When it comes down to it, was 2020 really a good year for anything? The most positive spin you could put on the year is that it gave some people more time to work on projects that meant something to them while the rest of their lives were on hold.
Music, like many creative pursuits, continued seemingly unabated through 2020. That certainly was the case in Lancaster County as musicians poured their hearts out into a variety of different albums and songs. Perhaps the worst aspect of a list like this is the stark reminder that many of these artists haven’t yet been able to perform these songs in front of an audience. Live music — that is, where your eyes can meet the performers’ and you can breathe the same air, and it’s not on a laptop or smart phone — is deeply missed.
But let these works serve as a reminder: Somewhere, your favorite musicians are crafting music inspired by or maybe even in spite of the world around them, and the least one can do is lend a dollar or an ear for the privilege, so the privilege can continue. Below, in alphabetical order, is a list of some of the Lancaster music that did it for us this year.
Alex Brubaker, “Building Harmonic Castles”
There are a lot of guitar players in Lancaster County, but it should be said that not many can do with a guitar what Alex Brubaker does. As the album title suggests, Brubaker spends much of the album “Building Harmonic Castles,” that is, layering scores of intricate guitar patterns over one another until you’re left marveling at the result. Though the acoustic guitar anchors the album, Brubaker’s “Castle” is one with remarkable architecture.
Key tracks: “The Balancing Act,” “As Mountains Fall into the Sea.”
Andy Mowatt, “Baritones for Justice,” “Symphonic Funk Box”
During a “normal” year, you would probably find Andy Mowatt playing a guitar with six or eight strings in your haunt of choice on any given night. This was unfortunately not a “normal” year, but it can be said that the gap in gigs led to two separate Mowatt releases. For fans of his solo guitar work, there’s “Baritones for Justice,” a covers album released in June benefitting social justice organizations. And for those who stray closer to his Steely Dan-influenced full band work, look no further than the recently released “Symphonic Funk Box,” which absolutely explodes with huge arrangements and musicianship.
Key tracks: “Move On Up” (Curtis Mayfield cover), “Mainline.”
Apes of the State, “The Greatest Gift of All”
Sure, it’s a live album recorded at the tail end of 2019, but we received “The Greatest Gift of All” in May of this year, so it counts. On Apes of the States’ studio albums, the band embraces the acoustic nature of folk punk, but on this live album, bolstered by special guests including Ian Cornele, Max Ludewig and Hannah Pugh, they are electrified, figuratively and literally. Perhaps it's hearing them surrounded by a loud, boisterous crowd — a bygone rarity in 2020 — but Apes of the State has never sounded so alive.
Key tracks: “Bill Collector’s Theme Song,” “Internet Song.”
August Burns Red, “Guardians”
It would be fair to assume that, two Grammy nominations and 17 years into being a band, August Burns Red might pull back the throttle on their ninth album, “Guardians.” From the dread-filled riff of opener “The Narrative,” it is clear that this is not the case. The album is a punisher in all the best ways — these riffs may bruise, but they won’t scar.
Key tracks: “Defender,” “Bones.”
Charles Infamous, “Juicebox (Ft. Tuck Ryan)”
Musical reality shows have faded in terms of acting as pop kingmakers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a bright spotlight on those who compete. Take the case of Charles Infamous and NBC’s “Songland” — earlier this year, Infamous appeared on the show performing his song “Jukebox” for the members of Boyz II Men, among others. Though he didn’t win, a bigger percentage of the population now know Infamous and his smooth combination of hip-hop and R&B.
Hadassah Edith, “Rushes”
A true chameleon of the Lancaster music scene, Hadassah Edith has spent the last several years collaborating with everyone from Scott Bookman to Andy Mowatt and the seemingly departed Vivien Leigh Documentary. On the song “Rushes,” Edith finds musical partners in Liz Fulmer and Tuck Ryan, who transform this hushed hymn of a song into something explosive and memorable.
The Innocence Mission, “See You Tomorrow”
On Jan. 17, 2020, what seems like 300 years ago, The Innocence Mission released its twelfth studio album, “See You Tomorrow.” Every song exudes warmth, though it also seems perfect for a snowy midnight walk through the city. For a band with over three decades of history, there’s never a moment that seems wasted or unnecessary, a rarity for groups that manage to last.
Key tracks: “We Don't Know How to Say Why,” “Mary Margaret in Mid-Air.”
Joey Welz, “World War Covid 19”
It may be impossible to know for sure, but Lititz musician Joey Welz could lay claim to being the first person to write and release a song about COVID-19 in April. The 80-year-old owner of Lititz’s Rock Around the Clock Hall of Fame has written songs about other national tragedies, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and 9/11. Despite the mention of war in the title, “World War Covid 19” is a hopeful song, with lyrics painting a “rainbow in the sky” and a “light at the end of the tunnel.” But, you know ... a good tunnel.
