It is difficult to write about 2020 and avoid cliche, but we'll try. After all, while the world seemingly fell apart, it actually just kept turning. Most of us, if only out of sheer necessity, simply carried on. Those of us who could, kept working. We got up each day and plugged away, at times through a fog of uncertainty, fiscal and existential anxiety.
One thing that kept many of us going was music. From protest anthems like Lil Baby's "The Bigger Picture" to the internet-breaking "WAP" and Taylor Swift's surprise magnum opus Folklore, music was often the conduit through which we experienced and coped with a historically traumatizing year.
Locally, Houston artists had an impressive year. While there is no getting around the damage this pandemic has done to our city's music scene — beloved venues gone forever, record stores closed, artists out of work — many Houston musicians put out their best work in 2020. In the middle of a pandemic that deprived them of their most consistent and reliable source of income (live shows), local musicians both big and small released enough new music to keep us sane while somewhat maintaining their livelihoods.
We've put together a list of our favorite Houston music releases of 2020. These are just some of the local artists whose work was the soundtrack to our plague year.
Honorable Mention: Dice Soho, Gemini in Paradice - The name Dice Soho doesn't come up much on Houston radio stations or in local hip hop coverage. That's because Dice didn't break in Houston, he broke on the internet. His viral hit "Just Watch" with fellow-Houstonian Trill Sammy was an online hit back in 2015 and garnered over 16 million YouTube views.
Five years is an eternity both online and in the music business, however. So, when Dice released his debut album Gemini in Paradice earlier this year, its success was hampered by the long wait. Despite doing lackluster numbers, the LP deserves some recognition. Soho's rapid-fire flow and confident vocal swagger layer over an infectious trap production to make the album a compelling listen. Each of its 14 tracks were produced in a different state or country with "Ms. Molly" sending the rapper all the way to Thailand. The project also features a handful of noteworthy cameos like Wiz Khalifa, Desiigner and Kap G.
Honorable Mention: Uncle Tino, various singles - Native Houstonian Uncle Tino has been making ripples in the local hip hop scene for a couple years now. The UH alum boasts a quiet yet loyal following and has found footing in Houston's Latino rap community despite the dichotomy between his funk-infused pop-rap and the corridor tumbado sounds of contemporaries like Bo Bundy.
While 2020 didn't give us a full album, we did get snippets of what's to come with a trio of songs titled "Blue", "Green", and "Red". The color-based singles show a funkier side of Tino through heavy use of his signature talk box and smooth R&B vocals by singer Lilly Aviana on "Green". This transition from more lyrically focused freestyles and standard rap beats to a funk-driven pop aesthetic bodes well for Uncle Tino's continued growth in 2021.
Ancient Cat Society, "Anyone" - A hometown band on a hometown label. We love to see it. In all seriousness, Splice Records' Ancient Cat Society is, for some reason, one of Houston's best-kept secrets. The three-part folk-pop outfit make some of the most eclectic and soothing sounds to come out of Houston in years. Despite having not released anything since their debut self-titled album in 2017, the band graced us with a single this year.
Their latest release, "Anyone," gives us the familiar harmonizing of vocalists Haley Barnes and Austin Sepulvado with instrumentals as intoxicating as ever. A quiet folky string melody overlays slow clapping percussion and a dreamy bass line to form a feeling of quiet comfort. This is the quarantine song we all needed.
Bun B, "Suckers" - Bun B is hip hop royalty. He's one half of the greatest rap duo to ever grace a stage, considered by many a top-10 rapper of all time, and a Houston cultural ambassador with credits longer than most living musicians. This is all to say, Bun doesn't have to keep making music. He doesn't have to keep giving us release after release like it's the '90s. But he does.
Bun's output over the past decade has been as consistent as it was during the previous two. What's more, he remains incredibly accessible, collaborating with local Houston independents as often as he does mainstream talent. Despite releasing a slew of singles and features throughout the year, it was Bun's latest October release that caught our attention. "Suckers" is a collaboration with Chicago-based house DJ turned hip hop producer, BoatHouse. The swagger-heavy single stands out as one of the best Houston hip hop releases of the year. A sonic fusion of Bun's southern vocalisms and OG lyrics with BoatHouse's electronically heavy house beats, "Suckers" is an imposing statement of a track by a seemingly timeless artist.
D Flowers, various singles - D Flowers' rise to fame can best be described in five words — if you know, you know. The Maxo Kream protegee with a captivating baritone flow has been blowing up online for years. His professionally shot and edited music videos have racked up over a million views collectively and his output, despite having yet to release and album or EP, has been absurd.
In 2020 alone, the Alief rapper released four music videos including his hit "She Fleek" and the exceptionally catchy "O DAWG", as well as something like eight new singles. With an absolute gift of a voice that sounds like it's been chopped and screwed and visuals that rival some of the biggest names in hip hop, Flowers is poised to become Houston's next major rapper.
Don't Get Lemon, Forward Not Forgetting - Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in Houston music this year was the sophomore EP Forward Not Forgetting by Houston and Austin-natives Don't Get Lemon. Coming off their debut EP, Grey Beach, the post-punk meets synth-pop trio quickly followed up with a pair of singles and a second EP in 2020.
