The Boston music scene, like all music scenes, took a lot of hits in 2020 due to COVID-19. For starters, there are the venues; among other losses, ONCE in Somerville and Great Scott in Allston have ceased to be at their respective former locations.
While those establishments hope to reboot in different places when the pandemic subsides—Great Scott has already moved into an old Pizzeria Regina in the same neighborhood—everything else basically still remains up in the air.
While venues have closed down, though, recorded music has still remained a staple for local artists, bands and musicians to get their sounds out there. It’s a testament to creative resilience in a time when we don’t know the next time we’ll all be able to gather at our favorite live music spot to see inventive, captivating and energizing music take the stage.
To recognize this, I have arduously compiled an old-fashioned end-of-the-year list. It’s 20 of the finest songs from around these parts ranging in styles of punk, funk, hip-hop, new wave, alternative and everything in between.
All hate mail because of this will be going in the trash, so without further ado, here are my Top 20 Boston Tracks of 2020:
Idle Pilot – “Blind Initiation” (Self-Released)
Idle Pilot put out a fantastic punk record with Balancing Act back on September 9. They captured a sound that resonates with the folks who dig bands like Fugazi and Hüsker Dü while also fitting in with the countless young up and coming acts who abide by this noisy and abstract approach. “Blind Initiation” starts off with a flurry of rhythms into various breakdowns and bridges while maintaining a raw tone.
Honey Cutt – “Vacation” (Kanine)
The title should resonate with anyone who really needed to get away this year but couldn’t because of the circumstances. With that being said, musically this song is a wonderful blend of dream pop and surf rock. Off of the band’s sophomore album Coasting that came out via Kanine Records on March 13, guitarist & vocalist Kaley Honeycutt strums smooth riffs while bassist Ari Blut and drummer Chris Chew create steady rhythms.
Esh & The Isolations – “Rich Parents” (Self-Released)
Punk and hip-hop have had an interesting marriage in the Boston scene over the past few years and Esh & The Isolations is the latest edition of this trend with conscious rapper Esh joining forces with bassist Amelia Gormley from the post-punk act The New Highway Hymnal and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Russell. There’s a certain wiseass catchiness in “Rich Parents” off of their album Idiot Fingerz that came out on May 1 that I absolutely love. My enjoyment of it probably comes from the fact I find the privileged who try to act rough and tough to be deserving of brutal scrutiny. It’s a call out to the well off who never deserved their status from the get go.
Vundabar – “Burned Off” (Gawk)
It seems like every year indie rock act Vundabar inches closer and closer from being Boston’s best kept secret to becoming the city’s next big thing. They still have a shot to achieve this and this rhythmic banger off of their fourth album, Either Light, that came out on March 13 via their own label at Gawk Records sets them on the right course. There’s a lot of energy that flows within “Burned Off” and it’ll be tough not to dance to it once it’s played.
STL GLD – “My Block” (AR Classic)
Moe Pope, The Arcitype, Christopher Talken, Jonathan Ulman, and Tim Hall delivered an honest hip-hop commentary with “My Block” in August. Examining police brutality, the war on drugs and other issues that impact the block today and always, the track lays it all out there for the listener to sit with. Full of perspective about our world, it also hits home thanks to an incredibly catchy chorus and a phenomenal beat structure.
Hayley Thompson-King – “Whiskey Dick” (Self-Released)
While Hayley Thompson-King’s second rock & roll record, Sororicide, that came out on October 2 abides by the theme of two clashing personalities in a singular body, “Whiskey Dick” is a pissed off heartbreak anthem. The riffs between her and Pete Weiss on guitar are electrifying and she roars on vocals in unapologetic fashion. It’s an ideal song for anyone who has had to deal with a scumbag who turned out to be someone you initiallydidn’t think they were.
House Of Harm – “Against The Night” (Avant!)
If you’re into ‘80s icons such as Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Smiths, then House Of Harm will definitely peak your interest. Off of their debut full-length album, Vicious Pastimes, that came out on September 4, “Against The Night” is intense and emotional in a forceful way. The trio of Cooper Leardi, Funeral Advantage’s Tyler Kershaw and Michael Rocheford have a knack for sonically traveling to a time when synth was king while also exhibiting a modern edge.
Prateek – “All The Stars” (Self-Released)
Some of the best music comes from collaborating and singer-songwriter Prateek Poddar had that luxury with the single “All The Stars” when it came out on October 16. Cody Nilson from Ward Hayden & The Outliers adds a bit of twang on lead guitar and pedal steel while Taylor Holland and Heather Scott from Hawthorn add melody via their backing vocals. These elements compliment Poddar’s songwriting skills excellently for a tune you can easily get lost in.
Eldridge Rodriguez – “Your Dead Boyfriend” (Midriff)
I’m a sucker for alternative rock bands that make music mirroring the ‘80s and the ‘90s, so it should make sense that Eldridge Rodriguez have a song on this list. “Your Dead Boyfriend” off of the band’s fourth album, Slightest Of Treason, that came out on February 7 has Cameron Keiber exhibiting honest vocals while being joined by Sarah Borges for the triumphant chorus. There’s also a certain amount of grit that’s present, which I think should be a proper element when the subject of death is part of the equation.
