I’m a little late, I know…but better late than never, I suppose.
Each year, I go about compiling my “best of” lists … and there’s no formula to it. My lists are just the music that I’ve liked most in the past year, plain and simple. I don’t listen to the radio much, so you’re not likely to see Adele on my list (while I like it, just not my fave!), and I tend to buck the “indie” and “hipster” trends, so you won’t find Dawes, M83 or Bon Iver here, either. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most cool people will poo-poo my lists … and I’m okay with that! 🙂
This year, I vow to be less wordy, but I still need to talk about the things that made my musical self quake with joy. I have added a few new categories. With so many bands releasing EPs, it’s hard for me to pick only 10 albums, so I split up full length albums and EPs. An EP by my standards was any release with 7 songs or release. I also added a “looking forward” category – artists to watch in the coming year.
(I’ll try to add links to buy these albums over the next few days, but I’ve been writing for a couple of hours and I don’t have anything left!)
So, without further adieu.
10. Brendan James – Brendan James (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
Like so many of my favorites, gotta thank Christy for introducing me to Brendan. This gentle album is so sweet that it’s impossible not to love it. It indulges my hopeless romantic side to no end! Brendan has a knack for writing great little love songs (“Anything for You” is my favorite), amplified by his adeptness on the keys. It’s simple, endearing and just plain likeable.
9. Sequoyah – Spells (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
My favorite fellas from Chuck Town put out a sweaty, sticky homage to growing up in the South, making an emphatic departure from sugar-tinged pop. Don’t get me wrong, I adored their old stuff, but I love this mature sound a lot more. It’s so fun to watch them grow into their sound!
8. Ben Howard – Every Kingdom (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
Weirdly, the only album by a British artist to make this year’s Top 10, but what a freaking entry it is. The songwriting on this record is simply phenomenal. It stirs my emotions to their very core, and that for me is probably the most important thing a piece of music can do. One of the tracks, “The Fear,” contains probably my favorite lyric of all year… “I’ve been worrying that I’m losing the ones I hold dear; I’ve been worrying that we all live our lives in the confines of fear.” With all that’s happened in my life in the past two years, it really strikes home with me. Listen to this album and you will be transported by it, too.
7. Needtobreathe – The Reckoning (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
It would be pretty hard for this South Carolina band to top 2009’s The Outsiders, but with their fourth studio album, The Reckoning, Needtobreathe is giving it a pretty good run for the money. The Reckoning is packed full of hooky, charming, Southern rock. It is a great little morsel of album, worthy of applause.
6. Amos Lee – Mission Bell (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon $5.00 currently)
The Philly songster has done it again. Amos Lee albums are always a soulful journey, probing love, inequality, and raw human emotion. My favorite track is “Out of the Cold,” but “Windows Are Rolled Down” seems to be the track that won most folks over…no surprise, as it is a modern day “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” practically begging you to rent a convertible and drive around on that perfect summer day. It’s a masterful record from an artists that continues to climb toward his peak.
5. Golden State – Division (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
Golden State’s much-anticipated “debut” release got knocked around a little bit by critics for being too “anthemic” and “overeager,” but I think their “go big” attitude is what makes this a killer rock record. The soaring “All Roads Lead Home” gets the emotional win, but tracks “The Outsiders” and “Destroyer” show off what this band does so well – sweeping, guitar monster songs that are fun to listen to.
4. Augustana – Augustana (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon $5.00 currently)
I can’t help it, I just love Augustana. Dan Layus is such a great songwriter and his penchant for Dylan-esque vocals just makes me love his sound more. This record, while definitely written to be radio-friendly, still retains that core Augustana sound. From start to finish, it is stick-in-your-head music, and it kept me going back to it as one of my favorite records of the year.
3. Matthew Mayfield – Now You’re Free (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
If you’ve never heard Matthew Mayfield before, you’ll be shocked to know that the grizzled, raspy voice belongs to a guy of under 30. Matthew’s first full-length solo release, Now You’re Free, showcases Matthew’s tortured soul writing, set against a tapestry of wailing guitars. It’s promising stuff from a young performer who proclaims that all he wants to be is a rock n’ roll artist. He’s done it.
2. Midnight Youth – World Comes Calling (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon $6.99 currently!)
This New Zealand band was a complete chance find for me this fall. This, their second studio album, is just plain sexy rock n’ roll, people – wide-open vocals, killer drumming, ultra-singable anthem-of-your-life songs. There is not a song on this record I am not in love with. “Listen,” which has some Stereophonic-esque qualities to it, is my favorite track, followed closely by the smoky, sexy “French Girl” and the title track. I hope that Midnight Youth takes an adventure from the land of Kiwi to hit the States … I have a feeling their live show would be one of those “feel it in every sinew of your body” kind of shows.
