This year I have 14 albums of the year. Numbers 14-8 are covered here, while numbers 7-1 will be covered in a few days. Enjoy!
14. State Center – The Hasslers. “An impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts.” (full review)
12. Songs of Loss – JPH. “Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. … Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.” (full review)
11. Gardens – Ryan Dugre. “The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind. … It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.” (full review)
10. The Road – John John Brown. “Brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood. Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible.” (full review)
9. Crooked Orchards – Darling Valley. “Stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place.” (full review)
8. S/t – Moda Spira. “A beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact.” (full review)
The Hasslers‘ State Centerand Will Bennett and the Tells‘ Wichitahave a few things in common: an expansive view of country music, a perceptive eye toward life in the flyover states, and melodies you’re going to be humming for a while. As a ex-pat Midwesterner, I have a deep affection for both these records that goes beyond their excellent music.
Both albums drew me because of their state-specific lyrical content. State Center mentions my native Oklahoma and highway I-19; Wichita is named after the largest city in Kansas and references I-35 (the spine of the great plains states). Both albums mention far-off places (Hasslers: San Jose; Tells: Ann Arbor, Manassas) but are firmly concerned with the inner workings of life in the flyovers. The Hasslers’ detailed stories of hard drinkin’, tough livin’, and bad lovin’ are the sort of jam-packed, witty, and clever lyrics that beg to be called incisive and literary; Will Bennett’s wry ruminations on relationships point out elements of love that don’t get discussed much (“She’s Got a Problem”) along with those that do (“Paloma,” “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio”). Both bands prominently discuss that they need to be inebriated to dance. Welcome to the Midwest.
Where the two albums diverge is in the way they treat country music. The Hasslers’ country-inspired music leans toward indie-pop and folk, while the Tells’ music is more of a country-punk creation.
The Hasslers’ music is an impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts. Opener “Falling Out of Love” segues directly into “Tall Orders,” creating a nearly-8-minute tune that features lazy horns, an easygoing full-band vibe, and a zooming organ solo. “Oh My Dear, Oh My Darling” is a straight-up country song, complete with pedal steel, walking bass, and saloon-style piano. (“What Is Wisdom Anyway” reprises this turn.)
“Loves Company” is the standout ballad, merging folk verses into a pretty country chorus. “I did” is a beautiful solo acoustic tune that draws on indie-pop and even some acoustic singer/songwriter tricks. “Little Blue House” sounds like Counting Crows meets Old Crow Medicine Show in the most raucous possible mashup. Each song has individual charms, which is a rare thing. There’s a lot going on in State Center, but the whole thing has a warm, comfortable feel that keeps it cohesive.
Even though the songwriting and instrumentals are brilliant, Matt Hassler’s vocal performances are even more stellar. He has the sort of lithe, evocative voice that can sell any line, whether it’s a wisecrack, a confession, or an observation. By the end of the album, I felt like I was friends with him–both through his lyrical candor and his precise, careful, delivery, he worked his way into my heart. It’s a remarkable album-long performance that should not go overlooked; rarely are artists able to capture this level of quality over a whole album.
Will Bennett and the Tells start off Wichita with “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio,” which sets up a country-punk template for a lot of these tunes: traditional country arrangements sped way up with high tenor, pop-punk-esque vocals. Following tracks “She’s Got a Problem” and “The Villain” slow down the tempo to show that this really is a country band, and both are great successes; “The Villain” has one of the most indelible vocal melodies set against a snare shuffle and an acoustic guitar strum.
Still, it’s tunes like the punchy “Somewhere Down in Texas” and the bouncy “Paloma” that stick most with me. The mid-tempo rockers, like “Ann Arbor” and “Jolene” (every country band needs a song about Jolene), are also tight–Bennett’s vocal melodies are crisp and memorable wherever he deploys them, so each of the songs have that going for them. The good-natured quality of the album–much of it is in the major key–make it perfect summer festival or summer cookout music.
If you’re looking for a country album to pair with the dog days of summer, both of these would fit the bill excellently. Both have great lyrics, strong vocals, and melodies that could turn out to be the engine in your song of the summer.
1. “Where Are You Running Now” – Ivory Tusk. If you weren’t into The Tallest Man on Earth because of the vocals, check out Ivory Tusk instead: the same sort of complex melodic fingerpicking, similarly poetic lyrics, but a much less grating (I say this lovingly, Tallest Man, really) voice. All the upsides, and none of the down. It’s a beautiful, remarkable song.
2. “Sound It Out” – The Hasslers. Pickin’ and grinnin’ meets New Orleans horns and organ for a full-band acoustic tune that’s fun in lots of ways; even the down-on-my-luck lyrics have wry enjoyment running their delivery.
3. “Intention of Flying” – Jon Arckey. Everything meshes perfectly here: Arckey’s vibrato-laden tenor (reminiscent of a lower Brett Dennen), gentle fingerpicking, excellently arranged and recorded drums, ghostly background vocals, and even a guitar solo. This beautiful acoustic tune just nails everything.
4. “I Feel a Light” – Aaron Kaufman. Starts off like a solid acoustic tune, then bursts into an unexpected chorus that grabbed my attention. The inclusion of gong and various melodic percussion instruments develop the tune and stick in my mind.
5. “False Flag” – Vice-President. Starts out a weighty singer/songwriter tune, turns into an alt-country song, then ratchets up to a towering conclusion. The lyrics are socially and politically minded, which fits perfectly with the serious vibe of the whole work. Yet, the song remains engaging to listen to; don’t get scared off.
6. “Beautiful World” – David Trull. Jason Isbell fans, take note: Trull’s Southern-steeped acoustic troubadour work is in the same vein as the work that Isbell is currently making hay with.
7. “Blue Whales” – Ulli Matsson. The staccato guitar playing here is almost percussive, playing against Matsson’s legato vocal lines. A mysterious, haunting vibe ensues.
8. “Like a Funeral” – Erik Jonasson. Jonasson puts the focus squarely on his vocals with this minimalist, stark ballad, and they hold up to the scrutiny. The tenor tone is beautiful, and there’s a lot of nuance in his performance. By the end it’s grown and shifted to a Sigur Ros-esque vibe, which is always great.
9. “Loves Company” – The Hasslers. In stark contrast to their joyful tune above, this banjo-led ballad is a deeply sad tale (complete with weeping pedal steel). The hooks and the engaging vocal delivery are still there, but this definitely shows a different side of the Hasslers.
10. “Blind” – Raquelle Langlinais. If Regina Spektor, The Jayhawks, and Jenny and Tyler got together for a jam session, something like this perky alt-country tune anchored by charming female vocals might appear as a result. Everything about this is just infectiously fun, from the drums and bass to the guitars to the vocals.
11. “What If” – Big Little Lions. Here’s some soaring folk-pop with an epic bent and giant choruses, similar to Of Monsters and Men or Fleet Foxes.