How does one pick bands to watch in the midst of a global pandemic? Well, we’re about to find out. Listed are some bands that have “risen above” on our radar that we think could be up to big things in 2021. Scroll all the way to the end for a link to the playlist 🙂
Adoremus – Okay, the followers in common that I have with this band are blowing my mind. Salina Solomon who performed at Steadfast & Friends. One of our favorite blogs, Indie Vision Music. And one of our favorite Nashville discoveries of 2020, John Louis. There’s a lot of potential here. The production is rather lo-fi (not necessarily a negative, as you’ll see later on in this list). Fleshed out a bit more, Adoremus has the potential to go the route of spiritually inclined acts like Come Wind, Future of Forestry, or even Kings Kaleidoscope.
AEIR – The pedigree of this band alone is enough to land a spot on our bands to watch list. Members of The Turbos (Tuned Up Bands to Watch alumni) and Coya Hill are coming together to melt your face with catchy rock tunes. With local recording legend Jakob Mooney at the helm of much of what’s to come, my expectations are high for AEIR.
BDotJeff – I have a lot of respect for artists that are hard to classify, and hip-hop artist BDotJeff is one of those. I really appreciate the intentionality that went into his latest release (reviewed here)—complete with artwork and a distinct color scheme for each song. I’m unsure what his 2021 holds—but his latest LP was such a strong entry onto my radar that I can’t not mention him.
Black Birch – Earlier in the fall, a pal in Nashville tipped me off to a fellow named Dustin Clark, a musician who lives with a form of muscular dystrophy, who was raising funds for his debut album: a prog-rock project under the name “Black Birch.” Some further digging uncovered his involvement in Life Church, a congregation that seems to attract some of the best musicians in Columbus, and a debut single on Soundcloud that is pretty epic if I do say so myself. I should add that this album is fully funded. I hope Ohioans and prog-rock fans listen up. If Cloudkicker can make waves, so can this guy.
The Broken Relics – I have to shout out my pal Jesse Jester for (unknowingly) influencing this pick for our list. The contributing writer to Music in Motion Columbus has a very similar background as a music fan to Yours Truly, and he gives The Broken Relics his #2 pick on his personal countdown in 2019. “Don’t Look Back” is a very optimistic track that served as a fitting introduction for me. They ride the line between upbeat rock and country perfectly. They appear to be in the studio now, working on the next release.
Campus Rex – On this list we address synthpop and surf rock, but Campus Rex might be the only band that brings us to discuss both at the same time. There’s a bit of escapism in their sound, which walks the line between radio and indie friendly. Campus Rex needs to tour to a pub in a tropical resort town. Let’s see how the snowbirds react.
Careless Years – You know I can’t do one of these lists without giving love to the Meadows family—one of the most underrated musical families in Ohio. Davey Meadows has stepped away from his folk roots in Get in the Ark, for the time being, and out into a more lighthearted affair in pop punk project Careless Years. Davey’s vocals remind a bit of Mark Hoppus. You didn’t ask for another quarantine song, but I’m going to link you to “Quarantined With You” anyway.
Carriers – It feels a bit out of order for us to be including this band on a “bands to watch” list after including them as one of our top albums of 2019, but here we are. Their full length debut was so good, and they have cemented themselves as a sweeping indie band to watch already by getting on Sharon Van Etten’s radar. Earlier in 2020 they released a single as a follow up to their full length. It wouldn’t surprise me if more singles peppered the indie consciousness of 2021. Let’s hope.
Chanelle Kazadi – I grew up thinking of Ravenna, OH as that old town where I’d go sometimes with my grandparents from neighboring Kent. However, this sleepy town also produced some forward thinking hip hop from the mind of Chanelle Kazadi. She’s going multiple directions, not only by producing pensive beats, but also fly fashion. “Hot Sauce” grabbed my attention right away. “Levels” boasts some of the coolest production I’ve heard in a hot minute.
