(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
1. “Lighthouse” – The Burgeoning. One of the most intriguing singles I’ve heard all year, this track combines the ambient uppers of chillwave with the melodic structures of Vampire Weekend and the frantic fury (and guitar noise) of a punk band. It’s a fresh, amazing combination. I’m looking forward to hear more from The Burgeoning.
2. “The Next Morning” – The Drafts. The energy and enthusiastic guitars of The Vaccines meet a reserved, pensive vocalist for a charming, infectious tune that you’ll want to hear multiple times.
3. “Where I Go” – Pistol Shrimp. If Passion Pit, MGMT, and Anamanaguchi had a basement dance party, this bangin’ tune would be the result. Pop gold, right here.
4. “Heartracer” – Cosby. Synth-laden, big-pop ’80s revivalism is going great this year. This fits right up there with Challenger for the best of the bunch.
5. “Recurring Dreams” – Shivery Shakes. The carefree nature of whistling in a ’60s surf-pop influenced tune gets me every time. You like The Drums? You’ll love this.
6. “Promises” – Barreracudas. If you make a metaphor that includes arcade games (specifically Donkey Kong), I will be immediately more endeared to you. Fun, poppy garage-rock here.
7. “Speed Date Yr Way to Fame” – Sweet Deals on Surgery. Starts off a thrashy, screamed, frantic punk song before taking a momentary break in pop. Then in blasts off again.
8. “Name on a Matchbook” – Springtime Carnivore. ’60s girl pop gets a slight sonic update, but the soul of this tune really begs for an -ettes suffix.
9. “Head Down” – The Ocean Party. Jangly ’80s indie-rock meets airy ’80s synth-pop. The peppy, fun results are less ’80s and more ’00s than you’d think.
Slow Magic‘s How to Run Away combines chillwave and chiptune, two of my favorite niche genres, to create a whole album that lives in the tension between lush and staccato. “Hold Still” shows off the dichotomy best, where flowing synths and chill beats in the bulk of the song give way to a mini-dubstep coda with screamin’ single-note synths straight out of a video game somewhere.
Slow Magic does have songs that show off both sides: “Youth Group” sounds like Final Fantasy-inspired chiptune, while “Girls” is right in line with Pogo and Blackbird Blackbird in terms of chopped-vocals/smooth synths chillwave construction. But it’s the songs where the elements cross (and are augmented by insistent piano, as is often the case) where the songs shine. It’s not as high-energy as Anamanaguchi, but this isn’t sit-back-and-relax music either. It strives to make its own path, and that’s commendable no matter what genre you’re in.
Remedies also has some serious chiptune influences, but they choose trip-hop as their second ingredient. Slow Magic chooses upbeat, bright moods; Remedies chooses downtempo, midnight-blue moods to go along with high-pitched synths. The sounds from all your SNES dungeon gaming have found new life in Believers, re-appropriated in unique ways.
This is most clearly shown in single “Trap,” where the opening riff sends me back to Zelda: Link to the Past, while the dreamy synths and autotuned vocals take the song in a different direction. The vocals appear throughout the album, graduating the tunes of Believers from easily-classified electro jams to a more complex and rewarding description: a hybrid R&B/alt hip-hop project. “Time” is a particularly evocative example of their hip-hop grooves, while follow-up “Good Books” shows off their R&B chops in vocal melodies and spurned-lover lyrics. Chiptune, trip-hop, hip-hop, and R&B in a blender seems like a tough thing to imagine, but Remedies sounds surprisingly assured and mature in pulling it off.
ODESZA‘s In Return also has some R&B influences, particularly in the Shy Guys feature “All We Need” and the smooth instrumental banger “Kusanagi.” But it’s a side effect of ODESZA’s main mission: absorb every possible electro-based genre into its own version of what electronic music should be. Call it post-dub if you like, but there’s hardly a drop to be found here (even of the artsy version they originally came to prominence on). Instead, there’s flashes of clubby electro-pop (“Sun Models”), soundtrack-ready mood backdrops (“Sundara”), laconic electronic estimations of quirky indie-pop (“Memories That You Call”), and more. The opening of “For Us” sounds like the start of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” which is more compliment than not from this party.
By absorbing the lessons of many different strains of electronic music (including chiptune!), ODESZA has crafted an album that blows past all of them. There’s not a cloying or cheesy moment on this whole album, which is a testament to the group’s skill and nuance. (I love Anamanaguchi, because cheesiness is the point. When cheesiness is not the end goal, that’s when it gets problematic.) If you’re into electronic music, you really should be listening to ODESZA. For my money, they’re making the most interesting electronic music around.
