Every year, a new group of artists and acts makes its way to the head of the class. Some are more advanced than others; they've been steadily building their names at shows, creating a healthy buzz. Others have been toiling in virtual obscurity, holed up in basements or apartments, driven by the pure desire to craft compelling songs. Whatever their stage of development, each of the following acts is certain to make their mark this year. And even if they aren't all blog darlings or breakout stars by the end of 2011, they definitely deserve your attention.
Della: In a vein similar to that of the Battleship Agenda, Nautical Mile and Speakeasy Tiger, Della offers polished, female-fronted power pop that's about as radio-ready as it comes. Led by the soaring vocals of Amanda Hawkins, this feisty quintet is poised to break out on the strength of an absolutely killer two-song demo featuring "Anymore" and "Not That Simple (Things I Do)," both recorded at the Blasting Room. It's an impressive followup to the act's self-titled five-song EP from 2009. Catch Della on Saturday, February 26, at the Gothic Theatre. (www.dellaonline.com)
Adam Duncan, Pries and Rockie: Admittedly, it's a bit odd to group these guys together; even though they've collaborated, they each have a burgeoning career that's completely separate from that of the others. Still, at a time when Drake has altered the game with his well-groomed, hip-pop bridge between hip-hop and Top 40, all three have the potential to become mainstream stars. Individually, they've already produced a succession of turnkey tracks that have smash single written all over them. Rockie's "Cover Girl," which features Duncan, from the forthcoming Rockie's Road, promises to gain him much greater notoriety; likewise, Pries has at least three cuts ("Supa Lovin'," featuring Rockie, "Go Go" and "I Wanna Be a Star") that should already be getting heavy spins on the radio. And Duncan — who first made his name as O.N.E., a member of Infinite Mindz — is fully capable of setting clubs on fire and melting the hearts of any ladies within earshot with his velvety croon. (officialadamduncan.com, iampries.ning.com, www.reverbnation.com/rockieg5)
FaceMan: After recently wowing a capacity crowd at the Bluebird with FaceMan's First Waltz, an ambitious show involving several dozen musicians that was the local equivalent of the Band's Last Waltz, FaceMan has truckloads of momentum. But even without all the fanfare, the outsized hootenanny and even bigger prop — the outfit often shares the stage with a giant face — FaceMan merits attention for its music alone. Led by the uni-monikered Steve, the three-piece has created an irresistible indie-rock sound that gives a nod to Modest Mouse while tapping into the malaise of daily life, capturing the ennui inherent in toiling at an ungratifying job — and the liberating feeling that comes from losing the shirt and tie and "waving goodbye" to the "working class." Catch FaceMan on Saturday, March 26, at the D Note. (www.facemanmusic.com)
Glowing House: With the release of its stellar, thirteen-track full-length, The Annual Demise of Every Aspen, Glowing House has quietly made its way to the forefront of the local scene, where it's steadily gained ground during the past year warming up crowds for (and almost stealing the show from) acts like Churchill. Buoyed by the vibrant vocals of pianist Jess Parsons, the trio, which also includes guitarist Steve Varney and drummer Patrick Kline, has an unaffected charm that's instantly captivating, from its honeyed harmonies to the heartfelt musings found in lines like these, from "Paper and Pen": "Wrote it down fleshed it out/Words on a page have no storybook ending/Tried erasing mistakes/Only to find blue pen bruises the paper.../Ripping out pages I see there's still part of you left in the seam." (www.glowinghousemusic.com)
Il Cattivo: Given the all-star lineup — Brian Hagman of Black Lamb, Jed Kopp and Matt Bellinger of Ghost Buffalo (and Planes Mistaken for Stars), Matty Clark of TaunTaun and Holland Rock-Garden of Machine Gun Blues — there's no way in hell that Il Cattivo was going to be anything less than an absolutely compelling creation. The group was originally conceived under the working name Sirens, its formation reminiscent of the Predators plotline, in which the most notorious killers are gathered in one place for a game of Kill or Be Killed. And somehow, the bandmembers have managed to distill all the fury and bombast of their previous acts into one corrosive, imposing, junk-punching force. (www.reverbnation.com/ilcattivo)
Jim McTurnan & the Kids That Killed the Man: Jim McTurnan made quite an impact with Cat-A-Tac a few years back. He shared frontman and songwriting duties in that band; on his own, he's been able to find greater continuity with an utterly delightful guitar-driven indie pop/alt-rock sound. And now, after kicking around the scene for the past few years, McTurnan is set to release Joie de Vivre, the eagerly anticipated debut from his band Jim McTurnan & the Kids That Killed the Man. Boy, does this platter ever hit the sweet spot. There are a few tasty holdovers from the time of the initial sessions that were to be mixed by Jason Martin of Starflyer 59, but the newer tracks are equally solid. Catch Jim McTurnan & the Kids that Killed the Man on Saturday, March 12, at the hi-dive. (www.myspace.com/jimmcturnan)
