AF 2020 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums & Singles of The Year

In a year that’s been like no other for the music industry, it feels a bit weird to make a best of 2020 list – there have been no tours, venues and clubs across the globe are in danger of closing their doors for good, release schedules were shuffled beyond recognition, and musicians have had to find other ways to make ends meet while those in the U.S. await the next round of paltry stimulus checks. With a situation so dire, the metrics have changed – should we ascribe arbitrary value to the skill of producers, songwriters, performers, and the execution of their finished projects, or simply celebrate records that made us feel like the whole world wasn’t crumbling?

Definitively ranking releases has never been the Audiofemme model for looking back on the year in music. Instead, our writers each share a short list of what moved them most, in the hopes that our readers will find something that moves them, too. Whether you spent the lockdown voraciously listening to more new music this year than ever before, or fell back on comforting favorites, or didn’t have the headspace to absorb the wealth of music inspired by the pandemic, the variety here emphasizes how truly essential music can be to our well-being. If you’re in the position to do so, support your favorite artists and venues by buying merch, and check out the National Independent Venue Association to stay updated on what’s happening with the Save Our Stages act. Here’s to a brighter 2021.


  • Marianne White (Executive Director)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders
      2) the Microphones – Microphones in 2020
      3) Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
      4) Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
      5) Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
      6) Amaarae – The Angel You Don’t Know
      7) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      8) Adrianne Lenker – songs/instrumentals
      9) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      10) Lomelda – Hannah
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Kinlaw – “Permissions”
      2) Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
      3) Little Dragon & Moses Sumney – “The Other Lover”
      4) Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!”
      5) Megan Thee Stallion – “Shots Fired”

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Land of Talk – Indistinct Conversations
      2) Dehd – Flower of Devotion
      3) SAULT – Untitled (Black Is)/Untitled (Rise)
      4) Public Practice – Gentle Grip
      5) Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
      6) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
      7) Benny Yurco – You Are My Dreams
      8) Eve Owen – Don’t Let the Ink Dry
      9) Porridge Radio – Every Bad
      10) Jess Cornelius – Distance
    • Top 10 Singles:
      1) Little Hag – “Tetris”
      2) Elizabeth Moen – “Creature of Habit”
      3) Yo La Tengo – “Bleeding”
      4) Caribou – “Home”
      5) Jess Williamson – “Pictures of Flowers”
      6) Adrianne Lenker – “anything”
      7) Nicolás Jaar – “Mud”
      8) Soccer Mommy – “Circle the Drain”
      9) New Fries – “Ploce”
      10) El Perro Del Mar – “The Bells”


  • Alexa Peters (Playing Seattle)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Deep Sea Diver – Impossible Weight
      2) Blimes and Gab – Talk About It
      3) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      4) Tomo Nakayama – Melonday
      5) Matt Gold – Imagined Sky
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Stevie Wonder – “Can’t Put it in the Hands of Fate”
      2) Tomo Nakayama – “Get To Know You”
      3) Ariana Grande – “Positions”

  • Amanda Silberling (Playing Philly)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Frances Quinlan – Likewise
      2) Bartees Strange – Live Forever
      3) Told Slant – Point the Flashlight and Walk
      4) Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me?
      5) Shamir – Shamir
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Kississippi – “Around Your Room”
      2) Sad13 – “Hysterical”
      3) The Garages – “Mike Townsend (Is a Disappointment)”

  • Ashley Prillaman (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      2) Lasse Passage – Sunwards
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
      4) Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
      5) Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Megan Thee Stallion – “B.I.T.C.H.”
      2) Perfume Genius – “On the Floor”
      3) SG Lewis & Robyn – “Impact” (feat. Robyn & Channel Tres)

  • Cat Woods (Playing Melbourne)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Jarvis Cocker – Beyond the Pale
      2) Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
      3) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
      4) Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – Crossover
      5) Various Artists – Deadly Hearts: Walking Together
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – “Mob March”
      2) Laura Veirs – “Freedom Feeling”
      3) Miley Cyrus – “Never Be Me”

  • Chaka V. Grier (Playing Toronto)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
      2) Joya Mooi – Blossom Carefully
      3) Lady Gaga – Chromatica
      4) Witch Prophet – DNA Activation
      5) Tremendum – Winter
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Lianne La Havas – “Green Papaya”
      2) Lady Gaga – “Free Woman”
      3) Allie X – “Susie Save Your Love”

  • Cillea Houghton (Playing Nashville)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Chris Stapleton  – Starting Over
      2) Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
      3) Little Big Town – Nightfall
      4) Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
      5) Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”
      2) Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
      3) Remi Wolf  – “Hello Hello Hello”

  • Eleanor Forrest (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
      2) Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
      3) Allie X – Cape Cod
      4) LEXXE – Meet Me in the Shadows
      5) Gustavo Santaolalla, Mac Quayle – The Last of Us Part II (Original Soundtrack)
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) CL – “+5 STAR+”
      2) Yves Tumor & Kelsey Lu – “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud seep out”
      3)  Stephan Moccio – “Freddie’s Theme”

  • Gillian G. Gaar (Musique Boutique)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Dust Bowl Faeries – Plague Garden
      2) Ganser – Just Look At That Sky
      3) Oceanator – Things I Never Said
      4) Loma – Don’t Shy Away
      5) Maggie Herron – Your Refrain
      6) Pretenders – Hate for Sale
      7) The Bird and the Bee – Put up the Lights
      8) Partner – Never Give Up
      9) Bully – Sugaregg
      10) Olivia Awbrey – Dishonorable Harvest

  • Jason Scott (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Mickey Guyton – Bridges EP
      2) Katie Pruitt – Expectations
      3) Mandy Moore – Silver Landings
      4) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      5) Cf Watkins – Babygirl
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Mickey Guyton – “Black Like Me”
      2) Ashley McBryde – “Stone”
      3) Lori McKenna feat. Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose – “When You’re My Age”

  • Jamila Aboushaca (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
      2) Khruangbin – Mordechai
      3) Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
      4) Tycho – Simulcast
      5) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Tame Impala – “Lost In Yesterday”
      2) Phoebe Bridgers – “Kyoto”
      3) Halsey – “You should be sad”

  • Liz Ohanesian (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
      2) Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
      3) Phenomenal Handclap Band – PHB
      4) Khruangbin – Mordechai
      5) TootArd – Migrant Birds
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Anoraak – “Gang” 
      2) Kylie Minogue – “Magic”
      3) Horsemeat Disco feat. Phenomenal Handclap Band – “Sanctuary”  

  • Michelle Rose (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      2) Taylor Swift – folklore
      3) Shamir – Shamir
      4) Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
      5) HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Porches – “I Miss That” 
      2) Annabel Jones – “Spiritual Violence”
      3) Wolf – “High Waist Jeans”  

  • Sara Barron (Playing Detroit)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Summer Walker – Over It
      2) Yaeji – WHAT WE DREW
      3) Liv.e – Couldn’t Wait to Tell You
      4) Ojerime – B4 I Breakdown
      5) KeiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!”
      2) Kali Uchis, Jhay Cortez – “la luz (fin)”
      3) fleet.dreams – “Selph Love”

  • Sophia Vaccaro (Playing the Bay)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
      2) The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames
      3) Zheani – Zheani Sparkes EP
      4) Various Artists – Save Stereogum: A ’00s Covers Comp
      5) Halsey – Manic
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Charli XCX – “forever”
      2) Doja Cat – “Boss Bitch”
      3) Wolf – “Hoops”

  • Suzannah Weiss (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Galantis – Church
      2) Best Coast – Always Tomorrow
      3) Overcoats – The Fight
      4) Holy Motors – Horse
      5) Suzanne Vallie – Love Lives Where Rules Die
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) CAMÍNA – “Cinnamon”
      2) Naïka – “African Sun”
      3) Edoheart – “Original Sufferhead”

  • Tarra Thiessen (RSVP Here, Check the Spreadsheet)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network – Ballet of Apes
      2) Ganser – Just Look At That Sky
      3) Death Valley Girls – Under The Spell of Joy
      4) The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed
      5) Ghost Funk Orchestra – An Ode To Escapism
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Miss Eaves – “Belly Bounce”
      2) Purple Witch of Culver – “Trig”
      3) Shilpa Ray – “Heteronormative Horseshit Blues”

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Lil Baby – My Turn
      2) A$AP Ferg – Floor Seats II
      3) Polo G – The Goat
      4) The Weeknd – After Hours
      5) Teyana Taylor – The Album
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP”
      2) Roddy Ricch  – “The Box”
      3) Big Sean & Nipsey Hussle – “Deep Reverence”

RSVP HERE: Pom Pom Squad Livestream via LongNeckLass Twitch + MORE

When Mia Berrin was only 15, she saw a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Pom Pom Squad” and the name stuck with her as she began to write songs during her senior year of high school in Orlando, Florida. Now a staple of the Brooklyn scene, Berrin’s band Pom Pom Squad is filled out by Mari Alé Figeman on bass, 

Shelby Keller on drums

, and Alex Mercuri on lead guitar. Contrary to the classic image of a cheerleading squad, Berrin’s squad is a vehicle for emotionally charged grunge anthems that release inner demons and rush toward radical self-acceptance, as seen on their two EPs Hate It Here and Ow. They also explore the softer side of alternative in their 2020 Valentine’s Day single “Red with Love” and recently released cover of “Crimson + Clover.”

You can catch Berrin performing a stripped down set on LongNeckLass’ Twitch tonight at 7pm EST alongside 2nd Grade, Baseball Dad and Lisa Prank. They also have the best Bandcamp limited-edition merch items including a summer squad uniform and a long sleeve “Internet Tour” shirt (which we all seem to be on these days). We chatted with Berrin about the making of Pom Pom Squad’s recent music videos, the creative community’s role in BLM and her dream writing location.

AF: I love both music videos you’ve released in 2020- “Red with Love” and “Crimson + Clover.” How did they differ in terms of recording and filming? What do these tracks mean to you?

MB: Thank you! Red With Love was pre-quarantine – it was recorded as a full band and the music video was filmed at the (now defunct), The Dance with a big group of fans and friends. It’s weird that filming in a crowd seems like such a novelty now! “Crimson + Clover” was basically the opposite. I recorded it alone and filmed the video with my partner using only stuff we already had in the apartment. Both songs are about ~love~ but are stylistically really different. I think Crimson is a little bit of a sneak preview of where my brain has been lately.

AF: Now that it’s uncertain when we’ll be able to play shows in NYC again, has your relationship with the city changed and how do you imagine the creative community in Brooklyn evolving?

MB: My relationship with the city has changed in that I barely leave my house and have very little desire to. To be honest, I didn’t have much of a desire before, but my anxiety has gotten a lot worse. Brooklyn is so overwhelming to begin with that I didn’t really feel like I had the opportunity to finish thoughts! Having a lot of time on my hands has made it a lot easier to write though. I feel like maybe the creative community will evolve in that there isn’t much room for comparison anymore – playing the show circuit here makes you really aware of what everyone else is doing and what’s “trendy”. It feels good to be isolated in that I can hear my own instincts more clearly.

AF: Has the COVID lockdown and current social justice movement changed and/or fueled your creative process in any way?

MB: Absolutely. I think it’s really hard not to be angry and hurt right now, so I’ve been writing from that place recently. It also makes me feel a need to escape through my music, so I’ve been rebuilding my world sonically and giving myself a place to rest that’s separate from everything else. I think on the other side of the coin, this moment in time also makes it really, really hard to write, or get out of bed.

AF: What are your thoughts on the creative community’s role in the BLM movement and how do you think we can use our platforms in the most effective way?

MB: From my own experience, I’ve been using my platform to try to spread information and as a starting point for research. I think especially in this moment, it’s important to step back and try to learn about what’s happening in front of you. Art and artists can be huge catalysts for change and can encourage people to shift their perspectives.

AF: I saw in a previous interview that you write best when you’re as far away from NYC as possible. What would your dream writing/recording space be outside of the city?

MB: Basically the Jayne Mansfield Mansion, but with a meadow or a view of the mountains outside. Somewhere extremely kitschy and unnecessarily lavish.

AF: What can we expect from your livestream tonight?

MB: A pretty stripped down version of some of the songs from our last EP, Ow, and maybe some new stuff I’ve been working on ;-)

AF: What are your plans for the rest of 2020 + beyond?

MB: Staying safe and working on a big project I am very, very excited about!!

RSVP HERE for Pom Pom Squad 8/14 via LongNeckLass Twitch 7pm EST w/ 2nd Grade, Baseball Dad and Lisa Prank.

