Back on AbsolutePunk.net we would run a feature each year called the “Absolute 100.” The basic idea was to put together a list of bands and artists that we thought needed to get a little more attention. This would range from unsigned, to under-the-radar, to underrated acts that we wanted to highlight. Over the years it ended up being one of my favorite features we compiled (I personally discovered quite a few new bands from it). And, I’ve heard from a lot for readers that you loved it as well.
Today I’m excited to bring this feature back under a new name. We’re calling it “In the Spotlight” and we’ve got the same goal: highlight a bunch of artists we think you should check out. This year we’ve got 50 for you. Over the past month our contributors have been putting together blurbs and pulling out song recommendations, and today we’ve got the first group of 25. We’ll be releasing the next set tomorrow.
The Wild Reeds
by Craig Manning
The Wild Reeds make music that isn’t quite rock, isn’t quite country, isn’t quite folk, and isn’t quite pop, but that has clear traces of all of them. That’s the charm of the trio’s sophomore LP, The World We Built, which dropped at the beginning of March. Tight three-part female harmonies, a crackling rhythm section, and big shout-to-the-rafters choruses are the ingredients that make up the songs on World—particularly “Only Songs,” the set’s opening track and lead single. On that song, a distorted electric guitar swings through the proceedings like a wrecking ball, the three band members bellowing their vocal parts like their lives depend on it. And they just might: “Cause the only thing that saves me/Are the songs I sing, baby/You can’t save me from anything,” goes the infectious chorus. The rest of the record hums with a similar life-or-death energy—a thrilling quality that makes it one of the year’s surest breakout LPs.
Recommended Track: “Only Songs”
RIYL: First Aid Kit, Haim, The Staves
by Deanna Chapman
Despite being in the Southern California area, I’m probably not as familiar with the local scene as I should be. However, in the abundance of bands, I was introduced to Culprit. Even with some minor line up changes over the years, they keep things moving forward. Sonder is their latest release and it’s a solid rock album. They have their sound down and Travis’ vocals are constantly great. The songwriting is a huge plus, too. They still blow me away with their big sound and emotion inducing lyrics.
Recommended Track: “Anything”
RIYL: From Indian Lakes, Thrice, Emarosa
by Aj LaGambina
MA-based band, Animal Flag, released their debut LP last year, the aptly named LP. The record is actually a remaster and resequenced version of the two EP’s the band released before it, and boy does it sound great. These guys write loud, distinctive alternative rock that draws equal influence from Brand New’s midtempo songs, the Run For Cover records catalog, and “emo revival” bands, though their ability to write a hook coupled with a mastery of dynamic songwriting is what really sets them apart. The best example of their sound is the song “Sensation,” who’s layered instrumental and massive chorus gives a decent idea of what the band is capable of.
Recommended Track: “Sensation”
RIYL: Turnover, Brand New, Manchester Orchestra
by Jason Tate
Alexandra Ashley Hughes, under the moniker Allie X, mixes a cocktail of quirky, catchy, and heartfelt into her music. While the music usually winds between upbeat and frenetic, there’s an undeniable darkness to much of the lyrical content. With an EP of music already under her belt, this June will see the release of her debut full-length. If the first few songs released are any indication, we have another round of perfectly produced pop-goodness coming our way.
Recommended Track: “That’s So Us”
RIYL: Charli XCX, Foxes, Betty Who
by Greg Robson
Let this be known: Charleston, SC quintet Susto are on the precipice of breaking out. Their latest album & I’m Fine Today blends hazy folk-pop meanderings with sublime and near-perfect alt-country. Drawing on the likes of Wilco and Neil Young and drawing on the age-old themes of love lost, love won, late-night partying and indifference, the band’s expansive sound reinvents Southern rock in a way that needs to be heard to be realized. Contemplative, self-assured and deeply rewarding, & I’m Fine Today is a monster of a record from a band that’s well on their way to breaking out. With a summer full of festivals and a bookshelf full of critical praise, 2017 might just be the year SUSTO becomes a household name.
