Merry holidays, everyone! Now, back to the music. I sometimes get talky here, but let’s get straight to the best ofs instead, since I’m already late on this. Here’s 11-20, listed from top to bottom. 1-10 comes tomorrow!
11. The Yellow Dress – Faint Music / Ordinary Light (Review) Most of indie rock used to be rickety, pastiche, oddball, and endearingly weird. Now only certain parts of it are: The Yellow Dress is certainly in that category, as their enthusiastically unusual indie-rock winds, warps, and wanders its way across the landscape. My wife and I sing “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” to ourselves absentmindedly.
12. Wolfcryer – Wild Spaces / The Prospect of Wind / Singles. (Reviews) Wolfcryer’s two EPs escaped the short-player list because his total 2014 output was closer to double-album length. His strum-heavy troubadour style gives a shot of energy to the often ponderous singer/songwriter game, and his engaging vocals deliver great melodies. Wolfcryer is going places, so you should jump on that train now.
13. Falcon Arrow – Tower. (Review) Falcon Arrow’s post-rock sounds nothing like anything I’ve ever heard in the genre: a drum-and-bass duo, the bassist uses what must be an army of pedals to create octaves upon octaves of notes, patterns aplenty, and looped bits galore. The results are soaring tunes that evoke the title of the record.
14. Zach Winters – Monarch. (Review) Snuck in at the end of the year, Monarch is the sort of unassuming album that works its way into your life and then acts like it never wasn’t there. Winters’ powerful arrangement skills are put to use in slowly-developing work that never roars but often washes over you.
15. Summerooms – S/t. (Review) Everything that Josh Jackson does is fun to listen to. Even this lo-fi “side project” that he amused himself with during the production of his new, hi-fi Fiery Crash record is awesome: it has that warm, lovely, dreamy glow that makes me think of summers by the pool.
16. Andrew Judah – Monster. (Review) Monster is a technically impressive marvel: an indie-pop record that juxtaposes instruments, styles, and moods with ease. It’s dark and not always fun, but it’ll drop your jaw at places.
17. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana. (Review) I fell in love with Gregory Alan Isakov’s gentle, smooth work last year; Vollebekk’s work isn’t as quiet all the time, but it does rarely get noisy. His drawling, attitude-filled vocal delivery gives a shot of intrigue into the elegant singer/songwriter work.
18. The Lovely Few – The Geminids. (Review) Wide-open, mood-evoking electronic music that uses outer space as its muse and touchstone. Entirely transporting and enveloping.
19. The Good Graces – Close to the Sun. (Review) Alt-country and indie-pop meet and mingle throughout this thoughtful record, which includes lots of surprising lyrical and musical moments.
20. Brook Pridemore – Brook Pridemore’s Gory Details. (Review) If you sped up a latter-day Mountain Goats record, or if you put a full band behind an early MG record, you’d end up with the folk-punk theatrics of Brook Pridemore. Great melodies, great arrangements, a lot of fun.
Honorary Mention: The Weather Machine – The Weather Machine. (Review) This one came out in 2013 and isn’t eligible for best of 2014, but it came to my attention this year. Brilliant songwriting reminiscent of Josh Ritter, The Mountain Goats, and more: what’s not to love
Gregory Alan Isakov was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013; his deeply romantic, gentle folk tunes moved me often. (This probably has to do with being in a relationship; sorry to all ye unrequited.) Leif Vollebekk has a similar vibe in North Americana, as his songs meld earnest and passionate emotions with relaxing arrangements.
Even though Vollebekk is a Canadian troubadour, you’d never know unless I told you: this is a Southern record through and through. He has a lilting Southern voice full of vibrato, grit, and regret. The opening track is called “Southern United States”; “Pallbearer Blues” has a New Orleans funeral feel (mmm, rag piano…) and a William Faulkner title. Standout “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” namechecks Mississippi, Memphis, and Nashville. The storyteller pose that Vollebekk takes is a little bit southern bluesman, a little bit Leonard Cohen. The dude can even rock a harmonica. North Americana does not accomplish the insider’s perspective of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern; instead, it becomes a testament of appreciation for a place a little to the south of his Canadian digs.
That tender affection for the locations and people invoked and implied in these songs make it easy to transfer that affection. “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” sounds like a gorgeous, expansive love song complete with organ–even though it’s mostly about travel and disappointment. If you don’t listen to the lyrics and just feel the emotion in his voice, it can be about anything or anyone lovely and rare.
While Vollebekk’s arrangements are beautiful, they never obscure his vocal lines. His trembling tenor is the centerpiece of things both expansive and minimalist. Quiet closer “From the Fourth” invokes the best moments of Josh Ritter in the crisp, light guitar playing; Vollebekk puts his own spin on it with a breathtaking, thoughtful vocal performance. It’s the sort of performance that emphasizes the subtle details of the vocal performance: the tone of voice, the length of notes, the timbre with which each word is sung. Someone else could sing it, but it wouldn’t be the same song. That is a sign of vocal and songwriting mastery.
Leif Vollebekk’s North Americana is an album that rewards both those who want the mood and who want to know the details. You can put this on and it will lighten the vibe of a room immediately; you can focus and hear all the little aspects that Vollebekk took care to give the listener. It’s top-shelf music either way you go, and that is very, very uncommon. It stands up to the glance and the scrutiny; I wish the same could be said of all music–and of me. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.