The Best of 2020 – Ten of the best

Best of 2020, 10 of my favourite albums released this year. Many I reviewed, some I sought out, some where overheard and became new friends. I’ve put them in alphabetical order, rather than counting down to a definitive single release. It was hard enough getting it down to ten.

If I had to pick a favourite, looking at repeat plays it has to be Yvonne Lyon or Minnie Birch for sheer leftfieldness. All were played to death. Where I reviewed these, which was most of them, the reviews appeared in Northern Sky Reviews or Fatea Magazine. Onwards for 2021 as yet unheard.

Minnie Birch, You’re Not Singing Anymore

Bonnie Light Horseman, Bonnie Light Horseman

Cinder Well, No Summer

Nick Jonah Davis, When The Sun Came

Kadialy Kouyate, Nemo

Sam Lee, Old Wow

Yvonne Lyon, Growing Wild

Our Man In The Field, The Company Of Strangers

Various Artists, Help The Witch concept album

Dan Whitehouse, Dreamland Tomorrow

Minnie Birch, You’re Not Singing Anymore
Like social observation it’s the small details that delight, the voices that accompany “God’s Footballer” are local to Watford and Berkhamstead, as is Minnie, the terrace choir on “Blaydon Races” is recorded at Berkhamstead Football Club, where she played in a Saturday team. It is all driven by love, played out at real life scale. Folk Club intimacy informs the performances, illuminating local moments and small town romances on this charming collection of songs. This is a carefully put together set, voice (and what a wonderful voice), guitar that is strummed and stroked intimately, with carefully chosen jewels of accompaniment. I am not a football nerd, I’m the opposite, my only connection is through song and the evocative use of the crowd on “Fearless” by Pink Floyd, but you have got to love the passion and attention to detail in someone else’s obsession and that love speaks to me in a real way. The connection to Folk song and the Folk Tradition is very real and the examination of that most English game in a most English way at a local level is fascinating. The watercolour on the gatefold of the booklet by Minne’s dad is a Lowryesque visual representation of how watching football gives light to many. Volume One says the cover, with a hint of more, yes please.

Full review

Bonnie Light Horseman, Bonnie Light Horseman

Touted as a Folk supergroup. Bonnie Light Horseman are Anais Mitchell, Eric D Johnson and Josh Kaufman.

Anais’ voice is a delight and the three musicians gently stir up an acoustic fog around their singing. The trio’s blissed out version of the Napoleonic Folk Song is sublime and Mitchell and Michael Lewis do the best slurred voice and saxophone rapture since Martyn and Coe on Solid Air.

Cinder Well, No Summer

Amelia Baker, who is Cinder Well, calls up rich and melancholic songs, drawing on traditional music and her own observations. Nine minute Our Lady’s tells the tales of the imagined residents in an abandoned asylum tapping into the fever dream intensity of Astral Weeks or TB Sheets Van Morrison.

Nick Jonah Davis, When The Sun Came
Nick Jonah Davis is a musician and sound engineer based in Derbyshire. Since the self released Guitar Recordings in 2009, When the Sun Came is the forth volume of solo guitar recordings, the second for UK Thread Recordings after one for US Tompkins Square. Recorded in at a village church in Atlow and mixed at home this is a very grounded album, with a strong sense of the space it was recorded in. There is the same nimble playing that featured so strongly on House Of Dragons from 2016, but he is drawing on a broader palette of sounds and atmospheres. . It feels like there would be a great physicality and performance aspect to watching this being played. Sometimes instrumental music can become background music something to chink wine glasses to. Musicians like Nick Jonah Davis make music that is like a Norman Ackroyd landscape etching or a Joseph Wright of Derby painting, where great technical skills are used, not to noodle but to create beauty, danger and atmosphere.

