As 2012 draws to a close, we couldn't be more optimistic about the state of music in the Valley of the Sun. With new bands emerging from various scenes and subgenres, it can be hard to keep up with the latest in Phoenix music.
What follows are our picks for 13 acts that will make an impact on the Southwest in the coming year:
Trapzillas (www.trapzillas.com): Bragging seems to be as natural a biological process to Adolfo Salazar as breathing. Ask the outspoken local EDM/hip-hop producer about some of his life experiences or the recent exploits of Trapzillas, the two-person trap music act he founded with L.A.'s Logic Ali, and you'll be inundated by stories involving the duo's collaborations with eccentric white boy rapper (and Pitchfork fave) Riff Raff or Salazar's misadventures with a certain cult film director that are too scandalous to print.
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Thing is, a majority of his tales are true, at least when it comes to Trapzillas. "People are usually even more surprised about me when they realize I'm really not bullshiting," says Salazar, whom we spoke with via Facebook chat.
The past year was huge for Trapzillas, as both Salazar (who performs as Dolfz) and Ali (a.k.a. Ten Pill Shawty/Pete Flipper) provided the beats for Riff Raff's "Neon Freedom" and "Midnite Sprite," appeared in his music videos, and backed up the hip-hop star onstage at Mad Decent's block parties in both Philadelphia and NYC. Trapzillas' successes in 2012 weren't born only from hitching themselves to Riff Raff's kooky fame train. They've also worked with controversial Chicago rap star Lil' Reese, and Salazar currently is brewing up a joint mixtape/album called Wavy in the Trap (due out next year) with hot Brooklyn-based hip-hop producer Harry Fraud at his studio/house in Scottsdale.
And in each of their projects, Salazar and Logic refine their intoxicating and entrancing trap music creations, which invoke the hip-hop/EDM hybrid genre's mix of Southern rap bombast and the crunchy hooks of hardstyle. Salazar, who digs trap's obsession with "808's and dope dealer fairy tales" more than anything, says that the duo's sound is closer in spirit and content to hip-hop than the EDM-heavy trapstyle that's become hugely popular in the past year. It's even earned them some haters, and not just from the anti-trap crowd that's sprung up as of late.
"The whole 'trapstyle' movement catching on right now has been presented as some new form of music — it's all just hip-hop. We build songs that can be actually rapped on by a MC," Salazar says. "We are making music for everyone — but with the energy to stay on a dance floor and with a solid appreciation and respect for what the culture [is] behind this sound."
"We don't get hate from hip-hop world [and] the trapstyle movement doesn't know what to do with us really. I'm just an old school raver and Logic's old school hip-hop. We go back and forth, but we love the music and it shows — real nerds of hip-hop will understand and respect our approach." — Benjamin Leatherman
G-Owens (www.g-owens.com): G-Owens' full-length debut, The Feeling, is dizzying. Owens croons, raps, and emotes over 11 tracks that deftly mix jazz, soul, R&B, boom-bap hip-hop, and sensual Quiet Storm aesthetics.
Like Frank Ocean's breakthrough Channel ORANGE, Owens' The Feeling never slides into full-on retro-soul territory, instead taking elements from the past four decades of popular music: The sweeping strings of "Love You Better" could come from D'Angelo's Voodoo; "Second Time Pt. 2" rides a stuttering beat and Stevie Wonder electric piano; "The Thought that Counts" is haunting, sounding like it could come from Common's neglected Electric Circus.
This kind of ambition often sacrifices artistic clarity, but Owens sounds confident throughout album, with a brazen, earthy voice that finds equal footing in nimble hip-hop verses and aloof singing. As part of the Earsweat Drops crew, Owens finds himself in good company but stands out as the most pop-focused vocalist, one poised to make big moves in 2013. — Jason P. Woodbury
Sundressed (www.sundressed.bandcamp.com): Indie-folk band Sundressed is a sad bunch, and that's good. Led by singer/songwriter Trevor Hedges, the quintet thrives on all those things that make pop music so endearing — you know, things like heartbreak, rejection, and misery.
Sundressed paves the way for hopeless romantics at heart and unrequited love addicts everywhere with Hedges' often down-in-the-dumps lyrics, which are offset by surprisingly upbeat arrangements. The band released a very promising five-song self-titled EP earlier this year, highlighted by the love-story-gone-wrong track "Golden Boy." Over the course of the five-and-a-half-minute track, Hedges' vocals soar effortlessly, singing, "If only I could have been warned about you, then I'd known something was impure."
