The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
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.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but it still comes home at night to folk and indie-pop. So those genres are very well-represented in the Top 10.
10. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. Yup, I’m thoroughly on board with all the love this is getting. Just beautiful.
9. “Home Sweet Home” – Russell Howard. The sound of loss and longing rarely sounds so sweet as in this singer/songwriter tune.
8. “The Mantis and the Moon” – Son of Laughter. Clever lyrics, sprightly arrangement, poignant performance: I hummed this a lot in 2013.
7. “Aaron” – JD Eicher and the Goodnights. Sweeping, widescreen folk-pop that leveled me with a great melody and this line: “I don’t write sad songs/they just seem to write me.”
6. “Judah’s Gone” – M. Lockwood Porter. It’s a tough thing to pack nostalgia, disillusion, and rage into one folky tune without any yelling, but Porter navigates the wildly varying emotions deftly.
5. “American Summer” – Jared Foldy. Gentle fingerpicking and reverb create a strong atmosphere, as Foldy offers the sound of beloved summers that sadly have to end.
4. “The Riddle Song” – The Parmesans. Poignant yet flirtatious, this bluegrassy love song is wonderful.
3. “For the Sky” – Wolfcryer. The opening riff of this folk tune, optimistic and yearning, sets the stage for an inescapable tune.
2. “Creeping Around Your Face” – Novi Split. The most tender, gentle love song I heard all year, steeped in the reality of hard times but the hope of good to come.
1. “Everything Is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. Wine glasses cascade and swoop through the quiet indie-pop arrangement, giving Rodgers a fascinating canvas on which to paint lovely vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks.
Here are my favorite 50 songs of the year in a vague, mixtape-ish sort of order. This was one of my favorite years of Independent Clauses, so this is one of my favorite lists that I’ve made in the many years that I’ve been doing this.
Independent Clauses is but one man right now, and I can’t get to everything. Here are some really quick hits on stuff I like but haven’t had a chance to cover in detail.
Shine Your Light – Gap Dream. Burger Records loves garage-rock, but Gap Dream goes against the grain for some psych-influenced pop-rock. The tunes here are smooth, powered by shimmering, pulsing synths and trilling, chiming guitars. These are really fun tunes that take some of the irony out of indie-rock’s version of pop-rock. Perfect driving music, excellent chilling-out music.
Light on the Lake – Signals Midwest / Banquets – Banquets. I didn’t listen to a lot of punk rock this year for a bunch of silly reasons. These two bands, whom I dearly love, bore the brunt of my sabbatical. Both are really talented bands that deserve the attention of those who love muscly punk rock that doesn’t get too abrasive and keeps an artsy streak.
Spooky Action – The Fierce and the Dead. If a punk band and a post-rock band were in a head-on collision, the resulting fusion would sound as frantic and expansive as this album. If you’re into post-rock but think it can get way too navel-gazing sometimes, you should hear the pounding riffs and rhythms this English band throws down.
Unravel – Debbie Neigher. Neigher is an alto singer/songwriter with a mature approach to songwriting, along the lines of Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, and Feist. She relies heavily on keys–but not necessarily piano–which creates a nice vibe to her work.
Save Your Heart – Lights & Motion. If you like your post-rock in major keys, with huge crescendoes, and with jubilant conclusions, Lights & Motion is far and away the best at that. This is beautiful stuff that intends to make you sigh with wonder. You know who you are.
Multiple Releases – Qualia. Dan Leader put out six releases in 2013 under his post-rock moniker. Similar to Lights & Motion, but with a pinch more nuance and minor key action, this is still incredibly beautiful work. If you’re into it, there’s a ton of it to be into, so jump on that.
Falling in Waves – Black Birds. These Australians marry guitar crunch and heavy reverb for a post-shoegaze throwdown. If you’re into rock riffs without a blatantly self-indulgent rock’n’roll attitude, check it out.
