As a part of the third-annual Connecticut Music Awards, we asked readers in April to vote for their favorite bands and artists from around the state. Here are the results. Thanks for voting, and congratulations to the winners.
Album of the Year: James Maple, 'American Dreams'
Dreams are funny things: chase them long enough and you just might catch some. Mystic singer-songwriter James Maple has been performing original music for several years (as half of the duo Graverobbers, Maple performed at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival). All that work pays huge dividends on "American Dreams," where Maple surrounds his pleasantly creaky voice and down-home phrase-turns with warm B3 swells, agile guitar-playing and country-funk grooves. (Maple does ballads too; check out the loping waltz-time "Mount Morris," for example.) Others have traveled his road, but Maple takes it in with fresh eyes and shares what he sees.
Song of the Year: Elison Jackson, '2009'
Connecticut's favorite song of 2014 refers to a time five years ago when New Haven-based Elison Jackson frontman Sam Perduta croons that he "lost his mind." The track features a primal stomp/clap backbeat, acoustic guitars, bass, a playful vocal melody and a short harmonica solo. Elison Jackson continues to be one of the hardest-working bands in the state.
Best Overall Band: 1974
It was bound to happen: after winning back-to-back Best New Band and Best Rock Band awards, Newington prog-rock quintet 1974 took home this year's Best Overall Band trophy on the strength of its sophomore album, "1974 & The Death of The Herald," its brazen, concept-heavy live shows and a devoted fan base. Most likely you'll see them top some other categories next year, or they might just invent a few new categories.
Best Punk Band: Lost Riots
Genre-bending is common these days, and many bands are difficult to classify, but not the Lost Riots. They're from New Haven and they play punk rock. Period. Their songs pay tribute to the likes of the Dead Boys and the Heartbreakers and their patch-covered sleeveless denim jackets tip you off to what they sound like before you even hear them strum a power chord.
Best R&B/Soul/Funk: Stepkids
The Stepkids are somethin' else. Their chill, danceable and musically advanced compositions have been a breath of fresh air for their hometown of Bridgeport and the country at large — they're locally based but by no means a local act. And their light show is killin' too. They just played the Sasquatch Festival in Washington State, and they'll be appearing at Glastonbury in the U.K. in June.
Best Reggae: Mystic Bowie
Mystic Bowie splits his time between his homeland of Jamaica and his adopted hometown of Fairfield. For his authentic island flavor, he goes right to the source, finding influence in friends like the great Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals. Bowie is joyful, energetic and genuinely making the world a better place through his music and his actions. (His Mystic Bowie Cultural Center is a charity dedicated to enriching the lives of the children of Jamaica). He's also a member of Tom Tom Club.
Best Indie Rock: The Morning On Fire
The Morning on Fire consists of brothers John and James Flynn and drummer Jared Dewick, a New Haven-based, post-punk, post-hardcore, post-everything band with angular and moody tunes inspired by groups like Cursive, Explosions in the Sky, At the Drive-In and Modest Mouse. John Flynn is also known in these parts for creating Connecticut's quickly-ballooning Fauxchella festival, which has been going strong for three consecutive years and promises to be even bigger in 2015.
Best Folk/Traditional: Milksop: Unsung
Mandolins, banjos and upright basses are still all the rage with neo-folk acts, but New Haven's Milksop: Unsung uses them as tools for more mischievous purposes. Their self-described psycho-folk involves original songs offering spastic interpretations of an old-timey vibe with nefarious titles like "Cyanide Kool-Aid Acid Test," "Mudbutt" and "Farty Caboose."
Best New Band: Branchwater
Branchwater is a rock 'n' roll quartet that hails from Litchfield County. They've got a multi-genre-spanning set peppered with covers and a debut album called "When the World Seems Cold." Their dual lead guitar players lead to a healthy dose of improvisation to their playing, but influences come from all over the place, touching upon the blues, jam, funk, soul, jazz, rock and hip-hop.
Best Blues: The Balkun Brothers
Brothers Steve (guitar and vocals) and Nick (drums) Balkun and their buddy Caleb Battersby (bass) aren't looking to reinvent the blues or boogie-rock: they just want to play it well and shake things up. Since forming a couple of years ago, the West Hartford trio has won regional blues awards (including this one last year) and gained followers with grit and hard-rock swagger. Check out their first album, "God Bless Our Fallout Shelter," and be on the lookout for a new one soon.
