While many of our city’s political leaders spent 2019 embroiled in scandal, its musical ones were hard at work. Many local artists released new music, earned critical acclaim and grew their fanbases. Others embarked on tours, or simply expanded their footprints within Baltimore.
For many, 2019 was a year of creative and personal fulfillment. For others, the 12 months brought new concerns and pressures.
12 artists and bands with local roots, representing various genres and scenes, discussed their past year and teased the next for us. Learn more, mark your calendars and add the records you overlooked to your libraries after reading.
Internationally beloved duo Wye Oak bookended 2019 by releasing the songs “Evergreen” and “Fortune” in February and November, respectively. They also collaborated with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on both a commission for the Ecstatic Music Festival and composer William Brittelle’s “Spiritual America" during the spring. Members Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, who relocated to North Carolina after many years in Baltimore, otherwise spent last year focused on side projects. Wasner spent much of the year on tour and recording with Bon Iver and Sylvan Esso while Stack put out “Release the Dogs,” his first solo album as Joyero. He toured for both that project and in Lambchop (“A.k.a. my favorite band, and one of the most legendary bands in the world," Wasner said).
2020 appears equally busy, with Wasner writing a new solo album as Flock of Dimes and Stack planning more Joyero gigs. Wye Oak will release music, but outside of the years-long commitment that album cycles require, they said. The pair also announced the JOIN Tour, which features an expanded live band beyond Wye Oak’s typical two-person format and incorporates songs from the members’ various projects. Tickets already sold out for the March date at the 2640 Space, a special place for both artists.
“The point of this is to really create a mood and joyful, intimate experience for the audience, of course, but also for us,” Wasner said.
“The shows there always feel like a happening, more than just a club show,” Stack added. “It feels like everyone is coming into some sort of sacred space.”
Anthony “Wordsmith” Parker’s goal of uplifting the masses through positive hip-hop took him abroad to Haiti (where widespread unrest cut his tour and youth songwriting workshops short), the Baltic states, Angola and Ukraine this year. The rapper also dropped both the Baltimore club-inspired “Baltimore Revisited” EP and “Rewind the Mixtape (2006-2018),” which compiled “a bunch of records from early on in my career that just were on a bunch of different mixtapes floating around on the internet," he said. His four-on-the-floor-hitting “Energy" even appeared on ESPN’s “First Take.”
Wordsmith kicks 2020 off with a show at the annual NAMM Show in California. He’ll also perform spoken-word poetry for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s season closer in June: a social justice-inspired reinterpretation of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9." Wordsmith additionally intends to release a new album, “Bittersweet,” "when the time is right.”
“I’m always looking for an angle where I’m not releasing music just to release it, there’s something behind it," he said."
When she’s not working with local arts organizations or towards a MFA at UMBC, multimedia artist Rahne Alexander makes music through two primary outfits: the all-women hard rock band Santa Librada and her solo project, 50 Foot Woman. Santa Librada’s fearless songs about what Alexander termed “political stuff, being a trans woman, being a queer woman and our thoughts and perspectives on that" drew fans throughout the DMV in 2019. Alexander said that the band plans to record a followup to its 2018 self-titled debut in the coming year.
Alexander also wants to make a 50 Foot Woman album and revisit her out-of print debut record, “Blonde on a Bum Trip," for its 15th anniversary.
She’ll also do more events for “Heretic to Housewife," her acclaimed chapbook weaving old essays into a memoir about her journey as a medically transitioning trans woman and artist with Mormon roots. She credits Baltimore for enabling this growth.
“[My work’s] a celebration of that, as well as a celebration of this community and the people that made this possible, in addition my own restlessness,” she said.
Singer, author and amp tech Shawna Potter, like Alexander, put the feminist convictions that guide her music with the blistering punk band War on Women into a book. The full-length version of “Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather," which came out in May via AK Press, packs lessons from Potter’s years running anti-harassment training for venues and other public spaces into a useful guide for all. She noted that it brought her more attention than War on Women, with whom she prolifically toured throughout 2019, had alone. She hopes to do more speaking engagements and “feminist coaching” (a remote version of training) next year.
