1. “Van Dyke Brown” – River Whyless. This is basically a lost Graceland track, which is one of the highest praises I can give to a track. It’s got indelible vocal melodies, perky-yet-complex instrumentation built on a major-key acoustic-pop chassis, African influences everywhere, and surprising depth to the lyrics. I can only hope that this is the lead single off a whole album of this. Highly recommended.
2. “Song for Steven” – Echo Bloom. This song is how you do pop music right. Starts off as a acoustic-pop tune, then naturally blooms into a full-on guitar-pop tune with the addition of a bunch of instruments. If The Hold Steady had a little less guitar rock and more indie-pop layering, Craig Finn could have written this. The chorus resonates with me deeply, rhythmically and melodically. Highly recommended.
3. “Heart of Hearts” – Anna McClellan. Deconstructed piano-pop, female-fronted punk, ’90s lo-fi garage-rock vocal delivery, blaring alt-country organ and strings collide in a magnificently interesting indie-pop track. If you’re into songs that go places you don’t expect, this one is an A+.
4. “The Limited Patience of the Wilco Fan’s Wife” – Peter McDade. The breezy, fun ’90s guitar-pop belies the lyrics of a marriage falling apart. The song’s about a Wilco fan, and the song itself has plenty of Wilco touches: an electric guitar solo duets with a pedal steel line and a even-keeled, lightly wry vocal delivery are just some of them. Fans of the titular outfit will love it, as well as people who think fondly on ’90s (and the ’90s revival).
5. “(You’re Better) Than Ever” – illuminati hotties. I know you should never read the comments (especially the YouTube comments), but man, the comments on this one are rough. So what if this song sounds very now? So what if this is a song that namechecks things that happen to people? So what if this is the sort of punk-referencing-’50s-pop that’s fun and effervescent and not trying for a grand statement? All of those things are totally acceptable. This song is fun, and you will have fun, and that’s fine. We don’t all have to make statements to make good art. Don’t let ’em get you down, people–artists or listeners.
6. “Miles and Miles” – Mudsand. Well, this is a fascinating thought-experiment turned real: what happens if you take the guitars out of a ska band? Mudsand’s drums/bass/baritone sax lineup has all the propulsive instrumental joy of ska, but the lack of upstroke transforms the song into a smoother, poppier tune. It’s sort of like Generationals’ early work (think “Trust”) but with more directness and lower, smoother vocals. Truly, a unique vibe here.
7. “Fear is a Dirty Aphrodisiac” – Dear Life,. This track has elements of trip-hop (the night-time vibes; the long-pause staccato percussion), indie rock (the droning organ, the distorted guitar grounding the piece) and high-drama indie-pop (the intensely-delivered vocal lines). The theatricality and slow-burning intensity of the piece make it hard to pin down to any genre in particular. It is a memorable, punchy piece.
8. “It Never Fails” – Caitlin Washburn. Marries long, speedily-delivered vocal lines with walking-speed acoustic fingerpicking, pizzicato strings and bluesy piano for a unique sound that falls in the middle of a triangle drawn between Regina Spektor, Jeffrey Lewis, and Josh Ritter.
9. “Nothing Makes Sense” – Odina. This is a solid singer/songwriter offering with evocative female vocals until the sax and horns kick it way up. That swirling sonic mix Odina delivers in the middle is really exciting.
10. “Better Things” – night drifting. The band’s name tells you a lot about this one, as it’s more on the free-floating side of things than a tune with such a peppy name might suggest. There’s a lot of atmosphere here, as the artist makes a pedal steel, a violin, and a pad synth into a wide-screen experience. Other instruments throw in to build out the track (keys, bass, percussion), but the sound is never cluttered–instead, it sounds like each instrument knows its own place in the whole composition. All in all, a lovely indie-pop/indie-folk track.
1. “Sunday Cups” – Veronica Bianqui. I absolutely love percussion-and-vocals tunes, so the opening of this indie-pop track had me all in immediately. Building from the stark beginnings, Bianqui fills out the tune with friendly guitar, bunches ‘o layers of background vocals, grumbling piano, and wailing saxophone. It’s like the seriousness of Des Ark smashed up with the enthusiastic experimentation of tune-yards.
