It was a super strong year for the Philadelphia music scene. Killjoy cultural commentators love to bemoan and exaggerate the sorry state of rock and roll, but there's evidence to the contrary to be found with the mostly guitar-toting bands on this list, not to mention the Philly acts that made it into my main Top 10 story.
(Sandy) Alex G, Rocket, The line on Havertown-raised Temple dropout Alex Giannascoli is that he's a DIY wunderkind with a knack for melody reminiscent of the late Elliott Smith. True enough, but along with having to change his stage name over to copyright issues, the 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist made a musical breakthrough on his seventh (!) album, moving off into country and jazzy directions with offhand confidence.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice. Courtney Barnett is Australian, isn't she? Indeed she is, but Kurt Vile is from Lansdowne and lives in Mount Airy and he has his own mural in Fishtown. Plus, Barnett celebrated her 30th birthday on stage at the Tower Theater last month. Lotta Sea Lice is an utterly charming conversational pairing of two simpatico guitarists and songwriters who found they were kindred spirits and took musical advantage of it.
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel You Love. Clenched-fist resistance anthems and '70s riff rock ragers from the Tina Halladay-fronted quartet's long-time-in-coming album, which followed a series of blistering EPs. The band brought Larry Krasner, then the Democratic primary candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, up on stage at the First Unitarian Church for a cover of the Clash's anti-fascist "Clampdown."
Meek Mill, Wins & Losses. The Philadelphia music news story of the year, for sure. When the North Philly street rapper's album came out in June, his career seemed to be in the balance. Could he get his credibility back after his breakup with Nicki Minaj and after he was owned in his rap feud with Drake? Wins & Losses came on strong and answered those questions in the affirmative with songs like "Heavy Heart," but those issues seem quaint now that Mill has begun serving a two- to four-year state prison sentence for parole violations.
Low Cut Connie, Dirty Pictures (Part 1) Piano-pounding showman Adam Weiner stepped up big-time as a songwriter on the raucous old-school rock and soul band's first album since the departure of guitarist Dan Finnemore, which was recorded in Memphis at Ardent Studios. Can't wait for (Part 2).
Harmony Woods, Nothing Special. With aid from Brenda Lukens and Jake Ewald of Philly band Modern Baseball, teenage songwriter beyond her years Sophia Verbilla turns out songs of impressive maturity on this debut album. And as lonely train songs for commuters go, "Jenkintown-Wyncote" is hard to beat.
Strand of Oaks, Hard Love. Another strong effort from Mount Airy's Tim Showalter, who revs up the rock on this follow-up to 2014's career-making HEAL, stretching out on life-and-death excursions like "Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother" and delivering exquisitely pretty ballads like "Cry." SOA wraps up a three-night stand at Boot & Saddle on Sunday.
Shamir, Revelations. Las Vegas native Shamir Bailey became a self-described "accidental pop star" with his 2014 electro-pop debut, Ratchet, but he's made himself over as more of a guitar-based indie rock songwriter since moving to Philadelphia the following year. This year, he recorded two albums in his South Philadelphia rowhouse, with the rough-and-tumble Hope created from start to finish in one weekend, and the more polished Revelations arriving this fall.
Cayetana, New Kind of Normal. "It wasn't the fall that radicalized me, it's what happened when I hit the ground," Cayetana front woman Augusta Koch sings on "Bus Ticket," on the Philly pop-punk trio's hard-driving second album, which deals with personal and political issues with subtlety and snarl and no shortage of infectious energy. Playing the Scranton Cultural Center on Dec. 16.
The Districts, Popular Manipulations. The third album by the Philly-based Rob Grote-led quartet and first since signing to prestigious indie label Fat Possum. Working with producer John Congleton and on their own, the band (whose members grew up together in Lititz, Pa.) known for its high energy makes its move toward a more melodic, fuller sound. Playing sold-out shows at Johnny Brenda's on Dec. 30 and 31st.