Because we’ve never had more time to research, explore and unfurl music than now.
It’s been a great year for listening. Never have we had more time to stop what we’re doing, dim the lights and dip into a record. And never have we had greater access to the wide world of music, present and past. But perhaps you’re sick of what Spotify keeps throwing into your daily mixes or ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist. An algorithm is impressive, but its recommendations are bounded by what you’ve already listened to.
Perhaps you’re hungry for something new, for rich pastures previously unexplored and seemingly out of reach. If that’s the case, then look no further than this round-up of the best compilations, unearthed gems and reissues to come out in 2020.
Use No Hooks – The Job
The Melbourne Little Band Scene of the late-1970s is the stuff of legend. Instigated by members of noisy post-punk outfit Primitive Calculators, the idea was that musicians would get together to explore ideas and play a few shows together before going onto other projects. It wasn’t about commercial gain; it was about pushing down barriers and engaging in as many potentially-fruitful creative partnerships as possible. The downside of all this Utopian collaboration is that very few Little Band Scene artefacts remain in wide circulation.
Thankfully, however, Chapter Music have come to the rescue by providing a career-spanning compilation of Little Band Scene participants Use No Hooks. Featuring Primitive Calculators’ Stuart Grant on lead vocals, Use No Hooks existed in various incarnations from 1979-84, reaching their apex as a nine-piece disco-funk big band in 1983. The quality of the songs on The Job makes you wonder how on earth Use No Hooks weren’t fast-tracked to the stage of Countdown.
The Job is an exhilarating listen, bringing together P-Funk grooves, political sprechgesang and siren-like backing vocals. The band name is a lie – there’s nary a song on this disc that won’t get stuck in your head.
Listen if you like: Talking Heads, Parliament, Scritti Politti.
Prince – Sign ‘O’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition)
Prince is such a big name that casual listeners could easily overlook the artist’s visionary brilliance. But if ever anyone needs convincing that Prince is one of the all-time great pop polymaths, simply refer them to the 1987 double album Sign ‘O’ the Times.
There have been a bucketload of Prince compilations, live recordings and deluxe reissues since his untimely passing in 2016. There are genuine concerns about whether it’s what he would’ve wanted, but once you get past that scruple, you’ll realise what a treasure trove exists in the Purple vault.
The brand new Sign ‘O’ the Times super deluxe edition will set you back roughly a month’s rent, but it’s not entirely gratuitous. Along with a fresh remaster of the original 16-song album, there’s a disc of edits and extended mixes and another few of early demos, studio outtakes and alternate versions. A high point is the inclusion of a full-length live show recorded in Utrecht, Netherlands on June 20, 1987, which features a wild version of ‘Four’ by the Prince side project Madhouse complete with a Sheila E drum solo.
Various – Kiwi Animals: Future/Primitive Aotearoa ’82-‘91
Innumerable words have been written about the fertile music scene on New Zealand’s south island during the 1980s, which circulated around the Flying Nun label. But while The Clean, The Bats, The Verlaines and The Chills have maintained a loyal following ever since, Strangelove’s Kiwi Animals compilation shines a light on a dozen contemporaneous acts whose work scarcely made an imprint beyond Aotearoa during this period.
The compilation tends towards experimental pop oddities, largely circumventing the jangly guitars favoured by the Flying Nun roster. Highlights include Norma O’Malley’s ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ in which the Look Blue Go Purple member creates a stirring sense of melancholy with little more than a keyboard and some vocal layering. Then there’s Stiff Herbert’s lo-fi dance number ‘I Could Hit the Ceiling’, which basks in glorious lyrical abstraction, and the restrained electropop of Roger Knox’s ‘Whole Weird World’.
Listen if you like: Micachu, J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest, Arthur Russell.
PJ Harvey – Dry + Dry – Demos
In theory, PJ Harvey’s debut album Dry was actually made by a trio called PJ Harvey and not the solo artist Polly Jean Harvey. Harvey didn’t officially launch her solo project until album three, 1993’s To Bring You My Love, but from a songwriting point of view she was always very much in control of her own destiny.
Recorded when Harvey was 22 years old and written in the preceding years, Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry is a canonical work of ‘90s indie that defies many of the genre’s contemporaneous conventions. It’s bows neither to grunge nor Britpop and nor does it seek to belong under the riot grrrl or modern rock umbrellas. Harvey and band mates Steve Vaughan and Rob Ellis draw on artists like Captain Beefheart, Pixies and Patti Smith on a record that’s full of humour and violence, dissolution and melody.
The new vinyl reboot of Dry comes with a second disc called Dry – Demos, which indicates how fully formed all of these songs were before Harvey took them to the band. In fact, aside from some variations in tempo, the acoustic demos are near identical to the finished versions.
Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland
Beverly Glenn-Copeland has led an extraordinary career. Transgressive Records’ new retrospective compilation, Transmissions, provides but a mere snapshot of the Philadelphia-born, Canada-based musician’s six-decade career, but it successfully conveys a sense of the artist’s resilient spirit and musical singularity.
