Top row: cover art for Buggin, Casper McFadden, and Harvey Waters. Bottom row: cover art for Jusell, Prymek, Sage, Shiroishi; Tree; and Buggin again.

End-of-year-list season can feel like a chore, even if you’re not one of the people whose job requires you to make those lists. Just keeping track of what everybody else thinks are the best albums, movies, books, TV shows, and so forth is an exhausting undertaking. And every year I get deja vu as I see the same albums appear arranged in different orders by high-profile critics and major outlets. Chicagoland critic Rob Mitchum is once again collating all the big album lists into a single ranking with a Google Sheet, making it even easier for me to see 2020’s consensus picks emerging.

Music criticism can tell us as much about the way we live as the music it covers, and a great list can do this more easily than a single album review. If you’ve ever made a playlist, received a mixtape from a new partner, or lost track of time during a sprawling late-night DJ set, you understand how assembling pieces of music helps them communicate with one another in ways their creators never considered or intended. Lists do something similar, adding the extra dimension of calendar time—and because this year has felt a lifetime long, I’m grateful to be reminded about an album that seems to belong to a different era but actually came out in February.

Jeff Parker’s Suite for Max Brown is just such an album. When International Anthem released it in January, it was met with near universal acclaim, but of the dozen or so major lists I’ve read so far, only a couple have included it. I wonder if critics have forgotten about it because it belongs to the Before Times, even though it came out just 11 months ago. Parker celebrated Suite for Max Brown with four sold-out sets at Dorian’s the first weekend in March, a week before COVID-related cancellations brought live music in the U.S. to an abrupt halt.

Thinking about music in 2020 means thinking about how the ways I usually experience it with other people have almost all been closed off to me or transformed. I’ve watched the occasional livestream, but I find that such a passive way to see a show—it just makes me yearn for the day I’ll be able to return to a venue to see a band I barely know transform the energy of a jam-packed room. That’s not to say virtual music events don’t have their virtues, but I think they work better when they’re not trying to stand in for real-world shows—I got a real kick out of a Minecraft festival that couldn’t have been replicated IRL.

Most record stores have reopened to in-person customers to some degree since March’s shutdowns, but I haven’t gone back to one yet. I don’t own a car or bike, and pandemic anxiety has kept me off public transit and away from taxis and ride-share services (which has also put most protests frustratingly out of reach). With few exceptions, my orbit has shrunk to walking distance. Off the Internet, the closest I’ve come to sharing music with another human has been at the grocery store—and I think I got more out of sashaying to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” in an empty aisle than the stranger who rounded the corner on me and said, “You do you.”

I continued to seek out new music, though, out of professional obligation and personal curiosity. I trawled Bandcamp tags into the wee hours, searching for unfamiliar sounds, and spent entire afternoons with YouTube rips of recent punk tapes. This year I started keeping a running Google Sheet of every new-to-me EP or album I’d listened to in its entirety, and it’s topped 800 entries so far. The majority were released in 2020, and more than half of those come from Chicago. Since live music shut down, I’ve zeroed in more than usual on music made by locals, partly because I’ve lost the outlet of previewing concerts by touring artists. But by increasing my focus on material that hasn’t gotten much if any attention outside the city (or even within it), I’ve made the process of combing through “best albums” lists—which tend to take a much broader view—feel especially isolating for me.

I still find value in “best of” lists. To paraphrase one of my favorite Substack writers, Miranda Reinert of Wendy House Press, there are plenty of people who want to find new music but don’t know where to start. These lists are a good place.

When I make my own lists, though, I prefer to restrict myself to lesser-known releases, not least because my choices don’t put me in a good position to decide among the well-established acts that tend to turn up on broader lists. At the Reader, I’ve made a habit of compiling year-in-review lists dedicated to overlooked local music, a task complicated by a rule I set for myself: I can’t include any of the overlooked local music I’ve already written about that year.

For instance, Ozzuario’s fusion of industrial music and black metal on Existence Is Pain, which pushes both genres outside their comfort zones, was in my opinion unjustly ignored, but I didn’t include it because the project came up in a recent installment of the Gossip Wolf column I share with J.R. Nelson. If I’d had more time and space, I’m sure I would’ve already written about these five releases too.

Buggin, Buggin Out

Buggin treat beatdown hardcore to a refreshing energy-drink bath on this EP. Their husky guitar riffs and athletic rhythms combine an aggressive attitude with nonstop hooks; vocalist Bryanna Bennett sets off the band’s powder keg with hoarse vocals and gnomic lyrics.

Casper McFadden, Audio Diary

Casper McFadden nonchalantly assembles collages of palpitating footwork synths, hyperactive breakbeat loops, and vocal samples pushed into the red, reshaping their structures throughout to keep you on the edge of your seat even when he slows the tempo down.

Harvey Waters, Air Sits Heavy

Harvey Waters play rich, wall-of-sound dream pop whose melodies sparkle through the haze—its earthy guitars and knot-in-your throat vocals defy the conventions of the genre to embrace the listener from the front of the mix.

Jusell, Prymek, Sage, Shiroishi, Fuubutsushi

Chicago experimental artist Matthew Sage didn’t need to worry about social distancing when he created this album with three far-flung collaborators—Chris Jusell in Arizona, Chaz Prymek in Missouri, and Patrick Shiroishi in Los Angeles. We could all aspire to treat everyone with the tenderness these four show one another on this frisky, buoyant ambient-jazz album.

Tree, Free Credit

Not to be confused with critically acclaimed Chicago rapper-producer MC Tree G, this local hip-hop producer recruited a terrific team of MCs (including MFn Melo, Brittney Carter, and Solo the Dweeb) to enhance his exquisite, dreamlike instrumentals.  v