This weekend, the RFT's ShowcaseSTL kicks off in the Grove — the biggest all-local music festival in St. Louis history. For the first time this year, we'll be rocking out for two days, with three venues and a dozen acts Friday evening in addition to the nine stages and more than 90 acts playing throughout the day Saturday. That's a lot of music!
And that's not all. For the last two months, we've been counting down our inaugural list of the STL-77. Rather than attempting to shoe-horn bands into categories in some sort of weird-ass Music Olympics, this year we eliminated the "competition" part of our music awards and just went with the "award" component.
So this year's list isn't a readers' poll and it's not a contest. It is, simply, a celebration of the 77 artists and bands that have done big things in the last twelve months. From groups that just formed in the last year to local acts who've hit the big-time to living legends like Kim Massie, our list shows the breadth, depth and astonishing talent based in St. Louis.
Read up on all three categories of honorees, from up-and-coming artists to buzzworthy acts to heavy hitters. Then visit rftshowcase.com for the showcase schedule — because the only thing better than reading about St. Louis' top performers is watching them in action.
Up and Coming Artists
Relatively new or newly reactivated, these acts are rapidly making a cannonball-sized splash in St. Louis' local music pool.
The Gaslight Squares
Imagine, for a moment, the life of British trumpeter/banjoist TJ Muller. Mad about the riverboat swing music of 1920s America, he jumps aboard Pokey LaFarge's traveling musical revue in 2013, and together they criss-cross the globe. Eventually he departs LaFarge's band to cast his lot with St. Louis, legendary home of the traditional jazz and blues Muller loves most. Along with locals Matt Sellers (piano/accordion), Jacob Alspach (banjo/guitar), Jon Weiss (tuba) and the occasional snare drummer or trombonist, Muller forms the Gaslight Squares — and if the bricks of south city could sing, this is what they'd sound like. Merrily rustic trumpet leads, while barroom piano, choppy banjo, old-timey radio harmonies and the rustle and whoosh of dancing skirts swing through the air. Charismatic and easy on the eyes (especially with the city's swing kids on their side), the members of the Gaslight Squares evoke more than just history: They express timeless city pride.
Recommended if you like: W.C. Handy, Charlie Creath, Pokey LaFarge, bowties
Find them: On Facebook at facebook.com/thegaslightsquares
Kingston Family Singers
IDM? EDM? IDK. Who cares about labels when you're an artist? When it comes to experimental musicians taking risks and trying to do something different, you'd best not be so judgy. Open up your horizons with Kingston Family Singers — and don't let the name fool you. This is no apple-cheeked choir of Sunday school boys. The Belleville-based act is less a band and more a solo passion project by Chad Hickman, which vacillates between tin-foil proto-punk and ambient white noise, complete with hollowed-out bass, crashing rhythm and the occasional abrasive guitar riff that's just off-kilter enough to either make your ears grateful or make you grate your teeth. With a slew of home-recorded EPs and tracks that average in the twenty-minute range, this is the soundtrack the matrix jams to.
Recommended if you like: Radio Berlin, Fugazi, Aphex Twin, when you pick up the phone but your dad is using the fax machine
Find him: On Bandcamp at maxcorpindustries.bandcamp.com
Gently bent notes and reverb-heavy acoustic guitar hang thick as humidity on Heat, LéPonds' 2016 debut, so it's a fitting soundtrack for warm summer nights. Lisa Houdei is LéPonds' lyricist, guitarist and voice, and though she occasionally plays with a band, her solo performances reveal the heart of the project: ethereal melodies and intimate, emotional lyrics that show fragments of narrative while shifting others out of view. On the album, the production is subtly layered with synthy pulses, muted percussion and whimsical added harmonies, all of which intensify and focus Houdei's breathy, restrained vocal approach. In "Charmed," her strongest song to date, she employs an instantly memorable melody to sketch the arc of a romance, from giddy meeting through childbirth to betrayal and separation in less than three minutes. Whether Houdei is live or on record, her declaration, "I'd rather raise my son alone" is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up.
Recommended if you like: Jessica Pratt, Ingrid Michaelson, Bon Iver, Julie Doiron
Find her: On Bandcamp at lepondsmusic.bandcamp.com
The Bobby Dazzlers
Nothing goes with gnarly distorted guitar quite like fuzzed-up distorted vocals to conjure fantasies of a basement party running wild. The Bobby Dazzlers keep their songs short, fast and reckless, laying timeless rock rhythm and lead riffs under singer Chad Rogers' surprisingly satisfying melodies. The group's two EPs, Champion and Crusher, supposedly showcase the band's pop and heavy sides, respectively, but they both surf their way through the lo-fi pop tradition with big-league confidence. Live, the band has charm to match its shredding — honed in prior acts including the Breaks, Hibernauts and Dear Vincent — and its members have figured out that the best way to make sure the crowd has fun is to have fun themselves. They're a hard band to catch these days, so don't miss your chance when it arrives.
