The year 2015 has been one hell of a ride for St. Louis music, both at home and abroad.
At home, Big Muddy Records celebrated its tenth anniversary with a showcase of its current roster at Off Broadway. Ryan McNeely, a.k.a. Adult Fur, saw acclaimed new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound premiere his Unfair for the Common Man at the Sheldon. This publication's annual music showcase returned to the Grove for the second year, presenting more than 70 acts across 10 stages at venues along Manchester Avenue.
Elsewhere, Foxing continued its ascent to indie-rock stardom with Dealer, the band's first release on Triple Crown Records. Pokey LaFarge and company spread their distinctly regional sound to sold-out crowds across the globe. Black Fast spent the year touring the U.S. and Canada in support of Terms of Surrender, the group's first release since signing to eOne Heavy. St. Louis artists Mz. 007 and Water Liars saw their music used in nationally aired commercials for Southwest Airlines and McDonald's, respectively.
With the exception of those of Mz. 007 (who continues to be criminally overlooked by local music journalists despite her eminently digestible sound, sizable following and national press coverage), most St. Louis music fans are well aware of these accomplishments. Just below this echelon of notoriety, however, are a set of artists who've seen less coverage from local media, but are poised to make 2016 one of the best years for local music in quite some time.
Here are ten to watch in 2016.
Considering the fact that one third of River Kittens had barely picked up a guitar before two years ago, the tightness and power of the folk trio is impressive. The group — comprised of singer/guitarist/ukulelist Allie Vogler, vocalist/guitarist Martha Mehring and vocalist/guitarist/mandolinist Mattie Schell — formed gradually over the course of about a year, thanks to their mutual attendance at various open mics and folk-jam sessions. The River Kittens' sound — which the members describe alternately as "raunch folk" and "Americana feels" — hinges on the trio's tightly rehearsed, soaring three-part vocal harmonies and primitive string-band accompaniments, with the two elements contrasting in always exciting and sometimes unexpected ways.
Throughout 2015, River Kittens played prolifically at bars, venues and open-mic nights across the city, in addition to laying down a searing rendition of the cautionary "Trouble" as part of 2015's Lo-Fi Cherokee. The last year also marked the beginning of the group's experimentation with additional rhythm-section players, a revolving cast of bassists and drummers.
The River Kittens will be closing out 2015 by opening for Pokey LaFarge at his New Year's Eve celebration at the Pageant. They plan to release an as-yet-unnamed album in March, followed by a tour to support it.
Tamara "Bates" Dodd is undoubtedly one of city's most formidable lyrical improvisers, as a 2014 rap battle with fellow Femcee Nation artist Mahogany proved. In the video of STL Street Report's first all-female rap battle (now available on YouTube), Dodd's exceptionally flexible vocabulary and quick wit are on full display as she aggressively delivers rhymes like, "See, I'm a shark on land that can't fit in a fish place/ Guppies scurry in a hurry when they sense that I sniff bait / You can't walk a block in my shoes or keep up at this pace / She be like, 'Bitch wait!'" Throughout her three rounds, Dodd makes wide-ranging and occasionally obscure cultural references, ranging from Trayvon Martin and Osama bin Laden all the way to classic cult film The Last Dragon — seemingly taking pride in some audience members' inability to keep up with her referential jabs and breakneck pace.
Freestyling skills aside, Dodd's compositions shine on her mixtape The Great DeBates, released in July, and more recently her video and single bitingly entitled "Tell Jesus." Centering around a melodic hook referring to the Christian messiah as "My Father, my oppressor, my Lord," Dodd's most recent release confronts the prevailing imagery of a white Jesus and its historical and current impact on people of color throughout the world.
In 2016 Bates plans to release her new album, For Colored Folk, in addition to growing Femcee Nation, an organization she founded to support female artists.
St. Louis singer, songwriter, drummer and visual artist Coultrain — otherwise known as Aaron Michael Frison — initially gained recognition from his work alongside Black Spade in neo-soul/R&B collective Hawthorne Headhunters, whose visibility on the national scene is owed at least partially to a slew of positive reviews for the single "If You Were My Baby," from the group's debut album, The Myriad of Now, on Plug Research Records. (That's the same independent Los Angeles label that gave national acts Bilal, Flying Lotus, and Daedelus their start.)
Though neither Coultrain nor Hawthorne Headhunters released an album last year and they only played a handful of shows, their appearance at Chicago's Double Door opening for Hiatus Kaiyote was reportedly attended by none other than Prince himself. Additionally, Frison's 2014 release, Side Effex of Make-Believe, was re-released on vinyl by Portland label Fresh Selects. In store in 2016 is the release of Hawthorne Headhunters' second full-length album, Fool's Paradise, as well as a rumored new project by the reclusive artist.
Dana Michael Anderson
Originally from Granite City, Illinois, singer-songwriter Dana Michael Anderson is relatively unknown in many St. Louis circles, except to those who've had the privilege to catch him on one of his occasional journeys west of the river to perform at the Tick Tock Tavern or the Focal Point. Edwardsville dive the Stagger Inn Again — where Anderson has been a regular performer and patron for several years — housed the majority of his public performances in 2015, and it provided a regular opportunity for the songwriter to hone his performance skills. Those privileged few St. Louisans who've witnessed Anderson's room-filling baritone, sensitive guitar playing and skillful songwriting know to be on the lookout for great things.
