IN EVERY ISSUE OF MUSIC CONNECTION you’ll find our reviews of unsigned recording artists. Below are the highest scoring artists and bands we heard in all of 2018—as well as an additional page of Top Prospects who are just too talented to overlook. MC welcomes all unsigned recording artists to sign up for a free review at musicconnection.com/reviews/new-music-critiques.
Fans of Dreamers and Coin will warm to this synth-driven quartet, whose “La La Love” might be the catchiest pop confection we’ve heard in a while. Danceable, sensual and rendered with a superlative mix that puts singer David James’ voice right out front and clear as a bell, the song is absolutely radio ready. The sweet, romantic “River” and the airy, lighter-sounding “Parachute,” with its finger-snapping cadence, are maybe less catchy, but no less polished. The latter has an especially visual lyric motif that would surely inspire a dynamic video treatment. All in all, Fate Under Fire’s sound is ultra-current and has been presented with a confidence that should impress labels to come calling.
These dudes can play, and they’ve captured their instrumentals in a crisp hi-def way that gives the immediacy of a live-in-studio experience. The sweet, soulful “Speech” and the more involved and challenging “Overtone” showcase the group’s virtuosity. The pianist is smooth and fluid while the bassist is equally adroit. The drummer gets the spotlight in the latter composition, taking it to a hammering climax. Most memorable and crowd-pleasing is “Delusional” which exhibits the trio’s modernist ambitions while also giving us a catchy enough hook to hold onto. On each composition, the music swells and decays with a deft touch, making these recordings a great calling card for live gigs.
We’re knocked out by Lucinda Belle’s voice, which bursts out of the speakers with a bright, high impact. In fact, we rarely hear a record that’s as perfectly rendered as her original song “Where Have All The Good Men Gone?” where Belle exudes a smart, sexy spirit that’s somewhere between Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. The song’s singalong chorus is a real bonus, too, making this a timely addition to any #MeToo soundtrack. Belle is also adept at transforming other artist’s songs (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and John Mayer’s “Stop This Train”) giving the songs new moods and meanings via a fresh, chamber-pop treatment that features Belle’s fingerwork on the harp.
From the first note, artist Kristina Johnsen’s voice, with its deep, sexy resonance, has us transfixed on original tunes such as “Bold” and “Eggshells” that’re just catchy enough, and with probing lyrics that make it clear the singer is an alert, intelligent and confident individual. She puts it all together on “In The Air,” an affecting song whose ambient intro is a prelude that goes from solemn to celebratory as Johnsen unleashes a singalong chorus that conjures visions of candles aglow in a church packed with singers swaying in unison. Beautiful. All of Johnsen’s tracks are graced with top-notch, finesse-filled production that italicizes special moments in each of her songs.
Boston’s Anna Snow is working at a high level and she arranges her work for maximum effect. Her dusky voice, bolstered by extremely effective backup vocals, is the ideal instrument for her material. What’s most interesting about this artist is how her songs, which on the surface deliver sweet, calming and melodic hooks, are roiling underneath with a dark, sour discontent that can lurk at the root of relationships. It’s what makes songs like “Vera,” with its gliding, easy-glow appeal, seem ultimately so sad. That abiding sadness, as well as a sassy snarkiness, is present as well in the intriguing “Is This Us” and the haunting, foreboding “I Saw Winter” in which the aptly-named artist meets her match.
Chicago artist Matt LeGrand is working at a high level with slick, catchy, dance-inducing pop songs that are radio-ready. “12 AM” is all about hooking up at midnight and LeGrand invests his appealing vocals with plenty of sensual anticipation without overdoing it. “All Good” is just as sexy, though perhaps the heavier production makes the chorus a bit too dense, but the verses are wisely presented with a spare, uncluttered style. The artist shows he’s more than a one-trick pony with his fun cover of Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me,” showing off this young, likeable singer in a retro-jazz-pop show-biz entertainer incarnation. LeGrand might do well to pursue publishing opportunities.
