You know, I really thought I was going to post this a couple months ago. No, seriously. I finalized the list itself in January. I’ve simply been too much of a slack-ass to write it up until now. I could blame it on starting a new job, or Groundhog Day, or Obama, but, no, it’s just because I am a sloth. But I guess it doesn’t matter when any of this came out, does it? I mean, if you find something new in here that you dig, everybody wins, am I right?
Anyway, it wasn’t the strongest year in recent memory, but there were more than a few notable comebacks and debuts, with a few artists moving in really interesting directions. I’m happy to see Wilco get back on track. Had a chance to see them again live and they absolutely crushed it. Sufjan Stevens returned to a style that suits him. Nathaniel Rateliff upped the energy on his latest, and it really works, though I’ll always have a soft spot for his slower pace. Love the edginess of bands like Bully and Hop Along, hoping that’s an emerging trend. And it’s great to welcome back the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Veruca Salt, among others.
Take a listen, tell me what you think. And, of course, let me know what I’ve missed. Cheers!
1. The Deslondes by The Deslondes
Songs: Less Honkin’ More Tonkin’; The Real Deal; Time to Believe In.
Albums like this one make all the dumpster-diving worth while. I’d never heard of them, had no frame of reference at all. The first listen sounded fantastic, but maybe it was just the bourbon and late-night hour, I’d let it sit for a while. Turns out I heard it right the first time, these guys are pretty great.
The Deslondes crank out badass lo-fi alt-country songs that reference styles from the 30s to the 70s. The change in pace from track to track and steady energy throughout brings to mind George Jones, the arc of his career spanning back-porch stompers like “White Lightning” to sorrowful classics such as “She Thinks I Still Care.” Despite having five songwriters and four singers, this NOLA-based band is a fully realized act, every song polished to a tee and with a personality all its own.
2. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett
Songs: Elevator Operator, Pedestrian at Best, Depreston
Barnett showed all kinds of promise on her 2013 Double EP debut, but this full-length album cements her status as one of our great, young songwriters. Her sardonic, stream-of-consciousness style can be witty, introspective, or raucous. Her dry delivery carries the day, but she can really rock, too.
I read one review that passingly compared her to an early Liz Phair. She’s clearly more apathetic and her Australian accent is discernible on most every tune, but that’s not a bad reference point. Keep an eye on this one.
3. Painted Shut by Hop Along
Songs: The Knock; Horseshoe Crabs, Waitress, Sister Cities
This is one that really grows on you. You’ll be drawn in by Frances Quinlan’s brassy, passion-filled vocals and the syncopated guitar rhythms, but the more you listen, the more you will appreciate her lyrics, which are often harrowing, complex.
The overarching style is something like punk-inspired grunge, simple arrangements that generate a lot of well-directed noise. That energy serves as a perfect complement to Quinlan, who is as compelling a front-person as I’ve heard in some time.
4. Gates of Gold by Los Lobos
Songs: Made to Break Your Heart; There I Go; Gates of Gold
That’s right, Los Lobos. I’m almost as surprised as you are. But check your La Bamba jokes at the door because this is an amazing album, start to finish. If you like chunky guitar rock with the occasional lapse into trippy, folksy blues—and I know you do—you owe it to yourself to give this a go.
Honestly, I was amazed by the refinement and orchestration of each and every tune. They rock hard but with a steady and subtle confidence. I suppose that comes with the territory when you’re on your seventeenth studio album. I was actually exposed to them many years ago by way of By the Light of the Moon (pre-La Bamba). It made an impression, but I can’t say I’ve thought of them since. I think it’s time to go back and see what I missed.
5. High on Tulsa Heat by John Moreland
Songs: Heart Too Heavy; Sad Baptist Rain; High on Tulsa Heat
I came by this album after reading his interview with American Songwriter. He talked about his influences (Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Lucero), his struggles, and how he has grown to appreciate his work as true craftsmanship.
It really shows on Tulsa Heat. It’s full of classic lines that surely took a great deal of honing to make them sound as simple and natural as they do. His songs contain the type of wisdom that can only be earned from being ridden hard and put out wet. There’s no shortage of regret and love gone wrong, missteps that can only find redemption, self-reflexively, in his music.
6. Architect by C Duncan
Songs: Say; Silence & Air; For
If you’ve heard even a few spare seconds of Duncan’s work, you won’t be surprised to learn that he is a classically trained musician, now a multi-instrumentalist. This, his debut album, is the result of him working alone in his bedroom studio for a little over a year’s time.
It is full of lush, ethereal compositions, layered with strings, percussion, electronic loops, multi-level harmonies, and his airy, gossamer vocals. He somehow manages to thread a certain pop sensibility straight through, compelling you to listen from beginning to end. Architect is as captivating a soundtrack for a cross-country road trip as it is as background music for an intimate gathering with friends. A gorgeous contribution.
7. Sundown Over Ghost Town by Eilen Jewell
Songs: Hallelujah Band; Rio Grande; My Hometown; Pages
Jewell’s past work has consistently conveyed a mindful presence, and she seems more grounded than ever on Ghost Town. This is country with a classic western flair and a noir finish. Her songwriting continues to mature, driven by a voice that’s at ease but in command.
Her clever lyrics, often backed by a pedal steel guitar, evoke big, clear, night skies, wide-open spaces, and quiet back rooms. And with each song clocking in at around 3 minutes, it really chugs along. Not a bad song on the entire record.
