1. “Sins We Made (Acoustic)” – Harrow Fair. This acoustic version of the title track from the duo’s 2020 album on Roaring Girl Records shines, balancing its edgy lyrical simplicity with lush roots gospel vibe. Miranda Mulholland and Andrew Penner generate an electricity fitting for the soundtrack of a horror film about the seemingly voluntary extinction movement swirling in the internet’s cesspools. Capturing the enchantment of Brown Bird’s Morgan Eve Swain and David Lamb, Harrow Fair is more than a conjuring of folk’s finest. Each carefully nuanced instrument captured authentically with Penner and Mulholland’s vocal dance makes “Sins We Made” towards the top cuts of the year.–Lisa Whealy
2. “Blessed” – Charles Ellsworth’s starkly pragmatic Brooklyn country song feels like a battle-weary soldier calling out the death of his beloved republic. Producer Joe Reinhart defines the troubadour’s battlefield with Jared Schapker’s bass and Blake Suben’s drums. Mike Brenner’s pedal slides with Ellsworth’s lyrical imagery. Is it only in America that a Catholic mother nominated to the Supreme Court could generate so much fear from the opposing presidential party, whose candidate is the first Catholic to earn his party’s nomination since John F. Kennedy?–Lisa Whealy
3. “Galaxie” – Dominique Charpentier. Big arpeggiators, starry string sounds, and gentle piano make for a space-opera sounding piece from this pianist/composer.
4. “Run” – YutaY. A fantastic dark electro-indie-pop jam with glitchy/distorted synths and incredibly catchy vocals is not even the best thing about “Run.” The song comes packaged with a sidescrolling video game that critiques the personal and political effects of our hyperactive social media space. The critique is brilliant, and the game is actually fun! Watch for more from YutaY–he’s got a good thing going here. Highly recommended.
5. “It Goes On” – Sun Tailor. As the world keeps spinning through this year, Tel Aviv-based singer-songwriter and producer Sun Tailor wrote and recorded during Israel’s first COVID-19 wave. Featuring Shahar Haziza (drums) and Hila Cohen (backing vocals), there’s a spiritual rock edge to Taylor’s message that feels like one of hope and love.–Lisa Whealy
6. “Rivers” – Trevor Ransom. Ransom’s delicate ambient work is augmented in two ways here. First, vocals play a more prominent role than in most of his work, although they are mostly abstracted to wordlessness or the word “rivers.” They give a mournful, almost ghostly feel the front part of the work. The back half is anchored by a more aggressive electronic beat and synthesizer heft than Ransom has gone for before, making this more like a sad Teen Daze track than a truly ambient work. It’s a new corner turned for Ransom, and I look forward to hearing more in this vein. Highly recommended.
7. “Don’t Forget” – Isaac Monts. This interesting and exciting track comes from a short EP called Vocoder Music, and that description is right on the money. The only instrument here is layers of heavily vocals heavily processed through a vocoder. Heavy gospel vibes run through the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics; “Don’t Forget” comes off successfully like a gospel music as imagined by Imogen Heap for a male vocalist.
8. “Traversal” – Josh Werner. Bass guitar and minimal synths are the prominent features here, as Werner uses his electric bass to sculpt a barren landscape on a distant planet. The subtle high melody (either a guitar or a pitched-up bass) adds drama to the already evocative scene.
9. “Emerge (Message to Bears Reinterpretation)” – Liam J Hennessy. I covered this one when it first came out, but now it’s been developed further by new-favorite Message to Bears. The re-imagining amps up the bass and some of the skittering electronics while minimizing/transforming some of the soaring lead melody; it doesn’t feel so much like a rework as a true remixing of the original elements. The warmth is upped, overall, which makes a good track even more warm and engaging.
10. “Platano Superior” – Los Twangueros. A party-friendly, kit-drum-rockin’, electric-guitar-heavy take on the balearic sound, like as if Fatboy Slim got lost in Ibiza.
11. “QUO (live from a garden cottage)” – Martin Kohlstedt. Watching Kohlstedt play a gentle, pleasant reverie in an absolutely magnificent garden overlooking a beautiful forest would be enough to commend this to you. However, he also has a brass quartet hanging out on his patio, because who doesn’t? The arrangement is soaring and lovely, an overall wonderful take of a melancholy yet hopeful piece.
12. “Hollow Bones” – Nimrawd. Nimrawd’s debut focused in on ’90s sounds and field recordings; this first music since then is much more heavily digital. Big, squelchy synths lead throwback ’80s video game vibes, what with the clanking keys and the marching, Casio-esque beat. There’s still a hip-hop mindset in the track, but this is a very different approach. I like it a lot.
13. “Highly Likely” – Dex Wolfe. A quirky, melancholy, experimental pop song that meshes the intimate emotions of indie-pop in its lyrics and vocals with vocals the abstract emotionlessness of prog in its complex, icy arrangement. The concluding guitar attack feels like a melancholy “Paranoid Android” breakdown. It’s a wild, interesting song.