October held a lot of surprises, a few new singles sprinkled among their ranks. From resuscitated projects to fast follow-ups to fascinating departures, the month seemed to be as rich as any in 2019. Nine of those tracks made a sizable impression as the month wound on, making waves right up to the end. While it’s literally impossible for one person to consume every song that comes out on any given day, hundreds earned consideration for placement here but the ones that made the cut here made the cut for a reason. Enjoy.
1. illuminati hotties – ppl plzr
Last year, illuminati hotties broke out in a big way, landing in several Best Of lists. Now, riding the wave of that success, the band sounds emboldened, evidenced by the relative fearlessness of “ppl plzr”. While they’ve excelled at maximizing dynamic composition, “ppl plzr” takes that trait to another level, finding illuminati hotties at their most engaging. Whether simmering at a slow boil or flowing over with unchecked aggression, “ppl plzr” is proof that illuminati hotties are only getting better as they go.
2. Failed Flowers – Broken Screen
Not too long ago (but an eternity ago in terms of media cycles), site favorites Fred Thomas and Anna Burch teamed up to co-front an excellent basement pop band called Failed Flowers. With Burch and Thomas’ solo careers both taking off and finding success, Failed Flowers got pushed to the background but the band’s now offering listeners a peak at their final stages via a Slumberland single. “Broken Screen” is the A-side and finds Thomas biting into a characteristically sardonic narrative that’s buoyed by the band’s jangly sensibilities. A perfect addition for a release that will ensure the project goes out on top.
3. Timothy Heller – Not Even For You
“Not Even For You” starts off at a slow pace, working its way to something bigger. At every pace, the song remains mesmeric, going a long way to ensure Timothy Heller is a name that doesn’t slip from the mind. A mid-tempo slice of psych-inflicted indie pop, “Not Even For You” impresses on multiple levels. A complete work that indicates the band’s mastery of dynamics, identity, and composition, “Not Even For You” stood tall as one of October’s most unexpected surprises.
4. Emily A. Sprague – Mesa
Florist mastermind Emily A. Sprague has been going on solo journeys quite a bit as an artist lately. Both as an ambient artist — one who recently toured with William Basinski — and even under the Florist guise, which was stripped back to just Sprague for Emily Alone. “Mesa” finds Spague occupying ambient terrain once more, conjuring up a lush, melancholic dreamscape that floats along at a glacial pace. A song that only ever stops unfurling as it winds down, “Mesa” is as lovely as anything that’s been released in 2019.
5. The Whiffs – Shakin All Over
A scruffy throwback power-punk number, The Whiffs’ “Shakin All Over” is one of many songs that uses retro styling to push a classic setup into modernity. Falling somewhere between Dark Thoughs and Sheer Mag with the pop sensibility punched up to the max, The Whiffs have landed on something instantly likable and surprisingly memorable in “Shakin All Over”. A winsome, punk-minded triumph from a band that sounds as if it’s been around forever but is only just getting started.
6. Dead Soft – Trimmer
Dead Soft have come surging back to life in 2019, releasing a handful of towering behemoths. “Trimmer”, a four minute, shit-kicking, shoegaze-driven monster is just the latest but it captures a band that’s not only found its voice but a confidence in that voice. The gas pedal’s been driven down to the floor and the band seems acutely aware of the kind of chaos that action always invites. Then again, it’s probably hard to care about much else when the songs that are getting written sound this good.
7. Alice Bowman – The More I Cry
For years, Alice Bowman has been writing and releasing gorgeous, understated songs. “The More I Cry” may just be the songwriter’s finest. A ’50s throwback ballad, the song’s production perfectly accentuates the sound as Bowman’s breathy vocals float along the ether. A song of loss, longing, and heartache, “The More I Cry” is yet another song that convincingly mines past styles to effectively prove their effectiveness and worth in today’s musical landscape. A beautiful turn from one of today’s more fascinating songwriters.
8. Potty Mouth – Favorite Food
Earlier this year, Potty Mouth released SNAFU, a record that acted as a form of catharsis for the band, who had to navigate their way out of industry hell to return to full power. While that record was as excellent as anything the band’s put out to date, they hit a new high with their latest single, “Favorite Food”. Guitarist/vocalist Abby Weems nearly sounds reborn, guiding the band to a sound that has significantly more bite than their previous releases without sacrificing any part of their established musical identity. It’s a small but noticeable evolution for one of today’s best pop-punk bands.
9. Jeff Rosenstock – Ambient 7
Most people aren’t going to know Jeff Rosenstock for the songwriter’s ambient work, which is fair, especially in the face of a celebrated career as a punk artist. Yet Rosenstock’s talents as an ambient composer seem set to demand greater attention. “Ambient 7” finds Rosenstock in full ambient mode, delivering a shockingly beautiful drone work that seems to echo Stars of the Lid and nearly hits the 7 minute mark. Vexing and immersive, “Ambient 7” sounds like the work of a practiced ambient artist, which may be yet another road for Rosenstock to seize if the mood ever strikes. If that day never comes, at least “Ambient 7” will always be out there, gently beckoning for a return.
2018 saw more songs considered for coverage at Heartbreaking Bravery than any of the now 5+ years its been in existence. Thousands of tracks were heard and hundreds upon hundreds were mentioned in some way. The 18 selections below represent the best of that crop, while the overall batch holds true to this publication’s mission: to give praise to the under-represented. Nearly half of the tracks selected weren’t released as singles and some still have only been heard a scant few hundred times. Taken as a whole, these serve as a representation of a frequently overlooked slice of 2018’s finest.
Spring Onion – I Did My Taxes For Free Online
While a resurgent Remember Sports had a very strong showing in 2018, the best track to Carmen Perry’s name was through the Spring Onion project. “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is a bit of rare perfection, tapping directly into the weary malaise of modern young adulthood. A mid-tempo acoustic-driven Americana pop song, “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is astonishing on both a musical and narrative level, the little flourishes (the banjo, the auto-tone) enhancing an incredibly engaging slice-of-life story that never wears out, no matter how many times its played. In short, “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Young Jesus – Deterritory
In 2012 Young Jesus took a gigantic leap forward as a band with Home, which was the first of their releases to indicate the reach of their outsize ambition. Nearly every release since then, the scope of that ambition has been stretched further as the band’s evolved. The Whole Thing Is Just There, their first true release under Saddle Creek finds the band in their most exploratory mode to date, having morphed into a free-punk band.
“Deterritory“, the record’s lead-off single, was a clear indication of Young Jesus’ growth: elements of art-punk, classic emo, and post-hardcore enveloped their early roots to create something singular and breathtaking. No second’s wasted, even when the band embraces improvisation with no reservation. For as loose as some of “Deterritory” may feel, the song’s final 20 seconds are the fiercest and most concise piece of music the band’s offered up to date.
The Little Miss – Take Me, Too
“Take Me, Too” is a virtually unknown song from an artist who got next to no coverage for their last record. It’s also one of the year’s best songs and a testament to the fact that PR’s main purpose isn’t inextricably connected to talent or worth. Few, if any, songs to have come out in 2018 hit as hard and with as much unforgiving force as this sparse look at mortality, which welcomes death’s inevitability without resorting to overwrought histrionics.
Tender, empathetic, and knowing,”Take Me, Too” is a song that aches, yearning for resolution while maintaining a grounded, dignified sense of humanity. As a result, the song stands as one of the most unexpectedly breathtaking closing tracks in recent memory.
Trace Mountains – A Partner To Lean On
LVL UP disbanded in late 2018 but at that point, the year had already provided a cushion of hope for the future work of its members with Dave Benton’s project Trace Mountains releasing a career-best work in A Partner To Lean On. The title track of that record finds Benton in vintage mode, opening with a stanza that dives straight into the connection between spirituality and nature.
“A Partner To Lean On” is also an impossible-to-shake mid-tempo toe-tapper that elevates itself by the nature of its own restraint, leaning into intuitive decisions with an infectious confidence that’s rooted in calmness. Clear-eyed and warm, “A Partner To Lean On” winds up as one of Benton’s best songs, putting it in exceptionally strong company.
Whitney Ballen – Black Cloud
You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Shipwas an absurdly strong debut effort from Whitney Ballen, highlighted by both unexpected turns and a frequently brutal level of emotional honesty. “Black Cloud” provided the record’s apex of both, something that intersected on the song’s early dip into jaw-dropping heaviness. A haunted look back at early warning signs, the song embraces the narrative’s stormy tumultuous nature with gritted teeth and a snarl. Oscillating between pensive and punishing, “Black Cloud” secured a rightful place as one of 2018’s most intentionally jarring highlights.
Dilly Dally – Sorry Ur Mad
Dilly Dally spent 2018 enjoying a resurrection of sorts, having almost hung up their instruments for good while battling internal demons. Heaven, the quartet’s sophomore effort, frequently chronicled the difficult path to their own salvation, resulting in some of the band’s best songs to date. “Sorry Ur Mad” was delivered, arguably, as Heaven‘s centerpiece (in a narrative sense as well as being the album’s halfway point).
