A good chunk of the last 12 months passed without much live music to speak of, but that doesn’t mean nothing was going on in the Phoenix music world. Here are a few things we highlighted in our Best of Phoenix 2021.
‘Suns in 4’
We’ll always remember fondly this summer’s Phoenix Suns playoff run. It didn’t turn out how we wanted, but one of our favorite takeaways from those thrilling weeks was “Suns in 4,” a catchy track by local hip-hop artist Robbie Tripp. The title comes from the viral video in which Phoenician-turned-Denverite Nick McKellar got in a fight with a Nuggets fan during Game 3 of the Suns-Nuggets series: “SUNS IN FOUR!” McKellar screamed defiantly at his aggressor. The short song is an appreciation of Phoenix just as much as it is an ode to its basketball team with lyrics like “We the Valley here together / Man, we all we need / I put the city on my back / I wear it on my sleeve.” Sure, it might not be the most complex or thoughtful tune to come out of the Phoenix music scene this year. But to us, it’s a musical time capsule that will never fail to remind us of the summer of 2021, when it seemed like the whole city was united in a spirit of hope, excitement, and local pride.
Best Filler Queen
Unfortunately, local drag queen Joey Jay didn’t stay long on season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race; our hometown hero was the second contestant to get the ax. But it only took one episode to get the whole Drag Race fanbase talking about him. He famously made his entrance by declaring himself a “filler queen” (a Drag Race contestant destined to get eliminated quickly). Then, later in the episode, during a surprise lip-sync challenge, his red feather ensemble shed all over the stage. Since appearing on the show, he’s been spending a little less time in town as he makes appearances around the country, but you can still catch him most Friday nights at Kobalt in central Phoenix as part of the 4Some Revue. Oh, and those red feathers? He auctioned some of them off to raise money for nonprofits that help LGBTQ youth. He really is the queen that fills our hearts.
Best Legacy Artist
There are 1,000 ways you could frame a conversation about Andy Warpigs. They were a true punk rocker with piss and vinegar to spare. Or, a committed friend and collaborator and partner with a massive heart. They were also a spark for amazing art across the Valley’s rich indie music scene. All of those are true, and yet they only briefly encapsulate Warpigs, who died on May 30, 2021, at the age of 32. Warpigs’ art was a direct result of this ongoing battle between ample rage and disdain and a belief that change is inside us all. You got the sense that Warpigs saw life as this wondrous struggle for decency and humanity. As such, their work was representative not just of great punk but what it means to be alive in the world as someone who wanted more from it. Warpigs taught us, with every raw, sweat-soaked show and snarling new anthem released, that great art really could change the world — if only because it made us all just a shred more open and honest. Andy Warpigs helped make Phoenix a weirder and more beautiful place, and we’re all charged with carrying that great flame forward.
Best Indie Radio Station
When we think of people doing an outstanding job supporting local music, the DJs of KWSS are right near the top of the list. The indie station will celebrate its 16th anniversary later this year, which means it has spent more than a decade and a half playing songs by local artists and exposing the public to aspects of the Phoenix music scene they may have missed. The DJs are all volunteers, so when you’ve listened to The Jay Cairo Show, Dani’s Diner Retro Hour, or Dubs’ Private Reserve (which just ended a four-year run), remember that you’re tuning in to a group of folks who care enough about bringing music to the Valley that they’re willing to do it for free.
Best Way to Hear Your Favorite Local DJ
When Jake Stellarwell first started developing Recordbar Radio in 2019, he envisioned the locally focused internet radio project, studio, and retail spot as something to “bring DJ and independent underground music culture in a bit tighter while bringing everyone together in a meaningful way.” He turned out to be more prescient than a needle-dropping Nostradamus. When the pandemic pressed pause on the Valley’s music and nightlife scene for the better part of a year, Recordbar helped fill the silence with video and audio YouTube livestreams of local DJs, producers, turntablists, beatsmiths, and selectors laying down a wide variety of sounds at the central Phoenix studio. (MCs, bands, and musicians have also been featured.) After launching in April 2020, the Recordbar crew began inviting in artists from various scenes, running the gamut from crate-diggers like Djentrification and Johnny D. to experimental electronic artist Terminal 11 to techno-loving freaks like Disco Zombie. They’ve broadcast close to 500 livestreams thus far, and later this year, Stellarwell says they’ll debut a new location that also functions as a coffee shop, record store, beer and wine bar, and full-fledged venue. “We’re trying to make Phoenix a bit more of a dynamic, interesting, and culturally relevant place to be,” he says.