“This current state of the world makes us feel so hopeless and powerless, that it’s really intoxicating if someone like me can come along and say, ‘I know what that’s like. But guess what: there’s all this stuff you can do,’” she said.
War on Women enters the studio with DMV punk veteran J. Robbins in early 2020 and plan to release the follow-up to 2018′s “Capture the Flag” before the year ends.
In 2019, Butch Dawson set himself up as the rising Baltimore emcee to watch in the 2020s. He packed nine songs of unrelenting heat into July’s “Ollieworld,” guested on Abdu Ali’s acclaimed “Fiyah!!!” and even modeled for two Adidas campaigns. He took this energy into his biggest tour yet, opening for his onetime roommate JPEGMAFIA around the country.
2020 brings the promise of “Jazz Star,” the third release in a trilogy that started with 2018′s “Swamp Boy” and continued with “Ollieworld.” Based on the snippet he played, it promises all the atmosphere and swagger its title suggests.
“Where I come from, Pennsylvania Avenue, that strip used to be a historic strip for jazz clubs,” he explained. “Now, you find all types of drugs on that strip, everybody hustles...I represent both of those periods of that location, and the fact that I represent street and art culture, and I can mesh it together? I feel like it’s just something that’s going to break through.”
DJ Mighty Mark
Few people rode harder for Baltimore club in 2019 than DJ Mighty Mark. The Cherry Hill native even launched Hands Up! Records as a hub for artists bringing the native dance music into the future. He also produced at his studio in Cherry Hill, developed the soundtrack to TT the Artist’s Baltimore club doc “Dark City" and dropped two major releases: the “Modern Dreams” collaborative EP with Ernest Third and a single, “Who Want What.”
“2019 has been the comeback and the set-up for 2020,” he said about a year for which he plans to release more Baltimore club bangers and develop related education programs for kids.
“I got some publishing situations to get more songs on TV and movies and stuff, as well,” he added. “It’s looking like 2020 will be the best year I had in a while.”
In April, rapper, singer and all-around Baltimore booster Eze Jackson made a major pivot by leaving his on-air job at the Real News Network. The headspace allowed him to create “Fool,” the buoyant album he released with a joyous show during Artscape weekend. Led by the secular gospel of “Be Great," “Fool” was the anchor of what Jackson (no relation to Lamar) called his “best year as an artist.”
“It is the fullest representation of where I am as an artist, a person, and I try to travel through a gambit of emotions, experiences and sound but still make it cohesive,” he said of the album. Jackson also reached new heights through performances with his longtime band Soul Cannon and his newer Backwudz Band, as well as solo, and opened for the likes of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and rap hero Rakim.
Jackson plans to take his hometown love on the road more and produce more music videos in 2020. Local fans can catch him in his new jazz residency every third Wednesday at Keystone Korner.
TT the Artist
Longtime local multihyphenate TT the Artist described 2019 as “a year of regrowth and realignment." That meant spreading her wings as wide as possible into different media while holding onto a specific aesthetic of stylish uplift. That’s most obvious in “Dark City,” her experimental documentary about Baltimore club music that features numerous local artists (including a few on this list). Her passions also led to her designing clothing for EDM superstar Steve Aoki, building major partnerships with her women of color-focused Club Queen Records label and releasing both solo and collaborative tracks with artists like LP Jiobbi.
For 2020, she’s planning to officially premiere “Dark City” at a major film festival, develop her own clothing line, work on some books (including a memoir), grow her record label and keep pushing her vision.
“I do consider myself a leader and I just want to be a vessel for those that may not necessarily have access,” she said. “I’m working really hard to do that, and next year I hope to be balling for real.”