Recommended if you like: The Strokes, the Replacements, the Orwells, MC5
Find them: On Bandcamp at thebobbydazzlers.bandcamp.com/album/champion-ep
He calls it "ghetto trance" music; you might call it dark, twisted, honest and minimalist. Donté, who also goes by the name Fadda Vampire, creates hip-hop confessions that sound cinematic, even without the benefit of his stylish videos (he's also a model). Donté's stream of consciousness flows in an eerie mist, but it also reverberates, like Tricky arriving strung out and late to an underwater séance in St. Louis. The 23-year-old native St. Louisan released the haunting God Don't Like Ugly EP last year, and his current releases, notably "World War E," take a hard political turn even as the beats sound even more club-ready. Keep your eye on Donté. He's just getting started, but he's got talent that sounds built to last.
Recommended if you like: Tyler the Creator, Tricky, J. Cole, Childish Gambino
Find him: On Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/eric-donte
Rainey twins Hannah and Delia have always been magic creatures, spinning fairy tales, acoustic guitar and warbly intuitive harmonies into shadow-dappled metaphors via their band Dubb Nubb. Shady Bug is Hannah Rainey's more earthbound iteration, expressing her experiences in the heart of STL's bustling DIY scene. On the concept's debut album, tbh idk, it's thrilling to hear the capacities of an already impressive songwriter expand dramatically with the addition of creative, rocket-fueled drums and distortion in the classic loud-quiet-loud tradition. Endearingly weird bent notes abound, and the project doesn't sound like Dubb Nubb electrified — it's a true meshing of styles with her bandmates, who seem to be channeling equal parts Mac DeMarco and K Records. The band's occasional vocal harmonies are as crucial to the sound as the chorus effect on Hannah's guitar, and the whole thing rolls comfortably between casual and epic, a surprisingly polished sound from the underground.
Recommended if you like: Spinanes, Meat Puppets, Mac DeMarco, Mirah
Find him: On Bandcamp at shadybug.bandcamp.com/
In its infancy, shoegaze music sprang forth from the heady mixture of disaffected British youth with access to both an arsenal of guitar effects and a medicine cabinet full of pills. But in the 25 years since My Bloody Valentine cut new territory with a Fender Jazzmaster, the form has become malleable enough to contain bands of many stripes. In Seashine, a relatively new foursome, a reverence for the past mingles with an of-the-moment energy. The band's four-song demo has a polish and assuredness that belies its home-recorded origins. "Shangri La" kicks things off with a propulsive, stutter-stepped snare roll before settling into a stratospheric dreaminess that carries through the rest of the set, with singer and guitarist Demi Haynes able to cut through the haze with force and grace.
Recommended if you like: Ride, Beach House, Lush, Echo & the Bunnymen
Find them: On Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/seashineband
Skins Tags is a very punk name, which is fitting because this band is punk as fuck. Guitarist Mabel Suen (also a photographer for RFT) burns through riot-infused chords, while Shelly Koesterer bangs her drums into oblivion. Bassist Lucy Dougherty pulls double duty for the tumultuous Skin Tags as well as Little Big Bangs, but despite the groups' different styles, she doesn't seem out of place in either act. Together these three kick ass like no other trio in town, turning distorted, crunchy squalor into catchy transcriptions of youth. Equal parts hardcore and gutter grunge, Skin Tags is just as ferocious and rabid on stage as on its 2016 demo — which means once you start listening, you won't be able to stop.
Recommended if you like: Jawbox, Bad Brains, Rites of Spring, publishing zines
Find them: On Bandcamp at skintags.bandcamp.com/
Ted and Heather Moll spent well over a decade chiseling away at the songs on Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun, the first record they've released as Bagheera since 2004's Twelves. It was time well spent: Released on the local label Skeleton Fur, Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun is an ambience-filled album where textured sounds — razor-filed guitars, alien-invasion synthesizers, Doppler-effect percussion — flit in orbit like gorgeous space junk. The Molls' harmonic collisions add to the shoegaze-in-a-distant-galaxy atmosphere. On "Martian Influence," the pair's voices combine like John Doe and Exene Cervenka; meanwhile, the standout title track boasts clarion, sturdy hollers. With bassist Julie Gibbs on board as a steadying influence, Bagheera has also started performing live once again — signaling all systems go for a career reignition.
