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.
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.
As a former New York City resident, I can think of few neighborhoods I’d rather live in than the Upper West Side. Old money and overpriced, overprecious grocery stores every block – no thanks. But the Smittens’ gloriously catchy indiepop song almost makes the UWS appealing.
“Foxy folk” was the genre tag Abbie Morin adopted on 2015 solo album Shadowproof. The catchy branding isn’t accurate anymore. Like bandmate Caroline Rose, Morin has recently changed sounds (band names too in this case; Morin now performs as Hammydown). But it wasn’t entirely accurate then either. “Foxy folk” doesn’t really capture a song like “Better Half.”
Ava Marie bills themselves as folk music – their Bandcamp handle is literally “avamariefolk” – but don’t expect any acoustic guitars on “White Hides.” This is folk music as channeled through mewithoutYou, weird and knotty and hyperliterate. Or, if a mewithoutYou comparison means nothing, try The Decemberists – this song does toss in words like “loam” and “brackish” – if someone turned the dials up on all their distortion pedals.
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.
Greil Marcus first coined the term “the old weird America” to describe the strange sounds on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music collection. He connected those ’20s and ’30s folk and blues recordings to Bob Dylan and The Band’s “basement tapes,” which drew these dawn-of-recording-technology sounds and songs into the pastoral country-rock 1960s.
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.