At first, the music video for Vermont-via-Portland-via-LA band Babehoven’s “Maybe I’m Bitter” evokes that old computer game The Sims, all empty-room templates rendered with rudimentary software. But watch closely for the early signs of the simulation breaking down. A lamp on a chair. The chair on a dresser. Soon giant disembodied hands invade – think Thing from The Addams Family – and the simulation collapses completely.
Critics of ranked lists like this see it as a bug that they’re entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I see it as a feature. There’s not really any difference between #12 and #13. Frankly, there’s not all that much difference between #1 and #25. But my feeling has always been, everyone gets that. No one actually thinks you can mathematically rank works of art. But the trying offers a wonderful opportunity for music nerds to look back at the best of the year, and for the sort of vigorous debate on which such nerddom rests.
This Top 40 looks nothing like the actual Top 40. None of these songs charted, and I don’t think any of them aspired to. That is no knock against them, which probably goes without saying here – anyone reading music blogs knows that much. The adjectives “great” and “popular” occasionally attach themselves to the same track, but not often enough.
So just think of this as an alternate history of 2019 singles. It has no horses, and no town roads. It doesn’t teach love, patience, or pain, and isn’t 100% that anything. It also, as the headline says, only includes artists from one rather small state. But this wildly subjective, somewhat arbitrary survey of the past 12 months should serve as a small introduction to the wealth of talent in one community on the geographic fringe. There was a lot of wonderful music being made this year, much of it far from the big cities, or the Billboard charts. Duh.
Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
Any band can cite their influences when talking about their music. Fewer cite those influences within that music itself – at least not as frequently as Dino Bravo does.
From the first verse of the first song on their first album, the just-released Blind By Midnight, the Vermont rock quartet wears their favorite bands on their sleeves. That opener, “The Aerialists,” shouts out a couple Wilco albums that were important to guitarist Chris Farnsworth. The next track, “Sugar Coated Candy Stix,” describes singer Matthew Stephen Perry taking his future wife to a My Morning Jacket show (part of the closing song, “Pass the Mark,” musically nods to the same band’s “One Big Holiday”). A few songs later, bassist Joshua Shedaker writes a love song to Thin Lizzy.
The genre tag “quiet storm” refers to emotive R&B ballads across eras. Named after a Smokey Robinson song, quiet storm emerged as a popular radio format in the ’70s and later grew to encapsulate the neo-soul boom of the ’90s. A playlist that segued from Luther Vandross into Sade would be peak quiet storm.
Clever Girls’ music sounds nothing like quiet storm.
Ali T – Electric Haze
Alison Turner is an artist out of time. She’s a singer-songwriter, but not with the folky connotations the phrase often takes on. Rather, something like “Electric Haze” sounds made for radio. Late-’90s radio, that is, when artist like Jewel and Meredith Brooks were racking up top-ten hits. It wouldn’t have a chance today, but “Electric Haze” ably walks to tricky line of engaging with nostalgia while creating something new.
When I saw boys cruise live, the four band members switched pants with each other mid-set. They exchanged instruments too, but pants-swapping tends to steal the spotlight from musical versatility. Like a rock-show Alice in Wonderland, the quartet rotated around the stage after every song, leveling up the antics each time. At one point, they cut off a band member’s hair onstage and threw huge hunks into the crowd. Then they smashed the chair he was sitting on. That went into the crowd too.
When I saw Vermont-based guitar wizard Tom Pearo deliver a masterful album-release show recently, he made a comment about how I Am A Mountain soundtracked a movie playing in his head. Something in the way he said it made me think he had more in mind than a band’s standard promo line about how cinematic their new album is. Sure enough, Pearo has a very specific story in mind. Think a coming-of-age road journey as told by J.R.R. Tolkien (which I realize basically describes Lord of the Rings, but most of the battles in Pearo’s movie are internal).
Sarah Cutler returned from work one day seething. A man had catcalled her on her walk home – not a new experience, but this one pushed her over the edge. So she turned her rage into a sonic revenge fantasy “Don’t Tell Me to Smile,” performed with her country band The Red Newts on their new EP This Lonesome Town.