Cherimondis J – If you read our review of her EP last year, you’ll know that her music is nearly impossible to classify. She also holds the distinction of having played one of the only highly publicized album release shows in Columbus in 2020, which was a success due to the efforts of Bossy Grrl’s Pin Up Joint to keep everyone safe. Cherimondis is a bit of an enigma; her experimental sound draws inspiration from an endless list of sources you wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own. More music is on the docket for her in 2021, released on the new local label Paper Machine Studio.
Cotter – This group describes their sound as a mash-up of pop punk, powerpop, and emo. The vocals remind me a bit of Colby Lykins of Ohio On Hi (any Tuned Up OGs remember that band?). There’s a pleasant maturity in their sound, mixed with the angst that everyone deep down has wanted to channel this year. Cotter is here to encourage you to embrace that want in 2021.
Cream Camino – I have to admit, I haven’t spent nearly about the time with this band that I should. Listening to “Riders on the River” proves to me that Cream Camino are adept at crafting good, old-fashioned, easy listening rock and roll with attitude.
Dom Deshawn – Maybe I’m just behind on getting plugged into the hip-hop scene in Columbus, but the combination of an introduction by SVTELE and my impression of “Moods & Interludes” demands that I include Dom on this list. A glance at his Instagram feed yields a bevy of aesthetic-driven art, which is reflected in the music. This guy is intentional about everything he does. In an era where live music isn’t as prominent, being well rounded is essential. And that Deshawn is.
The Dream Masons – Digging through old email submissions, I stumbled across this Cleveland “art rock” band. Shame on me for missing out. But I trust the curation of Jesea Lee, a publicist who has gained a robust following on Tik Tok… but enough about publicists. You want to hear about this band! This band is artsy yet old school in their sound. It’s a satisfying yet easy listening punch. Forgive the awkward description—you’ll have to listen to see what I mean.
Dug & Happy Tooth – This name… er, these names are long overdue for inclusion this list. The affable duo have been entertaining us since before livestreams were cool with Monday night freestyle sessions and have a resume of fun, thoughtful hip hop between the two of them. Whether it’s Happy Tooth & Dug, Dug & Happy Tooth, Dug, or Happy Tooth (I think that’s all the permutations), these guys have been consistent friendly faces in Ohio DIY, even catching the attention of festival curators in Cincinnati and a nerdcore artist Tuned Up knows in Nashville (hi there, Spoken Nerd!). Look for solo albums from both dudes this year.
Echobreak – Vibetastic metalcore inspired by Japanese culture. That’s the name of Echobreak’s game. The Dayton group is rising in airplay on Spotify for their debut single “Dreamcatcher,” but most of those plays appear to be coming from overseas. I applaud the band’s international debut, but here’s our effort to get them on our home state’s radar.
The Fiddle Revolt – “We are preparing for a huge year of new music.” That’s what I like to hear, fellas. That quote was taken from (at the time of this writing) the band’s second Instagram post. I’ll admit I checked out this band from NE Ohio expecting some sort of hybrid bluegrass project, but I got a lot more. They aren’t content to fit themselves in a box, even as down to earth as they can be.
The Fifth House – One weird side effect of 2020 was that it spurred us to create a Tik Tok. While on there I happened upon Julia Crow of the The Fifth House as a consistent source of entertainment. Her band, just as importantly, is also good. They call themselves “Cleveland rock revivalists” and have a sound that is accessible and professional. 2021 will be a year where they continue to define their sound and hopefully tour.
The Heavy Hours – There is a familiarity about The Heavy Hours’ sound that I can’t quite put my finger on. I suspect this “pebble in my shoe” will be the thing that keeps me and many, many others coming back to this band. Apparently, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys agrees on some level. I would expect to see this band share stages with acts like the aforementioned Black Keys, The Lumineers, Low Cut Connie, The Nude Party, and others.
