It’s been another fine year for the Philadelphia music scene — or rather, for acts like those listed here that are based in Philadelphia and are making their mark both locally and around the world.
Some of the standouts, like rapper Tierra Whack and noise band Empath, are just starting out. Others, such as rockers Strand of Oaks and Sheer Mag, are established vets at the peak of their powers.
All released new music this year, though not necessarily full-length efforts. The music business doesn’t always work that way anymore. Independent artists might make a name for themselves with an introductory EP or a string of singles, or by landing a song featured in a TV commercial.
Here are my top 10 Philly pop artists and albums of 2019:
Strand of Oaks, Eraserland. “I don’t feel it anymore,” guitarist Tim Showalter sings at the start of “Weird Ways,” the opening track on Eraserland, sounding short on hope. By the time the closing, slow-burning anthem “Forever Chords” has arrived, however, the faith of the songwriter — who migrated to Austin, Texas, this fall — has been restored, his belief in the transcendent power of rock rewarded.
Mannequin Pussy, Patience. Marisa Dabice and her three bandmates in Mannequin Pussy are still expert practitioners at conveying fury in tightly compressed expressions of punk-rock rage. But on Patience, working with busy Conshohocken producer Will Yip, the four stretch out, allotting an entire 4½ minutes to the crushing romance “Drunk II” (their longest song ever), boosting the melodic quotient without losing grip on their anger.
Tierra Whack. Philly’s most talked-about rising star didn’t put out a proper album this year. But in addition to dropping a verse on “My Power” on Beyonce’s Lion King soundtrack and placing her songs on assorted TV shows and in a Walgreen’s commercial, the inventive North Philly rapper also released five crafty, high-quality singles. The best of those is probably “Clones.” The aggregate length of the tunes adds up to more music than what was included on her entire 15-song, 15-minute Whack World, from 2018. That album is popping up on many best-of-the-decade lists. One more sign that 2019 was the year the world got wise to Whack.
Sheer Mag, A Distant Call. The Tina Halladay-fronted foursome proudly wear their love for ‘70s rock acts like Thin Lizzy and Boston (as well as their left-leaning politics: Their song “Expect the Bayonet” is featured at Bernie Sanders rallies). A Distant Call is as hard-hitting as you would expect, but makes room for subtlety in its sound and personally revealing lyrics, sung by Halladay and written by drummer Matt Palmer.
Chris Forsyth, All Time Present. Central Jersey-bred guitarist Forsyth has been hunkered down in Philadelphia for a decade now and has opened Jerry’s on Front, an underground venue in Kensington that has hosted Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, among other luminaries. All Time Present is a double LP that casts a hypnotic spell with mostly instrumental guitar tracks that split the difference between avant-garde experimentation and classic rock.
Strange Ranger, Remembering the Rockets. This five-piece band with three featured vocalists moved from Portland, Ore., to Philadelphia this year. Remember the Rockets is their third album, if you count 2016’s Rot Forever, made by essentially the same group of musicians who were then calling themselves Sioux Falls. Remembering immediately distinguishes itself with breezy, captivating melodies that are as bewitching as they are unassuming.
Ali Awan, Butterfly. The guitarist who spent much of his childhood in Turkey and Saudi Arabia before returning home to Abington cut his teeth on the local scene by playing in Philadelphia punk bands. His impressive growth is on display on this seven-song EP, which mixes singer-songwriter introspection with pub-rock energy. The future is bright.
Empath, Active Listening: Night on Earth. Empath is comfortable with chaos. The West Philly quartet got noticed with the 2018 four-song EP, Liberating Guilt and Fear. And this year, the group carried on in the noble Philadelphia psychedelic-noise-band tradition of such practitioners as Bardo Pond and the Sun Ra Arkestra. In addition to this full-length effort, Empath put out a clattering cover of Lucinda Williams‘ “Drunken Angel” this fall.
Control Top, Covert Contracts. This post-punk trio is fronted by live-wire lead singer Ali Carter, who lets her rage rule. Nervy assaults like “Ego Deaf” take aim at misogynists and the culture that creates them: “Men are raised to abuse / If you don’t believe, take a look at the news.” Political music to pogo to.
&More, Ethel Bobcat. This musical team-up brings West Philly rapper and noted scene supporter Chill Moody together with Donn T, the R&B singer and songwriter who happens to be the sister of Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The album — named for a fictional character who, in an ideal world, keeps an eye out for the vulnerable on the harsh Philly streets — plays to both of their strengths.