Who ordered the year of plague and misery? Just as things were getting interesting, musically, many parts of the world were forced to shut down in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shows were postponed, one after the other, and then cancelled or pushed into 2021. Simple Minds came off tour, Heaven 17 called off their special events in the UK, and then other shows fell like dominos: Kraftwerk, Wire, The Art of Noise, Goldfrapp and festivals were forced to reschedule.
There were attempts to move performances from venues to live streams, but even Björk’s planned broadcasts had to be put off when Iceland’s infection rate climbed and staff safety could not be assured. Cryo, Karin My and some other acts managed to get online, but few bands managed to make streaming work both technically and economically.
In the face of this unprecedented crisis, the UK government left culture workers to fend for themselves, while stuffing billions into the pockets of their spouses or friends. They found billions more for weapons, while music venues had to close, record stores were shuttered, and freelancers were left out in the cold. The chaos of Brexit-shambles wasn’t enough: musicians and dancers in the UK were actually told to retrain for FinTech jobs, as if a flood of right-brain creatives into a left-brain industry would somehow improve the situation.
Conspiracy theorists and a Swedish health official decided that the virus wasn’t such a big deal, but it did its damage. We lost some highly respected artists to Covid-19, particularly from the older generation. Carole Chant from The Scratch Orchestra and Resonance FM, the actor Swen Wollter, and Dave Greenfield of The Stranglers all lost their battle with the disease, as did hundreds of thousands of others with lower profiles. It wasn’t inevitable, nor was it accidental, that the virus was able to cause so much harm; it was the result of decades of neoliberal policies that left our societies undefended. The politicians knew of the risks but chose to ignore them.
Music might not matter to politicians – just as pandemic planning got no attention until it was too late – but it is vital for a healthy society to know about itself through song. Music is inherently social, and its abandonment weakens the ties between us. Our bodies are at risk to the virus; but, if we leave culture to the wolves and substitute cannons for hospital beds, the plague will have taken our souls, too.
There has been more than enough work released this year to make choosing our Top 20 list incredibly difficult. In the selection below, we had to pass over excellent work by many new and established artists. To help make up for it, have a listen to our playlist on Spotify!
20. Centre Excuse – Joy Joy Joy
Based on a Ren & Stimpy line, “Joy Joy Joy” signalled Centre Excuse’s musical intention to marry 80s pop and indie. As we noted on its release, “The song has synthetic stylings reminiscent of Propaganda, matched with the drive of Ride.”
The Rutland duo’s first album, Favourite Soul, caught our attention with its barbed hooks. Live, Centre Excuse put out the kind of energy normally seen in solar flares, and their studio work shines with the same intensity.
19. Þórunn Antonía – Flugdreki
If there was one thing that was needed in lockdown, it was the spirit of pure pop. This arrived in the form of a single release from Iceland’s Thorunn Antonia, who unleashed “Flugdreki” [EN: “Kite”] as a statement of personal freedom.
For last year’s “Ofurkona,” she appeared with a child on her breast and a second in the womb – breaking down the walls between her media and domestic roles more effectively than possibly any other artist before or after.
“Flugdreki” arrived at Midsummer. We thought it an “uplifting song of rebirth and independence, which finds the Icelandic chanteuse being lifted to freedom on currents of beauty.”
18. NNHMN – Deception Island
The duo of Lee and Laudarg make dark wave recordings from their base in Berlin. The circling of Odin’s birds is a sure sign that they are at work, and this year saw the ravens in the sky more than once.
NNHMN released two EPs this year: Deception Island, Parts 1 and 2. We chose the second of them to feature in our year-end list, but both took us to the darkest corner of the club with unnervingly cool vocals and icy electronics.
17. Pieces of Juno – Euthymia
The final instalment in Pieces of Juno’s tetralogy, Euthymia, drew from the concept of emotional stability or calm, particularly after swings to extremes.
Juno Jensen’s project has been, in turns, ambient, spiritual and elegant. It has dealt with suicide, passion and self-acceptance. With Euthymia, she brings it to an end on a reflective and sensitive note. As we said of this splendid album, in the first days of lockdown, “Open your third eye and see; open your ears and feel.”
16. FRKTL – Excision After Love Collapses
Sarah Badr’s FRKTL project has consistently provided us with electro-acoustic material to provoke the mind and heart.
Excision After Love Collapses is the first full FRKTL album since Qualia in 2016. The wait has been worth it, as the release features a dozen exceptional tracks encoded with Badr’s creative DNA.