Recommended Track: “Waves”
RIYL: Wilco, The Head and the Heart, The Lumineers, Shovels and Rope
by Zac Djamoos
On the first song on Muncie Girls’ From Caplan to Belsize, frontwoman Lande Hekt implores the listener to “try and leave your own little mark on this earth.” It seems like she’s taking her own advice – her band’s debut is ten tracks of the most energetic powerpop I’ve heard in a long time. The lyrics might be the biggest draw here, as Hekt delivers wise-beyond-her-years musings on misogyny, family, and developing radical politics, while never sounding like a textbook. From Caplan to Belsize would be legacy enough for most bands – I can’t wait to see where Muncie Girls want to take us next.
Recommended Track: “Balloon”
RIYL: Cartel, Moose Blood, Fall Out Boy
The Magic Gang
by Kyle Huntington
Brighton, England based The Magic Gang have been going from strength-to-strength for the past few years, releasing a total of three EPs to date. Each EP documents the band’s considered progression but also highlights the excitement that the jangly indie-pop group can evoke in listeners. From the more recent and angular single “How Can I Compete?” which recalls The Strokes in their early days or “Only Waiting” which is a must for any Mac DeMarco fans – The Magic Gang create the infectious, melodic and enriching breed of indie music that is near enough impossible to dislike.
Recommended Track: “How Can I Compete”
RIYL: Mac DeMarco, Weezer, The Strokes
by Becky Kovach
Gold Steps has only been around about a year, but with an EP and performances at SXSW and So What?! Music Festival under their belt, the band is already making waves in the local Austin scene. But it shouldn’t be long before the buzz starts to spread. With bold choruses and explosive energy that demands attention, I think they’re exactly what the pop punk world needs right now. There’s also the added bonus of a kick ass female vocalist who, with a little time and practice, could be the next powerhouse of the genre.
Recommended Track: “Louder Than Words”
RIYL: Nominee, Sleep On It, We Are The In Crowd
by Eric Wilson
Hailing from Toronto, Ontario, and currently residing in Nashville, Lindi Ortega is a country singer/songwriter with amazing talent and a soulful voice. She has released several albums and EPs since 2001, and her latest EP ’Til the Goin’ Gets Gone continues to showcase her depth and talent when it comes to music and songwriting. Whether you’re in the mood for some mellow folk music, or something a bit more on the country side, Ortega’s discography will give you plenty of options to choose from. I’m excited to hear how her style will continue to evolve over time.
Recommended Track: “Til the Goin’ Gets Gone”
RIYL: Kacey Musgraves, Sarah Jarosz
by Craig Manning
You might not know Natalie Hemby’s name, but if you’ve ever listened to country radio, you’ve probably heard one of her songs. An ultra-prolific gun-for-hire, Hemby has credits on records by everyone from Miranda Lambert to Maren Morris to Nelly Furtado. In her “day job,” Hemby knows how to spin a turn of phrase or a catchy chorus to build a surefire radio earworm. On her debut record, though, Hemby dials back her own mainstream country leanings for something far more personal and understated. The record in question, this year’s splendid Puxico, is an album about home, family, youth, young love, summer, and life itself. Remarkably, given Hemby’s resume, there isn’t an obvious single. Instead, Puxico is a capital-A Album, built around concept (Hemby wrote it about her grandfather’s hometown) and sturdy, mood-setting tracks (swoon-worthy summer night gems like “Lovers on Display” and “Worn”). The resulting record is destined to land plenty of “Best of the Year” notices come to December—and perhaps maybe even a Grammy nod or two.
