Inside the Colorful World of Remi Wolf

Photo Credit: Sophie Hur

Remi Wolf is impulsive – not that it’s a bad thing. At the beginning of quarantine, she adopted a French Bulldog named Juno four months before dropping her appropriately-titled I’m Allergic To Dogs! EP. The 24-year-old Californian musician’s strong intuition follows throughout her music, from her stream of consciousness songwriting to the multiple career pivots that eventually led to a critically acclaimed EP, a coveted Island Records deal, and an iPhone commercial spot.

None of this is surprising, as Wolf has always been a natural entertainer. She discovered her love of performing early on, and by high school had formed a full band and met her current collaborator Jared Solomon, who goes by solomonophonic. The nearly decade-long friendship with Solomon shows in the music, and the two share a camaraderie that breathes with Wolf’s rollercoaster delivery.

To some extent, Wolf’s excitement is woven into the very fabric of her existence, both literally and figuratively. “Woo!” features sparkly interjections, like a childhood cartoon, that swell into an electrifying R&B pop fusion with punchy drums and tip-toeing piano keys. If that sounds chaotic, it is – in the best way. Much like the trippy visuals created by her trusted collaborator Agusta Yr, or the almost painfully colorful clothing she wears, Wolf’s music is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of pop music at its brightest. She exists right in the middle of current musical trends, featuring elements of PC music, dance, and sultry R&B-tinged pop to create something just as eclectic as she is.

Wolf possesses an intense confidence with a dash of self-deprecation bred from the early days of millennial Internet humor and a short lifetime honing her style and persona. She went from being an accomplished skier to a successful musician while growing up in Palo Alto, an incubator for some of tech’s biggest names, and is more than used to high pressure environments, but that does not mean she isn’t open about the stress either.

On I’m Allergic to Dogs!, her self-described “stream of consciousness” “ADHD explosion” style of writing bubbles to the surface. She explores risky unrequited love in the same breath as being prescribed painkillers by her dentist. Her songs tell stories of hippie frat boys at disco nights and her inability to commit. The magic of Remi Wolf lies in the merry-go-round of her mind that brings childlike wonder with an edge.

In a chat with Audiofemme, Remi Wolf opens up about mental health, childhood television shows, and creating culture on her own terms.

AF: When did you realize you enjoyed performing? Was it something you grew into over time?

RW: I started singing when I was in fourth grade. That was the first time I ever performed for people. I feel like I immediately loved it. When I was in sixth grade, I ended up being in a girl singing group, like a barbershop trio thing. That’s kind of where I ended up learning how to harmonize and the basics of how to sing and perform. We would perform at preschools and we did these little benefit concerts. I really love doing that.

Then, I picked up a guitar when I was probably a freshman in high school and ended up starting a little band with one of the girls from that trio, her name is Chloe. The trio kind of dissolved. We started writing songs and performing covers. We started busking on the street and doing open mics all over the place in my hometown, which eventually led to us starting a full band. That guitar player is now my main collaborator: solomonophonic. We’ve known each other for eight years at this point now.

Then I ended up going to music school for music and songwriting and singing, and now I’m here. So that’s been a lifelong journey.

AF: With the amount of people breaking out at younger and younger ages due to social media, do you ever feel weird about it?

RW: I mean, no. I’m twenty four years old. I’m young. There’s hella kids popping off now at 18. I’ve never had any insecurities about that, though. I don’t think I ever really felt pressure like that. During most of my childhood, I was either in school or I was ski racing. I think a lot of my mental capacity was taken up by that. I was a very active kid. I always say that I feel like I’ve been working since I was eight years old.

I would say I feel a little bit more insecure about that now, because, like I was saying before, there are a lot of people who are popping off at 18. I don’t think it really mattered when I learned how to play guitar. Like, I think it just matters that I learned it. And I’m here, you know?

AF: It’s interesting to see you’ve still internalized those feelings, whether inevitable or not.

RW: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s jealousy. It’s just crazy how the Internet works. People are just able to create their own careers from their bedrooms, you know? I think that that’s crazy. I didn’t really realize when I was young that that was an opportunity. I mean, it’s more of an opportunity now than it was then, but I think it’s cool that people are able to forge a career for themselves, no matter what age.

AF: Who were some of your biggest influences growing up, or your most unexpected influence?

RW: When I was younger and I was performing, I was listening to a lot of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Gwen Stefani, and Chaka Khan. This is always a hard question for me because I feel like I have a really big well of influences. They span all over decades and genres. I never talk about this one; I don’t know why, but I used to love Jason Mraz. Nobody ever talks about him as an influence. He has a lot of really good songs, and he’s a solid songwriter and seems like a nice dude. I’m team Jason.

AF: You said once that growing up in a city like Palo Alto, you had to get culture from other places since it was so tech-focused. Where did you look?

RW: Yeah! I grew up in Palo Alto, which is a very tech-focused city. Obviously, it’s like the birthplace of Facebook and Instagram and fucking Apple. It’s a small suburb. It’s very intense. There’s high pressure academics and stuff like that, which was never really my focus. I mean, I did well in school because you had to, but I was always way more focused on skiing and music and stuff like that.

I’m still learning things every day about the world. I think that for the most part, I was a pretty sheltered kid. I didn’t have the free time to really expose myself to a lot of things. In a way, I’m still growing up, and I’m learning things every day because I have the free time. I’m doing what I love to do now.

I feel like I’m still growing and still learning, even culturally. And I’m discovering new things every day. I want to create culture – I don’t think that it matters how much or how little I was exposed to at a young age.

AF: When you say that you’re creating culture, it almost feels like an unconscious response to not being exposed to many things and working from a different starting point. It’s kind of an advantage.

RW: That’s like a really interesting take. That’s cool that you’ve noticed that. I think that I’m really conscious of that for myself, but that could definitely be why I am so experimental with my music. Right now I feel the most free creatively I’ve ever felt which is cool. Maybe that is because I’ve been away from home for a while now. I don’t know. That’s interesting. I like that.

AF: Let’s talk about style! Have you always dressed the way you do now?

