People like to write off Ohio. It’s a swing state in the rust belt with horrid winters and humid summers, and one of its major cities, Cleveland, is a frequent butt of jokes. Known for the infamous Cuyahoga River fire, historically unlucky major sports teams and a rather brown Lake Erie, Cleveland is an easy target. But the people who live there learn to grow a thick skin and embrace each other, and despite all the flak they get from outsiders, Clevelanders love to tell you they’re from Cleveland—just look at the recent spike in city-branded merchandise, emblazoned with phrases like “Believeland” or “Cleveland against the world.”
Luckily, Cleveland’s music history is far less depressing than its sports highlight reels or its bodies of water, and its current scenes showcase the tenacity and love of community that its people exude. The term “rock ‘n’ roll” was first coined by Cleveland’s own DJ, Alan Freed, and the very first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, took place there in 1952 for the modest price of $1.50. It’s also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which recently turned 25), influential rock critic Jane Scott and an amusing Spinal Tap reference and crowd greeting (“Hello Cleveland!”). Rock stars like Nine Inch Nails and Chrissie Hynde, R&B groups like The Hesitations and The Moonglows, punk bands like Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys and hip-hop artists like Bones Thugs-N-Harmony and Kid Cudi helped put Cleveland on the map, and current artists, labels and venues are continuing that legacy. You haven’t truly experienced the rich local music scene unless you’ve drank a tall boy at the Grog Shop, went bowling at Mahall’s 20 Lanes or shopped at the vintage store in the basement of the Beachland Ballroom.
To celebrate a music scene that’s near and dear to me and a city where I spent the first two decades of my life, I thought I’d share some of my current favorite artists from there. Since the coronavirus pandemic has made in-person live music events impossible, feel free to think of this list as a virtual Cleveland music festival, where you can sample up-and-comers from all sorts of genres—rock, soul, folk, hip-hop, emo and more. Whether you’re from Cleveland or not, if you’re interested in supporting the scene, I highly recommend buying music on Bandcamp from the artists featured below, donating to the NEO Music Relief Fund and Mahall’s Kickstarter campaign and buying merchandise from the Beachland Ballroom and Grog Shop.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify right here.
Emily Keener got her start writing and performing professionally at age 12 before she appeared on The Voice at age 16. Her previous full-length Breakfast won her No Depression’s 2017 Singer/Songwriter Award, and her 2020 album I Do Not Have To Be Good is exceptionally pretty. While her older material leaned more into authentic Americana, her recent songs channel breathy, layered indie-folk, and they’re wonderfully pacifying.
It’s hard to overstate how integral Samantha Flowers (aka Playne Jayne) and Brittany Benton (aka DJ Red-I) are to the Cleveland music scene and community at large. Benton runs Brittany’s Record Shop, where the two host a monthly event called Beat Freak for local artists to network and share their talents. They also have their own independent label, Fresh By Nature Records, and participate in an initiative called FreshLo, which aims to empower communities through food, arts and culture. The duo makes music as FreshProduce, and last year, they released their fourth original album Phases, an entirely DIY effort that features a host of Ohio artists like Candi Fresca, Gold Rose, Mellow XZACKT, Joey Aich and Paper Paulk. Flowers serves up off-kilter, exuberant beats while Benton’s even-keeled presence on the mic compliments her self-assured lyricism. The album also features Columbus’ famous J. Rawls on the boards for one track, “Pick Your Weapon,” and the album cover was photographed by Cleveland’s own Emanuel Wallace.
Maybe you’re already aware of Heart Attack Man because of their manic Twitter presence, characterized by coffee mugs, orange beanies and challenges to beat up lead singer Eric Egan—some of his recent hijinks include hyping up his supposed dirt bike jump over the upcoming presidential debate in Cleveland, receiving a cease and desist letter from Waffle House and parodying one of their hometown’s greatest commercials, the Liberty Ford jingle. Entertaining shitposting aside, their emo-punk is fiercely cathartic and full of gut-wrenching metaphors for very real pain and insecurities. Their latest album Fake Blood is an absolute stunner.
Item’s music is full of fascinating contrasts. It has the warmth and longing of an indie-emo record, plus the sparkling modulated synths and sharp lyricism of an art rock band. Their latest album Sad Light features beachy, emo-tinged vocals along with slowcore dissonance and silvery guitar lines—despite their many elements, they thrive on these contradictions, and their songs are always evocative and meaningful.
After a wave of SoundCloud buzz, East Cleveland MC Kipp Stone dropped his debut album Dirty Face Angel back in 2017, and it was a dense, confident introduction to one of the city’s most promising rappers. His voice has a booming richness, and his internal rhymes bring a peculiar charisma, while his instrumentals are full of immersive details: menacing synths, soul samples and chunky grooves. He dropped a pair of singles—“Cheap Sangria” and “Fill in All the Blanks”—earlier this year, and though noticeably more chill than his album, they showcase his nimble, magnetic delivery.