A determined tour de force, “Sorry Ur Mad” propels itself forward by virtue of sheer blunt force, the composition ratcheting up the tension with its attentiveness to dynamics, stop/start rhythms inducing a palpable sense of nervous energy. The rare song that manages to increase its grip incrementally up until the breathtaking finale, “Sorry Ur Mad” charts a scrappy path to incredibly memorable terrain.
Fred Thomas – What The Sermon Said
The last three records that Fred Thomas has released comprised a trilogy that contained the best work of the journeyman’s quietly illustrious career. “What The Sermon Said”, the spellbinding capper to an incredible run, found a way to stand out. The song’s first half operates in an explicitly ambient, stream-of-consciousness format before morphing into one of the most devastating narratives Thomas has delivered since the heartfelt eulogy that drove “Every Song Sung To A Dog“.
A seamless transition bridge the two halves, a melancholic saxophone figure being enhanced considerably by a simple, elegiac string arrangement. Thomas spends the song’s final minutes detailing a trip to the chapel, looking for hope and finding nothing but an increasing sense of alienation. “What The Sermon Said” may or may not be a commentary on the difficulty of aging and the challenges it can present or it may just be an unflinching look back at a time of relative desperation but no matter how its viewed, the overwhelming cumulative effect lingers long enough to leave a scar all its own.
Gouge Away – Ghost
Gouge Away‘s most recent work stood out as a career best and saw the band, clearly operating with a sense of invigoration, stretch their range in surprising ways. “Ghost” was the most noticeable evidence, an uncharacteristic — even pretty — slow-burner from the incredibly ferocious post-hardcore act. The song presented something of a risk but paid off with huge dividends, propelling the band’s recognition forward with ease, coming off as something of a victory lap for an incredibly hard-working band that’s deserved more attention from the word go.
Miya Folick – Thingamajig
“Trouble Adjusting” served as an introduction-at-large for many to the world of Miya Folick, which flashed a lot of promise in its raw basement pop-friendly aesthetics. Since that song’s release, Folick’s taken a somewhat unpredictable path that’s taken the songwriter to “Thingamajig” a painfully gorgeous ambient pop track that served as the unexpected opener to Premonitions.
Working in a mode that’s reminiscent of Half Waif’s recent body of work, Folick delivers an incredible career best, taking a long, reflective look at autonomy and decision-making that could feasibly double as a thesis statement for what Folick hopes to accomplish as an artist. “Only you know what to do”, the songwriter repeats at the song’s hushed close, infusing the delivery with not just meaning but intent, creating an impression that lets the listener know Folick’s in this until the end.
Evening Standards – Lil Green Man
A ways into the year, Evening Standards quietly released their self-titled debut, which was a near-perfect basement pop album. The record didn’t receive any notices outside of a very niche circle but did make one hell of an impression inside that circle. Formed out of the ashes of site favorites PURPLE 7, the band was already working with a strong pedigree that was evident in songs like the raucous “Lil Green Man”, an absurdly strong track that’s still earning regular spins.
“Lil Green Man” takes an intentionally ridiculous angle to explore an incredibly complex topic, using an alien invasion to reflect on the nature of existence and the meaningfulness of the human experience. Every second of the track’s wildly enjoyable and “Lil Green Man” also benefits from one of 2018’s most explosive choruses, the narrative and composition colliding in a cathartic release that suggests Evening Standards don’t actually care all that much about the answer to the question they’re raising, opting instead to revel in the moment and have as much goddamn fun as possible while they’re in each other’s company.
Cloud Nothings – Leave Him Now
Cloud Nothings returned with a slight lineup tweak once again, doubling-down on Life Without Sound‘s career summation but combining separate elements of their previous body of work. One of the best examples of their refined approach came courtesy of one of many of Last BuildingBurning‘s highlight in “Leave Him Now“. The song also separates itself from the band’s past work by containing one of the most emotionally affecting narratives bandleader Dylan Baldi has penned, fixating on a feeling of helplessness as the songwriter begs a friend to escape from an abusive relationship.
There’s an additional edge and urgency that lends itself to the music, Jayson Gerycz’s drumming returning to an otherworldly realm and standing as one of the best individual weapons the rock/punk genre as a whole has to offer. What separates “Leave Him Now” from what many view as a cloying trope is that Baldi never centers himself as a romantic option in the narrative, instead pleading for an unnamed friend to find a place of security and well-being that’s evaded them as they’ve fallen prey to predatory behavior, leaving “Leave Him Now” as one of the band’s strongest overall compositions.
Basement Revolver – Baby
One of the many, many bands that can’t seem to stop topping themselves by wide margins is Basement Revolver, who delivered one of 2018’s most unexpected gut-punches with the aching “Baby“. A song pleading for forgiveness and patience while navigating the internalized fears and trauma that frequently accompany young relationships, “Baby” may have been strong enough to secure a spot on this list by the nature of its deeply human subject matter.
What puts “Baby” well above the cut is its delivery, enhanced in no small part by a chill-inducing arrangement and bandleader Chrisy Hurns’ emotional vocal delivery. On many levels, “Baby” is an absolutely overwhelming listening experience, bordering voyeuristic as Basement Revolved surrenders completely to the apex of the unbridled levels of intense, competing feelings when the problem’s as hard to identify as the solution.
Tomberlin – I’m Not Scared
At Weddingsannounced Tomberlin as a major voice, which was all but cemented with early single “I’m Not Scared“. A rumination on personal hardships, both arbitrarily assigned and self-inflicted, “I’m Not Scared” was the most unforgiving track on what proved to be a very thematically difficult record. Driven by piano and a restrained string arrangement, “I’m Not Scared” bounces from harsh observations about everything from outside judgment to the physical pain that accompanies bodily function.
To completely bridge the song’s narrative arcing, “I’m Not Scared” balances those two elements against each other and lets those observations inform a devastating conclusion, summed up by the chorus: And to be a woman is to be in pain/And my body reminds me almost every day/That I was made for another, but I don’t want to know that/Cause it happened once and I always look back. Searing and searching, the song’s painful honesty translates into a major moment for the emergent songwriter.
Big Ups – Imaginary Dog Walker
Big Ups were another band that hung it up (at least for a while) in 2018, going out on the startling artistic high note that Two Parts Togetherprovided. Appropriately the record’s high point was its closer, “Imaginary Dog Walker” something that coincidentally summed up Big Ups’ long-held mastery of creating tension. “Imaginary Dog Walker” had been a highlight of the band’s live set and the studio recording more than does the song justice, using its slow simmer as if they were a set of sharpened fingernails sinking deeper into flesh. No song over the band’s astonishing discography seethed or detonated quite like this one, which sees the band going out on an absolutely extraordinary note and a career best that will be near impossible to top if they ever decide to return. Fingers crossed that at some point, they wind up trying.
Mount Eerie – Distortion
No recent run of songs has been as uncomfortable to listen to as the diaristic work that Mount Eerie‘s released of late, explicitly chronicling Phil Elverum‘s own experiences in the wake of his former wife’s recent, unexpected death. The internal conversation to include any of this work, which is deeply personal, remains. “Real Death” did manage to steal away 2017’s Song of the Year honors but it now has an equal in the 11-minute sprawl of “Distortion“, which is structured like an epic.
Opening with humming washes of distortion, the song quickly sinks into an intricate, acoustic finger-picked pattern and delivers a knockout first stanza:
But I don’t believe in ghosts or anything I know that you are gone and that I’m carrying some version of you around Some untrustworthy old description in my memories And that must be your ghost taking form Created every moment by me dreaming you so And is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time? And to reenact you for our daughter’s life?
“Distortion” doesn’t let up from that point forward, chronicling Elverum’s travels and real-life confrontations with death, equating the songwriter’s own journey to the beat poets that are referenced throughout the song. It’s an uncomfortable, implicit analogy that grows increasingly real when presented with the context of Elverum’s life. There are moments of bitterness, ugliness, and cruelty that are unavoidable as we fight to find meaning in our lives and Elverum presents that revelation with a commendable directness.
By the time the song comes to its fittingly devastating conclusion, it’s somewhat difficult to return to interacting with personal surroundings. Immensely complex and emotionally draining, “Distortion” has the unique effect of both sapping energy and burrowing into listeners’ consciousness, nestling next to a void that we all have to eventually face and reconcile. Texts like “Distortion” will help with that process when the time comes, making the unthinkably brave work Elverum’s doing incredibly valuable and worth experiencing, especially in moments where it’s of need.
Half Waif – Silt
Lavenderrepresented an inspiring step forward for Nandi Plunkett’s Half Waif project, easily separating itself from a very crowded field to stand as one of the most moving releases of 2018. Informed heavily by a sense of separation (in both a familial and a personal sense), Lavender lands its most memorable knockout blow with “Silt”, which is the kind of track that can make the world stop.