Best Tribute to Local Rock Legends
Valley Rockstar Memorial
Doug Hopkins may have shuffled off his mortal coil some 28 years ago, but he’s still a part of the city where he made his name as a musician. A vibrant, 8-foot-wide painting of the late Gin Blossoms songwriter and guitarist adorns the cinderblock wall outside Tommy Gwinn’s home in Tempe and is part of the Valley Rockstar Memorial, a mural series he launched in 2020 to honor prominent local musicians who have died. Alongside Hopkins are portraits of guitarist-vocalist Lawrence Zubia, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, keyboardist Vince Welnick of The Tubes, and Mike Condello, the bandleader for The Wallace and Ladmo Show. There are seven paintings in all, each created by Mesa artist Gina Ribaudo. As Gwinn told us earlier this year, the project is a way to keep the memories of these local legends alive. “Someone told me once that everybody dies twice: The first time is when they pass away and the second is when everybody forgets who they were,” he says. “And I’m trying to help keep the second one from happening as much as possible.” Amen, brother.
Best Pandemic Concert Series
What did you most miss during the pandemic? Indoor dining? A trip to the mall? Grocery shopping without fearing for your life? For us, it was live music. So we were grateful to Paul and Julie Kent, Tempe neighborhood activists who very quietly lined up acoustic acts and sent out the low-key word about a series of socially distanced, outdoor performances. It felt so decadent to grab a mask and a beer and wander down the street to the George Ditch to listen to music. We loved being able to tip the musicians (most of whom really suffered with no venues open) and most of all, to just feel normal for a bit, transported by music performed in several spots around the ‘hood to keep the crowds tiny and the tunes flowing. We hope the world never shuts down again, but if it does, a return of Ditch Sessions would be an acceptable silver lining.
Best TikTok Superstar
A great person once said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get weird.” That’s certainly been the recent M.O. of Robbie Pfeffer, the frontman of longtime Phoenix indie rock band Playboy Manbaby. Over the last year-plus, Pfeffer has blown up big-time on TikTok, whether on the band’s account or working with the Maricopa County Democratic Party. Pfeffer’s presence on the “children’s dancing app” sounds unlikely until you see his videos. His combination of bizarre antics and visuals, paired with relevant musings on Arizona’s political landscape, somehow works, and his deadpan humor and general vibe make these clips informative, entertaining, and even a little edgy. Pfeffer’s rise as an unlikely social media star is great for Phoenix, bolstering our reputation as an artistic haven. But mostly, it’s a victory for Pfeffer, who was able to expand his career options in a way as to build on the weird and wonderful art that he’s made over the years. It’s like having your cake and eating it too (but in, like, one of those super-viral mukbang videos).
Best Twitter War
Gin Blossoms v. Denver Nuggets Fan
The 2021 NBA playoffs were a highly emotional time for a lot of us. As our Phoenix Suns plowed through the competition toward what seemed like an inevitable NBA championship, we all dealt with our nervous energy in different ways. As one example, Tempe music legends the Gin Blossoms blew off a little steam by engaging in a Twitter war with a smartass Denver Nuggets fan. After the Suns trounced the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs, the Gin Blossoms were the halftime entertainment during Game Two of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Clippers. “Leave it to the Suns to book the third shittiest band ever,” tweeted @VicFang1o. “Who did your Nuggets book tonight?” the Blossoms fired back. That could have been the end of it, but @VicFang1o just wouldn’t stop poking. “This @nuggets season is now about as relevant as the Gin Blossoms tbh,” he responded. The Gin Blossoms clapped back by saying they were playing “one more game of the Western Conference Finals than the Nuggets.” The back-and-forth jabs continued, with @VicFang1o’s trolling comments getting increasingly lame. In the end, he faded back into obscurity and the Gin Blossoms spent the summer on tour, so we know who the real winner is here.
Best YouTube Series
The Way Back Sessions
Earlier this year, when music venues hadn’t reopened and we were jonesing for some live, local music, only one thing took the edge off. The Way Back Sessions is a weekly YouTube series featuring host Adam Carter, camerawoman Kat Carter, and outgoing sound engineer Brian Pristelski, along with a rotating cast of musical guests. Over the course of 90 minutes or so, viewers get a livestreamed performance interspersed with interview questions and banter between Carter and the musicians. Carter’s enthusiasm is infectious; you can hear him screaming in the background for beloved local acts like Banana Gun, Snailmate, Wurmfur, The Real Fakes, Chrome Rhino, Wyves, The Woodworks, and Big Finish. Beyond giving us a crash course in what’s cool in the Phoenix music scene, The Way Back Sessions personalizes the concert experience for viewers; we come away from each episode knowing more about the people we see on stage at shows. Carter says he has big plans for the show, including getting regional and national acts into the WBS studio. We can’t wait to go along for the ride.
It’s difficult to say that any one band is a city’s greatest musical asset — metro Phoenix teems with excellent, multi-genre artists. But Paper Foxes represent a choice that also feels properly aligned with Phoenix as a rich and vibrant city. Their infectious blend of New Wave and disco not only packs shows Valley-wide but exemplifies the lively and joyous aspects of the local music scene. Sounding a bit like Duran Duran and a bit like The Killers, Paper Foxes don’t trade substance for style; rather, the slick synths and angular guitars draw you in so you can get hit with the lyrics, which are often about heartbreak, political turmoil, and the like. The band is the best example of the “’80s but make it modern” vibe that a lot of local acts put out these days, and although we’re still waiting for a follow-up to their 2019 album, Popular Confessions, we can sustain ourselves by seeing them at venues like The Rebel Lounge and listening to songs like the quasi-title track “Pop Confessions.” Back when the album came out, synth player Patro Gaston told us the song is about “how it feels like the world is nearly going to end, but it’s okay to let go and enjoy life anyway.” Sounds like the perfect music for 2021.
