NORDIC MUSIC REVIEW FAVOURITE ALBUMS OF 2020
Selected by Andy.
As always this this a 'favourites' list, rather than trying to define or judge the 'best album' , which is of course impossible. Hopefully you'll find something 'new' you weren't expecting to find, don't take the order too seriously (I've already changed my mind since I wrote it) and as always let us know if you think I've missed something.
25. Ping - 'The Zigzag Manoeuvre'
The return of offbeat Norwegian progressive influenced band Ping was particularly welcomed, given they'd had a tough few years since the release of their previous album in 2014, due to a fire at their studio which curtailed all recording activities. So it was great to see the release of new album 'The Zigzag Manoeuvre', a fascinating release which brings together a vast array of musical genres - from jazz to pop, disco, funk and rock. And when it all makes sense, which it sometimes does, the effect is hugely rewarding, with complex twisted melodies and a huge amount of instrumental detail to appreciate.
24. Adam Evald - 'White Night Blackout'
Straight from the opening of 'White Night Blackout'. Adam Evald takes you into his world of lush strings, elegant piano and warm songwriting where flowing melodies rule, and everything is slowed down to a pace that allows us to relax and just consider the beauty of his music. With more than a hint of the likes of The Divine Comedy and Duke Special in the style and approach, 'White Night Blackout' is the type of album you can reach for at any time, and Evald is a clever songwriter who seems to enjoy the arrangements and instrumentation that are central to the songs.
23. Simen Mitlid - 'Birds; or, Stories from Charlie B's Travels from Grønland to the Sun, and Back Again'
Similar to Adam Evald, Simen Mitlid draws the listener away from the stresses of daily life to a comforting place, which allows for contemplation about the important things. Joining him on his indie folk journey he collaborates with some NMR favourites such as Tuvaband and Benedikt, along with Oslo Hostel Choir too, and the result is a a thoughtful, interesting album where soft tunes, subtle instrumentation and understated vocals seem to fuse together perfectly. Understandably an Indiefjord favourite.
22. Silja Sol - 'På ekte'
Any artist that quotes both punk and Edward Grieg as influences are likely to appeal to me, and this is a sophisticated and melodically rich release from the Bergen based songwriter, who performs in Aurora Aksnes' band. Released through Apollon Records, it may be an 'electro pop' album, but it draws in influences from different genres, which for me broadens the appeal. ‘Superkresen’ is clearly a stand out track, but also check out the atmospheric and poignant Nøytralisert‘, which uses well judged strings.
21. And We Should Die Of That Roar - 'Deathbed Lullabies'
Such a desolate and dark album is probably the last thing we needed in 2020, but there's something about And We Should Die Of That Roar, the project of multi-instrumentalist Hardy Hum that strikes a chord - maybe because it does actually fit the mood of the year. Opening with a line about 'finding God on his knees', Mr Hum really tells things as they are - or at least how he thinks things are, and his unique brand of 'unfiltered blues punk from hell' (as he describes it), does really hit the mark both musically and lyrically.
20. Lilla Parasit - 'Lilla Parasit'
Swedish label Red Lama are always a really good source of interesting, quirky indie pop bands, with the likes of Melby, Kluster B, Kindsight and others on their roster (there are a few connections between the bands), and the pick of them this year for me was Lilla Parasit, who released a mini-LP on the day the UK went into lockdown in March, opening quite extraordinarily with a track entitled 'Blasted Germs'. Anyway the album is simply packed full of cute slightly leftfield indie pop tunes, and that makes it really easy to listen to, just check out the likes of 'Russians' and pre-album single 'Feather Soul'.
19. She's A Sailor - 'Do You Want Us to Play'
We've followed the progress of Danish band 'She's A Sailor' since hearing an early demo in 2014, and it was lovely to see a full length album finally released from the band, based around duo Jesper Vindberg and Thomas Albrechtsen. Big melodies are at the heart of it too, very much landing unapologetically in the realms of bands like Keane, and there's always a feeling that these guys write with huge smiles on their faces. Possibly at their best when the natural sounds of the piano carry the songs along, highlights include the title track and 'Rain and Circus'.
18. When 'Airy Met Fairy - Esprit de corps
Based around Icelandic / Luxembourg duo Thorunn Egilsdottir and Mike Koster, 'Esprit de corps' is described by them as an 'indie trip-hop album which..... captivates the essence of who we are as people.' David described it as an album which almost 'redefined minimalism', and it's a gorgeous if melancholy release where they set out everything in as few words and instruments as possible. WAMF remind me of watching a Shakespeare play (albeit with less violence and incest obviously) in a small theatre, where there are no complex sets, and all the attention is thrown on to the actions of the actors. Pure, honest, expressive music.
