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.