2020 Connecticut Albums of the Year

For the last couple years I was tasked with putting together a list similar to this one for the Hartford Courant. Knowing in advance that I would be assigned this monumental task I made a special effort to scour the web and listen to literally every Connecticut-based album I could find across every genre imaginable. It was daunting, but thoroughly enjoyable all the same. In March, when the Covid Times hit, the Courant no longer had a need for a freelancer writing about a music scene that had, at least in the live setting, come to a screeching halt. Thankfully Connecticut bands didn’t stop releasing amazing albums over the course of 2020.

What follows below is a list of my personal favorite Connecticut albums from this past calendar year. This is not necessarily the same list that would have appeared in the Courant’s pages. There’s no way my editors would have allowed me to include three metal, and two metal-adjacent, records and my lack of attention to such genres as hip hop and jazz (due strictly to my own personal tastes) would have been frowned upon. But, it’s damn close.

With all that said, consider this less of a ‘best of’ list and more of a rambling recommendation of some exceptional albums you should put into your ear holes as soon as possible. Once again, Connecticut has a lot to be proud of musically this year.

*As always, this list is reserved for full-length albums, but stay tuned for a special post in the coming weeks looking back at some of my favorite EPs as well.

Among The Acres – Dreamcatcher
I had no qualms about putting this band’s debut album on last year’s Courant list. It was actually one of the first I had jotted down. Needless to say, I was not expecting a follow up album so soon, nor would I have expected it to blow away their previous effort (and that’s really, really saying something). Where 2019’s Looking In felt like four talented musicians/songwriters coming together to create something special, Dreamcatcher feels like a cohesive band catching their collective sonic wavelength and riding that thing to a glorious end. Among The Acres does their best to channel an indie folk meets Americana sound through a pop-infused lens, creating music that’s wholly accessible and catchy while maintaining a certain level of grit to it. Some of my favorite individual songs from 2020 are on this album.

An Historic – Thawing
Adam Matlock, the mastermind behind An Historic, is one of Connecticut’s most eclectic and versatile musicians, and that shows up all over this album. Mixing avant-garde electronics with his trademark accordion and instantly recognizable voice, Matlock has created an album that’s both cinematic in scope and feel. To be honest it’s not an album that the average music fan is going to find easy to digest, but no one ever claimed the average music fan could successfully comprehend high art on a regular basis when presented with it. https://anhistoricmusic.bandcamp.com/album/thawing

The Backyard Committee – Surf Hotel Ghosts
New Haven’s The Backyard Committee has been putting out quality albums for long enough that when a new one drops there is a certain weighty expectation that comes with it (at least in my mind). Consider their batting average still perfect as Surf Hotel Ghosts is a formidable addition to an ever-growing catalogue of great records. Clocking in at a weighty eighteen tracks and featuring more songs with a rollicking, radio-friendly vibe, this album feels virtually like the sort of mental release we were all desperately in need of upon its delivery back in May. The psych/freak folk roots are still tightly woven through the album, yet its the Americana roots that feel a little extra watered on this release. Imagine if someone uncovered a lost Tom Petty demo of him jamming with Springsteen and Roky Erickson and you’d be picking up what The Backyard Committee is putting down.

Balkun Brothers – Here Comes The End Of The World
Most bands as they grow older tend to get less heavy, but somehow the duo known as the Balkun Brothers seems to get heavier with every  release. Their newest album takes their patented blend of blues rock and runs it through a kaleidoscope of various heavy metal influences. Most metal aficionados might split hairs, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to put this album firmly inside the parameters of the stoner rock genre, and their penchant for loving the mighty Motorhead is more than prevalent as well. Whatever trajectory this band takes in the future, they’ve cemented themselves as a band that can rock out with the best of them.

Bone Church – Acid Communion
There are very, very few bands whose new album I was anticipating as much as the riff lords in Bone Church. I’m happy to say they delivered and then some. From note one this album rockets into the sun and explodes all over the stoner metal pantheon. Bone Church combine various influences, including traditional metal, early doom, and ’70s proto metal into pure, blissful cacophony. It’s an album with one foot firmly planted in the past and another perfectly situated into heavy metal’s future – a future that should include as many accolades as the community is willing to shower in their direction. Later this month I’ll be putting out my list of the Top 40 metal albums of the year. Spoiler alert, this one will be ranked fairly high.

Curse the Son – Excruciation
Another metal album I was completely jazzed about was the return of doom metal masters Curse The Son. Here’s a snippet from the review of their album I wrote back in June: There’s something about Curse The Son’s brand of ultra-fuzzy doom metal that not only feels refreshing in a crowd of pretenders, but does its best to reach back to the genre’s progenitors with an honoring touch. This album in particular is able to achieve that meshing of old and new to create something that’s wholly engaging. At times it feels even heavier than past releases, yet also feels like they’ve expanded their sound to the absolute outer limits of what traditional doom can withhold. 2020 wound up being a banner year for doom/stoner metal releases, and Excruciation stands extremely tall amidst some of the genre’s best.

