Who Were The Best Artists of 2020?

Our cranky friend offers his review of the year in music

Best of 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

The whole nature of top ten lists suggests some kind of sense of superiority on the part of the author, doesn’t it?

See, it implies that I think I am better than you because I spent a few minutes listening to The Thronking Scramblies while you, dear reader, were sitting around playing UFO’s “Lights Out” over and over again. Yet, friends, I assure you: I assume no superiority whatsoever over any music listener. All music listeners are real listeners, every one, because they apply music to their life the way it’s supposed to be applied: As an index for the heart, as a mnemonic for memory, as a way to make a drive or a commute or dinner prep a little better. 

However, I am happy to assert my superiority over most music journalists. Therefore, here is a very quick and handy guide to “How to tell if a rock journalist is ill informed and/or a total effing idiot, 2020 edition.” This one’s pretty simple! Did their “best of” or “Top Ten” list include the Deli Girls, Dry Cleaning, or Lucidvox? If it did not contain at least one of those, THEN THE MUSIC JOURNALIST YOU ARE READING IS NOT TRYING VERY HARD AND/OR IS A TOTAL EFFING IDIOT. 

Listen, I believe any “best of” list is just a matter of opinion, and regardless of what I just said, I do mean that. But I also believe there is a minimum amount of investigative energy, curiosity, and awareness of the big ‘ol messy musical world anyone ought to have if they are going to be so freaking presumptuous as to publicly assert that any pile of albums is better than any other pile of albums. Writing a top ten list isn’t just a matter of cut an’ pasting the same half dozen or some Loopy Lipa/Apple/Springsteen names that are on every other person’s lists. Let’s spelunk just a little, okay? Anyone who claims such lists are definitive in any way is an ass. In an ideal journalistic environment, a hundred different lists would contain hundreds of different acts. It would be a sign that we were doing our jobs, and we had put batteries in the flashlight. What theses lists should do is shine a flashlight into those who used music in the best possible way: We make music because we are dying to hear something and we can’t find it anywhere else, so we have to make it ourselves. We make music because we are curious about the magical and horrible world of sound, and we use it to tell the story of our hearts.   

So when I turned on my flashlight, here is what I found. Oh, and this is not a true “Top Ten Albums” list, largely because two of the most important artists on this list – Dry Cleaning and Burd Ellen – did not put out albums in 2020, just vital, enchanting, haunting, and essential new music. And Billy Childish put out (at least) four, and each one all belong in the top ten. So here, in my opinion (and only my opinion) are the ten most important artists of 2020. 

In my admittedly limited reckoning, three artists tied for the top spot. The artists of the year are: Dry Cleaning, Deli Girls, and Bob Dylan. 

 

VIDEO: Dry Cleaning “Scratchcard Lanyard” 

Without quite knowing it, my adult life I have dreamt of a band that combined Young Marble Giants with the Fall, and, well, here comes Dry Cleaning. The music is restrained but persuasive early-Post Punk, the clink and chink of guitars informed by Krautrock and Velvets, Durutti Column and Stereolab, always implying lift-off, without ever losing control. But what makes this a supernova of pulsing intensity is the dry yet deeply compelling speak-song of Fiona Shaw, telling us about what’s left when a life is laid waste by modern technology, social, media, gaming, and dating. There is also a complete lack of irony or smugness in Shaw’s sometimes dry, sometimes urgent conversational vocals. Rather, she is just a bard recording her world, and reflecting the idea that the things that may seem mundane to someone a bit older is enormous to a young person. All of this is set against subtle yet wired electric post-punk (Rough Trade variety), band, occasionally emerging as a more compact Stereolab, which is all to say Dry Cleaning answer the question, what if the Phoebe Waller Bridge fronted Young Marble Giants? 

 

AUDIO: The Deli Girls “Silence” 

New York’s Deli Girls should have been the Sex Pistols of 2020, and only the rampant ignorance of the music industry and the music media seemed to have prevented this un/happy reality. Feral, controlled, inventive, challenging, confrontational, artistic, this is precisely the kind of band we need right now. Sounding pretty much like an exact cross between Suicide and Lightning Bolt, the Deli Girls found a new vocabulary for rage, noise, metal, and garage techno, and probably are what would have happened if Peaches, Fugazi, and CRASS had met somewhere in Bushwick in the 21st century. The Deli Girls make me wish rock wasn’t a con, and that it could actually achieve the dreams of Phil Ochs or John Sinclair and change the world: But maybe the Deli Girls can make that dream come true. 

 

AUDIO: Bob Dylan “Murder Most Foul”

The headline-grabbing end-of-year publishing sale may have obscured a very important fact about Bob Dylan. In 2020, Dylan released his best album in 43 years. Rough and Rowdy Ways is deep, warm, churning, flawed, poetic, inspired, rough, and delicate. It was not only a wonderful display of the exquisite, always smoking, thrugging/chugging primitive, pure rock’n’roll that Dylan had been perfecting on the road for decades, it also featured one of his best “old school Dylan” songs in a generation,  “Black Rider.” Now, on top of all that, Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show is the best radio out there, period full stop. 

