As the year winds down, we’re continuing our look back at the music of these past twelve months with an ongoing series of XPN Best of 2020 deep dives. Today, The Key’s Sean Fennell reflects on the year’s best solo projects.

Musicians “going solo” has been a steadfast and reliable career move for almost as far back as bands have existed, but in 2020 this term has taken on a whole new meaning. In a year when we’ve all been forced to find comfort in solidarity, countless artists have used this year — whether because of COVID-19 or not — to break away from their more recognizable, collaborative projects to explore more personal endeavors. While the cynical listener may look at solo records as simple vanity and hubris, there is a certain bravery in leaving the comfort of both a collective decision-making apparatus and the sheltered anonymity of a band name. In a year when comfort zones have been stretched to their breaking point and, in a way, we’ve all been forced to go solo, it’s reassuring to see some of our favorite musicians truly thrive on their own. From indie rock mainstays leaning toward tradition and Philly favorites shedding their more notable projects, to longtime collaborators finding their own voice, I’ve collected some of my favorite solo records of 2020.

Mike Polizze – Long Lost Solace Find

Polizze is a Philly music lifer: whether with Purling Hiss or Birds of Maya, he’s been an influential figure in the city’s underground scene. In 2016 I got a chance to interview Polizze about Purling Hiss’ last record, High Bias, a wonderfully fuzzed-out, throttling garage rock album. Since then, though, he’s been mostly silent. That is, until the decided left-turn of this year’s Lost Lost Solace Find, a collection of intricate, folky songs that sees Polizze embrace a more laid-back approach. Some of this can likely be attributed to his collaboration with Philly slacker-in-chief Kurt Vile, whose influence can be heard throughout the record. But this is still very much Polizze’s handiwork, even if he has traded the late-night noise of previous output for a more early-morning ease.

Frances Quinlan – Likewise

While it can be hard to separate Hop Along from the sheer songwriting and vocal force that is Frances Quinlan, this year’s Likewise makes it clear they are, in fact, two different entities. While Quinlan did retain the assistance of longtime bandmate and collaborator Joe Reinhart, this is very much a solo endeavor, removing the slicing momentum of Hop Along proper to allow Quinlan’s ever-arresting vocal performance to engulf the scene. All the things you love about Hop Along are still there, most notably Quinlan’s buoyant lyricism and trademark howl, but Likewise delves even further into her penchant for idiosyncratic lyrics. Somehow album opener “Piltdown Man” careens from Dawson’s eponymous hoax to a vivid memory of wheelbarrows and patient parents without skipping a beat, putting on display the kind of distinct poetic dexterity Quinlan has fomented for years.

Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners

Hutson is a bit of an outlier here. His record Beginners is very much a debut, in all senses of the word. Up to this point Hutson spent his career as a collaborator, having contributed to records by Bonny Light Horsemen, WHY?, and most notably Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius, for which he received songwriting credits. It’s his friendship and creative partnership with Phoebe Bridgers that led her to produce Beginners. But even without these impressive credentials, Hutson’s delicate, effortless style is enough to charm listeners to this self-assured and impressively nuanced folk record.

Caiola – Only Real When Shared

While most of these treks into creative isolation were not made as a direct result of our own collective solitude, Jordan Caiola’s solo debut, released simply as Caiola, probably wouldn’t have existed if not for our present circumstances. While recognizable in their bluesy leanings, these are not songs that would have quite fit snugly on Caiola’s more well known project, Mo Lowda & The Humble. They do, however, serve as an intriguing, homespun foil. “Alaska,” a heart-hollowing, finger-picked ode to love’s nostalgic pull, stands out as the record’s highlight with the line, “Just thinking how I’ll never trace the contours of your spine with my fingertips again” serving as its devastating centerpiece.

Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison

The National frontperson Matt Berninger set out to make his version of Willie Nelson’s Stardust. What he ended up with is a collection of characteristically dour and literary originals, covering a veritable bingo card of Berningerisms (relationship strife, middle age ennui, wandering self-deprecation). One thing he did keep from Stardust is legendary producer and keyboardist Booker T. Jones. This gives Berninger’s trademark style a polished sheen, paring back the experimental leanings of his main band and wrapping everything in a more traditional package.