Deep moody vocals draw obvious inspiration from '80s new wave and post-punk classics, while the layering of almost random synth and drum machine sounds creates an intoxicating sonic collage. This atmospheric EP is refreshing while somehow extremely familiar. Our only issue with it is how badly it makes us want to dance, late at night, on a sweaty, neon-lit dance floor. Maybe next year.
LE$, DIOS Vol. 1 - There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and LE$ releasing new music. Few musicians working today could match the work ethic and ungodly output of independent Houston rapper/producer LE$. Mr. Steak & Shrimp has been on an absolute tear of new releases since going fully independent a few years ago. While most artists struggle to string together one multi-track release a year, LE$ does it quarterly.
His most recent album, D.I.O.S. Vol. 1, was released almost in tangent with the opening of his new D.I.O.S. brand clothing store in Midtown. The acronym stands for "did it ourselves", an ode to the independent hustle of LE$ and business partner Jorge Casanova (Jorgey) which takes on a more literal (borderline unbelievable) meaning as the former Boss Hogg Outlaw self-produced and wrote the entire project. The self-production pays off, as the whole project feels like one cohesive creative thought. Its beats and sonic aesthetic pair so well with LE$'s always improving freestyle that it all feels effortless in a way that tells you it was anything but.
Fat Tony, Exotica - There is something extremely comforting about new Fat Tony music. Whatever might be happening in the outside world, if Fat Tony is dropping new music, Houston will be alright. Never did this ring more true than in 2020. This year, we all needed an injection of normalcy, a feeling of comfortability. And Tony delivered — three times over.
While the prince of underground Houston rap dropped three complete projects in 2020, including a live album, his most recent release Exotica may go down as his best work yet. The 9-track album is a collection of "rap short fiction" and experimental production by Jamaica-based GLDNEYE. The project, at times, feels like a lucid fever dream, a swirl of colors and characters fitting with the vibe of its incredible artwork. It's heavy use of synth and 80s pop instrumentals compliments Tony's creative storytelling in a way that few rapper/producer collaborations ever do.
Flower Graves, "Ociin" - Like countless other bands and artists, psychedelic rockers Flower Graves had their 2020 touring plans shot to hell by COVID-19. What's worse, the pandemic put a halt to the encouraging momentum the group had built in 2019 with the release of their debut album, Living in Disguise.
Despite the setbacks, the band was able to produce some new music in 2020, including one of our favorite tracks of the year, "Ociin". The dreamy indie-rock single conjures images of Sgt. Peppers-era Beatles and Woodstock footage. Its beautifully animated music video seems like the kind of thing that would only get better when experienced in a chemically altered state. But you didn't hear that from us.
Megan Thee Stallion, Good News - Listen, no one had a bigger 2020 than Megan. It's almost needlessly redundant to mention it in this list. From the release of her 2020 EP Suga to breaking the internet with "WAP", getting shot by Tory Lanez, earning multiple BET and MTV awards, getting nominated for multiple 2021 Grammys and gracing the cover of Time, Megan absolutely dominated 2020 (did we mention she got SHOT?). Still, we'd be remiss if we failed to recognize the brilliance of Good News.
The Hot Girl capped off her mega year with the release of her debut studio album, Good News. The project was as successful as anyone whose followed Megan's career would have guessed. Debuting at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and going gold in its first week, the album is a masterclass in lyrical bravado. While we could write a full article about its 17 tracks, dozens of features and award-winning production, we'll focus on its opening song, "Shots Fired." The Tory Lanez diss-track, which also features a call for justice for Breonna Taylor, is rapped over the beat of Biggie's iconic "Who Shot Ya" and may very well (and very deservingly) torch what's left of Lanez' career. And for that, we Stan.
The Suffers, "Take Me to the Good Times" - Houston has waited two long years for a new album from hometown soul band The Suffers. If Kam Franklin's twitter feed is to be believed, the wait will soon be over. Luckily, we got a taste of new music earlier this year with the release of "Take Me to the Good Times," the group's funky, jazzy and joyous 2020 single.
A song is about, well, good times, "Take Me to the Good Times" takes us around the world and down the block as frontwoman Kam Franklin describes her ideal happy places, presumably inspired by touring. From summers in Brooklyn to autumns in Japan and rooftop parties on MLK, the song will get you off your feet and dancing in almost any setting. Hopefully, the single is a taste of what's to come on The Suffers next album. For now, at least, we know the band hasn't lost a step during this prolonged and mentally exhausting quarantine.
Tobe Nwigwe, The Pandemic Live Experience - It took a little over two years for Tobe Nwigwe to go from an Instagram rapper with an ambitious project (release one original freestyle every week) to one of hip hop's biggest and most well-respected creative minds. The Alief native and first-generation Nigerian is the undisputed king of Houston rap right now. So, when he and his regular team of collaborators told the world they were producing a virtual live concert to help benefit independent artists and venues, the world took notice.
Together with White Oak Music Hall and Pegstar concerts, Nwigwe and his team put on an artistic and visually stunning live production that was streamed live by tens of thousands. Sometime after the event, Tobe released the live album as a 37-track, two-hour-long, triple-LP across all streaming platforms and for purchase on vinyl. The album now stands as a piece of music history, a monument to all we lost and yet collectively gained during a devastating and socially exhausting year.