RW: I’ve pretty much dressed the same since I was, like, three years old. My parents would let me wear whatever I wanted to and I was a big pattern mixer like my mom. There’s this one story where my aunt wanted to take me out to eat at McDonald’s or something and I dressed myself. It was a crazy outfit. My aunt was like “I can’t take her out in this outfit!” and my mom was just like “No, she’s not gonna change. Just let her do her thing.” I’ve been pretty expressive with my style for a really long time.

I don’t think it’s anything new. I think now I’m definitely learning a lot more about fashion. I mean, we have Instagram now! You see all the trends and stuff going on. I’m a little bit more tapped into it than I used to be before, but I’ve definitely always been pretty expressive and colorful for sure. I feel like an adult baby a lot. I tell my friends I’m just a baby, like I’m a baby woman.

AF: And to clarify quickly in regards to the name of your EP, you are genuinely allergic to dogs?

RW: I’m truly allergic to dogs, and I have a dog. I love him a lot, and I’m looking into getting allergy shots. Getting a dog was a very impulsive decision for me, which maybe in retrospect, I should have thought about that a little more – I just kind of felt it and I went for it.

I grew up with two labs, so I’ve been around dogs my whole life. I think the allergy is actually a newer development. It happened probably three years ago where I was, like, wait, every time I’m around a dog, I am having sneezing fits! I also developed an allergy to avocados really late too. That was really shitty.

AF: Let’s talk about the retreat you went on a few months ago.

RW: It was a mental health thing for me. I was struggling a lot with my mental health, as I have for a while now, but in quarantine it was right there in front of my face. So, I felt like I had to get away and focus on that for a while. I’m glad I did. I’m doing a lot better now, like taking care of myself. I do therapy twice a week. It’s definitely a new journey for me and I’m just now kind of getting tapped into it.

As soon as my project started taking off and I suddenly had to start working all the time and really focusing on my career and stuff. I was like, “Okay, I can’t ignore this anymore, cause I’ve been ignoring it for a long time.” I want to be healthy and I want to be able to do the things I want to do and not be completely crippled by anxiety and depression, which I feel like I have been for a while. I’m still working through it. I definitely have a lot of anxiety and depression and stuff that I have to deal with on a daily basis, but at least I’m taking care of it now and and making active steps to better myself and be a healthier person overall.

AF: Where does some of that fear come from? Is it fear of being unable to control who is looking at you and how they feel?

RW: At first it was scary. The thing that still gets me is like, “Alright, when is this all gonna crumble down? When is it gonna be over?” I think that I have a bad case of impostor syndrome. It’s just vulnerable putting your art into the world. You don’t know how people are gonna react. I think that when my music first started getting out there, I had thinner skin than I do now. When people would say something mean or negative about me, I would internalize it and react poorly. I kind of just laugh at everything now because, like you said, I have literally no control.

I have no control over what anybody else is gonna do except for myself. Realizing that and realizing that the only thing that I can control is what I do and my actions, I think that’s liberating in a sense, because I don’t really have to fucking worry about how other people perceive me. That’s not my job. My job is to be myself and to do whatever the fuck I want.

AF: How does all this play into your songwriting process? Your songs feel so layered and haphazard and exciting.

RW: I think you’re kind of dead on with that. I start an idea and build it up until I think it’s where it’s supposed to be. We normally start out with a beat or a chord progression, and I pretty much just freestyle until I think it’s done. There’s not a lot of planning to it a lot of the time. I’m very free with my process. It’s hard to explain, but I write pretty fast. Most of the songs that I end up really liking I write in a matter of a couple hours, and I’m 80% done with the song by the end of the day. If that doesn’t happen, then normally the idea will just sit there for a long time.

AF: When you say you freestyle, is it just instrumentally, lyrically, or everything?

RW: Everything is freestyled. Everything is improvised from the melody – the lyrics, the chords, all the parts are made right there on the spot. There’s some songs that I write by myself on a guitar that I fully fleshed out and then I go back in and do production, but that hasn’t been my main process so far. That’s a newer thing that I’m trying out. But even with that, I’m still freestyling with myself and just stream of consciousness until I get something that I feel like is the right direction for the song. It’s kind of hard to explain.

AF: You’ve created such an immersive aesthetic that has become synonymous with who you are. Are there any specific things that stuck with you that helped you create this world?

RW: I think I’m really inspired by TV shows and movies from my childhood. I used to watch this Canadian series called Wee Sing in Sillyville when I was younger, and that’s always stuck with me. I’ve also always loved Teletubbies and this show called The Doodlebops and Spy Kids and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Basically all those psychedelic, crazy, weird kids shows that probably wouldn’t get made nowadays.

AF: Who is somebody that you would like to collaborate with – either musically or otherwise?

RW: I would love to collaborate with Michael McDonald. I know that’s kind of a weird one, but I’ve just always admired his songwriting and voice. He’s so talented and a genius, and I feel like I would learn a lot from him. He’s the GOAT for sure. Hopefully we can make that happen.

Follow Remi Wolf on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

My Top Album of 2020 was Room on Fire by The Strokes

The Strokes in 2003. Photo Credit: Colin Lane

Whose culture is this and does anybody know?/I wait and tell myself, life ain’t chess/But no one comes in and yes, you’re alone/You don’t miss me, I know

The date was March 16, 2020. I got a text from my boss. He said he was really sorry but not to bother coming into work: “Looks like Cuomo is going to shut it down by the end of the day.” Which he did, shortly after. The lockdown order had descended upon New York City. And so began my two month period of pure isolation, before we all started cheating a little bit here and there, with clandestine coffee in the park and what not.

This year tried everyone differently, our traumas and baggage as unique to one another as the circumstances that surrounded our lives pre-COVID. Me? I’m a single 28-year-old woman, living in a small one bedroom apartment off of Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Queens. I have no roommates save a twenty-pound black cat named Luca. He would remain my only companion for all those weeks except for the thirty-something union plumber who visited every two weeks to supply me with a fresh half ounce, smoke a joint with me and see how I was holding up. Besides that it was just me and the cat.

In the early days of the lockdown, I listened to no music at all. I realized that in this isolation, to feel any kind of emotion was dangerous, and what does music do but evoke emotion? So I listened to podcasts and watched the longest Martin Scorsese films I could find to pass the hours while I feverishly kept my hands busy with cross-stitch projects, this soundtrack punctuated by the sounds of sirens blaring through my neighborhood on the way to Elmhurst Hospital, which CNN kept calling “the epicenter of the epicenter.”

