So I’ve been building a playlist in Spotify for the whole month of January so far. I toss things in that I’m hearing which are great. It’s a new method for me, and it’s been going pretty well so far. Here’s a bit of a run-down on what’s in the list so far and why it’s there. These albums are in no particular order.
The River – ETHEL and Robert Mirabal. ETHEL is a famous string quartet, and Robert Mirabal is a Pueblo flutist and vocalist. Their collaboration is a beautiful, moving, satisfying exchange of ideas from very different cultural backgrounds. It seems that they each play to their strengths instead of watering each other down; Ethel’s thick string work provides a powerful backdrop to the Pueblo vocal and flute melodies. Impressive opener “An Kha Na” sees the quartet laying down a drone that a growing chorus of singers harmonize over; it’s nigh-on mystical and reverent all by itself. Highlight “Run for Rain” sees a staccato vs legato arrangement mirror a poem by Mirabal about running and scrambling. The spoken word is some of the most gripping that I’ve heard in a long time: even, earnest, and calm, but with a latent intensity that fits perfectly with the arrangement. “Tsintskaro Memory” sees Mirabal’s flutes take center stage, to lovely results. A deeply unique album that just works perfectly.
Monument Valley II Soundtrack – Todd Baker. I love the kitchen sink: I want beats and synths and strings and guitars and genres and moods and vibes and lushness and sparseness altogether. I want to see a huge array of ideas all jammed into one thing and see it all work together like a tapestry. That’s what this album is: a soundtrack to an indie video game that sounds like low-key sci-fi techno one moment, minimalist ambient the next, and gamelan music the third. (No, for real! “Gamelan Rain Melody” is composed of gamelan performance!) Baker is massively talented to pull all this off. This was recommended to me as excellent working music, and so it is: it’s got motion and interest to keep things moving but not so much that it steals your attention. (I’m sure this makes it excellent video game music too.) Just fantastic.
Cold Math / Sans Drums – Panfur. Cold Math lives somewhere between tropical house, artsy post-dub, and trance music. There’s even a bit of reggaeton rhythm (riddim?) and trap ideas thrown in. It’s a great trip through various types of electronic music, all held together by a spartan, space-heavy oeuvre. Also great for working to. Sans Drums is literally sans drums, relying heavily on strings, piano, and various types of synth for rhythm and drive. This is a more sentimental album than Cold Math, as a result–lots more melody and mood. It’s also a little less polished than Cold Math; it has some moments where the implementation of the experimentation doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the ideas. But overall, an interesting take nonetheless.
Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky. Not instrumental at all, this is an album of Gullah music. I’d not been very familiar with Gullah music, which is why I checked it out. Turns out Ranky Tanky plays a brand of music that fuses chilled-out New Orleans Second Line, gospel vocals/lyrics, and American acoustic folk tunes. It’s relaxed and comforting music, making for a great Sunday morning album. The performances are all of very high quality, from the vocals to the brass to the rhythm section and beyond. Lovely.
Chick Corea – assorted songs. I have heard of Chick Corea often but never listened, so I put the most-listened songs on Spotify on this list. I’m still not a jazz connoisseur, but I can say that I enjoyed listening to these tracks far more than most jazz I’ve been exposed to, smooth or otherwise. I still have nothing meaningful to say about jazz, in my opinion, but I’m getting closer to getting it, I think. Maybe.
Englabörn and Variations – Jóhann Jóhannson. Another musician I’d heard of but never listened to, I picked this one up and have loved it. Jóhannson’s minimalist, fusionist take on classical music is just the sort of thing I’m interested in: “Odi et Amo” pairs a mournful, legato string quartet with a vocalist singing an Ancient Roman love/hate poem through a vocoder. A doomy piano completes the arrangement. It’s like Daft Punk at a funeral. It’s amazing. The minimalist arrangements of strings and piano continue throughout; it’s generally intimate, quiet work that moves peacefully through– even the tension of “Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei” is cut with legato lines and gives way to a bouncy, elegant, tango-esque atmosphere. Yet the work never lapses into ambient/atmospheric music; this is not ambient music (in the Music for Airports sense), but compositions intended to be featured and heard as performances. Jóhannson could do a lot with a little. It’s a shame he died in 2018, before I even really got to know his music.
