1. “Hopeful” – Bear Mountain. A little bit of Passion Pit, a little bit of Vampire Weekend, a little M83, and you’ve got one of the best dance-pop songs I’ve heard all year.
2. “Entomologist” – Luxxe. Shades of Jason Isbell’s evocative voice creep in here, placed in the context of a perky-yet-mature pop-rock tune. It all comes off with impressive cohesion.
3. “Buoy” – The Band and the Beat. If you wished that Mates of State used analog synths all the time, you’ll be way into TBxB’s gentle, warm, female-fronted synth-pop. The tune just wraps itself around my brain and comforts it.
4. “Understand” – Photoreal. It seems wrong to describe this pop-rock tune as “muscly,” but it feels like a streamlined, beefed-up version of Generationals’ catchy indie-pop work.
5. “Au Naturel” – Holy ’57. The frenetic blitz of a major-key sugar rush will never get old. This tune has everything I’m looking for in a pop tune.
6. “Lodestar” – Starlight Girls. The disco vibes are impeccably done and the vocals are tight, but–for my money–this song is 100% about that bass work. It’s melodic, funky, tight, and just plain irresistible. A knock-out.
7. “Storm” – Bright Whistles. Sometimes I’m concerned that I’ve abused the term “quirky,” because something always seems to come along that was quirkier than the last. Suffice it to say, “Storm” by Bright Whistles is like what The Flaming Lips could have been if they kept on the Yoshimi path, or what all genres of indie-rock sound like in a giant blender, or (stay with me on this one) what an OK GO music video would sound like if the video itself were transformed into audio that reflected the clever, enthusiastic, enigmatic visuals. In other words, it’s pretty rad.
8. “Summertime” – The High Divers. Bands are always making odes to that sunniest of seasons, but this one really nails it: a touch of Vampire Weekend, a splash of Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal gymnastics, and a whole lot of good-old-pop-music. Dare you to not smile.
9. “Two Weeks” – HIGH UP. File this powerhouse tune under “Muscle Shoals Soul/Funk,” right there next to Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
10. “Burning Candles” – Disaster Lover. It’s like I walked into a room where Disaster Lover’s vision was already fully employed: not so many songs capture and modify the aural space that they’re deployed in. The whirling/somewhat chaotic percussion and synths that are woven together to create this here/there/everywhere piece of work are wild and yet inviting.
11. “We All Decided No” – S.M. Wolf. This is, at its core, a pop-rock song. It is a very weird, arch, theatrical, blown-out take on the theme, but it’s in there. This is basically what I imagine we’re trying to capture with the idea of indie-pop: pop songs that just aren’t radio material in this universe, but only because it’s an unjust universe.
1. “Take a Dive” – By Day By Night. Big, friendly synth-pop that’s a mix between M83 dusky drama and Chad Valley exuberance.
2. “You’ve Got Somethin‘” – Air Bag One. I don’t know if it’s just my vantage point, but it seems like we’ve moved from big synth-centric ’80s jams to big vocal-centric ’80s jams. If so, Air Bag One is on point with this tune.
3. “Time (feat. La Petite Rouge)” – Haring. Wavering chillwave synths create a blissful mood before a neat and tidy beat comes in to give the song motion and structure. It grows from there, without ever overwhelming the initial mood. Beautiful.
4. “A Berry Bursts” – Twin Hidden. This enthusiastic, difficult-to-classify track sits somewhere between gentle indie-pop, low-key electro, and Tokyo Police Club’s giddy pop-rock attack. It’s way fun, whatever it is.
5. “Kangarang” – Casual Strangers. This psych-rock tune explores the more ambient, experimental, almost electronic vibes of the genre–eschewing huge guitars for a deep groove, this song is a burbling, thoughtful instrumental jam.
6. “Start Again (ft. Amy)” – Stefansson. I can’t resist an EDM song that is tasteful and restrained with the more stereotypically brash audio elements of the genre.
