In a year where ‘dumpster fire’ is one of the kinder labels used to describe it, is there really anything to celebrate about 2020? Thankfully, yes. Despite having lost the usual means of promoting their 2020 releases (hitting the stage), artists continued to make and release records. Great records. So we asked our music-obsessed staff to give us their top five choices. Each of them could have easily given you twenty-five more. But on this day, at this moment, here are their five favorites. Check them out, and add some great music to your otherwise quiet holidays!
– Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
Annie Lyons, intern, kutx.org contributor
1) Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
In a year primed for needing escapism, Yves Tumor more than delivers with their fourth album, an enthralling rapture of glam rock. Amidst barrages of horns and explosive guitar solos, they conjure up rock star hedonism at its finest.
2) Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
“Somewhere in Germany but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas,” Phoebe Bridgers wryly muses in “I Know The End” (Ouch). By the song’s end, she’s found acceptance with an impending apocalypse. The alt singer-songwriter slips in humor one second only to emotionally eviscerate you the next.
3) SaliYah – Sanctification
Combining electronics with soft soul vocals, SaliYah cements their status as an Austin artist-to-watch, showing the producer’s journey toward a place of acceptance as a trans person from when they started hormone replacement therapy earlier this year. In “Sleep,” they murmur over a rapidly pulsing techno beat for a raw yet soothing experimentation.
4) Liv.e – Couldn’t Wait To Tell You…
Dallas-raised, LA-based artist Liv.e (pronounced “Liv”) boasts a honeyed drawl and undeniable sense of self on her freewheeling debut record. The immersive coming-of-age narratives shine on an experimental R&B palette full of warped samples, funky drum loops, and dusty keys.
5) Hey Cowboy! – Get In My Fanny Pack
Austin synth-pop trio Hey Cowboy! balance the melancholy with the playful. Ethereal harmonies lure you in, and the band bewitches you further with an eclectic pool of influences, including ‘70s sci-fi movie soundtracks, punk shrieks, and sunshine psych.
Laurie Gallardo, host
1) Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”
How I anticipate the release of Arlo Parks’ album Collapsed In Sunbeams next month. Until then, we have gorgeous, heartbreaking, sometimes wistful tracks such as this, the sweetest sounds emerging from the darkest recesses.
2) Lianne La Havas – “Bittersweet”
Really, Lianne La Havas’ entire self-titled album is a treasure, but there’s something exquisite about the vocals on this track, sweet notes and subtle touches conveying a deep frustration. “No more hangin’ around…” This is a classic sound La Havas is owning.
3) Jay Wile – “Real Bad”
It had me at those first beats. Surely, you must try cruising with this one blasting bass, full volume, in your car as you make your way. Jay Wile’s vocal harmonies are magical. And though it’s slow and low, Wile communicates anxiety and a growing panic, that vibe when you think: What…have I gotten myself into?
4) Tame Impala – “It Might Be Time”
For whatever reason, this one got to me through the drums. I love the drum slams on this one. And the sneaky homage to the theme from Ironside, but there you go. A person my age would use that TV show as a reference. It might be time to face it…
5) Brendan Benson – Dear Life
Hats off to Brendan Benson’s solo flow. There’s something instinctive about the album, running all over the map in terms of aesthetics and styles. You know Benson had fun making this one; just feel all the boppin’ about on “Good To Be Alive,” the sway on the album’s title track, and the beat on the LP’s closer, “Who’s Gonna Love You?” Hot damn.
Jeff McCord, music editor, host
1) Amaarae – The Angel You Don’t Know
A late-inning surprise from the 26 year-old Ghanaian-American, who mashes her Afrobeats with American pop and R&B. Her voice can is sweet, but turns taunting, even fierce. She describes her debut on Twitter as “non stop affirmations and incantations 4 bad bitches”, but her posturing is just tongue-in-cheek, her catchy and funny culture-blending seamless.
2) Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”
On a lot of lists, and rightly so. All of 20 years old, Parks followed up her two 2019 EPs with a remarkable string of singles (“Caroline”, “Green Eyes”, Eugene”, “Hurt’ – even a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”). You could pretty much throw a dart, but this touching and soulful cry to help a friend’s depression wins out.
3) Jay Wile – Better Times
Austin’s Wile delivers on this remarkably assured set of six songs from his second EP. He inhabits these R&B gems with an effortless poise, digging in with Marvin Gaye-like focus. Lots of standouts here – “Can’t Wait”, “Don’t Be Late” and the single “Real Bad”.