In those days I realized the extent to which we rely on the validation of others, be it your coworkers or the barista at the coffee shop by your house, to remind ourselves of our likeability, that we are not alone in the world. I found myself without that resource. I turned off my music and searched inward to see what was there. I went for long runs around Queens, logging miles around the numerous cemeteries that surrounded Ridgewood. I could run with my mask around my chin, because the only people there were already dead. I tried to picture myself post-lockdown, Charlize Theron in Mad Max, carved out of stone and devoid of feeling.

That’s just a phase, it’s got to pass/I was a train moving too fast

When Lindsey Rhoades, Audiofemme’s Editor-in-Chief, approached me for my list of favorite albums of the year, as she does at the end of every year, I realized I had listened to virtually no new music this year. But when Spotify released our year end data, I looked through my most-listened-to songs and found that The Strokes’ Room on Fire was one of the most represented albums on that list. Never mind that The Strokes released The New Abnormal, their sixth album (and first in seven years) in 2020 – Room on Fire was one of my favorite albums in high school, and it got me thinking of the comforts of the past, the way I could mutter the words along softly from the recesses of my memory, giving me this sort of blissed out haze, not unlike the concept of ambient television as raised in the New Yorker recently.

But why that album? For one, as I mentioned, it felt familiar and comforting. But I also think it has something to do with its rampant themes of detachment – “I never needed anybody,” Casablancas repeats on the chorus of “Between Love & Hate” – paired with a deep longing for intimacy. On each track it seems as though our narrator cares deeply but masks it with apathy, as if to say that something meaningful meant nothing at all to him. 

Summer arrived. The sounds of sirens were replaced by the sounds of protests and the fireworks that exploded twenty-four hours a day. It was a shock to the system, that after all those months of silence in my Queens apartment I found myself on the streets surrounded by thousands of others. I cringe at the consciousness of my own privilege to say that it took these tragic circumstances for me to feel something like purpose or community again. But like so many other things this year, it is what it is. 

Summer also brought with it a cautious return to socializing, for better or for worse. This was, and is, controversial of course. I know that some who reads this may judge my perceived irresponsibility and selfishness. In fact, I acknowledge my irresponsibility and selfishness, but I’d also retort that we’re all just doing our best to get by. Single and exhausted with the oppressive isolation of my apartment, I hopped on the dating apps with a sort of manic hunger for intimacy. I haven’t found it yet, not in a lasting way, anyway. What I have found are other tired souls desperate for a connection, as ephemeral as a night or a week or a month. It’s proved draining for me. Lately my anxiety of isolation in the initial lockdown has been replaced by the anxiety of being isolated that way again, an imagined race to cuff myself to another body before Cuomo shuts it down again. I eat less these days and I started smoking cigarettes again, some regression to my 21-year-old self who eschews the careful routine of self-care I have cultivated in all that time.  

Never was on time, yes, I once was mine/Well, that was long ago and darling, I don’t mind

Where does that leave me now? Surely sitting on my fire escape, listening to “Meet Me in the Bathroom” again and smoking a cigarette, like a cliché. Lately I feel somehow less like myself and more like myself than ever. Less like myself in the sense that I never saw myself a real smoker again, a little boy crazy the way I was ten years ago and listening to the same indie rock albums I loved in high school. But more like myself for the same reasons I guess, that these facets of my being have somehow meshed with the person I’ve grown to be since then. I believe the major difference is that I’ve achieved some level of personal resilience, a gift with which this year has blessed me. I’m reminded of all my other blessings, my tiny home and my cat and all the friends who check on me. That I still have income. And the greatest blessing of all – that I have not personally lost anyone to COVID yet. The weight of that loss feels immense when you consider how many lives three hundred thousand can touch.

Two weeks ago I had a first date in my living room with a painter I met on Hinge. It was snowing outside and we drank hot toddies on my sofa. Normally I wouldn’t have a first date in my home, but the weather was bad and my pandemic fatigue has left me unwilling to imagine any more creative ideas for dates. I told him I was thinking of writing this essay and he agreed that it was a great album. He said he wanted to see me again but hasn’t made any plans.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll be fine. 

Here’s to 2021.

PLAYING NASHVILLE: 2020 Was a Tumultuous Year for Music City

Photo by Tanner Boriack on Unsplash

Needless to say, 2020 was a challenging year. In a year bookended by a devastating tornado in March and a bombing on Christmas morning, with the COVID-19 pandemic sandwiched in between, Nashville has been dealt its fair share of blows this year. But these challenges also held a mirror up to the city’s resiliency, and through the highs and lows, the city proved not to be merely a group of citizens, but a family. 

High: ACM Awards & CMT Awards cater to socially distanced format  

Following suit with the many other awards shows, both the Academy of Country Music and CMT decided to go (mostly) virtual for their respective awards shows, adapting their formats to pandemic times. CMT wins the award for most creative, as the network invited its artists to perform at separate locations consisting mainly of outdoor venues across the Nashville area. From Little Big Town’s soaring harmonies bouncing off the walls of a cave, to Dan + Shay serenading us from a beautiful outdoor wedding venue while Luke Combs and Brooks & Dunn rocked the Bicentennial Capitol Mall Amphitheater, with Combs shotgunning a beer in the middle of the performance, CMT broke the mold on what a traditional award show looks like in a way that was both safe and entertaining. 

The ACM also found a way to impressively adapt to the pandemic by hosting artists at three of Nashville’s iconic venues, the Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry and Bluebird Cafe. The artists performed to empty venues and were socially distanced with their band members on stage, the Academy going so far as to distribute the awards by placing the trophy on a stool that the artist would then solely collect. It was impressive to see the lengths that the Academy went to adapt appropriately to the public health situation while still honoring the best and brightest in the genre while making the participants – and viewers – feel safe.