2. “Wilder Days” – Tors. Fans of The Oh Hellos will love this expansive, major-key, shout-it-out folk adventure. The chorus is the sort of jubilant moment that makes me think, “Oh, yes, this is why folk-pop is so great.”
3. “Me & McAlevey” – Walter Martin. The hyper-specific lyrics here make it feel like you’re listening in on an actual letter written from Martin to McAlevey. The unusual content of the song about growing older, though, makes the hyper-specificity a breath of fresh air. The song itself carries itself with a mature, hard-earned dignity. Martin’s voice is controlled, and his songwriting is spartan yet gives the feeling of lush certainty. It’s like the rare quiet tracks from Vampire Weekend as interpreted by the National. Highly Recommended.
4. “Fel I Fod” – Adwaith. Has the ethereal floating qualities that make Braid so powerful + the straightforward vocal qualities of the current excellent group of new female-fronted punk/emo bands + a big ‘ol instrumental riff at the end of the song. Also the band hails from Wales. Of course it’s fantastic.
5. “Wake Up Freya” – Marsicans. Marsicans continue their impressive run of fantastic singles with a slow-it-down tune that manages to keep all the joy of the band’s usually gleeful guitar-pop and filter it into a song structure that’s not-quite-a-ballad. I mean, check that percussion line. That’s got groove. And that chorus vocal line is just so perky. And that soaring conclusion! But yet, it’s a tender “welcome to the world” tune for a baby. Ah, Marsicans. Never change.
6. “How High” – Nathaniel Bellows. The atypical rhythmic patterns and spartan arrangements of St. Even infused with the emotional vocal charge of Glen Hansard create something altogether unique: something dense with emotion but light in its arrangement, mysterious and yet also confident.
7. “September 31st” – night drifting. A swaying melody that evokes memories of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” (in the best of ways) leads the way through this whisper-folk lullaby. The subtle electronics serve to make the song even more tender, which is an unusual trick. A lovely, lilting piece.
8. “Eliza” – Art Block. Starts out as a deeply sad ballad in the vein of Counting Crows’ “Raining in Baltimore,” but the chorus lifts into a moonlit reverie. The cello just adds more gravitas to the solemnity. If you’re a fan of very sad music, you’ll love this one.
9. “Sand” – Dan Michaelson. Michaelson’s vocal performance here is outstanding: he sounds absolutely devastated. You can hear the smallest note and tone shifts in his deep voice, conveying a feeling of loss. The somber-yet-optimistic arrangement of strings, piano, and string bass is beautiful: the aching strings of Sigur Ros are present, making this piece even more of a majestic sobfest than it would otherwise be. (I’m not even sure if the lyrics are sad–they might be–but man, the music is devastating.) If you need a good cry, here’s an elite way to get that going.
1. “When We Go” – Freedom Baby. Trumpet harmonies get me almost every time–there’s something just so beautiful about the way two horns can interact. Freedom Baby opens up with trumpets, which means that I am totally sold before the track barely has a chance to get anywhere. The rest of the track does not disappoint, as this contemporary folk has very indie-pop inspired melodies that are hugely singable. The burst of instruments and vocals halfway through calls to mind The Collection’s orchestral-folk enthusiasms, which is high praise from over here. This is a fantastic track. Highly Recommended.
2. “The Garden Song” – Cuchulain. Cuchulain’s sonorous voice and chipper low strings ground this romantic tune–it’s a love song, but one full of earthiness and real life. (Thus, the garden–a metaphor and/or a real place.) It hits all the right emotional buttons without getting maudlin.
3. “Presidential Silver Lining” – John Craigie. Protest songs can be disenchanted, violent, angry, apathetic, hopeful, determined, or some of all of that. But in my opinion, protest works best when it’s funny–and boy, John Craigie is hilarious. This song, written right after the last presidential election, is so great that it feels like ruining the punch line to explain it any more than than saying it’s more about music than politics (but there’s plenty ‘o politics in it). The folk itself is fantastic too, as Craigie has an excellent voice, a strong guitar strum, and fantastic melodies. He can also speak-sing with the best of them, which is a solid attribute in a folksinger. Man, this is just great.
