1. “Dancing” – Young Readers. This beautiful whisper-folk tune comes with a huge history: this song was originally written years ago, before a Kickstarter campaign, a cancer diagnosis, a cancer recovery, and a return to music. Jordan Herrera’s fragile voice and subtle determination are beautiful on their own, but they have a lot more gravitas when you know the story attached. As a long-time fan of Young Readers (and one of the funders of that cancer-battered Kickstarter), I’m thrilled to hear Young Readers back in the game.
2. “About” – Another Michael. Anyone who starts off their track with found sound and a blaring organ is going somewhere unusual. This Topshelf Records crew demonstrates that they leans toward the quiet end of that label’s spectrum with this artsy, clever, propulsive indie-pop tune. Fans of mid-era Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism, especially), the Shins, and other early ’00s indie-pop will love this.
3. “Go With You” – Mike Edel. Absorbs the best vibes of ’80s synth pop and ’00s indie-pop to come up with a smooth, soft, charming, contemporary indie-pop jam. There’s a lot to love: Edel’s voice and vocal lines, the clanging ’80s guitar, the delicate piano, the wispy female echo/harmony, the punchy drums, just all of it.
4. “Prism” – Small Leaks Sink Ships. If you’re into high-drama pop of any era, you’ll be way into this. This track falls right in the chronology of The Moody Blues to Styx to Queen to all of ’80s synth-pop to My Chemical Romance and the like. Synths! Big drums! Dramatic, soaring vocals! Quiet/loud transitions! It’s all here for you.
5. “Synesthesia” – Polychrome. This electro-pop jam is full of twinkly synths, breathy vocals, triumphant piano, and charging guitar. Yet the breathy vocals are really the star–the rest of the mix is turned down for space, and the result is a dreamy track that could have been a blaster with a different mix. It’s a testament to the vision of the artist that this version won out when another one easily could have–this one is immensely satisfying.
6. “Morning is Made” – Hush Kids. Weepies fans, rejoice! This has a little more mature gravitas to it, but at its core this is a softly-fingerpicked acoustic-pop song with a heartwarming female/male duet. The softly rising horns in the arrangement seal the deal for me. There’s going to be a lot of fans of Hush Kids very soon.
7. “Hometown Honey” – The Herbert Bail Orchestra. If you manage to effectively use a theremin and a bevy of mournful trumpets in the same alt-country tune, you’re going to end up on Independent Clauses. Bail’s vocals are engaging and the songwriting is strong, but it’s the stuff around the main thrust of the tune that really sells the song.
8. “Poor Stuart” – Ben Somers. It takes a really compelling instrumental folk performance to snag my ear, because I’m not just looking for a solid traditional tune. I want to hear something that’s trad but also contemporary; something that sets the song apart. This tune has a lot of vintage in it, but there’s modern elements and approaches in the melodic lines that give it a fresh voice–Somers is not just recreating an era, he’s updating it for the modern ear. The touches and flourishes are subtle, but they’re there. Strong work.
9. “Through the Atmosphere” – Dusty Stray. Here’s a walking-speed, wide-eyed, low-key folk tune the likes of which Bonnie Prince Billy is great at. Stray settles some subtle instrumental touches around the edges of the calm vocals and fingerpicking–clunking bass hand on the piano, fluttering treble hand, delicate auxiliary keys, etc. But basically I imagine a guy walking by a river and serenading whoever he passes by.
10. “Eleanora” – baeilou. Adventurous, experimental, dramatic, ominous, and groove-heavy, this cello-and-voice excursion is a wild journey. baeilou has crooning, speak-singing, semi-beatboxing, and more in her diverse vocal performance; the cello is used as treble, bass and percussion. The moods swoop and shift and change without warning. It’s an experience. The sheer inventiveness of this track is worth a listen. Do not expect anything like “Eleanor Rigby.”