2020 favorites · Playlist

Favorite songs of 2020, part 1/2

Sign Libra – “Sea Of Nectar” MV

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I have a lot to catch up with but this is an interesting music year so far! This particular mix wound up having a lot of rich and moody synth-pop along with airy vocals (AKA my default mood). I love to have some variety in all of my mixes though so we also have tropical vibes, ghostly ballads and some unique fusions. As you might expect from me, I focused my inclusions on less canon artists who could use more attention.

  1. Σtella – The Race
  2. Wild Nothing – Sleight of Hand
  3. Choir Boy – It’s Over
  4. Baby Zionov – Extract From Truth
  5. Planet 1999 – Party
  6. Sign Libra – Sea of Waves
  7. Lido Pimienta – Te Queria
  8. La Roux – 21st Century
  9. Shura ft. Ivy Sole – elevator girl
  10. Christine And The Queens – I Disappear In Your Arms
  11. Hello Seahorse! – Mujer
  12. Maria Jose Llergo – El Hombre De La Mil Luna
  13. Eefje De Visser – Stilstand
  14. Half Waif – Siren
  15. Agnes Obel – Island of Doom
  16. Kelsey Lu – Morning Dew
  17. Nailah Hunter – White Flower Dark Hill
  18. Kelsey Lu w/ Onyx Collective – Where Or When
  19. Lydia Ainsworth – Diamonds Cutting Diamonds (Strings Version)
  20. Pantayo – Kaingin 
  21. Little Dragon – Stay Right Here 
  22. Empress Of – Call Me
hidden treasure

Purple Pilgrims – Eternal Delight, 2016

dream pop / hypnagogic pop / hauntology / folksy

Sounds like ghosts haunting the farmhouse of your past. What was once warm and nostalgic is now dusty, sinister, hard to believe. The wildlife isn’t frolicking anymore, it’s lurking! My ancestors’ rusty portraits took on a weird new energy since this time away, so much that I’m hearing voices. The Pilgrims suggest they’re enamored or pleased in some way, but it doesn’t feel right. Are they playing tricks?

This is one of those precious few albums which filter that special oldtimey, farm-life kind of spook through electronics and ‘heavenly voices’. As on their newer album, I love the way they frame their otherwise folksy voices with dream pop effects. Imagine a lost folk siren from the 60’s time-warped to today’s ‘hypnagogic’ scene and you get the idea. Felt Mountain fans rejoice.

Besides that haunted feeling, it’s the emphasis on synths that sets this apart from Perfumed. Like with the Ghost Box label, this adds a distinct space-age kitsch. The knack for eerie mantras wind up muffling this into a drowsier shape not far from a mangled library record.

Deep Cuts

Brothertiger feat. Laura Ornella – “Further On” (Future Splendors, 2013)

Phased synth chords like holographic tears, dripping into a river to form some kind of dance. Then, the most gorgeously trembling verses I’ve heard in some time. Many thanks to Laura Ornella for guesting here. Gave you all of my life and you told me we’d never survive / My heart burns heavy tonight / If you hold it up to the light / You will see all of the memories of a million lives. Such a regretful atmosphere, yet such dedication and hope when the chorus hits. When Brothertiger made his name with happy-go-lucky songs like “Lovers”, this reveals a compelling new side to him.

What is it about synth-pop that makes it PERFECT for bittersweet, vulnerable ballads? Ignore the cliche that ‘synths have no feeling’ as usual. To think this is the ‘lesser album’ from a ‘lesser artist’ in a ‘fake’ genre (chillwave)… If that’s true, why did I play this 20+ times in January? More important, how wasn’t this a single?

hidden treasure · new music

Hello Seahorse! – Disco estimulante, 2020

synth pop / indie electronic / dream pop

More like this – Hello Seahorse!’s Lejos. No tan lejos., Reni Jusis’ “Motyle”, Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry, Rajie’s Espresso

Denise Gutiérrez’s voice makes this band stand out, mixing rich velvet-like lows with powerful falsetto choruses in each song. Their synths come in many colors but the vivid, reflective atmosphere they create is a perfect fit. Synth pop is my closest guess here, but maybe not the kind you expect. This is more of a modern cocktail party in slow-motion with moonlight peeking in from the balcony.

Sadly, synth pop keeps falling victim to cliches these past few years, leading HS to use the same old 808 beats. Beyond that, I think their ears for melody are getting a lot tighter here. This is a great kick-off for the new year’s music if you’re obsessed with synth pop and/or dreamy falsettos like I am.

