1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.
2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.
3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.
4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.
5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…
6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.
7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.
8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).
9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.
10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.
11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.
12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?
13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.
I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
Jonas Friddle mentions a momentous day of “when I hit my stride” in two songs on Belle de Louisville as somewhere far off. I’m happy to report to Mr. Friddle that the day is here: Belle de Louisville and its companion Synco Pony show him in full form. Folk artists appear all the time, but a truly new voice in folk is a much rarer event. That’s why readers everywhere (and Friddle!) should rejoice: these two albums can and should put Friddle in the conversation with established leaders like Josh Ritter, Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle.
Yes, I did mention two albums above: Friddle effectively released a double album as a debut. You can’t say audacious any louder than that (except, I guess, with a triple album). And instead of being bloated and selfish, both are wonderfully refreshing listens. You can even listen to them back to back for just over an hour of harmonious, melodic, banjo-led, instrument-stuffed, clever folk tunes. I’ve done it several times in my travels this summer.
They do have slightly different personalities, but they add up to a whole for Friddle. Belle de Louisville is a bit more personal and emotional, showcasing a wry sentimentality. Opener “A String to a Bell” has a major key banjo base, but legato strings and vocals are layered over it for a pensive feel. “It’s a handful of give me/a mouthful of much obliged/it greets me in the evenin’ and the mornin, when I rise,” Friddle’s lithe, warm tenor relates. This push and pull of sadness (the hunger is always there) and contentment (the hunger is always fed) goes all through Belle.
The title track has a beautiful vocal melody, while “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel” showcases his hoedown folk abilities that will be revisited with the hilarious “Women, They’re So Small and Fancy.” “Rockingham Cindy” is the killer cut here, with Friddle forlornly expressing his love for a wild woman that won’t stop drinking whiskey; it’s played on guitar with a slide instead of his more common banjo, and it’s evocative as anything I’ve heard this year. Every tune is worth hearing, for its clear and strong melodies, satisfying arrangements and incredibly solid yet varied song structures.
Synco Pony dials back his emotive side and plays up his observational/critical/protest side. Belle did have “Montcoal, West Virginia” as a protest tune against big coal, but it was an emotive appeal instead of a critical one. Similarly, Synco Pony has the touching “The Ballad of Babyface and Too Tall Sue,” which is a love song by way of third party storytelling (instead of introspective emoting). This critical lens enables tunes like “Wall Street Rag” (self-explanatory), “George Walker” (a clever tune addressed empathetically to Dubya), and “Tom Brokaw Blues” (a lament for the state of our world via a critique of the news we want to hear).
In addition to the critical lens, the music on Synco Pony features less stereotypical folky strum and focuses more on ragtime, blues and fingerpicked melodies. Album highlight “Boredom” is the best example of the dichotomy: Friddle lays on the irony thick, but not in a sarcastic or mean way. “We may all die of boredom when we stand before the Lord/singing, ‘Hallelujah, I got the highest score,” he sings in the chorus. Friddle’s from Chicago, and “Boredom” tells a story about the Cubs–since Friddle tells us that he likes the Bears in his live preface to “The Hipster,” I’m guessing that he’s poking fun at himself as much as other Chicago sports fans fictional and real. It’s that sort of reflexive charm that gets me about Friddle’s music: it tones down the seriousness with playfulness and vice versa. No matter what he’s doing musically, he keeps the ship at an even keel (without turning boring). It’s a delicate dance, but Friddle nails it.
The overall winner on the two albums is “When I Hit My Stride,” the final track on Belle de Louisville. Friddle strums his guitar chords, accompanied by a thumping tom and call-and-response vocals. The melody is infectious, and the lyrics are about something we can all relate to: we’re gonna get “there” someday, when it all goes right. When it breaks out into a round with Friddle singing his tune and the rest of the group clapping and singing “This Little Light of Mine,” it becomes downright exuberant–and then the New Orleans jazz band breaks out. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Friddle’s magic: a bunch of people together, acknowledging the difficulties of life and exuberantly celebrating the possibilities past that. I listen to music for that reminder, and Friddle provides it in spades. I said it yesterday, but it applies again today: if that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you very much. You need to hear these albums. They’re incredible, and easily contenders for best of the year.
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.