2020. There will be many reviews and round-ups of what has been a devastating year for many but amongst the doom and gloom, there have been some great moments in music and it’s our responsibility to highlight them.
As with every year, we present our annual round-up of our favourite records. Other than some blips with supply, the releases have not eased up especially in the latter half of the year when pressing plants, labels and distributors re-opened and tried to catch up with their release schedule. We may not have dancefloors to dance on or gigs to go to at the moment, but the time will come again when we can return to the clubs, here our favourite DJs, or see some of the producers and artists listed in this round-up. It was also a very sad year in that we devastatingly lost some of the music industry’s most respected, best-loved heroes from Mike Huckaby and a trio of African legends: Tony Allen, Manu Dibango, and Mory Kante. Here at Phonica, we felt the greatest loss of two important figures. Andrew Weatherall was an important member of our community, an all-around gent, an excellent DJ and an exceptional producer with such a huge legacy. We will miss him. Tom Relleen (you may know from Tomaga & The Oscillation) was also a founding member of Phonica back in 2003 alongside Simon & Heidi and was an important influence on how we wanted Phonica to be. Rest in peace.
So, as the year draws to a close, and we go into tougher restrictions, there is still some hope of warmer days, busy dancefloors, and great music. We want to thank all of you for your continued custom and support and we will see you in 2021!
Just a note on how we compile these charts – you will have noticed we haven’t ranked them this year, although we would say that our preferred choices are at the top! The lists are compiled from both the staff picks, customer and DJ charts, and our bestsellers – although, for the rarest records, we can never get enough stock, all records must have had a vinyl release in 2020! There may be some we have missed as we had to restrict the numbers somewhat – but please see it as a way of illustrating what we like, what you like, and some things you may have missed. It doesn’t mean these are better than anything else. So enjoy our round-up of 2020 and feel free to share your thoughts.
New records are what make our life more interesting at Phonica, not knowing what we are going to hear as we open boxes from far-flung labels and distributors from all over the world who just keep on finding us mind-blowing music. Even in the deepest lockdown times, we still had a skeleton crew coming in and getting all these records on the site and sent out to you. Albums are a little easier to choose than singles and tracks, as there is some consensus as to what constitutes a ‘good’ album. Leading the pack have been two releases from the mysterious, previously unknown Sault – it’s quite apt in the year we have been locked away at home, the albums of the year have been by an act we know very little about. Both albums are excellent, combining elements of jazz, soul and hip-hop – it’s very easy to see how it’s become a Gilles Peterson favourite. The two records were released after the death of George Floyd and the much-needed attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, Sault themselves actually stating their Untitled albums “mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives… Change is happening…We are focused. Actress returned with one of his best albums to date with ‘Karma & Desire’, Four Tet continues to satisfy all we want to hear both on a dancefloor and at home and Jeff Parker‘s magnificent ‘ Suite for Max Brown’ was a staff favourite where Jeff balances his contemporary digital explorations with excursions into older jazz. We could go on but our selection says it all.
Rather than focus on particular tracks, we prefer to focus on entire singles here at Phonica, be they 7inch, 10inch, or 12inch – there has to be a physical release for it to be included in our chart. It’s the hardest chart of all to compile, as these short tracks or EPs are far more subjective than an album. So here, we are looking at those singles or tracks that made an impact, that provided us with the soundtrack to imaginary nights out that never materialised, those that sold a lot at the shop, and, most importantly, those loved by staff members here. The trouble with our favourite singles chart is that a lot of these records have gone and won’t be coming back – limited presses create hype and a lot of labels are happy to see this hype build, Discogs prices rise but mostly, in the end, a repress does appear and that’s when the record gets noticed. The Good Morning Tapes label or the Burial, Four Tet and Thom Yorke collaboration are examples of records we are only allowed to get a few copies of. Check out the selection below.
The compilation (as we used to know it) is not as big as it once was. Playlists and mixes have become the standard way for DJs to show off their sets, there is no need for a commercially produced mixed CD with only the established series such as Fabric, Late Night Tales and DJ Kicks still releasing mix CDs these days (but still offering us excellent mixes as can be heard on Khruangbin‘s ‘Late Night Tales’ or the energetic dancefloor snapshot that is Octo Octa & Eris Drew‘s ‘Fabric mix’). ‘Curated’ collections continue to provide us with some choice platters, whether they be centered around a DJ set such as Josey Rebelle’s ‘Josey In Space’ on Beats In Space or Shanti Celeste’s ‘The Sound of Love International’ or an unmixed collection of tracks that concentrate on a micro-genre, a geographical area or even a cross-section of many genres but having a common thread. Highlights here include the reggae cover versions of soul classics on ‘For The Love of You’, the tribute to Weatherall from those at the Robert Johnson club and label, and the stunning Soul Jazz comp ‘Black Riot’ focusing on early jungle and hardcore from the UK.
