It was a shit year for music fans.
Many endured a complete moratorium on live shows. Even those brave enough to take in performances had their options largely limited to local shows in outdoor or sparsely attended venues.
Good thing the pandemic didn’t seem to put the brakes on recorded music. Indeed, 2020 proved to be a surprisingly fruitful year for releases across genres. Here’s a rundown, in no particular order, of our favorites, more or less split between acts from inside and outside San Antonio.
1. Harvey McLaughlin — Rascality
San Antonio-based piano pounder McLaughlin has already released two engaging disks of blues-inspired rock that’s heavy on darkly humorous storytelling. However, Rascality
marks a real maturation of his sound. There’s a cinematic quality to the material, and the grit of his vocal delivery brings authenticity to the oddballs that populate his songs, from “Mole Boy” to “Poor Gary from the Gallows.” If you enjoyed Bob Dylan’s recent trips into a haunting and sometimes eerie form of Americana, McLaughlin’s latest may hold similar appeal.
2. Arcing Wires — Prime
Perhaps the most accurate band name and album title combo in recent history, Arcing Wires’ Prime delivers a scientific precision that defies easy description outside of a dry erase board covered with headache-inducing calculus and theoretical physics formulas. The Australian instrumental outfit relies on riffs using the stuttering “djent” approach and overlapping time signatures pioneered by Meshuggah. But this isn’t standard metal, as the melodic element is a decidedly un-metal saxophone, the phrasing of which gives an improvisational feel to the otherwise math-rock proceedings.
3. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
Fully delivering on the hype, indie singer-songwriter Bridgers’ Punisher is a powerful album bookended by instrumental work. The humorously titled opener “DVD Menu” is a brief wordless introduction. The closer, “I Know the End,” also relies on instrumental work at its climax, in this case an expansive and harmonically surprising cacophony recalling The Beatles’ “A Day in The Life.” In-between is a collection of emotional song-as-short story compositions that run the gamut from uplifting (the anthemic “Kyoto”) to sardonic (the title track, which notes “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’ / But it’s sad that his baby died”).
4. Honey Barbara — Reveries
It’s unfortunate that San Antonio psychedelic pop outfit Honey Barbara has flown so far under the radar during an existence that’s spanned roughly three decades. The group — centered around vocalist-keyboardist Ross Marlow and guitarist James Sidlo — does a masterful job at crafting psychedelic pop tunes that are at once accessible and experimental. Instruments dance around the echo-drenched vocals, mysteriously fading in and out of the mix. Surprising snippets of ethnic music and jazzy exotica periodically bubble to the surface. Retro-hip touches such as nods to Brazilian Tropicalia and swinging ’60s movie soundtracks occasionally evoke Stereolab, and the mix of experimentation and melodicism isn’t too far off from Before and After Science-area Brian Eno. But on Reveries
, Honey Barbara is charting its own brave course.
5. Protest the Hero — Palimpsest
Mixing blistering prog chops with the intensity of hardcore shouldn’t work. And while the “post-” label is slapped on, well, everything, it’s doesn’t quite fit for Canada’s Protest the Hero, a band invested in forward momentum right now. From anthemic opener “Migrant Mother” onward, the band keep Palimpsest focused on the injustices and tragedies of history, all the way up to loser and wannabe despot Donald Trump. Vocalist and lyricist Rody Walker sums it up in “Rivet”: “What separates us now is less than six degrees / It’s not necessarily character, it’s opportunity.”
6. Touché Amoré — Lament
With this album, LA-based post-hardcore band Touché Amoré birthed one of the year’s most impassioned performances. Vocalist Jeremy Bolm delivers Jawbreaker-esque melodies at maximum intensity on Lament
, staying in the red even as the rest of the band dial it down occasionally for soft and pretty sections. It’s a useful metaphor for 2020, the year that never seemed to let up. We all screamed during the quiet bits, the excessive and endless downtime of quarantine and lockdown, somehow both stressful and endlessly tedious.
7. The Krayolas — Savage Young Krayolas
San Antonio’s Krayolas, Chicano garage rockers with late ’70s origins, enjoyed a late-career resurgence thanks to a string of critically lauded post-reunion releases. Sadly, that run ended last year with the death of bassist Barry Smith. Fortunately, the surviving members compiled this strong, 11-song release of tracks mostly dating back to the late ’70s and very early ’80s. While music clearly percolated up during the punk era’s power-pop scene, it’s gloriously steeped in ’60s garage rock sensibilities, from Beatle-esque vocal harmonies and thunderous Who-style riffing to the Doug Sahm-evocative box organ. Tracks like “Cry Cry Laugh Laugh” and “You’re Not My Girl” are timeless testaments to the power of stripped-down rock ’n’ roll.
8. Wake — Devouring Ruin
Genre-mixing continues to dominate metal, producing compelling results. Canada’s Wake wave the flag on Devouring Ruin
, with vocalist Kyle Ball delivering a sinister growl on the brief “Dissolve and Release” that wouldn’t be out of place on a ’90s-loving old school death metal tribute. Next, the band hurls listeners face first into a black metal wall of noise that highlights its subtle but present post-rock elements — a fact made more impressive since nothing about this record suggests the word “subtle.” Mix in the intensity borne of Wake’s grindcore past and you have a band to watch.
9. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
On its fifth album, this outfit birthed from Finland’s black metal scene has made the full transition into a genre all its own. The music is still dense and challenging, and the vocals sound like they’re broadcast from the coldest layer of the abyss. However, the lysergic washes of synth and beautifully textured washes of sine-wave noise set the controls for the heart of the cosmic void. On Mestarin Kynsi
, Oranssi Pazuzu embraces the most mind-melting realms of space rock and the anything-goes experimentalism of Krautrockers such as Can and Amon Duul II, all while exploring uncharted territory of its own. It’s hard to think of another album this year more likely to lead to an out-of-body experience.
10. Von Economo — Von Economo
“What if we were wrong about everything?” Von Economo sings in the opening line of the album’s first single, “I, Organism.” And that may well be the question of 2020. This quirky yet accessible album marks the recorded debut of a San Antonio visual artist who prefers to keep her identity on the downlow. While the vocals and strummed 12-string at the center of her brief, hook-laden tunes occasionally evoke Bowie, they possess a fleeting, ethereal quality all their own.
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