Arriving around Lavender‘s halfway mark, “Silt” opens and closes with gorgeous analog synth tones, book-ending Plunkett’s swan dive into a search for self-worth and reassurance while trying to grapple with an incredibly clouded, distant state of mind. One of the many tracks on this list that benefits from a naked honesty that confronts a damaging impulse, “Silt” finds a way to stab deep into the heart of what it means to be left at a loss. Cold in nature but warm in its delivery, “Silt” is a startlingly potent reminder of Plunkett’s increasing talents as a songwriter.
Long Neck – Milky Way
Jawbreaker Reunion was the first band to push Lily Mastrodimos‘ name to a larger audience but that band supplemented Long Neck, a solo project that’s gradually evolved into a full lineup. Both acts seemed to benefit each other, seeing Mastrodimos’ confidence grow in both settings with the increased recognition. Still, with a handful of songs that were frequently incredible, what Long Neck achieved with Will This Do?came as a surprise, presenting the most direct, confrontational, and brave work of Mastrodimos’ young career.
“Milky Way”, part of the record’s astonishing closing stretch — which still stands as 2018’s strongest end run — was a testament to that growth. Much life Half Waif’s Lavender, Will This Do?was shaped by the inevitability of familial death, which is alluded to on “Milky Way”. The song’s foreboding opening breaks into a quick jaunt, oscillating back and forth, centering on a narrative of uncertainty as the makeup of the world changes around the narrator. Frequent reminders to stay awake are issued, while a portrait of grief peeks through the narrative trappings, leading to one of the year’s most emotionally volatile closing sections.
A simple but blistering guitar solo, mired in darkness suddenly surrenders to daybreak once again before Mastrodimos drives “Milky Way” home with an abundance of feeling, conjuring a chilling picture of total, complete helplessness:
Sore feet and sore eyes and it’s nothing, it’s nothing. Echoes in our cave. I sat to watch the sunset and I just fucking lost it.
The song’s final twist of the knife “And I just fucking lost it” repeats 9 times in total, each instance growing more pained and frantic, louder in its despair, stubbornly resilient as the song deteriorates around the mantra, suggesting that sometimes there is no comfort aside from acceptance and release. One of 2018’s most unforgettable individual moments by miles.
SONG OF THE YEAR
IDLES – Samaritans
Few songs this year hit outward and with as much as force as IDLES‘ seething take-down of toxic masculinity and the cultures that not only encouraged men to be emotionally repressed and overly competitive but allowed it to thrive. A centuries-long cultivation of what it means to be a man was frequently, justly challenged over the past few years with increasing fervor. “Samartians” lends its voice to that fight, railing like hell against a methodology that’s created borderline irreparable damage through a precedent of repression.
Whether that repression’s self-inflicted on an emotional level or maliciously leveled against women in more executive terms, IDLES have every right to be pissed off at the practice. The APA recently released a study backed by 40 years of research that deemed “traditional masculinity” (which was largely built on inherently toxic notions) as harmful. “Samaritans” is a song that’s well aware of its topics nuance and wisely anchors itself with father-sibling relationships, bringing the effect into focus with the absolutely brutal hook This is why you never see your father cry. This is why you never see your father.
From its incendiary start to its jaw-dropping final section, “Samaritans” seethes to the point of shaking, intense rhythm section sending the song hurtling forward to its punishing finale. Expectations are confronted and stared down at every turn within the narrative (which is further supplemented by the montage video the song was gifted, which can be seen below) as the music provides even more retaliatory purpose.
While the whole song’s worth praising, special attention has to be paid to the song’s final minute, which significantly elevates the song’s intensity after a remarkably beautiful guitar-driven bridge. the song tips over into something sublime as vocalist and principal kicks the song into fifth gear, roaring “I KISSED A BOY AND I LIKED IT”, triggering a musical detonation that may very well have been 2018’s punchiest moment, guitars turning violent and almost staccato as Talbot repeats “This is why, this is why, this is why” before allowing the whole thing to collapse and drift off in smoke, creating a lasting reminder of a reckoning that’s no longer waiting on the horizon.
Over the past two months, hundreds of good records have found release. This post takes a look back at a dozen of the most notable titles in that crop. A handful of site favorites make appearances here, with the styles ranging from gentle folk subgenres to incredibly volatile brands of explosive strains of punk. A few records choose to cast their sights on hope, while others embrace an unrelenting heaviness. All of them, of course, are worth owning. Explore, listen through, and find ways to support the records that connect.
Saintseneca – Pillar of Na
A band that has yet to put out a bad record keeps that trend alive with Pillar of Na. Even with a slight lineup change (Maryn Jones parted ways with the band after relocating to the East Coast), Saintseneca‘s identity shines through on another album that finds the band embracing a more prominent Eastern influence within their Appalachian Folk-informed music. Pillar of Na also feels even more contemplative and complete than the band’s previous effort, Such Things, which is a point driven home by near-circular bookends. Not a false note from start to finish, Saintseneca’s records remain an immense joy.
Options – Vivid Trace
When post-punk and basement pop exist in harmony, the results typically range from good to incredible. Options’ Vivid Trace makes it abundantly clear from the opening salvo onward that this is a record — and a band — that skew towards the latter. Masterfully composed, produced, and sequenced, Vivid Trace is an important reminder of the potential of a niche subgenre that has direct ties to this site’s very roots. Vivid Trace is the exact type of album that Heartbreaking Bravery was built to celebrate: an astonishing work from a band fighting an uphill battle for greater recognition.
Lonely Parade – The Pits
A trio of advance singles suggested that Lonely Parade may have a legitimate Album of the Year contender on their hands, especially within the realms of energetic post-punk. The Pits confirms those suspicions with emphasis. Every song on the record’s teeming with ferocity, hooks, charisma, and conviction, as if the band’s been allowed to unleash all of their unchecked aggression. It’s that sense of purpose that makes how refined The Pits ultimately winds up being even more impressive. Lonely Parade intentionally take the train off the rails and treat us all to an unforgettable ride.
Fred Thomas – Aftering
Billed as the final installment of an ongoing trilogy of records, Fred Thomas delivers another record that cements his reputation as one of today’s most thoughtful songwriters. Aftering, Thomas’ latest, also finds the songwriter collaborating with contemporaries far more than usual, a decision that reflects on some of Aftering‘s narrative themes (especially the importance of support structures). As is always the case with a new Fred Thomas release, a few career highlights are thrown in, ranging from sunny, fast-paced basement pop to devastating ambient ballads shot through with a wealth of longing and regret. Being alive brings us to the peaks of joy and cycles us through unimaginable pain but Aftering is good company to keep no matter where the hammer falls.
Waxahatchee – Great Thunder
Ever since American Weekend began Katie Crutchfield‘s transition from a DIY circuit staple to an internationally beloved voice, Waxahatchee has picked up an increasing amount of scrutiny. Curiously, Great Thunder — Crutchfield’s project with Keith Spencer (formerly of Swearin’) — managed to get lost in the wake. The duo released two lovely records, before retiring the project, leaving behind some of their best work. Waxahatchee’s latest release pays homage to that project and Crutchfield’s roots as a songwriter, rescuing some of the project’s standout material to present in a new light. Great Thunder winds up as one of Crutchfield’s warmest releases as a result, rendering the EP unmissable.
The Sofas – Nothing Major
The Sofas proudly wear their influences on their sleeve from the very jump of Nothing Major, which immediately recalls Sonic Youth’s most pop-leaning moments in their Rather Ripped era. Fortunately, those influences never threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, each track standing firmly on its own, letting the record stand as a collection of noise-leaning, feedback-heavy basement pop triumphs. Every song on Nothing Major has addictive qualities, striking the perfect balance between an influx of energy and an incredibly present sense of melancholy.
Mutual Benefit – Thunder Follows The Light
In 2015’s “Not For Nothing”, Mutual Benefit can already claim one of the present decade’s best songs. Anything any artist does from that point forward comes with great expectation and Thunder Follows The Light renders those expectations meaningless. Every song is guided with the same gentle hand, infused with the same sense of calm and tacit understanding that allowed the project’s earlier works to thrive. Every gorgeous, mesmeric second on the record seems to instill a sense of peace, making Thunder Follows The Light a deeply important record in the face of today’s overwhelmingly combative climate.
Whitney Ballen – You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship
The debut record from Whitney Ballen‘s one of many releases on this last that grapples with a challenging dichotomy. What sets You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship apart from those releases is its operative velocity. A breathtaking record in the truest sense, You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship finds Ballen grappling with deeply uncomfortable truths, desires, and impulses, while delivering compositions that suggest lighter material. Imbued with genuinely shocking moments, a masterclass in sustained dynamic tension, and a sense of steady control amidst an expressed sea of uncertainty, Ballen’s released one of the year’s most unforgettable records.