With just her voice and piano, artist Léoa delivers songs that are so timely right now, exploring life’s ugly realities, particularly those which pertain to the injustices of a male-dominated world. Presented lullaby-style, “Little Girl” depicts the schoolyard “boys against girls” origins of an adult- world syndrome. “Shattered” is perhaps her darkest, most haunting song, conveying a woman’s psychological torment after her date-rapist is exonerated. “The Light” casts its net wider, in a more universal––but no less haunting––direction. It takes a special confidence to pull off this kind of material, and Léoa has it. Uncluttered production and mixing enables every pain-soaked word to ring through.
Award-winning live performers in their native Scotland, Skerryvore are no slouches as recording artists either. Each tune is captured with exceptional production and mixing to ensure each member (incl. violin, flute) of this exceptional octet gets a chance to shine. None is more impressive than Alec Dalglich, whose vocals peal with a level of spirited sincerity that gels with the band’s vividly romantic lyrics. While Skerryvore’s heritage chimes through gracefully on “Take My Hand” and “...End of the Line,” the catchiest song of the bunch is the Americana-heavy pop-rocker “Borderline,” which could work well in an end credit film/TV slot. This is one lively, crowd-pleasing band.
JFlo – 8.2
JFlo has a sophisticated ear and enough production chops to bring his ideas to fruition. He can take his music into multiple areas. “Send Her My Way” is straight-up modern-day hip-hop, with a slinky, snakey beat that worms its way into you and won’t let up. Then he shifts gears into a whole different sound––sexy, seductive R&B with a funky, tropical glaze (and an old-school vibe) that brings an urgent pull to “get loose, get wavy on a Saturday night.” JFlo goes to the somber side with “Overtime” where, with the help of effective male and female vocalists (and classic rap catch phrases), he delves into the soul-killing reality of the 9-to-5 world. Despite its loser message, the song’s hook is a winner.
Some artists are in no hurry to impress; they’re too busy doing their own thing. And in the case of George Adrian, the listener’s patience is well rewarded. Miked in a super-close, intimate style, Adrian’s sleepy outsider persona––and its abiding sadness––comes through loud and clear on “How Do You Know,” a soul-searcher that finally grabbed us when its finale chorus reached full altitude. “The Grass Is Dying” features Adrian’s elusive, metaphoric style and some nice high-pitched vocals. The twangy “Oh Won’t You,” with its southern rock guitar tones, shows that this artist knows how to patiently build a winning arrangement. Adrian’s not for everyone, but he’s definitely for us.
Giulia & Jahnna Khoury have put together an impressively slick project, one that begs to be experienced live. The songs are fun, sexy vehicles (reminiscent of Pointer Sisters) that allow the ladies to strut their stuff. “I Do” and “Good Stuff” showcase the duo’s vibrant style, which not only features forceful vocals, but musicianship that is just loaded with professional skill––especially the guitar fills. “Good Stuff” gets our vote as the group’s best number, with lead vocals that are soulful, sexy and (when paired with a backup chorale) sublime. It even makes room for a rap interlude that gives the song a contemporary edge. Overall, the performances captured here are more memorable than the material.
Classically trained Martin Mayer has the chops to bring his bright, bouncy material to life. “Unbreakable” is propelled by rhythmic synths and horns that allow Mayer to tickle the ivories in a way that is familiar to anyone who’s heard a TV theme tune. The piano is again primary as “Whistler” picks up the pace and delivers an interesting mid-section before returning to its catchy hook, which would work well on a videogame’s end-credit roll. “The Mission” is introspective and otherworldly at first, but then morphs into a dramatic, rousing and descriptive theme that suggests Cirque du Soleil. Mayer seems to have a mainstream ear and the skills to render smooth, catchy, vanilla-sweet instrumental music.
