1. “County Line” – Susto. Susto is one of the very best alt-country acts working today, and if you don’t know that you haven’t heard their stuff yet. Let this nigh-on-perfect tune serve as your introduction.
2. “King” – The Amazing Devil. This incredibly intense song wrings every last drop of emotion out of dramatic vocal performances, a cinematic lyrical set, and a churning full-band acoustic performance. Cello has rarely sounded so incredibly vibrant and necessary in folk-rock. The video that accompanies the tune is equally impassioned; it’s a rare thing that the video enhances the experience of listening to the song, but this one totally does. Highly recommended. Their album comes out Monday, so if you’re in London you should check their release show out. If it’s anything like this video, it promises to be a wild affair.
3. “Window” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Saxophone and French horn are not common inclusions in a woodsy folk tune, but Wolfe makes them sound totally natural. Between them and the bassist going absolutely bonkers (you go!), this sounds almost more like Anathallo than it does Bon Iver, but fans of both will find much to love in this tune.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. This song is infinitely coverable: I would listen to almost anyone cover this tune. The fact that Josiah and the Bonnevilles are my favorite new band of the year makes it even more excellent.
5. “Standing” – Melody Federer. This singer-songwriter/indie-pop tune has a melodic maturity that stands up against Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Watkins, and Sleeping at Last. It has gravitas while still remaining light; it’s a very rare balance that is to be celebrated.
6. “Why Don’t You Call Home” – Deni Gauthier. Sometimes all you need is a great falsetto and a tiny guitar riff to steal hearts.
7. “Sunset Road” – Kathryn Overall. Here’s a folk-pop tune about contentment, local beauty, and home played in a low-key, no-frills, earnest way. I broke into a smile, and I think you will too.
8. “Under a Rose” – Dylan Addington. Always space in my heart for a folk-pop tune with a catchy vocal melody and stomping percussion. Fans of The Lumineers should be all up on this.
9. “The Captain” – Adam Topol. Fans of the easygoing acoustic joy of Dispatch and Guster will find a lot of love in Topol’s swaying, airy, summery tune.
10. “Catch Your Fall” – The River South. The iconic shuffle-snare is employed to great effect here, providing the backbone for a delicate love song. The keyboards, bass, and dual vocals fill in the warm, comforting vibe.
11. “White Sky” – Lilla Clara. A solemn, emotionally powerful tune that sucks all the air out of the room.
12. “Between the Bars” – Andrea Silva. Elliott Smith cannot have very much added to him, but reinterpretation keeps a legacy alive. This cover features a great vocal performance, too.
13. “Once Upon a Child” – Eleanor Murray. Tape hiss, nylon strings, room reverb, and an arresting alto vocal line come together for a deeply affecting tune.
14. “Loss” – Paul Sweeney. This contemplative solo guitar piece has a consistent motion in the melodic line that makes the song both evocative and emotional.
15. “Improvisation I” – De Martenn. This solo piano piece explores a dark blue mood; it feels like the street corner late at night, when you know no one is around but it still feels like something is going to happen. It’s peaceful but not serene; there’s some undercurrent going right there under the surface. You look twice; no one is there either time. You’re a little disappointed, but but also relieved. You walk home. You sleep well.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
1. “Sunrise” – Knaan Shabtay. Cascading, patterned acoustic guitar notes layer on top of each other to create an impressive waterfall of sound. The breathy, high-pitched vocals and electric guitar notes add to the beautiful maelstrom. There’s a lot going on in this song: it begins with complex, patterned melodic acoustic guitar lines before opening up into a male/female duet. Shabtay’s vocals are a cross between Brett Dennen’s high pitch and Passenger’s distinctive delivery, while the woman’s are a soft alto. Then there’s an incredibly beautiful harmonica performance to cap it all off. Wow.
2. “Braille” – Sir Croissant. Gently rolling fingerpicking, ethereal backup vocalists, and quaveringly emotional vocals form a piece suspended historically between Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan and the Barr Brothers.
