Top 20 Albums of 2020

15. Tienas – For Sale?

Album art by Jayesh Joshi

2020 may not have been a year to remember for the world, but Tienas surely stamped his mark by delivering two solid hip-hop albums in the year.

First there was the sophomore album Season Pass that came in June, amidst the peak of the pandemic. And then in November, Tienas dropped a fresh EP For Sale. The 5-track project has the rapper expanding his realm from the sadboi gloom of Season Pass into a more experimental sound. Heartbreak does feature in the scheme of things on For Sale?, but so does workplace sexual harassment, mental health and repressed emotions.

His first project with JioSaavn’s Artist Originals program, For Sale? also sees Tienas venture further sonically. Influences from electronica, synthpop, lo-fi, vaporwave is heard and even a Weeknd-esque touch on ‘Party All the Time’.

In a scene that’s choc-a-bloc with testosterone-spiked rappers acting ultra-aggressive, Tienas’ emotive expressions make him stand out.

Tanmay Saxena, the man behind the moniker, has adeptly crafted a persona that can shift between expressions and sounds rapidly, while sounding completely chill about it.

“The greatest rapper alive was born in ‘95” – Tienas makes a tall proclamation on the track ‘Bury Me in a Coffin with Your Name on It’ But if his credits in 2020 are to go by, Tanmay has surely come a long way in India’s rap route.

– Soubhik Ray

14. Inalab – The Commons

Album art by Ashish Mishra

New Delhi-based Inalab is helmed by bassist Gaurav Balani, who has a pretty solid resume, having worked and performed with Parikrama and Shubha Mudgal among others. His new project Inalab is perfect elements coming together at the perfect time, cleverly put together by the creative bunch of musicians that have joined the group. The band has been performing together for years as part of Balani’s solo project and spent that time falling in perfect sync, which shows on the final product. Inalab’s debut EP The Commons is many things at once without sounding broken or disjointed. Over the EP’s 16-minute runtime, the band experiments with sounds and blends multiple genres, and wonderfully, it all works.

Two of the five tracks (four, if you don’t count the 1-minute-long interlude), titled ‘Bonzo’ and ‘Tilikum’, speak about animal cruelty while the closing track ‘Unstoppable’ is the sonic representation of sailing through chaotic times and coming out of it happy. The EP does not have a theme that binds it all together but the band’s courageous experimentation throughout demands a listen in its entirety, from start to finish, just to get a sense of the variety on display here.

Broken down, each track seems to follow a very basic blueprint. The drums (Suyash Gabriel) and bass (Balani) lay the foundation, and the keys (Archit Anand) and flute (Shashank Singhania) combined with vocals (Shruti Dhasmana), take it to the next level. Structurally, it is tough to assign a genre to any of these songs, but if you’re a fan of prog, the first couple of tracks might be more of your cup of tea and if you love electronic music more, the closing of the album is the perfect treat for you. Inalab is Gaurav Balani’s last name backwards, but can also be read as “In a lab” which evokes a glorified image of the band members in lab coats concocting the perfect mix of exquisite beats, which might not be far off the mark, given the outstanding sound of The Commons.

– Sukanya Agrawal

13. Serpents of Pakhangba – Serpents of Pakhangba

Album art by Bobo Mukherjee

If there was one thing the world always knew about producer and multi-instrumentalist Vishal J. Singh, it was that he was music’s mad scientist. He didn’t even have to look it, in case you ever had the rare opportunity to see him on stage. Crew cut look, glasses, a regular polo T-shirt and jeans, it was always difficult to discern how ideas came to the Assamese musician with avant- garde projects such as Amogh Symphony.

His newer outing Serpents of Pakhangba had some early changes in personnel but then went on to stabilize with vocalist Aruna Jade, bassist Manas Chowdhary and Panama-origin drummer-percussionist Fidel Dely Murillo. Their self-titled album comes across as Singh’s wildest dreams but this time, fusing with the immense, shape-shifting dreams of three other laterally thinking musicians. There’s lofty experimental jazz-funk metal on ‘Vultures’ while ‘Invocation’ is an airy, ambient track featuring chants by Aruna. The skittering and unpredictable flow on ‘Headhunters’ sees Aruna go from fake-mocking to downright demonic in what is about as accessible as it gets on the 7-track record.

