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.
Jacob Furr’s Trails and Traces is going to a heavy album, as he wrote it after losing his young wife to cancer. The mournful folk opening of “Falling Stars” turns into a raging alt-country stomper by the end of the track. To cap it off, the wide-open, Western videography is gorgeous.
I can’t get The Collection off my mind, and this exuberant video for “The Gown of Green” is one of the reasons why. I’m particularly a fan of the bassist in this clip, who is going hard in the paint 100%. The cellist, clarinetist, and trombonist all are stoked to be there, but for real. The bassist. He knows what is up.
Gosh, Brother O Brother make such desperate-sounding songs. From the raucous guitars to the thrashing drums to outraged vocal delivery, it sounds like “Without Love” is about to come crashing down on you at all times. In times like these, though, perhaps we need desperate outrage at the lack of love in the world.
In addition to being able to sing and shred wicked guitar riffs, Megafauna’s Dani Neff can dance. She puts all three of those skills on display for the “Haunted Factory” clip.
It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.
It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.
The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.
Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–“Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.
It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”
I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.
I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.
The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.
1. “Capernaum” – The Collection. The Collection always blows me away with the intricate complexity of their arrangements. It sounds as if David Wimbish has found an entire orchestra to pour his heart into here; whatever’s left over is spilled out in his deeply mournful and affected vocals. The tension between chipper music and deep sadness in the lyrics is beautiful, calling up sentiments similar to Page France and Sufjan Stevens (but way more orchestral–I know, what could be more arranged than Sufjan’s work? Just listen.)
2. “I Know You Know” – Andrew Judah. Judah is one of the most inventive arrangers I’ve come across in a long time. His songs genuinely defy notions of genre.
3. “The Dusty Air I Breathe” – Clockwork Kids. Confident performances and strong production kick this riff-driven indie-rock track up a notch. The powerful vocals here are particularly surprising.
4. “Two Ships” – Field Mouse. Every time I hear palm muting and pad synths, I think Fleetwood Mac. That comparison isn’t too far off in this mystic, dark indie-pop track.
5. “Kaleidocycle II” – Cloud Seeding. Powerful, beautiful instrumental indie-rock that doesn’t turn into post-rock or electro jams is a rare animal, so get out your safari cameras now.
6. “Banks” – Red Swingline. This complex acoustic picking and arrangement by a project that generally does progressive metal basically becomes a rolling, beautiful post-rock tune with some jazzy moments. Pretty cool.
7. “Room and Pillar” – Knife the Symphony. Cincinnati’s finest, most furious punk band is at it again, serving up brutal, dissonant punk that makes me marvel at how three people make this much noise.
8. “Song 32” – The Austerity Program. I don’t need a reader survey to know the readers here aren’t usually metalheads. BUT IF YOU ARE, The Austerity Program is pretty friggin’ impressive with the riffs here.
I don’t post many videos, because I want them to have a good story, beautiful images, and an excellent song. James’ most recent video has all of them–it’s the best video I’ve seen all year so far. Shivers. All the shivers.
Still, if you have a killer song, you can override all my desires in a music video. The Collection is beginning to ramp up their press push for the album that I helped Kickstart last year. “The Gown of Green” is an incredible first track off a breathtakingly beautiful record.
Sometimes you can get away with having just really pretty art. That will hook me too. Broadwing has some sweet pencil art going on here.
The video doesn’t have to be complicated to be wonderful: this single-shot slo-mo film from The Middle Names is just excellent in portraying the song.
There’s an emo revival on, which is cool, because I loved emo in the early 2000s. (My copy of Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good is permanently within arms’ reach on my desk.) I loved that emotional vulnerability, adrenaline, and beauty could all be appreciated in the same band. It became uncool there for a while to be earnest, but I’m glad that irony is at least allowing enough space in the culture to let earnest thought to regroup a little bit.
Sinai Vessel doesn’t call their music emo, but they do call it “punk for sissies.” Both descriptors are thick with positive, negative, and re-appropriated positive connotations, which is a perfect situation for Sinai Vessel’s complex music. Songwriter Caleb Cordes does instill his brand of pop-punk with thoughtful lyrics and twinkly guitar reveries common of emo, but neither of these feel self-indulgent or trend-following. The songs on profanity [ep] are very catchy while being thoughtful, retaining that adrenaline that I so treasure in emo. I love Damien Jurado, but sometimes I want to scream about my introspection. Sinai Vessel offers that.
The majority of opener “cats” is actually not very punk-rock in its songwriting style; the mid-tempo tension is much more reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab for Cutie than The Wonder Years or Blink-182. The unassuming beginning allows for a shiver-inducing moment when the ratchet up to a pounding, hollering conclusion. “You mean everything to me,” indeed.
“Cuckold” reminds me of Say Anything in the vocal delivery and rhythmic style, while “Drown Around” makes good on the Pedro the Lion RIYL they sent me. (Longtime David Bazan collaborator TW Walsh mastered profanity.) “Flannery” invokes the Catholic author’s work and words to continue her conflicted feelings about the evil in the world and ourselves. It’s one of the most interesting lyrically and most enjoyable musically.
