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2020 in Review: What We Liked in Music

Much like everything else in 2020, music was a little weird. Amazing albums came out bereft of the typical touring cycle and songs got lost under the weight of COVID closures. But despite the hardships we experienced, there were some incredible bright spots in the year.  Bandcamp’s call to support musicians on the first Friday of every month breathed life into the music community, which in turn raised support to worthy causes and communities by independent artists living and working in said communities. And of course, a huge amount of fantastic albums came out.

As usual, instead of a typical “best of” list, we have decided to let the Third Coast Review music team pick their personal favorite albums and we’ve listed them in alphabetical order. These are albums that have stood out in each individual reviewer’s mind as one that should be shared and experienced.

A.G. Cook – 7G
Often known as the Charli XCX collaborator, England-based artist A.G. Cook finally released his first studio album 7G. The 49-track album is as chaotic as it is ambitious, spanning over 2 ½ hours of content filled with many familiar sounds often talked about in the hyper-pop genre. From start to finish, A.G. Cook pushes with repetitive, abstract tracks, but pulls you back in with a Taylor Swift and Smashing Pumpkins cover. An album worth listening to if you enjoyed Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama or Oneohtrix Point Never’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never.
– Brandon Smith

Beach Bunny – Homemoon
It was a good year to be a Beach Bunny fan. At the beginning of 2020, “Prom Queen,” a song from the Chicago band’s EP of the same name, became a TikTok phenomenon. Right before our spring turned sour, Beach Bunny released their debut LP, Homecoming, on Mom + Pop Music. And at Syracuse University, where I am a grad student, the quartet performed at “Juice Jam,” our annual autumn concert –– though it was an entirely digital affair, Beach Bunny’s earnest set was still a source, for me at least, of some much needed Windy City charm. Homecoming is every bit as good as the band’s stellar EPs, and that’s as much credit to the power pop sounds emanating from the band as the undeniable charm of Lili Trifilo, the 24 year frontwoman and songwriter. The New Yorker described her as “a potent lyricist who tends toward despondency” with songs that are “deceptively snackable — each… a two-minute burst of honey-butter melody.” Indeed, Honeymoon flies by at 25 minutes, but like another famous band that uses “beach” in their name, it’s each song’s ability to simultaneously sound infectiously peppy and strangely sad that really drives the whole thing home.
– Matthew Nerber

The first thing one hears on Beach Bunny’s Honeymoon record is a lilting vocal by Lili Trifilio backed up by soft drumming and light guitar/keyboard notes. Moments later, the sound revs up to create fun, frolicking, and totally tight power pop. This sound permeates this first full-length release on the Mom + Pop Music label. Every song features catchy melodies, inquisitive lyrics, and tight performances. Most are revved up, but a couple, such as “April” and “Rearview” offer a gentler side. It is very reminiscent of female led Brit pop bands the Primitives and Darling Buds. It’s catchy, clever, energetic—everything one could want from this type of music.
– Louis Harris

Bully – Sugaregg
Bully’s third studio album Sugaregg is the closest I think we’ll ever get to the reincarnation of 90s rockers Hole. Consumers and critics often make lofty examples like this when it comes to an up-and-coming artist, but Alicia Bognanno’s loud and sensational lyrics will consume you and have you wanting more and more. Sugaregg had all the makings to deliver a mind-blowing live performance. Hopefully I’ll get to see Bully sooner rather than later.
– Brandon Smith

Cold Gawd – The Creative Pursuits of Me and You
Chicago-based artist Cold Gawd’s The Creative Pursuits of Me and You leans into all the best aspects of shoegaze. For a genre that’s always going through some sort of variation or revival, you can define that for yourself. Cold Gawd’s debut is full of eerie but dreamy riffs often backed by the crash of the loudest drums. A project that can be seen as homage to Nothing or A.R. Kane. I keep coming back to this album to fulfill my shoegaze needs.
– Brandon Smith

Luke Combs – What You See Ain’t Always What You Get
In 2019, Luke Combs debuted his sophomore album, What You See Is What You Get, with 17 full tracks. Shortly after, it rose to platinum status, topping many charts. Combs then became the first country artist to have his first eight singles go to the top of the Billboard country airplay charts, ever. Giddying his growing and substantial fan base, Combs created What You See Ain’t Always What You Get as a deluxe version to his sophomore album, adding five new songs to the original 17.
Listeners are greeted with an honest message of who Combs is along with his roots. Tracks such as “My Kinda Folk” and “Blue Collar Boys” make sure to remind you of his humble-nature and roots as a musician. If storytelling is your forte, “Even Though I’m Leaving” and “Better Together” pull on the heartstrings, focusing on the meaning of love and intimate relationships with a father and then one’s significant other.
Sure, you’ll see your fair share of songs about beer. What country artist doesn’t reference that? However, there’s something special about Luke Combs. At age 30, he’s proved a hot success, appearing like a man who is as real as he sings and writes. The sky is the limit for his future career, and this album propels him onward and upward.
– Michael Kocourek

