1. “Hey! Ya, You” – The Elwins. Every now and then a song comes along and makes me think, “Oh yeah, that’s what that genre is supposed to sound like.” This slightly funky, slightly spacy, slightly disco-esque tune combines a lot of genres into one big ‘ol indie-rock track.
2. “Top 8” – Who Is She? There’s big cloudy SanFran garage rock, and big Weezer garage rock, and then there’s the chipper, hectic, fun major-key garage rock of this track. It’s a tune as old as MySpace–the cultivation of identity via the selection of top friends in digital space. Love it.
3. “Harvard” – Diet Cig. This kiss-off to an Ivy Leaguer is the latest proof that Diet Cig makes great, punchy punk rock. Also, the video here is just fantastic–I won’t ruin it any more than that.
3. “Avalon” – The White Buffalo. Here’s some excellent country rock that speeds along with the tempo, acrobatic drums and melodic punch of a pop-punk tune.
4. “Walk the Other Way” – Bend Sinister. There’s a corner of my music heart still reserved for excellent rock songs. Bend Sinister’s tune reminds me of Brand New’s Deja Entendu combined with a dance-rock band. Great stuff.
5. “Clean Lines” – Rotoscope. The sort of vaguely dancy, emotionally-infused indie rock that sails on a huge, memorable chorus.
6. “Companion” – Humming House. Man, but does Humming House know how to write a pop song or what? Fans of singing, happiness, love, and fun should apply.
7. “Tunguska” – Ephrata. Fun fact: Tunguska is/was a giant meteorite explosion. Sounds like something more in line with death metal or space-rock bands, but this relentlessly cheery, high-powered indie-pop-rock tune is what we have instead. If you love big vocal harmonies, this one is chock full of them.
8. “Lowlands” – Far Lands. Comes in smooth, doesn’t ask too much of you, leaves before it can outstay its welcome; this sleek indie-pop tune is basically the coolest friend you know.
9. “Gold and Green” – Slaughter Beach, Dog. The vocal approach of emo married to some low-key, slightly minor-key indie-pop with great results.
10. “Honey Colony” – Soft Fangs. You’re headed over to the next door neighbor’s to hang out, kick it, maybe have a beer. It’s a lazy Saturday in the fall. It’s kinda overcast, but still bright enough that you can see the sun and feel its warmth. This song comes on and it’s perfect.
11. “Push the Boat Out” – Hero Fisher. This keys-led track inhabits a unique, almost unclassifiable space: there are dramatic lead vocals; whirring, doomy background vocals; arhythmic whistling; and more. It’s like Imogen Heap in a marsh at night, maybe.
18. Bishop Allen and the Broken String. I love this record to pieces, but it was pretty bad driving music. It relies pretty heavily on negative space and hushed sounds for my noisy car. This was recorded in Norman, OK, which we would drive past later.
19. Welcome Interstate Managers – Fountains of Wayne. This is a perfect pop record, and great for driving to.
20. Nice Nice Very Nice – Dan Mangan. Because we both loved Managers, I had some goodwill banked. I tried out this angsty folk record on Kevin. Didn’t quite go over. Oh well.
21. Apartment Life – Ivy. He retaliated with a deep cut ’90s post-grunge record. Didn’t quite go over. Oh well.
22. Kaleidoscope Superior – Earthsuit. Technical difficulties had cut short our first Earthsuit listening experience, so we picked up the back half of the record here.
23. Time – ELO. Kevin loves ELO and NOW I DO TOO. SERIOUSLY THOUGH DID YOU GUYS KNOW ABOUT THIS RECORD????
24. FM Static – FM Static. Rolled in to Wilburton with this early ’00s pop-punk jam playing. I kid you not, I think only one of the tracks makes it to 3 minutes. It is amazing.
1. “Shake” – Go Gracious. Imagine if The Hold Steady and The Naked and Famous tried to write a song together. That sort of jubilant-yet-rueful mix is exactly what you get with Go Gracious’ debut tune. Summer jam for real.
2. “History Walking” – Amy O. Noodly, doodly, and propulsive, this chipper indie-rock tune pushes all the right buttons for “infectious summer listening.”
3. “Magic” – Amy Stroup. Beachy but not in the traditional ways, this tune makes the most out of a loosely funky bass line and rattling percussion. Stroup’s easygoing vocals strengthen the chill vibe.
4. “Molly” – Ratboys. This fascinating mixture of alt-country, female-fronted pop-punk, and indie-pop subverted my expectations at every turn. Great stuff.
5. “Small Space” – Tall Friend. Bright but with a hazy, rainy sheen, this lo-fi, unassuming indie-rock/indie-pop tune reminds me of warm afternoons on green grass.
6. “Your Voice on the Radio (feat Laura Gibson)” – Dave Depper. OH man, chipper indie-pop basically doesn’t get any better than this. The inimitable Laura Gibson on guest vocals, bouncy bass guitar, tropical vibes, great vocal melodies, the whole shebang. More please, thank you.
7. “We Must Stand Up” – Har-di-Har. Wow, is there ever a lot going on in this song. This song rockets from synth-pop to angelic folk to complex indie-pop to wubby post-dubstep and points beyond. If Muse was ostensibly an indie-pop band, they might come up with this wild and clever track.
8. “What the Open Heart Allows” – Brad Peterson. Sometimes you’ve got an inventive, layered indie-pop arrangement that is heavy on tension and it still gets outshined by a massive, soaring vocal melody in the chorus. This is a good problem to have.
9. “Shame” – Lushloss. A solid two minutes of deconstructed down-tempo rainy-day indie-pop that’s heavy on bass guitar and layering. The tune appears unassumingly and ends suddenly, making the song even more endearing.
10. “Waking Up” – Illyin Pipes. All genres can be amazing, no matter how “done” they are. This is a full-on synth-pop piece with no big quirks–ambient synths, fuzzy arpeggiator work, rattling drums, woozy vocals–and yet it sounds amazing and fresh.
Chris Wills’ “Since You Said Goodbye” is a folk-pop tune anchored by an unusually syncopated bass drum pattern in the chorus that is punched way up in the mix. You might think to yourself, “How is there percussion in a folk-pop song that isn’t just whacking a tom on the 1 and 3?” or “Who pushes the bass drum all the way to the top of the mix?” Well, friends, listen and find out.
Beyond the percussion, Wills’ vocal performance is a highlight. His voice has a post-pop-punk tone–you can still hear some of the nasally, yelpy enthusiasm–that allows him to give the song energy just with his performance but also include more sophisticated vocal moves, such as subtle vibrato and small intonation shifts that give individual lines more emotional heft. The combination of the vocal performance and the unusual drum pattern gives a big lift to this folk-pop song, which has connections to The Lumineers, Twin Forks, and more brash, bold folksters.
This is a fun, interesting tune that serves to tease his upcoming EP quite well. “Since You Said Goodbye” will be on the This Place Ain’t For Me EP, which comes out August 11.
1. “Desultory” – Arthur in Colour. Jubilance seems always so difficult to singers with low voices (like Matt Berninger of the National and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields), and Arthur Sharpe is no exception. You can tell he’s jubilant, though, because the multi-layered technicolor indie-pop that he’s fronting is hard to describe in terms other than “exuberant,” “bright,” and enthusiastic. It’s the sort of thing that has marimbas, synths, organs, jaunty guitars, and a constant male/female duet all somehow coming together into one beautiful synthesis.
2. “Outta Cash” – Bon Villain. There’s a subtle grit to the vocals here that remind me (ever so slightly) of bands like The Hold Steady. The music is a smart mix of bubbly MGMT electro and streamlined, slicked-back Cobra Starship electro. It feels very now and very on.
3. “Give Me Your Love” – Briana Marela. Chirpy synths, clicky beats, and stomping toms allow Marela’s smooth melodic lines to create a nice tension in this lush, expansive electro-pop tune.
4. “Fat Tuesday” – The AV Club. A funky, jazzy instrumental interpretation of the New Orleans Brass Band sound that’s so much fun. This retains all the spirit of the Big Easy with a slight twist, which is cool.
5. “Witches” – Good Kid. The frantic, youthful vocals of early Vampire Weekend meeting the stylized guitar-heavy indie rock of the early ’00s (The Strokes) results in a skittering, punchy, enthusiastically fun indie-rock track.
6. “Please” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. Following up their impressive debut EP, Josiah and co. return with a song that’s equal parts ragged Dylan-esque folk song, clanging Americana rock (a la The Low Anthem), and Springsteen. The falsetto-laden chorus is just great. The conclusion of the video is intriguing, too.
7. “Dear Science” – Blimp Rock. Blimp Rock is a endearingly absurd band (they tried to sue the Toronto Blue Jays, their stated purpose is to raise money for a blimp), and this song is no different: a duet/discussion between the lead singer and “science” (as played by a theoretical physicist who is not taking any shit from the lead singer). The quirky indie-pop-rock fits the content to a T.
8. “Moonlight Dancing” – Vito. It’s like Dashboard Confessional’s romanticism, a pop-punk band’s vocal melodies, and indie-rock mid-tempo guitars fused into a perfect simulacra of my teenage experience. The first time I heard this song, I felt like I’d known it forever.
9. “Jimmy” – GREY \\ WATER. I’m not really into the disco revival, but indie rock song is disco smashed to bits, mixed with modern dance rock and indie pop vocal melodies, stuck in a blender, and then baked into something new. This is how you do genre mixing right. Dang.
10. “Dreamin’” – bellwire. Back when country and rock’n’roll and Brill Building pop were all intermingled, some really lovely ballads emerged. This track follows in that vintage-drama vein, tapping into modern (but no less dramatic; vintage pop included a lot of death and debauchery, for real) concerns.
11. “Rich in Love” – Afterlife Revival. Pulls the Neil Young trick of feeling both rickety and solid in its folky/acoustic/pop-type arrangement. The vocal performance is evocative, but it’s the oh-so-perfect melodic instrumental bridge that really sells this tune.
12. “Change It All” – Harrison Storm. Smooth, lithe, stark, groove-laden, and yet high-drama, this song packs a lot into its shape. You may think you’ve heard this acoustic/adult alternative all before, but there are surprises up Storm’s sleeve for those who listen intently.
13. “Heart and Mind” – Courtney Marie Andrews. Andrew’s passionate alto and thoughtful lyrics ring clear as a bell here. This stripped-down performance feels like a breath of fresh air.
14. “Runner” – Jon and Roy. A humorous, Wes Anderson-inspired video accompanies a chipper acoustic pop tune that starts out in the pocket and never leaves. Jon and Roy have been plying the trade a long time, and it shows in their easy confidence, infectious melodies, and strong groove throughout.
15. “Cold (Trevor Ransom Remix)” – Bjéar. Ransom transforms the original “build from solo piano to giant pop conclusion” chassis and totally reinvents it as a spacious ambient track that takes the listener on a walk through a dark-yet-wondrous forest.
1. “Outlandish Poetica” – Jonathan Something. A wild, whirling track that takes bits of Pavement slacker rock, lo-fi enthusiasm, kitchen sink-arrangement, and mystical/religious fervor and blends them into something unclassifiable. Also, Larry Bird is involved. Not kidding.
2. “Jungle – Saint Mesa. Starts off as a deconstructed electro-pop song and slowly edits all the missing parts back in until it’s just a big, towering, Bastille x ODESZA jam. Whoa now.
3. “Unsymmetrical” – Eli Raybon. A spitfire vocal attack and groove-heavy bass anchor this deconstructed post-punk/indie-rock blitz.
4. “Dear Abby” – Rees Finley. This song operates exactly in the space where indie-pop meets pop-punk, which is an area where Relient K and Say Anything have spent a lot of time. The vocal and instrumental melodies are infectious.
5. “Big Deceiver” – Foresteater. Fans of twee indie-pop with full-band arrangements (like It’s a King Thing) will find much to love in the distinctly charming vocal style, twinkling guitars, and warm background vocals.