Since Dylan, Dry Cleaning and the Deli Girls jammed up the top of the list, we shall pick up the rest of our survey at number 4. 

 

4. Chubby and the Gang’s Speed Kills may be the best pure punk rock album since Endangered Species by the U.K. Subs, and that is saying a lot. This West London band doesn’t spout ridiculous, posturing snotty-boy Green Day fakery, but the real deal: Roaring riffs, thumping drums, hollered choruses, it doesn’t sound nostalgic, just freaking glorious. Somehow, Speed Kills echoes the best, slobbering, riffing, speed’an’lager punk (think Menace, Slaughter and the Dogs, always U.K. Subs, Sham 69, Cockney Rejects, and even Tenpole Tudor), yet they are also clearly informed by hardcore. Like classic hardcore acts, they play right on top of the beat, and consistently apply a wound-up (without being tightly wound) mindset to truly classic punk. The result is an idealized, more ’77-accented version of Oi, and a reminder that what the American punk revivalists of the late ‘80s and 1990s did was utter, complete, phony bullshit. 

 

VIDEO: Chubby and the Gang “Speed Kills”

 

5. Lucidvox, an all-woman band from Moscow, make fascinating, frizzing, twisting, turning, slamming, skating, skipping, highly accomplished yet wholly incendiary Post Punk. They are virtually the poster child for the viability and inventiveness of new guitar-based music, in nearly violent contradiction to all those critics who have been blubbering themselves silly about Loopy Dua or Dua Lippy or Fra Lippi Lucy or whatever the hell it is. On Lucidvox’s most recent album, We Are, they twist and turn like some accomplished but holy/unholy mix between the Au Pairs and Deep Purple and Killing Joke, all while having a firm foot in elegant harmonies and a traditional Russian sense of rhythm and melody. If there is a more interesting and vital rock band on the planet right now than Lucidvox, I cannot imagine who they might be. 

 

VIDEO: Lucidvox “Knife”

6. Neo-Viking post-guitar/post Black Metal thumpy-thump primitivism is one of the most exciting genres to emerge in the last decade, and Siberia’s Nytt Land are one of its most diverse and engaging proponents. Rich, enthralling, full of dark and light and fire and ice, their fifth album, CVLT, spotlights a new kind of seismic jam band, combining the darkest of dark metal with a very ferocious kind of folk prog. Their difficult-to-describe but immediately appealing sound echoes throat singing, drum circles, black metal, and ambient drone. CVLT is one hell of album, and one of the very, very few albums that might appeal to fans of Renaissance and Impaled Nazarene, Opeth and Adam and the Ants, Enya and Slayer. 

 

VIDEO: Nytt Land “Ohne Dich”

7. Small yet giant, ancient and modern, strange yet familiar and always enchanting, Scotland’s BURD ELLEN (Debbie Armour and Gayle Brogan) challenge us enormously, and redefine the application and forecast of folk music. They take classic anorak an’ turtleneck folk – that is, the kind of Celtic, Cape Breton, Appalachian or Aral stuff you hear early Sunday morning on college radio shows that play Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins, and the Chieftains – and accompany it with a kind of front-room, palm-sized form of Penederecki, Branca, or early Swans. It is effing brilliant; imagine Tony Conrad and Caterina Barbieri accompanying Clannad! Burd Ellen should be pretentious, but it just sounds like the future, like the past, like the past future, like beauty, like fear, like nature and its’ natural enemy, man and industry, meeting on the plains of music.

 

VIDEO: Burd Ellen at The Cambridge Folk Festival at Home 2020

8. Wire, now doing business for nearly 45 years, have maintained a literally unprecedented consistency, a remarkable ability to cast a spell of immersion, rapture, and star-spray guitar thrall that remains at a nearly peak level of quality from album to album to album, regardless of what the calendar says. 10:20, their eighteenth studio album since 1977, isn’t merely “as good” as some of their greatest work; it is, simply, one of the best records they have ever released. True, 10:20 re-envisions older material (it re-addresses, re-records, and re-approaches songs left by the wayside going back decades, although none of these recordings have ever been released before), and the spectrum of styles and eras represented on the collection give it the feel of a Greatest Hits album. Most remarkably, even someone who has never, ever heard Wire before could hear 10:20 and fall completely in the thrall of this band. 10:20 underlines, adamantly, something that Wire have hinted at for decades: They are the greatest art rock band of our time, period. 