Jeremy Cunningham – The Weather Up There
The album begins by sharing it’s devastating framing device: recorded phone calls of friends and family recounting memories and the lasting effects of Andrew Cunningham’s murder. Jeremy Cunningham lost his younger brother in 2008 and every emotion you could bare to think of resulting from that terrible day is present in The Weather Up There. Mixing gentle and somber jazz competitions with more energetic and almost joyful ones, Cunningham is able to maneuver through this tragedy with poise. Accompanied by an amazing collection of collaborating like Tomeka Reid, Makaya McCraven, and more, Cunningham has crafted a heartbreaking, yet beautiful and vibrant album that has a lasting effect on anyone who gives it a listen.
– Julian Ramirez

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist – Alfredo
Rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer The Alchemist previously worked on an album together with fellow rapper Curren$y on Fetti, but Alfredo is a peak performance in the careers of both artists. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Gibbs pays homage to regional NBA team the Chicago Bulls with album opener 1985 and Scottie Beam. Alchemist perfects his old school production, each song containing a sample that transcends time itself, delivering a performance that earned them both a 2021 Grammy Nomination.
– Brandon Smith

Sondre Lerche – Patience
Jon Pareles, a pop-music critic at the New York Times, said in a recent end of the year piece that in the past “albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.” Tell that to Sondre Lerche, I say, the Norweigan singer-songwriter whose latest release, Patience, is not only built like an album, that is to say sequenced in a way that is meant to be listened to from start to finish, but relies on the very idea of such sequence to build out the artist’s larger narrative. It’s funny, then, that the very name of the album, “patience,” is exactly what is required of listeners in order to see the big picture here: an album that both contains a singular vision, but also stands in direct conversation with Lerche’s previous work; most notably the three record arc he seems to be completing here, starting with 2014’s Please and continuing on 2017’s Pleasure. Those records quietly exploded the singer-songwriter’s playbook, which, up to that point, had been an alluring mix of 60’s inspired pop and genre swapping swagger –– everything from bossa nova and jazz to punk and electronica was used like a costume to clothe Lerche’s introspective and forlorn poetry. If Please was a record of melancholic acceptance, and Pleasure a deliriously bacchanal descent, then Patience is the artist baldly facing that nostalgia and immediacy in equal measure; in other words, Lerche finally seems to be having the time of his life.
– Matthew Nerber

V.V. Lightbody – Make a Shrine or Burn it
Make a Shrine or Burn It feels like the most fully realized album of the year from it’s expectation subverting opening track to it’s final, gut punch note. So confident in it’s presentation and purpose, Make a Shrine or Burn It leads you down the path of Vivian McConnell’s pitch perfect point of view in such an exhilarating way. Whether it’s through the gentleness of “BYOB” or the down right explosive “Car Alarm”. And let’s not forget McConnell’s incredible guitar work throughout, digging it’s way into your brain with sharp precision.  (Also, if you’re a vinyl record buyer, this is one to get as it sounds phenomenal and comes with a lyric book with hilarious/informative album notes.)
– Julian Ramirez

Melkbelly – Pith
In 2015, Leor Galil at the Reader called Melkbelly “Chicago’s best cross between the Breeders and Lightning Bolt.” Five years later, the comparison still holds up on Pith: the sludgy guitars and feedback, the chaos-drums and heavy bass. Noise-pop is another frequent band descriptor. But the contradictions between noise and pop always feel cohesive. Every track on this record stands out in its own way. The speed-up/slow-down tempo of “Sickeningly Teeth,” sadistically melting away at the end. The repetition in “Kissing Under Some Bats” continues for so long you don’t know if the record has been skipping for the last minute until a few subtle changes in the drums come in. The section bangs on for nearly five minutes, all of it pure noise glory. And then to be followed by the most straightforward rock song on the record “Season of the Goose?” Incredible. I’m still trying to figure out the timing in “Mr. Coda” but that’s also part of the fun of it. Lyrically, the album explores grief after the death of a friend, getting into rock fights, (“Stone Your Friends” which threatens to go full thrash metal before dropping into a more stoned out jam), and unexpectedly morbid fairy tales (as singer Miranda Winters told Bandcamp). All that’s to say is that there is a lot happening on this record – while I won’t be able to come up with better Breeders/Lightning Bolt/noise-pop comparisons, there’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the ear.
– Andrew Hertzberger

