Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.
The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.
Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)
So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.
I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.
Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.
It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?
Arctic Tern‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.
Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.
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.