 

VIDEO: Wire Live at Band on the Wall 1/28/20

9. On their 18th studio album, it would have been enough if AC/DC merely hadn’t embarrassed themselves. But instead, on Power Up they made a tremendous and consistent album, so full of classic riffs and Slade-elicious dum-dum lyrics that it almost makes me wonder if (like Wire’s 10:20) this isn’t a “Greatest Hits You Never Heard that We Just Happened to Dust Off ” type record. Power Up, arguably the third – maybe even the second? — best AC/DC album of the Brian Johnson era, is AC/DC’s most back-to-front listenable album in at least twenty five years, and honestly, who the hell was expecting that? 

 

VIDEO: AC/DC “Shot in the Dark”

10. Billy Childish released four albums this year under the name The William Loveday Intention. Any one of them could – and should – belong on a 2020 Top Ten list. It is difficult to know what to say about one of the world’s greatest living artists. For forty years, Childish has been using his genius, his truly masterful ear and heart, to channel existing genres, but he doesn’t make imitations, or homages, or traffic in nostalgia. Instead, he uses archaic styles and techniques to create masterpieces, leaving the listener transported to an alternate universe where many of the great records across time were made by Billy Childish. The William Loveday Intention sees Childish channeling ‘60 folk styles – specifically, the gritty, snarling word salads of Dylan – via a kind of elegant garage music, with echoes of Morricone, Joe Meek, Shadows, and Pretty Things. Remember how you first felt when you discovered Nuggets? That’s how all four of 2020’s William Loveday Intention releases will make you feel. Honestly, Childish is re-writing the story of Western pop and rock, all in his own hand, and I am totally okay with this. 

 

VIDEO: The Future of Art According to Billy Childish

 

10.5 (which is to say, this one really belongs in the top ten, but, y’know, we’ve already got ten in there). Imagine If Eno was a Viking and listened to a lot of Joe Meek. That’s Danheim. Danheim (the performing name of Danish producer/conceptualist Mike Schæfer Olsen) is perhaps the most consistent and utterly hypnotic of the mock Viking neo-primitives. His work features drums, drums, big drums, whomping big drums, thumps from Hades, and hums and drones from some ancient past and/or post apocalyptic future. Olsen/Danhiem is fairly prolific, but 2020’s Skapanir is his best start-to-finish album yet. Skapanir is an extraordinary trip on a starry winter night with a lot of cough syrup and mushrooms in your belly, and it may be the place where trance-dancers and black metallurgists meet. This is either Erik the Red’s elevator music or Gary Glitter if he was a Game of Thrones character, and it’s bloody fantastic. 

 

VIDEO: Danheim “Grima”

There were a pile of very decent Honorable Mentions this year, any one of which could have merited a place in the Top Ten and a half: On Ultra Mono, the Idles’ are both more punky and more Post Punky than in the past, and have finally figured out a way to sound more like a band than a concept. If mufflers dragging off the bottom of a car became sentient and could make rap music informed by Discharge and the Fall, it would be the Idles. 86-year old Hans Joachim Rodelius, one of the founders of both krautrock and ambient music, almost never makes a record that isn’t terrific, and Drauf und Dran is one of his best in a while: rolling, melancholy, melodic pieces on piano, sounding like spider discovering moonlight. I quite liked Blue Oyster Cult’s comeback, The Symbol Remains, but it literally pales in comparison to the album that almost made my top ten, which is Albert Bouchard’s Re Imaginos. On Re Imaginos, the former BÖC drummer/occasional vocalist/occasional songwriter attempts to reclaim Imaginos, a long- gestating and very deep solo album that was stolen from him and released in significantly compromised form by BÖC in 1988 (it would take a couple of thousand words to tell the ridiculously complex story of Imaginos, and I did so here). Re Imaginos allows Bouchard to revisit, re-draw, and re-snarl his original vision, and it is rather fantastic. It is both far better and far more interesting than The Symbol Remains and the ’88 Imaginos. It sounds like Secret Treaties-era BÖC collaborating with the Dead to make a very, very deep Porcupine Tree album. In other words, man, I wish Radiohead sounded like this. And finally, although it was all recorded a generation ago, Pylon’s Box compiles the entire recorded catalog (and a little more) of one of history’s greatest and most influential Post Punk bands. Nearly forty years later, it still sounds shocking, sweet, gyrating, and fresh, like licking an electric socket while running in place and reading poetry. Because the Pylon sound is more alive today than ever – look no further than the pile of new Russian Post Punk bands carved in their image, not to mention their obvious influence on Dry Cleaning, who made the top of this list – we end this survey by noting the vitality, importance, and pertinence of Pylon. 

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

2 thoughts on “Who Were The Best Artists of 2020?

  • December 31, 2020 at 7:10 pm
    Permalink

    “See, it implies that I think I am better than you“

    No, your smug, condescending tone in, well, every article you write here makes it clear you think that. Nothing implied.

    F*** you and your “edgy” picks. No one cares.

    Reply

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