Paste has weighed in with its Best Albums of 2009, but over the
holiday break, each of our editorial staffers is giving us a glimpse of
his or her personal favorites from the year. Here's assistant editor Rachael Maddux on her favorite debuts of 2009.
Earlier this year, I began my tenure as Paste's new-artist editor, which means I've assigned most of the Band of the Week, Artist of the Day, Emergent and Best of What's Next profiles you've read in print and online this year. It also means I've listened to a whole hell of a lot of new music by a whole hell of a lot of new bands, "a whole hell of a lot" being industryspeak for "more than you would think the universe could possibly withstand." A lot of was real good, a lot was real bad, and a few artists still have me kinda giddy like a schoolgirl, even after all these months. And so, as the Paste staff weighs in this week on our personal favorites of the year, I present to you my picks for the eight most auspicious musical debuts of 2009. All of these folks knocked my socks off in one way or another this year, and I'm pretty excited about what they'll do next.
Dawes, North Hills
A few months ago, one of the folks over at Daytrotter twittered about this band's "When My Time Comes" being song of the year. But once I finally got a copy of the L.A. quartet's self-released North Hills in my own hands, I realized those Daytrotter folks were wrong, so so so wrong—"When My Time Comes" isn't even the best song on the album. That would be "That Western Skyline," or maybe "Take Me Out of The City." Silly Iowans. The record is hardly perfect—there's as many so-so tracks as truly excellent ones—but if this is just the band's first swipe at greatness, I can't wait for round two. (And even if they never make another album, their version of "With A Little Help From My Friends" will remain one of the most fantastic live covers of a cover I've seen in a while.)
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Maybe you remember Alex Ebert as the frontman of Ima Robot, or maybe you don't. Either way, it's clear dude underwent some major life changes in between the two acts, including meeting the love of his life, who now sings with—and is often sung about—in his new band. The ten-person outfit, with their traveling white school bus and long hair and tendency to pose for press shots in the desert, might incite heebie-jeebies among those still unsure about the organizational motivations of The Polyphonic Spree, but like their fellow robe-swathed multitudinous brethren, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros are all about love, love, love, love. And like the Spree, the Zeros avoid gimmick-territory by backing up the hippie-facade with some damn good songs, making use of every last recruit with grab-bag textures—flute, tambourine, a whistling chorus—and big, arms-wide-open choruses. The ferociously sweet, boy-girl vocal trade-offs between Ebert and his ladyfriend Jade Castrinos on "Home" make me incapable of wishing them anything but the best, but if they ever split, the subsequent breakup album will probably be killer, too.
Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head
Like no other genre except maybe hip-hop, the bluegrass world has a wonderful habit of fostering young talents by pulling in the help of established veterans to nurture and play along, and that's just what it's done with 18-year-old Sarah Jarosz. She was established as somewhat of an instrumental phenom while barely a teenager, but her debut—featuring Chris Thile and Abigail Washburn, who seem like elder statesmen in comparison—establishes her as a keen songwriter, too. If she can wring this wise loveliness from the bones of high school, there's no telling what she'll make of everything after.
Lissie, Why You Runnin' EP
"Dude. Dude. Dude. DUDE. AWESOME," is kind of all my brain can splurt out when I try to write about this girl. Please, just try to pick out your favorite track from her EP (I can't!) and then join me in waiting impatiently and inarticulately for her full-length debut in 2010. DUDE.
Micachu & The Shapes, Jewellery
In a year overflowing with fuzzed-out, kitchen-sinky pop, this U.K. trio—fronted by mop-haired Mica Levi—got a bit less buzz than some others but bobbed heads and shoulders above them all. They're all three music students and Levi's a trained composer who's done work for the London Philharmonic, but she's a DJ and an MC too, and those divergent backgrounds are thrown into Jewellery's burbling mix along with some generous doses of plucky kid-sized guitar, toy piano and warbling cut-and-paste vocals. "Golden Phone" is the most immediately sublime, but with a little work the eleven other tracks prove so imminently charming and disorienting that you'll forgive the band for their kinda-too-precious homemade matching t-shirts. Whether it's with The Shapes or some other endeavor, Levi seems poised to keep at this for quite some time, though there's honestly no telling what she'll do next.
Michael Ford, Jr & the Apache Relay, 1988
Just after this Nashville band released its debut in September, I saw them play a show that ended with them apologizing for not being able to play longer—not because of a curfew, but because they'd exhausted their entire catalog (thirteen original tracks and a Jessica Lea Mayfield cover). It wasn't until I saw a copy of the CD that I realized they actually played the whole album in its entirety, front-to-back, but that only added to the charm of the whole evening. They're clearly still finding their footing, but for a bunch of college kids (they all met at Nashville's Belmont University) they're sharp and serious, and frontman Michael Ford, Jr. has the earnest grit and fire of a one-day tremendous songwriter. They're not great yet, but they sure will be one day.
Moonlight Bride, Myths
This fall, these guys blew the lid off my notion that I'd never really love a band from my hometown—though I'm ashamed to admit I had to be told about them third-hand from some out-of-town folks before I believed it. Still, in less than a month, Myths has become one of my favorite albums of the year. (You can listen to most of it on Myspace.) It's just ten tracks but it feels huge, dark and wounded but shot through at all the right moments with glorious, bursting choruses and moody, skittering guitar. The foursome holed up in a warehouse practice space earlier this year to make the album and basically recorded the whole thing live after playing it through time and time again for weeks, so there's a warring feeling between thoughtful deliberation and frantic immediacy. Moonlight Bride is unsigned and basically unknown right now, but I'm bracing myself for that to change in the next couple months. Chattanooga can't keep this secret much longer.
Merrill Garbus put a few restrictions on herself when she made the songs that comprise her debut—every sound on the album had to be filtered through her trusty Sony digital voice recorder, for instance—but listening to the songs, you get the feeling that this is a woman who doesn't let much hold her back, that she just does whatever she wants when she wants it, and does it well. She mixes the music lessons of her youth and the improvisational training of her college theater classic with East African-style percussion and jangly, toy-box instrumentation, and dapples it all with her billowing, glorious voice, throaty and soulful and as all-over-the-map as her shifting, building, jumping songs. If this is what she can pull from her bedroom, her kitchen, the sidewalks of her hometown, I can't wait for her to take on the whole world.