Spool’s Out: The Best Tapes Of 2020

Daryl Worthington brings the year in cassettes to a close, with 2020’s best tapes, and the year’s best tape label

Mariam Rezaei

What’s the point of releasing music on cassette in 2020? It’s a dated format and surely we could all be doing something better with our time in a year marked by tragedy. Clearly spouting off nonsense about better art being made in times of adversity isn’t the answer. It’s inaccurate, a gross disservice to those suffering, and a privileged misunderstanding of the reality that for many adversity didn’t come with the pandemic, it’s always been there.

Weird underground music on an archaic format isn’t going to save the world then, but it’s come out in abundance in 2020 so it must be doing something. At a time when across the planet DIY and independent venues have been forced to close, any kind of music community that can be fostered is vital for those who’ve been suddenly cut off.

The underground has always excelled at triumphing in the face of obstacles – it’s part of the game, and tapes have been one way to keep that alive through the turmoil of 2020. It might only be culture, specifically a niche, format dependent subculture of a subculture, but it gives us an escape from the strife and reassurance that this welcoming, open community of eccentrics will still be there on the other side. That is all it can do, but it’s immensely valuable for those pulled into its sphere.

Picking a top ten tapes has been ridiculously challenging, pointing to how healthy the tape universe has stayed in 2020. The year has seen a number of labels carve out exciting new niches. In Slovakia, Warm Winters Ltd. and Mappa Editions have worked with a rich field of composers to unearth new ground in experimental electronics, ambient and sound art. Zabte Sote, curated by mindblowing experimental producer in his own right Ata ‘Sote’ Ebtekar, has shone the light on a globally dispersed group of Iranian artists whose fierce takes on experimental electronics have been pushing my tape player to the absolute limits this year. Meanwhile, artists such as Jabu have embraced the peculiarities of the format to take new approaches to their craft.

Before launching into my in no way objective top ten then, it’s time to look at my choice for tape label of the year…

Tape label of the year, 2020

Not exclusively a tape label, Warsaw, Poland headquartered Mondoj nevertheless put out three of their four releases on the format in 2020, so close enough. Though sitting firmly in the experimental bracket, what makes Mondoj’s releases stand out is the feeling of play flowing through them. Not in the sense of being childlike or naïve, but as an open-ended exploration of sound’s tactility for the sheer joy of doing so. That joy translates to the listener, making each tape a way to temporarily step out of our all too often harmful surroundings into something radically separate.

Antonina Nowacka’s Lamunan is a prime example. Nowacka, who’s also one half of WIDT, wrote the songs in a cave in a Javanese volcano, “I could sit there and sing for hours without feeling the passage of time,” she explains. Returning to Poland, she recorded the ideas she’d come up with at a fortress with similar acoustic properties to the cave. The result is seven tracks of unaccompanied voice, delicately floating between fragile, celestial drift and harrowed beauty.

At a different end of the sonic scale is Jacob Sachs-Mishalanie’s Scribble. The Brooklyn based composer creates bouncing, surreal miniatures that defy obvious logic. Mondoj have done the heavy lifting of finding artists that communicate this sense of play without becoming absorbed in their own ego. Proving that curation is indeed an art form in itself.

As for that third tape…

Top Ten Tapes Of 2020 (Unranked)

More Eaze & Claire Rousay – If I Don’t Let Myself Be Happy Now Then When?


Claire Rousay and More Eaze have both had a hugely productive 2020 in terms of solo releases, and If I Don’t Let Myself Be Happy Now Then When? their collaboration for the Mondoj label, saw them join forces with powerful results.

Rousay and More Eaze (aka Mari Maurice) created these pieces together at a time when both were transitioning and coming out as trans. The sense of working through what Maurice describes as a conflicting state of insecurity and empowerment is imprinted into these three tracks. Sweet, skeletal pop songs shyly withdrawing into comforting background sound, fixations on the delicate rattling of objects, and fleeting moments of ecstasy appearing in the most unexpected times and places. It’d be easy to frame If I Don’t Let Myself Be Happy in terms of acousmatic music and sound art, but the pair have unearthed a raw poignancy in what can often be a coldly academic field. By sharing their moments of care and support to tape, they’ve provided a delicate escape for them, and everyone who listens.

