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Cameron Blake tours us through a distinctive healing process

A central tenet of the Mountain Goats’ work that every life, no matter how seemingly obscure or seemingly placid, has a story: dramatic, tragic, comedic, sometimes all of them. You can’t know a person fully by looking at them or even by being acquaintances. You gotta know them closely to see the real dramas going on in lives. I agree.

I’ve been covering Cameron Blake‘s work since 2011, including albums and songs that aren’t even available anymore. I know the work of Blake pretty well. But through all that, I did not know Blake deeply enough to know his backstory. With Mercy for the Gentle Kind, Blake tells a story of pain, struggle, and redemption that spans the whole chronology of his career. The story, in his words, looks like this:

Cameron’s life in music began as a classical violinist at the age of 12, a passion that brought him to numerous professional stages and culminated in a Master’s Degree from the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. While at Peabody, his violin playing was nearly brought to an abrupt halt by an abusive teacher.

He put down the violin and picked up piano, becoming a singer/songwriter instead of a violinist. He’s been in the pages of IC ever since. Yet as Blake began to address the wounds from the abusive violin teacher, he found freedom to play the violin again. He even played a full violin recital recently. Stories of resurrection, redemption, and healing are deeply moving to me, so these experiences struck a chord with me before even hearing the music that he wrote amid/as a result of the process of healing.

The music strikes a chord with me too. Mercy for the Gentle Kind addresses the experience of healing through vignette narratives, depicting different stages of the process without expressly calling out the process. “Blue Note” comes closest to explaining the process, giving an account of leaving and returning. The indie-rock tune strikes an almost Springsteen-esque tone in the lyrics and chord changes, calling to mind the Boss’ stark depictions of tough lives. It gives the song an earthy, realist feel.

“Red Rose” is the most dramatic of the pieces, a song seemingly sung directly to the violin. It’s an apology of sorts: “O red rose, I’ll never leave you again / I’ll never lose you / Now I’m wide awake / I’ve found my way / I’ve found my way / Now I’ve found my way back to you.” It works equally well as a apology to a lover, which is probably the context most will find themselves relating to it in. The arrangement is highly dramatic and sounds deeply cathartic for Blake.

“Cricket’s Waltz” is specifically about playing the violin, pointing toward the emotions Blake has toward the instrument after healing. It’s a formal waltz, complete with strings (appropriately), and it shows the intriguing tension that any musician knows: playing within constraints (of genre, of the sheet music, of our own capabilities) often produces the greatest freedom. Two more pieces showcase the violin: opener “Tenderness,” which is an instrumental piece with a spoken word conversation about (appropriately) tenderness over it, and “Sicilienne,” which is a piece by 18th and 19th century composer Maria Theresia von Paradis. Both are as engaging as they are lovely.

The title track closer is an elegant piano ballad, the type which Blake is so expert at. It’s the most impressionist of the tracks, as the lyrics are a collection of experiences and emotions that revolve around emotional freedom. It’s a beautiful, resonant piece that provides an excellent conclusion to the EP.

Mercy for the Gentle Kind is a document of the complicated process of healing. We don’t have enough of these in the popular music canon; not just grief, but how you go through grief and get out the other side. While albums like Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks do show this process after the dissolution of a romantic relationship, Blake’s story here is near-unique in being narrative of healing from interpersonal trauma. We need more of this in the world, and Mercy for the Gentle Kind is a wonderful place to start. Highly recommended.

Cameron Blake gets mad and turns up the amps

Cameron Blake’s Censor the Silence is angry. The indie-rock record features songs about the Stoneman Douglas High Shooting (“Six Minutes Twenty Seconds”), the Syrian Civil War (“Chemical War Child”), people who change for the worse (“Kabuki Theater,” whose lyrics Blake notes are “relevant right now in the age of Trump”), and more. The apex of this rage is “How Dare You,” where Blake and a female vocalist literally howl the titular phrase over growling electric guitar and bass in a tune inspired by Greta Thunberg’s furious speech to the United Nations. If you’re mad about things, Blake is also mad about things, and you can be mad with him in these impressive songs.

