Part II of Local Spins’ spotlight on 2020’s best releases — from Lianne La Havas to Fontaines D.C. to Tame Impala to Fiona Apple — focuses on music selected by West Michigan musicians and website readers.
Last weekend, Local Spins revealed its critics’ picks for the best music of 2020.
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Today, for Part II of our annual spotlight on the best releases of the year, we turn our attention to outstanding 2020 music as selected by West Michigan musicians and Local Spins readers.
As always, this roster of favorites differs considerably from artists chosen by our team of writers, giving you even more recordings to investigate and embrace, including everything from Lianne La Havas and Tame Impala to Tigran Hamasyan and Fontaines D.C. to Cameron Blake and Greta Van Fleet. Check ’em out here, along with audio/video samples of some of their top picks.
And if you have your own choices for stellar music we may have overlooked, list them in the comments section below.
THE MUSICIANS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2020
DUTCHER SNEDEKER (Earth Radio, Blushing Monk)
1. Tigran Hamasyan, “The Call Within” – This is the long-awaited follow-up to Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s last trio album, “Mockroot,” which came out five years ago. Boy, did this album deliver and exceed on all expectations. It’s got interesting musical ideas for the music nerds to dissect, beautiful melodies pulled from Tigran’s heritage and love of folk music, and the expert musicianship of Tigran, bassist Evan Marien and drummer Arthur Hnatek. Pair all of this with some interesting guests, from progressive metal guitarist Tosin Abasi to a children’s choir, and you have a rich tapestry of sounds and artistry to enjoy. He also tirelessly champions the Armenian people through his music, often bringing awareness to past and present issues these people face in songs. It’s so astounding that this man can so effortlessly pair virtuosic musicianship with intimate melodic moments for the tastiest of ear candy. The frenetic and ethereal dance happily in every nook and cranny on this record, and I never get tired of revisiting it for inspiration.
Listen/Watch: “Levitations 21”
2. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jyoti, “Mama, You Can Bet!” — Georgia Anne Muldrow is no secret to the artistic communities that follow her work, but her name has often gone under the radar in spite of her tireless output as a multi-instrumentalist, singer, rapper, and producer. She breathes life into her creations with such a unique presence, gathering together the stories of her ancestors and the historic struggles of her people to educate as much as she entertains. This record in particular is released under the name famed jazz artist Alice Coltrane gave her, “Jyoti,” meaning “divine light.” Each track is entirely produced and recorded by her, resulting in a soulful, psychedelic, eclectic jazz-fueled record that showcases her vocal and instrumental talents alongside her keen production ears and affinity for interesting samples to interact with as a performer. There is such a strong spirit to this record, delighting in all manners of expression without sacrificing a second of songwriting potential. Hopefully now that she’s been signed to Brainfeeder in recent years, her music will continue to reach more listeners, especially with the connecting thread of Alice Coltrane shared between her and label owner, Flying Lotus.
Listen/Watch: “Ancestral Duckets”
3. Lianne La Havas, “Lianne La Havas” — This self-titled record is not her first album. However, this record perfectly captures why you can’t just help but fall in love with this artist. She oozes emotion in every note sung with her warm, syrupy voice and cradles your attention in every song she performs. This record has several gems that showcase her talents, but one of the surprises and highlights comes from a truly unique and wonderful cover of Radiohead’s tune, “Weird Fishes,” a tune that they perform so well I forgot it was a cover the first time I listened to it. This artist deserves your love and attention, as she radiates joy in everything she interacts with in the world.
Listen/Watch: “Weird Fishes”
4. Genevieve Artadi, “Dizzy Strange Summer” — Another fantastic addition to the Brainfeeder roster is Genevieve Artadi, a wonderful vocalist and arranger who frequently works with some of my favorite artists like Louis Cole and Pedro Martins. She continues to be so inventive and personal with her artistry, blending all manner of genres, electronic and acoustic sounds with different vocal textures to craft these awesome listening moments. There is such a strong aesthetic to her artistry beyond the notes that continues to captivate me as a listener, from her delight in all manner of clothing, hair styles and color schemes to really complement the record. I’ve often said that if she ever wanted to program music in Michigan with a large ensemble like she does in Europe, I would be the loudest person in the room trying to make this happen and coordinate the band. She’s truly a delight to explore through her creative voice.