Isicle – I take the referrals of some artists very seriously. And when one of those recommendations comes from sound dude Bob Prenger (Vesperteen, Charming Liars), I follow up. Better late than never with Isicle, I think! This Dayton-based producer and DJ makes a fusion of synthpop and electronica, and most recently released the infectious “DNA” in July 2020. More to come in 2021.
J. Moriarty – This songwriter showcased at Rambling House Soda Pop last year (look them up), and relocated to Ohio from a stint in Morocco. His brand of folk music gave me a fresh organic feeling I haven’t felt in a long time. It was the perfect album to fall asleep to on my parent’s couch late Christmas Day afternoon. This is a dude worth diving further into.
Jade Universe – Bedroom pop + Jack Sipes production = artist to watch. Okay, perhaps I should explain. Over the years, the Sipes family have been one of the more prolific musical families we’ve worked with at Tuned Up. Now, via some Instagram stalking, I came to learn about Jade Universe, a new pop project from this clan I was all ears. Add to this, Kyle Spinelli of previous Ohio Band to Watch Brideshore playing guitar on a single, and I’m basically sold. I’d be remiss not to shout out the visionary—Ms. Jade herself. I don’t know her name, but her cinematic backdrops and sensual vocals are a winning combination.
Jimmy Rock – This guy is a down to earth DJ here to help you party. His EDM sounds have featured previous Ohio Band to Watch (and Tuned Up writer) Egypt Ali, and his material is straight up fun and tailor made for a festival setting. I hear he’s got some compelling visuals in the works for when that is a reality. He splits his time between Northern Ohio and Nashville, TN, where he works with our curator friends Nashville Unsigned.
Kearstin Clark – Major things are afoot with this artist. Seemingly out of nowhere, her page was suggested to me in my Facebook feed, and later I would learn that producer Gino Bambino of Avant Music Group (who produced the Hello Luna Dear Demons Reimagined EP) had taken her under his wing and had involved her with some potentially life changing meetings. “Swagger” is a word oft overused with rock and country singers, but it certainly applies to Clark’s recent single “Not Another.”
Left Out – This band has a full length album coming in early 2021, but for now we have these very pleasing single, the appropriate-for-2020 title “Stay Away From My House.” Don’t think of this as a quarantine song—this band so much more than that. This is very pleasant, easygoing dream pop that fans of Alvvays will appreciate. There’s an added bonus of the band recording at Glenn Davis Studio—named for one of the main dudes behind Columbus psych-pop legends Way Yes.
Letters of Transit – “Blood on the Road” was a fitting introduction to this band for Yours Truly, with blistering riffs and vocals set up to make your ears ring for days after seeing them live. I’ve been seeing this name pop up different places for the past few years, and I’m thinking that with this massive sound, in 2021 they’re poised to energize crowds that have been cooped up this year, and are ready to rock.
Lilieae – This band wastes no time making sure they’re stuck in your head. The punk pop group released their debut EP Level in 2019 and seemed poised to hit festival stages with their big guitar solos and attitude. Plus, any endorsement by our pals at Music in Motion Columbus is a worthwhile one to us (Rick Gethin certainly knows his punk!).
Lily Bloom – This artist embodies what many think of when they think of genre fusion. Funk, soul, and hip hop emerge in “Good Girls,” with rich vocals, for example. There’s no reason why Lily couldn’t become a festival staple in the midwest. Even a bit of classical influence, courtesy of her talent as a harpist, also emerges from time to time in her reasons to say your name EP—another intriguing wrinkle in this artist’s sound that makes her one to watch.
Londin Thompson – Did you know a Cleveland-based pop artist recently signed to Universal Republic? And that she recently put out a single co-written with long-time Tuned Up friend Effee (aka Fran Litterski, a Tuned Up artist to watch alumna). Well, now you do. “By Heart” goes from dark and unassuming to triumphant and bright and back again. Among a sea of dark pop artists, Londin stands out enough to have a bright future ahead of her.
