A recap of 2020 is unnecessary for this article. We all know what kind of year it was. Its upside was the incredible amount of good music that made its way to the ears of a world that needed to hear it - perhaps more than at any other time in recent history. Plenty more was made, despite the circumstances and the near-total lack of legitimate live shows. Most heartening of all, much more amazing music is to come. Those who survive the plague years with the will and ability to create will bring to the world music of an intensity not known since the advent of commercial sound recording.
In the meantime, we have these quality releases to tide us over. Obviously, my own preference for guitar-based rock music has colored this list. Suggestions for vital listening of any genre may be sent to the e-mail address at the end of the article.
Bailjack is four sad dudes from the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland whose music isn't just a vehicle – it's a bond of brotherhood. Their sound is classic, but not derivative, heavy rock, rich with guitar interplay that extends the songs into ecstatic, soulful rave-ups. They're not flashy – they're communicating through their instruments, with the kind of telepathy most bands can only envy. It's the result of uncommon friendship and total dedication to making music together, with no thought given to any pretense of "making it." Spring is Bailjack's second album, my favorite album of 2020, and the first proper sonic representation of their heartworn and joyful celebrations and lamentations of life, love, and nature. At last their huge, warm, rising sound can be heard on the other side of the Appalachians.
Faith in Jane, Mother to Earth
Hailed by The Obelisk's JJ Koczan as "Maryland's best-kept secret in heavy rock," Faith in Jane come from the same stretch of the Appalachians as Bailjack, with whom they share a van, a drummer, and many a show. Their influences are a bit more obvious and stated – chiefly Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Grateful Dead. The trio is best experienced as a live band – without hyperbole the best I've ever seen. Fortunately, their heavy, acid-fried Southern rock, delivered with a modern bottom-heavy detuned rumble inspired by the Maryland doom-metal scene that spawned them, has finally been done justice on Mother to Earth. Earthy, whiskey-fueled Southern-rock riffs are garnished with impressive flourishes of liquid lead work, with honest, soul-searching, and cosmic lyrical musings hanging in the air like a celestial crown as the fire of the music burns on. Many bands try to tackle '70s-style hard rock, but none possess the tightness of Faith in Jane, a tightness born of their lifelong friendship as well as tireless gigging and jamming. This band could be huge given the right opportunity, especially considering the awesome power of their jaw-dropping improvisations. The curious can find some of these the first four volumes of Trippin' After Supper, an "official bootleg" series available on their Bandcamp page; more volumes will be added continuously from the nearly bottomless gold mine of their archives.
Condor & Jaybird, The Glory
Progressive, psychedelicized pop-rock from the youth of the QC's favorite band. This catchy yet sophisticated culmination of their apocalyptic vision had an eerily timed release (a fateful Friday, March 13th), yet this only emphasizes their message: It's the changing of an era, but there's no reason to fear. The Glory is my favorite local album of 2020.
aqualife, Admiral in Distress
Disorienting, inaccessible and highly original bizarro-prog masterpiece laced with odd humor and references to King of the Hill and Frasier. I attempted a more creative description of this dense, short album's contents back in May, but it's best to let the music speak for itself.
Pit Lord, Seasonings in the Abyss
QC metal lifers combine their twin loves of barbecuing and death metal into one sidesplitting package. The songs are metal in-jokes but the music is no joke at all – it's a smoking slab of fun yet brutal riffage crafted by seasoned metal chefs. This band could and should be huge.
Giallows, Almost Alive at Factory of Fear
QC horror-rock chameleons score the perfect gig – providing a live soundtrack at a Moline haunted attraction – then record everything and cherry-pick the best bits for their most realized and representative offering to date. Perhaps the most unique band in the QC area.
The Davenport trio's full-length debut is typical stoner sludge in all the best possible ways. The fuzzed-out riffs and doomed grooves are dark and sticky as a used tin-foil pipe, laid down by players who tune low and play slow because they dig it, not 'cuz they lack the chops.