In our review, we felt the pressure of the material deeply:
The claustrophobia of the title track is almost overwhelming. Bowed sounds and scraped percussion, scratched discs and reverb create a sense of psychological pressure usually only experienced at dark sites operated by the East European members of NATO on behalf of Washington.
15. Jean-Marc Lederman Experience – Letters to Gods (and Fallen Angels)
The Belgian composer and biker, Jean-Marc Lederman, gathered a new group of singers into a huddle for one of his themed projects this year. They returned work that answers the question, “If you could write a letter to a god or fallen angel, what would you say?”
Each of the notes from singers as varied as Lis van den Akker and Mark Hockings was personal and unique, but they maintained a high standard. The problem with gods is that they never reply to messages, no matter how well produced.
14. Strikkland – Dance Like a God
From Gothenburg came a new act this year, which finally broke open the boundaries of EBM.
The duo of Henric Ceder and Henrik Johansson, Strikkland, released a number of fine, energetic songs. We chose “Dance Like a God,” because it comes with an excellent video, but their latest single, “La Danse est Finie,” is just as fine.
13. Independent State – Rumspringa
Although Rumspringa is their first full album, Independent State have been on the Swedish scene for a number of years. They have remixed other bands and released some covers, but their first collection of originals has been keenly anticipated.
With Rumspringa, the duo of Khyber Westlund and Arjumand Carlstein have created a collection that combines industrial dance music with solid state pop. The wait has been worth it.
12. Autobahn 86 (feat. Jokey) – National Health Service
With the politics of Test Dept and the beats of Portion Control, “National Health Service” was the most subversive and energetic track tackling the public health crisis. It came with a blisteringly clear message, right in the face of the far-right newspaper columnists who had captured state power just when the nation needed the opposite.
11. Dubstar – Hygiene Strip
Yorkshire’s best export since parkin, Dubstar’s current incarnation is the definitive version of the band. With Chris Wilkie working the instrumentation and Sarah Blackwood evolving her trademark vocal style, the release of One signalled growth.
The singles that have come out since that album have leveraged themes lifted straight from the headlines. “Hygiene Strip” must have been the first video to incorporate the wide use of medical masks into the imagery, but the song was also a solid dose of poptronica.
10. Psyche – Heaven in Pain
From the Baltic coast, Psyche came out with a sensational new track and video this summer. “Heaven in Pain” took an old school electro path that led directly away from the claustrophobia of lockdown.
Fans of Wamdue Project’s original version of “King of My Castle” will appreciate the production style, as will followers of Psyche’s fellow Edmonton exile, Mantronix. The hand of Karl Bartos is clearly evident, too.
“Heaven in Pain” pulls out all the stops with a compressed, gated mix for the deserted dance floors of 2020.
9. Robert Görl & DAF – Ich Denk An Dich
The death of Gabi Delgado, the singer in DAF, came just as Europe was being shut down. It was heart failure, rather than Covid-19, that robbed us of the punk vocalist, but it was no less tragic for that.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Delgado and Robert Görl had struck out on their own with a vision of punk electronics that created a whole new genre. Over Görl’s carefully articulated rhythms and simple, sequenced patterns, Delgado’s voice purred with sensual mystery or growled with masculine energy. His words were provocative and celebrated lust and love – a counterpoint to the gleaming bourgeois dreams of Kraftwerk.
Görl revealed that he and Delgado had been working on material, before unhappy events intervened, and he promised to find a way to continue connecting with fans. Along the way, he provided a recorded tribute to his old friend and punk comrade. Setting the scene, he explained:
Gabi and I had some grand plans. We wanted to make a new DAF album. We were thinking of it being a mix of new tracks created on the fly and a selection of our best hidden gems left over from the 80s. We were really raring to do it. We were certain the album was a done deal. We wanted to finish producing it this summer. I listened to all our old bare-bones from back then again – absolute treasures! Gabi departed this life suddenly, a life he loved so much, and I’ve resolved to produce all of these unheard jewels for DAF and Gabi in spite of it all.
8. Anna Öberg – Varelser inut
An Anna Öberg album is always a surprise.
Her third collection, Varelser inut, fits the pattern by drawing on influences as diverse as Men Without Hats and SPK. It is an addictive and entertaining set that sits head and shoulders above most of the releases we heard this year.
