First, a disclaimer.
Yes, this list is purely subjective. Yes, it leans heavily on guitar-driven blues, roots and rock acts. Yes, there are plenty of other Iowa artists not on this list worth your attention who are defying conventions and innovating in all kinds of genres. But sometimes you gotta plug an old guitar into a tube amp and crank that bad boy. That’s what most of this list is about.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I can confidently and righteously assert that these ten acts, without exception, absolutely thrash. All of them perform regularly across the state, too, so look up their gig schedules and catch a show! You can’t go wrong here.
10) TWINS – This Cedar Valley outfit cranks out an undeniably hooky flavor of pop rock that lands somewhere between the Byrds and the Replacements. Their most recent album, 2016’s Square America, deserves a place on any Iowa record collector’s shelf. The album crackles with bratty teenage attitude, clever arrangements and tight musicianship. Check out the searing guitar tones on “Hot Stepper,” the retro jangle and harmonies of “Breakin’ Up,” and the pedal steel-tinged pop punk of “Lovesick Romeo.”
9) Pink Neighbor – The relatively new upstarts on the list (you might even say including them here is a sly declaration of new-classic status slipped into a list of old safe ones), Pink Neighbor hail from Grinnell. Their live show oozes highly infectious, 60’s psychedelic charm. I saw them play the opening show for last year’s Maximum Ames Music Festival and immediately fell under their spell. They’ve released a couple EPs and three singles, but I can’t wait to hear a proper full-length album from them.
8) The Rush Cleveland Trio – Rush Cleveland’s voice sounds like pure authenticity. He’s paid his dues with a lifetime of gigging and devotion to the guitar. Another Cedar Valley entry on the list, check out the Rush Cleveland Trio’s last two releases, American Music vols. 1 and 2. Both albums are full of blues, honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll, stripped down to the bare essentials. When Rush sings a line like, “Liquor, lines and ladies, that’s lessons learned,” in his gravelly warble, you don’t doubt a word of it.
7) The Surf Zombies – Brook Hoover, the Cedar Rapids guitar virtuoso who leads the Surf Zombies, taught me nearly everything I know about the guitar. I took lessons from him for about three years during high school and college. The man lives and breathes guitar, and he infuses everything he does with his relentless enthusiasm and goofy sense of humor. The Surf Zombies, a surf-rock instrumental band, provides Brook and his bandmates a platform for plenty of guitar heroics and attitude, and they’ve done a terrific job over the years carving out a unique niche in the Iowa music scene. The Surf Zombies catalog includes a handful of albums, all of which brim with classic guitar tones and interesting musical arrangements that are always catchy but never obvious. You won’t find a tighter – or weirder – band on this list.
6) Strong Like Bear – This long-time Ames band includes some of my favorite human beings in the world, but that’s not why I put them on the list. SLB has existed for over a decade now, producing a solid discography of alt. rock that strikes me as a cross between the Pixies and Fleetwood Mac. The combination of influences lends the band a versatility and adventurousness that keeps each of their five albums sounding fresh. But the secret ingredient is the chemistry the band members have established through a decade-plus playing together. I highly recommend Passing Through the Waves, the band’s latest album, released in early March.
5) Matt Woods – One of the finest blues guitar pickers the state has produced, Matt Woods has certainly put in the reps. The lanky lefty has produced a consistently excellent discography of full-band and solo work over the years. Two common denominators tie all of his music together: his impeccable fretwork and his gruff vocals. His 2018 album Tired & Dirty casts life in rural Iowa squarely in the blues tradition. And anyone who’s suffered through a Midwestern winter can relate to the white-knuckle thrill of 2015’s “Snow Drivin.” Contender for the most Iowa song lyric of all time: “It keeps on snowin’ like a sonofabitch, and I can’t tell the edge of the gravel from the bottom of a ditch. Snow drivin!”
4) Brother Trucker – On Brother Trucker’s most recent album 5, a song titled “Bar Fight” leads into the next track, called “Who Called the Cops.” And that’s a pretty good indication of what you get with Brother Trucker: a bunch of rugged Americana rockers about misfits and outlaws. Principal songwriter Andy Fleming possesses a terrific eye for lyrical detail, and the band raises hell with the best of them. Fleming is one of Iowa’s hardest gigging singer-songwriters, but don’t sleep on keyboardist Matt Jesson when he takes lead vocals on “Powderfinger.”
3) William Elliott Whitmore – I first saw William Elliott Whitmore at the Maintenance Shop in Ames back when I was a sophomore at Iowa State, most likely 2005 or 2006. His voice alone stopped me in my tracks, and his rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” remains etched in my memory as one of the most powerful musical displays I’ve witnessed. Since then, the great Iowa troubadour has been writing, recording and touring relentlessly. His most recent album, Kilonova, came out on Bloodshot Records, the scrappy Chicago indie responsible for some of my favorite alt-country of the last decade. His smoky blend of folk, blues and country all wrapped up in a punk rock attitude and old-soul vocal delivery is absolutely essential listening for Iowa music fans. Whitmore’s side project with Dave Zollo, Middle Western, is worth your time too!
2) Pieta Brown – Iowa City-based Pieta Brown is the one artist on this list I have never seen live, but I’ve listened to both of her most recent albums – Paradise Outlaw and Postcards – extensively. Her crystal-clear vocals, her literary-yet-immediate songwriting and the haunting atmospherics of her recordings combine to give her work a quiet, swirling depth that’s easy to get lost in. In an interview, Brown explains that the inspiration for “Rosine,” my favorite composition of hers, came to her in a dream about Bill Monroe. The more I thought of it, the more a dream about the ghost of one of Appalachia’s greatest musicians seems like the perfect image to accompany Pieta Brown’s music.
1) Joe and Vicki Price – I’ve often heard people describe Robert Johnson’s guitar playing as if it sounds like two guitarists rather than just one. I’d argue that Iowa blues legends Joe and Vicki Price sound like two guitars being played by a single, unified mind – with tone that would make Hound Dog Taylor blush. And their live show is an absolute joy to behold. Their warmth and humor draw the audience in to make everyone feel like they’re at a party with all their best friends. I never tire of watching the way Joe stomps and slides his feet around with all those irresistible rhythms. Listen to “High Blood Pressure” from their 2015 album Night Owls to get a sense of what I’m talking about.