Kentucky-based artist Drew Wood is Bioluminescent, and his tracks are quite intriguing, with plenty of catchy hooks and sonic surprises. “Eyes Wide Open,” for example, establishes an engaging, hooky groove before he uses his DJ skills to deploy an array of cool sounds, such as synth tones that clap and quack prominently. The artist gets a deep dance groove going in “Algorhythms,” whose keyboard flourishes add the right amount of flash. We also love the jet engine whine that accents this track. Darker in its vibe is “Easy,” which melds an array of unusual textures that are at first jarring but ultimately engaging once the hook comes clearly into focus. This is a composer with daring imagination.
We hear a complex of elements in Kali Késo’s music that makes us want to hear and know more. Augmented by cool percussive effects bathed in reverb, “Lil Biggie” has a spare, trap-like vibe but delivers so much more as it generates an infectious island-music flavor to support Keso’s mellow-husky-boyish voice. Led by hypnotic, inquisitive synth tones, “WWSD” showcases her rapping voice on a song with a message of independence. A group singalong and a male rapper augment the artist on “Miss Green,” a playfully sexy, seductive and presumably weed-fueled narrative. It’s a cool, catchy song that will likely inspire the listener to want to light up another joint from this artist.
Toronto duo Parasona exhibit the kind of catchy songcraft and performance confidence that’s made stars of Twenty-One Pilots. What’s distinctive about Parasona is that their no-bassist formula and lots of brittle guitar sounds give their music a rawer, more punk rock edge than the Pilots. Add to that Adam Lancia’s nerd-on-‘roids vocal attack and you’ve got something to fuel any song to completion. “Fall Down” is the place to start. The song possesses all the attributes necessary for an act to be contenders. We could easily imagine this one as the band’s hit single. Meanwhile, the emotion and imagery of “Alone” reveal the duo’s fragile side (“Maybe I’m just meant to be alone.”) Check these Canadians out, ay?
Captured in crisp, hi-def audio and backed by players who invest each tune with sensitivity and touch, RAI emits a pro-level voice on decent material—steeped in gospel instincts and early 2000’s R&B—that’s aimed at mature, sophisticated listeners. Set to a jazzy, funky groove, “Here I Am” is about achievement in the face of adversity. On “How to Love,” RAI sincerely asks his lover’s help in overcoming selfishness. Most memorable is “Priceless,” a sunny and soulful tribute to his special someone. All in all, there’s plenty to admire in here; what we do not hear is a distinctive personality, a singer who is prepared to take the spotlight and command the mic.
Any show booker on the lookout for an immediately likeable artist whose music conjures a smooth and abiding optimism will find these recordings by Paul Childers to be must-hear material. This singer-songwriter is accompanied by a stellar backup band on songs such as the jaunty “Music Pulls You Through” and the sweet, calming “My Love of the Rain” that are remarkably humanistic and appealing, guided by a voice which, if not distinctive, is genuine and forthright—perfect for the material. Childers’ old-soul nature is further revealed as he questions why “No One Goes Dancing Anymore.” We can’t imagine a feel-good festival or winery that wouldn’t benefit from this performer’s charms.
S.F. Bay Area rapper Kritta has a strong flow and an urgent message, and though that’s a familiar combo, his higher-consciousness screeds come with an edge that makes them thoroughly credible, never corny. And, when set to cool-sounding beats, the payoff is real. “Black Orchid” is set to a mellow-soulful track as it preaches staying positive, beating the odds. Synth-sparkles brighten up the beat of “I Got It,” a relentless spit where Kritta gives his origin story and tireless mission statement. Our favorite is “Goodbye” where the rapper’s inspirational message shares the spotlight with a spirited women’s gospel choir whose energy is enough to get anybody up swaying and looking to the future.
We enjoyed listening to these instros by Donna.R, who invests each one with fresh and familiar sounds that make them simultaneously easy to accept and exhilarating to hear. “My Light” marries a simple neo-classical piano motif with an unusually high-pitched wind instrument (flute, pipe?) that conjures a tropical, world-music vibe while also suggesting something epic. On “Crescent Sky” the bold synth-bass notes combine with uniquely brittle keyboard tones. Then, on “Night-Enchanted,” kettle drums coexist with the exhalations of synthesizers to describe a pastoral procession. Every one of this composer’s themes is distinctive. Film, TV and videogame creators should take a listen.
