Depending on their disposition, your favorite local musician may or may not be letting you see them sweat. Rest assured, though, it’s happening. Just as vaccines were unveiled and it seemed safe to start booking late-summer shows, working musicians, venue owners and bar staff found themselves once again mired in quandaries both moral and financial. Should they cancel the dates they scheduled when things were looking less grim? How will they draw a lively crowd yet avoid making concerts into superspreader events? And now that all the safety nets like unemployment insurance and stimulus funds are gone, how do they make a living if they can’t perform? Those questions don’t have any tidy answers, or at least none were within sight when we went to press. Meanwhile, Arkansas musicians keep finding ways to create, and we all keep listening — maybe even with renewed reverence. Here are 32 releases from Arkansas-connected musicians that caught our ears thus far this year.
In this interview series, short for “What a Time 2 Be a Tribe,” rapper/thinker 607, aka Adrian Tillman, talks with gearheads, producers and other professionals about sound engineering tech and broader topics in the interest of, as he puts it, “bringing the sauce to the world, to make the world sound better.” With his rich bass voice and razor-sharp observations, Tillman is making this corner of the world sound pretty damn good.
Released on Drawing Room Records almost two decades after it was recorded, this nine-track time capsule is bouncy and frenetic, in part because there’s a ton of air and space between beats — a testament to the cohesion between creators Jeremy Brasher, Andrew Morgan and Lloyd Benjamin. It’s both smart and wholly danceable, and Lee Tesche’s crisp album art is a fitting package for an old record that feels prescient and new.
Bankroll Freddie, “Big Bank”
Helena-West Helena native Bankroll Freddie made his 2020 debut on formidable southern hip-hop label Quality Control, and the 26-year-old’s 2021 mission statement, “Big Bank,” features the likes of Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz and Megan Thee Stallion. Filmed on historic Cherry Street in downtown Helena, the video for “Add It Up” is equal parts fashion show, hometown tribute and tutorial on how to balance a bill counter machine on your car’s center console.
Bantunauts, “Compositions by Charles R”
DJ Charles Ray, who co-hosts with Bibi Mwamba the mighty Bantunauts RAYdio show on KABF-FM 88.3 (and KOBV-FM in Bentonville, etc.) late Saturday nights, has been busy not only at the radio boards, but also making beats. This instrumental collection of brief percussion meditations raises and lowers the bass floor often enough to keep things varied, and the result is something between dance and trance. Current favorites: “Covenant” and “Dust Daughters.”
Banzai Florist, “Love Me Back, Clairo”
Though “Love Me Back, Clairo” technically came out before we rang in the horror show that is 2021, we’d be remiss not to note that this track — part of a splendidly surreal catalogue from Hot Springs’ Harry Glaeser — landed on Hulu’s “Shrill” this year in its (tragically) final season. (And in the “barbecue butthole” episode, no less.) In my wildest dreams, the show returns and BF’s “makeout!!” plays during the opening credits, with BBQ sauce blissfully absent from the plot.
Bic Fizzle, “TrapMania”
Who had “870 area code shoutout leads off a Gucci Mane track” on their 2021 bingo card? Yeah, me neither. But that’s “TrapMania,” an August 2021 track from Jeremiah “Bic Fizzle” Northern, 18-year-old quarterback for Blytheville High School and the newest member of Gucci Mane’s The New 1017 roster. Watch “Bandit” for a sense of Bic Fizzle’s hometown vibe, then cue up “Supafly” to see how his crew looks in suits and bowties aside a vintage Chevy Caprice.
Bones of the Earth, “II. Eternal Meditations of a Deathless Crown”
Available on transparent red cassette from Fayetteville label Tape Dad, this crushing six-track release from Fayetteville metal makers Bones of the Earth traverses broad territory within multiple heavy music idioms: deep-seated demonic vocal growls, high-soaring clean guitars, throbbing slow riffs and drumless interludes. Lest it start to feel too serious, grab some levity with the video for “Peacekeeper,” peppered with goofy D&D references and Miller High Life.
Bonnie Montgomery, “Boat Songs 2002”
This piano-centric album, a collection of 2002 tunes and ruminations from White County-born, Austin-based composer Bonnie Montgomery, spins visions of sticky tropical air, the pristine Aleutian Islands and the heady electricity of romance’s first spark. A balm for the landlocked in a prime period of pandemic-induced wanderlust, the album’s theme of being adrift at sea felt like it was tailor-made for 2021, when it was reframed as a lo-fi musical travelogue.
Brae Leni, “Make Sho”
Leni is among the most prolific musicians in Arkansas, so if this one doesn’t suit your funk-loving fancy, odds are you’ll find something in his vast discography that does. For me, though, this is the soul singer in his absolute element, in complete control of his falsetto, at home with the microphone as an instrument in its own right, a master of emoting (even when he’s doing it from a schoolhouse desk, as in the NPR Tiny Desk version) and in command of a solid backing band.