17. Alice Boman - 'Dream On'
February seems like a lifetime away, but we have to go back there for Alice Boman's debut album release, which we commented at the time seemed a little strange given that to us she's such an established songwriter. The album was never going to disappoint, simply because Boman's vocals are always a delight to listen to, and it's a measured, convincing set of songs, where the power of the album is felt in the combined weight of the tracks - although check out the beautiful 'Heart on Fire' and the poignant and expressive 'This Is Where It Ends'. She even managed some UK live dates just before all the nonsense started.
16. The Holy - 'Mono Freedom'
The Holy are another band that I've followed followed for a long time (since that infamous 'demo' under a slightly different name) and 'Mono Freedom' is an interesting release, with an apparent mix of influences that adds to the intrigue - think Arcade Fire, Muse and others too - the Yorkshire Times even compared them to 'Echo and the Bunnymen'. Anyway 'Mono Freedom' is the 2nd album. a follow up to to their 2018 release 'Daughter', and as always there are big anthemic melodies in there, from opener 'No Trial in the Dark' through to 'The Rocket Song' .
15. Club K - '191202'
I get so much pleasure from being introduced to a Nordic Indie Pop band who've just released a new album, and Club K popped out of nowhere with their late Summer release. The 8 piece (apparently) Malmo band release charming, melodic indie guitar tracks, with simple appealing lyrics, and this is unquestionably 'my type' of music. Live footage suggests that they make a good noise at gigs too, and there's plenty of earlier material too, as they previously released an album entitled 'Let M Shake' back in 2015 that's worth checking out.
14. Hey Elbow - 'We Three'
If you're looking for something slightly more complex to get your teeth into, then Hey Elbow's autumn alternative rock release 'We Three' is well worth checking out. Taking influences from across the world, they somehow mould everything together into an epic adventurous album that doesn't really conform to any genres, and where tracks flow naturally into each other, giving a real sense of continuity. I said at the time that I felt certainly felt 'enriched by the album, inspired a little to expand the breadth of my musical listening boundaries' and I stick to that.
13. Das Body - 'Peregrine'
I'm really grateful to David for championing this band so passionately, because their dynamism, attitude and energy has now got under my skin too. They burst on to the scene with an EP back in 2018, have wowed people with their 'electric' live performances and they finally released their debut release 'Peregrine' in November. Highlights for me include the likes of 'Taller Than The Average Man' (it's an older track apparently) and the rock infused 'On Request', but these guys really know how to write catchy tunes, and their lyrics are well worth close inspection too. We're expecting a lot more from these guys.
12. Gösta Berlings Saga – ‘Konkret Musik'
Hailing from Stockholm, Gösta Berlings Saga write dark, reflective instrumental music, and their album 'Konkret Musik' is a glorious mix of sounds, ideas and textures. In the midst of it, tunes peek out and then are overwhelmed and beaten down by the complex mix of sounds, before they peek out again this time louder and braver than before. Check out 'Vinsta Guldlocka' and you'll see what I mean. I posed the question at the time, 'are they a progressive, cyberpunk, noise rock, synthwave, metal, post rock or psych band'? The answer is that they are all those things. Plus Tim Smith liked them, so that should be good enough for anyone.
11. Henriette Sennenvaldt - 'Something Wonderful'
I love the diversity of releases we get to listen to, and without NMR I worry that hidden treasures such as the jazz inspired 'Something Wonderful' by Henriette Sennevaldt (from Under Byen) would escape me completely. I liked this when I first listened in November, but its been one of my 'go to' albums in the latter part of the year - a tantalising release which demands that you switch yourself from the world and allow yourself to be consumed completely. The vocals are just wonderful throughout, and the subtle brass instrumentation adds a lovely dimension to the music.
10. Ólafur Arnalds - 'some kind of peace'
No NMR annual list is complete without Ólafur Arnalds. His latest album simply entitled 'some kind of peace' is a hypnotic and mesmerizing work of shimmering beauty, fusing together classical minimalist composition influences with that unique Icelandic touch that he possesses. Collaborations on the release include Bonobo, German songwriter Josin, and most notably of all from my perspective, fellow Icelandic artist JFDR, with the lovely track 'Back to the Sky'. One of the finest 'classically' influenced composers around.
9. I See Rivers - 'Deep and Rolling Green'
Another band that we've followed on an incredible journey over the last few years, 'I See Rivers' finally released their debut album 'Deep & Rolling Green' in Autumn. The self described 'Float Folk' trio have gained such maturity in their songwriting since we first heard them, and they've added a level of production quality which transforms their sound, yet still retaining that intimate, clever harmonised sound. It's a weighty release too at 15 tracks, which is brave but appreciated too, as there's so much new material to get to know - rather than most of the tracks having been previewed as singles.