Prolific jazz pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist’s stirring 2019 live album, “Dark Matter,” almost didn’t come together. He explained that the album captured a 2016 performance that was supposed to be all jazz standards until a manager told him, “Hey, we got to pay for those!”
The D.C. native, whose music scored episodes of “The Wire,” instead filled that set at the University of Baltimore with original works that paid lyricless homage to the Tuskegee Airmen, protestors in Ferguson and other instances of black resistance.
Aside from promoting “Dark Matter,” Gilchrist spent 2019 teaching piano classes and working with Specials Revealed, a new trio with drummer Eric Kennedy and bassist Herman Burney. He also recorded a duet album with saxophonist David Murray. Jazz aficionados should look for those projects to drop next year.
In a city overflowing with talent, no musician makes the kind of music that Ami Dang does. The sitarist and vocalist blends Indian classical music and avant-garde electronica into something wholly unique, unbridled by geography or stylistic dogma. Her creative growth showed in “Parted Plains,” her third album that dropped in August. The record’s shimmering soundscapes transfixed audiences across Europe, where she toured for the first time this year, and the West Coast. She said that this increased footprint garnered more attention than prior releases, which mirrored her own creative progress.
“I don’t think I feel like I’ve kind of like settled on a method, mood or approach, I just hope that it keeps evolving and changing,” she said. “And I keep learning more and more along the way.”
Dang jumps back on the road with fellow Baltimoreans Lower Dens for three weeks in February. She also has a handful of shows booked at festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Beyond that, Dang will work on new music, collaborate with Dave Jacober of noise rockers Dope Body and apply for several artist residency programs.
The Holy Circle
Shoegazy electronic trio The Holy Circle gave drone aficionados something to vibe to when they released “Sick With Love” on Deathbomb Arc records in July. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Erica Burgner-Hannum drew lyrical inspiration from the novel “Jane Eyre" and its female protagonist. The trio, consisting of Burgner-Hannum, her husband Terence Hannum (who also plays in the metal-infused act Locrian) and Rob Savillo, spent part of summer touring behind that EP—all while balancing full-time job and family responsibilities.
“I’ve been in bands for a long time, and the most opportune time to get on the road is when the record comes out, because if you’re getting any attention for it, it’ll be your best shows,” Hannum said of the tour, which brought their haunting music to a broader audience and impressed members of bands like Locrian’s labelmates Cloakroom.
Hannum said that the band is working on an upcoming full-length album, as well as playing a few shows in the winter. Keep an eye out for one at The Crown in January.
For electro-pop singer and songwriter Hunter Hooligan, 2019′s highs and lows stood side-by-side. This duality began when Hooligan, who identifies as Indigenous and queer, first critiqued Covington Catholic High School students’ treatment of community advocate Nathan Phillips at the Indigenous People’s March in January. His essay for New York magazine received both solidarity from Indigenous peoples worldwide and a vitriolic threats from opponents. The trolling and support accompanied the April release of “Child of Venus (Act 1)," the dreamy music video for TT the Artist-featuring “Ecstasy” and his comments on Morrisey’s racist behavior to The Baltimore Sun. Conversely, 2019 also saw Hooligan drop “Not a Riddle” for Pride month and contribute to Mickelene Thomas’ “A Moment’s Pleasure” at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“The project that I’m working on now is very blatantly political, and I want it to be, in a way, a response to how I’ve been met,” he said. “I think about the ‘Ecstasy’ video: I offered what my vision paradise is like. I offered that to the world very freely...The response really showed me that not everybody is deserving to be included in that.”
As he prioritizes protecting himself and his community, Hooligan still plans to release new music, starting with the song “2020″ on, appropriately, January 1. He also mentioned that “Child of Venus (Act 2)” drops early next year, while the still-untitled darker project and collaborations with rapper DDm and singer Joy Postell will come later on. Those trying to catch him sooner than all that can do so at the Metro Gallery’s drag performance-filled New Year’s Eve party.