The Lonely Ones – Since Bobaflex disbanded, it almost seems insultingly obvious to include a band with this pedigree. But let it be known that pedigree alone won’t get you on a Tuned Up band to watch list! This year, they released back to back singles at the beginning of lockdown, including an ironic and unplanned quarantine anthem. They got the chops, the hooks, and the looks. I mean, look at Jymmy. Every time I see him around town I feel like I’m in a time warp for a second.
LUCY – In a way, this pick for bands to watch list is a bit of a full circle moment for Tuned Up. The first local show we ever gave coverage to was that of The Kraze, a defunct pop rock band that went on to open for twenty one pilots at the then LC Pavilion. The Kraze is back… in a way. Wes Thompson, Seth Britt, Andrew Lee (also of Fashion Week and Truslow) of The Kraze have returned alongside Timothy and Andrew Rush, as the new quintet LUCY—performing indie pop rock songs with heart. Down to earth tunes with the occasional slick flourish is the name of the game here. I hope that 2021 brings LUCY’s appearance in the Columbus scene in a big way.
Lucy Hauser – This singer songwriter moved to Columbus from Chicago, and away from a band. I wish I knew more of her story, but I know she landed some fire collaborations in Columbus, most notably with Mitchell Multimedia, possibly the most ubiquitous music photography brand in Ohio. Her album Broken Hearts Makes Nice Songs (nice tongue-in-cheek title, by the way) sounds autobiographical, and draws from some Americana influences as well. Her music ministry is sure to send these sounds into some unlikely places where they will move people as they’re supposed to.
Madelyn Munsell – As I’ve been working on this list, I’ve turned my eyes to other curators to guide my research—one of which is the webzine and playlister Nothing But Vibes. Their leading sent me to Madelyn Munsell, who released truly one of the most fantastic singles I’ve heard in the last few weeks. The marriage of indie pop, shoegaze, and R&B. I hope each new single is as satisfying as the first one.
Monroe Jordan – This artist is another Nothing But Vibes find. Jordan makes a dreamy brand of R&B tailor-made for late night zoning out. His black and white aesthetic and overall brand brings me a feeling of relaxed catharsis. I’m sitting here scratching my head wondering why I haven’t heard of this guy before now. Don’t be like me—expand your scene circles sooner rather than later. You won’t regret it.
More Than Never – These guys are certainly a fun rock band. What else to label them? I’m honestly not sure. They’re too heavy to be for most alternative rock stations, and too alternative for most metalheads. I shouldn’t be too presumptuous though—this sound is pretty darn fun, and well worthy of a spot on our bands to watch. Pre-pandemic, I know these guys had big plans for the midwest, and here’s hoping they go from having a sound that feels massive to actually playing inside massive spaces in 2021.
Motel Faces – It is after midnight, I’m wide awake, and I’m playing Motel Faces loudly while working on this feature. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about this Cincy rock outfit, I give up. But in all seriousness, their 2020 EP was a banger. “Give It Away” will rev you up.
Palette Knife – Gradually, Take This To Heart Records are establishing themselves as a notable “stepping stone” label. After the signing of Columbus’ Snarls last year, their latest Ohio project comes in emo/pop-punk trio Palette Knife. The band’s sound draws from many influences and is surprisingly delicate at times. Don’t be misled by offbeat song titles like “Ponderosa Snake House.”
Pinwheel – There are not a ton of electronic artists on this list, but we hope to remedy that in the future. Pinwheel is a step in that direction for Tuned Up; a name that crossed our radar due to the fine folks at What? Productions. I appreciate that Pinwheel seems to be as much an idea as it is an outlet for a genre of electronic music I have a hard time classifying. “Good Sines” feels psychedelic and tailor made for nerds at the same time. As someone who enjoys lush sounds and late night zoning out, Pinwheel is hitting the spot.
Plaid Brixx – Chris Duggan, the man behind the alt-pop project Plaid Brixx is perhaps one of the most driven individuals in the industry I’ve ever met. I recall running into him at SXSW one year and him telling me he was skipping the showcases in favor of being as sharp-minded as possible for the networking and panels. “I’m here to learn” he said. Openness to learning, a volunteer’s heart (I’ve seen him help with the Columbus Music Commission), earworm tunes, and creative content in 2021 will serve him well.