Ma Holos make garage-psych for the dead of night. They have two LPs to their name—2016’s The Down Five and 2018’s Bee on a Rose—and they’re both for prowling and grooving in a cloud of cigarette smoke. With tinges of fuzz and glam, they manage to pull off tightly-packed recklessness as well as artful restraint.
Mourning [A] BLKstar is such a vitally important project in Cleveland’s music scene. Billing themselves as “a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora,” the outfit is both reverent to their predecessors and hellbent on adding their own chapter. This collective, which features three vocalists, a brass section and a host of other musicians, makes passionate, intellectually enlightened soul music for the 21st century. Their latest work is a double album called The Cycle, an Afrofuturist take on soul and jazz that’s equally edifying as it is emotionally consuming.
Dreamy four-piece NIIGHTS released their debut album Whisper—a shoegaze LP marked by otherworldly grace and meaty overdrive—back in 2013, and it was re-mixed and re-released two years later. Last year, they released their second full-length Hellbores, which was released digitally in two parts, and contains bewitching shoegaze vapors spliced with metallic textures. Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Jenna Fournier, the band isn’t interested in making middle of the road dream pop or shoegaze—their heavy rock tendencies, transportive songwriting and Fournier’s saintly voice carve out a unique space.
Math rock trio Owney The Postal Dog released their debut album Owney on Ohio’s own Flowerpot Records earlier this summer, and though barely over 20 minutes, its driving melodic rock blossoms with so much life. The album is largely instrumental, with jazzy rhythmic bursts and expressive guitars—often wistful or compassionate. The penultimate “Canary” sounds like a triumphant sprint through the unknown, while the closing track and longest on the album “July,” feels like a safe hug upon return.
Pleasure Leftists always sound locked and loaded. Their gothic post-punk sound is led by vocalist Haley Morris, who’s something of a local superstar as she’s also a local DJ (whose WCSB radio show shares its name with the band) and frequent Mahall’s event planner. Her low vocal tone is intensely emotive, and her projection is powerful, as it hovers over their gloomy guitar blitz. The band released their sophomore album The Gate last year, and it’s a vocal marvel as well as a must-have for classic post-punk fans.
Angela Klimek records ambient music as Poemme, and she also runs a sleep music radio station with her husband, Andrew, called Ambient Sleeping Pill. She’s released a number of LPs, most recently with last year’s Frozen Passages, a breathtaking homage to wintry landscapes and one’s solemn connection with nature. Its predecessor, Moments in Golden Light, has a similar elemental reverence, but it’s imbued with more drone and much brighter atmospheres.
Small Wood House’s music falls somewhere between psychedelic dream pop and lo-fi bedroom rock. The quartet released their debut album Runner this past December, and its eccentric retro synths, hypnotic guitars and floaty vocals make for a meditative experience. Some of their songs are more engrossing with its tempo shifts and puzzling riffs, while others are easily digestible and blissfully misty.
The Sonder Bombs made a splash a couple years ago with their debut album MODERN FEMALE ROCKSTAR, and they’ve been climbing ever since. Their first LP was a uke-laden pop-punk record that sought to reclaim space for women in music, and it really packed a punch. Vocalist, guitarist and ukulele wielder Willow Hawks doesn’t mince her words (“I don’t wanna be your merch girl / I wanna be your goddamn idol”), and her vocals are an equally energizing, empowering force. The band just announced their signing to U.K. emo giants Big Scary Monsters earlier this month, so exciting things are sure to come.
St. Soni, who’s previously recorded as Indigo Jade, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. He’s not on social media, but his cryptic art moniker, Vingadro, does have an internet presence—selling everything from condoms and incense to sweatshirts and jewelry, and its aesthetic is very bold and mysterious. Vingadro’s Twitter bio reads, “Me and My art exist just to spite you” and several of its Instagram posts about St. Soni’s most recent single, “Sequence 22,” were geotagged at Lake View Cemetery—it’s all a bit ominous, but very intriguing, and St. Soni’s music is much the same. His 2020 EP Kali is Burning, which a poster describes as “a story of the war between Kali and Shiva,” is full of chilling, experimental hip-hop about perseverance and accented by gothic realism—he’s “born next to coffins” on “Mortuary” and awoken by ravens on “Cinema Verite.”
Walker OG is one of the city’s most exciting MCs. He released his debut album Everything’s Perfect back in 2016, and it was a lively, off-the-wall hip-hop release with accents of R&B, jazz and trip-hop. Earlier this year, he released a downtempo R&B EP with ¢el titled The Pursuit Of and started releasing remixes and original music with The Monday Program, alongside two Cleveland musicians, DJs and producers, Corey Grand and UnknownPhrazes.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify right here.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno