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Merry-Go-Round Magazine’s Best New Artist of 2020

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Despite the fact that 2020 was a year marked by isolation, people still managed, as they always seem to do, to find community online. A lot of this community was defined by logging onto Twitter and complaining about quarantine or sharing infographics on Instagram to try and help incite systemic change from the ground up. While this internet hive mind was largely rooted in collective negativity, the one positive thing everyone online seemed to agree on is that Bartees Strange not only fucking rocks, but that he also seems like a really nice, cool person who should absolutely be the new face of indie rock in our post-pandemic age. 

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Bartees Strange burst onto the scene early in 2020 with SAY GOODBYE TO PRETTY BOY, an eclectic collection covering The National. While I couldn’t care less about the source material, the five-song EP managed to captivate me with its gentle merging of jazzy instrumentation and a soulful R&B singer’s swagger. Just a few months later, Strange returned with his debut full-length, LIVE FOREVER, a record that literally exists outside of the confines of genre entirely. At times evoking artists like Frank Ocean or early Anderson .Paak, and at others recalling Told Slant or Alex G, the record combined technically impressive vocal work, creative, energetic arrangements, and tender-yet-funny lyricism to sound like a culmination of the past 10 years of pop music, and also like nothing that’s ever come before it. The record is best summed up by listening to its lead single “Boomer,” which frames a rap song about smoking weed with your dad in a Little Richard-esque instrumental. By the time a Kings Of Leon-reminiscent chorus comes in, it’s clear that Strange doesn’t give half a shit about rewriting the rules of modern music. While LIVE FOREVER treads new terrain, in a year defined by institutional failure, it’s a damn good soundtrack for an unfamiliar new world.

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In a lot of ways, in a year without shows or in-person friendships or tangible rewards, Strange feels like the one genuine cultural gift we’ve been given in this wretched time of turmoil and loneliness. As much as I can wax poetic about how singularly good Bartees Strange’s 2020 was, the best thing about him is that he seems like a really grounded character—a down-to-Earth superhero for a music industry that needs a savior now more than ever. While Bartees Strange spent 2020 proving that you don’t have to flaunt an ego to put out great art, and while you’d be hard-pressed to find someone else capable of making music as exciting as Strange’s, I just really hope that his unassuming humility in the wake of his newfound fame can set the blueprint for a new age of indie rock celebrities. Everyone seems to be watching Strange to see what he’ll do next, but regardless of whether he chooses to stay loyal to his indie rock roots or use his boundless talents to pivot into becoming a household name, watching his legacy unfold has been a breath of fresh air.

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Ted Davis
Ted Davis is Music Editor of Merry-Go-Round Magazine, as well as a musician, and DJ from Virginia currently living in Northeast Los Angeles. He has put out work with the band Helanovela and on his own as DJ STEPDAD and Silk Gloves. He has performed with a number of artists including Dumbo Gets Mad and Blondie (long story).

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