A little story about me (or, if you prefer, refer to my author page): I was once editor-in-chief of a consumer magazine called CMJ New Music Monthly. We trafficked exclusively in either new and upcoming bands or the forebears who’d broken the mold for them. I was let go in 2008 after a two-year run, and the venerable pub closed shop shortly thereafter (something that I accept no responsibility for, even if it can be viewed as flattering, which it shouldn’t). I briefly went on to work for another high-profile music outlet, before branching off as a miscellaneous freelance writer, which is about as glamorous as it seems. During this same entrepreneurial phase, I managed a few indie bands, a couple of which generated some minor acclaim, though both those relationships dissolved semi-amicably soon enough.
The net consequence of my half-decade working near exclusively with and around musicians and music-related content is that I came to loathe the whole culture. And as I approached my waning days in the coveted 18-34 advertising demo, I happily retired into my “I only like what I came of age with” stage. The unmanageable, overwhelming volume of new digital-age artists besieging my inbox and Internet only encouraged my selective hearing.
But this year, something happened. Maybe it was having a baby and being inspired by his youthful curiosity. Or just feeling obsolete. Or maybe, just maybe, the cyclicality of sounds has come back to what I consider home. So, as someone who, as a rule, basically hates all new bands, I felt compelled to advocate for nine new-ish (i.e. evolved since my time at CMJ) rappers, rock groups, dance duos and folkies who’ve made me reconsider letting all that old vinyl gather dust again for a time.
The Artist: Ages and Ages
From Whence They Hail: Portland, Oregon
Latest Release: Divisionary (Partisan, 2014)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: Maybe it’s Arcade Fire’s fault. There seem to be so many modestly aestheticized bands−tiresome Steel Train offshoot/mainstream conquerors fun. come to mind−eager to make outsized anthems. But fear not, searchers of life-affirming pop: Ages and Ages mostly make good on their moniker with Divisionary, a quirky folk-pop compendium that’s joyful and often transcendent, sans hollow grandeur. The closing title track nearly steers into dicey beat-poet novelty, but like Ages and Ages as a whole, “Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)” makes just the right adjustment and wins you over when it counts.
The Artist: Alcest
From Whence They Hail: Paris
Latest Release: Shelter (Prophecy Productions, 2014)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: Alcest maestro Neige, along with drummer Winterhalter, tapped Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi to produce its fourth LP, and there hasn’t been this explosive a French-Icelandic chain reaction since particles from the Laki volcano settled over France. Actually, the effect of their collaboration is quite peaceful, as Neige and Jónsi take Alcest’s shoegazing black metal fully out of its hellfire beginnings and further skyward. Neige sings sweetly and hopefully throughout, and even at its most percussive (“L’Eveil Des Muses”), Shelter is pure ascension, the ideal trip-out soundtrack for anyone who likes the volume turned up.
The Artist: Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires
From Whence They Hail: Birmingham, Alabama
Latest Release: Dereconstructed (Sub Pop, out May 27)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: When namesake frontman Lee Bains howls, “Granddaddy taught unto me the difference between telling a story and storytelling,” it’s more than Southern-fried affectation. The guitarist and his bandmates are ’Bama through and through, and their second LP preaches a new regional gospel hell-bent on ditching ditties about “meth labs and mobile homes” for protest songs about “taking your own damn stand in spite of those who’d define and control you.” It’s punk-rock politics delivered via distorted riffs and broken-beat drum patterns—music that, in Bains’ own elocution, “makes hearts like ours hum like struck steel.”
The Artist: Bleeding Rainbow
From Whence They Hail: Philadelphia
Latest Release: Interrupt (Kanine, 2014)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: Firstly, that name (which, even more awesomely, was changed from Reading Rainbow, in part, because Sleater-Kinney/Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein disapproved). More essentially, the quartet’s fourth album, Interrupt, stands as this year’s strongest evidence that “rock” is no longer just a silent partner to “indie.” A Place to Bury Strangers stick man Robi Gonzalez contributed the in-studio bash, but all the melodic thrash and infectious dual vocals come from constant members Sarah Everton (bass/vocals), Rob Garcia (guitar/vocals) and Al Creedon (guitar). BR is the best, loudest iteration of feral pop-punk since Portland’s finest, the Thermals, charged up their amps more than a decade ago.