4. “Keep Falling” – Gregory Ackerman. What if Grandaddy had been happier? What if Clem Snide had been less, uh, snide? Maybe Gregory Ackerman. This acoustic-fronted piece is full of little glittering things–little notes, small melodies, pieces that add together into a warm, enveloping whole. This is one of the happiest songs I’ve heard in a long time, in that explains its happiness in an unusual, but totally recognizable way.
5. “dawn song (morning pepper)” – the modern folk. A loping, lo-fi, instrumental folk piece that includes found sound, unusual percussion, twee melodies, and an overall inviting vibe. Sounds like a humble, backporch version of Sufjan Stevens’ weirdest acoustic moments.
6. “Give Me Back My Heart Again” – Bird in the Belly. Fans of the vocal folk tradition will love the opening minute of this track, a mournful a cappella duet. The rest of the track is sprightly folk of the British Isles–some Irish rhythms and some English melodic vibes power the (still-sad, but fast-sad, not slow-sad) song.
7. “New Sweden” – Marmalakes. There’s not a direct line between Marmalakes and The Mountain Goats, but I would wager that if you like TMG you’d like Marmalakes. There’s a confident, knowing sort of approach to this indie-pop; it starts off as a folk fingerpicking before jumping into a stomping distortion section and then drawing back down to something much more akin to the Kings of Convenience. These are faulty touchstones, but they’re what I’ve got. Marmalakes is doing something interesting in folk/indie-pop/indie-rock, and I commend it to you.
8. “Stay Off My Mind” – Skott. I just totally love the verses of this track: the drums, bass, and vocal performance come together amazingly well. Skott’s vocal tone fits perfectly into the lightly-forward-pressing indie-pop verses. The chorus is fun too, but the verses are what got me.
9. “Black Chemicals” – Rainbrother. The sort of lazy enthusiasm that marked the best of ’90s Brit-pop (save Blur) is present in this walking-speed indie track. The falsetto vocal lines from the verses feel sort of like they’re tossed over a fence, soaring up and then drifting downward comfortably. It’s a fun, easygoing, unavoidably cool track.
10. “Drifting” – Alex Tiuniaev. A delicate, relaxing piece gets a bit of dissonance thrown at it, and the work transforms from a wafting breeze to something more complex, more earned. A strong solo piano piece.
1. “Awkward” – Sleep State. There are not enough people following in Hall and Oates’ pop footsteps, and this is being corrected by Sleep State in this fantastic tune. Peppy melodies, occasional screamin’ falsetto, perky arrangements complete with frantic tambourine: it’s all here. Pop fans, rejoice.
2. “Old Town” – Say Sue Me. This outfit has major-key indie-rock down: they’ve thrown in bits of surf, emo, punk, Vampire Weekend, indie-pop, and more into a can’t-keep-the-smile-off-my-face summer jam. Expertly crafted tune here.
3. “Love in Winter” – Palm Ghosts. The thrumming synthesizer, driving percussion, baritone male vocals, and strong female vocals will pull anyone back into warm, excellent nostalgia for the ’80s. The jubilant chorus melody is just great.
4. “Snow (again)” – The fin. This track about winter evokes the woozy wonder of being a kid out in a big field of unsullied snow. The whisper-sung vocals croon over a roiling bass of synths and loping electric guitar–it’s a weird, wild, full track right up until the 1:57 mark, when it suddenly ends. A unique experience.
5. “I’m Not Ready” – Sally Crosby. A charming ukulele and shaken percussion accompany a blitzing, breathless vocal performance. It’s like Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, and Ingrid Michaelson collaboratively wrote a tune and ended up creating something unique and bold.
6. “That Old Famous Smile” – Flood County. A smooth, round baritone voice leads the way through this folk/country tune. The opening melancholia opens up into a sprightly jaunt led by dueling pedal steel and fiddle. The overall product is a relaxing, thoughtful piece of acoustic-led music.
7. “Fortaleza” – Hanging Valleys. How can a track be wintry and warm at the same time? The reverb-heavy effects on the instruments and the pad synths create a feeling of cold expanses, but the Bon Iver-ian falsetto vocals feel intimate and warm. The subtle electric guitar brings out the rays of the sun even more on the arid tundra. This tune is a beautiful, carefully developed track.
8. “Walls” – Racoon Racoon. The female lead vocals here are lithe and perfectly matched with the string-bass-heavy folk arrangement. From the bass to the acoustic guitar to the fiddle to the minimal percussion, this is a buoyant, elegant piece.
