Each of these sixteen albums is conceptually or thematically connected either to a sense of a place or to capturing a moment in time. While this is a fairly common motif in a lot of instrumental music, especially ambient, it is the very essence of these works released in 2020. Some are personal narratives and some are depictions of landscape either real or imagined. Others are sonic interrogations or interactions inextricably linked to the locations where they were formed. Whatever their nature, all of them made for some of the most memorable stationary traveling of the year.
Chris Watson – Two Audio Walks
One of the world’s preeminent field recordists, Chris Watson lets us safely explore two diverse ecosystems from the comfort of home with two vivid audio walks that offer “imaginative access to a Highland and Lowland environment” – one featuring field recordings of a Caledonian pinewood in summer and one through the heart of the Scottish peatlands known as Flow Country in spring.
Generously offered as a name-your-price download via Tidesongs
Edu Comelles – Línia Pedra Paisatg Solc
Línia Pedra Paisatge Solc (line, stone, landscape and groove in Catalan) is a remarkable sound composition in two parts, based on the skyline that can be seen from the top of the ruins of the castle of Culla, a small village in Eastern Spain. The pieces were recorded by Edu Comelles during a residency period near the site using only field recordings and voice as sound sources. The starkly beautiful album version which appeared on Whitelabrecs was dramatically embellished by double bass parts that were overdubbed in the weeks that followed.
Released on limited edition CD and digital by Whitelabrecs
Elskavon and John Hayes – Du Nord
Chris Bartels, aka Elskavon, and John Hayes collaborate to paint a charming sonic portrait of winters in their home state of Minnesota with . The album title is a nod to the state motto “L’Étoile du Nord which French for “the star of the north”. From a sensory perspective, the piano passages can be as hushed as a nocturnal snowfall or coruscate like stars flickering in the night sky while the string treatments have an icy shimmer and the more sculpted pieces at times feel as if they are coated in hoarfrost and rime. What really brings the album to life, however, is its aura of interiority and interpersonal connection between two artists with a genuine camaraderie.
Digital release by Western Vinyl
Epic45- We Were Never Here
A heady blending of pastoral & electronic sounds with webs of atmospheric guitar by the duo of Ben Holton and Rob Glover known as epic45 to paint an impressionistic sonic portrait of life in England’s Midlands. The album is accompanied by a 48-page book of documentary photography either curated from family albums or created by themselves to document the “suburban and semi-rural ‘nowhere places’ that exist between large towns and cities, motorways and dual carriageways”.
Released on CD and digital by Wayside & Woodland. Photo book edition sold out at this writing.
Erland Cooper – Hether Blether
After soaring with the birds on Solan Goose and taking to the sea for Sule Skerry, award-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer, & producer Erland Cooper turned to the land and its people to conclude his Orkney-themed musical trilogy with Hether Blether, an album named after a fabled hidden island in local folklore. The album offered the most personal and emotive music of the series along with poetry and spoken word to complete a portrait of the islands where Cooper grew up. Adding depth and dimension to the whole experience is the seven-part companion soundscape journey called Landform created with producer & recording engineer Marta Salogni.
Released on CD and vinyl LP as well as digital download by Phases Records
Glåsbird – Norskfjǫrðr
It is hard to imagine a better imaginary travel guide than the anonymous Glåsbird who released two very enjoyable northern musical expeditions this year. Norskfjǫrð may be their warmest and most organic effort yet as acoustic instruments and rustic textures are used to evoke the imagery of the Norwegian fjords against the backdrop of a “breathtaking landscape underpinned by a road network which connects islands, peninsulas and mountains…a human thread of highway passing lonely wood cabins and flashes of green”. Also released this year, the slightly more somber Novaya Zemlya centered around the remote Russian owned island where he world’s most powerful nuclear weapon was detonated in 1961 is equally beautiful in its own way.
Released on limited edition CD and digital download by Whitelabrecs
Hirotaka Shirotsubaki – Hyogo
An ambient reverie steeped in nostalgia from Hirotaka Shirotsubaki as he muses on days spent in Hyogo, Japan, seeking to capture capture his childhood memories of the place and the cityscape itself. These seven introspective pieces don’t so much bring the city to life as freeze it in amber and present it through a hazy lens of memory and youthful innocence. Tranquil and beautiful with a touch of wistfulness.
Released on vinyl replica CD and digital
Ishmael Cormack – Maple Finch
What a year Ishmael Cormack had with four label releases along with other self-released side projects. My selection for this list is his spring offering on the Handstitched label, a tenderly pastoral work that blends acoustic guitar, understated electronics, and delicate field recordings in attempt to create a literal bird’s eye view of the coming of spring. A beautiful and fascinating work that creates a sense of immersion not through enveloping sounds, but through its vivid and detailed sonic depiction of the natural world.
