CITY's 2020 Playlist: great music at a bad time 

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For a year that saw live music grind to a halt in March due to the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent venue shutdowns and self-quarantines, 2020 had no shortage of quality recorded music produced by Rochester-area artists.

Whether local musicians were using the added isolation and increased time at home to tap into their creativity or they simply honed and sharpened the sound they had been cultivating prior to the pandemic, there have been plenty of music releases to be excited about in what was an otherwise catastrophic year.

“CITY 2020 Playlist: great music at a bad time” is a non-comprehensive but varied collection of some of Rochester’s best new audio creations. From the country rock of Benton Sillick’s project The Heavy Love Trust to the big-band feel of up-and-coming pop bands such as The Sideways and Nancy, from the gritty, impassioned hip-hop of artists including Capital Cee and Young, Black, and Gifted to fantastic vocal performances by Danielle Ponder and She Rise — local music stepped up to provide a feel-good respite, a momentary escape, and at times poignant reflection on the difficult times we live in.

Below are just some of the musical highlights from the year that was. You can find these songs and more on CITY’s official 2020 playlist here:

“The Pits” by The Heavy Love Trust

You may know Benton Sillick from his stint as trumpeter for the roots-reggae outfit Thunder Body, or as the steady, unassuming bass player for the garage rock bands Anamon and Overhand Sam & Bad Weapon. But Sillick is a compelling songwriter all on his own, and his solo project The Heavy Love Trust and its debut album “Always Kinda Nothing” is proof of that. With a tuneful if somewhat nasal tenor voice that smacks of Neil Young, Sillick’s set of low-key country rock tunes simmer in your ears like a home-cooked meal on the stove.

“Common Ground” by The Sideways

The Sideways, led by frontman-keyboardist Joe Stehle, released not one, but two EPs this year. They bring a big-band energy to catchy soul-pop gems that can get under your skin and spread to your feet in no time. Expect them to make a bigger splash on the local concert scene once things open up again. 2020 was a great year for upstart Rochester pop bands comprising young jazz, soul, and funk musicians with impressive musical polish and loads of charisma and skill — and The Sideways is one of them.

“Little Bit” by Danielle Ponder and Karate Boogaloo

Danielle Ponder was already a household name locally, not to mention a stalwart touring musician in Europe. But 2020 truly was a breakout year for Ponder, both in terms of her national visibility — as a serious contender in NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest — and in the perfection of her craft as an impeccable soul singer delivering heart-wrenching songs of love and social justice.

“Games” by She Rise ft. FlightGawdLuxxi

If Ponder is the preeminent singer in the Rochester area, Sherice Barnes, a.k.a. She Rise, may be the next ascendent vocalist in line. An R&B songwriter with a velvety-smooth tone and poise, She Rise released her statement EP “Moody” early in the year and a deluxe version as a follow-up in October. Sherice Barnes is on the rise.

“Off the Charts" by Judah Sealy

Rochester saxophonist-keyboardist Judah Sealy is a music teacher by day, but a sultry smooth jazz artist by night. Sealy’s instrumental compositions are easy-listening tunes, in the best possible way. And his reach extends beyond the 585. In June, the single “Off the Charts,” from his new album “Legacy,” reached Billboard’s Smooth Jazz Top 30.

“Sally” by Nancy

Led by singer-keyboardist Sam Caldwell, Nancy has emerged from the halls of University of Rochester and Eastman School of Music as yet another band of precocious young musicians with plenty of musical panache and the jazz-inspired chops to back it up. With the release of its EP “First Week Here,” Nancy also acquainted listeners with its nuanced and riff-rich horn section, as well as its bass player Rafael Enciso — whose abilities as both a writer and a groove-maker are on full display.

“Flour City Too” by Capital Cee

Rochester hip-hop has had a strong showing in 2020, and Capital Cee’s full-length album “The Edification” is an excellent case-in-point. In collaboration with producer Cello Brown, Cee has created a compelling set of songs that pair old-school, boom-bap-inspired beats with an in-your-face but accessible lyrical flow and clever poetry.

“Suck My Finger Again” by Boy Jr.