8. Savage Hills Ballroom by Youth Lagoon
Songs: Highway Patrol Stun Gun; The Knower; No One Can Tell
Youth Lagoon is the vehicle of Trevor Powers, who, by all accounts, is an absolute force. I’m only vaguely familiar with his earlier albums, but he’s clearly taken a step forward here.
His unadorned, purely falsetto vocals are somehow aggressive, fierce, and, as a result, absolutely haunting. Virtually every track makes heavy use of electronic effects, either to lay down the beat or to set the tone for a chilling atmosphere. His youth shows at times, Ballroom is a little uneven, but it’s so thoroughly infused by such incredible passion and ingenuity that you probably won’t care.
9. Leave No Bridge Unburned by Whitehorse
Songs: Baby What’s Wrong; Downtown; Sweet Disaster
The lack of critical attention for this record is criminal, probably because Whitehorse is Canadian. It may surprise you to learn that they actually play genuinely good music on the radio up there.
Rants aside, this is a multi-instrumental, husband-and-wife duo that really knows how to set a tone. Ironically, their style combines many flavors of Americana, with blues, surf-rock, and rockabilly all finely represented. Their respective and collective musicianship is downright urbane, tight, deftly churning out music that can be either subtly or explicitly complex. A crowd-pleaser, to be sure.
10. I Love You Honeybear by Father John Misty
Songs: Chateau Lobby #4; The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.; The Ideal Husband
I have to confess, I really didn’t like this at all after the first couple listens. To my ear, Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, sounded arrogant as hell, his lyrics, at times, seeming downright juvenile.
But I kept coming back to it, and along the way started to appreciate how self-aware Tillman is here, or at least the persona he embodies on this album. His sarcastic barbs and half-hearted bravado start to feel more like a shrugging sense of sincerity. That he bears his soul is admirable, even if he appears to be a bit of a shit.
His observations are admittedly pretty witty and largely spot on, but Tillman also asserts himself as a genuine crooner here, and that greatly adds to his charm. I’d have to think his days of being introduced as “the former drummer of Fleet Foxes” are over.
IN THE ARGUMENT
- All a Man Should Do by Lucero
- Star Wars by Wilco
- Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange
- Ones and Sixes by Low
- Universal Themes by Sun Kil Moon
- Neon Repairman by Freedy Johnston
I did make an attempt to arrange this list, but at 200+ songs, it really is a bit unwieldy. I’ve been listening to it on shuffle and am getting a nice mix every time.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good studio session or official video for every song, so a couple of these aren’t all that visually appealing. But, hey, it’s the song that counts.
Alligator by Carroll
Party at your parent’s house/Jumping off the balcony/Kiss you like there’s no one else/Then I let you down as if you came naturally
The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt. by Father John Misty
Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/I mean like a goddamn marching band.
Cinnamon by Palehound
Mellow, cringing ugly fellows/Mixing water into gin/And chasing it with cinnamon
Sweet Disaster by Whitehorse
Galileo was bluffing/It’s just a mess out here/There’s no compass to guide us/Through the flashes of violence and fear
Elevator Operator by Courtney Barnett
Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that roof/ You have your whole life ahead of you you’re still in your youth/ I’d give anything to have skin like you.
Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles by Lucero
Dan Tana’s by the Troubadour/Harry Dean singing “Oh Danny Boy”/After hours at the Overpass/Hour after hour at the Overpass
Poison Tree by The Milk Carton Kids
I’m a little man in a little town/It’s a little cold; I’m a little down/I get a little angry a little bit each day/A little while longer we’ll dig a little grave
No Comprende by Low
You know we should have seen it coming/You couldn’t wait till it crossed that line/Your hands were tied
The Ballad of Ronnie Radford by Harry Harris
And I said ‘Son how did it feel when that ball left the field?’/He said he saw the stars and that’s the truth/He said he saw the stars and that’s the truth
Yellow Eyes by Rayland Baxter
Now it’s time I get to goin’/But, now it’s time I get to find my own way/And I’ll leave you lonely/I’ll leave you lonely
Time to Believe In by The Deslondes
What can you do?/What can you do now?/Acting like everything is right up to you now
Hey Lover by Blake Mills
Oh, you never seen somebody throw their head so slow/And I see her cringe her lips and drop her ear that way/Scratch a dog behind its ears and it might do the same
Random Name Generator by Wilco
I change my name every once in a while/A miracle every once in a while/I create/I am the flame, a flame creator/Random name generator
Midway by Bad Bad Hats
I wanna hear you tell me you don’t know what you’ll do/The words you are not saying nearly filled up the room
The Knock by Hop Along
Did you see the look on the face of/The kid he brought with him?/I never once seen a teenager look so radiant
Fixations by Gardens & Villa
Subliminal commands under the signs/I took too many and I need to stay overnight/Baby, I’ve been a lonely guy
How’m I Gonna Find You Now by James McMurtry
I’ve got a mad coming on and it’s gonna be dreadful/Now I’m washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull
Living Zoo by Built to Spill
Being a person/Being an animal too/Being all alone and/Being all me and you
Heart’s Too Heavy by John Moreland
Well these angels in my eardrums, they can’t tell bad from good/I’ve lived inside these melodies just to make sure I still could
Emily by San Fermin
It’s never enough in the moment/No matter who I go home with/Late nights awake and alone with/Myself again, and it’s lonely