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Shuffle's Favorite Local Music of 2020

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Some of our favorite local music of 2020 included albums and singles from Free Black!, Spirit of the Bear, Coby and the Prisoners and Peachcurls.

While the coronavirus pandemic silenced the live music scene, many Northeast Ohio artists and bands stayed busy recording songs and releasing albums this year. Amanda Rabinowitz and Brittany Nader each share their favorite local albums and songs of 2020.

Free Black! - Freedom Summer
At the top of both of their lists is the Akron hip-hop duo Free Black! with the album Freedom Summer.

Floco Torres and Holbrook Riles III—who produces and performs as HR3—released the quintessential summer 2020 album, rich with themes touching on the Black Lives Matter movement, racial injustice and power dynamics. Torres freestyled the chorus to the album’s single, “The Elizabeth Keckley Award,” at HR3’s house last summer. The track was originally titled “Ms. Lincoln,” but as they continued building the song and watching current events unfold, they shifted from a focus on a white political figure to a Black slave, Elizabeth Keckley.

The album title comes from the Civil Rights-era volunteer campaign of 1964 to register as many Black voters as possible in the south. Torres, who raps on the tracks, said he and HR3 were more intentional with this release. While they were running on pure energy and instinct with their musical collaborations in the past, they slowed down, did their research and created a truly remarkable blend of in-studio and live tracks on the album.

Spirit of the Bear - Spirit of the Bear
One of Amanda's favorite bands of the year is the Youngstown five-piece Spirit of the Bear. These indie rockers appeared on WKSU’s Shuffle in 2018 to talk about their Fiction Forest music festival in Youngstown. Last year they rented a cabin in Kentucky and spent a week writing this album, which they planned to release in 2020. They put off the release until January and released four singles this year. The first single, "Summer Snow," has nearly 65,000 streams on Spotify. One listen and it's easy to hear why. These songs are catchy, layered and fun.

Coby and The Prisoners – I Imagined a Window
Another of one of Brittany's picks is this October 2020 release. It comes a full year after the band’s album “Everyone,” which appeared on Brittany's 2019 favorite local music list. Tracked in Indiana and Ohio between October 2019 and May 2020, “I Imagined a Window” contains a mix of pre-and beginning of pandemic themes. Many of the songs were written by front-man Coby Hartzler on his couch but at different points in the year. Some were developed during joyful moments watching his son play, while others were written right around the time the pandemic just started hitting the news, giving certain tracks a more somber feel.

The album is rife with the band’s familiar alt-country twang, while incorporating interesting sonic elements like organ solos and guitar parts inspired by “Revolution” by The Beatles. It’s a seamless continuation of “Everyone” with a discernible growth for the Dover/New Philadelphia-based ensemble.

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Some of Shuffle's favorite music of 2020 included Free Black!, Spirit of the Bear, Chrissy Strong and Peachcurls.

Chrissy Strong - Send Angels
Strong captured Amanda's attention this year with her debut single, "Send Angels." This up-and-coming, self-taught musician from Akron says the song "offers a tender and haunting reflection on encounters with love and longing, fear and desperation—and the many forms they take." The track was produced by Mike Murray of Cleveland’s Uptight Sugar, with members of the band performing on the song. Strong talks openly about being in addiction recovery, and her journey and healing comes through in her soulful voice and piano playing.

Peachcurls – Meadow
Brittany enjoyed the new album from Cleveland artist TJ Maclin, who performs as Peachcurls. He's a versatile artist whose soulful vocal talents and rap skills are both showcased in his 2020 release. The album is a blend of highly produced hip hop tracks, stripped-down R&B slow jams and off-beat musical ideas. No two songs are quite the same, which mirrors Maclin’s background growing up with a father who owned a rap record label and learning Hendrix-style blues guitar at a young age.

Peachcurls connected with Spencer Martin, a Northeast Ohio native who now resides in South Korea, through social media to master the album. “Meadow” also features Tommy Lehman on trumpet and Matt DeRubertis on bass, making it a collaborative work that spotlights local artists who complement Peachcurls’ creative range.

Shuffle's Favorite Music of 2020:

Amanda's picks:

Brittany's picks:

Other favorites:

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Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.
Brittany Nader joins All Things Considered host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene. As Shuffle Producer, she provides planning, scheduling, strategy and writing support for WKSU's weekly spin through local music.