Best Country/Americana: James Maple
If acoustic guitars, harmonicas and plaintive songs about West Virginia aren't relevant to modern country music anymore, nobody told singer-songwriter James Maple, whose "American Dreams" album is thoroughly steeped in grandeur, loneliness and dobros. Maple, formerly of Graverobbers, is a seasoned, road-tested storyteller capable of drawing you in and making you feel welcome. That's true country, I suppose.
Best DJ: Chumzilla
New London-based DJ Chumzilla has been producing independent hip-hop records for something like 15 years, which means he's survived several paradigm shifts in engineering technology and musical taste. Dozens of mixes, podcasts and random audio clips are ready for your perusal on his blog (head to chumzilla.com), with evocative titles like "Mullet Pandemonium," "Trapper Chum MD" and "Sex Wizard," or tune into "Chumzilla: House Arrest," a new live podcast that's coming your way soon.
Best Gospel: UniversityOf Hartford Gospel Choir
Every week, gospel music unites 50 University of Hartford students together — these are youngish people, mind you — in worship, bible study, mutual support and (of course) in song. Hear the UHa Gospel Choir — returning champs in this category — at any number of area performances during the school year, but definitely don't sleep on the one big concert they do each fall and spring.
Best Hip-Hop: Ceschi Ramos
New Haven rapper/musician Ceschi Ramos has dealt with a few legal issues in recent years, but they haven't put a dent in his popularity or creative flow. Ceschi runs Fake Four Inc., his record label, with his brother David and tours the country with louis logic, Moodie Black and other like-minded artists.
Best Jam Band: Michael Cleary Band
Hartford guitarist/singer Michael Cleary has been rocking out with various incarnations of his MCB for more than two decades, sharing stages with the likes of Little Feat, Tower of Power and Joan Osborne. Cleary himself studied music at Berklee and Wesleyan and has since taught generations of young shredders. The 2012 release "MCB Five" shows he has no intention of slowing down now.
Best Jazz: Sarah LeMieux Quintet
New Haven's Sarah LeMieux was a backup singer and guitarist for indie rockers in New York's Lower East Side before fronting her own bands. On songs like "Wait For Your Love" and "Shut Out," the smoky-voiced LeMieux spins the musical language of jazz and blues into something wholly unique and tantalizingly genre-busting.
Best Metal: Vengeance
Glastonbury quartet Vengeance, two-time winners in this category, conjure up classic Maiden (check out their cover of "Flight of Icarus") and other NWOBHM bands, slipping in hushed moments to counterbalance the pummeling moments on songs like "Blood Red Sunset" (from the "Vendetta" album). Live, frontwoman Debbie Seymour and songwriter/guitarist Duncan MacIntyre are a metal-charisma two-punch, while bassist Kevin Schock and drummer Kurt Schock are all-around bone-crushers.
Best Rock: 1974
The boys (and gal) of 1974 certainly know rock, even if it's on the brainy side. The Newington band's cerebral riffage on their two albums, "1974 & The Battle For The Lazer Fortress" and "1974 & The Death Of The Herald," leans heavily on old Kansas and Yes, and they've got more self-made mythology than your average amp luggers. Still, rock is rock, and 1974 delivers on stage everything they can deliver in the studio, and then some.
Best Singer/Songwriter: James Maple
James Maple's watershed year culminated in the release of an album, "American Dreams," and extensive touring; is there any better way to make sure your music works than to test it on unsuspecting audiences? Some of Maple's songs — "Mount Morris," for example, or the title-track — sound like they were born on the road as well. I'm sure that's not a coincidence; despite his laconic, front-porch vibe, Maple doesn't sound like someone who's overly fond of staying put.
Best Tribute Band: Alcoholica
East Haven-based quartet Alcoholica unites Connecticut metal-ers from Kingdom of Sorrow (singer/guitarist Charlie Bellmore), Dead By Wednesday (drummer Christian "Opus" Lawrence), Eyes of the Dead (guitarist Pat Seymour) and Nasty Disaster (bassist Ron "Zombie" Celantano) in a mutual Metallica admiration society. A loud one. (Here's hoping they can avoid those expensive band counseling sessions though.)Copyright © 2015, CT Now