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
Even though I love big, towering achievements of heavily orchestrated arrangement, in my heart I am most partial to singer/songwriters who sit down with one instrument (maybe two, harmonica counts) and sing their song. Wolfcryer, aka Matt Baumann, has been cranking out a stream of guitar/vocals or banjo/vocals EPs since 2013 that have been uniformly fantastic. His last offering in this set of intimate, The Prospect of Wind, is no different. Baumann’s husky baritone meshes with his full chord strums and occasional harmonica swoop to create humble, dignified, powerful tunes a la old school Joe Pug.
Each of the 8 tunes on the album have their own merits, so its nigh on impossible to single one out as the highlight. “Clay and Stone” shows off how he can keep a complex lyrical line going while strumming furiously; “Little People” shows off his troubadour storytelling. “The War” kicks off the album with a protest tune. But it truly is the title track that takes the cake: Baumann’s impassioned vocals, emotive banjo strumming (if you don’t know how that works, just listen), and memorable chorus keep this one on loop in my mind. If you want to catch WolfCryer before the train leaves the station, this is the last whistle. It’s on to bigger and better things from here. Highly recommended.
I just got married, so it’s profoundly dissonant listening to break-up songs. It’s even more odd when the breakup songs form an impressively heartrending album. Kite Flying Robot‘s Magic and Mystery starts out as a arpeggiator-heavy dance-pop album, but slowly unfolds into a narrative of how adults deal with (yet another) breakup. KFR’s synth-pop relies on staccato, separated synths instead of the huge swaths of noise that are en vogue in synthpop right now. This creates a sound that is inspired by the ’80s but also sounds other. References like Prince and ELO floated through my head as I listened; whether or not they’re accurate, the sound of this album isn’t business as usual.
Many songs here are fun and danceable (“Bad Girl,” “Criminal Supervixen,” “Belong to the Beautiful”), but the moments where KFR turns away from the club and gets introspective are surprisingly, almost uncomfortably raw in their musings. The title track and “So Goodbye” feature beautiful instances of songwriting, incisive turns of lyricism, and remarkably emotive vocal performances. Nikolas Thompson knows exactly how to control the phrasing of his lyrics and the delivery of those phrases throughout the album; when he uses those elements to pull heartstrings, the results are impressive. In that way, he’s not so different from Josh Ritter, and Magic and Mystery isn’t too far from The Beast in Its Tracks: an album of impressive songwriting trying to sort through the wreckage of a broken relationship in a dignified, mature, honest way. Kite Flying Robot has a lot going for it on Magic and Mystery; just, uh, keep your tissues handy.
Speak, Memory‘s Value to Survival is a 20-minute EP of punk rock-influenced post-rock; it’s the sort of work that Deep Elm Records would have been all about in the early 2000s. The tension of heavily rhythmic drums and melodic lead guitar lines will make fans of Mare Vitalis-era Appleseed Cast grin in recognition.
The trio doesn’t ever get abstractly mathy in its ambitions: where the work is technical, it is complex for a songwriting reason. The center of closer “Blue Jacarandas. Lavender Skies.” is a powerfully emotive piece of music as well as an intricate one; “Splenetic” is held together by solid bass guitar work and a warm, burbling guitar tone that keeps away from the cold brittleness of some math-rock runs. This may be anchored by guitar acrobatics, but they’re of the flowing and beautiful type–not the brute force, shock-and-awe style. It also helps that all but one of the six tracks falls under four minutes, and two fall under three. This trio knows how to hit a tune, work their magic, and then get out before it gets repetitive. If you’re more into snappy motions than slow-building crescendoes, the type of post-rock that Speak, Memory plays will excite you.
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.