1. “Hero” – Starlight Girls. If you mashed up Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac with modern indie-pop sensibilities, you’d have this powerhouse of a pop song. This is the most infectious, irresistible groove of 2016 so far.
2. “Hang On To Yourself (David Bowie Cover)” – Ancient Cities. Bowie didn’t play much of a role in my personal musical development (I was introduced to him in my 20s), but his shadow looms large over many musicians. Ancient Cities drops a worthy tribute to Ziggy here.
3. “Boys That Sing” – Viola Beach. Sometimes the melody, the lyrics, and the vibe just come together for a great pop tune. Puts a smile on my face.
4. “Crazy Eyes” – Brother Moses. BroMo returns with a breezy, peppy tune that builds on their slacker-rock foundation with some scrambling drums, driving bass and twirling guitars. The compelling vocal tone and delivery are as powerful as ever.
5. “Youth Dies Young” – Til We Have Faces. Well here’s something interesting: A major key indie-rock song that thinks it’s an arpeggiator-heavy electro-jam which builds at the speed of a post-rock tune. By the end it’s almost a Here We Go Magic tune. Totally rad.
6. “Fundamental Ground” – TW Walsh. I don’t use the term “floating” that often, but this indie-pop tune has a lot of the elements that you might associate with floating: lazy rhythms, slightly washed-out vibe, hazy elements chilling out in the background of the tune, a vocal line that seems distant-yet-close. It’s beautiful, in a weird way.
7. “Sometimes (One Night)” – The Golden Peppers. Here’s a tight soul arrangement, blanketed with horns and infused with indie-pop vocal melodic flair. Just can’t get enough Nathaniel Rateliff?
8. “Lucky One” – Why We Love. It seems that the major-key, jangly pop-rock tune is not only immortal, but thriving. Everything about this is fun.
9. “Unicorns Get More Bacon” – Marc with a C. The giddy, funny, absurd, fourth-wall-destroying power-pop of Marc with a C is in fine, fine form in this 3-and-a-half minute jam.
10. “Glad to Be Alive” – Memoir. Draws from funk, reggae, and ’90s pop without camping in any of them, this grounded-yet-bouncy tune is led by neat vocal syncopation and and a mood that just brightens a room.
11. “Touch” – Guard. A hypnotic keys melody and a head-bobbing beat make this into the chillest of remix-ready club tunes. Ibiza beaches for this version, Ibiza clubs for the inevitable reworks.
12. “Still Life” – I.W.A. Blissful chillwave, the likes of which I don’t get to hear very often. Just gorgeous stuff here.
13. “Don’t Complain/Don’t Explain” – Bare Mattress. Like a more existential version of The Postal Service, this unassuming indie-pop-electro track sneaks its way into ears and heart.
14. “Glass” – Howard. This is like the indie-electro/post-dub version of a dystopian movie in which everything looks kind of right but is slowly revealed to actually be dystopian. In other words, the slow burn works great.
15. “I Don’t Want to Know Her Name” – Amber Quintero. Lilting, easygoing, spacious bedroom pop that finely balances lyrical intimacy and wide-open pad synth landscapes.
1. “Inside Your Heart” – Hectorina. This track manages to make the lovechild of Prince, James Brown, and a garage-rock band sound like a fine, upstanding individual. Also there’s a choir at the end. Need I say more?
2. “Other Kids” – Mighty. Yawping, hectic, mile-a-minute, ideas-everywhere garage rock that sounds as wild and wide-open as the youth that it so clearly evokes.
3. “The Runner” – Mountains Like Wax. As a fan of the Mountain Goats, I am a bit of a connoisseur of enthusiastic yelps. (John Darnielle actually remarks on the quality of his own yelps in the All Hail West Texas re-release liner notes.) I must say that the scream at 4:51 that turns this slow burner into a post-rock thrasher is an exquisite example of the enthusiastic yelp. I believe it when it happens. That’s rare. The rest of the band puts all they’ve got into it too, but man. That scream.
4. “Her” – The Oswalds. I love an ambitious tune. This one zigs and zags all over the place, moving from garage rock to strict-rhythm indie-rock to acoustic sections to a fractured, crazy guitar solo and then through it all again. The panning is all over the place, adding to the chaotic-yet-controlled feel. You feeling adventurous?
5. “Haunted House” – Ancient Cities. Gotta love an indie rock track that uses the piano as its driving force: check how they use it to escalate the intensity of the song instead of the guitar.
6. “Pressure” – Down Boy. Will a heavy, scuzzed-out guitar and thrashing drums duo ever get old? Not yet, at least: Down Boy makes my feet want to move and my head want to rock.
7. “Anime” – Debris of Titan. You know how Pogo makes these fluttery, wide-eyed electronic burbles? Debris of Titan makes that sort of music in a chill psych-rock vein. I don’t get a lot of psych-rock, but I know intuitively how to jam to this.
8. “Big Sky” – The Pressure Kids. Straight-up-and-down indie rock that draws off elements of Young the Giant, Spoon, and other people that manage to make mid-tempo sound intense.
9. “Denim” – Brave Town. This guitar-fronted pop-rock tune has arena aesthetics (if not aspirations) and hooks to match, reminding me of Colony House (similar) and Arctic Monkeys (less so, but it’s totally there).
10. “Not That Easy” – Lime Cordiale. Some songs just sound like they belong on the radio: this fusion of pop-rock and electronica fits right in the zeitgeist (or maybe we’re just past it?). Either way, this tune is great.
11. “Alright” – Lemmo. Sometimes a chorus just hooks me and I can’t turn away.
12. “Deerhunter” – Ghost of You. Tight groove, attractive arrangement, solid vocals: indie rock gold.
13. “The Road” – DB Cooper. Noisy-yet-slick pop-rock a la Fall Out Boy and the like, with vocals reminiscent of All American Rejects. It’s the sort of catchy chorus and fist-pumping drive that people who love nuanced indie pop secretly love.
14. “Goddess of the Sun” – Postcards from Jeff. Manages to work a flute into the rock part of an indie-pop to indie rock transitional track. Mad props. This one could fit great in any number of indie movie soundtracks.
I’m always honored when I get asked to premiere tracks, but I don’t often do it–I want to be fully behind a band before I put my seal of approval on it. But there’s a premiere today, because I am 100% behind Charlotte, North Carolina’s Ancient Cities.
Ancient Cities’ “Werewolf” is a complex tune that deceives you into thinking it’s not as difficult as it is. Songwriter Stephen Warwick deftly balances gentle acoustic guitar, walloping drums, lazy horns, reverb-washed tenor vocals, and warbly synth in a way that makes each of those disparate parts feel like a natural part of the arrangement. In lesser hands, it could be a mishmash, but Warwick’s arrangement gives each instrument space to be itself. The song comes together, and it seems obvious. Of course it’s supposed to sound like that. (But it didn’t have to–that’s the magic.)
This excellent songwriting is capped by a deft production job that keeps the “laid-back cool” vibe going throughout the entire song. Beck would be proud. “Werewolf” draws from folk, trip-hop, the Gorillaz, and heavily-arranged singer/songwriter fare to create something beyond all of that. “Werewolf” is a fascinating, memorable track that I bet you’ll want to push repeat on.