1. Will Hoge – Number Seven (Purchase at iTunes | Amazon | Will Hoge site)
Does this record being at number one surprise anyone who knows me? I wrote a review of it here, and it pretty much sums up my feelings. Simply, it’s a character study of people. But it’s much more … and if you don’t come away from it understanding that, I can’t explain it to you. It’s a study of the American dream, the tragedy of reaching for that dream and failing, and our unbreakable spirit to never give up. It’s a record that this country needs in a time when lots of people are struggling. It’s freaking brilliant.
10. Lovedrug – EP Part III (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
I am so bummed that I just discovered this band in 2011…they’ve been around for over a decade, and it pains me to know that I’ve missed being a fan for that long. The last in a series of EPs this Ohio-based band put out leading up to their 2012 release, Wild Blood – and it would have made it simply for the brilliance of “The Wheel”… and then there’s “Our War,” which is a simple, gorgeous plea to not letting life pass you by. And Michael Shepherd’s voice is just intoxicating. Looking forward to seeing them live for the first time in March!
9. The Wealthy West – The Wealthy West (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
A side project of Brandon Kinder from The Rocket Boys, this little acousticy-Americana-esque piece is laced with organ, harmonica, and is positively delightful. Kinder’s soothing vocals on tracks like, “Home” make this the perfect Sunday morning record, and put it firmly into my Top 10.
8. Mighty Oaks – Mighty Oaks EP (Currently not available for purchase)
Probably my favorite BalconyTV find this year, and that little web channel has turned me on to a TON of new music this year. Definitely out of my normal box, this heavy-on-the-strings folk band is the brain child of American Ian Hooper and Italian Claudio Donzelli … and they’re based in Germany. I love the light, airy beauty of these songs, particularly “Rainier,” a song obviously inspired by Hooper’s Pacific Northwest roots.
7. The Ruse – Rebellion EP (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
My favorite LA rock band was busy writing new material this year and managed to squeak their new killer EP in late November. The EP is really their first effort that shows their true versatility, with all out rockers like “In Defense of the Rebellion” “Bumps in the Night,” and quieter, bordering on acoustic numbers like “Simple Grace” and “Ten Thousand Years.” John Dauer continues to find his voice, and it’s getting stronger and stronger with every effort. And the outstanding drumming of Jason Young always wins big with me. You really should own this EP.
6. Air Dubai – Day Escape (Purchase on Bandcamp | iTunes | Amazon)
A trippy, fun little EP by one of the hottest up and coming bands around…and most of you probably haven’t even heard of them yet. I don’t even know how to describe this band’s music – hip-hop soul-funk jazz? Listening to this EP makes me long to hit the road with my friends for a serious beach road trip. “Summer Solstice” is just brilliant, and the horns on “Lights Down” are reminiscent of old school Kool and the Gang fabulousness. With this EP, this Denver seven-piece manages to embody everything we loved about 70s R&B, and bring it up a notch with modern day flair.
5. The Well Reds – Violet (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
Gotta give props to one of my favorite friends that music has brought to my life, Dru, for switching me on to this Atlanta band early this year. I described them in a previous blog post as “Queen meets Crash Kings,” and I still think that’s an accurate description. “Rebel Lovers” is just a freakin’ rock show beyond all belief, with a pounding keys wind-up into a swirling sea of guitars and drums, all topped with Jeremy Ezell’s incredible vocals … And the whole EP follows that pattern. Watch these kids, you’re going to see more from them!
4. Imagine Dragons – It’s Time (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
Just like their hometown of Las Vegas, this hot little new wave, synth-rock band glitters on this March 2011 release. I fell in love with the witty, dancey happiness after just one listen. Whether you’re clapping along to “It’s Time” or getting down to “Tokyo,” it’s impossible not to love this record.
3. Saints of Valory – Neon Eyes EP (Purchase on Bandcamp | iTunes | Amazon)
By far my favorite new discovery of the year, Saints of Valory rocketed into my world when I took the advice of some other Austin bands and checked out their album, The Bright Lights. That was all it took for me to fall in love. A few months later, they put out this EP, reprising a few songs from The Bright Lights, but introducing two new numbers worthy of huge praise – “Neon Eyes” (see Top Songs, below) and “Cover Girl.” The latter may have spawned an anthem for one of my closest groups of friends with the line, “When life gets crazy, shake it baby.” There’s so much awesome in this band that I can’t really put it into words. Go get this EP. Now.