Lewis Morris – “Rush” (Self-Released)
I could have picked a track off of Lewis Morris’ latest album Don’t Be Nice that came out on August 21 or his two mixtapes that followed, The Wednesday Addams Tape that was released on October 23 and Panic For Breakfast that hit the internet December 4, but “Rush” has been getting me pumped up ever since it came out on August 13. It could be how it leads off with a promo from All Elite Wrestling’s Scorpio Sky or how the beats and samples are incredible, but if this song doesn’t get you hyped then you don’t have a pulse. A great hip-hop track that keeps it real about jumping into new things.
Lettuce – “Checker Wrecker” feat. Jungle Boogie & Big Tony (Round Hill)
The Berklee bred funk act Lettuce made it a focal point to recognize their influences with their seventh album, Resonate, when it came out on May 8. “Checker Wrecker” celebrates the legacy of the Washington, D.C. funky phenomenon known as Go-Go by including the legendary Big Tony from Trouble Funk and Jungle Boogie from Rare Essence into the groove. Saxophonist Ryan Zoidis and trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom both make the track shine bombastically.
Rebuilder – “Monuments” (Self-Released)
There’s no secret that there’s been a ton of social and political division this year and Rebuilder confronted this reality in the best way a punk band can with sonic authority. The single “Monuments” that came out on September 25 examines the tearing down of Confederate statues, the massive protests and the history of racism of the United States in an electrifying way. Vocalist and guitarist Sal Medrano sings with intensity while bassist Daniel Carswell, drummer Harley Cox and keyboardist Patrick Hanlin round out the song with an barrage of amplification.
Vangarde – “The New Normal” (Brutal Music)
Hip-hop is at its best when it’s kept simple while the lyrics and beats take hold and Mr. Lif and Stu Bangas did it in a fresh way when they started Vangarde back in the spring. Lif spat analytical rhymes about the dawn of the situation with “The New Normal” when it came out on April 25. Bangas also exhibits fantastic mixing of jazz samples to supply an old school vibe.
Gray Bouchard & The Dedications – “Farewell to Lo Fi” (MegaHex)
Gray Bouchard has been busy this year with juggling his two bands, Gray Bouchard & The Dedications and Salem Wolves, while also becoming a dad. One main highlight from him in 2020 is “Farewell to Lo Fi” off of the second album, Love In The New World, that he and The Dedications put out back on February 21. The tone from his guitar is hypnotizing and the entire track just oozes charismatic cool.
Freezepop – “Fantasizer” (Archenemy)
10 years can be a long time between album releases and sometimes the latest one doesn’t live up to the hype. Freezepop proved to be the antithesis of that claim when they released Fantasizer on September 25. The title track captures a classic new wave aesthetic with lyrics that stay in your head and blissful electronic elements.
Billy Dean Thomas – “Stressin’ & Flexin’” (Self-Released)
There are few hip-hop jams that came out of Boston that hit as hard as Billy Dean Thomas’ “Stressin & Flexin’”. Off of the For Better Or Worse EP that came out on October 30, the beats have a ton of bass behind them and the chorus is up front and center. Rilla Force’s co-production with Thomas is excellent while supplying a heavy dose of volume.
Anjimile – “Baby No More” (Father/Daughter)
A main quality that separates Anjimile from their local musical contemporaries is the ability they possess to grow their sound. The debut album, Giver Taker, that came out on September 18 takes the simplicity of the singer-songwriter style and adds electronic layers to it. There’s a new brand of pop being nurtured and “Baby No More” stands out because of how it adds a heartfelt R&B element on top of this sonic casserole.
The Devil’s Twins – “Bad Karma” (Self-Released)
Speaking of growth, The Devil’s Twins achieved new levels of badass when they released their single “Bad Karma” on October 30. The trio of guitarist and co-vocalist Jeremiah Louf, vocalist Nikki Coogan and drummer Ryan Manning had themselves joined by the horn section of Eric Ortiz on trumpet and Aitan-Ben Joseph on saxophone. This addition brought a blustering display of rock with a chorus that embeds itself into the senses.
Cliff Notez & Dephrase – “Voodoo Doll” feat. Latrell James (Union Sound)
The psychedelic and jazzy fusion that takes place in “Voodoo Doll” off of August 14’s Social Absence EP is a special thing to experience. Dephrase creates incredible beats that take the mind on a voyage while Cliff Notez lyrically proves while he’s one of the best rappers in Boston. Latrell James’ inclusion in the song also adds another dimension that completes it all from start to finish.
Ripe – “Five In The Morning” (Self-Released)
I know it’s strange to pick a track that came out less than two weeks into 2020 as #1, but Ripe’s “Five In The Morning” has been flowing in and out of my headphones ever since it came out on January 10th. Vocalist Robbie Wulfsohn, guitarists Tory Geismar & Jon Becker, drummer Sampson Hellerman, trumpeter Josh Shpak, trombonist Calvin Barthel and bassist Nadav Shapira create soulful funk that can lift your spirits. After I recently played this track for a dear friend of mine, they said “This song makes we want to party in my birthday suit on a beach somewhere with a bunch of my friends.” Couldn’t we all use that kind of getaway right about now? That’s exactly why this banger gets the top spot.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.