1. “Van Dyke Brown” – River Whyless. This is basically a lost Graceland track, which is one of the highest praises I can give to a track. It’s got indelible vocal melodies, perky-yet-complex instrumentation built on a major-key acoustic-pop chassis, African influences everywhere, and surprising depth to the lyrics. I can only hope that this is the lead single off a whole album of this. Highly recommended.
2. “Song for Steven” – Echo Bloom. This song is how you do pop music right. Starts off as a acoustic-pop tune, then naturally blooms into a full-on guitar-pop tune with the addition of a bunch of instruments. If The Hold Steady had a little less guitar rock and more indie-pop layering, Craig Finn could have written this. The chorus resonates with me deeply, rhythmically and melodically. Highly recommended.
3. “Heart of Hearts” – Anna McClellan. Deconstructed piano-pop, female-fronted punk, ’90s lo-fi garage-rock vocal delivery, blaring alt-country organ and strings collide in a magnificently interesting indie-pop track. If you’re into songs that go places you don’t expect, this one is an A+.
4. “The Limited Patience of the Wilco Fan’s Wife” – Peter McDade. The breezy, fun ’90s guitar-pop belies the lyrics of a marriage falling apart. The song’s about a Wilco fan, and the song itself has plenty of Wilco touches: an electric guitar solo duets with a pedal steel line and a even-keeled, lightly wry vocal delivery are just some of them. Fans of the titular outfit will love it, as well as people who think fondly on ’90s (and the ’90s revival).
5. “(You’re Better) Than Ever” – illuminati hotties. I know you should never read the comments (especially the YouTube comments), but man, the comments on this one are rough. So what if this song sounds very now? So what if this is a song that namechecks things that happen to people? So what if this is the sort of punk-referencing-’50s-pop that’s fun and effervescent and not trying for a grand statement? All of those things are totally acceptable. This song is fun, and you will have fun, and that’s fine. We don’t all have to make statements to make good art. Don’t let ’em get you down, people–artists or listeners.
6. “Miles and Miles” – Mudsand. Well, this is a fascinating thought-experiment turned real: what happens if you take the guitars out of a ska band? Mudsand’s drums/bass/baritone sax lineup has all the propulsive instrumental joy of ska, but the lack of upstroke transforms the song into a smoother, poppier tune. It’s sort of like Generationals’ early work (think “Trust”) but with more directness and lower, smoother vocals. Truly, a unique vibe here.
7. “Fear is a Dirty Aphrodisiac” – Dear Life,. This track has elements of trip-hop (the night-time vibes; the long-pause staccato percussion), indie rock (the droning organ, the distorted guitar grounding the piece) and high-drama indie-pop (the intensely-delivered vocal lines). The theatricality and slow-burning intensity of the piece make it hard to pin down to any genre in particular. It is a memorable, punchy piece.
8. “It Never Fails” – Caitlin Washburn. Marries long, speedily-delivered vocal lines with walking-speed acoustic fingerpicking, pizzicato strings and bluesy piano for a unique sound that falls in the middle of a triangle drawn between Regina Spektor, Jeffrey Lewis, and Josh Ritter.
9. “Nothing Makes Sense” – Odina. This is a solid singer/songwriter offering with evocative female vocals until the sax and horns kick it way up. That swirling sonic mix Odina delivers in the middle is really exciting.
10. “Better Things” – night drifting. The band’s name tells you a lot about this one, as it’s more on the free-floating side of things than a tune with such a peppy name might suggest. There’s a lot of atmosphere here, as the artist makes a pedal steel, a violin, and a pad synth into a wide-screen experience. Other instruments throw in to build out the track (keys, bass, percussion), but the sound is never cluttered–instead, it sounds like each instrument knows its own place in the whole composition. All in all, a lovely indie-pop/indie-folk track.
1. “Sunday Cups” – Veronica Bianqui. I absolutely love percussion-and-vocals tunes, so the opening of this indie-pop track had me all in immediately. Building from the stark beginnings, Bianqui fills out the tune with friendly guitar, bunches ‘o layers of background vocals, grumbling piano, and wailing saxophone. It’s like the seriousness of Des Ark smashed up with the enthusiastic experimentation of tune-yards.
2. “Wilder Days” – Tors. Fans of The Oh Hellos will love this expansive, major-key, shout-it-out folk adventure. The chorus is the sort of jubilant moment that makes me think, “Oh, yes, this is why folk-pop is so great.”
3. “Me & McAlevey” – Walter Martin. The hyper-specific lyrics here make it feel like you’re listening in on an actual letter written from Martin to McAlevey. The unusual content of the song about growing older, though, makes the hyper-specificity a breath of fresh air. The song itself carries itself with a mature, hard-earned dignity. Martin’s voice is controlled, and his songwriting is spartan yet gives the feeling of lush certainty. It’s like the rare quiet tracks from Vampire Weekend as interpreted by the National. Highly Recommended.
4. “Fel I Fod” – Adwaith. Has the ethereal floating qualities that make Braid so powerful + the straightforward vocal qualities of the current excellent group of new female-fronted punk/emo bands + a big ‘ol instrumental riff at the end of the song. Also the band hails from Wales. Of course it’s fantastic.
5. “Wake Up Freya” – Marsicans. Marsicans continue their impressive run of fantastic singles with a slow-it-down tune that manages to keep all the joy of the band’s usually gleeful guitar-pop and filter it into a song structure that’s not-quite-a-ballad. I mean, check that percussion line. That’s got groove. And that chorus vocal line is just so perky. And that soaring conclusion! But yet, it’s a tender “welcome to the world” tune for a baby. Ah, Marsicans. Never change.
6. “How High” – Nathaniel Bellows. The atypical rhythmic patterns and spartan arrangements of St. Even infused with the emotional vocal charge of Glen Hansard create something altogether unique: something dense with emotion but light in its arrangement, mysterious and yet also confident.
7. “September 31st” – night drifting. A swaying melody that evokes memories of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” (in the best of ways) leads the way through this whisper-folk lullaby. The subtle electronics serve to make the song even more tender, which is an unusual trick. A lovely, lilting piece.
8. “Eliza” – Art Block. Starts out as a deeply sad ballad in the vein of Counting Crows’ “Raining in Baltimore,” but the chorus lifts into a moonlit reverie. The cello just adds more gravitas to the solemnity. If you’re a fan of very sad music, you’ll love this one.
9. “Sand” – Dan Michaelson. Michaelson’s vocal performance here is outstanding: he sounds absolutely devastated. You can hear the smallest note and tone shifts in his deep voice, conveying a feeling of loss. The somber-yet-optimistic arrangement of strings, piano, and string bass is beautiful: the aching strings of Sigur Ros are present, making this piece even more of a majestic sobfest than it would otherwise be. (I’m not even sure if the lyrics are sad–they might be–but man, the music is devastating.) If you need a good cry, here’s an elite way to get that going.
1. “Awkward” – Sleep State. There are not enough people following in Hall and Oates’ pop footsteps, and this is being corrected by Sleep State in this fantastic tune. Peppy melodies, occasional screamin’ falsetto, perky arrangements complete with frantic tambourine: it’s all here. Pop fans, rejoice.
2. “Old Town” – Say Sue Me. This outfit has major-key indie-rock down: they’ve thrown in bits of surf, emo, punk, Vampire Weekend, indie-pop, and more into a can’t-keep-the-smile-off-my-face summer jam. Expertly crafted tune here.
3. “Love in Winter” – Palm Ghosts. The thrumming synthesizer, driving percussion, baritone male vocals, and strong female vocals will pull anyone back into warm, excellent nostalgia for the ’80s. The jubilant chorus melody is just great.
4. “Snow (again)” – The fin. This track about winter evokes the woozy wonder of being a kid out in a big field of unsullied snow. The whisper-sung vocals croon over a roiling bass of synths and loping electric guitar–it’s a weird, wild, full track right up until the 1:57 mark, when it suddenly ends. A unique experience.
