So, I’ve been experimenting a lot since November when I posted the essay that re-oriented the site toward instrumental music. I’ve been listening to things in genres way outside of what Independent Clauses usually covers: the trippy psych of Wojciech Karolak, the string-quartet-meets-Pueblo-traditional-music of Ethel + Robert Mirabal’s The River, Youssra El Hawary’s contemporary Egyptian music, Ranky Tanky’s surprisingly quiet Gullah music, Ølten’s post-metal, Antonín Dvořák’s classical work, Chick Corea’s jazz, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s minimalist composition, the beautiful post-everything of the Monument Valley 2 video game soundtrack and more. (You may notice that not all of this is strictly instrumental. It is what it is.) I can’t possibly write about all of this in depth: I’m currently at a buffet, eating food I’ve never tasted before and not really knowing how to explain what I’m tasting. There’s also a lot more than I can possibly understand in the sort of depth that I usually try to achieve before I write a review.
So I’ve come up with a plan, one that I think will serve me and you well. With apologies to Apple Music listeners and my former self, I’ve created a Spotify Playlist called January 2019: etc. I’m adding everything I think is interesting and worth multiple listens to the list. This will help me keep track of what I’m discovering and help you follow along, if you are so inclined. Everything I listed in the previous paragraph is in the playlist right now; the playlist is already 13 hours long. My goal is to create one of these every month in 2019.
This has the added bonus of getting me back into the habit of playlists: I realized several years ago that I use playlists in a similar way that some people use journals. They mark and make concrete specific moments in time; this allows for the events being marked to be analyzed now and in the future. They are tools and, later, memories. They are comforting now and in the future. They are one of the ways I think about my past self. I’m excited to be putting myself back into that habit.
I still think Spotify’s business model is unsustainable (even though I am a paying user), but that’s a different post for a different day. I’m not using Apple Music (despite their potentially-more-sustainable subscription-only model) because when I did use it, it was hard for me to understand and use the user-created playlist functions. It seems like their tools/UI on that end have gotten better recently, but it’ll take a lot to get me back over the hill to try it out again and see if I want to switch. The one ace card that Apple Music has for me: I have a ton of old playlists on iTunes that I could move into Apple Music, if their playlist functionality has gotten better. But for now, it’s Spotify for this project.
1. “A Better Pet” – curtsy. Part of the weirdness that is music blogging (or writing about art in any way, really) is trying to capture something often ineffable in words. There are ways and means and tricks and common practices to try to do this, but sometimes there’s a truly ineffable one. I really like this song by curtsy, and yet it is the type of jangly guitar-rock that I often do not like. Why do I like this one when I don’t like other ones? I have no idea. I can list a few things that stick out, but none of them are the real X factor that makes me think yes: the vocal melodies are good, the recording style is bass-forward (which I love), and the chorus is big and satisfying. All of that together in the exact way they put it together makes it stellar. Here’s to mystery.
2. “Wasted Youth” – Blue Velvet. If you cross the powerhouse melodic punk of The Menzingers with the blitzing enthusiasm of The Vaccines at their most skittish, you’d have this great tune. As those two bands are two of my favorites when it comes to guitar-mashing enthusiasm, I’m basically unable to do anything but love this song.
3. “Old New” – Grandpa Jack. Grandpa Jack’s second single “Old New” from the debut release from the Brooklyn-based old-school rockers is sure to satisfy millennials raised on Led Zeppelin vinyls. Is there room for bands following in the footsteps of Greta Van Fleet? Definitely. In fact, Johnny Storm, Jared Schakper and Matt C. White would be a perfect fit for an “old-timer” throwback rock tour featuring young rock soul. Full of great guitar work and subtly shredding vocals, wrapped up with drums and bass that support the stellar musicianship from the bottom up.–Lisa Whealy
4. “Kyoto Blues” – Alex Tiunaev. This solo piano piece hovers around the edges of several different directions–there’s a strong romantic underpinning, some ambient-inspired sounds in the background, and some calming/new age approaches to the melodicism. It’s hard to find solo piano that espouses a particular vision without becoming mushy or maudlin, but Tiunaev does well to put out a distinctive idea and mood here.
5. “Just Saying” – Tiny Eyes. A lovely entry in the “delicate, formal, Beatles-esque piano ballad” category, this tune has a sleepy vocal performance; a distant, metronomic percussion performance; and lots of charm. Harry Nilsson came to mind, but you have to squint to catch it.