Tyler Kees dazzles as a jangly guitar strummer, while drummer Garrett Tretta and bassist Evan Kees show off their finger-snapping pace-keeping. Timely piano touches and harmonica warbles dance around the band's sound, which features influences ranging from Conor Oberst to Chuck Berry.
After a productive year, Sundressed has set the stage for a breakout 2013, starting with a full-length record scheduled for release in January. For that perfect balance of playfulness and wistfulness, lament and celebration, somberness and sweetness, keep an ear out for Sundressed. — Anthony Sandoval
The Oxford Coma (www.theoxfordcoma.com): If ever there was a breakout band in the making, it's The Oxford Coma. A little more than a year old, the band recently released its debut album, Adonis, and it's sure to get noticed. An amalgam of modern rock, prog, nu-metal, grunge, garage and funk punk, The Oxford Coma — guitarist/vocalist Billy Tegethoff, bassist James Williams, and drummer Casey Dillon — amazingly harnesses the best of these disparate styles into massive soundscapes that don't sound like any other band out there.
"That's kind of what we were going for," Tegethoff says.
It takes a few listens, and some deeper focus, to find the core of this band, but among the quiet/loud passages, guitar sections that chatter, chunk, skitter, sear, and thrash, atomically driven bass riffs, and drums full of nuance and determination, there are Tegethoff's vocals, which alternately push the harmonic boundaries of pure release and shift into guttural death metal screams.
Considering the strength of the album's 13 tracks as a whole, and radio-ready songs like "Last to Die," "Seven," and "Ellipsis," it's quite possible a record label or alternative rock tour will come knocking. That could mean big things for The Oxford Coma.
In the short term, the band's plans remain realistic: develop a regional following and perform as often as possible. Fans on the lookout for something hot, had best see this band while its shows remain intimate affairs, as it won't be long before Tegethoff, Williams, and Dillon's improvisational impulses and crafty songwriting carry the band ever higher — possibly out of the Valley. — Glenn BurnSilver
Body of Light (www.soundcloud.com/ascetikorps): "Putting on a record is very much a ritual for me," Alexander Jarson, the man behind the synth-pop/goth one-man-unit Body of Light explains. "You sit down, put the needle on the record . . . It's like worship, really."
If the act of listening is his liturgy, Body of Light is Jarson's communion. On single "The Leaves Just Disappeared," he evokes the spirit of prime Depeche Mode with hazy, candle-lit New Wave. Elsewhere, he taps into the vein of mythic motorik electronica, like on "Devil's Trumpet/Moonflower," which barrels down some desert autobahn like the abandoned offspring of Cluster's Zuckerzeit and Tubeway Army's Replicas.
Jarson's screams echo over the machine beat, sharing a spiritual bond with both the psychedelic '60s boogie rock and the no-wave sonic terrorism that he finds himself lowering onto the turntable. — Jason P. Woodbury
PALMS (www.palmstheband.com): If you haven't been to one of their shows, you'd think PALMS was a secret. With only two songs available on its Bandcamp page, Tempe's mellow, indie surf-rock band — which finds its home nowhere near from any natural body of water — has remained mostly quiet online, with the exception of their ever-rambunctious Facebook posts. PALMS is just another reason local music fans actually need to get out of their house to enjoy local music, well, locally.
The band might have stayed quiet during its 2012 formation, but 2013 is about to get PALMS'd all over. Their recorded catalog might be small at the moment, but the band currently is in the studio to record its upcoming album on the Valley-based 80/20 record label.
(Want a preview of the album? Head to the band's Facebook page and search for the YouTube video. Just kidding! It's a link to Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time." Oh, PALMS!)
The band paired with producer Bob Hoag of Flying Blanket Records, a rite of passage for any up-and-coming Phoenix indie band that wants a killer, professional-sounding record on-the-local. An actual preview of the record remains to be heard, but that's all the more reason to pay attention to the PALMS in the New Year. — Christina Caldwell
I Was Told There'd Be Whiskey (www.facebook.com/iwastoldtheredbewhiskey): I Was Told There'd Be Whiskey didn't start out as a serious band, but it didn't take long for the band's mix of punk and country to clean up its act. In early 2011, Mickey Kawa (guitars, vocals), Chris Stylen (guitar), Kevin Shumway (bass), and Zach Shipp (drums) started goofing around, but when they were offered a show in April, they had to quickly write enough songs for a full set.
