End-of-year lists are good for just two things: Remembering and reflecting. And neither sound enticing when glancing back at the still-raging Dumpster fire that is 2020. What is there to recap? What is there that anyone would want to recap? The answer ranges from “nothing” to “very little,” but in the case of Boston’s excellence in the arts, plenty of projects are worth a thorough replay. While we already like to think of Vanyaland as an ever-evolving, year-round “best of Boston” publication, we’ve selected 20 of our favorite homegrown tracks released this year.
Austin Fair, ‘SPECTACULAR’
Austin Fair starts his song “SPECTACULAR” with a confession that should come as a shock to precisely no one. “Honestly this rap shit kinda easy,” he chides, spoken with a tone of true nonchalance, as he uses the one-liner to kick off his record PIONEER. And when Fair pumps out albums — really good albums — at his current, alarming pace, that impression of indifference isn’t only warranted, it’s expected. Following his two 2019 albums (Hippodrome and Alumni) and two more projects from this year (the aforementioned PIONEER and Joyride), his confidence peaks with “SPECTACULAR.” That is, until his next effort’s excellence eventually dwarfs his work to date.
Ava Sophia (feat. Tashawn Taylor), ‘Love Language’
617Sessions’ annual Sound of our Town albums have become the compilation for rising Boston artists to lock in new listeners, and Ava Sophia seized the opportunity with every syrupy ounce of her 2020 submission “Love Language.” Doe-eyed but powerfully direct, the Tashawn-Taylor-assisted track is a sultry plead to get on the same page and a bid to romantically rise to the occasion. It’s an offer only a love-scorned cynic could turn down. Heart eyes, motherfucker.
Billy Dean Thomas (feat. S’natra), ‘Trump vs. Biden’
It wouldn’t have been overkill for Billy Dean Thomas’ tune “Trump vs. Biden” to just be three minutes of non-stop screaming. A close look at the year in politics and world events, this Thomas track from For Better or Worse examines a country that seemingly feeds on conflict: Riots, division, racial injustice, quarantine cabin fever, and, as the title suggests, an aggravating exhaustion of good options for leadership to turn anything around. To Thomas’ credit, though, the song never loses its cool; it just observes and weighs the odds. A modern tale of survival, “Trump Vs. Biden” is a first-person piece worth citing in future history books.
CakeSwagg, ‘Ferb & Phineas’
It’s time to phone the (surely retired) creators of Inspector Gadget and tell them their catchphrase helped contribute to one of the year’s most explosive rap songs. Even after centuries, one of the finest party tricks in the art world remains combining two wildly unrelated topics like it’s the most natural, obvious fusion on the planet. As such, CakeSwagg wins major creative props for transforming a roster of cartoon characters into a fierce set of bars, which does, in fact, include the fictional 1980s cyborg from a children’s show. In any other song it’d be a cute callback, but when CakeSwagg drops names, their stock rises ASAP. Yes, even for animated figments of our imagination. “Who got the juice? / I been had it,” CakeSwagg sings. “Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh / Inspector Gadget!”
Cliff Notez and Dephrase (feat. Latrell James), ‘Voodoo Doll’
“Voodoo Doll” could have been an awkward song. On paper, it should have been an awkward song. It moves in bursts and hand-and-knees crawls, exalts its truth then crumples up in fatigue as a saxophone solo sets up an exit, drained after a tempo-change triathlon. But the collaboration between Cliff Notez, Dephrase, and Latrell James simply speaks to the age of chaos it was released in, sparking repetitive bouts mania and melancholy, not unlike the emotional cycles that much of the world has been ensnared in for nine months and counting. “You’re a voodoo doll / You don’t know who you are no more / Who you are no more” the fuzzed-out hook laments (either out of sympathy, or as a chastising cry, it’s unclear, but it’s still enough to provoke a teary-eyed reaction). A match made in heaven, a magnum opus, an emotional reckoning with your maker — call it what you want, but know “Voodoo Doll” is among the very best songs released from Boston in 2020 A.D.
Eva Davenport, ‘Trill’
Eva Davenport’s reputation in Boston is quickly erring on unproblematic and angel-voiced. Following her EP Letters To Self (which we last year dubbed “a mini self-care kit, disguised as something far cooler”), her 2020 single “Trill” keeps things copacetic with a no-frills serenade. Indulging in sticky-sweet R&B, Davenport dodges the chance to get explicit in favor of reciting lovestruck poetry that can only comes from a place of sincerity, lest it turn into an empty-calorie sugar rush. Truly, “Trill” is a slice of conflict-free splendor that never spoils.
Gatch, ‘Wide Open’
A late contender in the ring, Gatch’s big-band funk number “Wide Open” easily sneaks itself onto our list. It’s hard to describe the Arcitype-produced track as anything other than “groovy,” but “winking” serves as a close second; when the track waltzes from flirtatious into unabashed “comes hither” territory, it’s winking all the way with a power that takes the backseat only to the track’s saxophonesolo. All the while, Gatch never utters a single unsavory word or phrase, earning it the highly-unlikely title of “2020’s randiest song you can play in a family setting.”
Genie Santiago (feat. ALGO), ‘Revelación‘
Another welcome history lesson, “Revelación” recalls centuries of discrimination against Latinx people with a potent delivery from Genie Santiago and collaborator ALGO. Piercing in its truths, the single offers Spanish rap melodies laced with realities much of America prefers to turn a blind or ear to. Without a wasted breath, Santiago exposes the many follies of revisionist history: “Textbooks lying / Where’s the story about them Indios? / Funny what’s been rewritten to benefit an agenda.” Much like “White Supremacy Is The Enemy,” “Revelación” isn’t as much as a “kick-back-and-listen” track as it is a “sit-up-and-take-notes” one.
Honey Cutt, ‘Vacation‘
Honey Cutt, for one, are sick of “coasting” through a mediocre dating pool. The Boston outfit fronted by Kaley Honeycutt spins their sun-kissed surf-rock with mastery on their Kanine Records debut Coasting, but the single “Vacation” nails down Kaley’s acerbic wit especially well. “I’m on a vacation / From all the ‘nice guys’ / And I’m turning off my phone / And I’m throwing it in the water,” she confesses on the chorus. Her sentiments could hardly be put more plainly, but surely, somewhere, somehow, a “well-intentioned” bloke will get lost in the song’s blue-sky melodies and entirely miss the tidal waves of attitude. And then, Kaley, bless her heart, will have to chuck her phone into the ocean all over again.
House of Harm, ‘Vicious Pastimes‘
We’d never call “Vicious Pastimes” a placeholder, but the truth is, any track from Boston post-punk group House of Harm’s new record of the same name could nab a slot here. Marking the band’s arrival on the international scene via Avant! Records, the entirety of Vicious Pastimes preserves the band’s moody blues like a sheet of black ice: ominous, unexpected, and most threatening in the evening hours. “Vicious Pastimes” simply balances that equation of certain drama with the most efficiency.
Latrell James, ‘Traumatized‘
The tracks that Latrell James curated for his 2020 EP Under are undoubtedly top-tier content from the Boston rapper. And yet, there’s a one-off track called “Traumatized” that creeps with an unease that sums up a year fraught with tension and terror all too well. “I’ve seen wrong / I’ve seen right / I’ve been traumatized,” he raps on the chorus, a blunt precursor to his order “You gon’ pick a side / You gon’ ride or die.” And, for better or worse (plenty of emphasis on “worse” here), Americans made their domino chain of choices that resulted in the clusterfuck of hell and hope that was 2020.
It was a loner kind of year, and MonaVeli made the most of it. A boundary-setting bop about basking in the radiant glow of your own hustle and company, “Space” recalls a radical approach to self-love, goal-setting, and acknowledging the stardust pumping through your veins. Clocking in at just under two minutes, “Space” sounds like a sprint, but it’s a race that MonaVeli is only running against her most worthy opponent — herself.
The Morning Herald, ‘Plus One’
The Morning Herald’s frontman Zach Leone once set out to make a song that captures a “dystopian-dinner party from the 1960’s kinda vibe.” Well, with “Plus One” he got the first part right for 2020, at least. A blistering dose of psych-rock for our dark days, the track from the newly-situated Boston band chugs along like the elevator in its accompanying lyric video, rocketing towards an uncertain future. Ironically, in a world where “real” parties are temporarily forbidden, “Plus One” has an even more sci-fi feel to it than anticipated. (What, exactly, is a “party guest” like Leone keeps mentioning?)
