It goes without saying that, so far, the “roaring” in this century’s version of the Roaring ’20s seems to be in reference to the sound of the raging fire in our collective dumpster. It’s been another energy-vaporizing year of social estrangement, widening political divides, and comfortable, middle-class living slipping out of more and more hands. One bright argentum band to be found in the cumulonimbus of the last year, however, has been in the prolificacy it has afforded musicians. Whether because they were inspired by the enormity of world events or simply because they had nothing else to do, local artists have been cranking out new music at unprecedented (there’s that word again) levels, and we, the melody-insatiable masses of the 817, have been the lucky beneficiaries. Whether your musical DoC is laid-back boom-bap, stirring songwriters pouring their hearts into ethereal ballads, or black light-posterized, phar-out psychedelia, our fair burg has been home to a surplus of quality tuneage in the last 12 months.
One artist perhaps leading the prolificacy pack is Cameron Smith. On the heels of the beautiful medieval ballad-esque single “There Is a Price,” last month saw the release of Total Distortion, the second album by Sur Duda — the full-band vehicle for Smith’s signature smart, self-reflective songwriting. It was a long time coming for the series of infectious tracks that expertly blend folk and indie pop, but the end result was well worth the wait.
After being picked up by Ben Harper’s Mad Bunny imprint, the hometown band perhaps above any other that deserves national attention might just finally be getting it. The resultant album, Riders in the Stardust Gold, has plenty of both stardust and gold. The inveterate songwriting duo of Burette and Gabrielle Douglas are at the top of their game, and the rest of the country is at long last taking notice.
Pianist Katie Robertson and multi-instrumentalist Jen Rux started Genini as a stoner-y hangout session that turned into one of the best recordings this year. The two tracks released this year — “Red Sun Encounter” and “C Loop” — offer meandering, hazy, Casio keyboard runs over analog drum loops, over which Robertson’s dream-like vocals seem to float like a guardian angel. Both tracks clock in at over 10 minutes, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to leave the house without any place to be, they make a perfect soundtrack for getting lost on purpose.
With their love letter to the late Denton artist Nevada Hill, Chris Plavidal (Stumptone, Centro-matic) and Steven Lawrie (The Telescopes) forged Storms at Sea and provided a perfect ethereal soundtrack to back a soul’s departure to the other side with their 7-inch release of “Until the End”/“O Death.”
Recording engineer Peter Weirenga (Siberian Traps) contributed to a ton of great music to come out of the 817 this past year, beginning with his own solo project, Pete and the Crying Teeth. His debut EP, Capitalist Jesus, recalls the art rock of Peter Gabriel and the indie-tinged alternative pop of Beck and provides tracks that are appropriate for vibing as much as they are trippy and interesting.
One Wierenga project is that by former Chillamundo frontman Denver Williams. He’s made quite a statement with his latest album, The Blooming Eye. The tracks show Williams at his brainy and imaginative best.
Weirenga also played a role in helping two of the Fort’s most underappreciated hip-hop artists join forces this past year. That’s when Tornup, who has a voice like thunder and a thought-provoking, socially conscious flow, teamed up with the king of sample-based boom-bap, Phil Ford, better known as the producer BLKrKRT. The collab spawned Hologram Zoo, Vol. 1: The Crypt, a horror-rap concept album about the exploitation of Black artists by greedy record company executives. Weirenga helmed the mixes. In addition, Ford also released six new installments of his Black Siddhartha series. Volumes IV-IX are made of a seemingly endless supply of languid Eastern-inspired beats that are perfect to sharpen that third eye and get centered to.
Keeping with that theme, regional/traditional music enthusiast April Bond gave us Shansen, eight Indian-inspired spiritual devotions that helped us all get more balanced within ourselves.
0. Deletron might approach the notion of “high art” with a wink and a healthy helping of irony, but its music is actually pretty serious, a meditation on middle age vis a vis the things you let go of after you turn 40. The art-rock collective’s main creative driver, known as “Flynn,” got a new job opportunity that required a full-time commitment to going back to school, and as a send-off, the band put out an album in four parts. Jeff, Vols. 1-4offers over two hours of gauzy ’90s-influenced slacker rock, which might sound intimidating until you slip into its sonics, which wrap around your brain like an old flannel shirt on a gray, windy day. (Full disclosure: Writer Higgins is a member.)
Instrumental post-rockers Driving Slow Motion followed up their excellent 2019 full-length Arda (and 2020 single “Nightfall”) with another slab of moody, cinematic soundscapes shaped by swirling guitars that swell and chime until they turn into walls of distorted, majestic gloom. The melodic themes move from emotional states ranging from slow-building anxiety to acceptance and even hope.
Last year, multi-instrumentalist Bobby Zanzucchi revived his old band Sleepy Atlantis as a recording project, revisiting old tunes and reshaping them into new sonic angles. The first single, “Strangest Place (Strangers Mix),” hits your heart with the ever-forward motion of its synth-heavy pop hook that recalls early-2000s favorites like the Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie, and it makes you eager to hear how he’s reimagined his other songs some 15 years later.
One of the more endearing projects to come out of extra pandemic-caused free time is Zombi and Friends. Featuring the synth-doom duo as well as members of Zao and Trans Am and with Pinkish Black’s Daron Beck on vocals, the series of ’70s and ’80s soft rock covers highlights just how great songs like Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” truly are.
Levi Ray broke through the pandemic malaise with the help of the five-track EP When the Sad Songs Make You Happy. With tracks like “Old Picture” and “Sun and Rain,” it shows that the imposing mountain-man physical presence that his soulful baritone presents is only necessary to house his gigantic heart.
Competing for Panther City’s crown for Most Fun Band, Phantomelo busted out with an EP of their sugary indie pop called Water Your Friends, Pt. 1, but it was September’s “Space Prom” that really reached the outer atmosphere. The earworm interplay between vocalist/guitarist Will Rakkar and bassist Panda Cuenca will have your booty moving with green men on the moon.
The other contender for Most Fun is likely Meach Pango. The brightly colored Adidas tracksuit-sporting quintet graced fans with the single “Wander.” A three-minute clinic in power-pumping rock and early-aughts emo, it shows all the energy the band is famous for in their live shows.
Veteran acid-rocker Johndavid Bartlett teamed up with his Dreamy Life Records labelmates Acid Carousel for the 11-track album In Your Dreams. Listeners can feel and practically see the colorful psychedelic noise as Bartlett’s wild, raspy voice leads the young Carousel gang of misfits up the 13th Floor Elevator.
Honkytonk heroine Summer Dean offered Bad Romantic, her debut full-length. Over the 11 boots-and-beer tracks, Dean tackles stereotypical gender roles, lost loves, and the wisdom that only comes with a few turns around the sun.
With Life Goes On, a body of work that rapper Lou Charle$ describes as “reflecting grief, mourning, and self-realization” after the loss of his father, has begun to answer the question posed in his famous tagline “Who is Lou?” The answer is one of the most thoughtful and emotionally provocative MCs in town.
Country songwriter Bubba Bellin put out a trio of singles this year, but it’s “Weather Out the Storm” that stands out for putting his love for both ’90s country hits and ’70s R&B gold on its sleeve. That might sound like two incongruent genres crammed into a single song, but Bellin’s groovy, funky guitar work elevates a pretty great tune into a really fun jam.
Shoegazers Trauma Ray began the year with a killer self-titled EP of their brand of shimmering, danceable rock. Angular, washed-out guitars and infectious melody easily pull the heartstrings, but the staggering wall of sound also yanks the head into banging as well.
Newcomer Hannah Owens dazzled us all with her moving and immersive Time Between. Expertly produced by Ryan Tharp (Red Shahan, Jake Robinson), the album was full oceanic synth textures carrying Owens’ seraphic voice as she blends a barely detectable country twang with beautiful pop.
Singer-songwriter Matthew McNeal and collaborator Andre Black grounded through the pandemic to come up with their nine-track album Along for the Ride. Their latest adaptation comes from ideas while on the road touring and as such offers a fitting accompaniment to empty U.S. straightaways with windows down and stereo up.
You can’t find any recordings by Cotinga online, but you can catch the chillaxing duo of vocalist Njia Martin and keyboardist/programmer Landon Cabarubio in concert at a Texas NPR affiliate’s studio on YouTube. The plan now is to get some of their soulful, sweet R&B committed to tape (or laptop) early next year.
Darrin Kobetich bends into his own wild and vibrant chords. Ever experimental, the guitarist especially leaned into different instrumentation on The Yucca Tapes. The intrepid tunes recall the near nomadic existence Kobetich lived while on a cross-country tour, camping out in his Toyota Tacoma that he lovingly calls his “Space Shuttle.”
Celestial L’amour hit the ground running coming out of the break caused by COVID lockdowns. With a sound that hints at Evanescence and Lacey Sturm, the group released four singles this year with “Knocking on the Door” the consensus favorite.
Country electronica music enthusiast (yes, that’s apparently a thing) and local cowboy G.W. Childs IV teamed with English record producer John Fryer (Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, Cocteau Twins) for his single “Tarrant County.” Imagine coming across a horse trailer on an endless freeway that houses a pair of Star Wars Stormtroopers who regale you with a tale of love, longing, and family.
Before she’s even turned 21 years old, Claire Hinkle has already released a full album and added a two-song EP this year. The bluesy rocker focuses on heartbreak and self-realization with “Empty Vessel” and her relentlessness in relationships in “Work for Hire.”