Here’s the last MP3 drop of 2013. Some punk, some rock, some electronic, but mostly folk and indie-pop. It’s a good microcosm of how we rolled in 2013. Here’s to 2014!
1. “Hot Dad Calendar” – Cayetana. Female-fronted punk rock that sounds completely natural and inhabited. Pretensions = 0%. Good music = 100%.
2. “Double Secret Agent” – Commitment Bells. From that Bruce Springsteen school of rock that’s not so much rebellious as world-weary yet celebratory in sound, Commitment Bells!
3. “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth (Demo)” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig burst into my consciousness with the impressive Together Through It All this year, working in a variety of genres to get his emotive songcraft out. This new demo shows off his Paul Simon-esque restraint and melodic skills in a tight, spry, acoustic-based setting. I am thoroughly excited for his 2014 album.
4. “I Saw Three Ships” – Good Shepherd Band. Starts off as a rousing sing-along, then expands into a humongous, impressive arrangement for choir, orchestra, and folk/rock band.
5. “Broke, Not Broken” – Jamie Kent. Working-class, populist folk-rock with a Springsteen bent and great vocal delivery.
6. “For My Young Lord Drake” – Nettie Rose. This old-school country tune is not about the rapper. This tune is, however, excellently balanced between strong fingerpicking and uniquely interesting female vocals.
8. “All of Your Love (ft. Kotomi)” – Germany Germany. I love really kitschy techno, so anytime that a song even hearkens a little bit toward ’90s house and trance, I’m just super-happy. Rest assured there is more nuance here than that, but the influences are there.
9. “I Know You Love to Fall” – Message to Bears. Ambient/trip-hop/breakbeat with pressing piano and swooning strings. It’s super pretty.
11. “The Big Game Is Every Night” – Songs: Ohia. A heretofore unreleased 10-minute tune by the late Jason Molina in his slowcore style. The band here has a stronger presence than in some of his later, sparser work, allowing for some concreteness to Molina’s often vast, amorphous tunes.
12. “Hurricane” – Snowflake. A similar sense of forlornness and longing characterize this track; the vocals here echo Molina’s, while the arrangements are similarly in a foreboding but not ominous mood. A little more peppy than Molina’s work, but not by much; the guitars do get way heavy though.
13. “Dingy” – Elim Bolt. If you took out the rage from grunge but left the music largely intact, you’d have this track. Or, conversely, this is a less polished Blur. Either way: pop songs with careening vocals and dirty guitars.
Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.
Scott Fant’s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.
So I’m getting toward the end of my review year, and there’s still a few things in queue. That’s right. It’s time for a REVIEW BLITZ.
Cavepainters – For the Sea. Cavepainters subscribe to the vision of Americana that sees rock’n’roll and singer/songwriter on one long spectrum, with folk, country, jazz, and everything else just somewhere between the two poles. This vision, espoused by bands like The Low Anthem, produces a necessarily varied album that hangs together by the overall spirit of the thing. “Minnesota Blues” is a blues/rag thing, “Falling Leaves” has a Neil Young-esque vibe, and standout “This Crow Flies Alone” cops an Old Crow Medicine Show sing-along style. On the quieter side, “We All Need” and “Kid Gloves” are deeply moving singer/songwriter ballads heavy on atmosphere. “Kid Gloves” is powerful lyrically as well. Cavepainters’ Americana is passionate, literate, and knowledgeable in the genres it appropriates. If you love The Low Anthem as deeply as I do, you will find a new band to love in Cavepainters.
Destroy Nate Allen – Glow in the Dark. DNA is a rowdy folk-punk duo that’s been kicking it for a while, and GITD is a vinyl retrospective of crowd favorites. You’ll get the hilarious “My Parents Managed Apartments,” the uniquely earnest and tender “Loving You,” and a bunch more. If you’re into fast, brash, unkempt songs that you can yell along to in a basement with 30 of your new best friends, this should be your jam. If you doubt that assessment, I direct you to “Jesus, Keep Us Safe From the Cops,” which is the duo and a group of men stomping, clapping, and hollering the titular phrase with increasing frenzy. And, if you’ve gone completely and exclusively banjo, the truly beautiful title track will help you out.
