Leave it to Tucson to continue releasing music as the rest of the world is upended. They say difficulty breeds greatness, and if that's true, Tucson's music must have received an extra helping of greatness on top of a generally stellar output. For each lonesome pandemic song this year, there were as many resilient and imaginative tracks refusing to be stamped out. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with local music that we simply couldn't keep up with every album released this year, but some were destined to rise through the ranks. So here are 12 local albums, in no particular order, that made 2020 bearable—and more than that, proved Tucson can stay productive and creative no matter the circumstance.
For her latest release, genre-hopping songwriter Katie Haverly examines what "matter" means, both that which occupies space, and what it means to matter. But this is more than a context for the album; it's a structure. The songs are impressionistic in their construction, making room for Haverly to linger on affecting lines, pausing on particular piano notes, introducing a soaring guitar line out of the blue, jumping between genres on a dime. She shows this right from the opener, "Zero Null Mono One," where Haverly delivers stuttering vocals like a jazz line, packing multiple instrumental ideas into a minute and a half. "Whir" is a standout, comparing and personifying the cool and heat of Tucson days, shifting from near silence to blistering crescendos. But this imaginative songwriting and technical prowess doesn't detract from Haverly's passionate, introspective stories, which fit comfortably into each and every song. Matter is one of the best albums out of Tucson in recent memory.
Scale & Feather
The Vermilion Flycatcher
This year's quarantine inspired a wide range of brooding and lonely tunes, and while Scale & Feather's EP Chasms fits that bill, his follow-up album The Vermilion Flycatcher expresses our ability to move on from such desolation. Inspired by the continued stillness of nature during such a hectic year, the album is an instrumental diary ranging from ambient music to rock. Multi-instrumentalist Curtis Rockhold writes how he felt he was being pulled in two directions by this year, and shows this with songs jumping from passionate guitar lines and aggressive drumming to quiet piano melodies. It's rare to hear drones so glistening and warm—reflecting the Sonoran Desert with tracks like "Watch The Seedlings Grow"—but the post-rock passages show The Vermilion Flycatcher houses more than simple pleasance.
Loneliness Is Not Just A Feeling, It's A Place
In his effort to represent the artistic landscape of Tucson through music, Johnny RUBiX forges ahead by looking to the past. Loneliness Is Not Just A Feeling, It's A Place is a retro-inspired collection of tracks with a late-night palette, vibrant synthesizers, and some serious production chops. Whether he's fusing elements of hip-hop, alternative rock or synth pop, RUBiX does so with a neon sheen. RUBiX also serves as a commanding and humorous vocalist, with the line "We could be heroin kingpins / Get a house out in Kingman" on the hypnotic "You And I Should Commit Tax Fraud" being one of the best lines in any local album this year. But even with the endless one-liners and reverbed hooks, the tracks can reach surprising emotional depth. On "Summer Is Over" RUBiX describes how he's "Trying to keep it together for the Family" over a hushed, futuristic instrumental. All of these hazy, groovy elements easily make Loneliness Is Not Just A Feeling, It's A Place one of the best local pop albums of the year.
Just Najima is a fitting artist name, because she doesn't need anything more than herself to make powerful music. Queenie is a soul album with Southwestern flair, indicated by Najima's cactus crown on the cover art. But more than that, Queenie is a showcase of Najima's vocals and personal reflections. The album details traditional R&B/soul themes like love and keepin' on, but also adds a sense of urgency and protest on modern woes like police killings and religious hypocrisy in the face of refugees. The guitar and drums are funky and engaging, but a capella tracks like "Talkin' Bout Jesus" prove Najima's voice alone is worth the price of admission. In a previous interview with the Tucson Weekly, Najima describes how the album "goes on that journey from carefree to dark and disaffected. But it ends on a bittersweet note of resilience and resistance." Preach.
Things That Aren't Words
Indie group Things That Aren't Words has laid low for a while, but Different Tomorrow makes up for lost time with a collection of songs rich in melody, passion and pleasance. The band blurs the lines between folk and pop into a gorgeous, bright method of delivering close harmonies. Because the songwriting is so consistent throughout the album, your favorite cut likely depends on which lyrical themes interest you most. For a band called Things That Aren't Words, their concepts and stories certainly take center stage, sometimes even warranting a relisten just for specific lines, like on the track "Everything is Holy" where the band sings "Do you believe that everything has meaning? / That it's your place to know the hidden cause? / Examine and dissect until you've made it something less so you can justify the things that you've been taught." The singer/songwriter tradition channels greatly.
