Best Albums of 2020: Compilations roundup

Ambient Layers (7K)
String Layers (7K)
Vector Fields Vol. 1 (Music Company)
Sustain Series vol. 1 (Ambientologist)
Pop Ambient 2021 (Kompakt)
Velvet Desert Music vol. 2 (Kompakt)
Maui Chill vol. 2 (Waveform)
Portals (Behind The Sky Music)

Berlin’s long-running dance/lounge/electronica label K7 recently launched its 7K imprint for modern classical sounds, and 2020 saw the second and third installments of its excellent Layers series with a focus on new artists. String Layers is refreshingly raw, featuring little or none of the electronics and post-production treatments so commonly heard in modern classical. It’s still contemporary composition, but the pre-20th century sources shine through more clearly, such as the strange and complex harmonies that echo the quieter examples of post-Classical string quartet and concerto music; think Rachmaninoff, Shotakovich and Elgar. Ambient Layers on the other hand is more eclectic and overtly modern, a rich collection of electro-acoustic ambient with a cinematic feel and some strong classical leanings. You’ll see a few familiar names – Adam Wilzie from Winged Victory For The Sullen, for example – alongside a host of unfamiliar ones.

For deep ambient sounds less grounded in any particular genre, consider these three gems. Vector Fields Vol. 1 comes from Melbourne, Australia and collects new music from all-local artists. It covers a lot of territory – pretty wordless vocal drones, dreamy lo-fi loops, moody post-rock and fractured ambient techno – something which I’ve found Oz compilations are especially good at. Sustain Series Vol. 1 from Dutch label Ambientologist is the fruits of a novel little idea around recycling where the label asked artists to dig up tracks they couldn’t finish and give them to someone else to complete. The results are diverse and fresh, from graceful pastoral melodies to darkish, landscaped drones. Thirdly,  Pop Ambient 2021 from German label Kompakt is one of the best I’ve heard in Wolfgang Voigt’s series of annual new music comps. It’s been running for 21 years now. How’s that for staying power? The music has nearly always been beatless and tonal but, beyond those qualities, it’s trajectory year on year has been harder to pin down. Compared to early volumes, I do hear a bit less cycling machine music and a bit more lush classical and post-rock sounds. Whatever, this one is very fine indeed, with 13 new tracks from newcomers and Kompakt regulars. Quick sample: Morgen Wurde’s ravishing, wind-blown strings; Fresco & Pfeiffer’s intoxicating slow-motion techno shuffle; and Seventh World’s glistening, glittering hymn to the sunrise.

For atmospheric beats and grooves, my compilation picks for 2020 are both from long-established labels.

Kompakt delivers again on Velvet Desert Music Vol. 2 as German musician/producer/selector Jörg Burger serves up warm, groovy, atmospheric electronica of startling freshness. The exclusive and mostly instrumental tracks by artists from France, England, Mexico and Germany – including Jörg himself – were commissioned with a very particular vision in mind, articulated in the album notes as “what happens when you extract the essence from genres as diverse as spaghetti Western soundtracks, moody lamp-lit pop, downtempo, Krautrock, minimalism, classic ‘60s psychedelia, and more, and let their scents intermingle”. It’s one of the most perfectly realised comps of chilled electronica on the lounge tip I’ve heard anywhere in the past two decades. Maui Chill vol. 2 is electronica too, but more on the exotic dub and world fusion tips, coming as it does from ambient dub champion Waveform Records which has been with us since 1994. Releases from the label have been fewer in recent years, but owner Forest’s taste is as discriminating as ever and the album is awash in lush Eastern sounds, techy grooves and dreamy, bleepy brilliance. This is the sound of ambient dance music as some of us like to remember it: uplifting, psychedelic and vital.

Finally, if retro Berlin-school synth music is your thing, then you might think you’ve died and gone to Saturn when you hear Portals, a 70’s cosmic synth extravaganza conceived by American electronica artist Bluetech for his label Behind The Sky Music. Moog, Mellotron, ARP, Prophet, Serge and an arsenal of other analog, modular and early polyphonic synths feature, ably wielded by a cast that includes e-music masters like Steve Roach and Ian Boddy alongside a bunch of more recently established artists who also worship The Great Kosmische Musik. This is melodic and full-blooded psychedelic synth music, 70’s sci-fi retro to the core, but also with a few nods to electronic dance music’s rise a decade later, like the acid purr of the Roland 303 on James Bernard’s “Embrace”.

Best Albums of 2020 Reviews Index

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