1. “Maria” – Frances Luke Accord. FLA make it just sound so easy. This beautiful, svelte indie-folk tune has all the swift fingerpicking a folk fan could want and all the memorable melodies of an indie-pop fan could hope for. Maddeningly, the song is only 120 seconds long. Guys! You could have kept going for like three more minutes without overstaying your welcome! Highly recommended.
2. “Rounded Sound” – Roxy Rawson. “Rounded” isn’t the right term for this kinetic, frenetic indie-folk blitz–the herky-jerky passion of Regina Spektor, the incredibly warm catchiness of Lisa Hannigan, and a liberal dose of her own distinct vision create a wild, enveloping tune that flows, bounces, rushes, and snaps to its own logics. One of the coolest, most interesting tunes I’ve heard all year. Highly Recommended.
3. “Apocryphal Blues” – Harrison Lemke. The first time I heard Harrison Lemke I bought his album after about 2 minutes worth of listening. If you’re into old-school Mountain Goats records (inception all the way until Tallahassee), you’re going to want to do the same thing when you hear this song. Lemke’s vocal tone and melodic tics are similar enough to John Darnielle’s that you can imagine these are lost tMG tapes, but you don’t have to be a tMG obsessive to appreciate the excellent lo-fi pop that Lemke is purveying. (These tunes have far more rounded edges than the id blasts of tMG’s early days, too, which helps.) But there’s warbling electric guitar, bleating harmonica, and an insistently strummed acoustic guitar–just the way you like it, lo-fi heads. (Bonus points: this and subsequent tracks treat Genesis with all the serious but also creative religious imaginary a Christian could hope for in an artist.) I could keep going for a long time, but suffice to say this song and EP are highly recommended.
4. “Rise Up” – Belle of the Fall. Here’s some densely-packed indie-pop/indie-folk, layering glockenspiel, multiple vocal lines, strings, drums, and guitars into a tight sonic space. The interplay of the multiple vocal lines is a lot of fun. Fans of the Decemberists’ songwriting attitude, Belle and Sebastian’s acoustic style, and male/female duos will be very into this.
5. “April to Death” – Flower Face. Flower Face’s delicate, smooth folk arrangements contrast with the speedy Kimya Dawson-esque lyrical delivery and the unexpectedly sordid and painful tale the song tells. There’s a lot going on here–a lot more than meets the ear on first listen. Watch for Flower Face.
6. “Crying Shame” – Jennifer Castle. This is a spartan, ’50s-doo-wop-meets-’70s-Fleetwood-Mac pop song that wriggled its way into my ear and just didn’t leave for a long time. Castle’s vocal melodies are subtle but man, do they ever stick.
7. “I’m Done” – Gordi. If you’re getting out of a bad relationship, do I have a song for you. The gravitas that Gordi can pack into a single vocal line is more than some can do with a whole song or six. Her distinct, unique vocal tone leads the way through this kiss-off acoustic track. There’s a mournful trumpet and some found/manipulated sound, but this tune is all about Gordi’s voice and guitar.
8. “Breathe a Breath of Me” – Lokki. This piano-led ballad is gospel-inspired in so many ways: the dignified piano performance, the thick background vocals, the distinctive vocal rhythms, the call-and-response vocal patterns in the chorus–mmmm. All of those things come together perfectly around a singer/songwriter core to create an excellent tune.
9. “Song for Omer” – Evelyn Kryger. Sort of jazz, sort of folk, sort of Middle Eastern, all chill. This combo has chops and chemistry–this is a smooth, unique, head-bobbing ride.
10. “The sky is clear now” – Stefano Guzzetti. It’s one thing to write an album of solo piano works, but it’s quite another to create an album of very high quality in the genre. Guzzetti clearly knows what he is doing–instead of just creating a beautiful melody or an intriguing bass hand, he sets the mood and tone for the piece as it is going along. There are some other sounds to help create the relaxed, somewhat melancholy mood, but it’s mostly the carefully curated tone of the piano, the subtle timing of the notes, and the relationships between the low end and the treble that create this enveloping mood. A beautiful entry into the genre.
1. “Glue” – Bugs. We’re not to the summer yet (unless you live in Arizona), but here’s an early vote for you Summer Jam lists. There’s some early ’00s indie-rock guitars going on (back when major key versions of grunge guitar patterns was the hot thing), some attitude-filled vocals that nod to pop-punk ideals (but not too much), and fantastic background vocals that really make the song. Fans of Brand New’s first record or bands like The Fratellis will be real into this.
2. “Starcrossed Lovers” – The Fratellis. Speaking of: Oh hey, The Fratellis! It’s good to hear from you again. This one has a little more emotional weight than the never-going-to-retire-that-one-live hit of “Chelsea Dagger” and less frantic antics than “Flathead,” but it has way better falsetto in the chorus and boasts a neat strings section in the chorus. Some people just know how to write pop songs, you know?
