The New Class: 17 College Rock Acts to Watch

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College is among the most important periods of musical exploration and discovery in a person’s life, a chance to differentiate your taste from that of your parents and the like-minded folks you surrounded yourself with in high school. College radio stations can be great for introducing you to new bands whenever they aren’t pumping out the same Green Day and Aerosmith songs over and over again. At the prestigious university I attended, College of DuPage, the radio station was run by professors, and thusly comprised of 90% jazz, with theme nights like reggae, salsa, and blues tossed in here and there.

While I appreciated the introduction to Charles Mingus, I had to learn about bands like Diiv and Smith Westerns through my friends who attended schools with student-run stations. The college rock landscape continues to expand and shift with each incoming freshmen class, with the Internet helping to fill in the cracks left by the 89.1’s and 88.5’s, introducing us to more new artists each week. There’s a lot to take in if you’re a young person just getting past listening to all the songs you heard at prom, so we’re here to help narrow it down for you.

–Pat Levy
Staff Writer

17. Gothic Tropic

Jungle rock isn’t a genre that many bands self-assign these days, but Gothic Tropic tackle the label head-on and do so with a fervor and unique sound that most other bands can’t match. The L.A. trio have put out only a few tracks, but each one has some distinguishing factor from the rest, whether it be one member dominating the track more than others or an entirely different sound from the extremely versatile band. Each member is given their time to show off, but it always works within the greater concept the group is reaching for. Drummer Liv Marsico is often given a chance to shine, and it’s well deserved because she’s an undeniable force behind the kit. Having toured with bigger groups like Cold War Kids in the past, Marsico, and her bandmates Cicelia Della Peruti (Guitar/Vocals) and Daniel Denton (Bassist), seem to have tapped into something special with Gothic Tropic, and it would be wise to keep an eye on this band in the near future as they hopefully prepare to release much more material. –Pat Levy

16. Potty Mouth

Hailing from Northampton, Massachusetts, the four members of Potty Mouth formed the band in 2011 while attending the town’s women’s-only Smith College. Together, they encapsulate the gritty infectiousness of a basement show. Their debut album, Hell Bent, struck the perfect balance between punk and indie rock-minded pop, recalling acts like Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and other ‘90s big guns. Songs like “The Spins” flail around with rough-edged guitars and clever lyricism from frontwoman Abby Weems, with her distinct and terse delivery. Another highlight is the authenticity anthem “Black and Studs”, which attempts to get to the bottom of rebellion and punk: “What happened to you/ To make me wear black and studs?/ What happened to me/ To wear them just because?” Like fellow Northhamptonites Speedy Ortiz, Potty Mouth are helping make Western Massachusetts one of the brightest spots in the country for well-made guitar rock. –Josh Terry

15. The Lemons

Chicago natives The Lemons have an infectiously happy nature about them, which for some reason feels rare nowadays. The Lemons just want you to cheer up! What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Their charming brand of ’60s flower pop is colorful and inviting, with short snippets of songs that don’t linger, but rather, keep you moving. Their lyrics pop like Hubba Bubba, riding the wave of their jangly and carefree instrumentation, making them downright irresistible to dance to. With tiny jams like the 37-second “Ice Cream Shop” and the sugar high addictiveness of “My Candy Girl”, The Lemons have solidified themselves as one of the most original bands out there. If there’s one thing most college rock bands have in common, it’s originality. Through their live shows and undeniably pleasant nature, they’ve already developed an almost cult-like following of fans and friends, recently finishing off a tour with another of our list toppers, Twin Peaks. Soon enough, we’ll all be Lemon Heads. –Rebecca Bulnes