Best New Band
Phoenix has no singular defining musical style or sound; you’re just as likely to hear great rock as hip-hop, punk, folk, and electronic music. Violet Choir, which is composed of Mickey and Jesse Pangburn of local bands MRCH and The Prowling Kind, fully encapsulates that tradition just a year into its latest configuration. The band expertly marries bits of synth-pop, indie rock, punk, and pop into something that’s both dense emotionally and yet hugely playful. Their February 2021 self-titled EP is sleek and moody, and we’ve listened to it plenty over the past several months when we’re looking for music to accompany a chill evening. It’s their gusto and commitment that has Violet Choir already among the other great bands that have called Phoenix their home. And they formed during a pandemic — imagine what they’ll conceivably accomplish when the world’s not on fire.
ROAR, Diamond Destroyer of Death
ROAR frontman Owen Evans is somewhat soft-spoken in person, but don’t mistake that for a lack of ambition or artistic confidence. The excellent Diamond Destroyer of Death, which Phoenix New Times deemed a standout in the first half of 2021, is a totally sweeping pop record. What makes this 10-track LP so magical isn’t just the gimmicks, like “songs within songs” or some kind of nebulous story or concept. It’s how Evans and his collaborators spin in strands of psychedelic, baroque, and ’60s pop to make something far more groovy than the sum of its catchy parts. It’s as if Evans himself is captaining an interdimensional tandem bike to take us through the pop sphere, pulling at bits of melody and romantic energies to delight and amuse along the way. The album itself doesn’t just celebrate the great music of yesteryear, but tweaks and evolves it in real time to present something that’s otherworldly and beguiling without losing any relatability or playfulness. This is pop music for a new, more strange world, and we should all be thankful for Evans’ guiding presence in it.
Local rapper Jacob Railford fights for social justice and civil rights in the streets and behind the mic. As an activist and community organizer, he’s wielded a megaphone while participating in dozens of protests since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and is a founding member of anti-police-brutality organization W.E. Rising Project. As rapper Roqy Tyraid, he dexterously spits lyrically complex flows in weekly Twitter videos calling out local cops for brutal tactics and politicians for misrepresenting his group and Black Lives Matter protesters as criminal gangs. (Sample cut: “Most BLM protests were people / Predatorily arrested / Felonies for yelling in the street / Instead of misdemeanors.”) Railford, who’s been performing since 2005, told the Arizona Republic in July his rap career helped him segue into being an activist, and both pursuits ultimately have the same goal: working to inform others about social ills like police brutality and systemic racism. For Railford, there’s more work to be done and he’ll continue spreading the word with both microphone and megaphone.
Phoenix’s rave scene has been a breeding ground for dynamic DJs for decades. One of its more recent standouts is Srija Serineni, who has worked her magic on the mixers as FAIRYDVST at desert parties, warehouse ragers, and forest campouts since debuting in 2016. What separates Serineni from other local DJs, other than being a south Asian woman performing in a scene largely white and male, are her forward-thinking mixes that weave new music from undiscovered bass house, U.K. garage, and future house artists with darker and weirder grooves. She was dropping producers like Qlank, Nostalgix, and Moksi on underground crowds well before they became staples of EDM playlists. Serineni still gigs at raves, including her own, but has crossed over to more mainstream events, bringing her outsider mentality and early adopter savvy to clubs and festivals. Local EDM promoter Relentless Beats began tapping her for events after she placed highly in a 2019 DJ battle. She’s also lit up house music nights at Bar Smith, Hi Score Club, and Zuma Grill, putting clubgoers on the dance floor at each spot under her sonic spell.
Renowned Phoenix concert promoter Danny Zelisko has done and seen it all — and he’s the first to tell you about it. In his 2020 memoir, All Exce$$: Occupation: Concert Promoter, he spins unforgettable (and often wild) yarns from 45-plus years of producing more than 10,000 gigs since the mid-’70s for a who’s-who of music legends in the Valley and elsewhere. Like helping Pink Floyd sell out back-to-back nights at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 1988. Or booking Paul McCartney at Sun Devil Stadium in 1990, or smoking weed with Perry Farrell when the now-defunct Compton Terrace hosted the first Lollapalooza show in 1991. As enthralling as this behind-the-scenes glimpse was to read, it told us what we already knew: Zelisko has profoundly shaped and influenced the local concert scene for decades, from mentoring Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar co-owner Charlie Levy early in his career to advising the current proprietors of Celebrity Theatre after longtime owner Rich Hazelwood died in March. And he keeps bringing icons like Styx, Cheap Trick, and George Thorogood to town for fans of a certain age to enjoy and younger fans to discover. Keep going, Danny — we aren’t ready for you to hang up that backstage pass yet.