Rooftops – Popular music is missing driving rock music that is accessible to the masses. Bryan Ream aims to fill that void with his new project Rooftops. Only two singles have been released thus far, but they both show promise and potential. The latest, “Queen City” is particularly radio friendly. It packs a punch into a short 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
ROVR – Toledo future-metal duo ROVR is basically the reincarnated Silent Lions, a psych-bass-indie-whatever duo that informed the early days of Tuned Up… how I miss those feelings of exploring the underground for the first time! ROVR takes me back to that time while feeling fresh all the same. It’s been fun to follow all of Dean Tartalgia’s projects (bands and otherwise), so I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store for ROVR.
Sachi Kobayashi – Though I don’t have synesthesia (and am sometimes jealous of those that do), I have always been a very visual person when it comes to music. Looking through bandcamp not too long ago, I stumbled upon this ambient artist from the Cleveland area that pairs sweeping soundscapes with bright oil paintings that appear as if they were from a bygone era. I’m going to say simply that I just think that’s so neat. Her work has floral inspiration and abstract emotion expressed as well. I would love to see her stuff as part of an interactive exhibition at Otherworld.
The Satellite Station – An unlikely town has produced a rising indie folk artist in The Satellite Station, the moniker of Canton, OH’s Travis Rue. Though this area is best known for originating faith-oriented pop-punk legends Relient K, the atmospheric indie folk stylings of Rue have been catching on. “Shelter” has amassed nearly 200,000 plays on Spotify so far. I’d recommend The Satellite Station for fans of Fever Fever and Andrew Belle.
Sean Marshall – Now, this is my kind of country music. Down to earth with a dash of atmospheric brushstrokes. Marshall is a name that has crossed my path on and off for quite some time. He has a full-length record in the works with Space Canoe Records, an indie label with ties to Rambling House (mentioned above). Recently, Marshall has been tied to some intriguing indie projects and even has appeared on bills alongside Joshua Powell (who released a Tuned Up album of the year a couple of years ago).
The Secret – “The producer behind the secret is me, and the Secret is God.” That was my attempt to paraphrase the simple, yet loaded mission statement behind the house/techno project of Sam Gwin. He truly wears a lot of hats—The Secret is more than a music project. It’s an idea. A brand. A way of curating. Much to come as the ongoing pandemic forces Gwin to stretch his creative muscles further than ever before.
Shape of the Sun – Nate Linek has been consistently on my radar for the past few years, and I’ve been fortunate to hear a bevy of driving pop rock tunes from him. “Everybody Runs” made my top 100 of 2020. We were also fortunate to have him hop on the Tuned Up Instagram early on in the pandemic for a live stream. Nate, consider this list placement our encouragement to see out more innovation in 2021.
Slug Fest – It appears by all accounts that Cleveland’s Slug Fest were firing on all cylinders pre-pandemic. On an unrelated note, I have to admit that the darkness and cold always seem to whet my appetite for loud LoFi music. The surf-psych sensibilities of this act are perfect for that. I know I’ll be seeking this out at the next possible opportunity to play loudly in my apartment and zone out. ‘Til the next dark, sweaty show with a tall IPA in my hand….
Sounds May Swell – I can’t help but feel that Sounds May Swell got kind of swept under the rug this past year. The self described math-tech-pop group has an infectious sound, and they are fronted by Jordan Sandidge (who has been at the helm of a past Tuned Up Band to Watch). I would love to see how the swagger mixes with math rock in a live setting when safety allows. Enter this band.
Spice Jar – A few months ago, I noticed a new follow on my Instagram and later noticed that Mooney Recordings was behind the incoming new stuff by this duo. “Want Me 2” cemented my perception that this was a rock project worth knowing. With a solid production team and noteworthy hooks, I think Spice Jar has the fixings of an alt-rock phenom.
