No other year in the last century has changed music more than 2020. The term "existential crisis" gets used to describe so many of our current situations, yet it’s perhaps nowhere more applicable than in the world of live music, which completely upended and ground to a halt this past spring. Going entirely online, virtual concerts like Grand Rapids’ own Stay In Your House Shows attempted to fill the auditory and emotional void, helping connect artists and listeners alike in an unprecedented time of social distancing and increasing isolation. It’s easily the strangest and hardest year West Michigan’s music scene has ever faced, and through it all, the music still somehow found a way.
Albion duo The War & Treaty spoke from, and to the heart and the soul, sharing pain and helping heal simultaneously on their new album Hearts Town. Kalamazoo’s Michigander continued his rock radio success with the defiantly uplifting anthem "Let Down," while Portage Northern alum turned teen producer phenom Keegan Bach (aka KBeaZy) scored a Number One hit on the Billboard Hot 100 through his work on 24KGoldn and iann dior’s "Mood." Locally, many of our best bands and musicians found ways to make the most out of quarantine, challenging themselves and others to look inward at a time when we can do almost nothing else.
Jay Jackson x Rick Chyme – The Curve
An epic masterpiece perfect for the moment, this 17-song collaborative project finds two of West Michigan’s best at the height of their powers. Longtime Grand Rapids MC Rick Chyme penned most of the album during what many thought would be the peak of the pandemic back in late March and early April, encapsulating the tension of the times in his masterful rhymes. Working remotely with Jay Jackson of Kalamazoo’s Last Gasp Collective, Chyme has never had a better backdrop for his lyrical flow, biting social commentary, and surprising spiritual uplift. This is absolute essential listening now, and as a time capsule for the future.
Allison Van Liere – I Only Answer To My Name Now
Sometimes an artist best sums up their unique sound themselves, as is the case with Holland’s Allison Van Liere who describes her music as “kinda dark, confessional feminist folk/rock that takes its coffee black and whiskey neat.” Centering her incredible debut on the juxtaposing jangle-pop guitar punch of “Year End Contender” and the unshakeable groove of “Born With Skin,” Van Liere ventures into the intimacies of solitude with a sharp tongue and unwavering conviction. It’s a tremendous statement of declaration that should put her name in the minds of many for years to come.
Vagabonds – Liminal Space
Beautifully bleak, this project from Grand Rapids artist Luke Dean dares to find the harmonic home between emo and classical. Although not written during quarantine, try listening to Dean sing “I need good news/I’m begging you/Bring me good, good news/I’m begging you,” at the start of the haunting title track and not feel ALL the feels right now. A gut punch and a tearjerker, the record moves at the unrelentingly glacial pace time seems to pass now, with Dean’s guitar acting as a light in the ever-lingering darkness. He bellies the emotional resonance with phenomenal string arrangements, and a deftness for allowing moments to just breathe.
Von Kaiser – Ghosts of Miami
Von Kaiser sounds like music from an alternate timeline. Unabashedly embracing the ‘80s, the Grand Rapids synthwave group has refined its own unique sound on its second album in just over two years as a band. The trio of David Mouatt, Kaylin Haydenburg and Jake VanRavenswaay contemplate the complexities of this life and the next with an unwavering sense of chill, and hypnotic rhythm, overflowing with nostalgia for an idealized era that didn’t really exist – in this reality anyway. Their mix of ultra-modern futurism and retro revisionism feels like just the sort of virtual escapism everyone needs right about now.
Callab – Assorted 61X Pack
This collection works as a sampler of the sheer range of styles and strengths of GR rapper/singer Eric “Callab” Carter. Giving listeners a taste of the R&B, pop, and even dance elements readily available in his repertoire, the set leaves fans wanting more, in the best way. A prolific and fantastic collaborator, Carter is the perfect artist to anchor a calling card like this, as well as a community-minded jam like the new GR anthem, "Citizen," which features great guest turns from E-Will, JRob, Jance, Cheeze Weez, Rebel Kuzco, Cheezy Scott, and the legendary Lady Ace Boogie, who also dropped her excellent swan song, That’s All For Now, earlier this year.