6. “The Shield” – Syntax Club. They hail from Oklahoma and have the least tropical name I’ve ever heard, but this outfit has the reverb-heavy, super-laid-back, beach-friendly indie-pop thing on lock. The earnestness with which it is all pulled off keeps them just shy of yacht rock. And that’s a great thing.
7. “The Glow” – Mateo Katsu. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will have their eyes brightened by this rambling, shambling indie-pop tune led by a wistful, winsome accordion melody. There’s also some Weezer influences in the chug to the strum and the arc of the melodies. In short: long live the indie ’90s.
8. “Up” – Ships Have Sailed. SHS follows in the vein of Grouplove, Magic Giant, and Moon Taxi in creating really fun dance-oriented pop-rock out of primarily acoustic parts. This one’s a mid-tempo piece, but that makes it no less fun.
9. “No Going Back” – Ghosts of Social Networks. If Funeral-era Arcade Fire and the Killers had a child, it would sound a lot like this enthusiastically dancy indie-rock track.
10. “Honey Honey” – SISTERS. Subtle things sometimes make all the difference: the claves here match perfectly with the guitar tone and the soft vocals to create a great atmosphere. From that beginning, the song blossoms out into an expansive, post-Transatlanticism indie-pop-rock track. They incorporate synths well too, creating a synthesis of a lot of different ideas on indie-rock into one very exciting track.
1. “If I Were You” – Chris Hurn. This enthusiastic, bouncy indie-pop song is just awesome: the whistling, the glockenspiel, the punchy drums, the intriguing vocal melodies, the Beach Boys references, it’s all just great. If you’re into chipper indie-pop, you need to check this out. Also you could watch the Wes Anderson-style music video, which is similarly charming.
2. “Seventeen” – Cody Crump. This formal pop songcraft owes debts to Simon and Garfunkel, Josh Radin, and more of the ilk. It’s calm, patient, and yet just as committed to a strong melody as more brash tunes.
3. “A Man in a Red Suit” – Tyler Bernhardt. This is a subtle, warm, even sweet acoustic-pop song that is as much about young love as it is Christmas–but not in a creepy way. It balances all the lyrical and musical elements perfectly.
4. “Friday Night Epitaph” – Cyclope Espion. The vocal melodies, song structure, and even fingerpicking patterns feel like pop-punk–but slowed down into indie-pop speeds. It creates a unique, intriguing vibe.
5. “Just Another Day” – Cody Crump. Here’s another side of Crump, throwing down an appealing eletro-rock vibe with some seriously overdriven guitars in the chorus. Makes me think of Digital Ash-era Bright Eyes, as well as the Killers.
6. “Break Out” – Rainbrother. This may have started its life out as an acoustic folk song, but by this version it has become so super-charged with surging bass, insistent drums, and rat-a-tat vocal delivery that it is basically an indie-rock song. It’s immediate, urgent, and compelling.
7. “Love Stuck” – Mother Mother. The staccato vocal rhythms and vocal attitude of the chorus caught my ear immediately, lifting this dance-rock/electro tune above the fray.
8. “Do Do Do” – Dansu. It’s hard to do neo-disco when Daft Punk has so thoroughly dominated the genre, but there’s an indie-pop warmth to the arrangement and an intimacy to the vocals that sets this track apart.
9. “I’ll Never Be” – Σtella. This one’s a hypnotic, loping electro-pop track with live instruments and stellar vocals.
10. “Stranger ft. Elliphant” – Peking Duk. The pop-oriented EDM is fun here, but the real gem is the music video, which is the adventures of two dogs that accidentally get high at a Peking Duk show. It’s a unique take on a music video, for sure.
1. “We’re So Close” – MOON. Heavy doesn’t shock anymore, but it certainly can still make a big bang. As such, the thundering electric guitar entrances in this indie-rock tune are really, really rad. I would love to see this live: I can imagine it would be an impressive experience.