9. “Bardo” – GoGoPenguin. This soaring, rattling, dramatic instrumental piece is jazz for people who don’t like jazz: melding the build and fall aesthetics of post-rock, the thrumming intensity of punk, and the complex groove of the drumming into one, they create something electric and undefinable (while using only acoustic instruments). Wow and a half. Highly recommended.
B. Snipes‘ debut Away, Awayestablished Snipes’ immense potential as a folk singer/songwriter, while his follow-up American Dreamershowed off his pop songcraft. With his new album My Mountain Home, Snipes circles back and makes good on the promise of his debut EP. My Mountain Homeis a impressive collection of warm, deftly-handled folk songs. Snipes makes simplicity sound easy, as if there’s anything easy about writing concise, minimally-arranged songs that are each distinctly rewarding.
In contrast to the big pop record he just came from, Home is a much more intimate affair in arrangement and subject matter. The arrangements rarely get beyond a warm, round guitar; Snipes’ easygoing vocals; background harmonies; and occasional support instrument (violin, piano, or banjo). Far from being repetitive, the consistency gives a comfortable, familial feel to the work–these are all tunes that you can play on the back porch or around the fire without drastically changing the arrangement. That’s a true folk record right there: these are B. Snipes’ songs, but they can also be your songs. They can be anyone’s songs.
The subject matter is intimate and familial as well. As the title suggests, this is an album about growing up in the mountains. Snipes grew up there, and his father did too–four short interviews with Snipes’ father are woven through the record. They ground the record in lived experience and real places; they are the rare spoken word interstitials that contribute to the album instead of taking away from the flow.
Between and around those interviews are the songs, which run the gamut of topics: “40 Acres” a nostalgic stream of memories about living on the mountain, “Veggie Stew” (featuring a banjo) is a love song comparing the quality of love to the quality of vegetable stew, “Simple” is an indictment of the complexity of modern life, and “Last Night” is a murder ballad (!). Each of these tunes have a direct or indirect appreciation for rural life that ties them together almost as tightly as the shared arrangement style.
It’s opener “Oh Tennessee” that encapsulates the record best. All the themes of the record are there in the first three lines: “When I was young, I learned to comb my hair and shoot a gun / on a 40-acre farm there in those woods / I came to learn the simple life is sweet.” Those lyrics are delivered by Snipes’ effortless delivery and paired with guileless, delicate fingerpicking. Gentle vocal harmonies and resonant piano fill out the tune, creating a perfect opening track to set the tone for the record.
My Mountain Home is a true-blue folk record that evokes all of the best aspects of folk: personal-yet-univeral lyrics, warm arrangements, and great melodies. The results are an honest, earnest, intimate account of rural life that is easy to listen to and easy to love. It fulfills the promise of Snipes’ early work and establishes him as a thoughtful, careful songwriter. Snipes is one to watch. Fans of Sam Amidon’s quieter work should take to this one with great joy. Highly recommended.
I’ve been listening to The Good Graces for a long time, and I can say with some familiarity that they love a sad song. As a result, there are a few surprises in The Hummingbird EP.Hummingbird flits about like the titular avian, going from the full-band sad song “The First Girl” to the almost-happy love song “X my <3” to the knowingly-calling-it-out major-key jaunt “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” and closing with the sort-of-sad “Waiting.” All throughout, Kim Ware gives some of her best vocal performances of her career, sounding confident and calm in the midst of a diverse set of indie-folk tunes.
“The First Girl” is a gut-wrencher, the sort of song that could have easily fit on previous breakup album Set Your Sights but got cut for some idiosyncratic reason. (Maybe it just didn’t fit in the final song sequence–songs have been cut for less.) “X my <3” is a pensive, brooding track that would fit sonically with the previous record (especially the fractured distorted guitar noise), but lyrically looks in a different direction. “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” is a fantastic pop song that seems like a good reason to create an EP–it’s clever, fun, and (almost) totally out of character with the previous record. There are some references to the relational strain that caused Set Your Sights to exist, but it’s largely a self-deprecating look at the life of a folk singer.
“Waiting” closes out the short EP with a woozy, Clem Snide-esque alt-country take; it’s a lovely track instrumentally and vocally. As I mentioned before, Ware’s vocals are strong throughout, and this is no exception. If you’re looking for a quick primer on what The Good Graces can do before diving into the discography, The Hummingbird EP is a great place to start.
1. “Mountains” – Oh Geronimo. This fantastic indie-pop song combines math-rock guitars, Manchester Orchestra-level emotion (but in an optimistic way!), so-good vocal melodies, and contemporary indie-pop aesthetics (horns!). It’s the sort of song that manages to make a high level of complexity instantly accessible. Highly recommended.
2. “How It Feels” – Scenic Route to Alaska. An indie-pop-rock tune with an absolutely A+ chorus that emerges out of nowhere with a towering lead vocal line, counterpoint background vocals, and punchy guitars. It’s like Generationals, the Beach Boys, and ’90s Brit rock thrown into a blender.
3. “rooftops” – Prawn. The jangly guitars, high-pitched male vocals, and punchy drums/bass combo are full-on emo revival, and it’s so good. There’s also whistling! But the main thing here is the irresistibly charming video about a man and his dog.
4. “Belle’s aka Modern Timed Instrumental” – BLACKNIGHT. Synthy dream-pop gets infused with some snappy instrumental hip-hop vibes to create a tight, interesting take. It’s a feast of different tones and rhythms, blended together seamlessly.
5. “What You’ve Become” – Tango with Lions. Any fans of Grandaddy will immediately appreciate this gently-fuzzed out acoustic/electric songwriting approach. The choppy rhythms accentuate the vocal performance excellently.
6. “Fallen” – I Hate You Just Kidding. A wistful, romantic indie-pop tune that sounds like sitting on top of a large hill with your loved one, looking up at the stars and feeling small. The female lead vocal performance here is vulnerable and perfectly matched to the gently insistent arrangement.
7. “Till Tomorrow Goes Away” – Cut Worms. What if The Walkmen had been a folk band? Would their yearning have been maintained? Cut Worms is exploring that vein, as the squalling guitar leads and yearning vocals of the sadly defunct outfit seem to have been poured into a relaxed, back-porch pickin’ frame. It’s not quite folk, not quite pop–it’s something floating in between, something engaging and new.
8. “FIDITL” – Ohsergio. Starts off glitchy and broken, then turns to a charging folk guitar and floating vocal for the next bit. The conclusion brings the glitchy bits and folk bits together for an ominous-yet-intimate performance.
9. “Wildfire” – Leah James. A smooth, Simon and Garfunkel-esque folk arrangement allows Leah James’ voice to float effortlessly above the mix. Sounds very little like an actual wildfire, and it’s all the better for that.
10. “Broken Wing” – Lowpines. You can wrap the icy, wintry, woodsy vibes around you like a coat. The vocal melodies in the chorus are just lovely.
11. “Doing Alright” – Corey Nolen. Infuses the traditional vibe of Western swing with some contemporary vocal melodies and some well-done pathos. Nolen’s low voice sounds perfect in the well-turned fiddle/piano/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/bass/drums/ arrangement.
12. “Watermelon” – Jerry David DeCicca. A peaceful, pastoral piece that celebrates everything about the humble watermelon. The fluttering clarinet, string bass, and sighing background vocals make this a breath of fresh air.
1. “5.00am” – Raphaelle Thibaut. This piano-led piece opens almost ambiently due to the otherworldly, glowing pad synths that make their way around and through the gentle piano work. The track opens up into an almost Sigur Ros-ian culmination, with multiple string parts bursting into the arrangement in a triumphant manner. The whole piece does feel like the moments just as the sun is rising, as the darkness recedes and the rays break over the horizon. An incredible work. Highly recommended.
2. “Another World” – firosuke. This long, flowing solo piano piece seems to explore a wide, unknown space–a spacious underground cavern, a deep forest, or a castle. There’s all manner of small moments in the piece that strike different moods and tones, just as the internal excitement of exploring can sometimes give way to monotony–until a huge moment of external action. Very narrative, but not a soundtrack piece–this work has its own internal logic and is not handmaiden to other visual action. A distinct, interesting work.