Low: The CMA Awards 

During a time when major awards shows opted to host virtual ceremonies in light of the pandemic, the CMA decided to forge ahead with an in-person November event in an effort to remain “representative of the brand,” according to show producer Robert Deaton. Filmed non-audience at the Music City Center with only the nominees and one guest peer nominee allowed in the venue, the CMA went through rigorous protocols to keep the environment as safe as possible with measures including rapid testing, sanitizing equipment between each award, seating a maximum of four people per table that were spaced eight feet apart, among them. But that still wasn’t enough to make this viewer and local journalist feel like it was worth the risk. It was disheartening to see the most prominent names in country music walking around the room without masks on, smiling and laughing with each other without following social distancing practices, especially during a time when COVID-19 cases were surging in Tennessee and local officials were urging citizens not to gather in groups larger than 10 people.  Additionally, five acts had to drop out leading up to the day of the show due to testing positive for the virus or coming into contact with family members who had tested positive.

Photo Credit: John Russell/CMA

Perhaps the most devastating blow came weeks later; the country music world was heartbroken when Charley Pride, who flew from Dallas to Nashville to attend the show and accept the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, tragically passed away due to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 86 after he was hospitalized with COVID-19-type symptoms in late November.

While it’s uncertain where Pride caught the virus – his manager Kevin Bailey tells The Dallas Morning News that the CMA “took every precaution that you can imagine” and CMA asserts in a statement that Pride tested negative for COVID-19 multiple times after returning home to Dallas – it served as a sobering reminder that hosting a virtual show would have perhaps been the safest and more proactive choice. 

Charley Pride was one of country music’s big losses this year. Photo credit: Joseph Llanes

Low: The loss of legends

Loss has sadly been a commonplace in 2020, and the country music community lost many beloved artists this year. Kenny Rogers passed away from natural causes in early March just before the pandemic hit, while Charlie Daniels suddenly passed away from a stroke in July, months before his annual Volunteer Jam was scheduled to take place in Nashville (it’s since been rescheduled to February and re-branded as a tribute concert to Daniels).

Additionally, K.T. Oslin, who made history as the first female songwriter to win the CMA Award for Song of the Year with “80’s Ladies,” lost her battle with Parkinson’s Disease one week after being diagnosed with COVID-19, merely days before Christmas. The ramifications of COVID-19 where also felt when Charley Pride, John Prine and Joe Diffie all succumbed to complications after contracting the virus, leaving their loved ones, fans and the music community at large to mourn the loss of such tremendous figures.   

High: Country music reckons with systemic racism 

In the midst of a raging pandemic, a mirror was held up to America’s long-rooted history of systemic racism following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Their deaths inspired countless marches and protests and sent shock waves throughout the country that ultimately arrived at country music’s doorsteps, leading to several panels about the topic of diversity and breaking the cycle of racism in country music, with industry professionals and artists alike openly sharing their experiences.

This summer, during a panel called “A Conversation on Being African American in the Nashville Music Industry,” EntertainmentOne’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Gina Miller, spoke out, saying, “The best data we have are your stories.” She related her own experience in which she greeted a woman at her former workplace every day, her cheerful “Good morning!” going totally unanswered. She persisted for nearly two years, until she the woman finally reciprocated. “From that grumble of ‘good morning,’ I still said ‘good morning’ the next day and the grumble got clearer and clearer,” Miller recalled. “The day that I had the clear ‘good morning,’ I knew we had turned a different corner.”  

As a white woman who covers country music daily, these discussions, and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole, have opened my eyes to how I have unintentionally been a part of this system. Miller’s perseverance truly resonated with me and her story often comes to mind, even months later. Miller’s story, and the many others like it, have motivated me to take a hard look at my role as a journalist and be more intentional about shining a spotlight on the voices that deserve to be heard.

Though country music still has a long way to go before it achieves true equity, it feels as though the blindfolds came off this year in many respects, the industry now willing to not only have conversations about race, but make changes to establish a more inclusive genre. As Mickey Guyton’s star power continues to rise in light of her powerful songs “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me,” the former of which made her the first Black woman to perform her own song at the ACM Awards in its 55-year history and the latter designating her the first solo Black female to be nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the Grammy Awards, it feels like a glimmer of hope for a future that is more accepting, welcoming and loving toward all. 

High & low: Tennessee tornado & recovery efforts 

When a tornado tore through multiple towns in Tennessee in the middle of the night on March 3, it left 24 people dead and multiple businesses destroyed in its path. Nashville was among one of the hardest hit areas, leaving many local business owners to clean up the damage and piece their livelihoods back together – but they didn’t do it alone. Residents-turned-volunteers demonstrated why Tennessee is nicknamed the “Volunteer State,” whether donating money and resources or showing up by the thousands to help clean up the damage. The effort was so massive that there was a waitlist to volunteer while other times volunteers were turned away.

Photo courtesy of I Believe in Nashville

As one of those volunteers, I can attest to the awe-inspiring service of this city. Having only seen pictures of tornado devastation on the news, it was shocking to stand in the rubble of a home that had been torn apart in minutes, the owner remarkably surviving with only a few minor scrapes despite being trapped in the middle of the destruction. But the fear and heartache I felt as we picked up the remnants of someone’s life was immediately met with comfort and relief, working alongside selfless strangers who became friends through the experience.

While Nashville is a city of transplants, I believe it is reflective of our nation as a whole. As people who have moved here from across the country with a dream in hand collectively rushed to the call of duty, helping their fellow neighbors, the “I Believe in Nashville” mural – which remained unharmed while the buildings around it were destroyed – took on new meaning. It not only represents the resiliency of Nashville, but proves that we the people are invincible when we join together for the greater good.  

The Looking Glass Singles Series Reflects the Best of Brooklyn Imprint Mexican Summer

There’s no question that one of the best things to come out of this absolute shitshow of a year has been Bandcamp Fridays; the first Friday of every month, the music streaming platform waives its revenue share to provide an extra boost to struggling artists who use it to promote their music. Though the difference in percentage of profits that goes into the artists’ pockets is somewhat negligible given its already artist-friendly pay structure (a recent post updating the schedule for 2021 puts it at 93% versus 82% on any other day of the month) the crucial aspect of Bandcamp Fridays is that it boosts visibility for the most essential workers in the music industry – musicians and labels themselves.