4) Little Simz – Drop 6 ep
UK’s Simz finds a spare, industrial sound as akin to Joy Division as her hip-hop peers; just her freestyling, funky, propelled basslines and hammer on anvil percussion. The pandemic hangs over everything. “Crabs in a barrel, we all in this” she says. But Simz is fighting back. “One Life, Might Live” is a standout. “Damn sure innit, every ting vivid / I got one life and might just live it.”
5) Nubya Garcia – Source
On her astonishing full-length debut, Garcia’s versatility dazzles. Albums that wander this much stylistically can be hit or miss. Yet thanks to the sure-footed production, you easily go wherever Garcia takes you. This is jazz, but nothing here is mired in the past. Cumbias, elements of reggae and dubstep, and vocal interludes complement a soulful intensity that springs from pure passion.
Art Levy, producer
1) Nick Hakim – “Qadir”
This song resonates so intensely with this year: slo-mo, but anxious at the edges. Hakim’s psychedelic soul is a perfect sound to explore the mind and heart-bending effects of grief.
2) Little Simz – “One Life, Might Live”
This is a banger where the beat doesn’t kick in until the song is halfway done. Simz’s voice is all you need. Minimal, but intensely so.
3) Greg Vanderpool – “Alpine Approximately”
This song from the veteran Austin songwriter asks for quiet attention, which is maybe the most subversive action in our frightening and frenzied times. It slows to the pace of Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Cowboy Junkies, and it feels good to amble there.
4) Contours – Balafon Sketches
An album that mixes electro-ambient slowness with a percussive pulse influenced by West African traditions and Steve Reich. It turns ancient and futuristic sounds into natural dance partners.
5) Yves Jarvis – Sundry Rock Song Stock
This Montreal artist records all his music outdoors, resulting in what he calls “free pop”: open-ended, homemade music that’s guided more by the subconscious than any traditional song structure. Deeply catchy, fun, ephemeral, and odd.
Jody Denberg, host
1) Arlo Parks – “Eugene”
Each of the three singles I’ve heard from this London singer/songwriter has effortlessly captivated me (and I love that she names another song, “Black Dog,” after Churchill’s phrase for depression). Bonus: KUTX At Home With Arlo Parks
2) Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
The timing of this album’s release (and its first song “Murder Most Foul”) brought this amazing collection of songs to life in a stunning fashion, with sonic assistance from Austin MVP Charlie Sexton. Not that Bob Dylan needs any more accolades, but it is amazing that this wasn’t nominated for a Grammy.
3) Heartless Bastards – “Revolution”
Austin’s Erika Wennerstrom’s message here – “the revolution is in your mind” – resonated in the current moment and as a throwback to the vibe of a classic Jefferson Airplane track. The revolution starts here. Bonus: the song benefits the ACLU
4) Jackie Venson – “Make Me Feel”
2020 was Jackie Venson’s year. No other Austin artist exemplified the year’s challenges like Jackie, rising to meet them and exceeding all expectations in the process. Our October artist of the month debuted on “Austin City Limits” and told her story to the Pause/Play podcast.
Yes, Jackie can shred and play with her vintage AND modern machines, but this SONG transcends.
5) Khruangbin – Mordechai
The Houston trio’s first album with all songs featuring vocals didn’t sacrifice their singular ability to weave together grooves from all over the globe. Was grateful to talk with all three band members together on Zoom from different cities for KUTX AT HOME.
Deidre Gott, live music producer
1) Khruangbin – Mordechai
“That’s life. If we had more time, we could live forever” over some psychedelic disco beats? Yes please. “Time (You and I)” and “So We Won’t Forget” are my most favs from the Texas trio’s third full release. Revisit Jody’s KUTX at Home chat with the band here.
2) Erika Wennerstrom – “Revolution”
A battle cry for self-awareness and compassion that perfectly sums up how I felt in 2020.
3) Molly Burch – “Needy”
Molly Burch covers Ariana Grande and turns it into a downtempo dream. Gone are the days that say Top-40 pop artists have to be a “guilty” pleasure and I’m here for it.
4) BabiBoi – “Molasses”
With a BA in Live Performance from the University of Texas, this queer rapper is unapologetically challenging representation in ATX hip-hop. Dropped a week ahead of the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion anthem “W.A.P.” this track (and video) gets me so pumped.
5) Star Parks – The New Sounds of Late Capitalism
Can Star Parks’ leader Andy Bianculli get a break, man? After sitting on a finished record for a year, the release came in February 2020 with a tour booked for March. The release show at Barracuda (RIP) on March 6 was the last show I saw before we all were told to go to our rooms.
