There's a pretty good chance you haven't been following the progression of Dallas' face-meltingest metal act Mountain of Smoke, but when their cover album Replicated comes out with all of its incredible takes on The Prodigy, Duran Duran and Fugazi, you're going to wonder just how much you missed out on. The short answer is a lot. Mountain of Smoke began as a two-piece band with Brooks Willhoite on bass and vocals and PJ Costigan on drums. The band slowly added to its membership and sound. When Mountain of Smoke's Gods of Biomechanics came out in 2018, the addition of pedal steel guitar player Alex Johnson gave the band a more industrial depth. Now, with the addition of Kyle Shutt of Austin metal band The Sword, Mountain of Smoke's December 2019 release Future Sins bit back even harder, faster and with the intensity of a band that has now outgrown its old stages both in its physical presence and sound.

Bridging the gap between highly anticipated awards contenders and the best of local cinema, the newly launched North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF) became the go-to festival for Dallas film buffs. Festival audiences got the chance to watch early previews of some of the fall's most acclaimed films launched at international festivals, including Marriage Story, The Two Popes, Clemency and Dolemite Is My Name while also getting a slice of local cinema thanks to NTXFF's "Best of DIFF (Dallas International Film Festival)" short films and feature presentations. Throw in a full-on red carpet, themed events, selected guests and a select series of classic films that included Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Friday Night Lights, and NTXFF became an exciting new hub for Dallas cinephiles in pre-pandemic times.

Although she'd made a name for herself in the past few years with limited roles in projects such as Justified, The Front Runner, and Beautiful Boy, Dallas-raised star Kaitlyn Dever announced herself as one of the most exciting young talents with not one, but two critically acclaimed performances. The 23-year-old star wowed with her performance as the anxious high school senior Amy in the crowd-pleasingly progressive comedy Booksmart, and also received a Golden Globe nomination for her role as the victim of a sexual assault in the Netflix series Unbelievable. Dever's hype train won't be slowing down anytime soon as she will next be seen in the Hulu horror anthology series Monsterland and the highly anticipated film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen.

BEST REALITY STAR

It takes a lot of work to keep up with Kathryn Dunn, former Dallas Mavericks dancer and beauty pageant queen turned reality TV star. Dunn competed on CBS' 21st season of Big Brother, and even though she didn't take home the money, she did earn a reputation as a "conspiring bitch." Since the show ended, she has gone on to launch a podcast, YouTube channel, clothing line and still kept people interested in her love life. (She ditched her Big Brother co-star for a fellow Dallasite, Bachelor blogger Reality Steve.) Her tweets about who she's stanning in the Big Brother All-Stars house now keeps everyone on their toes. Even though she could have left her hometown and headed to Hollywood, Dunn stayed in Dallas and keeps conspiring away.

BEST LGBTQ+ BAR
Courtesy Alexandre's

Before the pandemic, Alexandre's had been known for offering platforms for local actors, singers and performers. Owner Lee Daugherty has also been quite vocal on his political stances and encouraged healthy conversation in his bar. Since the bar and restaurant closures, Daugherty organized a crowdfund to support his employees. In addition to creating a safe environment for queer and trans people, Daugherty remains ardent about human rights. He attended several protests in support of Black Lives Matter this summer and was even detained for one night. Even outside of work, Daugherty embodies Alexandre's values.

BEST MARQUEE
Mike Brooks

The historic Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff is an indisputable source of pride for the city; it has survived fires, decades of inactivity and changes in ownership — and now, 2020. Besides having one of the best sounding rooms and some of the best live music programming, the venue has remained a class act throughout the pandemic. Owner Edwin Cabaniss was instrumental in the fight for the Save Our Stages Act introduced in late July, which could mean billions in relief to independent venues. The staff also entertained the neighborhood using the theater's marquee to spell out uplifting messages and educated us through song recommendations with a song of the day. Even with the curtains drawn, The Kessler refused to leave music-starved audiences to their own devices and directed us to Iggy Pop, Soundgarden and even Miley Cyrus' latest SNL performance.

Perhaps one could say that Netflix reality series The Circle predicted we'd be stuck in quarantine for an indefinite amount of time. Upon the show's premiere this past January, Dallas-native Chris Sapphire became a fan favorite, offering gems of advice for people to maintain inner peace and high self-esteem. One of his most notable one-liners on the series refers to being patient with others and yourself as you continue to grow through life. Perhaps we should all live by the motto "don't rush a cake, let it bake." While there's no telling when this pandemic will be over, we should all channel the spirit of Chris Sapphire and remember, "tomorrow's a brand new day to slay."

Dallas native TikToker Nakia Smith, better known as @caunsia, is a deaf TikTok user creating educational and humorous content for more than 374,000 followers. Smith posts daily sign language lessons and educates hearing people on issues deaf people face. She also occasionally takes requests from the comments and educates people on how to sign certain phrases and expressions. In the time of COVID-19, it is important now more than ever that hearing people try to learn how to sign so they can communicate with deaf people without having to lower their masks and have them read lips.

Independent radio has enough challenges for its survival in this day of personalized audio content and homogenized media. Now add a tornado that wrecked their studio and offices into the mix. That's what KNON 89.3 FM faced last year, but it didn't keep them off the airwaves. The locally produced and funded radio station didn't come back. They never left. The staff stayed strong and kept their station on the air even when the entire operation had to be moved several times before and after the tornado. The station delivers an eclectic mix of independent music across every genre that gets zero airplay elsewhere on shows like the blues and soul morning show Grown Folks Music and the weekly reggae program The Friday Night Caribbean Party.

This past year has been one of the worst on record for comedy clubs. The COVID-19 outbreak almost brought live theater of all kinds to a complete standstill. Some moved online. Others went away completely. The nonprofit comedy collective at Stomping Ground also had to pivot, but they've continued to provide the kind of unique opportunities to performers and amateurs at a time when it's most needed. The club started the year off with its unique branded mix of traditional and experimental comedy that included theater performances like playwright Matt Cox's Harry Potter parody Puffs, original sketch and stand up and improv by groups like Irregular Nonsense. The club still finds unique ways to deliver new and interesting shows and classes. The theater offered streaming comedy shows over platforms like Zoom and held socially distanced improv shows and classes in the parking lot.

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