Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

10 Songs From 2023 That Helped (Re)Shape My View of Iowa

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Little Village Magazine Peak Iowa

A few weeks back I was asked if I could share some sort of year-end best-of list for Little Village Magazine. I thought about it for a little and decided to take things in a slightly different direction, offering up a selection of songs that have helped re-shape my view of the state’s music scene this past year. Little Village was gracious enough to run with the idea, and to supplement the print version I thought it’d be cool to share the extended article I’d written here, in audio form. For additional information, I’ve included a link to the original article in the description, but here is what was titled “Ten music releases from 2023 that changed my mind about Iowa music.”

For those who’ve lived in Iowa for years or decades, all the while unaware of the actual goings-on in the state, it seems natural to skew cynical when considering what a phrase like “the Iowa music scene” might embody. As an outsider looking in, Iowa might otherwise be mistaken for a cultural dessert, better known for its agricultural exports, and as someone who’s lived most of their life outside of the state, that’s largely how I viewed it, myself. I’m not an Iowan by birth, but I moved to Cedar Rapids (on purpose, no less!) last year, venturing north from Nashville to settle in among family and friends in a post-pandemic pivot. I’m not a complete stranger to the state though. My mother was born in the small town of Elk Horn, and while I began my time on Earth some 1400 miles northwest of Shelby County, I gained my own personal introduction to the state when I stepped foot on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake as a freshman at the age of 19. It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated and transitioned onward, however, and it wasn’t until this year that I actually felt any sort of connection to this place. This feeling has, in large part, come as a direct result of immersing myself in the state’s music, which has served as one of many welcomed surprises, illuminating a side to the state for me that I wouldn’t have otherwise imagined to have existed prior to having moved here. Iowa is many things, but a state barren of artistic and creative talent it is not. It’s in the spirit of this sentiment, and my own experience settling in here, that I wanted to share 10 songs released this year by homegrown and local Iowan musicians that have helped (re)shape my view of Iowa.

Subatlantic “Ava”

Subatlantic “Ava” – Released this past summer, Subatlantic’s Say It Again could be represented on this list by any number of songs (“Critic” and “Veronica Speedwell” are two other favorites), but “Ava” reveals itself as a careful and stylish standout. Opening with a blend of plodding electronics and creaking instrumentals, “Ava” blooms into a remarkably well-fitting bed of sound for Rebecca Rice’s vocals, provoking a sense of ‘90s nostalgia while sounding utterly modern at the same time.

Husoul “Hopeless romantic”

Husoul “Hopeless romantic” – Husoul (pronounced: Hustle) is a Des Moines-based producer who initially tried his hand as a rapper before abandoning that path. After stepping away from music completely for three years he found inspiration in the high-BPM, percussion driven sound of drum and bass, and in the span of a year and a half has reinvented himself as an elite talent within the sub-genre. “Hopeless romantic” does well to represent Husoul at his finest, blending highly calculated percussion with delicate vocal samples, cast in a shadow of cyberpunk.

Xavy Rusan & FVNTVNV “UV Rays”

Xavy Rusan & FVNTVNV “UV Rays” – Xavy Rusan’s 2022 full-length album Tribal found the Davenport native aurally transplanted to another place and time, with its dozen tracks bleeding a classic west-coast aesthetic. For his 2023 collaborative release with producer FVNTVNV, the sound splits, catering to a bi-coastal mentality, balancing Rusan’s abilities as a lyrical gourmet atop dynamic, world-class production. And with all due respect to the thousands of beatmakers stretching themselves thin to sound like some of the greats, it’s with relative ease that a song like “UV Rays” could be mistaken for a cut from someone like the Alchemist.

SLW cc Watt “Lost to Time”

SLW cc Watt “Lost to Time” – Sandwiched between a pair of releases with Jad Fair (of Half Japanese) came this year’s Purple Pie Plow from Iowa City’s Samuel Locke Ward. This album found Sam paired with another legend from the (truly) alternative rock underground, Mike Watt, reviving their SLW cc Watt alias. “Lost to Time” lands at an exciting intersection, balancing bouncing bass and Sam’s howling vocals with an avant spoken word sax-jam. For something completely different, I also recommend “Banned Books” from Sam’s Thrift Store Gtr tape. It’s a smart song about a stupid thing, which my mom says “has a Simon and Garfunkel vibe.” I don’t think that’s accurate, but who am I to argue with an Elk Horn elder.

Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops “Nothing”

Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops “Nothing” – A sonic relative to Jay Reatard, the Poly Mall Cops continue to establish themselves as staple in the state’s live music scene, spreading the gospel of fuzz-punk with them every step of the way. “Nothing,” from the band’s MANIC FEVER album, is an unrelenting shredder, and seeing it live a few months back in Des Moines (where the band shared the stage at xBk with Glass Ox and Traffic Death) I can attest to how well it holds up in the live setting, as well. 

In Loving Memory “A Gentler Sun”

In Loving Memory “A Gentler Sun” – In Loving Memory’s A Gentler Sun EP marked the first new music from the Des Moines screamo pioneers in over two decades. Aligned with the release, the band celebrated the reunion with shows at the Des Moines Botanical Gardens and the Franklin Jr. High Gymnasium in September. While pretty much the same age as the band’s members, the group missed me on their initial run, but their wailing, pounding sound is something that resonates more deeply with me now, firmly planted in adulthood, than it might ever have during the years they were first active. I could have gone to the shows, and maybe should have gone, but not having lived through the music the first time around, it felt out of place to join in on what felt like something of a spiritual retreat, celebrating what remains a very special time and place for those who were there the first time around. (That didn’t stop me from buying my ticket to see them at Gabe’s in February though.)

Closet Witch feat. Dylan Walker “My Words Are Sacred” 

Closet Witch feat. Dylan Walker “My Words Are Sacred” – Closet Witch’s Chiaroscuro embraces a spirit of unbridled fury, tightly winding 13 tracks into 18 minutes. Celebrating the release on the editorial side of Bandcamp, writer Brad Sanders recently included the album on a short list of November’s best metal albums, using the word “terror” to characterize its sound. In that sense, ​​there might not be a more fitting soundtrack for the times than Chiaroscuro, musically communicating a blend of rage and fear that continues to exist at every turn on a global stage. Per Spotify, “My Words Are Sacred” was the song I listened to most this year, if that gives you any indication of what kind of year it’s been in between my own ears.

LOVESBLIND “all i need”

LOVESBLIND “all i need” – “all i need” captures a very specific vibe, fusing influences in a way that absolutely won’t work for genre purists. It makes me think of what Alternative Press once represented in my mind: something of a middle finger to all the people who insisted on today’s music sounding no different than yesterday’s. Similarly, I’ll call out HU$H, whose genre-bending SKUNKWORKS moves between EDM, rap, metal, punk, and alt-rock throughout its 18 tracks. “all i need” expertly hits many of those beats, all within a single song.

Jarrett Purdy and Lex Leto “WHATEVER I WANT”

Jarrett Purdy and Lex Leto “WHATEVER I WANT” – Lex Leto, whose own brilliant Right Here EP was released just a month and a half after this, presents on “WHATEVER I WANT” as something of a demanding lyrical foil to the playful musical backdrop of Jarrett Purdy, Nolan Schroeder, and Justin LeDuc’s instrumentation. Or maybe that’s the point of the song, to emancipate the concept of self-determination from the confines of solipsism, shouting to the heavens that “I’m gonna do whatever I want,” while recognizing and accepting that each step also brings oneself closer the inevitable pitfalls of trying to make your own way.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs feat. Perfume Genius “Spitting Off the Edge of the World”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs feat. Perfume Genius “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” – Bruce Brubaker’s Eno Piano and Max Jury’s Avenues exist in a similar space for me as this song, connected as expressions of incredible talent from those who’ve continued their journeys beyond the state’s boundaries. Upon realizing something long-since evident to many, at one point this year I thought to myself about how long I’ve listened to Perfume Genius before learning that the music is the product of an Iowa native. How many similar stories are there, waiting to be explored? How many stories are still yet to be written? For me, these releases represent the need for embrace of the voices in direct proximity to oneself, and an urgency to champion the hyper-local. Regardless of how many creatives stay planted near their birthplaces, the health and vibrancy of a city or state’s music scene is directly influenced by those it relies upon to champion and support it. To not care for local creative work is to communicate that it’s better off existing elsewhere.

Listen to this article via Spotify.