Dilly Dally – Heaven
One of 2018’s most heartening moments came in the form of Dilly Dally‘s self-resurrection. The band opened up about their own difficulties recently and Heaven is their testimonial offering of those challenges and where they’ve arrived as a band: reborn and with a renewed sense of purpose. Desire was a record that embraced the ugly and the damaged as beautiful, with a suggested distance between the band and those observations. Heaven reframes that dynamic and positions the band dead center in a brutal storm of reckoning, staring out at a sliver of light on the horizon, knowing that the ruins of the world will be theirs for the taking.
LOOSE – Haircut
A relatively new band to this site, LOOSE nonetheless make a sizable impression with Haircut, an extremely impressive record that finds them tethering together strains of math rock, emo, basement pop, noise-punk, and bedroom pop. It’s an endlessly fascinating listen that never wavers in its surging momentum, anchoring ambitious compositions with relatable narratives. Head-turning in the best sense, Haircut suggests a wealth of talent and an abundance of promise reside in LOOSE. Unpredictable and unexpected, Haircut is an extraordinarily pleasant surprise.
Puppy Problems – Sunday Feeling
Sami Martasian‘s Puppy Problems project has been going for quite some time now, steadily evolving over the years while gaining a small cult following. All of those lessons come to a head on the project’s debut record, Sunday Feeling. As always, Martasian proves to be a commanding lyricist, waxing poetic on meditations about what it means to be a young adult today. Gorgeous folk-leaning bedroom pop compositions abound, echoing traces of (SANDY) Alex G‘s quieter works while containing enough personality to stand on their own. It’s an impressive record from a project that deserves an expanded audience.
Advance Base – Animal Companionship
Owen Ashworth’s projects have an infamous penchant for tapping into a sense of overwhelming sadness to create work that ultimately winds up life-affirming. Animal Companionship, Ashworth’s fourth effort as Advance Base, sees this formula ringing especially true. Corpses, both literal and metaphorical, riddle the record’s landscape, with an emphasis on pets. Throughout, Ashworth turns in the best work of an illustrious career, reaching something so human and so intangible that Animal Companionship can momentarily become a difficult listen. In the end, the journey becomes worthwhile, and Animal Companionship stands proudly as one of 2018’s finest, most moving records.
The past two weeks of material, once more, have been loaded with exceptional works. Each of the major categories saw the influx of notable items keep the same ridiculous pace that 2018 has set across multiple genres. No matter the level of notoriety or recognition, every week this year has brought in a slew f entries that have ranged from wildly entertaining to legitimately unforgettable. With that being the case, featuring everything is an impossible task. This post serves as a reminder and reference point for a slew of those songs, clips, and records worth remembering.
Looking back on 2017 was an exhausting effort that seemed to uncover a surprising truth: a lot of the year’s best records wound up standing out by a fairly wide margin. Not just because of the strength of their singles but because of the herculean overall efforts of the acts responsible for the year’s standout songs. To that end, the considerable overlap between the selections for Song and Album of the Year — by far the most that’s ever occurred in the four years these lists have been running — isn’t too surprising.
After listening to hundreds upon hundreds of records throughout the span of 2017, what was a little surprising turned out to be the endurance levels of the records being considered for this list. Some that seemed like surefire locks in the first few months of their release faded, while a few that lingered on the perimeter seemed to gain strength with each successive revisit. One thing that can be said for all the records included in this list is that they’re forceful works that have already proven to have attained the kind of longevity that will serve them well going forward.
From site favorites to year-end mainstays to new faces, the 17 records below offer up an interesting variety. Mental health, youth, aging, hope, despair, and togetherness are all dissected. Icy post-punk numbers, deeply personal folk, and outbursts of irrepressible energy stand shoulder-to-shoulder here, representing a microcosm of what many rightfully saw as one of the most challenging years in recent memory. Take a look back at these releases and grab hold, they should serve the future well.
Washer – All Aboard
Every release tied to Washer‘s name so far has been worth the listen but the band took a massive step forward in 2017 to release their first truly great record with All Aboard. Over the years, the duo has managed to perfect a very particular strain of post-punk, honing their minimalist setup into a jet-propelled engine. Overflowing with career highs for the band, this 15 track titan of a record proves the project’s range, versatility, and talent. It’s an essential release that managed to stand out among a very crowded field.
Great Grandpa – Plastic Cough
Great Grandpa‘s first official full-length absolutely explodes from the outset, “Teen Challenge” obliterating any lingering doubts that this band was ready to take on the world. Plastic Cough‘s ensuing nine tracks go on to continuously elevate the bar the band continuously sets for itself, running a stylistic gamut that ranged from hushed and burdened introspection to moments of gnarled violence. It’s an impressive show of force that never runs out of steam.
Petite League – Rips One Into the Night
Lorenzo Cook, the driving creative force behind Petite League, has been toiling away in relative obscurity for the past few years despite a string of formidable releases. In 2017, Petite League didn’t just make their biggest push into larger recognition, the band also made their best record to date in Rips One Into the Night. Clever lyricism, thoughtful arrangements, mid-fi production, and a charismatic presence elevated the project to a greater level of recognition that was long overdue (and still lacking, all things considered). A seamless mixture of bedroom and basement pop, Rips One Into the Night more than proves Petite League can play with the heavy hitters.
Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
For decades, mental health was something that artists seemed more inclined to subvert in their art, presenting it in a sly sideways glance rather than opting for something more direct. Over the past few years, that approach has noticeably shifted and brought to light some of the best works since the turn of the century. Cayetana‘s most recent effort — their career highlight New Kind of Normal — can now proudly join their ranks. As complete of a record as anything that’s come out this decade, it’s a harrowing confrontation with limitation, impulse, and the kind of desire usually left to the shadows. It also boasts the best arrangements of the band’s discography. A triumph.
Young Jesus – Young Jesus
Three full-lengths to their name and Young Jesus still has a perfect record, each three of those wildly different releases landing the continuously-evolving band a spot in the Album of the Year lists. With that kind of pedigree, self-titling a record would seem like a bold gambit to most but Young Jesusseems to suggest that the band’s in full control of its voice, having radically shifted its lineup and moved clear across the country. Poetic, thoughtful, euphoric, and devastating, Young Jesus easily set itself apart in 2017, thanks in no small part to the record’s towering final three songs, which may well have constituted the year’s most ambitious — and memorable — runs of music.
Deep State – Thought Garden
One of the year’s more overlooked records was also one that proved to have an excess of verve. Bristling with feeling, Deep State‘s Thought Garden was a masterclass in how to effectively translate kinetic energy without losing narrative focus. In lashing back at ennui with a concentrated frustration, Deep Thought created one of 2017’s most unexpectedly fiery releases. Brash and necessary, Thought Garden was — and remains — a record worth remembering, especially in larger conversations.
Weaves – Wide Open
Following a breakthrough record that catapults you from “best-kept secret” status to critical darlings is never an easy task but it was one Weaves had no trouble side-stepping with the breezy, playful Wide Open. Drawing influence from some of Americana’s high watermarks, the band melded and warped those traits into something tantalizingly singular, marrying those cues with tempos and structures that owe slightly more to the East than the West. Genre-melting and world-conquering, Wide Open more than proved Weaves to be one of the premier bands of the moment.
Landlines – Landlines
A small, self-released record that more than held its own against records with more fanfare, Landlines‘ self-titled found its plays incrementally increasing after its September debut. Beautifully combining the finest points of post-punk and basement punk into a cohesive whole that owed as much to Pavement as it did to Parquet Courts, Landlinesnever stopped impressing. One of the most exquisitely crafted records on this list, Landlines comes jam-packed with little delights that ensure each song is differentiated from the next but that the record stands as a complete whole. It’s a remarkable work that richly deserves a much, much larger audience.
Strange Relations – Editorial You
Few things are as thrilling as a band that’s confidently taking the type of measures that will push them to greater heights. Whether that’s expanding their ambition, increasing their levels of fearlessness, openly experimenting with ideas that may seem counter-intuitive, or simply spending more time on their craft, the end product typically winds up being something of note. In the case of Strange Relations‘ Editorial You, which encapsulates each of the tactics listed above, it’s also wildly successful. Editorial You is unmistakably the sound of a promising act finding their voice and confidently surging forward, fully equipped and ready for whatever might lie in wait
Fred Thomas – Changer
The clarity of voice on Fred Thomas‘ Changeris legitimately astounding. Thomas being one of this generation’s best lyricists hasn’t really been that much of a secret for a while but Changer takes those writing gifts to stratospheric highs with meditations on isolation, aging, individuality, and trying to feel alive. Changer doesn’t just survive on cleverness or memorable turns of phrase though, elevating itself through instrumental composition, demonstrating Thomas’ expanding palette in breathtaking fashion. Far and away the songwriter’s most direct work, Changer also stands proudly as an exhilarating career high. Not just the record that boasted 2017’s best book of lyrics but easily one of the year’s finest all-around efforts as well.
