Rum Music: The Best Of 2020

Jennifer Lucy Allan reflects and gives thanks for a load of really good music and rounds up her favourite Rum Music releases for 2020

Harry Pussy

It is December 2020 and I am here to celebrate. Counter to expectations and against all odds THE ZONE REMAINS INTACT. Just being able to continue is a gift, and there have been so many losses this year, so while grieving for those no longer here, my end of year mood is one of reflection and gratitude. I salute all those making sound and music in these unpredictable times and give thanks for the fact that I am still able to write about music, because there were a fuck ton of brilliant records released in 2020.

This year there were albums I loved and connected with, ones I played over and over, ones that lifted and ones that enlightened. Whole new labels and series sprung up, and these regular drops lent structure and colour to the endless weeks and days spent in the same few rooms away from friends and family. The best of these have been Boomkat’s Documenting Sound series, and Amplify 2020, along with Café Oto’s prolific TakuRoku label that dropped a triplet of releases almost without fail every week. There is much here still to discover, and I fail to believe anyone managed to keep up, but the releases that cut through for me were Heather Leigh (see below), Time Cow on Documenting Sound, Keith Rowe’s stuff for Amplify 2020, and Cath & Phil Tyler on Taku Roku.

On the live front the speed of the shift to online events was truly remarkable. However, I never felt like these were really scratching an itch, aside from the inspired Animal Crossing shows by Lil’ Jurg Frey. I have begun to fantasise about sweaty basement clubs, uptight improv sets, and dancing. Oh, how I yearn for the sweaty arm of a stranger to rub against mine without consent in a darkened, juddering room without obvious fire exits. Whoever knew the sweat of a gurner would be something I craved? Saying this, although most of the live streams I watched felt like a necessary compromise, I want to give a special hats tip to Tusk 2020, whose epic online programme I took to just dropping into, as if it was a local bar full of friends, but one with the Arkestra playing.

In 2020 I regularly splurged on dub and lover’s rock from Honest Jons, did a spate of new fanzine buying, and in the evenings had lucky dips into catalogues documenting the most obscure records anyone has ever found. Music also sent me towards poetry this year. No longer travelling meant there was space cleared in my brain where the c2c train timetable used to be, and I found I could think about the dance of language again. Silvia Tarozzi showed me the way to Alda Merini (“I sample sin as if it were/the beginning of well-being”); the reissue of Sufi Hispano​-​Pakistani by Aziz Balouch prompted me to hunt out some Sufi poetry; Bunita Marcus’s ‘Lecture for Jo Kondo’ contained startling lines by the artist and visual poet Nico Vassilakis, who wrote an accidental refrain for 2020 and the pre-vaccine 2021 to come:

"It’s about sitting in a room

and getting comfortable with yourself"

Sun Araw – Rock Sutra

(Sun Ark)

I maintain that Sun Araw never does duds. I sometimes worry that people have relegated Stallones to their hypnagogic pasts. If this is true and you moved on when the trend faded, you’re missing a trick, because he’s making the most joyful and weirdly futuristic MIDI jams this side of Saturn. This year’s Rock Sutra was a particular high point in his catalogue for me. It is my favourite record of the year because whenever I put it on its boingy, bendy oddball jams have the unfailing ability to make me feel happy. I said it “comes off like a shreds that accidentally went too well and they invented a new sub-genre by accident”, and I’m hoping for more from this sub-genre next year.

Harry Pussy – Superstar
(Harry Pussy Bandcamp)

I love Harry Pussy, they are one of the greatest bands ever. When this 7” was released I set up a temporary emergency co-op with two mates to make the shipping affordable, and it just arrived so I feel like it’s been released all over again. A collection of 15 feral half-songs recorded in 1993-ish, all spikes and squalls and twangs and the agitation and energy that makes Harry Pussy better than everyone else – I’m talking quick cuts between fury and space; the swing from heavy grooves to pure bloody guts playing. I said back in September and I’ll say it again – this is totally life-affirming and completely fucking brilliant. 

Beatrice Dillon – Workaround

End of year lists may have forgotten the architectural delights of Beatrice Dillon’s Workaround from back in February, because the pandemic arrived a month after it was released and life before Covid is just a fog at this point. I’m here to remind you not just that this record is one of the most forward-thinking electronic music records of recent years, but that its structures – its shapes and absences – are as pleasing as box fresh white trainers. I said when I reviewed it (too early and over-excited) that there was a sort of minimalism at work, but not one without soul. I got giddy listening to the space this record happens in, and how the sounds move inside that space. The cast of contributors include tabla player and bhangra pioneer Kuljit Bhamra, as well as Laurel Halo, Batu, Untold, Pharaoh Sanders’ guitarist Jonny Lam, griot musician Kadialy Kouyaté, cellist Lucy Railton, a bit from Verity Susman – a stellar cast.

Gavsborg – Jamaican Drum Machine

(Equiknoxx Music)

There were some proper bangers from the Equiknoxx crew this year, the weirdly empty and totally magnetic ‘Elephant Man’ by Time Cow & RTKal and Shanique Mari’s massive tune ‘Freak’. This Gavsborg was one I went back to because I found myself whistling one of its scatterbomb melodies in the shower, and then I basically didn’t turn it off for weeks. Its choppy productions are something else, digital dancehall made by a Burroughs cut-up technique. Even considered within the rest of the genre-pushing Equiknoxx crew it’s a wild ride. It opens with divebombing synths and cracked beats locked to an elastic bass, for ‘Julie Mango Appreciation Tweet’. Most of all, I adored the scramble and swing of ‘Please Forgive Me For Sampling Shanique’s Song’, with a hook like a skipping CD, it was my most listened to track of the entire year. Gavsborg, thank you.

