We’ve come to the time of year where we get to sit back and reflect on the year that was in music. Today, we set the spotlight on twenty artists and bands who left huge first impressions on us and in the process left us longing to hear more. If many on this list go on to achieve the success and notoriety of those identified a year ago, expect to hear their names being celebrated by the biggest taste-makers and curators in the business.
It’s not often that three tours-de-force could be considered hidden gems, yet the new project of Protomartyr’s Greg Ahee, Preoccupations’ Mike Wallace (who is only one of the great drummers around), and AJ Lambert (who is Frank Sinatra’s granddaughter), Bloodslide, is just that. A reason for the lack of notoriety might be due to the fact that their self-titled debut EP is not for the faint of heart. In other words, it does not approach anywhere close to being mainstream or commercial. So if you’re expecting crooner music, forget about it. Instead, the four songs are gruelling, Gothic-infused post-punk. And it is awesome. They each have one intention – to make the hairs on listeners’ arms to rise with he harrowing, explosive, and song-of-the-year candidate “MVP” leading the charge. Music fans can only hope this super-group is here to stay.
In a year where melancholy became synonymous with dark enchantment, few bands made it as stark and cinematic as Bnny. With their striking debut album, Everything (Fire Talk Records), Jess Viscius, her twin sister Alexa, and best friends Tim Makowski and Matt Pelkey created mood-altering soundscapes – from dusty, ’70s neo-psychedelia (“Promises”, “Take That Back”, “Time Walk”) to trembling, shadowy folk-noir (“Everything”, “Ambulance”). These styles provide the canvas to Jess’ vivid songwriting, which is often vulnerable and mysterious. The effect of the Chicago-based quartet’s songs, as such, is one of awe and wonderment. One that leaves us feeling a little weaker yet fully enriched by the experience.
It’s a testament to Ben Jones – and an indictment on taste-makers and curators like ourselves – that the Massachusetts-based artist is finally getting noticed. For more than a decade, he’s been recording music with a rotating cast of players under the moniker Constant Smiles, culminating in the release of over a dozen albums. It was only this year that the Jones-led project finally signed with a label (Sacred Bones) and, as a result, people started to notice. His latest album, Paragons, is one of the most under-appreciated releases of the year. It feels like a Greatest Hits LP with its vast and varied approach (psychedelic rock, psych-pop, folk-rock, desert-noir, dream-folk) and stories that cover a lifetime of experiences. Once NPR and KEXP grab hold of this LP or even just the song “Daisy, Table for Three”, they and everyone else will be clamoring for Constant Smiles to play at Newport Folk Fest and every marquee festival.
Charlotte Spiral is not one person, but the duo of Amy Spencer and Avi Barath. Their music is cinematic, stunning, and completely spellbinding. “New Light” features just piano, a little bit of keyboard, and Spencer’s captivating voice in one of the year’s most beautiful tracks. The duo followed it up with “Suddenly”, an even more gorgeous and moving single, showcasing Spencer’s undeniable ability to strike right at the heart with only her voice. That, along with the addition of strings only amplified what makes Charlotte Spiral such a notable artist. Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that the duo take their name from a figure skating pose, citing old figure skating videos as an influence to their sound. There’s a delicate edge that figure skaters play with, on the border of beauty and heartbreak, and that’s exactly where Charlotte Spiral’s music lives.
Cleo Sol (of SAULT)
Enigmatic would be a word to describe SAULT, who despite being one of the great bands of the past five years have kept their membership a secret. That is except for Cleo Sol, who also has an exceptional solo project. Whereas SAULT dabble in alt-R&B, Sol’s music is more classic in its approach. Part Nina Simone and Alicia Keys, her stories and music are filled with a gorgeous tenderness that would make even the most hardened individual melt. It also helps that she has one of the most beautiful voices in the business. Her new album, Mother, is a dazzler, and one does not need to be a parent to feel the emotions that emanate from her words. This ability speaks to the power of Sol.
