1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.
2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)
3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.
4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.
5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.
6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.
7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.
8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.
9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.
10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.
11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!
12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skinby Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.
Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.
But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.
So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
1. “Don’t Go Quietly” – Light Music. Is this indie-rock? Post-rock? Electronica? All of the above? All I know is that this gorgeous track is one of my favorite songs of the year.
2. “Our Little Machine” – Last Good Tooth. The lyrics here sound straightforward till you read them a second time; the dense, melodic sounds here are similarly deceptive, unveiling their details as you listen repeatedly.
3. “The Closing Door” – LVL UP. Balances Weezer-esque guitar-wall crunch with “aw, shucks,” nose-in-a-book indie-pop for a unique, pleasant tension.
4. “Brother in Arms” – Annabelle’s Curse. The smooth easiness of indie-pop meets the complexity of indie rock while the spectre of alt-country hangs over it all. Taking the best of multiple genres and creating something new is a worthy goal, and Annabelle’s Curse knocks it out of the park here with a great tune.
5. “Modern Language” – Postcards from Jeff. Intertwined flute and guitar open this nearly-seven-minute indie-rock title jam from PfJ’s new record. It’s the sort of arrangement that balances delicate sounds with the drum-forward enthusiasm that makes a great live track.
6. “Answered Prayers” – Terribly Yours. This quirky indie-pop tune includes the fattest bass sounds and thickest groove I’ve heard in the genre this side of Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist.” The song floats along like a tropical breeze on a vacation where you’re really and truly not worrying about going back to work.
7. “New Colors” – Kennan Moving Company. Sometimes you need that blast of horns in your life, no matter if you’re a soul tune or a pop-rock tune (as this one is).
8. “Glory Days” – 1955. The high-drama indie-rock (equal parts early ’00s Hives, early ’00s Elbow, and Cold War Kids) is perfectly tuned to be in one of those adventure-laden Heineken ads (and their spin-offs–what’s up with those Kohler ads?). In other words, it’s the sort of way-too-cool thing you want to score your life’s soundtrack.
9. “Swings & Waterslides” – Viola Beach. Straddling the line between Hot Chelle Rae’s radio-pop-rock and Tokyo Police Club’s left-field take on the same, this tune pushes all the right buttons.
10. “Porch” – Long Beard. All emo-inflected indie-rock bands want to sound effortlessly nostalgic, but few of them hit the mix of guitar tone, vocal reverb, walking-speed energy, and gentle melodicism.
12. “New Vibration” – ALL WALLS. Grumbling guitar distortion and a chiming guitar riff collide with falsetto “oohs” to make a funky/poppy/fun track that would make Prince jealous.
13. “Rock N Roll Disco” – James Soundpost. Do you need a primer in how to write timeless pop-rock music? If so, listen to this tune and learn how to write a no-nonsense guitar line, sing a catchy hook, and rip off a guitar solo. Rad.
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.