Public radio hosts spend much of their time sifting through overflowing mail bins and inboxes as they hunt for as-yet-unknown musicians worth sharing. Their stations frequently help vault new artists to national success.
With that in mind, we asked our partner stations to tell us about their favorite musical discoveries of the year. The results include everything from a metamodern country singer to a heartsick Toronto surf-pop band, not to mention a whole lot of love for impressively viral Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Read on for 10 hosts’ picks for the artists who broke out in 2014.
Sturgill Simpson demonstrates once again that there’s no such thing as “real” country music. Those who fetishize classic country or decry modern Nashville can sound just as conservative as previous generations did when they complained about long hair at the Grand Ole Opry. Country music sits on a constantly evolving continuum, and in mixing the modern with the classic, the charismatic Simpson arrives at Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. With psychedelic arrangements and a voice like Waylon’s, he starts gritty before launching himself both skyward and inward— a potent combination that sets him apart in a crowded field. —Art Levy, KUTX
Channeling a happier Beach House, or perhaps an even-sadder Best Coast, the music of Alvvays presents a familiar juxtaposition: The Toronto band’s songs marry upbeat, lovely, occasionally messy surf-pop melodies with bittersweet words. Throughout Alvvays’ superb self-titled debut, Molly Rankin unfurls line after emotionally open line, painting a portrait of romantic discontent in the matters of love and relationships. In “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me,” Rankin perfectly encapsulates the conflict between youthful restlessness and a desire to settle down. Then, in “Party Police,” she articulates the confusion that comes with trying to decode the thoughts of someone you love: “Walking through the trees, I never really know what’s on your mind / Is it ever me, or just someone you’ve left behind?” In those moments, Alvvays reveals something more resigned and heartsick than those crisp guitars and singable choruses would have you believe. —Mike Katzif, WNYC’s Soundcheck
Listening to Agata Zubel’s music, you get the sense of a composer who’s restless, searching, embryonic. Though still relatively unknown in the U.S., in her native Poland — where she’s on the faculty at the Academy Of Music in Wroclaw — Zubel is an ascendant voice whose music demands to be heard and seen. Her piece NOT I (for soprano and small ensemble) won the prestigious 2013 UNESCO International Rostrum Of Composers prize, and is based on texts by Samuel Beckett. It’s a work that rewards patient listening. If you abandon yourself to its slowly unfolding drama, it’s capable of reshaping neural cliffs and coastlines. —Alex Ambrose, WQXR’s Q2 Music
Niia came to our attention on the strength of “Body,” a song from her Generation Blue EP. She’s enjoyed success working with Wyclef Jean, but this record marks Niia’s solo debut. Produced by Robin Hannibal, known for his work in Rhye and Quadron, Generation Blue has an infectious R&B feel that recalls classic ’80s pop. No surprise there: Hannibal’s work often channels the greatest hits of Michael Jackson and Sade. “Body” works its magic with a hushed vocal and a polished arrangement of piano, guitar and strings. The result is a song sure to leave you thinking, “Who was that?!” —Jason Bentley, KCRW
It’s funny to call someone who draws heavily from the traditions of blues and rock ‘n’ roll a “best new artist.” New Orleans-via-Tampa singer-guitarist Benjamin Booker infuses his songs with visceral energy, rowdy rhythms and blistering distortion — the sort of stuff you’d expect to hear in a Pacific Northwest garage rather than a Southern juke joint. Even his voice’s beyond-his-years rasp can’t dust over the youthful vigor of Booker’s incendiary, fully formed debut. —Jim Beckmann, KEXP
It was clear from the beginning that Irish singer-songwriter Hozier would become one of 2014’s biggest breakthroughs. His hit “Take Me To Church” first started circulating last winter, and its haunting contrast of light and dark drew us in immediately. Once we saw Hozier perform live at SXSW back in March, we were all in. The soft-spoken Irishman is a huge talent with a strong voice and a slew of great songs. —Russ Borris, WFUV
Parker Millsap’s self-titled debut opens with an incredible one-two punch — “Old Time Religion” and “Truck Stop Gospel” — but the set’s middle third is just as potent, though not as prickly. Together, “The Villain,” “Disappear” and “Quite Contrary” demonstrate that Millsap knows how to craft and perform a song without gimmicks or games. The upstart singer has cited Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits among his influences, and it’s easy to hear them echoing through his refrains. They’re present in Millsap’s attention to and passion for the details of a scene or a character. Parker Millsap would be impressive coming from any artist, but it’s all the more remarkable given that Millsap recorded it when he was only 20. —Kelly McCartney,Folk Alley
Strand Of Oaks
Some of the best new music we heard in 2014 was sitting right in our own backyard. With his band Strand Of Oaks, Philly-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Tim Showalter released a knockout rock ‘n’ roll record called HEAL. On past albums, Showalter spun surreal, folk-leaning tales about alien abduction and John Belushi’s drug dealer. But this is Strand Of Oaks’ most personal record, and it resonates with amplified power, soaring guitar solos and a confessional approach to songwriting. —Bruce Warren, WXPN
What happens when a singer-songwriter wants to get her groove on; when a folkie just wants to let loose and dance? They might set down their acoustic guitars and pick up mixing boards, and they might sound like Sylvan Esso, which places Amelia Meath’s mesmerizing, whippoorwill voice over the top of Nick Sanborn’s skittering bell-tone beats and loops. On Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut, the duo occasionally flirts with bass drops and low-end rattling, but it keeps most of its compositions sparse, buoyant and airborne; few songs released this year encourage dance-like-no-one’s-watching movements quite like the sing-songy single “Coffee.” —Andrea Swensson, The Current
For many, Kris Bowers first came into view as a member of Jose James’ band for the album While You Were Sleeping. Observing the pair’s live shows together, it quickly became apparent how much James leaned on the keyboardist — not only for accompaniment, but also for shaping the band’s innovative blend of London electronica, crooner jazz and head-nodding R&B. All of these elements and more are at play in Bowers’ debut album, Heroes And Misfits. But what impressed me most about the 25-year-old, Juilliard-trained pianist was his poise. At a studio session for WBGO’s The Checkout, he exuded a calm kind of SoCal cool, which was surprising considering he was leaping off the deep end with a solo adventure on keys, piano and other gadgets. —Simon Rentner, WBGO
And one of my personal favorites—an extreme oldie—from the 2014 Grooves: