Top 10 Great Unknowns, From Second Stage
It was an unusually strong year for great unknown artists. While bigger, more established bands continued to attract the most attention, smaller, lesser-known acts made the most memorable music of 2008. Some, like Son Lux — our pick for the year's best unknown artist — made grand and epic albums by themselves, using powerful new technology in makeshift home studios. Others, like Southern Gothic chanteuse Liz Durrettor the acoustic duo Blind Pilot, made quieter, more intimate albums. But all of the great unknown artists featured here made music that was inspired, original and heartfelt.
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1. Son Lux
By day, 29-year-old Ryan Lott works at a New York-based ad company writing music for TV and radio commercials. But in his free time, he records and performs as Son Lux. At War With Walls and Mazes is a flawlessly produced album with an astonishing range of energy and emotion: intimate and solitary one moment, explosively raw the next. Lott, who considers himself a hip-hop producer, pieced together the album over the course of four years, using bits and pieces of recordings he'd gathered. It's a remarkable debut from a young artist with an extraordinarily bright future.
2. Fredrik: 'Na Na Ni'
Sweden has produced some of the most compelling pop and rock music of the past five years: Jose Gonzalez, Jens Lekman, The Knife, Peter Bjorn and John). This year brought a mesmerizing and gorgeous debut from the six-piece group Fredrik. Hailing from Malmo, Sweden, Fredrik makes music with just the right mix of light and darkness: It's quirky but elegant, spare but rich. The opening track, "Black Fur," is essentially a hymn, complete with angelic sing-along harmonies.
3. Jeff Hanson: 'Madam Owl'
The first thing you'll notice when hearing Jeff Hanson's music is his impossibly high voice; it's easy to mistake him for a woman. But Hanson maintains that it's his natural range, and that he isn't trying for an affected or overly theatrical sound. Hanson's latest CD, Madam Owl, is his third solo release since signing with the Kill Rock Stars label in 2003. While his voice is definitely the star here, Hanson proves to be a gifted songwriter, too. The 12 pop symphonies on Madam Owl resonate with tremendous emotional depth, making Hanson one of the year's most memorable singer-songwriters in a crowded field.
4. Benji Hughes: 'A Love Extreme'
A native of Charlotte, N.C., Benji Hughescreated one of the year's most beautifully unpredictable albums, blending jazz with circus dirges, R&B, space rock, folk and electronica. The two dozen tracks on A Love Extreme provide a lush and breathless mix with extreme mood swings, from boundless joy to utter despair. A Love Extreme (a play on John Coltrane's classic A Love Supreme) would be an impressive album coming from any veteran artist. Beck, clearly a role model for Hughes, comes to mind. The fact that this is the product of Hughes' first time in the studio makes it that much more remarkable.
5. Liz Durrett: 'Outside Our Gates'
Liz Durrett is the niece of famed Georgia-based singer Vic Chesnutt, and has appeared on a number of his recordings, singing backup or playing violin. But Durrett herself is a gifted singer-songwriter with an unforgettable voice. This year, she released her third and most fully realized solo album to date: Outside Our Gates is a searing but gorgeous collection of spare, Southern Gothic folk songs about tortured dreams, loss and longing. It's melancholy, to be sure, with Durrett's remarkably emotive and mournful vocals casting an otherworldly glow. But it's also the singer's most upbeat, hopeful and ambitious album so far.
6. Mugison: 'Mugiboogie'
Iceland's Mugison is the brainchild of one Örn Elías Guðmundsson. The "mad genius" concocts music that is as mesmerizing as it is odd and eclectic, running the gamut from electronic trip-hop to guitar heavy arena rock and earnest, acoustic singer-songwriter work. Guðmundsson masters countless genres on his records, but more important is his ability to juxtapose songs of entirely disparate styles and create a musical synergy between them.
7. Brad Laner: 'Neighbor Singing'
Brad Laner has been making music in various bands for nearly 30 years, and has released dozens of albums. But he calls Neighbor Singing his first "proper solo release." Laner mixes lush harmonies with gentle melodies and a subtle but densely layered pastiche of electronics. Based in Granada Hills, Calif., Laner plays what could be called electro-psychedelic folk. But he likes to keep listeners guessing, as each track morphs seamlessly into new forms, taking unexpected sonic directions that don't fit neatly into any standard category. Laner's is a blissful world, rooted as much in '60s psychedelia as in 21st-century pop.
8. Mt. Wilson Repeater: 'Mt. Wilson Repeater'
Mt. Wilson Repeater is a solo side project for Radar Bros. frontman Jim Putnam. He played all the instruments on the new album and recorded it at his Phase IV Intergalactic recording studio. Putnam's songs always sound like they're about to careen off a cliff: They lurch drunkenly into the night with rambling, off-kilter rhythms, glitchy digital textures and the occasional dizzying slide guitar. Putnam says it sounds like "chimps smashing laptops for birthday cake." Whatever that means, it all makes for some delicious ear-candy on his band's self-titled debut album.
9. Blind Pilot: '3 Rounds And A Sound'
Ryan Dobrowski and Israel Nebeker, the Portland, Ore.-based duo behind Blind Pilot, don't shoot for the stars on their debut album, 3 Rounds and a Sound. But they get there anyway -- not with majestic orchestration, but with a back-to-basics, stripped-down mix that emphasizes well-honed songwriting over sonic innovation. Dobrowski and Nebeker have been on tour to promote the new album, traveling from city to city by bicycle, with their instruments strapped to their backs. This past spring, they intended to travel the entire West Coast, but only made it as far as San Francisco because their bikes were stolen.
10. The Dodos: 'Visiter'
The Dodos' members have a surprisingly grand and expansive sound for a duo. Meric Long and Logan Kroeber are from San Francisco, and have quickly built an audience for their experimental folk pieces since forming in 2006. They released their debut that same year, and followed it with Visiter this spring. Their music is a vividly textured mix of prog-psych folk, with a strong emphasis on polyrhythms. Meric Long had long been studying different types of music, including West African Ewe drumming and acoustic blues guitar -- and often performed as a one-man show with guitar, loops and keyboards -- before meeting Kroeber. Kroeber is also a versatile drummer interested in unpredictable percussion techniques, all of which make Visiter one of 2008's standout albums.