A great voice can grab your attention, but a stunning melody and fabulous songwriting are what keep listeners coming back for more. And Daniel Netz has all these traits in spades. Her debut EP, It’s All in Your Mind, is a masterclass in sonic artistry, blending the grace of Mazzy Starr with the widescreen songwriting of Lana Del Rey. It is the latter in which the Tel Aviv-based singer-songwriter’s talents truely shine. On the stunning “Lighthouse”, she cunningly compares a failing relationship to a storm descending on the land. “My man is my lighthouse / I’m a walking hurricane / About to abandon this sinking ship”, she beautifully sings. While on the nu-disco “The Queen Is Naked”, she observes, “The queen is naked / Is my body borrowed (or) taken? / I know it’s unreasonable / But it’s unavoidable.” And unavoidable is Netz’s future as a star within the Israeli scene and maybe even beyond.
Someone must have forgotten to tell English Teacher that a formula exists if mass popularity is the goal. The young Leeds-based quartet have thrown out the standard pop playbook in favor of a sporadic art-punk approach that borders between edgy assertiveness and funky intoxication. If they opted for the predictable, they would not be able to craft songs like “Wallace”, which focuses on the ill-fated decision of Captain Wallace Hartley of the Titanic, or “Good Grief”, which is a surreal satire about how cruel the world has become. As Gustaf and Black Country, New Road have shown, bands taking the paths less travel can find success if they are able to combine innovative arrangements with lyrical poignancy. And Lily Fontaine (vocals, rhythm guitar, synth), Douglas Frost (drums, synth), Nicholas Eden (bass, synth), and Lewis Whiting (lead guitar, synth) have got this formula down to a science.
“I am both scared of and intrigued by the deviant nature of men”, are the first words from Flossing‘s debut single, “Switch”. After hearing the song back in June, we were immediately hooked to Heather Elle’s project. This was a first impression of first impressions. It was not just one song that landed the former bassist for The Wants and BODEGA on this list, but her EP, Queen of the Mall, is mesmerizing. It possesses the edge and forward-looking nature of Alice Glass while sparkling in the Gothic post-punk of Depeche Mode and the steeliness of A Place To Bury Strangers. Like these great artists, Elle offers great insights on the state of the world, such as on “Add to Cart” and “Trap”. Elle, therefore, is not just an artist, but in many respects a philosopher.
Grazer are not exactly a new band, as the duo have signed with Cascine. At the same time, they remain a still-to-be-discovered gem from the great city of Melbourne. While the Victoria capital is more known for its jangle-pop scene and countless number of superb singer-songwriters, Mollie and Matt’s shimmering take on dreamgaze will allow them to rise above the pack. Whether it’s channeling the sparkling radiance of DIIV (“Reunion”) or the gauzy delights of iconic ’90s bands (“Hyper-normal”), this young pair are giving the genre new life. They’re adding a surprising intimacy to the blissfulness, as their ghostly vocals induce paralysis. Only a handful of bands have ever evoked such feelings, they go by the names of Slowdive, Lush, and Cocteau Twins. This can only mean one thing for Grazer – they are well-positioned to become legends themselves.
Jaws the Shark
Out of all the “new” bands we heard this year, one shone in the indie-rock and alternative category. That is Jaws the Shark, who sound like at least a four-piece outfit but consist of Olly Bailey (vocal, guitar) and Elliot Rawson (drums). As they’re just a duo, the easy assumption is that they’re like Royal Blood. Oh, they’re much more than that, playing with an intensity and ferocity equivalent to FIDLAR and Wavves. All the songs they’ve released this year – “Erase Myself”, “Demon Dream”, “Loose Change”, and “Cold Feet” – are the sonic equivalent of twenty tonnes of TNT. There isn’t a single moment where the songs relax, but instead they surge with a fiery intensity. Despite the adrenaline that flows through their music, self-doubt lingers in the band’s words. They are uncertain what the future holds, so they choose to live in the here and now. But if the London pair maintain this sonic fury, their future likely includes a primetime slot on Glastonbury’s the Pyramid Stage.
