1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.
2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.
3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.
4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.
5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.
6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.
7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.
8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.
9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.
10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”
11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.
12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.
13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.
14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)
Rob Williams‘ Southern FMis a quirky, impressive record that takes something familiar and makes it unusual and interesting again. Williams offers acoustic-driven work that falls in the timeworn space between folk and country, but his inherent charm and unique rhythmic sensibility make it all seem fresh and new. The most important element to Williams’ success is the idiosyncratic vocal lines delivered by his round, mellow tenor: instead of long, flowing melodies, Williams chops his lines into unusual patterns and shapes. This creates an endearing off-the-cuff, ad-hoc feel to tunes like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Best I Can Do,” the enthusiastic “Where You Hang Your Heart,” and the on-your-toes singalong “You’ve Been a Bad Christian.” Nothing feels forced in his delivery, even when his vocal patterns are at their most complex–it all seems to just float along on the airy, effortless arrangements.
Williams’ charms don’t just stem from his quirky delivery: he can write remarkable songs. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is a poignant, evocative ballad that never drags or commits navelgazing, while “Henry and Maria” is a lovely tale delicately told. It’s the melodies, the structure, and the arrangements that make these songs shine. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is sold by a beautiful piano performance and strengthened by just-the-right-amount of percussion; “Henry and Maria” displays some nimble acoustic guitar work and perfectly-placed accordion. (I’m a sucker for an accordion.) Williams knows what his songs need to sound their best, and as a result the vast majority of these tunes shine. With Williams’ comfortable voice, unique vocal lines, and well-suited arrangements all contributing, Southern FM becomes one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Check out the album and keep Williams on your radar.
(This one comes out December 14, so it’s not technically an ICYMI, but it fits with the rest of the reviews I’m running today.)
You don’t have to listen beyond Of This I’m Sure‘s first track to hear how Jenny and Tyler‘s sound has progressed and matured from Open Your Doors–everything on the title track sounds tighter, fuller, and more urgent. In that way, it echoes some of the drama of Faint Not–they even re-recorded “Song for You”–but with a maturation of lyrical themes and arrangement styles.
Their folk-pop roots are becoming just that: roots. There are shades of U2 and Coldplay–as there always have been–but the biggest change is the fullness that was occasional in their previous releases is the modus operandi here. Yet it doesn’t sound like their “gone electric” album. The songs feel like a natural progression of their work over time; for example, “Where to Begin” echoes Faint Not‘s “Through Your Eyes” in sonic quality, but it expands the palette to include the subtle electronic elements that wend their way through the record. There are truly quiet moments, for those worried about a big rock shift: they’ve not completely abandoned the folk-pop that drew me to them. That’s a testament to the immaculate arranging, recording, and engineering efforts that went into this record–they’re growing without sacrificing their foundation to the new-shiny of added instrumentation.
The intimacy that characterized their previous work is retained here, but in different ways. It’s hard to argue that “My Dear One” isn’t one of the most towering tunes they’ve ever put together, but the lyrical concerns and pristine vocals point to the unchanged core of their work. Each tune is about love in some way, shape or form, which has always been at the heart of their work–however, as new parents, the love of child is included in “Where to Begin” and “In Everything You Do.” They both are honest and not saccharine, as tunes about children can be, which is a strong compliment to their ability to self-edit the massive bursts of emotion that appear as new parents. They’ve managed to change without alienating the old listeners, and delivered a spectacular album along the way. Overall, it’s a brilliant, beautiful album.
(This J&T review is an expanded and, sadly, spell-checked version of a review posted on iTunes.)
Jared Rabin‘s Something Left to Say melds Southern Rock guitar theatrics to gentle acoustic-led country tunes for a mellow, easygoing sound. The title track opens the record with the distinctive bass drum thump, guitar strum, and patterned clapping of folk-pop, but Rabin seasons his take on the genre with zinging pedal steel and a big guitar solo bridge. It doesn’t turn the song into a Southern anthem, but it does help the song fit into the rest of the record. Follow-up “Eight Trips Around the Sun” starts out with crunchy distorted guitars, but layers a John Mayer-esque vocal line on top of it to temper the arrangement. The two tunes set up the poles of Rabin’s sound (except for closer “Ride the Wheel,” which reprises the approach of “Eight Trips” but perhaps even a little crunchier).
From there, Rabin settles into his groove: “A Memory Forever,” “I Remember Last December,” and “Not Heart Broken” are emotive tunes that rely on the tension between acoustic country-pop and electric guitar-driven country-rock. The lyrics and music of “A Memory Forever” evoke the poignant side of saloon troubadours, while the ballad “I Remember Last December” amps up the country-pop melodies and arrangement. “Not Heart Broken” is an “over you” song that includes banjo and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics of love and loss evoke Taylor Swift et al, while the bit of southern rock thrown in on every track keeps things fresh. Something Left to Say is an easy listen, great for putting on while you relax on a back porch somewhere.
