This list is necessarily all over the map. Heck, in a lot of respects, there’s no map at all. You’ll find it in tatters down on the passenger-side floorboard.
Delving into unsigned bands is like that.
Of course, it’s not all fizzy delight. Like all treks off of the beaten path, there are dead ends, awful mishaps and moments when you feel utterly lost.
Then, you come across an Emily Hurd, a Henry Cole, a Haley Dries, or a band like the Wife — and it all seems worthwhile. Each of them finds a home in this poll, along with recommended up-and-comers like Debbie Miller, Cory Wong, Hannah and Maggie, and Kait Dunton. S. Victor Aaron has contributed additional comments, as well.
The list — again, necessarily, in our minds — swings wildly from rock to fusion jazz, from Americana to holiday-themed music. (Really.) There’s a blues project from the deliciously named Harmonica Hinds, and a throwback big-band project from the Equinox Orchestra.
That’s how it is out here, without a map. Wide open.
No. 10: KAIT DUNTON – MOUNTAIN SUITE: Gone are much of the abrupt, dramatic turns and the fun friskiness that gave 2008′s Real And Imagined its charms. In its place is greater emphasis on extended melodies, subtle maneuvering in place of exclamatory expressions and tighter integration among all the performers. Befitting the title of the album, the music is airier, more serene and more nuanced. I think that years down the line, Mountain Suite will be looked at in retrospect as another stop along the way in the very promising career of Kait Dunton, but it’s a transition point that is already further along than the destination for many good jazz musicians. In the company of some mighty elite and well-established players, she is able to fit right in and project the confidence and growth that will undoubtedly serve her well in the next phase of her career. — S. Victor Aaron
No. 9: HARMONICA HINDS – IF SPEED WAS JUST A THOUGHT: Mervyn “Harmonica” Hinds, a regular on the Chicago blues scene of decades, was once one of the best sidemen that nobody knew. That’s changed more recently, as Hinds has begun issuing albums under his own name in regular intervals. If Speed Was Just a Thought may be his most complete effort yet. Throughout, Harmonica Hinds plays both the country blues and its urban-bred cousin with equal force and intellect. There’s more to this, however, than love gone wrong and love long gone. A strong sense of faith works as a backstory for the project, from its haunting opening cut to the fleet album-closer “Religion” – when Hinds, offering a wordlessly boisterous interpretation of salvation’s soaring gift, brings it all home once again. — Nick DeRiso
No. 8: HALEY DREIS – LADY WITH A ROCKET: Returning with another batch of tastefully shimmering, open and revealing pop, Haley Dreis doesn’t swerve from the ready-made template of her recent recordings on Lady with a Rocket, so much as tinker around the edges. I was struck by Dreis’ lyrics on this, her third full-length, which are every bit as heartfelt as those collaborators are talented. She continues to grow as a singer, too, uncovering the vulnerable places that give new heft to her moments like the title track and “Gonna Be All Right.” See, though she sings and she no doubt is a songwriter, Dreis doesn’t stumble into that decidedly uncommercial netherworld of so-called “singer-songwriters” — those talented enough to construct thoughtful songs, but not open enough or happy enough or interested enough to make them catchy. — Nick DeRiso
No. 7: JEREMY DAVIS AND THE FABULOUS EQUINOX ORCHESTRA – GREAT AMERICAN SWAGGER: You come in expecting one thing, being as Jeremy Davis focuses on the mid-century big-band formula. Then, you start listening. Actually, this isn’t a dust-covered trip into the special collections area of the library. Far from it. Davis and Co., based out of Savannah, Georgia, approach the album with a vigor and gumption that belie their youth, performing with an unabashed, unquenchable joy — but, perhaps just as important, with no small amount of smarts. The orchestra tackles this material with a sharp eye toward the bluesy antecedents that fed into big-band jazz, the modern improvisational wonders that initially subsumed it, and the rock attitude that finally killed it off. — Nick DeRiso
No. 6: HANNAH AND MAGGIE – MUSCLE AND BONE: Maggie and Hannah are the perfect melding of Simon and Garfunkel and the Indigo Girls, offering quietly resonant songs conveyed through a shimmering vocal interplay. The difference on this, their sophomore effort, is the way the folk-pop pair has advanced those notions toward a sound that’s uniquely their own. They’ve gotten there by embracing the joy that can follow longing, the embrace after a quarrel, the sunshine after the rain. Sure, there remains the “elegant ache” of “Sara,” a standout track here. But, by then, Hannah and Maggie have already skipped through “As I Awake” — easily the most sun-filled, stubbornly optimistic song of their time together. — Nick DeRiso