5. “I’m Not Ready” – Sally Crosby. A charming ukulele and shaken percussion accompany a blitzing, breathless vocal performance. It’s like Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, and Ingrid Michaelson collaboratively wrote a tune and ended up creating something unique and bold.
6. “That Old Famous Smile” – Flood County. A smooth, round baritone voice leads the way through this folk/country tune. The opening melancholia opens up into a sprightly jaunt led by dueling pedal steel and fiddle. The overall product is a relaxing, thoughtful piece of acoustic-led music.
7. “Fortaleza” – Hanging Valleys. How can a track be wintry and warm at the same time? The reverb-heavy effects on the instruments and the pad synths create a feeling of cold expanses, but the Bon Iver-ian falsetto vocals feel intimate and warm. The subtle electric guitar brings out the rays of the sun even more on the arid tundra. This tune is a beautiful, carefully developed track.
8. “Walls” – Racoon Racoon. The female lead vocals here are lithe and perfectly matched with the string-bass-heavy folk arrangement. From the bass to the acoustic guitar to the fiddle to the minimal percussion, this is a buoyant, elegant piece.
9. “Bardo” – GoGoPenguin. This soaring, rattling, dramatic instrumental piece is jazz for people who don’t like jazz: melding the build and fall aesthetics of post-rock, the thrumming intensity of punk, and the complex groove of the drumming into one, they create something electric and undefinable (while using only acoustic instruments). Wow and a half. Highly recommended.
1. “Mountains” – Oh Geronimo. This fantastic indie-pop song combines math-rock guitars, Manchester Orchestra-level emotion (but in an optimistic way!), so-good vocal melodies, and contemporary indie-pop aesthetics (horns!). It’s the sort of song that manages to make a high level of complexity instantly accessible. Highly recommended.
2. “How It Feels” – Scenic Route to Alaska. An indie-pop-rock tune with an absolutely A+ chorus that emerges out of nowhere with a towering lead vocal line, counterpoint background vocals, and punchy guitars. It’s like Generationals, the Beach Boys, and ’90s Brit rock thrown into a blender.
3. “rooftops” – Prawn. The jangly guitars, high-pitched male vocals, and punchy drums/bass combo are full-on emo revival, and it’s so good. There’s also whistling! But the main thing here is the irresistibly charming video about a man and his dog.
4. “Belle’s aka Modern Timed Instrumental” – BLACKNIGHT. Synthy dream-pop gets infused with some snappy instrumental hip-hop vibes to create a tight, interesting take. It’s a feast of different tones and rhythms, blended together seamlessly.
5. “What You’ve Become” – Tango with Lions. Any fans of Grandaddy will immediately appreciate this gently-fuzzed out acoustic/electric songwriting approach. The choppy rhythms accentuate the vocal performance excellently.
6. “Fallen” – I Hate You Just Kidding. A wistful, romantic indie-pop tune that sounds like sitting on top of a large hill with your loved one, looking up at the stars and feeling small. The female lead vocal performance here is vulnerable and perfectly matched to the gently insistent arrangement.
7. “Till Tomorrow Goes Away” – Cut Worms. What if The Walkmen had been a folk band? Would their yearning have been maintained? Cut Worms is exploring that vein, as the squalling guitar leads and yearning vocals of the sadly defunct outfit seem to have been poured into a relaxed, back-porch pickin’ frame. It’s not quite folk, not quite pop–it’s something floating in between, something engaging and new.
8. “FIDITL” – Ohsergio. Starts off glitchy and broken, then turns to a charging folk guitar and floating vocal for the next bit. The conclusion brings the glitchy bits and folk bits together for an ominous-yet-intimate performance.
9. “Wildfire” – Leah James. A smooth, Simon and Garfunkel-esque folk arrangement allows Leah James’ voice to float effortlessly above the mix. Sounds very little like an actual wildfire, and it’s all the better for that.
10. “Broken Wing” – Lowpines. You can wrap the icy, wintry, woodsy vibes around you like a coat. The vocal melodies in the chorus are just lovely.