T.Nava – Full disclosure, I’m not sure if T.Nava still currently uses his native Cincinnati as his homebase, but when you’re part of a group as prolific and awesome as Anderson Paak and the Free Nationals, you better take a closer look at a dude’s solo material. Am I right or am I right? The dude released the EP Blackberry Mango, which is obligated to be rad with a title like that. Fortunately, the sound lives up to its expectations and pedigree—but are you really surprised? I spy a potential Steadfast Festival candidate…
Thomas & the Work-Men – Funky, catchy music. That’s the whole thing. And, these dudes I’m sure would have ruled the festival circuit in a normal year—but 2020 was no normal year. Look for them to be all over Ohio in 2021 as things come back. Plus, “Sunshine” is guaranteed to instantly lift your mood.
Thy Witness – How does a metalcore duo emit a sound that’s so full? I thought American Arson (their album was #4 on our Top Albums of 2020 list) did a lot with two people, but Thy Witness just raised the bar. You can hear the haunting “Fortress” on RadioU now.
Trek Manifest – Trek Manifest grabbed 2020 by the throat and made it his year as best as he could. The Columbus hip-hop artist also took the time to release content during the weirdest holiday season in recent memory. His I Appreciate Your Patience is a very slick release with some well-played spiritual undertones. Here’s hoping Trek’s shrewd approach pays off in 2021.
Visual 9 – This Kent-based rapper has a brand that is very cohesive and polished. At this point I’m getting the sense that his is confident but not yet larger than life. “Foreign,” the latest visual, is particularly compelling and slick. Instagram hints at some involvement in LA and larger names in the industry paying attention. We are intrigued.
Void Chapter – Have you watched a dystopian flick and thought “gee, that cyberpunk sounding instrumental sounds sick?” If you have, maybe you heard Void Chapter. The FiXT Records–signed act makes dark industrial, synthwave inspired sounds for media, and one of the composers for the project is Brian Skeel—a friend of Tuned Up OGs The Castros. Dive into the vibes.
Wani – Wani is a Columbus area producer who is as of yet fairly unknown yet draws his influences from things like Dave Matthews, metal, hip hop, and the Pandemonium soundtrack (shout out to the three of you that will get that reference). His second hip-hop single “Tragic” is two minutes of non-stop clever one liners atop a gnarly beat, delivered with an ornery cadence.
West Taylor – It’s not often we name drop someone before any formal music is released, but given the pedigree of West Taylor, we felt it necessary here. His involvement with bands to watch alumni like country artist Lindsay Jordan and Americana indie group Antioch basically seal the deal. Watch out world, West Taylor is probably out to grab your heart in 2021 with some therapeutic, down to earth, and fun solo material.
WesWill – I don’t say this lightly, but WesWill might be one of the best word of mouth recommendations I’ve received this year (thanks Joey Aich). I’m a sucker for jazz influenced hip hop soaking up the vibes, but WesWill has a unique soul-infused sound full of heart. There is a genuineness about him that I dig. This Cleveland-based artist should have a great 2021 if his latest LP In Case You Were Wondering is any indication.
Why Omen – This group knows how to write hooks and do extended jam sessions. Their EP Sentient Blue reminds me a bit of the early days of The Worn Flints. Pre-COVID, I used to run into Thane, one of their members, pretty regularly at Express Live, and though I’m unsure on the rest of the band’s “day job” you can rest assure they’re all plugged in. The Columbus Music Commission, I’m sure, has something to say about this band too.
The You Suck Flying Circus – Besides having one of the most awesome (and humourous) band names on this list, they also are a member of one of the most prolific DIY labels in Ohio, Flowerpot Records. The sound of this band is a bit hard to describe, but on their latest EP I hear bits of post rock, shoegaze, and black metal smashed together in one lo-fi cornucopia of noise. I’d imagine Deafheaven fans would like this.