3. “Lucky” – Ships Have Sailed. The standout power-pop outfit goes acoustic, leaving only romantic piano, guitar and some pad synth in a stripped-down pop ballad.
4. “Water” – BONOMO. I really love the stand-up bass work in this subtly jazzy, Dispatch-esque acoustic track.
5. “Sometime a While” – Chaperone Picks. A no-frills, just-the-goods, mid-tempo garage-pop acoustic tune with surprising Beach Boys influences/overtones. Totally rad.
6. “fried chx” – lost valley. Pristinely produced, this gentle, down-on-my-luck acoustic tune jumps out of the speakers with an arresting immediacy.
7. “Paper Wings” – Brooklyn Doran. The quiet yet sturdy acoustic arrangement frames Doran’s voice and gives her lovely alto room to roam.
8. “Pocket of Lint” – Jack Ellis. The acoustic guitar leads this track, but the intensity of the performance and excellent lead guitar work give this a vibe closer to Radiohead than Damien Rice.
9. “I Lied” – Danielle Deckard. There are a whole lot of piano-led break-up ballads with big strings, but Deckard’s strong vocal tone and careful vocal performance put this one on the top shelf.
10. “liberty (ft. john garner)” – matthew. A somber, pensive instrumental for guitar and violin, this piece searches through the atmosphere without anchor, roving from beginning to end with the tension of someone who wants to get somewhere but is being subtly stopped by this or the other. In other words, it’s evocative and interesting.
11. “Follow” – Nowhere. A spacious tune that falls somewhere between post-rock and singer/songwriter; a wide-open plain with fog hovering above it and no certain path.
1. “Jep Shuffle” – Holy ’57. All of the lessons we learned about infectious pop songs from Tokyo Police Club, Vampire Weekend, and Lord Huron are crammed into this nigh-on-perfect indie-pop-rock song. I got this in the midst of a long Friday afternoon, and it cheered me up and caused me to dance in my seat. It’s just absolutely great.
2. “Make Me Change My Mind” – Jonah Smith. A fusion of garage-rock instrumentation with soul-style lead and background vocals turns out quite the infectious jam.
3. “Two Suns” – Jacob Mondry. It’s been a good run recently for horn sections. Mondry’s triumphant soul horns are pressed into service here for a snazzy, swaggering pop song.
4. “Pretty Thing” – HEAVY HEART. Continuing their song-a-month project, HH drops a low-slung rock track that reminds of Silversun Pickups with a female vocalist.
5. “Some Other Dude” – Everywhere. The electro-pop instrumentation here is a lot of fun. The quirky honesty and unusual phrasing (“I think I lost my groove / now she’s dancing / dancing with some other dude”) endeared me to the track even more.
6. “Thanks for Your Time” – Late Cambrian. Late Cambrian sets this track apart from its MGMT-influenced electro-pop brethren with a grimy, distorted bass synth that’s more common in house music. It creates a really interesting vibe.
7. “Simple Game” – Mackin Carroll. Equal parts Oasis and Death Cab kept me on my toes throughout this engaging pop-rock track.
8. “Clementine” – Dion Atlas. Sometimes you just need a skyscraping, cinematic, piano-led electro-pop jam in your life.
Out of Melbourne, Australia, Nearly Oratario–aka Simon Lam–recently released his sophomore EP Tin. Tin is a refreshing combination of melancholic singer-songwriter and the avant garde. Nearly Oratario’s unique instrumentation and modest vocals create an emotive album that is both soothing and utterly enthralling.
Nearly Oratario does not truly sound exactly like anything, yet The Dirty Projectors and Sufjan Stevens do come to mind. All three artists have created sounds very much their own; in a sense, that ties them together. I also think that Simon Lam’s voice is a softer version of David Longstreth’s, The Dirty Projectors’ lead singer. Similarly, the avant garde nature of Tin is comparable to Sufjan Steven’s later experimental work.