If you weren’t convinced by “How Dare You,” there’s always the six-minute follow-up “Only Goya.” The suite starts with a spartan, delicate nearly-two-minute introduction before abruptly switching to a nearly-garage-rock electric guitar rumble with Blake spitting words like there will be no more left to sing after this one. It concludes with an arrangement even more torrential than “How Dare You”–the bassist is just pummeling his poor guitar into submission with massive bass slides, good gracious from hood space. The tune isn’t about a current event, as Blake says it’s inspired by three Francisco Goya works: Dutchess of Alba (1797), Yard with Lunatics (1794)Saturn Devouring His Son (1823). Yet if you’ve ever seen Saturn Devouring His Son (spoiler: it’s incredibly dark) or know the story behind it (Goya feared insanity at the end of his life and accordingly painted his fears directly onto the interior walls of his house), you know that this song is literally guaranteed to have a lot of turmoil in it.

This song, and the album as a whole, is approximately the inverse of Alone on the World StageBlake’s hushed and intimate 2015 work. Where Blake was literally writing and recording by himself in 2015, now he’s got a full band that is not afraid to get punishing. Even the different album covers display a shift: Alone has Blake looking dejectedly at the floor and away from the camera, while Censor sees Blake staring directly into the camera and reaching out to seemingly grab the listener. The sonics here do grab, in ways they have not before. Take “Pale Cloud Covering,” which is a piano/keys-driven work that is less emphatic than some of the works, but only by degree. It’s a song that in other contexts would be a singer/songwriter tune that instead gets that stomp on. What it lacks in guitar noise, it makes up for in large-scale gospel choir fury and (more) (well-deserved) Blake hollering. Funky, soulful opener “Henny Penny” also employs the band to great effect and big gospel choir vibes.

Even more proof of transformation: there’s a rocked-out version of formerly-piano-ballad “Kabuki Theater” from Alone on the World Stage here. (It’s good, surprisingly good.) Even if you’ve been following Blake for as long as I have, there’s not really anything in the last 11 or so years that would really have pointed toward “indie-rock fury” as the next step in his evolution. (Not even a protest song in favor of Edward Snowden, which he definitely did once.)

Not all is pound: there are two quiet, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes here. “Honey Step Out of the Rain” and “Gillian” are both tender love songs. “Gillian” is a brilliant tune that is the most melodically memorable of the songs here and the most connected to his previous work, making it a great choice for the lead single in a vacuum. Outside of the vacuum, anyone who loves this song as the first single should be extremely forewarned that this is not what the rest of the album sounds like at all (except the relaxed “Honey Step of the Rain”). “How Dare You” really should have been the single, but I think he would have flattened all of his previous listenership with it, so maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t go there. Indeed, opener “Henny Penny” is a nice intro to ease people in before the second-track-blast that is “How Dare You.”

Blake’s work is always meticulously crafted, and Censor the Silence is no exception. The pounding arrangements are spot-on, the lyrics (which I have only scratched the surface of) are poetic and engaging, and even the sequencing is carefully done. It’s just in a very, very different vein than previous listeners will be used to. If you’re not familiar with Blake, now is the time to jump in: Blake’s songwriting voice is finely pointed after years of work, and this is his finest, most engaging work yet. Get mad. Highly recommended.

Cameron Blake sets the singer/songwriter bar high in 2015


Writing a whole album for single instrument and voice is a deceptively difficult task. No orchestration, no ornamentation, nothing but the melody, the rhythm, and whatever counterpoint you can get your fingers (or your looper) to do; what could go wrong?

Well, lots. I’ve heard a bunch of albums that consist of the same three songs over and over. I’ve discovered how important a backing band is to some musicians. I’ve heard a lot of grating flaws that were charming in a previous context. All this makes me appreciate even half-decent attempts at true solo records that much more. Cameron Blake‘s Alone on the World Stage is that rare album which showcases diverse songwriting skills and loads of memorable melodies within a very constricted medium. Alone impressively makes guitar and voice seem like an endless, expansive orchard with good songs ripe for the picking.

