1. “Hypachoi” – The Project. A thrumming distorted bass riff underlines this song, which moves from a spartan tune punctuated by clanking chains into a crunchy, towering, dramatic piece. The lyrics are a passionate re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection. Happy Easter!
2. “Trucksea (feat. Dean McGrath)” – Nonsemble. This indie-pop chamber orchestra packs “Trucksea” full of fluttering strings, dramatic cello, grounding keys, perky drums. The vocals are the most modern thing about the tune, other than perhaps the confidence with which the difficult fusion is pulled off. This is an impressive tune that demands attention.
3. “Wildflower” – Shiloh Hill. Chipper full-band folk that starts with perky trumpet and brings in banjo like rays of sunshine coming out from behind a cloud. The chorus has an anthemic cast similar to The Decemberists, which is always welcome. This album looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Check out their Kickstarter.
4. “Dust” – Ryan Martin John, Todd Sibbin, and Tom West. Kind of like an Australian Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this ominous track has a ’70s folk vibe, solid group vocals, and a dense, immediate atmosphere.
5. “I Know I” – The Tin Man. A pensive minor-key first verse leads into an ultimately hopeful, thumping folk-pop/alt-pop tune augmented by some distorted guitar providing some background grumble. Goes for a lot of drama and yet stops one inch from going over the top–an admirable skill.
6. “Same Boat” – Vanessa Forero. This is a swift, upbeat, smile-inducing folk-pop tune that doesn’t jump the shark in its arrangement (however, there are mermaids in the stead of Left Shark as part of the video).
7. “Million Miles” – Jesse Konrad. A calm strum, gentle guitar counterpoint, and a friendly organ push this track along in a very chill way.
8. “You Need to Hear It From Someone Else” – Protestant Work Ethic. Lazy horns play against a large choir, an autoharp, melodica, and assorted random percussion–the outcome is like a European version of Typhoon, all the way down to the passionate vocals.
9. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. A surging, major-key chord progression reminiscent of Dan Mangan, a fun organ performance, and a smooth vocal performance come together over a shuffle snare for a tune seems already comfortable and worn in, like a comfy sweater, when you first hear it.
10. “Marigold” – Neil Holyoak. Holyoak’s hazy yet gravitas-laden voice presides over this very carefully constructed folk tune, complete with pedal steel, mandolin, and reverb-washed electric guitar. It’s kind of like Dana Sipos’ work, but in a major key and more instrument-laden. Float away with this track.
11. “Love Is Like a Market Crash” – Thurdy. It takes a lot of work to sound casual. Thurdy’s laid-back, back-porch vibe permeates his baritone vocals, rolling guitar playing, and honest lyrics. It’s a tune that gives you back more than it asks of you.
12. “This Will Be Our Year – Zombies Cover” – Novi Split. David J’s magnetic, utterly gorgeous voice is in full flower here, matching his oh-so-lovely pipes with a “doo-wop meets old-school country in a subtle, spare modern bar” arrangement. It’s just great.
13. “Bed of Nails” – Logan Magness. “Tender” and “romantic” maybe aren’t the phrases most associated with alt-country, but this stripped-down, Isbell-esque acoustic ballad is both. Magness’s smooth tenor is a joy to listen to.
So iTunes has a radio feature now, and it’s not like any other radio I’ve ever heard. For one, they actually play great music. Secondarily, they solve the problem of “established vs. undiscovered” by letting the listener pick which they want (fancy that). Finally, it sounds like the curation is done by people– if it’s not, the algorithims are finely tuned to produce much better effects than “similar instruments, similar rhythms,” like Pandora does.
For example, in just over an hour of listening to a station I made based off Gregory Alan Isakov, I heard of four new bands that I am totally into:
1. The Family Crest, which sounds like a more textured version of IC faves Typhoon. This video right here has under 7500 plays, which is firmly under-the-radar. (Although they have been in Paste, so they are moving on up.)
2. Bronze Radio Return, who I probably should have known about. (At least I know now!) Sounds like Paul Simon fronting Mumford and Sons. (This is a huge compliment.)
3. The Rocketboys, who have slipped through the cracks of my music knowledge in their 8-year history:
4. Amy Stroup has apparently been featured on various TV shows that I don’t watch, so that’s how I didn’t catch the memo.
Yeah. All that in one hour. I’m totally sold on iTunes radio.
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.