Listen/Watch: “I Hate When I Can’t Feel My Heart”
5. Butcher Brown, “#KingButch” — Butcher Brown put out one of the best feeling records this year for me. It’s a beautiful smorgasbord of hip hop, soul, funk and nostalgia all thrown into one of the tightest bands out there right now. Each tune feels like it should have come from a different band, but with DJ Harrison flexing his production chops to fit the tune and Marcus Tenney alternating between trumpet, saxophone and rapping, you start to understand why this band has gained so much ground in the last couple of years. Every member is so solid on their instrument and flexible in their sound that you can toss anything their way and they can fold it into the #KingButch ecosystem.
Listen/Watch: “Tidal Wave”
Honorable Mentions: “It Is What It Is” by Thundercat, “Saturday Morning” by Carrtoons, “Light and Shadow” by Nate Smith, “Golden Light” by Amber Navran & Erin Bentlage, “106” by Jacob Mann, “Something to Say” by Cory Henry, “Toxic Wasteland 2: The Hills” by MonoNeon, “Sweet Side A” by Raquel Rodriguez, “SHEESH” by Mxxwll, “Djesse Vol. 3” by Jacob Collier, “Mordechai” by Khruangbin, “Sleep On The Wing” by Bibio, “Nope, science” by Logan Kane, “Open Eyes The Boy Phoenix” by Open Eyes The Boy Phoenix, “Night Time Head Crunch” by Henry Solomon, “Cumplicidade” by Michael Pipquinha/Pedro Martins, “Everlasting” by Son of James/Rob Milton/DJ Harrison, “Planet Smoogies” by The Smoogies (ft. Nicholas Payton), “Tape Ends” by The Steve McQueens
BEST LOCAL/REGIONAL ALBUM: Troy Ceasar, “PhonoGraphic” – For me, I think the surprise of finding out about such a skilled producer so late into my 28 years on Earth like Troy Ceasar is what motivated me to pick him. His album “PhonoGraphic” is such a pleasing album to listen to because it blends masterful track arranging with an expert ear for production. Yes, plenty of friends have put out records this year, and I applaud anyone who has put out an album in the shock to the planet that was 2020, but what I enjoy about his record is that it reminds me of the history of this area and how much I can still discover. That and the fact that once you start the record, it’s hard to pause it at any point in the 25 minute listening experience.
STEPHEN ALDRICH (Dangerville, Q&L)
Since Phoebe, Haim, and RTJ4 are likely to be on just about everybody’s list (and well should be), here’s five that might have slipped by …
1. Fontaines D.C., “A Hero’s Death” – How do you quickly follow up one of the greatest debut albums ever? Answer, go to L.A. and get in the studio with a big-time Foo Fighters producer. This idea barely got off the ground before it was nixed, and thankfully, they returned home and simply carried on where they left off. The Irish poetry punks sound even more confident this time out, getting more adventurous without diluting the formula.
Listen/Watch: “A Hero’s Death”
2. Slow Pulp, “Moveys” – Beautiful debut from this Wisconsin quartet, now based in Chicago. “Moveys” is a quiet, but very self-assured album, a hazy soundscape that suggests shoegaze minus the noise. Fans of Big Thief, Mazzy Star, Slowdive, etc., would do well to take note.
3. Porridge Radio, “Every Bad” – When first encountering this, you might think it was UK Post-Punk from 1979, or US grrrl grunge from the 90’s. The Mercury Music Prize nominated 2nd album from this Brixton outfit shows impressive growth, Dana Margolin’s lyrics among the most pointed anywhere.
4. bdrmm, “Bedroom” – Band and album named for the space this was created in beginning 5 years back by a teenager in Hull, the debut from bdrmm, now a quintet, is a shoegazing classic, as good as you’ll ever hear by anyone in the genre.
5. Laura Marling, “Song For Our Daughter” – While Marling has ruled the British folk scene for over a decade, her albums have seemed more impressive than likeable. This, her 7th, changes that, and the feel is less English, and more Ladies Of The Canyon, Joni’s influence is clear here.
PATTY PERSHAYLA (Patty PerShayla & The Mayhaps)
1. Lianne La Havas, “Lianne La Havas” – This was the most anticipated release for me this year, as it had been five years since Lianne La Havas released a full-length album. The arrangements build and transition these songs masterfully, but no emotion is lost when you take away everything but La Havas and her guitar. You can’t help but feel what she’s feeling, whether barely whispering lyrics on “Paper Thin” or stopping everything to belt out “Bittersweet.”
2. Khruangbin & Leon Bridges, “Texas Sun” – While I have no gripe with instrumental music, I had often wondered what Khruangbin’s music would sound like with a vocalist directing the groove. Leon Bridges has one of the most compelling voices out there, and the power trio backing him up takes the listener on a journey, in a year when a musical escape was especially welcome.