Collin vs. Adam, “All the Luck”
Created from home during the pandemic, this strangely affable dance record strikes an ominous tone even when communicating purportedly sunny things, casting the line “turn it up and dance with me/We’re gonna drip dry under the sun” as less of a beach romp and more like the beginning of a psilocybin trip, or giving the singsong treatment to the earnest “Tender-hearted, that don’t mean that we are fools/We’re not basement dwelling, that’s just where we keep the tools.”
Diamond States, “Unbroken Heart”
This February 2021 gem from painter/musician Bryan Frazier’s new project Diamond States was recorded at Capitol View Studio with soundmaster Mark Colbert — a single for a forthcoming full-length release. Paired with Tim Hursley’s haunting cover image, it’s a song that implies a feature-length story behind it. Speaking of film music, check out the cover of Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams” the band recorded for an eponymous film.
Depression Expression, “Emily”
In a time when small gestures of kinship have taken on outsized importance, this lo-fi bedroom lament from Conway-based Depression Expression about a “best friend that could have been” resonates. Lyrics that eschew romantic longing for the platonic variety? Yes, please, a la: “My abandonment issues always get in the way/for every single person that has ever been nice to me/and that’s why I remember the way you smiled in me in 2017/and that’s just how it stays.”
Elise Davis, “Anxious. Happy. Chill.”
When Elise Davis sings the words “I wanna know what it feels like for someone to not be able to get a hold of me. … Don’t wanna see another picture of an old friend’s brother-in-law’s brother’s new wife’s kid,” it makes me want to throw my phone in the river, too. Ever a master of the confessional, Davis on this 2021 record is clear-eyed, compelling and aglow with a sense of groundedness that her song’s narrators have so often eschewed (pined for?) in albums past.
Erin Enderlin, “Somebody’s Shot of Whiskey”
It seems impossible, hearing Erin Enderlin sing “it’s a Blue Ribbon morning, after a black label night,” that she ever writes for a voice other than her own. But the Conway native’s carved a niche out in the mainstream country scene penning tunes for the likes of Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack, so it’s a joy to get to hear her sing her own work — this tune, for one, which she calls “a honky tonk song about being yourself and finding ‘your people’ that love you just as you are.”
Joan, “So Good”
A colleague spotted this duo in a People magazine article about artists turning their bedrooms into studios during the pandemic, and “So Good” was stuck in my head for days, delightfully, making me want to dot my lowercase i’s with hearts and put my hair in a Scrunchie. It was May — the heady post-vaccine, pre-delta variant days — and it seemed totally plausible that I’d be cranking up this sugary boy band sweetness poolside for summer parties. (Sigh. So Good, tho.)
Joe and the Feels, “Unsupervised”
Like Joseph Yoder’s music with Little Rock outfit The See, this band’s debut is marked by melody-driven pop rock anthems made for howling along to in a sweaty circle of friends at a concert — were they not concocted in a concertless era. It tussles with ideas about mental health, family bonds, capitalism and consumerism, and is buoyed by some sparkling keyboard work, gorgeous guitar tone and Yoder’s candor about his own life’s trajectory.
Jose Holloway, “In His Time”
It’s not that often that a contemporary worship album lands in my streaming rotation, but then again, most contemporary Christian songs don’t come laden with bylines from local jazz/R&B jewels like Jose Holloway, Bri Ailene, Philli Moo and Gavin Le’Nard, much less an attitude of self-examination like that in “Is There a God”: “Open the doors to the church, get hit with hypocrisy/Come as you are, come as you please/Bring your family but don’t show up in jeans.”
The Libras, “Faded”
Concocted in a handful of home studios across the country and featuring work from some heavy-hitting touring musicians who found themselves decommissioned and stuck at home for the last year or so, Jason Weinheimer’s new project under the Libras moniker boasts some badass horns, clean harmonies, mellow melodies, a timely Dire Straits cover and maybe — as is always possible in Weinheimer’s work — the ghost of Jim Dickinson.
Maya Ellington, “On”
Little Rock singer Maya Ellington’s August 2021 single, recorded at Grim Muzik Studios, is likely the sexiest thing on this list. “On” is chock-full of the good stuff: effortless vocal runs, a layered, mellifluous breakdown and a glorious blend of the dreamy and the downright dirty: “He get it cuz he gets it/Doesn’t complete me, I’m completed … Down with the vision and he helps me build it/No gag reflex, I don’t choke but I’ma do it anyway cuz it turns my man on.”
Melissa Carper, “Daddy’s Country Gold”
This solo record from Melissa Carper (Sad Daddy, Buffalo Gals) is real-deal country music, the kind that dabbles freely in blues and jazz and swing, and it funnels every ounce of charm and honeysuckle that Carper lends to her ensemble work with help from bandmate Rebecca Patek and amplifies it exponentially — with assists from dazzling Nashville players like Chris Scruggs, Lloyd Green, Brennen Leigh and Sierra Farrell.
Modeling, “Nothing Unexpected”
Swaddle me in synthesizers and transport me to whatever world this song came from. Could be the year 1987? Or 2077? I’m not counting. Northwest Arkansas outfit Modeling shot this stunning video mostly in an apartment, with help from Nick Hargett and avant-garde cellist Christian Serrano-Torres, and it testifies to the ways in which the pandemic has asked musicians to create much from little. I’m dreaming of dancing to this someday under disco lights.