A quirky, experimental musician in pop star’s clothing, Erica Allen-Lubman, a.k.a. Boy Jr., is a veritable one-woman band combining killer songwriting instincts with savvy production sensibilities. Her presence on TikTok this year has garnered some much-deserved attention as she interprets well-known pop songs by such artists as The Strokes and Britney Spears through the filter of other artists’ recognizable styles. But she’s also penned some incredibly catchy original songs, including the single “Suck My Finger Again” from last February.

“Cry Cry Cry” by Ben Morey and the Eyes

Ben Morey is a consummate local songwriter with an ability to craft elements of rock, country, and indie pop into nifty, self-contained gems. That capability reached a new level of creative maturity with his latest album “Still Life,” backed by his band The Eyes. It’s the subtle development of the melodies and the inspired intentionality of vocal harmonies that make this music particularly worthwhile, and the opening track “Cry Cry Cry” is an ideal introduction.

“Chicory” by Alyssa Rodriguez

Folk musician Alyssa Rodriguez specializes in interpreting the American, Irish, and folk traditions, on the conventional fiddle and the “keyed fiddle,” or nyckelharpa. In the process of carving out a niche all her own, Rodriguez released the EP “Chicory,” which closes with the title track, a quaint and exceedingly enjoyable ode to independence and self-fulfillment.

“Love and Hate” by Young, Black and Gifted

Young, Black and Gifted is the hard-hitting duo of emcee Azariah and producer Kidd Called Quest, and their album “The Second Coming” poignantly packages lyrics about the cold realities of city life with easy-grooving beats that may cause involuntary movement in listeners.

“Ocean” by Haishen

A new prog-rock trio led by guitarist Chris Xu, Haishen has made an auspicious entrance with its debut, self-titled EP, in a year that didn’t necessarily yield a lot of fresh Rochester rock music. The music can be simultaneously contemplative and brooding, ominous and life-affirming, and the band’s ability to sustain compositional interest over a longer stretch of time as a song slowly unfurls and takes shape — as it does on “Ocean” — is what impresses me most.

“Never” by SkitzoLuvHartD

Tyshawn Pettway, a.k.a. SkitzoLuvHartD, is one of the most interesting Rochester musicians to emerge in 2020. A gifted rapper with self-aware rhymes and an idiosyncratic and intelligent approach to hip-hop soundscapes, Pettway has been transparent about his schizophrenia diagnosis and how his creative identity has empowered him to embrace his own psychological health. In a year in which Rochester turned its eye to the long-neglected intersection of police brutality and the need for emergency mental health responders — in light of the death of Daniel Prude — SkitzoLuvHartD’s music took on an even greater urgency.

“Acidic Twilight Visions” by Undeath

For those whose well-being is predicated on a healthy dose of death metal, Rochester band Undeath is just the medicine. The trio has made significant in-roads in the national metal scene, having signed to prominent heavy music label Prosthetic Records and released the full-length album “Lesions of a Different Kind.” The band’s sound is relentless, razor-sharp, and virtuosic at times. And it’s always loud and menacing. A veritable bliss-out for headbangers.

“Bullet” by Hassaan Mackey

Rapper Hassaan Mackey is a household name in the Rochester hip-hop scene, but his music has also extended its reach beyond the region — the album “That Grit,” his collaboration with notable Maryland-based producer Kev Brown, is a prime example. Even before the pandemic, catching a live performance by Mackey was hit-or-miss. But sporadic appearances aside, he’s a reputable freestylist whose penchant for off-the-cuff rapping belies his skill as a writer. As evidenced by a new collection of songs, “Ghetto Kung Fu,” Mackey is an incisive emcee and an ear for effective minimalist beats.

“Am I Dreaming?” by The Recall feat. Kofi Lost and N’dea Tha Dada

The Recall’s EP “Am I Dreaming?” gave jazz lovers reason to jump for joy at the prospect yet another new band comprising eager music students with ample creative energy and clear technical ability. The title track is a moving blend of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and pop acknowledging the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, not least of all on people of color. This riveting composition ends on a hopeful and steadfast note — an attitude from which we can all take a cue as we look to 2021.

What was your favorite Rochester music from 2020? Share your highlights — as well as your take on our picks — with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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