Joel's top 10 local releases of 2020

Joel Oliphint

10. Todd May: Let’s Go Get Lost

For years, Todd May would tell people this record was on its way. But everything fell apart (as we documented), so eventually May just burned the roots-rock songs onto some CDs and titled it The Little Record That Couldn’t. Fortunately, this year the album finally got a real title and an official release, and these 10 songs prove why Columbus musicians speak of Todd May’s songwriting in hushed tones. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next one.

9. Watershed: Extended Player

Joe Oestreich described leadoff track “Bleeding on the Blank Page” as “Watershed trying to write a Smithereens song that sounds like an AC/DC song,” and it’s hard to sum it up better than that. Somehow, 35 years into the life of the band, Watershed continues to write pitch-perfect power-pop.

8. Mery Steel: Dreams and Live at Brothers Drake

It should have been a big year for Mery Steel, one of Alive’s 2020 Bands to Watch. Tours, festival slots and a new full-length were in the works before COVID blew everything up. But, we still got a top-notch Mery Steel live record, which will make you run to the nearest venue once things open back up (Ryan Stolte-Sawa’s voice is a treasure). Plus, we got a new EP, Dreams, with a couple of songs that came out of a creative lockdown spurt. Sometimes a big year isn’t in the cards, but this band’s journey is only beginning.

7. Powers/Rolin Duo: self-titled

I came to this EP late, but these three tracks of instrumental guitar from Matthew J. Rolin and hammered dulcimer from Jen Powers are fantastic, going from acoustic, solo-fingerstyle work on opening track “Endless Window” to hypnotic electric drones on “Caterwauls,” and capping it off with 18-minute epic “Ageless Phase,” which features the best of both worlds.

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6. Joey Aich: Open Treehouse

Who knew that when Joey Aich rapped about being remote, holed up in his castle, the sentiment would hold true for everyone in 2020. But “Castle” also speaks to inequities unique to the Black community. References to the murder of Black people on HD cameras, and the baggage Aich and others are forced to carry — it’s all so painfully timeless, especially in this city.

This EP is slated to become part of a forthcoming full-length from frontman Alex Mussawir (formerly of Future Nuns). For this particular project, Kneeling in Piss became mostly a solo project, notwithstanding some welcome vocal contributions from Madeline Robinson (Nice Try, Racecar). “Sophisticated but cheap,” a line from the song “Pervert Today,” remains my preferred short-term way to describe Kneeling in Piss, one of the best bands in Columbus.

4. snarls: Burst

Similar to Mery Steel's trajectory, 2020 was shaping up to be a huge year for snarls, a local indie-rock upstart (and Band to Watch) that caught the ear of several national outlets. All the attention was deserved, too. Debut album Burst builds on all of snarls’ promise, particularly singer Chlo White’s idiosyncratic songwriting, with instant hooks and lyrics as vulnerable as they are relatable. And in those moments when she belts it out at the top of her range, get ready for goosebumps.

3. Blanket Boys: The Album

This record came out on the very first day of the year, when we were all so young and naive to the future ways of 2020. And yet this project from Joe Camerlengo and Lisa Brokaw completely fits. “A lot of [the record] was written during this very specific time in my life when it felt like things were imploding,” Brokaw told Alive earlier this year. Here’s to good art breaking through the implosions.

2. Glenn Davis: Time to Die 

Glenn Davis is a wizard in the studio, whether he’s producing other musicians’ records or his own. For his second solo album, the Way Yes songwriter did all the vocals, guitars, drums, samples and synthesizers himself, as well as the mixing and mastering. And while it can be risky to attempt such a feat without other sets of ears, Davis nailed it on every song. It’s a strange thing to be walking around my house singing “I wanna be in a place where Stephen King is not the devil” and “I’ve been waiting for my time to die,” but I’ve found myself doing just that ever since Davis released this indie-pop masterpiece.

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1. Hello Emerson: How to Cook Everything

“Sam Bodary has a knack for isolating tiny droplets from life’s gushing firehose, zooming in on them until they clarify and reflect something larger,” I said of How to Cook Everything back in February. “‘We Lost’ recounts a broken nose while playing goalkeeper on an indoor soccer team. ‘Kyle Kerley’ is a voicemail-turned-song that explains to a recently relocated friend that Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is really not that good. Leadoff track ‘Last Dinner’ details a final date night with a partner before the breakup becomes official.”

There are bigger moments on this quintessentially Midwestern, orchestral folk-rock record, too, like Bodary’s unfortunately always-relevant meditation on the phrase “legitimate use of force” in the song “Another War.” But there’s perhaps no better example of Bodary’s vivid, empathetic storytelling than closing track “Seat 16B,” which recounts the tale of a nervous woman on an airplane. Just watch this live performance of “Seat 16B” below, taken at the album release show at Ace of Cups in February. You need it in your life, even if you don’t realize it.