1. “The Road” – John John Brown. It’s an impressive skill to breathe fresh vitality into musical staples. John John Brown makes a beautiful concoction out of folk fingerpicking, sawing fiddle, and gentle tenor vocals.
2. “Does She” – Caroline Lazar. Someday I’ll get tired of a thumping kick drum under a fingerpicked acoustic guitar line, but not today: Lazar’s folk pop is bright, charming, and fun (handclaps!).
3. “Offering” – Mischief Night. The recording style on this acoustic track makes it feel both cavernous and intimate; the vocals soar in the near distance, while the drums and casio tones are close at hand. The lyrics are intriguing, as well.
4. “I’m Not the Good One” – Ossayol. The delicate fingerpicking is perfectly counterpointed by a violin throughout. The chorus here just nailed me to the wall with its emotive power.
5. “Christine” – Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls. An ode to beautiful young women who grow old that balances rueful, pensive concern with an internal energy which pushes the track forward.
6. “Lucid Dreams” – Ego Death. A trembling, quiet performance that evokes solitude.
7. “We Both Know” – Andrew Butler. The pristine, precise arrangements of Andrew Bird, but now with significantly more emotions in the lyrics and vocal delivery.
7. “No God in Mexico” – Danny Whitecotton. Danny Whitecotton is continuing the long tradition of windswept, wide-screen folk troubadour storytelling with political undertones admirably. The sound itself is along the lines of Isbell’s quieter stuff instead of being a folk strumfest.
8. “Liars” – Gregory Alan Isakov. Isakov has expanded from his intimate, cryptic tunes of yore to being back by the Colorado Symphony on this tour-de-force. (The lyrics are still enigmatic in an evocative way.)
9. “Single” – Frith. The walking-speed tempo and distinctive melodic percussion sound of this comfortable, easygoing pop track give it a pleasant “Someone I Used to Know” feel.
10. “Zen Jam” – Joyriot. The title works: the tension between zen and joy is in full display on this mid-’00s indie-pop-rock track. There’s some Tokyo Police Club in there, maybe some Vampire Weekend, but all filtered through a chill, maybe even Death Cab-esque lens. Totally cool.
11. “Dance With Love” – Sam Joole. Joole forgoes his usual reggae vibes for Strokesian early ’00s indie-rock, complete with tambourine, distinctive strumming pattern, and slightly distorted vocals. It’s a blast.
12. “719 Desire Street” – Palm Ghosts. Jangle rock never dies, it just fits itself into the modern paradigm and moves on right along. This one’s a fun, sway-inducing, smile-creating song.
13. “Ten Lines (The Land Below Remix)” – MISSINCAT. I kept expecting this song to do stereotypical pop song things, and it always seemed to have a different corner for me to turn. Mad props for the unexpected in electro-pop.
1. “Spring” – Sam Burchfield. Measured guitar strum and an evocative vocal performance draw me in, but it’s the gentle keys and the ragged drumming that give the song character. The rest of the song just seals the deal. Shades of Brett Dennen here–nothin’ but a good thing. What a single.
2. “Vacation” – Florist. Within seconds the tentative, relatable guitar picking has drawn me in entirely. Emily Sprague’s tender, confessional delivery gives this a magnetic appeal usually reserved for acts like Laura Stephenson, Lady Lamb, and old-school Kimya Dawson.
3. “Little By Little” – Niamh Crowther. The melodic folk-pop is charming, and then she starts singing and it jumps way up into the stratosphere. Her voice is just remarkable. Serious one to watch here.
4. “Nevada City” – John Heart Jackie. Pulls the incredible trick of not feeling like a song, but like part of the environment you were already in, turning the corners brighter and lightening the vibe throughout. The easy maturity of this tune is not to be underrated or underestimated, especially when it bursts into a beautiful crescendo near its midpoint. Undeniably powerful.
5. “Reality Show” – Sam Joole. Adept at reggae and acoustic pop, Joole blends the lyrical and musical sentiments of both into a piece of spot-on social criticism about social media that doubles as a chill-out track.
6. “A Bone to Pick” – Ten Ton Man. The gravelly, circus-like drama of Tom Waits’ work collides with the enthusiastic world-music vibes of Gogol Bordello to create an ominous, memorable track.
7. “Walk Right” – Pete Lanctot and the Stray Dogs. An old-timey revival is the site of this tune, where the stray dogs admonish all those listening to forsake their lives of sin and “walk right.” The vintage sound is updated with great production and a hint of a knowing wink.
8. “15 Step” – Phia. The kalimba-wielding indie-popstress drops a gently mindbending cover of the Radiohead tune with just thumb piano, distant guitar, claps, stomps, and layered vocals. Just whoa.
9. “It’s Not Your Fault” – Gregory Uhlmann. Soft woodwinds deliver pleasant texture to this swaying, loose, thoughtful piece. Uhlmann captures a beautiful, unstructured mood here.