14. Sharpless

Earnest power pop is rare. Well, maybe not earnest power pop, but earnest power pop that’s actually good is rare. There’s no sap to Sharpless’s music; it’s unrelenting in its self-awareness and puts that to good use. Think Weezer with less people and more pathos, something you can rely on to make you feel some type of way, in a good way. Mastermind Jack Greenleaf captures a wealth of emotional range within two EP’s worth of lyrics, delivered by him and vocalist Montana Levy. This is the kind of music that I wish I had as a freshmen in college, and if I had, I’m sure I’d be a much more positive person, because that’s what Sharpless does. Their music spans a number of different sounds but is resoundingly steadfast in its intent to make the listener feel good. I don’t leave a Sharpless listening session with a frown, it’s the type of music that restores your faith in a genre. Besides being one of the best up-and-coming power pop groups, Sharpless is a part of The Epoch, an artistic community that has fostered a number of other worthwhile projects, proving that sometimes the best things grow out of a group with similar, but not singular, interests and intents. –Pat Levy

13. Secret Colours

If you didn’t know these guys were from Chicago, you’d assume they’re a bunch of Brits, with their insanely Britpop-influenced sound and their unusual spelling of color, but the Windy City exports manage to capture the soul of the UK in the late ’90s/early ’00s and mix in a good amount of psychedelia for a sound all their own. Ample amounts of fuzz and pop combine to sound something like if The Stone Roses and The Black Angels decided to mate, and their offspring is something to be cherished. A shifting lineup hasn’t altered the band’s unique perspective all too much, and in reality they’re more grounded and focused now than they were four years and a few members ago on their self-titled debut. Their most recent record, Positive Distractions, culls from an even wider array of influences, with the melodic Beatles-y “Mrs. Bell” bleeding all too well into “Heavy & Steady”, which starts with a near-perfect Modest Mouse impression before turning into something entirely different with more of a pop Pink Floyd vibe. All the essentials are here, and Secret Colours are just toying around with them until they find the perfect recipe for success. –Pat Levy

12. Peach Kelli Pop

As tempting as it might be to call the music of Canadian (by way of L.A.) songwriter Allie Hanlon “sugary sweet pop,” it surely isn’t entirely accurate. Indeed, each cutesy doo-wop chord, pop punk hook, and bit of garage rock clatter we hear her spinning around every inch of the beat does sound drenched in a honeyed coo, but there’s enough genre-trotting here to make the music sound more quietly menacing than just plain sugary. Her ability lies in finding the sweetest elements of all those genres, and her tracks power each element like a steam engine: fast and taut.

Peach Kelli Pop songs have a certain type of linear progression and minimal formula, in a Ramones “Rockaway Beach” meets Shonen Knife’s brand of sticky-sweet punk pop sort of way. On her 2010 self-titled debut, she cheekily sings over dreamy guitar plucking, “You’re just like Joey Ramone, and I can be Debbie Harry” with charm and confidence, reinforcing that the gravitas comes with Hanlon’s demeanor and voice. It’s flirtatious enough to take pancaked flatness, like on “No One Else Like Me”, and let it bubble and pop wide open with an intoxicating feminine brew. This music sounds suited for a drive on a sunny day, swerving between seagulls and rolling over soft gravel. Instead of reinforcing all things male and aggressive, “Mindreader”, released in March of this year, is the aesthetic of both garage rock and punk, but now gaining a more chiseled form. It has the gleam and cheerfulness of boldly feminine ‘60s girl groups and is suited for any listener with a short attention span: She fits a good amount of melody into a relatively short amount of time. The drums clap, the chimes smile, and this is a hip band name to drop. –Lior Phillips

11. Ought

We ought to start with the obvious: Tim Beeler’s voice is an elemental, powerful thing. It doesn’t take long for listeners to realize this either. In fact, about 20 seconds into “Habit”, he slices through grunge rock chords with the opening line, “Learn something, something you believe in,” in such a way that it makes you believe in exactly what he’s saying; it makes you trust that this is a new band worth giving every dang bit of “something” towards. It’s here, on their debut LP, More Than Any Other Day, that these Montreal post-punks waste no time establishing a vigorous barrage of bravado and energy. It’s that sarcastic hair-pulling and eye-scrunching vocal style that shuffles somewhere between conversational ranting and rocker howling.

