So, I was looking at my collection of music and it dawned on me, “I bet I’m one of a handful of people who even know these bands exist!” Maybe I’m wrong, but maybe I’m right. Nevertheless, if you’ve never heard of some or all of the band’s listed, I would encourage you to check them out.
Number Ten: Stag. There is something about Seattle that breeds great music. From Hendrix and Heart to the Grunge scene and the onslaught of indie artists like Sleater-Kinney and Death Cab for Cutie, there must be something in the water. So I’m not surprised about the success of newcomers Stag. Stag formed in 2010 and have been making waves since their inception. Led by singer Steve Mack of the highly acclaimed band, The Petrol Emotion, the group churns out tunes that are comparable to ’60’s pop rock bands such as Badfinger and the Raspberries. Ben London has also had an impressive run, as the former Alcohol Funny Car member writes all the band’s material. Besides producing great music, their star shines brightest with their live shows, which finds Mack leaping through the air. Backed by three seasoned musicians, Pete Everett (bass), John Randolph (guitar) and Rob Dent (drums), the band has released a handful of EP’s. Their latest, Temporary Machines is getting a lot of love by DJ’s, the press and fans.
Number Nine: The Dimes. The Dimes are a Portland-based band who are showing real signs of making it big. Their brand of music is hard to peg as they draw from many influences including the Beatles. Comparatively speaking, I would probably slot them with Death Cab, but not completely as they often incorporate jangly mandolin and acoustic guitars. The Dimes albums follow a theme, and while they are not concept records, they are brilliantly written by singer Johnny Clay. The Dimes’ debut, The Silent Generation, was a compilation based on depression era newspaper articles found under the floorboards of guitarist Pierre Kaiser’s house. Their second release, The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry was based on the history of Boston. I’ve been lucky enough to see them live a couple of times, and they are the nicest guys you could ever meet. With two records and a handful of singles, the band is ready to take it to the next level.
Number Eight: Charlatans UK. Charlatans UK aka Charlatans are huge in the UK, but they have been relatively ignored in the US as they have charted with all eleven albums in their native country. With a mix of 1960’s soul, R&B and garage rock, their sound is distinctive and mirrors the Spencer Davis Group. And the use of the Hammond organ sets them apart from bands such as the Stone Roses and Oasis. While the band’s debut, Some Friendly, did okay on the UK charts and eventually went gold, it would be seven years and three more albums before they would reach the status they craved. In 1997, they released Tellin’ Stories, which would be the band’s highest charting record of their career. It gave the Charlatans three top 40 singles. It peaked at number two on the UK charts and eventually went platinum. The disc, Us and Only Us, found the band in transition as they adopted a slightly country vibe, and there was a Dylan influence all over the disc. They switched gears again on Wonderland on which they adopted an American soul influence. The band was ready for prime time as they opened for the Who and the Stones at stadium shows across the UK. This past January, the Charlatans released their twelfth studio album titled Modern Nature, which charted at number seven on the UK charts.
Number Seven: Blue Rodeo. While some peg Blue Rodeo as alternative country, listen closer and you will find shades of folk and rock and roll. Formed in 1984 in Ontario, Canada, the band has released 13 studio albums. At the heart of Blue Rodeo are singers Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor (whose voice sounds exactly like Tom Petty, and when I say exactly I mean exactly). They started out their album career with Outskirts in 1987. The disc set them apart from the Flying Burrito Brothers as they crafted pop songs throughout the country recording. They would find success in Canada, but were ignored in the States. It was until 1993 that they would find mass appeal with Five Days in July. It was very much an experimental recording, and it featured such notable Canadian artist as Sarah McLachlan, Colin Linden and Anne Bourne. Break out singles included “Bad Timing” and “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” But the single that caught the most attention was “5 Days in May.” Clocking in at a little over seven minutes, it ends with a five minute guitar jam. The album has been certified platinum six times. After the phenomenal success of the album, the group released Nowhere to Here on which they continued to experiment as they interjected shades of blues, which further distanced them from Gram Parsons comparisons. They then released the album Tremolo which, despite heavy rehearsals, captured the band in a jam-band mood, but remained polished. Their latest, In Our Nature (2013), found the band being compared to the Eagles and rightfully so. The album is country with an edge, and they even cover the Robbie Robertson tune, “Out of the Blue,” to finish off the album.
Number Six: Delays. Delays are another band who haven’t found much love in the States unless you count a commercial for Zales a few years back. I discovered Delays while writing for an Italian publication back in the early 2000’s. Record companies would send me free albums with the hopes I would give them positive mentions in the magazine. One artist was Delays from Rough Trade Records which knocked my socks off, and I have been a fan ever since. While the band is categorized as indie rock, I would say they are dream pop as they combine guitars with a synth heavy backdrop. Their debut, Faded Seaside Glamour, combined stellar guitar work, great four part harmonies and frontman’s Greg Gilbert’s unusually high falsetto voice (to be honest, his voice is so high, that many listeners mistake him for a woman). The disc got high marks from critics and fans alike. The band’s follow-up, You See Colours, contained a pop sensibility, which again showed off Greg’s impeccable range. While it was a straight ahead pop record, it housed the single “Valentine” which faired okay on the UK charts. The group returned with Everything’s a Rush in 2008 which was a departure for the band as they incorporated strings, and Gilbert’s powerful vocals were almost non existent as he turned the mic over to brother Aaron on three tracks. The band’s latest release Star Tiger Star Ariel returns the band to their roots as they use catchy riffs with a synth heavy backdrop.
