Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

Summer of Sam's unassuming acoustic tunes are brilliant

February 6, 2012

I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)

Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.

Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.

Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.

It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.

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.

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