Nearly Oratario uses different looping techniques to arrive at the album’s sound. Lam anchors each song with a primary instrument like the piano (“I Would Not,” “Devonport”) along with the guitar (“Veracity”) and keyboard (“Tin,” “Occlude”) and then builds and loops on top of it. The looping includes other instruments, random sounds through the use of an electronic launchpad, and vocals. All of these layers come together to create a sound that gives you new discoveries at each listen. Tin is a multi-layered onion, but what do we find when we peel back the layers?
When we peel back the layers in Tin, we find melancholy. The last track, “Devonport,” is the most peeled-back song off the album, with Lam primarily using a piano and his voice as instruments. The tonal qualities of Lam’s voice are a little like what happens when you talk after having cried for a bit. Yet I wouldn’t call his voice whiny; it’s way too beautiful for that. The track’s slow pace, raw use of the piano, and emotional lyrics soldify the somber sound of the song. Over and over, “It burns,” repeats throughout the track. The song then comes toward an end with an array of eerie vocals and closes on the piano.
Tin’s soothing, emotive sound and interesting instrumentation come together to create an EP I could forever listen to on repeat.–Krisann Janowitz
Folk-rock, alt-country, and indie-rock fuse in A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”: it’s got call-and-response vocals, crunchy guitar twang, and a breakdown instrumental outro. The song is such a tight marriage of the three genres that it’s not entirely productive to discuss it more than to get you interested.
Trey Powell’s baritone vocals lead the tune, giving way occasionally to bright, crunchy electric guitar work between sections. The band is really tight: the arrangement feels comfortable and assured, giving the vocals just the right amount of space without blending amorphously into the background. (And check out that rad instrumental outro, too.) The backup vocalists play a big part in the atmosphere of the song, coming in consistently as support at the end of verse lines and throughout the chorus. Their efforts contribute to the warm, collective feel of the tune.
“Lights in the Sky” is a top-shelf tune that should help put the band in the conversation with much more established bands. It’s more alt-country than The Low Anthem, but not so much as the Old ’97s; I immediately thought of the major-key alt-country of Denver’s 4H Royalty as a comparable sound. Dawes and Ivan & Alyosha also would fit as peers. If you’re into noisier folk-inspired work, this track will be right up your alley.
This song is the first single off A Valley Son’s debut release Sunset Park, which will drop late July/early August. If you’re going to be in the Northeast, you can check the band out on these dates:
June 11th, The Fire (Philly Single Release) – Philadelphia, PA
June 18th, The Waystation, Brooklyn, NY
June 24th, DROM (NYC Single Release), NY, NY
July 8th, Hometown, Brooklyn, NY
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY
1. “Take It All Back” – Sui Zhen. Who can resist a warm, relaxing ’80s throwback electro tune in the heat of summer? It’s a perfect soundtrack to lying out on the beach in the evening with friends.
2. “Holes in the Story” – Alex the Astronaut. A charming, unassuming pop song in the vein of Ingrid Michaelson, but occasionally featuring some of the more flamboyant arrangement flourishes that made Regina Spektor so popular.
3. “My 45” – Candy Cigarettes. This slackery, quirky indie-pop tune has a rhythmic flow and overall outlook on life that would fit with skateboarding.
4. “Do You?” – Slow Buildings. Lots going on in this bouncy indie-pop track that references a kangaroo; there’s marimbas, sharp left turns to the mood, and more.
5. “The Island” – Mairearad Green. A swooping accordion and lilting banjo carry this folk tune from humble beginnings to a tremendous finale.
6. “Black and Blue” – Maria Kelly. The pushing drums create a neat tension with the overarching strings, creating a nice space for Kelly’s layered alto vocals to live in this indie-pop tune.
7. “Suitors” – Wonky Tonk. In an age of oversaturated branding, it’s rare for me to even care about the visuals that accompany a track or artist. However, Wonky Tonk’s visual imagery expertly combines traditional country iconography with sensual imagery in a way that mirrors her sensuous take on country music.
