2020 has been a strange year for music. 2020 has been a strange year, period. As the world grapples with the new reality of a pandemic and reckons with deeply entrenched systemic racism, music can either feel like a distraction or an essential voice for our times.
In reality, it’s both. During these complicated times, it’s important to hold space for expressions of our humanity. Live music as we knew it — the lifeblood for working musicians — may be on hold, but Seattle artists haven’t stopped creating.
These are some of our favorite local releases through the end of June. If you hear something you like, consider buying a record, CD or digital download directly from the artists — the people who make Seattle’s music scene one of the best in the country.
(Note: Since we’ve previously extolled the virtues of new releases from Car Seat Headrest, Hollis, Kassa Overall, Pearl Jam, Perfume Genius and Shabazz Palaces — each worthy of space on this list — we’ll shine this particular spotlight elsewhere.)
Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin, “Stygian Bough Volume 1”
Seattle doom metal duo Bell Witch have made a career out of extracting beauty from the darkness, often with aid from Portland neofolk artist Aerial Ruin. Here, their partnership is formally minted with an expansive collaborative album as ominous as a storm cloud that never passes. Over gorgeously stretched-out songs (two exceed 19 minutes), its haunted and heavy melancholia vacillates between acoustic passages and roaring walls of distortion, with Aerial Ruin’s Erik Moggridge’s majestic guitars riding Bell Witch’s lurching bass-and-drum crashes.
Blakk Soul, “Take Your Time”
With his reputation growing as a go-to studio dude, thanks to songwriting credits with Dr. Dre, Anderson .Paak, Macklemore and Playboi Carti, be thankful Tacoma’s king of the slow jam is making time for his solo career. The front half of Blakk Soul’s debut full-length drips with neo-soul swagger, before sensually downshifting for a run of ’90s-flavored, after-dark smooth jams. Blakk Soul’s blushworthy strain of audio velvet manages to soothe during tumultuous times.
Blimes and Gab, “Talk About It”
Just when summer 2020 looked like a total drag, Seattle’s Gifted Gab unleashed her long-awaited album with Bay Area emcee Blimes, a formidable partnership minted after a quick-hit collab went viral in 2018. As expected, the first-rate lyricists maintain unrivaled volleys of flawless verses over stone-cold head-nodders that could make your grandmother mean mug. But they also keep things breezy with disco-pop sparkler “Shellys (It’s Chill)” and playful piano-rap bop “Hungover With You,” with Gab’s sweetly sung melodies reminding the world she can do more than out-rap just about anyone on the West Coast.
Caitlin Sherman, “Death to the Damsel”
A founding member of dissolved cosmic country faves Evening Bell, Caitlin Sherman stepped out on her own this February with a debut solo effort stuffed with songs that crackle like a late-night campfire that never fully rages, but keeps you warm till dawn. As the proven singer-songwriter plays with folk-noir and alt-country bop-alongs, it’s the sweeping piano ballads like “Find Me a Fire” and contemplative closer “Some Paradise Unseen” that linger in our ears. Life after Evening Bell is looking bright for this Seattle fixture.
Clemm Rishad, “To Whom it May Concern”
Another Tacoma artist who’s built an impeccable behind-the-scenes résumé, Clemm Rishad has earned co-writing credits for a slate of hip-hop heavyweights (Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Lupe Fiasco among them) over the past decade. A reintroduction of sorts for Rishad as a solo artist, this collaborative EP with Miami producer Streetrunner blends colossal trap anthems (see the swelling ode to the power of rap music, “Confidence”) with gleaming soul samplers that sound no less massive.
Damien Jurado, “What’s New, Tomboy?”
After a SoCal relocation didn’t stick, one of Washington’s most celebrated singer-songwriters has returned to his home state armed with his third album in as many years. True to form, Damien Jurado’s latest studio album is a tender acoustic stroll through a series of vignettes narrated by the hushed folk sage as multi-instrumentalist Josh Gordon provides organ, propelling bass lines and other accouterments. Jurado’s prolific streak seems likely to continue, as the longtime PNW musician tells NPR he’s written three more albums during coronavirus lockdown.