For a person who makes such peaceful music, Steve Roach sure keeps busy. One of multiple records he released this year, Tomorrow is a surprisingly kinetic release from a musician dubbed a pioneer of ambient music. Exploring what Roach describes as "elegant futurism," the album consists of expansive, layered meditations. Unlike much of his previous work, staccato notes are in place of smoothed-out synth tones, creating a work both busy and soothing. Tomorrow combines the complex, German electronic music of the 1970s with a spiritual, New Age atmosphere. It's a successful style for Roach, which is sure to please both ambient lovers and those who like their electronic music a bit more rhythmic and upfront. But don't go into this album looking for background music; it's far too mesmerizing for that.
Local music is surprisingly diverse, but sometimes an album out of the desert does feel like you're melting into the sun, and that's okay. Grant Beyschau of The Myrrors debuted his new project with Wooden Flower, a massive, psychedelic album mostly comprising only two tracks. Landing somewhere between the hypnotic rhythms of Can and the sheer weight of Sleep, the monolithic jams stack on layer after layer of instrumentation. There are two shorter tracks that act more as droning reprieves, but the stars of the show are the 10+-minute grooves. Though the album is heavy and dense, it comes out surprisingly meditative, like a sweat lodge.
Polychromatic Transmission is a deeply metaphysical album, but you might not notice that on your first listen. Much like the desert landscape itself, Stuart Oliver and company's second album hides a wealth of mystery and psychedelia beneath a warm, pastoral exterior. Polychromatic Transmission stands out because it initially serves as a successful borderlands folk album, but the further you listen, the more you pick up details of the existential, UFOs and the paranormal. Described as a "psychedelic folk symphony" about transcendence, the album manages to fit a variety of instruments like violins, flutes and an array of vocals into a traditional framing. Polychromatic Transmission serves as a love letter to the desert—that magical, grounded land where the veils run thin.
Bitter Flower opens with a song about a dwarf set to a colorful, energetic indie rock backing, and dives deeper as it moves along. But Droll needn't be simple to be engaging. With wild dynamics, searing guitar solos, fragmented song structures and buried vocals, it's a whirling, fuzzy and brief album. Bitter Flower perfectly captures the melodic sensibilities, the energy, the distorted dreaminess, the FUN of '90s rock. Brandon Olander, James Turner, Joshua Every and Ricky Tutaan succeeded in creating their "sweeping mosaic" of rock styles. It's noisy, nostalgic, in-your-face yet out-there rock music to be played in a stifling garage.
The Tucson Vibe
While not a new album in the traditional sense, The Tucson Vibe definitely deserves a mention for delivering us a reminder of the diversity and ability of local music in a year when live shows were sadly scarce. The Tucson Vibe was released with a book detailing the venues and bands crucial to the downtown and Fourth Avenue music scene, but even on its own, the album serves as a kind of virtual walk through the streets of Tucson. We accept nothing can comprehensively capture Tucson music, but this local collection does a fine job, featuring Hank Topless, Leila Lopez, Gabriel Naim Amor, Little Cloud, Miss Olivia & The Interlopers and more. Whether you're looking for R&B, country, psychedelic jams or that ol' reliable desert/borderlands folk sound, The Tucson Vibe is a good jumping off point.
The instrumentals on Heavy Petals are relatively simple, with mechanical drum beats and fuzzed-out guitar, but a listener wouldn't need it any other way with Emmy Wildwood on the microphone. She serves multiple roles, jumping between deadpan delivery, sentimental melodies, snarkiness and outright anger. Wildwood moved from New York to Tucson in 2018, quickly being influenced by our city's "contagious lo fi spirit." She straddles both styles, with big city glam and the warm lethargy of the desert combining for surprising emotional impact. If you're having troubles, Heavy Petals will get you through, or at least show you how to dance on top of them.
Orkesta Mendoza's Curandero was described in these pages earlier this year as "chock-full of upbeat Latin rhythms and topped off with light-hearted lyrics about paletas, lazy mornings, and the girl next door who becomes Instagram famous." Bandleader Sergio Mendoza—who also performs with Calexico and Devotchka—drew from Latin American influences such Brazilian forró, cumbia and good old-fashioned American boogaloo. The result is a mash-up of styles that will keep you dancing through the pandemic. As Mendoza said, the album was "based around boogaloo, but really, it was just an excuse to rock out." Please keep rocking out for us in the new year, Sergio.