For fans of Miguel and Frank Ocean, Steven A. Clark may be the freshest addition to the pop/contemporary R&B pantheon. His album Lonely Roller, which was released last September, rides an emotive rollercoaster of themes about fighting love, yearning for love, and letting the adrenaline of love throw one’s arms up right before the drop into epic unknown. It’s Clark’s talent for lyrics and ability to tell a story that makes Lonely Roller captivating — an album that could double as an audiobook.
From the beginning title track, Clark establishes a narrative of two people irresistibly attracted to one another during a weekend trip to Vegas. With handclaps and catchy, club-ready rhythm, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach at the slow, resisting moment between the two characters as they pull at each other through unblinking eyes and hungry, pursing lips. This club banger theme of two people magnetized by each other’s duende is echoed later on the retro-styled, synthetic sax-sparkling “Time Machine.”
The story continues into “Trouble Baby”: the honest lyrics about only knowing how to break hearts create a vibe similar to a Frank Ocean tune. Dramatic vocals that sound like they’re being emitted from a speaker system give “Trouble Baby” an appealing trippiness.
The ensuing tracks unwind the romance I was rooting for in the beginning. “Not You” is an honest admittance, through guilt-sodden vocals and tear-filled percussion, of wanting to be in love–just not with the person who’s in love with him. On the ‘80s-inspired pop track “Can’t Have,” Clark sings of a girl who claims to not believe in fairytales, but he makes the point that if it were a perfect world he wouldn’t have been, “distracted by them other girls.” Then Clark tells the tale of an “Ex beauty queen/Amongst other things/Face made for the big screen,” who enjoys the sumptuous pleasures of life in the city on “She’s in Love,” with slight disappointment in his voice.
Clark begins to sketch hachures of darkened seriousness onto the pages of this narrative. He does so via severe instrumentation, giving the album Kanye-like grit. “Bounty” includes a full chorus, sluggish beat, psychedelic instrumentation and catchy handclaps. The choir theme is carried into “Floral Print,” which sounds like Clark is reading the gospel behind a pulpit due to his use of organ and powerful vocals. “Part Two” has similar scarlet-colored severity to it, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Kendrick made a visit on the track.
The narrative ends with “Young, Wild, and Free,” a song which offers smooth, sensual warmth that is yearned for throughout the record. It leaves Lonely Roller on a seemingly happy, hopeful note, but with enough playfulness that causes an eyebrow raise; I felt like an accumulation of all the girls he has been singing about, questioning love even when it’s presented. But as Clark sings, “Take my hand/Are you ready?” I found myself replaying Lonely Roller from the top. Yes, Steven A. Clark, I’ve been ready since track one.–Rachel Haney
1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.
2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.
3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.
4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.
5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.
6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.
7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.
8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.
9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.
10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”
11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.
12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.
13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.
14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)
1. “Hero” – Starlight Girls. If you mashed up Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac with modern indie-pop sensibilities, you’d have this powerhouse of a pop song. This is the most infectious, irresistible groove of 2016 so far.
2. “Hang On To Yourself (David Bowie Cover)” – Ancient Cities. Bowie didn’t play much of a role in my personal musical development (I was introduced to him in my 20s), but his shadow looms large over many musicians. Ancient Cities drops a worthy tribute to Ziggy here.
3. “Boys That Sing” – Viola Beach. Sometimes the melody, the lyrics, and the vibe just come together for a great pop tune. Puts a smile on my face.
4. “Crazy Eyes” – Brother Moses. BroMo returns with a breezy, peppy tune that builds on their slacker-rock foundation with some scrambling drums, driving bass and twirling guitars. The compelling vocal tone and delivery are as powerful as ever.
5. “Youth Dies Young” – Til We Have Faces. Well here’s something interesting: A major key indie-rock song that thinks it’s an arpeggiator-heavy electro-jam which builds at the speed of a post-rock tune. By the end it’s almost a Here We Go Magic tune. Totally rad.