3. “Intro (“Paradisum”)” – Dubbini. Big organ, gothic bell-hits, orchestral grounding, thick choral vocals, medieval-chant-style vocals, woodwinds, and more create a fantastically complex and evocative piece of composed music. This sort of high-drama, mysterious, powerful work is why video game designers sometime in the last 25 years were like, “OH MAN we could use CLASSICAL MUSIC and it would be GREAT!”
4. “Murmurations” – Michael Perera. Wave after wave of speedily cascading piano notes coalesce into a mesmerizing flow, like staring at a rapidly moving creek. Connections to mid-century minimalist composition techniques are tempered by a melodic sensibility that calls to mind Carly Comando. An excellent composition.
5. “Adrift” – Jesse Brown. This brief, low-key piano track balances traditional solo piano introspection with an unusually bluesy streak. It’s cool, calm, and collected–an unusual (and unusually interesting) effort in the genre.
6. “Swim Safety” – Legumina. Glitchy yet still dreamy, this instrumental track sidles its way up next to you and slowly starts dancing sinuously. It’s got trip-hop cool without having the trip-hop rhythmic identifiers.
7. “Reminisce” – Jabbar. Lo-fi instrumental hip-hop that sounds strongly influenced by dungeon crawling video game soundtracks. Artsy and intriguing, yet still danceable.
8. “Letters from India” – Kevin Cryderman. Adventurous, high-intensity acoustic guitar work is the centerpiece of this folk tune. Cryderman’s voice is strong and the melodies are memorable, but it’s the various sections of intriguing solo acoustic guitar work that really set this track apart.
1. “Hold Your Head Up” – Darlingside. A cross between the icy reverie of Bon Iver and the mystical, quiet folk of Sufjan’s Michigan creates one of the most lovely folk tracks I’ve heard all year. The vocal melodies and harmonies are just astounding. Highly recommended.
2. “RUN” – DANSU. A sleek-yet-punchy indie-pop track that’s a little dancy, a little dreamy, a little guitar-rock-y, and a little Vampire Weekend-y. All of that comes together into a bright, fun track.
3. “Wild Heart” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is an huge, major-key folk-pop explosion, complete with charging drums and surging guitar. The dignified, careful vocal performance is the perfect counterpoint to the instrumental enthusiasm. The music video does everything right too: a perfect match for the lyrics, the choreography the dance troupe performs is wonderful and inspiring.
4. “Crane Song” – TOLEDO. A waltzing, lilting acoustic guitar strum is matched by a softly crooning voice to create some quiet indie-pop in the vein of Jens Lekman, Belle and Sebastian, and Fionn Regan. The song passes through different movements over its nearly five minutes, showing off different angles of TOLEDO’s sound, and all of them are impressive.
5. “Childhood Ghosts” – Alan Barnosky. Fans of old-school Joe Pug will hear the creaky voice, fans of old Tallest Man on Earth will hear the fingerpicking, and fans of folk will rejoice. This is the second Barnosky track of the last few days, because I’m just so taken with his sound. Great stuff here.
6. “Stay With Me” – The Minnesota Child. Dusky, full-bodied folk-pop that has the gravitas of Fleet Foxes and the enthusiasm of The Oh Hellos. The wordless vocal lines in the bridge are just beautiful, and the organ in the last chorus caps it off perfectly. This is how it’s done, folks. Highly recommended.
7. “Where the Good Buzz Goes” – John John Brown. Brown knows how to spin a story, play a mean folk guitar, and sing like it’s no work at all. This particular track is a blues for a veteran, and Lord knows there aren’t enough blues for them to go around. John John Brown is someone you need to hear. Highly recommended.
8. “The Herpetologist” – Driftwood Scarecrow. If you wished that folk sounded more like Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, boy do I have a tune for you. This slightly strummed, delicately sung, fairly twee track has the chord structure and melodic structures to suggest the most disciplined version of Conor Oberst. As a result, this fantastic song is a glistening soap bubble, a beautiful feather floating upward, and a lazy day in a hammock all combined into one.
9. “Savannah” – Brooks Dixon. This alt-country tune features strong instrumental performances in the verses and a knock-out chorus. Dixon’s vocal melodies in the chorus will stick in your head for a long time. There’s a lot of charm and heart in this tune.
10. “Forth Year” – Jack Shields. A gritty vocal performance flows over a smooth, warm west-coast country track. The multiple layers of vocals really make this track special.
