Top five 2018: A look back on Iowa music

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Music reviewer Kent Williams offers his top Iowa albums of 2018.

2018 has been a trial, as we’ve watched the country succumb to the increasingly outlandish and horrible thrashing in the mud of President Tony Clifton. People have said that great music comes out of dire political times, but I hate that idea. Great music happens all the time, and the last thing I want to do is give any credit to the craven dirtbags currently in power. Making great music is a personal, inward-focusing task. Political art is powerful, and the resistance of artists is crucial. But the things artists resist are their subjects, not their inspiration.

There are several records by local artists that richly deserve all the positive attention they have garnered this year. Will Whitmore’s transcendent album of cover songs Kilonova and Younger’s Night Milk get plenty of love. Elizabeth Moen makes another huge splash with A Million Miles Away. BStar’s eponymous debut (that Little Village released on vinyl) was dramatic and elegant. And on Slouching Towards Tomorrow Anthony Worden perfects his revisionist cool dude persona by losing his cool in the best possible way.

For my top five I’d like to take the road less traveled. As good as the artists above are, they’re the big, obvious choices. My top five play to smaller crowds than the aforementioned and have zero budget for promotional campaigns. They work day jobs and fit their music-making in when they can. They are every bit as engaging as the more popular artists, but you might have to step a little closer to hear what makes them awesome.

Ben Driscoll: Earthly Remains

Little Village review
Ben Driscoll, who the Cedar Rapids Gazette once described (a bit prematurely) as a “former musician” puts the same care into songwriting and performance that he does into his cabinet making business. Music and carpentry are crafts as well as arts, and Driscoll’s roots-rock ballads give you some of the same sensual joy as a well-fitting miter joint. My favorite track on Earthly Remains is “Thousand Dollar Man,” a casual, off-handed epic about the modest life.

New Standards Men: People Wonder

Little Village review
Colorado-based New Standards Men have deep roots in Iowa, and frequently record at Flat Black Studio outside Iowa City. Are they post-rock, or is this the rock of the future? They’re a guitar/bass/drums instrumental group, and work with a very restricted sound palette compared to the currently fashionable, “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” pop music. But their trance-inducing, slow-burning songs stick with you in a way that the pop song you heard last week by what’s-her-name never will.

Hot Tang: Mostly Mallards

Hot Tang is fronted by Megan Buick, who croons incredibly chill songs dedicated to friends and pets. Mostly Mallards reminds me of Yo La Tengo and Luna, but the calm that suffuses Hot Tang music can be unsettling. All that politeness and normality seems to imply something raging and chaotic beneath the surface, barely contained. Even though Buick can lapse into an unblinking thousand-yard stare to rival Henry Rollins when she plays live, I’m almost convinced she and her musical partner, Anna Khan, really are that friendly and well-adjusted. Almost.

Curt Oren: For Sam Forever Ago

Curt Oren is best known for his gonzo circular-breathing baritone sax performances, a style pioneered by Colin Stetson. For Sam Forever Ago is Oren stepping out of Stetson’s shadow and exploring different sounds and compositional styles. The elegiac “Man Made Hate” has a beautifully tragic melody, performed by a horn ensemble. Other tracks take unusual paths through sonic landscapes, full of fragments of conversation and cut-up samples of Oren’s saxophone. Ever the joker — his live sets are punctuated with humorous monologues — he’s serious about music, and For Sam Forever Ago has the depth that comes from absolute dedication.

In the Mouth of Radness: Radsterpiece Theatre

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In the Mouth of Radness are a hard-edged drum and bass duo — like Iowa City’s long time metal duo Acoustic Guillotine — who manage to sound thrash metal and art rock at the same time. Where Acoustic Guillotine has a swaying, almost jazzy feel to their noise, In the Mouth of Radness is relentless and frantic. Radsterpiece Theatre has all of the energy of Kill ‘Em All era Metallica, but stripped down to the bare essentials, like a dragster. You can almost see the smoking tires and flaming pipes on this band. On his black, barbed throne in heaven, Lemmy Kilmister is smiling down on these two.

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  1. Thanks for the great review, Kent. We got to share a gig with Hot Tang and I agree… they are something special. Earthly Remains has a lot of fantastic Iowa musicians including Brooks and Landon Strause, Cody Brown, Pete Balestrieri, Randall Davis, and Nicole Upchurch. All we need now is a band name.

  2. Another Iowan also had a great year. Andrew Reed from Winthrop, Iowa had two songs that each spent numerous weeks at #1 on the Indie charts. Each of these two songs also hit in the Billboard Top 40 chart. The album, If All the World Were Right, was quite successful. Andrew has a recording studio near Asheville/Hendersonville, NC.

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