10. “If I Go” – Jake McMullen. Hollow and distant yet visceral and immediate, McMullen creates slowcore acoustic tunes similar to those of Jesse Marchant or Gregory Alan Isakov at his most ethereal. Shades of Damien Jurado’s tortured voice creep in too. It’s gorgeous stuff.
Quiet, Calm, Take Us Home
1. “Muscle Memory” – Laura and Greg. Do you miss the Weepies? Laura and Greg’s precise, delicate picking and close harmonies are augmented by just the right amount of indie affectation to end up with a totally charming outcome. This is sort of song that sticks in your brain and doesn’t let go. I can’t wait to hear where they go from here.
2. “Promised Myself” – Kylie Odetta. There’s an “towering pop vocals” button in my soul, and it doesn’t get pushed by Adele that often (come on, 25!). Kylie Odetta writes those torchy, piano-led dramatic tunes and backs them up with soulful, belting vocals. (The video is an unusual mashup of the “’80s pop star in empty building” trope and Odetta hanging out in a coffeeshop; welcome to 2015.)
3. “The Secret” – Sam Joole. Joole’s got the old-school piano ballad down, and his tender, gentle vocals sell the tune beautifully.
4. “Memoria No. 1” – The Greatest Hoax. TGH offers up more downtempo ambient, but this time with a more electronic bent. More Album Leaf, less Ólöf Arnalds, all chill and wonderful.
5. “Stormy Grey Eyes” – Knitted Cap Club. Meagan Zahora of KCC pushes the “dusky, cabaret dramatic vocals” button, which is right next to the “towering pop vocals” button. This could have been written in the 1920s, which I feel is a major compliment if you’re going to be in this genre.
6. “Four Sisters Part One” – Lowland Hum. This one’s a duet, but the female vocals are no less arresting for being lead by a tenor vocalist. The intimate harmonies on the phrase “use your voice” couldn’t be more perfect in this acoustic tune.
7. “In the During of a Moment” – The Lowest Pair. This duet is lead by the female alto vocalist, with the man chiming in on harmonies. It’s a stark, hushed recording that seems like it could be happening just behind you; the room reverb warms up the whole performance and fits perfectly with the tune.
8. “Hands and Feet” – Lowlands. Vintage rock’n’roll music has been getting a lot of love recently: the ’50s rock vibes here are cut by modern indie-pop melodies in the chorus. It’s an appealing mix. (And yes, I put Lowland Hum, Lowlands and The Lowest Pair in the same mix because seriously how often does that happen?)
9. “Let It Burn” – Magic Giant. MG’s new single is just as hooky, infectious, and enthusiastic as their previous rave-folk tunes. It doesn’t seem like dance music and folk-pop could come together so perfectly, but that’s why you listen to music, right? It always surprises.
Here’s the last drop of tunes from January. On to February!
1. “Bad Blood” – Fred Thomas. This is the indie rock equivalent of an LCD Soundsystem song: deep bass groove, highly emotional lyrics in a speak/sing milieu, unexpectedly hooky melodies from unusual places. It’s basically the promise of indie rock 1979-1992 coming to fruition. Damn.
2. “Story of My Life” – Martin Sexton. Yes, this is a One Direction cover. It basically sounds like One Direction covered Martin Sexton. Yes. You need this in your life.
3. “Soul Shine” – Sam Joole. In addition to smooth singer/songwriter stuff, Joole does reggae. I don’t cover reggae, but this one is so smooth and includes such infectious horns that it stole my heart. Mad props.
4. “Bells and Buzz” – Matt and the McCues. If you were listening to early ’00s indie-pop (verses), ’90s alt-rock (chorus) and bass-heavy ’80s indie-rock (breakdown!) on three stereos at once, you’d end up with this track. It’s an unusual stew, but Matt and the McCues make it work.
5. “If Only” – Ships Have Sailed. If you’re looking for pop-rock with an artsy bent (but not too artsy, you want to sing along, right?), Ships Have Sailed is showing themselves as a solid bet. Get your head-bob and hum on with this great track.
6. “Following the Plan” – Bellwire. Noisy, jangly guitar-pop with Guided by Voices vibes and unironic “whoo-hoo-hoo!”s in it: who can ask for more in a pop song?
7. “Upside Down” – Lime Cordiale. If The Killers, MGMT and Muse all collaborated on a track, they couldn’t come up with something more towering than this.
8. “Pins” – Natalie McCool. Like a grittier Lorde, McCool is on the fast track to a lot of people knowing who she is.
9. “MAD” – Honey & the 45s. Funky, sassy, soulful, gripping: this band knows how to make that old-school soul live.
10. “Spat Out Spit” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb is endlessly fascinating in her lyricism, song construction, and arrangements. Her newest track is no disappointment on any of those fronts.
