2015: First Quarter Highlights (Mixtape)
by Steven Spoerl
After three months and some change of the site being forced into more inactivity than production, single streams are about to be caught up to what’s happening (as it happens). More than 300 songs have been touched upon in the past week and 25 more will find features tonight (26 if you count this special mention of “The Waters of Babylon“, the crown jewel of Will Butler’s fascinating project for The Guardian). A few of these songs may have appeared in some small form here over the course of the year but each deserves a more central feature spot. Not all of these are songs that are new to the fold either, a few of them have appeared in some fashion in years past and earned a re-release (or, in Tenement‘s case, a remaster) in 2015’s first quarter. If a song has already been featured in full (as is the case for Mikal Cronin’s “Made My Mind Up” and Fred Thomas’ “Every Song Sung To A Dog”), they’re ineligible for this particular mix- but are still very much in the running as Song of the Year candidates. A handful of others on this list join them in that candidacy, with Hop Along‘s exceptionally strong lead-off single from their upcoming record, Painted Shut, being a particularly formidable example. All together, these songs are intended to represent the abundance of quality that the year’s yielded in its opening quarter. Set aside some time and revisit a handful of this year’s best offerings.
1. Hop Along – Waitress
By releasing their most accomplished song to date, Hop Along did far more than justify their signing to Saddle Creek; they provided a jaw-dropping dose of adrenaline to the year’s first few months. If Painted Shut doesn’t elevate this band’s recognition to stratospheric heights (something early reactions have indicated it seems poised to do), it’ll be one of 2015’s biggest stunners. Also one of 2015’s biggest stunners? “Waitress”. Frances Quinlan & co.’s finest moment to date.
2. Pocket Hercules – Well-Adjusted
A small but staggering release, Pocket Hercules’ self-titled effort came with no shortage of great moments. Chief among them was “Well-Adjusted”, which served as the introduction to Pocket Hercules for many and flatly laid out every bit of what makes the band so fascinating; off-kilter guitar work, exhilarating dynamics, left field arrangements, and deceptively brilliant arrangements. Hear the whole tapestry unfold below.
3. Makthaversan – Witness
Makthaverskan hadn’t carved out much of a foothold in the US until Run For Cover wisely picked the band up last year and re-released what deserves to be considered a contemporary classic. Every since then, the band’s been capitalizing on the groundswell of momentum that the signing kicked into motion. Teasing some material that could be just around the corner, “Witness” is an arresting reaffirmation of a band that deserves the attention they’re getting.
4. Slutever – Open Wide
Ever since their split with Girlpool, Slutever haven’t been content to sit back- and that restlessness led to not only one the year’s best early EP’s but one of its best songs as well. “Open Wide” allows Slutever to demonstrate how affecting they are when laying into a mid-tempo number with as much passion as humanly possible. It’s a quick-witted song that packs a serious punch, easily securing it a spot on this list.
5. Tenement – Spaghetti Midwestern
No, “Spaghetti Midwestern” is not a new song. In its earliest iteration, the tune was packaged on what remains one of my personal all-time favorite splits back in 2009 (Used Kids held down the other side of that split). It’s a song that’s held a lot of meaning for me over the years and it was one of the earliest indications of Tenement’s still-limitless potential. Even though it’s only a remaster, it would feel wrong to exclude it here- it deserves to be celebrated at every opportunity that the possibility of celebration is presented. This list is no exception.
6. PWR BTTM – Hold Yer Tongue
Another song to be taken from an incredible split release, PWR BTTM’s “Hold Yer Tongue” was one of the more fiery introductions to a band I’ve ever heard. Towering in dynamic scope and lightly intimidating in lyrical content, “Hold Yer Tongue” hits a series of sweet notes that cement the band’s status as one of today’s most exciting emerging acts. With the volume- and seemingly everything else- dialed up to 11, “Hold Yer Tongue” is a show of force that lingers long after the song’s come to a close.
7. Beach Slang – Too Late to Die Young
After building a reputation on the backs of fiery blasts of scrappy punk, a tender, heart-on-sleeve acoustic number is an interesting choice for Beach Slang. Evoking more than a few shades of The Replacements at their most vulnerable, “Too Late to Die Young” suggests that the band’s songwriting abilities may go even further than the levels hinted at on their first few EP’s. Gentle and oddly moving, “Too Late to Die Young” is a song that elevates an already great band’s potential.