Her vocal range – throat-singing, eccentric voices, saccharine playfulness and lilting folk turns – makes her a hidden gem in many ways.

‘Ima’ elevates with its poignant, tender string arrangements by Tamara Mayela. A song like ‘Thus Sings the Midwife of Planetary Transformation’, with its title and the 11-minute running time, screams out to a seemingly Amogh Symphony out-take. It journeys like it was an EP, hopping from uneasy silences to blast beat madness, gothic rock riffs and finally, horrific spirals of rhythm. Where ‘Mountain Spirits’ is like the sonic equivalent of an art house horror film with its psychotic voices and threatening guitar work, ‘The Forest Belongs to the Maibi’ is an unsettling wall-of- noise jam that barely relents.

Like the best independent music, the formidable part about Serpents of Pakhangba is that it doesn’t expect you to understand it. It swallows the listener whole and spits them out in dazed delight.

– Anurag Tagat

12. Aswekeepsearching – Sleep

Album art by Tanya Sharma

2020 was a year associated with stress, loss, and widespread anxiety. It’s only fitting that aswekeepsearching’s most mature production to date helped us get through it.

Largely an instrumental outing, Sleep experiments with electronic ambient music before finally coming back to familiar territories on three songs that feature violinist Ajay Jayanthi, a long-time collaborator.

“If you know us from any of our previous work, sleep is different in that it was born out of this band’s realization that troubling thoughts and worrisome inner monologues can be perhaps offered soothing, comfort music,” the band wrote before the release of the album. If you’ve listened to any of the Pune-based band’s offering before, it’s meant to bang your head, rather than calmly lull you, into a nap. And yet, that’s exactly what they wanted with Sleep.

Recorded in their living room, the 8-track collection has a brisk runtime of just over half an hour—perfect for you to divert all your uncomfortable thoughts and reach a comfortable phase using a combination of guitars, keys, and violins. Only ‘Dreams Are Real’ features vocalist Uddipan Sarmah singing over an acoustic layout, but does not take away from the overall feel of the album.

Aswekeepsearching also launched a campaign to create awareness about mental health, involving other independent artists and practitioners (A Humming Heart was involved too, hosting a discussion on our discord server). Sarmah has been documenting his journey with mental health on his Instagram page, often engaging with his followers and sharing information that helped him.

It’s been a difficult year for the post-rock outfit too, after founding member Shubham Gurung left the band to focus on a more spiritual path in life. Add to that the lack of gigs and other opportunities during a pandemic- struck year, and the troubles compound. Now just a trio, they said they were looking forward to what 2021 has in store for them. Aren’t we all?

– Shashwat Mohanty

11. DolorblindForbidden Fruit

Album art by Dolorblind

As a core member of the Mumbai record label Jwala, Rohan Sinha has spent the better part of the last decade shaping the alternative scene from behind the curtains and sharpening his own artistic persona at his DIY studio in New Delhi.

Hailing from Patna, Sinha continues to traverse these identities via his solo electronic project Dolorblind, and Forbidden Fruit is the latest manifestation. Juggling precision and chaos, the visual artist-turned music producer spent the lockdown fine-tuning the new 7-track record, which brings his most successful moods, tempos and sounds together.

The album is a melting pot of genres with the spontaneous outpourings of a thought journal, and with Sinha’s penchant for motion pictures, it is unsurprising that it’s laced with grand textures and dramatic arrangements in between the brooding beats.

The follow-up to his 2017 EP Dolores, Forbidden Fruit flows naturally and quickly from the demure ‘Free Fall’ to the quicksilver ‘Hue Island’, preceded and followed respectively by more avant-garde tracks like ‘Control Your Anxiety’ and ‘Bloom’ which are all wrought from his trysts with panic attacks, childhood memories and fleeting emotions. In his interview with A Humming Heart, Sinha offers a backdrop, and explains, “Forbidden Fruit is about being gradually cut off from the freedom that defines our childhood—in its purest form. The experiences of growing up taint it, and it becomes a forbidden fruit. I wanted to capture and immortalize those memories and be able to revisit them through this EP.”

– Prarthana Mitra