As much as I enjoy peace and quiet when I can get it, there’s nothing I love more than a playlist of great songs I can sing along to as I go about some of the more mundane aspects of my daily life. Nothing cheers me up more than a cheerful tune with a positive, sincere message or story. But, is it just me, or is it surprisingly hard to find great new music these days?
Finding good music was one of my greatest pleasures as a teenager. Every couple of months, I’d drive myself to Wax Trax Records in downtown Denver with a list of CD’s I wanted to buy and I usually came home with a few more that weren’t on my list until I got there. A lot of the bands I “discovered” were pretty terrible. But many of them weren’t and even the ones that were have good memories attached to them.
My 100 minute drive to Vail Mountain most winter weekends was the perfect time for me to sample new bands and replay my old favorites over and over again. My earliest ideas about politics, ethics, love, and life were shaped on those drives while listening to music and talking about it with whatever friends were in the car with me. If a song fell into my vocal range, it became a favorite. If it fell into my range and allowed me to harmonize with a friend, it became a favorite among favorites. (What can I say? I’m a choir geek at heart.)
Musicians like the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and James Taylor honed my ear for harmonizing while teaching me about injustice and heartbreak. Bands like R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Jane’s Addition, Counting Crows, and Nirvana were the perfect accompaniment to my adolescent mood swings and I new full albums by heart (in some cases, like R.E.M., several full albums by heart). Listening to novelty bands like They Might Be Giants, The Violent Femmes, The Pixies, and Barenaked Ladies felt subversive and silly and made me laugh. In college, I added the Dixie Chicks, Ani DiFranco, The Smith’s (a late discovery for me), Tori Amos, Pearl Jam, Green Day and others to the list of artists that met my criteria to become favorites.
Somewhere between 1996 and 2018 I went from an Early Adopter to a Laggard in the innovation adoption lifecycle of music. I took for granted that great music would find me; I didn’t need to go looking for it. Turns out, I was wrong.
My music tastes have evolved to include folk classics, Top 40 Pop, Hip-Hop, some Country, and a (very little) bit of Rap, but I rarely hear something new that I like enough to pay $1.29 for just so that I can play it over and over and over again in the car. Most of the music that reaches my ears organically through Pandora, my kids, or the zeitgeist is uninspiring, even if it’s a catchy tune. On the rare occasion I hear a thoughtful or poetic song, it’s usually slow, sad, depressing, and self-indulgent.
What happened to great music? Is it non-existent or just harder to find now in the Internet Radio Galaxy? Why is it so hard to put a playlist together that is energizing, thoughtful, catchy, and something I can sing along to?
I’m sure someone in the music business – or peers who still curate musicians the way I did twenty years ago – could answer these questions. (And if that’s you, dear reader, please email me!!) In the meantime, I’m determined to find my next Indigo Girls.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve discovered a handful of musicians worth forking up $1.29 for; songs with on-repeat potential with lyrics I can actually understand and messages that extend beyond getting high, getting laid, or getting rich (not that I don’t love those songs from time to time.) Here are a few songs and musicians to consider adding to your Winter 2018 playlist:
In Your Atmosphere by John Mayer
No, I haven’t been living under a rock for the last fifteen years. Of course I know John Mayer and his Grammy-winning songs, but I’ve never really been much of a fan. Each time I heard a song of his that I liked, I heard something about him as a person that I disliked more and it ruined the music. The guy just seems like a douchebag. (Sorry. But his now infamous interviews in Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines sealed-in his reputation as a womanizer and narcissist.)
But two things are changing my opinion of him and his music: He has admitted his own douchebag tendencies to Cosmopolitan and The New York Times, and his lyrics are actually kind of brilliant. John Mayer may or may not be a lecher and egomaniac, but he’s definitely not shallow. Try listening to Stop This Train about his fear of getting older and losing his parents or The Heart of Life, sung (presumably) to encourage a friend going through a rough time.
In Your Atmosphere (which is more than ten years old, by the way, which seals my position as a Laggard on the bell curve) has everything I look for in a song: A beautiful melody and thoughtful lyrics I can relate to and sing along to.
Never Come Back Again by Austin Plaine
I think I found Austin Plaine using Gnoosic.com, a website that recommends music based on other bands or musicians you like, and I think I’m fairly lucky to have discovered him at all because when I poked around online about him for the purposes of this post, I found very little.
Never Come Back Again is a folky, acoustic, Country-adjacent, buoyant song about wanting to see the world. It’s not particularly deep, but it puts me in the mood to seek out small adventures outside my systematic, routine life in the concrete jungle; a good road trip tune.
Anywhere by Passenger
Unlike Let Her Go, which is self-indulgent, melodramatic, and totally depressing (“Maybe one day you’ll understand why everything you touch surely dies”), Anywhere is a seriously happy song about friendship and/or love. I can’t listen to it without bobbing my head to the beat and smiling.
Passenger (aka Mike Rosenberg) has a unique voice and I agree with my twelve year-old son who said, “I can’t decide if I like it.” My superficial research suggests Anywhere is anomaly for him because his most downloaded songs on iTunes have the same Charlie Brown vibe as Let Her Go, which is too bad because it’s my favorite song on my Winter 2018 Playlist.
Running With the Wolves by Mykey
iTunes places Mykey, a 21 year-old named Mikey Ambrosino from Maryland, in the Singer/Songwriter genre. Google labels him Dance/Electronica. His Facebook page refers to his music as indie-folk-pop. When I searched Last.FM for similar artists, I reviewed six pages of band names I’ve never heard of before I finally gave up.
The bluegrass quality of Running With the Wolves andMonsters in the Dark, which is also really good, reminds me a little of Mumford and Sons. There’s genuine artistry here and I find the genre-less-ness intriguing and refreshing. He’s so young, I can only imagine this kid is going to get better and better with time and experience.
