1. “Dylan Thomas / Bitter Bitter” – The Duke of Norfolk. A Dylan Thomas spoken word clip opens the gates of this track onto a field of wavering strings, distant vocals, gentle percussion, sea waves, and beautiful guitar melodies. It’s a very hopeful scene that gets only more so with the addition of subtle arpeggiator bleeps and a ramped-up tempo. The hope and warm enthusiasm of the track contrast with the lyrics, which are about coming to grips with death of loved one. It’s a statement track, for certain, and it’s a great stake to stick in the ground. Highly recommended. (Full Disclosure: I gave feedback on a pre-mastered version of this track.)
2. “Heat” – Kira May. Well, this is something new and different. There’s some ambient vibes to start the track; a lot of thick, manipulated vocals (think Imogen Heap); engaging “lead bass” work; and a strong, direct vocal performance on top of all of that via May. All of that runs slinky pop vibes (a la Dido) through an art-school filter (a la Talking Heads) to turn up something exciting and unusual. Highly Recommended.
3. “From Osaka, With Love” – Mixtaped Monk. This totally chill instrumental track manages to create the relaxing, soothing vibes of ambient music without losing the sense of forward motion. Gentle electric guitar, intriguing melodic percussion noises, and the oh-so-rare effective use of a slow sweeping/phasing effect on the synths. The addition of full kit percussion adds some post-rock panache, which gives the track heft.
4. “Walkin’ Through” – Emilie Mover. This hushed, intimate folk tune doesn’t walk so much as leisurely float. Mover’s beautiful voice unspools careful melodies over a gently pulsing fingerpicking pattern on a nylon-string guitar. There are crickets in the background, suggesting that Mover is out in a forest near a pond, perhaps, living the romantic life of nature. All in all, a lovely track.
5. “Fake Out” – MUNROE. This is a piano ballad, but it’s not maudlin, campy, overextended, or overstuffed. It features a deeply affecting vocal performance, an insistent piano arrangement, and vocal melodies that are hard to get out of my head. If only all piano work could be this earnest, affecting, and strong.
6. “Shelter” – Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals. I was listening to John K. Samson’s excellent work yesterday. I found myself discussing with my wife that, despite 15 years of listening to new music almost every day, there are some artists that have the X factor (my wife called it “umami“) that can transcend a standard form in an almost indiscernable, indescribable way. Stephen Karl’s work has that umami quality–this is a folk/country tune with train-track percussion, weeping pedal steel, and a baritone vocal performance. Nothing of the piece jumps out as the thing that makes the track great, but every piece contributes to making this song a cut above the rest of the pack doing much the same type of work. Good job, Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals.
7. “Oh Honey” – Neighbor Lady. I can say, “Filters the best of ’50s pop vibes through chill ’90s low-key Britpop and contemporary indie-pop with a dash of punk rock attitude in the vocal performance” or I can say, “This is the sort of song that ends up on so many of your playlists and mix CDs that you start giving this song to people multiple times, unapologetically.”
8. “The Balance” – Tenderfoot. Put The Antlers, The National, and Alt-J in a blender and this smooth, assured indie track might just come out. The way all the elements (strings, vocals, drums, bass, guitars) come together into a single, slicked-back unit is impressive.
9. “The Future” – BAILEY. Here’s a chipper, major-key folk-pop tune that reminds me of Bronze Radio Return and the quieter moments of Magic Giant. The inclusion of keys and whistling is a lot of fun, adding to the good vibes coming from the base arrangement, vocal performance, and lyrics.
10. “Stay” – The Drew Thomson Foundation. This is ’90s-style alt-country (do we still say country-punk?) that has all the charge of a rock song with juuuuust enough country to keep it fresh. The punchy vocal performance and the yearning lyrics are icing on the songwriting cake.
11. “Got It Cheap” – Tom West. This tune makes genre distinctions meaningless: there’s a banjo, some sort of saxophone, horns, some crunchy electric guitar, walking speed tempos, and mournful (yet still catchy) vocals. It’s a pop song of some sort, maybe, but whatever it is, it sounds really “in the pocket.” One that’s worth repeating, for sure.
12. “Doughnuts Forever” – The Orb. Downtempo electronica with trip-hop influences, tropical vibes, and a total sense of cool running through the whole thing. Very polished from this veteran outfit.