2010's top unsigned acts – well, OK, some of them, anyway

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by Nick DeRiso

Let’s get this admission out of the way: Picking the best of 2010’s unsigned treasures is like trying to determine your favorite grain of sand. There are far too many, really, to make any reasonable guess — and the whole time you’re walking around with a bucket in an attempt to actually decide, you keep finding more, you know, sand.

So, we’re going to call this the best of the unsigned that I came across over the last calendar year. Sure, the bucket is inarguably filled with an arbitrary collection of sand. But at least it’s all inside the bucket.

Here we go …

No. 1:
HALEY DREIS – “ALL FOR YOU” (One Track Mind): The strength of Dreis’ songwriting goes back to the classically trained violinist’s canny ability to confound the easy assumption. “All For You,” contrary to its goopy title, isn’t about throwing yourself at the feet of love, but about walking away. “Stay the same, stay the same,” the New Jersey native sings, with a memorably haunting voice reminescent of Aimee Mann, and a propulsive sound that recalls Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” It’s not meant as a plea, but as an angry retort.

No. 2:
DANIELLE ATE THE SANDWICH – ‘TWO BEDROOM APARTMENT’: What sets these songs apart is Danielle Anderson’s accomplished use of melody and her beautiful voice — warm, with just the slightest trill, it’s the perfect vehicle for these songs. It’s a voice that seems to be equally at home singing a lighthearted tribute to El Paso followed by a concerning story of the life of a soldier.

No. 3:
ETHAN KELLER – “ROCK AND ROLL WILL SAVE YOUR SOUL” (One Track Mind): Coming from a good Catholic household (his father is an ordained priest and his mother a former nun), Keller is a deeply spiritual being and his composing pen outs his spirituality on his sleeve, conveying wisdom and perceptiveness beyond his years, regardless of whether he’s singing it or rapping it. Meanwhile his melodies possess ear-grabbing hooks that sound natural, not contrived.

No. 4:
EMILY HEARN – “MAYBE” (One Track Mind): For all of the questions of youth, for all the times we didn’t know how to make our own path, this Athens, Georgia-based singer-songwriter reminds us that there are no easy answers. “Maybe we would fall in love,” Hearn finally decides, “if we weren’t so afraid to fall.” I fell for “Maybe” from the first.

No. 5:
ERWILIAN – ‘MIDWINTER’S NIGHT’: At once neo-renaissance, new age and something akin to blissed-out bluegrass, Erwilian’s holiday-themed concert recording Midwinter’s Night neatly sidesteps the pre-conceived notion of sickly sweet Yuletide fare. Instead, this is a concert souvenir from warm night of remembrance, affection and camaraderie – sparked by these friendly-as-family band members, who frequently interact. That cozy framework, coupled with an adroit musical inventiveness, unbinds the album from convention.

No. 6:
TODD CLOUSER – ‘A LOVE ELECTRIC’: Clouser goes for a circa-1970 psychedelic pop-jazz groove — one tune is even titled “Brass Suite 1970” — that recalls similar albums from that time frame, like Quincy Jones’ Walking In Space and Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda as well as some liked-minded contemporaries such as the groovy-jazz band from San Francisco, Mushroom. Although Clouser has plenty of background to make a “guitar” record, A Love Electric is more about crafting a style and a mood than the mere execution of chops (although the chops are still there).

No. 7:
MARK ‘POCKET’ GOLDBERG – ‘OFF THE ALLEYWAY’: Goldberg sings like he gargled with gravel, then washed it down with sour mash. This modern blues record is no trip to the bottom of a shot glass, though. Weather-beaten but strong, Goldberg instead serves as a never-bowed, often humorous guide through a series of self-penned misadventures in love, and what comes after.

No. 8:
ERIK TELFORD – ‘KINETIC’: Culling together tunes he’s written over the course of some 10 years and recorded in four-to-eight instrument line-ups “live” in the studio, this is a rock-jazz debut that benefits from both the careful collection of strong material and the dynamism of a live performance. Telford smartly looks back to the seventies golden era of fusion as a template for his own sound. But this isn’t the heady fusion of Mahavishnu or the funky fusion of Head Hunters: it’s a benign balance of both.

No. 9:
REDWING BLACKBIRD – ‘THAT RIVER SKINNED A BEAR’: The songs paint intimate vignettes of the familiar: love, loss, the passage of time, the need to get away. The cynic might suggest that these are not exactly earth-shattering topics. The music fan will then point out that there are many diamond shards to be found in everyday locations. What works here is the alchemy produced by images combined with Redwing Blackbird’s stellar harmonies and right sense of sonic shimmer.

No. 10:
TONY SAVARINO – ‘GUITARING’: Savarino never tires of experimenting. He even tackles George Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples.” But instead of settling into a perhaps-expected old-school Dixieland vibe, Savarino channels the gut-busting riffs associated with the 1960s-era Blue Note jazz label, all inside the composition’s signature cascading runs. You can, across the breadth of Guitaring hear other whispers of inspiration – from Les Paul to Roy Clark, from Steve Howe to Chet Atkins. And when it’s all said and done, there is the sneaking suspicion that Tony Savarino is just getting started.

2010 HONORABLE MENTIONS: Mitch Seidman, with Claire Arenius and Jamie MacDonald on Triangulation, a live jazz trio tribute to the late Atilla Zoller; the sensual and enchanting Voyage d’armour, by Amitie featuring Danick; Hiroe Sekine’s A-Me, this intriguing mix of standards and her own compositions; a couple of guitar records — Murray Flint’s The Journey, a finger-style tour de force, and Robert Branch’s Courage To Be; Domina Catrina Lee’s Songs From The Breastbone Drum, a worthy addition already recognized on another of our year-ending lists; and Christina Gaudet’s Solid, an interesting collaboration with her old friend Allen Toussaint.

Click HERE to purchase Haley Dreis’ Beautiful to Me.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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