3. HAIM, “Women In Music Pt. III” – There is something magical about sibling harmonies, and HAIM really know how to emphasize that in a sonic dreamscape. To me, this feels like a snapshot of summer in the ’90s and makes me want to bust out my Sheryl Crow listening party denim. Let’s feel our feelings and get a little rowdy, maybe break something?
4. Taylor Swift, “folklore” – This is the Taylor Swift record I have been waiting for. New collaborations with Bon Iver and The National brought out some of Swift’s best instincts as a songwriter and vocalist. It seems like stripping away the promotional and commercial factors of this release allowed her to explore the stories and ballads that won me over years ago. It also proved entertaining to watch the cynics admit they did not hate the experience. Most surprising track: “mirrorball.”
5. The Wood Brothers, “Kingdom in My Mind” – I am a sucker for an upright bass and some tight sibling harmonies. This record has a good mix of folky feel-good songs and twangy rock grooves. The closest you can get to attending an actual live concert this year.
BEST LOCAL ALBUM: Cameron Blake, “Censor the Silence” – There remains a thriving music scene in Michigan, and though many fine albums were recorded and released this year, none made me tear up (“Honey Step out of the Rain”) or got my boots on the pavement for some activism (“How Dare You”) like “Censor the Silence.” This record comes in strong with “Henny Penny,” featuring the talents of Debra Perry & Majestic Praise, and moves through many vignettes and genres before landing gently at “Gillian.”
JAKEY THOMAS (Distant Stars)
1. Tame Impala, “The Slow Rush” – This is my No. 1 most listened to album of 2020. Tame Impala has been one of my faves for many years, and this album was a great sonic evolution without losing the essence of what makes Tame Impala. Kevin Parker is the master of creating modern psych-pop with the perfect amount of “Boomer sensibilities” (as quoted by my good friend Andy Fettig). It’s got like, Supertramp/Todd Rundgren vibes mixed with tons of ’90s R&B elements. This album sees Kevin using way more aux percussion then ever before, creating lots of great danceable grooves. The lyrics focus on getting older and the passage of time, perfect soundtrack for my 29th year on earth during a tumultuous phase of humanity. I love listening to this album very loudly, singing along and dancing my ass off.
2. Distant Stars, “Key Bops” – What can I say? It’s my freakin’ band’s freakin’ album! Definitely not about to talk us up like a cocky douche, but I will say we wouldn’t put out stuff I didn’t like!
3. The Marsupials, “Do The Trick” – Half of the Marsupials (Tai Drury and Al Riesenbeck) are my bandmates in Distant Stars, and another Marsupial, Jimmy Olson, plays with us live and in-studio all the time, so I may be biased, but this record rocks. Tracked 100-percent analog, and mixed by my other bandmate Andy Fettig, this record really manages to sound old and new, and is great record to turn up loud (which I love to do). The Marsupials are all insanely good musicians and the album is filled with so much funky sauce, you cannot NOT have a stank-face for the duration. For fans of hard-hitting classic rock riffage, festival-ready jam-band funk and reflective, philosophical lyrics.
4. Pissbaby, “Pissbaby” – Women are the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and my friend Holly August really brings it on this album. Packed with slamming drums, chunky distorted bass and guitars, and fuzzed-out vocals, it sounds like Nirvana and The Dead Weather had a baby. Holly is a fantastic songwriter and has a real knack for catchy melodies and relatable lyrics, which are iconically delivered by her powerhouse voice. Light up a cig, day drink, tell your ex to F off and turn this record up.
5. Clown Core, “Van” – Clown Core is an absolutely wild act. Super noisy electronic djent funk meets jazz fusion. This album (recorded in a van) is best accompanied by the videos which feature two men in clown masks — one on drums and keyboards (after about 30 seconds of watching I could tell it was funk-god Louis Cole), and the other on saxophone and keyboards — performing while being driven around by ome hostage-looking MFer in a ski mask. The music and videos incorporate very deeply absurd humor and bizarre performance art. Totally wild and entertaining stuff, but totally NSFW.
6. Gorillaz, “Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez” – I loved the concept of this project so much: follow a playlist and new songs were created and added over time. This collection of singles eventually morphed into an album which is full of catchy and fun tracks and features an absolutely stacked group of collaborators including Sir Elton John, Beck, Robert Smith, St. Vincent, and so many more. This album gives fans plenty to do- 17 tracks and about 7-8 videos so far- making it the perfect COVID companion.
7. 100 Gecs, “hand crushed by a mallet” (remix) [feat. Fall Out Boy, Craig Owens, and Nicole Dollanganger] – 100 Gecs is not for the faint of heart (or anyone really). They slam a million genres together and pump it all through distorted Autotune and meme-like absurdity. This song is a remix of a song from their album 1000 Gecs which begins with the iconic emo vocals of Fall Out Boy, passes through a super screamo-esque buildup before taking a left turn and dropping into a electronic rave. Gives me all that 2000s pop-punk/emo nostalgia while also giving me noisy hyperpop to piss off my friends with.
8. Greta Van Fleet, “My Way, Soon” – Soooooo … GVF is a guilty pleasure of mine. They have a lot of stuff I really like and play loud, but they have a LOT of really cringey stuff that makes me wanna press my face on a hot iron. That being said, this song took me a couple listens. After the third listen, I was blasting this track and singing along at the top of my lungs. I don’t know, it’s just one of this simple, classic rock songs that just exists for no other reason than to simply be a rock n roll jam. It has that timeless element.
9. Jacob Collier, “He Won’t Hold You” (feat. Rhapsody) – This is one of those tracks that hit me like a train and just stopped me. The rich harmonies and the warm, vintage sparkle on the track just permeate my entire being. All of Jacob’s music is like that, but this one just has something special. It gives me all the feels.
COLE HANSEN (Singer-songwriter)
Compiling lists like this should be a fun exercise for most artists, but truth be told, my anxiety kicks in full effect when trying to make tough decisions and these little things always feel way more epic than they should. In addition, my musical listening/tastes are all over the place, so it’s excruciatingly hard to pick favorites. Articulating my thoughts into words has always been a struggle for me. The main reason for me choosing to listen to any artist is how the music makes me feel. Usually I’m attempting to feel less anxious, more connected and relaxed. That being said, below is a list of some of the albums I enjoyed most in 2020, but I am sure there is so much more out there that I haven’t even heard yet. I hate the thought that I am excluding something amazing. These albums are in no particular order, with the exception of Fiona.
1. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” – Like one of my songs says, “I get bored easily,” but never when I’m listening to Fiona. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” was the most sonically interesting album I listened to this year. As someone with ADHD, anything that catches my attention for more than a few minutes and holds it for almost an hour is a winner. Besides that, I just relate so much to her lyrics: feelings of not being good enough while doing your best to keep your head up, and attempting to overcome depression and the traumas of your past.
Listen/Watch: “Heavy Balloon”
2. Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud” – (In short) I came for the vocals and stayed for the timeless catchy melodies. This album is beautifully familiar, but uniquely refreshing in a year when refreshment has been hard to find.
3. Daniel Rodriguez, “Sojourn of a Burning Sun” – I have loved everything I have heard of Daniel Rodriguez’s, but this album in particular is the perfect one for a long drive through the country. “As I Am” is my favorite song on the album. It has beautiful harmonies and is the type of track you can’t help but sing along with on the chorus.
4. Fruition, “Broken at the Break of Day” – This album just gives me all the good vibes. It made me reminisce of hanging with friends at live shows which is obviously something we all missed terribly this year. Layered harmonies and funky guitar riffs are perfectly intertwined with feel-good melodies and honest lyrics.
5. Frances Quinlan, “Likewise” – I discovered this album on an NPR list of top albums in 2020. It is a cool mix of electronic-infused folk with rock and Americana elements, beautiful vocals, good energy and pretty melodies — pretty much everything I love wrapped up in an album.
FAVORITE LOCAL ALBUM: Via Mardot, “Via Mardot EP” – I have loved Olivia Mainville’s haunting vocals and unique songwriting ability since the first time I heard her with the Aquatic Troupe. On her newest project, the mix of French-pop and Spaghetti Western music she channels is so visually stimulating to me, I can picture the entire EP as a film soundtrack. The fact that she can create such vivid images with such minimal instrumentation is something I aspire to do more of myself. I only wish the album were longer.
THE READERS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2020
5. Destroyer, “Have We Met” – Dan Bejar and his ever-changing crew of accomplices have been putting out literate, thoughtful, dense music for 20 years now. You can’t really call it rock, its multi-colored textures add up to a tour through any number of unfashionable genres. But since he stopped contributing to the New Pornographers, he’s keeping more memorable melodies for himself. This is an uneasy, unsettling record, full of jump scares and murder, but utterly compelling.
4. Nathaniel Rateliff, “And It’s Still Alright” – In which the good time Charlie gets the blues. Remarkable, sepia-tinged American roots sounds from the usually hollerin’ Night Sweats frontman. This record was a personal project, but its themes of love and loss and finding a place to stand in this world, are universal.