J.E. Duffy – Forever?
If you’re looking for something heartfelt, yet upbeat look no further than the newest album from J.E. Duffy. Forever? is indie folk record perfectly sugar-coated in pop aesthetics, like a splendidly iced sonic cake, and just like a good cake you can never really have too many helpings. There’s enough instrumentation and layers to peel back for this record to veer well outside the traditional folk pantheon, yet Duffy can’t completely hide his Americana roots as much as these songs may attempt to on occasion. Regardless of genre descriptors it’s an engaging album with more than enough cause to continually drag you back for more.

Dust Hat – Come Back
First and foremost, kudos to Dust Hat for hosting their album release show on the roof of Cafe Nine in New Haven, one of Connecticut’s best live music venues. It was really a match made in rock ‘n’ roll heaven in all honesty. I couldn’t think of a more rollicking way to bring live music to the masses in these Covid Times than to unleash Come Back on a parking lot full of masked patrons. Dust Hat don’t mince genres. This is a rock band from note one to when the chairs are upside down on the tables. It feels rare in this day and age to hear a rock record as straight forward as this one that’s a) as well written and b) not played by Boomers, but Dust Hat are both very good and relatively young which only gives me hope for the future of pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.

Fires In The Distance – Echoes From Deep November
I have to admit this one caught me completely off-guard. I’m not sure what I was expecting from a band that features multiple members of another Connecticut metal favorite of mine – melodic death metal act Archaic Decapitator. I certainly wasn’t expecting epic, atmospheric death-doom on a similar sonic plane as Paradise Lost, Morgion, and Swallow The Sun. (Those names may be foreign to any metal neophytes reading this, but trust when I say they are some of this ilk’s absolute best.) This album had me locked in from the opening track and I sat here with it on headphones, thoroughly entranced for its entirety. It’s a soaring, towering album that has the potential to engulf anyone who happens across it. If I were handing out awards for ‘best new band’ or ‘best debut album’ Fires In the Distance would certainly be in the discussion.

Brian Larney – Trabant
When putting together my list for 2018 I unfortunately missed the album Bridgeport’s Brian Larney dropped towards the end of that year. I spent months kicking myself over that unfortunate omission. Thankfully Larney gifted us Trabant all the way back in February. (In the Before Times. Do you remember them? They grow farther and farther away with every day…) Larney is a master songwriter who can craft a tune that will ear worm itself into your brain with ease. It sounds painful, but trust me when I say it’s a pleasant experience every time out. If you’re looking for a relaxed, folksy album that you can curl up to after a long day you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option.

Lord Fowl – Glorious Babylon
2020 also saw the glorious return of the masters of tripped-out, fuzzy stoner rock, New Haven’s Lord Fowl. While not as heavy, and a little more rock ‘n’ roll oriented than some of their fellow CT acts (i.e. the aforementioned Bone Church), what Lord Fowl lacks in heaviness they more than make up for in juicy, meaty riffs and a set of driving, contagious songs. With a sound that’s large enough to play alongside some of the ’70s best arena rock bands, Lord Fowl is the type of act I constantly picture tearing it up in front of massive stacks of Marshall amps, hundreds of denim-clad long hairs banging along, and the ever-present wafting of pot smoke thick in the air.

Mercy Choir – Corinthian
There are certain things that even the Covid Times can’t undo – death, taxes, and Paul Belbusti recording a ton of engaging new music under his Mercy Choir moniker. Written and recorded just prior to our first lock down, Corinthian was dropped just after all of us here in CT were told not to leave our houses. Belbusti chose to keep things sparse on this album, with only his voice and an acoustic guitar in supply. It gives this record a somewhat haunting quality, one that certainly wasn’t lost on those listening to it during those final grey days of winter. But much like the birth of spring a few weeks later there’s something hopeful and profound here as well. Few records will be reminders for me of the Covid Times than this one, and that’s not a bad thing. In all the death and mayhem there was still someone like Paul Belbusti offering up beautiful, if not sorrowful, art and nothing felt more human than that in a time when we needed it the most. https://mercychoir.bandcamp.com/album/corinthian

The Moon Shells – House of Air
One of my new favorite acts over the last two years has been The Moon Shells. Taking various forms of roots music from as far off places as the Appalachian Mountains and the coasts of West Africa, The Moon Shells create a sound wholly unique within our state’s little scene. Mixing beautiful vocal harmonies with a variety of acoustic instrumentation, The Moon Shells are a band that could fit right at home on a bluegrass bill in the same breath as playing any of the various folk festivals in the region. Their sound is one that has a sort of universal appeal for anyone who likes their music soaked in history and tradition, especially history and tradition from a wide array of sources.