3. “Other People’s Houses” – American Film History. There’s a fair bit of ’80s nostalgia that I just don’t subscribe to–I was never into giant synth soundscapes, and most new wave doesn’t give me that happy kitsch feeling. So it’s with surprise that American Film History’s updated version of ’80s pop strikes a chord with me. Sure, there’s a lot more emotional depth than most ’80s music, but that alone isn’t it–there’s some excellent melodies, some strong arranging, and just all-around good vibes. Also, I feel no shame spoiling this for you: the video is horribly sad and made me sad. Go with that knowledge.
4. “Foundations” – Pilod. Slowcore acoustic music is a genre that I leave and return to repeatedly: there’s something entrancing about the angst-laden, repetitious minimalism. Sometimes it just feels right. Pilod’s “Foundations” isn’t quite as long or as slow as some of the slowcore you can find, but the long pauses between guitar strums, simple rhythms, and emotional vocal delivery all resonate with my expectations of the genre. There’s a little more electric guitar than you would otherwise expect, but the song lopes its way to a totally great emotional climax (as one would expect). Fans of Songs:Ohia and the like will be into this.
5. “hey (pixies)” – lost valley. I don’t often mention covers on IC, because it has to be 1. a good song 2. re-envisioned in a unique way for me to get on board. Usually covers fail one or the other requirement, but lost valley’s trip-hop-influenced post-dub take on a Pixies tune is a mindbendingly good time. There are flashes of Odesza’s melodic elements, but the tune is mostly stacatto and choppy, hopping from one idea to the next. Very intriguing.
6. “Long Way Home” – YESES. This tune has some definite War on Drugs-esque psych influences, but they are tempered with a liberal dose of Interpol-esque post-punk rhythms, rhythm guitar tone, and dour vocals. Those two poles push and tug on the song from multiple angles, creating productive tension that elevates this above the pack of a very trendy genre right now. (Being above the pack in anything is great, but being above the pack in a “very right now” genre is super-great.)
7. “Angry Seeds” – Narwhals. If you split the difference between the manic indie rock enthusiasms of Frightened Rabbit and the sensible, down-to-earth vocals and arrangements of The National, you might end up somewhere near where Narwhals did on this track. It’s huge that this song doesn’t ape either band, but creates something new and interesting out of the influences.
8. “Happiness” – Callum Pitt. This has a very cheerful acoustic folk/pop chassis with a big, enthusiastic indie-pop body on it–I’m reminded of Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., and mid -’00s indie-pop bands like Annuals. Very fun.
9. “She Waits” – The Gray Havens. tGH has grown from a perky piano-pop duo to something much more vast. This particular track shows off a newfound patience in arrangement–layers of piano and strings slowly accrete in a pattern that echoes the emotions of the titular chorus phrase. Dave Radford’s vocals are some of the most confident that he has delivered, and the song itself is something unique and passionate. This is deeply impressive, highly mature songwriting. If you’re into Viva La Vida-era Coldplay, your eyes will get wide.
10. “Tour Guide” – Cheri Magill. Magill’s website says “music for moms” on it, but it could also say “music for parents” or “music for people who know kids” or “music for people.” This piano-pop tune is starkly beautiful, mostly eschewing percussion in favor of the piano’s own rhythm. Magill’s vocals are strong and clear, just as the strings are. Fans of female-fronted piano work will enjoy this quite a bit. The song is the title track on an album all about parenting, which should come with a different sort of parental guide on it–namely “if you are a parent, you will probably cry while listening to this album.”
1. “First World Problems” – Sam Levin. Levin infuses this song with more confidence and swagger than are probably legal for a low-key power-pop tune that includes a raccoon that was really just a dog. His voice may remind you of Jon Foreman’s (that’s a good thing), and the quirky, charming electric guitar/808 beats/plodding bass is one of my favorite forms of bedroom pop. Basically: indie-pop music, raw and undistilled. Mad props.
2. “How Did This Happen!?” – BODEGA. If LCD Soundsystem was more into art-punk than disco-electro, you’d have Bodega. The thick bass riffs, the speak/sing/holler lead vocals, the pokes at music-world and general social mores, the exuberant flair that everything is done with–it’s all here. Rad.
3. “Sight Inside” – Feverbones. Busy bass lines are like catnip to me, and so this zooming low-end caught my ear immediately. There’s a lot of angular guitar going on over the top of it, not in a mathy way, but in a sort of old-school indie-rock/post-punk sort of way. There’s some stomping drums and insistent vocals–it’s all very enigmatic and punchy. Very cool.
4. “Baby, I Know It” – Francis Moon. Maybe it’s just that I miss School of Seven Bells so much, but anytime someone throws a big wall of distortion against a simple percussion line and pop melodies (as opposed to shoegaze-y ghost melodies), I get all nostalgic for SoSB. And this track has me all misty–Moon’s track pulls out a lot of the bass from the distortion/mix, making the song an echoey, yelping, enthusiastic, untethered dream that rushes through your ears and then abruptly fades away.