Rick McNulty, music director, host
1) Arlo Parks – “Eugene,” “Black Dog” and “Hurt”
Arlo Parks cannot miss. Every track she released in 2020 has been a fleshed-out mini-pop masterpiece and no one has provided more ear-worms all year long. Her debut album is scheduled for release at the end of January ‘21, and I expect the rest of the world to wake up and take notice.
2) Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
England seems to be one step ahead of us again. Sports Team released their debut album earlier in 2020 and it’s become as essential to my daily existence as wearing a mask. These six young Brits are celebrating their salad days by making indie rock exciting and hilarious again while discovering the perfect blend between Pavement and The Strokes.
3) Khruangbin – Mordechai
The Houston trio’s new album was my magic portal away from the horrors of the year we shall never speak of again. Anytime I heard a track from the album, I was transported to a poolside bar at a tropical beach (which must be a common reaction considering the recent beer commercials using Khruangbin’s music).
4) SAULT – Untitled (Rise)
Sault is an outfit as mysterious as Daft Punk, perhaps more so when you consider there is no publicity/hype machine behind them (it seems the members are sworn to secrecy about their identities). It’s a nice twist, but the deep soul vibes and sojourns into house and disco (and those wondrous strings) keeps this in regular rotation.
5) Delta Spirit – What Is There
Six years in the wilderness and now living in cities all over North America, Delta Spirit are back with my favorite road trip album of the year. Austin’s Mathew Logan Vasquez sounds like he’s on the edge of darkness–which is what I think he does best–and the pacing of the peaks, valleys and drama of this record is akin to an epic drive through West Texas. Be sure to re-route around the checkpoints, if you know what I mean.
Elizabeth McQueen, producer
1) Mobley – “James Crow”
Miles Bloxson and I were lucky enough to be able to cover Mobley’s pandemic journey in Pause/Play, and subsequently ended up listening to A LOT of his music. “James Crow” helps me process the persistence of American racism while making me want to dance at the same time. Also, it’s a hit with my kids, who can often be heard humming and singing it around the house.
2) Jackie Venson – Vintage Machine
I’m such a fan of Jackie Venson’s current style, where she doubles her voice with guitar and surrounds everything with a genre mix of rock, pop, blues and electronic music. The songs on this record give goosebumps while filling me with hope — both of which I need right now.
3) San Gabriel – “Another One”
I heard this song on the HAAM day Live Stream and became an instant superfan. This song helps me process all the grief, hyper-vigilance, despair and exhaustion I’ve been feeling this past year. I turn it on and waves of energy get released from my body. I often weep. Which is why I listen to this song. A lot.
4) Gina Chavez – “La Que Manda”
There is something so wild and free about the way Gina sings on this song. It’s exactly the kind of free I need to hear after spending all day in my house with my kids and husband while a global pandemic rages outside.
5) Anderson Paak – “Lockdown”
Sometimes an artist just captures the moment in song, and that’s what Anderson Paak did with “Lockdown”.
Jay Trachtenberg, host
1) Anderson Paak – “Lockdown”
No other song was more relevant in capturing the essence of the summer’s massive, worldwide social uprising than this broadside declaration replete with up-to-the-minute lyrics and a deceptively understated beat.
2) Janelle Monae – “Turntables”
In a year that begged for social commentary, the multi-talented Monae delivers with this uplifting, conscious tune of the inevitability change. “Yeah, the tables got to turn!”
3) X – “Strange Life”
Like a sudden blast of hot Santa Ana winds, these L.A. punk icons explode out of the blocks as if they haven’t lost a step in the 35 years since this original lineup recorded together.
4) Superfonicos – “El Adios”
The title track to the latest album from Austin’s favorite Columbian funk juggernaut digs a deep party groove that compels you to get up and shake it. Having producer Jim Eno on board adds a touch of cache.
5) Khruangbin – “Time (You and I)”
This Houston trio added vocals to their heretofore instrumental sound and, perhaps subsequently, blew up nationally with help from this infectious tune that simply lays it in-the-pocket with a catchy, retro, disco ‘n’ soul vibe.
Jacquie Fuller, assistant program director
1) Dehd – “Loner”
I turned 46 this year which, to me, is officially that age where I gravitate to new music that reminds me of old music. Or maybe I’ve always been that way. This track from Chicago trio Dehd felt pleasantly familiar the very first time I heard it, with bass and guitar that brought to mind early (post-Joy-Division) New Order, and Emily Kempf’s vocals recalling 80s/90s howlers like Elizabeth Fraser or Dolores O’Riordan.
