Editors Picks: Our Favorite Discoveries of 2020

As music lovers, the staff at Stage Confessions are always listening to and discovering new music; whether that be something from 1978 or 2020— we are constantly consuming. Sometimes those discoveries are so good that we must share them with you— which lead us to publish our annual “50 Best Albums of” lists. However, that list doesn’t allow staff to showcase the other amazing discoveries found in the year, but weren’t released in that year. This “Editors Picks” article does just that: highlighting Stage Confessions staff’s favorite music discovered in the year, but weren’t released in the year. The selection is a collection of songs, albums, and EPs that we believe made our 2020 listening log more special and personal. Rather than formal reviews, this article addresses the personal and cultural impact that the musical work provides to allow a more engaging read. This article will focus on the musical findings discovered by Stage Confessions Editor-In-Chief and Owner, Miguel Anderson. Enjoy!

MaHaWaM – Is An Island

Label: Molly House Records
Release Date: March 29, 2019

Thank god for the Spotify song recommendation algorithm for their Discover Weekly playlists; whoever designed it deserves a raise. I find all my favorite songs from the playlists, leading me to discover one of my favorites gems of 2020 “Hoping No One Notice” by rapper and vocalist MaHaWaM and the EP Is An Island. The EP reads better as a story centering around MaHaWaM’s life as a queer individual. Each song provides a personal look into different aspects of their life— they discuss queer culture, identity, and shed light on their HIV diagnosis and the stigma, depression, and loneliness that comes along with it. I don’t want to give you the wrong perception though, this EP isn’t a mopey or depressing one, but rather an engaging one. Many of the songs are dancible, club ready, and fun. MaHaWaM blends an experimental Hip-Hop-R&B-electronic fusion together by using rich and futuristic dream-like sounds. Synths are bright and chirpy, almost as if they came from an alien planet. Production is dynamic, wrapping together pulsating house beats and syncopated arrangements. As a rapper, MaHaWaM has a different skill set than other musicians, and they make good use of their skills. They employ humor, theatrical vocal intonations, and interesting flows to tell their narrative, making Is An Island one of the most engaging, and triumphant overcoming listens of my 2020 listening log.

American Football – American Football

Label: Polyvinyl
Release Date: September 14, 1999

Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll look at what my friends are listening to on Spotify’s social bar. I was viewing my friend Vy’s listening history when I discovered American Football’s 1999 self-titled debut. I only clicked on that album because the cover resembled a Modest Mouse album, so I reckoned it would be a worthwhile listen. And it was! On the album’s first play, the rawness of the simple rock melodies struck me. The album is built off of a rougher aesthetic in sound, and you can hear it. The unrefined vocals. The ting of the drum’s cymbals. The “sh” leaving lead singer Mike Kinsella’s lips as he pronounces a soft s. The echoing of the electric guitar from the amp. The effect is charming, dreamy, and nostalgic, but ultimately cold, tender, and bittersweet as American Football uses the instrumentation as a bed for their depressing and sulky emotions. With it, the band recalls bad break-up experiences, guilt over past memories, and uncertainty about feelings. American Football’s take on rock displays slower and calm arrangements that were put together with jazz sensibilities and different time signatures. Guitars feel perkier and more somber. Trumpets feel dramatic. The result of all of this is a true indie emo-rock album that conveys a youthful pondering about life. American Football effectively captures the extensitional crisis we have when we’re transitioning into adulthood from being an angsty teenager. It covers the quarrels we have to settle, the feelings we have to let go, and the reality we have to get a grip on. You can feel your past memories tugging on you and that’s what makes it so beautiful, and one of my beloved listening treasures of 2020.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – “GRASSHOPPERS

