TJ Foster: Top Ten Artists You’ve (Probably?) Never Heard Of

This is a column by TJ Foster of Darling Valley. 

First, an introduction.

I love making lists. That’s a weird thing to say. Believe me, I know. I attribute this fact to watching “High Fidelity” as a teenager and discovering Rob Gordon was my musical doppelganger. That being said, I promise to never post a “Top Five Breakups” list on this site, and if I do, you can be sure I’ve hit rock bottom.

Because the staff here at DWP are so akin to DIY and independent art, I wanted my first article to celebrate that culture in some way. This list is a double-edged sword—I realize there are plenty of amazing artists that I’ve probably never heard of, too. Also, narrowing this list down to 10 was nearly impossible. So I set two guidelines:

  1. No artists I’ve worked with or I’m friends with—I could make an entirely separate list of “talented musicians I know that deserve your attention” and it would be a very long list, but for the sake of eliminating that bias, that’s not what this list is going to be.
  2. Only bands/artists that are still together—again, I could make an entirely separate list of “unknown bands that broke up before you could hear them,” but not here.

So without further ado, here are my top 10 artists you’ve (probably) never heard of:

The Collection

RIYL: Manchester Orchestra, Anathallo
These guys and gals are probably my favorite discovery of the last five years. When I first heard the opening notes to their masterpiece “Ars Moriendi,” I was hooked. There’s a sad story behind the record—look it up if you’d like—but as a whole its sound is more hopeful than mournful. It’s truly a triumph. In an age of Mumford & Sons soundalikes (I’m looking at you, Lumineers), these guys are a phenomenal representation of the excitement that still exists within the genre. The arrangements are masterful, the production is slick, the vocals are elegant and sometimes gritty—I can’t say enough about this band. If you check out one artist from this list, let it be this one.

Leif Vollebekk

RIYL: Bon Iver, Ryan Adams
Vollebekk is a Canadian singer/songwriter who had a hard time NOT channeling Dylan with his earlier stuff, but with his latest record (“Twin Solitude,” which came out a few weeks ago) he’s seemed to find some slightly different footing. Just listen to the track “Elegy” below. The song, like all of his stuff, sucks you in immediately. His songs are the musical equivalent of a lit fireplace and a cup of tea on a winter night. For the most part, they don’t really go anywhere, but they also don’t need to. His lack of song structure is refreshing in an age of verse-chorus-repeat, and puts added emphasis on every thoughtful word.

Julien Baker

RIYL: Azure Ray, Damien Rice
This one might be a stretch. That is to say, there’s a very good chance over the last few months you’ve heard of this amazing young songwriter. She has garnered the attention of some big, big artists (Death Cab, Kevin Devine, the Decemberists) and been asked to open for them on some big stages—which is good because that’s exactly where she should be singing these tortured songs of heartbreak and recovery. Barely old enough to drink, she’s already been through hell and back with the struggles of addiction. Thankfully for us, she’s decided to tell her stories through song. Listen to “Go Home” (or any of her stuff, really) and try not to cry. I dare you.

Anderson East

RIYL: Ray Lamontagne, Glen Hansard
Anderson’s songs are from another time. Yes, that’s a compliment. Listen to his 2015 debut “Delilah,” and you’ll hear what I mean. You’ll instantly feel like you’ve been transported back 40 years or so. The raspy confidence of Mr. East, the well-placed horn arrangements and the gospel-style backup vocals all add a sense of excitement you don’t find in a lot of modern music. He’ll make you dance, he’ll make you smile and he’ll even mellow you out a bit. A promising career lies ahead of him if he plays his cards right. I’m sure he will.

Olivia Quillio

RIYL: Norah Jones, Feist
I met Olivia at a show we played together a couple years ago and was blown away by her voice and the way she commanded the attention of everyone in the room. Her songs are sweet and simple, and sound like they were written and performed by someone twice her age. Her record “Get Down and Pray” is an intimate masterpiece that I assure you is well worth your time.

Fatherson

RIYL: Biffy Clyro, Frightened Rabbit
Ever notice how all the best rock music seems to come from Scotland? No? Well, here’s a wee bit of proof for you. Fatherson write hard-hitting, infectious songs perfect for a long drive on a summer’s day. (Don’t worry—their music isn’t nearly as cheesy as that sentence just was) There’s a little something for everyone here. Turn it up.)

Radical Face

RIYL: Right Away Great Captain, Sleeping At Last
There is so much to say about this project started by singer/songwriter Ben Cooper. The concept alone behind his “Family Tree” series is worth getting lost in. (I’ll just let you Google that one.) Ben seems like a pretty private guy—for the most part his songs tell the tale of a fictional family—but on the final installment of his “Family Tree” series he apparently opened up a bit about his own shit, and it doesn’t sound like it was easy. His songs are thoughtful, warm, inviting, and remind us that at the end of the day, everyone has baggage. Good music certainly helps to ease the strain.

Betty Who

RIYL: Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn
I call her the Australian Katy Perry. No, seriously. Give “Take Me When You Go” a serious listen and you’ll stop laughing at me. This isn’t your local radio station’s flavor of pop music. This is GOOD pop music. And yes, contrary to what you might have heard, such a thing DOES exist in 2017. Don’t be ashamed to give it a try. Betty Who’s ’80s-tinged, addictively catchy songs are a good place to start.

John Moreland

RIYL: Johnny Cash, Jason Isbell
John Moreland is another one who sounds like he’s seen some shit. I guess you could say the same for all the best songwriters. You may have heard him without realizing it thanks to Sons of Anarchy including a song of his in an episode. This is about as close to country music as I’ll get (I’d call it Americana, but I’m probably in denial), proof that ‘country’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a dirty word either. Though it still burns the tongue a bit.

 

Moonlit Sailor

RIYL: Explosions in the Sky, Lymbyc Systym
Earlier I said all the best rock music comes from Scotland. On the same token, all the best instrumental music seems to come from Sweden. Case and point: Moonlit Sailor. I call these guys the “Blink 182 of post rock.” (And apparently they used to cover Blink 182 songs in their infancy.) They write the catchiest songs without words you’ll ever hear. And they’re FUN—which is something you can’t exactly say about most artists in the genre. I will go out on a limb and say “Colors in Stereo” is the best post-rock record since Explosions in the Sky released “The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place”—it’s everything a record like this should be: dynamic, urgent, warm and flat-out gorgeous.

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