1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
1. “Holy Ghost” – deer scout. Some songs have to grow on me, but “Holy Ghost” is instant: Dena Miller’s friendly, comfortable alto invites you in, and the intimate, burbling guitar asks you to sit down. This is a magnificent song that has me very excited for future deer scout work.
2. “Annie” – Patric Johnston. The acoustic guitar has a mellifluous, perfectly-delivered melody to lead this piece, and Johnston’s voice is buttery and smooth in the way of the Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and the like: mature, solid, and full of gentle charisma.
3. “The Weather Girl” – Prints Jackson. This one’s a vocals-forward troubadour folk tune a la old-school Joe Pug or occasional Justin Townes Earle. Jackson knows how to use his voice and guitar to best effect, and the resulting tune shines with an easygoing assuredness. This song has legs, and I hope it gets to use them–more people should know about Prints Jackson.
4. “Rain Thoughts” – Frith. You walk into a new club that’s supposed to classy. You find yourself greeted with the gentle sounds of a musician trained in Tom Waits drama but purveying that work via strings, stand-up bass, gentle piano, and a relaxed tenor. You’re going to like it here, and you’re going to visit more often. (Alternatively: the gravitas of trip-hop worked its way into a singer/songwriter tune.)
5. “All Day All Night” – River Whyless. River Whyless has always wanted to be more than just a folk band, and here they expand their sound with some rhythmic group vocals and satisfying thrumming bass that drops this tune somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac.
6. “Firetrain” – Todd Sibbin. The raw, youthful vocal presentation of Bright Eyes’ mid-era work meets the polished horns and wailing organ of early-era Counting Crows alt-pop. (I just mentioned two of my favorite bands.) In short, this is a fantastic pop tune.
7. “Absolute Contingency” – The Ravenna Colt. The lead guitar work and background vocals point toward an alt-country tune out of the slowcore, Mojave 3 school, but the rest of the tune is a shuffle-snare folk tune that’s just lovely.
8. “4th July” – Daniel Pearson. This chipper folk-pop tune has a great harmonica part, a friendly vibe, and really depressing lyrics. At least it sounds happy!
9. “Revolver” – Vian Izak. It’s got that Parachutes-esque Brit-pop mystery to it, paired with the sort of chords and mood that evoke sticky, slow-moving days in the city. The results are unique and interesting.
10. “Out Loud” – Jason P. Krug. Brash but not aggressive, Krug pairs confident melodic delivery and chunky indie-pop/folk with a swooping cello to create an intriguing tension.
11. “Pack of Dogs” – Jesse Lacy. Here’s a full-band folk reminiscence on the joy of youthful friendships that brings banjo, acoustic, wurlitzer, and smooth tenor vocals together excellently.
12. “I Won’t Be Found” – Simon Alexander. The smoothness of traditional singer/songwriter mixed with the raw angst and passion of The Tallest Man on Earth’s vocals creates a distinct push and pull between punchy and silky.
13. “What It Is” – Alex Hedley. The purity and honesty of a fingerpicked guitar line and an emotional vocal melody are never going to get old to me. This particular tune is earnest without being cloying; moody without being morose. Well-balanced. Deeply enjoyable.
14. “Someday feat. Devendra Banhart” – Akira Kosemura. A fragile piano melody is joined by hushed vocals and romantic strings. It’s the sort of song that lovers have their first dance to.
15. “Dear, be safe” – Rasmus Söderberg. What a tender, delicate acoustic plea this is.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
North Carolina folk outfit River Whyless‘ tunes have no hard edges. The gentle, cooing folk on their self-titled EP has had all its difficult parts sanded down to a smooth, warm experience that wraps you in a comfy blanket of sound. Look no farther than opener “Life Crisis” to find that fuzzy feeling: the slow-building, slow-burning tune incrementally adds harmonium, glockenspiel, clapping, and dramatic cello to culminate in a ragged, earthy stomp that would make Fleet Foxes, barnraisers, and snowy-day-fireplace-watchers happy.
Look no further than “Miles of Skyline” to see how deeply the production values are imbued in their bones. The song has a rhythmic, metallic drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in an industrial tune, but they manage to layer so many harmonic plucks, swooning strings, trilling vocals and other pleasant vibes that it doesn’t sound out of place at all. It’s a frankly amazing songwriting trick, not unlike the moment in “All My Friends” when you realize that James Murphy has been playing the same piano line this whole time but it sounds different with every instrument that’s added.
In between those tracks are “Maple Sap” and “Bath Salt,” which both flesh out the River Whyless sound. The former starts off with a capella harmonies that remind me of Mountain Man, First Aid Kit and the like. Then it explodes outward into that Fleetwood Mac/CSNY sound that modern folk in the mid ’00s was so good at pulling together. It feels rustic in a beautiful way. The latter starts off so wonderfully crisp and bright that it sounds like the audio equivalent of turning a corner on a path and seeing a mountain pond ringed by trees with the sun shining in. The song floats.
River Whyless is a delicate, glorious wonder. It’s highly stylized to reach maximum beauty and calm, which seems to me the best reason to stylize anything. If you’re into modern folk, River Whyless is a must-know; this release is a must-have.
1. “Glass Heart” – Magic Giant. The rhythmic knowledge of a dance floor anthem powers this folk-pop jam. The inevitable whoa-ohs and jubilant trumpet line send this over the edge into “world-conquering pop song” mode. Seriously, this is like the best parts of the Lumineers and Mumford without the negatives.
2. “One More Song” – Tyler Hilton. Hilton imbues a lot of romantic intensity into his voice, layered neatly over an adult alternative tune that splits the difference between Taylor Swift and Matt Nathanson.
3. “Local News” – Heath McNeese. A simple acoustic fingerpicking pattern, a gentle voice, an endearing story, and a memorable melody: what else do you need? Beautiful singer/songwriter work here.
4. “All Along” – Joe Mansman and the Midnight Revival Band. Snare-shuffle country with evocative vocals, a soaring chorus, and a great vibe. Do I have to throw “alt” in front of country, or can I trust you to listen anyway?
5. “Alegria” – DBG. British folk singer/songwriter DBG went to Spain and interviewed people, then wrote a bunch of songs about those interviews–in Spanish. This one showcases his gentle fingerpicking along with the Spanish-language lyrics.