Blurbs blurbs blurbs! Below are a few from this wonderful form of journalism known as “poll results.”
Best Boston Garage or Psych Act = Girlfriends
Okay, so the kneejerk way to explain the Local Garage/Psych category would be to say, “You know, like, what used to pass muster at the Abbey Lounge.” And that might just do it for Girlfriends, who wore out their copies of the Nuggets collection a while back, but not before they mastered the art of the beer-stained basement freak-out. Gnarled surf guitars and floppy-springed reverb channels rule the roost here with vocals that sound as if they’d been buried in the crawlspace ductwork by a crafty HVAC guy. But it’s not all in the lo-fi delivery. (Well, okay, a lot of it is.) Under all the audio scuzz lie picture-perfect pop songs. Like the rest of this year’s contenders, Girlfriends have dug into the all-ages trenches and emerged with medals of honor and trophies topped off with scuffed figurines of Robert Pollard doing drunken air kicks.
Best Boston New Act = Gentlemen Hall
The class of 2010: a little bootstraps punk, some junk-drawer indie, some dramatic-lighting post-punk soul. But it’s the spiffy dance-funk sextet Gentlemen Hall who take first prize. Born hardly a year ago, the Gentlemen leapfrogged a few steps in the local-band timeline and landed at the head of the class. They snagged an MTV VMA this past year (“Boston Breakout Artist” — that exists?), hooked up with producer Earl Cohen (Lady Gaga, the Temptations), and otherwise cranked out glittery shards of disco hooks without end on their Gentlemen Hall EP. Gavin McDevitt alternates breathy ’70s croon and motormouth with unsettling ease, while fellow vocalist Jacob Michael turns the lone-wolf anthem “Castaway” into the most reliable mood swing of the year. These songs sizzle and pop with resuscitated beats, bass lines, and laser-booty synths that argue the last 20 years should be stricken from the record.
Best Boston World Music Act = Debo Band
Given Berklee on the one hand and a hearty immigrant population on the other, Boston will never run short on exciting new sounds from every corner of the world. Few bands, however, have had an itinerary like Ethiopian pop throwbacks Debo Band. Over the past nine months, the massive group have jetted with fiddles, accordions, guitars, saxophones, and tubas to Addis Ababa and Zanzibar twice on the good will of local café owners and festival organizers, all while holding down a residency here at the Western Front. With their roots in Eastern European rhythms, Middle Eastern timbres and scales, and ’60s American funk and soul, Debo Band can mine a vein of pop that sounds fresh and enticingly foreign to local listeners, and that makes for tasty material when they team up with Ethiopian rappers, dancers, and filmmakers for a full résumé of projects. Coming this year: an album, finally!
Best Breakthrough Act = XX
Good luck finding a more solid debut record than the one London dirge-pop trio the xx dropped on us last year. The whispered come-ons and casually caustic dismissals that Romy Soft and Oliver Sim volley over fields of low-wattage beats sound battle-tested at first moan. Fortunately for us, they passed up chances to work with Diplo and Kwes on this record, opting to finish quietly what they started in their own (presumably) dim-lit garage. They cross cold bedroom production skills with sly R&B hooks and churn out the most soulful slab of low-key dance pop we’ve heard in years, and it all sounds effortless. Now, they’re headed into what could be their biggest challenge yet — getting the stuff to translate over to the Bonnaroo plastic-cups set as they navigate a full sked of summer-festival dates. This could be good.
Best Punk Act = Alkaline Trio
It’s not exactly out of the ordinary anymore for bands to jump major-label ship and start releasing their own stuff, but it’s still exciting to see this proud pop-punk group putting down roots with their own Heart and Skull label (with a little help from Epitaph, of course). The well-coiffed Chicago lads kicked out their seventh disc last winter and stuffed it full of melancholy tales of addiction, loneliness, and the time they found out their hairdresser was on vacation. Hints of four-on-the-floor click tracks and glittery keyboards find their way in, but overall, you still got a steaming pile of melodic SoCal-ish punk. As always, punk continues to splinter into a bajillion different scenes and sounds — just take a look at the mixed company in this year’s runners-up circle — but these Vagrant and Warped Tour veterans have kept strong by staying pretty close to home.
Best National Singer-Songwriter = Eileen Jewel
Boston’s own Eilen Jewell has been pounding souls into submission for the past five years with a bottomless well of bum-out beauties. “Make no fuss over my grave/Just plant something pretty and call it a day,” she croons over a lazy shuffle on “Rain Rolls In” — if you’re looking for peppier subject matter, it’s gonna be a long night. Jewell has made a delicate shack of lived-in roots and sun-faded Nashville twang in which to store her heartbreak while audiences throughout the US and Europe have lined up for a peek inside. This year’s Sea of Tears (Signature Sound) nixed the fiddle and added gritty ’50s rockabilly and soul, but the rock-club touches just make her seem even more like her own one-woman sleeper cell in a world populated by shaggy Jeff Bridges look-alikes. “It’s a rich man’s world,” Jewell sings over a peppy bar-room two-step, but she’s making pretty good use of it.
“WFNX Song of the Year!” = Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”
Oh, how we’ve longed for the pitch-perfect blending of starry-eyed indie anthem and choked-up Three Doors Down vocals. Caleb Followill and his band of brothers led us to the promised land with this single from their most recent CD, deploying walls of synths and angelic back-ups to underscore Caleb’s beer-grizzled howling for that usable special somebody. The jangly guitars are still there, and the band can’t resist a ripping (if Edge-biting) guitar solo toward the end, but “Use Somebody” still manages a few steps forward. The Kings have taken subtle cues from indie-hit factories of the Death Cab variety — the slow builds, the spare melodies, the midnight-eureka key changes — and created from them the blueprint for the next generation of radio rock. Assuming there’s still time left for one more generation.