7. “Lackluster No.” – Nova Heart. A stark, sparse landscape gives way to an elegant, pristine, magnetic body of the song. It fuses electronic elements and live bass in a surprising way. It grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
8. “World Government” – Heptagon Heaven. Do you need six minutes of arpeggiated synths, great sound washes, and general “cool” vibe? Of course you do.
9. “Indian Summer” – Jai Wolf. The stuttering optimism of Gold Panda fused to ODESZA’s artsy, high ideals post-dub makes for a deeply impressive track.
A breathy saxophone is one of the first and last sounds you hear on Unreal, James Irwin‘s ’80s-inspired chill-out album. Irwin is a laid-back cat: rubbery bass, feathery woodwinds and flutes, reverb-heavy guitars, Irwin’s relaxed vocals and easygoing tempos form the predominant framework for tunes that unfold at their own pace. The resulting amalgam sounds like if Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders somehow time traveled into 1986 Miami.
Tunes like the title track, “Face Value,” and “Sahra” aren’t tropical or Caribbean in any large sense; instead, they capture the languid haze that was layered over seemingly all ’80s cop dramas. Tension here isn’t ominous; it’s simply a push and pull of instruments. Snappy high hat pushes the tempo while pad synths hold it back in “Face Value.” The warm synths that open “Sahra” give an almost chillwave vibe before gentle sleigh bells and plodding guitar flip the script entirely: “Sahra” is actually a slow ballad.
The title track reminds me of M83’s “Midnight City” in its use of saxophone and its deep commitment to a particular style of sound, but the tunes couldn’t be more different and still be evoking the same era. (“Michigan Miami” is the one that actually appropriates a driving ’80s electro pop sound.) The synths that Irwin uses aren’t the sharp, whiny synths common to modern EDM or the twinkly ones common to stereotypical ’80s pop. The pad synths are diffused whispers that call up memories without being the lead element (most of the time). Given those synths as a base, the title track relies on an almost doo-wop bass line to bring a bit of motion to the straight-up-and-down drumming and gauzy backdrop. This causes the final product to come off seeming like a recently-unearthed mid-’80s predecessor of The Antlers’ work.
But Irwin isn’t doing a nostalgia reconstruction here: “Blood Going Back in Time” and “Siberia China” draw on modern indie-pop elements. The delicate fingerpicking, separated drumming and distant synths of “Siberia China” call Clem Snide to mind (as well as the aforementioned Squires). Standout “Blood Going Back in Time” fuses the ’80s sentiments to distinctly modern, quirky guitar production to really come into his own sound. The vocals, arrangement, and cryptic lyrics (including several prominent references to George Henry Wallace) make it a tune worth listening to multiple times.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game sometimes, because it can seem like there’s no creativity there. James Irwin’s Unreal is more than just a time-travelogue to a particular sound. It’s a re-envisioning of a certain mood and sonic space with modern developments included. If you’re into the ’80s, well and good–you’ll be all over this. However, if you’re into adventurous, thoughtful chill electro or indie-pop, you’ll be just an enamored with the album.
1. “Keys in the Lake” – Hillström and Billy. This Swedish indie-rock track starts out at a level of enthusiasm that many songs crescendo to. It grows from there, if you can imagine that.
2. “Everything at Once” – Her Magic Wand. Authentic drum sounds power this M83-meets-Interpol-meets-Air jam.
3. “This Picture’s Old” – Stereogramm. Arpeggiator-heavy synth-pop from the “faster faster faster” school of thought, tempered with a relaxed vocal delivery that creates a fun tension. In lesser hands it could have been goofy, but instead it’s endearing.
4. “Young Oblivion” – Memoryy. If the giddiness of MGMT could have been tempered by the darkling sheen of The Naked and Famous, we’d have had this jubilant track earlier than we do.
5. “Wherever You Are” – New Arcades. If you’re looking for a huge, synthy pop track, here’s a strong candidate.
