The Arts

Best Indie Releases of 2020: The Albums and Songs That Cut Through the Gloom  

This year saw a staggering number of releases. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the notable ones.

The pandemic brought the world to a standstill, and with it a pause on social life as we knew it that is still going on. Among the many industries to be hit hard was music, as the shutters came down on concerts, gig venues and festivals with the announcement of a government-mandated lockdown to ensure physical distancing. With no places to play live music in, the revenues of most musicians dwindled down to almost nothing.

However, there is a silver lining of sorts. The forced confinement gave many artistes time to get their creative juices running and come up with new compositions. Some 2020 albums were already under construction before the pandemic. And then there were others made during the lockdown, with long-distance collaborations being worked out online.

As a result, this year saw a staggering number of releases. The releases, many of them emerging from towns beyond the metros, make it clear that the Indian indie scene is growing by leaps and bounds. Hip-hop is clearly taking over as the most popular musical genre, rock music still has deep stakes while electronic music is evolving to incorporate cultural roots with an eye towards the future.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the notable releases.

‘Thoughts to Melt To’ – Disco Puppet

Thoughts to Melt To’ might be called an experiment in sounds, or something that would be the result of a very talented child being given a free run of the studio. It could be the soundtrack for a science fiction film. Or a cartoon series. From glockenspiel sounds and retro synthesiser runs to unusual soundscapes provided by instruments, the music darts about in unimaginable directions. Its magic lies in its unpredictable transitions, much like jazz rock magician Frank Zappa’s compositions. But Bangalore based Shoumik Biswas aka Disco Puppet’s songs are also simple, pulsing with a vague sense of mystery and adventure. The robotic vocals give the entire record a futuristic edge. All in all, it is a complete mind bender.

‘Sipping Off Troubled Waters’ – Tre Ess

One of the rising stars of India’s hip-hop scene, rapper-producer Sumit Singh Solanki aka Tre Ess has been turning heads with his sharply political album ‘Sipping Off Troubled Waters’. He sings about Naxalism, land rights, troubles of tribal people, corruption, the apathy of authorities and how all of this affects the lives of people living in the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Hailing from Ranchi, he has been using his music to spread awareness. He also merges traditional folk sounds with beats, promising a fresh musical direction in hip-hop which will incorporate regional flavours.

‘Splitfire’ – Diarchy

Ominous to the core, the Bangalore-based stoner rock duo have gone all guns ablaze with their second album ‘Splitfire’. The music is closer to hard rock and heavy metal with distorted power chords, incendiary guitar solos, double stop rhythms and an agitated vocal style. Every one of the seven songs seethes with anger. And why shouldn’t it? Violence, war, death and propaganda is what the future holds, according to the album’s lyrical themes. ‘Splitfire’ also roars out a fitting reply by promising anarchy, dissent and a fight for what the future should ideally look like.

‘Aamad’ – Sameer Rahat

Aamad’, meaning arrival in Urdu, is an intensely personal album by film composer and lyricist Sameer Rahat. Also a part of the Urdu rock band Joshish, the Mumbai-based Rahat has a mission to keep alive the dying subcontinental language. Whispered poetry and subtle soundscapes make the themes of melancholia, love, heartbreak, longing, separation and moving on resonate with every listener who has come across this wonderful record. The album’s musical bed is rock-inclined with guitar, drums and bass holding the fort. But where he scores big is intelligently combining orchestral sounds with traditional instruments such as the rubab to create a dreamy soundscape that is contemporary yet ancient.

‘Give Love’ – Soulmate

The Shillong-based band has long held the crown for making India fall in love with the blues – an American form of music that has its roots in slavery. With their fourth album ‘Give Love’, they only confirm that claim. Grungy, growling and soulful, Soulmate returns to the roots of electric blues forged in the bars of Texas. Rudy Wallang’s guitar wizardry and Tipriti Kharbangar’s powerful voice create sonic statements that are impossible to not be infected by. Besides shuffles and slow blues standards, the band also put out two tracks tackling corruption and the despicable state of affairs across the world right now.

‘Antariksha Sanchar: Transmissions in Space’ – Murthovic

Hyderabad’s Sri Rama Murthy, who goes by the moniker Murthovic, is an electronic producer with an ear for genius. Though technically ‘Antariksha Sanchar’ is a soundtrack for a Bharatanatyam dance opera, the album is a gift to 21st century India as it combines the past and the future in neat mind-bending sonics. Traditional Carnatic music is treated with healthy doses of snappy beats, psychedelic sounds and bizarre electronic effects to create a pulsating sound that prophesises the future of Indian contemporary music. South India’s rich culture seeps out from every moment of this futuristic-looking record.

‘Yahaan’ – Saby Singh

A melancholic deep dive into human emotions, Saby Singh courts the pure spirit of an artist in his album ‘Yahaan’. The Kashmiri singer-songwriter sings in Urdu and plays the guitar in a free-flowing, unorthodox manner. While the rest of the world banks on gadgets and fancy gear, Singh sticks to simple, honest storytelling in the sparsest format possible. So, with only a guitar in hand and pain in his voice, he meanders about the record, pouring forth everything he has to offer. Thematically, ‘Yahaan’ revolves around love, longing and hope, but goes much further into the human psyche with its erratic rhythm guitar flourishes.

‘Dekhi Barey Barey; – Neil Mukherjee

Dekhi Barey Barey’, translating to ‘see again and again’, is as dark as an overcast sky on a rainy day. It talks about the feeling of individual loneliness amidst a sea of humans – a rather disturbing urban phenomenon. This song is part of guitarist Neil Mukherjee’s upcoming Bengali album, marking his return to the Kolkata scene after two decades. Musically, the song borrows from the Brazilian form bossa nova with an ingenuous gypsy jazz guitar solo. Such musical crossovers, though not new, is certainly eye-opening for the Indian audience.

‘Hashtag Justice’ – Arivu

Arivu is a Chennai-based rapper whose songs are mostly political. From attacking the caste system, racism and the establishment, he does not shy away from speaking the truth. In this explosive Tamil number, Arivu questions the misuse of power by police in the aftermath of the two custodial deaths in Santhankulam, Tamil Nadu. In the same context, he takes on discrimination based on skin colour, pointing to larger societal problems. Considering how the police have behaved this year when it came to silencing dissent, ‘Hashtag Justice’ could very well be the most important song of 2020.

‘Age of Limbo’ – Mali

Maalavika Manoj, who is better known as Mali, has hit the bull’s eye with ‘Age of Limbo’ as it perfectly describes what the pandemic and ensuing lockdown meant for the entire world. Beautifully haunting, Mali’s voice evokes how hapless humankind became when streets became deserted in ‘no man’s paradise’. An eerie cello cuts through the electronic music throughout the track, covering the intricate soundscapes with a touch of doom. With crowd-sourced visuals of deserted places across the world, the video completes the limbo-like experience.

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata and interested in music.