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10 Best Indian Albums of 2020

This year saw the return of stalwart indie bands, representation in hip-hop, banging debuts and more

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10. Protocol – Friar’s Lantern 

Protocol delivered a smashing and spellbinding debut album

Mumbai prog-rock band Protocol delivered a smashing and spellbinding debut album with the eight-track Friar’s Lantern this year. The band – comprising guitarists Sandesh Rao and Desikan Gopalan, keyboardist Rahul Kannan, drummer Nachiket Karekar, vocalist Shweta Venkatramani and bassist Rajiv Menon (the group’s former bassist Vivian D’Souza played on the LP) – pull you into the record right from the dynamic opening track “An Honest Conversation.” As the album progresses the band juxtaposes hard-hitting sounds with delicate somberness on “Wait Until Tomorrow,” they unlock growls from Gopalan on “Gullible Child” featuring Mumbai guitarist Siddharth Shankar while “Dawn of Truth” also includes splendid dynamics. Friar’s Lantern offers gradual climaxes (“Swipe Left,” “Imaginary Fire”) as well as mathcore delight on “Goodnight, Sweet Dreams.” The full weight of the album, however, is felt on the melancholic record closer “Perfection.” – D.B. 

9. Girish And The Chronicles Rock the Highway 

Bold, unflinching and unadulterated metal that’s fun

As much as several bands have emerged as global ambassadors for metal in India, the true picture is a little more complicated, as we know from the global success of Sikkim-bred hard rockers/heavy metallers Girish and The Chronicles’ new album Rock the Highway. Just as the country often produces diverse music, it holds true within the metal circuit as well. For their part, there’s bold, unflinching and unadulterated fun on this 13-track album. While you can throw around all the obvious influences of Guns N Roses, Aerosmith, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, there’s a fiery resolve to break into modern metal passages and of course, frontman Girish Pradhan’s gilded vocal range. – A.T.

8. Swadesi – Chetavni

The most representative hip-hop record of 2020

It is the paradoxes and dualities within Indian hip-hop that make it a unique ecosystem that is still getting on its feet. Alongside the hedonistic excesses of ‘mainstream’ hip-hop, acts like Swadesi reaffirm your faith that the real revolution is at the grassroots. After a series of singles and mind-blowing gigs across the country, the multi-lingual collective headquartered in Mumbai have their debut album Chetavni out, and it is a roaring warning signal in every sense. One hasn’t witnessed a better confluence of linguistic, ideological and socio-political ethos than the kind displayed on this glorious record by MC Mawali, MC Tod Fod, Raakshas, 100RBH, Bamboy, Naar, Dr Das, Maharya and Delhi Sultanate. Chetavni is the most representative hip-hop record of 2020. – N.S.

7. Serpents of Pakhangba – Serpents of Pakhangba

Futuristic, shape-shifting, superlative!

If one were asked to give a tour of the sonic topography of the best of contemporary Indian independent music, this eponymous record by Serpents of Pakhangba would be a fair indication of the genius it houses. A wildly ambitious and experimental project helmed by Mumbai producer/multi-instrumentalist Vishal J. Singh, Serpents of Pakhangba is perhaps the most capricious band on the circuit. Each of the seven tracks on the album is an exquisite example of how elastic genres can be, and how useless labels are. What really matters, in the end, is how groovy they are, correct? “Headhunters” is mind-expanding to say the least and “Thus Sings The Midwife of Planetary Transformation” will convert you into believing in some kind of higher force if you didn’t care for it before. Serpents of Pakhangba is a cerebral discovery — it is futuristic, shape-shifting and superlative. – N.S.

6. The Earth Below – Nothing Works Vol. 2: Hymns for Useless Gods 

Finds new sonic treatments for desolation

In his leap for a “fuller” rock sound, Bengaluru-bred, Mumbai-based drummer-vocalist Deepak Raghu aka The Earth Below arrives at somewhat more accessible melodies (“Come to Me,” “Ceremony of Ash”) on Nothing Works Vol. 2: Hymns for Useless Gods, retaining that distinct moroseness. Raghu balances all that is vile, grim and agonizing in a voice that seems to borrow from Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Chris Cornell. He’s still as bleak as ever, but finds new sonic treatments for desolation, ornately on stoner cuts like “Abydos,” “Rhythm of Pain” and “Perpetual Prayer” and bittersweetly wise as he bears his heart for a lost cause on the poignant “Strangers at Sea.” – A.T.