Nick Shoulders, “Home on the Rage”
Skirting irony and flirting dangerously with tradition, this record from Northwest Arkansas crooner Nick Shoulders is, if you ask me, an utter tour de force. I love the mischief he makes with consonants and culture alike. I love the dark elements that form the underbelly of these cowboy poems — the brutal history behind lines like “torched the prairie for plantation, broke the mountains for coal.” I love the high-lonesome treble of his whistle and his yodel, ever playful but never insincere.
Osyrus Bolly, “Friends”
You might well know Bolly’s name from his activism; Bolly has long been instrumental in organizing demonstrations in Little Rock around a number of social issues. Let this party bop introduce you to his musical side. “Friends,” produced by Duke Stigall, features Bolly’s son Brodie in an adorable cameo, leading into a vibrant, retro romp (with art from Vallejo Lee to match) through “the struggle of maintaining friendships” during a time that demands distance.
Patti Steel, “Quarantine 2020”
This Fayetteville-based, cat-ear-wearing alto and multi-instrumentalist plays everything from the mandolin to the nose flute to the clarinet, landing on our radar as the mean machine behind a band called Trashcan Bandits. Here, she’s paired up with Dominic B. Roy in a mellow mission statement for pandemic times: “Can’t do this, can’t do that/Social distancing is where it’s at/What can I do to pay my rent/The rent is due and my money’s spent.”
Pharoah Sanders, “Promises”
This 46-minute, nine-movement piece that came out in March 2021 on David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop positions Little Rock octogenarian and free-jazz legend Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone as protagonist, soaring above and around an ethereal backdrop of celeste, harpsichord and electronics from British composer Sam Shepherd, and underpinned by strings courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. Meditation/time travel album of the decade right here.
The Phenomenal Self, “Satori”
With a knack for nimble meter changes and a rock theater sensibility, The Phenomenal Self’s 2021 full-length pop record ditches the slow build with “Chevalier” and never lets up after. The bass lines are beastly and vocalist Michelle Levy can wail, alternately delicate and menacing, unafraid to treat her voice like a rhythm instrument when she wants, or to leap into a high-register tightrope act like she’s channeling Kate Bush. Current favorite track: “Whalewolf.”
Reward Center, “Happiness Juice”
There’s an effervescent sort of alchemy to the musical (and marital) partnership between Madeleine Robinson and Josh Wyatt — two Little Rockers who just set off for New York to, as their website puts it, “see if the world is as big as everyone says.” Robinson’s ethereal voice and Wyatt’s beatboxing cast a spell on a recent crowd at Wednesday Night Poetry in Hot Springs, just before the couple’s departure. Keep an eye on these two and they’ll cast it on you, too.
Tiffany Lee, “Grave Garden”
Even without the depths of the story behind it, I could listen to Little Rock native Tiffany Lee’s many-colored voice forever and never grow tired of it. This sophomore EP and New Year’s Day release is a hard-won triumph; a battle with Graves disease had Lee “under the knife to have my thyroid removed, unsure if I’d ever be able to sing again,” she wrote on Facebook the week she tracked vocals on the EP. It’s ravishing pop meets well-earned wisdom, and I’m here for it.
Turquoise Tiger, “Seance”
This project from Kyle R. Goff and Tristan Bethea has been hurling glittery guitar-laden tunes at us all year, not the least of which are those on the full-length “Seance.” Expect a plot twist after the title prelude and a shift into the bouncy “Looking at You,” which should have been our hot vax summer anthem but is instead our soundtrack for muggy evening walks around the neighborhood. Bonus: Check out the supremely chill-slash-paranoid “Shower Song.”
Willi Carlisle, “Boy Howdy, Hot Dog”
Filmed at the White Water Tavern and released in July under GemsOnVHS, this Willi Carlisle tune is an assemblage of “hillbilly portmanteaus,” a mosaic of fragments seemingly garnered from front porches and truck stops across middle America. Lines like “Thick as a forest and a cavalry of bushwhackers, never seen a baldknobber that bullets didn’t scatter” bear witness to Carlisle’s love affair with circuitous rhymes, the “talking blues” style and the weird South itself.
William Stuckey, “Love of Mine”
Rescued from mold and obscurity by a Scotland-based record label, this funky 1979 re-release is a testament to the talent of William Stuckey, a multi-instrumentalist who got his start at the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock. “Country People” is an empowerment anthem for the ages, and minimalist loops transform “Just Around the Corner” from a feel-good groove to a surrealist trance moment, belying the album’s predominantly cavalier attitude.
Yuni Wa, “Context 4”
Violins in zero gravity, horror movie soundtrack fuzz, 8-bit video games with reverb, electric church organs, futuristic skating rinks, computers talking to each other. These are what Yuni Wa’s 20-track April 2021 release sounds like to my ears. “The pandemic’s brought, he told us, “burnout and stress from not being able to really perform live.” Nevertheless, the prolific composer will likely have another space anthem out by the time you finish reading this.