And the Bands Played On
This year was hard on musicians and listeners. Because of the toll COVID-19 took on live performances in the city and nationwide, many artists withheld projects, awaiting a time when they can tour. When you factor in the financial stress the pandemic has put on many, especially local and Black artists, it turns into an untenable situation. For fans who use music as a salve for life’s stressors, the lack of big releases left a void. But, plenty of artists were able to soldier through and release music in a strange and tumultuous year. Below are some of the City Paper writers’ favorite releases of 2020. These were the LPs that helped some of us find shelter in the storm, as we await the moment when the local and national music industries will reach full force again. —Heath Ellison
Long Violent History, Tyler Childers
For eight out of the nine tracks on Tyler Childers’ surprise 2020 album, Long Violent History, his distinctive Eastern Kentucky drawl and quick-witted way with words are nowhere to be found. Instead, what unfolds over the course of the album is a rather moving musical conversation between Childers and frequent collaborator Jesse Wells (who also serves as co-producer), with each playing a different lead role on fiddle. The impressive supporting cast for these sessions also includes Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin on mandolin, Dom Flemons (formerly of The Carolina Chocolate Drops) on banjo, bones, quills, jug, bass drum and harmonica, as well as Josh Oliver on guitar and John Miller on bass. Childers clearly relishes the task of steering these master musicians through classics such as “Jenny Lynn” and “Camp Chase.” The traditional fiddle tunes ultimately give way to the concluding title song, which is a heartfelt commentary on the futility of contemporary violence. According to Childers, 100% of net proceeds from this special project will support underserved communities through the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund. —Kevin Wilson
Power Up, AC/DC
I can already see your eyes rolling in disgust with this entry. I can hear you saying, “But what of Fiona Apple? What about Phoebe Bridgers? What of Perfume Genius?” And yes, they all released great albums. But, 2020 was an absolute nightmare of a year. It sucked. A lot. And then suddenly, that little bastard Angus Young threw on the schoolboy outfit, lured Cliff Williams out of retirement, sweet talked Brian Johnson back into the band after firing him and pulled Phil Rudd away from his life of crime to cut loose with Power Up, the best AC/DC album since 1985’s Fly on the Wall. The riffs are bone-simple and bone-crunching, Johnson’s charred-gravel wail sounds better than ever and Williams and Rudd still comprise the most merciless, no-frills rhythm section in hard rock. AC/DC storms through 12 fire-breathing rockers like men half their ages. Angus raids the collection of indelible riffs that he and his late brother Malcolm had in storage, and the old geezers rise again on the strength of bulldozers like “Shot in the Dark,” “Demon Fire” and “Realize.” Is it art? I have no idea. But damn, did I need something loud, direct and joyfully familiar to get me through this year. Does it sound like every other AC/DC album? Well, yeah. But, simple ain’t always easy. Long may they rock.
Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, Liv.e
Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… sounds three-dimensional. It’s a beautiful, modern jazz/soul collage of live instrumentation, sampling and vocal work. It’s performed as if Liv.e is physically embodying a unique internal feeling on each track. So many things happen at once, but you can pinpoint each element. What’s so exceptional about Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… is that it plays like one unified song, yet each track has its own aura that associates with a raw feeling. It’s an abstract narrative about human relationships and the accompanying sensations. The album was written in snippets that sound like an eccentric stream of consciousness, but was meticulously crafted. I think, in 2020, a lot of people went back to nostalgic music that makes them comfortable. This is one of those rare albums that’s capable of feeling like home on your second or third listen. It’s very much Liv.e’s album, but at some point, you’ll hear a little bit of you in it. —Alex Peeples
aloha, Son Little
There aren’t many artists who can write an entire album in eight days, let alone an album as remarkable as aloha. Teetering somewhere between soul and indie, Son Little has created an album dense with meaning, sound and rhythm. A beautiful collection to help us through 2020, aloha discusses a little of what we all experienced this year: Letting go of what we knew as normal and beginning anew. This mentality is one Son Little took on with many in the world, creating beauty in what seemed to be full of darkness. He sings about mental health, forgiveness, empathy and perseverance in the face of the unknown. In each of his songs there is something unique. “Neve give up” is a breathtaking ballad about reaching your breaking point only to overcome it once more. “Belladonna” plays on the journey of giving into passion despite the outcome. This album gives us raw, real emotions which some perhaps shied away from before this year. Son Little forces us to feel in an addictive way that leaves listeners wanting more. We may struggle to find the positives in a year filled with overwhelming negatives, but Son Little reminds us that there is strength in giving up and starting over. You may just find yourself, or at least an album as good as aloha. —Abrie Richison
SunRhé’s idea for Lavender, her debut album, seemed simple enough: Create a romantic project. But, somewhere along the line, she began delving deep into the minutia of love and the aspects of emotional well-being that we don’t typically associate with feelings of the heart. “Fresh Air,” the LP’s standout track, is an anthem of self-love where SunRhé finds peace through the small things in life. Lavender is seductive, but it’s also sweet, encouraging the listener to find what makes them happy and embrace it. SunRhé’s persona is bolstered by the electro beats that accompany each song. The prog-pop tune “DMT” is a lively break from some of the album’s smoother tracks. The dusty electronic drums of “Elevate U” match SunRhé’s self-assured personality, while the mysterious “SpaceJam Outro” gives way to a mantra on peace. It sounds strange, but I didn’t really interact with music in 2020 unless it was for the City Paper. I spent the year feeling void of what I was passionate about, but the few times I was able to remember what I love about music was listening to Lavender.