Top 20 Albums of 2020

5. Thermal and and a Quarter – A World Gone Mad

Album art by Sonali Zohra

Rock isn’t dead, and Thermal and a Quarter are why. Appropriately titled A World Gone Mad and released right before lockdown started in India, their eighth studio album explores themes ranging from propaganda to politics to fake news.

The album features plenty of new tracks, as well as some that were released as far back as 2017. The album’s name was also fixed a few years ago when the writing started, the band said.

Masterful songwriting accompanied by melodious riffs will always make for a tasteful combination. That Thermal and a Quarter has maintained this for over two decades is no small feat.

Songwriting has always been the lead vocalist Bruce Lee Mani’s forte, but he takes it to a new, more nuanced level in A World Gone Mad. In ‘Where We Gotta Go Now’, they talk about income tax, and the fraught reality of wars. On ‘Lopsided’, Mani sings about escapisms the common man resorts to.

Perhaps the greatest piece of writing comes on ‘Leaders of Men’. A straight potshot at the world’s political leaders, the song charges them with misleading the population, who depend on the powers that be for their welfare. The Bengaluru rockers makes their feelings towards the leaders quite evident, repeating the line over and over till the song reaches its conclusion.

It’s not all about the writing, though. Drummer Rajeev Rajagopal has a few bright spots, and maintains rhythm pretty well throughout the album’s hour-long runtime. Lead guitarist Tony Das has an excellent solo in ‘Lopsided’, while bassist Leslie Charles faultlessly plucks his way throughout ‘N.F.A’.

It’s not difficult to see why we at A Humming Heart adore the rock quartet. After all, Thermal and a Quarter’s debut eponymous release holds the sole possession of our only perfect 10 album review. If they continue to drop albums like A World Gone Mad, who can even blame us?

– Shashwat Mohanty

4. Tre Ess – Sipping Off Troubled Waters

Ranchi-based rapper and producer Sumit Singh Solanki aka Tre Ess has been on the radar for a while now, labelled as the ‘next big producer’. Even a casual listener would have been able to see a spark in his past work, right from the collab heavy ‘New Religion’ that came out in 2018 to the 2019 single ‘Nawazuddin Flow’ that featured Tienas. The potential has been there and on his debut full-length album, Sipping Off Troubled Waters, Tre Ess soars.

“I see stories, at the end of the day I am a storyteller,” Solanki told us earlier this year describing the making of the album that went from story to song to an album with a lyrical theme. This might be a far better and less reductive description than the “crash course for anyone looking to understand what goes on in the tribal heartland of India” that came as the accompanying note with the album. The album is many a story from a land that doesn’t have a lot of representation in the mainstream as well as the Indian independent industry. In eight songs at just over half an hour, with the help of Jharkhandi, Northern African and trap sounds, Solanki shares important stories of his state and outlook toward life around him.

Audiences will come across songs such as ‘Troubled Waters’ where Tre Ess raps about the “Krishi Kalyan Cess” and “Adani coming for the rent” and ‘Aparna’, a song about an activist who was branded a Naxal and detained by the Jharkhand Police. In the middle of more political stories, Tre Ess also gets deeply personal with songs like ‘Fakir’ and ‘Mei X Superpower By 2020’. The latter, he describes in his interview for this magazine as the toughest song to write on the album, a song that had him “vulnerable, honest and weak”.

With the bluesy tones set atop heavy tribal percussion and polyrhythms, there are moments and songs on this album where the soundscape is so starkly different from anything out there and so impressive on its own. Tre Ess’ production chops blossom on this record, and will make even the passive listeners take note and trust that there’s a lot more to come from him.

– Aakriti Mehrotra

3. Soulmate – Give Love

Album art by Pankaj Thapa

Very few Indian bands do blues rock well, and absolutely none of them can be as good as Soulmate. With their fourth full-length release Give Love, the band cements itself as not only legends of the genre, but in the entire history of Indian indie music.

Give Love explores everyday themes, and even manages to curse politicians. The 49-minute album is well-paced, and consists of songs for every mood—whether you’re feeling lovestruck, existential, or just want to let your hair down.

