It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.
7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)
6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)
4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)
3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)
2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)
1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)
Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism was an important guide in my transition from pop-punk to indie-rock (and then, via “Passenger Seat,” to acoustic music). I pulled it out earlier this summer to find that it sounds more like a pop-rock record than I remember. The songs are in no way diminished, but they feel noisier than I wanted them to be–I was looking for the distinctively indie-pop set of aesthetics (soft sounds, crisp edges, less clang, more clatter). But it’s an indie-pop-rock record, probably one of the best. We can get into a discussion of power-pop (early Weezer) vs. indie-pop-rock (Tokyo Police Club), but the point is that Young Mister‘s self-titled indie-pop-rock record feels like the direct successor to Gibbard et al’s masterpiece work, from its breezy California milieu, expansive take on indie-pop, and straightforward-yet-arresting lyrics.
Young Mister blasts put of the starting gate with “The Best Thing,” where Stephen Fiore marshals a sunshiny a.m. radio guitar radio riff, bouncy bass, and wryly honest vocal delivery to apologize for oversleeping his girlfriend’s hour of need: “I heard your car stalled on the interstate / I hope you got where you were going.” The chorus is a bubble of air breaking the surface, a rush of horns and lightness after the restrained verses. “Would It Kill You” and “Pasadena” continue this chipper, breezy pop vibe; the tunes pop out of the speakers with clarity and confidence. The deft hand with which oft-subtle musical and emotional shifts is handled shows Fiore as a songwriter with great skills. The shifts also echo the great sweeps of “Tiny Vessels,” “We Looked Like Giants,” and even “Transatlanticism” itself.
Elsewhere the tunes tend toward the expansive rather than the speedy, just as in its predecessor album: “Sound of Settling” is the single, but “Title and Registration” is the home base. Fiore gives “Would It Kill You” and “Take Me Away” some edge to keep things fresh into the album’s depths, but the composure of quieter tunes like “American Dream Come True,” “Carolina,” and “Everything Has Its Place” makes them shine brightest. “American Dream Come True” is a mid-tempo pop song with beautiful guitar work, a lovely vocal performance, and a devastating lyrical turn. It recalls Fountains of Wayne’s more pensive work. “Carolina” is a rueful, mourning break-up tune, wishing a lost lover the best. The sonic palette isn’t that different from “American Dream,” but the distinctive, anthemic chorus moves it into “songs other people might want to cover” territory. Dropping everything to its bare bones,”Everything Has Its Place” creates a floating world couched in delicate reverb, very precise melodies, and a deep sense of romanticism. It’s as if the sparseness of “Lightness” and the emotional ballast of “Transatlanticism” were merged into one daydreamy tune.
The lyrical punch of “American Dream Come True” is not an isolated incident: Fiore is an excellent lyricist. He’s as comfortable singing about “the fucked-up systems that failed you now” (“Would It Kill You”) as he is petitioning Christ for grace (“Carolina”) and sighing at the incredible effort of dating when you’re not in your early ’20s anymore (“Take Me Away,” “Anybody Out There”). His turns of phrase are clever, his topics are more than your standard stock, and his work is highly polished. But the lyrics don’t stray into the esoteric or the hyper-specific; he grounds his lyrics firmly in well-observed and carefully described experience. It’s the rare indie-pop-rock album that can add to the quality of the album with the lyrical effort, but Fiore has certainly done that here.
Young Mister is so carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you–all the things that my friends and I did with Transatlanticism. Whatever you choose to do, you should start by giving the album a thorough listen. Fans of pop music won’t be disappointed. I’ll be spinning this one for a long time. Highly recommended.
1. “Swimming” – Marsicans. This song dropped April 22, and summer officially started the instant it did. It’s all the best parts of The Vaccines, Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, and The Drums thrown into one indie-pop-rock amalgam. As a result, Marsicans have created one of the most exciting singles of the year so far, if we judge by the amount of spontaneous dancing it has inspired in me. Totally looking forward to more from Marsicans.
2. “Going Going Gone” – Bows. One summer of my life is captured in the memory of Chairlift’s “Bruises,” which I spun a lot. “Going Going Gone” has that same sort of effortless charm, breezy songwriting, and hooky melodies, so I expect to find this one on my summer playlists a lot.
3. “Love Will Come Back to You” – Two Year Vacation. A sunny, electro-pop tune anchored by a whistling melody (or a whistling-esque synth) and a buoyant sense of summeriness.
4. “Martyrs” – Living Decent. The mixing work here keeps everything in this pop-punk-inspired indie-rock tune feeling open and airy. Vic Alvarez’s vocals mesh neatly with a chiming lead guitar to create a mature yet smile-inducing track.
5. “Last Forgiven” – Luke Rathborne. That snappy snare sound just makes me want to hit the road and roll down the windows. The yelpy vocal melodies and handclaps make me want to sing and clap and have fun right along with Luke. A great summer jam.
6. “Pasadena” – Young Mister. A song about California that sounds just about as bright and shiny as California. If you were a Phantom Planet / The OC person, this one’s for you.
7. “Vampires” – Spine of Man. Beachy, yacht-y, ’80s-inspired indie-pop that’s heavy on reverb, baritone vocals, and the best type of nostalgia.
8. “Squeeze” – Foxall. This is the friendly type of folk punk: the “everyone gather round the guitar” vibe spills out of the speakers. I can hear this being played around a fire on a summer evening at a campsite somewhere.
9. “Barcelona” – TRY. Ah, Spain, another of the iconic Summer destinations. The chorus of this indie-pop-rock jaunt includes a breezily sung “Bar-ce-loooooooo-na,” which is just perfect for the city and the carefree, jetsetting vibe of this song. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
10. “Things That Get Better” – Boy on Guitar. This female-fronted acoustic indie-pop tune is one for the pessimists: the lyrics marvel at the fact that things have gone well. Walking-speed accompaniment and floating background vocals round out this lovely track.
11. “Fountain of Youth” – Shapes on Tape. Will we see a resurgence of wah-guitar funk and pop now that Prince has left us? If so, Shapes on Tape are at the front edge of the curve with a funky electro jam, complete with guitar reminiscent of Prince’s work. (Or maybe we’re all just thinking more about Prince these days.)
12. “Circadian Rhythm (Edit)” – I.W.A. The tension between cosmic-sounding pad synths that open this and the thrumming synths that follow it set up this chillwave electronic tune excellently. It’s reminiscent of Teen Daze’s best work: melodic, evocative, and interesting without going maximalist. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
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.