PLAYING DETROIT: A Year in Review

With this absolute dumpster fire of a year coming to a close, the next few weeks are a time for reflection, rest and recuperation. That means a lot of things for a lot of people, but in the music world, it means year-end lists. I usually tend to stay away from this sort of thing because I don’t love the hierarchical nature of the practice. However, it has truly amazed me to see the amount of stellar music come out of Detroit in the midst of such a gut-wrenching year, and it feels important and cathartic to look back on some of the beauty that surfaced in the sea of chaos. I don’t pretend to be a curatorial genius or an authority of any sort, but here are some of my favorite releases from Detroit artists in 2020, in no particular order.

Jay Daniel – SSD (EP)

Detroit house mainstay Jay Daniels gives us fifteen minutes of percussion-driven, layered dance music. While his roots as a drummer remain evident on the EP, Daniels guides the listener through a vibrant forest of sound and space with ease. Shiny synths and deep bass embellishments wrap his complex rhythmic patterns into a pleasurable and meditative listening experience.

ZilchedDOOMPOP (LP)

Lead singer and songwriter of Zilched, Chloe Drallos, has the innate ability to immortalize potent emotions. Delivered with thrashing drums, distorted guitar and apathetic vocals, Drallos recounts moments of heartbreak, angst and boredom that are crushingly relatable. The record is reminiscent of the ’90s riot grrrl without being derivative and satiates the screaming late-teen, early twenty-year old in all of us.

Tammy Lakkis – “Get Up”/”Moon Rock” (single)

Tammy Lakkis makes irresistible electronic music with attention-grabbing percussion and melodic sensibility. “Get Up” feels like spinning out of control without worry or regard for where you’ll land, while “Moon Rock” captivates the listener with the pairing of Lakkis’ mesmerizing vocals and trippy synth layers.

Boldy James, Sterling TolesManger on McNichols (LP)

It’s hard to find the words to describe the gravity of this record. Detroit rapper Boldy James teams up with masterful producer Sterling Toles to blur the lines between hip-hop and jazz in a record that took nearly a decade to complete. Boldy’s often gutting depictions of the city and his experience therein are his most personal and potent verses to date, which he credits to Toles in “Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy).” Toles’ diverse sampling, intricate rhythmic patterns and orchestral arrangements are the perfect pair to Boldy’s visceral anecdotes, making for an undeniably timeless and legendary record.

Omar SSimply (EP)

A true staple in the Detroit house realm, Omar S unsurprisingly delivers a trance-inducing, escapist EP. The perfect amount of dissonance mixed with bouncy up-tempo tracks gives the listener what they want without being over indulgent.

Milfie (feat. Supercoolwicked) – “From Milfie, With Love” (single)

In a year filled with so much uncertainty, there’s something ultra comforting in listening to an artist who knows exactly who she is, and that’s Milfie in a nutshell. In this two-part single, Milfie reminds us of her unshakable self worth, demanding flow and refreshing realness. Joined by ethereal R&B singer-songwriter, SUPERCOOLWICKED, on “Ain’t Got Time,” the two powerhouse artists reflect on the importance of loving yourself and blocking out the bullshit.

Jake KmiecikHorizons (EP)

Kmiecik – drummer of psychedelic-folk outfit Bonny Doon – shows his range in his solo ambient project, Horizons. Glimmering synths are the guiding force in this minimal and cerebral record. Soft and spacey moments intertwined with lush, cascading layers call to mind the ebbs and flows of nature. As a whole, the project feels like a much needed deep breath.

Maya MereauxSeauxl (LP)

Songstress Maya Mereaux makes the stream of consciousness melodic on her first full-length record, Seauxl – a ten-track journey to self-awareness. The album weaves a strong narrative via incredible vocals about losing oneself in a romance, only to come out the other end knowing yourself better than ever before.

White BeePsychedelic Flight Attendant (LP)

White Bee’s Shannon Barnes shares a soulful and transparent foray into her innermost thoughts on Psychedelic Flight Attendant. Barnes has spent the better part of the last decade not only teaching herself guitar, but creating her own unique sound along the way. Filled with syncopated rhythms, unexpected melodies and universal truths, this record is a shining time capsule for Barnes’ growth as an artist.