Released on limited edition CD (currently sold out) and digital by Handstitched
Jenny Sturgeon – The Living Mountain
One of my favorite projects of the year, a beautifully conceived musical interpretation of Scottish author Nan Shepherd’s masterpiece composed and recorded by Jenny Sturgeon in the very Cairngorm mountains about which she wrote. The arrangements are pristine and Sturgeon’s voice rings with uncanny purity and authenticity. Ensuring that that the sound of the mountains resonates in the music, Jenny even plays a custom-made Nan Taran guitar on many of the pieces that was crafted from reclaimed Scots Pine and other local woods by luthier Rory Dowling.
Released on CD and limited edition blue vinyl as well as digital download by Hudson Records
Loscil – Faults, Coasts, Lines
A combined photo booklet and music project started in the spring of 2019 by Scott Morgan, aka Loscil, in Tofino and Ucluelet, British Colombia, a “slow motion pacific meditation inspired by the visible lines found along the west coast and the invisible fault lines deep beneath the surface” presented in three immersive movements by one of the acknowledged masters of geographically inspired soundscapes.
Released digitally along with a limited edition photo booklet (currently sold out)
meanwhile.in.texas – Heimat
As meanwhile.in.texas, sound artist Angelo Guido takes us to Sant’Andrea Island and other locations near Brindisi in Southern Italy through field recordings collected during the summer of 2018 which he blends with electric guitars, tape loops, field recordings & piano to create a vivid sonic tapestry tinged with melancholy. The setting may be picturesque, but Heimat is no tourist postcard painting scenes of sun-kissed coastal charm. Rather the album explores themes of loss and decay with bright watery sounds embedded with exfoliating static, gritty textures, and distressed melodies.
Released on limited edition CD & cassette by Secret Press
Melissa Pons – Swedish Forest Textures
Field recordist and sound designer Melissa Pons takes us deep into the “dark, overwhelming forests of Sweden” molding a narrative around sounds she captured during hours of hiking remote areas and patiently allowing the flora, fauna, and changing weather patterns to reveal themselves.
These field recordings had the approach of experiencing the forest for a first time. The snow was still melting and it was deep in spots where the sunlight barely touched the ground. Beautiful lakes – large and small – make the acoustics like a mirror and call a variety of wildlife that we can listen to sometimes at the distance, other times much closer.Melissa Pons
Released digitally by the artist
Simon Scott – Apart
Known to many as the drummer in the popular shoegaze band Slowdive, Simon Scott is also an accomplished sound artist whose extensive work in field recording, sound ecology, and electroacoustic music can be found on such labels as12k, Touch, and THESIS just to name a few). Sadly, in April of this year, Scott lost his father to Covid-19. Apart was set in motion by an encounter with skylarks while walking through a nature reserve in the coastal plain of England known as the Fens just 48 hours after receiving the news of his father’s passing. Weaving field recordings captured at the site with a piano theme he composed, Scott created a moving chronicle of memory, loss, and healing connected to an environment he and his father shared.
Helen MacDonald, author of H Is For Hawk, wrote about her experiences of the death of her father, and described how, in moments of deep grieving, she realized one is “clinging to a world already gone” The audition of the skylarks raised multiple temporalities in my consciousness, and connected the bird song to the death of my father through phenomenological turmoil. With urgency to capture this species that is in decline in the UK, and to create an archival audio document before the skylarks disappeared forever, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my portable field recorder and pressed the record button.Simon Scott
Released on cassette and digital by 12k
Spheruleus – Canvas Homes
As if Harry Towell’s Whitelabrecs was not productive enough during 2020, the label added a Home Diaries series in repsonse to the pandemic eliciting fascinating works by a wide variety of artists. Canvas Homes is Towell’s own contribution to the series under his solo moniker of Spheruleus. It features short guitar and ukulele sketches he wrote during the day as his daughter played and then turned into finished recordings at night adorning them with documentary field recordings and additional MIDI textures. A charming family portrait and beautiful improvisational exercise.
Released digitally by Whitelabrecs
Taylor Deupree – Canoe
A rare appearance by Taylor Deupree outside of his own 12k label, Canoe was his contribution to the Longform Editions project. A fragile, meditative meander rooted in the idea of being lost at sea, not in an ominous or foreboding way, but in the sense of letting go and, as Deupree puts it, “of floating, but not knowing where you are, like a child who closes her eyes while swinging high on a playground swing.” In the piece, he transposes this to an experience more familiar to to himself personally, spending foggy mornings or quiet dusks canoeing on lakes & rivers.
Released digitally by Longform Editions
Yadayn – Elders
Elders, the Dutch word for “elsewhere” is an evocative musical meditation from guitarist Gowaart Van Den Bossche better known as Yadayn which he recorded upon moving from Belgium to London as he reflected on experiences and personal relationships connected to trips he took to Iranian Azerbaijan over a three year period. Field recordings from his time in Iran, Persian poetry written by a random acquaintance, and loose interpretations of traditional songs combine with fluid and intricate finger-style guitar to make this album feel at once hauntingly intimate yet exotic and remote. A very personal work that leaves enough unsaid so as to let the listener find their own far away places and their own stories within the extraordinarily rich tapestry of the music.
Released on limited edition CD with hardcover photo book by Lost Tribe Sound