The name of this blog is Hack’s BACK Pages. I am, by nature, a pretty nostalgic person. I enjoy looking back fondly on the days of my youth and young adulthood, and it is the music from those days that I am most passionate about.
But still, as I have eased (or stumbled) into my 40s, 50s and 60s, I have continued to occasionally buy new music when it has been released, or when I have discovered it after the fact. I remain curious and eager to build my music collection and keep my ears to the ground for artists that make me sit up and take notice. To those who say “there’s no good music being made anymore,” I call bullshit. There is a TON of good, even great, music coming out all the time. You just have to look a little harder to find the music that appeals to you.
I like to think I enjoy many different genres of music, but truth be told, there are some I just can’t (or won’t) digest. Hip hop? Sorry, not interested. Bubblegum pop? Nope, I’m too old now for that cotton-candy froth. Country? Well, I’m more open to it than I used to be, but I certainly don’t prefer it.
My leanings are toward blues-based rock, and straight blues, and progressive rock, and perceptive singer-songwriter folk, and energetic rhythm-and-blues. So as I have leaned in to the music of the 2010-2019 decade, I have naturally been inclined to find albums by artists in the genres that press those hot buttons.
Some of these musicians are new, meaning they arrived on the scene within the last 10 years. Others first showed up during the 1990s or 2000s, but I didn’t hear them (or they didn’t come up with their best work) until this decade. And still others are vintage artists from my years (1960s, 1970s and 1980s) who are somehow still cranking out some amazing new stuff.
This week’s post will take a look at 10 new artists from the 2010s who I’ve been enjoying, artists who I believe are worthy of your attention. In the next two blog installments, I’ll explore the bands from older decades who captivated me with their new releases during the 2010-2019 period.
A combination of soulful roots-rock, blues rock and the earthshaking pipes of Brittany Howard brought Alabama Shakes near universal acclaim when they made their full-album debut on “Boys and Girls” (2012). Part of its appeal is its rough-around-the-edges production and down-home earthiness, which make the songs sound rawer and more vital. Check out “Rise to the Sun” and “Heartbreaker” for a hint of what I’m talking about.
While Howard’s forceful voice shows serious evidence of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, it is actually closer to the late Amy Winehouse in the way she can grab a lyric and shake it like a dog with a squirrel in its mouth. Conversely, she has a gentler side that coaxes songs like “I Found You” and the delicious title song over the finish line in convincing fashion. I get the impression she could win me over singing the New Jersey phone book.
The Alabama Shakes follow-up “Sound and Color” (2015) continues Howard’s startling dominance over her material, but this LP seems a bit too trippy and experimental in places, and suffers from production trickery that works against the band’s strengths. But there are still some fine moments — the quirky, staccato rhythms on the the singles “Don’t Want to Fight” and “Future People” provide a seductive platform for Howard’s imaginative vocal play, and her band seem well equipped to the task of backing her up.
I hope to see an Alabama Shakes gig someday, hopefully in a small, sweaty venue. I get the feeling it would shake me to the core.
The War on Drugs
A heartfelt thanks to my friend Raj for first exposing me to the dreamy music of The War on Drugs. The rich, layered arrangements and strong vocals heard on “A Deeper Understanding” (2017) are truly a wonder to behold. Adam Granduciel is clearly the wunderkind in charge as chief songwriter, keyboardist and singer, and he joins the ranks of do-it-all musicians like Stevie Wonder, Jack White and Ian Anderson who, although there are other band members who provide color and shading, tend to run the show with an iron fist.
The first track I heard was the 11-minute “Thinking of a Place,” which turned out to be the appropriate introduction to the album. There’s so much going on here, but its slow development and its sense of not being sure exactly where it’s going is downright thrilling as layer after layer builds into a shimmering production. There’s such marvelous attention to sonic details, and the push and pull of grittiness and studio polish is mesmerizing. It’s no wonder “A Deeper Understanding” won a 2018 Grammy for Best Rock Album.
Granduciel’s smooth, strong voice soars along the top edge of his arrangements (take note of “Holding On” and “Nothing to Find” with their Dylanesque influences), and the result is captivating. The overall excellence of “A Deeper Understanding” has sent me back to explore The War on Drug’s earlier efforts, especially “Lost in the Dream” (2014), and I’m eager to hear if the band’s next release can top their work thus far.