Wojciech Karolak – assorted songs. I found a copy of Karolak’s Easy! at Spinster Records in Tulsa, and I stupidly didn’t buy it. I don’t know how I resisted the magnificent cover art, but maybe I thought I couldn’t get it home in my luggage or something. I don’t know. But there’s not much Karolak available on Spotify, sadly, and the funky, bluesy, groovy, jazzy organ-based instrumental psych-lite is much missed. The few tracks that are there show off a unique mind and a deft hand at way-out-there instrumental music. If you find any Karolak in your journeys: buy it.
Gorilla EP – BeatLove. Big, lush electro that meshes great percussive beats, zooming phased synths, boomy bass synths, marimba, and more into an expansive experience. Goes especially well with ODESZA (especially “Train,” what with the pop-leaning female vocals and driving vibe) and others of the ilk. This is the sort of thing that I have limited words to yet explain but am very into these days. Highly recommended.
Ambiance – Ølten. I’ve gone through various phases where I’ve been into and not into post-rock. I went through a phase where I very much enjoyed the music of ISIS (before the name ISIS was associated with a terrorist group instead of the post-metal band) and have enjoyed Explosions in the Sky quite a bit. But then there’s also been times where I just can’t get into another metally, grumbling outfit. There’s a specific X factor in the songwriting that makes me interested or not in a post-rock/post-metal band, and Ølten has it on Ambiance. It’s ironic that this is called Ambiance, because it is very noisy and not ambient in the traditional sense: there are towering guitars, pounding drums, and furious moods. But it’s all done very effectively: I believe Ølten more than I do other bands of this ilk. Maybe it’s the melodies, maybe it’s the song construction, I don’t know. But this is top-shelf angry instrumental music, and if you’re into that, here you are. I like pg.lost and I like this, so I think others who like pg.lost might like this one?
Kai Otten – Camper Mode. Flamenco meets electro beats with playful flourishes: one of the most flamenco-heavy tracks is titled “Flamingo.” The work sounds exotic and adventurous without being too aggressive–there’s a relaxed confidence to the work that gives it a mature, accessible nature. There are some more pensive moments as well, such as the low-key “Colores de Mediterana” and the new-age-esque reverie of “In Clouds.”
Overall, these are hopeful, good-natured, pleasantly developed tracks to relax with. Those interested in electro should start with “Count of Berg,” while those interested in classical stylings (check that piano!) should start with the title track. Those interested in flamenco or guitar can pick anything and go for it. —Stephen Carradini
Koltbach – Orange People EP. This four-song EP contains sleek, streamlined progressive trance that sounds eminently suited to driving around a city late at night (“Bones”). There’s a lot of motion here, but it’s all done in a smooth, silky way that keeps the energy going without succumbing to big EDM synth blasts. Instead, there’s a lot of atmosphere and patience (see “Superego”) in the midst of this melodic, progressive trance. Also includes maybe the chillest use of cowbell/jam block ever in “Bones.” –Stephen Carradini
So even though I’m working my way towards instrumental reviews (two coming this week!), there’s still all these bands that I’ve covered before sending me great music. Here’s some excellent work in that category (and one new artist sneaking in there).
1. “Honeyguide” – Frances Luke Accord. I could listen to this beautiful slice of delicate, warm folk-pop all day. The dual vocals recall the Weepies, while the fingerpicking recalls Simon and Garfunkel. But the final product is all FLA–this duo knows what it’s doing, and you need to know what they’re doing too.
2. “Ain’t No Grave” – Zach Winters. I have always wanted to write a song that was just percussion and vocals, and I’m stoked whenever someone else does it well. Winters here trades his graceful folk efforts for a soulful gospel ballad backed by a big ‘ol group of stomping and singing friends. The melodies are chilling and encouraging all at once, while the lyrics are just encouraging. A winner from Winters.
3. “Rio Grande” – Sean Pawling. Any non-ska song that has a trombone play the hook melody has my attention. Pawling’s folk tune here has the trombone, yes, but also has commendable lyrics about immigration, funky Cake-like synth, and a catchy vocal melody in the chorus. Fun, but also meaningful!
4. “Bad Lover” – Jeremy Tuplin. Tuplin’s smooth, mellifluous baritone voice is in the lead on the track, and rightly so. The rest of the lightly chipper indie-pop tune keeps out of his way so that he can work magic with that lovely set of pipes.
5. “Often Seen Together” – The Hasslers. The Hasslers live in a world where no genres exist. This is ostensibly a country ballad in its lyrical content, but it’s got funky guitar and bass, got some major soul horns, some slick acoustic-pop vocal delivery, and a bunch more packed into it. If you like good music from the acoustic side of the musical spectrum, I dare you to dislike this song. Highly recommended.
6. “God Once Loved a Woman” – Frog. Frog is a wildly inventive guitar-rock/jangle-pop band and their latest effort Whatever We Probably Already Had It shows off their unique take on guitars and vocals. But it’s the lyrics in this one that are wild: this is an anachronistic update of the story of the virgin birth. I’m not sure whether this is irreverent or reverent in the ways that Frog know how to be reverent, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.
7. “Hidden Worlds” – Teen Daze. This newest Teen Daze song is amazing: it’s got funky bass vibes, compelling drumming, dreamy-but-not-washed-out synths, and a propulsive vibe. It sounds like a rejuvenated Teen Daze that’s calling back to his early chillwave days but incorporating the complexity of his most recent outings as Jamison Isaak into the mix. It’s an astonishingly good song. I am super excited for the new Teen Daze record coming out this year.
8. “Again Again” – Mon Draggor. A perfect fusion of burbling electro pop and downtempo acoustic work, Mon Draggor makes sadness sound super-danceable. Sure, maybe the dancing is by yourself in a fairly dark room, but it’s a beautiful fairly dark room made more beautiful by the excellent tune.
“Oath,” the first music video from Matt C. White’s debut album Wallow in the Hollow,comes alive, casting a spell over fans. Taking symbolism normally associated with fear and death, these Matt C. White and Lana Boy-directed visuals produce characters who come to life along with the music; dancing on the rooftops and celebrating. The video, produced by Elna Street, is layered, much like the song. Music can bring the dead to life, and voodoo works well as a futile gesture of control. The song “Oath” is a contradiction musically from lyrical content, vocal delivery, tempo, and stark instrumentation stylistically. At first glance, the spell is cast, leaving a fine marriage of visuals that are unexpected and work well with a great song. —Lisa Whealy
Occasionally musicians meet in life, finding a common thread which begs to be explored deeper. Such is the case with talented songwriters and troubadours Charles Ellsworth and Matt C. White, whose solo talents have listeners ready to embrace their recent collaborative quartet of songs on the EP Rose Door via Burro Borracho Records.
The two skilled songwriters have come together on this collaborative release to create simple acoustic magic. Ellsworth and White, from the back countries of Northeastern Arizona and North Carolina respectively, found each other in New York City. Their combined folk rock energy is the foundation of this rustic indie folk-rock. It’s rough around the edges in all the ways that listeners love. Ellsworth and White are prolific songwriters and perform in various projects, but something really special happens when their two guitars come together in such an artful and honest way. Adding their talents are Chris Heinrich on the pedal steel guitar and Meg Webb on fiddle; the ears of Bob Hoag of Flying Blanket Studios helped define each note in the sonic landscape.
The EP opens with “Rose Door,” whose beauty is pure and simple; compositionally complex, this song begs for a warm place to call home beyond just the listeners who embrace instrumental music. Rustic and real, there is no hiding, nor any need for lyrical clutter. An authentic invitation, this is all listeners need to walk through the door. When I spoke with Ellsworth recently in Brooklyn, he commented on how the cut remained an instrumental: his friend Matt said it spoke, and it really did not really need lyrics. Quite true.
Sliding into White’s “Morning Glory Fool,” there is a shift in tone, a definite folk energy that brings to mind his debut release Wallow in the Hollow. This is music that demands attention: a deep vocal resonance surrounded by a rich instrumentation, earthy and real in the fiddle performance.
“Blossom in the Sun” from Ellsworth offers a contrast–or maybe it’s just a glimmer into the other side of both of these artists? The song has a rock vibe, held back with a tension that feels real like warmth from a sun we only hear about. This is songwriting that gives listeners the scent of flowers on a warm summer day, swaying in a mountain storm as the thunder rolls in.
Closing out the quartet is the bookend of “Foxglove in A Major” as the wraparound acoustic guitar instrumental. The authentic sound of fingers picking strings brings it back to the final downbeat. A classical guitar vibe creates a progressively elegant closing to an EP which defies being stuffed into a genre box. The whole of the EP sings eloquently in a voice which goes further than any single track could. Listeners can hear and feel the connection by opening up the Rose Door by Charles Ellsworth and Matt C. White. — Lisa Whealy
This year of Independent Clauses was a strange year, as it was firmly a transition year. My tastes were changing, my writing patterns were changing, and my listening habits were changing. Because I didn’t do a lot of the normal reviewing that I usually do, I’m not doing a regular best-of list. Instead, I’m listing my top 20 artists based on volume of listening as tracked by Last.FM. This isn’t a list of my favorite albums of the year, but it is a list of what I listened to most this year. Without further ado:
20. Jessica Curry – So Let Us Melt. A beautiful video game soundtrack that blends gentle electronica, orchestral work, and choral reveries.
19. pg.lost – Versus. A thunderous, pounding post-rock album, heavy on the rock. It’s great to work out to.
18. invention_ – Chillhop/trip-hop beats that are silky smooth and jazzy/stuttery in turns. Great to sit back and relax (or work) to.
17. Shingo Nakamura. Smooth, silky, occasionally haunting progressive trance. I listened to a lot more Nakamura than this spot on my list shows, as the primary thing I listened to of Nakamura’s was a two-hour best-of mix. If we were to look at an amount of time spent listening versus number of tracks, Nakamura would be very high on the list.
16. Walk the Moon. The major-key dance-rock of Walk the Moon gave me two power-songs this year: “Work This Body” and “One Foot.”
15. Armin Van Buuren. I learned a lot about many different genres this year, and so I ended up listening to a lot of Armin and Armin’s mixes (which are attributed to Armin) to learn about trance. All the trance fans groan
14. Olafur Arnalds – re:member. Composer Arnalds’ new album is a lovely, delicate experience that yet has depth of composition. Relies on piano, but expands into all sorts of directions, even toward post-rock.
13. Makana. I was really into Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar over the spring and summer, so I listened to a lot of Makana. For those unfamiliar, this is not the sort of traditional luau ukulele music associated with Hawaii. Instead, this is a uniquely Hawaiian, rolling, pastoral folk music with its own sort of tension and release. It’s really interesting stuff. “Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest” is the place to start.
12. Jack de Quidt. The soundtrack to a podcast that I’ve never heard, this album blends clarinet-heavy klezmer stylings with adventurous, major key acoustic composition work. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard–one of my favorites of the year.
11. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. A fascinating mix of modular synthesizer tones and indie-rock melodies, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music is reminiscent of Juliana Barwick’s experimental work, but perhaps even weirder.
10. TrackLab. Throwing another genre in the mix, I stumbled across the chill instrumental hip-hop beats of TrackLab on Spotify. Very chill.
9. Oliver Davis. Composer Davis is one of my favorite discoveries this year. Chris Krycho tipped me off to the energetic, bouncy, whirligig sound of Davis’ orchestral work. Anyone who likes the light, enthusiastic tones of Aaron Copland (instead of the heavy, rich tones of European orchestral work) will immediately find an interest here. Also, fans of math-rock may find Davis appealing, as there’s a lovely staccato patterning to the melodies that is reminiscent of that spiky, patterned genre. It all comes together with a lot of heart.
8. r beny. While Ann Annie introduced me to modular synthesizers this year, it was r beny that made me fall in love with the sound. cascade symmetry was my favorite of the works I listened to from my-newly-discovered r beny this year, as it is just huge, sweeping, and mysterious in its scope.
7. Balmorhea – Clear Language.The acoustic post-rock of Balmorhea is both comforting and challenging–you can let it wash over you or really concentrate on it. Both ways have their own joys.
6. Odesza. The artsy post-dub of Odesza was one of my first entrees into the (mostly) instrumental electronic world, along with Teen Daze. I’ve been listening to Odesza for years, and this is representative of my long-term interest in them more so than my discovery of them this year.
5. Max Richter. Movie/television composer Richter has seen the culmination of what must have been a remarkably busy past few years in 2018, as no fewer than six soundtracks of his came out this year. Mary Queen of Scots is my favorite (and White Boy Rick was probably my least favorite, but hey, there are five others to choosefrom); all of them are textured, contoured works that seem to aptly but not overly reflect the tone and content of the movies they score. (Okay, you’re going to hear a lot of Scottish sounds in Mary Queen of Scots, but what did you expect? A Knight’s Tale?)
4. Sufjan Stevens. I listened to a lot of The Avalanche, Michigan, Illinois, and Songs for Christmas. This has little to do with IC’s new focus and a lot to do with my continuing love of Sufjan.
3. Lymbyc Systym – Split Stones. Combines The Album Leaf’s loosely-unspooling acoustic post-rock with MGMT’s groove and melody to create instrumental electronic indie-pop that’s dancy and thoughtful.
2. Lucho Ripley. Near-perfect ambient dreamwave. Sounds like floating in outer space, but perhaps a warm, lush, friendly version of outer space. Not nearly enough people know about Lucho Ripley. Highly Recommended.
1. The Album Leaf – All but The Endless Soundtrack. I’ve always liked the Album Leaf’s acoustic post-rock and occasional electronic bits, but this year I really fell in love with their gentle melodicism, flowing vibe, careful texturing, and consistent development of their sound over time. Their deep discography allowed me to click once and listen to several hours of excellent music that helped me lock in to the zone for writing. They’re the standard-bearers for me in the realm of instrumental acoustic post-rock. By track volume, I listened to them almost twice as much as I did the next artist.
Bonus: here’s my Spotify Wrapped. The top five songs are a Walk the Moon song and four Lucho Ripley tunes. I have no idea how “Rock” ended up as my top genre.
So Let Us Melt by Jessica Curry. Great instrumental music: it’s a video game soundtrack that blends the sort of eerie electronic music you’d expect with full choirs, orchestral instrumentation and strong melodic development. I have no idea what the lyrics are, so warning on that. But otherwise it’s really intriguing.
1. I saw Pick of the Litter on an airplane a few days ago. Even with plane noise and one earbud not working, Helen Jane Long‘s soundtrack is lovely: it’s part whimsical pizzicato-style work (a la Lullatone) and part gently emotional film score. I can’t find it anywhere online at the moment, but if you watch the film you should keep your ear (or ears) out for it.
2. Shuja Haider’s article in Logic about the birth of house music is fascinating. Even more fascinating is what Haider credits as the first house track: “Acid Tracks” by Phuture (1987). Haider is right to note that “aspects of EDM are uncannily similar to acid house as it was heard thirty years ago in Chicago”; the seminal “Acid Tracks” is work that would be credited as incredibly artful and mature minimalist electro / progressive house by contemporary standards if it had been made today. Truly amazing, truly innovative, truly bold to stand the test of time so sturdily.
3. The 14 minutes of Tony Anderson’s “Immanuel” combine traditional Christmas music, ambient pad synths, and gently propulsive minimalist electro for a track that combines new and old seamlessly. It is a beautiful piece that puts me exactly in the type of mood I want to be in at Christmas: reverent, hopeful, and comforted. I want to find more Christmas-oriented work like this; anyone have any suggestions?
I really enjoyed Ólafur Arnalds’ early work; I almost caught him live at SXSW 2013. But since then I’ve lost track of him, until Jeff Hinton alerted me to re:member. Arnalds’ delicate, occasionally whimsical work is piano-based but expands outward into what could even be called post-rock at times: “unfold” is light and airy, while the title track opener reminds me of the lighter end of Sigur Ros’ work. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t think I’m done writing about it. But in this new realm of experimentation I thought I’d mention that I’m listening to it.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.