The Nuclear Heartbreak – Misguided Youth
We already documented my big miss from 2018, and if I had to name one for 2019 it might be the album that Stamford’s The Nuclear Heartbreak delivered. I feel slightly vindicated though because not only did The Nuclear Heartbreak offer up another album this year, I feel safe in the proclamation that this may be their best release yet. Taking cues from various corners of the pop punk and garage rock worlds, The Nuclear Heartbreak write songs that you can not only get a little wild to, but they’re catchy enough to get stuck in your head during the clean up process as well. It’s a raucous album and if you’re a fan of punk rock that stretches into poppy territory it’s worthy of multiple listens. https://nuclearheartbreak.com/releases

The Right-Offs – Bardo
I love watching a band evolve right before my eyes, especially when the path they are traversing is an interesting one. The Right-Offs started as a pretty straight forward punk rock band, molded after some of the giants of the genre that came crawling out the New York City sewers in the 1970s. With each release they’ve taken their sound and expanded it into new and intriguing territories. Their newest album, Bardo, takes their punk leanings and sends them careening into a blender filled with alt-rock, psych rock, and even some indie accoutrements. It’s a fascinating progression to listen to, and one that keeps fans on their toes enough to never even attempt to tire of this band.

The Rivergods – Passages
New London stalwarts The Rivergods returned in 2020 with their seventh release, Passages. It’s a record that successfully culls together all of their various influences – alt country, roots rock, folk, Americana – and blends them into an easily digestible array of songs. The Rivergods have been creating quality releases for a long time now and this album stands as one of their strongest to date; an achievement that few bands can claim this deep into their catalogue.

Kierstin Sieser – Shark Tooth Moon
In 2018 Connecticut’s Tiny Ocean delivered easily one of my favorite albums of the year, genre or band location be damned. 2020 may have sucked for a lot of reasons, but one saving grace is the debut solo album from Tiny Ocean front woman, Kierstin Sieser. I purposely didn’t rank the albums on this list, instead listing them in alphabetical order. But if forced to rank them Sieser’s Shark Tooth Moon would easily be somewhere in the top two or three. I possibly spent more time with this record than any other on the list, and that’s certainly not a knock on the other nineteen records here, but more of an indictment of just how mesmerizing this record was for me. Sieser is a master at crafting lurid, elegant songs that feel just a little dangerous and a whole lot of captivating. The fact that she’s able to pen such dreamy affairs, sometimes with nothing more than her voice and an acoustic guitar in tow, is all the more impressive. Fans of folk music that isn’t afraid to get a little dark and pensive should be all over this album immediately.

Xavier Serrano – Beyond The Veil
Another one of my favorite Connecticut songwriters, who also isn’t afraid to let their music drift to contemplative and shadowy places is New Haven’s Xavier Serrano. Armed with one of the best voices in the entire state, and a penchant for writing thoughtful, emotional songs, Serrano has delivered one of my favorite albums for the second year in a row. Beyond The Veil is a gorgeous collection of indie and psych-infused folk that you could easily get lost in upon first listen and never want to return from.

waveform – Last Room
Turns out there would have been several artists making repeat appearances on a Courant best of list, including indie act waveform. I’d go on record as saying that this is one of the most criminally underrated bands in the entire state, and as their sound continues to expand and grow that observation only becomes more keen. Last Room picks up where 2019’s Shooting Star left off and further cements this band as one of Connecticut’s best indie rock/pop acts. Their ethereal aesthetics and heartfelt songwriting are downright hypnotizing at certain points, and as each song plays out it quickly joins its predecessors as one of the best you’ll hear this year. Someone needs to put waveform’s songs in indie films and on Netflix shows, and get them a couple guest spots on Saturday Night Live so everyone else can stop talking about MGMT every time someone mentions ‘Connecticut’ and ‘indie rock’ in the same sentence. Please and thank you.

Window Seat – Call Me In The Morning
I need to give a special shout out in this space to another blog who does a remarkable job promoting Connecticut music. Thank you CT Verses for turning me on to the debut album from New Haven’s Window Seat. I am eternally grateful, because I haven’t stopped listening since you first wrote about them. Window Seat play a poppy brand of punk that waltzes in and out of garage and alt rock territory as well. Killer, fuzzy guitar work and biting lyrics meld with wispy, dreamlike vocal lines to form a sound that’s equal parts fierce and fun. This is an album that warrants your own repeat listens, and is absolutely a band I’ll be paying a lot of attention to in the future.

Honorable Mentions
Shandy Lawson – Shandy Lawson
The Ratz – After The Blackout
Kristi Flagg – Brave New View
Sarah LeMiuex – Jazz For The End Of The World
Robert James Nuzzello, Jr. – Traveling Through Time Together

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