3. The Crane Wives, “Here I Am” – The Grand Rapids indie-rock institution hasn’t put out an album since 2016, but they HAVE been busy, releasing a string of singles, playing shows, trying to survive in a Spotify world. Now drawing some international attention thanks to some animation hobby kids on YouTube, this live document of their modern strengths was well timed to capitalize on this newfound love, and has a lot to offer the returning fan as well. Twelve of these 20 songs are not on any other album (yet), and show an evolution into a tougher, leaner, but still eloquent and thoughtful band. These songs are the sound of picking up the pieces of your life and moving on. Anger is ok, but you have to USE it, not stew in it.
2. Brian Koenigsknecht, “Healing Bridges” – The Kalamazoo balladeer lost his father recently, and coming to terms with his grief led to the rapid composition and recording of this deeply affecting song cycle. There are songs of nostalgia, pain, struggle and joy, all parts of remembering our people and finding the strength within ourselves to keep going. Far from a downer, this album is an affirmation of the ways we mean something to each other.
1. Earth Radio, “Reanimate” – Our Grand Rapids polyglots (whom I once described as “what if Mariah Carey joined King Crimson?”) have knocked it out of the park on the third album in as many years. We have the best melodies they’ve given us thus far, coupled with virtuosic playing, state of the art recording, and a sense of fun that may have been slightly missing from the previous disc. Rock/jazz/prog/soul fans take note, and give a listen: This has enough heart and soul in it to defy genre categorization. Just call it a heavy rotator.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: August, “Chaos and Comfort” (All killer, no filler on these five tracks of state of the art neosoul from Olivia Vargas and her enablers; most exciting young band in Grand Rapids, scratching a bit of that Vox Vidorra itch); Patty PerShayla & the Mayhaps, “Good With Words ‘N Sh*t” (One possible future of rock ‘n’ roll is a former Miss Coopersville. Patty, with fab guitarist Lucas Powell and killer drummer Alec Klinefelter, raise a ruckus across these five tunes, but they never leave the melody behind. Patty’s own bass weakens knees and loosens feet for moving); Foxfeather, “The Rules” (I feel like I might be the only person outside Colorado beating the drum for this song, but I won’t stop. I saw this Boulder quintet in the tiny Sandbox at Kal-Tone in Kalamazoo last year, and they blew my doors off with their witty, knotty songwriting and strong Americana sound. And this is a remarkably powerful anti-gaslighting anthem: the Chicks could only WISH for a song this affecting. Available from Bandcamp, I suspect because I kept asking them how to buy it, and look for a full album in the new year).
OTHER READERS’ PICKS
Steve Middendorp – Tyler Childers – “Purgatory”, and his other albums. Saw Cousin Curtiss (originally from Manistee) in Colorado playing White House Road and looked it up. I’m not usually a modern country music fan, but his material is different.
Greg Durkee – “The Unraveling” by the Drive-By Truckers
Deborah Bonkoski – Definitely: “Affirmation Day” by Jake Allen
Jennifer Mann – Well, that’s eeeezy: Jake Allen’s “Affirmation Day”
Jack Clark – Katie Pruitt – “Expectations”
Matt Milcarek – I’d have to say “Just in Case” by Cole Hansen for sure.
Eric Browning – Not released this year, but all Portugal the Man albums on repeat. Lol. Locally, anything from Abram G. Sudan , Nicholas James Thomasma and Brandino Proch.
Daniel P Hudelson – “In Time,” The Mavericks. Released in 2013, but new to me.
Bożena Aneta – Mark Huizenga with Rocket 9, “Into the Blue”
Mary Mead – Loved Cameron Blake’s “Censor the Silence.”
John Nowak – “Cuttin’ Grass,” Sturgill Simpson
Mike Thinnes – Billy Joe Armstrong, “No Fun Mondays”
Mark DeWitt – “The Absence of Presence,” Kansas
Mike Schertenlieb – Aesop Rock, “Spirit World Field Guide”
Alec Juarez – Jeff Rosenstock, “N O D R E A M”
Dave Adams – “Leaps and Bounds,” The Brandino Extravaganza
Lucy Ernst – IDLES Ultra Mono! Absolute fire!
Richard B. Kelley – Love Gang, “Dead Man’s Game.”
Bradley Raffenaud – Sleaford Mods, “All that Glue”
Brian Kelly Rampenthal – Ashley Ray, “Pauline”
Scott Steiner – Gum Country, “Somewhere”
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