Label: Nippon Columbia
Release Date: October 25, 1978

My mom raised me around classical music. Everytime we took car rides together, she would turn the stereo dial to KDFC 90.3 FM and let the meticulous arrangements play. As a kid, I resented her for it because I wanted to listen to Rihanna instead. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the genre. I can understand why a lot of people don’t like classical music— compositions can be boring, sleepy, and too similar to others in the genre. However that doesn’t apply to “GRASSHOPPERS” by Japanese electronic-pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto. “GRASSHOPPERS” is a showful piano piece; it isn’t like other classical pieces out there as it merges progressive electronic synths with elaborate piano instrumentation. Sakamoto flexes his extensive classical training and moves the listener through a blizzard of moods. The song begins with a child-like playful melody and moves into a mature jazzy piano set, and landing on a crescendoed version of the playful melody heard before. Transitions between moods are cued by dramatic bubbly alien-like synths. Unique transitions move “GRASSHOPPERS” beyond traditional compositions, and into a more creative and dynamic realm. “GRASSHOPPERS” lives in a colorful, mystical otherworldly dimension. Now that doesn’t sound too boring for a classical music piece now does it?

702 – Star

Label: Motown
Release Date: March 25, 2003

If you grew up in the hood, there’s a likely chance you’ve heard a 702 song before. And while I’ve grown up on these girls, I never looked deeply into their discography. It was just suddenly when the melody for 702’s “I Still Love You” got stuck in my head that I decided to listen to Star. The album is nowhere near the group’s best work, but it stands out for something more significant: when the R&B genre departed from the distinctive ‘90s R&B sound. 90’s R&B is a sound that was obsessed with putting soulful singing over hip-hop production style that utilized, as Pitchfork describes, “chiseled guitar riffs” and bells, bubbles, over drum machine-backed rhythms. It’s a style perfected by producers such as Missy Elliot, Timbaland, Darkchild, and She’kspere.

Now, R&B consists of minimal arrangements and pulls from softer, sleeker neo-soul inspired sounds. Star’s signature and most influential pieces “Star”, “I Still Love You”, “Trouble”, and “Better Day (Ghetto Girl)” map out something different for R&B. A style led by soft melodic vocal harmonies and percussion-heavy beats instead of the glittery effects ‘90s R&B employed. Star showed what a new style of R&B could sound like, laying the foundation for further R&B experimentation to take place within the hands of artists such as Cassie, The Weeknd, and Summer Walker.

After School – “Shh!

Label: AVEX Trax
Release Date: January 29, 2014

If you didn’t know, I’m a huge Shinichi Osawa fan. He is one of my favorite artists, producers, and my greatest inspirations just for the sheer quality of his work. His innovative style of mixing classical and jazzy instrumentation into electronic production is strikingly beautiful. I mean damn, this man has been using his classical-electro fusion since the ‘90s now! So when I saw he handled the production of one of my favorite K-Pop girl group’s tracks, I had to check it out. “Shh!” is a sleek, minimalist 80’s-inspired dance-pop record. The song isn’t in your face as most ‘80s songs, but the modern interpretation is laidback, smooth, and seductive. It’s an acid house song with heavy probing synths forming the core of this track. My favorite part of the song is definitely the chorus. It doesn’t get any better than the girls singing “Shh-shh-shh-shh-shh-shh shh secret love,” over an icy Shinichi-Osawa-produced house beat. Hands down, this is one of the best japanese songs a K-Pop act has released, ever.

Miss A – “Step Up”

Label: JYP Entertainment
Release Date: September 27, 2010

Critics may feel that this song is too simple with not enough going on. I’ve seen calls on the internet calling it an empty filler track. To be quite honest, the critics are not entirely wrong. “Step Up” utilizes a simple song structure with dynamic beats that repeat over and over. However, the simplicity doesn’t ruin the song, in fact, the simplicity is what makes “Step Up” so good. The structure has a goldilocks principle written all over it; the song is not overwhelming, or underwhelming, but executed perfectly. It shines perfectly with a harmonic pre-chorus and a catchy-as-hell hook (“miss A, eh-eh-eh-eh”). “Step Up”’s melody works along with the percussion-heavy beat which is built from a fun tropical-esque energetic flurry of jamacian steel-pan drums, gym whistles, electric buzzes, and record scratches. The song is constantly in motion and makes you want to dance (I even made a choreography to this song since there aren’t any videos of Miss A performing this song live). Some songs don’t have to have everything going, and “Step Up” is a perfect example of that.

Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps

Label: Dead Oceans
Release Date: September 22, 2017

I hesitated getting into Phoebe Bridgers and I don’t know why (probably because she was categorized as a folk artist). She’s a phenomenal artist and songwriter. Her emotive lyrics, sparse instrumentation, and melancholic singing style all create a soft nostalgic atmosphere. There really isn’t any better introduction to Phoebe Bridgers other than Stranger In The Alps; the album is a deeply personal and chilling look into her life. She goes on to sing about death, fading moments, longing, intimacy, and how she’s processing the extremely sad parts of her life. What makes Stranger In The Alps succeed past Phoebe’s folky/indie-rock melancholic contemporaries is her songwriting. Her writing isn’t boring and at the least stale. She has clean melodies and her lyricism packs quite a powerful punch with the amount of meticulous detail she includes. This album also sticks out for it’s haunting and eerie atmosphere. Her soft spoken vocals compliment the minimal, often bare rock arrangements. It’s a style that lets you focus on the feeling the lyrics are creating. One of my favorite tracks is the chilling “Demi Moore,” a song about getting high and sending nude photos and how such an act can make you feel vulnerable. She uses dreary synths to create a haunting effect among sad, perky guitars. I honestly think Phoebe Bridgers debut is better than Alps’ successor, Punisher, but that’s a conversation that’s best saved for later.

Dom Kennedy – From The Westside, With Love Part II

Label: The Other Peoples Money Company
Release Date: June 28, 2011

I take music really seriously, so from time to time it’s nice to simply relax and chill. I don’t always need to listen to the most sophisticated lyricism or engaging production, sometimes I just want to play a track and chill with laidback vibes. West Coast Hip-Hop provides that refuge. It’s a genre built off casual mid-tempo songs that reminisces on good feelings and the finer things in life. Dom Kennedy’s From The Westside, With Love Part II is the perfect album that achieves that feeling in true West Coast fashion. What I love about this record is it’s accessibility and versatility. The album can be played to fit any situation. With it’s feel good sound rooted in 80’s groove and West Coast Hip Hop, you can play it at parties, to smoke with your friends, or just as background music. That’s more of an accomplishment when you consider that Dom Kennedy isn’t the best rapper. His bars don’t always land in the right place, and they’re sometimes cheesy; his rhyming is very straightforward too, as he raps with a simple AABB rhyme scheme (yes, that’s the one you learned in AP Literature). But his charm, which is felt thoroughly throughout the record, makes up for his shortcomings. With a smooth flow, he confidently spits braggadocious and flirtatious bars. I can say I’ve blushed at his standoffish lines (I mean, DAMN, the man has mad game), but when they’re sincere and well-intentioned, wouldn’t you do the same? I’m definitely going to go buy From The Westside, With Love Part II on vinyl, because it’s the perfect album anyone needs that’s playable for almost any occasion.

Kingdom – “Down 4 Whatever” ft. SZA from Tears in the Club

Label: Fade To Mind
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Every SZA fan knows she doesn’t have much of an “official” discography. That’s most likely the reason why her fans stream her unreleased songs on YouTube and Soundcloud, and then go on Twitter begging SZA to release them. So when I came across Kingdom’s “Down 4 Whatever” featuring SZA, it felt like a prize. It’s funny to think I missed opportunities to listen to this song considering I’ve heard “What Is Love”, another Kingdom & SZA collaboration from the same album. If I were to compare “Down 4 Whatever” to “What Is Love”, “Down 4 Whatever” wins by a longshot; the song’s slick and spare instrumentation pairs well over SZA’s beautifully commanding voice.

On the outside “Down 4 Whatever” might appear to be a swoony Electronic-R&B love song about unfaltering commitment as SZA sings, “I’ma let you know I’m down for whatever you need,” but it isn’t. It’s vastly different. “Down 4 Whatever” is about being up for anything intimate, even if it means being a sidechick in the relationship. The song has codependency and daddy issues sprinkled throughout track. SZA calls on her partner to confess his wants so SZA can fill his desires. Although “Down 4 Whatever” was released before SZA’s debut, CTRL, it fits snugly within the narrative surrounding intimacy and modern relationships SZA built on CTRL. If CTRL was about self-actualization after being in unfulfilling relationships, then “Down 4 Whatever” is among the series of unsatisfying encounters that lead to the process of self-actualization.

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