Surreality and absurdity have specific meanings to me. Surreal is the type of weird that’s just left of normal; you can feel that it might be normal, but something is just off. It’s the creepy weird, the weird that everyone accepts as normal except you–and you don’t know why. Absurdity is when completely nonsensical things happen all at once and everyone realizes it’s bizarre. Creating absurdity is much easier than creating surreality. The Landing’s video for “We Are” is surreal, in the best way.
Springtime Carnivore’s video for “Name on a Matchbook” is the funniest video I’ve seen all year. Subverting gender stereotypes and tropes? Re-envisioning Springtime Carnivore as a girl-band Beatles? Be still, my fluttering heart.
Quiet Stories’ “When I Come Down” is not necessarily quiet in volume, but the story he tells in this video definitely is a quiet little tale.
Sometimes it’s a single image that gets me in a video. In Bobby Bare Jr.’s “North of Alabama By Morning,” it’s a two-second clip (0:37-38) of the keyboardist grooving so hard. Total dedication to the sound, right there. Also, this song rules.
I watched the whole 5:16 of Sharon Van Etten’s “Your Love is Killing Me” clip because I wanted to know what was happening. Let’s just call the end a baffling one. Van Etten is a towering presence on this track, so if you’re into huge, emotional songs, you can stay for that as well.
There’s a striking immediacy to much punk music that endears me to it. Even more that rock, punk music feels connected to the life of the moment. No hook should be delayed, no element should be understated, nuance should be minimized; who knows how long that PA will hold up? If the show will get shut down? If the world ends? Nope, play fast and loud and do it all right now. Quiet Stories‘ Matt Moran cut his teeth in the short-lived punk/rock band The Typist, so he knows the world of sonic immediacy. Even though he’s playing acoustic folk/country right now, he’s maintained that brash, devil-may-care attitude in his melodies and arrangements. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a passionate album that feels both energetic and comforting. [Editor’s Note: Quiet Stories is now known as Matthew Moran.]
The history of musicians leaving punk for acoustic music is long, but it’s one of punk’s lesser-known defects that was most successful as an acoustic performer. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was in punk/emo band Further Seems Forever in the early ’00s before starting DC. Since DC is pretty much sad songs sung to punk strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s not surprising the first time you hear that fact. Moran has more than a little bit of the brash vocal stylings and energetic arrangements of Carrabba. “1987” and “Seven Years” particularly show off this vibe: the former sees Moran singing loudly and hammering a piano from the outset of the song, while the full band arrangement of the latter includes full-keyboard slides, hollered punk vocals, iconic punk whoas, and punchy drums. This may be a folk/country album, but it’s not Bon Iver by any stretch of the imagination.
“When It’s Over” starts with full arrangement and vocals from the beginning, a no-nonsense approach to getting into a song. It’s a bit more of a melancholy track, per its title. Even though it jumps in with both feet, it still shows a reflective musical and lyrical side. Fingerpicked ballad “This is 25” will be the high point for fans of quiet/sad tunes–it’s a really strong track that shows Moran could play ball with the best of the solo singer/songwriters if he so chose. But when you can holler with the best of them and play loud songs like closer “American Summer,” why would you play only quiet ones? Moran is comfortable with the mix of sounds, as none of the songs here sound out of place to my ear. It’s just a fun album to listen to.
That diversity of sound turns Per Aspera from a collection of tunes into a true album. There are many facets to the album, even though the predominant sound is a brash, punk-inspired folk/country idiom. Moran knows his way around a guitar, and that shows throughout. If you want some folk/country with energy, passion, and strong songwriting, check out Quiet Stories.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Where I Belong EP – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
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.