11. “Nights Like This” – Icona Pop. I love a chorus that I can belt at the top of my lungs in a moving vehicle, and this dance-pop gem provides. I get shivers just thinking about those euphoric “whoa-oh-oh-OH-oh”s.
5. “Song for You” – Jenny and Tyler. Jenny and Tyler transformed from a Weepies-esque duo to a powerful, churning folk-rock duo, and this song is the best example. I get shivers when the band crashes in.
4. “Norgaard” – The Vaccines. When I turned in my last paper, I put this pop-punk rave-up on repeat and danced all the way home. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. I don’t care – the song is that good.
3. “Kitchen Tile” – Typhoon. I’ve got a book on my stack to read about rock’n’roll and the desire for transcendence; Typhoon has already achieved it in folk with this song. Vocal melody, choirs, horns, strings, This is everything I want in a folk tune.
2. “Sticks & Stones” – Jonsi. The charging rhythm, unique textures and ethereal vocals made this the most infectious song I heard all year. I rocked this one all summer … and fall.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
“I think it’s important for bands to be older,” Hendrix said. “They have more to say, and what they have to say isn’t related to being mad at parents.”
I hadn’t thought much about age/maturity as a factor in making great music, but since then it’s been on my radar. I’ve seen Paul Simon in an entirely different light; I’ve noticed castoff lines in Good News For People Who Love Bad News that wouldn’t have been noted by a younger Modest Mouse. There are evidences of it everywhere. Ringer T‘s Sorry Verses is yet another example.
The releases I’ve reviewed from the Michigan alt-country band have all been heart-wrenching affairs, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the travails of young love. Their pristine production values and tight songwriting structures honed the misery to a fine point. The most downtrodden of their tunes are right up there with Elliott Smith’s and Damien Jurado’s in the “too sad to listen to more than once in a while” tracks.
Then the band went their own ways for a while, and the time off seems to have been just the thing the members needed. Their regrouped effort is a much brighter, calmer and more enjoyable effort. The songwriting, now freed from the weight of tragedy, is able to be as infectious as it should have been previously. Both the pristine production and tight songwriting have only become more so.
The smooth-toned tenor vocalist isn’t singing too much about lost love, and even when he does, he does it in a way that doesn’t aspire to tear down the walls on himself. Not that these tunes are sparkly indie-pop; this is still firmly alt-county. But there are a lot of Paul Simon touches, like the little strum pattern on “The Easy Road” and just about everything on “Upon a Hill.” It’s Ringer T as I always wanted them to be: they’re making great melodies (“Sorry Verses,” “Here I Am”) in a consistent mood that’s calm and contained. There’s a difference between restraint and restrained, and Ringer T falls firmly on the self-induced, positive, former side for the songs here.
The instrumentation is simple and direct: Acoustic guitar, gentle electric guitar, drums, bass, occasional keys, some auxiliary instruments here and there. Instead of dazzling with the kitchen sink (i.e. Typhoon), Ringer T leans heavily on their formidable songwriting skills. And with their newfound calm and maturity, they crank out some incredible tunes that way.
Sorry Verses has several great mixtape tracks: the poignant “The Sweet Release,” the whoa-ohs of “Sorry Verses,” and the yearning “Let Me Be Your Man.” But it’s best experienced as a whole piece, just like Paul Simon’s best albums. The charms of one song build into the next.
Growing up some gives perspective and allows people to see all that they do in a new light. Whether people grow or fold in that instance is the difference between a success story and an also-ran.
In my day job at Oklahoma Gazette, I also write about music. I spend a significant amount of time making websites happen, but I do have duties that involve writing about people strumming and hitting things. It’s a fun thing that I’m incredibly thankful for. Here are links and teasers to a few of my favorite recent CD reviews from there.
Braids — Native Speaker. “An album that fuses the vaguely optimistic, digital-created moods of chillwave to the full-band power of indie rock and the cinematic scope of post-rock.”
Typhoon — A New Kind of House. “Typhoon accomplishes more in 21 minutes than some bands can accomplish in a career. These songs are endearing, invigorating, mature, well-orchestrated, brilliantly performed, immaculately recorded and summarily astounding.”
Chikita Violenta — Tre3s. “They take after the late, great Grandaddy in that they write indie-rock songs that exist somewhere between pop and rock; not quite as rebellious as real rock, but not as melody-centric as real pop.”
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.