5. “About You” – G Flip. Right here is a electro-indie-pop tune that doesn’t do basically any of the things you would expect from a contemporary song of that genre. This song has nuance, soul, avoids going for the big hit, includes some awesome live drums, and basically will flip (ha) all your expectations on their head.
6. “Ascendant Hog” – Andy Jenkins. After 15 years in the game, my bar for breakup songs has gone sky-high, while my bar for love songs has stayed pretty much the same. (It has become more clear over time that I love love songs.) Jenkins’ love song here is strong to pass the higher bar if it needed to. It’s a starry-eyed love song from someone who knows that they really shouldn’t be getting starry-eyed but just can’t help it. There’s pedal steel, piano, female group backup vocals, and just a whole lot of happiness. Pick your favorite era of enthusiastic, country-influenced pop and find your own RIYL for this one.
7. “Underwear Blues” – Matt Dorrien. Not actually blues–closer to ragtime mixed with lounge-y ’70s pop. Nuances aside, this jaunty piano tune is a fun, goofy track that even includes a clarinet. (Has anything other than a piano ever been described as jaunty? Discuss.)
8. “Cannonball!” – Buck Meek. Some people think that summer sounds like fast cars on Pacific Highway 1, and that’s cool. But to me, summer is a major key and the slowest possible speed that still feels happy. That’s this song in a nutshell: Meek’s drawl unspools over a bouncy bass line, a legit guitar solo (man, we could always use more well-fitting guitar solos), and a rock-solid percussion section. There’s some ghostly synth and wheezing background vocals too. It just all fits together right. Here’s to the slow-paced summer jam.
1. “Ever Stay” – Joy Ike. Ike’s blend of funky groove, singer/songwriter nuance, and pop melodies come together in a hard-to-explain track that’s both brooding and exultant, hopeful and hushed. The bridge and final chorus here are a total knockout–get ready for this record, people. Highly recommended.
2. “Do It Right” – Nuela Charles. Charles has a voice that could melt ice, it’s so warm and sultry. The admirably minimalist arrangement puts the focus squarely on her impressive voice, which is a smart, smart move. There’s still some old-school horns snuck in and some low-key funky elements. It’s the sort of soul that appeals to just about anybody–if you’re into indie-pop you’ll hear it, if you’re into radio pop, you’ll hear it, if you’re into soul you’ll hear it.
3. “quartessence” – kerim könig. The insistent piano is the main attraction here, but it’s all the things going on around it (found sounds, distant vocals, snatches of instruments) that drew me in to this. It fills out into a beat-heavy instrumental rumination that sounds like it would be perfect in a sneak-laden section of a spy movie.
4. “Where to Begin” – Ellie Schmidly. A five-minute journey of a song that has some fun interplay between Schmidly’s vocals and the guitars, lots of cinematic moves, and some adventurous clarinet/xylophone/marching band action to close out the song. (Yeah, you read that right.) This daring arranging should make you very excited about Schmidly.
5. “Plays With Fire” – Cloud. Unique, high-pitched vocals lead the way through a chilled-out, low-key indie-rock landscape. I feel like I’m obliged to say that fans of Pavement will be into this, but I think fans of Modest Mouse might be even more into it. Feels a lot like the mid-’00s, when “anything goes” was in style for everything from vocal styles to lyrics to arrangements.
6. “You Got Some Best Friends” – Mateo Katsu. Fans of lo-fi acoustic indie-pop will love this this warm, quirky song about being emotionally cold. Katsu’s confidently warbling vocals are reminiscent of Matthew Squires; the bouncy, fun bass work gives the tune even more levity (to contrast with the dour subject matter).
7. “Restoration” – Grace Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is recorded high in the mix, giving her song a very intimate, close-to-the-listener feel. The bass-heavy guitar fits in perfectly, as there’s a lot of gravitas in her playing. There are shades of Nick Drake in some of the guitar melodies, too, which is just fantastic.
8. “Lay Me Down” – Ivan Moult. Fluttering, swooping strings provide a beautiful frame for Moult’s compelling, high-drama vocal performance. Yet the track never feels overwrought–it’s a smooth, easygoing sort of drama (if such a thing exists). Fans of Beirut will recognize similar vocal and arrangement touches, making for a strong, interesting track.
9. “Dearest Lovely World” – Simon D. James. Aptly titled, this lovely folk-pop song has the balance just right between folk vulnerability and solid pop melodies. The overall product is a warm, thrumming piece that makes me imagine what the Beach Boys would have sounded like had they been born in this era, or what St. Even would sound like with a punchy bassist. Fans of Belle and Sebastian will love it.
10. “Clouds in Advance” – Jon Durant. A whole whirring, humming ambient landscape created with nothing but an electric guitar: rhythm, pattern, melody, and atmosphere all come from the many different layers of guitar. Feels just like the title says it could: like the sense of mystery and awe that I get when I’m scanning the horizon, watching a storm come in over the prairie.
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.
“Ptarmigan” drops tomorrow, Friday, January 26.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.