My Cruelty – The Secret Weapon

(Genot Centre)

The space between geometry and harmony is the terrain of St. Petersburg, Russia based producer My Cruelty, aka Lyudmila Severtseva, on her debut album The Secret Weapon. The 13 tracks play out like Dora Maurer artworks made audible, sparse grids warped, bent and overlapped into new shapes and configurations. My Cruelty’s palette of sounds is a fairly restricted one, housey keys, vaporous synths and minimal beats, but that limitation only leads to invention. Every instrument is reduced to its starkest form, giving greater definition to the elegantly interlocking patterns they make.

For all this sleek elegance though, the nocturnal romanticism of the club burns through the music. The tape seems to leak out a kind of day-glo warmth, yet explaining where that essence originates in the constituent parts is all but impossible. I’m not sure how this music was made – how much is process and how much composition, but I also think that knowing would take something away from it. Sometimes having some mystery lets the music speak louder.

Able Noise – Recordings


As debut releases go, Dutch/Greek duo Able Noise’s Recordings is remarkably fully formed. Guitarist/vocalist George Knegtel and percussionist/vocalist Alex Andropoulos, seem keen to avoid revealing too much information about themselves, from the matter of fact title of the tape to both sides being unnamed and not divided into individual tracks. Much like My Cruelty, that void in knowledge helps to amplify the magic this cassette has.

The pair cover a lot of ground over the two sides, from agitated folk songs through slowcore guitar lines, meandering drums and acousmatic experiments. However, the overriding effect of this tape is akin to watching the wind in the trees, rustling movements that are both independent and intertwined. Gently rising and falling in intensity as vocals gust into tape echo fog, guitar lines settle on top of each other and sounds whisper in and out of perception. Much like their GLARC label mates Still House Plants, Able Noise show it’s still possible to extract something unique and delightfully un-macho from guitars and drums.

Mariam Rezaei – Skeen

(Fractal Meat Cuts)

The scream that opens Mariam Rezaei’s Skeen is probably the most appropriate response imaginable to 2020. Released back in May and composed entirely in lockdown, the twelve tracks see turntablist Rezaei collaborate with a diverse mix of underground artists to create a world of shattered voices and absurd shards, but also moments of surprising serenity, such as on sixteen minute album centre piece ‘AGENCY’.

Rezaei herself describes the album as ruminating over the semantics and etymology of language used around and by people identifying with multiple ethnicities, as well as depicting the frighteningly casual attitude of racist right-wing politics in 2020 Britain and the nuances of white privilege coupled with regressive feminism found in everyday lefty writing. Listening back again at the end of the year, the ferocity and chaos Rezaei is able to create with just two hands on two decks serves as a reminder of how enmeshed these long standing ills are. But it’s important to remember that as much as Rezaei’s music soundtracks the foment, there’s a message of empowerment embedded in the process. Hands on vinyl upsetting, disrupting and interrupting the inevitability of a record playing to its preordained conclusion.

Felicity Mangan – Creepy Crawly

(Mappa Editions)

On Creepy Crawly Australian born, Berlin based composer Felicty Mangan seems to be asking the question what exactly is nature in 2020, and where does the line really sit between organic and synthetic? Electronics and sounds of wildlife dominate the five tracks on this tape, but exactly where the separation is between the two is seldom clear. Squeaks, groans and clucks dominate the stereo-field, floating around what sound like synthetic pulses and assembling off-kilter, vibrating ecosystems.

Mangan, who’s also one half of the duo Native Instrument, says the sounds come from field recordings in Berlin, Japan and Australia. The way they’ve been assembled seems very much cybernetic, though, Mangan treating these noises as drum hits, effects and melodic devices in her compositions. Track names like Cyborg bugs and Double Headed Emu point to the world she’s imagining, while the way the recordings seem to pull you down into the soil serve as a reminder that nature isn’t some idyll over there, it’s the noisy, squeaking, buzzing reality we’re all tangled up in.

Jabu & Daniela Dyson – Jabu + Daniela Dyson

(Do you have peace?)

Dropping a few months before Jabu’s second album Sweet Company, this eponymous mixtape by Jabu & Daniela Dyson (Dyson also appears on a couple of tracks on Sweet Company) pulls together music they’ve recorded over the last three years and smudges it into two blissful side-long montages.

Although containing vague premonitions of the blurred hip hop and r&b of the full-length album, Jabu + Daniela Dyson is its own creature. Echoes of their Bristol predecessors Tricky, Massive Attack or Portishead can be heard, but Jabu retreat further into the comforting ambient fug. The quartet, Alex Rendall, Amos Childs and Jasmine Butt along with Dyson, revel in the mixtape form, tender vocals, melodies and beats blending into each other like blots of ink on damp paper. The fragility that has always made Jabu sound so graceful is amplified here by the wide-eyed wonder that Dyson’s poetry carries. Two sides of scuffed and scrambled nocturnal sincerity to ease these sinister days.