The folk-pop of Jennell‘s “Long Way From Home” draws equally from the stomp-clap hoedowns of The Lumineers and the polished country-pop of Taylor Swift, creating a point of connection between the two social worlds that could sit comfortably next to Phillip Phillips’ work. (It even talks about home!)
Fans of folk pop will notice the vocal melodies in the prechorus and bridge, while fans of T-Swift will recognize the chorus vibes immediately. The result is a tune that will get at least one melody stuck in your head (but it depends on which one). The lyrics address the uncertainty of travel and discomforts that come from a lack of community, something that anyone who’s ever been traveling a lot can relate to. Sonically, it’s a great song for the lazy end of summer; lyrically, it can keep the company of those still out there on the road.
Problems That Fix Themselves – Which Is Worse. This electronic duo creates gently unfolding, melodic ambient/glitch music. They manage to make glitch not sound brittle and lifeless, especially on standout track “8:62.” Elsewhere they make circuitbending sound downright beautiful; this might be the easiest introduction to the technically and musically intimidating practice I’ve ever heard. It’s not ODESZA by any means, but fans of melodic post-dub will find connections they may not have expected.
Nate Allen and the Pac-Away Dots – Take Out the Trash. The wild songwriter behind the folk/punk duo Destroy Nate Allen! took a long, hard look at the ills of society. The subsequent musical and lyrical response was a bit darker and weightier than DNA! purveys, although the songs of Take Out the Trash still fit in the folk/punk category. Allen’s raspy voice is perfectly suited to righteous indignation, and so tunes like “West Side Blues” come together perfectly with impassioned vocals over brazen electric guitars. On the other end of the spectrum, gentler tunes like “Social Equality” aim an introspective lens at social justice with banjo, brushed drums, and acoustic guitar. It may make you laugh a bit less and think a bit more than DNA!, but the songwriting chops are just as strong (and in some places stronger) for the change in topic.
Kayte Grace — Chapter 2: Sail There EP. Kayte Grace’s country-folk-pop is a charming, romantic brew that will appeal to fans of Taylor Swift, Twin Forks, and young love. There’s infinite depth to be mined in young love, and Grace does that here, both melodically and lyrically. It’s smooth, sweet, but not too saccharine; if you’re swooning over someone right now, you’ll be all about it.
1. “Glass Heart” – Magic Giant. The rhythmic knowledge of a dance floor anthem powers this folk-pop jam. The inevitable whoa-ohs and jubilant trumpet line send this over the edge into “world-conquering pop song” mode. Seriously, this is like the best parts of the Lumineers and Mumford without the negatives.
2. “One More Song” – Tyler Hilton. Hilton imbues a lot of romantic intensity into his voice, layered neatly over an adult alternative tune that splits the difference between Taylor Swift and Matt Nathanson.
3. “Local News” – Heath McNeese. A simple acoustic fingerpicking pattern, a gentle voice, an endearing story, and a memorable melody: what else do you need? Beautiful singer/songwriter work here.
4. “All Along” – Joe Mansman and the Midnight Revival Band. Snare-shuffle country with evocative vocals, a soaring chorus, and a great vibe. Do I have to throw “alt” in front of country, or can I trust you to listen anyway?
5. “Alegria” – DBG. British folk singer/songwriter DBG went to Spain and interviewed people, then wrote a bunch of songs about those interviews–in Spanish. This one showcases his gentle fingerpicking along with the Spanish-language lyrics.
David Rosales‘ Along the Way is the sort of full-throated, big-hearted alt-country that gets play on Hot Country stations as the authentic arm of their coverage. It’s poignant yet poppy; perky, but not saccharine. The vocals occasionally veer into John Mayer zones, then realign themselves with Zac Brown, then mope sullenly off into David Ramirez territory. It’s the perfect midpoint between rough’n’tumble and (old school) Taylor Swift.
The first half of “Amelie’s Song” is full of swooping pedal steel, pensive banjo, and soaring vocals that tug at the heartstrings; they kick up the pace for the back half and turn it into a foot-stomping barnburner. “Strike Gold” uses harmonica expertly. Rattling train-whistle snare drum patterns appear everywhere.
The songs are most endearing when Rosales fully accepts this role of balladeer-gets-happy: “Slice of Heaven” is a turn-it-up singalong with indelible melodies, while “Too Young to Know Any Better” shows the opposite side by teasing the sadness out of his sound with a mournful melody and lyric. There’s levity in the arrangement, but it’s still a wistful tune. I’m really into dudes with acoustic guitars and pop chops singing (alt-?) country tunes without the giant Nashville sheen, so I’m into David Rosales. There’s still some sheen, but I’m not put off by it. It sells me. I’m sold.