Laddie Moran, “Crybaby Blues”
On his latest project, Laddie Moran goes for broke. Not financially, but emotionally — throughout the EP’s six songs, Moran probes his relationships through a kaleidoscope of emotions. Partially inspired by the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Crybaby Blues” is a logical next step in Moran’s path as a progressive artist.
Key tracks: “Crybaby Blues,” “Lookin Pt. 2.”
It’s hard to stand out among 80 bands, but that’s exactly what the members of NICE did during this summer’s inaugural SOCA Fest, a daylong virtual music festival featuring videos shot at Station One Center for the Arts. While the band’s three-song EP serves as an appetizer, the promise of an in-person NICE performance is enough to make one hope for the speedy return of live music.
Key track: “Daddy.”
Nielsen Family Band, “Small Spaces” EP
Perhaps no band is better suited to write pretty songs about the coming apocalypse than the Nielsen Family Band. Take “From Inside,” featured here on the band’s “Small Spaces” EP and in demo form on the “Self-Quarantine” compilation further down the list.
“I would’ve thought that when the doomsday came/there’d be a line around the block to see it live/but now this room has become my whole world/I’ll have to watch it through the window from inside.”
The lyrics may be grim but contained within whimsical guitar picking, it’s downright cheery.
PINK i, various singles
If Lancaster County had a “Best New Artist” trophy, PINK i would be heavily in the running. After years on local stages including Prima and EPAC, PINK i, also known as Ian Sanchez, embraced the quarantine nature of 2020 and started releasing songs of wholly different genres. Each song feels like a different world — with Ben Oaks and 66notes, he sang the hook on Black Lives Matter anthem “I Can’t Breathe.” “Step Inside” is a guitar- and harmonica-laden R&B stomp. And let’s not forget, Sanchez quietly dropped one of the year’s catchiest songs in the form of a theme for the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Hopefully 2021 brings with it a full PINK i album.
Super Genius, “Breakfast Under the Trees”
As 2020 has proved in many intricate ways, sometimes tragedy can give way to joy. Super Genius, a band that dates back to 1992, released its third album this year after the unexpected death of bassist Tim Halloran. The resulting album, created by Tim Kwiat, Mike Bitts and Steve Brown, is a breezy yet deceptively carefree sounding album, occasionally masking deeply personal lyrics.
Key tracks: “House in the Woods,” “Breakfast Under the Trees.”
Various artists, “Keystone Classics” compilation
“Lo fi beats to ponder the pandemic to?” Kind of! “Keystone Classics,” released in the heat of the summer by Zander Ledfever and David Ginolfi (aka Bruce Banter), brought together a who’s who of Lancaster beatmakers and producers for the love of beats. While the feelings change slightly from song to song, the tape remains perfect for long drives and good vibes.
Key tracks: “Keystone Walk,” Groovy Mulberry; “Hard Reset,” Bruce Banter.
Various artists, “Self-Quarantine: A Compilation for the Greater Good”
There’s a lot to consider when creating a compilation album — who do you have play on it? Should there be new songs or old songs? And maybe most importantly, what’s it for? In April, Lancaster musicians Kyle Ziegler and Dan Riddle recruited friends and strangers alike to contribute to “Self-Quarantine,” which eventually became a 23-song compilation filled with variety. And though the cause of raising funds for Feeding America was a righteous one, the album's songs thankfully don’t take themselves too seriously.
Key tracks: “Zipwire” by Jetstream Pony, “Hell House,” Tubey Frank.
You don’t need to be from Lancaster County to make good music, but it certainly helps. Here are a few picks of homegrown talent who no longer live in the county.
Denison Witmer, “Lancaster County”
Are you really a hometown hero if you haven’t released a song named after your hometown? Musician Denison Witmer checked that box in October with the release of his single “Lancaster County,” a beautiful ode to the “Garden Spot of America.” In the song, he sings directly to his home, explaining his need to travel “and fill the space with empathy.” It’s longing, but not trite, and meaningful without cliché. Fitting for a special place, and a special songwriter.
The Districts, “You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere”
Lest we forget, The Districts released some of their best music ever the same weekend that the world fell apart. “You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere,” with its sadly ironic title and March 13 release date got somewhat overshadowed, but songs like “Cheap Regrets” and “Sidecar” deserve placement on your year-end lists.
In November, the Philly-by-way-of-Lancaster trio Wallace laid out an ambitious plan — to not only release a new five-song EP but also to film music videos for each track that would interlock into a short film. Well, it worked, and the emotional pop-punk of “Grapefruit” is only bolstered by the stylized visuals.