The music industry is in a panic. Worldwide sales have fallen three years in a row, and with the current exception of the “American Idol’’ Chia pet, Clay Aiken, there have been precious few blockbusters in recent months flying off the shelves of the country’s Targets and Wal-Marts. Such trying times can only mean one thing for devoted music lovers: The independents, and the independent-minded, are thriving.
Some of them, true, may be experiencing numbers problems similar to those of their corporate counterparts. But the quality of the music emerging from the cracks in the broad sidewalk of American culture might be at its fullest bloom in a decade.
For three years, the Shortlist Organization has been honoring some of the unsung heroes of contemporary pop music with the Shortlist Music Prize. A celebrity panel of nominating judges has included such well-established mavericks as Beck, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Tori Amos and the filmmakers Spike Jonze and Cameron Crowe, among many others. The accompanying annual concert, featuring some of the best new talent in the business, has become a must-see showcase in less time than it takes to write a decent rhyme. Last week, MTV2 aired this year’s performance, with appearances by nominees Bright Eyes, the Streets, Cody Chesnutt, Interpol, Damien Rice and Cat Power.
Recorded earlier this month at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater, the show repeats several times in the coming days. Last year’s Shortlist winner was N.E.R.D., the rock-band side project of the Neptunes, the most coveted hip hop producers in the game today. Given their nouveau-riche status, the choice seemed like a strange anomaly even before the foundation had fully established its intent.
But this year’s winner is Damien Rice, a no-longer-obscure Irish singer-songwriter with one thrilling album to his name, on a tiny label, and a following that has proven instantly ravenous. For many, Rice’s fully engaged, almost operatic take on the age-old yearning brand of folk songwriting has given them a new favorite record to cherish, and wear out. What follows is a short list of candidates for your new favorite band — some of them among this year’s Shortlist nominees, some already destined for consideration next year. Let the handicapping begin!
Damien Rice: This year’s Shortlist prizewinner stunned music fans in his native Ireland by reaching the top of the pop charts with a self-released album. Drawing comparisons to many of rock’s all-time troubadours, “O” is actually sui generis. Farm-raised confessions with cosmopolitan grandeur. Latest album: “O” (Vector) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Jeff Buckley, Van Morrison
Bright Eyes: The group’s emotional namesake, Omaha native Conor Oberst, is much mightier than his waifish frame suggests. Legions of college-age fanatics agree. His 12-piece band nearly stole the show at the Shortlist concert. Latest album: “Lifted, Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” (Saddle Creek) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Elliott Smith, young Bob Dylan
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Much has been made of the revival of the New York rock scene. The power of one thousand dank garages and warehouses echoes in this merciless three-piece, fronted by the alley cat Karen O. Latest album: “Fever to Tell” (Interscope) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: PJ Harvey, early Pretenders
Black Keys: White boys playing the blues — it’s a dicey proposition, but not in the hands of these two amped-up Akron noisemongers. Stompin’ the blues, in more ways than one. Latest album: “Thick Freakness” (Fat Possum) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: White Stripes, Hound Dog Taylor
Spoon: Austin’s finest just keep getting better. Last year’s “Kill the Moonlight” was a graduate course in minimalism, showcasing a one-band New Wave that doesn’t simply rehash the old New Wave. Latest album: “Kill the Moonlight” (Merge) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Pavement, David Bowie
Jolie Holland: Old-timey string music with a thoroughly modern insinuation of dread. Tom Waits and Nick Cave are fans, which gives some idea of the dark caverns in the material. Latest album: “Catalpa” (Anti) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Gillian Welch, Carter Family
My Morning Jacket: The reverb on Jim James’ voice gives a relentless otherworldly quality to this updated, often inwardly wrapped Southern rock band. Kentucky’s answer to Radiohead, if there could be such a thing. Latest album: “It Still Moves” (ATO/RCA) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Wilco, The BandTed Leo and the Pharmacists: Simply the best thing to happen to Berkeley’s Lookout! Records since a little band called Green Day. Hyper-literate pop-punk that doesn’t spare an ounce of fun in favor of academics. Latest album: “Hearts of Oak” (Lookout!) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello
Decemberists: Precise, theater-quality sea chanteys and parlor melodies from a word-obsessed Montana native, Colin Meloy, and his merry pocket orchestra. Latest album: “Her Majesty the Decemberists” (Kill Rock Stars) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Neutral Milk Hotel, the Kinks
Thrills: Irish newcomers spent some formative time together on the U.S. west coast, resulting in an effusive “Endless Summer” of blue-sky California tunes about sand, surfing and balmy nights. Latest album: “So Much for the City” (Virgin) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Teenage Fanclub, Beach Boys
Blood Brothers: The insane wordplay and ferocious, discordant force of this Pacific Northwest band would be a serious acquired taste without the exhilarating camp of lead singers Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney. Latest album: “Burn, Piano Island, Burn” (ArtistDirect) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Rage Against the Machine, MC5
Lifesavas: Portland alternative rappers are so tight, they’re the first outsiders welcomed into the closed ranks of Quannum, the San Francisco Bay Area hip hop collective that includes DJ Shadow and Blackalicious. Latest album: “Spirit in Stone” (Quannum Projects) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest
Polyphonic Spree: A two-dozen-piece orchestral pop band that enthuses like an updated cast of “Godspell”? Can we get an “amen”? Latest album: “Beginning Stages Of…” (Hollywood) Recommended If You Fell In Love With: Flaming Lips, Langley Schools Music Project.
James Sullivan covers pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.