Among the few upsides in 2020 was that Phoenix musicians, undistracted by live performances, used all that extra free time to expand their sounds and refine their creative efforts. The end result was a collection of local albums and standalone singles that captured the historic year in sound and mood.
Here are just a few standout releases from the last 12 months — definitive proof that enduring music knows very few bounds.
Sam Means, I’m Sorry
If anyone turned 2020's many lemons into sparkling lemonade, it was Sam Means. The musician and head of local merch company Hello Merch went from a planned reunion with The Format to releasing an excellent five-song EP, I'm Sorry. The project clearly owes something to Means' main band, and there's a kind of earnestness and heart-on-sleeve mentality linking both sounds. But from there, Means spins in '70s-style folk-rock (a la Stephen Stills) and '90s alternative (think Teenage Fanclub) for energetic jams on American politics and doomed love. If there are any downsides, the EP feels too brief; Means cuts right to the heart of this moment with breathtaking efficiency. It's the sort of project that almost makes you glad 2020 went haywire because from that chaos we got to experience a hugely talented artist display his true strengths.
Playboy Manbaby, Debbie From Zumba
The extremely online among us may have already been following Playboy Manbaby's Robbie Pfeffer on TikTok, where his UHF-like cable-access approach to ironic humor is on full display. But Pfeffer and company kicked off the year with a new five-song EP, Debbie From Zumba, and it's better than all the teenaged followers in the world. The band maintains pretty much one speed across this 15-ish-minute affair: a manic, slightly filthy style of machine-gun punk delivered with a hugely sharp wit. It's a slight change of pace from past efforts (like 2018's Boundless Vanity), but Playboy Manbaby retain the essence of their humor and tenacity to appease even the most enduring of fans. It's not that this EP captures a moment with all its angst and bile; it's more that they've created something powerful that gives people a language for everything in 2020. Playboy Manbaby have always been brilliant. This is just another gift for those who pay close attention.
No Lungs, What You Didn't Want to Happen Is Happening Right Now
It's impressive that Chandler resident Austin Cooper (a.k.a. No Lungs) managed to record a 10-track LP mostly on his own. It's doubly impressive that Cooper created such a sonically rich album that synthesizes so many ideas and sounds. Cooper is deeply indebted to the Arizona rock scene, and he readily blends sludgy metal, jangly alt-rock, a dash or two of punk, shimmery indie rock, and some extra-sharp post-punk. The end result is a record that's never bogged down by its influences and instead relies on these elements to make a sound that's as daring and inventive as it is hugely accessible and comforting. Cooper can readily switch gears from scathing tunes about greed ("Our America") to odes on his personal shortcomings ("One Fixed Point"), and it's his boundless commitment that remains steadfast. This feels like a watershed moment for Arizona's indie rock scene.
Mega Ran and DJ DN3, AGES, Vol. 2
Between the endless wrestling references and vintage nerd aesthetic, some people forget what Mega Ran is truly capable of on the mic. So, after joining forces with DJ DN3, the man born Raheem Jarbo showed off his skills with the second volume of his AGES project. Mega Ran examines the entirety of 2020 across these 10 songs, from the #MeToo movement ("Men Behaving Badly") and the value of artistic expression ("Beauty in Creation") to a little optimism for tomorrow ("H.O.P.E."). But it's not just his place to soothe the soul or condemn nasty behavior; Mega Ran captures the essence of the moment with boundless emotion and his trademark wordplay. It's a chronicle of a year that emphasizes that we all must be aware of the good and the bad if we're to ever make it to 2021 and beyond. Toss in some really strong production from DN3, which ebbs and flows with the MC's verses, and this album proves Mega Ran is among the state's sharpest talents.
Audrey Heartburn feat. Tour Guide Saul, 'WTF'
On Bandcamp, Audrey Heartburn labeled their new single "WTF" with tags like "glam," "surf rock," and "psychobilly." And if you listen to even a few seconds of this song, you may be inclined to believe these are accurate qualifiers and not possible gags. This Tempe outfit has always skirted musical boundaries, and they've excelled at taking the beating heart of rock music and spinning in new ideas and energies to make a bigger sound. But "WTF" is another beast entirely: Whether it's the slow, methodic pace, the pained vocal stylings, the use of some turn-of-the-century-sounding piano, or Tour Guide Saul dropping spitfire bars, it's hard to really decide what you're listening to. That mystery, though, is worth trying to crack.