6. “Fundamental Ground” – TW Walsh. I don’t use the term “floating” that often, but this indie-pop tune has a lot of the elements that you might associate with floating: lazy rhythms, slightly washed-out vibe, hazy elements chilling out in the background of the tune, a vocal line that seems distant-yet-close. It’s beautiful, in a weird way.
7. “Sometimes (One Night)” – The Golden Peppers. Here’s a tight soul arrangement, blanketed with horns and infused with indie-pop vocal melodic flair. Just can’t get enough Nathaniel Rateliff?
8. “Lucky One” – Why We Love. It seems that the major-key, jangly pop-rock tune is not only immortal, but thriving. Everything about this is fun.
9. “Unicorns Get More Bacon” – Marc with a C. The giddy, funny, absurd, fourth-wall-destroying power-pop of Marc with a C is in fine, fine form in this 3-and-a-half minute jam.
10. “Glad to Be Alive” – Memoir. Draws from funk, reggae, and ’90s pop without camping in any of them, this grounded-yet-bouncy tune is led by neat vocal syncopation and and a mood that just brightens a room.
11. “Touch” – Guard. A hypnotic keys melody and a head-bobbing beat make this into the chillest of remix-ready club tunes. Ibiza beaches for this version, Ibiza clubs for the inevitable reworks.
12. “Still Life” – I.W.A. Blissful chillwave, the likes of which I don’t get to hear very often. Just gorgeous stuff here.
13. “Don’t Complain/Don’t Explain” – Bare Mattress. Like a more existential version of The Postal Service, this unassuming indie-pop-electro track sneaks its way into ears and heart.
14. “Glass” – Howard. This is like the indie-electro/post-dub version of a dystopian movie in which everything looks kind of right but is slowly revealed to actually be dystopian. In other words, the slow burn works great.
15. “I Don’t Want to Know Her Name” – Amber Quintero. Lilting, easygoing, spacious bedroom pop that finely balances lyrical intimacy and wide-open pad synth landscapes.
Served stark with a frosted tint, Unalaska’s “Air Transylvania” video features clips of coastal highways, snowcapped mountains, aerial views of clouds, and airplane wings soaring through a pink horizon. Footage was shot with iPhones during various vagabonding, authentically portraying a hauntingly beautiful, natural world.
Black and white contrast sharply capture the detailed facial expressions on these four lovely ladies. Devereaux’s “List It” is cheeky, brazen, and smart; it’s more of a photo shoot with the girl next door than an ostentatious video.
Even if you have witnessed horse masks, raining 500 mg capsules, and a series of neon geometric shapes that are like a bad trip from the ‘80s, you haven’t witnessed it like this. And if a video like that sounds too eccentric for your liking, just know I watched a full minute of a YouTube boiler room set with Total Unicorn’s “Mini Knee” accidentally playing over it, and thought it this was the dopest boiler set I’d ever heard. Alas, it was “Mini Knee” two tabs over.–Rachel Haney
Marlon Williams’ “Dark Child” video is terrifyingly compelling. I won’t spill anything about it other than you should watch it closely and listen to the lyrics.
It’s extremely rare that I find a depiction of sexuality in a music video that isn’t ribald or gauche. This beautifully choreographed duet dance is remarkable in its beauty and sensuousness without being explicit or overly vague.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a Bollywood-esque adventure story told through action figures (featuring the wrestler Sting, April O’Neill from TMNT, and Magneto). I’m sure The Noise FM intended a pun somewhere in there about the fact that this is a cover of a Police song and the action figure Sting is involved, but perhaps I was thinking too hard among the hilarity.
Stephen Lee‘s West of Twenty-Threeis a brash, enthusiastic country record: Lee’s whiskey-soaked voice runs ragged over grounded strum, noisy drums, and the occasional melody-contributing violin. It’s refreshing to hear big, bold, unapologetic tunes that aren’t a million-miles-an-hour.
Some might call this folk-punk or some variant of folk–and the speeds occasionally get there for folk-punk–but at its heart this is a country record, interested in the daily lives of people doing what they do: “Blood Brothers” is about kids who took the titular oath, “Jet Lag Blues” follows a traveling salesman, and “Gossip” is about, well, gossip about town. (“Bukowski” even invokes the bard of the common man, positing that he’d be jealous of the narrator’s life.) Lee’s delivery of the lyrics ranges from wry and self-aware (“Cans & Beers”) to even-handed (“Bukowski”) to raging (“One More”), showing his vocal diversity right along with his songwriting diversity.