11. “Doing Alright” – Corey Nolen. Infuses the traditional vibe of Western swing with some contemporary vocal melodies and some well-done pathos. Nolen’s low voice sounds perfect in the well-turned fiddle/piano/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/bass/drums/ arrangement.
12. “Watermelon” – Jerry David DeCicca. A peaceful, pastoral piece that celebrates everything about the humble watermelon. The fluttering clarinet, string bass, and sighing background vocals make this a breath of fresh air.
1. “Old Freight” – Alan Barnosky. Barnosky’s evocative, high-pitched voice grabbed me from the first note he sang. He pairs his oh-so-gripping voice with some excellent folk work–this is how you update trad sounds to sound modern. And the song’s about trains! It doesn’t get folkier than this, friends. Fans of Justin Townes Earle’s bright folk will fall over this one. Highly recommended.
2. “These Days” – Ali Morrison. I love the jaunty, folky guitar style here, reminiscent of Langhorne Slim and others. Morrison takes that upbeat folk base and builds a much sadder song on top of it via synths, his vocal performance, and his downtrodden lyrics. The tension between the guitar and the rest of the arrangement is unique and interesting.
3. “Pieces of a Puzzle” – Daniel Pearson. Fans of the Barr Brothers and Gregory Alan Isakov will find this full-band folk tune much to their liking. Pearson’s wordless vocal melodies in the chorus feel timeless and immediate; the rest of the song slots in perfectly behind it. It’s a song that seems like I’ve always known it, but it’s new to me. Excellent stuff.
4. “Portland” – Strangers by Accident. The drums provide a lot of atmosphere and lift for this folk-pop tune from the very get-go; they keep it rolling in the fun, upbeat chorus. This is top-shelf folk-pop that doesn’t compromise on the folk or the pop: the arrangement is a strong and thoughtful folk tune, while the chorus is one big sonic blast of pop enthusiasm. Also there’s a well-played harmonica, which is always +10 point folk points.
5. “Where Do I Go From Here?” – Liisa. Ukulele-fronted indie-pop will always grab me, but it’s an even easier sell with a chipper vocal performance, fun melody, and handclaps. The most surprising bit of this song is the bassist, who goes off on swift runs and bouncy rhythms like it’s Graceland up in here. Rad rad rad.
6. “Deep Down Yonder” – Strange Pilgrims. Transforms the strutting bass groove so intrinsic to funk into something that splits the difference between rustic and futuristic: the tambourine and wheezing, accordion-esque sounds keep it grounded in a historic past, but the overall vibe very much points toward the future. Very cool track.
7. “Stenograph Letters” – Astroboter. The guitar line dances along the edge of melancholy and sinister; it gets a lift from the speedy breakbeats and the thumping bass. The whole piece comes together into a fantastically cool, driving, groove-heavy instrumental piece that draws from a lot of different genres.
8. “Future Unfolding” – Thomas Carleberg and Emil Nilsson. A broad, sweeping soundtrack piece from the titular video game that slots in with some of the best of the genre: Monument Valley, Journey, Alto’s Adventure, et al. The simple, unadorned arrangement conveys a sense of wonder in a most beautiful way.
9. “Översiktskarta över Kullahusområdet” – Jäverling ◇ von Euler. A nostalgic, wistful melody gently guides this delicate, elegant piece. If you’re scrambling over “too much to do and not enough time to do it,” do yourself a favor and have five minutes of mental rest to this lovely work.
10. “Winter” – Koronis. Treble notes tentatively search across a sufficiently wintry soundscape–lots of long-held bass notes that create an earthy grounding for the track. The tension between the treble and the not-that-much-lower bass hand create interesting moments throughout this instrumental piano piece.
11. “La Danzatrice” – Roberto Fusco Di Maso. This neo-classical piano piece has several beautiful melodies and satisfying development of the piece throughout. There are some treble runs and some melodic theatrics, which are a lot of fun. This is a piece that shows off some strong compositional and performance chops in a more traditional classical style.