8. YOHIO - 'A Pretty Picture in a Most Disturbing Way'
Somehow Swedish (Japanese based) artist YOHIO manages to bring together progressive rock, Eurovision and boy band pop into one wonderfully curious fusion of sound, and 'A Pretty Picture in a Most Disturbing Way' is packed full of tunes, yet all with a hint of darkness and mystery that leaves me a little intrigued. He released about 6 singles before the album, but he could have released 10, because every track on the album is quite simply a 'banger' pop hit. Favourites include the epic sounding 'My Nocturnal Serenade' to the quite ridiculous 'Oh My... Polkadot Politics'. Prog Pop for the actual kidz.
7. Dog Paper Submarine – 'Slippery Satellites'
I only discovered Swedish band Dog Paper Submarine in about April this year, which was kind of a shame, given they were just about to release their (apparently) final album before disbanding. Entitled 'Slippery Satellites', it's a joyous release which I described as 'noisy rampant guitars, catchy melodies, and a sense of chaos and simplicity all rolled into one album'. The trio featuring Martin Månsson Sjöstrand (This Heel), Emil Engblom and drummer Carolina Carlbom have brought a huge amount of pleasure with this album, and they've left a great legacy too. Of course we'll always encourage them to write more music...
6. Talitha Ferri - 'Get Well Soon'
Danish based songwriter Talitha Ferri surprised us when she popped up in February, releasing a series of singles in the run up to the lovely, if melancholy, album 'Get Well Soon'. Her vocals are particularly appealing, warm but frail, and there's something about her style that will draw you in close and totally believe what she is singing about. Accompanying instrumentation is subtle but always cleverly arranged, whilst lyrically her thoughts are summed up best in the track 'The Sadness Lasts Forever', which reflects that things don't necessarily 'get better they just change'.
Honest, powerful songwriting.
5. Red Barnett - 'Astronauts’'
We're really into my favourite few albums of the year, and Spotify was very keen to tell me that Red Barnett were actually my most listened to band of the year and 'Astronauts' is a really easy listening, flowing indie rock album that benefits from the big expansive sound that songwriter Halli has now created, with the help of his band of Icelandic musicians and Rockfield Studios in Wales, where they recorded the album (I'm pretty sure I See Rivers was recorded there too). This is such a well written album, and it will always be one of my favourite Icelandic releases.
4. Siv Jakobsen - 'A Temporary Soothing'
Another artist we have followed the progress of for a number of years, Siv Jakobsen reached new heights with her gorgeous new release 'A Temporary Soothing', the follow up to her 2017 release, 'The Nordic Mellow'. An album that took over a year to write and record, and clearly was the result of huge soul searching, the result was a rich, varied album, with beautifully judged arrangements and instrumentation, clever lyrics ('I fear the ness in happiness') and quirkily alliterated song titles. Still a future international 'star' in the making, as far as David and myself are concerned.
3. Hringfari - 'Hringfari'
The most beautiful 'surprise' of the year, an Icelandic / Canadian project which came absolutely out of nowhere. Musicians Teitur Björgvinsson and James Bunton collaborated on the project to produce what I described at the time as 'a stunning album which is as surprising as it is completely charming, with delicate pop textures fusing together with experimental and ambient soundscapes – and some blisteringly powerful moments too.' Clearly influenced by the likes of Sigur Rós, Hringfari somehow balance between Post Rock and Experimental Pop, with a dose of alternative folk too. Still an undiscovered gem, I'll keep shouting about this release until the rest of Iceland, and the world, takes notice.
2. Kalandra - 'The Line'
I've always known that these guys were pretty good, but Kalandra's 'The Line' has totally blown me away over the last few weeks. And it's been great to see such an overwhelmingly positive response to the album from everyone else too too, and which must surely lead to some pretty good festival and live bookings for the post-Covid era. There are so many highlights to 'The Line', from Katrine's mesmerizing vocals, to the blazing crescendo's of instrumental sound, the epic climaxes and the beautiful contrasts to the softer sections - even the artwork is fabulous.
An incredibly mature album from such a young band. I really can't wait to see these guys perform live in 2021.
1. Ghosts on TV - 'I Am Not Dead, I Am 55 Today'.
I always carefully define this list of albums as being my 'favourites' list, which to emphasise means this is a very personal selection. And if there is one album that has allowed me to really escape from the desperation of 2020 it's 'I Am Not Dead, I Am 55 Today', a sprawling and epic 40 minutes of instrumental post rock that was as surprising as it was blistering and powerful.
Exactly where it came from I'm not entirely sure, a band that I've written about previously and have always liked, who changed direction to deliver something very special - a vast, complex release, with climaxes involving huge instrumental walls of sound.
Of course an album likes this does need some patience, but just give it time and you'll appreciate the hypnotic, blissful soundscapes, and if that doesn't get to you, the huge swells in sound and driving guitars and drums will pummel you into submission. I really do love this release.
Find them on Bandcamp.
It's been a hell of a year, and I really hope you're all keeping going somehow. We wish everyone the best for 2021, we promise we will try to do our bit to help promote the best Nordic indie music and support independent artists throughout the year, and if I can finally see any of you at a gig in 2021, I promise the pints are on me....