Mike Bell: Best Calgary albums of 2020

A shutdown, a slowdown, but not a total clampdown.

Calgary artists were one of the groups hit hardest this past year by COVID, with clubs shuttered, shows moving online and even rehearsal spaces affected by social distancing and mask-wearing limitations.

But they kept creating. And releasing.

Some, perhaps, as a reaction to the current climate, while others because it’s simply what they do.

As for the quality of the releases, well, what found these ears was another remarkably diverse collection of offerings from a pretty dynamic music community.

Something to be proud of. Something to make things more bearable.

Here’s the best of what came out of the worst thrown at the Calgary music scene.

Salt Breaker Sand — Florida BC

This year, we slogged. We trudged. We trundled. We lumbered. We pushed.

We survived. And on the other side, should we be able to see that far ahead, we’ll feel, presumably a weary thrill, an appreciation of the weight we’ve been pushing uphill for far too long and promise of what that alleviation can surely provide.

There’s not a better description for the debut of Clinton St. John-fronted rock quartet Florida BC, a sonic tribute to the diametrically opposed concepts of dark and light, love and hate, heavy and ethereal, done and ready for more.

Salt Breaker Sand is a foreboding sludge of Americana shoegaze gothic — as dark as a shallow grave and as vital, claustrophobically frantic yet strangely, calmly resigned as the voice dumped inside of it.

Not just the perfect soundtrack for 2020, but a near-perfect album from a band fresh out of the earth.

Jess Knights — Best Kind of Light

The last sip is where you discover who you are and what you need. Does it mean goodnight? Or does it mean another one? Do you like where things are headed? Need them to go further? Delay? Abort? Still thirsty? Still happy? Still a little sad? Still a whole lot sad?

What do you need for last call? A cab? Or another delicious excuse to defer?

Whatever your poison or reason, Jess Knights serves it up on her sumptuous, green-eyed, Laurel Canyon, country soul-pop debut. Kiki, fun, sexy, seductive, heartbroken, haggard, caramel-coated tunes that recall everyone from Eliza Doolittle and Shelby Lynne to Dusty Springfield and Juice Newton, Knights is on another level. And comfortable in any and every sonic element she cloaks herself in, while still making you think that one more round is not only the best idea, but was entirely yours. Cheers.

Self-Cut Bangs — Self-Cut Bangs

We can have nice things. Bright, shiny things. Boisterously joyous things.

We can. And we should push our Pooh paws into the honeycomb concocted by Calgary COVID king and queen bees Cayley O’Neill and Shawn Petsche, who polish and pump up the close-quarters, apartment pop into something much bigger. The pair, with their rifflandiciousness sweetened further by O’Neill’s delivery, deliver pop perfection on the level of New Pornographers, Veruca Salt, The Vaselines or a mashup of Toni Basil and The Sweet.

We deserve this. We need this.

Sargeant X Comrade

Magic Radio — Sargeant X Comrade

Follow the mood, follow the flow. Sink right into the brilliant slow-tempo, trip-hop soul of local duo, vocalist Yolanda Sargeant and producer Evgeniy (Jay) Bykovets. While not a concept record, like, say Basehead’s Play With Toys, it still has the feel of a complete album where the many styles — funk, R&B, soul, hip-hop, pop — create something that sounds as if it’s the coolest curated setlist of independent, college-rock radio strung together by a heavy-lidded, wonderfully medicated, late-night campus DJ.

Less of a Massive Attack and more of a polite suggestion, Magic Radio is an expertly crafted vox and samples trip on the outskirts of the dancefloor. Follow it where you will.

Satellites and Stars — Tom Phillips and the DTs

There’s little more you can say about roots vet Tom Phillips and how assured and confident in himself and his music he’s become, especially of late, since the release of his stunning covers album, 2015’s Mr. Superlove. This new work, recorded at Calgary’s Studio Bell during an artist-in-residence stay, doesn’t try to do anything, doesn’t mean to go anywhere, make any kind of statement. Like some of the best singer-songwriter records, it just exists and wants you to discover its complexities after being drawn in by the spectacular musicianship, classic phrasing and ear for a melody that Phillips and his co-horts own. It’s a great record from a great artist. Not much more to say.

Five more: Shaye Zadravec’s Ronstadt-worthy vocal interpretations on Now and Then; classic rockers ROOKS’ High Road; P.I.M.P. (Poetry Is My Pleasure) by loquacious local rapper Lyrique; Napalmpom and their “lost” early days album The Climb To Heaven Has Too Many Stairs; and loveable alt-pop fave Michael Bernard Fitzgerald sweet, acoustic-y Love Valley.