Anderson also spent much of 2015 working on an as-yet-untitled album that's likely to be released next year, alongside long-time local side-men and music educators Miles Vandiver and Zeb Briskovich.
This relatively new duo is comprised of pianist/violinist Nika Marble and percussionist Louis Wall. She's a conservatory-trained concert pianist who found herself in need of a new, more improvisatory creative outlet. He's the Native Sound audio engineer and mind behind the collaborative recording project the Texas Room. Together they plumb the improvisatory waters of acoustic drumset/piano duo, often using the piano music of the Romantic and Post-Romantic movements as vehicles for improvisation. Lately the duo has placed an especially heavy emphasis on the piano works of Chopin and Satie.
With only a handful of public performances under their belts, the duo already has plans for numerous 2016 multimedia collaborations, including scoring films for Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, and screenings wherein they'll improvise a score.
While hip-hop collective MME has been a steadily growing blip on St. Louis' musical radar for the past two years, MME member Muhammad Austin has garnered increased attention for his own music, released under the moniker Mvstermind. As Mvstermind, Austin both sings and raps his emotive lyrics — often heavily utilizing vocal processing effects for an aloof, disembodied sound — and backs them with richly textured tracks of his own creation.
Most recently, Austin appeared on STL Up Late accompanied only by his laptop to perform the spare, introspective "xX Sad Boy Chronicles Xx" and the smooth-grooving, mid-tempo "Mali Moolah." Though he is cagey with the details, Mvstermind says he's currently planning to go back on tour this spring, in addition to putting the finishing touches on an album he hopes to have out before summer.
With the recent signing of both Black Fast and the Lion's Daughter to national labels, many metal fans, musicians and record labels across the nation have zeroed in on St. Louis as fertile ground for the next big names in heavy music. One of the city's best prospects in that arena is the brutally heavy but undeniably cerebral sound of the Gorge, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Phil Ring, guitarist Joe Bowers, drummer Jerry Mazzuca, and bassist Chris Turnbaugh (who recently replaced bassist Ryan Thompson, also of Black Fast). Collectively, the group boasts more than a decade of formal music education and more than three decades of experience as working musicians, facts that serve to shed some light on the intensely intellectual writing and expert execution that characterizes the group's sound.
Throughout 2015, the Gorge performed regularly at rock venues around the city including the Firebird, FUBAR, and the Demo — where they opened for Los Angeles prog-metal band Intronaut. The group is planning a February release for its next album, Thousand Year Fire, followed by supporting tours during the spring and summer.
Syna So Pro
Originally from Rolla, Syrhea Conaway creates distinctive, loop-oriented music with an orchestral flair under the moniker Syna So Pro, in addition to lending her services to St. Louis rock acts Humdrum, Whoa Thunder, the Pat Sajak Assassins, and the Rick Springfield tribute band Working Class Dogs.
The local-music staple had a huge year in 2015, opening for new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, signing with FPE Records, performing at TEDxGateway Arch for the second consecutive year and releasing Loop Talk Vol. 2, among a laundry list of other accomplishments. In addition to new recordings with Whoa Thunder and the Pat Sajak Assassins (she provides bass and vocals, and keys and vocals, respectively), Conaway plans to release two albums in 2016. At least one, she says, will be largely comprised of a cappella compositions from when she was in high school.
Winner of this year's RFT Music Award in the "Singer-Songwriter" category, Emily Wallace writes relatable, emotive songs in the country/Americana vein. Aside from her own musical and visual work, Wallace stays busy lending her formidable vocal abilities to a variety of St. Louis acts including Al Holliday and the East Side Rhythm Band, Salisbury, and the Funky Butt Brass Band.
Wallace says she plans to spend the next year continuing to provide backup vocals for Al Holliday and the East Side Rhythm Band and Salisbury, putting more time and energy into cultivating her visual artwork (she designed a T-shirt for honkey-tonkers the Dock Ellis Band), and working on a new album with sister Ali Ruby.
As a member of well-known pop and rock groups Tight Pants Syndrome and Middle Class Fashion, singer, songwriter, videographer and guitarist Brian McClelland is no stranger to St. Louis music fans, largely thanks to ample (and deserved) coverage by the local music media. In addition to his musical ventures, McClelland is the founder of Blip Blap Video, the production company responsible for music videos for local acts Roundheels, Letter to Memphis and Beth Bombara, among others.
In 2015 McClelland's newest project, Whoa Thunder, finally settled on a permanent lineup and took its music on the road, in addition to playing a handful of shows at local venues including Foam, the Heavy Anchor and the Firebird. In the coming year, McClelland plans to release a collaborative song with long-time friend Matt Meyer of local punk group Ded Bugs, as well as recording the band's first full-length with the current lineup.
Whatever your sonic preferences, the St. Louis music scene has artists who can satisfy them. And while all of the musicians and bands we just featured have noteworthy trajectories, they're just a small sampling of what the city has to offer music fans who are willing to seek out and support it.
While love of the music itself animates any musician worthy of the title, at the end of the day, these artists will never be able to achieve their full financial or creative potential without the awareness and support of local music fans like you. So go see a show. Hell, buy the t-shirt while you're there. St. Louis already of has plenty of great musicians making plenty of great music. What the city's music scene needs now is for people like you to show up and support them.