Junaco’s Blue Room is one of this year’s many incredible debut albums. On Blue Room, Shahana Jaffer and Joey LaRosa dazzle, warm, and calm listeners in a multitude of ways. Welcoming listeners with the immense “Hello” of keyboards, guitar, and a bit of static and other ambient noise, the duo started things off strong. From there, the title track, “Blue Room” was warm and inviting with stirring vocals, and a nostalgic vibe throughout. There’s a warmth and comfort throughout most of the record. “Reverie” and “Dazed” are full of wonderful guitar chime, and good vibes. On the record’s penultimate track, “Weight of the World”, Junaco remind listeners of the pitfalls of the 24-hour news cycle. How it’s okay to disconnect from it because it only leads to one being overwhelmed, entrenched, and forgetting why you even care in the first place.
Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys
Whether it’s the gradual increase of intensity in “Evening Train” or the raw breakdown in the middle of “A Stranger’s Chest”, Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys’ ability to take folk music and drive it into darkness is prevalent throughout Transit Tapes (For Women Who Move Furniture Around). While the instrumentals can become brooding, heavy, and strange, Kruger’s voice barely shakes. It is instead a stable yet incredibly powerful presence throughout most of the record. Right in the middle of the LP is “A Paper Boat”, which is a prime example of how captivating of an artist Kruger is. With her voice barely more than a whisper, the instrumentals go from finger-picked guitar to something so much bigger with heavy drums and harsh guitar distortion underlying the song’s final moments. By the time the record reaches its closer “Warm II”, Kruger has taken listeners on one hell of a ride. While it’s the record’s closer, instead of loosening the grip of her music, Kruger tightens it once more, singing “I am seconds away from spilling everything / Moments away from telling you anything” before the record’s final lines, “To draw you in… To keep you in…”.
It’s just a matter of time before Lunar Vacation won’t qualify as anything resembling a hidden gem. Already a cult favorite, Grace Repasky (vocals, guitar, bass), Maggie Geeslin (guitar), Matteo DeLurgio (auxiliary percussion), and Connor Dowd’s (drums) have all of the ingredients to claim a spot among indie’s great bands. Their debut LP, Inside Every Fig is a Dead Wasp is full of an infectious amount of energy. Each song has a lyrical charm to it, whether they’re singing about Wilco on “Shrug” or the honesty of “Making Lunch (Not Right Now)”. Lunar Vacation’s ability to draw from different influences and blend them effortlessly occurs throughout the record. “Cutting Corners” is a blast to listen to and one of the faster paced tracks on the record. They follow it up with a gorgeous, slower-paced “The Waiting Game”, and it all creates such a wonderful dynamic.
Everyone has a go-to artist they turn to for a pick-me up. The time of year nor the time of day matter little because this individual has the unique ability to make us smile. Nadine Appeldoorn’s project Mazey Haze is that for us. Her debut EP, Always Dancing, features five songs that are mesmerizing and uplifting in their effect. Breezy and shimmering psychedelic-pop fills the mini-record, highlighted by the stellar “Start Off Alone” and the centerpiece “Don’t Care”. While her music draws one in, Appeldoorn’s soothing voice and introspective but relatable songwriting are what kept you planted, devouring every note, tone, and lyric. They have you wanting more, and hopefully the Amsterdam-based artist will deliver more in the form of her debut full-length.
Opus Kink might only have a handful of songs to their credit, but the Brighton-based collective are musical geniuses. Mixing gypsy punk, ska, alt-rock, and even a bit of Bowie-esque glam-rock, their music is rambunctious and raucous even in the “quieter” moments. If there’s a band to invite to play at a New Year’s Eve Party, Angus Rogers (vocals, guitars), Sam Abbo (bass), Jazz Pope (keys, synth), Johnny Giles (trumpet), Jed Morgans (alto saxophone), and Fin Abbo (drums) would be the ones to call. It’s not just how fun and brilliantly bizarre their music is, but also the stories they tell. “This Train”, for instance, is a brilliant analogy of the rushed and greedy lifestyle of London, while “Wild Bill”, which is a song-of-the-year candidate, offers a different perspective of the American folk hero. Look for this band to make major noise in 2022.