More great live streams this week…

8/14 Best Coast (Crazy For You 10 Year Anniversary Party) via Seated. 9pm EST, $10, RSVP HERE

8/14 ..And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead via their website. 9pm EST, $9, RSVP HERE

8/14 The War on Drugs, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Waxahatchee and more via Vote Ready. 7pm EST, FREE, RSVP HERE 

8/14- 8/16 Allen Stone, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Los Lobos, Gangstagrass, Shakey Graves, and more via Philadelphia Folk Festival 12pm EST, $75 +, RSVP HERE 

8/16 What Now: An Antiracist Teach-In with Ibram X. Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson 8pm EST, $50, RSVP HERE

8/17 2020 Ain’t Canceled: August Intersectionality Series via Zoom. 8pm EST, RSVP HERE

8/18 Serpentwithfeet via YouTube / KEXP at Home. 3pm EST, RSVP HERE

8/19 Thursday, Cursive, And So I Watch You From Afar via Youtube. 6pm EST, RSVP HERE

LIVE REVIEW: Best Coast @ The Novo


Best Coast, the LA-based alt-rock duo consisting of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, released their latest album Always Tomorrow in February and began the album’s tour in their home state, making their second stop at LA’s Novo on Friday, February 28.

After Philadelphia-based indie punk band Mannequin Pussy opened with raw, head-banging tracks like “Drunk II,” Best Coast began with an old favorite, the exultant eponymous track off 2015’s California Nights: “California nights / Make me feel so happy I could die / But I try to stay alive / I never wanna get so high / That I can’t come back down to real life / And look you in the eyes and say ‘Baby, you are mine.'” Next came the chill, uplifting breakup song “For the First Time,” with catchy bass tunes and infectious harmonies.

Cosentino, who took the stage in a blue pantsuit, has a clean, clear, emotive voice reminiscent of Neko Case and Jenny Lewis. She sings in an animated, almost theatrical style, swaying from side to side, gesturing with her hands, and enunciating each word as if she’s telling a story. Bruno was equally dynamic, jumping up and down as he strummed his guitar. They were joined by Joe Bautista on guitar and keyboard, Brett Mielke on bass and background vocals, and Dylan Wood on drums.

Cosentino exudes a rare combination of rockstar energy and relatability. She spoke to the audience throughout the show in a refreshingly honest manner. “I was really in my own head, like, no one’s gonna fucking come to this show,” she admitted before performing a crowd favorite, “The Only Place,” speaking some of the lyrics, with the audience singing along to the refrain: “Why would you live anywhere else?”

The band’s frontwoman took on an angrier tone for “Seeing Red,” singing about a different side of a breakup than “For the First Time” presents: “It’s so hard / When everything you’ve ever known is gone / And it’s okay to feel weak / It’s okay to be shaky / But god, I wish that I could just move on.”

Before performing an emotional “No One Like You,” a song about persevering through relationship issues, Cosentino announced that she was playing a love song and advised the singles in the crowd to love themselves. “You’re the nicest,” she said as the audience cheered.

Best Coast gave the crowd a taste of their latest album with “Rollercoaster,” which has the same beachy rock-and-roll vibes as their old music, before treating them to the catchy “Feeling OK” and revisiting the new album with the energetic “Make It Last” — with Cosentino screaming the lyrics “We can’t let this go on any further” and “I just want you to be happy with another” — and the angsty, guitar-heavy “Graceless Kids.”

Then, Cosentino gave the audience a heartfelt thank you, referencing the turn from her anxiety-ridden party girl persona to finding sobriety in 2017, a major theme on Always Tomorrow: “You guys fucking loved me when I hated myself and didn’t know how to love myself, and you just fucking lifted my ass up. I don’t know you, but you are the sweetest.”

Of course, the crowd beckoned the band back up for an encore, during which they played two classics: Cosentino started off the fun, cheerful “When I’m With You” slowly with just her voice and guitar, then the band joined in and picked up the pace. “What do we have? Fun!” she playfully prompted the audience to yell. They closed the show with the wistful “Boyfriend.”

After people trickled out of the venue, they blasted Best Coast’s music on the street outside the Novo. I left feeling as if I’d truly gotten a glimpse into the soul of Cosentino and her bandmates. The show captured the spirit of the first song they played: through their music and performance, they’d created another breathtaking California night.

PLAYLIST: The Top Acts To Catch At Northside Festival


Hey Brooklyn! What are you doing next weekend? Really, the only acceptable answer is seeing at least one of these bands at Northside Festival, which runs from June 11-14 and hosts shows in venues from Acheron  to Warsaw. The schedule is packed with amazing artists, and to help you choose which shows to see, we made you a list of our favorites. You’re welcome.