2. Alpha Rev – City Farm: Roots (Purchase on iTunes | Amazon)
It was pretty much impossible that this EP wouldn’t be at the top of my list. First of all – recorded with the entire band playing live. None of this recording parts and then throwing them all together in a mixing room somewhere. This is how music should be made. But really, more than that, the quality of these songs is tremendous. From the plaintive “Black Sky” to the western-themed, “(How to Die A) Lonely Man,” the Alpha Rev boys took a little bit of a dark turn with this EP. It is haunting and bleak and brooding … and SO good.
1. Quiet Hounds – Quiet Hounds (Free Download)
Have to give credit to Allison at RadioPotato for introducing me to Quiet Hounds this year. This mysterious band’s EP rocked my ears so hard, there was no question they’d be my #1 EP of the year. I tried to do the music some justice in this review, but really, you just have to hear it. The lyrics are divine, the music rich… I cannot wait to finally see them live in 2012.
10. “Little Black Dress” – Honor By August
When it comes to making happy, singalong pop-rock, NO ONE does it better than my friends Honor By August. After a little bit of a quiet spell, the boys debuted this perfect little nugget of ear candy during a live show at the Iota Club on their home turf in Arlington, VA. I survived nearly being taken out by a chick brawl that took place right next to us in the crowd to hear it! And lucky you, you can get it for free at Noisetrade right now.
9. “Pink Champagne” – Lovedrug
The boys from Ohio had a busy year this year … EP III, cover album, and a duo of singles that included “Pink Champagne.” With it’s opening tickle on the snare, you think you might be hearing a revisit of Springsteen’s “Candy’s Room,” but it quickly drops in striking guitar riffs and builds to the chorus, and suddenly you find yourself playing air guitar and drums while you’re driving down the road, singing along at the top of your lungs. It’s just great rock n’ roll.
8. “Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
This song had to be on the list. Was there anyone that didn’t love it?
7. “Decade of Deceit” – The Influence
My favorite bunch of fellas from Virginia Beach recorded a handful of new songs this year, and this one quickly rose to the top of all the music I listened to this year. It is cut straight through with the hard questioning of our society that I’ve come to expect from these boys. Matt never lets humanity off easy, and his spooky vocals ring through in this song. Combine it with Colin’s smashing and enthusiastic drumming, Will’s insane ability to create the most unique guitar solos, Tully’s steady driving bass lines, and Kendrick bringing in guitars and keys to complement everyone. They are such badasses.
6. “Written in Stone” – Son of a Bad Man
Technically, I got this song in 2010, but it was officially released in 2011, so it gets to earn its place here. When I first heard SOABM play this song, I remember saying to Shawn after the show, “That song is going to be a hit.” It is such an ear worm! When I first got it, I played it like 75 times in the first week I had it! A universal theme about uncontrollably, head-spinningly in love, the song culminates in this uber-infectious chorus, complete with big time drumming and a wicked guitar solo. Love.
5. “Goddam California” – Will Hoge
My favorite track on my #1 album of the year, it really is just classic Will. It’s him calling out people for being fake, it’s him paying homage to the South, and in particular, his home state of Tennessee. It’s just Will.
4. “I Will Come” – Alpha Rev
Probably the “darkest” song on the list, I instantly fell in love with it upon first listen. The unique, off-kilter clapping beat, the quiet guitar, the menacing feel of it all… It would be the perfect preamble in some noir stalker thriller. And I have all the more respect for this song because I know that Alex and Tabber clapped this out for the entirety of the song. Killer cool.
3. “Anybody” – The Soldier Thread (featuring Zeale)
In an interview with BalconyTV Austin, Patricia Lynn called this a “self-empowering” song, and I think that’s what I love about it so much. Toss in Zeale’s rap break contribution to the number, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a strong song (pun intended).
2. “Obey Your Guns” – Matrimony
Charlotte’s Matrimony released this little ditty mid-way through the year in 2011, and if a week has gone by without me playing it half a dozen times, I’d be shocked. It is an incredible earworm, and the message resonates with me so strongly…Pick it up for $1 on their Bandcamp page now.
1. “Neon Eyes” – Saints of Valory
If you think my confessed obsession with this band won them the #1 song easily, you’d be wrong. Consider that two of my top five favorite artists put out new music this year – Will Hoge & Alpha Rev – and it should speak volumes about the quality of this band’s music. The title track of their EP released this year, this song is a catchy, clappy bit of sonic happiness. I adore it.