The music of Ought, for all its bombast and groan, preaches in a vocabulary drawn from Montreal punkcore, so animally energetic it feels like a hybrid. They’re too modern for art rock, too quick-witted for punk. “Weather Song” erupts into gigantic sheets of clatter somewhere between The Strokes, Fugazi, and Parquet Courts. The advent of agile drumming and the song’s classic rock nervy signifiers are then delivered with indie rock’s tough gnarl. Their guitars entwine: one plucked, one bowed, one wrenched. You don’t have to be a strict punk rock devotee to realise that even if they’re not political and choose to savor mundane subject matter instead (public transport, night terrors, and the weather), they deliver a homily on the new world of post-punk. They’re both illuminated and repelled by life, as Beeler declares at the end of the album: “I retain the right to be disgusted by life/ I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight.” And it’s those moments that are nothing short of thrilling. –Lior Phillips

10. Eagulls

Leeds rockers Eagulls take everything we love about ’80s post-punk and bring it into the light of the modern day. It’s not necessarily the newest sound, but that’s a part of their allure: the ability to sound antiquated even in their youth. They seem to know their influences, but hardly rely on them. Instead, they fuse them with their own “hollow visions” and create a heavy sound with room to sway and dance and mosh. They’re young, they’re angry, and they’re British as hell. If that’s not college rock for you, then I don’t know what is. In their self-titled debut, they make musical shifts that prove they’re not just another band of young punks. From album opener “Nerve Ending”, which hooks in deep with a heavy bass line, to “Possessed”, a track guided by a very New Order-reminiscent guitar part, Eagulls make good on the legend of their predecessors and show promise to keep on doing so. –Rebecca Bulnes

9. Total Slacker

Brooklyn is a breeding ground for things to become trendy and then become obsolete within a matter of months/weeks/days, but the slackgaze movement has managed to find itself a home within the confines of the borough. Total Slacker are perhaps at the vanguard of this oddball genre, putting out some of the most worthwhile music the scene has to offer. Their influences read both like a who’s who of ’90s grunge and scuzz rock and a what’s what of ’90s pop culture, with their name coming from Richard Linklater’s Austin-centric film Slacker and the band’s recent video for “Super Big Gulp” coming in the form of a Sega Genesis game. If you’re a ’90s kid and not in the stupid Tumblr/Buzzfeed “Only 90’s Kids Will Get This!!!” way, this is a band for you to reminisce with. Their sound is like a sludgy Sonic Youth, with guitar riffs sometimes entirely comprised of feedback, but not in a standing too close to the amp way. There really aren’t many other bands that sound at all similar to Total Slacker, so if you meet a cute boy or girl at a party with the Nirvana smiley face shirt, talk to them about Total Slacker and you’ll seem a) cool and b) very knowledgeable and cool. –Pat Levy

8. La Luz

Burger Records darlings La Luz is an all-girl-fronted band that digs surf rock out of the repetitive cycle that it can so easily fall into. Rather than sounding like every other copycat band, La Luz finds something genuine and special in the way they craft their throwback sound. Rather than relying on something cutesy and overtly feminine, they stick to the jams and do it in a way that others have tried but have failed to accomplish in the way these four Seattle ladies have. “Sure as Spring” has one of the most stylish and danceable organ solos in recent memory, while the slow and sauntering vocals and simple guitar of “Call Me in the Day” make it one of the most addictive tracks on their It’s Alive album. Though they’ve definitely begun to pick up steam recently, they still feel like a best-kept secret that you’d put on your mix tapes to really impress a friend and/or love interest. Their tunes are crisp, cool, and smothered in good vibes that make them hard not to fall in love with. –Rebecca Bulnes