It’s not just that the songs are all there; they all sound so easy. The rolling fingerpicking of lead single “North Dakota Oil” seems to effortlessly buoy Blake’s baritone musings about the latest American oil rush. The insistent strumming that supports tales of hard-luck life in “Detroit” sounds no less assured. The pensive sway of “The Fisherman,” the bouncy “Piccadilly Circus,” and the precise-yet-gentle arpeggios of “Ultrasound” all show other facets of the diamond. “Fragile Glory” closes the record not by rehashing the sonic content, but by summing it up beautifully in a tender, expressive performance. Blake didn’t phone in a single song here: deft, purposeful work went into each of these twelve tracks. The result is an album that showcases his vast instrumental songwriting abilities without getting repetitive.

His lyrical songwriting is as adroit as the guitar work. Despite the implied political ends of the title, the album covers a wide range of topics. “Welfare Street” follows up on the promise of some politics, but primarily by focusing on the plight of the people involved in the situation–“Detroit” can be read in the same way. “Fragile Glory” expands the widescreen lens even more, taking a look at the whole human condition (“Hallelujah! We are human.”). On the other end of the spectrum, “Ultrasound” is a very personal song about becoming a father. But even if the scope is turned outward or inward, these are songs that are generous, even affectionate, toward their subjects. Instead of taking a calculated, sneering, ironic stance that can come out in pictures of people in culture, there’s a kind undercurrent to the lyrics that courses through the tunes almost as persistently as the bass note rhythms.

It’s peculiar that the most moving song on the album is one of two written for piano and voice: “Home Movie” is a soaring, passionate treatment of what the liner notes call “old silent film music” with new vocals and lyrics. Blake’s consistently evocative vocals are especially well done here, as his baritone lends the song a dynamism that fits with the deeply affecting lyrics. It’s the sort of song that doesn’t appear that often; everything comes together in that one performance to show the heart of the song and the songwriter. It’s the best of what an instrument and a voice can do; it’s the track that allures and calls so many people to try this sort of thing.

Cameron Blake’s Alone on the World Stage sees him standing out from the pack of singer/songwriters with powerful songwriting, passionate lyrics, and intimate performances. Blake sets the bar high for this year of albums.

Cameron Blake’s Kickstarter has me excited

I plan a lot of my blog posts ahead of time, but sometimes I don’t get to write much while I’m planning. I’ll occasionally stick placeholder text in the draft to remind myself; it’s usually “Band name, y’all.” (Oklahoma forever.) I always eventually change the text. But this time I feel like leaving it:

Cameron Blake, y’all.

That’s right. Cameron Blake is running a Kickstarter to fund an album of just him and a guitar. I’m a big fan of Cameron’s work, and so I’m really excited to see what he can do with the bare essentials. I have extremely high hopes for this record, based on the demo and the music from the Kickstarter video.

So if you’ve got some metaphorical pennies kicking about, consider pitching some Cameron Blake’s way. It’s gonna be a great album.

Wild Ones / Cameron Blake


Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.

Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.


In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.

So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.

Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.

Cameron Blake's distinctive voice and lyrics set his songwriting apart from the pack

If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.

But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.

Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.

Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.

His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.

His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.

In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.

The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.

Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.

Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.

The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.

Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.

Cameron Blake is En Route to Greatness.

En Route, the second album from singer/songwriter Cameron Blake, is a refreshingly unique masterpiece.  Although the Baltimore musician has his master’s in violin performance, he is clearly a man of many talents.  With fantastic orchestrations from the young musician, the album will take you on a journey paved not only with violin, but beautiful vocals, piano, harmonica, cello, and acoustic guitar, to name a few.  In the beginning of your listening experience, you may find yourself struggling to pin him down under one genre.  The album is a smooth combination of acoustic, pop, blues, and largely folk sound.  It would do him an injustice to not give him credit for his wide range of appeal.  Let’s just label him as this: “talented.”

It’s hard to compare Blake to any one other artist, but fans of everyone from Dave Matthews to The Swell Season will surely enjoy this record.  The album opens with “This is All,” a track that instantly makes you feel like you are listening to a rebellious poet in the bottom of a dark jazz club.  Farther along on the record is “On the Way to Jordan,” which is more than suitable for a pub set in the heart of Dublin.  A favorite is “Interlude,” a slower-paced song that would be fantastic on the soundtrack of an indie flick.  The piano and delicate harmonies will chill you to the bone in the same way as the painfully beautiful songs written by Damien Rice.