2. “Chaperone” – TOLMAN. I hear electro-indie-pop tunes all the time, and yet some still make me turn my head (and fast; somehow the song makes me know in seconds that it has arrived). This electro jam has some zinging treble synths, sultry female vocals, and squelchy bass synths. The words don’t do it justice–it kicks.
3. “Cold Sunshine” – Dan Webb and the Spiders. Webb usually throws down brash and speedy pop-punk, but this one slows down into a mid-tempo rocker that makes me think as much about The Hold Steady as it does The Gaslight Anthem and other not-quite-pop-punk-but-whatever bands. Webb turns in a great, evocative vocal performance here.
4. “I Can’t Resist” – The Great Escape. Sassy organ, squawking guitars, roaring vocals, stomping percussion; this reads like a mix of The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes.
5. “Show Me Your Facebook Page” – Samantha Echo. This is a wild ride: Echo creates a cabaret/show-tune style piano-pop song about the emotional troubles that Facebook causes. That simple statement can’t encompass the many twists and turns of this song, but it’s the best I got. Just listen to it.
6. “Cigarette” – PANG! feat. Cameron Douglas. Manages, manipulates, and ultimately owns the space between introspective folk and Avicii-style electro-pop-folk. Beautiful, but also catchy and punchy.
7. “Bad Girlfriend” – Keith Monacchio. The downtempo, talking-style singer/songwriter work is immediately arresting. The lyrics are fantastic as well; the sort of simple, “I could have written that but I guess I didn’t” sort of plaintive concern that connects deep.
8. “Evening Light” – Paul Sweeney. This instrumental acoustic piece is the sort that has distinct, robust lead melodies that could have been vocal melodies, had Sweeney so desired. Instead, it’s a highly melodic piece with a lot of body and development.
1. “The Age of Man” – Diva Faune. The vocal melodies here are magnetic: I can’t stop thinking about them. They are somehow optimistic and wistful, enthusiastic and pensive. The restrained electro-pop that accompanies the acoustic guitarwork is just as subtly brilliant. Highly recommended.
2. “My God” – Bitter’s Kiss. Bet you weren’t expecting a plucky, swaying piano-pop tune about religious tolerance.
3. “Love Not Hate” – Penny Mob. This rock’n’roll tune isn’t skate punk, but the distinctive vocal style, punchy ska-esque horns, and massive enthusiasm remind me of late ’90s/early ’00s skate-pop-punk. This one is also about tolerance. Bonus!
4. “I Need You Closer” – Eric Reid (A Prince). Muted, bouncy 808s; handclaps; anthemic sing-alongs full of big cursewords; Beatles-esque string arrangements. What more can you ask for in a busted-heart breakup tune?
5. “Take Me Over” – Ari Roar. Most woozy pop has distortion slathered all over it, but Roar prefers to layer slightly-off-kilter casio sounds with his feathery voice to create the a pleasingly woozy effect.
6. “What of Me” – Corey Crumpacker. If you mash the Southern rock of Needtobreathe with old-school Mumford and Sons theatricality, and you’ve got a fist-pumping, stadium-sized folk-pop tune.
7. “The Holy Ghost” – decker. decker really goes for it here, hammering away on every available instrument (including vocals) in creating an almost claustrophobically intense piece of rock’n’roll-meets-folk. Wow.
8. “Liberations” – Martin Forsell. The humble “ooo-ooo” line gets deployed to great effect here in this troubadour folk tune swaddled in layers and layers of reverb. (It’s not quite to Fleet Foxes levels of reverb, though.) The drums and bass ratchet up to a post-punk thrum, giving this folk tune great aspirations that pay off in a rewarding tune.
9. “Cabin Fever” – Candy Cigarettes. A downtempo acoustic guitar at the heart of this track is surrounded by slow-moving strings, descending rhythm guitar, ascending lead guitar, stacks and stacks of background vocals, and eventually pounding drums & keys to make a dense, charging rock tune.
10. “Aristide’s Entry into Paris” – Belly of Paris. So you’re Beirut on a bender with a cohort of gypsies shambling down the back alleys of some ancient-yet-modernizing city, and then you start getting chased. Inventive, carnivalesque, and fascinating.
