As The Current’s local music team, we used to find a lot of new music out at late-night shows, but this year, we’ve mostly been exploring releases through Bandcamp and SoundCloud (and our inboxes). Is it ideal? No, but it’s still rewarding. This year, Minnesota music has made us cry, dance, and cheer. Below, we’ve compiled 20 wonderful albums; for information on our favorite local singles of the year, check out Andrea Swensson’s Top 89 of 2020 list.
– Cecilia Johnson, Andrea Swensson, Jesse Wiza, and Jay Gabler
L.A. Buckner, Big Homie
Drummer, composer, and educator L.A. Buckner topped the Apple Music jazz charts this year with the release of his evocative debut album, Big Homie, an immersive, evocative series of instrumental compositions that draw on his love for gospel, R&B, and hip-hop.
Few images of the Minneapolis uprising were as poignant for the local music community as the one of Nur-D and his longtime DJ Hayes kneeling down to be handcuffed in front of a row of fully militarized police. It was the first of two times that Nur-D would be arrested this summer while aiding protesters with his Justice Frontline Aid crew, and his fall release 38th documents his evolution into a politically activated, affecting artist for our urgent times.
Recorded in the aftermath of a health scare and a big breakup, Jake Luppen of Hippo Campus’s solo debut uses vocal manipulation and kaleidoscopic production to upend the listener’s expectations. While turning his approach to songwriting inside-out, Lupin also revealed new layers of his own vulnerability and strength.
Breezy, blooming Afropop melts into Midwestern folk-pop on the new EP from Miloe, the recording project led by Congolese-American Bobby Kabeya. Greenhouse feels like a 15-minute excursion to a warmer, dreamier world, and it serves as a fitting introduction to a budding young songwriter with loads of potential.
Turn Turn Turn, Can’t Go Back
The chemistry between Adam Levy, Barb Brynstad, and Savannah Smith is immediately apparent as soon as they break into three-part harmony on “Can’t Go Back,” the lead track on their debut album as Turn Turn Turn.
In a tie with Muja Messiah for most prolific artist of the pandemic, Longshot delivered five different releases this year, including the timely EP #ImSaying, recorded in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. On Champion, his TGIK-produced full-length, Longshot set out to “celebrate the everyday winner and hero inside of each and every one of us,” and gave us a much-needed reminder to keep moving, pushing, and dancing in the face of uncertainty and fear.
Muja Messiah, Flowers Blossom On Top of Coffins
While some of us were learning to bake bread, Muja Messiah just kept writing and writing and writing. His latest full-length album, Flowers Blossom On Top of Coffins, was actually recorded prior to the pandemic, but its reflections on loss, resilience, and rebirth served as a fitting soundtrack for this transformative year. Now outfitted with a home studio, Muja has kept up a song-a-week stride for much of 2020 (many of which are featured on his Muja Messiah Monday Mixtape, Vol. 1), and is readying a new album for release next year.
Partition, Prodigal Gun
Remember way back in January 2020, when you could pick up a copy of City Pages, leaf through it while greeting acquaintances at a bustling coffee shop, and stumble onto a profile of a promising new band? It feels like another lifetime now, but that’s how Andrea first came to know Partition, whose album Prodigal Gun was one of the early standouts of the year. Led by Taylor Nice, Partition’s confessional, cathartic punk songs about rage and recovery are punctuated by the kind of unholy screams we’ve probably all wanted to make this year.
Poliça, When We Stay Alive
Much of Poliça’s latest album was created while vocalist and songwriter Channy Leaneagh was recovering from a serious back injury, and though she couldn’t have possibly predicted what 2020 had in store for us all, her deeply personal reflections on isolation, healing, and rediscovering her voice only became more relevant as the year wore on. We’re all looking forward to the day we can “Be Again.”
Matt Wilson and His Orchestra, When I Was A Writer
Matt Wilson and His Orchestra were some of the last musicians to visit our studio this year. Their album When I Was a Writer came out in mid-March, just as workplaces and stores were starting to shut down in accordance with shelter-in-place orders. Oddly enough, When I Was a Writer often sounds wistful for a different time, thanks to Quillan Roe’s gentle banjo and Wilson’s quiet voice. Bassist Jacque Wait and harpist Phala Tracy round out the quartet.
Mae Simpson, Did You Make It Back
South Carolina native Mae Simpson took the stage at First Avenue in January for City Pages’ Best New Bands showcase, and even though there’s been scores of live streams since that day, her band’s energetic IRL show has stuck with us. As the title of her latest release, Did You Make It Back, suggests, she’s not alone. Backed by an uninhibited band, Mae Simpson fills a space with an uncontainable energy, whether that space is your living room or a 1,550-capacity venue. Pulling from the grooviest elements of soul, rock, and funk, Simpson’s latest will launch you off the couch and leave you feeling alive again.
