1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
9. “Habits” – Adrienne Tooley. Carrying that Lilith Fair torch: female perspective; sharp, witty lyricism; clear, uncluttered acoustic songwriting.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
Here’s a non-comprehensive, unordered list of 32 tunes that I just really loved in 2015. They approximately go from fast and loud to quiet. Happy 2016, y’all.
“Let’s Go Jump Into the Fire” – Devin James Fry and the Namesayers
“Glass Heart” – Magic Giant
“Seven Hells” – Quiet Company
“Shiny Destination” – The Rutabega
“The Fringe” – Sego
“In the Woods” – Bobby’s Oar
“Run with Me” – Heather LaRose
“Don’t Go Quietly” – Light Music
“Marina and I” – The Gorgeous Chans
“Bad Blood” – Fred Thomas
“Golden Coast” – Billy Shaddox
“Flare Gun” – In Tall Buildings
“All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha
“See You Soon” – Valley Shine
“Through the Night and Back Again” – Michael Malarkey
“By the Canal” – Elephant Micah
“Everglow” – Jared Foldy
“Father’s Day” – Butch Walker
“Muscle Memory” – Laura and Greg
“Odell” – Lowland Hum
“Waking Up Again” – Emily Hearn
“Pilot Light” – The Local Strangers
“Death Came Knocking” – B. Snipes
“Hold On” – We are the West
“Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory
“California Song” – Patrick James
“Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle
“Paperback Books” – The Pollies
“Closet” – John Vournakis
“Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf
“Spring” – Sam Burchfield
“Vacation” – Florist
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. “Spring” – Sam Burchfield. Measured guitar strum and an evocative vocal performance draw me in, but it’s the gentle keys and the ragged drumming that give the song character. The rest of the song just seals the deal. Shades of Brett Dennen here–nothin’ but a good thing. What a single.
2. “Vacation” – Florist. Within seconds the tentative, relatable guitar picking has drawn me in entirely. Emily Sprague’s tender, confessional delivery gives this a magnetic appeal usually reserved for acts like Laura Stephenson, Lady Lamb, and old-school Kimya Dawson.
3. “Little By Little” – Niamh Crowther. The melodic folk-pop is charming, and then she starts singing and it jumps way up into the stratosphere. Her voice is just remarkable. Serious one to watch here.
4. “Nevada City” – John Heart Jackie. Pulls the incredible trick of not feeling like a song, but like part of the environment you were already in, turning the corners brighter and lightening the vibe throughout. The easy maturity of this tune is not to be underrated or underestimated, especially when it bursts into a beautiful crescendo near its midpoint. Undeniably powerful.
5. “Reality Show” – Sam Joole. Adept at reggae and acoustic pop, Joole blends the lyrical and musical sentiments of both into a piece of spot-on social criticism about social media that doubles as a chill-out track.
6. “A Bone to Pick” – Ten Ton Man. The gravelly, circus-like drama of Tom Waits’ work collides with the enthusiastic world-music vibes of Gogol Bordello to create an ominous, memorable track.
7. “Walk Right” – Pete Lanctot and the Stray Dogs. An old-timey revival is the site of this tune, where the stray dogs admonish all those listening to forsake their lives of sin and “walk right.” The vintage sound is updated with great production and a hint of a knowing wink.
8. “15 Step” – Phia. The kalimba-wielding indie-popstress drops a gently mindbending cover of the Radiohead tune with just thumb piano, distant guitar, claps, stomps, and layered vocals. Just whoa.
9. “It’s Not Your Fault” – Gregory Uhlmann. Soft woodwinds deliver pleasant texture to this swaying, loose, thoughtful piece. Uhlmann captures a beautiful, unstructured mood here.
10. “If I Go” – Jake McMullen. Hollow and distant yet visceral and immediate, McMullen creates slowcore acoustic tunes similar to those of Jesse Marchant or Gregory Alan Isakov at his most ethereal. Shades of Damien Jurado’s tortured voice creep in too. It’s gorgeous stuff.