The 2020 LEO Playlist: 15 of our favorite local songs of the past year

Jan 6, 2021 at 10:24 am
LEO Playlist

Brutal. Unrelenting. Game-changing. Historic. We could probably think of apt descriptors for 2020 all day, but the result would remain the same. It was a year of pain and reckoning, with a deadly virus floating around and a social justice movement that exposed some of the most terrible scars that the city, nation and world have to offer. All of this was reflected in the music that came out of Louisville — there is a ton of abject sadness, frustration and anger, mixed with a bit of hope and searching for a viable path to a better society. This city has had an incredible and diverse music scene for a long time. And, year after year, it produces a bounty of amazing songs. This year was no different.

You might want to forget 2020, but you’ll want to remember these local songs. This isn’t a ranked list, so the songs are shuffled randomly.

Jordan Jetson — ‘Dragonflies’ With an airy, catchy chorus and versatile verses that hit heavy, Jordan Jetson’s “Dragonflies” explores complicated relationships, both with people and with the city of Louisville. By examining his own frustrations and ambivalence, there’s a remarkable amount of intricacy to the song. There’s definitely love for these people and places, but what’s real and what’s a trap is the question. Is it time to move on? Or is the gravitational pull too strong? It’s the shit we all grapple with at some point. Where do we belong? What direction is happiness? All of that, plus a chorus you’ll walk around the house singing. It’s conceptually brilliant, but also provides that quick hit of radio-ready serotonin. —Scott Recker

Air Chrysalis — ‘Beyond My God’ Self-described as “hauntological pop,” Air Chrysalis has crafted a synth-heavy masterpiece this year with their self-titled, full-length debut. With the song “Beyond My God,” the electro duo has produced a cyborg pastiche of acoustic and synthesized instrumentation, with an ‘80s-style backbeat and enormous pad textures. The vocals are filtered through a vocoder, rendering singer-keyboardist Stanley Chase III’s voice as more machine than man. This is done for effect, with the vocals often shifting registers quicker and more effectively than a person, transforming them into another instrument. Still, when Chase sings about “the dirt and soil of his soul,” you imagine a dusty VCR tape replaying warbling memories, decayed from time. As such, there is a retro-futuristic quality to the music from guitarist Michael Powell. There are post-rock and shoegaze qualities to the guitar work that recall Slowdive or Mogwai, as filtered through a pop-friendly sieve of vaporwave and Kraftwerk. —Syd Bishop

ProNoun — Au Jus’ 2020 is the year that the impossible happened in possibility city and somehow Long Island, New York-native ProNoun found a way to perfectly describe it all. With his first single from the Context II album (which will be released on Kr8vN8vs Records one song at a time) he finds a way to put into words the chaos and turmoil Louisville endured in 2020. From the death of Breonna Taylor to the effects of President Trump, no stone is left unturned and no sock left unmatched. With all the beef, ProNoun makes the perfect “Au Jus’.” A stocky, flavorful flow backed by the savory production of Louisville producer Yons, leaving your ears watering for more. Even if your truths don’t align, it’s still the perfect blend of lyricism and cynicism to keep your head knocking back and forth. It’s worth the taste test. —Romell Weaver

Carly Johnson — ‘Burn Your Fears’ After a trying year for music, it was a delight to see Carly Johnson finally put out her long-awaited, debut album earlier this month. Her music has definitely made the rounds on our lists before — the latest was a new duet with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, titled “For You.” But, I think it’s the album closer “Burn Your Fears” that should be held up for 2020. While its soft piano and Johnson’s vocals offer a moment of consolation, it hits different knowing that this was written shortly after learning of her late friend’s diagnosis with a rare form of lung cancer. “I wrote the song as an anthem for her,” Johnson told American Songwriter. “It’s about facing something incredibly difficult in your life, allowing yourself to completely embrace and feel every emotion it brings your way and deciding to choose to find beauty, and live your life fully in a different way than you had planned.” —Lara Kinne

Zack Stefanski — ‘ulooking4me [burn things]’ Since it was released in the pre-pandemic days of early February, it’s hard to remember that Zack Stefanski’s wonderfully complex indie-pop album 5hrs dropped this year. On “ulooking4me [burn things],” Stefanski illustrates his acumen as a songwriter who knows a good groove. Every single sound has been meticulously placed to transport you into a different time and place. Stefanski uses his lyrics to contemplate the modern world and his position in it — on this song, in particular, that takes shape as a reflection on how the internet has rearranged the way we interact with one another. The lyrics don’t suppose an answer, but rather, they look to situate the listener in Stefanski’s headspace as it revolves around the often caustic contemporary dialogue and observation windows that strangers and acquaintances have through the web. That this proved so incredibly prescient in the then-burgeoning new year, speaks to the power of that alienation. —Syd Bishop

Joan Shelley — ‘Blue Skies’ Nature is a consistent theme throughout Joan Shelley’s music, but her unique trick is how she juxtaposes that with human emotion, fueling the piercing power of her songs. That takes on a timely shape with “Blue Skies,” a snapshot of the striking beauty of the outdoors, spliced with the heavy burden of isolation brought on by this year’s pandemic — you can almost see the relaxing qualities of being deep in the woods, but you can feel the gut punches of the year. Shelley once again searches for peace in the chaos, revisiting pristine moments of escape and appreciating environmental wonders, while also pondering a turbulent year of loss. With a simple structure and a minimal amount of words, Shelley finds the pulse of 2020 in her tried and true way. —Scott Recker

Fotocrime — ‘Love Is a Devil’ While the jagged and ominous guitar and synth work on “Love Is a Devil” hangs like the mysterious, anxiety-inducing fog of a film noir, the chorus cuts right to the chase. The track from the gloomy post-punk band’s sophomore record deals directly with faded love — the volatile variety that left blood on its tracks. And Ryan Patterson (Coliseum, Black God) shoots straight in that aforementioned chorus, with a few sometimes inconvenient truths: “Love is the villain, in disguise / Love is the nail, that crucifies / Love is the illness, we can’t survive / Can’t survive / Love is the devil, so divine.” It’s vague enough to be universal, and upfront enough to make you want to light a few memories on fire. —Scott Recker

The Web / Azuza Inkh — ‘Field Rose’ The experimental art rock band, led by vocalist Anthony Hoyle, has remained somewhat idle over the last decade as their last album, Clydotorous Scrotodhendron, was released in 2010. But sometimes time and distance yield the unexpected. During the lockdown, Hoyle and core members Steve Good (tenor saxophone, Moog), Gary Pahler (drums) and Andrew Willis (guitars/synths) conceived a set of five new songs while enlisting some outside collaborators, recording the pieces across seven cities, including Louisville. The outcome was a compelling little EP, awash with soundscapes, layered percussion and Hoyle’s spoken words guiding the trip. While I appreciated the Robert Wyatt feels on “Nothing But” and the wildness of “Says the Suggester,” it’s the closing track, “Field Rose,” that gathers the record’s best features for a final flourish. —Lara Kinne 

Yons — ‘Rolio’ On “Rolio,” producer and emcee Yons shows how many harmonically complex ideas he can fit into such a short compositional space without the track ever feeling rushed. It’s that brevity that works in Yons’ favor, as he shows off his various talents as a musician, from the drum and bass work, to his tasteful keys. Beyond that, his delivery as an emcee is just remarkable, with each bar both completing and carrying on his ever-moving plot. All told, this is a song about longing, a whimsical return to some normalcy after a long and trying year. In that 1:13, he tells his story, plays with your perception through stereo effects and drops references to the socio-politics that dominated the summer’s news cycle, without ever coming off as dated or typical. —Syd Bishop