6. “The Road Reversed” – Nathan Bowles. There’s always some ambient, deconstructed folk kicking around in the background of the folk field, whether it’s slowcore people or tape deck experiments or glitchfolk or other things. This tune isn’t quite as deconstructed as some, but there’s a lot of subtlety and repetition in this ten-minute track. It’s a great example of instrumental folk that takes cues from tradition but isn’t slavishly beholden to the tradition, that experiments without losing its core, and that stays interesting even in its long runtime. Great work.
7. “New Ones” – Hollaphonic feat. Aaron Camper. The synth effects here are hugely summery and exciting, while the rhythms and arrangement are bright, fun, and compelling. The song is just over two minutes long–it disappears almost as soon as it arrives. It’s a good way to keep us wanting more/pressing repeat/hoping for remixes.
8. “Just Survive” – The Hope State. Sad songs are par for the course in pop music and especially in this blog, but man this one is a doozy. It’s similar to Strand of Oaks in that a wrenchingly sad story is couched in driving, melodic folk-rock–the sorrow is there, but it’s being strapped to a desire to keep moving. That’s what the title says, and that’s what the music tells–this is how you push through, even when it’s emotionally grueling. If you need some commiseration in deeply-trying-but-still-miserable situations, you’ll find it here: “I am trying my best to get better / my blood’s been clean since we lost our daughter / I’m a wreck / I’m a mess / I will never forgive myself … please don’t give up on me yet.”
9. “(Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard” – Mill’s End. Phoenix, Arizona-based country rock band Mill’s End drops “(Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard,” with lyrical subject matter that ranges from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to single parenthood to loss. This is a classic country-rock story song, welcoming Alan Clark to the band on guitar. The tune shifts stylistically from longtime lead guitarist Keith Perillo’s approach with a more bluesy vibe. Julissa Ruth adds the perfect touch to this barroom anthem.–Lisa Whealy
There’s a lot of emotions going on in this post, whether from the songs themselves or the emotions they bring out in me. Here’s to the feels.
1. “Knocking” – Basement Revolver. This ballad is utterly astonishing. It is a vulnerable, honest, cathartic track that combines the cavernous spaces of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ quiet work with subtle folk touches and Chrisy Hurn’s knock-out vocals. Hurn sings her heart out on this track, conveying hurt and pain and ultimately redemption. If you’re a Christian, this song will bowl you over–it is the gospel for the broken and hurting. Even if you’re not Christian, even if you’re not religious, the way Hurn and Basement Revolver end this song seems like it would be deeply moving. Highly recommended.
2. “All Affirming” – Lay Low Moon. This lovely full-band folk song touches off a complex set of emotions for me. It’s got a touch of punk-goes-folk in the vocal tone and the sort of arrangement that those early ’00s bands used. That tips off serious nostalgia. The banjo inclusion makes me think of the early ’10s, when folk-pop was having its major moment (more nostalgia). The melancholy piano and vocal lines make me feel sadness, but the sort of sadness that makes me happy. It’s a strong tune that is made even more convincing to me due to my personal musical experiences.
3. “Baby” – Hotel Mira. While we’re on the subject to nostalgia, this Hotel Mira track is everything that I loved about the Strokes. It manages to combine the jangle and vocal enthusiasm of their early work with the guitar snarl of First Impressions of Earth. The chorus is all Darkness-style falsetto and joy. There’s a half-time breakdown. It’s just a great rock song. I don’t cover a lot of rock songs anymore but this one hits all the nostalgia buttons without being a copycat.
4. “Home” – Esther & Fatou. This duo manages to make the biggest “thum thum”s this side of Law and Order fit seamlessly into a rollicking, harmony-heavy folk tune. There’s also some wandering, wavering, synthy slices of sound adding depth to the tune. It’s one of those tunes where it feels like they’ve listened to a lot of different folk, indie-pop and electro stuff, then came back with the best of all of it.
5. “If Not For You” – Umbra and the Volcan Siege. I’m tough on covers, but sometimes a really good cover gets a pass if I’ve never heard or am not very familiar with the original work. This is the case here, as Umbra & Co. give a George Harrison song that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sprightly, lightly psych treatment. This is of the major-key, fuzzed-out psych variety, not the dark-and-strung-out kind. It’s just a lot of fun.
