It was a strange year for local music, as many venues re-opened, outdoor shows proliferated, and long postponed albums were released, but delta has kept things different than normal.

That meant albums probably didn’t get the time on the road that they require to build attention (and earn some income.) And plenty of groups released great records this year despite the turbulent environment around them. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the streaming service Bandcamp has held “Bandcamp Fridays,” where it waives its fees to pass along the money directly to the creators.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some of the albums by local groups that caught my ear and are worth checking out.

Abstract Aprils

Abstract Aprils, "Odyssey"

Abstract Aprils, 'Odyssey'

abstractaprils.bandcamp.com

Nothing brought ambient music into popular culture like the pandemic did, so here’s a shout-out to the local artist making ambient in western Montana.

“Odyssey” falls onto the more serene “Music for Airports” end of the spectrum — it doesn’t engage with menace or anything too jarring, and it’s all instrumental, with some admittedly dusty touches. The series of nine pieces are chopped up into song length with arcs of their own, although they’re fairly subtle by design.

Arrowleaf

Arrowleaf, "Getting By"

Arrowleaf, 'Getting By'

arrowleaf.bandcamp.com

Arrowleaf cover the gamut of moody indie-folk and pop sounds on “Getting By” with contemporary production and local detail.

“Thrift Store Dukes” sounds bouncy and playful on the surface but the lyrics put someone’s arrogance under a microscope. “River” is an a cappella piece in “out there” Neko Case mode, with epigrammatic lines (“no one tells a river where to run”). “Mtn Peak” finds the protagonist wandering through the landscape with deep guitar and trumpet to match.

Sarah Marker is the voice of the group, and along with the full band (Amanda Ceaser, Jon Filkins, Jim Riach, and Brady Schwertfeger, plus guests), they carefully packaged them

Ash Nataanii

Ash Nataanii, "Exit Music for Exit Wounds" 

Ash Nataanii, 'Exit Music for Exit Wounds'

ashnataanii.bandcamp.com

Nataanii, the voice of rock group Fuuls, explores a mellower (though not necessarily lighter) mood on her solo project, “Exit Music for Exit Wounds.”

It a classic bedroom recording project feeling, from the comforting sound of drum machines and relatively low-key guitar sounds to the subject matter — introspective and self-eviscerating lyrics that go down easier thanks to the calm production style that can feel like 1980s anthems faded by tape decay.

“25 to Life” addresses her youth growing up in North Dakota as an Indigenous person in a religious household; “idgf” has the desperation of someone looking to reconnect, and Nataanii’s voice, which has a lot of range, expresses the varied moods of that desperation, not unlike the record as a whole.

Cosmic Sans

Cosmic Sans, "Cosmic Sans"

Cosmic Sans, 'Cosmic Sans'

cosmicsansband.bandcamp.com

While rock ‘n’ roll has always been vehicle for hedonism in college towns, the genre seems to have shifted toward psych rather than punk in the past handful of years. Regardless, the reckless spirit is alive in groups like Cosmic Sans, but the rhythms are different and the effects pedal-boards are bigger. As befits the genre, this debut album is all-over the place, with jump cuts between genres and sounds, sometimes within a jam. The mid-tempo songs keep all the antic energy grounded.

Junior

Junior, "Warm Buildings"

Junior, 'Warm Buildings'

juniortheband.bandcamp.com

The trio of Caroline Keys, Jenny Lynn Fawcett and Hermina Jean Harold teamed up before the pandemic for this project, where empathetic harmony vocals, shared songwriting and spare instrumentation that keeps the songs and voices as the centerpiece. The live shows have been rare, but a highlight of last summer, so the studio treatment is more than welcome.

Queenager

Queenager, "Easy"

Queenager, 'Easy'

queenagermusic.bandcamp.com

Sarah Frazier and Bryan Curt Kostors teamed up for this synth-pop project, where her calmly focused delivery is matched with heady synth sounds they conjured up together during COVID. Kostors, a visiting professor at the University of Montana School of Music, wrote an orchestral arrangement to “The Line,” with an actual orchestra. As the Missoulian wrote in August, "following the dips and waves and hops and pitters of this new synth-pop album is a journey in itself as it turns a mirror on listeners allowing them to face their own truths."

Ro Myra

Ro Myra, "Nowhere, Nebraska"

Ro Myra, 'Nowhere, Nebraska'

romyra.bandcamp.com

Myra’s record, cut in Nashville, revisits her upbringing in rural Nebraska and the hardships of small-town life (including a loved one with alcoholism.) That said, the singer-songwriter’s voice and melodic skills off-set the hard looks at life, and the band she recruited help lift the mood up toward closure.

Rob Travolta

Rob Travolta, "Slumber Soul" (Anything Bagel)

Rob Travolta, 'Slumber Soul'

robtravolta.bandcamp.com

This duo project between bassist Rob Cave and drummer Cole Bronson, both of whom play in other groups around town, sets aside vocals and guitar (mostly) for evocative instrumental rock that’s progressive but not show-offy. Some local guests help fill out the core instruments with synth, steel, guitar, harp and trumpet, but the core remains a solid lo-fi record for road trips.