Many artists’ path to music is quite linear – they’ve been performing solo or in bands for years while taking on side jobs to pay the bills. Madeline Link’s journey, though, has been quite a whirlwind. She’s worked as a commercial set dresser, huddled up in Mexico to create art, and performed in a power-pop band with her sister. It was not until 2019 that the seeds for her project PACKS were sown, and they began to bear fruit at the start of the pandemic the following year. During this time, she crafted most of the 11 songs on her awesome debut album, Take the Cake, which is like a mix of early Liz Phair and Kim Gordon with a heavy dash of Hole and Nirvana. Grunge pop-rock hasn’t sounded this good in about 28 years, in particular songs like “Two Hands”, “New TV”, and “Silvertongue”. If the young Toronto-based singer-songwriter continues in this direction, who knows, maybe she’ll be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned legends by the time she calls it a career.
We’re cheating a bit here because we were first introduced to Roller Derby in December 2020 when the Hamburg-based trio released “Flying High”. Since then, Philine Meyer (vocals, keys), Manuel Romero Soria (guitar), and Max Nielsen (bass) have repeatedly left us in a state of glee with their bubbly dream-pop, which has an air of ’40s and ’50s French cinema. That is, hearing songs like “Something True”, “Whatever Works”, and “Underwater” elicit images of carefree films made in black-and-film. Even the stories that Meyer’s sings through her smokey, Molly Burch-esque voice sound like they belong on the big or little screen. Expect for this to happen sooner than later because, as we said on day one, this band is going places.
Dreams can come true. It requires quite a bit of effort and energy, but one’s persistence can be rewarding. Tiberius b is a perfect example of this. Coming from a small town in British Columbia, the young artist headed to the bright lights of London, where Mark Ronson’s label, Zelig Records, discovered and signed them. Shortly thereafter – June 25th of this year to be exact – Tiberius b released their debut EP, Stains, and years of hard work turn into a reality. The mini-album is a mélange of styles and sounds – folk-pop (“Big Deal”), sultry dark ballads (“Stains”, “Green Heart), grunge-pop (“Steps”), and some ambient indie-rock (“Tears into the Sun”) – and is just a sample of the Canadian’s talent. Who knows, maybe they’ll be the next PJ Harvey.
Ve & Fasa
We love a great mystery, and Gothenburg-based quartet Ve & Fasa are full of it. For starters, the band refuse to show their faces in their promotional material, although they are willing to share their names (Ella Munday, Gustav Sandell, Marcus Andersson, and Mats Danielsson). Second, they originally formed nearly four years ago, but then took a hiatus. The reasons for the break are unknown. Third, their music is mysterious. It is a blend of post-rock, shoegaze, and dream-pop that is intoxicating and mind-blowing at the same time. Songs like the tremendous “Juli”, “Under lysande skyltar”, and “Osynlig” could form the start of a soundtrack for an interstellar film. Maybe mysterious is not the correct term, but out-of-body experience definitely captures the group’s effect.
Right from the opening moments of Wednesday‘s Twin Plagues, listeners know they’re in for a ride. Distortion, heavy drumming, and huge guitar sound set the tone quickly before giving way to Karly Hartzman’s comparatively delicate voice. This dynamic is present all throughout the LP. Intimate, quiet moments always feel like they are sitting on a powder keg, ready to explode. The record really is a great mix of different guitar-rock styles, at times it borders on metal, other times it hits a sweet ’90s alternative vibe like on “Handsome Man”. They even dabble in shoegaze on “One More Last One”. One of the album’s slow builders, “Cody’s Only”, encapsulates all that makes Wednesday special – its early moments inviting, Hartzman’s voice on the verge of breaking, and as the song progresses, things get heavier, emotionally and musically. Twin Plagues is full of big moments like those, moments of chaos, moments of calm, and moments of catharsis.
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