Havukruunu, Uinuos Syömein Sota
The third album by this Finnish black-metal band is as wild and lonely as a Scandinavian forest. Paganized Marshall inversions of classic metal riffs, astounding drumming, and vocals that alternate between roars and chants carry forth the driving music with the intensity of a death march. But the battle to be fought is internal, as the English translation of the album's title reveals: Languish, Thy War of My Heart. Never have I heard "inner turmoil and woe and worry of life" expressed with such feral yet melodic intensity.
New Standards Men, I Was a Starship
Hypnotic, slo-burn groove from two "lapsed Iowans" plus Midwestern friends. A transcendent blurring of drone, space rock, and doom, moving as slow and steady as a deep-spacecraft on autopilot. The title's goof on the Highwaymen song somehow sums it all up perfectly.
Narcos Family Band, Satan's Favorites
They coulda been a weak stoner-metal band or another faceless punk mess. Instead, they added keys and sax and morphed into a glorious Philthadelphia rock 'n' roll racket. Real blood, real pain, and when they sing "I'm ready to die!" you know it ain't a pose.
The B&O Railroad, Wood & Vine & Stream & Sky
The acoustic, down-home side of Bailjack, plus banjo. The quintet spins original folk songs about the past (shoveling coal, gunfights, the Depression) while reflecting the present with bittersweet would-be love songs and the fluid, righteous anchor of an electric upright bass.
Regular Size Wayne, DAN
Foul-mouthed, smart-assed hip-hop, alternately filthy and woke, slamming haters, ignorant locals, and the greed-head rulers of Davenport. Key tracks: a first-person account of the invasion of Earth by lazy stoner aliens who stuck around afterward, and a libelous eight-minute invective against an innocent bandmate.
The retro thing was tapped out years ago, but don't bother telling this dirty Philly three-piece. They'll laugh you outta the room without missing a beat of their drunken boogie rock. They take this thing so un-seriously that the Bandcamp download price for D.E.B.U.T. is still $77, an apparent typo that they don't care enough to fix. Fortunately and fittingly, their circa-1970 blooze blast is coming on vinyl this year.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, K.G.
I've never gotten into this absurdly prolific psych-rock phenomenon. Maybe I hadn't sampled enough albums, or maybe this wildly popular group of Aussie musical eccentrics has finally hit the right mixture for this pop-phobic doomer. K.G. brings together Eastern microtonal melodies, Krautrock, and good ol' rock; it's hooky, but in just a weird-enough way to click.
Fer de Lance, Fer de Lance
Murky, acoustic-guitar-laden metal drawing from literature, nature, mythology, and history to create four mist-shoruded songs that would make Dio proud. "Epic" is the only description for this Chicago band's debut.
Daughter Chaos, Daughter Chaos
Pummeling melodic death metal delivered with dazzling skill, providing the heaviest possible soundtrack to frontwoman Sara Claudius' fearsome invocations of the shadowy interstellar origins of the human race.
Extermination Day, If Ingested, Consult a Mortician
Catchy, high-energy rock 'n' roll poised on the tip of a three-sided blade where punk, metal, and classic rock come together. Recommended for fans of the Stooges and Motörhead.
Smoulder, Dream Quest Ends
Anthemic classic metal meets doom trudge with powerful female vocals soaring overhead. The Manilla Road cover is a daunting propostion, yet the band tackles it with gusto.
The Population, "Sacrifice/Anthropocene-Anthropocide"
Two veteran Swederockers join forces for two tracks of disgruntled retro-rock, pumped up with modern anger. Where else will you find a song combining feral MC5 garage clang with an ultimatum to kill the rich?
Melodic QC instrumental shred-prog trio lays out a debut EP that's lush and listenable yet heavy enough to satisfy a metal-head's taste; your mom might like it. The short songs display each member's chops without becoming indulgent or showing off.
Loren Thacher is a writer and musician based in northwest Illinois. He also hosts Freewheelin', a Tuesday- and Friday-night radio show airing at 10 p.m. locally on 107.7 FM (WQUD Vintage Radio in Erie, Illinois). Correspondence, recommendations, and music submissions can be sent to the author at Lthacher13@gmail.com.