8. Johanna Warren – Figure 8
No record has captivated me this year in a way even remotely similar to Johanna Warren’s nūmūn. Delicate, provocative, and quietly intense, it’s as if Warren was intent on world-building at a cinematic level. One of the record’s most gently arresting moments is the Elliott Smith homage, “Figure 8”. Layered vocals, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and subtle, brilliant production all render this into something spellbinding that verges on the otherworldly. Haunting, damaged, and beautiful- it’s not difficult to think “Figure 8” would have made its source of inspiration proud.
9. Alex G – Change
Another song on this list that’s existed prior to this year, “Change” went through a little more than a remaster and has- in essence- taken life as a new song. Granted, it’s not too dissimilar from the previous version of “Change” but it has a newfound vibrancy and expanded aesthetics that effectively retroactively render the original “Change” to demo status. Alex G continues to make waves and generate interest and the reworkings of earlier material make his talent abundantly clear, with “Change” now positioned at the front of the charge.
10. Trust Fund – Essay to Write
A band doesn’t earn the title of site favorite without continuously impressing and, after “Essay to Write” (as well as the rest of the band’s most recent record), it’s fair to apply that tag to Trust Fund. Striking a perfect balance between optimistic and down-trodden, without losing an ounce of their identity, Trust Fund enhance an already appealing identity with one of their most compelling outings to date.
11. Cyberbully Mom Club – Friends
Shari Heck’s Cyberbully Mom Club got a shot in the arm with a full band upheaval of what was once strictly a solo project. Taking on a spiky basement punk tone, “Friends” exists in the sweet spot that this site touches upon most frequently. Strong melodies resonate throughout “Friends” and there’s a real sense of drive that pushes the song forward, allowing it to reflect an endearing new spark in the Cyberbully Mom Club project.
12. Peach Kelli Pop – Princess Castle 1987
Jaunty, supercharged, and hyper as hell, “Princess Castle 1987” is a perfectly-timed reminder of the sheer power possessed by Burger mainstay Peach Kelli Pop. With video game love in full effect, “Princess Castle 1987” is punctuated by retro influences but still manages to come off as fiercely modern. Sharp and exhilarating, it’s an extremely promising warning shot for the material from the project that’s yet to come.
13. American Wrestlers – Kelly
Clever in terms of production and overwhelmingly strong in terms of songwriting, “Kelly” is as good as understated basement pop gets. Decidedly grimy aesthetics inform the character of the verses before the band cleans them up with a monster of a chorus, leading a rousing stylistic back-and-forth that somehow manages to find the perfect complementary balance. “Kelly” isn’t just one of the year’s catchiest songs- it’s also one of its deadliest.
14. Chastity Belt – Joke
Chastity Belt is a name that’s been showing up on bigger publications with increasing regularity and that ascension in popularity is only outmatched by one thing: the band’s own internal ascension in terms of both identity and songwriting. NPR even feature the record “Joke” was taken from on its much-celebrated First Listen series. While that record still stands as a great record, “Joke” is its best moment- one that finds Chastity Belt comfortably settling into their comfort zone and exploiting it for all its worth. Chastity Belt’s never sounded more comfortable and they’ve definitely never sounded this powerful.
15. CARE – Pamela
Easily one of the best submissions to land in my inbox all year, CARE’s “Pamela” is a multicolored, multi-faceted indie pop tune that comes laced with trappings indicative of a DIY ethos. Heavily melodic, reverb-tinged, and sharply energetic, “Pamela” comes off with a wide-eyed intensity that only furthers CARE’s promise. Length never becomes an issue as the song floats along effortlessly at its own pace and consumes the listener’s attention in the process.
16. Krill – Foot
Last time Krill earned a feature in this list, all I said was “Krill forever”. This time around, all I’m going to say is Krill forever.
17. METZ – Acetate
METZ’s self-titled record remains one of my favorites from this decade for the amount of punch it managed to pack in a relatively short running time. Live, the band’s an unstoppable force and they’ve delivered two of the most memorable sets I’ve ever seen (the latter being part of this site’s NXNE coverage, despite not actually being a part of NXNE). “Acetate” is the first look at the band’s upcoming record and it seems as if the band’s intent on raising even more hell than they did the first time around. Get on board or get the hell out of their way because if “Acetate” is any indication, their only direction is full-steam ahead.
18. Dogs On Acid – Flushed
It’s been a good past few months for Dogs On Acid. At the end of last year, the band’s self-titled earned a spot on this site’s Best 7″ Records of 2014 list and since then, they’ve signed to Asian Man Records. “Flushed” is the first look at new material from the band and it’s immensely promising. All of the band’s early charms are still fully in tact and they’ve tightened their grasp on dynamics. Whip-smart lyrics and a fine balance between basement punk and basement pop elevate the band to heights that others spend careers struggling to reach.