If you miss the sound of ’70s soul and ’60s Motown, then Mayer Hawthorne is for you. Good Lord, this guy — who has chosen a public persona akin to Buddy Holly — has an uncanny ability to sound as retro as Al Green or Bobby Womack, although with a more modern day production. On “How Do You Do” (2011), Hawthorne has Temptations send-ups like “Hooked,” falsetto-driven grooves (“A Long Time”), and perhaps the finest kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend I’ve ever heard (“The Walk”). Check out these lines: “I love the way you walk now, and your legs are so long/ well, your looks had me putty in your hand now/but I took just as much as I can stand now/ and you can walk your long legs, baby, out of my life…”
His more recent album “Man About Town” (2016) is also well worth your time. Fabulously sexy ’70s-era soul tunes abound, from “Breakfast in Bed” to “Cosmic Love,” seemingly designed to take us back to those summer nights when The Stylistics and Marvin Gaye were our radio companions to romantic adventures in back seats. There are plenty of dance-floor workouts here too, like “The Valley” and “Love Like That.” In short, Hawthorne and Company bring a broad smile to my face whenever I slide either of these CDs into the player.
Ok, I am biased big time here, but it’s high time my girl got the kind of exposure and success her music deserves, and there’s a growing audience of fans that agrees with me. Emily’s songs have matured in both lyrical content and musical sophistication since her early EPs, “Fury, Fear and Heartbreak” (2013) and “The Raw EP” (2015). In 2018, she completed her first full album but chose to release it as two EPs instead — “By the Sun” (2018) and “By the Moon” (2019), which illustrate two different sides of Emily’s songwriting.
The spirited fun of “Nostalgia” and “Good Intentions” highlights “By the Sun,” offering quality examples of her pop side and country influence, respectively. “‘By the Sun’ was open and honest, and that continued onto ‘By the Moon,’ but the songs on that one took me to a more vulnerable place,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Now that I’ve introduced myself to you, let’s get real, so I can tell you about the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned.’”
Songs like “Easy” and “Worth the Weight” show a lot of the soul searching evident throughout “By the Moon,” and producer Davis Naish has done a marvelous job of adding nuanced electric guitars that turn Emily’s songs into strong recordings worthy of airplay. The final tune, the achingly pretty “Once in a While,” was recorded in a church with a string quartet, and it might be my favorite of the bunch (I’m a sucker for melodic ballads!).
I was first turned on to this band when I saw their are-you-kidding-me performance at the 2013 American Music Awards. I’d never heard of them, but was so impressed by what they offered that I picked up “Night Visions” (2012) and played it relentlessly for months. The adrenaline rush I would get from the percussion-heavy “Radioactive” and the marvelous light/dark contrast of songs like “Demons” and “Bleeding Out” made me conclude that I’d found a new favorite band, at least for a while (these things do change, though, don’t they?).
To me, some of the tracks (“Hear Me,” “Amsterdam”) recall Fleetwood Mac at their late ’70s best, thanks to the harmonies provided by lead singer Dan Reynolds and the backing vocals of guitarist Wayne Sermon and bass/keyboard man Ben McKee. Just as important is how Imagine Dragons utilize drums and percussion in such a dynamic way, taking a simple guitar melody and turning it into something else entirely.
I have been less impressed with the group’s subsequent releases as they have strayed from an alternative rock groove to a more pop-rock sound. Indeed, when I first heard “Believer” and “Thunder,” the big hits from “Evolve” (2017), I assumed it was Maroon 5’s Adam Levine handling the vocals (not that that’s so bad, but not what I expected from Imagine Dragons). Not sure what the future will hold for them, but I’ll be watching.
What a heart stopping voice Hozier has! Booming and effervescent, it’s an instrument that communicates passion, adventure and wisdom, and recalls the vocal virtuosity of early Elton John. Indeed, on his debut, “Hozier” (2014), he channeled Elton on the brilliant, self-penned “Take Me to Church,” with majestic highs and lows. There’s a virtual Irish stew of great music to be found here — a healthy dose of R&B, a dash of gospel, a hint of folk and a foundation of bass-driven rock.
I’m please to report that Hozier’s sophomore release, “Wasteland, Baby!” (2019), picks up right where he left off, and is arguably an improvement. Such great tunes, like “Almost (Sweet Music)” and the riveting opener “Nina Cried Power,” which name drops Nina Simone and others who used music to protest injustice, and he invites the great Mavis Staples to add her magnificent chops to the proceedings.
I heard Hozier perform many of these tracks last summer at an outdoor music festival in Ohio, and he held the crowd rapt with his soulful delivery. Encore, baby!
This American band came together through auditions set up by a producer named Bill Evans, who wanted to create a group that combined sophisticated music (complex composition and virtuoso performances) with accessible, mainstream songwriting. His idea was to channel the instrumental complexity through a charismatic pop singer/songwriter. He found what he was envisioning when he met Casey McPherson, a fantastic singer-songwriter who had worked in Alpha Rev in Nashville. Evans put McPherson together with Steve Morse and Dave LaRue from the Dixie Dregs, plus Steve’s brother Neal and drummer Mike Portnoy, and they toiled for many months creating intriguing workups of basic song structures McPherson had written.