Big Thief – Capacity
One of 2016’s most promising breakout acts didn’t take long to issue a follow-up strong enough to eliminate any lingering doubt over their considerable talent. Big Thief‘s Masterpiecewas touted by many at the end of 2016 as one of the year’s best, even more publications followed suit with Capacityin 2017. Retaining the grand sweep of their breakout work, Big Thief got a little more exacting with Capacity. Deeply informed by tragedy and difficult circumstance, Capacity plays like more of a rallying cry than a death rattle, the band finding the heart and humanity in every broken shard of their past and clinging to it in the present as a means of knowing there will be hope for the future.
Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Like Young Jesus, Cloud Nothings have registered a placement on the Album of the Year lists with each of their last three full-lengths. Ever since reforming as a full band, Cloud Nothings have been on an absolute tear, pushing their own limitations at every step (having slightly different lineups for each record likely necessitated a certain level of adaptation). Life Without Sound, however, is the first record the band’s made where it feels like they’re drawing from their past for inspiration. Typically, that glance backwards indicates a band running out of ideas but Life Without Sound is subversive and unpredictable enough to suggest that couldn’t be further from the truth for Cloud Nothings. This is a monstrous, career-encapsulating effort from a band that will always refuse to go quietly.
Tica Douglas – Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us
Over the past several years, Tica Douglas has quietly become one of our best songwriters. Joeywent a long way in earning Douglas a reputation as a songwriter worth watching and Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us should further strengthen that argument. It’s a gorgeous record full of unsparing self-examinations and hard-won moments of hope and contentment. Each song taken as an individual piece is riveting but packaged together as a whole, the effect toes the line of being overwhelming. A complete listen is an immersive experience, with all of the scars and all of the healing being felt at every step. When all is said and done, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us stands as a proud testament to both Douglas’ singular vision and resilient character.
Cende – #1 Hit Single
A band that was gone far too soon at least stayed long enough to gift the rest of us with their only proper full-length, #1 Hit Single. Cende — which boasted members of LVL UP and Porches — has been playing most of these songs out for years before this release and found exhilarating ways to do them justice. Whether it was through string arrangements, guest vocalists, or the production sheen, everything clicked and #1 Hit Single became one of the most winsome basement pop records of this decade in the process. Whip-smart composition, note-perfect execution, and attitude to spare ensured that Cende had enough through one EP and one full-length to leave a legacy that mattered.
Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go
One of a handful of artists on this list whose releases have gotten incrementally more impressive with each successive release, it’s hard to imagine how Palehound will top what they’ve achieved with A Place I’ll Always Go. Bandleader Ellen Kempner is in fine form throughout the record, delivering career highs across the board when each compositions is broken down (lyrics, guitar riffs, etc.). A Place I’ll Always Go is also massively successful in terms of pace and tonality, helping the record secure a position as the band’s most fully-formed and complete work. As enthralling as it is captivating, A Place I’ll Always Go solidifies and reaffirms Palehound status as an act worthy of our full attention.
Mo Troper – Exposure & Response
One of last year’s Album of the Year selections, Mo Troper returned this year with the startlingly bold Exposure & Response, that sees the songwriter taking enormous strides forward. From the opening cascade of Beach Boys-esque overlapping vocals on both “Rock and Roll Will Change the World” and “Wedding” to the unexpected grandeur of album highlight “Your Brand” to just about every other surprising minuscule detail on Exposure & Response, Troper finds ways to not just surprise but engage.
Everything that made Beloved seem as if it was destined to earn a rabid cult following and be hailed as a lost genre classic is still intact while other facets of Troper’s formidable songwriting talent has been expanded. Exposure & Response resides comfortably at the intersection of classical maneuvering and modernist delivery as Troper anchors the proceedings with trademark bursts of self-deprecating self-awareness. It’s a landmark record from a burgeoning talent that begs to be left on repeat. Somehow, it gets better every time.
Album of the Year:
Charly Bliss – Guppy
A record that’d been lingering in purgatory for nearly three years finally saw the light of day in 2017 as Charly Bliss set out to light the world on fire. Guppy, at every stage of its development, has always been a knockout record. In its first iteration, it was a growling monster full of low-end bite and emphatic force. The band stripped it back a little, polishing the edges and swapping out a few songs to present something more refined while still retaining a certain edge.
The record’s immediate success came as a surprise to virtually no one that had been paying a lick of attention to the band over the past several years. Touring with high-profile bands — whether they were storied bands with rabid fanbases or exciting upstarts — ensured their range of listeners would be wide. Every step the band’s taken over the past 5 years has been savvy, something that was already evidenced with what remains this decade’s best EP, 2014’s Soft Serve.
Still, making smart business decisions can’t generate any sort of impression if the product is subpar. Fortunately, for everyone, Charly Bliss’ insane musical pedigree (all four members have degrees in musical fields) essentially ensures that they’ll be operating at an extraordinarily high level when it comes to actually writing songs. Guppy provides an excess of proof that Charly Bliss — in addition to being masterful at their craft — have held onto an internal fire that’s fueled their music since their modest beginning.
“Percolator” kicks Guppy off with an insane surge of adrenaline, taking the band from 0 to 200 in one quick crescendo, leaving everyone else to catch up to the trail of dust the band leaves in its wake. Memorable song to memorable song, the quartet rips through their winsome brand of bubblegrunge with aplomb. Mixing twee asides with moments of vicious reality, the band creates a 10 course feast that somehow manages to feel both of the moment and timeless all at once.
A record that brings self-loathing, friendship, earnest sincerity, self-empowerment, and the way they all manage to connect into startling focus, Guppy is as much of a success as a narrative as it is in the instrumental arrangement department. The record’s ridiculously powerful — and surprisingly heavy — “Julia” even sees the band flexing its range, proving that they’ve got quite a bit more up their sleeves.
When all the smoke’s cleared and Guppy has disappeared into the ether, the impression it left in the moment never fades and keeps pushing for rediscovery. It’s a record full of hooks that dig in and stay. It’s a record that’s as willing to open scabs as it is to mend wounds. It’s a record that knows how to have several cakes and eat every last one. Finally, it’s a record that stands out as an easy pick for 2017’s Album of the Year.
2017 was a staggeringly balanced year in terms of memorable musical output. To honor that consistency, the typical run of 17 songs will be complemented by a list — in no particular order — of 83 other great songs to find release throughout the year. As usual, the “best” tag simply acts as shorthand for the music I was fortunate enough to consume from January through December, which had an individual song list that tallied well into the quadruple digits.
Names that are already familiar to year-end lists on this publication reside comfortably alongside artists who are still looking to make a larger impression. Non-singles are included with some of the year’s strongest advance tracks and songs that tip towards hardcore rub shoulders with some quiet basement pop numbers. There’s a lot to contemplate — both inside and outside of the top 17 selections — and even more to celebrate.
These are the 17 best songs of 2017.
Great Grandpa – Teen Challenge
One of the great album openers of 2017, “Teen Challenge” reintroduced a noticeably more explosive version of Great Grandpa that wasn’t afraid of hairpin turns or controlled catharsis. From the outset of “Teen Challenge” the band is swinging for the fences but it’s not until the enormous final section where something deeply impressive transforms into something legitimately inspiring. It’s a celebratory song that comes loaded with conviction and is delivered with the type of determination that refuses to be held back.
Mo Troper – Your Brand
One of this site’s picks for last year’s Album of the Year honors, Mo Troper returned this year with two records. One, a collection of older material reworked for Troper’s current band, the other, an inspired effort of new material that saw Troper expanding his ambitions to legitimately unexpected degrees. The elevation of both songwriting and production on Exposure & Responseis particularly evident in career highlight “Your Brand“, which finds Troper turning his gaze towards the brand-obsessed inhabitants of social media, people who treat themselves as corporate entities and flaunt varying levels of entitlement.
Occasionally, those same denizens find the levels between tongue-in-cheek mockery and unwitting sincerity blurring into an unrecognizable definition. It’s a richly-deserved skewering that’s shot through with a resigned understanding. The tasteful string and brass arrangements that adorn “Your Brand” send the song to euphoric heights even as Troper is weighed down in the bog of a tragicomic reality. It’s a masterful outing that positions Troper as one of the most promising pop songwriters of this generation.
Cende – What I Want
Cende‘s first and final full-length effort was an enticing effort headlined by a slew of singles that all warranted consideration for placement on this list (and earned individual write-ups). None of them wound up impressing quite as deeply as the song boasting the record’s most challenging — and towering — arrangement, the Greta Kline-featuring “What I Want“. Falsettos, a lilting string arrangement, and an incendiary bridge showed off Cende’s formidable range, tilting from something approaching the saccharine to a vicious instrumental outburst at the click of a hi-hat.
