1. “Backseat Pressure (Summer Dregs Remix)” – Dirty Blonde. I don’t know what filter, patch, or setting Summer Dregs used to augment the piano here, but it sounds unique and just plain cool. The rest of the arrangement plays out with the best lessons learned from both EDM and indie-electro pop. A thoroughly satisfying jam.
2. “Time Traveler” – Emeryld. A squiggly electro-pop verse arrangement unfolds into a delicate, moving chorus. Then the post-chorus instrumental section explodes into a Postal Service-style soaring electro-indie-pop bit. It all is held together by Emeryld’s perfectly-fit vocals.
3. “On a Bus” – Baseball Gregg. Bouncy, charming, a little goofy, but grounded enough by a rattling percussion line to not float off into untethered whimsy, this indie-pop tune is the audio equivalent of a gap-toothed smile on a sunny day.
4. “Trails” – Sisters. Somehow manages to sound exactly like 1985 and 2016 at the same time: the trumpeting synths, the arpeggiator press, the way-up-front vocal mix, the whole nine yards. Is it Paul Simon? Yes? Arcade Fire? CHVRCHES? Who can say?
5. “Colors” – Honest Men. Everybody needs a bouncy electro-pop jam in their life every now and then. You can’t really roll the windows down in a lot of places right now, but if you’re still in a place where you can…
6. “Close to Be Close to Me” – Echo Ladies. My general formula on popular music 1980-1989 is “closer to the ’80s = farther from my interest.” There was just a lot going on in that era that didn’t connect with me: gated drums, giant towers of guitar reverb, icy moods, and lots of medium-speed tempos. Somehow, Echo Ladies took all those things I hated about ’80s pop and turned them into a really sharp, enjoyable electro-pop tune. The vocal melodies really pop in this one.
7. “Half a Billion Miles” – Vagabond Specter. Space-rock was always kind of hanging out just off-screen. Sure, David Bowie did his thing, and yeah, there was that early ’00s moment where space-rock got real serious, but in a lot of ways we haven’t mined all we can of space-rock. (There’s also The Lovely Few, who are holding it down.) Vagabond Specter gives us a version of space-rock that sounds like what a spacefaring roadtrip song might sound like. It’s all burbling synths, headbobbing percussion, and soothing vocals. Rad.
8. “Red Roses” – Leisure Tank. This female-fronted indie-rock track has ominous overtones all over it, from the powerful vocal performance to the charging full-band coda. Sounds like an early Elbow track on steroids.
9. “Manta Ray” – Sam Brockington. Lightly funky, rhythmically interesting, and blessed with a bouncy bass line, this indie-rock tune rattles, dances, and sways its way through the three-minute runtime.
10. “Cupid’s Drunk” – Danny Starr. Fans of Oasis will find much to love in this acoustic-rock tune, especially Starr’s vocal melodies in the chorus.
11. “Staying Together” – ATTU. Combines mopey bedroom pop with unassuming dance-rock to create something that’s not either thing. It’s friendly but not exactly warm; it’s approachable but not saccharine; it’s fun but not giddy. It floats, but it’s not wispy. I could go on.
12. “By the Ocean” – Kid Indigo. Chipper acoustic melodies, a refreshingly earnest mood, and a subtle cool make this song into a smile-inducing charmer that’s reminiscent of early Jason Mraz work. (Remember when he was the coolest? I do.)
13. “Dreamers” – Delafaye. The mood Delafaye sets fits the title perfectly in this one, as the soft reverb and carefully-selected instrumental tones give this acoustic-led track a dreamy indie-pop feel. It’s a little more alt-country than Grandaddy, but it’s in the ballpark.
14. “Boulders” – Lucas Laufen. Pop in the way that Damien Rice and Jose Gonzalez are pop–not exactly folk, not adult alternative, but distinctly drawing on formal pop traditions in an acoustic vein. The “Quiet is the New Loud” folks would be all into this for sure. Laufen’s vocals fit excellently with the arrangement.
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
The next four MP3 posts are going to have impressionistic names, because I’m out of descriptive words after writing this many song reviews.
1. “Comin’ for Ya North Georgia Blues” – Eliot Bronson. Upbeat in a way that isn’t cloying, folky in that old-school Bob Dylan way, hooky as if it were folk pop (but it’s not). “Comin’ for Ya” is one of my favorite singles in a while. Bronson, it should go without saying, should be on your watch list.
2. “White Circles” – Stephen Ward. Got that traveling itch? The insistent acoustic strumming and yearning vocals here will make you want to hit the open road.
3. “Scaffolding” – Emilyn Brodsky. I can’t resist ukulele-led indie-pop, especially when sung with such disarmingly mature and comforting lyrics as these. Even though the ukulele leads, this never devolves into cuteness for cute’s sake.
4. “Said and Done” – Joe Con. Joe Con has a quiet assuredness in his vocal tone that gives his back-porch acoustic-pop/hip-hop (a la Mat Kearney, G. Love, and early Mraz) an immediately undeniable quality. This is a slick, slick tune.
5. “Ride It Out” – Elijah Ocean. There’s just something about an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a brush-hit snare that snags my heartstrings. Ocean’s world-weary yet hopeful voice just seals the deal.
6. “Lecimy” – Tara Fuki. Two women’s voices and two cellos comprise the base of this track. It’s a fresh, light, and unique track.
7. “Tapes” – Andrew St. James. The ragged passion of Joe Pug, the vocal swagger of Justin Townes Earle, and an x factor all his own.
8. “In Our Galaxy” – Andrew Foster. Like a Lovely Few song, Foster builds this song from a delicate guitar melody to a fully-realized tune that sings of the mystic, beautiful qualities of outer space.