6. “Every Day and Night Now (Feat. Peter Morén)” – Kris Gruen. It’s not surprising that Peter of Peter, Bjorn and John is featured in this tune, as it purveys the sort of dignified enthusiasm that PB&J were so great at. This is striking, memorable songwriting, from the strong acoustic guitar work to the excellent vocal melodies to the strings to the tromping percussion. It’s the sort of song that makes you think “oh man, what else is there by Kris Gruen?”
7. “The Shell Lottery” – Ben Fisher. There are a lot of things you can write an album about, but a concept album about Israel and Palestine in a Sufjan Stevens’ state-album milieu is a pretty distinctive, unusual, and exciting one. Fisher’s lead track is a serious, contemplative, piano-driven tune that lays out the founding of Tel Aviv. There’s some arrangement, but the piano and Fisher’s calm, clear-eyed vocals are the big things here. Get ready for this one–this is going to be quite an album. Does the Land Remember Me? comes out September 7.
8. “Becoming My Own Home” – The Collection. David Wimbish has made a career out of humongous folk-orchestra arrangements, howling vocals, and uninterrupted yearning/questioning. This song throws over a bunch of those things without losing what makes the Collection distinctive: Wimbish reins in the arrangement (just strings, it seems like, although there’s always more hiding in a Collection arrangement), goes for a calm vocal performance by Wimbish standards, and sings about coming to peace with things (!!). But there’s a big swoop and sway that hearken back to highlights of Ars Moriendi, and Wimbish’s voice is just as excellent when he’s calm as it is when he’s calamitous. Side note: This song mentions “burning trees,” the name of The Collection’s first EP–I don’t know what that means, but it’s worth mentioning.
9. “rosalee” – humble thumb. Got some Spaghetti Western/Western Gothic/murder ballad songwriting for you right here. If you love lazily floating horns, traditional country bass playing, a touch of Tom Waits in your vocals, and high dramatic tension, this track will rocket up your list of new music.
10. “Bones” – Koltbach. I’ve been enjoying Koltbach’s streamlined electro for a while, and this track is no exception. Taking the drive of trance, the artistic filter of post-dub, and dusky atmosphere of trip-hop, Koltbach creates a smooth, engaging piece of electronic music. You can dance to this, but it would be slinky dancing, not big, jump-up-and-down trance movement. Very smooth.
1. “Computer Games” – Greta Jaime. Bass heavy. Metaphorically relevant. Swooning vocals. “Computer Games” by British up-and-comer Greta Jaime is layered with pops and cracks that belie a much lighter track than what the lyrics imply. She’s not afraid to stand alone from the instrumentals as “Computer Games” patiently builds itself up from the thumping back beats to a swirling collection of digitally driven cacophony. She’s an artist who is in total control of every sound and emotion. From the lyrical prowess to the aptly subtle guitar riffs that add to the ambivalent tone, Jaime’s strength lies in her courage and already legendary vocal range. Having caught the attention of the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Artist Competition, Jaime is undoubtedly on a fast-track to impressively high levels of success. –Maria Edwards
2. “The Highway State” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This post-rock outfit likes to bend the expectations of the genre–this is a major key piece, but not the surging crescendo of a Lights and Motion piece. This is cinematic, but more Wes Anderson than sweeping landscape. This has a lot of dynamic motion, but this is not a on/off/on roarer. Instead, this is a carefully crafted, beautifully executed, compositionally unique piece that includes a long spoken word section, interesting violin work, and strong trumpet use. There’s also guitars for those whom guitars in post rock is a mandatory–but they’re more like folk than like GYBE. So, overall–this is vastly impressive and interesting.
3. “On and On” – Manatree. This power-pop song rumbles forward with a passionate joie de vivre that is tempered only by the slowly-unfolding vocals (and even that isn’t too much tempering). There’s half a dozen moments in the tune that made my eyebrows raise expectantly, and a couple moments gave me shivers. I’ve got my head bobbing at my desk enthusiastically. These dudes should definitely go on tour with Brother Moses. If you like indie-pop, you need to listen to this one.
4. “Take the Doggie” – Shy Boys. It only takes 96 seconds for me to fall in love with this quirky power-pop/indie-pop tune that’s sung directly to a stray dog. Everything seems to be zooming in all sorts of directions and then it’s over, just in time to press replay. And the video has a bunch of dogs in it. Who can resist?