Charly Bliss – Westermarck
Few bands have earned as much attention and praise from this site as Charly Bliss over its four-year existence and it was heartening to watch the band break out in 2017 with one of the year’s most affirming releases in Guppy. While every track on that record is noteworthy for one reason or another, it was “Westermarck” that kept revealing deeper facets of itself. A rousing meditation on uncertainty couched in an unapologetic joy of simply being alive, the song became an unlikely anthem for anyone questioning their partner’s motives (especially in significantly skewed familial setting).
Common Holly – Nothing
Tender, sparse, and wrought with longing, Common Holly‘s “Nothing” proves how adequately minimalist formulas can maximize difficult emotions. It’s a bare-bones run through a personal affirmation, rendering something that appears delicate at first blush searing at second glance. More than that, “Nothing” introduces Common Holly as a deceptively powerful artist with the capacity to deliver breathtaking turns in the quietest rooms.
Weaves – Puddle
Riding a wave of critical adulation and having earned the respect of their contemporaries, Weaves returned in 2017 with Wide Open, an aptly named run that they billed as their Americana effort. While the record takes a lot of notable cues from that genre, the band’s wildly erratic, genre-obliterating core remained intact with the barn-burning closer “Puddle” acting as the clearest indication that the band’s unpredictable firepower was still fully intact.
Fred Thomas – Misremembered
Following a record as momentous as All Are Saved will always be a difficult task but to surpass high expectations in the way that Fred Thomas managed with Changeris a rarity. From the record’s dynamic opening track, Thomas proves to be more focused than ever, spinning barbed tapestries of lived-in realism with unmatched verve. “Misremembered” isn’t just a testament to Thomas’ lyricism, either, the fiery music that serves as its backdrop propelling it to stratospheric heights.
Big Thief – Breathe In My Lungs
A lot of outlets gave Big Thief‘s breathtaking “Mary” a deserving amount of love, ranking both the song — and the record it resides — as the year’s best. Meanwhile, the band’s devastating B-side, “Breathe In My Lungs”, flew under the radar. As is often the case with bands as prolific and talented as Big Thief, “Breathe In My Lungs” is so much more than just a castaway or afterthought, it’s one of their most heartrending numbers, expertly using the considerable weight of guitarist/vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s singular voice to turn in some of the year’s most unforgettably damaged romanticism.
Cayetana – Bus Ticket
2017 saw a very large handful of bands taking the next step in their evolution but few seemed to take their strides forward with as much assurance as Cayetana, who zeroed in on what’s long been the crux of their songwriting: mental health. No song conveyed this more than their staggering “Bus Ticket“, which saw the band slowing the tempo and accelerating the force the trio’s always put into their compositions. Managing to be direct and atmospheric simultaneously, “Bus Ticket” stands proudly as a career high for a band that’s found their voice.
Yucky Duster – Elementary School Dropout
One of the year’s most unabashedly exuberant records came in the form of Yucky Duster‘s latest EP, Duster’s Lament. Headlined by the effusive “Elementary School Dropout”, the band offered up an irresistible slice of joyful basement pop that grounded it’s more playful elements with some effective self-deprecation. Expertly toeing the balance between the light and the bleak, “Elementary School Dropout” stood out as 3 of 2017’s most outright fun minutes in a year where that sort of thing was desperately needed.
Strange Relations – Say You
One of the boldest re-introductions of 2017 came by way of Strange Relations‘ enormously confident Editorial You, which was teeming with memorable bursts of icy post-punk that saw the band considerably elevating their grasp on composition. One of the most significant individual outings for the project comes on the record’s second track, “Say You“, which conjures up a steely demeanor and enhances it with fiercely jagged musical interplay. Both minimalist and towering, it’s an obscenely impressive song from a young band that seems determined to continuously reach for greater heights.
Covey – Call Home
There were a lot of songs that came out over 2017’s 12 months that occupied a similar space as Covey‘s “Call Home”: laid back, lovely, unassuming, and tinged with regret, loneliness, and despair. None of them wound up staying the way “Call Home” managed to stay; the song’s melodies and gorgeous chorus humming along and dominating unexpected spaces of memory when it could’ve just as easily rescinded into oblivion. Every return listen offered a new take and at some point, the song migrated from being a pleasant curiosity to something far more essential: one of the year’s best.
IDLES – Mother
Recently given Music Video of the Year honors, IDLES‘ “Mother” also comes off as a ferocious head-turning effort when stripped from its hyper-intense visual accompaniment. Vocalist Joe Talbot repeats several mantras throughout “Mother” — written as a tortured tribute to his own late mother, whose portrait graces the record’s cover — each of them decrying two evils: one political, one sexual, both too frequently intertwined into a nightmarish whole.
Viciously opposed to a system that uses a weighted system to the benefit of the people who are afforded privilege, the song is a startling reminder of the seething anger and frustration of the people who oppose those systems. It’s a clarion call delivered with an excess of venom, using it’s hardcore leanings to drive a message home hard enough that the ramifications of our choices are left lingering in the smoke.
Palehound – If You Met Her
A beacon of consistency over the past several years, news of a new Palehound record was welcome when it was first announced. The first few singles were packed full of the band’s usual tricks but then “If You Met Her” arrived and decimated everything. A hard-hitting look at how the loss of someone you know can affect your own perception of what it means to die, “If You Met Her” immediately registered as not just Palehound’s darkest effort but the project’s best as well.
It’s a gripping, grounded meditation on life itself and it’s delivered with such empathetic understanding that it’s nearly impossible to listen to the song in full without running through an avalanche of feeling. Anything that inspires that level of emotional response and visceral reaction is worth noting — and in the case of “If You Met Her”, it’s more than worth celebrating.
Young Jesus – Feeling
A longtime staple of this site’s coverage, Young Jesus have continuously found exciting ways to evolve as a band in the face of a slew of obstacles that leave lesser bands stumbling. From nearly complete lineup shifts to a refocused experimentation to a relocation that took them from the upper Midwest to the West Coast. The band’s latest effort saw a quick self-release suddenly disappear only to be re-released shortly after by Saddle Creek.
All it takes to understand why such a revered label would take on the band is one listen to “Feeling”, a sprawling 10-minute opus which beautifully showcases the band’s remarkable range, guitarist/vocalist John Rossiter‘s penchant for blending memorable poetry with unforgettable melody, and a growing fearlessness. It’s a heart-stopping moment on what remains one of 2017’s most woefully overlooked records and reaffirms Young Jesus’ place as one of today’s best bands.
The Magic Lantern – Holding Hands
Easily one of 2017’s outright loveliest moments, The Magic Lantern‘s “Holding Hands” casts a spellbinding magic all its own within its opening figures, as a yearning vocal is laid on a bed of gentle saxophone figurines. As the notes and vocals hold — with as much purpose as the imagined goal of the narration, no less — the song winds up with enough power from two core elements to elicit chills.
When the body of “Holding Hands” takes shape as the drums kick in, providing yet another one of 2017’s most perfectly-realized moments, it becomes abundantly clear that something miraculous is happening on the track. By the time it all winds to a ghostly close, “Holding Hands” has left a mark that deserves to be called upon fondly in the days to come. In all of it’s warmth and care, “Holding Hands” pushes forward from a simple greatness and achieves something far closer to transcendence.
SONG OF THE YEAR:
Mount Eerie – Real Death
When Mount Eerie‘s “Real Death” first arrived, it was set to get a standalone feature. That post never arrived as I personally struggled with the decision to attempt to bring any sort of discourse to something so nakedly personal, which held true for A Crow Looked At Me (the record it’s from) as well. As time passed, that decision lingered, though it became increasingly difficult to listen to both the song and the record, famously written about the death of the songwriter’s wife and recorded in the studio she’d built in their house, on the instruments she left behind.
Even without being able to listen to the song, the memory of the song stayed as strongly as the feelings that accompanied the first listen (as well as the subsequent ones). It’s the sound of Phil Elverum tearing his own wounded heart out of his body to present to the world so that they can understand what kind of grief accompanies something so tragically world-shifting.
While every moment of “Real Death” is shattering, the weight of it becomes nearly unbearable when Elverum shifts the lyrics from oblique poetry to a hyper-specific narrative, recounting one moment of singular heartbreak that arrived with a package that has late wife had secretly ordered for their daughter. In that retelling, Elverum envisions his wife, living with the knowledge that her wife would be ending, thinking ahead and wanting to provide comfort for the people she loved.
Not only does that specific moment touch upon why Geneviève was someone he loved so fiercely but, in doing so, provides the song’s listeners a glimpse into her character as well. It effectively shifts the tonality of the record even further toward heartbreak by painting such an intimate portrait, making “Real Death” come across as even more unmistakably, painfully human. It’s a tribute to an artist that so many of us wish we knew and stands as a stark reminder to cherish the ones we do know while we can and to strive to match their gifts with our own.