The result, “Flying Colors” (2012), is indeed complex yet accessible, sophisticated yet mainstream. I can’t get enough of this stuff, and you need look no further than the opening track, “Blue Ocean,” to understand what this band is about. The galloping beat, the guitar/keyboard interplay and especially McPherson’s compelling voice combine to create an instantly likable sound, and it’s an exhilarating roller coaster ride.
There’s a definite progressive rock bent to their music. Songs like “Everything Changes” and “The Storm” remind me of Kansas at their most melodic, with majestic chord changes and soaring guitars. While some tracks are as immediately accessible as promised, others take some time to absorb, just as the best progressive rock of the ’70s did (Yes, Genesis, et al).
By the time of their follow-up LP, “Second Nature” (2014), Flying Colors were now self-produced, and had been together long enough to enjoy a productive chemistry in their songwriting. Each member was encouraged to bring in ideas, maybe song fragments that could then be developed by the entire band. Again, the opening track, the 12-minute “Open Up Your Eyes,” offers a perfect example of that collaborative effort, with McPherson’s vocals not coming in until the four-minute mark. Drummer Portnoy describes “A Place in Your World” this way: “catchy vocal hooks with clever, tasty musicianship sprinkled on top — a great example of the Flying Colors vocal blend.” Amen!
Holy smokes, another amazing R&B voice in the Sam Cooke tradition! This product of Fort Worth, Texas bars and clubs exploded on the musical scene with “Coming Home” (2015), and quickly gained national recognition for this strong batch of Neo-soul. I first heard him on “Saturday Night Live,” where he performed the effervescent “Smooth Sailin'” and the amazing gospel ode “River,” and I was struck by his amazing tenor and vocal control.
The songs found here are the product of an excellent four-man songwriting team headed up by Bridges, and the influence of masters like Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team at Motown is undeniable. I’m partial to tracks like “Better Man,” “Twistin’ & Groovin'” and “Brown Skin Girl,” which showcase Bridges’ butter-smooth voice and some luscious saxophone licks.
The more recent release “Good Thing” (2018) puts Bridges’ voice even more out front, and on a more diverse set of material. “Believe” uses a spare acoustic guitar arrangement, while “Bad Bad News” has a jazzier groove that recalls the later albums of Steely Dan. “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” positively overflows with danceable vibes.
A friend told me recently, “If I hear Ed Sheeran one more time, I swear I’m gonna snap.” I get that. He’s had three albums in the 2010s, and they’ve all had many millions of hits online. This guy has suffered the backlash that comes from near-unanimous praise and suffocating overexposure.
And yet, I really like his songs and the way he sings them. Take “Supermarket Flowers,” a track from his most recent LP “÷ (Divide)” (2017). It’s a wispy ballad Sheeran wrote as a tribute to his late grandmother, a retelling of the aftermath of her funeral from the perspective of his mother. Though the poetic verses deal with how a loved one’s death can be numbing in its monotony, the chorus, with its angel imagery and “hallelujah”-ing, seems built for cathartic group sing-alongs. It sure worked for me when my mother passed away recently.
“Castle on the Hill” and “Galway Girl” are both also autobiographical but miles apart musically, and they each work beautifully. The former uses a relentless U2-type rhythm to tell how his sad remembrances of youth can’t keep him from wanting to visit the hometown anyway, while the latter, as you might expect, is all Irish jig and positivity about a lady he admired and then wishes well when she marries someone else. On the other hand, I can do without the big single “Shape of You,” which I find repetitive and boring.
Sheeran is a ridiculously prolific songwriter, churning out well over 100 songs for “X (Multiply)” (2014), from which he chose 12 for the album (and another dozen for deluxe editions). Perhaps his best from this group are the megahit “Thinking Out Loud,” a lovely ballad, and the equally gorgeous “Bloodstream.”
His music goes down very easy with me, and it is among the most streamed over the past five-plus years. He’s certainly my type, even if he doesn’t float everybody’s boat.
Nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards is 25-year-old Maggie Rogers, a gifted singer-songwriter who has found an appealing way to merge her folk style with electronic production. The resulting debut LP, “Heard It in a Past Life” (2019), includes songs from earlier EPs and strong new tunes such as “Light On,” “Fallingwater” and “Past Life,” on which her voice recalls early Joni Mitchell. Several music publications and online sites picked Rogers’ LP as one of the Top 50 of 2019. I love her stuff, and I’m eager to see what happens next for her.