1. Diet Cig  (6/11 at Alphaville)

This duo from New Paltz plays catchy, light-hearted pop that will have you copying the dancing in this video:

2. Beverly (6/11 at Alphaville)

This band comes with a warning: their lush, relaxing harmonies are addictive.

3. Luna (6/11 at McCarren Park)

Luna is the indie band formed by former Galaxie 500 member Dean Wareham, featuring guitar-centric, dreamy rock.

4. Drenge (6/12 at Knitting Factory)

Their name is a little challenging to pronounce, but these brothers from the UK have an amazing sound: heavy, grungy rock.

5. Leapling (6/12 at Palisades)

Just one in a long list of amazing local bands is Leapling, an experimental pop group responsible for gems like “Crooked.”

6. Vomitface (6/12 at Pet Rescue)

This sludge-pop band sounds way better than their name. If you’ve got some head-banging to get out of your system, go see them at Pet Rescue.

7. Frankie Cosmos (6/12 at Rough Trade)

Greta Kline formerly performed under the name Ingrid Superstar before settling on Frankie Cosmos. The daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates lists James Taylor, Hall and Oates, Liz Phair, Indigo Girls and the Moldy Peaches as early influences.

8. Mitski (6/12 at Saint Vitus)

Mitski is a stunning singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, via practically everywhere else. Go see her at Saint Vitus, where we’re hoping she’ll preview some songs from her upcoming album.

9. Von Sell (6/12 at Union Pool)

Von Sell is a relatively new electro-pop artist from Berlin who is already getting praise from indie blogs. Watch him play at Union Pool and see what all the fuss is about.

10. ONWE (6/12 at Union Pool)

ONWE’s light, catchy melodies hide something darker- just check out his song “Unpaid Internship,” his scathing opinion on “trust-fund kids.”

11. Shilpa Ray (6/14 at Rough Trade)

She plays the harmonium, and she’s one of Nick Cave’s favorite musicians: Shilpa Ray is bringing her uniquely gloomy rock ‘n’ roll to Rough Trade.

12. This entire lineup (6/13 at 50 Kent Avenue)

Celebrate the start of summer with an outdoor concert, and see four great bands in one place: Bully, Alvvays, Built to Spill and Best Coast.

LIVE REVIEW: First City Music Festival, Monterey CA

FYF Fest

The weekend of August 23 and 24th was a big weekend for music in California. LA’s FYF fest garnered most of the attention with its headliners The Strokes and Phoenix, along with other acts like HAIM and Built to Spill. In the eleventh year since its conception, the festival has grown to be one of the go-to fests of the summer and is obviously the most talked about. But Goldenvoice has another fest cooking up interest on the same weekend. First City Festival is the Northern California counterpart to FYF, featuring Beck and The National as its headliners in only its second year running. While First City doesn’t quite have the recognition of FYF just yet, it very much has some momentum after this year’s events.

First City Festival is held in the city of Monterey, for which it earns its namesake. Monterey, CA is unofficially the state’s first capital, boasting a lot of California’s “firsts,” such as the establishment of California’s first library, public school and printing press. From a musical standpoint, Monterey is somewhat of a musical mecca, having hosted the iconic Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, the first most widely attended rock festival of its kind and, arguably, the festival that ushered in the beginning of “the summer of love.” With 55,000 people in attendance, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin gave some of the most iconic performances of all time on the stage at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Considering that it is being hosted at the very same fairgrounds as its memorable predecessor, First City Festival has a lot to prove.

First City planners face the task of defining First City’s sound, and many festivals, such as Coachella, are being criticized for lacking luster in the overall defining sound and feel of the festival. FYF very much has its feel for L.A. bands and markets itself on that very characteristic. So how did First City fare in that department? Most of the artists featured at First City were of the acoustic and indie rock vein, each with a unique sound. There were no hip hop or rap acts, and EDM was noticeably, and thankfully, absent. This eliminated a lot of that teenage partier crowd, therefore a lot of rowdiness. Between the vast marketplace of artisan goods, and the artists booked at First city, there definitely was a Monterey vibe floating around. It’s hard to describe what that means; as a California native I have vacationed in Monterey countless times and can tell you it’s not your average beach town. Its appeal comes, obviously, from its history (think John Steinbeck and Cannery Row) but also its eclecticism. It’s an artist town, with its fair share of hippies and hipsters. So yes, there was some patchouli lingering, but more importantly the vibe was definitely that of music connoisseurship. It wasn’t a party festival remotely; it was a festival for people that really enjoy experiencing live music and who appreciate true artistry.