No. 5: CORY WONG – QUARTET/QUINTET: Minneapolis/St. Paul-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Cory Wong thrives on both sides of jazz, but instead of making a tight, straight ahead record and following it up with a looser fusion record, he made both records at once and released them together. The Quartet plays straight jazz but in the 21st century sense of it. The harmonies are advanced and not rooted in the blues. The rhythm is more apt to rock than swing. Meanwhile, Quintet, found on Disc 2, gets even more interesting, but not because Wong is introducing electrified timbres and all the possibilities that come with it. Rather, Wong is playing even freer, taking more risks and revealing more facets of his musical personality than with the quartet. — S. Victor Aaron
No. 4: DEBBIE MILLER – MEASURES + WAITS: An offbeat rumination on love, this EP finds a way to pull no punches, even as it pulls a few jokes — no easy task. Credit Miller who, across this sophomore release’s five songs — one of them recorded live — walks the fine line between letting you in and putting you on with grace and no small amount of emotional resonance. That contrast, often echoed in the music itself, gives Measures + Waits this memorable, narrative heft. Take “Snippets from a Bathroom Stall,” which includes a series of scribbled lines found around various saloon toilets. The song, like much of this EP, is a bundle of intriguing contradictions — some of it’s funny, some of it’s silly, some of it’s profane, and some of it deeply connects, as when Miller sings: “Roses are red, fuck all the rest — I wish you were dead.” She won’t settle for an easy answer, and in so doing shows us so very much more. — Nick DeRiso
No. 3: HENRY COLE AND THE AFROBEAT COLLECTIVE – ROOTS BEFORE BRANCHES: When Henry Cole sought to find a singular style of music that would appeal to the diverse tastes of his local Old St. Juan music scene, his search was over when he discovered the pioneering Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti. On that bedrock he piled on the dense jungle funk of Get Up With It-era Miles Davis, the Chicano soul fusion of War, the 50s and 60s jazz of New York, and the more contemporary sounds of indie rock … and more. Even rap is represented here, sort of, through socially conscious spoken word poetry uttered in Spanish instead of pidgin English or some West African dialect. Much of Cole’s audience might not understand what’s being said, but it matters little, because the grooves he and his band created are universally understood and can move the soul of feet of people from any ethnicity. — S. Victor Aaron
No. 2: EMILY HURD – ANY GIVEN DAY: With the average Christmas album, you dig it out sometime around Thanksgiving, then stuff it back in with the tinsel and garland sometime around New Year’s Day. Singer-songwriter Emily Hurd may have broken that pattern with Any Given Day. From the shambling country-rocking cadence of “Evergreen,” with its trembling sense of love-struck anticipation, this just-released project presents as something both timeless and loose. Written in October, and recorded live in November at Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago, Any Given Sunday touches on some of the season’s familiar themes — snuggling up on a snowy night (“Cold Outside”), the magical innocence of Yuletide excitement (“Children Believe”) and the warm tidings that the season is supposed to illicit (“Good Will”), but it does so with a verve, passion and inventiveness that takes Any Given Day well away from convention. — Nick DeRiso
No. 1: THE WIFE – BAD HABITS: Complex and brutally honest, Swedish band the Wife’s Bad Habits delineates the hard journey we all make through this world, yet finds a way in the end to make peace with its most difficult moments. The group gets much of its core sound from the spooky jangle associated with Neil Young’s Harvest recordings, but with a rawly emotional singer in Natalie Johansson whose endlessly malleable voice recalls by turns Lucinda Williams, Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge and Grace Slick. She’s matched stride for stride on tracks like “On a Black Horse” by Kristoffer Johansson’s guitar, as he provides this ringing counterpoint to her lyrics, adding new dimensions to tales of desperate longing, hard choices and unvarnished love. In keeping, the album typically unfolds very quietly, appearing as if out of nowhere in a crepuscular mystery. — Nick DeRiso