In a world where Spotify algorithms and corporate-owned stations shape our music tastes, college radio remains an outpost for the underground. Around the country, the freedoms of university and listener funding combine with the unconventional, and perhaps only slightly pretentious, tastes of music-obsessed college students to create a space where even the most obscure artist can make the airwaves.
Artists and labels are not oblivious to this media landscape, of course. For decades, the mailboxes, and now inboxes, of college radio stations have been filled with sample CDs and press releases from bands that, admit it, you’ve never even heard of. For a lucky few, some intrigued DJ picked up a CD and played it on their show, earning them a few cents and maybe some new fans in a college town hundreds of miles away. Some got an even better deal—the notoriously weird B-52s built their epic comeback on the backs of college DJs who loved their 1989 album Cosmic Thing.
This legacy of providing a platform for artists that the industry ignored was one of many things that drew me to WXTJ this year. And lucky for me, my co-host was on the same page. Every few weeks, we’ve decided to dedicate an hour of our show to playing some of these artists who took a shot in the dark and sent our station some CDs. Just pop it in and see what happens.
These five songs are from our second show on November 8th. We had never heard of any of these artists . . . and looking at their Spotify profiles shows that not many others have either. We’ve already given them airtime, but check out the descriptions below to learn the stories behind these songs. Maybe you’ll find your new niche favorite.
“Lover” by Luke Sital-Singh
This British indie folk singer has already gained some traction across the pond, but remains somewhat of an unknown on the American scene. That may start to change soon, though. This track comes off his 2019 album A Golden State, which reminisces on his move from London to L.A. While Sital-Singh might have big Hollywood dreams, “Lover” captures a more melancholy side of the California coast. A drum beat rises and falls like the tide on a cloudy day. A car breaks down “in the middle of this dark, unfriendly town.” And in a soothing yet somber crone that echoes both Vance Joy and Sufjan Stevens, Sital-Singh makes a plea that perhaps many hyper-intellectual UVA students can relate to: “please don’t philosophise, can’t you just sympathize?” In an era when sad-kid rockers are gaining steam, “Lover” shows that Luke Sital-Singh may be in prime position for his American breakthrough.
“Love is Alright” by Sasha Bell
In many ways, Sasha Bell is living my dream. She already had an established career as a successful indie artist as a member of New York indie band The Essex Green. Then, she gave it all up and headed west to the crunchy college town of Missoula, Montana, where she recorded this new album. As an indie fan and self-described “outdoorsy” person, reading Bell’s bio was enough to get me hooked. But the title track of her first solo album Love is Alright represents a great step forward for the new Montanan, one that makes her a name to watch in the years to come. “Love is Alright” is many things at once: whimsical but rocking, fun but mysterious, a nod to past standouts like the Cocteau Twins but with the pace of millennial favorites like Passion Pit, all with a psychedelic yet folksy flavor. With only 1,115 Spotify streams, “Love is Alright” is a funky addition to your playlists that you probably won’t find on Discover Weekly.
“Terrified” by Isaac Gracie
Like Sital-Singh, the London-based Isaac Gracie has yet to gain widespread recognition in the States. And similarly to his countryman’s “Lover,” “Terrified” is a track primed for success on the American scene. With a brooding voice that invokes the arena-filling bellows of alt-pop mainstay Bastille (and with Dan Smith’s distinctively British accent to boot), Gracie mimics a familiar sound. What makes “Terrified” stand out, however, is the vulnerability of the lyrics. With this seemingly perfectly-timed combination of sound and lyrical content, don’t be surprised to see Gracie moving up the charts. Heck, maybe he even got started on WXTJ 🙂
“Sneakers” by The Inoculated Canaries
Full disclosure: we played this CD because this band name was too intriguing to pass up. Luckily for The Inoculated Canaries, the New York outfit delivered a track that checked all the boxes. The band’s website declares that they provide “old school with a modern twist.” While there is certainly something very 90s about “Sneakers,” I’d say it’s nostalgia hits a little more recently. With a hard-rocking chorus reminiscent of DREAMERS, and a hint of Saint Motel’s funky vibe and woo-ing backup vocals, the track is more likely to bring you back to the days when you first discovered alternative music in middle school. But hey, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
“Devil’s Boots” by Nico Rivers & The Black Grass
On its surface, “Devil’s Boots” is the folksiest track on this list. It opens with some familiarly soothing acoustic strumming, and Rivers sings with the slightest of country accents. The tone of the song, however, is more resemblant of Omaha’s most famous emo folk rocker: Conor Oberst. Rivers brings Oberst’s punk-tinged Americana to Massachusetts, where he’s written a track that simultaneously chills you out and hypes you up. With only 26 monthly listeners on Spotify, Rivers might be the most obscure on this list. But that certainly does mean he lacks talent—check him out and give him the streams he deserves.
David Christle is a cohost of “Heaven or Virginia” on Mondays from 4pm-6pm.
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