Laura and Greg – Songs EP. It’s an increasingly common tale: out of the ashes of short-lived pop-rock-punk tunesmiths Automotive High School comes a guy/girl folk duo. Laura and Greg lean toward the Jose Gonzalez school of guitar-playing, with gentle yet complex fingerpicking providing the backdrop to the vocals. The titular singers share the mic, giving this duo a bit of an edge on duos that have one primary singer. Opener “Forever For Sure” expands from a little acoustic guitar line into a wide-open indie-pop arrangement, setting a great precedent for their sound. “Same World” is a cheery tune in the vein of the Weepies, while “with nothing” shows off their great skill with melody and rhythm. This 3-song tease shows some incredible songs, and I’m thoroughly excited to see what Laura and Greg cook up next. If you’re into chill guy/girl folk-pop duos, here’s another notable for your (probable) arsenal of them.
MTNS – Salvage EP. Four songs (and a remix) of chill, smooth electronic pop that draws equally from R&B and indie-pop for inspiration. If you like atmospheric tracks that are simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, hit up “Lost Track of Time”; if you like sexy slow jams, hit up “Lost Track of Time (M-Phazes Remix).” They go most indie on the acoustic guitar-driven “Crave,” while “Fears” is electro goodness. For fans of James Blake, et al.
Wolfcryer’s singer/songwriter folk is wildly evocative. Last week I sat down to write a review of his EP The Long Ride Home and instead wrote 1200 words about the meaning of art and social connection in a digital age. (I’m calling that a first draft and using that elsewhere.) I was trying to explain why Wolfcryer’s music so deeply connected with me; instead, I ended up explaining how and why people connect to things at all. At the risk of blowing this essay out to gargantuan proportions a second time, here’s my newest attempt at that prompt.
This year I’ve covered a great deal of highly-arranged folk and maximalist electronic music. The trend for a while was to pare music down to its bare bones, but now having a gazillion sounds per song is back en vogue. Where the sounds go, so must the reviewer. But I was and am a huge proponent of that minimalist movement. You can swoon me with an orchestra, but you get my undying affection with a guitar, a voice, and a lyric. Wolfcryer adheres to that latter vision, and thereby has my love.
Wolfcryer (aka Matt Baumann)’s voice is a well-turned tenor with a just a touch of grit in it; his melodies are both earnest and mappable to a staff in a way that Leonard Cohen’s probably aren’t. He’s got confidence enough that his personality shines through, but without sounding overdone. “Roll Call of Ghosts” leans heavily on his the nuances of his vocal performance (and occasional harmonica) for the payoff of the song, and it is simply astonishing. The hushed “Map of Wyoming” also puts a big emphasis on vocals, with equal success.
It’s not just in his vocals that maturity comes bursting through. The opening chord progression of “For the Sky” is both optimistic and haunting, sticking with me for long after the song is over. He doesn’t let the vocals crush the power of the songwriting; instead, he uses the patterns of the sung vocals to accent the guitar. It’s a beautiful song expertly handled, which doesn’t come around that often. “Never Carry More Than You Can Hold” and the title track also sport a strong fusion of the guitar songwriting and the vocals.
I don’t know how long Baumann has been writing songs–The Long Ride Home is the first release available on Bandcamp–but it sounds like he’s been doing this a long time. The EP shows an astonishing amount of clarity and maturity for a debut release, and it has rocketed Wolfcryer up my list of bands to watch in 2014. If you’re into singer/songwriters like old-school Damien Jurado, Songs:Ohia, Josh Ritter at his quietest, or Gregory Alan Isakov, you’ll be into Wolfcryer. I give my highest recommendation.
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.