By positing real-life implications alongside meaningful execution, “Real Death” became something much larger than the sum of its parts. In plumbing the depths of personal loss, Elverum’s Mount Eerie projected gifted us something hard to experience and impossible to forget. With any luck, it will steer us towards more effectively demonstrating our love when it can be appreciated by the people for which it’s intended.
The Best of the Rest
Middle Children – Baby Boom
Joyce Manor – NBTSA
Thurst – Forever Poser
The New Years – Recent History
Monomyth – Puppet Creek
Hermetic – Strategic Default
Protomartyr – A Private Understanding
Alexander F – Call Me Pretty
Pile – Dogs
Vagabon – Cold Apartment
Cloud Nothings – Internal World
Prom Queen – Blonde
Holiday Ghosts – Can’t Bear To Be Boring
Washer – Dog Go Bark
Grouper – Children
Slaughter Beach, Dog – Fish Fry
Fits – Ice Cream On A Nice Day
Meat Wave – Run You Out
The Spirit of the Beehive – Ricky (Caught Me Tryin’)
Walter Etc. – April 41st
Chemtrails – Deranged
Juila Louise – Brat
See Through Dresses – Lucy’s Arm
Amy O – Lavender Night
Modern Baseball – This Song Is Gonna Buy Brendan Lukens A New Pair of Socks
Girlpool – It Gets More Blue
The Total Bettys – Stay Here All Night
Tica Douglas – Same Thing
Midnight Reruns – Warm Days
WHY? – Proactive Evolution
Hand Habits – Sun Beholds Me
Long Neck – Mine/Yours
Julien Baker – Appointments
Anna Burch – Asking 4 A Friend
Palm – Walkie Talkie
Single Mothers – People Are Pets
Lydia Loveless – Desire
Deem Spencer – Soap
Two Inch Astronaut – Play To No One
Blessed – Headache
Diet Cig – Maid of the Mist
Madeline Kenney – Big One
Dream Wife – Somebody
Bethlehem Steel – Finger It Out
Strange Ranger – House Show
Miya Folick – Trouble Adjusting
Jesca Hoop – Pegasi
Fiji-13 – Mansplain It To Me BB
Idle Bloom – Dust
Florist – What I Wanted To Hold
Beachheads – It Feels Alright
Fruit & Flowers – Out of Touch
Ratboys – The Record
Schlotman – Holy Basil
Lost Balloons – Numb
John Rossiter – Mom Guitar
Lomelda – Interstate Vision
Walter Martin (ft. Matt Berninger) – Hey Matt
Jay Som – The Bus Song
Japanese Breakfast – The Body Is A Blade
Screaming Females – Glass House
Phoebe Bridgers – Smoke Signals
Open Mike Eagle (ft. Sammus) – Hymnal
Half Waif – Frost Burn
Petite League – Pocketknife
Say Sue Me – Bad Habit
Petal – 15
Waxahatchee – Silver
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires
Siobhan Wilson – Whatever Helps
Sammi Lanzetta – Circles
Deep State – Nothing Speaking
Saintseneca – Moon Barks at the Dog
Lithuania – 5000 Year Leap
Easily — and consistently — the producers of some of the most gorgeous Watch This clips in the series’ history, Buzzsessions hits a new high-water mark with this clip for Hazel English‘s “Fix”. Hazel English has become a staple on this site thanks to the project’s ability to churn out spellbinding pop that combines dream-like atmospherics with aesthetics from several compelling sub-genres to create something utterly winsome. To top off that formula, this is a committed performance propelled even further by breathtaking cinematography; Watch This at its best.
2. Jay Som – The Bus Song (Audiotree)
One of last year’s biggest breakout success stories, Jay Som‘s continued to transform that newfound notoriety into something meaningful. Jay Som recently got to be part of an Audiotree concert series and some enthralling footage of “The Bus Song” has gone public. The band’s in good spirits, there’s an adoring audience, bandleader Melina Duterte is commanding, and everything clicks in just the way a great performance should; this is masterful from all angles.
3. Surf Curse (Jam in the Van)
It’s been a while since a Jam in the Van session has been featured on Watch This but its also been a while since the series has boasted a session this fun. Surf Curse effortlessly blend together elements of surf-pop, basement punk, post-punk, and powerpop to conjure up the type of bright, sunny sound that’s difficult to dislike. Each of these three songs also boast their own brand of weirdness, giving a compelling slant to an aesthetic that’s both familiar and welcome.
4. Fred Thomas – Echolocation (BreakThruRadio)
Changer, Fred Thomas‘ most recent full-length, stands in good shape to be firmly among 2017’s best records as the year winds to a close. Easily the songwriter’s finest effort to date, the record also features some of the songwriter’s most ambitious work. “Echolocation” is one of those more ambitious pieces and Thomas brings it to the BreakThruRadio studios for a gripping performance that showcases his talent for both ability and minimalist composition. Melancholic, haunting, and human, it’s a powerful look at one of today’s greatest songwriters.
5. The Owens – Judgment Day (Allston Pudding)
Capping off the 160th installment of this series is another characteristically strong Basement Session, courtesy of Allston Pudding, by way of The Owens’ aggressively tense and intriguingly gloomy “Judgment Day”. The band’s been kicking around for several years but they’ve never sounded tighter or more in control than they do on their latest, Redemption Day, and that confident precision seems to have bled into their live show as well. Both a perfect document of a band coming into their own and a strong showcase for both Allston Pudding and The Owens, this is the type of clip worth remembering.
Just about three full months into 2017 and there have been a litany of great records. In that massively overcrowded field, there were still several records — full-lengths, compilations, EP’s, or otherwise — that managed to stand out. Below are 10 of the most gripping releases to have emerged in 2017’s first quarter, each making an impression that was felt, intensely, for one reason or another. Read about some of those reasons below and listen to each record in the selected embed (just make sure they’re all at the beginning of the record when you hit play). Enjoy.
MO TROPER – GOLD
Last year, Mo Troper put out a proper solo debut full-length, Beloved, which was one of five to receive this site’s Album of the Year designation. In February, Troper unleashed a new collection of songs that’d been written over the past several years and further solidified a status as one of this generation’s premier powerpop songwriters. Not a note’s out of place, the atmospherics serve the song, the melodies are earworms that last for days, and there’s an abundance of feeling driving another outstanding collection.
JOHN ROSSITER – NEVERENDING CATALOG OF TOTAL GARBAGE HEARTBREAK AGGREGATE
Young Jesus‘ name has appeared on this site several times over and John Rossiter‘s been a valuable contributor to the A Year’s Worth of Memories series. Last year, small batches of collections were being released under the Young Jesus name before being pulled because they weren’t full band efforts; all of those songs were Rossiter solo efforts. Thankfully, they recently re-emerged in a gorgeous compilation that ably, compellingly, and movingly demonstrates Rossiter’s formidable songwriting talents.
YUCKY DUSTER – DUSTER’S LAMENT
Easily one of the best releases of 2017’s first three months came in the form of an EP from Yucky Duster, a basement pop band that, seemingly impossibly, keeps finding ways to improve on each successive release. Duster’s Lament is the band’s finest work yet and continues drawing them even closer to attaining outright perfection. All five of the songs the band has on display here manage to be simultaneously carefree and incredibly memorable, entwining two aesthetics that are too frequently at odds. It’s masterful.
FRED THOMAS – CHANGER
A very early Album of the Year candidate, Fred Thomas‘ Changer saw the acclaimed songwriter continuing to elevate his craft in astonishing fashion. Easily Thomas’ sharpest lyrical effort to date, there’s also an urgency to these songs that push them forward with sincerity, feeling, and an irrepressible need to get these statements out into the world. Musically, it’s Thomas’ most ambitious work to date by a considerable stretch and, overall, a triumph bearing a magnitude and scope that’s impossible to ignore.
CLOUD NOTHINGS – LIFE WITHOUT SOUND
Cloud Nothings‘ discography, up to this point, has been littered with superlative releases. When a band achieves that kind of consistency, it’s fair to have high expectations for their new releases. Still, Life Without Sound, the band’s latest, manages to transcend its anticipation and wind up as not only the band’s most ambitious and inventive release but, somehow, its most representative as well. All of the bands eras are fused together here to create a spellbinding work that’s proven to be difficult to forget.
MEAT WAVE – THE INCESSANT
There are a handful of concept records that are widely regarded as some of the greatest releases of all time, despite some hamfisted tendencies. Meat Wave‘s The Incessant side-steps both the trappings of concept records and their characteristically overbearing nature by releasing a collection of acutely pointed missives dealing with one specific topic: the swirling vortex of incoming emotions after a life-altering event. The result is a record that serves as the band’s most abrasive, ambitious, and intense effort to date.
