The Best 5.1 and Atmos Albums of 2020
2020 has been a topsy-turvy year for many, but the momentum of surround sound and Dolby Atmos continues to grow.
By Ben Jacklin
As home audio equipment has become more widespread and affordable, it is easier than ever to get speaker systems and even soundbar systems that can play 5.1 and also Dolby Atmos audio files, providing rich, room-filling sound. Combine that with the fact that more and more producers are getting excited about the sonic possibilities of a 360-degree audio soundscape, and the introduction of surround sound streaming services, and you have the perfect storm of 3D audio.
Below, we’ve listed some essential listening for 5.1 and Atmos albums from 2020.
The Pineapple Thief – Versions of the Truth
The Pineapple Thief, along with singer Bruce Soord, are no strangers to 5.1 audio. In fact, they’ve been surround sound pioneers in recent years. Versions of the Truth is a foray into sonic possibilities, layering, and haunting melodies and vocal harmonies, all perfectly propped up by master drummer Gavin Harrison, keyboardist Steve Kitch, and bassist/vocalist Jon Sykes. This work is an exceptionally mixed, cohesive album and a real gem of 2020.
Versions of the Truth was engineered by Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison, and it was mastered by Steve Kitch.
Rick Wakeman – The Red Planet
Rick Wakeman is a legend of prog-rock and a stunningly talented keyboard player. It’s fair to say that the songwriter is not known for subtlety and nuance. As you would expect, the album really pushes the boundaries and tests the capabilities of the 5.1 format. In spite of a career spanning many decades, Wakeman is still coming up with new and thrilling ideas. This album features some incredible session musicians, too, including a collective of musicians dubbed The English Rock Ensemble, including guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Lee Pomeroy, and drummer Ash Soan. A real display of talent.
Robert Rich – Offering to the Morning Fog
Not the best-known musician on this list, but Robert Rich’s Offering to the Morning Fog has a calming and serene beauty. This is truly music to lose yourself in, and paired with the right immersive audio system, it is incredibly easy to get intertwined with the rich layers of this album.
Alan Williams – Evidence Unearthed
Williams recorded much of the Evidence project in the 1990s but shelved the project due to a loss of faith and interest in it. Fortunately, he saw the value in these recordings and has recently brought them to light in shimmering surround sound. This album is a wonderful example of the enhancement that immersive audio can provide, even in songs that are effectively middle-of-the-road rock music. It challenges the genre stereotypes many people hold when they think of immersive audio. It’s not all prog-rock and ambient music.
Guests on the recordings include Rick Harris and Tom Hambridge, as well as future collaborators Birdsong At Morning, Greg Porter, Ben Wittman, and Thomas Juliano. Laurie Sargent, Leslie Smith, and Gene Elders were also involved in the original 90’s sessions.
Chimpan A – The Empathy Machine
Rob Reed, of prog-rock outfit Magenta, and incredible vocalist Steve Balsamo of Jesus Christ Superstar fame, team up on this experimental project. Elements of prog peek through in the mix, but this album is bursting with ideas, synthesizers, and fascinating soundscapes.
Chimpan A perhaps describe their own work best: “Kinda like Pink Floyd’s Peter-Gabriel-loving brother, wearing Björk’s poppier swan dress, while making Massive Attack a cuppa.” When you listen to the album, this blurb turns out to be surprisingly spot-on.
The Empathy Machine features Rosalie Deighton, Shan Cothi, Christina Booth, Kirstie Roberts on guest vocals, with Steve Roberts on live drums. Best listened to in 3 audio dimensions.
About the Author
Ben is a writer and musician from the UK with a background in music technology. He writes about engineering and production, musicianship and music equipment for a number of publications including his own site, subreel.com