A Humming Heart - Indian indie music 2020

Best independent music of 2020 so far

For this half-yearly list, A Humming Heart’s team of writers has considered independent music releases until the month of June 2020. The long-form or full-length albums seem to be outdated which meant we had to adapt. So, instead of considering the standard 7 tracks or more (or 30 minutes or longer), we have considered all the albums that consisted of five or more tracks. Our team went through each album (over 40 of them this time, and we’re only halfway through 2020). The list below is our attempt at keeping this as diverse as possible, a product of ten members sitting together (virtually of course) and putting this together. Here’s acknowledging the artists and music that brought us some respite in this world gone mad.

20. Trance Effect – Clowns

Artwork by Tekalong Lkr

The first EP from the Dimapur-based quintet oozes dedication towards one’s craft. Less than 20 minutes long, this rather short EP is as memorable as debuts should be, for all the good reasons. The band puts a heavy focus on the vocals with Sosang, Tako and Imna’s instruments playing perfect aides to Luli’s unbelievable high notes. The songs don’t offer many witticisms and skew towards the earworm territory, making each one of these instantly hummable. The less than 2-minute long instrumental opener ‘Of Time Machine and Never Ending Stories’ sets the perfect mood for what the rest of the four songs carry and augment, and the last track ‘More Love’ perfects.

19. Sameer Rahat – Aamad

Artwork by unknown

It is easy to mistake Sameer Rahat for a stand-up poet. After all, over half of Aamad has Rahat reciting poems, laid over some calm strumming. Even on the tracks he does exercise his vocals on, we barely get a range from the Bombay-based singer-songwriter. However, it is between this tiny range that his musings in Urdu about love and finding the almighty (or the lack thereof) where Rahat truly excels. The triumphant ‘Chehre Gehre’ leaves the listener vulnerable after such a magnanimous crescendo, while the album concludes by taking some help from Punjabi singer Rashmeet Kaur as he slowly introduces some electronic elements to his work. 

18. Shubh Saran – Becoming

Artwork by Avanti Dabholkar

Shubh Saran has been all over the place – literally. The New York-based guitarist with a definite jazzy slant had grown up in six different countries, which explains his broad music palette. This also explains the genre-agnostic nature of his instrumentals. He manages to fuse sounds from modern jazz, neo-soul, and rock with classical and contemporary Indian music but makes it sound so smooth and effortless. We get lavish horns and pianos, slick and agile guitars and a whole lot of personality in every bar. The production is dense and compresses various components of the mix, making it feel like a giant wall of sound. He manages to make the tracks feel experimental and futuristic, yet weirdly familiar and comforting.

17. Inalab – The Commons

Artwork by Ashish K Mishra

Bassist extraordinaire, Gaurav Balani has been an active part of the independent music scene for a while now, touring with some of the biggest names at the moment. His debut project, Inalab puts him at the forefront of his manic experimental orchestration on The Commons with a heavy emphasis on collaboration. The level of collaboration, ingenuity and raw technical prowess found on the EP rivals some of the high profile full-length albums being released at the same time. The music fuses all kinds of genres from progressive rock to electronica. The five tracks brim with infectious energy brought to you by heavy basslines and what one might call “anti-melodies” – where dissonance collides with raw visceral power.

16. Tre Ess – Sipping Off Troubled Waters

Artwork by unknown

The last few years have seen an explosion of artists, especially in the hip-hop genre, reminding us that the personal is political with their music. Much of these have been broader commentaries on the general state of the nation or countrywide issues affecting us as a whole. Rapper-producer Tre Ess aka Sumit Singh Solanki took it a step further and brought listeners into his backyard with this EP.  He’s been an emerging artist from Jharkhand, alongside collaborator and fellow Ranchi-native The Mellow Turtle. The EP is already laudable for giving the state some representation. However, this love letter to his home state is steeped in underground and mainstream hip-hop with a rich blend of sounds from around the world. It is propelled by his acute freestyling and choice samples over themes such as Naxalism and corruption. Listen for an experimental ride from a rising young voice in Indian hip-hop.