Tipriti Kharbangar provides the primary vocals for most of the tracks, taking the listener through her string of wide melodies. Rudy Wallang borrows the mic on ‘Don’t You Miss Me Baby’ and ‘Troubled Times’, complementing his singing with some stellar solos in both the tracks. ‘Soulmate Boogie’.

On ‘Hole in your Soul’, a warm, cheerful chorus sung by children juxtaposes itself well against the rock tunes; while one can only imagine the amount of shimmying and jiving that would accompany a live rendition of ‘Soulmate Boogie’.

Rudy’s sons Leon and Vincent are on bass and drums respectively, and manage to support their father’s free- spirited guitar without a hitch.

Rudy had once shared the stage with stars like Buddy Guy and Carlos Santana. It’s a testament to his prolonged prowess that even decades later, he can still deliver on the level of his work in a 10-song album. Words are not enough to describe Tipriti powerful, husky voice which has powered Soulmate’s tunes all these years.

Announcing Give Love through a Facebook livestream seemed like the most 2020 thing to do. It might have been an especially stark change for the band, who since their debut in 2003 have adorned stages across the globe. However, it came to be, we are only glad that we got a new album from the Shillong-based band to help us get through the year.

– Shashwat Mohanty

2. T.ill APES – Lift Off

Album art by Rutwij Paranjape

From an Indian perspective, hip-hop as a genre continues to march on, with enough subcontinental tricks up its sleeve to keep saturation at bay. It is a testament to the tenacity of this record that T.ill APES have pretty much solidified their place as originators rather than soundalikes. Remember, this is also the year an Indian artist from the genre had his mug on a billboard at the Times Square. As inflated as these little stats can seem, artists back home weren’t keen on sitting still. They branched out ever so slightly by working with collectives outside their own, but within the same framework.

Perhaps the truest manifestation of Lift Off came from the group’s performance at the inaugural online edition of NH7 Weekender. A muted event overall, with bigger names playing to their audiences with basic live performances. T.ill APES were part of a smaller group of artists that chose to subvert the medium slightly so that it played out as a feature rather than an online performance. Almost like Radiohead’s From the Basement performance of The King of Limbs, T.ill APES’ live rendition of this record, from start to finish, cemented the staying power of Lift Off. It showcased the band’s insane musicality while juxtaposing the plain lives they lead outside it (playing PS4, eating sandwiches, just hanging out). All to show the group’s head in the clouds and their feet planted firmly on the ground. All the record needed was a bolstering to show us its true intent: live hip-hop enjoyed, well, live.

– Abhinav Krishnaswamy

1. Lojal – Phase

Album art by @oddesque

Back in March, lojal aka Martin Haokip emerged seemingly out of nowhere with his debut 8-track project Phase, a release that left audiences stunned with its refreshing sincerity and subversive sound.

Stylistically, it sits somewhere between alternative hip- hop, pop, emo and R&B. But it also reminds us of the futility of any effort to pin down his sound. Freewheeling as it may be, the album is helmed by an artist deeply leading their vision.

Phase was made for the after-hours—the car ride home after a night out, or your bedroom walls in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The listening experience is akin to a fever dream, but the tracks linger in your mind long after. Themes of love, loss, desire, regret, depression, existentialism are packaged into a record in which every moment is dripping with rich atmospherics. Martin takes great care to balance the otherwise smothering subjects with heady ambience and spacious production courtesy of producer Nisthula Murphy.

The instrumentals provide just the right touch of charming self-indulgence here and melancholic wooziness there. This kind of ‘alternative’ music can sometimes run the risk of blending into one muddled sound, but Phase introduces a new avatar of Martin with each number.

His shimmering inflections traipse between spoken word, melodic humming, and fragile falsetto. Expect a near-dizzying array of emotions and sensorial soundscapes.

Other than a handful of musical guests like rapper Hanumankind and Banrap Lyngdoh, he carries the collection mostly on his own.

Ultimately, Phase is a sprawling distillation of this artist’s dynamism, one that stands in a universe of its own.

– Nishtha Jaiswal