(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
“Mine All Mine” is the opening single from Wild Iris‘ self-titled debut full-length, and it makes quite a statement. The folk/country outfit goes for the full hoedown vibe by featuring rolling banjo, sawing fiddle, thumping bass, and hollerin’ female vocals. Kate Mullikin’s punchy, assertive delivery gives the tune an extra oomph that separates it from the rest of the folk/country pack. The enthusiasm of the track is infectious; there’s no way for me to not tap my feet and smile.
Fans of upbeat folk-pop like The Lumineers and Twin Forks will love this, as will fans of more traditional country fare. Some bluegrass fans might sneak in the back door and appreciate it under cover of darkness, too.
1. “Red Road” – Trevor Green. It’s hard for me to resist an uplifting, hopeful, fingerpicked folk tune sung in an earnest, clear voice.
2. “Shade in the Shadow” – Dan Lipton. Evocative and cinematic without piling on the instruments, Lipton’s story-song here reaches into the folk tradition for its lyrical and musical genesis (but never feels derivative).
3. “Love Sweet Love” – Taylor Grey. Fun folk pop a la The Lumineers, Twin Forks, and the like, with a female vocalist: prepare for “whoa-oh”s, romantic lyrics, and lots of strumming.
4. “Untethered” – Halcyon Drive. Quirky, affected electro-pop with some crunch amid the smile-inducing pop.
5. “Everyone Wants to Love You” – Japanese Breakfast. This is just an amazing pop song. It sounds like it should already be on classic rock radio and permanently in our subconscious memories.
6. “Warpaint On” – Risley. It’s a tough thing to achieve gravitas, but this indie-rock tune has an emotive gravity to it that makes it hard to stop listening to. The sounds are modern, but it’s got the sort of weight that early ’00s indie-rock (Shins, Death Cab, Modest Mouse) had.
8. “Hard” – Los Angeles Police Dept. Far from being a “Super Bowl Shuffle” celebrity romp, this dreamy, floaty chamber pop tune comes out of a single man’s vision. [Editor’s note: Unsurprisingly, Ryan Pollie was not able to keep the LAPD moniker very long. LAPD now goes by Ryan Pollie’s own name.]
9. “Drugs” – Private Island. Funky, groovy, yet not woozy, this track rides the fine line between electro-pop enthusiasm and rock grit.
10. “No Paths” – A Dead Forest Index. Moody, cerebral indie rock that creates a “mysterious woods” feel.
1. “The Giving” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires plays the traveling troubadour here, finding “poverty and magic all around me” in a New Orleans full of found sound, delicate guitar, his signature vocal style, and fitting trumpet.
2. “Red” – Mt. Wolf. Here’s a slow-burning, tension-releasing amalgam of acoustic guitar, beats, and falsetto that sounds like Bon Iver 2.0. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
3. “Heart” – Pistol Shrimp. The falsetto-filled acoustic version of this dance-rock banger sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, which is pretty impressive. Maybe they should do this more often.
4. “Odell” – Lowland Hum. Afflicted, pastoral, theatrical indie-folk has previously belonged in my mind only to Bowerbirds. Move on over, Bowerbirds–Lowland Hum are here with a beautiful tune in that very specific mood.
5. “Cops Don’t Care pt. II” – Fred Thomas. Thomas follows up his epic debut single with this one, which is a lot simpler musically but just as powerful lyrically.
6. “Other Suns” – Magic Giant. With mandolin, cello, and harmonica, Magic Giant is doing their best to act the folk part of their folk rave name in this mid-tempo ballad.
7. “Love or Die” – Magic Giant. I know I just put them in this list, but this Lumineers/Twin Forks stomp-along is just too much fun to pass up.
8. “If It Don’t Kill You” – Family Folk Revival. Get that outlaw alt-country feel on and enjoy this low-slung, rootsy jam.
