One day, when we look back on the unholy year that has been 2000 and 10 times two, the cataloguing of unbearable tragedies, atrocities, and absolute insanities that we’ve all somehow endured this year will read more like CliffsNotes exposition from a clichéd dystopian young adult novel rather than actual historical text. Sadly, in real life, there appears to be no precocious yet aloof and mysterious female lead armed with elite and useful skills to lead us out of pending Armageddon anywhere on the horizon.
In a dark era defined by a once-in-a-century international health crisis complete with the predictable disastrous economic fallout exacerbated by a half-century of ineffectual Norquistian governmental philosophy, we’re forced to cherish what few bright spots occasionally peek from behind the toxic clouds. Through it all, one such candle in the dark has been just how prolific local musicians have continued to be and doing so in the face of such extraordinary adversity.
In the spring, when lockdowns began, many music creators were robbed of their way of earning a living. Whether they were working musicians used to paying their bills from door receipts or those sustained via the service industry, a large segment of artists lost their income altogether. Many are just now beginning to find work again. Others are still searching. Despite all that, their real work has never stopped. In a twist of irony, the “freedom” from having to punch a clock allowed artists so much more time to punch the “record” button instead. No matter what type of tuneage you prefer to rattle your earbuds, local musos have continued to deliver the goods throughout. Here’s a (strictly noncomprehensive) look back on some of our favorite rays of light that penetrated our personal darknesses. We think you should cherish them — like we do — with all the zeal of a Gollum hoarding a precious ring.
Singer-songwriters of all stripes were ready to inoculate our eardrums with freshly tuned antibody vibes to cure our COVID blues. Locals who’ve gone national still repped their roots in the 817 well. Hometown alt-country star Vincent Neil Emerson further broadened his fanbase out of state by riding a pair of singles to follow last year’s celebrated Fried Chicken and Evil Women. He was featured in a virtual concert performance to tribute the late John Prine slotted alongside gigantic names like Jason Isbell and Margot Price.
Winner of the Sounds of Resilience grant — a government-funded commission meant to benefit artists struggling during the pandemic — Joe Savage continued the climb he’s begun in recent years. A series of singles helped solidify him as the closest thing our town has to The Man in Black. Nashville transplant Van Darien graced our front page this year when she released Levee. The debut full-length mixes folk-style songwriting with experimental pop and a dreamy indie guitar sound, creating an engaging and intimate texture. Garrett Owen released his sophomore album, Quiet Lives, with producer and contributor Taylor Tatsch (Shadows of Jets, Cut Throat Finches). Folk songstress Jaimee Harris helped with backing vocals while Polydogs captain Matt Tedder tore off a few fiery solos to raise the temperature on Owen’s sweet, soothing sound.
Folk/gospel songbird Summer Lane Emerson (little sis to aforementioned VNE) helped us fight through pandemic-induced depression by openly describing her own struggles with the same. She said she was able to overcome them through a series of singles. Emerson’s bright and hopeful lyrics, sweetened by her warm, molassesy vocal tone, have us in high anticipation for her debut album, Redbird, due out next year.
While we were all in lockdown, Spoonfed Tribe alum and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Katsük tried his best to get us out of the house, at least in our imaginations. The album Commissions & Recommissions, Vol. 1. plays out a spiritual adventure inspired by the artist’s adventuring in New Zealand. It chronicles his time busking at the island’s hot spots and gigging in the country’s foreign streets. Pianist and vocalist Ashley VanArsdel’s latest solo EP describes a life spent performing in lost but not forgotten venues like The Grotto. The self-titled four-song reads as a tender ode to Ghosts of Live Shows Past. Songs like “When the Bill Comes Due” and “Get Back Up” seem to embrace the loss and thereby recover from some of the grief over the hole created by the absence of local nightlife, a particularly poignant theme for these times.
Spiritual synth-pop siren Gollay’s latest tracks from her May release, Narrow Bridge, shined a devotional light on these days. “Dayenu,” a Passover song, showcases Gollay’s understated but no less influencing faith. The two-track EP follows her celebrated 2019 album Override.
Social distancing seemed an appropriate motif to explore with the haunting stylings of Cody Lynn Boyd. Known for his characteristically dark and dramatic story songs, his latest, the single “I Want You Near,” has a more hopeful tone than what’s expected of him. Similarly, darkfolk singer/composer Clint Niosi is also known for diving deep into moody musics. His latest album, Panorama Avenue, was released earlier this month and is composed of eight COVID-inspired tracks attempting to partially heal the wounds so many have suffered from lost gigs and canceled tours.