19. Pupppy – Beans
One of 2015’s most intriguing emerging acts is Pupppy, whose recent endorsement from Father/Daughter Records bodes very well for what they have in store for the remainder of the year. As a first glimpse, “Beans” does exactly what it should; introduces us to a band that’s good enough to spur a desire to get to know them better and achieves this on the back of an absurdly enjoyable single. Light in all the right places, with just enough fuzz to give it a jolt of energy, “Beans” is one of 2015’s loveliest surprises.
20. Lost Boy ? – Hemmorage
Had Canned been available to stream anywhere at the end of last year, it would have been towards the very top of our Best Albums of 2014 list. Up until recently, it’s only existed on cassette tape- and that tape’s become a permanent staple of my collection. It’s irreverent, it’s damaged, it’s off-kilter, and it’s the band’s finest work by a long shot- no easy feat, considering their discography’s been unblemished. “Hemmorage” is one of the many songs on Canned that work their way into the listener’s subconscious, loaded with memorable hooks and exceedingly intuitive songwriting. “Hemmorage” is all verve, all bite, and it’s damn near perfect.
21. Joanna Gruesome – Last Year
Joanna Gruesome are a band that continue to defy expectations and a band that continue to get progressively better with each release. They were all over our year-end coverage in December and January, which is a trend that could easily be repeated this year, especially if- fittingly enough- “Last Year” is any indication. Maxing out the band’s penchant for noise, “Last Year” features some boldly atonal selections that come off like an especially jarring uppercut. Vocalist Alanna McArdle has never sounded more pissed off as she does in the first verses or more at peace than she does in the sections that follow. Electrifying and deeply impressive, this is the kind of music that deserves to be celebrated as loudly as possible.
22. Westkust – Swirl
A sister band of Makthaverskan, Westkust excel in similar territories but with a noticeably heavier bent. Decades worth of influential genre touch points can be readily found on “Swirl”, the song that firmly announced the band’s arrival. Shoegaze guitars, post-punk bass, no wave synths, and new wave production aesthetics all make “Swirl” impossibly accessible and, more importantly, they’re blended in a way that makes the track unmissable.
23. Speedy Ortiz – Raising the Skate
In a few weeks’ time Speedy Ortiz will release their heavily anticipated Foil Deer full-length. In advance of the record, they released three songs. All three were absolute monsters deserving of year-end mentions. While both songs that aren’t “Raising the Skate” are genuinely that strong, “Raising the Skate” gets the nod hear for a few things: one of the year’s best choruses, the best use of production the band’s ever managed, and its sense of liveliness. More than just about any other song, “Raising the Skate” is a song that makes it sound like Speedy Ortiz is allowing themselves to revel in the sheer joy of making music.
24. Fred Thomas – Bad Blood
All Are Saved is one of 2015’s strongest records so far and nothing that’s come out this year has been as devastating as Fred Thomas’ “Every Song Sung To A Dog“, a direct ode to a dog that Thomas had loved for years while he watched him slowly die over time. No record this year will have an opening track as song and, hell, their might not even be a song over the next eight months that’s even remotely comparable. So, that by the time “Bad Blood” rolls around and All Are Saved hasn’t buckled under the weight of its opening track is a testament to its strength. “Bad Blood”, perhaps more than any other song on All Are Saved. indulges Thomas’ more experimental side but loses none of the songwriters considerable appeal. Immediate and attention-grabbing “Bad Blood” is one of 2015’s more unique entries and it lands with the force of a million consecutive blows, joining a small slew of others that help cement All Are Saved‘s position as an unlikely classic.
25. Bill Fay – Something Else Ahead
Not a lot of people can sound as despairing as Bill Fay. Utilizing a lifetime’s worth of experiences and weary tones to maximum effect, the legendary songwriter made a small return earlier this year with the haunting “Something Else Ahead”, a gorgeous tune that balances the lines of hope and hopelessness as effectively as Tom Waits does at his absolute best. It’s a fitting conclusion to this list and a promising look ahead towards what Fay has planned for the rest of the year. Relegated to only one place for streaming, it wasn’t exactly omnipresent when it surfaced- don’t make the mistake of allowing that seclusion to let it go unheard. Follow the link below to get your heart held and broken.
Listen to “Something Else Ahead” over at NPR.