The musical mission of this guitar-driven, drum-powered foursome seems absolutely clear: to have fun, feel alive and take everyone along with them. Witness the bouncy beat and upbeat handclaps of the irresistible “Crazy,” feel the rumbling energy that propels the song’s chorus, and it’s clear this is a unit that is smart and confident in its playfulness. Another bold beat drives “Don’t Wanna Go,” pushing its melodic, infectious power right up until the song’s a cappella climax. The band then downshifts on the slow-burning song “Ballerina,” demonstrating a soulfulness, depth and vocal versatility that is impressive. Each track is rendered with an extreme clarity that helps these songs to come alive.
Gifted with a deep, resonant voice that bleeds authentic country values, Calvin Rainwater is also a compelling wordsmith whose themes are rich in homespun imagery (“If We Could Go Fishing”) and are as heartfelt as they are thoughtful (“Sinners & Saints”). Backed by a seasoned acoustic band that knows the value of a good guitar solo or fiddle fill, Rainwater is an artist whose recorded work, its sad and wistful emotions, suggests that he is an artist who would really connect with listeners in an intimate setting. Same goes for the loss and regret that’s conveyed in “God Sent Me An Angel, and I drug her through hell.” When this man sings, he has the ability to jerk tears from a stone.
Jet Hundreds’ sound is “right now,” absolutely current. His knack for catchy elements can lure the listener in for a cool ride. “MindxSweeper” is a perfect example of his work; not only is its beat full of playful textures and accents (a synth bird cry), but the artist’s voice (heavily fx’d on every song) has a tonality that commands attention. On “LOML XX6,” which has an alluring complexity of elements, his rapid-fire flow conveys his concern that he may be losing his girl to drugs. He slows the pace considerably for “Phantom Island” which again puts his liberally autotuned voice front and center. This New Mexico artist’s influences are clear; now we’d like to see him innovate.
The welcoming, positive and sometimes heavenly vibes of these instrumentals by Splimis display his confident handle on arrangements that vary in pace and dynamics, but always maintain threads and nimble beats that guide the listener from beginning to end. There’s strong soundtrack/videogame potential here. Best is “Gates” which with its catchy bell-like keyboard motif, dynamic pauses and underlying charm helps it come off like a toy symphony. “Midori” deploys a placid, angelic choir effect while “Snowflake” is a floating, vaguely weightless glide that seems to describe a journey propelled by surging synths and occasional updrafts of energy––perfect for a surf or outer space documentary.
Spearheaded by Travis Weatherred, Empty Suns’ atmospheric songs will reward patient listeners who are attuned to the pleasures of eerie psych-rock excursions. “A Lonely Place” luxuriates in billowing synths that blossom in ultra slow-motion to create the perfect realm for the artist’s artfully autotuned utterings. We’re taken with the wheezy, accordion-like synths that levitate “Daydreams.” “Empty Sun,” with its catchy beats and powerful near-epic energy, is nevertheless his darkest, most profoundly downcast song as the artist decries the emptiness and desperation that envelopes him. This unusual song’s rousing chorus makes it an unexpected winner for the Houston-based artist.
Guitar-driven six-piece Band of Liars perform like a well-oiled machine and singer Rae Rae (though a bit screechy at times) certainly brings a strong, confident attitude to the mic. “Shoulda Known Better,” a slice of modern country rock, is typical of the band’s catchy, relatable material. Like all the tunes here, it carves out ample space for some tasty lead guitar. “Drunk Drunk” is a down-and-dirty party anthem with a twangy, southern-rock sneer. Most memorable, however, is “Sleeping Like a Queen” whose folkish, stripped-down arrangement allows Rae Rae to gloat “I’m sleeping like a queen in a king-size bed,” about feeling great after ending a bad relationship. These Liars show true potential.