Quite Literally — ‘Why Can’t You See’ There’s obviously numerous reasons why we’re drawn to music, but one of them is that it’s an avenue to be — or listen to something — honest in a society that doesn’t generally value that. Spill your guts to anyone other than a rock solid friend or family member, and they probably won’t give a fuck. Do it in an effective and relatable way in a song by tying a couple chords and the truth into a brain-burning melody, and you have people zoned in, contemplating their similar struggles. Quite Literally’s “Why Can’t You See” does that, turning a perpetually broken heart into poetic power. The narrator wonders why the people around her don’t recognize or acknowledge the destructive weight she’s carrying around. She establishes that “being human sometimes requires a heart made of stone.” That it’s all hard to say or make sense out of. It works so well because it’s something we all know, but we collectively keep buried. —Scott Recker

Fool’s Ghost — ‘Ghost Heart’ Dropped during the earliest days of quarantine, Dark Woven Light by the duo Fool’s Ghost is a sublimely beautiful album. On the song “Ghost Heart,” the band creates a melancholic dream, a bleak and world-weary sound that fits the overall feeling of 2020 wonderfully, intentional or not. In opening with the expression “place of memory,” singer/multi-instrumentalist Amber Thieneman establishes “Ghost Heart” as a rumination of a haunted past. Thieneman’s pain is focused equally through her dreamy vocal delivery and the interplay between the various instruments at play. Predicated on a piano movement, the band builds something truly transcendent. This track is equal parts Low and My Bloody Valentine — softly sung slowcore that emphasizes atmosphere, groove and tension. —Syd Bishop

Rmllw2llz — ‘My God’ Rmllw2llz wanted Kanye West’s chilly and stylistic album 808s & Heartbreak to have an influence on his latest EP, this year’s Concerto No. 9 Movement II.V. And the track “My God” carries that vibe — between the icy and distant auto-tuned chorus and the clever and piercing verses, the connection is there. But Rmllw2llz still makes the song entirely his own. His instantly-recognizable booming baritone and patient delivery provide a very personalized lyrical snapshot, one that balances blessings and concerns. Even though it’s more introspective and less political than his previous releases, he still weaves in a welcome swipe at the outgoing president: “I feel like living is as unforgiving as Donald Trump / I ain’t as privileged and I ain’t as dumb.” —Scott Recker

Jaye Jayle — ‘From Louisville’ There is a darkness inherent in so much of Louisville’s rich musical tapestry. With “From Louisville,” singer-songwriter Evan Patterson leans into that oppressive gloom, delivering something seething and, at times, disorienting. Patterson’s lyrics are steeped heavily in a thick and visceral Southern Gothic style. The music is hard to identify, blown-out and over-compressed drums plodding a vicious beat, with sparkling synth work to shine a light into the gloom. The vocals have a choral arrangement, adding a gospel element to the mix. This is heavy, although the arrangement emphasizes less of the crushing doom, and more of the spiritual connection to confronting your own darkness. —Syd Bishop

Matt Sweeney & Bonnie 'Prince’ Billy — ‘Make Worry for Me’ An eerie and foreboding song that seems plucked out of a horror movie, Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s “Make Worry for Me,” on the surface, seems visceral and clear, but, as it develops, it digs a bit deeper in striking and ambiguous ways. It’s fun and campy, like your favorite slasher, but it’s aware that the demons also live inside us. It’s the sort of song that you would expect from the duo who occasionally performs under the name Superwolf — minimal and strange in the right ways, with lyrics that shine and captivating guitar work. “Make Worry for Me” definitely has the dark demeanor of 2020, but it also contains the joy of longtime friends having a good time. —Scott Recker

Nick B — ‘Breathe’ (feat. Yons and Khari) It’s been a catastrophic year for Louisville, highlighted by the police killing of Breonna Taylor, the government failures that followed, and a record number of homicides that piled on the grief. Not to mention dealing with a deadly virus. For “Breathe,” producer Nick B enlisted Yons and Khari to reflect on the suffering and difficulties that 2020 brought, both on societal and personal levels. The song covers the battles for social justice and inner peace, and the continued, valiant fight for both, but sometimes, in the face of it all, the importance of remembering to “just breathe.” It’s a nuanced look at being overwhelmed, yet maintaining your strength and will despite the state of things. —Scott Recker