Reissues continue to shine a fresh spotlight of records that were overlooked when they first surfaced or were just not about in sufficient amounts. In 2020, we are back with another collection of outstanding singles, lovingly re-issued and repressed, saving us from those Discogs sharks or listening to these records only on YouTube. The number of quality reissue singles seems not to be abating across all genres, despite the pandemic – this list features everything from the mysterious Basquiat-related hip hop track to Italian reggae-pop (Loredana Berte). As with the other charts, this year we have decided not to number and rank the albums, although the ones we have enjoyed more are listed first.
We’ve tried to choose those singles that have been introduced to most of us for the first time thanks to this reissue or a much-needed repress shining a light on an undervalued gem. We didn’t mean to make Roman Flugel both our favourite reissue single and reissue album (as Primitive Painter), but ‘Acid Test’ really is the jewel in the crown of Roman’s back catalogue – probably one of the best uses of the Roland 303 out there! It sits alongside several other late ’80s / ’90s reissues in the chart such as Corporation of One ‘The Real Life’, a mash-up of Simple Minds and Queen from 1989 and Bobby Konders, Mental Cube (a Future Sound of London alias) and The Grid, although this one was helped by a stunning yet simply executed Paul Woolford remix.
Outside of the house and techno genres, there has been a slew of excellent South African early kwaito and disco gems, thanks to the work of the Rush Hour crew, our highlight being Chicco’s ‘Shigomase’. For soul, Sonya Spence’s ‘Let Love Flow On’ is the crowd favourite but you can’t beat the Backatcha label for the best-repressed gems with The Bees ‘I Love You’ being a recent classic that needed to be shared by all. And allow us a little self-indulgence as this year we re-released our very first Phonica white, the classic house of Iori’s ‘Galaxy’ now with Lord of The Isles on the mix. We look forward to more forgotten gems in 2021 when hopefully we can listen to them with many other people!
Reissues continue to shine a fresh spotlight on records that were overlooked when they first surfaced or were just not about in sufficient amounts. In 2020, we are back with another collection of outstanding albums, lovingly re-issued and repressed, saving us from those Discogs sharks or listening to these records only on YouTube. The number of quality reissue albums and collections seems not to be abating across all genres, despite the pandemic – this list features everything from ’90s ambiance, South African kwaito-disco, a retrospective of one of the best French Caribbean labels to a masterpiece of Hungarian minimalism.
As with the other charts, this year we have decided not to number and rank the albums, although the ones we have enjoyed more are listed first. We’ve tried to choose those albums that have been introduced to most of us for the first time thanks to this reissue. Previously obscure and known only to a select few, we would like to thank the likes of Wewantsounds who gave us the amazing ‘Oriental Music’ from Egyptian producer Omar El Shariyi or how about Klaus Schonning’s otherworldly blend of ethereal ambient, new age with disco-fied undertones on ‘Lydglimt’.
And sitting atop the pile (and there is broad agreement on this one) is the reissue of the 1994 gem from the Primitive Painter on R&S, Roman Flugel & Jorg Ellig – a stunning album of 90s electronica and melodic techno that still sounds fresh today! We look forward to more forgotten gems in 2021 when hopefully we can listen to them with many other people.
Aside from our favourite releases and highlights from 2020, we have also reached out to a bunch of our favourite DJs and producers to find out what’s been doing it for them this year. Contributions from Eris Drew, DJ Python, Roman Flugel, Helena Hauff and many more to be found. Enjoy!
Each of our team members has their own unique tastes in music, covering more-or-less every possible genre. Take a look at our staff members’ individual highlights from 2020. You will almost certainly find a few secret gems amongst these charts that didn’t make it into our overall selections. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank all our customers who have supported, and continue to support us, through this difficult year by buying some records – we’ll see you in 2021!
We have also pieced together two Best of 2020 Spotify playlists for you to enjoy – one for home listening and another focused more on dance music.