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.
St. Even is that rare record that is captivating in its vocal melodies, arrangements, lyrics, and album art design. Captivating me with one of these things is enough to score a rave review, but this self-titled record from the nom de guerre of singer/songwriter Steven Hefter gives me everything at once. This quirky, lovely, challenging record is a surefire bet to be on my Top 10 of the year list.
His vocals are warm and engaging: his emotive baritone can sound pain-stricken, hopeful, and confident all in the same song. His years of writing and performing have earned him a quiet control of his range, which makes the melodies that he chooses to go for seem effortless. Even at his dour, Dan Mangan-esque moments, he’s got a little bit of a wry smile going on. The performances are memorable in their distinctness; his is not an interchangeable voice, and these are not disposable performances. Many of the melodies are beautiful not only for their well-craftedness, but for their earnest, nuanced, often subtly-imperfect performances. They’ve got character.
The arrangements are also full of life and verve: Hefter doesn’t like to have each instrument play straight through the song. Instead, he fits parts together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a sprawling chamber orchestra/New Orleans Jazz line into an awe-inspiring musical Rube Goldberg machine. This creates a joyful uncertainty, giving the listener little clue what wonder will be behind the next corner. Will it be the jubilant New Orleans piano of “Don’t Hold Your Breath”? The woozy horns of “Until Now Forever”? The odd rhythms of “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” that make it feel as if the whole song is leaning forward? Hefter keeps you guessing in the best way. You will sing along with songs that don’t seem like you should be able to sing along; Hefter can make complex things fun, and fun things complex.
The “fun things complex” really comes into play with the lyrics, the weight of which is incredible for a singer/songwriter album that’s written in major keys and with intricate arrangements. Not many would layer another layer of depth onto what’s already going on, but Hefter goes right there in “Been a Little Better,” “Until Now Forever” and “Homesick.” His ruminations on the struggles of life feature lines that stick out in the best of ways, grabbing my attention and making me think about them. Because much of their gravitas comes from their delivery, I won’t spill them here, but I can point you toward “Until Now Forever” and “Really Real” for places where this might come upon you.
The art for the album is beautiful as well, with the case arriving in a burlap bag with gorgous print on both sides. The case itself has art too, which keeps proving that Hefter is really special in his attention to detail and that Gorbie International is a doing a wonderful thing for music. The other record label that put out this record is Party Damage Records, which only has five releases under its belt, but is already climbing my list of labels to watch. They opened up their catalog with the excellent dance-oriented indie-pop of Keep It Safe by Wild Ones; they’ve moved on to recognizing the immense talents of St. Even. Hard to argue with that track record.
St. Even is a sophisticated, intricate, beguiling album that gave me an immediate kick but kept the rest of the iceberg submerged. With some careful attention, the rest of the beauty became apparent–and I’m still discovering it with current listens. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended.
I had two presentations and classes to teach this week, so I spent an unusual amount of time doing mental exercises to keep myself calm and focused. One of those was “pushing play on my iPod to hear St. Even‘s Spirit Animal.” It worked almost as well as deep breaths and [nerdy Wheel of Time joke redacted].
It’s easy to chill when listening to St. Even, who longtime readers may recognize from Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends), as Spirit Animal‘s acoustic-based folk/indie-pop combines the preternatural chill of Breathe Owl Breathe with the downtrodden theatricality of Dan Mangan. Hefter’s baritone adds to the effect, as his few moments of urgency only serve to reinforce that Spirit Animal is predominantly a leisurely stroll.
Hefter’s low, calming tone spreads from his voice to the arrangements. They are meticulously crafted, but never invasive or heavy: the violins float along in “The Piano Inflates,” while the horns in “Cocksure” are poignant instead of flamboyant. This is due in part to the fact that Hefter hits it and quits it: Most songs hover around 2:40, with some falling near or under two minutes. Nothing has time to overstay its welcome.
The resulting tunes range from the chipper “Blinding Love” and very pleasant “Dreams/My Rope” to the self-effacing “Ariel” and the wrenching sadness of “Long Distance Calls.” The major exception is the Mangan-esque, self-aware closer “This Is Not a Song,” which ends in a ten-car folk pile-up of erratic guitar strum, flutes, choirs, vocal soloists, saloon piano and cello. It’s markedly different than the rest of the album, but it feels fine as an outro.
I listen to a great deal of music, but some albums stick with me past their week. St. Even’s latest seems quite promising to end up on the list with Beirut’s The Rip Tide as most recent entries. Fans of mature, thoughtful songwriting (Mangan, Breathe Owl Breathe, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Jurado) should get their paws on a copy of Spirit Animal.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.