Philly Bloco’s Key Studio Session | Photo by John Vettese

Year-End Mania is the Key’s survey of the things below the surface that made 2014 awesome. In this installment, editor John Vettese shares his favorite performances recorded in our studio.

There’s no question: the best part about running The Key is producing our weekly Key Studio Sessions series and getting a different Philly-area band to play live for us each week. 2014 was a remarkable year in that regard: we covered more genres than ever before, from hip-hop to Brazilian dance to country and jazz, along with a strong showing from our indie rock, punk and Americana communities. And the performances were all knockouts in their own way, so much so that narrowing it down to merely a top five would have been impossible. So I didn’t. Here are a dozen awesome moments from the Key Studio Sessions this year, presented in chronological order.

1. “Chamber Choir” by Pine Barons – What a way to start off the year. Jersey indie rock four-piece Pine Barons played a rousing set back in January, and totally gave me a new perspective on their band. I already appreciated them as dusky lo-fi rockers, but hearing their songs performed in a setting where they’re not buried in tape hiss and tripped out arrangements showed how strong the actual songs were. Constructed around a cool pinging loop and soaring three-part harmonies, “Chamber Choir” won the day. Download the entire session here.

2. “Kaito” by Tutlie – There’s something magic about this Philly experimental pop five-piece; the lost-in-clouds vocal harmonies, the wandering structures, the lush arrangements. The band stopped by our studio in April to perform tracks from their recent album Young Cries and gave us this track, a taste of Gashadokuro, Tutlie’s next recording project based on Japanese folklore. Download the entire session here.

3. “The Weekend” by Modern Baseball – Recording one of Philly’s biggest breakout bands this year was a thrill. Seeing what down-to-earth, chill dudes they were was equally great. Singer-guitarist Jake Ewald gave the production crew high-fives after hearing a playback, drummer Sean Huber hugged pretty much everybody in the room, singer-guitarist Brendan Lukens cracked jokes between takes, bassist Ian Farmer rocked a sweet Hop Along shirt. It was also inspiring to see how much they motivated one another and pushed each other to do their best if they thought a take wasn’t quite there. They were total pros, but friendly about it too. “The Weekend,” though, they nailed in one shot, and it was outstanding. Download the entire session here.

4. “By My Recollection” by Elegant Animals – It’s been eight months since recording this Philly five-piece and I’m no closer to a one-word description of their sound. It grooves but it rocks. It’s sleek like R&B but has wandering and expressive guitar lines like you’d hear in a jam band. There are electronic elements, but it’s not EDM. There are pop elements, but it’s not conventional. However you slice it, this band is doing cool things, particularly on this year’s Carnivora. The bump of “By My Recollection” from their previous LP Spectrum Nocturnal really left me breathless though. Download the entire session here

5. “Vai Chover” by PhillyBloco – Setting a record for most musicians in the WXPN studio at a time, the 20-piece Philly Bloco was intense and incredible to work with, storming the room with a hearty showing of its Brazilian dance repertoire. They were in and out so quickly that many bands would still be soundchecking by the time they were finished. This cover of Daniela Mercury’s “Via Chover” opened their set; the drums at the start give you an indication of how massive the sound in the room was. Download the entire set here.

6. “Palm Trees” by Verbatum Jones – “If you’re listening right now, you gotta be moving, don’t sit still! I’m doing you a favor by telling you that!” Philly rapper Verbatum Jones was alone in the studio with just me when he said this mid-song, but it’s true. The song’s slow grind beat and tight instrumentation has an involuntary reaction; you bob your head, you vibe along to it. Some might find it odd to include this on a best performances list: the song is played to a pre-recorded track with the guest verse from Kenneth Sullivan intact (even though he wasn’t there). I say nuts to that; Verb is a hugely engaging performer as an MC alone, and he positively shines on “Palm Trees.” Download the entire session here.

7. “I Won’t Wait” by Mike Bell and the Movies – One of the most fun studio moments of this year was the competitive Key Session between power-pop punk outfits Mike Bell and the Movies and Hurry. They challenged each other on Twitter, agreed to ground rules involving originals and covers, and rocked it out so efficiently that I may try more Key Session Battles in the future. Here, The Movies knock out a huge and hooky rendition of Hurry’s “I Won’t Wait” three month before Hurry released the song on LP. Download the entire session here.

8. “September Gurls” by Hurry – At the same session, Hurry gave a spot-on performance of their infectious single “Oh Whitney” from this year’s Everything / Nothing – a great record that not enough people are talking about. (Listen and see for yourself.) But the moment from the session that really stands out to me was the unexpected one: their cover of Big Star’s classic “September Gurls” that dare I say holds up to the original.

9. “Perfect Vision” by Cheerleader – Back story: I recorded Cheerleader on a Monday in July, the morning after our XPoNential Music Festival concluded. I’d been on my feet for three days, my energy was spent and my brain fried, and I was more than a little hung over. The five-piece indie dance band set up, soundchecked and totally killed their set with ease. I was blown away, and would prescribe their high-energy rockness for any morning-after debilitations you might be facing. (If they’re there performing it live for you, all the better.) Download the entire session here.

10. “STSIsGold” by Sugar Tongue Slim – It was a treat to have one of my favorite Philly rappers in the studio this fall; Sugar Tongue Slim is a charismatic character, funny and serious, confident and self-effacing all roleld into one, a lively character who spits witty rhymes over sick beats. This song in particular is built out of a cool interpolation of “When I’m Small” by Phantogram. Download the entire session here.

11. “Old Fires” by Dirty Dollhouse – Chelsea Mitchell and her Dirty Dollhouse co-conspirators sound incredibly vintage. The Bucks County-based Mitchell and co-singers Vanessa Winters and Amber Twait were joined on this session pedal steel guitarist Brad Hinton and upright bassist Phil D’Agostino, and you can practically hear the crackle of an old 78 in their smart country-folk arrangements. The warming “Old Fires” will sound apt at any holiday gatherings you happen upon this month. Download the entire session here.

12. “Gemini Moon” by Thin Lips – The asskicking punk power trio Thin Lips played for us just the other week. They were righteously loud; the amps roared, the drums hammered, and at one point, frontwoman Chrissy Tashjian gave up on trying to hear her voice over the sound. She threw her headphones to the floor and screamed out as the band played “Gemini Moon”; her vocal delivery game (already pretty strong) was upped tenfold in this performance, and the song ended up being the best in their set. Download the session here.