10. The Constellations – July 22 – Tremont Music Hall, Charlotte, NC
If you have yet to see this southern-funk-rock band, you really must make time in 2012 to do it. Their show is just plain FUN and an awesome workout. It was the hottest week of the whole summer in Charlotte, and a group of six or seven of us went to see them in Charlotte’s favorite hole-of-a-venue, complete with no air conditioning. We were happy, sweaty fools rocking out with this uniquest of groups out of Atlanta.
9. Tim Brantley – March 25 – The White Mule, Columbia, SC
One of my favorite songwriters, Tim is the quirkiest, most endearing guy on stage. If you aren’t completely won over by his outrageous stories and awkward jokes, you have a heart of stone (yes, pun intended). This show, in a sub-street basement venue, was an intimate little gathering, full of rambling, heartwarming Tim stories. It was a “band” show for Tim, meaning he had his drummer and insanely talented cello player Bryan Gibson along for the ride, which just makes his songs all the more rich.
8. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – August 26 – The Fillmore, Charlotte, NC
Probably my least favorite Grace performance I’ve ever been to…because of the size of the venue and the people who were lacking concert etiquette. But Grace being Grace, she even made that seem trivial. Sultry, smoky, sexpot Grace…I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I’ve never ever wanted to be someone else in my life, but I would trade places with Grace just for a day. She and the Nocturnals make rock n’ roll look easy…they worked that stage for close to two hours, and it was transcendental, as it always is.
7. Matthew Mayfield – April 7 – The Double Door Inn, Charlotte, NC
One of the best young songwriters out there today, Matthew’s gravelly, raw voice sounds more like that of grizzled older man, with years of exposure to the harshness of the world rather than that of a young guy still in his 20s. But that unpolished, exposed, powerful voice is what makes his live show so incredible – you feel every note that he sings. This show was the first of three Matthew did at The Double Door, and the only one I was able to attend. But man, he made it worth it. Seeing “Fire Escape” live blew my mind.
6. Will Hoge – Labor Day Weekend Double Header – The Windjammer, Isle of Palms
Every Will Hoge show is an experience to remember … I can probably call out moments from each of the 65 that I’ve been to. But there are certain venues that seem to inspire Will’s best performances, and The Windjammer is one of them. The crowd in Charleston/IOP loves him, and he loves them right back. Plus, there’s the added magic of being at the beach with your friends that just amplifies the music. These shows, Will was doing a test run for the upcoming Number Seven tour, playing lots of the new songs, but still pulling out the old favorites for the crowd. For this, two shows count as one, because the whole weekend is the experience.
5. The Influence & The Enemy Lovers – February 25 – The Channel, Greenville, SC
Two of my favorite bands playing the same show? Awesome. It was just a great show for me; loved every second of it. No explanations – just two strong performances by two promising young bands. Both of these bands put so much enthusiasm into their performances that you can’t help but be on their side.
4. Alpha Rev & Carbon Leaf – October 25 – Vinyl, Atlanta, GA
I’ve been a Carbon Leaf fan for the better part of a decade, since my little sister introduced them to me back when she was still in college. I am always impressed by the fact that 3/5 of the band has been playing together for almost 20 years and they still pour everything into every performance. So when Alpha Rev, one of my favorite bands of all time, announced they would be touring with Carbon Leaf, I nearly lost my stuff. I took a day off of work and did a three-show run following the tour. Atlanta was the last of the three nights, and both bands just blew it out. Alpha Rev was just settling into their groove, and it made me wish I was independently wealthy so I could follow the whole tour. They are such a special band… One of the best mini-tours ever.
3. Will Hoge – May 19 – Tin Roof, Columbia, SC
Perhaps it was that it had been nearly nine months since I’d seen a Will headlining show, or maybe it was just the energy in the room. Historically, Columbia has not been a great city for Will, but I think that the Tin Roof broke that curse. The crowd was pumped, Will and the band were primed, and they rewarded the audience with over two hours of kick ass rock n’ roll … one of those shows when Will just seemed like he wanted to keep playing all night. I didn’t want it to end.
2. Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses – June 7 – Amos’ Southend, Charlotte, NC
This was the second time I’ve seen Ryan live; the first time was before he won the Oscar for “The Weary Kind” in Crazy Heart, and the show was mind-bogglingly good. But it has been elevated so far past that now… I was absolutely mesmerized by Ryan on stage. He has such a presence on stage…It’s hard to take your eyes off him to watch the rest of the band. When he sang his original song, “Hallelujah,” I actually got goosebumps. Just WOW.