Full review

Kadialy Kouyate, Nemo
I first became aware of Kadialy Kouyate as part of Sheffield’s International fusion band Rafiki Jazz. Kadialy, singer and musician from Senegal, West African is, part of the Griot, bardic troubadour and story teller tradition. Like the much missed Malian musician Issa Bagayogo, Kadialy mixes traditional acoustic instruments and sounds with modern instruments and textures to make a lively bubbling fusion. NEMO means blessing, and it definitely leaves you feeling uplifted, carried, full of light and blessed. This is a musical triumph, one I will keep playing and is a very strong contender for an end of year top ten.

Full review

Sam Lee, Old Wow

Sam in an exciting contemporary Folk Singer, while his voice is powerful and compelling solo, Lee has a great ability to build interesting soundscapes around his singing. Tracks like Lay This Body Down draw on gospel, folk with a contemporary edge from the guitar and production of Bernard Butler. All of his albums are beautiful snap shots but the aptly named Old Wow captures cinematic level wonder.

Yvonne Lyon, Growing Wild

This is the fourth Yvonne Lyon release I have reviewed and with the amazing voice a constant what is noticeable is the development of her sound. GROWING WILD has a contemporary edge and a synergy of classic acoustic songwriter and the very now swirl of electronica. Yvonne Lyon consistently delivers fine albums and recordings, but this feels like a step up to something special, sophisticated and classic. Everything from the cover that mixes Green (wo) man and graffiti textures, to the rich sound surrounding the stunning voice says big time and big time aspirations.

Full review

Our Man In The Field, The Company Of Strangers
Our Man In The Field is London based singer, musician and songwriter Alexander Ellis. We are invited to think of the songs as dispatches phoned in from a heat crumpled correspondent. The album title hints at the exotic potential in travel to the unknown and new with a paraphrase of Blanche DuBois as on the cover the universal traveller walks towards a distant sun. Recorded live and steeped in atmosphere the album is an atmospheric revelation. This is an atmospheric soupy album, most of all this is a special album. Alexander Ellis channels his love of Neil Young, Van, The Allman Brothers and 90s Americana, to weave Astral Weeks played by a soulful Rainer Ptacek, eyes squinting against the desert sun, managing to sound like all of them and none of them.

Full review

Various Artists, Help The Witch concept album

This a thematic collection of songs, curated by Tom Cox that draw on his book Help The Witch. Lyrically it has the feel of Psych Folk, but sonically the gathered performers give the Wicker Man vibe a big contemporary twist. Zervas and Pepper give a dreamy West Coast folk pop edge to proceedings, while Trimdon Grange Explosion are the stuff of sonic nightmares. The whole album is a triumph of atmospheres, edge of dreams voices and vivid images. A true mixture of Ancient and Modern on Stick In The Wheel’s From Here Records, from the beautiful cover to the stunning music there is a Arts and Crafts like attention to detail and craft.

Dan Whitehouse, Dreamland Tomorrow
Dreamland Tomorrow is the latest album by Dan Whitehouse. Dreamland Tomorrow in a, sense is really two albums, Dreamland a dark brooding experimental album that recalls and meets on equal terms, the ambience and sonic experiments of Mark Hollis, David Sylvian and Blackstar David Bowie. Tomorrow is a rawer, more live sound, stripped back to voice, guitar and bass. It’s like having Bryter Later and Pink Moon on one album, a connected core developed in two different directions, except Dan is no acoustic troubadour and the title track for the second disc is on the first disc, so clearly they are not standalones. The combined title suggests too that carrot on a stick, jam later promise we hear so often and emotionally that seems to fit the mood. A rich album, a variety of approaches hold your interest draw you in with the stylistic approaches on Dreamland and Tomorrow sitting symbiotically, contrasting but bringing out the best in the other. A truly surprising and engaging twenty two tracks and seventy four minutes. If like me Dan is a new name to you, then this is a great place to start.

Full Review

Marc Higgins 26/12/20

Always looking for new albums to review. I prefer physical releases, vinyl or compact disc over digital releases. This is my archive blog, albums reviewed appear in Northern Sky Reviews edited by Allan Wilkinson or Fatea overseen by Neil King.

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