No doubt equally inspired by Bandcamp Fridays as it was by indie label 7″ subscription clubs of the ’90s, Brooklyn imprint Mexican Summer is going the extra mile to shake things up with a Bandcamp-centric series they’ve dubbed Looking Glass. It’s a virtual treasure trove of unique, previously unreleased singles, by everyone from label stalwarts like Ariel Pink and Connan Mockasin to more obscure psych, folk, and drone artists like São Paulo’s Sessa, Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyu, and Chicago’s Matchess.

The first series ran from April 2020 to late July 2020, featuring beautiful, mysterious cover art by Bailey Elder (at one point, Mexican Summer offered a free download of her clip art-esque illustrations as a “coloring page”). After a brief lapse, the series started up again in October with “Love’s Refrain,” a gorgeous instrumental Jefre Cantu-Ledesma song with all-new vocals by Julie Byrne (Elder reprised her role as cover designer, this time with watercolory collages in muted hues), and has gone on to feature the likes of hip hop upstart Nappy Nina alongside celebrated dub duo Peaking Lights and avant-country singer Dougie Poole. So far, the series boasts over thirty entries that represent the label’s penchant for supporting adventurous sounds, whether the contributors are officially signed or not.

The label posits that the project “focuses on the human condition as reflected through chance and destined encounters” and is “a portal for creative exploration and community to resonate through all versions of reality… to encourage discovery, diversity, and collaboration.” While that’s a pretty heady sentiment, Looking Glass somehow more than accomplishes the task.

It’s an ethos that’s especially in line with that of Los Angeles-based minimal wave synthpop artist Geneva Jacuzzi. “Maybe I’m a person who was destined to be miserable but who refused destiny and the only way to alter the cosmic DNA was to hack the matrix,” she riffs. “That is pretty much what music is. It hold secret codes to alternate universes.” She likens music to a secret, primal language. “That is how communities of people come together over music. They are all part of the same alien tribe and the music is more alive than they are.” Her entry into the singles series, “Dark Streets,” was originally part of an ongoing conceptual performance and video play called Dark Ages that spanned from 2011-2015; she created a stand-alone video for “Dark Streets” in 2012, but the song was never officially released.

“The inspiration came one evening when I was recording and wanted to encapsulate the feeling of driving aimlessly into the night… looking for something but not knowing what… and then encountering certain dark forces that guide you into oblivion. Almost like looking for trouble, or meaning, or an adventure but finding yourself lost and a little scared. Pre-GPS you know?” Jacuzzi explains. “In a way, it seemed fitting for the time we are all in. It’s been a little scary and uncertain. Me being an optimist, I thrive in times of uncertainty because I know there is always an interesting surprise waiting in the unknown, even if it feels dark or freaky.” This, she says, made it a good fit for Looking Glass.

Though closely associated with some of Mexican Summer’s marquee acts, Geneva Jacuzzi has remained staunchly DIY, rarely putting out traditional releases in the nearly twenty years she’s been actively making music. But her experience with Looking Glass might change all that; though still tight-lipped, she says she and Mexican Summer have “some fun things planned for the future.”

“If we don’t change, we die right?” she jokes. “Or at least get depressed and bitter.”

Madison McFerrin channeled some residual bitterness into her piano-driven single for the Looking Glass project, “Hindsight.” Though it sounds like a typical ballad about love gone wrong (“How should I let you go/With nothing left to show/Was it right for you to stay?/Was it wrong to walk away?/Could’ve said we went for it…”) but rather than a romantic partner, McFerrin says the track was inspired by disillusionment with the Democratic primaries, in which Joe Biden won the party nomination over the decidedly more progressive Bernie Sanders. “Sonically, ‘Hindsight’ is like going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I like to think that, like the song, we’ll be leaving 2020 on a hopeful note,” McFerrin says.

Though not specifically written for the series, McFerrin adds that she was “really drawn to how Mexican Summer were making the Looking Glass project Bandcamp-focused” when the label reached out to her over the summer asking if she would participate, and she made the decision to self-produce the track. “I wanted to push myself. Quarantine afforded me the time to really work on production and I felt confident enough to share that next phase of my artistry,” she says. “This was the first time I had been in a studio since the start of COVID, so my biggest challenge was feeling one-hundred percent comfortable. There’s always this neon PANDEMIC sign flashing in the back of my mind these days. But when I actually started playing and singing, it made me feel much more relaxed.”

As for the political work still to be done, McFerrin says, “We have to make sure that we continue to engage, especially locally. Mutual aid groups like Bed-Stuy Strong in Brooklyn are doing great work providing food and cleaning supplies to those most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the community. Through grassroots movements, hopefully we can continue to grow the progressive movement and push the people at the top.”

As it turns out, the Looking Glass series can help with that, too – some of the artists, like Texas-born, L.A.-based folk singer Jess Williamson, have opted to donate the proceeds from single sales to various organizations. Williamson released 2018’s Cosmic Wink and this year’s stunning Sorceress via Mexican Summer after self-releasing two previous records and an EP; as their titles would imply, Williamson has a bit of a witchy streak, and is donating proceeds from her swooning, dreamy “Pictures of Flowers” to Harriet’s Apothecary, an “intergenerational Brooklyn-based healing village led by Black Cis Women, Queer and Trans healers, artists, health professionals, magicians, activists and ancestors… rooted in the wisdom of our bodies, our ancestors and our plant families.”

“I wanted the proceeds from the song to go to them because I really admire the work they’re doing,” Williamson says, which includes expanding access to health and healing resources that support Black, Indigenous and PoC communities.

The song itself was directly inspired by Williamson’s quarantine experience, which was compounded by both the end of a significant relationship and being unable to tour to support her new album. “I spent most days walking around my neighborhood, and I was struck by how different it felt to me at that time versus when I first came to the neighborhood over four years ago,” she says.

She sent a demo of the song to Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, who plays slide guitar over Williamson’s contemplative acoustic guitar and lilting vocals. “Meg was the first person to hear the song, and I was really nervous they wouldn’t like it. Thankfully, Meg responded positively, and I got the courage to ask if they’d be down to lay some guitar down remotely,” Williamson says. “Normally I’d be afraid to ask, but we were all sitting around doing nothing so I think I had that working in my favor, ha. Meg recorded everything from their home studio, I recorded from mine, and then I sent everything to Jarvis Taveniere who laid down drums, bass, and mellotron, and mixed it.”

