Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
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
Zach Winters‘ Monarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.
The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.
The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.
Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.
Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.
Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.
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.