7. Frankie Cosmos

Over the last couple of years, Greta Kline aka Frankie Cosmos has been clogging her Bandcamp with dozens of albums and EPs of minimal, twee, and smart indie pop. The Manhattan-based 20-year-old daughter of actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, she’s both self deprecating and self-aware, singing lines like “I’m the kind of girl buses splash with rain.” When Kline writes songs, she’s of the less-is-more camp, using bare-bones arrangements and deceptively simple lyrics. With her breakout album Zentropy, her first release with a full backing band, she sang about her dead pet on “Sad 2”, long-term relationships on “My I Love You”, birthdays, and her brother “Owen”. Running less than 20 minutes over 10 songs, Zentropy still felt warm and satisfying despite its brevity. Because she’s not even old enough to legally drink and because her songs are warm and affecting, she’s sure to be a mainstay at NYC college radio. –Josh Terry

6. Alvvays

Canadian indie rockers Alvvays charmed this year with their self-titled LP, one of the tightest debuts in recent memory. Combining a touch of jangle and warmly constructed melodies with a reverence for indie icons like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub, each of the 9 songs on Alvvays felt simultaneously fresh and like a lost mixtape on an early ’90s college radio station desk. Fronted by Molly Rankins, her wistfully expressive voice is the driving force behind these fuzz-laden and peppy tunes. On the LP, songs like “Archie, Marry Me” and the swaying “Party Police” have the indie pop bread and butter of unrequited love and playful flirtation. While other tracks, like the swirling, guitar-happy “Next of Kin” and opener “Adult Diversion”, with its propulsive bass line and dreamy harmonies, add an extra edge to the saccharine, almost twee offerings. –Josh Terry

5. Waxahatchee

Crooner Katie Crutchfield’s solo departure from punk act P.S Eliot, Waxahatchee feels like the newest riot grrl act with a little less riot and a dash more girl. There’s a certain charming twang in Crutchfield’s voice that aligns itself with the Sleater Kinneys of the late ’90s, but with a new and deeply personal direction that finds it best experienced in your bedroom (or perhaps dorm?) staring at the ceiling and contemplating your life and relationships. The at times hollow and dissonant guitar parts found in her latest effort, Cerulean Salt, give her lyrical intimacy solid ground to stand on and simultaneously sets her apart from run-of-the-mill singer-songwriters. In tracks like “Swan Dive” and “Tangled Envisioning”, Crutchfield allows the ugly details of her heartache to make for an endlessly endearing story of a life that you live with her, word by word. And yet, those words seem to roll off her tongue in the signature Elliott Smith style of effortlessness, making her albums feel like some rarified gem of a different musical world amongst the clutter of other  “buzz-worthy” bands. Waxahatchee both takes us back and moves us forward, like the new class of college rock should. –Rebecca Bulnes

4. The Orwells

For those fresh out of high school, The Orwells should help you figure out how to process your nostalgia in a productive way. And by that I mean drinking copious amounts of cheap beer and lighting on fire the bad poetry that you wrote for your high school girlfriend after your first college one-night stand. Garage rock products of the Chicago suburbs, the band is well versed in the desire to branch out from something you’ve come to know all too well, which is essentially the mission statement for any good college rock. Lyrics span from girls (“Dirty Sheets”) to being drunk (“Southern Comfort”) to rebellion against any and all establishments, be they high schools (“Suspended”) or governments (“Who Needs You”), and then back to girls (“Blood Bubbles”). I know firsthand that their youthful exuberance is a joy to experience, having seen them several times live, and watching the five young dudes become entirely unhinged is paramount to their mission statement. Every young person is coming to realize the world is a pretty fucked-up place, and to get through it you might as well get fucked up, too, and have a damn good time doing it. –Pat Levy

3. Twin Peaks

For any college kids whose musical taste derives heavily from what their parents introduced them to, Twin Peaks should be your new favorite band. Four Chicagoans who took all the dad-sentials and put them in a blender with a 40 oz. and an eighth of some dank, proving that sometimes the most primary influences can be the ones that lead to and yield the greatest results. If The Beatles smoked more blunts, if The Rolling Stones drank more High Life, if Tom Petty grew up and flourished in an urban DIY environment, that’s who Twin Peaks are. Each member brings his own special elements to the table. From guitarist Clay Frankel’s Jagger-tinged vocals and grounded lyricism to bassist Jack Dolan’s “fuck you, pay me” attitude and surprisingly high energy for a self-professed stoner, everyone adds an important ingredient to the stew that is TP. Having come up alongside The Orwells, there’s a sibling rivalry feeling between the bands, but clearly it’s all love. Lead singer/guitarist Cadien Lake James busted up his ankle giving The Orwell’s Mario Cuomo an onstage piggyback ride during their recent joint tour, but that didn’t stop him from jamming out in a wheelchair, adorned with a Cosby sweater-esque t-shirt and some mom approved turquoise jewel earrings at Pitchfork, proving that the spirit of Twin Peaks is about uninhibited joy and letting your freak flag fly. –Pat Levy

2. Speedy Ortiz

The closest thing Speedy Ortiz, the indie rock band from Northampton, Massachusetts, offer us as far as a lyrical hint toward their overall mindset unfurls right at the beginning of “Tiger Tank”: “Was it the teeth or my tongue that said go shut your lips, let us take a rest?” The line is a clue, in some way, about the permanence of blame in society, and when her voice shivers through the next line, “My mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew,” it’s clear they’re addressing the lack of ownership for opinions, to which they can identify. There’s a lack of perspective from hiding behind emotional crutches, historical backgrounds, and err, body parts. So, if the college rock generation of 2014 inherited this band, and this band only – as suitably worthless and often dejected as they sound – it would be like watching a band beat the odds like a precocious teen transcending those clumsy and often unforgivable growing pains, only to emerge as a first-class band using the past in order to write their own version of their present.

With touchstones appearing from Pavement to Dinosaur Jr. to Superchunk, there are vocal fissures where enigmatic frontwoman Sadie Dupuis bleats like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. It’s most noticeable during their best song, “No Below”. Their music, a host for lumbering spells of doubt, pain, and anxiety, illustrated by Matt Robiodoux’s guitar, sublimated into woos of wonder and excitement, finally aided by bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone. Loads of new indie rock albums are content with just filling the typical indie signifiers and then just getting in line with the rest of “them,” but Speedy Ortiz and their ineffable album Major Arcana feels as much like a vehicle as it does a destination. They don’t wallow in inner turmoil and space; they let it fuel their artistry hopefully toward a gateway they’ll never stop exploring. –Lior Phillips

1. Parquet Courts

Ah! The linchpin to our fertile countdown is NYC four-piece Parquet Courts. While many indie rockers thrive to revive the ’90s, these gents seem perched right at the edge of control and chaos, opening an escape hatch from modern recursion and illuminating a pathway right back into the ’70s and ’80s. Part of the reason Parquet Courts are so relentlessly fascinating is that they provide a fleeting joy to hearing deeply dense sonic headaches chug along and intensify, only to collapse into a chorus with all the modern complexities symbolic of this genre. Curdled and crumbling guitars sludge against simple, thumping rhythms, and they succumb to bridging the waters between ranty preachiness and anthemic songwriting – with just the right dose of rigor. We’re always left dizzied in a pleasing haze of songs that could very well implode into our ears at any second.

The closest they veer toward any sort of anthem must be the track “Stoned and Starving”, their crown du jour that arrived in 2012 on their debut LP, Light Up Gold. Most of their song’s lyrics stutter across sprawling vocals flat-droned and interposed with screeches; it’s midway between a David Byrne drone and Television’s Tom Verlaine’s timeless scream that Andrew Savage yelps his subtle, twang-tracing, space-gazing delirium while Austin Brown chisels the notes out firmly. Max Savage’s drums and Sean Yeaton’s bass are extra crisp, but the elements that make them so instantly addictive, the things that pump our blood like a breath of fresh air, are the guitars. All their records are courting to them. It’s a sardonic concoction of punk malaise and garage rock delight poured over narratives running the personal, philosophical, and sometimes downright psychedelic gamut. The images arrive fast and thick, even as they talk of inertia, anxiety, and writer’s block. Parquet Courts come off as a band punching through ceilings. –Lior Phillips

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