Bob Moses – Falling into Focus (Live 2020)
Seeing Bob Moses live three times, I have an unfair advantage with expectations for what Falling into Focus could’ve produced. What makes this unlike anything I’ve seen is the setting in which they recorded this live performance: at the top of an abandoned radio tower just outside of Los Angeles, California. The 70-minute live recording nearly sets a standard for live-stream concert content ran by Director Owen Brown.
Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance envisioned themselves going to clubs and festival stages for most of 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, plans undoubtedly changed for the two – most importantly, the whole industry. “We wanted to create a moment to share music and the community around it,” they said.
The album is a precise selection of songs from their albums, Desire, Battle Lines, and Days Gone By, starting with the sun up and finishing in the night’s darkness. Songs have beautiful endings and interludes leading into each other, such as the pinnacle songs “Talk” and “Never Back Down.” Listening to the recording won’t do justice to the live footage, so be sure to give it a full watch here!
– Michael Kocourek

OHMME – Fantasize Your Ghost
I don’t think I’ve listened to an album more in 2020 than Fantasize Your Ghost. OHMME, the duo of Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, have been making some of my favorite music in recent years and this latest release is another fantastic surge in their talents. It feels like with every passing album, Cunningham and Stewart meet the potential shown by their previous release, setting up even greater goals for the next. The duo really stretch their sound out, giving listener some expected noise in “Selling Candy”, going even deeper with it in the improvisational “Sturgeon Moon”, before relaxing into one of the most serene songs of the year, “After All”. Fantasize Your Ghost is OHMME at their most diverse, thoughtful, and impressive; making the desire for their next album all the stronger.
Julian Ramirez

Ono – Red Summer
With every release, Ono continues to get more and more radical. Red Summer is no exception. Reading the lyrics of this album is like an American History course in high school kids should be getting – but no doubt aren’t. The opening track “August 20, 1619” draws a straight line from when slaves were first brought to the land that we know as the United States, until 300 years later and the Red Summer of the albums name in 1919. The funky “I Dream of Sodomy,” a longtime live favorite, finally (finally!) gets the album treatment. travis has been very vocal regarding his personal traumas – most notably sexual abuse and racism experienced during his time in the navy (read more about Ono founders travis and P. Michael’s history here). In this way, travis connects his personal traumas to that experienced by those of his Black and indigenous roots. “Syphilis” exposes the Tuskegee Experiments, and names all U.S. Presidents from 1932 – 1972, Woodrow Wilson through Richard M. Nixon, who were complicit in their support of these deceitful, inhuman experiments.
While most of the pieces on this album had been written over the past five years, it feels only appropriate to be released in 2020 where calls for defunding the police and prison abolition have made it into the (relative) mainstream, the next step in dismantling white supremacy and this country’s racist practices of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ono is demanding; from the intensity of the lyrics, to the sonic explorations of the music and noise. This is not a passive record – it is active in every sense of the word. And it gets better with each listen.
– Andrew Hertzberger

The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened just weeks before The Strokes were set to release their debut LP Is This It in the US –– as the city reeled, the band delayed the record, and one song, New York City Cops, a punky critique of the Big Apple’s finest was cut (it was released on the UK pressing, which also, for what it’s worth, sported a much better cover). Over the next two decades the country would heal (…sort of) and The Strokes would become an indie darling, though never quite the rock and roll saviors once predicted by the press. From a disappointing sophomore outing, to some moderately exciting later aughts releases, the band remained fan favorites, but zig-zagged from active to obscure, with plenty of festival appearances in between. That’s why 2020’s The New Abnormal feels like the proper follow-up to that first album, for reasons including, but not limited to, its release into a tumultuous world. Back in full force are Julian Casablanca’s angsty musings and Albert Hammond Jr’s sweetly-sour licks –– though decidedly absent is the barroom nostalgia of their “Someday” era songs. Instead, Casablanca and co. have crafted some truly mature pop tunes that not only contain their signature fuzz-rock sound but sparkle with the wisdom of hindsight. Whether on the 80’s flavored “Bad Decisions” (my nominee for the song of a summer that never happened) or the mournful minor-chords of “I’m Not the Same Anymore,” it’s clear that the band was in touch with something prevalent in our country even before the pandemic: indecisiveness, and the familiar ache of the persistent unknown.
– Matthew Nerber

Tenci – My Heart is an Open Field
Tenci’s My Heart is an Open Field at first glance sounds unassuming. Gentle folk that feels warm and inviting. However it becomes incredibly clear that Jess Shoman’s voice, both sonically and lyrically, is the clear star of the album and what set’s it apart from everything else. Shoman jumps from tender almost whispered introspection to boisterous near yodeling that does nothing but intrigue me all the more. “Joy” in particular showcases’ Shoman’s intricate cadence and ability to draw you in with a sound so special and unique you’d swear is the only thing you’d want to listen to for days.
Julian Ramirez

Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Heaven to a Tortured Mind seems to be Yves Tumor’s “Bowie” album. Artist born Sean Bowie dropped their fourth studio album, full of influences that will lead many to call it genre-bending, but it’s truly an intriguing experimental album. An album that was highly praised, but likely more so if someone like Harry Styles put this out. Every Yves Tumor album embodies a vibe of someone who is constantly putting 200% into their craft, and like many artists, their time to shine might be overshadowed by the pandemic.
– Brandon Smith

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