Number Five: Jam & Spoon. In 1993 the Frankfurt, Germany duo known as Jam & Spoon released arguably the greatest techno recording ever produced, Tripomatic Fairytales 2001. Consisting of the classically trained composer Jam El Mar and DJ Mark Spoon, the two successively blended house, trance, breakbeat and pop on their sophomore outing. Their first hit came with the release of “Right in the Night” featuring vocalist Plavka Lonich. Her voice was akin to Madonna and scored the duo two more hits, “Find Me” and “Angel.” Lonich would go on to join the two producers making it a trio. Their follow-up that same year, Tripomatic Fairytales 2002, took on a quieter vibe and was considered a trance recording with cascading synthesizers and moody vocals. The only song that would chart in the US was a remix of the legendary producer Giorgio Moroder song, “The Chase,” which reached the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music Chart. It would be four years before we would hear from the trio again with the release of Kaleidoscope. Though it wasn’t as impressive as their previous work, it did contain the hit “Garden of Eden.” The last known album of original material was in 2004 with Tripomatic Fairytales 3003. I would recommend starting with Tripomatic Fairytales 2001 before moving forward.
Number Four: Saint Etienne. Saint Etienne first caught my attention with their debut, Foxbase Alpha on which they offered a cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The album was dub heavy and full of danceable tracks. While Etienne were slotted in the indie-dance movement, they proved to be more than a house band as they incorporated elements of 1960’s pop influences. Sarah Cracknell’s vocals drove the band as her delivery is close to ’60’s pop star, Dusty Springfield. The band’s follow-up was So Tough which mirrored their previous disc with dance tracks and filled with samples from 1960 Brit cinema and reached number seven on the UK charts. The band took a different approach in 1995 with Tiger Bay on which they explored folk music, but incorporated a synth-driven vibe to stay consistent, and while it wasn’t well received, it showed growth as songwriters. In 1995, the band released the single, “He’s On the Phone,” which proved to be Saint Etienne’s highest charting record to date. In 1998, the release of Good Humor got the band back on track, and they have stuck with their signature sound ever since. Saint Etienne’ s latest, 2012’s Words and Music, features both well-penned tunes as well as stellar dance tracks.
Number Three: Travis. Travis is another band who can’t seem to get recognized in the States, and I’m not sure why. Formed in Scotland in 1990, Travis has released seven studio albums and have influenced such bands as Keane and Coldplay. Lead by Fran Healy (rhythm guitar and vocals), the band crafts songs similar to early Joni Mitchell. Travis has been branded Britpop, but that’s not entirely true as I would say the band fits more into the dream pop genre as they rarely crank up the amps past five. While the groups first go, Good Feeling, was a bust, their follow-up, The Man Who had a more melodic and quieter sound. It appeared to be taking the same path as their freshman release, but word of mouth and a performance at the Glastonbury Festival gave them the push they needed. In 2000 the band took home the BRIT Award for Best Album. Travis confidently entered the studio in Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Studio in 2001 to record The Invisible Band (my personal favorite) which mirrored their previous record. Travis now had a go-to sound they could rely on. With pining banjo, lush harmonies and gentle brush strokes, the first single, “Sing,” was an instant hit in the UK. They would win another BRIT Award for best band. Subsequent albums followed with the band’s signature sound, and Travis’ latest, 2013’s Where You Stand was released on the band’s own label, and received all round good reviews.
Number Two: Wayne. Wayne was here and gone with the blink of the eye as they have all but disappeared after recording one of the best albums ever in the 21st century. Led by gifted songwriter and vocalist Rodney Wayne Reaves, Music on Plastic was released in 2002 and got high marks from critics and the public. The break out album from the Birmingham quartet left many of us scratching our heads – would they record again? The answer is no, they will not record again. The album was damn near perfect as Wayne merged alternative country with a pop friendly backdrop. Akin to the Jayhawks and Travis, the band borrowed heavily on the first British Invation. The album covered a lot of ground and refused to be categorized. Each song was carefully crafted as Wayne made sure there was no filler. The album ends with a hidden track, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which easily rivals the 1973 Elton John version. Music on Plastic is still available on iTunes and sounds as fresh as it did when it was first released.
Number One: Youth Group. I discovered Youth Group on KEXP.org, who are great supporters of everything indie. With the band’s beautiful harmonies and pop friendly delivery, I was hooked immediately. Akin to such bands as Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins, they write nonsense songs much like John Lennon ( think “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Nowhere Man”). Youth Group’s singer, Toby Martin, possesses a yearning as he melodically takes the listener into the recesses of his mind. Formed in Sydney, Australia in 1996, the group was an immediate hit in their native country with the release of Eastern and Urban. Their 2005 US debut was Skeleton Jar which didn’t have a bad track on it and gained them support in America. It is one of those albums you can listen to over and over without getting tired of it. The band’s third release, Casino Twilight Dogs, featured a remake of the 1984 Alphaville song, “Forever Young.” The song appeared on several US television programs including the OC. Though it charted at number one in Australia, it did nothing in the States. The band’s fourth album, The Night is Ours, found Toby in a somber state as he paints narrative vignettes about life, love and the human condition. Youth Group has supported such acclaimed bands as Death Cab, Coldplay And The Vines.