What they came up with works. Accented by cowbell and tambourine, knotted velveteen guitar, and throaty, whiskey-soaked vocals that blend country and punk, I Was Told There'd Be Whiskey falls in line with like-minded genre miners like Drive-By Truckers, Against Me!, Wilco, and The Gaslight Anthem.
They shine on their debut self-titled LP but do so even more in a live setting, where their ramshackle punk rock roots simmer under the rootsy arrangements. — Lauren Wise
Samuel L and the Cool J's (www.soundcloud.com/samuel-l-1): Joel Marquard already plays in one of the coolest bands in Phoenix, the much-adored Gospel Claws, but he can't seem to figure out what to do with his downtime. In 2011, he released a solo album of scratchy agnostic gospel music called The Through and Through Gospel Review. In 2012, he went another direction with his mod-R&B combo, Samuel L and the Cool J's.
Feel free to ignore the punny name and focus on the music: Whereas Through and Through explored Marquard's sacred influences, Samuel L and the Cool J's is all pure pop for now people. Marquard himself hangs in the back, letting Los Angeles-based frontman Haendal Balzora lead a pack including members of Where Dead Voices Gather, Dear and the Headlights, Wooden Indian, and Yellow Minute.
Balzora's vocals are wild, careening over arrangements that suggest The Animals had they signed to Stax Records, with the demented organ-grinding, spiking electric guitars, and tight drumming that implies. The long-distance affair makes shows rare, but if the band continues to impress as it did while debuting at Yucca Tap Room, it won't be long before it's recognized as Phoenix's premier soul combo. — Jason P. Woodbury
French Girls (www.facebook.com/frenchgirlsphx): The Phoenix foursome French Girls follow a familiar formula in their punky approach to rocking out: stripped-down chords played at a vivacious pace.
Harking back to the early "Blitzkrieg Bop" days of punk rock, this local crew has a knack for catchy melodies and sing-along-friendly chants that are fun to listen to in any setting. Singer and bassist Che Beret and drummer Chiffon Baton are the lovely ladies anchoring the rhythm section, while the balls of the band, Jean Jacques Clouseau III and Michel Ouioui, churn out grinding guitar riffs and wailing backup vocals.
With the aptly French inspired noms de plume — not to mention oddball lyrics, foot-stomping beats, and Beret's purring delivery — there's plenty to enjoy at a French Girls show. Individually, these rockers are no strangers to our increasingly impressive music circuit, but this particular lineup is relatively new on the block.
Since their debut in March, they have managed to string along several shows across the Valley, setting up what should be an exciting upcoming year. With a vixen of a woman at the helm, Beret and company are a local lock for Phoenix artists you need to know in 2013. Get ready for more 1-2-3 drumstick click-clacks and howling "oh oh ohs." — Anthony Sandoval
Of the Painted Choir (www.ofthepaintedchoir.bandcamp.com): There's a rustic sense of familiarity listening to Lula, the three-song debut EP by Phoenix indie-folk combo Of the Painted Choir.
Composed of elements we're well aquainted with — M. Ward mumble/slapback vocal here, fuzzy British Invasion guitar lick there — the collection doesn't sacrifice quality employing such recognizable signifiers.
Instead, Of the Painted Choir — comprising songwriter Frederick Huang, Darren Simoes (The Bled/Dead Western Plains), Phillip Hanna (Tugboat/Kinch), and John Blades (Dorsey) — wrings out every bit of emotion and joy from the indie-pop format.
"Lula, My Baby" bounces on a strident, anthemic beat, bolstered by Huang's lilting voice, while "A Spanish Mountain" is more restrained — that is, until its ramshackle, ecstatic solo breakdown.
Bonus track "Mr. Bumblebee," with its whimsical Donovan/novelty jam vibe, feels unnecessary — but mostly because the two tracks before it are so much better-composed and executed. — Jason P. Woodbury
Me Vale Madre (www.facebook.com/pages/Me-Vale-Madre): If you need to brush up on your español, "me vale madre" is slang for "I don't give a fuck." When guitarist Tony Patiño was 6 years old, he was gifted a t-shirt featuring four pissing dudes wearing sombreros with the Spanish phrase written on it. It was, of course, the perfect name for a band.
