We’re a little more than halfway through a very rough year, and we can all be thankful for that. Despite a complete shutdown of live music and touring, many artists have gone ahead with their plans to release new music. It’s been a blessing at a time when few others have surfaced. It’s hard to think of the words “best” and “2020” in the same sentence, but here are some highlights that have stuck with us here at KUTX, in this year like no other.

–Jeff McCord

Amy Chambless – Cactus Cafe, Assistant Manager

Khruangbin & Leon Bridges – “Texas Sun”
This mash-up isn’t something I saw coming, but it really works! You can feel the Texas sun beating off the road. Khruangbin takes you on a wandering, psychedelic road trip while Bridges’ soulful vocals ground you firmly in the Lone Star state.

US Girls – “4 American Dollars”
Using disco and pop to address the financial disparity in the US, musician Meghan Remy nails it, saying “we’re on the same boat but different seats.” The song was released just prior to the current financial crisis caused by COVID, and resonates even more so now.

Israel Nash – “Canyonheart”
Nash captures the sound of the surrounding Texas Hill Country where he resides and records. This could as easily be a love song to his environment as it could be to a person. Either way, it is wonderful to hear his continuing flow up uplifting music.

Art Levy – Producer, Host

Nick Hakim – “Qadir”
“Qadir” is an ode to Nick Hakim’s late friend, and in the personal you can find the universal. Hakim tries to sing Qadir back to life, hanging all over the beat as if he’s unwilling to let him go. The music swirls without resolution, showing how pain and death are psychedelic, life-altering experiences.

Little Simz – “one life, might live”
Little Simz barely needs any music around her to grab your attention. On ‘one life, might live,’ the British rapper focuses her flow like she’s sharpening a knife. The beat finally kicks in nearly halfway through, kicking off the parade of the chorus: “I got one life and I might just live it.”

Ultraísta – “Tin King”
There are definite Radiohead fingerprints here, thanks to band members Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s longtime producer) and Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace). Laura Bettinson is the catalyst, bringing a weird freshness from her time in the experimental pop group Micachu & the Shapes. This is the kind of electronic song where the human touch is indispensable, with Bettinson’s voice sounding like a hall of mirrors while Godrich and Waronker goad her on.

Deidre Gott – Live Music Producer

Drint – “Make Your Body Say”
One of the last Studio 1A sessions we had in the before times, as R&B/Pop artist Drint released his debut EP Don’t Save Me in late February. The 24-year-old Austin artist has this rich, deep voice that you can feel resonating in your chest. The whole EP sounds fresh and nostalgic at the same time.

Christelle Bofale – “Miles”

Released in February from the Austin singer/songwriter, “Miles” is part Mazzy Star, part Tracey Chapman, and part Alana Davis (note to self: dig out Blame it On Me). Starting with a simple voice and guitar combo, the chorus winds around a subtle sprinkle of harmonies, bass, and keys. Do yourself a favor and don’t just listen once, as this is a grower and you’ll find yourself humming parts weeks later.

Jay Wile – “Walzem”
A standout at The Breaks’ annual Love Lockdown, Jay Wile brought the crowd. Some drove in from Waco to see him play. It was my first time, and I was already low key pissed at myself for missing his two EPs from the previous year (check out “Who’s Loving’ U?”) In early June, the San Antonio native dropped this surprise single to raise money for the family of a young man severely injured by APD during the protests. Expect the six song EP Better Times on July 24 (and listen to it gosh darn it.)

Jack Anderson – Song of the Day Producer

Young T & Bugsey – “Don’t Rush” (feat. Headie One)
Since the mid-twenty-teens, this Nottingham duo’s been perking my ears up with their Caribbean-inspired beats and lackadaisically gritty rhymes. They dropped their debut LP Plead The 5th back in March, an appropriate quarantine soundtrack with their fusion of UK grime, R&B, dancehall, and reggaeton. “Rush” has been in my personal rotation since its release, and has merited more than a few revisits thanks to remixes featuring Busta Rhymes and DaBaby.

Run The Jewels – “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”
I remember being disappointed when “Ooh La La” came out ahead of RTJ4. DJ Premier is my favorite hip-hop producer, thanks to his outstanding work with Gang Starr and his knack for sampling vocal bits from tracks he’s produced in the past. But dang was I let down when I instantly recognized Greg Nice’s less-than-stellar (okay, let’s just say “corny”) verse from 1994’s “DWYCK” repeated over one of Primo’s least impressive beats. When “yankee” came out as the follow-up, all was forgiven; I was in love with Run the Jewels’ sound all over again. This track recalls the more menacing, nightmarish film score samples employed by predecessors like N.W.A. and Public Enemy, while toeing the line between socially conscious and just plain abrasive (as per usual).

Anderson .Paak – “Lockdown”
It almost seems unfair to label Anderson as…well…anything. His quick climb to fame has been far from unwarranted, with an aura encapsulating his ever-improving skills as a singer, rapper, drummer, guitarist, producer, and lyricist. This new one provided a much-needed commentary amidst quarantine and unrest, and I hope to hear more from Paak soon.

