Armani White at Made In America | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN |

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2018 incredible. Today, XPN program director Bruce Warren reflects on his favorite Philly moments of the year.

5. The rise of &More

Early in 2018, word dropped about a new musical collaboration, &More, between Philly rapper Chill Moody and singer Donn T. One of Philly’s most exciting new collaborations this year, watching their musical lovechild grow has been exciting. Their first public appearance was as part of the lineup of local bands for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest on the Road at World Cafe Live, they’ve been on the road with Philly rock and rollers, Low Cut Connie, and they put on a great show at the XPoNential Music Festival in July. 2019 has some big things in store for &More; the next chance you get you should see them. Their synthesis of R&B and hip-hop is intoxicating.

Below, watch &More perform “My Own Light” at XPNFest.

4. Orion Sun and Armani White rep Philly at Made In America

One of the great things about the Made In America lineup over the years has been the festival’s support of up and coming local artists. Over the years, on smaller stages at the festival, Philly bands like Queen of Jeans, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Strand of Oaks, Restorations, Hop Along, and Moosh & Twist (their 2014 performance was off the charts explosive), and others have performed. Leading into this year’s festival, two artists that I was excited to see live were Orion Sun and Armani White. At the Skate Stage, way before the headliners called out to the masses, neither disappointed. While I was a fan of their recorded music, I had never seen either live, and both delivered incredible sets. White came out roaring like a lion, and Orion Sun’s set was equally as powerful in an elegant, understated way. White is a charismatic and powerful rapper with a tight band and excellent vocal chops. Tiffany Majette, who performs as Orion Sun, draws on hip-hop as an influence on her music, however her sound has an R&B and jazz inflected sensibility to it. Like White, Orion Sun had a great band, and both artists were very well received. The future is promising for both of these artists.

Below, watch Orion Sun’s Key Studio Session and listen to Armani White’s Key Studio session from 2015.

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3. Hop Along’s Bark You Head Off, Dog is my choice for the best Philly release of 2018.

This past year was the year that Hop Along broke into the broader indie rock zeitgeist. Fronted by guitarist, singer and songwriter Frances Quinlan with Tyler Long on bass, Joe Reinhart on guitar and Frances’ brother, Mark Quinlan, on drums, the band added a second guitarist and keyboardist, Chrissy Tashjian of Thin Lips, on to their touring group, and gave this already powerful rock group a new dimension and an added musical depth to the band’s live show.

The album though, from songs like “Prior Things,” and “How Simple,” to “What The Writer Meant,” and “The Fox In Motion,” received well deserved critical reviews, and for good reason:  Quinlan delivers emotionally complex, angular rock songs finely sculpted by the uniqueness of her voice and the words she pens. All the instrumentation on the album, from the guitar lines to the grooves, complement her singing in ways that heighten the intensity of the songs. Frances’ voice isn’t “just” another instrument – it’s a magical carpet that the band jumps on to, and allows the melodies and rhythms to swirl into one, big giant beautiful tone. It’s hers and the band’s alone to leverage for greater possibilities.

2. The War On Drugs’ Drug-Cember to Remember

When Philly future classic rockers The War On Drugs announced three consecutive shows to benefit the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, they rolled it out as a lottery in which you didn’t know which of the three nights (or venues) you would get tickets for: either the first show at Johnny Brenda’s, the second show at Union Transfer or their final show at the Tower Theatre. But for many fans, after buying tickets, the mystery of not knowing was part of the excitement. Having been at all three shows, I can say with confidence that each one had it’s own uniqueness. Sure, seeing a stripped down WOD on the small stage at JBs was pure adrenaline rush. Yes, on the Union Transfer stage the songs opened up more.

But it was the final show at the Tower where you could really appreciate the band’s sonic intensity. The War On Drugs is a band that needs to be heard in a big room to appreciate their awe-inspiring ability to take their songs into transcendence. The Tower show was the last of what pretty much was a year and a half of touring on the last album cycle for their Grammy-award winning album A Deeper Understanding. The Tower show really pointed to how much the band has grown, and showcased the visceral qualities of the band’s performances, particularly on songs like “Under The Pressure,” “An Ocean Between The Waves, “Stranger Things,” and “Eyes To The Wind.”

Here’s hoping this becomes an annual tradition. It will join Strand of Oaks’ three night Boot & Saddle Winter Classic run to make for a truly incredible rock and roll December to remember.

Watch “Under The Pressure” from The Tower Theatre

1. All-city Gritty

Flyers President Paul Holmgren was involved in the making of a number of big decisions impacting the franchise this year, but none as important as the naming of the greatest, and latest new mascot in professional sports – Gritty. It was Holmgren who, according to an article in Adweek (How The Flyers Created Gritty, the Internet’s Most Beloved Mascot, November 14, 2018) came up with the name for the orange mascot freak of marketing genius.

So it was, on September 24th, Gritty announced his arrival on Twitter with two simple words: “It me.” Since then, Gritty has captured the hearts and minds of Philly fanatics, its sports fans (fairweather and hardcore) and City of Brotherly love cheerleaders. From Gritty’s appearances on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America,  to his witty Tweets and Instagram posts, Gritty is the best thing to happen to Philly in years. Ok, so he might look like what the Wall Street Journal called a “tangerine hypertrichotic demon,” but gosh darn it, Gritty is ours, and it’s been fun and inspiring to watch how he’s been so embraced by not only our city, but as some surrealistic cultural phenom around the country, that gives us something to believe in.