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
Falcon Arrow‘s Tower is a soaring, powerful, instrumental, drum-and-bass post-rock duo that ranks as one of the best of the year. Now don’t get tricked into thinking this is drone or anything. This album is one of the most acrobatic post-rock albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. Bassist Matt Reints modulates his bass playing several octaves out of normal bass range, making tunes that have heavy, grooving bass foundations and incredible treble-end melodies. It’s astonishing what Reints can wring out of one four-string bass. (The press photo has him playing a four-string. For real. As a bassist, I can’t even believe that this is possible with essentially the same instrument I have.)
Reints is not just a fantastic technician armed with modulating pedals and loopers; he’s a brilliant melodist. And since he’s a bass player, he knows how to use the low-end not just to support the treble, but to interlock with it to create sums bigger than the parts. Finally, since he’s a bass player, there aren’t chords anywhere on this album: everything is done through cascading single-note runs and super-sludgy single note crushers for some grounding. In short, Matt Reints has taken on the job of being the guitarist and the bassist in one of the more complex post-rock bands I’ve ever heard. I have no idea how he remembers everything. I really don’t. Also Dav Kemp plays drums. (Sorry Dav. Bassist geeking out over here.)
You can pick any of the 11 songs on this roughly 40-minute album and have your mind blown, but my two favorites are “Aldebaran Serpent” and “Cantina Empire,” which form the 13-minute heart of the record. (They’re really into sci-fi; JUST ONE MORE THING TO LOVE.) “Aldebaran Serpent” starts off with some crushing, distorted bass, punchy snare hits, and some syncopated bass drum patterns. After inoculating you into the groove, Reints starts tossing off heavily-reverbed runs of high treble notes, creating a gorgeously full sound. Then he modulates up another octave and starts playing even faster, essentially turning his bass into a synthesizer. If your mind’s not blown, I don’t know what will do that for you. “Cantina Empire” leans more heavily on Reints’ traditional instrumental chops, using a swift, clean bass guitar line as the foundation. Kemp supports neatly with some punctuated, staccato drumming. They eventually do drop in a distorted low-end and a reverb-heavy top line; the riff at 1:30 is one of my favorite on the record, especially when put in the full context of the song. It’s an impressive song.
Tower is nothing short of astonishing. It’s gorgeous and impressive on its own melodic merits, but it’s even more mindblowing that two people (and only two people) composed all of this and perform it live. If you’re into post-rock of any variety, you will be blown away by Falcon Arrow. They’re just absolutely incredible.
Dylan Gilbert is a man of many talents. He’s been tirelessly releasing music since 2005, reinventing himself at every turn. Currently he fronts the manic prog/punk/surf outfit Hectorina and abruptly drops impressive acoustic-based solo albums. His latest offering of the latter is Shaken, an 8-song set that relies heavily on his ability of his voice to sound wildly outraged and outrageously wild.
With the exception of the gentle closer, this is an exercise in shout-folk from beginning to end. The ominous title track opens the lot, but he quickly moves away from trying to sound scary and embraces the persona of a person outraged at his misfortune. You can read this just from the titles of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Another Beast Washes Ashore” and “This Woman’s Gonna Put Me in the Ground.” His voice and powerfully strummed guitar (those poor guitar strings) come together to create compelling tunes that aren’t exactly Andrew Jackson Jihad, but something pretty near it. Sean Bonnette of AJJ has a nasally voice that he pairs excellently with frantic guitar strum; Gilbert has a very traditionally attractive voice that he just thrashes against the wall of life’s troubles like a dusty rug. Both are very impressive, it should be noted.
Gilbert does two covers here: the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The former takes a song many people know and pours all the mourning that’s actually there in the lyrics into the vocal performance. The latter tries to infuse the weary misery of the track (again) that’s already there in the lyrics. These are pretty much required listening; the source material for both are some of my favorite tunes of all time, so it’s impressive that Gilbert can take both and breathe fresh life into them. Gilbert’s an astonishingly talented songwriter and performer, and you’d be remiss to not know of his work. Shaken should be your introduction if you’re unfamiliar.
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.