Michelle Mandico‘s “Ptarmigan” is a testament to the elegance of simplicity, from the melody to the arrangement to the lyrics. The delicate, spacious folk song features Mandico’s pure and clear voice delivering a compellingly unadorned melody. Mandico doesn’t go for tricks or quirks; instead, she delivers with confidence a vocal performance that perfectly meshes with the guitar line.
That melancholy fingerpicked guitar line comprises a large chunk of the arrangement, as Mandico keeps the instruments to a minimum. An emotional fiddle enters a third of the way through the song, occasional acoustic guitar overdubs appear–and that’s the whole setup for the track. The power of the song comes not from its complexity, but from how well everything comes together into a full work.
The lyrics focus on stripped-down simplicity as well, although that simplicity isn’t always for the best; the simple statement of “and it’s funny how we need no words / when silence carries” is less optimistic when paired with the refrain of “I’m alone again.” But the refrain also includes “I’m a ptarmigan / in my mountain home”–being at home is good, but the home of the ptarmigan is very cold (the ptarmigan is the official bird of Canadian province Nunavut, otherwise known as the farthest northern part of Canada). So there’s complexity in the simplicity, too. Mandico’s tune is impressive, and establishes her as a newcomer to watch.
Paper Canoe Company‘s Beanstalk Jackis an adventurous, ambitious work. It’s a concept album about the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s pitched as a kid’s album (as a concept album about a fairy tale might be), but it’s a complex piece of work that transcends that pigeonholing. The band isn’t afraid to indulge all their ideas, as this album is 16 songs long. In short, Paper Canoe Company threw out all the rules and just made what they wanted. As a result of all these things, the album is a rewarding, engaging listen.
Starting from a grounding of acoustic folk (“Daydream”), Paper Canoe Company expands outwards in all directions: the title track and “Let Me Be” have zydeco flair via accordion inclusion, “Bestest Bargain” evokes the Simon & Garfunkel folk of “Scarborough Faire,” “Lucky Jack” is a hoedown, and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” is a Tom Waits-ian dirge. “All The Pretty Things” sounds like a dreamy ’70s pop cut, even. I won’t spoil all the surprises–there are tons, and they are fun to hear.
These tunes each serve a role in the narrative, but these aren’t showtunes–the closest the band comes is in the major/minor fluctuations and soaring vocal lines of “Look At Us Now,” where upbeat Jack tries to convince his downcast mother that the beans are actually valuable. I had a blast listening to this record–the diversity of musical styles made me think of Fountains of Wayne’s fantastic Welcome Interstate Managers. The many vocal performances throughout range from exuberantly fun to downright impressive, as well. If you’re looking for a fun record for anyone (or, I suppose, kids–the intended audience), Beanstalk Jackis a surprisingly good pickup.
1. “Mine/Yours” – Long Neck. The rattling fingerpicking, the female speak/sing delivery, and the rumbling enthusiasm of the guitar rock make this one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time. I keep thinking of The Hold Steady but maybe that’s just me? 100% rad, regardless.
2. “all these worlds are yours” – HOLY. If you forgive the 10-car pileup of guitar distortion and drums that takes up the first 25 seconds of this tune, the the next 8.5 minutes are an indie-pop wonderland. There’s perky piano, sighing vocals, found sounds, layers on layers on layers, big drums, everything becoming ascendant, and then some more layers. It lives up to its runtime and will remind you of Spiritualized.
3. “You Are An Ocean” – Beams. Staccato drums accent the lead banjo line in a satisfying way. The rest of the song floats along as an indie-pop tune would, just with banjo. It’s a lot of fun.
4. “We Make Do” – Martha Ffion. “With an overwhelming sense of / making do” caps off the lovely chorus of this low piano-pop tune. It’s got bits of Regina Spektor and Lisa Hannigan in the stew, but it has an air of confidence that’s all Ffion’s.
6. “Forget Me” – Born Ruffians. Cheery, chipper, emotive indie-pop with gleefully yelpy vocals and effervescent handclaps. Fans of the vintage-y ideas of Stornoway or Bishop Allen will love this.