Problems That Fix Themselves – Which Is Worse. This electronic duo creates gently unfolding, melodic ambient/glitch music. They manage to make glitch not sound brittle and lifeless, especially on standout track “8:62.” Elsewhere they make circuitbending sound downright beautiful; this might be the easiest introduction to the technically and musically intimidating practice I’ve ever heard. It’s not ODESZA by any means, but fans of melodic post-dub will find connections they may not have expected.
Nate Allen and the Pac-Away Dots – Take Out the Trash. The wild songwriter behind the folk/punk duo Destroy Nate Allen! took a long, hard look at the ills of society. The subsequent musical and lyrical response was a bit darker and weightier than DNA! purveys, although the songs of Take Out the Trash still fit in the folk/punk category. Allen’s raspy voice is perfectly suited to righteous indignation, and so tunes like “West Side Blues” come together perfectly with impassioned vocals over brazen electric guitars. On the other end of the spectrum, gentler tunes like “Social Equality” aim an introspective lens at social justice with banjo, brushed drums, and acoustic guitar. It may make you laugh a bit less and think a bit more than DNA!, but the songwriting chops are just as strong (and in some places stronger) for the change in topic.
Kayte Grace — Chapter 2: Sail There EP. Kayte Grace’s country-folk-pop is a charming, romantic brew that will appeal to fans of Taylor Swift, Twin Forks, and young love. There’s infinite depth to be mined in young love, and Grace does that here, both melodically and lyrically. It’s smooth, sweet, but not too saccharine; if you’re swooning over someone right now, you’ll be all about it.
Justin Klump‘s three-song release The Night Is Young delivers fresh-faced folk-pop with a strong ear for gentle arrangement. Instead of taking the Mumford-esque “shout it out” method, Klump finds kindred spirits in early work by both The New Amsterdams and Joshua Radin: strong melodies that work their way into your heart by charm, not by force.
The title track does eventually get a bass drum thumping as a pulse, but it’s not invasive; it feels like a heartbeat that the accordion, cello and guitar play over. I was reminded also of a less frantic Twin Forks in the interplay between the woah-ohs and the instrumental arrangement. “Slow Life Down” and “Pictures and Stains” both lean on tender, romantic emotions; they’re lovely as a result. Klump knows how to use his voice to best effect, and he frames his vocal melodies beautifully with the trappings you’d expect: banjo, glockenspiel, reverb-heavy piano. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be excellent; Klump is working within a framework and doing a great job of it.
I love it when I find calm, beautiful, well-arranged work. If you’re into the sound of earnest, tender folk-pop or the moods and lyrics of adult alternative pop, you’ll find much to love in Justin Klump’s The Night Is Young.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Where I Belong EP – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
Are you tired of married duos singing folk-pop? ME NEITHER. The latest guy/girl duo in my inbox is Davy and Amelia, to go along with Jenny & Tyler, The Gray Havens, Destroy Nate Allen!, Venna, The Weepies, the Civil Wars, et al. Davy and Amelia’s Norah June EP leans more toward the stomping, clapping, upbeat party-folk of The Lumineers and especially Twin Forks instead of the quiet, introspective tunes of The Weepies. They also celebrate giddy romance and young married life, which sets them apart from sadder couples.
“The Summer,” “Mountain Movers” and “Norah June” (the name of their baby!) all have rousing, celebratory arrangements; “The Summer” and “Norah June” are upbeat right from the word go, while “Mountain Movers” builds to its shouted-group-vocals conclusion. “Cause Daddy’s only 22, Momma’s 21/some people say we got married young/you are the treasure of our unbreakable love/hey!” goes the chorus of “Norah June,” which means not only are they giddily in love with each other, they’re singing songs to their baby. I think that’s absolutely adorable, but I think that might send the more cynical among us running for the exits.