7. Fragile Self – Narcissistic Disturbance
It might seem strange to learn that a reasonable percentage of the people around you are suffering from a personality disturbance so severe that they have no constant sense of self.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder interact with others in order to prop up a false self that they have invented. To mask their internal shame and self-loathing, they might create a false image of themself as talented, beautiful and creative; and their days and nights are then spent trying to get others to support that fantasy. Such is their need for validation that they can be exploitative, deceitful and manipulative to shocking degrees.
The duo of Jonathan Barnbrook and Anil Aykan took this problematic personality structure and the study of it as the cornerstone of their project, Fragile Self. The name is taken from literature on the disorder, but their real focus is on dark electronics and haunting but elegant vocals. There is no cure for NPD, but there is a place for addictive beats and basslines processed through modular synths.
6. Karin Park – Church of Imagination
Karin Park had a daughter and lost her father within a short time frame. Nevertheless, both were able to contribute to her current album, Church of Imagination, which features their voices and the organ of her father on this track, which was co-written with her husband, Kjetil Nernes.
Based on a dream that Park had about her daughter, “Shape of Child” features many of Park’s closest relatives on vocals, as part of the local village choir. It also has an outstanding turn from LaGaylia Frazier. Park calls this her anthem of 2020, and it could be ours, too.
5. Lau Nau – Själö OST
Finland’s Lau Nau has had a prolific year. Besides this soundtrack for Lotta Petronella’s film, Själö, about an island for banished women, she has contributed to Matti Bye’s commission for the film, Tove (which is headed for the Oscars as Finland’s official submission); released a collaboration with Bye; and had a live album come out.
All of this has been great for fans of her experimental music, which is impressed with beauty and space like no other. We brought Lau Nau to London, on a visit that coincided with the UK premiere of Land Without God, another Petronella film scored by her. What it showed is that, with her combination of modular synthesisers, electro-acoustic sounds and ethereal vocals, Lau Nau has a show that fits in a suitcase, can fill a concert hall, expands minds and moves hearts.
4. Linea Aspera – Linea Aspera II
The return of Linea Aspera was one of the highlights of the year. From their storming, ecstatic show in London to the release of their second proper album, the duo of Alison Lewis and Ryan Ambridge created the most genuine excitement in 2020.
Linea Aspera II picks up where the duo left off in 2013, combining synth hooks with Lewis’ striking, expressive vocals. This is the kind of magic that can’t be bottled, and it stood out that the legendary act was able to summon so much creativity after such a hiatus.
It isn’t as though they have been sleeping in the intervening years. Lewis, in particular, has been involved in other bands; and her other main project, Zanias, also put out exceptional material this year. Despite the interruption of live events, which forced them to put off shows at festivals and in Sweden, it has been a bumper year for their fans.
3. Twice a Man – On the Other Side of the Mirror
The Swedish veterans, Twice a Man, have seen a lot in their time. They warmed up for New Order on their first European tour, survived acid house, and watched four decades of lesser acts come and go.
On the Other Side of the Mirror finds Twice a Man feeling less optimistic about current events. The destruction of the natural and social environments weighs on them, and the pace of political change is glacial. The songs made for this album were prepared before the pandemic, but its spread has only made starker the sober visions of crisis they reflect.
2. Rein – Reincarnated
The release of Rein’s first full album was highly anticipated.
On stage, the Queen of EBM had clearly moved beyond the limits of the genre, merging body beats with technopop to create a new, cybernetic style. In the studio, her mechanics had hammered the wrought iron of her bass lines into weapons of mass satisfaction.
The result of studio collaboration with Carli Löf, with input from Priest’s Linton Rubino, some said that Reincarnated was an attempt to break Rein on Swedish radio. If so, it succeeded without compromising the vitality and integrity of the songs.
The resentment of the shouty men was palpable, but tracks like “Bodyhammer” and “Closer to Reality” speak with a different voice. Rein’s story is one of renewal and resurrection, charged with the kind of energy that sparks from Tesla coils. It is impressed into every groove of Reincarnated.
1. Page – Aska / Under mitt skin
Page regularly top our year end lists, but that is because they keep getting better. Every new album refines and focuses their ability to distill the feeling of 1979 electronics into a 3′ 30″ track.
Page have the most uncanny ability to produce maximal poptronica with minimal electronics, and this release is no exception.
A combination of two EPs from 2020, collected on vinyl, Aska / Under mitt skinn demonstrates Eddie Bengtsson’s unrivalled ability to marry the classic Ultravox feel with modern poptronica. Each of the EPs is available in CD format; but, if you are going to channel the 1970s, then vinyl is the way to go.