Though originally tempted to join the club of “best-music-of-2009” blog writers, I decided, given the fact this post is arriving already two weeks into ’10, to instead take the opportunity to give a shout-out to some of my favorite artist discoveries of the year. These are musicians who have graced many-a mix CD of mine and gotten me through a number of stressful deadline-meeting sessions. Here are 10(ish) of my new-ish-found favorites to given a listen to in ’10.
If you like what you hear of these musicians, Google them, go to their show, buy their tunes. And tell them I sent you.
I had to start this list with an artist who was really more of a re-discovery in 2009 than a newfound treasure. I must admit that when I first heard Mirah’s tunes several years back, I wasn’t overly moved by the folksy-woodsy queer jams. But (a)spera, Mirah’s newly-released album from this past year, is magnificent and has been greatly overlooked by many of the blogosphere’s lists-that-be. The album combines deeply personal lyrics with swelling string orchestrations and deserves to be held in the same – if not higher – company as some of the other, newer ladies-of-weird who shone this past year.
These California boys are a very recent find, as I was tipped off by the Guardian’s profile last month. This track – off the yet-to-be-released Gorilla Manor – is the first track of theirs I heard. I was immediately struck by the wintry piece of harmonious heaven, and later impressed by their use of unusual, African-esque percussive rhythms to break up their beautiful vocal glissandos. Their sound is slightly reminiscent of Justin Vernon on uppers. On vacation in LA. In fast-forward. Or Fleet Foxes, but actually good.
One of the biggest joys of no longer being unemployed – probably my biggest accomplishment of the past year – was the ability to buy music again, and my vinyl collection has since swelled. One of the first albums I picked up with my bits of discretionary income was True Romance from Golden Silvers, a band that belies easy classification. I’d already heard one track – the pleading “Please Venus” – via a blog, but the full record – which is a lovely hue of lavender – took my appreciation for the band to a new level. Their music is flamboyantly poptastic to be certain, but its psychodelic vibe felt surprisingly refreshing on first listen. Despite holding a certain retroness to it, their sound grows more addictive with each listen.
Bombay Bicycle Club
Another Brit pop outfit that rocked my headphones this past year is Bombay Bicycle Club. This track, off their endearingly-titled “I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Off,” is particularly pleasing, and has become a staple of my frequent mixes made for friends. It plays well as a transition song between the opening, upbeat first-third of a mix and the more introspective, slower middle-third, indicative of the band’s successful combination of soul-searching lyrics (like “I’m not whole / I’m not whole / Oh, you waste it all”) with undeniably catchy instrumentation. Other tracks on their debut go into unexpected, more experimental directions, proving this is a band whose next move is never predictable. What is it about Brit boys and their mastery of the pop music machine – and my heart?
Ramona Falls, the solo project of Menomena’s Portland-based Brent Knopf, at times feels like a psychiatrist’s exercise. But that’s OK. Intuit, the debut album looking inside the songwriter’s head, is not exactly an optimistic creation, but proved both ambitious and delicious to this listener’s ear. This track is particularly epic with its bleak lyrics – “My heart wants just to know that it exists / My heart wants just to know” – and slow-building, then quietly-dissipating guitar and percussion. Other songs bring in haunting piano and plenty of unusual structures. Even if he could be in need of a good pharmacist, Knopf is clearly a musical prodigy, and his debut solo effort is remarkable.
Speaking of the structure of a mix CD – this is the portion of the list dedicated to those aforementioned introspective songs that usually compromise the middle section. And the Canadian band Lightning Dust could not fit better anywhere else on this list. I was first clued into the project of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber and Joshua Wells by Carrie Brownstein via NPR’s All Songs Considered, and the hype she lent their music was clearly well-deserved. Their album, Infinite Light, is one of my favorites of this past year. The songs are laden with nostalgia, desire and a quiet sense of optimism shining just under the surface of their sparse musical creations.
My Gold Mask
Naturally, this list would not be complete without at least one local contribution, and My Gold Mask are one of the hottest bands to watch in the Windy City. I first came across this duo after having a few too many vodka-sodas at the Decibelle kickoff party at Berlin last October. Playing after French electro-singer-songwriter Emilie Simon, the couple blasted into their set with an energy – and surprising amount of sound – that could not be ignored. The release party for their A Thousand Voices EP last weekend at the Hideout was sold-out and equally impressive. Her presence is particularly transfixing, similar to an early Karen O.
Given this Montreal band’s previous roots – including former members of the Unicorns and Arcade Fire – it is not surprising that their sound is a feast for the ears, at least if you dig somewhat dark vaudevillian, cabaret pop stylings. Their self-titled debut – out last year – is another that I was surprised did not make more best-of-’09 lists. The album combines bizarre, often grim lyrics with song structures that land all over the map but never, never bore. So get a clue – har – and give this band a listen.
If you haven’t yet jumped on the Ellie Goulding bandwagon, you are, frankly, running out of time before takeoff. Goulding has found herself near the top of most Brit critics’ ones-to-watch lists in recent weeks, and the accolades are well-deserved. Her voice has that incredible quality that hipster remix-creating DJs and pop audiences alike fall in love with. Her EP was fantastic and her other endeavors – including vocals for Starsmith’s beautiful remix of Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” – have only furthered the case for her impending stardom. Her debut album – Lights – is out in March. (And this track features another adorable Brit, Frankmusik, who narrowly missed this list. He’s like Cher’s bi-curious electro-baby.)
These exciting Kitsune darlings from South London are also remix-friendly and more than ready to boil over with just a bit more time to simmer. Their electronic creations combine somewhat sinister lyrics with sleek production. They represent a lot of styles that are catching on right now, without being too much of any particular musical trend to remain enticingly fresh. This is electro-pop at its finest – keep an eye out for their debut album – Unicorn – out this month.
I realize this Philly-based project – led by the former hardcore head Wesley Eisold – makes eleven, but I couldn’t bring myself to narrow the list down any further. And technically, Cold Cave’s sound is so derivative-at-times (see: “Love Comes Close,” New Order) that it nearly fits into the category of “re-discovery.” But this stuff – based in synth beats, feedback and distortion – is so solid that I really couldn’t care more that the sound may not be the most original.