11. “Or Not” – The Clydes. Everyone needs a good desperate-sounding guitar-rock song at their disposal when things are going off the rails. Keep this one close at hand for business partner backstabbing, romantic deceptions, or certain unsavory characters with outsize influence on your life.
12. “Schtum.” – Lunacre. A subtly askew guitar performance opens up into a deep, Radiohead-esque pool of barely-soothed anxiety.
The Hasslers‘ State Centerand Will Bennett and the Tells‘ Wichitahave a few things in common: an expansive view of country music, a perceptive eye toward life in the flyover states, and melodies you’re going to be humming for a while. As a ex-pat Midwesterner, I have a deep affection for both these records that goes beyond their excellent music.
Both albums drew me because of their state-specific lyrical content. State Center mentions my native Oklahoma and highway I-19; Wichita is named after the largest city in Kansas and references I-35 (the spine of the great plains states). Both albums mention far-off places (Hasslers: San Jose; Tells: Ann Arbor, Manassas) but are firmly concerned with the inner workings of life in the flyovers. The Hasslers’ detailed stories of hard drinkin’, tough livin’, and bad lovin’ are the sort of jam-packed, witty, and clever lyrics that beg to be called incisive and literary; Will Bennett’s wry ruminations on relationships point out elements of love that don’t get discussed much (“She’s Got a Problem”) along with those that do (“Paloma,” “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio”). Both bands prominently discuss that they need to be inebriated to dance. Welcome to the Midwest.
Where the two albums diverge is in the way they treat country music. The Hasslers’ country-inspired music leans toward indie-pop and folk, while the Tells’ music is more of a country-punk creation.
The Hasslers’ music is an impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts. Opener “Falling Out of Love” segues directly into “Tall Orders,” creating a nearly-8-minute tune that features lazy horns, an easygoing full-band vibe, and a zooming organ solo. “Oh My Dear, Oh My Darling” is a straight-up country song, complete with pedal steel, walking bass, and saloon-style piano. (“What Is Wisdom Anyway” reprises this turn.)
“Loves Company” is the standout ballad, merging folk verses into a pretty country chorus. “I did” is a beautiful solo acoustic tune that draws on indie-pop and even some acoustic singer/songwriter tricks. “Little Blue House” sounds like Counting Crows meets Old Crow Medicine Show in the most raucous possible mashup. Each song has individual charms, which is a rare thing. There’s a lot going on in State Center, but the whole thing has a warm, comfortable feel that keeps it cohesive.
Even though the songwriting and instrumentals are brilliant, Matt Hassler’s vocal performances are even more stellar. He has the sort of lithe, evocative voice that can sell any line, whether it’s a wisecrack, a confession, or an observation. By the end of the album, I felt like I was friends with him–both through his lyrical candor and his precise, careful, delivery, he worked his way into my heart. It’s a remarkable album-long performance that should not go overlooked; rarely are artists able to capture this level of quality over a whole album.
Will Bennett and the Tells start off Wichita with “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio,” which sets up a country-punk template for a lot of these tunes: traditional country arrangements sped way up with high tenor, pop-punk-esque vocals. Following tracks “She’s Got a Problem” and “The Villain” slow down the tempo to show that this really is a country band, and both are great successes; “The Villain” has one of the most indelible vocal melodies set against a snare shuffle and an acoustic guitar strum.
Still, it’s tunes like the punchy “Somewhere Down in Texas” and the bouncy “Paloma” that stick most with me. The mid-tempo rockers, like “Ann Arbor” and “Jolene” (every country band needs a song about Jolene), are also tight–Bennett’s vocal melodies are crisp and memorable wherever he deploys them, so each of the songs have that going for them. The good-natured quality of the album–much of it is in the major key–make it perfect summer festival or summer cookout music.
If you’re looking for a country album to pair with the dog days of summer, both of these would fit the bill excellently. Both have great lyrics, strong vocals, and melodies that could turn out to be the engine in your song of the summer.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.