It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.
7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)
6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)
4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)
3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)
2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)
1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)
The Gray Havens‘ Ghost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.
The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.
“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.
Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.
Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.