“Pictures of Flowers” is a heartbreaking time capsule, juxtaposing the freedom Williamson felt pre-pandemic with what seemed like the end of the world. “Taking vitamins/Calling all my friends/Momma’s feelin’ calm/She trusts the president/Don’t wanna get a gun/What if I move in with someone?/Grow a garden in case the stores all run out,” she sings, ending the track with the trail of a dangling thought: “I had a dream we were in Japan…”

Similarly, experimental composer Lucy Gooch let dreams inspire “We Carry,” her contribution to Looking Glass – though hers was a recurring dream she’s had since childhood. In it, she and her sister are at school and the playground tarmac turns to glass, revealing “a deep, dark ocean in which enormous sea-creatures weave and dive.” Gooch says “We Carry” was “one of those rare songs that appears quickly,” though it was already recorded when label co-founder Keith Abrahamsson reached out to her about contributing something. “I’ve always been a big fan of the label so it was pretty amazing to hear from him,” Gooch says. “I see the song as being a kind of hymn to blurry memories, and to childhood.”

The UK-based synth artist represents an emerging name in ambient music, her sound akin to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (who, incidentally, contributed a track called “Lagoon” to Looking Glass). Gooch released her debut EP Rushing in May of 2020, which “comprised looping and more labored arrangement,” she says. “‘We Carry’ was the first song I wrote without any looping and it reminded me that sometimes it’s better to lean into more traditional songwriting methods, rather than trying always to subvert them. I like music that has enough space in it, but that still plays with more intricate ideas.”

Across the Looking Glass series, that balance can be found in spades. Whether based on alien languages, or a dream within a dream, or hope in the face of an epic letdown, music’s ability to connect all of us – especially in a year of such jarring disconnect – transcends genre and remains its most enduring quality. After more than a decade of releasing soul-stirring records, the folks at Mexican Summer have learned to celebrate this wholeheartedly, and the Looking Glass singles reflect their mission brilliantly.

Follow Mexican Summer on Instagram for ongoing updates.

5 Powerful Protest Songs Released by Womxn in 2020

Music has always served as a battle cry and a balm during particularly tumultuous times, and in 2020—when injustices like the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on BIPOC, the slaying of George Floyd by police, the assault on immigrant, women’s, and LGBTQIA rights by the Trump Administration became apparent—music was there to help us grieve, process, and make change, yet again.

Here’s a list of a few of this year’s stand-out protest songs featuring womxn. It’s by no means exhaustive, so let it be your gateway toward more songs of peace, love, and change.

Stevie Wonder“Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate” (feat. Rapsody)

This poignant, funky single from legendary soul artist Stevie Wonder engages directly with issues of police brutality, black lives and voting for change, especially as he invites rappers like Rapsody to spit a few verses about her experience as black woman in America. “Apologize, you denied my people/Made our death legal, we all paralegal,” she raps. “Gotta defend ourselves when the laws ain’t equal/Cops aim lethal, death in cathedrals/Bang-bang boogie, you could die wearin’ a hoodie.”

Stephanie Anne Johnson“American Blues”

In her blues song for America, Seattle-based songwriter Stephanie Anne Johnson addresses America like a lost lover, and as a BIPOC in this country. “I’ve been sad/I’ve been blue/I’ve been dying/All over you/ You’ve been washed in my blood/All these years,” she sings. With her soaring gospel voice, Johnson spills her truth and pain—and like all great protest songs, it inspires you to really make some change.

Shea Diamond“I am America”

Visibility can be revolutionary in itself, and singer, songwriter, and transgender activist Shea Diamond knew that when she released her song “I am America,” in June. Co-written with Justin Tranter, the sizzling anthem centers Diamond’s own experiences as a black trans woman in America, and her views on the belonging and inclusion of the LGBTQIA community, while the uplifting video features short clips from members of the LGBTQIA community.

Sunny War“The Orange Man”

Americana artist Sunny War pulls no punches with “Orange Man,” pointedly going after the current U.S. administration. In the lyrics of the song, the Los Angeles-based artist acknowledges the diversity in America and how President Trump’s hatred of difference makes him unfit to lead, singing, “If I were you/I’d run for my life, not for president/cos the residents/need a leader and that is not you.” To send the point home, several boastful and bigotry-laden soundbites from Trump, on issues like popularity with the Black vote and immigration, are layered throughout the melancholy but passionate tune.

Thana Alexa“The Resistance” (feat. Staceyann Chin)

In March, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and loop artist Thana Alexa delivered her rousing protest song, “The Resistance.” She originally penned the song after attending the Women’s March in 2016, but by releasing it in 2020, the song gains broader meaning. “We must rise/Revolutionize our minds/To unify, detoxify,” she sings—and after the hardships we’ve collectively faced head-on in 2020, it’s a fitting imperative to carry into a new year, too.

8 Songs That Got Us Through the 2020 Garbage Fire

When everything’s going south, one of the few things you’ll always have to lift you up is music. That was especially true this year, when many of our social lives came to a halt, but there was no shortage of new songs to listen to from the safety of our homes.

COVID-19 and other 2020 events inspired a lot of good music — both the hopeful and the relatably downtrodden — and plenty more came out this year that suited the times, even if it wasn’t born from them.

Here are a few songs out this year that helped us get through the garbage fire that is (but, thankfully, will soon no longer be) 2020.

Edoheart – “Original Sufferhead”

In Nigeria, the home country of singer/songwriter/producer Edoheart, the term “original sufferhead” refers to someone who’s divinely ordained to suffer — and I’d venture to say a lot of people felt like the original sufferhead this year. The song has an optimistic note, though, because even as Edoheart declares herself the original sufferhead, she also proclaims, “I will fight it out.”

CAMÍNA – “Cinnamon”

Dallas-based musician Ariel Saldivar, a.k.a. CAMÍNA, wrote her debut single about the mistreatment of asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it contains a wider message of resilience that’s especially applicable to the racial justice struggles of 2020, putting a trip-hop spin on African-American spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” 

Atta Boy – “Lucky”

If you’re having a bad year, you can take comfort in the fact that the fictional protagonist of this fun indie rock song is having just as bad a time as you. LA-based band Atta Boy has managed to tell a story that is equal parts sad and comical; Lucky’s “got a bum leg,” and his boss tells him he’s “dumber that dirt,” but despite it all, he’ll “keep on trucking.”