Mary Bue, The World is Your Lover
Mary Bue’s voice has never sounded stronger than on her latest release, The World is Your Lover, which was partly inspired by her travels from her longtime homebase of Duluth to Minneapolis, Mexico, and India in search of artistic inspiration and spiritual healing. A live recording of her duet with Alan Sparhawk on the Tom Petty deep cut “Insider” showcases the emotional depths of her voice, while the snappy title track makes it clear why City Pages named her Best Songwriter this year.
Previously known as the Milwaukee-based hip-hop artist Ill Chill, Finnoh released his debut album under his new moniker this year from his new home of Brainerd, Minn. The change of scenery has clearly seeped into Finnoh’s work on Focus, a meditative, immersive collection of songs about soul-searching in isolation, seeking mental clarity, and pursuing freedom “in robotic times,” as he raps on “My World”: “Each day I prepare for my mission / Creating the world that I live in.”
Various Artists, #MeTooMpls
The sprawling and unresolved reckoning with abuse and harassment in the Minnesota music scene was illuminated by a few key flashpoints this year, one of the most public-facing being this nuanced, bold collection of tracks. The list of 17 participating artists includes Chastity Brown (“Afraid of the Night”), Tina Schlieske (“What Would You Pay, Dear Harvey”), Lydia Liza (“Apple in My Pocket”), Annie Mack (“Judge and Jury”), and the debut solo single from r0 (“Sides to Lonely”). Each songwriter brought their own unique take while addressing a painful and long-overlooked issue.
The Sophisticated Dip, The Sophisticated Dip
Working at Medium Zach’s Woodgrain studio, producer Trevor McDonald assembled this project with help from many of the Twin Cities’ veteran rappers: Crescent Moon, The Lioness, Greg Grease, MaLLY, and the list goes on. The ethos feels similar to Joey Van Phillips’ 2017 album Punch Bowl, but the sound is a lot more smoky. Electric guitar percolates with synthesizers and trumpet.
Dua Saleh, ROSETTA
Twin Cities artist Dua Saleh continued their rise to international acclaim this year with a series of singles – including the timely “body cast,” released during the Minneapolis Uprising – and the expansive ROSETTA EP, inspired by rock ‘n’ roll’s inventor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Collaborating with producers such as Psymun and Andrew Broder, Dua weaves their hypnotic, soulful voice around hazy synths and hard-hitting drums, with lyrics that mesmerize, soothe, and provoke the listener, sometimes accomplishing all three in a single song.
One of 2019’s best new local bands – officially anointed with a spot in First Avenue’s annual showcase last winter – is made up of faces familiar to Minnesota rock fans. Joining forces as Green/Blue, though, allowed bassist Hideo Takahashi (Birthday Suits), Jim Blaha (The Blind Shake), and Annie Sparrows and Danny Henry (Awesome Snakes, the Soviettes) to tap into their love of music, as Blaha put it in The Current studio, “like when you’re a teenager and you’re like, ‘I can’t not have it.’” That enthusiasm blasts out of every searing track on their eponymous debut LP.
Blood $moke Body, Lovesick Animal Online
Nazeem & Spencer Joles rebranded themselves as Blood $moke Body this year and put out Lovesick Animal Online, a beautiful project full of shifting shapes and sing-alongs. It’s as casual as a basement party; as sad and dynamic as Atlanta; and nostalgic as a graduation ceremony. According to Joles, he and Nazeem were listening to lots of Alabama Shakes and Joni Mitchell while writing this music. Both influences – especially the former – come through.
Monica LaPlante, Quarantine
The opening track on Monica LaPlante‘s latest release is called “Compression,” which aptly sets the tone for her latest release. Fitting into four tracks, Quarantine reflects on a year that has continued to test us. Unafraid to shine light on the darker moments of 2020, LaPlante considers loneliness, self-doubt, and anger – and their relentless effects on our outlook on life. Thankfully, LaPlante and her band rejected the doomscrolling and pressed record instead: “Cynicism is just a fad/ You are good/ This will pass.” The results will shake you loose of the haze and remind you to keep living.
Iceblink, Carpet Cocoon
In a year when live shows were largely put on hold, when anxiety went sky-high, and when nostalgia often soothed the nerves of music fans looking for a little comfort food, Iceblink’s contemplative, probing instrumental music proved a balm for locals seeking some new sounds. Mixing elements of folk, electronica, and chamber pop, Carpet Cocoon powered Lynn Avery to the top spot on City Pages’ last-ever Picked to Click poll. “It was sort of supposed to be background music to set the mood for your day or your morning,” Avery told Local Current blogger Caleb Brennan. “Mornings can be very romantic.”