9. “Balloon” – ErelPilo. Remember the twee, romantic charms of Chairlift? ErelPilo have that sort of doe-eyed, guy/girl romantic pop going on, but with an acoustic guitar instead of a synthesizer. The quirk is still there, though!
Space has been an intriguing concept for musicians for an incredibly long time. (Cue David Bowie!) But rarely has it been as literal a fascination as it is with The Lovely Few, who have named five consecutive releases after heavenly bodies. The Geminids, a third in a series of releases named after meteor showers, features only one song that isn’t obviously named after something in space: opener “Les Anciens,” which is probably something awesome I’ve never heard of.
The Geminids, however, falls in the category of “things I have heard that are awesome.” The Lovely Few’s previous work drew some easy comparison to the bleep-bloop electronic pop of The Postal Service, but Mike Mewbourne and co. have opened up the sonic palette on this one to incorporate a lot more moods. The basic sound is still electronic-based pop, but prog, ambient, acoustic pop, Sufjan Stevens (especially The Age of Adz), and “space-rock” are all equal contributors to the album.
“Les Anciens” shows off this diversity of influences well, opening with a proggy, spacey keyboard line before adding in the signature clicks and pops of twee electronic beats. But all that gets wiped off the board as some tribal-esque beats come in. From there, Mewbourne and his collaborators start to layer sounds and vocals. Mewbourne’s voice is a perfect fit for this environment; it’s evocative but not theatrical, calm but not placid. It holds mystery in it. There are spaces to be explored and pondered in both his vocal delivery and songwriting.
The lyrical elements have a very Bowie-esque feel to them: are they metaphors, stories, or both? Tunes like “Venus” and “Castor and Pollux” beg me to read the whole album as a concept piece about a relationship; “Tyndarids” and “Mars” seem to be just about things in space, with some religious overtones. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing–I think there are levels of content here.
The Geminids is an intriguing album that requires investment. You can just listen to it once to play “spot-the-references” and take in the nice mood, but its true treasures are unveiled after multiple listens. The sleigh bells in “Gemini,” the rhythmic tension in “Prelude,” the pacing of “Phaethon 2”–these are all joys that aren’t immediately apparent. This isn’t an album with singles, really; the thing comes together as a whole. If you’re going on a late-night road trip, or perhaps watching the stars, The Geminids would be a fascinating and rewarding companion.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
The best stuff I hear always takes the longest to review. When something is good, I can quickly explain why it’s good, compare to similar bands, edit for commas, then send some positive vibes out into the world. When something is great, it’s harder than that. There aren’t as many things to compare it to, for one thing; it’s also harder to explain why they songs are great because the songs often excel because they aren’t doing what other tunes do, lyrically and/or musically.
The Lovely Few has put out two great releases in a row: their full-length The Perseids and a follow-up EP The Orionids. (The namesakes are both meteor showers.) I’ve listened to them largely back-to-back, but they do have individual goals: Orionoids was intended to be the more user-friendly version of the Lovely Few sound that is fleshed out in Perseids. The former was necessary because the latter is a full and complete artistic vision that has few compromises or easy comparisons.
The only things I could think of as touchstones were sadly underappreciated Ithica and a way more artistic Postal Service. What The Lovely Few does could lazily be called electronic indie-pop, but that term also encompasses hyperactive stuff like Matt & Kim and Math the Band that have literally nothing in common with The Lovely Few. But the ideas that fall under the indie-pop umbrella are there: soft digital loops, moving vocal melodies, layers of electronic and organic instruments, strong control of space. The things that differentiate the album from indie-pop: an unusual optimism in minor keys that invokes the wonder of staring into space, flowing instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, liberal use of theremin.
Those instrumentals are important because they signal that the The Perseids is more than just a collection of songs: it’s a full-album experience, meant to be heard as a thing. There are highlight tracks, like gentle opener “Smoke in the Field” and the beautiful “Gorgon,” but those two songs are even better when heard in context. The placement of the ominous, mournful “Intrepid” directly before “Gorgon” accentuate’s the latter’s fluidity and reveals a corner of the tune that could be missed or underappreciated in a standalone listening.
The 11 songs of The Perseids create an elegant yet weighty whole. Even though the songs have a lot of space to let sounds echo in (sometimes literally), they never feel empty or undercooked. The tunes gel, and the mood holds. “Swift-Tuttle” is a glacially slow tune built on pad synths that would be rarely heard if considered on its own (except perhaps by ambient enthusiasts), but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense and pulls its own weight. No track here falters when the whole album is listened to at once.
The Orionids EP is not that much different than The Perseids, but it is different enough that I can see how it would achieve the goal of socializing and contextualizing The Lovely Few’s sound. “Orion” sounds just a nudge removed from the mood of Postal Service’s “This Place is a Prison,” what with the distant drumming and electronic loops. The song is more linear, in somewhat of a verse/chorus/verse structure. “Sci Fi Novels” features an electric guitar with its bass knob turned way up as the basis of the song, while reverent “Hunter” is the tune that can segue perfectly into enjoying The Perseids. (Aside from the :24 closer “Celestial Chord,” which is exactly that; you can run it straight into Perseids opener “Smoke in the Field,” and hardly know the albums have switched.) The one exception to the “knocking the pointy edges off” strategy is the glitchy “Try Again,” which is a weird outlier in many ways.
The Lovely Few’s beautiful music is some of the most enveloping that I’ve heard this year. I get lost inside The Perseids, checking out all the nooks and crannies and little sounds that have been lovingly placed inside it. It’s a fully-realized musical vision that often eschews the sure pop moves for the album consistency ones. I love the sound, I love the albums, and I fully recommend these releases to adventurous listeners who still love full albums.
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.