1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
It’s a tricky thing to go electric: ever since Dylan pretty much mastered the art, all artists who attempt it since are necessarily living in his shadow. I’ve been a big champion of Wolfcryer‘s acoustic work, so it’s with great interest that I listened to his “Go Out and See the World” / “St. Anthony” single.
The release offers a slice of his melancholy, baritone-led troubadour work backed with a rollicking folk-rock tune that gives a taste of what a louder, electric Wolfcryer would sound like. The latter starts off with a frenetic acoustic strum, then barrels on as bass, electric guitar and drums crash in. Matt Baumann’s vocals are higher and faster to fit the rock backdrop, and they sound great in that range. A wailing harmonica and a crunchy-yet-melodic guitar solo cap off the sound in great fashion. It seems like an extension of Wolfcryer’s sound instead of a total re-invention: the sound is strong, tight, and crisp without forsaking the grit and earnestness of Baumann’s A-side (and previous work). “Go Out and See the World” is the quieter of the two offerings, a tune laden with empty-room-reverb and carrying all the gravitas that Baumann’s voice can convey. It’s a beautiful tune.
It’s no small feat to keep the emotional weight and the songwriting depth that Baumann brought to his solo work while changing milieus. If Wolfcryer is able to consistently pull off that trick, one that he nailed in “St. Anthony,” then things are looking bright indeed. It never hurts to be great at loud songs and soft ones.
1. “Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle. There are few things that get me more than a earnest tenor singing way too many words over a folky arrangement. Lyle plays somewhere between Josh Ritter, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Gregory Alan Isakov.
2. “Resolution” – Young Legs. The world always needs more quirky, delightful indie-pop on a strummed banjo.
3. “The Fall” – Reina del Cid. Warm, fingerpicked acoustic guitar; brushed snare; stand-up bass; contented alto vocals–it sounds like all the bits and bobs of a country song, but del Cid turns it into a charming folky ballad.
4. “Forever for Sure” – Laura & Greg. The gentle, easy-going guitar and male/female vocals create an intimate vibe, while a mournful instrument in the distance creates a sense of spaciousness. The strings glue them together–the whole thing comes off beautifully. I’ve likened them to the Weepies before, but this one also has a Mates of State vibe.
5. “Touch the Ground” – The Chordaes. Dour Brit-pop verses, sky-high falsetto in the sunshiny, hooky chorus–the band’s covering all their bases on the pop spectrum. That chorus is one to hum.
6. “Inside Out” – Avalanche City. My favorite Kiwis return not with an Antlers-esque, downtempo, white-boy-soul song. It’s not exactly the chipper acoustic pop of previous, but it’s still infectiously catchy.
7. “Bad Timing” – The Phatapillars. If Jack Johnson’s muse was outdoor camping and music festivals instead of surfing, he could have ended up like this. For fans of Dispatch and old-school Guster.
8. “Tapes” – The Weather Station. Sometimes trying to describe beauty diminishes it. Let this song just drift you away.
9. “ Forest of Dreams” – Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. The Decemberists have largely gone standard with their arrangements, but there are still people holding it down for klezmer arrangements of gypsy-influenced melodies mashed up with the occasional operatic vocal performance. It’s like a madcap Beirut or a female-fronted Gogol Bordello.
10. “Heavy Star Movin’ – The Silver Lake Chorus. Written by the Flaming Lips for the choir (which operates in a very Polyphonic Spree-like manner), it’s appropriately cosmic and trippy. Strings accompany, but nothing else–the vocals are the focus here.
11. “Emma Jean” – WolfCryer. Here’s Matt Baumann doing what he’s great at: playing the storytelling troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a world-weary baritone.
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.
Kris Orlowski’s clip for “Believer” reminds me of Arcade Fire’s visual aesthetics. The song is a much louder indie-rock than he’s previously put out, and the guitar-heavy backdrop frames his vocals beautifully.
WolfCryer is on a hot streak, even while walking around in the snow playing a guitar. (“Sparrow”)
Okay, no dancers here. But this is a really, really good surrealist montage; bands try to do this all the time, but most fail. This one is mesmerizing, irresistible, and truly bizarre.