Naïka – “African Sun”

World-pop artist Naïka penned “African Sun” to celebrate her Haitian heritage, singing Creole lyrics in response to riots in Haiti. People of all backgrounds, however, will be able to relate to the lyrics this year: “I let things hit me deeply/heavy weight ’til I can’t breathe/I keep the noise right beside me/this cycle’s pulling me mad deep.” In the end, though, she’s “strong like the African sun,” celebrating the strength of Haitian people and reminding us all that we can get through anything.

Subhi – “Wake Me Up”

Indian-American singer-songwriter Subhi wrote her vocoder-filled single “Wake Me Up” just as lockdown was beginning and the realization that the world would never be the same was settling in. Even as she processed the impending sense of doom we were all feeling in the song, she also gave it a positive spin, using the refrain “wake me up, wake me up, wake me now/pull me out from the dark” to point toward a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.


While some songs offered us commiseration or hope, this danceable single from LA-based electro-pop duo Joyeur gave us practical advice with lyrics like “I need some trees and stones/I’ll call you later/I saw a sign that warned me it was over/I’m going to hang my phone up.” For times when quarantine got difficult, Joyeur’s Anna Feller and Joelle Corey advocated retreating to nature and disconnecting from technology, which is never a bad idea if you need a break from all the bad news surrounding us these days.

Ciara Vizzard – “Victory”

This R&B-influenced single, inspired by a streak of bad luck in UK-based pop artist Ciara Vizzard’s own life, reads like a letter to 2020 (or perhaps even to Donald Trump, given that it came out right around election day in the U.S.). “Look what you do to me/you stole my inner peace,” she begins the song, working up to a hopeful chorus — “I can’t let you hurt me/never ending but I’m trying” — and turning triumphant by verse two: “Now that I’m finally free/you’re just a memory.” We can all look forward to the day we’re able to say that.

Autumn Nicholas – “Side by Side”

There was a lot of division in the world this year, particularly the U.S. – racial, political, and of course, literal physical separation thanks to COVID-19. Soul-pop singer-songwriter Autumn Nicholas wrote “Side by Side” to represent the best of what happened in 2020 – and what could happen more if we make the most of the situation: people coming together to support one another through these tough times, “standing side by side for equal rights.”

How Lady Gaga (and other Pop Heroes) Came to Our Rescue in 2020

In the 1930s, as the world sunk into an unprecedented economic depression, Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen’s song “Get Happy” prompted the American public to “forget your troubles,” “shout Hallelujah” and “chase all your cares away.” The simplicity of the song, with little in the way of instrumentation and barely any dynamic range, gave it earworm quality. Once heard, it stuck, and became a balm for the troubled minds of people losing their life savings, their jobs, their homes and their hope. The same happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones provided anthems for everyone from school children to their grandparents, escapism from relentless news about war and economic decline.

This year, we’ve faced the biggest health and economic disaster of our lives – one that has left many without work, their relationships strained or broken, and proven a major burden on our collective mental health. Pop music once again responded to the call to keep the human spirit afloat – whether we trepidatiously return to work in less-than-ideal conditions, or remain consigned to our homes, allowed only to walk our dogs and shop for toilet paper. Specifically Lady Gaga came to our rescue with her buoyant Chromatica album, which dropped in May along with videos and imagery in which the singer is depicted as an ethereal pink-haired, sci-fi heroine. Make no mistake. This is not a woman who has been eating microwave nachos and signing up to a bunch of language courses she’s never going to start. Lady Gaga gave us a hero right when we need one.

Gaga’s sixth album is a dance-synth-cyber-pop experience. More than a musical project, it encompasses a whole aesthetic – Gaga’s futuristic cyborg-self dancing fearlessly in the desert (“Rain On Me”) was the exact energy we wanted to channel in our own imagination.

The album’s title refers to a dystopian planet – a setting that felt all too real on Earth this year. For all its glitz, glamour and big beats, the themes of trauma, heartbreak, overcoming internal and external obstacles and seeking a sense of being worthy of a good, fulfilling life all made this one of Gaga’s most vulnerable, powerful works of songwriting.

It’s hard to know how the pandemic will shape music made during this period and released in the months or years to come, but in the past few months we’ve had some truly epic pop albums from Dua Lipa, Jarvis Cocker, The 1975, Róisín Murphy, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Many musicians who were due to release albums in this spring and summer (right before touring globally, under normal circumstances) changed their plans to prevent the potential loss-making risk of not leveraging the album popularity to sell tour tickets. Others saw the immense opportunity. All these people sitting at home, biting their nails, desperate for entertainment and reassurance from pop culture (since our governments have been unreliable sources of comfort) would surely pay good money for albums and merchandise? After all, music fans had engaged en masse with Instagram DJs and live streams from musicians’ loungerooms – and even drive-in concerts, like Keith Urban, Bush, Phoenix and Groove Armada, offered in the US and UK.

Perhaps there was something of a premonition amongst certain artists. Even the glumly witty Jarvis Cocker had recorded and prepared a pop album full of house music tracks designed for dancing. Prior to its release, his livestreamed Domestic Disco on Instagram attracted millions to watch him DJ from his rural UK lockdown, potted plants and stuffed toys included. JARV IS, the collaboration between Cocker and his live band, released Beyond The Pale, a brilliant throw-back to 90s British post-punk, rave culture and art school dropouts. “Must I Evolve?” delivered the eternal question of anyone over 35 who has become stuck in their personal, professional and creative patterns of thinking and living. The answer, in a nutshell, is yes.

Meanwhile, Dua Lipa’s album Future Nostalgia has heavy 1980s synth-pop vibes that recall Olivia Newton John and Pat Benatar. When it came out, Future Nostalgia debuted at number four on the US Billboard charts (inclusive of downloads). At just under 40 minutes, the music felt like a lump of sherbet melting in the mouth. Intense, sugary, sweet and thrilling, then gone. Tracks like “Don’t Start Now,” “Levitating” and “Physical” kept the momentum high and the melodies relentless. People were craving pure pop music, but not just any pop – nostalgia inducing pop that transported them to better times.