“Closer” begins with a sacred recitation of a morning routine gone lopsided from a pandemic. And Oompa recites her new schedule with a semblance of….exuberance? “Woke up this morning / Alarm clock beaten by the sun / Can’t be late to work no more / Because it starts when I wake up,” she explains, relishing in the bright spots of her day, even with a nod to the impending end-times. “[The] World is almost over now” she sings on the chorus, but not in an “it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-I-feel-fine” tone, more of an “and what of it?” way. “What to a negro is apocalypse?” she later questions on the song’s breakdown. It’s far too big a query to tackle in this edition of Oompa’s rapid-fire raps, but the subject lingers long after her final joyful bar — as it’s meant to. “Closer” is a relief and a release, but if it doesn’t move you to reflect on that pivotal question, you aren’t listening closely enough.
Red Shaydez, ‘The Recipe’
Red Shaydez always puts her “r” verbs first in life: Realign, recharge, remind people who the hell you are, repeat. “The Recipe” sets the tone of the Boston emcee’s new record Feel The Aura with a series of quick-hit quips, the best of which expose phonies trying to compete with her in the fast lane. “That ain’t your car/ It’s your dad’s” she calls out, alongside mentions of rappers with Instagram followers in the 50K region who can’t draw anyone out to a show. “Yes I sound judge-y / But you tried to crush me,” she states, and frankly, she’s justified. Why mess with Boston’s queen of positivity with bogus and bullshit? There’s a final “r” in that list, after all — rip ‘em a new one.
Ricky Felix, ‘Scarlett’
The only songwithout lyrics to make the cut here, “Scarlett” offers a testament to the fluid beatmaking abilities of Ricky Felix, the Brockton-based producer from rap collective Van Buren. The track appears on his debut project High End Theory, a nine-track endeavor loaded with bars from fellow Van Buren members and Boston hip-hop artists. Yet “Scarlett” is deliberate flex and a sly demonstration of what Felix is capable of when left on his own, slipped into a rap record like a charming surprise.
SeeFour, ‘On God‘
Just like SeeFour swears no one resembles him, no song on this list resembles anything like the airy bravado of “On God,” a piano-note-driven dive into the deep end of the music industry. “Just for your fame you gotta pay a fee / and this America, ain’t nothing free” SeeFour recites, acknowledging an industry laden with radio payola, paid playlist placements, and social media followers for sale. But “On God” is a portrait of a young artists pitted against the odds, determined to leave his energetic stamp on things without forking over so much as an extra dollar: “You gotta like it or love it,” he raps. “Either way, I’m above it.”
Shellz, ‘Fucking With My Mind’
One-third of the Boston rapper’s massive visual EP SOULZ, Shellz’s R&B spell “Fucking With My Mind” transforms the classic push-and-pull of love into an aggravated tug of war. Fueled by an unceasing determination to make sense of men, “Fucking With My Mind” seeps with sex appeal, even though it’s an airing of pent-up romantic frustration. “I know you hate me just as much as you love me,” Shellz sings, tightening her unrelenting grasp on the metaphorical rope. As the remainder of SOULZ ultimately proves, Shellz has a grip that won’t quit, and a hold on her worth that keeps her career steadily climbing.
If all the clubs are closed, can dance-pop artists still synthesize a hit? Telelectrix unveiled their song “Strobe” to a world largely devoid of anything reminiscent to neon nightlife; the same neon nightlight the track seeks to emulate. What could have been a botched release turned into a beacon of hope for what’s to come (or, more accurately, come back) with a starry-eyed appreciation for all things shimmering and synthed-the-eff-up. And when the bars and lounges reopen in due time, “Strobe” will stay as the guiding light to all things underground.
THA CAPITAL G, ‘White Supremacy is the Enemy‘
It’s a comment so obvious that it barely needs to be uttered — a comment that THA CAPITAL G wasn’t planning on centering an entire song and EP around. But after increasing confusion surrounding whether or not white supremacists are morally bankrupt individuals, the Boston-turned-LA rapper turned his lyrics into a lesson plan about the grip racism maintains on this country. Simply stated but never soft on the facts, “White Supremacy is the Enemy” speaks a truth still left unsaid among some of the nation’s most important leaders — as does the rest of its accompanying EP, I Wouldn’t Trade Being Black for Anything.