Blake provides fascinating vocals through out the album, sometimes emanating a similar sound to Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie.  There is a pleasant clarity in his vocals that allows the listener to enjoy his unique lyrics.  In “Lonely Rooms” he writes, “I held her marigold smile-apple scent rain through slanting silver-lines/ I am the prince and the fool-survived by a breath, a thread, a single room.”  Pure poetry.

If you decide to check out one independent artist this year, make sure it’s Cameron Blake.  With excellent musicianship, thoughtful writing, and exceptional vocals, you won’t be disappointed.

Stephen’s Top Ten Albums of 2022

This year’s top ten reflects my continued exploration of genres and sounds that are new to me. From full-on experimental music to electronic to composition to folk to totally genre-defying work, there’s a lot of different points on the map. Much of this music falls on the quieter side of things; in this chaotic year of headlines, I wanted peaceful sounds. Several of these albums were close companions on that quest.

10. JPH – A Holy Hour. A deeply experimental album that plays with repetition to draw out and investigate the experience of emotions.

9. Drone San – Drone San. Exemplary electrojazz that deconstructs and reconstructs the conventions of both genres.

8. Brown Calvin – d i m e n s i o n // p e r s p e c t i v e. Brown Calvin’s mesmerizing take on chill electronic music pushes boundaries in all directions, resulting in an experience not like any other this year.

7. Cameron Blake – Mercy for the Gentle Kind. An intimate rumination on healing from trauma, the likes of which we need more of.

6. Cemento Atlantico – Rotte Interrotte. It arrived in 2021, but I heard about it in 2022: this world-spanning tour of electronica and found sound is a thrill to listen to.

5. Andrew Yarovenko – Start Somewhere. A distinctive blend of flamenco, electronica, chamber pop, and acoustic guitar powers Yarovenko’s lovely compositions.

4. Brian Harnetty – Words and Silences. Dense without being overbearing, thought-provoking without sacrificing enjoyment, philosophical without being esoteric (usually); Harnetty’s compositions providing grounding for Thomas Merton’s tape-recorded thoughts is one of the most unusual and yet effective concepts I’ve listened to this year.

3. The Bogie Band featuring Joe Russo – The Prophets in the City. The soul of a marching band, the heart of a funk outfit, and the theatrics of a jazz combo. I’ve never heard anything like it.

2. Aaron Fisher and Rob Stevenson – Sightseeing. Brilliant acoustic Americana with a deft command of mood, an impressive fusion of dual viewpoints, and can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head melodies.

1. Airport People – From Nine Mornings. Exquisitely elegant solo piano work that transports me to a calmed space.12

Stephen’s Songs of the Year

This year was an expansive one for me, as I spent a lot of time expanding my musical boundaries but also circled back to some genres that are old friends. This playlist of songs of the year is set up like a mixtape: calm and warm at the beginning, a short upbeat period, dark and stormy in the middle, then cheery and upbeat at the end. These are thus not in a “best to least” order. Without further adieu:

  1. “The Becalming” – Veldhans.
  2. “Already Am” – Will Samson & Message to Bears
  3. “This Land Is Your Land” – Kris Orlowski
  4. “The Seminar” – Stables
  5. “The Earth Is Flat” – Alexander Wren
  6. “Song for Nick Drake” – Grace Gillespie
  7. “San Francisco” – Racoon Racoon
  8. “Book of Witches” – Jake Aaron
  9. “Give Thanks” – Black Violin
  10. “Roger Ebert” – Clem Snide
  11. “Of a Million” – Thunder Dreamer
  12. “Heliotrope” – Runnner
  13. “Cribbage Champs” – Jake McKelvie and the Countertops
  14. “Pull Apart” – Summerooms & Samantha Eason
  15. “Nobody Knows” – Ellen Andrea Wang
  16. “All Will Be Well” – Blue Water Highway
  17. “Getaway Car” – Ezekiel Songs
  18. “Rest” – The Gray Havens
  19. “Let’s Leap” – Mesadorm
  20. “Inhale Exhale” – Anna Meredith
  21. “How Dare You” – Cameron Blake
  22. “Vista” – Escaper
  23. “First to the Feast” – Stagbriar
  24. “Mile” – Wisdom Water
  25. “210” – Matt Karmil
  26. “Tony Sendo” – Underground Canopy
  27. “Black Sorbet” – Closet Disco Queen
  28. “Kora” – GoGo Penguin
  29. “For Victor” – Joshua Crumbly
  30. “Palms Up” – Ezra Feinberg
  31. “QUO” – Martin Kohlstedt
  32. “The Actor” – Brief Candle
  33. “Crow” – Sam Carand
  34. “Saw You Through the Trees” – Eerie Gaits
  35. “Another One for Slug” – Dougie Stu
  36. “Mission Plan” – Matthew Shaw
  37. “Dis kô Dis kô” -YĪN YĪN
  38. “Nap” – Standards

