If you are like me, you miss the days when singer/songwriters, rock bands, and even pop-rock bands were ubiquitous on radio, and seemed to put out new music at a feverish rate, such that your unquenchable thirst for new music was almost always satiated. You could even get out to your local record store and browse the new releases, if you were so inclined (I know — throwback!). Those days seem sadly to have long passed.
Nowadays, streaming services seem to burst at the seams with lots of rap songs and techno/dance music. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like those musical genres — I respect them and can take them in moderate doses — but they are not what my musical soul craves on a daily basis. For that, I need musicians playing instruments, with melodies and hooks, and lyrics that tap into a deeper well of meaning than songs like “WAP” (to name just one example of a wildly popular song these days).
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As a consequence of this trend — and yes, I realize I have turned into the grouchy old man who grumbles about the “suckiness” of music these days — I have had to work harder to discover the music and bands that appeal to me. They did not disappear, after all, but they now reside more firmly outside of the mainstream, and thus harder to locate for casual listeners. Thankfully, I am not a casual listener and I am willing to do the legwork to find good music.
To find this new music, I mainly rely on recommendations from family and friends whose tastes run along the same lines as my own, and who regularly send me new songs and bands to check out. The same goes for the bands I already like who plug other bands on their social media accounts. I also try to comb through music magazines and websites like Paste, American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, and Consequence of Sound to find new bands. This is at times tedious work, but it usually pays off when I discover a new band I love. Finally, I also dig into the alternative, rock, singer/songwriter, and occasionally metal channels/categories on streaming services. That can take more time and work to locate the ones I really like, but it has also paid off for me.
Thankfully for you, the reader, I have done a lot of this leg work already. As a little summer gift from me to you, I will pass along five artists/bands that I think are worth your time to check out. They are not all “new,” necessarily, but might simply be new to you. I cannot guarantee that you will enjoy these selections, but you can rest assured that they are quality choices, some great music, and if they appeal to your tastes, you won’t regret giving them a listen.
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First Aid Kit
This Swedish folk duo comes out of Stockholm and is made up of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg. Born in 1990 and 1993, respectively, the sisters have been putting out albums since 2008’s EP Drunken Trees. Their latest album, Ruins, was released in 2018. If they were an American band, they’d probably be labeled “Americana,” but I am not sure one can label a Swedish band as such.
Regardless, the same elements are plentiful throughout their songs: beautiful harmonies and acoustic-driven, often bucolic-sounding songs. The textured electric and slide guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums, however, elevate them above more traditional, spare acoustic folk songs. There are elements reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, the Cranberries, Neko Case, Fleet Foxes, and even Natalie Merchant found throughout their catalogue, all of which makes for beautiful, atmospheric songs replete with intriguing and thoughtful lyrics.
Check out these songs: “Master Pretender” (Stay Gold, 2014); “The Lion’s Roar” (The Lion’s Roar, 2012); “Postcard” (Ruins, 2018); “It’s a Shame” (Ruins, 2018).
Ellis comes out of Houston, Texas, and has been putting out albums since 2009. He is a fantastic guitarist and writes some complicated, emotional songs (see “California” and “Perfect Strangers”), alongside some that are playful and light (see “Topo Chico” and “Nobody Smokes Anymore”). The music blends pop, Texas country, and at times, jazz, which I know, sounds odd, but it works really well a lot of the time. Elements of his music will remind you of James Taylor, Jim Croce, and even Willie Nelson, if you listen close enough.
Check out these songs: “Drivin’” (Robert Ellis, 2016); “Topo Chico” (Texas Piano Man, 2019); “California” (Robert Ellis, 2016); “Gentle on My Mind (with Courtney Harmon)” (Dear John, 2017); “Sing Along” (The Lights from the Chemical Plant, 2015).
The War on Drugs
If Pink Floyd had been formed in 2008 instead of the late 1960s, they might’ve come out sounding like The War on Drugs. The six-piece band’s spacey and astral rock is atmospheric mood music that blends a heavy bass and drum line, ringing guitars, and a hushed and David Gilmour-esque lead vocalist. If Dire Straights had been a tad more experimental, they too might’ve sounded like The War on Drugs. It is music perfectly crafted for driving alone at night, under a blanket of a million stars. Guitar solos, when they come, are tight and buffeted by acoustic rhythm guitars, synthesizers, and that steady and pounding rhythm. This band has some great music in its past — and hopefully future — catalogue.
Check out these songs: “Pain” (A Deeper Understanding, 2017); “Red Eyes” (Lost in the Dream, 2014); “An Ocean in Between the Waves” (Lost in the Dream, 2014); “Living Proof” (I Don’t Live Here Anymore, 2021); “I Was There” (Slave Ambient, 2011).
Hiss Golden Messenger
I have been a big fan of North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger for a few years now. Led by singer/songwriter and guitarist MC Taylor, the band produces rootsy folk rock, punctuated by Taylor’s country-rock guitar licks and sand-paper voice. The band has been putting out albums since 2008, and broke through (as much as any indy band can these days) with 2019’s album, Terms of Surrender. The latter is a gorgeous and melodic collection of songs, all at once uplifting, heartwarming, and melancholy. Those disparate vibes come from the mix of buoyant and joyous melodies and hooks, anchored in Taylor’s inherently subdued and plaintive vocals. This band deserves all the praise, and Taylor should be included in that pantheon of current master songwriters like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers.
Check out these songs: “I Need a Teacher” (Terms of Surrender, 2019); “Hardlytown” (Quietly Blowing It, 2021); “Jenny of the Roses” (Hallelujah Anyhow, 2017); “Biloxi” (Heart Like a Levee, 2016); “Saturday’s Song” (Lateness of Dancers, 2014).
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This alternative rock trio is the newest band of all those on this list, but includes a longtime rock veteran in the form of former founding Foo Fighter, drummer William Goldsmith. The band released its debut album this April (titled Intermission), and it is a propulsive, arena rock guitar blast from start to finish. It definitely has a Foo Fighters feel, and is anchored by the ’90s-sounding (in a good way) track “The Lamb to the Slaughter Pulls a Knife.” The latter song has a bit of a Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins feel to it, as well as hints of the band Hum. Guitarist/singer Justin Tamminga reminds me of Chris Cornell in his vocal tone, and the band’s lyrics harken back to Alice in Chains and Everclear. All of that is to say, the band has a bright future if they keep putting out records like this debut effort.
Check out these songs, all from 2021’s Intermission: “Supervised Suffering;” “The Lamb to the Slaughter Pulls a Knife;” “This Lonely Choir.”
Now get out there and dive into some new music.
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Feature image: Screen capture from YouTube.
I tried. The only one that really snared attention was “Assertion”, and the bassist reminded me of Bun E. Carlos – so that was an automatic like. The others were good, and certainly a notch or two above what passes for music now – but they didn’t speak to me. I will keep listening though.
Sigh. I’m so old that I recall seeing some of the bands mentioned for inspiring the last before they made it big, and passing around cassettes copied at home of new bands. Recommendations that don’t suck are always appreciated!