There are a lot of different looks here, musically. The brash aforementioned tunes are counterpointed by the subdued “Again and Again,” which includes pensive banjo plucks and a wistful vibe, and solo closer “New Wyman Park Restaurant,” which is a pure singer/songwriter tune. Lee’s diversity keeps the album fresh, making West of Twenty-three a blast of fun that’s able to keep your attention even if you’re not in an adrenaline-fueled mood.
1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)
3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.
4. “Walking In My Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.
5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.
6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.
7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.
8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.
9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.
10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.
11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.
Iván Muela‘s Unsoundis a complex release of modern classical work that doesn’t spend too long in any one place. While Muela’s interests vary, the mood palette he creates spans a comfortable space along a whole spectrum of emotionality and doesn’t become overwhelming.
Experimental opener “Lemon” is 1:25 of sparse guitar and several types of keys one after the other, accompanied by the soundtrack of crickets chirping; “Bitter” warps cello sounds with technology and layers them over indistinct conversations, dripping water, and eerie clicking percussion. These pieces push the bounds of Muela’s sound, forming the outer edge of what he’s interested in accomplishing on Unsound; they are compelling in a compositional way.
At the other end of his emotional spectrum are slow, elegant, piano-led tunes like “Inwreathe” and “Sonder.” “Sonder” is purposefully delicate, surrounded only by distant strings–it plays with the major/minor key boundary, sounding like water gently burbling over rocks. “Inwreathe” is no less interested in beauty, but it’s darker in hue, more self-awarely sad. The majority of the work on Unsound is pitched in the sparse/beautiful/sad realm, making it a cohesive listen. There are flashes of light throughout, pushing through the melancholy, just enough to make the compositions feel warm instead of austere. If you’re looking for some beautiful piano compositions with a touch of experimental edge, Iván Muela’s Unsound should be up your alley.
1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
The album art of a horseback-riding knight on a material flag was enough to pique my interest for Knight, but the 32-second-long intro of medieval monk-chanting confirmed I was listening to one of the most eccentric EPs I have ever heard. Greg Buzzer’s Knight cleverlycombines thick-cut electronic textures with material you haven’t heard since the 12th century.
Bass, vibrato, and deep vocal pauses bestow upon Knight a Renaissance feel, while electronic aspects appear later in the songs, such as the house beat in “Rise Water.” The sound of a chain clanking tugs and weighs on the percussive beast, adding a gritty, metallic lag to the tempo. For as deep and masculine as the vocals are, they fare lightly, resulting in Buzzer sounding like a singing, railway-working, grave-digging ghost. His vocals are like the lightweight, impenetrable armor Kate the blacksmith makes for Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.
Speaking of A Knight’s Tale, I imagine the track “Knight” to be the pump-up song before Heath Ledger slams down his armor and raises his lance in the final jousting battle against his nemesis. The unexpected string section in the military drumline of “All the Vultures” instills a similar fiery determination and excitement. And the last track, “Oven,” as well — it hauls a serious heaviness, but adds an exotic Eastern flair with the sound of belly dancers clinking their brass finger cymbals.
“Slave to my VoDoO” has a rough, kids-I-never-hung-out-with-but-admired sensibility that reminded me of The Gorillaz. Guitar plucking and subtly-accented vocals give it an all-American, bluesy twang — an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe, if you will.
With phrases like, “Mother, can you hear me? / I think I got lost in the dead space / help me remember the earth,” “Mother” presents a series of attention-demanding lyrics and a battle-time drumline that gives way to a synth vortex. It sounds like a crusade of knights is about to fight an army of extraterrestrial beings.
Knight is the uncensored, enrapturing battle between musical elements from a feudal age and modern-day rock-n-roll-inspired electronica. Greg Buzzer is the rock-n-roll King Arthur. —Rachel Haney
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.