The Lone Bellow and more...
The Lone Bellow
I was fortunate enough to first encounter the Lone Bellow in concert at a Nashville church. That’s the most perfect setting for this Brooklyn three-some by way of mostly Georgia, as the acoustics were nearly perfect and the symbolism most apt as Lone Bellow draw most heavily from the well-springs of traditional Southern music, including gospel. Indeed, this is most apparent on their stunning single, “You Never Need Nobody”, with its rising crescendos of heavenly harmonies that would move even the darkest soul to the light. I’m not a religious person, but I believe firmly in the power of music to uplift and enlighten. So does the Lone Bellow, and they are bonafide masters. Watch for an amazing career from this trio and see them in concert, preferably in a church in the heart of Music City. Sarah Zupko
At 16, Lorde became the youngest artist to top the US Billboard Chart and the first New Zealander to gain the number one spot. That alone gives her reason to be one of the breakout artists of 2013. It’s clear however that she’s not going to be a one hit wonder. Her album Pure Heroine gave the world a chance to hear how insightful and powerful her lyrics are, and there’s no denying her talent. She’s also a very interesting and mysterious character. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, but she’s also very aware of the power her words have. This self-awareness is evident in her music, but also makes people want to support and champion her. At 17 there’s clearly so much more she has to offer, but for now, she’s definitely one of the hottest artists around. Francesca D’Arcy-Orga
A great many of indie’s confessional songwriters are valued for intricate, often loquacious wordplay. Matt Berninger of the National throws in the occasional non sequitur to spice up his sad-bastard poetry. James Murphy’s lyrics for LCD Soundsystem are full of bile-laced snark. In sharp contrast to songwriters like these, Devon Welsh of Majical Cloudz prefers simple, direct sentences that don’t, by themselves, bear the mark of literary genius. But when backed by Matthew Otto’s haunting minimalist synths and beats, Welsh’s words take on a hugely evocative life. “Someone died, gun shot right outside / Your father is dead,” Welsh sings on “Childhood’s End”. His frequently droll delivery undercuts the potentially dramatic mood of these songs, but that’s precisely what makes lines like those so poignant. Sometimes, the facts themselves are enough to terrify. The one time Welsh gets really loud is also when he’s at his most poetic, on the Baudelarian “Bugs Don’t Buzz”, Impersonator‘s best track: “Bugs don’t buzz when their time approaches / We’ll be just like the roaches, my love!” That this album is so subdued makes “Bugs Don’t Buzz” all the more devastating. “I’m a liar, I say I make music,” Welsh confesses on the title track. It’s a disorienting line—what could he be making, exactly?—but given just how peculiar Majical Cloudz is, he might be on to something. Brice Ezell
Kacey Musgraves arrives to country at a time where the genre seems to have become its own punching bag. Prominent and popular artists like Zach Brown and Miranda Lambert proudly admit to hating the bro-centric pabulum of Florida Georgia Line and their ilk who mix pop, dance music, and country into a monster of undoubtedly bastardized lineage. But because Musgraves focuses so intently on songwriting and melody, ignoring frills and cross-genre focus-testing, her acceptance and success in the country world points somewhere greener for the genre. Same Trailer, Different Park, powered by its unstoppable single “Merry Go Round”, debuted at number two on the Billboard charts and was nominated in six categories at the CMA Awards. Perhaps best, Musgraves doesn’t slot easily into a conservative vs. modern debate in the country world. While Musgrave’s traditional songwriting chops impress, Same Trailer‘s songs are still full of pop-moments and her voice is smoothed out by Auto-tune. She entertains and speaks to her audience like a pop singer, without condescending to them as a star. The future of country can point any number of ways, but I hope it’s down Musgraves’s path. Robert Rubsam
Released in October, John Newman‘s Tribute is a blisteringly emotional debut from the wise-beyond-his-years 23-year-old. With a vocal style that borrows from fellow Englishman James Morrison and an accessibility not unlike Robbie Williams, Newman’s tones are unique and versatile, a welcome change of pace in a world becoming far too reliant on cutting, copying, and pasting. Yet while his next of kin might be an obvious revelation, his raw talent is almost unparalleled. If Newman can’t win you over on the visceral “Losing Sleep”, on which the singer resorts to a near-shout to get his point across, check out the warm funk of album-closer “Day One”, an aggressive, moody three minutes as addicting as they are dark. None of this means he can’t pull off the ballads, either. “Down the Line” gives little more than a piano, some strings and that voice—that painful, longing voice—and succeeds without doubt. If 2013 was the year John Newman broke through into a good bit of Europe’s broken hearts, 2014 ought to be the year the western world takes notice. The guy is a master at writing songs that beg to be played in arenas, and Tribute, if nothing else, proves that the artist behind them is certainly worthy of the stage. Colin McGuire
London’s Palma Violets exploded out of our speakers and tore up the stages this year in live performances. The band’s passion and energy are completely infectious and yielded one of 2013’s best singles “Best of Friends”. Palma Violets are also a bit of a blast from the past, combining the pummeling punk rock of the early Clash with the crunchy guitar/organ combo of the Small Faces. And yet, they somehow feel completely contemporary, part of a long string of amazing UK guitar bands that trace from the Kinks and Small Faces to the Clash and the Jam and to Supergrass and the Libertines. That’s all by way of saying that the group is a blast of fresh energy in this era of dance music and introspective indie. It’s primal and you better believe every word these boys sing. Sarah Zupko