5. “So We Go” – Cable Street Collective. Excellent female vocals, reggaeton rhythms, hand percussion, and Caribbean vibes power this jubilant indie-pop track. There’s a hint of Vampire Weekend in there, but comparing Cable Street Collective to other bands sells them short. It seems impossible to not have fun while listening to this tune.
6. “Burning Bridges” – The Wandering Hearts. A lovely, lilting folk tune with thick harmonies, subtle percussion, perky bass, and comforting melodies. The smash-cut to the bass-heavy piano and female vocal solo in the bridge is particularly striking.
7. “California” – Mountain Lions. Can you write a song called “California” and not have someone mention Phantom Planet? Anyway, this acoustic indie-pop song is more chipper than the iconic indie serenade of the state, but it’s just as indie-charming. The acoustic arrangement is effervescent without being saccharine, and the melodies are as singable as you’d hope for such a big topic. There’s a touch of M. Ward here and there, some power-pop knowledge sprinkled on it, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a lovely production job. Just a winner, through and through.
8. “For U” – Uma E. Fernqvist. This is how you take trip-hop and move it forward without recreating Portishead. There’s a lot of the things you’d expect from trip-hop: dusky moods, icy tones, stark arrangements, staccato drums, and the like. But there’s also a continuity, an underpinning of a consistent beat drawn more from techno than from trip-hop, that gives this tune some contrast to the trip-hop base. It’s a fascinating, compelling mash-up. It’s also over eight minutes long, another nod to its electronic roots.
9. “Fire B” – Elephant Micah. Elephant Micah has a discography full of slowcore folk musings, and I like those recordings a lot. But, as I have coincidentally done, Elephant Micah suddenly got interested in electronic music. But, because Joe O’Connell loves minimalism, this is real minimal electronic music–sounds from a single synth wash over your ears, sometimes accompanied by another synth, but often not. After about 2.5 minutes of experiments like that, O’Connell bursts into a … cover of his own work? A riff on his own work? It’s not quite “If I Were a Surfer,” but it uses the same melodic and lyrical concepts. There are lots of clanks and bonks and bass whomps to go along with it. It’s a wild thing, regardless of whether you’ve heard Elephant Micah before.
10. “Run Away” – I Am Soyuz. An intimate acoustic tune that evokes the feel of everyone together in a small room making music together. The lead female vocalist has an intriguing, engaging voice and strong melodies to boot. The arrangement is subtle but well-turned–there’s interest for those looking for it. The whole thing comes off like a deconstructed folk-pop tune, sort of somewhere between Dana Sipos’ dreaminess and stomp’n’holler folk.
1. “You, Forever” – Sam Evian. If you somehow crossed Spoon’s minimalist arrangements and the quiet version of Conor Oberst’s vulnerable vocals in front of a Motown producer, this genreless song might appear. It’s a slow burner, working its way into your ears steadily over the unhurried three and a half minutes.
2. “I Don’t Mind” – Aaron Ward. There aren’t enough songs in the world about friendship. Many of those that exist would bring a party connotation to the line “Meet me for a pint / we’ll throw it down.” But this intimate folk/singer-songwriter track (that features a big crescendo to the finale) is about getting vulnerable in friendship, sharing tough emotions and being there for each other. Those are the sort of friendships I want. Here’s to friendship, and to this powerful, vulnerable track.
3. “Roll Around” – Kate Vargas. This sounds like a lost Tom Waits tune in its clanking, vaguely cabaret arrangement. Vargas helps the comparisons with her scratchy, intense voice and the lyrics of tough living (“You can’t get lower than the ground / but you can roll around for a long time”). Very unique.
4. “Soggy Humans” – God Bless Relative. The yearning, searching vocal performance steals the show in this one, even though there’s some tasty organ, strong drumming, and solid bass work in this West Coast Country/folk-rock tune. The tune has the easygoing spirit of the Laurel Canyon folks, but a bit more melancholy than you’d expect. Kinda like what Dawes has been doing lately, but more compelling.
5. “sure, bert” – Tyler Berd. Troubadour folk meets introspective bedroom pop in a collision of styles and expectations. The song sure seems oblivious of that though, as it confidently and earnestly wobbles its way through the slight 1:47 runtime. RIYL: early Bright Eyes, Angelo de Augustine.
6. “Love Me Now” – Ziggy Alberts. Cross the simplicity of Jack Johnson and raw emotion of Ray LaMontagne and you’ve got this Ziggy Alberts tune. This is strong acoustic pop songwriting, right here.