Mesita: If you haven't heard of Mesita, don't feel bad. Even though James Cooley issued three records and two singles over the past three years, only a handful of astute local music writers such as John Wenzel seem to be aware of him. That could be because he doesn't really play shows — which is almost criminal, because Cooley is making some of the finest music around these parts. With a breathtaking falsetto croon that recalls Bon Iver, he plays a gorgeous brand of folk that will, well, take your breath away. Even more impressive, he performs every instrument on the recordings, which he engineers and produces himself. Download his entire discography thus far for free on his website and then look for his new album, Here's to Nowhere, later this year. (mesitamusic.com)
Mr. Midas: The self-proclaimed "Son of the Crack Era," Mr. Midas is originally from Long Beach but now calls the Mile High City home. With a disarmingly casual delivery and the keen, unflinching observational skills of a journalist, Midas examines the crack epidemic in his latest effort, Son of the Crack Era; he reflects not just on his own experience but the experiences of his friends and family, with notable finesse and swagger. From his insightful narratives to his impressive "Run This Town" video, Mr. Midas has the touch. (www.myspace.com/mrmidas)
Pina Chulada, Force Publique, Flashlights: Here are three more acts each carving out their own niche, but of similar size (they're duos), vintage and stature (although they've all been making music for a while, they only recently started making a stir). And they all create somewhat kindred music; Force Publique and Flashlights even appear on a split cassette set for release February 23 at the Larimer Lounge. But each of these acts is also noteworthy on its own. Pina Chulada, comprised of Jen Villalobos and Brent Smith, is the most delicate; Villalobos's dreamy delivery, imbued with a casual, windswept beauty that recalls an electro-fied Mazzy Star, really stands out. As Flashlights, Ethan Converse and Sam Martin produce a swirling, reverb-drenched synth-based sound that's slightly more upbeat and dance-oriented. And the music of Force Publique, with members James Wayne and Cassie McNeil, is driven by a notably more forceful, mechanized sound, enhanced by McNeil's vocals, which have an enchanting, disembodied feel. (www.myspace.com/pinachulada, flashlights.bandcamp.com, www.forcepublique-music.com/)
Caleb Slade: Being the brother of Isaac Slade, frontman for the Fray, gives Caleb Slade an instant leg up; his last name alone opens doors that might otherwise stay closed. But that would mean nothing if Caleb wasn't a capable songwriter in his own right — and he proves that he deserves all the attention with his excellent debut EP, Victory in Defeat, in which he takes a wide-screen approach to post-Brit pop, the kind made famous by Radiohead and U2 and their numerous antecedents. Lyrically, he manages to be earnest, literate and reflective without getting mired in treacly digressions. (www.calebslademusic.com)
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The Sunshine House: If ornate chamber folk pop is your thing, do not miss the Sunshine House, whose six-song, self-titled debut EP is a work of absolute splendor. Not quite a year old, the Fort Collins-based sextet — named on a whim when members drove past a daycare center — is led by the hushed vocals of singer-guitarist Philip Waggoner and the achingly sweet harmonies of Becky Raab. Together the musicians have crafted a delicate, finely tuned sound that rests on gently swelling strings, glimmering guitar lines and the distant murmur of horns. Listen to the entire EP on Bandcamp, then catch the Sunshine House this Friday, February 25, at the Denver Art Museum. (www.thesunshinehousemusic.net)
Tyler Ward and Julia Sheer: Although they're not currently working together, Tyler Ward and Julia Sheer made for one of the most natural, ideal pairings this side of Jason Reeves and Colbie Caillat. Ward is an immensely gifted singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist who's made a name for himself on the web mostly by covering other people's songs (his YouTube channel just passed the ten-million-views mark). But as evidenced by the originals he's written, particularly those with (and for) Julia Sheer, he's a damn fine songwriter himself. And Sheer, just eighteen, has all the makings of a country pop superstar on par with Taylor Swift — an obvious touchstone. Her voice exudes warmth and believability. (www.reverbnation.com/juliasheer and tylerwardmusic.com)
You'll definitely be hearing more from the Class of 2011: We're going to invite the members to participate in a brand-new, multimedia series we're about to launch on the Backbeat blog called Anatomy of a Song. Every month, one of these acts will get the chance to record a song at Side 3 Studios — Adelio Lombardi's world-class studio at Seventh and Mariposa, which has been featured in Mix magazine and has hosted such high-profile artists as Kanye West, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic and Faith Hill — while we document the entire process, from composing and rehearsals to pre-production and recording. At the end of the month, we'll present you with a free, exclusive download.