The fairgrounds were quaint but beautiful, with three stages and, oddly, a carnival. At first I thought that this was an attempt on Goldenvoice’s behalf to ride the coattails of Coachella’s popularity (Coachella’s most prominent image is its ferris wheel). But then I realized it was more about practicality – the Monterey County Fair is right after First City (how convenient!). The atmosphere of First City was vastly different from my experiences at Coachella, and this has a lot to do with the lineup. I was open to seeing just about anyone. First on my list was Speedy Ortiz, a Massachusetts four-piece that sounds like it time warped directly from the underground indie music scene circa 1995. Their gritty guitar licks range from clear and concise picking, to fuzzed-out strumming. Paired with Sadie Dupuis’ sing-talky vocals, you’ve got a band with a refined, unrefined sound. Very grungy at times, the band experiments with moments of mellow, hypnotic, verses relying heavily on subtle background guitar feedback and lulling bass lines.

Speedy Ortiz

Survival Guide was next on my list. This was one of the few artists that I had listened to quite a bit beforehand, so I knew I was sure to enjoy. To my surprise, it’s actually a one-woman band. The lady behind the music, Emily Whitehurst, manned, or should I say woman-ed, a complex musical setup of a laptop, keyboards, looping machines, and strangely, a telephone. Her sound features a lot of instrumentation that I would never have guessed was created as a solo endeavor. That the music came mostly from machines rather than a full band didn’t detract from the performance in the slightest. Though she was confined to a small spot on the stage, she commanded the attention from the growing crowds of the day as she breezed through an upbeat set of electronic indie pop tunes.

Survival Guide

By the time Miniature Tigers hit Cypress stage, the day was picking up and so were the crowds. Though their earlier releases had more acoustic guitar, the set was heavier on the dreamy synth pop of the material from their latest release, Cruel Runnings. The band’s energy was incredible and they garnered a rather large crowd, no doubt lured by their 80’s new wave appeal with a modern dance edge.

Miniature Tigers

One of my favorite parts about First City is the minimal amount of overlap between bands early in the day. It makes for an easy way to discover all of the smaller artists that the event was featuring. By the time Miniature Tigers ended, we were able to head to the Manzanita stage to catch most of Doe Eye’s set. Doe Eye is a San Francisco based artist featuring sultry singer Maryam Qudus. This moody orchestral rock garnered a lot of attention considering CocoRosie was playing the main stage at the same time. The songs never really achieve a high energetic tempo, but tracks like “I Hate You” carry enough lyrical weight to make for an interesting performance underpinned with irony at times, due to Qudus’ saccharine-sweet singing.

Doe Eyes

Following up Doe Eye on the same stage was one of my favorite acts of the entire weekend, The Lonely Wild. They consider themselves “spaghetti western influenced americana,”  and it must be said that there are elements of that description that are absolutely true of this LA group. Their sound explodes the idea of classical folk into climatic and often times cinematic sounds, which makes sense considering Andrew Carroll, the band’s brainchild, studied film before forming The Lonely Wild. “Everything You Need” was the song that hooked me immediately; it embodies the band’s overall sound, with dual male-female vocals, a constant foot pounding rhythm and a horn section that conjures up that desolate old west image. Not only were they a personal favorite of mine for the entire weekend, they’re the type of band that I feel exemplifies First City’s sound best.

The Lonely Wild

After checking out the end of Tokyo Police Club’s set (never a disappointment there), I stuck around at the main Redwood Stage for Best Coast. Like a more well-kempt and much more jovial Courtney Love, Bethany Cosentino proved to be a strong female front with an air of nonchalance and bad-assery. Though Best Coast’s  lo-fi sound from the “Boyfriend” era doesn’t do a thing for me, in a live setting I found myself enjoying all of it, and the newer material was great. It was the perfect afternoon set to kickstart the evening hours of the festival.