15. Tienas – Season Pass

Artwork by Yash Makwana

Following the release of in 2019, Bobby Boucher drew around himself a neat little cordon. It was translucent enough to still have him as an integral cog of the scene that birthed him. On Season Pass, he doubles down on the opacity, ladling more of that which made him unique. As far as English-language rappers go, the buck should ideally start and end here. Comparisons crop up often, some unfair ones that relate to subject matter, but everyone has a unique story to tell. And Bobby Boucher tells his story well. 

The features deserve their own mention, from his usual crew Frequency Time Space on the album opener, Pratika on the cinematic ‘The Battle of Trilodkars’ and Shiloh Dynasty on the standout ’She Moves in the Dark’. There are no misses here. Season Pass has Boucher wear his influences on his sleeve, something he has never really tried to hide. He is part-emotional trainwreck, part-poster boy of assertion and bravado. The album is a concerted, content-heavy effort to set Boucher apart from a scene that appears to subsist on beef.

14. KillKount – Konflict & Terror

Artwork by Shubham Jha

Death metal and grind is not nearly as close to being its own sub-scene in India, but we’re seeing some of the most promising releases that will remain definitive works, from the likes of Gutslit, Wired Anxiety and Godless. Comprising members from Pune, Mumbai and Bhopal, KillKount live up to the absolute definition of unsparing on their debut album Konflict & Terror. If the album artwork looks a little too graphic and eyebrow-raising, then you know you’re doing something right. Songs like ‘Memento Mori’ and the title track introduce a band at their cut-throat, polished finest, while ‘W.M.D.’ brings in If Hope Dies’ Aakash Sherpa for blistering, moshpit decimating speed. The slam portions really bring KillKount into metal party mode, while the obsession with the letter K (‘Korruption Kauses Katastrophe’, ‘Korpsified’ and ‘The Koffin Feeder’) are just ways of having a little fun while ramping up the destruction. Konflict & Terror is the no-holds-barred, stank-face riff-fest and sonic fuck you the world needed in 2020.

13. Osho Jain – Wahaan

Artwork by Akshay Singh

On Wahaan, singer-songwriter Osho Jain starts off by lamenting the ugly nature of the capitalist society we’re all engulfed in. Two songs later, Jain is armed with a ukulele as he rediscovers his tumultuous relationship with love. However, it’s not just his all-embracing songwriting that deserves your attention through its succinct 15-minute runtime; it’s the simplistic production and Jain’s reassuring vocals that comforts you throughout the EP. Even after having released two singles after Wahaan, his next work couldn’t come a moment sooner.

12. Swadesi – Chetavni

Artwork by Roxanne Gonsalves

Swadesi’s debut album Chetavni talks about issues that their listeners are far too familiar with. Starting with Marathi, the nine-track collection features a Hindi spine, and even manages to flirt with Bengali for a hot minute. The beats drop hard, but what hits harder is the quintet’s lyricism that deals with class divide, religious disharmony, the CAA bill, and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ people. Hip-hop is the fastest growing genre in the country, but only the cream rises to the top; Swadesi are a prime example of the same. Don’t be surprised if one of their songs becomes a protest anthem – you don’t need to look past their launch tour to get a taste of how they are perceived.

11. Aswekeepsearching – Sleep

Artwork by Tanya Sharma

Quite a familiar name in lists praising independent records, Aswekeepsearching’s growth as a band continues to impress, thanks to its live settings and touring patterns. Sonically, however, it has not, or to be fair – could not bring a range of variations with its 2020 album Sleep, if compared to the earlier releases. The eight-track studio album manages to highlight the post-rock band’s formula – dreamy vocals, ambient melodies, subtle under-tunes, meditative yet grand arrangements, so on and so forth. However, it fails to upgrade itself. The 2020 album, to a stretch, feels like Side B of its 2019 release Rooh.

That cannot be a criticism for the Pune-based group that has, against the nature of the trends in India, carved itself (and its genre) a salient name. Aswekeepsearching, understanding the limitations, emphasised on its live efforts through multiple experimentations that always provided its fans something new to look forward to.

