Each year I debate whether I should make an inventory of my favorite albums because it’s such an arbitrary exercise. Then I revisit my lists from the past, and I reappreciate how this process generates a unique portrait, a sense-memory of a lost season. But Christ, who wants to remember this year, let alone provide the soundtrack? And yet music felt more necessary than ever, carrying me through long nights of uncertainty and heavy bouts of cabin fever, and I’m grateful for these new sounds that provided some much-needed perspective and restored my faith in the human enterprise.

Alessandro Cortini – Ritmo / Memorie

Bandcamp

Introspective late-night synthetics so polished they seem to gleam in the dark. These songs start off murky, all bass and shadow, but they slowly gather steam, conjuring the optimistic tones of early 1990s electronics, back when there was still a little faith left in better living through technology. Driving down the highway late at night with these tracks on my dashboard, sometimes the synthesizers squiggle or veer a certain way, and I can’t help but let out a little cheer.

Autechre – Sign

Warp | Bandcamp

In this era of algorithmic playlists designed to satisfy our immediate moods, Signs is an increasingly rare phenomenon: music that teaches us to meet it on its terms. I’m not sure if I like this album, yet I find myself returning to it, almost compulsively. After a decade of increasingly brittle and cloistered records, Autechre has rebooted their software and returned to more poignant terrain. And like many things this year, the emotions here are alien and new. The result is stately and occasionally melancholy, with the residue of melodies flickering within patterns that never stabilize, and it sounds very much like a ghost in a machine.

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue

Play It Again Sam | Boomkat

A soundtrack for these long isolated nights. This is distilled rainy noir with faint neon on the horizon, a companion for a lone car drifting down the street. Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s slow-motion gloom is the music I play most often, usually around midnight. Their Midnight Radio album from 1995 is a masterpiece, and this new installment proved to be a logical score for these elastic nights.

Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity

W.25TH / Superior Viaduct | Bandcamp

A demented version of the Ronettes in the best possible way, like an otherworldly transmission of those mid-century bands named after jewels, their voices reverberated and haunted.

Jonnine – Blue Hills

Boomkat Editions | Boomkat

These songs capture a sensation that lives a few clicks beyond words, something listless and unsettled. Maybe it’s the sense of suspension that defines this season of distancing and isolating, or a childhood memory of killing time in a room while a voice bleeds through the walls. Drowsy guitars and drums blend with the rustling weather of someone pacing and waiting, perhaps sighing for time lost.

KMRU – Peel

Editions Mego | Bandcamp

Elegant longform ambience that patiently begins at the periphery. Atmospheric hiss and cavernous tones hover at the edge of attention before they slowly, almost imperceptibly bloom into hypnotic loops. This is music that sounds like a shift in the light.

Olan Monk – Love/Dead

C.A.N.V.A.S. | Bandcamp

Midnight vapor and pop songs for dead cyborgs. Lurching across a bottomless low end, Love/Dead delivers a nervy Joy Division or Suicide aesthetic that’s been ground into matte black sludge. It’s an almost poignant flavor of future dread.

Oliver Blank – Fin

Bandcamp

Orchestral drift that finds the territory between sorrow and hope. The centerpiece of this record is a magnificently restrained twenty-three minute meditation that gives every element space to breathe, including the listener.

Ralph Kinsella – Lessening

8D Industries | Bandcamp

This album entered my life as reliable background music while I puttered around the room. Then it quietly moved to the foreground and became one of my favorite records this year. Gathering the soft-focus residue of an old shoegaze song, these ever-evolving compositions are equally comfortable with moments of abrupt silence as with gestures that soar.

Tomas Jirku – Touching the Sublime

Silent Season | Bandcamp

A deeply strange and panoramic record that merges the frigid elements of dub techno with moments of unexpected warmth: the half-heat of voices at the margins, a hushed guitar, a sudden flash of brass. These songs roll in like a fog, and the word “sublime” is well-earned in the way this album transfixes you, holding you in its gaze. A perfect soundtrack for reading about failed arctic expeditions and contemplating the allure of such forbidding terrain.

William Basinski – Lamentations

Temporary Residence | Bandcamp

Dignified heartache that bleeds through the grain of decaying tape loops. “Our world is in a bad feedback loop right now,” Basinski said a few years ago. “We’re at a point right now where we need to get rid of some bad feedback loops and it’s happening. It’s not gonna be pretty, but eventually things will resolve.” Listening to this album, it’s almost possible to imagine a moment when the loop finally and truly breaks.

Vatican Shadow – Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era

20 Buck Spin | Bandcamp

Vatican Shadow appears on my list of favorite albums every year. So be it. These are dark and conspiratorial times fueled by suspicious energies, and this project has nailed the gestalt.

See also 2019 Rotation and 2018 Rotation.