Recommended if you like: Rainer Maria, New Pornographers, Cocteau Twins, Hum
Find them: Online at www.bagheeramusic.com/
At first glance, Dracla appears to be a drunken Halloween lounge act similar to Bill Murray's "Nick the Lounge Singer" character from his early years on SNL — but it only takes about five seconds into a performance for that image to switch to one of a street-fighting vampire overlord. Bass high on the hip, the pale-faced Ray Kannenberg seizes the helm with a startling command of "SILENCE," ordering and acquiring obedience from the crowd even as he sets the tone for the next half-hour of riff-laden vampire metal. Skillfully backed by Bug Chaser's Jake Jones and Kevin Insinna, as well as Nathan Dick and Nick Kampen, the band has all the meat and darkness implied by its name, a seriously heavy package tied up nicely with a dirty black bow (the one holding Kannenberg's cape on, naturally). Sabbath beware; Dracla has risen.
Recommended if you like: Black Sabbath, Bug Chaser, vampires
Find them: On Bandcamp at dracla.bandcamp.com
While the spelling of the name calls to mind a hatchet-wielding maniac, wordplay artists will giggle at the pun. Labeled as instrumental metal (which is undoubtedly in its DNA), the band seems to best be described as mid to late '70s metal — the kind we all know and love and karaoke to when we're drunk out of our minds. Thor Axe is something of a local super group, composed of members of So Many Dynamos, the Gorge and Black Fast. Together they hold the stage and take no prisoners with thundering bass and drums, driving synths and triple-harmony guitar leads. When all these elements combine, a chemical reaction transpires in your brain, and you're forced to pump your fist in the air over and over again. Just make sure you're not actually holding an axe — you might dismember the hipster next to you.
Recommended if you like: Diamond Nights, Thin Lizzy, Natty Light, Trans Am (the band or the car), '80s video game soundtracks
Find them: Online at thoraxeband.tumblr.com/
The Strange Places
The Strange Places is the Krazy Kat dreamscape of the man sometimes known as Chris Baricevic but nowadays going by Kristo. He's got a few names because he's got a few roles, including running Big Muddy Records, one of the region's deepest wells of weird Americana, and playing in a host of bands. He's a player who seems to have sprung fully grown from the head of his guitar like some desert-rock Athena, with a virtuosity and comfort that isn't meant to be accessible to someone his age ... so the whole band seems to have sped up their lives, living extra hard to catch up. The only signs of the Strange Places online are recordings made as Kristo, and while those are pleasingly porchy, the full band brings the spacedust, sawdust and desert wind that lets Kristo truly cut loose on guitar — and when that happens, even the moon begs for an encore.
Recommended if you like: Country Teasers, Giant Sand, Bob Dylan, Meat Puppets
Find them: Online at www.bigmuddyrecords.com/artist/kristo
Local rock & roll trio Other People is a bargain — listeners get two bands for the price of one. OK, that's a bit of an overstatement, but co-frontmen Bob McMahon (a Riverfront Times contributor) and Jeremy Goldmeier take their individual permutations of pop music down different pathways. McMahon's guitar-driven contributions are indebted to quirky pop referents like XTC and mid-period Of Montreal, while Goldmeier pounds his piano with the conviction of a tunesmith who knows his Ben Folds from his Badfinger. This year's Other Songs by Other People found the band consolidating 40 years of errant pop songs into something two-headed but still cohesive.
Recommended if you like: Spoon, Squeeze, the Shins, Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Find them: On Bandcamp at otherpeoplestl.bandcamp.com
Joan of Dark
Like its revolutionary French namesake, Joan of Dark is here to rescue you — from mediocre rock, that is, not from English domination. The band's four members are all veterans of of the local music community, with pedigrees from Née, Arson for Candy, the Skekses, the McGees and more, and they've been racking up the accolades for their relatively new supergroup. Formed just a little over a year ago, Joan of Dark already has become a must-see act, with songs that veer into punk, haunting pop and straight-up rock & roll. Wielding tunes as sharp as a sword, Joan of Dark deserves its local sainthood.
Recommended if you like: The Muffs, the Donnas, the Runaways, Veruca Salt
Find them: On Facebook at www.facebook.com/Joanofdarkstl/
Vernacular String Trio
It can be a rare thing to find a free improvisation group that packs a house these days, but the Vernacular String Trio is one unit capable of such a feat. And for good reason: It's one hell of a compelling experience to be present when Tracy Andreotti, Alex Cunningham and Josh Weinstein join forces on their respective instruments. Armed with only a cello, violin and bass, they manage to conjure the dynamic variation of a piano, the subtle beat of a drum and even the fullness of a small orchestra, when the spirit moves them to do so. These three work together and complement each other so well that it's hard to believe pieces of the performance are actually improvised. With its new album Parlance released in early 2017, the group has been performing frequently in recent months — much to the delight of local showgoers.