One of the things I was most impressed with on Wolfcryer’s debut EP The Long Ride Home was the easy maturity that Matt Baumann displayed in his lyricism and melodicism. His follow-up EP Wild Spaces shows that it was no fluke: the quiet assurance of a man in his element is all over the four tunes here.
Baumann plays folk tunes, pure and simple: they’re the sort of songs that could be played a century ago or a century in the future and be pretty recognizable. Those barebones arrangements leave nowhere to hide, but Baumann doesn’t need to cover anything up. His evocative baritone deftly conveys nuanced emotion, and he varies his strum patterns enough to make these four songs quite distinct from each other.
The insistent strum pattern of highlight track “Lonely Country” gives the tune a forward motion that beautifully matches the lyrical theme of interstate travel, while the cascading banjo plucking of “This Revolver” provides a fitting backdrop for the smooth, mournful vocals. After a pretty intro, “Better to Be” takes the focus off the strummed instrument and puts in on the poetic, Dylan-esque lyrics. The title track even includes the squeak of fingers against strings; in such a stark environment, the consistent sound counts as a mood-making element in the tune.
Wild Spaces is another incredible four-song EP from Wolfcryer. Baumann is in a groove right now, turning out raw, passionate folk songs that strike all sorts of nerves. If you’re into evocative vocalists, poetic lyricists, or thoughtful guitar-players (which is to say, if you like any part of singer/songwritering done well), then you’ll be into Wild Spaces. Watch for this project in 2014.
This was the year of the EP. I received way more EPs than albums this year, which made choosing this list harder than choosing the albums of the year. While there’s a whole post waiting to be written about why EPs are the present and future of music, for now it’s enough to say that the music in these EPs stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work in albums. The EP should not be considered an inferior format; it can pack quite a lot into its shorter run times. Here’s to the EP.
10. Where I Belong EP – Quiet Stories. An eclectic EP of diverse songwriting styles; some hushed and intimate, some boisterous and brash. Constant: melodies galore.
9. House on the Mountain – Teen Daze. My favorite electronic artist gets a little more analog, but doesn’t lose any chillwave-y charm. Quirky, beautiful, peppy.
8. Sweet Virginia – Sunny Jim Brown. Pensive, thoughtful, raw folky songwriting that just sounds gorgeous.
7. Twin Forks – Twin Forks. “THAT’S A LOVE THAT! CAN’T BE BROKEN! THAT’S THE STING OF! A HEART CUT OPEN!” Yes.
6. Where Eyes Don’t Go – The Gray Havens. It was the year of the guy/girl folk-pop duo, and The Gray Havens were one of my favorites. Leaning toward the pop side, Dave and Licia play jaunty, fun tunes that will get you to sing along. Neatly balancing whimsy and seriousness, they stole my heart.
5. The Rooster – David Ramirez. If Ramirez’s deep, resonant baritone doesn’t touch you, the deeply romantic lyrics will. Absolutely gorgeous.
4. The Long Ride Home – Wolfcryer. A man and a guitar is an old recipe, but you don’t have to use a different recipe if the ingredients are high quality. Matt Baumann’s songs rely heavily on his emotive voice and passionate guitarwork, resulting in spacious, wide-open tunes that are perfect for long solo drives. A very strong opening salvo.
3. Somewhere Near the River – Little Chief. In a Mumford world, it’s good to play full-band folk. But it’s hard to stand out while doing so, which is why Little Chief caught my attention. Their nuanced songwriting and great cello work set them apart from the ever-growing pack of folky bands.
2. Creeping Around Your Face – Novi Split. One of my favorite songwriters from the earliest days of IC releases a four-song wonder that shows off all his talents. Precise arrangements, effortless melodies, heartrending poignancy, and covers that he takes complete control over. His is a truly singular vision, carving out space in a crowded field to demand attention.
1. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP – Fiery Crash. The culmination of a massive year that saw Fiery Crash put out five releases, this 7-song EP is the best of Josh Jackson’s work yet. Rolling folk tunes meet songs adorned with fuzzy reverb. New songs, reworkings, and hymns share space. Throughout it all, Jackson delivers earnest musings with real gravitas. This could be the start of something incredible.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but it still comes home at night to folk and indie-pop. So those genres are very well-represented in the Top 10.
10. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. Yup, I’m thoroughly on board with all the love this is getting. Just beautiful.
9. “Home Sweet Home” – Russell Howard. The sound of loss and longing rarely sounds so sweet as in this singer/songwriter tune.
8. “The Mantis and the Moon” – Son of Laughter. Clever lyrics, sprightly arrangement, poignant performance: I hummed this a lot in 2013.
7. “Aaron” – JD Eicher and the Goodnights. Sweeping, widescreen folk-pop that leveled me with a great melody and this line: “I don’t write sad songs/they just seem to write me.”
6. “Judah’s Gone” – M. Lockwood Porter. It’s a tough thing to pack nostalgia, disillusion, and rage into one folky tune without any yelling, but Porter navigates the wildly varying emotions deftly.
5. “American Summer” – Jared Foldy. Gentle fingerpicking and reverb create a strong atmosphere, as Foldy offers the sound of beloved summers that sadly have to end.
4. “The Riddle Song” – The Parmesans. Poignant yet flirtatious, this bluegrassy love song is wonderful.
3. “For the Sky” – Wolfcryer. The opening riff of this folk tune, optimistic and yearning, sets the stage for an inescapable tune.
2. “Creeping Around Your Face” – Novi Split. The most tender, gentle love song I heard all year, steeped in the reality of hard times but the hope of good to come.
1. “Everything Is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. Wine glasses cascade and swoop through the quiet indie-pop arrangement, giving Rodgers a fascinating canvas on which to paint lovely vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks.
Wolfcryer’s singer/songwriter folk is wildly evocative. Last week I sat down to write a review of his EP The Long Ride Home and instead wrote 1200 words about the meaning of art and social connection in a digital age. (I’m calling that a first draft and using that elsewhere.) I was trying to explain why Wolfcryer’s music so deeply connected with me; instead, I ended up explaining how and why people connect to things at all. At the risk of blowing this essay out to gargantuan proportions a second time, here’s my newest attempt at that prompt.
This year I’ve covered a great deal of highly-arranged folk and maximalist electronic music. The trend for a while was to pare music down to its bare bones, but now having a gazillion sounds per song is back en vogue. Where the sounds go, so must the reviewer. But I was and am a huge proponent of that minimalist movement. You can swoon me with an orchestra, but you get my undying affection with a guitar, a voice, and a lyric. Wolfcryer adheres to that latter vision, and thereby has my love.
Wolfcryer (aka Matt Baumann)’s voice is a well-turned tenor with a just a touch of grit in it; his melodies are both earnest and mappable to a staff in a way that Leonard Cohen’s probably aren’t. He’s got confidence enough that his personality shines through, but without sounding overdone. “Roll Call of Ghosts” leans heavily on his the nuances of his vocal performance (and occasional harmonica) for the payoff of the song, and it is simply astonishing. The hushed “Map of Wyoming” also puts a big emphasis on vocals, with equal success.
It’s not just in his vocals that maturity comes bursting through. The opening chord progression of “For the Sky” is both optimistic and haunting, sticking with me for long after the song is over. He doesn’t let the vocals crush the power of the songwriting; instead, he uses the patterns of the sung vocals to accent the guitar. It’s a beautiful song expertly handled, which doesn’t come around that often. “Never Carry More Than You Can Hold” and the title track also sport a strong fusion of the guitar songwriting and the vocals.
I don’t know how long Baumann has been writing songs–The Long Ride Home is the first release available on Bandcamp–but it sounds like he’s been doing this a long time. The EP shows an astonishing amount of clarity and maturity for a debut release, and it has rocketed Wolfcryer up my list of bands to watch in 2014. If you’re into singer/songwriters like old-school Damien Jurado, Songs:Ohia, Josh Ritter at his quietest, or Gregory Alan Isakov, you’ll be into Wolfcryer. I give my highest recommendation.
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.