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Our Favorite Massachusetts Albums From A Year Like No Other

The best local albums of 2020. (Courtesy of the artists)
The best local albums of 2020. (Courtesy of the artists)

In 2020, nothing was as before. So we did what we always do in times of crisis: we sought solace in music, and escape. And while many Massachusetts artists struggled to make ends meet in an industry brought to its knees by the pandemic, it is reassuring to look back on the year and see that, amid so much loss, we gained some beautiful things. Here are our critics’ favorite local albums to emerge from a year like no other.

Bad History Month, 'Old Blues'

The tumultuous sophomore release of Sean Sprecher’s Bad History Month arrived at the peak of our isolation in April, and since then, I’ve yet to discover another body of work so emblematic of such an emotionally taxing year. Loaded with discordant guitars, caustic drums and Sprecher’s uncompromised voice, “Old Blues” is an emo-revivalist masterpiece so raw and unrestrained, a heavy sedative would fail to paralyze it. Sprecher’s ability to cohesively meld emo, post-rock and drone music into songs brimming with tense, autobiographical stories has elevated “Old Blues” to one of the most striking releases this year.

— Charley Ruddell


$ean Wire, 'Internal Dialect'

On “Internal Dialect,” $ean Wire revels in the liminal: the space between hip-hop and R&B, the line between hard and soft, the barrier between sleeping and waking. The album, his second, is a yearning exploration of love and self-actualization upon which producer GIB DJ casts a woozy spell. Whether he’s rapping or singing, Wire calibrates his voice for maximum expressiveness, and there’s an inherent tenderness to the Boston native’s delivery; he’ll take an aggressive beat and cradle it, voice cushioned by smeary stacks of backing vocals. But gentleness should not be mistaken for weakness. “Internal Dialect" is a recognition of the truth to be found in the vulnerable unconscious. “Something beautiful coming,” Wire murmurs on the opening track, suggesting that what’s to come is a dream, or even a premonition. Then a woman’s voice implores him: “Wake up.” Listening to “Internal Dialect,” you’ll never want to.

— Amelia Mason


Anjimile, 'Giver Taker'

On Anjimile’s full-length debut via Father/Daughter Records, an adventurous sonic palette gives old songs new life. Many of the tracks on “Giver Taker” first appeared in a different form on Anjimile’s past releases; some date back to 2016, when he was getting sober and starting to live more fully as a trans and nonbinary person. Now, aided by a few years’ perspective — along with the help of collaborator Justine Bowe (who performs as Photocomfort) and producer Gabe Goodman — the tracks transcend their original arrangements and bloom with compassion. Hints of ‘80s pop, unexpected textures and Bowe’s radiant soprano add brightness and comfort to moments of self-creation. Though the album was born in a moment of grief, it’s a document of growth and resilience.

— Karen Muller


Jymmy Kafka & Rilla Force, 'Lil Nothin''

“Lil Nothin’” is Jymmy Kafka’s self-deprecating name for an album that plays like an autobiography, but his collaboration with electronic heavy-hitter Rilla Force assures listeners that he’s already outgrown the title. On hurtling opener “35A,” he reflects on growing up in a Framingham tenement building feeling “burdened with a sense of purpose and legacy.” He spends the rest of the album fighting to live up to his own ambitions. Rilla Force’s slick future-bass leanings give the title track a racing pulse, and elsewhere, contribute a sticky haze that’s easy to get lost in, but nothing breaks Kafka’s momentum, propelled by sheer willpower and razor-edged wit. The two make a formidable team.

— Karen Muller


Squirrel Flower, 'I Was Born Swimming'

Squirrel Flower is the solo project from Arlington native Ella Williams, a singer and songwriter of unusual clarity and power. “I Was Born Swimming” is Squirrel Flower’s first official full-length album (it was preceded by two self-released EPs) and Polyvinyl debut. On it, Williams expands on the scrappy intimacy of her previous work, marrying explosive dynamics with penetrating poetry. The title, “I Was Born Swimming,” is a reference to Williams’ actual birth — she was born inside the amniotic sac, also known as “en caul.” This origin story serves as the anchor for Williams’ burgeoning sense of self as she steps assuredly into a bigger musical world.

— Amelia Mason


Latrell James, 'Under'

Latrell James doesn’t hesitate in getting to the point on “Under,” the rapper’s strongest and most self-aware release to date. “I ain’t waste no time/ I had to run for it,” he declares on “Run Forest,” the EP’s spellbinding opening track, and from there, James bobs and weaves through a number of personal struggles, from familial tumult to escaping the streets of his hometown, in stoic fashion. Recalling the choice production work of Sounwave and the great J Dilla, James gets straight to the heart of things, all while sitting comfortably at the top of Boston hip-hop.

— Charley Ruddell


PHONY, 'Knock Yourself Out'

Last year’s “Songs You’ll Never Sing” was Neil Berthier’s debut under the PHONY moniker, but it wasn’t the first record he started as a solo artist. He’d began working on “Knock Yourself Out” back in 2017, around the time his previous punk band Donovan Wolfington broke up, which might explain the adrift, exhausted mood that permeates the album. It’s straightforward, grimacing rock with an emo edge that’s most pronounced as Berthier mulls over regrets from past relationships and the toll of life on the road. His mellow voice drives pretty melodies, but it occasionally cracks into a bratty punk holler, as it does in the album’s best moment, the crushing final minute of “Turnstile Effect.” It sounds like Berthier gargled a cheese grater before baring his feelings: “I hate to say I love you ‘cause it hurts/ I love you because it hurts.” Like so much of the album, it’s a pained-but-powerful bid for honesty.

— Karen Muller


Wendy Eisenberg, 'Dehiscence'

Fans of the Boston underground may recognize Wendy Eisenberg from their stint with Birthing Hips, a virtuosic avant-rock group that disbanded in 2017, though not before releasing some of the area’s most compelling and original music. Since then, Eisenberg has proven as prolific as they are agile, earning critical accolades for solo and collaborative work that spans improvisatory and pop-adjacent worlds. “Dehiscence,” the first of two solo albums Eisenberg put out this year, was recorded in solitude in late 2019 and released at the height of quarantine in April. Hushed and spare, it relies on Eisenberg’s voice and charmingly peculiar guitar playing, and, like all of the artist’s work, thrives on idiosyncrasy. Gradually, however, “Dehiscence” reveals its internal logic — or perhaps it’s just that Eisenberg becomes more known to us. Their lyrics are bracingly forthright, at once shocking and comical. “I know it’s not worth making changes on a weak foundation,” Eisenberg sings wryly. “But I can’t imagine mine will ever be stable enough.” “Dehiscence” is a deconstruction of both songwriting and the author’s own thoughts — the title means, among other things, the bursting open of a sutured-up wound — and an argument for the insight to be gained in one’s undoing.

— Amelia Mason

Related:

Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.

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Charley Ruddell Twitter Music Writer
Charley Ruddell is a freelance music critic and contributor for WBUR.

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Karen Muller Twitter Music Writer
Karen Muller writes about music and culture for WBUR.

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