Los Jaivas – Los Jaivas


One of the major rabbit holes I went down in 2020 was Latin American psychedelic music – I packed moving boxes to Traffic Sound, cooked to Kaleidoscope, and gardened to El Polen – but this reissue of the debut 1971 album by Chilean folk/psych/rock band Los Jaivas didn’t come off the stereo for weeks. They’re now a well-known rock band in Chile, and still tour, but this is their first record – a revolutionary album of traditional South American instruments (like the trutruca type of trumpet) with guitars, drums, vocals. Back in summer I wrote that “Each song feels like a suite, from the raw piano and traditional singing on foot-stomping opener ‘Cacho’ to the ringing of church bells on ‘Foto de Primera Comunion’. ‘Tamborcito De Milagro’ is deep South American psychedelia; ‘Foto de Primera Comunion’ is even deeper”. I also maintain my challenge to the authority of, who are wrong to say it is "good, but not essential". This judgement is completely inaccurate, Los Jaivas is completely essential.

Here’s the Bandcamp link, which doesn’t have streaming.

Aziz Balouch – Sufi Hispano​-​Pakistani

(Death Is Not The End)

As I get older and (supposedly) more world-weary, there is less that genuinely takes me by surprise, which I can truly say sounds like nothing else I’ve heard before. This record, which was recorded in Spain, was just that. Pakistani-born Aziz Balouch was unearthed from total obscurity by Death Is Not The End, and his fusion of Sufi and flamenco completely knocked me for six. This might be because flamenco is a total blind spot for me, but his vocal is like a cupid’s arrow, getting me right in the heart. Balouch recorded this fusion in the early 1960s, merging Sufi poetry in Persian, Sindhi, Hindi and Arabic with various forms of Andalusian song in Spanish. It’s absolutely astonishing – deeply lyrical, while being painfully raw and exposed.

Tori Kudo – The Last Song Of My Life
(An’ Archives)

I just love an amateur orchestra, and have loved them ever since I first heard Kudo’s Maher Halal Shash Baz many years ago. The idea that you could play as a band, together, with so much feeling and so little virtuosity – that you could embrace and enjoy the so-called imperfections, was a proposition that opened brand new possibilities for my understanding and enjoyment of music. I still adore the personality and character of Kudo’s Maher Halal Shash Baz, instantly recognisable with a palpable joy always audible. Kudo has been uploading all manner of music to his own Bandcamp recently, but this creaking, lolloping composition foretold the pandemic mood and felt like his magnum opus. In its yearning and fragility it contained the feeling of isolation, of fragility, and of making things work, and most of all it contained hope.

Special side note that a close second in this general field for 2020 was Bison’s Bill Wells album (it was the Bill Wells & Maher Shalal Hash Baz record that first brought both of them to my attention).

Heather Leigh – Glory Days
(Documenting Sound)

Full disclosure: I spend a lot of time in Heather’s cupboard and in her garden. I usually take a trip to Glasgow in May when springtime is beginning to awaken both the city and her garden, but I wasn’t able to do that this year and Glory Days became its substitute.

Being trapped in one place meant I noticed the space and places of the music I listened to more acutely than ever before – whether that was in their literal environments or production spaces – and Leigh really works these angles. Glory Days was a journey, a sketchbook suite that contained the sound of garden delights – birds and stillness, with the hum of traffic – along with intimate domestic moments, the great expanse of late nights at home with little to do, and what tQ review said sounded like “a cobwebbed cellar in which pumped men once danced and fucked”.

Svitlana Nianio & Oleksandr Yurchenko – Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy

(Night School)

Unearthed from the Kiev underground, this collaboration between Svitlana Nianio & Oleksandr Yurchenko is part Flaming Tunes, part Księżyc. Nainio reassembles Ukrainian folk music and Yurchenko accompanies on anxious hammered dulcimer, Casios, rattles, organs and strings. It’s so ethereal, completely mesmerising – the sort of record I know I’ll put on in ten years time and be blown away all over again.

No matter how much I’ve played it this year it sounds just as magical as the first time I heard it. If you can still find copies of this, it was also the most affordable new LP of 2020.

Toho Sara – 東方沙羅 Toho Sara
(Black Editions)

There is no possible world where I left this out of my end of year lists – a reissue of a 1990s album of some of PSF’s A-team jamming on ancient and traditional instruments. I love the misuse of some of these instruments, whose otherwise delicate sounds are reimagined in these heavy and haunting vignettes. For all the usual intensity of music by Makoto Kawabata and Asahito Nanjo, Toho Sara is different, containing dynamics of light and dark, meditation and release. Some of it sounds like the sort of lo-fi spooky music you’d expect as the soundtrack to a psychedelic 70s Japanese horror movie like Hausu, at other moments any delicacy goes up in flames, in roaring breakdowns. ‘Eastern Most 7’ is my favourite, it ploughs circles around a percussion clatter to guttural drum, the loop walked by a reed drone that bores slowly into your skull. Brilliant.


At the end of every column I have a little extra thing here, maybe a repress, a video, an aside. Does anyone read it and like it? If you do and want it to stay, please bob me a tweet. If none are forthcoming, AOB goes in the bin.

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