rappers who perfectly compliment Apex’s laid-back flows. The effort put into sounding effortless is remarkable and will have you running this tape on repeat for all manner of moods. The self-styled Yardie Miyagi’s versatility across his sizeable discography is truly impressive, and Supply & Demand is yet another jewel in Lord Apex’s crown which is sure to catch the eye of hip hop heads worldwide.

Jamie Sterland