7. “Waiting / On My Own” – Duke Bluebeard. These two tracks are meant to be listened to back-to-back. The first has a folky-to-Brit-pop transition in the middle, while the second is a little bit more introspective and dark in mood. Both feature high-pitched male vocals that convey a lot of emotion and thoughtful arrangements.
8. “Standing Still” – Rebekah Rolland. Fans of Gillian Welch and Sarah Jarosz will love this relaxed folk tune that focuses on Rolland’s lilting, engaging voice. The trumpets and piano interaction will make fans of Sufjan’s Michigan sit up and take notice. In short, if you’re anywhere on the folk music spectrum, you should be checking this out.
9. “Easier (feat. Molly Parden)” – Sons of Bill. I know I throw the word “lush” around a bit too much when I hear songs like this, because I want to say things like, “OK, so, some songs are lush, but not this lush. THIS is lush.” There’s not a gap or space anywhere in this folk tune–it’s all full of cascading guitars, big-yet-friendly percussion, cooing vocals, and even more guitars. The effect is glorious.
10. “Married Young” – Elise Davis. A beautiful, tender depiction of young love, flush with dramatic strings, big wordless vocals, and enough pathos to get me a little misty-eyed. Anyone who’s ever been young and poor and in love will recognize this immediately, whether or not you got married.
1. “Superficial Feeling” – Written Years. This song covers all the bases, stealing bits of electro-indie-pop, big-moment indie-rock and M83-style indie-dance. The song also does pretty much everything right: The arrangement is a slow-burner that heats up to maximum, the vocals are right-on, and the overall effect is perfect.
2. “Future Me Hates Me” – The Beths. I love the deliciously-fuzzy guitar tone and the impressively strong vocals in this power-pop/pop-punk tune. The ascending main guitar riff is also ace.
3. “Number 5 Radio” – Fairburn Royals. In the fine tradition of breaking the fourth wall, this stellar tune is a power-pop song about how to write a power-pop song (in five simple rules). The song itself follows its own rules, and the resulting song is indeed really excellent. Highly recommended.
4. “She Calls” – Tenderfoot. I’m a sucker for a good whoa-oh-oh vocal line, and this tune has a great one. The rest of the song is a catchy, upbeat pop-rock song that’s a lot of fun.
5. “Spoil With The Rest” – Ryley Walker. Transforms from a purveyor of pastoral folk to an explosive indie-rocker with folky leanings–it’s like when The Dodos transformed themselves from frenetic mathy duo to a more dense outfit. Walker’s voice is still relaxed and relaxing, but his electric guitar does the talking here.
6. “Necessaries” – Many Voices Speak. The band here uses reverb to turn the song into an intimate experience instead of to create space; there’s lots of wobbly sounds, bouncing notes, and the like, but it all sounds like a blanket wrapped around me instead of a giant cloud. The loose, unstressed vocals create even more of that warm feel, giving this low-key dream-pop song a magnetic aura.
7. “Blue Love” – JOYNER. Sometimes a chorus pops up and just washes over me with such unavoidable confidence that it compels me to write about the song. The rest of the tune is a thoroughly fine low-key electro-influenced indie-pop tune, but that chorus is just perfect.
8. “Undone” – Greta Isaac. Chipper, friendly, and enthusiastic are all things I look for in a great indie-pop tune. This tune nails it: the arrangement is perky everywhere, the melodies are easily accessible, and there are tons of enthusiastic choral vocals in the chorus. The light electro-pop/glitchy touches make it even more exciting. Here’s one for your summer lists.
9. “Baby” – Basement Revolver. I’m not much into rock songs with heavily distorted guitars these days, but Basement Revolver infuses their songs with so much pathos and desire that it’s hard to not empathize with vocalist Chrisy Hurn. Hurn can belt with the best of them, but her quiet voice is equally as controlled and equally as devastating. The band’s ability to match Hurn’s urgency without turning into a punk rock outfit is further impressive. Just an absolutely bang-up job on this indie-rock tune. Fans of Silversun Pickups will love this.
10. “ABOP” – tunng. Have some low-slung electro-pop from this veteran outfit. There’s an X factor here that comes of having a lot of years in the game–a lot of people can make electro-pop with acoustic leanings, but not many can make it stick.