Nandele Maguni – Plafonddeinst

(Already Dead Tapes & Records)

The thing that makes Nandele Maguni’s Plafonddeinst really stick a few months after it first dropped is the sheer scope and space he manages to create in his productions. Electronic music tends to be described with a language of materials – ice, metal, crystals – but for the Mozambican producer a vocabulary of distance and movement seems more appropriate.

Journeying from bird calls to colossal synths, environmental recordings to glitching bass and beats, Plafonddeinst has a spectacular dynamic and textural range. The way it plays out feels like you’re being pulled through these different zones and histories he’s woven together. To be sure those histories are far from innocent, and Adrian Diff’s poem on fourth track Nnê demands honest consideration of the past that has led to this current moment. But the point of Plafonddeinst seems to be that it’s a stepping-stone into imagining something better, bigger and beyond. Nandele says he believes his music can take us on a journey to try and communicate with other planets, and the transportive effect these nine tracks have mean that really doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Temp-Illusion – Pend

(Zabte Sote)

Beats with the physicality of cold concrete are the name of the game for Temp-Illusion, the Iranian duo of Shahin Entezami (who works solo under the Tegh alias) and Behrang Najafi (aka Bescolour). On Pend, the pair construct swaggering monoliths of low-end dread, shattered frequencies and sheared drones. The six tracks here take aim at the weaponisation of the media and its project to spread constant fear in order to keep society a hostage of inaction.

Entezami and Najafi manage to make that sense of the semioblitz tangible, the music reaching towards moments of brutal critical mass that mimic the effects of information saturation on our brains. The apocalyptic, bass heavy grooves they muster become almost all encompassing, but their compositions are far from monochrome. Each is suffused with microscopic details and patterns, and surprising left turns into moments of melody and harmony against the rhythmic superstructures. It’s these moments that give your mind something to latch onto and pull these tracks away from pure pessimism, microscopic discretions into detail against the data onslaught.

Vinny Moonshine – Live at Waxwing

(Metaphysical Powers)

“Wouldn’t you like to get away,” croons Vinny Moonshine over the fade out of ‘Hideaway’, the first track on Live At Waxwing, beginning a set of ghostly songs which get less corporeal the more you concentrate on them. Detroit based Vinny Moonshine recorded the tracks in 2014, and they were left suspended in cyberspace limbo until Metaphysical Powers trapped them in a physical format this September. The songs’ origins are a weirdly convoluted one. Starting life as backing tracks for a covers set, Moonshine ended up exorcising them of all their original essence to such a degree he wrote new lyrics and melodies for them. (‘One And The Same’ is the only track where it’s clear what the original was).

An evanescent quality seeps through the songs, instruments dropping in and out, soft interferences building and dissipating, reggae basslines cropping up in odd places. The kind of organic song deconstruction you get on a radio sitting between two stations. This flickering quality has bled into the lyrics themselves. The line, “In between, a memory and a dream” on ‘One And The Same’ is perhaps the best possible explanation of the mystery these muffled pop songs have. Hypnagogic and haunted aesthetics are hardly new, but few have captured the sense of sitting between two planes quite so compellingly as Moonshine manages here.

BAG – Mapping Azure

(Bloxham Tapes)

How do you describe a colour to someone who’s never seen it? How do you map a cloudless sky? These are the sorts of questions of communication BAG, the duo of Brit Dan Allison and Canadian Jody DeSchutter seem to engage with on debut tape Mapping Azure. The combination of electronics, field recordings and poetry are simultaneously vivid and vague. Clusters of words are read, often without obvious connection, but this isn’t a completely random language soup. Constellations start to form so that even if sense doesn’t fully appear, its echo does. The accompanying soundscape has a similar effect, shifting from almost inaudible pulses to pristine arpeggios and lurking beats. It occasionally seems at odds with the poems, but maybe that distance is where the real meaning lies?

Mapping Azure seems to dig at the very essence of communication. When we reach the limit of vocabulary we resort to metaphor or describing the effect of something rather than the thing itself. That seems to be the case with BAG’s music, a weird schematic of something unknown that can only be conveyed through allusion.

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