Philadelphia has a robust music scene. The city has become a hotbed for young artists and many local Philadelphia bands have grown national profiles. There is not a “Philly sound,” either. Artists and songwriters have a diverse musicality that creates an exciting environment for fans. Here are some of the Philly artists who are leaving their mark on 2019:
Strand of Oaks
The Philadelphia rock band Strand of Oaks is reaching all kinds of new heights in 2019. Their latest record, Eraserland, is a masterpiece that will undoubtedly land on many “best of” lists at the end of the year. Singer Timothy Showalter’s lyrics take center stage on the record. He sings with absolute conviction, making every song an epic rock anthem or instant classic.
This attribute is on display in “Moon Landing,” where Showalter sings “Malcom Young sometime died late last year. I thought about his rhythm and I dreamed about his gear. Didn’t know reverb. Didn’t care about trends. Held it down tight ‘til the bitter, bitter end.”
As Showalter sings “bitter” he punches through the sound of keyboards and guitars with unmistakable resolve that drives home the emotion of every song on the record.
The Strand of Oaks touring band members were briefly augmented by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires this year. The pair contributed to a string of live performances that included The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
One of my favorite Philadelphia guitar players, the singer-songwriter is an unassuming guitar god. The Lansdowne native is an integral part of the Philly indie music scene. He has worked with local artists like Kurt Vile and Matt Mond PA. Steve Gunn is more than a sideman. He is also a great solo musician.
His latest album, The Unseen In Between, is a perfect example of his gifts as an artist. The music and lyrics are terrific. The song “Stonehurst Cowboy” is a heartfelt piece on his deceased father. “Vagabond” captures the wandering of a vagrant and is backed by a beautiful layer of music. Gunn also unleashes blistering guitar solos on “New Familiar” and “Lightening Field” that are jaw-dropping testaments to his skills as a musician.
Gunn’s prior work like Eyes On The Line and Way Out Weather are incredible, but his profile is finally elevating. He received write-ups in Rolling Stone and the New York Times and is touring internationally again this year.
His skill as a live performer was on full display at his Union Transfer show earlier in 2019. Gunn, who can shred as well as any of his contemporaries, played with uncanny feel on every song. None of his solos were excessive, but each one was filled with a series of breathtaking licks that could have gone on forever. Most of the show featured his new record, but the concert was bookended with older work “Wildwood” and “Way Out Weather.”
Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore
In addition to being a solo artist, Meg Baird is a member of Steve Gunn’s touring band. She has also been in the Espers, Watery Love, and Heron Oblivion. Most recently, Baird teamed with Mary Lattimore for the record Ghost Forests.
A Philadelphia harpist, Lattimore has lent her talents to records by Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, and Philly’s Hop Along. She also worked on the soundtrack for Russian Doll, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and The Memory Palace podcast.
The album is exactly what the title alludes to. Mostly comprised of lengthier pieces, the six-song Ghost Forests is a trad record with mystic and soothing qualities. Every song is a beautiful combination of Baird’s voice and guitar with Lattimore’s harp. One amazing song is “Damaged Sunset.” The track features vocals from Baird that reach the spectral quality hinted at by the record’s name. The album was released last year, but Baird and Lattimore are touring together in 2019.
Born out of indie band Little Big League, Japanese Breakfast is a must-listen for fans of experimental pop. They are one of the best Philadelphia bands going right now. The group has two albums under their belt and is quite possibly about to release a third.
They are still touring in support of 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, but the band released a new song this April. The track “Essentially” is vintage Japanese Breakfast. It has a hybrid sound that mixes laidback indie pop with an up-tempo beat. The constant experimentalism makes the group such an intriguing listen and a personal favorite.
Not only is their music amazing, but lead singer Michelle Zauner is gaining national recognition as a writer. She has written in New Yorker and has a book, Crying In H-Mart, in the works.
There is instant familiarity with RFA. Even if you have not heard them before, RFA’s rock ‘n roll style is easy and fun to pick up. From the first notes of their debut album Rfa, their warm garage rock ‘n roll sound is incredibly enjoyable. This is most prevalent on “Just Don’t Turn The Lights On,” a jovial tune that recalls Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
The Philadelphia band has local roots beyond their music career. All four members met while attending high school at Saint Joseph’s Prep. To date, they have produced two EPs and one record. The group even sounds like they have been together for a long time.
Every note on their full-length gives off the vibe of a locked in live band. Whether it is songs like “Simple Pleasures” or “Porch Song,” there is an infectious throwback vibe that a wide audience can appreciate. Fans of local bands such as Cheers Elephant or Low Cut Connie will take a liking to RFA.
The band released their album last year and has a handful of live dates in the works in 2019.
Another Philadelphia artist with a recognizable, yet wonderful style is Sophie Coran. Even though the jazz/R&B/soul singer only has about a dozen songs out, she has begun to craft an attention-grabbing songwriting style. Her soul-baring lyrics draw from the dark introspectiveness of Amy Winehouse that could play well in any club.
Sophie Coran has been steadily producing small doses of music since 2015. In 2018 she released the six-song effort All That Matters and the single “Permission, where Coran reveals “Aren’t we all just a little depressed? I take my time and you take it less. Give me permission to see. Allow me to be… happy.”
She also released the single “Duller Star” this year. Her trademark melancholy return in the song. Coran sings, “On the table by the bed lies a lonely cigarette, breathing artificial air, taste a memory that was there. Old space. Old broken place.”
Both singles highlight Sophie Coran’s ability to reach inward and present a personal set of lyrics. Every song is an emotional journey. She is a brilliant singer who is a name to watch as 2019 plays out.
A member of Needle Points and Jane Church, Ali Awan is a Philadelphia singer-songwriter who is a rising figure in local music. He was named XPN’s Artist To Watch this January, released his debut EP Butterfly in February, and performed at SXSW’s Philly Showcase.
Unlike more established Philadelphia musicians like Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel, Awan’s music is more relaxed and upbeat. The seven-song Butterfly is reminiscent of solo work from the Black Crowes’ Jackie Greene. Songs like “Pick Me Up” are carefree music that is perfect for a summer day. Luckily, Awan is scheduled to play local gigs at the Wayne Music Festival and the XPoNential Festival this year.
In addition to Butterfly, he also released two singles last year and a pair of songs in 2017. Fans of Good Old War may take to Awan.