June Singles 2: Less Whiplash, Mostly Indie Pop and Folk

1. “Muanapoto” – Tshegue. Dense, groove-heavy African rhythms power this unclassifiable tune, which falls somewhere between LCD Soundsystem electro, Afropunk, and The Very Best. May I repeat: those grooves. You’ll get moving on this one.

2. “Like the Night” – Moonbeau. This electro-pop jam played for roughly three seconds before I thought, “Oh yes. Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhhhhh.” The airy arpeggiator lead hook is awesome, the verses are perfectly done to build tension, and the chorus brings that hook back in excellently. The vocals nail it, too. If you love JR JR, Hot Chip, and the like, you’ll be absolutely all over this track.

3. “Happy Unhappy” – The Beths. The Beths are jumping in with Alex Lahey and Marsicans as purveyors of incredible, indelible guitar-pop in big batches. This second single I’ve heard from then is just everything I’m looking for in power-pop: thick guitars that yet don’t cover up the vocals, blast-off drums, big low end, and giddy enthusiasm. The fact that the giddy enthusiasm (check the “oh-ah” section) is deployed in a lyrical set complaining about being happy (ha!) is just rollicking fun.

4. “Forever” – The Gray Havens. TGH has moved from piano pop through expansive folk-pop to full-on indie-pop in this latest track. This jubilant track grows from a peaceful opening to include enthusiastic horns, a soaring vocal line, and punchy percussion. Fans of Graceland will hear some resonances there. It’s a blast.

5. “When I Look Back” – Lev Snowe. This track has some psych guitar touches toward the end, but for the majority of the piece it’s a hazy, dreamy, friendly indie-pop effort. Snowe’s fusion of fuzzed out bass (or guitar masquerading as bass), glittery synths, and even-keeled vocals creates a fun but not unserious atmosphere.

6. “I’m the Wolves” – St. Jude the Obscure. Turns a Band of Horses-esque dusky rumination into a full-on dance party–it’s sort of like when The Arcade Fire busts out “Sprawl II” in the middle of The Suburbs. It’s thoughtful, but also got a lot of kinetic energy going on.

7. “Setting In” – Ditches. Starts off with layers of squalling feedback, but quickly abandons this intro for a loping, scuffling, laidback indie-pop song. Fans of formal songwriting, Cut Worms, Grandaddy, The Shins, and more will love this delicate, melancholy, lovely tune.

8. “Ask Me Now” – Wes Allen. I love melodic percussion–xylophones, marimbas, and vibraphones create such a warm, enveloping mood for songs. Allen includes some melodic percussion in his reflective, somber pop song that calls up elements of Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and other peaceful singer-songwriters of the era. It’s a rumination on a breakup, like so many others, but Allen’s well-turned vocal performance sells it.

9. “Our Conversation on July 7th” – God Bless Relative. World-weary folk-pop that yet retains a sweetness in the arrangement. The electronic drums give this a unique vibe before opening up into a full-band jam (including some of the best handclaps ever used in the service of sadness). One of those tunes that feels like it’s always been around and you’re just hearing it again–it’s that mature and well-developed.

10. “Tiananmen Square” – Cameron Blake. The ever-excellent Cameron Blake’s video for his moving tune “Tiananmen Square” is powerful. The clip shows a lot of historical footage of China ostensibly surrounding the 1989 student protests held in the titular location. The most intriguing part of the video is that, while I’ve seen the iconic tank man picture, I’d never seen video of the ensuing moments: tank man keeps moving in front of the tank, then climbs up on the tank (!!) and attempts to talk to people inside the the tank (!!!) before getting down off the tank and resuming his protest. It adds even more gravitas to an already incredible moment. Blake’s huge crescendoes only help with this feeling.

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