1. “Plastic Skateboard” – Brave Baby. It’s rare that a sound comes along that has its own internal logic and consistency. I could namecheck (Fleetwood Mac, Suburbs-era Arcade Fire, mopey mid-’00s electro, etc.), but ultimately their indie rock sound stands on its own. Impressive.
2. “Scar” – The Lonely Wild. Setting up a distinct feeling an inhabiting it is a sure way to hook me, and this rock tune gives us the sound and shape of desperation.
3. “Modern Times” – VSTRS. A killer drummer will always stand out, no matter where he or she lands: this minor-key rock track gets its propulsive energy from the frantic drumming. With the vocals, synths, and loping bass pulling the opposite direction, the drums still push this track onward relentlessly. The tension creates a great tune.
4. “Dear California” – Water District. It’s been almost twenty years since Bush and Incubus were cool (!!), so it’s time for their close-up. This chilled-out track calls up the best of those polished alt-rock slackers.
5. “Young Burns” – Fine, It’s Pink. Like a cave of wonders, this tune starts off with an icy, sparse electro intro before unveiling rooms of soaring, impressive indie-rock sound.
6. “Dirty Deli” – Creature from Dell Pond. An alternate vision of post-punk: jazz-inspired rhythms, dissonant chords, speak-sing vocals, occasional dance-rock dalliances, and a careful use of space. This tune scrambles along to its own idiosyncratic vision.
7. “Going Home” – Stomatopod. It’s a great-sounding old-school punk song. What else do you need?
The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
Indie rock is not a very good term. As I have noted before, it doesn’t really delineate anything very effectively when used as a blanket term. But there is a sense in which “indie rock” means something: it’s that type of music which The Walkmen, The Arcade Fire, and Brave Baby play. I mean, how else can you explain those first two bands? And Brave Baby is in the same mold.
Brave Baby‘s debut Forty Bells is not just good: it sets the bar for the rest of the year’s releases. With crashing, glorious tunes like “Foxes and Dogs,” “Cooper River Night,” and “Lakeside Trust,” the trio has made a huge mark on my mind to start off the year.
“Lakeside Trust” is the most immediate of the tunes, as it meshes jangling electric guitar, steady acoustic guitar, impressively spry bass lines, driving drums and a horns-like synth into a tune that feels like the Arcade Fire and Fleetwood Mac got together with Springsteen to make a tune for your American convertible to blare with the top down. Special notice needs to be given to the bassist, who really makes the song with his swagger. At track four, it’s the first real sign that Brave Baby has something special going on.
“Cooper River Night” incorporates some Walkmen yowl and ominous-or-is-it? guitar jangle into their sound, foregrounding the excellent vocal contributions. (I hummed this one for a while.) But it’s “Foxes and Dogs” that leaves the deepest impression. The mid-tempo tune starts off with a choir, clapping and world-weary lead vocals before exploding into a tune that gives “Lakeside Trust” a run for its money in epic scope and sprawl. The synths (or are they horns this time?) play a huge role here, pushing the tune over the top. It’s the sort of song that makes the world seem a bit brighter than it was before you were listening to the tune.
Other tunes have memorable turns as well: “Last Gold Rush” has a really nice bass and drums groove, while title track “Forty Bells” has a powerful vocal hook. “Grandad” has a lackadaisical vibe that is vaguely reminiscent of the band Grandaddy, which is a cool coincidence.
Forty Bells is a sweeping, moving album that feels like a complete statement. I review a lot of albums that are trying to get there, but Forty Bells is a fully-realized album that does what it wants to do. Love it or hate it, but this is Brave Baby. I love it, and I think a lot of other people will like this too. Do yourself a favor and meet up with “Lakeside Trust.”
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.