When I was told that M.I.A. was playing the Super Bowl, I responded with “She’s going to say ‘F*** America’ on national T.V.” And while she didn’t say it, she did flip America the bird. Who thought inviting an unrepentant firebrand to the show was a good idea?
Now we’re going to be subject to an incredibly sterilized Super Bowl halftime show next year so that NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. After the wardrobe malfunction, we were treated to Paul McCartney playing “Hey Jude,” which is about the least offensive thing rock’n’roll has to offer. Here’s IC’s picks for who The Powers That Be will front during next year’s un-stravaganza.
5. Beyonce. This is five because although everyone loves Beyonce, she has that whole sexy thing going on. There will be NONE OF THAT next year, if the McCartney redux theory is to be believed. Also, they should be saving her for a humongous 2014: The Super Bowl will be in New York City for the first time ever, meaning that we need to get a Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind” performance. Jova splitting time with Beyonce would just be a blast. More on this supreme show in a minute.
4. Taylor Swift. The only way T-Swift gets controversial is if she rips another ex on live TV. Given her romantic life, this is a probable situation. This may not be the best idea, after all.
3. Bon Jovi. If we’re gonna go retro-rockin’, Bon Jovi’s the safest pick in the world. Perennially populist, working-class heroes with megahits enjoyed in their original release by people who are currently shelling out thousands for Super Bowl tix. However, they could be saving him for the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl, creating Bon Hova as a tribute to both sides of the Lincoln Tunnel. Bon. Hova. Let’s make this happen.
2. Coldplay. Older rock fans can dig it, emotive teenagers will dig it, even hipsters who were coming of age around “The Scientist” and “In My Place” would secretly dig it. Throw in a Rihanna guest spot (“Princess of China,” y’all!) and you’ve got a winner. I mean, have you ever SEEN Coldplay live? They throw down on the visual spectacle. Think of all those yellow balloons.
1. Adele (Adele). There is no more safe pick than Adele. She’s non-controversial in every way possible. If you’re looking for a Paul McCartney-esque “Sit there and play songs” pick, this girl is go-to. You can even get a choir going in the background, and Cee Lo Green Andre 3000 can lead it with a lightsaber as a baton, because one ATL figurehead in Star Wars-esque apparel is not enough.
Hoodie Allen‘s first mixtape Pep Rallywas incredible because RJ Ferguson perfectly appropriated indie-rock as beats, giving Allen an unimpeachable framework. Allen coulda rapped the phone book, and I would have loved it.
Allen’s second mixtape Leap Year is incredible because Hoodie Allen is an excellent rapper. I mentioned in my previous review that he wins the namecheck award, but in Leap Year he uses his extensive pop culture knowledge to make witty jokes and provide social commentary.
Allen’s past writing songs for their own wit’s sake, and now he’s enjoying the fact that his wit can take him places. This newfound maturity is definitely related to the fact that Leap Year comes from his first year of making a living off music. Allen lives in his skin here instead of trying to appropriate a (hopefully) future self.
Not to say that RJ Ferguson drops the ball: RJF (as Allen so monikers him in the acknowledgments) is even better at his craft here. Pep Rally played the “Yeah, but do you know THIS song?” game, while Leap Year is (appropriately) over it. The smooth yet perky beats here are clearly from something, but I have no idea what. The beats float the rhymes very pleasantly and don’t distract, which is awesome.
This is best shown in standouts “James Franco” and “#WhiteGirlProblems.” The former, easily the funniest of the tracks here, uses a sample of (get this) “Clap Your Hands,” the second track off Black Eyed Peas’ 1998 debut album Behind the Front. Talk about deep cuts – that thing wasn’t even a single. “James Franco” is a party anthem, as well as an update on Hoodie’s last year; it includes a hilarious name-check to a music video that people “didn’t believe” — including me. The beat’s got movement, Hoodie’s flow is strong, the wordplay is fun and clever, and the whole thing comes off perfectly.
“#WhiteGirlProblems” morphs Eliza Doolittle into a hook singer, just like Marina and the Diamonds from Pep Rally‘s “You Are Not A Robot.” He takes on exactly what the title says, culminating in a great list of people who have white girl problems – and I don’t want to ruin the punchline. Seriously. Listen to it.
Also not to be missed: “Soul on Fire,” “You’re Welcome” and the single “Dreams Up.”
There’s still room to grow for Hoodie. His slower, more serious songs (“Push You Away,” “Moon Bounce”) fall short of the brilliance he displays as a hyperactive cultural commentator. While the songs aren’t bad, they currently feel out of character for him — and thus stick out oddly on the album. But there’s a huge jump from his last mixtape to this in maturity, so it’s reasonable to assume that some time will hammer out this issue.
Hoodie Allen’s Leap Year is a fantastic mixtape. The density of the lyrics will keep listeners coming back for more, and the excellent beats will keep them pleased while spinning it repeatedly. What else can you ask for in a mixtape? Hoodie kills it. Pick it up free here.
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.