11. “Favourite Song” – Pizzagirl. The caption on this video says “For best results listen in 1987 at night,” which is spot-on self-awareness. The big synths, the gated snares, the vocal tone, the vocal melodies, it’s all pitch-perfect late ’80s synth-pop. I’m particularly fond of the vocal melodies.
12. “Never There (for bassooning and Crooning)” – Some Professional Help. This almost exactly what it says on the tin: it is a spoken-word-and-bassoon version of CAKE’s “Never There.” As a fan of CAKE and weird conceptual ideas (and how much more a weird conceptual idea involving CAKE), this is hilariously great. Some Professional Help is also a folk-punk-ish band, but this one is literally just Scott Alexander spoofing the spoofers who are CAKE. Please avail yourself of this song.
1. “In the Fields” – Simon D. James. Here’s a lush, sweeping tune that paints a whole landscape. The piano occasionally sounds like an arpeggiator (awesome), the violin swoops all over the place, and the drums hold everything together. It’s bright and folky, but also dense like Decemberists song. It is a great blend of tons of influences into a distinct whole. Highly recommended.
2. “I Won’t Sit Around and Cry” – Jon Patrick Walker. Solid fingerpicking, speedy vocal delivery (not quite Jeffrey Lewis, but similar), some country vibes in the guitar solo, and an indie-pop grin throughout the whole thing. If you’re a fan of folk/indie-pop, this is basically the instantiation of what that combo sounds like. Highly recommended.
3. “The Long Game” – Jonathan Rice. Like Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” this is an excellent pop ballad unencumbered by flashy arrangements or innovative turns. Instead, there’s an endearing lyrical set, a compelling vocal performance, unforgettable melodies, and a sense of pure songwriting craft. This is a great song written by an expert hand. Highly recommended.
4. “Hank” – Declan O’Donovan. There’s a bit of honky-tonk, a lot of Creedence, and a lot of confidence in this Southerny, folky tune. Special shout-out to the piano player, who really makes this song what it is.
5. “Time Runs Out For Narcissus” – Thomas & The Empty Orchestra. A jaunty, wholesome-sounding folk tune with swift fingerpicking, witty lyrics, and a lovely accordion. If you’re into Justin Townes Earle, Langhorne Slim, or Common Man, you’ll love this.
6. “What I Came Here For” – Luca Fogale. The delicate ease of Joshua Radin rests on this tune, what with the sprightly fingerpicking, the distant piano and the achingly beautiful melodies. The lovely layered vocal arrangements are icing on the fantastic cake. Highly recommended.
7. “Slow It Down” – Sarah Clanton. There’s a hint of Sixpence None the Richer in this dense, acoustic-focused singer-songwriter/pop song, from Clanton’s easygoing vocals to the overall taut-but-smooth atmosphere.
8. “Bare” – Rosie Carney. This one’s a quiet guitar-and-piano rumination anchored by a striking vocal performance from Carney.
9. “I Won’t Move” – Natalie Carolan. A delicate, yearning, searching piece that builds from hear-the-piano-pedals quietude to a smooth, compelling alt-pop piece.
10. “Dark Places” – Maria Kelly. Simple, quiet, and emotionally devastating, this acoustic tune is a delicate, carefully written explanation of how depression feels and acts. Kelly’s voice is alternately fragile and sturdy, underscoring the tensions in the song.
11. “Let Somebody Inside” – David Hopkins. The opening piano/synth arrangement may be a little too heavy on piano ballad conventions for some, but the vocal performance here is gripping and the chorus is just fantastic. The horn arrangement that comes in halfway through caps the song. It’s a great pop song.
1. “Into the Unknown” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Just an absolute, A+, oh-wow-2010-was-great, stomping, soaring folk-pop song. It’s like a Lord Huron and Lumineers collaboration that preserves all the best parts of both of their work. There are even “HEY”s. I’m in love.
2. “No Mamma” – Animal House (UK). This is the most infectious British guitar rock tune since Marsicans showed up. It’s got a lot of early ’00s Strokes in it, but it’s more rubbery, more bouncy, and way less preening than Casablancas and co. Yep, just a really great pop song about being young. Ace.
3. “Free Like a Broken Heart” – Birdtalker. If you like your folk/alt-country with a heavy dose of Motown soul, you’ll whip your head in the direction of Birdtalker. The dual vocals are strong, the arrangement is excellent, and the whole thing comes off like a Dawes track coming out of a historic Detroit studio.