6. “Me vs. I (Rimski Bronski Mix)” – Hannah Schneider. Schneider is a neo-classical/electro/singer-songwriter somewhat in a more-recognizable-Bjork vein. This remix gives her sound bounce, lift, and vaguely African rhythms for a really fun time.
7. “Part of the Problem” – Trey Mumz. With a name like that, I’d expect auto-tuned R&B slow jamz. Instead, it’s auto-tuned psych slow jamz. Mad skillz.
8. “Me, Liquor & God” – Night Beds. If you go electro, you better know what you’re doing. Night Beds does a good job of keeping his melodic gifts on display while transitioning from soaring country to club-friendly, arch electronica.
9. “Sudden Acts” – Temple Invisible. Portishead-style trip-hop vocals meet witch house-style synths: a dark rave ensues.
10. “Raise the Gate (ft. Body Games)” – T0W3RS. First rule of electronica: know when to get out. This two-and-a-half-minute slice of ominous vibes and slinky rhythms hits it right on.
11. “Reykjavik, January 2015” – Teen Daze. My favorite “started as chillwave” outfit is now augmenting their core sound with the icy/warm tension of pensive melodies and pushing rhythms. The result is a beautiful piano-led tune.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
1. “8:62” – Problems That Fix Themselves. Breakbeats! Grit! Weird noises! Thundering rhythms! Melodic elements that tie them all together! Artsy electro doesn’t get much more fun for me than this.
2. “Waited 4 U (ODESZA remix)” – Slow Magic. My two favorite post-dub electro artists collaborating on a remix? My ears are about to explode.
3. “Showin’ Off” – Fascinator. Anything related to trip-hop is on my mind. Drop in intriguing strings, flutes, and ’90s Brit-pop sneer, and you’ve got my full attention.
4. “Steal My Car” – Shy for Shore. Heavily dramatic, Vangelis-style synths dominate this ’80s throwback pop single.
5. “City Lover” – Max and the Electric. Somewhere between early ’00s Strokes, slinky funk and Bloc Party-cool vibes. Get your nice suit out.
6. “What’s In It For Me?” – Astrid’s Tea Party. The driving electro of M83, the airtight arrangements of blondie Blondie, and furious female vocals (a la Stevie Nicks) make this into a club-ready jam. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
1. “Substance” – Germany Germany. Moving from clubby electro bangers to artsy, flowing dance-rock isn’t a huge jump. But when the results are this infectious, it feels like a revelation and a turned corner in Germany Germany’s career.
2. “Never Easy” – We Are Magnetic. Gotta love a big “Midnight City”-style chorus.
3. “Recycled Words” – Lectures. Twinkly/angular guitar leads backed up by pounding chords, thrashed cymbals, and anguished vocals in a high tenor? No chorus, just one long line of song? This is early ’00s, Deep Elm-style emo, my friends. I am so down with this.
4. “Boxing Day” – Carroll. Carroll’s making their indie-pop darker, dancier, and more electro-heavy. I feel like we should all be dressed in our best clothes for this one.
5. “Colors” – Dream Stretcher. Stuttering beats, hazy synths, and mystical female vocals power this late-night drive home electro jam.
7. “Worth Your While” – Wonderful Humans. Somewhere, Vangelis is rejoicing that his style is alive and well. Vintage ’80s synth-pop matched up with modern indie vocal lines and melodies. Awesome.
8. “Jack and the Giant” – A Love Like Pi. You know that lovely feeling when you’re about to drift off to sleep in the arms of someone you love, and all seems right in the world even if just for a moment? This is what that sounds like.
8. “Safety” – Jasia. Starts out as not much: spare clicks and pops meeting some keening falsetto. But Jasia molds, shapes, and crafts the parts into a booming, M83-like track by the end. Whoa.
9. “Wyn” – Ashan. Do you need eight minutes of ethereal ahs over clicky chillwave-inspired electro? Of course you do. I can see myself both chilling out to this and getting my dance on in a real hip club.