One of Cowtown’s most fecund songwriters, Cameron Smith certainly didn’t let lockdown stifle his songcraft. He recently dropped “Can’t Even Pretend,” the third single from the much-awaited sophomore album from Sur Duda, the vehicle he’s used for “full band” solo material since the dissolution of his former group, garage-punk darlings War Party, two years ago. He and his wife, Stevie Smith, also released a beautiful cover of Elliott Smith’s “Angeles,” the first from a potential “The Smiths Covering the Smiths” album (Elliott Smith, The Smiths, Mark E. Smith, and more) recorded together during lockdown. These, and a pair of other projects our Smith has been working on, are nearing completion.
Acid rock enthusiasts got plenty to microdose with by releases from the young and old(er) alike. Newcomers Siamese Hips introduced their first single, “Analysis Paralysis,” while acid rock pioneer Johndavid Bartlett finally saw his anticipated collaboration with the youthful Acid Carousel, In Your Dreams, pressed in wax and consequently our free-floating subconscious.
Denver Williams, frontman for the experimental and gnarly psych-rock group Chillamundo, released his debut solo album late last year. This spring, he recorded and released a live session of those songs. The resulting River Song was filmed at Cloudland Studios right as the pandemic hit. It’s a great document of Williams’ clever lyrical turns and his deceptively intricate guitar playing.
More great news for champions of the great six-stringed instrument: Former Oil Boom frontman Ryan Taylor joined forces with members of The Orbans to form Yeah Huh, which released a three-song EP of smart and hookie guitar-centric rock just last month. For those who might prefer plastic keys to steel strings, synth-poppers Vogue Machine managed a trio of singles featuring their danceable, infectious electroclash.
If you like it darker, longtime scene guitarist Brock Miller (Andy Pickett, Big Heaven) has a brand-new gothy throwback project called The Nova Blak. The duo released an EP of delectably moody darkwave called Near Dark, which proves that while Bela Lugosi might be dead, contemporary goth-inspired music is alive and well. Industrial durge-rockers All Clean also debuted an EP of frontman Zack Edwards’ signature angular, suspenseful sound. Their long-awaited proper debut LP has been pushed back (again) for pandemic-related reasons.
If you like it fast and loud, Fort Worth punk saw a banner year with a new EP from the Black Flag-ian Phorids as well as debuts from noise rockers Hoaries and emo-core purveyors Unspell. And you can cap all that with the unexpected return of 817 hardcore pioneers Garuda. They surprisingly resurfaced with Immemorial, their first new music in nearly 18 years.
The year Twenny-Twenny continued to prove that Panther City’s hip-hop scene remains the most underappreciated of its culture creation centers. But, thankfully, that’s starting to change. Philosophical rhyme mason Clay Perry achieved a viral level of impressions with his burn and turn anthem “Roll and Ride,” which has garnered literally millions of views. Todd Faroe claimed his throne with a pair of highly streamed singles in “Heavy Crown” and “Smile.” Lou CharLe$ offered several potential answers to his signature catchphrase “Who is Lou?” by dropping a jaw-dropping nine (!) singles this year.
Twenty-Twenty was also a year of deep collaborations. Fort Worth’s resident hip-hop guru Wrex teamed up with veteran MC Dru B’ Shinin’ for the buzz-heavy Bruceleeroy joint. The blaxploitation B-movie Last Dragon-inspired affair was well worth the wait. Another stellar collab was between this town’s undisputed beating heart of emotional and inspirational hip-hop, Tornup, and unsung lo-fi beatmaker BLKrKRT. Their single, “Atatiana,” about the murder of Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of Fort Worth police, is the sort of stirring stuff that movements are built from.
Add to all of this that we were also graced with material from solo artists like Tommy Luke, Ryker Hall, Ayden Trammell, and Matthew McNeal. We were also fortunate enough to catch new songs from Yoyko, Retrophonics, and ALG. Toss in new rock from Polydogs, Son of Stan, Josh & The Jet Noise, Bruce Magnus, and Siberian Traps to name but a few, and despite the pain, 2020 has had plenty of musical salves. While we all sat like that dog at a table surrounded by fire and collectively resigned ourselves to “This is fine,” it kinda really was fine. At least we had some great music to keep us company.