Year in ReView: 20 things in music to feel good about in 2020

Photo Credit: Kannetha Brown

Every introduction to Year in ReView articles surround nearly the same premise: 2020 sucked, but the music was top-notch. And that was a true collective effort from all levels of the musical ecosystem. The year was defined by the unexpected, and so many things that kept us entertained, sane, and just feeling some sense of normalcy didn’t even exist back on Valentine’s Day. New ways to reach audiences and connect with like-minded music fans blossomed, and a steady stream of talent worked harder than ever to retain the things that we love. With the world in upheaval as it continues to grapple with COVID-19, there was plenty to appreciate in our scene and on our screens. Vanyaland Editor-in-Chief Michael Marotta and Music Editor, Boston Victoria Wasylak compiled 20 things that happened or took shape over the past year, in our music community, and beyond, that have us feeling positive as we head into 2021.

Everyone invests in Great Scott

The pandemic has taken a lot from us in 2020, and Boston’s healthy network of live music spaces was not spared. But news of Great Scott’s closing (or, inability to re-open) back in May struck a nerve both local and across the country; longtime booking agent Carl Lavin was quick to act, teaming with Massachusetts small business investment firm MainVest to save the beloved Allston club by offering patrons a chance to (literally) buy in. After months of campaigning and attention, the effort to #SaveGreatScott pulled in a cool $299,600 to keep the venue alive. The building owners at 1222 Commonwealth Ave. rejected Lavin’s attempt to re-open the club at its home of 44 years, so Lavin quickly found a new prospective location just down Harvard Avenue at the Allston Depot, the former Pizzeria Regina space that also closed due to COVID-19. In a year full of negativity and loss, this was one case where the music scene fought back and retained what was rightfully theirs. — Michael Marotta

Bunker Buds’ non-stop livestreams

In a world filled with laggy at-home livestreams, no one did it like Walter Sickert’s “Bunker Buds” show, a daily antidote for our modern dystopia. Sickert’s livestream started in March’s early days of quarantine, and has since logged over 200 unique episodes, each tailored to the Boston music news of the day. Airing at 9 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends for family-friendly editions, Bunker Buds has remained as one of the few constants in world that can’t seem to shake the grip of a pandemic. And for that reliable dose of wiggy weirdness, we’re grateful. — Victoria Wasylak

Fuser’s ample Boston representation

It should come as little surprise that Harmonix weaved more music from their home base into their newest game, Fuser, but watching the Boston representation rack up in the game’s roster of playable songs is still utterly delightful. For their latest effort, the makers of Rock BandKaraoke RevolutionDance Central, and Guitar Hero slipped homegrown artists like Lord Felix, Eddie Japan, and Pixies into gameplay for the new DJ rhythm game, putting Boston talent right where it should be: Next to other greats like Lady Gaga, The Clash, Amy Winehouse, and A Tribe Called Quest. — Victoria Wasylak

Charitable compilations galore

While brick and mortar record shops have been shuttered for much of the year, Boston artists were busy behind their laptop screens organizing digital compilations to benefit both institutions affected by COVID-19 and organizations created specifically to provide pandemic relief funds. We’re In This Together from May benefitted the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, while June’s Know Your Scene Vol. 6 raised funds for Great Scott’s massive reopening campaign. The Spotify playlist Mission: Music isn’t available to purchase, but instead generates donations via streaming royalties for the Boston Music Maker COVID-19 Fund. As for solo singles, covers, and albums released specifically to help pitch in for charities both local and national, there’s far too many to list in this article (and for once, an outpouring of generosity too large to print is a very, very good thing). — Victoria Wasylak

Dorchester Art Project’s expansion

After many a tearful Facebook post from Boston-area venues announcing permanent closings, this particular tidbit of news from Dorchester Art Project seemed too good to be true. The Fields Corner venue and community arts space announced a whopping 6,000 square foot addition to their floorplan in September, and has since expanded from the second-floor space at 1486 Dorchester Ave. into both the first floor and basement space. When Vanyaland visited in October, DAP has already launched a bigger retail store (stocked with merch, music, and other goodies from Boston artists) and set up a communal workspace. In lockstep with the needs of modern music-makers, DAP’s directors have also expressed plans to create for-rent livestream spaces, recording studios, and rehearsal areas. — Victoria Wasylak