11 “Hammer and a Nail” – Vienna Ditto. This slinky, enticing, cinematic track is like soul and film noir all wrapped into one. Awesome.
12. “Paying” – Sarah Bethe Nelson. If you’re a fan of long, minimalist folk-type tunes OR singer/songwriter women OR despondent rock tunes from the ’70s OR good things, you’ll be all up in this.
13. “Safe” – Emily Ann Peterson. Raw, deep emotion expressed in a piano-and-vocals one-take, complete with hall gorgeous reverb and all.
14. “Electric” – Föllakzoid. Y’know, I’m usually not into Chilean deep groove, psychedelic, bass-heavy dance vibes, but this one sucked me in and kept me going for twelve minutes. Twice. Going on a third time.
I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
For those who like a little more punk rock in their Christmas tunes, Small Bear Records has released Never Mind the Baubles, Here’s The Small Bear. Need I say more?
Kris Orlowski caps a banner year with the original holiday tune “Is This Christmas” in his signature baritone voice and easygoing acoustic style.
James Apollo also had a big year, with Angelorum being a great release. His offering, “Ho Ho, Ho Hum,” is one for the (classy, Scotch-drinking) Scrooges out there.
SHEL is an acoustic-music band of four sisters, and this version of “Sleigh Ride” is about as cute as can be. The video is also lovely.
1. “Bethlehem (feat. Joan as Policewoman)” – Jack Henderson. Because everyone needs a Tom Waits-ian original Christmas ballad duet.
2. “Fairy Christmas Day” – Junkie Thrown. A pensive, beautiful tune decrying the sad paradoxes of Christmas.
3. “Little Angel” – The Lost Brothers. Think “brothers” in the pristine, crooning, ’50s-style duet meaning.
4. “Christmas at the Zoo” – Sam Joole. As an Oklahoman, I’m categorically obliged to post any Flaming Lips covers. This one is pretty charming and cheerful.
5. “Stay Another Day” – pjaro. Experimental rock/emo/indie bands write Christmas songs too. This one has lots of distorted guitars and yelling, as one does.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
I NEED GLORIA!
1. “Whodunit?” – Gentle Robot. GR’s new album of indie-friendly alt-rock a la Silversun Pickups or Anberlin is a whodunit murder mystery. Gentle Robot deftly balances tenderness and aggression via strong lyrical and musical songwriting. Clever, memorable, and novel.
2. “Say Yes” – Afternoons. If you can resist belting out that chorus at the top of your lungs, this blog cannot help you. I’m serious.
3. “Gloria” – Backwords. Item Two: If you can stop yourself from belting out “I NEED GLOOOOOOORIA,” this is probably not the blog for you. Excellent song development from this crew.
4. “Love the Sea” – The Vigilance Committee. Grows from dreamy beginnings all the way to a rhythmically technical post-hardcore section, with some punk-inspired motion in the middle. I love ambitious songwriters.
5. “Midnight:Sixteen” – Tree Dwellers. TD has some weird post-rock/alt-rock/found-sound thing going on here. It’s the soundtrack to a really ominous “getting ready” sequence in a artsy futuristic dystopian action film.
6. “You Come to Kill Me?” – Happyness. Two minutes of pure slacker rock with impressive attention to lyrical detail. It doesn’t get repetitive, it doesn’t ask for much, it just wants to know if you’re there to kill him. Solid, bro.
7. “Monuments” – Haverford. My current favorite emo band mixes vocal desperation, dreamy guitars, and punk intensity for a swirling, whirling track. This release should get Haverford noticed by emo revivalists and more.
8. “Escape” – Dream Boat. The intensity of the forward motion that pushes through this psychedelic track makes it more than just a woozy psych jam or a four-on-the-floor stomper. Heavy vibes here, but good ones.
9. “Love Again” – JOA. Yearning, churning, moody indie-pop from the artist formerly known as Like Clockwork; much more atmospheric than the brash pop music he was previously producing. It’s got some down-tempo groove to it, too.
10. “Dis-Moi Qui Tu Aimes” – The Lovers Key. More rippin’ Motown surf soul from TLK.
11. “January” – Silva. The breeziness of chillwave meets the celebratory vibes of Brazilian music in a fun, charming, beautiful track.
12. “Lovekill” – Anie. Opens with an asymmetric vocal line reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs before exploding into a pop-rock tune with high male vocals; it shifts back and forth from artsy to poppy throughout the track. Really interesting take here.
13. “Oh the Evil!!!” – Michael Leonard Witham. A Dylanesque yawp, pedal steel, brazen harmonica, and a perky overall mood? Yes. Let’s have some more of that.
14. “Shapeshifting” – Sam Joole. This warm, gentle, pristine arrangement that recalls William Fitzsimmons or early Joshua Radin feels lush and full, even though it’s rather stark. Wonderful track.