Pop-folk has started to take over the radio. I never would have guessed that I’d write that sentence, but there it is. We’ll know that the domination has become total when The Parmesans make it to the radio: they take pop-folk one step farther down the line, playing a very pop-friendly form of bluegrass. Debut album Wolf Eggs is 15 (!) songs of melody-heavy folk/bluegrass that will make you want to tap your foot, clap, and sing along. Opener “Spicy Cigarette” sets the mood for the rest of the album by introducing a guitar/mandolin/stand-up bass trio tracked live, with each of the members contributing harmonized vocals. They even shout “hey!” in the middle of the mandolin solo. How can you not love that sound? “Load Up on Eggs” features a trumpet to great effect; “JuJaJe” recalls the Avett Brothers in blocky, chord-based style; “The Riddle Song” will steal your heart away (or the heart of whatever significant other you play it for).
While “The Riddle Song” is beautiful musically, its title implies that the lyrics are the main point, and so they are. The Parmesans are not slouches in that department, which makes this album even more enjoyable. There are plenty of standard references to alcohol (“Spicy Cigarette,” “Wine in My Mustache”), food (“Load Up On Eggs”), and various agricultural things (“Hay,” “Chicken Yard”), but there’s also a knowing wit in these tunes. The tropes may be a beard, but they’re not fake: the lyrics use the goofy top layer to speak to real emotions and situations. It’s fun and real. How often do you get that?
The Parmesans know what’s up on Wolf Eggs: they give you a large set of tunes that are memorable melodically and lyrically. It’s fun, funny, and even sentimental. What else do you want out of a folk album? Wolf Eggs is one of the best releases I’ve heard all year, and I expect to see it in my end of year lists.
I love chiptune. As I write this sentence, I’m listening to chiptune version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” because seriously, I’m committed to this genre. Anamanaguchi is also wholly invested in the genre, as their Endless Fantasy shows. They’ve thrown down 22 songs on the album, and all of them are chock full of mostly-instrumental warp-speed pop-punk shot through with enough jubilant chiptune melodies to make 1988 Nintendo jealous. If you can’t get happy while listening to this music, I don’t know what can help you. This is the aural equivalent of drinking a Red Bull. It’s the most fun music I’ve heard all year. The members are sneakily talented at arranging these songs so that it doesn’t get boring, but that’s not the point. Bouncing off the flippin’ walls is the point. And you should do that. Heartily. With gusto.
I’m not going to lie: I loved Dashboard Confessional. I was the right exact age for that to be my jam in high school, and there’s just no way I can sit here and say that I didn’t holler along with those songs unabashedly. I pulled out The Swiss Army Romance when I heard that the Chris Carrabba-fronted pop-folk band Twin Forks was among us, and it was one of the most nostalgic things I have ever experienced. I felt like I was 16 again, really and truly.
So it should not surprise you that I’m about to say that Twin Forks is awesome. I mean, how could it not be? This guy has tons of experience writing songs on an acoustic guitar, and now he gets to put banjos and mandolins around it. He sings like he sings. If you hate his voice, well, you’re probably not reading this sentence, because you already left. This is exactly what you think it would be, and that’s great. The more critical quandary goes something like this, a la Phillip Phillips: is this a shameless play on what is popular? Is it a “right time at the right place” thing? Is it simply boredom on Carrabba’s part? The populist in me has an answer: I DON’T CARE ONE BIT. If you need more Dashboard Confessional, or more pop-folk, jump on Twin Forks’ self-titled EP. You will sing and stomp and dance and I’m going to stop before I go all caps on this. I’m just all about it. Yes.
Since I loved Megaman and Sonic the Hedgehog when I was growing up, chiptune has a special appeal to me. Add punk rock into that mix, and you’ve got something I can’t resist. Anamanaguchi has indeed made a career out of combining these things, but they’ve upped the ante in the video for “Meow” by paying tribute to all the video games I loved as a kid. This is just … I can’t even explain how much I love this.
With a band name like The Suicide of Western Culture and a song titled “Love Your Friends, Hate Politicians,” I didn’t expect thoroughly unmitigated joy out of this tune. But that’s what this duo delivers, offering up a thrilling, joyous electro-jam that’s reminiscent of Dan Deacon’s amazing work.
Bono and Glen Hansard decided to go busking together, which is amazing in and of itself. But the best part of this video is at the beginning, where Glen clearly motions to a guy off screen to come up and help play “Desire.” It’s Eoin Glackin, who I’ve been covering for a while now. Mind be blown.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.