"Spanish, being the romantic and beautiful language that it is, takes this aggressive, lackadaisical, and indifferent attitude, and makes it beautiful," PJ Waxman, Madre's guitarist and lead singer explains via e-mail.
Waxman, who is in Yellow Minute, also used to play in Valley buzz band Dear and the Headlights, says he doesn't "want to ride on the coat tails of past successes."
That's fine, because I sort of sense Me Vale Madre is going to be something big this year, making something truly unique that grabs the genre by its teeth, shakes it like a chew toy, and tears it apart.
When Me Vale Madre opened for Gospel Claws at their album release a few weeks ago, they started in some traditional indie guitar, post-punk style, stretched it out into a shoegaze pastiche, and ended songs with noise rock thrashes that shook the stage.
Part of Madre's DGAF edge comes from their endless list of influences; the other half comes from their time in other bands. Patiño once fronted the post-rock progressive rock band Attack of the Giant Squid, Matthew Gilbert does a solo project called POEM and was once in Goodbye Tomorrow (now Alive in Wild Paint), and Mike Bell is the drummer in Lymbyc Systym, Knesset, and Spirit Cave.
Waxman says you can expect a full Me Vale Madre album by summer 2013, as they've been recording all over the place.
"Our recording process has such a wide musical source. Tony did some tracking at Flying Blanket recently, we have done a lot of recording at home and at friend's studio," Waxman says. "I did vocals at my house using some equipment that my old roommate, John from Black Carl has. He has a little studio of his own and produces really awesome vinyl/analog driven music."
Waxman promises to release a song in the near future, but their recording process is obviously complicated.
"It takes quite some time to really get these songs composed," Waxman says. "There are plenty of hours put into each song. It is really quite the process." — Troy Farah
Sara Robinson and Midnight Special (www.facebook.com/SaraRobinson andthemidnightspecial): There's a long tradition of women dominating the blues scene, from classics like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to a new generation of genre-defying acts such as Grace Potter and The Nocturnals and Black Carl.
These ladies have helped paved the way for soulful, heavy-hitting acts like Sara Robinson and Midnight Special, which is a local supergroup of sorts. Special comprises members of Haffo and Allen Barton Project, and they met Robinson at a blues jam night at Rhythm Room three years ago.
Roughly six months ago, the band started jamming and tried their hand at an open mic night. "We started writing songs like crazy and decided to test them out one night in the battlefield, à la Long Wong's open mic. We had such a good response that we have been booked solid ever since," says drummer Evan Knisely, "We knew there would be people out here who share our love for hard blues."
The Specials have yet to release a physical album, though the band currently is in the studio working on an album that is due in February, just in time for the band's stop at South by Southwest. — Melissa Fossum
The Senators (www.thesenatorsmusic.com): In case you haven't noticed, the "Americana revival" thing is big right now. Rootsy, mostly acoustic acts like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers didn't just break out of the "No Depression" ghetto; they actually topped the charts.
And though a shift from synthetic gloss toward "authentic" folk music certainly sounds appealing from one point of view, it's starting to feel a little like "dress-up music," like a Halloween party where everyone has come disguised as ol' time-y prospectors.
"Everyone is wearing vests and suspenders now," laughs Jesse Teer of modern Americana band The Senators. "Even if there isn't an acoustic guitar on stage — they'll be playing hard rock. That look is just vogue right now."
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The Senators certainly aren't afraid to look the part, but on their Cross of Gold EP, they don't sound like they're singing you a Cracker Barrel sales pitch, either.
"When you listen to old recordings, and then you put on a new pop album, you're like, 'Whoa, this is really polished, this is really produced,'" Teer says. "We listen to a lot of old Sun Records stuff, and in its inception, it wasn't the highest quality studio, but they really got a lot of feel and grit out of what they were doing. That's kind of what we draw on."
But Teer isn't interested in retro-minded re-creation, and with The Senators, he seeks to craft something rooted in today's world as much as in some mythic American golden age that never really existed.
"Thematically, we wanted to push it," Teer says. "We don't want to always sing about a 'railroad down in Dixie,' but we take some of those elements. I can't wait for electronica/alt-country to hit. It probably already has." — Jason P. Woodbury