Michael Penn

Blessed with a classicist’s knowledge of pop history, abundant talent, good looks and a family of Hollywood royalty, Michael Penn has yet to reach his commercial potential in a solo career that got off the ground in the late ’80s. “No Myth,” the lead single from March, is self-consciously erudite, with references to Shakespeare and…

Aimee Mann

Several years after the breakup of ‘Til Tuesday, the Boston new wave band that scored big with “Voices Carry” in 1985, vocalist Aimee Mann launched her unhurried solo career with the mightily impressive Whatever. Receiving assistance from producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (of the Grays), as well as Roger McGuinn and drummer Jim Keltner, Mann…

Area

For more than ten years, the Illinois university town of Champaign-Urbana hosted an unusual ensemble, one that seemed to owe a debt to the dream-pop experiments of 4AD. As Area, Steve Jones (synthesizers and percussion), Henry Frayne (guitar) and Lynn Canfield (ethereal, dreamy vocals) released a batch of albums in the second half of the…

Loud Family

The Loud Family by any other name would sound just as poppy, post-modern, kaleidoscopic and nasty/sweet. In other words, it would sound like Game Theory. Loud Family singer, songwriter and guitarist Scott Miller was the driving force in that California band for much of the ’80s; at the end, the group’s ever-revolving lineup had gone…

dada

If one were to review three decades of California rock, circa 1965 to 1995 and reverse-engineer it into a single entity, dada might as well be the result. The Los Angeles trio borrows the Beach Boys’ open vocal harmonies, the Eagles’ casual eye for decadence, the Doors’ bleary-eyed paranoia, some Jefferson Airplane surrealism, ’70s folk-rock…

Ida

In the 1960s, groups like Brooklyn’s Ida would be strumming their acoustic guitars in coffeehouses, hoping that Melanie or Tom Paxton or David Geffen would come along and notice something — the fineness of their harmonies, the insights of their songs, the gentleness of their souls, the cut of their sandals — and give them…

Game Theory

Game Theory, the songwriting vehicle for Northern California native and pop-eclectician Scott Miller, was a clean, and for a time, mildly psychedelic, pop band from northern California, whose departures from conventional meat-and-potatoes reality were more quirky than trippy. Although sometimes lumped in with Los Angeles’ Paisley Undergrounders like the Three O’Clock, Game Theory was more…

Scud Mountain Boys

The Scud Mountain Boys and their successor, the Pernice Brothers, initially took a Codeine-like approach to rural country music. Formed as a trio in 1991, the Northampton, Massachusetts group played dryly amusing originals and covers on nearly subliminal energy planes. Both Pine Box (vinyl only) and Dance the Night Away (CD) — which have three…

Syd Straw

As an unknown, Straw — one of very few vocalists to whom the description “honey-throated” can be accurately applied — swiped the spotlight on the Golden Palominos’ Visions of Excess from the likes of Michael Stipe, Jack Bruce and John Lydon. On Blast of Silence she provided grace notes to an otherwise confused product. Her…

Eels

Mark Oliver Everett, the Southern Californian who goes by the letter E, has crafted an impressive career out of his mastery of classic pop songwriting, his disgust with relationships and contemporary social and political mores, and the unlikely combination of the two. His pre-Eels solo albums are low-key melodic gems of (mostly) acoustic guitar and…

Juliana Hatfield

Just as the trio was hitting its stride with its best album, 1990’s Sunburn, the Blake Babies greeted the new decade by breaking up. Singer/bassist Juliana Hatfield lit out for the big time, picking up a guitar and staking out turf as the Sassy-generation spokeswoman for adolescent angst — a niche particularly well-suited to the…

Richard Thompson

The drizzly love affair between gloomy alternarockers and Richard Thompson has little to do with the English singer/guitarist’s revisionist folkie heritage in Fairport Convention, his extraordinary instrumental skill or his generally fine solo albums. No, what resonates most among the shaving-razor-and-valium set are the songs he wrote during the difficult passage and aftermath of his…

Torres

Nashville-born, Brooklyn-based Mackenzie Scott was 22 in 2013 when she recorded and self-released her debut album under the ambiguous name Torres. Concurrently with rising stars like Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, she shares a queer, Southern feminism In her debut, Scott presents Torres a fully formed musical identity: highly intimate, often painful lyrics, accompanied by…

Mynabirds

Mynah birds in nature are renowned as tricksters, able to imitate the sounds of other birds, even the human voice and machinery. Hard to say whether DC-via-Los Angeles (by way of Omaha) singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn had ornithology in mind when she named her band, but its three albums to date provide some clues of Mynabirds’…

Beautiful South

After disbanding England’s ironically poppy — and, at home, wildly popular — Housemartins in 1988, frontman Paul Heaton wasted little time in maintaining the Hull band’s chart momentum with the less jangly but similarly double-edged Beautiful South. (Another ex-member, Norman Cook, launched Beats International and subsequently became a massive star as Fatboy Slim.) Though the…

Freedy Johnston

Freedy Johnston writes epic songs of loss and heartbreak and sings them with unassuming earnestness, as though apologizing for intruding on a private moment. He charmed his way into the hearts of rock critics with the opening line from Can You Fly‘s “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know”: “Well I sold the dirt to…

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Melodic, laconic and with enough electric guitar crunch for children who grew up in the post-grunge era, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever emerged from a vibrant Melbourne scene in the mid-2010s. Two well-crafted EPs followed a series of videos assembled from found footage and posted to YouTube, and they became one of the few Australian bands…

Lori Carson

Following her folky debut, Shelter, the breathy, wistful singer/songwriter Lori Carson made a splash in the indie world as the lead singer for the Golden Palominos on This Is How It Feels and Pure. While her own album contained some strong material, its derivativeness — Rickie Lee Jones, Edie Brickell and Tracy Chapmanesque stabs at…

Emm Gryner

Some artists who have built careers on the sole-proprietor model (Ani DiFranco with Righteous Babe; Jenny Toomey with Simple Machines; Aimee Mann with SuperEgo) have done so because of their fiercely independent convictions, but also because their music doesn’t fit into easily marketable categories. Not so for Emm Gryner. The diminutive Filipina-Canadian pianist and guitarist…

Yazoo (Yaz)

Yazoo (known as Yaz in the US) was one of England’s most engaging synth-pop duets, mostly because of the sharp contrast provided between vocalist Alison “Alf” Moyet’s incredibly rich and soulful voice and the high-tech instrumentation of ex-Depeche Mode synthesist/songwriter Vince Clarke — he of the band’s earliest and fluffiest pop songs like “Just Can’t…