5. Lojal Phase 

An unblemished narration of mental health struggles

Right from the opening spoken word sample on “Lojal?” that dips the listener into his falsetto-employing R&B hooks, it’s evident that producer, guitarist and singer Martin Haokip aka Lojal (pronounced “Loyaal”) loves artists like Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Kanye West. In his flittering style heard on Phase, he introduces a mind that’s scattered (“Apex of This Life,” “Let Down”) and disturbed but certainly unfazed. In gathering his thoughts and arranging them in a neo-modern poetic fashion, Phase is an unblemished narration of mental health struggles, by an artist who’s likely never to settle into a sound or style. – A.T.

4. aswekeepsearching  sleep 

The band’s most immersive album yet

The poster boys of Indian post-rock, Mumbai/Pune outfit aswekeepsearching, returned this year with a brand new record titled sleep. Probably the band’s most immersive album yet, it doesn’t fail to disappoint. With drummer and percussionist Sambit Chatterjee joining in as part of the songwriting alongside frontman Uddipan Sarmah, bassist/guitarist Robert Alex and producer-guitarist Shubham Gurung, the group also roped in violinist Ajay Jayanthi on songs such as the hypnotic “How Am I Supposed to Know,” the meditative “Let Us Try” and the peaceful record closer “Sleep Again.” The album also features futuristic soundscapes (“Glued”), acoustic guitar prominence (“Dreams Are Real”), melancholy (“Sleep Now”) and more. – D.B.

3. Saby Yahaan 

An evocative voice who injects joy, pain and longing with clarity

It’s hard to believe singer-songwriter Saby released Yahaan early this year, considering he already went ahead and ran in the total opposite direction with his second album Ouroboros. While his new direction led him to experiment with left-field electronic music, the singer-songwriter in Saby is just as sublime on Yahaan. Employing silence as a potent tool, the nine-track record sees him emerge as an evocative voice who can inject joy, pain and longing with a clarity that few artists in the country possess. He’s a cheerful lad on “Asma,” but songs like “Maana Ke (Gumaan)” and the title track are lengthy to hypnotically drown the listener in emotion, without more than just his guitar and his voice. – A.T.

2. Soulmate – Give Love 

It’s 2020 and the blues is still truly alive and well

Shillong blues outfit Soulmate, comprising rhythm guitarist-singer Tipriti Kharbangar aka Tips, lead guitarist-vocalist Rudy Wallang, drummer Vincent Tariang and bassist Leon Wallang have put together a splendid fourth album Give Love. The record brings together positivity on the title track, a soulful ballad with “Hole in Your Soul,” jivey goodness on “I Sing the Blues,” instrumental blues guitar at the highest level courtesy of “Still Loving You,” mercurial singing on “Voodoo Woman” and more. Of course, the record is plastered with guitarist Wallang’s appetizing wails as well as Tips’ profound vocal chops. It’s 2020 and the blues is still truly alive and well. – D.B.

1. Thermal And A Quarter – A World Gone Mad 

 The quartet remain incisive sonically and thematically

In the soul-searching world of Bengaluru rock wizards Thermal And A Quarter, an answer often poses more questions and thus, the expedition never ends. In the chaos and indescribable disorder brought upon by 2020, TAAQ look like the coolest band in the country for the kind of attitude they imbue on A World Gone Mad. Through the pendulous rock of “Where Do We Gotta Go Now” to sprawling, emotive cuts like “Distance,” “Stone Circle” and “Unbelong,” plus irony-flavored takedowns “Leaders of Men” and “N.F.A.,” the quartet remain incisive both sonically and thematically like few other rock artists. – A.T.

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