Dylan Pratt, Fantasma
Dylan Pratt's a young guy with more experience than folks twice his age. He lived in Seattle for a time, gaining success with the band Moya. He's played with some big names, including Rhett Miller and Neko Case. And for his 2015 album, Limbo, he worked with producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Fruit Bats). All of that living and traveling has made its way onto Pratt's latest, the excellent Fantasma. Whether he's channeling the wandering folk of a Bob Dylan or the more robust balladry of David Bazan, Pratt understands the art of songwriting as a reflection of his own moods and adventures. Pratt uses folk to create a sonic canvas where he expertly journals his life with a vivid heart and a clear sense of precision. It's the sort of album you put on to understand yourself and the world around you, and in that sense, Pratt becomes the best kind of proxy for listeners. No matter where his travels take him, Pratt is worth following along.
Strega Beata, 'Prayers of Consequence'
Sam An spent years exploring the realm of electronic music as Lana Del Rabies. But even the most hilarious of band names run their course, and An has re-launched her musical efforts under a new name, Strega Beata. This latest outfit, which debuted in early 2020, is meant to expand to a "wider scope of soundscapes," with a focus on ideas like grief, ancient mythology, and interactions between "the physical environment and spirit world." All of that has so far resulted in a few standalone singles, including the beguiling "Prayers of Consequence." This love child of ambient, industrial, and darkwave has some connections to LDR, but An has taken her experimentation in a new direction. Equally lush and comforting, harsh and menacing, it's more than just a sonic science project; it's a compelling synthesis of history, emotion, and psychic energies. At one point, An utters, "I’ve become/everything, everything," and you can't help but think she's totally right.
It's Embarrassing, 'Dry Heat'
In September, Oakland-based label Heart On Records released This Will Not End Quietly, a compilation "dedicated to fighting voter suppression." In addition to helping the cause, the 17-track comp featured a number of exciting new punk acts, including Gina Volpe, Teenage Bigfoot, and Sad Girlz Club. Even Tempe's own It’s Embarrassing got in on the fun, releasing the standout track "Dry Heat." This snarling little ditty asks people what they're doing to counter the "next right-wing ghoul who seizes power after Trump." (If you're this specific band, the answer is crafting killer punk tunes for the revolution.) This is a genuine banger even outside of its political context, as It's Embarrassing continue to push themselves in making great punk that doesn't so much break down walls as steamroll them into dust. Too bad we couldn't vote for this trio instead.
Kareem Ali, The 2020 Releases
Telling you to just listen to an artist's entire discography is, admittedly, a huge copout. But in the case of Phoenix-based DJ/producer Kareem Ali, it's the only real way to get a true understanding of just how prolific he was across 2020. From a rough count, Ali had something like 33 releases for 2020, each with varying numbers of songs — more than 100 songs overall in one year. Ali's work feels like a master class in producing, as he readily spins in everything from funk and soul to EDM and house to craft huge soundscapes rife with rich sentiments. Is everything that Ali releases always a shimmery gem of sonic goodness? No, but that's not the point. Instead, he's looking to show his development as an aural engineer by putting everything out into the world. And based on 2020 alone, he's on pace for some truly big things.
The Black Moods, Sunshine
Mainstream rock 'n' roll, with all its braggadocio energy and oversized swagger, seems a little out of place in 2020. But don't tell that to Tempe's own The Black Moods, who released just such an unrelenting rock album with Sunshine. Underneath all of those massive power chords, anthemic vocals, and big, crunchy drums, though, exists something deeply human. The members of The Black Moods may consider themselves rockers, but they're not afraid to show off both their technical prowess and cohesion as the tightest of rock trios. Whether they're referencing something like early Gin Blossoms, or spinning in bits of blues and Delta rock, Black Moods make badass rock like deeply dedicated craftsmen.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.