11. “Richmond, Meet Richard” – Richard Sherfey. Sherfey knows how to use his voice to best effect: he’s able to subtly sing over delicate fingerpicking and also soar a huge line out of nowhere for the chorus. Fans of serious songwriters (Joseph Arthur, Damien Rice, and Richard Buckner for starters) have a new songwriter to track.
12. “Lone Bulb” – Crooked Cat Adams. Starts off slow, but builds to include electronic percussion, horn, organ, and electric guitar crunch in a very impressive arrangement. It’s hard to come up with comparisons for something so unique, but I guess it sounds somewhat like Neutral Milk Hotel (the horns at 2:50!) merged with a mellowed-out Lord Huron (?). It’s just good music, okay? You should go listen to it.
1. “Old Freight” – Alan Barnosky. Barnosky’s evocative, high-pitched voice grabbed me from the first note he sang. He pairs his oh-so-gripping voice with some excellent folk work–this is how you update trad sounds to sound modern. And the song’s about trains! It doesn’t get folkier than this, friends. Fans of Justin Townes Earle’s bright folk will fall over this one. Highly recommended.
2. “These Days” – Ali Morrison. I love the jaunty, folky guitar style here, reminiscent of Langhorne Slim and others. Morrison takes that upbeat folk base and builds a much sadder song on top of it via synths, his vocal performance, and his downtrodden lyrics. The tension between the guitar and the rest of the arrangement is unique and interesting.
3. “Pieces of a Puzzle” – Daniel Pearson. Fans of the Barr Brothers and Gregory Alan Isakov will find this full-band folk tune much to their liking. Pearson’s wordless vocal melodies in the chorus feel timeless and immediate; the rest of the song slots in perfectly behind it. It’s a song that seems like I’ve always known it, but it’s new to me. Excellent stuff.
4. “Portland” – Strangers by Accident. The drums provide a lot of atmosphere and lift for this folk-pop tune from the very get-go; they keep it rolling in the fun, upbeat chorus. This is top-shelf folk-pop that doesn’t compromise on the folk or the pop: the arrangement is a strong and thoughtful folk tune, while the chorus is one big sonic blast of pop enthusiasm. Also there’s a well-played harmonica, which is always +10 point folk points.
5. “Where Do I Go From Here?” – Liisa. Ukulele-fronted indie-pop will always grab me, but it’s an even easier sell with a chipper vocal performance, fun melody, and handclaps. The most surprising bit of this song is the bassist, who goes off on swift runs and bouncy rhythms like it’s Graceland up in here. Rad rad rad.
6. “Deep Down Yonder” – Strange Pilgrims. Transforms the strutting bass groove so intrinsic to funk into something that splits the difference between rustic and futuristic: the tambourine and wheezing, accordion-esque sounds keep it grounded in a historic past, but the overall vibe very much points toward the future. Very cool track.
7. “Stenograph Letters” – Astroboter. The guitar line dances along the edge of melancholy and sinister; it gets a lift from the speedy breakbeats and the thumping bass. The whole piece comes together into a fantastically cool, driving, groove-heavy instrumental piece that draws from a lot of different genres.
8. “Future Unfolding” – Thomas Carleberg and Emil Nilsson. A broad, sweeping soundtrack piece from the titular video game that slots in with some of the best of the genre: Monument Valley, Journey, Alto’s Adventure, et al. The simple, unadorned arrangement conveys a sense of wonder in a most beautiful way.
9. “Översiktskarta över Kullahusområdet” – Jäverling ◇ von Euler. A nostalgic, wistful melody gently guides this delicate, elegant piece. If you’re scrambling over “too much to do and not enough time to do it,” do yourself a favor and have five minutes of mental rest to this lovely work.
10. “Winter” – Koronis. Treble notes tentatively search across a sufficiently wintry soundscape–lots of long-held bass notes that create an earthy grounding for the track. The tension between the treble and the not-that-much-lower bass hand create interesting moments throughout this instrumental piano piece.
11. “La Danzatrice” – Roberto Fusco Di Maso. This neo-classical piano piece has several beautiful melodies and satisfying development of the piece throughout. There are some treble runs and some melodic theatrics, which are a lot of fun. This is a piece that shows off some strong compositional and performance chops in a more traditional classical style.
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.