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.
Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief is shiver-inducingly good. Lion’s Den is a strikingly cohesive, mature, and assured work for a debut album from a young group of musicians.
Little Chief skews toward Mumford and Sons’ style of straightforward songcraft, but they do in a vastly less percussive style. The band softens the edges of everything, from gentle guitar strum to cello inclusions to melodic group vocals instead of shouted ones. The result is a collection of songs that work their way into your long-term memory in a very unassuming manner. I’ve been humming Little Chief tunes long after I heard them, and it drives me back to the album.
Their gentle touch makes every high higher than it would be, because it feels non-obvious and genuinely celebratory. These aren’t party songs, they’re songs of jubilation. “Brighton Shore” and “Shiloh” are both tunes that take feelings of loss and hardship and transform them. This album is deeply concerned with carrying on through trouble, and their humble approach to songcraft displays that earnest emotion.
“Mountain Song” and “Lion’s Den” show the arranging prowess of the band. “Mountain Song” has a long, gorgeous instrumental intro, while the full-song crescendo of “Lion’s Den” is punctuated by an excellent cello part, well-timed drums, and tasteful brass. This band has chops–it knows when to use them and when to let simplicity be.
If you’re into folk-pop, Lion’s Den is a must-listen. It has the emotive heft of The Head and the Heart, the arrangements of early Fleet Foxes, and melodies galore. It’s astonishingly confident for a debut album, but I’m not questioning it: if it’s good, it’s good. Highly recommended.
It’s a common problem that bands will find a sound they’re good at and hit it until their audience is just sick of it. Grover Anderson handles that problem by playing songs in vastly different genres, somehow managing to avoid sounding like a tourist or faker in any of them. Frantic murder ballads, love ballads, jilted lover electric blues, back-porch pickathon shout-it-outs, brilliant country tunes, and downtempo minimalist all hang out on The Optimist. It’s a credit to Anderson’s skills that each of them sounds natural. It makes for an odd listening experience as a collection of tunes (multiple people die, multiple people get married–sometimes in close quarters), but each individual song is worthwhile.
Given my personal predilections, I’m more interested in the bluegrassy “Pick Up Your Horn” and the Bon Iver-esque “Grindstone” than in the Mraz-style love songs “When You Come Near” and “Enough.” But the gentle fingerpicking of breakup tune “Dancing Slow” calls to mind the weighty work of Ray LaMontagne, which seems to be the antithesis of Jason Mraz in my mind.
All of this love in stark contrast to “The Lampolier” and “Philip Marshall Cates,” both of which are intense murder ballads, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a very long time. To start with, “The Lampolier” is an incredible piece of lyricism, as Anderson puts together an intriguing, eerie story through a very structured rhyme scheme. Amid this complexity, Lampolier delivers a masterful vocal performance that sees him ratchet from a gentle speak/sing to outright desperate hollering. I still get shivers when Anderson roars wordless distress three minutes in. The band is a runaway coal train behind him, pressing the song forward to its inevitable end. It’s the single and the opener, and it doesn’t take many brain cells to decide that both were excellent decisions. “Philip Marshall Cates” isn’t as electric in its convictions, but it’s another death ballad that sits in stark contrast to the love songs.
Also, “Little Spoon” is my favorite love song released this year. Some love songs are huge, sweeping announcements of love–others focus on the little, pedestrian parts of love that make it so wonderful, like drinking Blue Moons together, spooning, and spending time together. Anderson’s tune is the latter.
So Anderson’s got a ton going on in this album, being a lot of things to a lot of people. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to ignore that Anderson’s songwriting skill is great. I look forward to seeing how he adapts and focuses his skills in upcoming work (or not). If you’re into people who play acoustic guitars, Grover Anderson has something for you.
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.