I’ve gotten this far without noting that David Wimbish of IC faves The Collection played brass, recorded, and mixed the record, but he totally did, and that’s awesome. Thoughtful lyrics, punk-rock adrenaline, David Wimbish, TW Walsh, and free? How can you pass this up? You shouldn’t. Sinai Vessel is an impressive outfit that I look forward to hearing more from. Highly recommended.
It is a profound mystery to me: when I have the most to do, I get inundated with beautiful music. I am all for it, as it makes the work pleasant; however, it’s hard to find time to tell everyone about it. I’m taking a break from the mixtapes (they’re almost done! truly!) to tell you about The Collection’s new album.
The Collection is one of my favorite bands that I’ve been blessed to find and know through this blog. David Wimbish and co.’s version of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” was the opener on Never Give Up: 10 Years of Celebrating The Postal Service, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. When Wimbish sent over the Kickstarter for a new Collection album, I was so excited that I started telling all my friends personally about why they should support Ars Moriendi.
And boy, are there a lot of reasons.
1. Ars Moriendi is about the death of loved ones and how to deal with it. The last time this was the hook on an album, we got Funeral. This album has just as much potential as that one.
2. I once wrote, “If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible.” It very much looks like both ends of that sentence have come to pass.
3. Since the band has 12 members, they have the largest amount of Kickstarter rewards I have ever seen, including multiple rewards at the same cost level. That’s just mindboggling.
4. This shiver-inducing song will be on the album. Tl;dr? Skip to 1:30 and let it wash over you.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ‘em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
That old trope that “he/she could sing the phone book and I’d listen” does belie a fundamental truth: some artists connect with us in amounts that far surpass the normal (some would say appropriate) level of interest. Singer/songwriter David Wimbish is one of those for me. He exploded into my listening world with The Collection’s self-titled record, which I called “the most exciting album of the year” in 2011. Wimbish informed me about his more bluegrass-oriented group ElisaRay, and I found All Creatures thrilling as well.
The Collection is a new-folk group, based in the singer/songwriter tradition. Wimbish is not the primary songwriter here (Tommy Chesebro writes most of the songs and sings lead), so the trio’s primary sound on All Creatures is slightly different. The album is bluegrass-inspired, as guitar, string bass, banjo, and fiddle dominate the proceedings. Oh, and vocals; the group harmonies here are absolutely delightful. One of the most sublime moments in the whole album is the half-song “Intro,” which pairs a plaintive guitar line against three-part harmony. It falls in that perfect space between a hymn and a folk tune, as it segues perfectly into “Anxious,” one of the most singer/songwriter-oriented tunes on the album. Their voices are simply shiver-inducing; that element alone is enough to recommend this album to you.
“Rocks in My Stomach” is a downtrodden country tune, augmented by pedal steel and echoing percussion. It comes to a crashing conclusion, with Wimbish summoning a powerful roar from within him. When Wimbish puts his mind to something, he is a commanding presence. That roar also makes an appearance in the conclusion of the title track. “All Creatures” melds a gentle guitar line, swooping strings, and restrained vocals to allow for a cathartic conclusion. Oddly, the tune doesn’t include the banjo, making it the most like The Collection of the tunes here. I love it for that.
But Chesebro’s songwriting has its own charms aside from the influence of David Wimbish’s songwriting style. “Brother Caleb” uses interactions between the fiddle, bass and banjo to stand out, while “Hoping” is a heartrendingly beautiful boy/girl love song duet accompanied only by acoustic guitar. “Profound Distractions” employs a rattling, shuffling snare in its bluegrass/country amalgam.
It’s worth noting that “Outro” is a reprise of the gorgeous melody from “Intro,” but played on a piano; it sounds even more like a hymn than it did the first time. All Creatures doesn’t just get better from beginning to end, it gets better as you hear it more and more. This is an album you can live inside, and not just from a musical perspective; there’s a lot going on lyrically that I haven’t even touched on. It’s a beautiful, powerful release, and one that deserves your attention. Maybe you’ll become as taken by David Wimbish’s skills as I am.
4: Laura Stephenson and the Cans – Sit Resist. There’s not a single bad tune on this album, you can sing along to almost all of them, and they pull off the “multiple genres but overarching mood” thing perfectly.
3: Jenny and Tyler – Faint Not. Their cute pop turned into churning folk-rock overnight, and the effect is hair-raising and goosebump-inducing. There were few moments as dramatic as the full-band entry in “Song for You” this year; Faint Not was the only album that made me write the sentence “I forget to breathe.”
2: The Collection – The Collection EP. The melodies and instrumentation seem effortlessly perfect on this folk album. David Wimbish’s lyrics and deft and quick, delivered in a vastly adaptable voice that seals the deal. “Stones” is just a wonder.