Recommended Track: “Lovers on Display”
RIYL: Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert
by Craig Ismaili
After years of grinding out explosive live sets in support of their first EP Winter Of Our Disconnect, Feeny found themselves at a crossroads in late 2015, as they went into the studio to record with Jesse Cannon. Would they continue to hone the pop-punk sound of their early material, despite the growing sense within the band that pop-punk was not what interested them most musically anymore? Or would they take a leap forward sonically, potentially distancing themselves from their peers and bands they had played with in the past. The New Jersey quartet Feeny chose correctly, reinventing their sound for their 2016 EP No Beauty In Routine. While there are still moments where Feeny break into the bar chord blitzkrieg of pop-punk, they let songs breathe so much more on the EP than they ever have in the past, breaking into moments that border on post-rock. The results show in moments like the end of the featured song, “Patience in Paranoia” where, after vocalist Matthew Koerner howls the song’s final line, “These memories are never enough,” the music breaks down to a softly strummed guitar, and the sounds of a wistful chord progression, as if the song is flicking through the carousel of memories. No Beauty in Routine is a moody, introspective record, with songs like the brooding “Spoliation (Uncomfortable),” exploring insecurities and irreconcilable differences which can tear relationships apart. It’s honest, heartfelt music from a band that trades on this sort of heart-on-sleeve troubadorism.
Recommended Track: “Patience and Paranoia”
RIYL: Microwave, Saves The Day, Taking Back Sunday
by Deanna Chapman
Take This To Heart Records continues to impress with the band’s they sign. Super American polished up their sound and recently released Disposable. The album is solid top to bottom. The album mixes upbeat songs with a couple that slow things down and give you time to realize just how good the band is. Their personality shines with their songs and they’re a band you’ll want to check out. It would be a shame to miss out on their recent release. It’s a stand out for me in 2017 so far.
Recommended Track: “Sloppy Jazz”
RIYL: Weezer, Superdrag, State Champs
by Greg Robson
Irish singer-songwriter Rosie Carney sings her songs with such conviction and sincerity you’ll find it near impossible to turn away. The thought-provoking and melancholic ballad “Awake Me” recounts her battles with both anorexia and depression and calls to mind both Joni Mitchell and Bon Iver. At only 19, Carney possesses a triple threat: deft piano playing, poetic verses and soaring melodies. Her songs are meticulously crafted, achingly tender, wise beyond their years and utterly timeless. A veteran of SXSW, Carney is poised for a big 2017 and should make waves on American soil in the very near future.
Recommended Track: “Awake Me”
RIYL: Joni Mitchell, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, Carole King
by Aj LaGambina
California’s Daydream just released their debut full length Enjoy Nothing on April 4th, a more-than-worthy follow-up to their two 2016 EP’s. The entire record is stacked with hooks, big guitars, and the kind of instantly relatable lyrics found on some of the best emo/pop/rock records of the early 2000’s. Slow opener “Seeking Human Kindness” marks a strong start for the record and it keeps getting better from there. Though closer “Goodbye in Downtown” and second track “Bored” are the best examples of Daydream’s overall sound. The whole LP begs to be played while speeding down the highway, and that’s exactly how I’ll listen to it.
Recommended Track: “Bored”
RIYL: Jimmy Eat World, The Menzingers
by Craig Manning
Rick Brantley wrote the best song I heard in 2016. The tune in question, an understated ballad called “Hurt People,” doesn’t sound like much when you first hit play: just a simple piano line and Brantley’s spoken-word delivery. But focus on the lyrics, and “Hurt People” will crack your heart in half like a walnut, seal it back together, and give you the inspiration to be better. I won’t spoil too much: the song deserves to stand on its own, and reading about it can’t possibly compare to hearing it. But suffice to say that Brantley’s tales—about an abused kid who bullies his classmates, about a girl who has never felt love in her life, and about the scars we all have that we can never erase—carry lessons that everyone needs to learn right now. The rest of Brantley’s output—including two recent EPs, the largely acoustic Lo-Fi and the more rock-oriented Hi-Fi—display his dynamic songwriting talents, his big voice, and his Springsteen-circa-Lucky Town sound. But “Hurt People” alone would merit Brantley a spot on this list, if only because it’s one of those rare songs that I think every person in the world should hear.