Will Dailey’s ‘Isolation’ brings us together

When music venues around Boston went down in March, Will Dailey was one of the first to stand back up. The music scene veteran delivered his “Isolation Tour” livestream series from the confines of his shower — far from the creeping spread of COVID-19 — as a way to raise both spirits and money with each gig dedicated to a specific venue, like Great Scott, Toad, and The Burren. The popularity and response of one gig led to another… and another… and another, and so on, and in the end Dailey raised nearly $20,000 for local venues and suddenly unemployed staff. But Dailey wasn’t finished; he showed up for fundraiser livestreams (All In For Chelsea, The Ghost Light Series) all year long. “Musicians lost their main source of income overnight, as did our allies who work at venues across the country,” Dailey told Vanyaland in March. “I think a lot of artists are used to shit hitting the fan and changing their trajectory. You’re aware there isn’t a safety net when music is your livelihood. To be tied into to the rooms that have meant something to me over the years felt like the most authentic way to connect and actually feel like a show.” — Michael Marotta  

Hipstory house parties go digital 

Ain’t no party like a Hipstory house party, because Hipstory house parties rake in bank for good causes. When the Boston-based collective couldn’t host their usual “real life” house parties this year, they quickly pivoted to moving their performance platform to the digital realm. Using a pay-what-you-can model for ticket prices, Hipstory raised nearly $4,000 this year, which was donated to organizations like the Mass Bail Fund, the Boston Music Maker COVID-19 Fund, the NAN Project, BAMS Fest, and City Life/ Vida Urbana. “Accessibility is essential — it’s why we’ve always made our tickets ‘PayWhatUCan,’” Muñeca Diaz, HipStory booking and outreach manager, told Vanyaland this summer. “This series being digital allows even more folks to experience incredibly talented artists than before… Accessibility in the digital realm are both things that fall directly in line with our mission statement and what we believe at HipStory.” Revisit our story on the origins of digital HipStory house parties here, and celebrate Hipstory’s final online event of 2020 via their December 31 Hipstoric Renaissance stream. — Victoria Wasylak

Virtual venues reach their audiences

When live music spaces shuttered in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some venues reached for their laptops and started scheduling online programming — immediately. Club Passim launched Keep Your Distance Fest in mid-March, and has kept a steady slew of streamed performances and virtual open mic nights on the calendar as the months in quarantine continue to pass. ONCE Ballroom & Lounge, on the other hand, kickstarted their Virtual Venue on YouTube in the spring, which was welcomed with warmth from Boston artists seeking a bigger platform for their at-home livestreams. Sure, tuning into streams in your pajamas isn’t the same as feeling like a sweaty sardine packed into a “real” rock club, but for folks stuck at home, virtual venues offered some semblance of normalcy in a musical era turned upside-down. — Victoria Wasylak

Local digital radio makes waves

With the lone exception being Adam 12 out on an island of classic rock, Boston’s commercial FM radio scene is in shambles. Instead, there’s a new uprising across the digital airwaves that has joined the college stations on the dial’s left end in keeping a consistent beat: Small, independently owned outlets are popping up across New England, all with their own personality and dedication to homegrown sounds. New entries like BumbleBee Radio and Oh Hello, Boston have joined Mark Skin Radio and others in offering an alternative to call-letter stations, with specialty programming, a hyper-local focus, and a DIY ethos. Long-standing local music programs like Bay State Rock and Boston Emissions, after being abandoned by corporate rock radio, have jumped from FM to the internet — and brought dedicated listeners along with them. It feels like something very cool is happening. — Michael Marotta

The rise of Anjimile

Boston’s well-known folk king Anjimile became America’s folk king nearly as soon as he signed to Father/Daughter Records. As the months have passed, Anjimile’s exquisite album Giver Taker has proven itself to be the soothing gift that keeps on giving. Garnering national attention for heartfelt singles “Maker” and “Baby No More” (as well thousands of eyes and ears on the LP as a whole), Anjimile is the answer to the nagging question “where is Boston’s next superstar hiding?” Truthfully, anyone paying attention can see Boston’s many ascending-to-notoriety performers in plain view, but for sticklers looking for more “solid proof,” Anjimile is our illustrious folk-rock royal on his way to the throne (he was just featured in Rolling Stone, for fuck’s sake). No further questions about Boston’s abundant music scene, please. — Victoria Wasylak