ZelooperzValley of Life (LP)

Part of Zelooperz’ allure is his ability to jump from character to character within a single project. Just as the title Valley of Life suggests, this body of work feels like a sample platter of all the people Zelooperz is, has been, or could be. That range extends into his seemingly effortless flow, which can fluctuate between sincere and satirical in eight bars.

Tiny JagMorph (EP)

Deviating from her former trap-hop style of writing, Tiny Jag “morphs” her sound into alternative power pop on this 2020 EP. Her cunning wordplay is still there, this time delivered with more blasé, controlled vocals and accompanied by booming 808s and shimmering synths. Though this music has all the elements of top-charting success, don’t be mistaken – this isn’t like anything you’ve heard before. 

whiterosemoxie – white ceilings (LP)

People love a prodigy. And while many blogs focus on Moxie’s age –  just 17 years old – it’s important not to gloss over the fact that no matter what age, the rapper is a talent that only comes around once in a while. His poetic flow is reminiscent of Long Beach’s Vince Staples, and though the two are an entire country apart, they share a penchant for repping their city and distilling their experience in a way that makes them charmingly relatable.

MoodymannTaken Away (LP)

Detroit’s Godfather of house music – Kenny Dixon Jr. – is back with his legendary funk grooves and repetitions, but this time they’re paired with an undercurrent of pain and longing. After a tumultuous year which included being harassed by police in front of his own building, it would be impossible not to inject some of that frustration into the music. Taken Away isn’t a record that encourages you to forget the tears, but rather to dance through them.

Fred ThomasDream Erosion (Synthesizer Songs) (LP)

Thomas is known for his devastatingly honest, stream of consciousness style of writing. And although Dream Erosion is devoid of lyrics, the writing still feels like a magically unfiltered outpouring of emotion. This is especially true of “Kitchen,” a collaborative improvisation that was recorded entirely in Chuck Sipperly’s ‘synth kitchen.’ The record is as beautiful as it is somber and sounds like the amalgamation of collective despair, surrender and inevitable hope.

Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming (LP)

Burch’s second full length release is soaked with a nostalgia we didn’t know we’d have in 2020. “Party’s Over” reminds us of the times there were parties that we didn’t want to go to, where instrumentals like “Keep it Warm” and “Picture Show” emit a longing for something we can’t get back. Burch’s sweet voice glides over melancholy guitar strums and lackadaisical drums, leaving the listener with the feeling of waking up from a fever dream.

Cousin Mouth – “New Memories” (single)

Cousin Mouth’s songwriter and lead singer/guitarist Alex Burns gives us a glimpse into his forthcoming record MayflowerPeacemakerHolyredeemer with its premiere single, “New Memories.” Burns’ soulful falsetto and intricate guitar riffs are accompanied by the gorgeous voices of Detroit vocalists Supercoolwicked and Salakastar to create a sort of psychedelic R&B. Burns’ lyrics teeter between the ephemeral and the literal, weaving a story of self-doubt and redemption.

Jacob SigmanColor Coded Heart (LP)

Prolific songwriter/artist Jacob Sigman gives us forty-five minutes of uplifting and earnest pop music. Sigman’s knack for earworm-type melodies paired with uncontrived optimism make his music inherently loveable – even “Get Your Love,” a song about losing a lover, is sprinkled with a carefree hope that has the power to momentarily release you from the gravity of heartbreak.

Black Noi$eOblivion (LP)

DJ and producer Rob Mansel, a.k.a Black Noi$e, enlists a star-studded roster of friends to complete his first full-length Oblivion. With appearances from Danny Brown to bbymutha, Mansel demonstrates that he has a well of talented peers to pull from. Despite the high-profile collabs, his dark, layered production style stands on its own throughout the record. He doesn’t bend his arrangements for any of the featured artists, but rather creates his own world of mangled percussion and ominous synths in which his collaborators can dwell with ease.

Madelyn Grant – “Purpose” (single)

Neo-soul singer-songwriter Madelyn Grant ponders life’s meaning on her debut solo single, “Purpose” – a song about blocking out the noise and expectations of society to find what truly moves you. Grant’s pristine vocals sit comfortably on a bed of horns, electric piano and steadfast drums.  She pays homage to some of her Motown idols, like The Supremes and Marvin Gaye, with airtight harmonies and infectious melodies.

