1. “Bugs” – Patrick James. If you can resist the mopey lyrics, catchy melodies and smooth vocals of an acoustic guitar-toting Australian, you have more strength than me. Sounds kind of like a down-under Passenger with extra indie cred in the arrangements, if you need more motivation.
10. “We Have a Hope” – Nathan Partain. Fresh off the great Jaywalker, Partain drops an intimate, careful, beautiful rumination on hope in the midst of difficulty.
4. “Push and Pull (All the Time)” – Promised Land Sound. Lush, full acoustic-folk sound that calls to mind The Head and the Heart, but with some adventurous instrumental work of their own vintage. Those vocal harmonies, though. Man.
7. “January” – Mia Rose Lynne. There’s always room in my heart for a clean guitar strum, a tender vocal melody, and a swooping violin. This tune is fresh, bright, and charming.
2. “Motion Sick” – Casey Dubie. Dubie’s voice fits perfectly in the adult-alternative space constructed around it. It’s the sort of compelling track that I hate tagging with that genre name, because it’s so tight, evocative, and lively.
5. “Wait” – Lawrence Trailer. Subtle funkiness sneaks its way into this acoustic-led adult alternative track: the bass and vocal performance give the tune a gentle swagger that separates it from the pack.
3. “Long Beach Idyll” – Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp. This meandering acoustic/synth collaboration sounds like some impossible combination of the beach and the desert, with some ’70s psych vibes thrown in. Far out.
8. “Wolvering” – Maiden Radio. Come for the Appalachian folk vibes, stay for the vocals: there’s a vocal surprise early on in this all-female trio’s tune that hooked me.
6. “Solo Sin Tu Amor” – Radio Free Honduras. As Monty Python might say, “And now for something completely different.” This Spanish-language tune uses Latin rhythms, nylon-string melodies, and tropical trumpets to create a smile-inducing, dance-inspiring track. I think this is what Bishop Allen wanted “Like Castanets” to sound like.
9. “Pretty Little Life Form” – Valley Maker. A rumination on life, death, and love in a woodsy, low-slung, minor-key folk environment. It’s got an easygoing flow, amid all that.
11. “Nitetime Moths” – Des Ark. Throw a clarinet at anything in the indie realm and I’m pretty much sold. Aimée Argote’s loud/soft project features the soft side here, singing mesmerizingly over a real piano, tape hiss, and that clarinet. It’s just remarkably pretty.
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.
Trebuchet’s “The End” is a magnificent song: a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and The Head and the Heart. Instead of being derivative, it feels like they’ve finally unlocked the pattern. The video is fun too.
The Wild Reeds’ “Blind and Brave” is a love letter to Los Angeles in song and video. Their female-fronted folk sound starts in pristine First Aid Kit mode, but swells to a lovely, full conclusion.
Brian Lopez’s “Persephone” video is the sort where I started watching and forgot that the song was playing. It’s a visually interesting piece that tells a good story, and also is accompanied by some great folky music.
Matthew Fowler walks down a city street, strumming and singing. He happens to come across his trumpet player. Great things ensue. His calm, composed songwriting makes me think of Damien Rice’s quietest moments or Rocky Votolato.
Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
Gold Light, who we raved about over here, get their ’50s visuals on to match their ’50s sounds in this lovely clip. Side note: It will be weird when we get to the 2060s and have to start mentioning which ’50s we mean.
Lights and Motion, not content to make pristinely beautiful post-rock, is now making pristinely beautiful and conceptually interesting music videos with gorgeous cinematography.
The clip for A Mad Affair’s Americana-meets-Ingrid Michaelson tune “Out of My Hands” features a ballerina (instant win, as I’ve noted before) and very intricate body paint. It’s a great video.
NC indie-rockers Once and Future Kings’ “Hologram” layers a literal hologram (can there ever be a literal hologram? #deep) over scenes of action for a neat juxtaposition.
The Head and the Heart don’t need help from this little blogger: last time I saw them, I was thrilled to see that they sold out a 2,000-person venue in Raleigh, NC. Still, this video is beautiful and well worth your time. It’s got a ’50s vibe too.
It’s kind of unfair to say that any completed document is in transition. No matter its relation to what came before and what comes after, the work is done. It should stand alone, on its own merits. We should not ask it to have conversations with that precedes it. We like narratives, though; rock critics, and humans more generally. So although I’d like to let Wooden Wing‘s Permanent Daydream be a Žižek work or Danny Boyle film, I feel compelled to talk about the release’s predecessors and pontificate on the band’s possible futures. Does that help you know whether you want to listen to Permanent Daydream? Or should I just tell you up front that it’s a strong album from a band maturing into its sound?
The album arrives after two EPs of folk-pop, the latter of which I praised as unveiling “a bright future for Wooden Wing if they keep writing and growing.” They have indeed kept up both ends of my request, and this 10-songer is the outworking of that. The onwards-and-upwards bit sees the band expanding its sound by pointing their ship toward the wild, folk-inspired freak-outs of Blitzen Trapper. The songs show the band in mid-stride, with one foot not having left the pop-folk realm and the other not quite landed in the brave new world of no-rules–or at least, fewer-rules–songwriting that a total departure would entail. (Folk-pop is the lifeblood of this blog, but I can still acknowledge that the genre is more like college football and less like Blitz 64 in its level of freedom afforded to its actors.)
The 5-minute instrumental “Moonshine Dusk” is their headiest and most successful track. Joel Masters’ lucid, lively bass work does its impressive best to push against a laid-back guitar/pedal steel/sparse percussion/rain noises backdrop. The results are like a back-porch jam where your bassist is fed up with playing the root chord; it’s fitting that the rest of the band quits and Masters just keeps jamming for almost thirty seconds at the end of the track. You go, bassist. That sort of exploratory, “who cares, why not?” ethos also comes out in “Navigator” and “Labyrinth,” which are both heavy on woozy analog synth. Strong, interesting songwriting and excellent performances characterize these tunes.
The midpoint of Wooden Wing’s continuum is “Finish First,” which starts with a very catchy folk-pop guitar structure before opening up into a rousing full-band jam, complete with guitar soloing. It’s like what The Head and the Heart have going on in their latest. “Tokyo” also flirts with the boundaries of both genres, but less enthusiastically than “Finish First.”
“Bones N Stones” is a folk-pop tune that could have fit comfortably on their previous two releases, with Ted Gerstle singing a strong melody over a solid arrangement. The rumbling, intermittent riff section of “Long Road” tries to break away from the pop-folk idiom, but the song stays pretty close to Lumineers territory. (This is not an insult; I like The Lumineers.) Of their three songwriting methods right now, though, this is the one that draws the least of my attention. “Moonshine Dusk” causes me to sit up and take notice, while “Finish First” is pretty close behind. Those experiments yield good data, as the scientifically-inclined among us might note.
Not my usual style of review, this one–but then, neither is Permanent Daydream playing it safe. There are ventures into the unknown here, and they’re worth tracking with. Will Wooden Wing keep on in this direction, honing their sound by continuous expansion? I hope so. They’re certainly doing well at it so far. On that note of growth, I’ve heard that the universe is expanding infinitely and eternally. “Into what does it expand?” is my question, and the fact that we don’t yet know is part of the excitement. Thus it is for Wooden Wing: I don’t know where they’re headed next, and that’s what makes Permanent Daydream so interesting. And so we’re back. Does knowing the chain of events make the individual incident more interesting? This time, yes. Viva la Wooden Wing.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.