Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief is shiver-inducingly good. Lion’s Den is a strikingly cohesive, mature, and assured work for a debut album from a young group of musicians.
Little Chief skews toward Mumford and Sons’ style of straightforward songcraft, but they do in a vastly less percussive style. The band softens the edges of everything, from gentle guitar strum to cello inclusions to melodic group vocals instead of shouted ones. The result is a collection of songs that work their way into your long-term memory in a very unassuming manner. I’ve been humming Little Chief tunes long after I heard them, and it drives me back to the album.
Their gentle touch makes every high higher than it would be, because it feels non-obvious and genuinely celebratory. These aren’t party songs, they’re songs of jubilation. “Brighton Shore” and “Shiloh” are both tunes that take feelings of loss and hardship and transform them. This album is deeply concerned with carrying on through trouble, and their humble approach to songcraft displays that earnest emotion.
“Mountain Song” and “Lion’s Den” show the arranging prowess of the band. “Mountain Song” has a long, gorgeous instrumental intro, while the full-song crescendo of “Lion’s Den” is punctuated by an excellent cello part, well-timed drums, and tasteful brass. This band has chops–it knows when to use them and when to let simplicity be.
If you’re into folk-pop, Lion’s Den is a must-listen. It has the emotive heft of The Head and the Heart, the arrangements of early Fleet Foxes, and melodies galore. It’s astonishingly confident for a debut album, but I’m not questioning it: if it’s good, it’s good. Highly recommended.
It’s a common problem that bands will find a sound they’re good at and hit it until their audience is just sick of it. Grover Anderson handles that problem by playing songs in vastly different genres, somehow managing to avoid sounding like a tourist or faker in any of them. Frantic murder ballads, love ballads, jilted lover electric blues, back-porch pickathon shout-it-outs, brilliant country tunes, and downtempo minimalist all hang out on The Optimist. It’s a credit to Anderson’s skills that each of them sounds natural. It makes for an odd listening experience as a collection of tunes (multiple people die, multiple people get married–sometimes in close quarters), but each individual song is worthwhile.
Given my personal predilections, I’m more interested in the bluegrassy “Pick Up Your Horn” and the Bon Iver-esque “Grindstone” than in the Mraz-style love songs “When You Come Near” and “Enough.” But the gentle fingerpicking of breakup tune “Dancing Slow” calls to mind the weighty work of Ray LaMontagne, which seems to be the antithesis of Jason Mraz in my mind.
All of this love in stark contrast to “The Lampolier” and “Philip Marshall Cates,” both of which are intense murder ballads, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a very long time. To start with, “The Lampolier” is an incredible piece of lyricism, as Anderson puts together an intriguing, eerie story through a very structured rhyme scheme. Amid this complexity, Lampolier delivers a masterful vocal performance that sees him ratchet from a gentle speak/sing to outright desperate hollering. I still get shivers when Anderson roars wordless distress three minutes in. The band is a runaway coal train behind him, pressing the song forward to its inevitable end. It’s the single and the opener, and it doesn’t take many brain cells to decide that both were excellent decisions. “Philip Marshall Cates” isn’t as electric in its convictions, but it’s another death ballad that sits in stark contrast to the love songs.
Also, “Little Spoon” is my favorite love song released this year. Some love songs are huge, sweeping announcements of love–others focus on the little, pedestrian parts of love that make it so wonderful, like drinking Blue Moons together, spooning, and spending time together. Anderson’s tune is the latter.
So Anderson’s got a ton going on in this album, being a lot of things to a lot of people. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to ignore that Anderson’s songwriting skill is great. I look forward to seeing how he adapts and focuses his skills in upcoming work (or not). If you’re into people who play acoustic guitars, Grover Anderson has something for you.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Where I Belong EP – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
All Julianna Barwick needs on “Forever” is four female vocalists and some ambient synths to create transcendent beauty. This is one of the most gorgeous tracks I’ve heard all year.
If you love James Taylor, America, and that Nashville folk sound from the ’70s, “Shed a Little Light” by Winter Mountain is going to be on your good list. You will hum and sing.
So I just found out that students from Hocking College are behind the Robbins Crossing sessions, which is A. Completely awesome and B. Completely jealousy-making for this ex-journalism undergrad. In this version, Decker (of Belle Histoire) brings her clear, emotive vocals to bear over an acoustic guitar in a historic cabin. Sweet.
It only takes one listen of Little Chief‘s Somewhere Near the River to know that something special is going on here. The Arkansas folk quintet takes the sonic palette that has become stock-in-trade for the genre and softens the percussive edge that Mumford and Sons’ influence has imported. This means that the banjo doesn’t sound like it’s hammering on your brain, the drummer gets to use more tasteful and complex arrangements than “more kick drum,” and vocalist Matt Cooper doesn’t bellow. Instead, he turns his soft tenor voice toward Ray LaMontagne-style emoting, making his overall vocal performances somewhat akin to Kris Orlowski‘s.
Cooper’s voice is not the icing on the cake, but the element around which all things center. The arrangements point toward the lyrics and the vocal melodies without turning into wallpaper, which is a tough feat indeed. The cello goes a long way to strike this balance: it’s hard to not listen for the beautiful tones of that instrument, but it’s also pulled back enough in the mix that a clear signal is sent. That tension sounds like it would be a problem, but it’s really a benefit. The engineer that recorded this knew exactly what he was doing in maximizing this band’s skills and tastes.
The fact that the very young band knows its skills and tastes on their debut EP is equally impressive. It’s easy to want to go for bombast when you’ve just discovered your voice, but they restrain themselves beautifully. Instead of creating stadium-rockers, they’ve created headphone bobbers and car-trip wonderers: these are tunes of travel and geography, gently unfurling against the best possible backdrop. The title track incorporates a choir that actually sings, not just hollers. I love hollering, for real, but it’s still startling and pleasant to hear actual choral contributions. “Hiding and Seeking” is the high point, as it shows how they can be engaging, even electrifying, without being bombastic. The stuttering rhythms from the cello blend with guys hollering “hey” (can’t avoid it, y’all) and a dreamy guy/girl duet in the chorus to produce a shiver-inducing moment.
It’s astonishing that Somewhere Near the River is a debut, as the subtlety and refinement in the songwriting chops would indicate a group with much more recording experience. This band has a bright future that I will be tracking closely. If you’re sick of the overwrought theatricality that currently dominates folk, Little Chief is a pleasant, earnest antidote.
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.