10. Seasonal Affected Beats –

Artwork by Mohit Kapil

Seasonal Affected Beats’ debut EP is an outcome of living in an apocalyptic world, even pre-COVID-19. Of course, at the time, by apocalyptic, Tarun Balani meant living with rising pollution levels and climate change and living in the largest “democratic” nation. 

is intriguing, it draws you in and just stays there. ‘Prelude’ has a cinematic rise and introduces the listener to what is in store. The swaying synths set on top of urgent and deeply overwhelming melodies on this record will make the listener uneasy. ‘Let The Light In’ features Kavya and provides a break from the rising tension and disquiet on the album. The title track ‘2° (For Naima)’ is a dedication to his three-year-old niece. “I want to tell her that I was talking about important issues and was thinking about our collective future,” Balani shares. ‘Dr. Escher’ samples a famous speech delivered in parliament by Ambedkar in 1966 will have the listener pause and reflect. Pausing and reflecting is the essence of Balani’s artistic vision here. As Nishtha Jaiswal wrote in her review, this EP is mandatory quarantine listening. 

9. Dreamhour – PROPSTVR

Artwork by Anusha Menon

Siliguri/Pune-based Debjyoti Sanyal released his second album this year under the moniker Dreamhour. PROPSTVR comes as a hopeful glimpse at the future of synth-wave in India. Dipped in nostalgic patterns characteristic of this style of music, the 11-track album surfs smoothly on the perfect blend of emotion and reverie. PROPSTVR is an album by a millennial for the millennials to relate to and ponder over. The album refuses to blend into the background and be a mere accompaniment for other tasks. It demands the attention of the distracted mind of the busy listener – an impact that Debo might not have been going for but has achieved effortlessly. ‘Internot’ which falls right at the middle of the album, is where Debo peaks but also sticks to for the next five very consistent tracks.

8. Naezy – Maghreb

Artwork by unknown

January 8, 2014 is a milestone date in Indian hip-hop history. It was the day when a young college-bunking kid Naved Shaikh aka Naezy dropped ‘Aafat’. The track opened the gates for emcees hustling in Mumbai’s gullies and soon catapulted a few of them onto the big screen. Exactly six years to that date, Naezy arrives with his debut EP Maghreb. The Gully Rap pioneer introduces the project as his homage to the West (al-Maghrib in Arabic) and its rich hip-hop culture, while also staying rooted to his world back home in Bombay 70. In his trademark sharp-shooting flow Naezy narrates stories of his bantais, rising rap contenders, poignant love and state of the nation. “Kal tak jo ladke goli chala raha the, aaj desh chala raha hai toh kya kare?”

7. Disco Puppet – Thoughts to Melt To

Artwork by Shreya Bhatia

For all his idiosyncrasies displayed on previous releases, Shoumik Biswas seemingly dials it back while providing sublime insight into the time we’ve collectively waddled into, projecting an almost childlike vulnerability. ‘Peace Lily Parody’ and ‘Nosty Boy’ are replete with such choices, from the tick-tocking of the former to the tinny music-box melodies of the latter. The regression spills over onto the lyrics, ‘Nosty Boy’s protagonist substituting real fear for imaginary friendship, while ‘Don’t Be Sad, the Boogie-Man’s Back’ throws his father and the emblem of childhood terror into the conversation.

According to Biswas’ Bandcamp page, Thoughts to Melt To was his way of answering questions of presentation and production. He wanted to know what it meant for music to sound “finished”. The record’s centrepiece and anchor, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is perhaps the one best suited for the argument that shit like this doesn’t matter. Biswas delivers an infectious tune that’s so well built and hummable it’s a joke – rough around the edges but rife with his distinct flair for catchy construction, an apt distillation of Disco Puppet’s ubiquitous sound.  

6. Ape Echoes – Charlie Dreams of Escape

Artwork by Jonathan Canamar

Bombay-based Ape Echoes emerged after two years of quiet to release Charlie Dreams of Escape. Sophomore albums are notoriously tricky and this “not-a-concept-album” pushes the envelope with finesse. It showcases the broad spectrum of their influences and technical flair, with a stellar lineup of guests. On this album, the four-piece streamlines the sonic palettes of jazz, funk, R&B, soul and electronica for an eclectic and genre-bending offering. The band’s range isn’t surprising, given the multifarious musical outfits each member is part of, spanning from alternative rock (The Yellow Diary) to synth-heavy beats (Paraphoniks). If it’s escape you dream of, you’ll surely find it here.