It’s not purely my own speculation and opinion that Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Jarvis Cocker and other pop purveyors were the fuel that kept us going in 2020. A 2010-2013 study at the University of London, part of the Earworm Project, surveyed 3000 people to ascertain the most commonly cited catchy choruses, or earworms. In a list of the top 10 songs, Lady Gaga took the gong with three of her songs listed, including the number one, “Bad Romance” (the others were “Poker Face” and “Alejandro”).

Pop music is powerful – it becomes trapped in our psyches.  Where it is nostalgic, which Lady Gaga does brilliantly in sounding a lot like Madonna-meets-Aretha Franklin, it provides comfort to suffering souls. Nostalgia – both in Gaga’s comic-book stylings and music – has the ability to rouse feelings of confidence and optimism. Most importantly, it is a reminder of our unity and connectedness as human beings. “Let It Rain” and “Free Woman” are the sonic equivalent of putting on lipstick after months of only brushing crumbs off our lips, of actually putting pants on rather than traipsing the house in an oversized t-shirt and tracky dacks. With the musical bounty 2020 has provided, we can conjure up some sense of being part of a larger contingent of a pop-music-loving public, all traipsing off dutifully vaccinated to restart the economy and save the world in 2021.


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.


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.

Even With the Clubs Closed, 2020 Has Been a Stellar Year for Disco

I don’t think I’ve ever listened to as much disco as I have in 2020. That’s saying a lot for someone whose regular listening habits include a decent dose of the dance floor singles of the 1970s and the many grooves that have spun off from it in the decades that follow. 

This year was different, for reasons that really don’t need to be rehashed; in the nine months that have passed since the clubs closed, though, disco has motivated me on the treadmill and while I’ve hustled at my desk. It’s lured me down internet rabbit holes that have nothing to do with pandemics or U.S. elections. While there were plenty of nights where I was fueled by the catalogs of the Bee-Gees and Giorgio Moroder, most of what’s been on my stuck-at-home playlist is new. That’s the other thing about 2020; it’s been a really good year for disco, even if there’s nowhere to play it in public. 

Kylie Minogue was the most upfront with her intentions. The Australian pop star titled her fifteenth studio album Disco. Much of the album was recorded at home during the lockdown. Knowing that makes the album a joyous gift to everyone who misses the days of balancing cocktails while squeezing through packed dance floors to club-hug your friends. We might wish that we could do this with “Magic” or “Say Something” playing in the background, but, for the time being, the album will play in full as we connect through text messages and video calls. 

Róisín Murphy dropped her latest album, Róisín Machine, in October. At nearly an hour in length, it’s a dive into the sounds that have influenced the beloved singer throughout her life and career, even giving new perspective to pre-pandemic singles like “Incapable” and “Narcissus.” With a visual language that recalls punk and post-punk, Murphy gives a nod to the genre-blurring club culture of the early ’80s. 

Jessie Ware drew from the late ’70s and early ’80s, often recalling the late, great Teena Marie on her fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure? Released in June, Ware gave fans a summer of jams so sticky that songs like “Step Into My Life,” “Ooh La La” and “Save a Kiss” could easily remain in your head the morning after you heard them, as if you had heard them while out on the town.

And then there’s Dua Lipa, whose hit album, Future Nostalgia was followed this summer by Club Future Nostalgia. Helmed by The Blessed Madonna and featuring contribution from Dimitri from Paris, Jacques Lu Cont and others, the remix album allowed fans to bring the discotheque into their homes. 

In a year of virtual crate digging through sources like Bandcamp, Beatport and Traxsource, I’ve been filling carts and making wish lists with releases from labels like Midnight Riot, based in London, and Glitterbeat, from Hamburg. The latter released Migrant Birds, an homage to Middle Eastern disco from TootArd that’s become one of my favorite albums of the year. Partyfine, founded by French DJ/producer Yuksek, is another one of my go-to labels in 2020. Yuksek’s own full-length, Nosso Ritmo, is packed with goodies, particularly “G.F.Y.,” which features Queen Rose on vocals and sums up the encounters with creepy, overeager club guys that I definitely haven’t missed this year. Partyfine also released “Gang,” from French musician Anoraak with Sarah Maison on vocals, a cut with such a fierce, early ’80s vibe that it became a personal obsession. I’ve also been collecting tunes from producers/remixers like Hotmood and Monsieur Van Pratt, both from Mexico, and Ladies on Mars, from Argentina, who all have a great sense for balancing classic and modern dance music. 

I’m using disco here in the broadest sense of the word. Khruangbin usually gets the psychedelic tag, but “Time (You and I),” from their album Mordechai, is disco. U.S. Girls is known more for indie pop, but “Overtime,” from her 2020 album Heavy Light, is a stomper in the vein of northern soul that became 100% disco when Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost! remixed it. Then there’s The Diabolical Liberties, who released their debut full-length High Protection & the Sportswear Mystics this year. The album is filled with funky, dubby punk, not unlike what bands like Gang of Four and The Clash did 40 years ago. Ultraflex, an Icelandic/Norwegian duo who released their debut album, Visions of Ultraflex, this year, look more towards the synth-heavy dance music of the ’80s, but that’s totally disco too. 

Sometime during the summer, thanks to a compilation from Berlin label Toy Tonics, I was turned on to Phenomenal Handclap Band. They’ve been around in various forms for years – I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard them until now – but they also dropped the album PHB in May. This was exactly the music that I had been craving, from the psychedelic funk of “Skyline” and “The Healer” to the new wave-ish “Do What You Like” and Italo-leaning “Riot” to the gospel-tinged “Judge Not.” It’s disco at its most eclectic. PHB became part of this year’s listening habits and I was excited to hear them guest on Love and Dancing, the debut from U.K. DJ crew Horse Meat Disco

All this, though, is just scratching the surface. There is so much in this year’s treasure trove of music, from Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears channeling Sylvester on “Meltdown” to The Shapeshifters teaming up with actor Billy Porter for “Finally Ready” to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s cover of early ’00s Eurodisco hit “Crying at the Discotheque.”  

Not all of this music came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were released before mid-March. Others may have been in-the-works, or fully recorded, before lockdown. However, their release in 2020 has made the year at home a little more bearable.