Recommended Track: “Hurt People”
RIYL: Bruce Springsteen, John Moreland, Butch Walker
by Jason Tate
Dirty Hit Records have been on a roll with their signings and the latest, Pale Waves, is no exception. Breathy pop-music with a groove, helped by Matt and George of The 1975’s unmistakable crystalline production, propels the lead single “There’s a Honey” to ear-candy status. Hopefully we’ll be getting more music from this group in the near future, yet one song’s enough to have turned my head and put this band smack dab in the middle of my radar.
Recommended Track: “There’s A Honey”
RIYL: The Japanese House, The 1975
by Zac Djamoos
Black Numbers has been one of the best and most under-appreciated labels around for a few years now, and last year they signed one of the best and most under-appreciated bands around. Save Ends’ effortlessly catchy brand of emo-influenced pop-punk feels like the kind of stuff that could’ve come out on Vagrant Records in ’01 just as easily as on Black Numbers in ’16. With the weather getting warmer and the band in the studio, there’s no better time than now to check out (or revisit) their full-length debut Warm Hearts, Cold Hands.
Recommended Track: “I Fell Asleep”
RIYL: Saves the Day, Tigers Jaw, Turnover
by Craig Ismaili
Many Rooms is the brainchild of Brianna Hunt, and thus far they have released just six songs with the project. Those six came in the form of an EP called Hollow Body which was released back at the end of 2015. The first time I heard “Hollow Body” it shook me down to my very core. If you, like I did, fell in love with the stark intimacy of Julien Baker’s “Sprained Ankle,” I full-heartedly believe you will fall in love with Many Rooms. You see, “Sprained Ankle” feels like you are in the room with Baker as she pours her heart out on the track. Many Rooms feels like you are in the room with Hunt, except it’s pitch black and she is singing off into the void of the darkness. There is such a soul-bearing honesty to the songs on Hollow Body. Hunt’s lyrics, ethereal though her voice may be, seem to cut down to the very core of humanity. “Promises”, the second track on Hollow Body, has some of my favorite lyrics of the decade: “oh, how beautiful a lie / when it makes you feel like you can fly / and your wings are made of paper dreams and paper futures.” I can’t wait until Hunt releases more music with this project.
Recommended Track: Promises
RIYL: Julien Baker, Conor Oberst, Elliot Smith
by Anna Acosta
Sainte is the long-anticipated solo project of former We Are the In Crowd vocalist Tay Jardine, and it delivers in spades. Although the project has only released two singles to date, the tracks are explosive, dance-y pop numbers that bode incredibly well for what’s to come. Jardine’s expressive songwriting and vocals are finally the focal point of the music she’s making, and the result is a refreshingly authentic sound that manages to feel both joyful and completely authentic. Jardine is all grown up, and she’s not pulling any punches.
Recommended Track: “With Or Without Me”
RIYL: We Are The In Crowd, Tonight Alive, The Gospel Youth
by Becky Kovach
I went into my first Mom Jeans. show having never seen them before and with very little knowledge of their music. I was sold the minute their guitarist took a between-song break as an opportunity to showcase his repertoire of dad jokes. It also helps that the band’s lyrics are endearing in a pour-out-your-heart kind of way, and their music blends emo, punk, and acoustic into a cathartic rush of passion. Oh and did I mention that their single “edward 40hands” samples Bob’s Burgers? Yeah.
Recommended Track: “Edward 40hands”
RIYL: Sorority Noise, Oso Oso, The Front Bottoms
by Jason Tate
There’s something perfectly nostalgic about Oso Oso’s The Yunahon Mixtape. It’s a little like opening a time capsule from the early 00’s and finding an album inside from a band you’ve never heard but could almost swear you used to love. I’m pulled back to my early college days filled with sharing mixtapes with dorm room friends, laying in the sun with one album on repeat, and getting wrapped in every note. This gem of an album was released in January. If you’re looking for something that sounds a little like yesteryear while being a welcome jolt during a time that seems too fucked-up to be real, you should make this the next album you spin.