Jay Trachtenberg – Host

Anderson.Paak – “Lockdown”
Up-to-the-minute lyrics and commentary that couldn’t be more relevant, riding an understated beat that at first seems to belie, but ultimately compliments the urgency of the message.  Be sure to check out the powerful video.

Stephen Malkmus – “Xain Man”
I almost had an acid flashback the first time I heard this tripped-out tune that captures the lysergic vibes of ‘60s San Francisco. Malkmus has always seemed to embrace this aspect of his home state’s musical legacy. And he even name checks Miles Davis.

Brownout – “Brownie”
Austin’s champions of Latin funk lay down a heavy, mostly instrumental, horn-driven groove that urges you to get up and dance.  It’s a good way to shake off those stay-at-home COVID blues.

Jeff McCord – Music Editor, Host

Gabriel Garzon-Montano – “Someone”
He’s only recorded a handful of songs over the years, but this Brooklyn-born son of French-Columbian parents has a knack for bare, stop/start funk that stutter-steps its way into your subconscious. In “Someone”, the narrator’s lover has moved on. He hasn’t. In halting fashion, Garzon-Montano pleads.

“I needed you.”
“I don’t know what to do.”

Anderson.Paak – “Lockdown”
With jazz-like phrasing, Paak captures the Zeitgeist. Like Donald Glover’s “This Is America”, you need the bleak video imagery to fully complement this slow-burn on bigotry, strife, and the sad malaise of the pandemic. Plus, the video includes a great mid-song acapella breakdown from Jay Rock, strangely absent from the streaming version.

Little Simz – “one life, might live”
This actress/rapper is the best of the new breed of UK talent; her poetic flow is a rhythm section all to itself. Drop 6 is one of the best releases of the year, and this is the standout track. (They’re plenty of runners-up, though. Check “you should call mum”) Despite, or maybe because of being made in lockdown isolation, “one life” brims with optimism and braggadocio. Accompanied by little more than a jumpy bassline and some metallic plate percussion, Simz sounds out. “Damn sure innit, every ting vivid.”

Jody Denberg – Host

Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”
The master returns, with Austin’s Charlie Sexton in tow once again.
It’s the combination of the lyrics AND the music that make this the stand out on Rough And Rowdy Ways.
Shadows and light abound here…

Nick Hakim – “Qadir”
This NY-based singer/songwriter’s second album, “Will This Make Me Good,” contains this elegy to a fallen friend that is gorgeous and haunting. Its sense of loss resonates even deeper during our current times.

X – “Strange Life”
It’s great to have the band’s classic line-up (John Doe, Exene, Billy Zoom, DJ Bonebrake) back on record after 35 years; their new “Alphabetland” stands with their best. It was also great to talk with Austinite Doe on the day of the album’s release for “KUTX At Home” to get insight into the project. Strange days indeed.

Laurie Gallardo – Host

Brendan Benson – “Good To Be Alive”
From one of my favorite albums of the year, just on the heels of fantastic work done as a vocalist/songwriter for another fave, The Raconteurs. Brendan Benson’s seventh solo studio album Dear Life was unleashed into the universe after a very gradual birth, slowly making its way into the world when Benson penned one of his LP’s first tracks “Half A Boy (And Half A Man)” in 2017. Though busy working as a producer or collaborator on other artists’ projects, Benson’s own songs just kept coming out. There was no stopping that genuine melodic rock/pop joy rising to the surface, and “Good To Be Alive” encapsulates the album’s entire mood so well.

Chicano Batman – “Color My Life”
East L.A. outfit Chicano Batman is all about the American experience. And for this El Paso lady, “Color My Life” feels like that summer groove you’re playing as you cruise behind the wheel – or cruise on your skateboard, or…on that damn lowrider bike (check the band’s video for this song – which also nails the mood, bathed in Southern California twilight). It is, indeed, the “lucid dream” vocalist Bardo Martinez references in this hazy-daisy funk/soul jam soaked in gold rays. Another winner on the band’s fourth LP, Invisible People.

Lianne La Havas – “Bittersweet”
UK-based artist Lianne La Havas’ third LP, is her first since 2015’s Blood and also her first self-produced. And from this album, one she considers to be her most “pure expression” to date, is its first single “Bittersweet.” Not exactly sure what it is about the track – perhaps it’s the low-key, sultry beginning, building into a rising vocal fire – but La Havas has her finger on the pulse of something distinctly Marvin Gaye-esque on this gorgeous piece. The lyrics are inspired by a real-life conversation, in which La Havas was at her wits’ end, expressing a desire for distance and time to think – to identify what needs to happen. Swoon-inducing and heart-melting.

Matt Munoz – Cactus Cafe, Manager

Anderson.Paak- “Lockdown”
A great song meeting a very important moment in time, powerfully well-crafted.

Evan Felker & Carrie Rodriguez – “Whiskey in your Water”
Effortless songwriting and performance. Great hooks galore.

Chicano Batman- “color my life”
Funky funky funky and funky!! Did I mention they put the fun in Funky?

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