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)
Kye Alfred Hillig is a roving wanderer when it comes to musical styles. 2013’s Together Through It All showed off the diversity of his musical interests, spanning emotive balladry, indie rock force, and electronic pop; since then, his last three albums have borne out specific interests in longform statements. The electro-pop of Real Snow showed off his ability to make a club jam (“None of Them Know Me Now” should be on every party play list, seriously), while The Buddhist impressed me with just a nylon-string acoustic guitar and Hillig’s poignant lyrics. Now Great Falls Memorial Interchange flexes his alt-country muscles (with indie-rock touches). Great Falls is a record that I felt immediately at home with, as Hillig’s confident songwriting, sharp lyrics, and indelible voice create an experience both comfortable and exciting.
Hillig’s calling this his “punk rock record,” which comes out perhaps more in his self-assured attitude toward the songs than in his actual songwriting. The most punk-rock moves here are the abrupt, mid-phrase ending of opener “Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe” and several wordy, complicated song titles–the approach to the tunes, however, does seem a little more confrontational, a little more brash, and a little more pointed. The music is actually more in line with alt-country than punk-rock fury, but hey–country can resist, and “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth” has some prominent snare drive. Punk rock is what you make it.
The zinging pedal steel of “Louder Blonde” and “Jennifer Love Is Some Ghetto Behind Your Eyes” situates Hillig’s latest instantiation firmly within alt-country, while tracks like “To Be Good” and “Big Sleeping Nowhere” point back to his older sounds. Overall the songs are noisier and more-electric guitar-based than his previous two albums, but they never get so noisy as to obscure Hillig’s vocals or make the lyrics incomprehensible. Tunes here clang and clatter at their loudest, but they never lose a sweetness in the melodic content. The balancing act that Hillig manages to get all his disparate sounds and ideas to work together with a centering concept of alt-country is a pretty impressive feat. Hillig always sounds fully in control of what’s going on in this record, whether it’s the songwriting, the arrangements or the lyrics.
As impressive as songwriting is, the lyrics are the best indicator of Hillig’s confidence: he’s always been an incisive writer (see the title track of Together Through It All for early proof), but here he seems to have come into his own with a consistently high level of lyricism. Whether he’s questioning the foundations of morality (“To Be Good,” “Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), writing John Darnielle-level complex story songs (“Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe,” “Whitney Houston”) or writing a painfully honest (anti-?)love song (“In Tandem”), every lyric seems to stick in my mind and take up residence.
The story-songs in particular are memorable, as the narrators of Hillig’s tunes here accuse more than accommodate: third people are charged with not believing in romantic love or God after a breakup (“Throwing Up”), offering cheap sympathy that’s really more about the speaker (“Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), and doing various complicated and seemingly terrible things (“Yes Grinning Face of Death”). This is a rare album that can work in both directions: come for the music, stay for the lyrics; come for the lyrics, stay for the music.
And yet the punk-rock confidence in his songwriting and the refining of his lyrics are achievements that can be somewhat missed on first listen, because Hillig’s voice is so arresting here. Hillig’s vocal timbre is idiosyncratic in a pleasant way–he delivers his high tenor in a way that somehow manages to sound yelpy and round at the same time, coming off ultimately as deeply earnest. This allows him to create songs of great conviction and songs that float tenderly along with ease. His performances here are often mesmerizing in their melodic quality, as his vocal tone and timbre draws me in and won’t let me go. “Ancient Burial Ground” shows off his ability to sound calm and desperate in equally interesting measures–it’s just genuinely fun to listen to Kye Alfred Hillig sing on this record. That’s a rare thing.
Great Falls Memorial Interchange is an album that succeeds on all levels: the songwriting, the lyrics, the vocal performances. Everything is just top-notch. 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. Highly recommended.
1. “Mirrors” – Mos Isley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: )
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
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.