Anniversary

Toro Y Moi’s ‘Causers Of This’, ten years later

In the early tens, DIY artists like Toro showed me you don’t need endless synth rigs to make creative electronic music, and that the best inspiration can and will come from the solitude of home. He helped kick off a chillwave take-over that inspired many artists to come, whether or not ‘died’ within a year like countless articles claim, but it doesn’t end there. For one thing, Toro came early to the trend of seeking the 80s funk vaults for inspiration and gleaning the weirdness out of them. Without vocals, “You Hid” could pass as vaporwave. I begin to lose count with the motifs Causers Of This mirrored, if not pioneered, and this was the decade’s first month. Hypnagogic pop, future funk, our latest nu-disco crop, lo-fi house, synthwave, Carly Rae, alt R&B’s groovier corners. I won’t say he invented all this, of course, but it’s hard to deny he helped shape the decade’s indie electronic music. As his most hyped, ambitious electronic album, Causers represents these many facets best.

That electro-funk attitude became a staple for Toro, but in this case? Imagine french house doused in the ocean and ascended to space. He achieves this through hypnotic EDM pulses and murky synth ambience. His interest in glitches and grandiose samples distinguish it further, nodding to Brainfeeder shortly before Cosmogramma blew up. It was this taste for surrealism and natural variety that set Toro apart from other chillwavers. He defined a new genre while expanding it’s formula.

Like the best ‘bedroom’ e-music, Causers immerses you in the artist’s musical psyche, taking even a shy persona like Toro’s beyond it’s size. With it’s mutant synth licks making way for a disco fanfare, “Lissoms” suggests he brought an inner clash between earworms to reality, and it makes sense as a song. Each sound manages to blur into this delirious, weirdly calming vortex. Like the ocean itself, it flows along at differing speeds, one element to the next, coming and going. These changes feel instinctual rather than random. I’m not sure I know any other chillwave so in-touch with the ocean. When this is an arguable goal for the whole genre, that’s saying something.

With most songs fading to the next, Causers can sound more like a suite or spontaneous DJ session, making more abstract tracks like “Freak Love” work better in album context. Even so, a finale as joyous and straightforward as “Low Shoulder” shows Toro was already developing an ear for elaborate hooks. The title track loses some punch through it’s odd shape, but each riff has an authentic funk edge too much chillwave lacks.

In this ‘vortex’, Toro’s everyday sentiments will distort however he wants them to, yet staying in excellent sync with the music. Many lyrics resemble scraps from a letter to a friend with the odd metaphor mixed in (’Turn those fans away from me, they only dry my eyes out / Ever since I was born I couldn’t see’). ‘Sorry I couldn’t name the color of your eyes’, he mutters on “Fax Shadow”, proceeding to loop and obscure it as a sample yells ‘BABY!!!’ to the beat. What began a plain, if odd, apology becomes a broken rerun, where that old song he was playing last night got stuck.

As he begins on “Blessa”: ‘Come home in the summer / Live the life that you miss / It’s alright / I’ll fill you in / don’t you wait / for me to call your name again’. This wouldn’t surprise me over an indie rock sound, but the way he drenches it in filters and tops it off with his most angelic falsetto adds a whole new dimension. It’s like a hug from under a swimming pool. Despite his reference to trying hard with a job he doesn’t favor, or feeling reluctant to ‘let you in’, “Blessa” could make a great lullaby. It captures chillwave’s bittersweet nostalgia like few others.

COT is a testament to the potential solo artists can unleash with our growing access to music software. With a single app and enough dedication, you can create a world in your head, even from disparate interests. If you’re lucky, you’ll set the tone for an era. At this point I’m wishing chillwave wasn’t such bait for jokes; maybe then, influential albums like these would get the respect they deserve.

 

hidden treasure

Pat Moon – Don’t Hide From The Light, 2016

ethereal wave / dream pop / synth pop

More like this – Molly Nilsson’s “The Lonely” + “Wounds Itch When They Heal”, John Maus’ “Tenebrae”, Grimes’ Halfaxa, Anna Von Hausswolfe, Ioanna Gika

Imagine swimming in a cathedral with those windows. They’re the only light source, so you have these brilliant colors flashing through the dark. You hear a familiar song from the other room that brings up memories you haven’t thought of in years. That’s this album.

Pat Moon shows an excellent understanding of ethereal wave’s potential, and this is her debut. She brings all the romantic soul-searching this genre needs while giving it a promising synth makeover. From the first seconds she submerges her voice in murky pads that perfectly capture the ocean’s depths. The harmonies she builds are so fluid they could melt.

I can detect the confines of a keyboard-based home project, but the sound and scenes are big. She’s walking alone in the moors, she’s drifting along the river. Completing this imagery is a synth-organ echoing hallways and chambers from centuries past. This is the kind of isolated surrealism that gives the best ‘bedroom’ music it’s unique appeal.