Recommended Track: “The Cool”
RIYL: State Lines, Sorority Noise, You Blew It!
by Craig Manning
Striking Matches is a band with one of the all-time great origin stories. A duo featuring singer/songwriter/guitarists Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis, the band got its start in the classroom ten years ago, when the two freshman guitar majors got paired up by a professor. As you could probably already gather from the band name, there was a spark. Since then, Striking Matches have opened for everyone from Train to Ashley Monroe to Vince Gill, written songs for the country music soap opera Nashville, and made their debut album under the tutelage of none other than T Bone Burnett. That’s quite the whirlwind start for any act, but one gets the sense that Zimmerman and Davis can handle it. On their debut album, 2015’s Nothing but the Silence, Zimmerman and Davis forged a true two-person identity. They both sang, they both wrote songs, and they both had plenty of room to show off their shit-kicking guitar skills. The songs themselves were incredibly refined, from the tender Civil Wars-esque ballads (“Nothing but the Silence,” “When the Right One Comes Along”) to the livewire rockers (turbulent opener “Trouble Is as Trouble Does”). And then there’s the outro to “Make a Liar Out of Me,” where Zimmerman shreds one of the most badass guitar solos of the 21st century.
Recommended Track: “Make a Liar Out of Me”
RIYL: The Civil Wars, melody-driven country-folk songs with incredible guitarwork
by Kyle Huntington
If there was ever a new band to ignite the primal connection to music – it’s Crows from London, England. Drawing influence in sound from the any of the post-punk greats with a splattering of shoegaze elements, garage rawness and hardcore tendencies – they’re a band who create the sense of walking a tightrope, a balancing act between unsettling chaos and energised melody – undeniable in its intense excitement. Whether on record with buzzsaw guitars and sweet darkness or in a live setting where they thrive and are one of the most captivating bands performing today – to the point where frontman James Cox commands, antagonises, includes and hypnotises the crowd in only the best ways – Crows are the exhilarating new punk band people have been waiting for. Check out “The Itch” and its explosion for an insight as well as “Whisper”.
Recommended Track: “Whisper”
RIYL: Joy Division, Fugazi, METZ
by Craig Ismaili
You know a song is special when Zane Lowe uses his massive platform on Beats Radio 1 to premiere the debut single from an unsigned artist. That single was the sultry, incendiary “Keep Lying” from Donna Missal. The song has echoes of Nina Simone all over it, plus more than a bit of resemblance to Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black.” To put it more simply, “Keep Lying” has some heeeaaat. But the New Jersey singer didn’t stop there. She has since released a string of singles over the past few years, including, most recently, the spacious, breathy “Holiday.” She has a chance to be a special musician in an era with a distinct lack of voices like her. In times where people with voices like hers are often pushed to alternative rock (Elle King), Donna Missal has a chance to lead the charge for the return of the seductress to pop radio. She’s finishing up her debut full-length album now, and I have hope it will be released later this year.
Recommended Track: “Keep Lying”
RIYL: Elle King, Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse
Cold Climb It
by Becky Kovach
If the vocalist of Cold Climb It sounds familiar, maybe take a closer listen to the backing vocals in some of your favorite The Wonder Years tracks. Yup, that’s Matt Brasch. Cold Climb It is an additional endeavor of Brasch’s, started a little less than a year ago. Since then the band has played a smattering of shows in the Philly area and released their debut EP Fade. Brasch steps into the spotlight on these songs, and seems at home in the position; he tackles the role of lead singer/songwriter with grace and ease. His voice has long reminded me of Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer – melancholy in a soothing way – and the band’s brooding tones darker lyrics are a perfect fit. While The Wonder Years will always have my heart, Cold Climb It has become a new favorite for me and I look forward to seeing what Brasch does with the band in the future.
Recommended Track: “Looking Hard For Inspiration”
RIYL: Smoking Popes, Microwave, Alkaline Trio
Looking for even more? Check out Part Two.