1. “The Tallest Woman on Earth” – Prints Jackson. Jackson’s on a never-ending song-a-month project (this one is month 33), and it seems like it’s only honing his skills: this fingerpicked folk tune is near-perfect. The vocals are engaging, the arrangement keeps morphing and changing, and the whole thing is a “can’t take my ears off it” success. Turn off the video you’re watching and just give this one your full attention: it will reward you.
2. “Still Believe in Love” – Darrin James Band. A spiritual successor to the swift, self-confident protest songs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this fingerpicked travelin’ song is a protest anthem and a call for love all at once.
3. “Snake in the Grass” – Autumn Chorus. This a thoughtfully arranged chamber-folk piece with soft, arresting vocals. If you want a jolt, look up the story behind the song. Even if you’re not the researchy type, you can feel the gravitas here.
4. “Penny for Your Thoughts” – Einar Stray Orchestra. It takes chutzpah to put together an indie orchestra in 2016–the economics and logistics of it are just nightmarish. But the music that you can produce: whoa. This piano-led piece is punchy and yet organic, keeping a drumkit, thrumming bass, and pizzicato strings all balanced perfectly. It’s a complex whirligig that doesn’t draw attention to its moving parts and instead shows off the whole, awesome result.
5. “Astrovan” – Mt. Joy. Comes straight out of the SUSTO school of laidback irreverence: chilled-out alt-country that imagines Jesus driving an Astro van (among other things). I’m not on team Astro Van lyrically (“maybe there is no heaven”), but man, the melodic appeal and gentle groove of this song are hard to reject.
6. “Until I Fall Asleep” – Paul Cook & The Chronicles. Who doesn’t love a sub-two-minute acoustic pop lullaby? This one is sweet, kind, and lovely.
7. “Chasing Heights” – Bamik. No genre is ever dead–it just gets harder and harder to do something that’s genuinely riveting without just calling back to old cliches. But it is totally doable, and Bamik demonstrates it by making incredibly engaging folk-pop–that still sounds like Mumford and Sons crossed with Fleet Foxes. But in that juxtaposition is magic, and Bamik finds that magic. Fantastic.
8. “4th of July” – STILLS. The close vocal harmonies and harmonium make this a warm, immersive, intimate folk tune. I love what the harmonium can do for a song, and STILLS put it to great use here.
9. “Rising Men Down” – Kate O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s lovely Irish lilt leads this track, as she uses it softly and powerfully throughout the tune. The arrangement is sophisticated and impressive.
10. “Goodbye” – Lucas Laufen. The sound of sheep bleating and wind rustling in the background give this gentle ballad even more pastoral bonafides. Laufen’s voice meshes with the pristine guitar playing beautifully.
11. “Lover After” – Luke De-Sciscio. Fans of Jeff Buckley will appreciate the yearning, ethereal vocals over delicate washes of acoustic notes that compose this emotive tune.
12. “Let Me Down Easy” – Andrea von Kampen. von Kampen has impressive control over her voice, swooping from a dignified near-whisper to a keening wail to an even-handed plea with tremendous ease. This amount of diversity is a mark of songwriting maturity, and this break-up tune has a rare thoughtful quality to it that drives home the idea even more.
13. “Hewing Crowns” – Her Harbour. A solitary, lonesome rumination over a solo piano–the room echo gives the vocal performance even more gravitas than the commanding-yet-vulnerable vocal performance itself brings to the table. Good news for people who like sad news.