8. “Bulletproof” – Cantina. This alt-country outfit (feat. members of Old 97s, Deathray Davies, Polyphonic Spree, etc.) plays the “bleary-eyed wisdom” card in the baritone vocals, contrasting a knowing, meandering vocal line against a peppy arrangement. Makes me think about old-school country singer/talkers. I’m into it.
9. “Feels Like Morning” – River Matthews. It’s a little more chill than I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, but it’s hard for me to not hear the influence of Bright Eyes full-band folk/alt-countryon this track. Then the soul horns show up and Matthews goes all James Brown on it. Then the choir comes in. Buckle your seat belts and/or put on your dancing shoes: this one’s an adventure worthy of mixing metaphors over.
10. “Far Away (feat. Whitney Pearsall)” – Thomas Kunz. You’d never know that Kunz also plays industrial music from this beautiful, slowly-growing indie-pop tune accompanied by orchestra. Pearsall’s comfortable alto vocal performance shines here.
11. “Falling” – Tom Speight. Starts small but grows to a whirling, dense adult-alternative pop tune.
12. “The Light” – Me and the Moon. The vocal melodies in this Parachutes-era Coldplay-esque tune are magnetic and unavoidable.
13. “Lullaby” – The Coconut Kids. The trumpet, vocals, and delicate strum fit together beautifully in this quiet, laidback tune.
14. “Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)” – The Wild Reeds. The guitar fingerpicking that opens the tune transforms into a Lady Lamb-like indie-rock tune with lots of close female harmonies. The instruments come together in a rich, evocative mood.
1. “The Plague” – Maison Hall. Distant guitar, ambient room noise, and a carefully dramatic vocal performance come together to make a uniquely intimate singer/songwriter tune. The drums that come in halfway through only add to the vibe.
2. “Talons” – He is a Pegasus. HIAP ratchets up to some impressive indie-rock crunch in the service of high drama, but don’t sleep on the opening section of this tune. It’s as devastatingly beautiful a post-Bon Iver song you can hope to hear.
3. “Traffic Lights” – Ryan David Orr. Cross the most upbeat parts of Josh Radin’s early work and Alexi Murdoch’s work, and you’ll have this tune. It’s an eyebrow-raising show of confident lyricism and brilliant acoustic-pop songwriting.
4. “First Light” – Dustin Tebbutt. There’s definitely some Bon Iver falsetto here, but the acoustic arrangement and the vocal melodies are much more than any “spot the influence” game. Feels like a warm hug on a cold day.
5. “How Many Times” – Rod Ladgrove. The many layers of guitar, vocals, and clapping here sound huge and spacious, but in an ethereal, floating-world sort of way.
6. “Birds” – Richi Jones. The tenets of slowcore minimalism form the moody, guitar-based songwriting structure, with a bit of Passenger’s vocal tone thrown in.
7. “Hey Little Blackbird” – Elsdeer. A slight, subtle tune that relies on Elsdeer’s clear vocals, a pensive guitar performance, and amplifier hum to create a distinct mood.
8. “See Through” – Suzy Callahan. “Tenderly” is the repeated word in the chorus here, and it’s a fitting description of the pretty acoustic singer/songwriter tune as a whole.
9. “A Day Like Today” – Xavier William. William’s work is also intimate, with his vocals and major key acoustic guitar right up close to the microphone. The easygoing forward motion of a traditional folk strum is complemented by a neat whistling solo.
10. “The Wind” – John John Brown. Brown shows a deft arranging hand here, expertly creating a wide-open folk mood that’s as complex as those made by any more famous musician. The lyrics of the tune are equally expert, adding their literary heft into the already-high level of gravitas in this remarkable folk tune.
11. “West Cozy” – Creature People. By chance, I stumbled upon this text-based adventure game while I was listening to the song. Creature People’s mysterious, woodsy folk was the perfect accompaniment to a game that slowly unfolds itself as an adventure.
Cadence Kid‘s “Hold on Me” is a rare gem: it’s a summery tune with memorable instrumentation, breezy vibe, and a video that actually represents the mood of the clip. The indie-pop of “Hold on Me” falls somewhere between the easygoing flow of Vacationer and the slightly-more staccato pop of Generationals. Bass, tambourine, and vocals interlock neatly, as in a Generationals tune; the disparate parts come together to create a full piece. The satisfying, rattling kit drumming holds all the pieces together into a slinky mood, just as a Vacationer tune might. The overall effect is effortlessly sunny, a slice of summer carved right off the ocean breeze.
What’s even more remarkable about “Hold on Me” is that the video captures this mood. Jason Turbin and Ryan Houchin take the oft-used video clip montage idea and spin it to perfection: the clip weaves in shots of skateboarding, rollerskating, parkour, cliff jumping, gleeful dancing, hiking, and more. It’s basically a compendium of why summer is great, mostly shot in a warm, slightly fuzzy way that evokes the experience of good memories. It’s a wonderful video that perfectly complements the sound of the tune, which is a rarity. I almost never say this for video, but here it is: highly recommended.
1. “The Road” – John John Brown. It’s an impressive skill to breathe fresh vitality into musical staples. John John Brown makes a beautiful concoction out of folk fingerpicking, sawing fiddle, and gentle tenor vocals.
2. “Does She” – Caroline Lazar. Someday I’ll get tired of a thumping kick drum under a fingerpicked acoustic guitar line, but not today: Lazar’s folk pop is bright, charming, and fun (handclaps!).
3. “Offering” – Mischief Night. The recording style on this acoustic track makes it feel both cavernous and intimate; the vocals soar in the near distance, while the drums and casio tones are close at hand. The lyrics are intriguing, as well.
4. “I’m Not the Good One” – Ossayol. The delicate fingerpicking is perfectly counterpointed by a violin throughout. The chorus here just nailed me to the wall with its emotive power.
5. “Christine” – Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls. An ode to beautiful young women who grow old that balances rueful, pensive concern with an internal energy which pushes the track forward.
6. “Lucid Dreams” – Ego Death. A trembling, quiet performance that evokes solitude.
7. “We Both Know” – Andrew Butler. The pristine, precise arrangements of Andrew Bird, but now with significantly more emotions in the lyrics and vocal delivery.
7. “No God in Mexico” – Danny Whitecotton. Danny Whitecotton is continuing the long tradition of windswept, wide-screen folk troubadour storytelling with political undertones admirably. The sound itself is along the lines of Isbell’s quieter stuff instead of being a folk strumfest.
8. “Liars” – Gregory Alan Isakov. Isakov has expanded from his intimate, cryptic tunes of yore to being back by the Colorado Symphony on this tour-de-force. (The lyrics are still enigmatic in an evocative way.)
9. “Single” – Frith. The walking-speed tempo and distinctive melodic percussion sound of this comfortable, easygoing pop track give it a pleasant “Someone I Used to Know” feel.
10. “Zen Jam” – Joyriot. The title works: the tension between zen and joy is in full display on this mid-’00s indie-pop-rock track. There’s some Tokyo Police Club in there, maybe some Vampire Weekend, but all filtered through a chill, maybe even Death Cab-esque lens. Totally cool.
11. “Dance With Love” – Sam Joole. Joole forgoes his usual reggae vibes for Strokesian early ’00s indie-rock, complete with tambourine, distinctive strumming pattern, and slightly distorted vocals. It’s a blast.
12. “719 Desire Street” – Palm Ghosts. Jangle rock never dies, it just fits itself into the modern paradigm and moves on right along. This one’s a fun, sway-inducing, smile-creating song.
13. “Ten Lines (The Land Below Remix)” – MISSINCAT. I kept expecting this song to do stereotypical pop song things, and it always seemed to have a different corner for me to turn. Mad props for the unexpected in electro-pop.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.