Airy, bright, anthemic indie-rock is having a heyday right now: with folk-inspired musicians leaning ever more on the “inspired” and less on the “folk,” tons of bands are embracing big, bright, organic-feeling indie-rock.
Leanids is one of them. The Swedish outfit’s debut album A Wildly mines complex fingerpicking folk territory that fellow countryman The Tallest Man on Earth has done some work in (“Candid & Frank,” “All I Wanted,” the title track), while also nodding toward more power-pop inclinations (“And Then”).
But it’s on tunes like “Trust” that Leanids shine best, mixing complex rhythms, varying tempos, pop melodies, and art-school sentiments into warm, shifting, bursting tracks. The vocalist’s high, occasionally nasal voice is a perfect foil for the sound, as it has a jubilant, celebratory aspect about it. It’s easy to imagine this band as a less-mopey version of Copeland, or a alternate future in which Bright Eyes had turned the treble way up on his guitar. But in this reality, this talented folk-inspired indie-rock act is writing beautiful and interesting tunes. Highly recommended.
I think that Dawes has some pretty outstanding songwriting, even though most of their songs are way depressing. Their country-rock sound is fresh-faced and tight, making it the perfect sort of alt-country to put forward into the indie-rock world. Robert Francis and the Night Tide‘s Heaven has a similar vibe, combining the tightly compacted sound of power-pop, the rhythms of alt-country, and vocal melodies of modern indie rock. Standout “Baby Was the Devil” also includes a passing resemblance to the synth-powered jams of M83, and that’s no coincidence either. Francis is making the most of the sounds he’s hearing and crafting them into his own tunes.
He’s a bit of a chameleon; lead single “Love is a Chemical” is a straightforward country-rocker, while the title track is a soul-inspired crooner. “Pain” is reminiscent of full-band folk like Fleet Foxes, while “Wasted on You” is an acoustic-and-voice track that is a solid-gold lonely troubadour tune reminiscent of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. (Standout “I’ve Been Meaning to Call” is also voice-and-guitar; he’s damn good at that, and he should do more of it.) The Josh Ritter-esque rhythms of “Take You to the Water” explode into a synth-pop song (!). But if he circles alt-country, he always comes back to it–nothing ever sounds completely out of that sphere. In the same way that it’s hard to describe Dawes without saying, “It just sounds really good,” it’s hard to describe Francis without it. Heaven is a strong collection of alt-country/folk tunes that never repeat themselves. Sounds pretty great to me.
1. “Into the River” – The Quick and the Dead. This exclusive download toes the line between power-pop and Old ’97s alt-country and includes a killer harmonica solo. Back to the Future Part Three was rad.*
2. “Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware. I am in a roadtrip movie. I am in an ’80s convertible. Johnny Delaware is riding on the back of the car and playing guitar, somehow standing upright at 60 mph. My feathered hair is flying in the wind. I feel like yelling “FREEDOM” into the air in a Breakfast Club sort of way, not a William Wallace sort of way. Did Molly Ringwald listen to Bruce Springsteen? She would have loved Johnny Delaware.
3. “Dybbuk” – Remedies. I am transported to a kids’ movie in the ’80s, where I am wandering through an enchanted cave. Something awesome or maybe terrible is about to happen. My hair is still feathered. My jean jacket is on. The viewers are holding their breath. Let’s do this.
4. “Lost Track of Time” – MTNS. The Antlers, How to Dress Well, Vondelpark, and MTNS would be an absolutely incredible soundtrack to a 16 Candles-type movie. You know it’s true.
5. “Electricity” -FMLYBND. It’s like M83, The Rapture, and The Temper Trap collaborated on an ’80s club jam. SET PHASERS TO STUN.
6. “The Day We Both Died” – Vial of Sound. I’m always afraid to namecheck Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem at the same time but screw it SET PHASERS TO KILL
7. “Told You Twice” – Milo’s Planes. Because sometimes you just need a thrashy, scream-it-out tune to blast in your car.
*I’m aware that BTTF3 came out in 1990, but let’s be real. 1990 was still the ’80s.
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.