Best Coast

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Phantogram yet again, although it was at the expense of seeing Unknown Mortal Orchestra (the festival struggle is real). But, Phantogram never disappoints and I can’t urge people enough to see them live! Between Sarah Barthel’s general air of natural coolness and Josh “Motherfucking” Carter’s  reverb-laden guitar licks, they blew the crowd away with their “fuckin’ beats” (Barthel’s words). With a performance only to be followed up by Beck, day one at First City was fulfilled.


Sunday was a bit more of a wild card for me, with little else besides Naked and The Famous really on my radar. The festival opened with a band called Midi Matilda and was such a good move on the part of the curators; their electro pop sound was not too sugary sweet and their instrumentation was impressive. Singer Skyler Kilborn is a solid front man, with his Misa Kitara style guitar (with a MIDI screen that echoes their name). But drummer Logan Grime is the powerhouse behind this duo. He reminded me of Dave Grohl on drums: precise, intense, and hard to take your eyes off of. “Day Dreams,” from their album Red Light District, was the powerful sing-along of the set, and concluded their performance on a strong note.

Midi Matilda

The Family Crest was another band to make my top shows of the weekend. With a core of seven band members – a cellist, a violinist, a tenor trombone player, a flutist, and a solid drummer – creating epic orchestral pop, I still find it hard to believe they all fit on the smallest stage at the fairgrounds. Frontman Liam McCormick has the vocal chops to carry them far in the industry, rivaling the ranges of Matthew Bellamy. They began their set with a song called “Beneath the Brine,” a ballsy opener that left jaws dropped and set the tone for the rest of the performance. Their musical grandeur is a sight to see, and their sound is really unlike anything that’s going on right now in music.

The Family Crest

Next up was Future Islands, a band I’d regrettably turned down the opportunity to see at Coachella. Admittedly, that oversight was due to the fact that I’ve always been slightly confused by their sound. Their synth-heavy pop paired with Samuel Herring’s, erm, unclassifiable vocals were off-putting for me initially. But the beauty of live music, however, is that a performance can really change one’s perspective on a given band. What were unusual, inconsistent vocals on record, became booming and immense right before my eyes. He is a powerhouse of a vocalist, ranging from a deep rumbling voice, to flat out death metal growls. What I thought was the most strange music and vocal pairing became oh-so-right in every single possible way. He’s also an incredible and unexpected dancer. I never would have pegged this guy for theatrical but man, he was all over the place, kicking his feet into the air, Tarzan pounding his chest, and, gettin’ low. They made my top performance of the weekend hands-down to my complete surprise, mostly because I went from being uncertain about their sound to being smitten by it. Future Islands is a must see in any situation, ya hear?

Future Islands

Though Beck and The National obviously had the biggest sets, Naked and The Famous utilized theirs the best with what I think was the most exuberant stage production of the weekend. At the very same time slot as Phantogram the night before, Naked and The Famous ushered in the night with smoke machines and epilepsy-inducing  light shows. Their unique electronic sound is only enhanced in the live performance of their songs, adding a profundity to tracks like “Rolling Waves” and “I Kill Giants.” In their last performance of the year, The New Zealand group put on an endearing show. Singer Alisa Xayalist was humbled by the dozens of birthday roses unexpectedly thrown on stage early in the set, and was almost brought to tears when the crowd later sang “Happy Birthday.”

Naked and The Famous

The festival was quickly coming to a close, but there was one more act I really wanted to squeeze in before The National’s finale. Cults surprisingly drew in the largest crowd I had yet to see at the Cypress Stage, and deservedly so. Clad in a baby doll dress Madeline Follin was just adorable in her stage presence, but the band has just enough edge to make them an enjoyable listen.


So how did First City fest fare in the scope of California music festivals? Overall, I’d say it’s unique; it not only hearkens back to vaudeville days with its carnival appeal and old time-y ethos, but its purpose is to bring new music to the forefront. Sure, using Beck and The National was a way to draw in the crowds, but for the most part, there was never an empty pit at any performance, and the crowd was pretty solid throughout, which can only mean that people really were there to see all of the acts, not just the big ones. Critics complain that there wasn’t much to take in beyond the headliners and sub headliners, but I found myself enjoying every single act that I saw, even ones that I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward and ones that I hadn’t even listened to prior to First City. In its second year, I think First City has accomplished something special; it has established a niche of artists and festival-goers that will more than likely frequent the fest for years to come, a true feat given the proliferation of music festivals in general. It certainly has the momentum after this year to carry on and can hopefully serve as an alternative festival to the grit and grime of LA’s FYF.