Recommended if you like: Arrington di Dionyso, Musica Elettronica Viva, Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Find them: On Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/alexcunningham
Emerging from a short hiatus with half of its lineup changed, Shark Dad is an evolved animal. The quartet still makes garage rock with distorted guitar tones and vocals that recall '90s indie titans, but on new EP Almost, Pink, its songwriting has hit a new level. The hooks are stronger, the tunes have better structures and the often nostalgic lyrics cut deeper. Even the occasional dad jokes are improved. New guitarist Jeremy Essig (also an RFT contributor) once jokingly likened the group to "sloppy Cheap Trick," but recent shows have found Shark Dad tightening its performance into sharp bursts of fist-pumping rock. And between stage-crossing leaps and frontman Jason Robinson's gregarious stage presence, Shark Dad is as fun to watch as it is to hear.
Recommended if you like: The Replacements, the Refreshments, Cheap Trick, Veruca Salt
Find them: On Bandcamp at wearesharkdad.bandcamp.com
Mirror Mirror released its first album Extra Credit in April 2016, and with it came some of the best dirty-pop punk rock St. Louis has seen in a minute. No frills necessary, the album was recorded by drummer Leo Jalipa at the band's practice space in the Lemp Brewhouse Studios, and produced by Jalipa and guitarist/vocalist Aurora Schmidt. The end result is nothing short of a lo-fi masterpiece. Taylor Bour rounds out the lineup with solid basslines that add a touch of serious snarl to the band's low-end offering. Mirror Mirror has the melodies and the hooks that keep a crowd not only engaged, but bouncing and singing along.
Recommended if you like:
Coathangers, Priests, Bratmobile, Free Kitten
Find them: On Bandcamp at mirrormirrorstl.bandcamp.com
Warm Fiction, the debut EP from Golden Curls, came out in 2012, but that probably feels like a decade or two ago to Sarah Downen. She's been the steady presence in the band, which grew from a duo to a trio in recent years and saw drummer Philip Zahnd and guitarist Stephen Favazza (also of Hands and Feet) serve to fill the contours of Downen's gossamer, fluttery and substantive material. Performances around town suggest the new trio's latest songs are more beat-driven, and as such they hit a little harder and smarter than the group's EP. With any justice, listeners will have a new album to keep them company on the kind of starlit, witchy nights that Downen channels in her music.
Recommended if you like: Bat for Lashes, Mazzy Star, Broadcast
Find them: On Bandcamp at goldencurls.bandcamp.com
If Hollywood's endless onslaught of superhero movies has taught us anything — that's a big "if" — it's that a little collaboration among super-powers can have world-saving, box-office-breaking effects. For south city quartet the Vigilettes, a little superhero schtick goes a long way to describing their all-for-one appeal; the four women in the band share singing and songwriting duties, creating a sound that's indebted to Breeders-style guitar rock while leaving room for some experimentation. The group's debut 4,3,2,1 came out in the fall, but guitarist and singer Caitlin O'Toole was teasing new material in conversation as early as last year. "We already have a lot of new songs that we've already been playing live," she said. "There is definitely gonna be another release — maybe an EP."
Recommended if you like: The Pretenders, Sleater-Kinney, Alanis Morissette, Weezer
Find them: On Facebook at facebook.com/thevigilettes
Super Hero Killer
You have to hand it to Super Hero Killer. As the soul and funk revival continues to gain steam, both nationally and locally, the quartet — led by singer and bassist Donald Williams and featuring keyboardist Jesse Gannon, guitarist Jay Summers and drummer Grover Stewart — has continued to explore a harder-edged sound, indebted to Galactic at its tightest or Prince at his most guitar-slingingest, but very much its own brand of rock & soul. Its recent hookup with St. Louis' Farfetched imprint/collective, the single "And Then You Came Along," shifts smoothly from R&B crooning to pure fury, and bodes well for one of the toughest, funkiest bands in town.
Recommended if you like: Sly and the Family Stone, Vintage Trouble, Prince, the Dirtbombs
Find them: On Bandcamp at superherokiller.bandcamp.com
St. Louis is enjoying a nice bump in quality hip-hop lately, and Looprat is leading the charge. A bang-up year saw the band performing for SoFar Sounds and releasing the nine-song EP How We Live, which lets the eleven-piece collective show off its members' individual talents as one dynamic, powerhouse ensemble. Jazz, hip-hop, soul — all styles are combined with dope rhymes from some of the best lyricists the city has to offer. Let's be honest: "Rumble In the Jungle" needs to be the theme song for our entire city, if not your daily commute. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel/ never restin' on your laurels, staying humble / caught up in the cycles of the concrete jungle / better rumble, young man, rumble." Get it, son.
Recommended if you like: Talib Kweli, Oddisee, Jazzmatazz, Jurassic 5
Find them: Online at looprat.com
Turn the page for our next category of artists: Buzzworthy Acts.