4. “Miss Him Too” – Nate Daviau. “You miss the man you fell in love with / honey / I miss him too” is about the most alt-country sentiment I can imagine. It’s aggressive yet mopey, self-aware yet miserable. The crunchy, Jayhawks/Old ’97s-style arrangement fits perfectly with these lyrics. Daviau has a lot of swagger going on in this track.
5. “Less Than Positive” – Michael Nau. There’s some ’50s pop mixing, some loping country-style bass, some Gregory Alan Isakov vocal performance, and bright-shiny guitars all thrown together into a great pop song. If you need a smile but don’t want to go full-on happy, there’s just enough downer here to keep it real (while still being a lot of fun).
6. “Glow” – Brooke Annibale. Power-pop that doesn’t go for the Big Crunch–more like Fountains of Wayne, or Spoon, or even the fuzzed-out elements of Spiritualized. The song keeps an even keel but stays exciting throughout.
7. “Dreaming About You” – Polychrome. Dreamy electro-pop with ODESZA-style post-dub vocal blips and twiddly melodies over a thick synth base. There’s a lot of songs that could be described like that, but this is one that nails it with an X factor, where others just sound like ODESZA.
8. “Please Don’t Let My Art Die” – Marc with a C. Uber-satirist Marc with a C turns his gaze toward the hereafter and pens a plaintive, honest look at what it means to leave behind a legacy as an artist and person. It’s couched in a jangly, punchy power-pop tune that Marc has refined to a T. The a cappella bit at the end is just lovely.
9. “Lake Erie” – Wild Pink. John Ross manages to sound vulnerable and confident at the same time–conveying the emotions of uncertain and confusion in a rock-solid performance. His gentle voice mixes excellently with the jangling indie-rock guitars. This song is full of happy-sad; the sort of sadness that makes some people just happy inside.
10. “Round but Jaded” – Dear Life,. Alternating between a delicate alt-pop tune and a stomping indie-rock one, this track has a lot of sonic diversity. I love a good arpeggiator, and their use of synth is the beating heart of this song. The vocals are also a unique touch.
1. “Dylan Thomas / Bitter Bitter” – The Duke of Norfolk. A Dylan Thomas spoken word clip opens the gates of this track onto a field of wavering strings, distant vocals, gentle percussion, sea waves, and beautiful guitar melodies. It’s a very hopeful scene that gets only more so with the addition of subtle arpeggiator bleeps and a ramped-up tempo. The hope and warm enthusiasm of the track contrast with the lyrics, which are about coming to grips with death of loved one. It’s a statement track, for certain, and it’s a great stake to stick in the ground. Highly recommended. (Full Disclosure: I gave feedback on a pre-mastered version of this track.)
2. “Heat” – Kira May. Well, this is something new and different. There’s some ambient vibes to start the track; a lot of thick, manipulated vocals (think Imogen Heap); engaging “lead bass” work; and a strong, direct vocal performance on top of all of that via May. All of that runs slinky pop vibes (a la Dido) through an art-school filter (a la Talking Heads) to turn up something exciting and unusual. Highly Recommended.
3. “From Osaka, With Love” – Mixtaped Monk. This totally chill instrumental track manages to create the relaxing, soothing vibes of ambient music without losing the sense of forward motion. Gentle electric guitar, intriguing melodic percussion noises, and the oh-so-rare effective use of a slow sweeping/phasing effect on the synths. The addition of full kit percussion adds some post-rock panache, which gives the track heft.
4. “Walkin’ Through” – Emilie Mover. This hushed, intimate folk tune doesn’t walk so much as leisurely float. Mover’s beautiful voice unspools careful melodies over a gently pulsing fingerpicking pattern on a nylon-string guitar. There are crickets in the background, suggesting that Mover is out in a forest near a pond, perhaps, living the romantic life of nature. All in all, a lovely track.
5. “Fake Out” – MUNROE. This is a piano ballad, but it’s not maudlin, campy, overextended, or overstuffed. It features a deeply affecting vocal performance, an insistent piano arrangement, and vocal melodies that are hard to get out of my head. If only all piano work could be this earnest, affecting, and strong.
