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.
The two new songs from IC faves Among Giants on this split with Aspiga turn over a new leaf for the band. AG has been mostly an acoustic-punk band (with the notable exception of the screamy “There Is a Ghost“) until 36 seconds into “In the Jungle,” where the drummer hits a downbeat and a crunchy distorted guitar line crashes in. Rhythmically the song remains an Among Giants tune, with a lot of staccato hits and separated notes. Greg Hughes’ speak-sing delivery is also retained until the very end, where he cranks it up to a ragged scream for emphasis.
That ragged scream warms up the listener for “I Care About Everyone I Meet,” which is a straight-up punk-rock tune. The only thing that connects “I Care” to Among Giants’ back catalog is the positive lyrics present in both. The song is strong and enjoyable as a punk song, but even the rhythmic style of the tune has a whole different feel. I like both of these tunes a lot, but this might signal the end of acoustic-heavy tunes like “A Letter” and “Get Your Shit Straight.” Alas, nothing stays the same but change. Here’s to the new sound of Among Giants.
It fits that they’re splitting with Aspiga, a gruff, tough, gritty pop-punk band. Both Aspiga tunes feature metallic bass tone, chunky guitar riffs, and tense moods. I’m not a huge fan of screaming in punk songs (that’s ultimately why I ended up writing an indie-pop blog, after growing up on pop-punk), but Aspiga does it tastefully in “Direction.” They bust out a synthesizer for “Old Hobbies,” which impressed me a ton and took me back to 2003. Their half of the split is fun and enjoyable for fans of the genre, although long-time readers of IC may not be into something so gritty and tough. You can pick up the 7″ over at Say-10 Records, or stream the full thing.
Writers at Independent Clauses have been following Sleep Bellum Sonno since their first release Ascertain, which was a pretty powerful post-hardcore affair: intense, moody rock instrumentals punctuated by screamed vocals and the occasional breakdown. As SBS has matured over the last five years, they’ve spent more and more energy on the moods of their songs and less on the overt aggression. This has enabled their music to become intense in a completely different way.
The two songs on their split with Joie De Vivre show that they can run people through the emotional wringer without using massive riffs or hardcore breakdowns. Opener “Do You Hear That Old Ship’s Song” uses enough reverb and space in the arrangement of the song that it has the feel of a tune leaking out from an old ghost ship at the bottom of the ocean. The group male vocals at the end singing “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” certainly help this mood as well.
The band does venture into double-throated screaming, as both vocalists get their yell on here. One’s tone is more of a MeWithoutYou-style yeller, while the other is a throat-shredding screamer; the former is more appetizing than the latter, as it fits better with the tone and timbre of the song. The move away from aggressive instrumental work should also prompt a shift away from the brutal vocals, I hope. It would work better for the songs.
They show that they understand this principle in the second and final track “All I Can See Is an Open Road.” The track is more uptempo, delving into some dissonant chordal work and intense sections of rock. But even when they crank up the instrumental intensity, they dial back the vocals to a roar instead of a throat-shredding scream. It works very, very well, making the latter a more effective track than the former. “All I Can See Is an Open Road” is just as intense as anything they’ve put out before; they have just channeled their fury in a different direction and to a different outlet.
Both of these tracks are excellent post-hardcore pieces. Sleep Bellum Sonno continues to progress in their songwriting, and I see nothing but good things for them if they press on. Pick up their half of the split here.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.