Stubborn Love by The Lumineers
It’s rare to find a band that crosses generational and genre boundaries like The Lumineers. My seventy-five year old dad likes them as much as my six year-old. They have a rich, unique sound that appeals to country fans, rock fans, indie fans, and pop fans. And, let’s face it, there’s something about a tambourine that feels really right.
Stubborn Love is five years old and was released on their first album (along with their most famous hit, Hey Ho.) It’s good storytelling set to a happy melody and a banjo. That’s a tough combination not to love.
You’ve likely heard Ophelia from their new album, but if you haven’t, that’s another great Lumineers song to check out.
Brand New by Ben Rector
Brand New is such a happy song that I had to include it, even though I’m adopting it from my summer 2017 playlist. I can’t listen to this song and stay in a bad mood (if I’m in one.) It’s inspirational, upbeat, easy to sing along to, and just an all-around great tune. This is the quintessential good-vibe song.
Firework by Canyon City
Canyon City, which is really just one guy named Paul Johnson, is an indie/folk singer-songwriter from Nashville.
In the last two weeks, I’ve added three Canyon City songs to my Winter 2018 Playlist: Paper Airplanes, Firework and a cover ofFix You by Cold Play. I had a hard time deciding whether to recommend Paper Airplanes or Firework because Paper Airplanes is the brighter, happier song of the two and quite catchy.
Ultimately, I chose Firework, a sweet love song that’s melancholy but hopeful, because the lyrics are complex and poetic in a totally unpretentious way that reminds me a lot of the Indigo Girls. It’s also the sort of song I wish I could write and perform.
Brother by Mighty Oaks
As a mother (and a sister), I was immediately drawn to Brothers, a song about love and friendship between two brothers. In reality, the members of Mighty Oaks are not brothers. In fact, they’re from completely different countries – the US, UK, and Germany – and are not based in Berlin. They sing about nature, family, friendship, love, and loss, play a ton of different instruments including the mandolin, banjo, and ukulele, and they write and perform all their own songs. In other words, they’re crazy talented.
Restless Heart by Matt Hires
There seem to be a disproportionate number of guys named “Matt” on the indie-pop-rock scene these days; Matt Kearney, Matt Nathanson, Matt White…. For some weird reason, when I first heard it, I thought Restless Heart was sung by someone named Matt from American Idol. I was wrong. But can you blame me? It’s hard to keep all the guitar-playing, tattooed, hipster, white dudes named Matt apart.
I can’t tell you what makes Matt Hires different from his fellow Matt’s. I don’t even know if any of his other songs are good. (I like at least one song released by all the Matt’s mentioned, so maybe this will be the one and only Matt Hires-hit I’ll ever buy.) But Restless Heart is a good song.
Diamond Dreams by Castro
If Civil Wars and Lady Antebellum had a love child, I think it would sound like Castro. (And the same guy who produced the Civil Wars’ albums produced Castro’s, so the similarities are probably not coincidental.) Castro is a pop/folk sibling trio that includes Jason Castro from American Idol, Season 8, sans dreadlocks, and his brother and sister.
I debated whether or not to include these guys in this post. Castro has a wholesome quality that borders on aw-shucks provincial. They’re not marketing themselves as a Christian band, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts they are one, if unofficially. If I’m in a cynical mood, they sound superficial, cheesy, and out-of-touch. But if I’m in the mood for squeaky-clean optimism, they sound great.
Where to Find New Music
Unless you have a really cool younger sister, chances are you’re like me and don’t know how to find new music. Short of noting the name of a song that slips into a mix on Pandora or Spotify, what is the best way to maximize your chance of discovering your new favorite band? I found more than two dozen sites dedicated to helping people discover new music. Here are a few I’ve used:
Last.FM is a music recommender website and app. You can download the app to your computer or phone and it will track the tunes you listen to most and recommend bands and musicians you might like based on your tastes. You can also search on artists you already know and like to see a list of similar artists you may not know.
8Tracks is a virtual repository of playlists created by DJ’s and music lovers. Playlists are organized by mood or function, such as “Happy Songs”, “Sad Songs”, or “Songs to Workout To”. Inside each category is another menu of playlists organized by genre. You can save your favorite playlists, follow your favorite DJ’s, and even upload your own playlists if you’re excited about one you put together yourself.
Musicroamer provides users with a map of artists, connected to each other based on what they have in common. Enter the name of a musician you like and it will show you up to twenty musicians or bands with the same qualities. Each of these “cousins” to the musician you entered has their own map, so you can keep expanding the map to find new artist. This site also includes samples of each artist’s music and links to iTunes if you want to purchase a song.
Gnoosic works like Musicroamer, except it’s far more limited, giving you the name of one artists at a time. If you don’t know the artists, it’s up to you to go to iTunes or elsewhere to look them up and listen to samples.
Personally, I find SoundCloud to be overwhelming. The site features TONS of artists all over the world – many of whom have yet to be discovered by record labels and producers – so it’s a fantastic resource if you’re wide open and looking for obscure musicians you probably won’t find anywhere else. I’m certain my teenage self would have loved it, but my 41 year-old self ain’t got the time for that sort of thing. Still, I haven’t spent a lot of time on it and admit there may be an easy way to thin the herd that I don’t know about.
If all of this requires one step more than you want to take, don’t forget that iTunes recommends music in a passive way by letting you know what “Listeners Also Bought”.
Everything in my Winter 2018 playlist is of the indie variety because that’s my current mood. But these sites can point you towards music in any genre you’re looking for.
Have fun exploring and be sure to comment with your favorite musicians, resources for finding music, and what’s on repeat on your winter playlist!
Thanks for reading,