The Artist: Le1f
From Whence He Hails: New York City
Latest Release: Hey EP (Terrible/XL, 2014)
Why He’s Hard to Hate: Le1f’s not merely an openly gay MC, though that certainly makes him exceptional among widely distributed hip-hop artists. He’s a multi-sensory aesthete (just check the avant-garde imagery and choreography of his videos) and deft linguist (e.g. “Find my horse/I’m feeling kinda headless/Don’t ask me how I’m feelin’/Cause the answer is relentless”) with an almost Anglophile affectation and producer’s ear for the divergent sounds of his native city. Le1f’s sexuality is part of his narrative and persona, but he got signed on the strength of his talent, which is what’s most inspiring about him.
The Artist: Phantogram
From Whence They Hail: New York City
Latest Release: Voices (Republic, 2014)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: If something about Sleigh Bells chafes you, this more nuanced male-female genre-mashing duo will prove a worthy salve. On their second full-length, vocalist Sarah Barthel and beatmaker Josh Carter come closer than any American act to finding that Portishead-esque sweet spot between rattling woofers and disarming guarded hearts (collaborating with Big Boi on tracks in 2012 didn’t hurt). Barthel is almost distractingly attractive, but her voice is throaty and soulful−she’s the total package. And as the pair’s approach evolves into a democratic swap of production ideas and instrumental involvement (Barthel was more hands-on behind the boards on Voices, while Carter sang on two tracks), Phantogram poses the next true threat in its stylistic class to reach M.I.A. levels of critical mass.
The Artist: Strand of Oaks
From Whence They Hail: Goshen, Indiana
Latest Release: HEAL (Dead Oceans, out June 24)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: Well, really, it’s a “he,” not a “they,” though founder Tim Showalter attests that the band around him is solidifying. No matter. HEAL’s going to unite plenty more in awe when it arrives this June. Gone is the bare-bones folk of previous releases, smashed to bits by occasionally raging, distorted guitars that can’t help but recall Neil Young while owning the urgency of ’90s alternative records (Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis even adds some wailing licks to intense album opener “Goshen ’97.” Showalter and his wife barely survived a car accident just prior to the album’s mixing. As a result, he pushed for immediacy and transparency in those final engineering sessions, and it bears out: HEAL is still AAA-ready, but, vitally, way too ballsy for AARP.
The Artist: Uh Huh Her
From Whence They Hail: Los Angeles
Latest Release: Future Souls (Plaid, 2014)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: There are reasons to be leery. Vocalist/synth player Leisha Hailey was, for many years, primarily known as the star of Showtime’s The L Word. Both she and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/programmer Camila Grey hail from L.A. and are very stylish. Even their name, taken from the title of a PJ Harvey album, is cause for pause (no offense to the wonderful Ms. Harvey). But Uh Huh Her’s third LP, Future Souls, thaws preconceptions and warms up a room with its elegant R&B electro. Standouts like “Time” (seen and heard below) are what Haim might be with some maturation, while single “Innocence” is the epitome of what contemplative West Coast club kids could produce with the right tools. There’s something moody and Manchesterian about Future Souls. It’s a bit Everything but the Girl, but not without the fun of late-20th century American pop. In essence, if not foretelling of what’s to come, Uh Huh Her are a great distillation of the present and recent past.
The Artist: White Lung
From Whence They Hail: Vancouver
Latest Release: Deep Fantasy (Domino, out June 17)
Why They’re Hard to Hate: They’d fit right alongside Bleeding Rainbow on a tour for the sweaty, pogoing masses, but these Canucks would have also earned Beavis and Butt-Head’s approval back when they were digging Babes in Toyland and Corrosion of Conformity. Frontwoman Mish May is a force, and guitarist/bassist Kenneth Williams (pulling double duty on Deep Fantasy) and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou whip up an ethereal frenzy that defibrillates ’80s hardcore and ’90s pop-punk and riot grrrl influences and never flatlines. Exhilarating, and maybe the most welcome release of 2014.