An early contender for Seattle hip-hop’s rookie of the year, this Tri-Cities native delivered one of the most ambitious local debuts in recent memory. Over tracks that often borrow from jazz and various strains of electronic music, Nobi chops and dices weighty bars like a seasoned sous-chef at dinner rush — meticulous, impassioned and unflinching as he fillets institutionalized racism with a serrated knife on songs like lead single “New Chains.”
Parisalexa, “2 Real”
Seattle’s emerging R&B queen took the scene by storm in 2018, topping our albums of the year critics poll with a pair of EPs that alternately flashed penchants for throwback R&B and contemporary pop and hip-hop. On her first full-length effort, “2 Real” — another lock for year-end-list love — Parisalexa deftly fuses the two, her songwriting pop chops sharper than ever, whether dismissing clout-chasers (“Follow Me”) or celebrating self-confidence as a young Black woman (“Chocolate”).
Perry Porter and OldMilk, “Grey”
A familiar name on Seattle Times’ “best of” lists, Tacoma rapper/painter Perry Porter has proven himself one of the region’s most consistent artists of the past few years. On this collaborative album with producer OldMilk, Porter largely eschews the harder trap beats he often embraces, save for the suavely pounding “Bag,” with cameos from Nobi and Seattle R&B ace MistaDC. Instead, Porter leans more heavily into his cerebral side (without slowing things down on the dance floor) as he skates lyrical circles around gliding house beats (“Move My Feet”) and soulful lead single “Custom.”
Polyrhythmics, “Man From the Future”
Led by Seattle guitar virtuoso Ben Bloom, the local psych-funk faves are back with their first album in three years, teeming with Afrobeat-inspired polyrhythms, New Orleans brass bursts and Bloom’s slink-and-sizzle guitars over deep grooves. The only downside of the instrumental octet’s slyly hypnotic latest is not being able to hear it on the dance floor for a while.
Rell Be Free, “Sow What?”
The South Seattle rapper and co-founder of WA-BLOC — a youth development program centered around social justice — takes a sizable leap forward on his third full-length. His most polished and cohesive project to date has a lucid-dream quality, with Rell’s poised, unhurried flows suspended over slo-mo space-funk productions.
Stas THEE Boss, “On the Quarner”
Seattle may have recently lost one of its finest triple threats to New York City, but at least rapper/producer/DJ Stas THEE Boss blessed us with her first solo project since 2017. With her new EP, completed as the pandemic took hold, the former THEESatisfaction member stitches together a series of pieces into one 16-minute movement that plays like an abbreviated mixtape. While its collection of loops and fragments drift by in a slow-rolling haze, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality in Stas’ unflappable delivery as she unfolds tightly packed punchlines and metaphors.
Ted Poor, “You Already Know”
With his debut album as a bandleader, the well-connected jazz drummer proves a mood-building minimalist. Known outside jazz circles for his work with acclaimed indie rocker Andrew Bird and the house band for NPR’s recently spiked “Live From Here,” the relatively new Seattleite methodically builds his austere compositions around duets with saxophonist/clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo, more concerned with serving the songs — like the brooding, Bird-assisted rumbler “To Rome” — than merely flexing his considerable chops.
Tomo Nakayama, “Melonday”
Since his days leading beloved 2000s chamber-rock troupe Grand Hallway, Tomo Nakayama has been a Seattle music staple, turning out more singer-songwriter-oriented fare in the band’s wake. But for his latest act, Nakayama trades his acoustic guitar for sparkling synthesizers and crisp dance beats. Nakayama hasn’t lost his love for lushness, constructing radiant tapestries with swirling electronics, buoyant grooves and pop melodies recalling ’00s synth-pop mainstays Phoenix.
Western State Hurricanes, “Through With Love”
One of Seattle’s ’90s bands that could’ve been, these John Roderick-led rockers dissolved after a potential Sub Pop deal fell apart and Roderick went on to find acclaim with The Long Winters, repurposing some WSH material. But thanks to an Indiegogo campaign, the Western State Hurricanes’ early demos have been unearthed and spit-shined, serving as a late-’90s indie rock time capsule — an artifact from a bygone scene that’s aged well in its 20-some years in the vault.