MeftahInformation Travels Through (LP)

A record that truly shows the vibrant and singular spirit of its creator, Information Travels Through is a breathtaking ode to finding a sense of self in a world that is so often telling us what we should be. Meftah shared a gorgeous statement along with the record that says it better than anything I could say, partially quoted below:

“So this is me creating my own context, beyond the one painted for us on Earth. Beyond just the music, and the record. It is a spiritual war going on. Mentally. Physically….Right now, in 2020, because we STILL exist within a system founded off of land and body theft from Africa, and all colonized lands, this work is dedicated to all my fellow soldiers. It is for all children of the Diaspora. We will always move together.”

Sasha Kashperko – “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” (single)

Kashperko displays his kinship with his instrument on his plea, “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” The track is urgent and erudite, showcasing Kashperko’s deep understanding of rhythmic structure and melodic phrasing. Asking a simple enough request that has clung to the minds of so many of us in the last few years, he doesn’t give any answers, but cries out in solidarity and frustration.

Salar AnsariSayeh E Nour (LP)

Spacious synths and watery percussion create a kaleidoscopic atmosphere in this lush ambient record. Ansari’s use of experimental instruments and uncanny sounds transport the listener to a different world with every track. Perfect for both blissful dissociation or centering mindfulness.

Mario Sulaksana – “For You” (single)

Producer, composer and pianist Mario Sulaksana’s first solo release is a glimmering ode to his most concrete influences – Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye. A true student of the craft, Sulaksana fuses his own cascading style with the formula of the greats – a simple but strong melody, the perfect balance of space and sound, and satisfying harmonies.

don’tLightning Slow (LP)

don’t finds a way to make their apathetic garage pop cozy and charming. Baked in warm and fuzzy guitars and steady but unexpected melodies, Lightning Slow feels like a first kiss in your parents basement; surprising, a little uncomfortable, but welcome and oddly familiar. Lead singer Frances Ma delivers poetic verses with angelic apathy, merging nostalgic feelings of teenage angst with more recent feelings of existential dread.

Eddie LogixPlacebo Palace (EP)

At any given moment, Eddie Logix likely has his hands in myriad different projects around the city or even country. The diverse producer, engineer and DJ is known for his elasticity when it comes to making and engineering music, but on Placebo Palace, it’s clear that his heart lies in dance music. The EP feels like a love letter to Detroit and is a welcome ray of light in this dark year.

Tearyeyed – “ForceField V4” (single)

Tearyeyed combines beautiful textures layered together to tell a story that the listener can mold into their own on “ForceField V4.”  The song starts out like an afterthought – a simplistic tapping rhythm and guitar strums laced with tearyeyed’s pillowy vocals chase one another in circles. The song’s mantra stands out through the melodic mist: “My love is like a forcefield, I am there to protect you.” Slowly, his voice fades and the drums crescendo into an outpouring of unspoken emotion.

Double WinterIt’s About our Hearts

Beachy riffs, sentimental melodies, and charming honesty are the makings of the debut LP from psychedelic-surf rock outfit Double Winter. It’s About our Hearts has something for everyone – from goth wallflower anthem “Sad Girl at the Rave” to the ’80s drag racing soundtrack stylings of “Rodeo.” Their myriad influences range from doo-wop to Italo, and are what make their sound universally accessible and very much their own.

DonJuan – “Red Plum” (single)

DonJuan is a grossly underrated songwriter and producer based in Detroit. “Red Plum” is just an introduction to his catalogue of simplistically poignant material. This song in particular contains the type of intimacy that makes you feel like you were in the room when it was recorded. The lyrics are simple enough (“I never seem to say the things I mean, I never wanna ask for things I need”) but when repeated over and over they serve as both a reflection and a question to the listener.

2Lanes“Baby’s Born to Fish” (single)

A strikingly influential group of musicians comes together on this pulsating meditation on change and resilience. Detroit’s Kesswa, Ian Finkelstein, Shigeto and John F.M. are all contributors to this atmospheric track. The result is haunting and unyielding dance track that could only be made in Detroit. 

Billionaire SophiaOotgoat (LP)

Billionaire Sophia makes music that meets in the middle of pop, house and R&B. Her voice is as smooth as butter and floats perfectly over her self-produced, synth and percussion heavy beats. Her melodies are satisfying but not predictable, lyrics colloquial but not cliché. There’s a touch of glamour and fantasy to all of her songs, both sonically and thematically – it’s the type of music that makes you feel like anything is possible.

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