This list was assembled with the help of a lot of folks who love music from every level and angle. One of them is a college music professor, a capable musician with depth–and breadth–of knowledge and years of experience gigging around western Indiana. Another is an award-winning international recording artist. Yet another is a college music major, a guitarist since early childhood who has fronted more than one band in his young career. Others offering input range from a life-long music fan (a man who has sat in on virtually every live performance in his musically active hometown) to a pair of music writers (one who has just started playing guitar to appreciate what all these artists do…the other a life-long musician and a Wabash Valley Music Association Hall-of-Famer).
We asked everyone to pick their top 5-7 tracks. Some ranked them. Many did not. Most laid out their reasons for their choices. Others kept mum. Virtually everyone argued aggressively for their favorite song, and many discussed the challenges they faced choosing from the wide varieties of genres on the list. We were never in the same room, but if we were the conversation would have gotten intense, maybe even heated, at times. Something about that seems pretty beautiful, to be honest.
We have learned a lot about how to do this the next time. The nomination process must (and will) improve, and doing this on an annual or biennial time-frame will most certainly clean up the frayed chronological edges which this effort encountered.
But as cliched as it sounds to say “everyone is a winner”…? Well…everyone is. When we started this magazine a few of us dreamed of growing it out of the local scene and sending it into the musical stratosphere. In time, the wiser heads won the debate: NRM works when it tells the story of the folks who make music and art right here in our pubs, in our local studios, in our own homes, even.
So congratulations goes out to everyone. To those who made this list. To those who scored a nomination. To all those talented musicians who didn’t make this particular radar (yet), but have been winning fans and loyal friends one gig at a time.
#10 “It Ain’t Gonna Rain” by Will Scott
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the midst of his direct list of favorite tunes, one judge said of Will Scott’s performance of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain”: “Cool guitar chops.”
They are indeed. Watch Scott work his six-string, and you’ll double, and triple-take as he slaps and picks every note, bouncing his claws off the chiseled surface of his pick-guard. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to him bang out the song alone in live performance or listening to the slower-tempo of the recorded version on 2011’s Keystone Crossing, the other thing about “It Ain’t Gonna Rain” that pulls you in is the speaker’s narrative arc. Long held grudges. A thirst for justice. A life lived nursing a well-earned hard edge. Will Scott’s storytelling lives off those dusty roads where our grandparents grew up, in places where folks who had very little control over their destiny learned how to keep their heads low, stay out of the rain, and still be there sitting on their front porches. Scott’s stories are about people who do the hardest thing anyone can do in this world: survive.
#9 “Love’s Anthem” by War Radio
War Radio is not the same band it was when it recorded “Love’s Anthem.” Save for the fronting duo of Joel and Tosh Everson, the rest of the group has shifted and reorganized. After early incarnations featuring guitarists such as Steve St. Pierre, Josh Query, and Steve Michael, the band found its footing with a stable four-person lineup that carried them through much of the last decade.
Following the departure of long time mainstays such as Drew Cooper at the drum set and Dennis Furr on bass, the Eversons shuffled different faces, often scrapping together a full complement in pinch. Today, War Radio has settled into a new, stable line up typically featuring Lorin Lemme on the drums and Kevin Killeen (who began with the band as a DePauw student). In that interim, War Radio did what bands who want to stay alive had to do. It’s a reality for groups at any level, but it is perhaps the most essential skill on the local and regional stages.
And through each of the band’s transformations, “Love’s Anthem” has been there. Despite its sentimental and sometimes sorrowful tone–one evocatively sung by Tosh Everson’s powerful mezzo-soprano–“Anthem’s” strongest feature is its rocking tempo and signature guitar sequences. As the band evolved and matured so did the songwriting, and later tracks, such as “Driving Darkness,” “The Great Escape,” and “Pages,” serve as perfect examples of that evolution.
“Anthem,” however, was one of those early songs that won War Radio its first batch of fans. It’s a strong tune. Great vocals, catchy melody, head-bobbing rhythm. It’s a rock-and-roll song. One of the first tunes which made those of us new to the concept of locally produced music take note that real, organic music wasn’t going to come from LA or New York any longer. The real stuff was going to happen in our own home towns.
#8 “Double Take” by Fort Frances
Of Fort Frances’ “Double Take,” here is what one of our judges had to say:
“This one feels like [a modern song]. Incredibly consistent production quality, simple yet effective lyricism, and instrumental cohesiveness easily make this the standout single. Consistency and catchiness are what makes a great single. This tune accomplishes it all with a fresh sound. This one drives the whole time; you feel it from the beginning. I might be giving this song too much credit but you could easily slap this over a modern James Bond intro sequence. If you can either do that with a song or drive down the road with your windows down to it, [then] it’s a damn good single.”
Indiana native and DePauw alumnus David McMillen propelled the Chicago-based band to prominence with their sophomore album Alio, which featured another nominated song, “Building a Wall.” But as our judge explains above, “Double Take” illustrates how both polished production values and solid musical chops results in the perfect song to listen to a relaxing afternoon.
#7 “Centralia” by Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters
A lot of tracks on the [nomination] list aren’t very uptempo. There are several country and blues options, some of which are very slow and have already been done and heard. ‘Centralia’ is uptempo and sounds like something I’d hear on 92.3 in 2015. It is catchy, representative of the music of the Midwest, and sounds like [a modern song]. The instruments aren’t overbearing and compliment one another well. The vocal lines are simple yet effective, and the background harmonies really pop making this single standout even more. Among the competition, ‘Centralia’ holds its own.”