I love how she titled this Don’t Hide From The Light. It’s gothic for sure, but more grey than black. This isn’t all-swallowing doom, it’s longing and unleashing emotions with a bit of hope. She writes on the Bandcamp page: ‘thank you kyle for helping me get here and reminding me that I could do this during those times I didn’t think I could’. She’s emerging from her shell and this translates really well to the songs.

See also – “Medieval Spells” from Romantic Era

Mix

Thinking Of Christmas Past

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Are you up to set the Christmas mood but wanting something a bit different? Here I’ve gathered songs that remind me most of Christmas season without necessarily being about the holiday: icy, magical sounds with plenty of twinkling and moods ranging from jovial and nostalgic to mysterious. As a theoretical ‘stocking’ I include two Christmas covers and three themed originals.

Track listing

camera lucida – robin guthrie / dreamers tied to chairs – ashrae fax / dazzle + il est ne le divin enfant – siouxsie and the banshees / modigliani (lost in your eyes) – book of love / cut down the tree – ice choir / world 5: snow land [kirby’s epic yarn OST] – tomoya tomita / march of the dawn – the mummers / love to stay – altered images / winter wonderland – cocteau twins / nightingales – prefab sprout / espresso – rajie / latitudes – ollano / limpidite – robert viger / la petite fille de la mer – vangelis / red wrapping paper – the creatures / christmas reindeer – the knife / virgin blue-eyed – lovesliescrushing

Photo credit: Christmas With Southern Living, 1984 https://palmandlaser.tumblr.com/post/189715654560/palmandlaser-from-christmas-with-southern-living

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Errors – New Relics (2012) & Lease of Life (2015)

 

More like this – Laurel Halo, GAMES, Washed Out’s Within And Without

Bored of all the interchangeable synthwave? I’d suggest listening to Errors.  As former ‘post-rockers’, I figure the little hype around these albums is a lack of the right crowd. It’s a shame they didn’t find one, since I know it’s not every day I hear synth-pop this expansive. Their songs deviate from verse-chorus structures, building as they go with relentless, hypnotizing progressions. Even shorter songs like “Putman Caraibe” turn a semi-normal verse into a mini-symphony. Meanwhile, “Pegasus” evolves from 4AD dream pop to Tangerine Dream in six minutes. They have me wishing ‘progressive synth-pop’ was a genre.

Both Relics and Lease use many trademarks like Linndrums and FM bells, but it’s all about how they arrange them. They center on weirder, extra-kitschy tones over the obvious Com Truise gloss. Without reducing their color, Errors find the danger in these sounds and take them to a metaphysical space. Songs like “Relics” and “Ammaboa” wield bubbly arpeggios like a plant’s thorns.

 

The way they process vocals enhance this effect. Most songs fill them with reverb, fading them in until the lyrics only come in shards. “Slow Rotor” and “Dull Care” show this best with guest singer Bek Oliva repeating cryptic, sometimes tragic omens like ‘if nothing I can think about is real’ and ‘I’ll never get to sleep again’. The meanings aren’t clear, but they know how to stick around and keep me guessing. Their singing along with voxes and bells adds a cyborg-like contrast of feeling v.s. unfeeling.

Errors mutated synth-pop into a sinister, strangely beautiful vortex with these albums. They’re another group that show how emotive this music can be no matter how virtual it sounds. I’m hoping they can return soon given how long it’s been since Lease of Life.

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Be Forest – Earthbeat (2014)

dream pop / post-punk / ethereal wave

RIYL – early Cocteau Twins, 4AD, post-punk guitars, Chelsea Wolfe, Tamaryn, Them Are Us Too

Be Forest have a truly haunted and forlorn guitar sound that smolders over their songs like embers and fireflies. It sounds like an update or even the ghost of the usual eighties guitar twang. They manage to call on classic post-punk while finding their own ground within it.

Earthbeat is my favorite BF album since it doesn’t lose itself in the fuzz like Cold. or a bland, formless void like Knocturne. Earthbeat leaves some room for true songs and melodies to unravel. They merge gentle acoustics and thorned, distorted edges for an ideal autumn-campfire mood piece. Erica’s organic rhythms are the wooden logs and trees, Costanza’s bass lines are wolves and old memories lurking in the distance; their singers hum quietly like they’re telling you a secret about their past. In classic dream pop fashion, they create strong images and feelings without clear lyrics.

Earthbeat is one of the most evocative albums I’ve heard in this decade’s post-punk scene. Be sure to check out “NTR” from their debut too.