2) Sweet Spirit – “Llorando”
Grief is both extraordinary and commonplace, complicated and stupidly simple. This track from Austin’s Sweet Spirit nails those binaries with straightforward lyrics set to some audacious style choices: a disco beat, strings, what sounds like syrupy slide guitar. Frontwoman Sabrina Ellis croons the Spanish chorus woefully like a modern-day La Llorona. It’s all ache, but even the Gloria Gaynor-esque piano opening implies that grief is something we will survive.
3) Kelly Lee Owens – “On”
A former cancer ward nurse with a profound interest in music-as-healing, Kelly Lee Owens fashions yesterday’s electronic-music detritus into modern, ethereal cloudscapes. The sonic equivalent of eiderdown, with bleeps and bloops that feel pulled from Owens’ former job site. Recommended for your mom who loves David Gray’s “Babylon” but needs to bring her music taste into the 21st century, as well as your cool, older brother who got you into everything 4AD.
4) Star Parks – “Oh, Boredom (Schmaltz City, USA)”
Sad-lyrics-happy-music is a combo plate for which I’ll always hand over my money (see “Llorando,” above.) Lost lonerism set to music that’s nothing short of bats*** euphoric (YES, VIRGINIA, THAT’S A SAX SOLO.) It provided me many much-needed dopamine boosts this year, I believe Star Parks may have saved me hundreds in therapy.
5) Moses Sumney – “Cut Me” / Fiona Apple – “I Want You To Love Me”
We were only allowed to pick 5, and I couldn’t decide between these two because I adore them both for their masterful simplicity. What they also share in common is so much critical adulation that there’s no fresh take I could possibly provide here. They’re just so damn good.
Ryan Wen, host
1) Pure X – “Hollywood”
In a 2013 interview Pure X guitarist/vocalist Nate Grace told Dummy Magazine, “You can’t experience pleasure without feeling pain, you cannot know ecstasy without knowing despair.” “Hollywood” describes this sentiment better than any recording in recent memory. The Austin band’s signature woozy downtempo psychedelia creates a juxtaposition with Grace’s lyrics: “Life, life is worth living / all, all is forgiven”, as if the lyrics and music are in a tug-of-war between nihilism and optimism. It’s both beautiful and tragic.
2) Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
Katie Crutchfield’s latest endeavor is a shocking transformation. “Lilacs” makes it sound like she’s always made delicate americana, but her previous work was lo-fi, three chord grungy angst. I love the old stuff, but I think I like this new sound even more.
3) SAULT – Untitled (Rise)
I. Am. Obsessed. Nothing makes me feel better than nasty mid-seventies/early-eighties funk like Leon Haywood, Little Beaver, Isley Brothers, and Zapp. If any modern band has captured the magic again it’s this UK collective. It’s cleaner than Haywood and more subdued than Zapp, but to my ear, it’s coming from the same space.
4) Lady Wray – “Piece of Me”
I’m cheating here a bit, this track was actually released at the end of 2019 but it’s too good not to include. You may know Lady Wray better as Nicole, she’s gone through several rebrandings since her early career, but the last few years she’s been working with producer Leon Michels. If you’re a soul digger, you’re gonna love this.
Matt Munoz, Cactus Cafe manager
1) Doves– The Universal Want
Everything I wanted from their comeback album. Heartbreakingly great. Hum- Inlet WOW!! The perfect mix of heavy and melody. Amazing
2) Hum – Inlet
WOW!! The perfect mix of heavy and melody. Amazing.
3) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Well worth the wait. A new favorite song every time I listen.
4) David Ramirez – My Love is a Hurricane
David continues to evolve into an amazing songwriting force.
5) Wood & Wire – No Matter Where it Goes from Here – The guys in Wood & Wire are making the best bluegrass at the moment and this album proves it in spades.
1) Machinedrum – A View of U
After 20 years in the music industry, Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum has his electronic music production chops dialed in to the point of perfection. His latest album bounces effortlessly from moments of gentle, beautiful ambiance to heavy, high energy bass music of the highest quality.
2) Flobama – Warp Mode
Austin instrumental hip hop producer Flobama has been unstoppable in recent years with an unrelenting flow of high quality output. Released on Austin’s Insect Records, Warp Mode feels like a cohesive listening experience from start to finish with enough variety and texture to keep any sound enthusiast fully stimulated.
3) Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music
UK Jazz drummer Yussef Dayes and vocalist Tom Misch have both been on a roll, so it came as great news when they announced a full album together. Dayes’ distinct drum style borrows heavily from electronic music, funk and jazz while Tom Misch delivers his signature moody singing style that can, at moments, remind me of some of my favorite Radiohead vocal parts. Very high quality music from top to bottom.
4) Botany – End the Summertime F(or)ever
Texas native Spencer Stephenson, AKA Botany, delivers his first proper full length in over 4 years and it’s a lush mixture of beats, jazz, ambience and psychedelia. Stephenson fully invests himself in the concept of beats as beautiful art in this record and it’s something that a wide variety of music fans can appreciate.
5) Boom Baptist – Boom Shakalaka
The long-awaited debut proper full length from Austin music scene mainstay Boom Baptist. His signature blend of fat bass lines and synth arpeggios over loose, heavily slapping drum samples comes through in full force. The icing on the cake is the fact that the album is entirely themed around the classic 90s arcade game, NBA Jam. Truly a unique and entertaining concept that adds a feeling of 90s sentimentality and fun to the project.
Taylor Wallace-Riegel, host
1) Khruangbin – Mordechai
From the release of the album’s first single, I knew this Houston trio was destined to release another perfect album. The addition of vocals expands their sound further than their desert-psych/South Asian rock mood, and proves the group is really coming into their own. Picking a favorite from Mordechai would be akin to having a series of convoluted math equations dance across my head– too impossible to attempt. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
2) Tkay Maidza – “Shook”
This is the song I’ve shared with people the most this year. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 (ironically named as it was released pre-COVID) showcases Maidza’s range from MC skills to her smooth R&B side, but “Shook” is truly the standout track. 00’s hip-hop references weave into a monologue on the dichotomy of exceeding people’s expectations when the expectations were never asked for in the first place. Maidza packs a wallop of a banger in under three minutes.
3) The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The Strokes have been one of my favorite bands since I was in middle school, and this short, Grammy-nominated nine-track album proves why they still are. The album blends classic Strokes sounds (“Not the Same Anymore”) with newer textures, some surprising, like the disco-tinged “Bridge to Brooklyn Chorus”. Others sound like a natural progression for the group after twenty years of releasing music (“Selfless”). The whole menu works beautifully, and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” serves as a marriage of all three.
4) Holy Wave – Interloper
The latest from this Austin group holds a ton of power and intrigue from the first note. Interloper waxes deeply psychedelic and other times beautifully ambient, matched with lyrics wrought with existential dread, showcasing all-new depth. The group has achieved their most collaborative album to date. Even the tracklisting is proof of the group’s new echelon of cohesion.
5) Sasha and the Valentines – “Tears For Mars”
One more from Austin! I’ve been over the moon for this group since they moved here from Massachusetts a couple of years ago, when they became a fast favorite in Austin’s indie scene. Sara Addi’s voice is beautifully utilized as its own texture, haunting and weaving through the foggy, shoegaze curtain of the instrumentation, exuding a warm, cozy cocoon of intimacy.
Susan Castle, host
1) Waxahatchee – “Fire”
From Katie Crutchfield’s fifth album Saint Cloud. While some may not be, I’m drawn in immediately by her strained vocals which exemplify the struggle with unconditional love. And, for some of us, it’s not about loving others unconditionally, but for loving ourselves unconditionally.
“If I could love you unconditionally, I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky”.
Some wise words from my favorite song of 2020.
2) Fenne Lily – “Alapathy”
Sometimes you just fall instantly in love with a song before you figure out the lyrics or know anything about the artist. And this is one of those songs for me. Makes me feel happy every time I hear it and can’t get enough happy these days.
3) Fana Hues – “ICARUS”
Pasadena singer-songwriter/bassist/violinist. Not sure whether it’s the use of the throwback cinematic sample from the film Midnight Cowboy or her alluring singing with a touch of Diana Ross, but the combination of the two is a total winner for me in the sentimental department.
4) SAULT – “Free”
The somewhat mysterious British trio Sault released their second record of the turbulent year 2020 in September, Untitled (Rise), which was produced by Inflo, who’s worked with both Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka, thus the top-notch sound. And if you don’t pay attention to lyrics, the funky dancefloor vibe will certainly mask the seriousness of the subject matter of the album…racial injustice.
5) Bob Dylan – “Murder Most Foul”
The song addresses the assassination of President Kennedy in the context of this country’s greater political and cultural history. The masterful Nobel-Prize winning songwriter said it was a gift to fans for our support and loyalty over the years, and it’s mesmerizing when you let the words and wisdom of one of the greats wash over you. From his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.