Top 20 Albums of 2020

10. Diarchy – Splitfire

Album art by Anoop Bhat

As a sinister-looking bird sits perched on the cover art of Diarchy’s Splitfire, you get the feeling that something ominous awaits. And over nine tracks within, the Bengaluru-based rockers Gaurav Tiwari and Prakash Rawat weave a world enveloped in doom and gloom yet opening up to sparks of introspection.

On their sophomore release, Diarchy brings evocative tracks that can power up high energy mosh pits. It’s only a pity that the pandemic hasn’t presented us a chance to experience this work live on the stage yet.

In a very stoner rock routine, the album takes the listener on a gradual trip. Gritty opening, mellow explorations, lo-fi spoken word poetry, charged drums, guitar riffs and a hymnal shamanic exit late in the night—Splitfire evokes emotions and an urge to act.

Journalist Ravish Kumar’s words, “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought, to simply tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield,” featured on the track ‘Kraanti’ captures the mood of the album perfectly.

Produced and mastered by Sridhar Varadarajan and featuring the eerie album art of Anoop Bhat, Splitfire is a scorching fire of rock revolution. Tales of anarchy, political commentary and war cries are delivered over rounds of explosive guitar and percussive power.

On Splitfire, at over 37 minutes of rousing visions, Diarchy delivers a soundtrack that can ignite rebellions.

– Soubhik Ray

9. Disco Puppet – Thoughts to Melt to

Album art by Shreya Bhatia

Endearing in its tinny production, rough around the edges but full of heart, Thoughts to Melt to has been a symbolic record of this shambolic year. Shoumik Biswas turned things down to very elemental ideas but brought out his inimitable weirdness to try to make sense of his surroundings as an isolationist. Quarantine initially brought out the best in all of us, with experiments in the kitchen and garden to keep us occupied. As it wore on, we discarded our banana breads and Dalgona coffees, only left with ourselves to unpack, and to find ourselves severely lacking.

Disco Puppet seems to have undergone a similar regression, lyrically speaking. ‘Nosty Boy’ speaks of real fears stemming from an imaginary friendship, while ‘Don’t Be Sad. The Boogie-Man’s Back’ stirs up familial friction, equating the patriarch with the childhood emblem of terror. Central to the record, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the best example of beauty emanating from the rough, as Shoumik leaves undeniable evidence that a catchy song is just that, regardless of how well you can polish it up or sand it down.

– Abhinav Krishnaswamy

8. Spaven x SandunesSpaven x Sandunes

Album art by Karan Kumar

Extending her global footprint, Mumbai-based musician Sandunes dazzled the world this fall, with a full-length collaborative record with British drum virtuoso Richard Spaven. In the works since 2019, Spaven x Sandunes effectively melds electronic music and jazz and charts a new direction for Sanaya Ardeshir, the woman behind the moniker. A trained pianist and a drummer herself, Sanaya slips effortlessly into the role of a producer for this record which marks her second release of the year after EP Spare Some Time. In Spaven x Sandunes, Sanaya creates an essential piece of nu jazz which decisively translates her local success to a global audience in the process.

The 7-track album out via Berlin-based !K7 Records combines the producer’s appetite to integrate studio and stage with the genre-defying drumming that listeners have come to expect for Spaven, widely known for his work with Jordan Rakei, The Cinematic Orchestra, and Flying Lotus.

Creating a seamless exercise in structure and impro- visation, Spaven’s freestyle jazz notations perch atop layers of Sandunes’ slick, laid-back, synthesized melo- dies to arrive at a contemporary and bold re-interpre- tation of each other’s works. With the drums always in foreground, Sanaya slowly builds up the record’s atmosphere, spacing out her signature textures and arpeggios, and displaying impressive poise, maturity and restraint.

Tracks such as ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Evelyn’ showcase the duo’s imaginative range, percussive energy and instrumental agility, but their styles find the perfect consummation in the alternating states of tranquility and chaos of ‘Sustain’.

– Prarthana Mitra

7. Tarun Balani – The Shape of Things to Come

Album art by Travassos

Jazz musician Tarun Balani continues to push the proverbial envelope with every release. Between his various solo and group musical endeavours, Balani released a slew of projects in 2020.

However, this year’s standout was undoubtedly his EP The Shape of Things to Come which was released in October. Free jazz has one rule, that there are no rules. The genre might conjure up in one’s mind the energized cacophony of a jazz ensemble, but what sets this album apart is rather the restraint it displays. This is precisely what makes The Shape of Things to Come thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, regardless of whether you’re a jazz aficionado.

For those who have heard Tarun’s musical projects before, there’s a familiar undercurrent here, stemming from the presence of his Dharma bandmates — Adam O’Farrill on trumpet and Olli Hirvonen on guitar, and long-time friend Sharik Hasan on the piano.

There are also reworked jazz versions of two Seasonal Affected Beats tracks, ‘Dr. Escher’ and ‘2°’. If you’re looking to indulge in the characteristic frenetic and unpredictable energy of free jazz though, skip straight to the title track. Or start with ‘Dr. Escher’, a heady number with plenty of twists and turns featuring some of the most innovative trumpet-playing along with a remarkable outro. Other than that, there’s definitely something for everyone here, from the languid energy of ‘Azaan’ to the serenity of ‘As We Lay Under the Trees’.

As our writer Shreya Bose put it in her review, “the album takes the time to deliver experience throughsound rather than simply showcase virtuosity.”

– Nishtha Jaiswal

6. Shubh Saran – Becoming

Album art by Avanti Dabholkar

In an effort to mix jazz sensibilities with the frenetic energy of punk music, guitarist and composer Shubh Saran delivers a promising future for the six-stringed instrument in the realm of fusion. The globe-trotting musician packs Becoming with end-to-end dynamic shifts backed by able-bodied horns and a rhythm section that is more than willing.

Tracks like ‘Storm’ retain a bit of “Indian-ness” as Saran places himself at its melodic centre and dictates the song’s direction with movement between clean and effect-heavy guitars. ‘Safe’ is the ensemble at its grooviest, while ‘Comfort’ with Hannah Sumner and ‘Dust’ culminate the record with atmospheric expanse and bombast.

Instrumental records come with self-sustained baggage—the player’s enthusiasm bundled together with a spectator’s shrinking attention span—often resulting in meandering self-consumption over and over until implosion. The point then spills over into accessibility rather than virtuosity, and that’s where Becoming differs. It does meander, and there are flights of fancy, yet it remains accessible. Saran succeeds in keeping the listener engaged enough, lulling them into security before snapping them out of their reverie. An effusive and driving record, Becoming is beautifully engineered; an album in the moment. Immediate, all of the time.

– Abhinav Krishnaswamy