Glenn-Copeland is perhaps most closely associated with the new age movement of the 1980s. His 1986 release, Keyboard Fantasies, has not only gained cult status over the last half decade, but lends its name to a 2020 documentary film about his re-emergence as a public figure. But Glenn-Copeland’s recording career dates right back to 1970 and encompasses folk, jazz, gospel and electronic music – all of which is represented on this compilation, which is essential listening for any newcomers.
Listen if you like: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Brian Eno, Joan Armatrading.
The Go-Betweens – G Stands For Go-Betweens Volume 2
Part two in the G Stands For Go-Betweens boxset series arrived in early 2020 and despite its $350 price tag, it’s now exceedingly difficult to track down – the one copy currently available from an Australian seller on Discogs is going for more than $400. It includes fresh vinyl pressings of the three albums made during the Brisbane band’s mid-to-late ‘80s twilight period, a time when they were living in London and recording for Beggars Banquet Records.
But even if you’re unable (or not inclined) to get your hands on the boxset, now is as good as time as any to get familiar with Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane, the latter of which was made after the band’s return to Australia and would be their final album for 12 years.
The records revolve around the core lineup of songwriters Robert Forster, Grant McLennan and drummer Lindy Morrison, with violinist and backing vocalist Amanda Brown joining for the latter two. Forster and McLennan were shifting away from the indie pop jangle of their earlier work to embrace a more august artistic dispossession – setting their sights on making great art, and for the most part succeeding.
Various – Maghreb K7 Club: Synth Raï, Chaoui & Staifi 1985-1997
(Bongo Joe Records/Sofa Records)
Lyon’s Sofa Records and Geneva’s Bongo Joe Records have teamed up to release a fascinating collection of music made by members of the North African community of Lyon, France from the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s. Think of it as a document of the spirit of post-punk capturing the minds of Lyon’s musically-adventurous Maghreb expats.
Tape culture was key to the local music scene during this time, meaning artists could create and distribute their work without having to negotiate with a potentially spurious middle-man. The songs on Maghreb K7 Club are informed by a desire to innovate – synthesisers and drum machines get a work out as the likes of Nordine Staifi (originally from eastern Algeria) and Bnat El Maâna (one of the few female artists to feature) add a modern twist to the Maghreb folk traditions of raï, chaoui & staifi.
Listen if you like: Tom Tom Club, Omar Souleyman, Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and The Rajasthan Express.
Various – Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story 1975-1993
(Strut Records/Black Fire)
The Virginia-based Black Fire Records specialised in spiritual jazz and conscious soul in the decades following the Civil Rights movement. Strut’s new anthology of the Black Fire catalogue, Soul Love Now, brims with affirmations of black identity from artists such as Afrocentric jazz-funk outfit Oneness of Juju and ecstatic soul man Wayne Davis.
DJ and record producer Jimmy Gray founded the Black Fire label in Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1970s. The label’s first release was Oneness of Juju’s African Rhythms LP, which set the standard for the records to come by combining jazz, African percussion and themes of empowerment. Fittingly, the centrepiece of Soul Love Now is an eight-minute live version of ‘African Rhythms’ recorded in Washington, D.C. in 1975.
Listen if you like: Alice Coltrane, Flying Lotus, Gil Scott-Heron.
Masumi Hara – 4 X A Dream
(800 Line/Numero Group)
A note for budding record collectors: if it says Numero Group on it, chances are it’s worth your time. The latest reissue from Numero’s ‘80s imprint, 800 Line, is the 1984 solo album by Japanese multi-media artist Masumi Hara. 4 X A Dream was Hara’s second LP, which saw the 29-year-old artist trying his hand at acid folk and ambient synth reveries as well as new wave pop and dub numbers. It’s a unique collection of tracks that was perhaps too deviant to set the world on fire at the time, but sounds nothing short of a lost classic 36 years later.
Listen if you like: YMO, Cocteau Twins, Laurie Anderson.
Svitlana Nianio & Oleksandr Yurchenko – Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy
(Night School Records)
This album is hard to describe. It’s not so abstruse as to be indecipherable. Rather, it’s made up of the barest of elements, with just Casio keyboard, hammered dulcimer and ad hoc percussion accompanying Svitlana Nianio’s soprano vocalisations. But it sounds utterly original. Nianio and Oleksandr Yurchenko were both major figures in Kiev’s music underground during the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. Their 1996 collaborative LP, Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy (which translates from Ukrainian to “Know How? Tell Me”), was recorded in an abandoned park in Kiev shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nianio’s vocals are plaintive, otherworldly and occasionally recall the primal exorcisms of Yoko Ono. But this album makes no attempt to either rock or shock listeners. In fact it seems completely oblivious to the potential reaction it might generate. Each of its eight tracks – all of which are untitled – seem completely absorbed in the experience of its creation, which is just one the reasons that Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy is one of this year’s finest releases, new or otherwise.
Listen if you like: Julianna Barwick, Laraaji, Yoko Ono.
Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.