1. Saints of Valory – July 25 – Crown Station Pub, Charlotte, NC
A relatively spur-of-the-moment show, thrown onto their bill just two weeks before hand, and held in arguably Charlotte’s smallest venue…you might think it would have been a dialed in performance. Instead, this multi-national quartet from Austin put on one of the most stellar shows I have ever seen (and I swear, it was NOT at all affected by the Duck Rabbit that I was mainlining). The guys put so much heart into a performance for a crowd of maybe 20 people, most of them who’d never seen or heard of them before. Every single person in that room was a fan at the end of the night. It was something truly magical to watch. And it is what makes them my most favorite find of 2011.
10. Christopher Jak (Bandcamp | Soundcloud)
One of my all time favorite songwriters and an uber talented producer in his own right, Mr. Jak will probably have a giggle about him being on my “artists to watch” list. I am the eternal optimist and I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to get new C.Jak music this year. And, call it a gut feeling, I think this is his year. 🙂 Yup, this IS a challenge, Jak. In the meantime, check out some of the awesome stuff he’s producing.
9. Air Dubai (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
Trust me, this symphonic experience is fresher and hotter than Krispy Kreme doughnuts straight out of the oven. Oozing with a gooey combination of funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, Denver’s Air Dubai is part Jamiroquai, part Bruno Mars, part Winton Marsalis, this seven piece has smartly-written, unusually arranged pieces that will make you sit up and take notice. They call themselves a “pure, melodic cacophony” – but their music is definitely sugar to my ears.
8. The Fort Frances (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
I’ve watched David McMillin’s career closely for several years, and have been lucky enough to get to know him and call him a friend. From the very first moment I heard him sing a note, I knew this kid had a promising career. He’s probably the most prolific writer I know…and, I can say from a quick coffee get together we had in Chicago this year, an excellent cab hailer. In 2011, he teamed up with his long-time musical companion, drummer Aaron Kiser, and bass player Jeffrey Piper to form The Fort Frances, a dreamy Americana project. The boys kicked off 2012 with an appearance on Daytrotter, a sure sign of great things to come for them.
7. Needtobreathe (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
Those of us in the Southeast have been watching this South Carolina band’s stock rising for years, but fresh on the heels of an opening gig for Taylor Swift, it’s just a matter of time before this band is the main subject of many a young lasses’ Pinterest pages. Their positive, spirited rock will win your heart.
6. Imagine Dragons (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
This Vegas prog-synth rock band’s future is glittering as brightly as the famed Strip in their hometown. Recently signed to Interscope, the quintet’s music has also appeared in several trend-setting MTV shows (I hate to say that certain MTV shows are trend-setting, but let’s face it, to today’s reality-crazed youth, they are). With beyond-catchy, danceable tunes, hey’re definitely doing something different than a lot of other bands out there right now. Watch out for them in 2012!
5. Flagship/Margolnick (Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter)
Recently given the nod by 2011’s breakout artists The Civil Wars in a tweet, Drake Margolnick and the reconfigured version of his band, Flagship (now containing members of Charlotte-area artist Campbell the Band), are going to garner fans based solely on the uniqueness of their work. Plus, Drake’s voice is addictive. Go pick up his solo EP from late 2010, Taylorsville, and start getting to know this insanely talented act.
4. Quiet Hounds (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
This Atlanta quartet is all over this list, so does it surprise you that you’d find them cracking into my “Artists to Watch” category? It shouldn’t. The magical mystery tour begins in February … so watch for there to be some critical acclaim for these talented fellas.
3. The Soldier Thread (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
One of the hottest acts in their hometown of Austin, TX, The Soldier Thread is poised for a breakout year in 2012. Their new EP will be out in this month…And by their own account, they’re feeling like it’s a “new beginning” for them. In 2011, they opened on an acoustic tour for Blue October. My prediction is that by the end of 2012, they’ll be a household name.
2. Saints of Valory (Website | Facebook | Twitter | Bandcamp)
There is not a doubt in my mind that this international quad are going to have a HUGE 2012. One conversation with them and you get that these guys love making music together…and everyone who sees them live falls in love. Just check out their latest song, “Winter Lights” for a little sliver of what’s to come. They were my absolute favorite find in 2011, and I cannot wait to see what they put out in 2012.
1. Matrimony (Website | Facebook | Twitter)
There is a growing buzz around Matrimony that you can’t deny. This Charlotte hubs and wife fronted, folk-pop collaboration just signed to Columbia Records, thanks in part to their gorgeous harmonies and a band with some serious energy. Download their first album, The Storm & The Eye, now and be the cool kid on the block talking about them.