Ask A Music Critic: Who Has The Best Shot At Being The Defining Artist Of The 2020s?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at

With the end-of-the-decade parade wrapping up, there’s only one way to look now: forward! It seems in hindsight that the major artists of each decade were somewhat predictable at the beginning of each decade (i.e. Radiohead in the 2000s, Beyonce or Kanye in the 2010s) with some exceptions (Frank Ocean in the 2010s). All that being said, which artist or bands do you feel are most primed to take the decade for the 2020s? — Bryant from Lexington, KY

For the sake of conversation, I’m going to accept your premise that the artist or band who comes to dominate a particular decade tends to be obvious from the start. I’m not sure that’s totally true, though it is a fact that several of the most important artists of the 2010s — including Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Adele — were either already dominant or clearly ascending at the end of the aughts. Though, as you mentioned, Frank Ocean, along with Lana Del Rey, unquestionably were the decade’s top indie stars, and nobody saw them coming back in 2009.

In these sorts of conversations, it’s always good to bet on youth, which is why the artist who came immediately to mind is Billie Eilish. When it comes to streaming numbers, the 17-year-old already is absurdly popular, and her debut 2019 album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, will surely go down as one of the year’s flagship releases. Because she’s so young and famous, I would expect her pop-star ride to carry on well into the 2020s, and for her insinuating goth-pop to continue inspiring legions of imitators.

Here’s another educated guess: I would expect that non-American, non-English speaking pop acts will keep on making big in-roads into the American market in the next decade. Which means that an already monster-sized group like BTS seems well-positioned to be a defining act of the ’20s — or it might be one or two members who break away from the group and establish their own thriving solo careers, like Harry Styles or Camila Cabello.

When it comes to indie-rock, I would put my money on Big Thief, who of course have been on a hellacious tear in the past three years without (in my view) maxing out their potential. I really think they could put out their Kid A or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the early 2020s, which would cinch their burgeoning rep as one of the greats. Can’t wait to find out!

I’ve been watching HBO’s Watchmen and I’m really enjoying its soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I heard their score for The Social Network before I listened to any Nine Inch Nails albums in full, so The Downward Spiral and The Fragile have always sounded “cinematic” to me. Were these albums seen that way in the ’90s? Pitchfork famously panned The Fragile when it was released but changed its opinion drastically when reviewing its reissue. Does Reznor’s acclaimed soundtrack work present a different context for today’s listeners to appreciate an album like The Fragile? — Drew from Cincinnati

Before I answer this question, let me just say that I love it when people ask me to talk about what life was like in the ’90s. As if the decade were some distant, unknowable time. To me, 1996 doesn’t seem that long ago. And then I remember that there are recent college graduates who weren’t even born yet when I was in college and listening to The Cardigans. This is some serious olden times business here.

Now, back to your question: I feel like Nine Inch Nails was always fairly well-regarded by critics back then, though generally Reznor was ghettoized as a “surly, scream-y dude in leather pants” type. Meaning that he didn’t get the sort of shine afforded to people like, say, Beck or the Beastie Boys. That started to shift in the early aughts when Johnny Cash put out his famous cover of NIN’s 1994 song “Hurt.” After that, people not inclined to listen to industrial-leaning rock records realized, “hey, this guy is a good songwriter!”

As you mentioned, another shift occurred when Reznor and Ross composed the Oscar-winning score to The Social Network. I wouldn’t be surprised if the score to The Social Network caused many critics who initially dismissed The Fragile to go back and re-evaluate that album’s dense and immaculately constructed soundscapes. What might have seemed at first like an indulgence suddenly seems like an atmospheric masterwork in the context of Reznor’s pivot to film-score work.

You hint at a larger point about how context frequently affects how certain music sounds. In the ’90s, some listeners reflexively rejected Nine Inch Nails because it was music associated with disaffected youth from the middle of the country — the least fashionable bloc of music fans there is. But over time, because of Reznor and Ross’ well-regarded film-score work, those albums now seem, as you say, “cinematic.” I think Nine Inch Nails always was cinematic, and it’s still great music to play loud if you’re a pissed-off teen living in Iowa.

Seemingly the very day I turned 30, I realized that I finally really got Bill Callahan and suddenly had really firm opinions on early Built To Spill. In talking to other new thirtysomethings, it sounds like there’s a definite category of music acts that just hit differently when you hit a certain age. Who would be in your Music For The Formerly Cool Hall of Fame? — David from Boston

This is an interesting question, because I’ve always liked uncool music, even when I was young. I have fond memories of watching VH1 Classic as a grade-schooler, and thinking that “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood was an incredible jam. My lame tastes had nowhere to go but up at that point.

I’m happy to hear that you’re a recent convert to Built To Spill and Bill Callahan. I’m a little older than you, so while those acts seem like “bedrock indie” to me they might as well be “classic rock” to you. For me, the biggest shift in my music tastes after I turned 30 is that I got really into the Grateful Dead, and then Phish, and then jambands in general. When I was growing up, the Dead was like the third rail of music — strictly hippie stuff, and because my friends and I were committed to disliking hippies, that made the Dead a non-starter.

But by the time I was in my early 30s, these prejudices just seemed silly, and I found that I was exhilarated by the history and lore of the Dead, as well as the enormous back catalogue of live recordings. Soon after, I had a similar conversion with Phish. And then I found that listening to jambands made it easier for me to love jazz, which has been another fun genre to explore in the past decade or so.

I don’t know that being older made it easier for me to appreciate that music. But my advanced age did make me less susceptible to groupthink about certain artists or genres. Whereas as a teenager I was much more image-conscious about how what I listened to supposedly reflected back on me. Now, I just listen to whatever gives me the most pleasure, or makes me the most excited about the potential for discovery.

I feel really grateful for this, because in many ways it’s the opposite of what’s supposed to happen. Listeners often become more close-minded as they age, not less. But I’ve found that embracing each new stage of my life, and not worrying about what a particular artist or band might signify about me or my place in life — which is a common, and incredibly myopic, way of listening — has made being a music fan so much more fun.