7. “Relay Runner” – Loma. The insistent beat of this indie-pop track anchors a song that wavers from major to minor key repeatedly. That beat has the sort of groove reserved for deep electronica tracks, but the band tempers that flow with mysterious, ethereal sounds, glitchy bits, and odd vibes. It’s a weird, intriguing track, like some sort of chopped-and-screwed Wye Oak jam.
Finishing out the year in the year is a tough thing to do. We got closer than ever before in 2017, but there’s still a few things to be wrapped up. Here are some of the last tunes of 2017, rolled in with some early returns from 2018.
1. “True Refuge” – Ezra Feinberg. This incredible instrumental track has all of the build of a post-rock song without any electric guitars and all of the exuberance of a Dan Deacon song without any synthesizers. The arrangement is all layered acoustic guitars and piano, which is just amazing. It’s a warm, sun-dappled drive in the country; it’s uplifting in so many ways. Highly recommended.
2. “Tiny Moses” – The Rough & Tumble. The harmonica and accordion come together mellifluously to almost sound like a harmonium–one of my favorite sounds in all of folk. This folky, country-inflected acoustic tune will make fans of the Low Anthem sigh and swoon. The female/male vocal performances here are bright, strong, and memorable.
3. “Open Space” – Micah Olsan. There’s always room in my heart for a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a distant pedal steel, and a pure voice. This is fantastic folk music.
4. “Little Sparrow” – Racoon Racoon. The vocal performance in this delicate folk tune is equal parts vulnerability and confidence, which is a powerful mix. The rest of the arrangement mirrors that blend, with individually tender sounds put together into a strong arrangement.
5. “Standing on a Corner” – Grace Basement. Alt-country that’s half-Jayhawks blueprint, half-Mojave Three dreaminess. If you’re into alt-country, you may have a flashback to the ’90s in the best possible way.
6. “Northern Town” – Fruition. Oh my goodness, that chorus. It’s short, but the vocal melody, the high harmonies, just everything about it is ace. It gave me shivers. There’s a great acoustic arrangement around that chorus, but whoa. Check this one out.
7. “World of Pain” – Phil Lomac. Some excellent groove-heavy percussion, lovely Wurlitzer, and grumbling guitar distortion meld in unique ways to give this folk a distinct vibe. Seriously, that drumming is tight.
8. “Town Hall” – Youth in a Roman Field. The first half of this tune is a pleasant folk tune led by female vocals from Claire Wellin (San Fermin). The second half bursts open into a horns/strings/vocals party, like vintage Arcade Fire or The Collection. It’s an impressive, throw-open-the-doors move for the second act, and it makes this tune a winner.
9. “Fragments” – Dane Joneshill. This swaying, lilting track fuses a contemporary set of singer/songwriter lyrics to music reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “The Curse.”
10. “Holdin’ Back the Heart” – The Naked Sun. A jaunty, rollicking Americana/rock’n’roll tune that would make Ivan and Alyosha jealous and make Dawes turn its head. The pure falsetto is a really nice touch.
1. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / Homeward Bound” – Cassandra Kubinski. A piano-led rendition of the forlorn standard segues right into the Simon and Garfunkel classic. How has this pairing not happened more often? A great mashup.
2. “City of David” – The Gray Havens. The indie-pop duo goes heavy vocals on this Christmas track, layering effects-laden waves of vocals on top of each other. It’s a suitably expansive, reverent, wide-open song.
3. “Linus & Lucy” – Steelism. It’s hard to take on a classic, but Steelism nails it. This rumbling, punchy, modern indie version of the Vince Guaraldi masterpiece is fun, quirky, and strong. Press repeat!
4. “Oh Holiday!” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Christmas + perky indie-pop is a winning combination almost every time. This one will make you shake shoulders and maybe even your hips.
5. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Lindby. Lindby never disappoints. The versatile, genre-hopping band has delivered a fairly straightforward take on the Christmas standard, but the be-bopping bass and fantastic vocal performances make it a strong contender. The following two tracks are also wonderful–you need to check them out too.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.