So says one of our judges, making an adamant claim for “Centralia’s” place among the top-ten. Like a lot of the artists making this list, Dittmeier is respected as much for his determination as he is for his musical talent. Of the latter there is no doubt. Both 2016’s Midwest Heart/Southern Blues and his follow up release, 2019’s All Damn Day, are packed with songs that both elicit rapid toe-tapping while evoking sympathies for the struggles that average folks endure in this part of the world. But of the former…? Dittmeier never quits working. Always scheduling gigs, always hawking merchandise on social media, always reminding us that he’s there. If we ever let our minds slip on that, all we have to is lay his vinyl on the turntable. In a few seconds we’ll be reminded why he and the Sawdusters matter.
#6 “Jerusalem” by Paul Holdman
Our sleeper hit among the list is Paul Holdman’s deeply personal song, “Jerusalem.” As one of our judges explains in her/his argument for selecting it:
“There are a lot of Blues picks on this list. This to me is the best done blues tune by far. Holdman’s voice and guitar work is reminiscent of blues well before his time. He manages to give it his own flare that cuts very nicely. His lower register is very smooth, and when he works his way up into the higher vocal lines they bring the dynamic up handsomely making this track a well rounded one.”
Considered by many of his peers as one of the best guitarists in central Indiana (a claim we support and stand by 100%), those of us rooting for Holdman are especially happy to see him make the list because he is a legit, genuine guy. Those who’ve followed Holdman’s story or know him well, know that this song was intensely personal, showcasing both is deep-rooted faith and his emotional ties to his late mother. The fact that, as our judge above noted, that it’s a technically precise masterpiece only adds to the joy that such song brings. Some of us lobbied for a top five finish for this track. Mostly though, we’re thrilled that others who hadn’t heard it before fell in love with it on a first listen.
#5 “Bad and Better Angels” by Cari Ray and the Shaky Legs
In very short order, Cari Ray and the Shaky Legs have become one of THE premiere acts in the Hoosier state. Mixing her soft contralto with some mid-range octaves, Ray and long-time partner Dionne Ward have managed to take their two-person ensemble and produce sounds made by five and six-piece bands.
What wins over so many of us when it comes to “Bad and Better Angels,” however, is the song’s perfect balance of melody and lyricism. As we tap along to that deceptively happy beat, we listen carefully to a message that reminds us that we are all heathens. All of us flawed souls desperately looking for even more flawed souls so that we can call them out, and somehow feel better about ourselves.
If ever a song summed up the state of our times right now, it’s this one.
#4 “You Belong to Me” by Jennie DeVoe
How do you do a best of the decade and not include Jennie DeVoe? The answer is: you don’t. While it’s true that DeVoe’s studio activity has been relatively quiet since 2014’s Radiator: The Bristol Sessions, what remains undisputed that is DeVoe has defined a very high standard for what passes muster in the local music scene.
Whether she’s putting out something with a heavy blues influence or one of her many pop-oriented tunes which won over fans in the late ’90’s, what’s important is that Jennie DeVoe has done it by being Jennie DeVoe on her terms. And her terms have always been defined by strong vocals, powerful melodies, and a dynamic and engaging personality.
“You Belong to Me” ripples of all things DeVoe: a smooth and melodic tempo, the protagonists powerful and belting voice, and a mood and vibe that make everyone bobbing their heads to her music confidently feel that they are in the best place in the world. It’s crazy to think that DeVoe has been away from the recording booth as long as she has. It’s not crazy, however, to say that central Indiana is hungry for another batch of DeVoe tunes. She is the matriarch of the music scene in these parts. She is everything in terms of talent and personality that nearly every band wants to be.
That’s the way it should be. A status well-earned. None of us, however, are ready for her to quit.
#3 “We All Bleed Red” by Dacota Muckey
[dropcap]“S[/dropcap]imilar to that of an early Imagine Dragons and more reminiscent of Mumford and Sons, Dacota Muckey grabs the fuck out of your attention at the beginning and keeps it throughout the whole track. During that first yelling of ‘We All Bleed Red’ an ‘a-ha’ moment is triggered within the listener. I’m already enjoying the song musically, and now I can appreciate the message it is promoting. Boom badass single.”
These comments from one of our judges reflects the mood many of us felt when we listened to Dacota Muckey’s stellar tune. In fact, of all the tracks making the nomination round, Muckey’s work surprised several of us the most. For one, the production quality is strong. As another judge said, “Some of the studio recordings of the impressive artists were well [done] and clever. Way better than I expected.”
Muckey’s success starts in the studio and carries over to the stage. No question. But for listeners discovering Muckey for the first time (including some of us approaching retirement age), the quality of work on both his single and his first full album play a big role in winning over new fans.
#2 “Once in a While” by Gus Moon
[dropcap]“I [/dropcap]think there are a lot of melancholy singer-song writers who want to be what Gus Moon’s ‘Once in a While’ is. What I mean by that is there are some tunes that have this sort of down on themselves tone, which never picks up, and is coupled with repetitive lyricism that isn’t too inspiring. ‘Once in a While,’ at least for me, is the opposite. ‘A lost cause may blow away with the wind but once in a while you will find it again’ Maybe my complaint is that those other tracks have too much verse and not enough pop in their chorus, but I know one thing for sure: the optimism in the chorus spawned out of the verse’s sense of sadness make ‘Once in a While’ stand out. Not to mention it’s a catchy tune. Moon’s lyricism is unrivaled locally, and you won’t convince me otherwise. Additionally, you could make a case I am a little upset that Splendid Noise didn’t make the cut for best EPs/Albums.”
So says one of our judges, and one of our judges says all we need to say.