Bandcamp Fridays

When artists over earn $20 million dollars in a few days, you know there’s a good blueprint in place. In an effort to help artists regain some of their lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bandcamp started “Bandcamp Fridays.” Well, more accurately, they initially started one Bandcamp Friday and waived their revenue share of purchases on March 20, allowing artists and labels to pocket 100 percent of their music and merch sales. After an especially lucrative first edition, Bandcamp extended the practice to the first Friday of the month, every month through the end of 2020. The first four editions alone raked in millions and gave musicians a trusted new revenue stream. Talk about the epitome of “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” — Victoria Wasylak

David Mirabella performs every day

It began back on March 13, with an acoustic cover of R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback.” And it’s still going strong: David Mirabella’s song-a-day livestream performance series is Boston music vitality at its core. The Rationales frontman and solo artist has been performing music every day on his personal Facebook page — 275 one-song shows, as of this writing — mixing in his own stuff with a wide spectrum of cover songs, from locals (GHOST GRL, Bill Janovitz, O Positive) to nationals (Radiohead, AA Bondy, Death Cab). And it all goes down in his wood-paneled basement. “This simple act of musical service highlights not only Dave’s tremendous talent for and love of music, but also demonstrates how solid of a human being he is,” wrote Brendan Boogie in August. “If there’s one guy you can count on to never let you down, it’s Dave Mirabella.” — Michael Marotta

Merchandise gets creative

We live in an interesting time. While most people scoff at the idea of paying even 99 cents for a download of a song, instead relying on streaming services to have every song imaginable available at the click of a button, there seems to be no hesitation in fan spending on band merchandise. And with no revenue from live music since March, musicians have had to get creative in keeping their name out there and pulling in some coin. Enter creative merch: Run For Cover Records teamed with Pavement Coffeehouse for a specialty dark roast coffee blend; DJ Knife linked up with Lynn’s Bent Water Brewing Company to release his Strange Brew 7 mix with a specialty beer; and bands like Diablogato and usLights hit their respective kitchens to create band-branded hot sauces (Diablogato also teamed with Lord Hobo for a beer of their own). Having just a t-shirt and CD to sell has become an antiquated model of business. Bands are brands in 2020: They have the merchandise to prove it, and listeners have shown they want it. — Michael Marotta

The preservation of O’Brien’s Pub

When news started to circulate in July that treasured Allston venue and bar O’Brien’s Pub was up for sale, the panic that ensued on social media was palpable. After all, following the closing of sister venue Great Scott, losing O’Brien’s would have been a doubly devastating blow for the Allston music community and local bands across the city. Even though the news of the sale was confirmed, general manager Tim Philbin affirmed that plans are in place to preserve the business, even after it eventually relocates. “I think we can envision O’Brien’s existing in its current location for the next two to three years,” Philbin told Vanyaland this summer. “During that time, [the new owners will be] envisioning transitioning to a new location.” He also reassured fans of the venue that the new owner of O’Brien’s (the establishment, not the property) had every intention of keeping OB’s true it its current form. “We’re working really hard to make sure that O’Brien’s is O’Brien’s as far down the road as we can see,” Philbin said. — Victoria Wasylak

SUM Studios takes shape

If there are no live club shows, do bands need to rehearse? Well, yeah. If there needs to be social distancing, can bands actually come together and play? Well, that’s where it gets trickier. But Bob Logan’s new SUM Studios space in Malden has been using this so-called “down time” to pull together an exciting hub for local creativity, combining a traditional rehearsal and practice space with updated amenities (Viscoelastic damping! Mechanically decoupled walls!) with a professionally designed recording and mastering studio, a gallery and event space, and a proper sound stage. The former Vic Firecracker frontman and longtime Boston music scene fixture also has the City of Malden’s full support behind SUM (no small detail as our arts and music scene finds itself continually at odds with community leaders), which should help the friendly confines evolve and grow into something even better. — Michael Marotta

Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ vision

Oh, the painful irony of Dua Lipa releasing her immaculate, streamlined pop vision Future Nostalgia during a time when dance parties can turn deadly. With her March album, Dua Lipa just didn’t set out to avoid the sophomore slump, she set out to establish an empire. Sure, “New Rules” was a jam, but a single jam does not a lasting pop star make. And Lipa, seemingly aware of this fact, just earned her spot at the main pop girls table. “You want a timeless song / I wanna change the game / Like modern architecture / John Lautner coming your way,” she coos with confidence on the title track, carving out a permanent place in the pop sphere for herself. A nu-disco fountain of youth, Future Nostalgia provides a revitalizing rush of pure-joy-pop strong enough to withstand the year that lasted a decade. As the name implies, we’re already living in “future nostalgia” every day — and Future Nostalgia is among the very few things in 2020 that will ever be worth revisiting, time and time again. — Victoria Wasylak

Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties presses play

Prior to 2020, Tim Burgess was perhaps best known as the hip-swingin” frontman of British rock and roll survivalists The Charlatans. But the man took on a new, rather unexpected role as COVID-19 kept us confined to our homes: The tireless host and champion of Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties. At a time where many fell over themselves trying to utilize technology to entertain the bored masses, Burgess kept it simple: Let’s all listen to a record together, pressing play at the same time (CD, vinyl, Spotify, your pick!), and talk about it as a (some) friendly group on Twitter. Burgess rejected any offers to evolve his parties into something else; he kept the basic premise all year long, celebrating more than 575 listening sessions as of this writing, with many of the bands joining in to discuss an album and all its songs in real time (sessions with New Order, Sleaford Mods, and Pulp were particularly entertaining affairs). Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties were one of the first things that truly brought the arts community together during the pandemic, and it proved that there’s no greater feeling than a shared musical experience. — Michael Marotta

The FLIPP Site is Boston’s new MTV

Launched on March 13 and home to countless local live performances over the next several months, The FLIPP Site — short for Facebook Live Isolated Performance Page — became the glue that held the Boston music scene together at the streams. Gary Robley’s page, 1,200-plus members strong, instantly became a source for the wave of livestreams popping up once the clubs, bars, and venues were forced to close down — proving that live music will find a way no matter what the situation. Lots of bands were able to reach fans and draw them to their own livestreams, but The FLIPP Site was a destination to hit up just to seek out something going on. And usually, there was. “As we have seen and all been a part of, The FLIPP Site has turned into a great community of musicians and artists that, again, has truly helped people feel better and gives them an outlet to beat the stress of this quarantine,” Robley wrote on November 27. “Please keep up the awesome. I love you all. We’re gonna get through this together.” — Michael Marotta

Phoebe Bridgers’ appeal is universal

We’re grateful for Phoebe Bridgers. That’s it. That’s the blurb. We’d go more in-depth here, but you know the deal with her year spent dancing across the aisles of accolades: Dropping a certified AOTY contender in Punisher (an album that found mass appeal across generations); haunting late-night TV performances like this one in an empty theater; launching her own Saddest Factory record label; covering Goo Goo Doll’s “Iris” to make good on an presidential election bet; and delivering a Christmas cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Thru December” to raise money for a Los Angeles women’s shelter. For an artist the media has declared to be continually “rising” over the past few years, consider Bridgers properly fucking elevated. — Michael Marotta

Robyn spins Club DOMO

It was mid-April, a month deep into lockdown and quarantine here in the States, with clouds of uncertainty hovering over everything we did (and everything we could not do). We weren’t able go out, and we hated staying in, and things were decidedly grim as fuck. But on the afternoon of Friday, April 17, Robyn dropped her first Konichiwa TV: Club DOMO livestream DJ set (“DOMO” — “Dancing On My Own”, get it?) and it was a euphoric display of beauty and intensity. The Swedish alt-pop queen mixed a string of club bangers to get things rolling — Avalon Emerson, Prince, John Maus — but midway through her set came Erasure’s ’90s classic “Always,” and the emotion of the past few weeks just broke free. It was a special moment, a bunch of strangers hanging in the chat, scream-typing lyrics, dancing on their own, having no idea we’d be spending the next several months in this very same spot. But for one moment, everything in the world was once again perfect, and music was the message: “Always, I want to be with you / And make believe with you / And live in harmony, harmony oh love.” What a moment. — Michael Marotta