The songs themselves are great, full of strong instrumental and vocal melodies. The songs are predominantly based in acoustic guitar, although “Mountain Movers” shows off their elegant, cinematic piano skills nicely. If you’re not into the genre, then these four tunes won’t be exciting to you. But if you’re a fan of pop skills applied to romantic lyrics and folky arrangements, you’ll love Davy and Amelia. I look forward to hearing more about this duo in the upcoming year. Just in case you needed proof of how cute this duo is, here’s their band photo:
Pop-folk has started to take over the radio. I never would have guessed that I’d write that sentence, but there it is. We’ll know that the domination has become total when The Parmesans make it to the radio: they take pop-folk one step farther down the line, playing a very pop-friendly form of bluegrass. Debut album Wolf Eggs is 15 (!) songs of melody-heavy folk/bluegrass that will make you want to tap your foot, clap, and sing along. Opener “Spicy Cigarette” sets the mood for the rest of the album by introducing a guitar/mandolin/stand-up bass trio tracked live, with each of the members contributing harmonized vocals. They even shout “hey!” in the middle of the mandolin solo. How can you not love that sound? “Load Up on Eggs” features a trumpet to great effect; “JuJaJe” recalls the Avett Brothers in blocky, chord-based style; “The Riddle Song” will steal your heart away (or the heart of whatever significant other you play it for).
While “The Riddle Song” is beautiful musically, its title implies that the lyrics are the main point, and so they are. The Parmesans are not slouches in that department, which makes this album even more enjoyable. There are plenty of standard references to alcohol (“Spicy Cigarette,” “Wine in My Mustache”), food (“Load Up On Eggs”), and various agricultural things (“Hay,” “Chicken Yard”), but there’s also a knowing wit in these tunes. The tropes may be a beard, but they’re not fake: the lyrics use the goofy top layer to speak to real emotions and situations. It’s fun and real. How often do you get that?
The Parmesans know what’s up on Wolf Eggs: they give you a large set of tunes that are memorable melodically and lyrically. It’s fun, funny, and even sentimental. What else do you want out of a folk album? Wolf Eggs is one of the best releases I’ve heard all year, and I expect to see it in my end of year lists.
I love chiptune. As I write this sentence, I’m listening to chiptune version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” because seriously, I’m committed to this genre. Anamanaguchi is also wholly invested in the genre, as their Endless Fantasy shows. They’ve thrown down 22 songs on the album, and all of them are chock full of mostly-instrumental warp-speed pop-punk shot through with enough jubilant chiptune melodies to make 1988 Nintendo jealous. If you can’t get happy while listening to this music, I don’t know what can help you. This is the aural equivalent of drinking a Red Bull. It’s the most fun music I’ve heard all year. The members are sneakily talented at arranging these songs so that it doesn’t get boring, but that’s not the point. Bouncing off the flippin’ walls is the point. And you should do that. Heartily. With gusto.
I’m not going to lie: I loved Dashboard Confessional. I was the right exact age for that to be my jam in high school, and there’s just no way I can sit here and say that I didn’t holler along with those songs unabashedly. I pulled out The Swiss Army Romance when I heard that the Chris Carrabba-fronted pop-folk band Twin Forks was among us, and it was one of the most nostalgic things I have ever experienced. I felt like I was 16 again, really and truly.
So it should not surprise you that I’m about to say that Twin Forks is awesome. I mean, how could it not be? This guy has tons of experience writing songs on an acoustic guitar, and now he gets to put banjos and mandolins around it. He sings like he sings. If you hate his voice, well, you’re probably not reading this sentence, because you already left. This is exactly what you think it would be, and that’s great. The more critical quandary goes something like this, a la Phillip Phillips: is this a shameless play on what is popular? Is it a “right time at the right place” thing? Is it simply boredom on Carrabba’s part? The populist in me has an answer: I DON’T CARE ONE BIT. If you need more Dashboard Confessional, or more pop-folk, jump on Twin Forks’ self-titled EP. You will sing and stomp and dance and I’m going to stop before I go all caps on this. I’m just all about it. Yes.
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.