6. “Shelter” – Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals. I was listening to John K. Samson’s excellent work yesterday. I found myself discussing with my wife that, despite 15 years of listening to new music almost every day, there are some artists that have the X factor (my wife called it “umami“) that can transcend a standard form in an almost indiscernable, indescribable way. Stephen Karl’s work has that umami quality–this is a folk/country tune with train-track percussion, weeping pedal steel, and a baritone vocal performance. Nothing of the piece jumps out as the thing that makes the track great, but every piece contributes to making this song a cut above the rest of the pack doing much the same type of work. Good job, Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals.
7. “Oh Honey” – Neighbor Lady. I can say, “Filters the best of ’50s pop vibes through chill ’90s low-key Britpop and contemporary indie-pop with a dash of punk rock attitude in the vocal performance” or I can say, “This is the sort of song that ends up on so many of your playlists and mix CDs that you start giving this song to people multiple times, unapologetically.”
8. “The Balance” – Tenderfoot. Put The Antlers, The National, and Alt-J in a blender and this smooth, assured indie track might just come out. The way all the elements (strings, vocals, drums, bass, guitars) come together into a single, slicked-back unit is impressive.
9. “The Future” – BAILEY. Here’s a chipper, major-key folk-pop tune that reminds me of Bronze Radio Return and the quieter moments of Magic Giant. The inclusion of keys and whistling is a lot of fun, adding to the good vibes coming from the base arrangement, vocal performance, and lyrics.
10. “Stay” – The Drew Thomson Foundation. This is ’90s-style alt-country (do we still say country-punk?) that has all the charge of a rock song with juuuuust enough country to keep it fresh. The punchy vocal performance and the yearning lyrics are icing on the songwriting cake.
11. “Got It Cheap” – Tom West. This tune makes genre distinctions meaningless: there’s a banjo, some sort of saxophone, horns, some crunchy electric guitar, walking speed tempos, and mournful (yet still catchy) vocals. It’s a pop song of some sort, maybe, but whatever it is, it sounds really “in the pocket.” One that’s worth repeating, for sure.
12. “Doughnuts Forever” – The Orb. Downtempo electronica with trip-hop influences, tropical vibes, and a total sense of cool running through the whole thing. Very polished from this veteran outfit.
1. “Growing Up” – Moon Hooch. I am a big fan of sci-fi in addition to being a big indie music fan, and so I was thoroughly interested in the high-concept animated video that Moon Hooch put together for their latest single. It’s got a lot of concepts that I love: the possibility of time repeating itself, unusual alien/fantasy beings (or humans dressed as them), magic/superpowers, and more. Totally rad. The song itself is classic Moon Hooch: two saxophones dueling it out over dance-rock-oriented drums. The melodies are clever, thoughtful, and fun. It’s hard for me to listen to Moon Hooch without getting totally amped up, because these guys are distilled adrenaline.
2. “Dubai” – Royal. This slice of instrumental hip-hop employs distant spoken and sung vocals to great effect, helping set the mood effectively. The manipulation of the synths and the inclusion of the beats is also ace, as I find myself head-bobbing without thinking about it. Solid.
3. “Sharalee” – Jamison Isaak. Being a huge Teen Daze fan and a person-with-strongly-growing-interest-in-neoclassical-work, I am totally thrilled that Jamison did me a favor and combined the two. This Teen Daze side project takes all of the slowly unfolding melodies and carefully-curated atmosphere that makes his chillwave so great and applies it to classical work. The method is piano, pedal steel guitar, and pad synth–sounds very weird, but it makes perfect sonic sense when you hear it. (As you might expect, from someone who has a ton of experience with melody, arrangement and mood.) It’s pensive, winsome, and elegant. Highly recommended.
4. “Airlocks” – Floating in Space. Rarely does a band name so well describe the experience of listening to a band. Floating in Space creates major-key, wide-screen post-rock that’s reminiscent of Sigur Ros’ work in its sweep and in the vocalist’s tone. The lack of percussion and the glittering pad synths in this piece creates the truly floating feel.
5. “Disenchantment for Truth” – Sleeping Horses. Anyone tracking IC over a long period of time has seen more and more ambient work creep in around the edges of our coverage. I’ve been really enjoying the peacefulness of much ambient work, as well as the generally extended scale on which the sounds can develop. This is a perfect example of the type of thing I’ve been digging: Sleeping Horses creates a slowly-developing piece out of manipulated guitar sound, deliberate fluttering strings and lots of space. The small changes to the arrangement build up over the course of the piece to create a beautiful, emotive landscape.