5. Serpents of Pakhangba – Serpents of Pakhangba

Artwork by Madol “Bobo” Mukherjee

Mumbai-based Assamese multi-instrumentalist and overall mad scientist-type Vishal J. Singh shows the world yet again how to assemble a crack team. In the case of his newish project Serpents of Pakhangba, there’s vocalist Aruna Jade, drummer-percussionist Fidel Dely Murillo and bassist/didgeridoo artist Manas Chowdhary. Across seven tracks and 47 minutes, there’s earthy instrumentation that suddenly becomes unearthly, courtesy the chaotic time signatures, Jade’s shapeshifting vocals and more. ‘Headhunters’ is like that rollercoaster ride you’ll want to keep getting back on, ‘Thus Sings the Midwife of Planetary Transmission’ is 11 minutes of unguessable jumps, from math-rock to prog, jazz and more. ‘I.M.A.’ is enveloping in its meditative tones, featuring poignant violin from Tamara Mayela, while Jade goes from whispers to black metal growls on ‘Mountain Spirits’. There’s plenty of destruction too (‘Vultures’) but Serpents of Pakhangba keep their arrangements groove-laden and sprawling for the most part, which makes their self-titled album a trip like few others.

4. Diarchy – Splitfire

Artwork by Anoop Bhat

As a sinister-looking crow sits perched on the cover art of Diarchy’s sophomore album Splitfire, you get the feeling that something ominous awaits. And over nine tracks within, Bangalore-based heavy rock duo of Gaurav Tiwari and Prakash Rawat weave a world enveloped in doom and gloom yet opening up to sparks of introspections. Tales of anarchy, political commentary and war cries are delivered over rounds of explosive guitar and percussive power. Journalist Ravish Kumar’s voice featured on the track ‘Kraanti’ captures the mood of the album perfectly – “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought, to simply tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.” On Splitfire over 37 minutes of rousing visions, Diarchy delivers a soundtrack that can ignite rebellions.

3. Lojal – Phase

Artwork by (@oddesque)

Described as a montage, Martin J. Haokip aka Lojal’s 26-minute-long debut album Phase has a bit of hip-hop, a bit of electronic and a lot of soul. The soundscape on each track varies, but the album doesn’t come across as disjointed. Manipur-born and Bengaluru-based lojal manages to establish a distinct sound of his own, even while his influences remain clear. 

In a year that has seen the volume of releases only go up for independent music, few records sound this well-made, this rounded, and this self-assured. Fewer still have managed to disarm the listener with so much effect.

2. Till Apes – Lift Off

Artwork by Rutwij Paranjape

Bengaluru’s Till Apes released its highly entertaining album Lift Off right at the time when the hip-hop narrative in India progressed to “what’s next?” The Divines and the Naezys, and labels like Azadi Records, are leaving behind a series of productions that can no longer be classified as developing. These efforts became game-changers. The structure and the movement were created. The only question that remains: where is the next new sound coming from? And Till Apes affirmatively responded to the question with an album that will be considered as one of the tightest records from the genre for years to come.

The album deserves recognition for the arrangements, emphasis on mixing and putting all trust in English vocals at a point when hip-hop with local elements is witnessing sheer surge across streaming platforms. An album that sounds professional and quite-on-the-edge at the same time, Lift Off has to be the best hip-hop album of the year so far.

1. Thermal and a Quarter – A World Gone Mad

Artwork by Sonali Zohra

It’s who knows what day, month or year even but Thermal and A Quarter have once again found themselves as the wry soothsayers of rock music in India. “What colour are you in the dark?” Bruce Lee Mani asks on ‘Believe It All’, one amongst 10 tracks which flitter between jazz, blues, alt-rock and everything in between. ‘Distance’ builds into a sprawling track, complete with shimmering solo, while ‘Lopsided’ is suitably titled for its sonic arrangement. They might take deft potshots at religion and politics (the slick blues-informed ‘Leaders Of Men’ and groovy ‘N.F.A.’), but TAAQ are most precious because they can offer introspective wisdom on songs like the troubled ‘Unbelong’, or the saccharine ‘Stone Circle’. The pendulous ‘World Gone Mad’ is a surprising psychedelic detour and ‘Saved by a Laugh’ is a stargazing reminder about the importance of humour, delivered by the only band who can be this soul-bearing, ironic and wise at the same time.  

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