BEACHHEADS – BEACHHEADS
Upon learning at least one member of Kvelertak was in Beachheads, the band’s debut full-length came as a joyous-yet-jarring left turn. Trafficking in sunny powerpop that takes most of its cues from the genres forebears, Beachheads wound up being a deeply unexpected delight. Every song on Beachheads boasts sublime moments and evokes the sort of open-road-and-sunshine aesthetic that’s been so vital to the genres most enduring classics. Beachheads give that aesthetic a slightly modern spin and wind up with a summery gem.
MIDDLE CHILDREN – EARTH ANGEL
Patrick Jennings has been directly responsible for a lot of the music that’s hit me the hardest over the past seven years so news of a solo project was very welcome. Unsurprisingly, given Jennings’ track record (and what he’d accomplished with both Hot New Mexicans and PURPLE 7), Earth Angel is an incredible work. One of the best records likely to be released in 2017, Earth Angel is a quiet, brilliant, and unassuming encapsulation of what’s made Jennings such an essential (if woefully overlooked) voice in today’s music landscape.
STEF CHURA – MESSES
Ever since 2010’s self-titled effort, Stef Chura has been steadily improving, perfecting a strand of punk-tinged basement pop that’s immensely appealing. Messes, Stef Chura’s latest, is the most perfect distillation of this brand of music the act’s offered up yet, thanks in part to the contributions of Fred Thomas (who, as this list indicates, is on a white-hot streak of great releases). Still, Thomas’ contributions wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the source material wasn’t so involving. Messes is the sound of an artist coming into their own and, as a result, the work present on the record winds up being antithetical to the record’s title.
RICK RUDE – MAKE MINE TUESDAY
One of the most intriguing releases of 2017’s earliest stretch came in the form of Rick Rude‘s sprawling, shape-shifting Make Mine Tuesday. Easily the band’s boldest — and best — release in a very strong discography that was uniformly unafraid to take risks, Make Mine Tuesday succeeds as both a masterclass in forward-thinking composition and as a record with immense replay value; these are intricate songs that never seem to get old or become any less engaging. A scintillating mixture of wiry post-punk and basement pop, Make Mine Tuesday finds Rick Rude reaching unprecedented heights. One can’t help but wonder, especially after a release like this one, if they’ll ever return to earth.
Heartbreaking Bravery recently went offline but all facets of the site are back to being fully operational. Apologies for any inconveniences. All posts that were slated to run during that brief hiatus will appear with this note.
As you may have noticed, every single entry into this year’s edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories (this one included) either ran or is running with the disclaimer up top. At the start of the year, Heartbreaking Bravery was effectively forced into a hiatus to work out technical complications that occurred due to what essentially amounted to a correspondence glitch. All sorts of things went haywire and reconnecting all the wires was a surprisingly difficult task. A number of things got lost in the shuffle.
For a brief time, I thought about ending the site permanently but reading back through the material that was still left on the table — as well as some of the material that was posted in the past — dissuaded me from calling it quits. These pieces needed to be published and it felt important, maybe even necessary, to continue this site.
While the timing may have rendered the 2016 installment of A Year’s Worth of Memories a little less timely than I would have liked, the pieces themselves largely transcended the time capsule-style trappings typically attributed to these types of works. Many touched on lessons that seemed timeless. All of them made me question what I’d eventually choose to write about it and how I’d present it whenever I did choose. The piece I wrote last year was outrageously long and I didn’t want to go through something that exhausting again.
Eventually, I decided the best route would be to combine some of the common traits laid out by the 2016 series: splitting the piece into four pieces, focusing on personal triumphs while making room for gnawing anxieties, visual interludes, and paying tribute to the people and events that are worth celebrating. All that and more can be read below.
SMALL FESTS & SHOWS
2016 was the year of small festivals; I’d always preferred them to the spectacle-laden retreats that seem to dominate the news cycles every year. Many of these small-scale events I’d been trying to see for years and 2016 just wound up being kind enough to allow me access to events like FRZN Fest, Wicker Park Fest, and Eaux Claires, among others. Unsurprisingly, each held its own share of memorable frustrations and scintillating highlights. In no particular moment, here are some of the standout moments.
Chicago was atypically warm for last year’s annual Music Frozen Dancing, which saw Muuy Biien, Meat Wave, The Spits, and the Black Lips playing outdoors to a packed crowd outside of the Empty Bottle. While all of the bands were good and the Black Lips, as they always do, managed to invoke the high school memories of discovering and participating in that genre of music, nothing could’ve topped Meat Wave unveiling “Glass Teeth” from what would eventually become their next record.
Ragged and sick, the band tore into the new material with the kind of excitement reserved for new material. It was a standout moment of a day that refused to end (my friend Josh and I wound up taking three different forms of public transit after the trains stopped running) after an off-the-books Heavy Times show wrapped in the early hours of the morning. It was a surreal moment and allowed for an extended view of Chicago at night. Exhausted, content, and desperate to get back to our sleeping quarters, it was a difficult night to forget.
Months later, I’d return for the unreasonably stacked Wicker Park Fest, excited to see a long list of friends and more than a few bands that had been on my bucket list. The weather had different plans. Not only did getting turned around on the way to the fest’s first day wind up forcing me to walk a few extra miles before being saved by a generous taxi driver who offered me a free ride after the first rain of the weekend started descending, more than half of the bands I’d intended to see got cancelled because of storms on both days.
Nearly as soon as I got through the gates, I was already rushing to take shelter with a bunch of other festivalgoers who had effectively sequestered themselves in Reckless Records, which would eventually lose power and offer up a faint glow with candles set up in various parts of the store People browsed records, reading materials, and gathered by the wind to watch the storm lift tents out of the ground and send them ricocheting down Paulina St. There was an odd magic to it all.
There were bright musical spots in the midst of all of that chaos, though, including an unbelievably explosive Jeff Rosenstock set that saw the songwriter leaping over the barricade gap, guitar still attached, to crowdsurf at the end of an abbreviated set. The whirlwind nature of Rosenstock’s performance, which came after the storm delays and restrictions were lifted, felt like an appropriate maelstrom of energy; a whirlwind performance driven by some unknowable force.
Five or six songs in length, it’d wind up being the highlight of the festival. Somewhere nearby, one of the trains on the blue line wound up getting blown off the rails by the intense winds and caused festival organizers to proceed with extra caution on the second day, which was hit with an even worse run of weather.
I spent much of that day with Sasha Geffen — the fist young music journalist I can remember truly admiring — who was with me when I was forming the initial idea for A Year’s Worth of Memories and was a vital part of its finalization. We took in great, sunny sets from Bad Bad Hats and Diet Cig before the storm reappeared and spent a lot of time in a powerless Emporium Arcade. During that run — which forced cancellations of both Pile and PUP — I was also fortunate enough to meet A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor David Anthony.
The last memorable moment of that festival caught me paralyzed in between two stages, with Ought ripping into “More Than Any Other Day” on one side and Alvvay‘s launching into “Archie, Marry Me” on the other. I took in both, unable to choose between two of the best songs of the past ten years before rushing over to Ought, who had their industrial sensibilities enhanced by their backdrop, trains running along the blue line in the background while being cloaked in a calm, post-storm glow. It was a perfect way to cap a very chaotic festival.
Three more small festivals had their fair share of spectacular moments as well: Bon Iver debuting an entire record at Eaux Claires, sending chills down my spine for the entirety of “715 – CR∑∑KS” while crickets audibly chirped on the forest perimeter, their sound elevated by the reverential silence of a crowd of thousands. Tickle Torture playing shortly after that set and delivering a slew of the festival’s best moments, including a finale that saw bandleader Elliot Kozel (formerly of Sleeping in the Aviary) getting completely naked while screaming “MY LOVE!” at the top of his lungs. That day starting at the gates, listening to the sounds of an expanded Tenement lineup blowing away a festival crowd and spending that day in the presence of some of my favorite people, including A Year’s Worth of Memories contributors Nina Corcoran (who I wrote about for my piece last year) and Sam Clark (who has played in more than one band with me).
Turkey Fest’s final day had a stellar lineup boasting four great acts: Wood Chickens, Trampoline Team, The Hussy, and Nobunny, with the latter two delivering incredible sets full of ridiculous high-energy antics. FRZN Fest had more than a few moments that wound up being burned into my memory. None more frustrating than an infuriatingly chatty crowd refusing to give Julien Baker anything beyond a modicum of courtesy. None more exciting than a characteristically perfect Charly Bliss set that had me continuously grinning while singing along to songs that comprised the best EP of this current decade and will litter one of 2017’s best records.
As much as I love both Julien Baker and Charly Bliss, though, there was something about Torres‘ set that felt almost holy. Playing after a good Eternal Summers set and the best Palehound set I’ve seen to date, Torres dove headfirst into a set that alternately gave me chills, lifted my spirits, calmed me, and — almost inexplicably — at one point had me on the verge of tears. To top it all off, Torres’ goosebump-inducing one-song encore wound up being tantamount to a religious experience that included a lovely moment between bandleader Mackenzie Scott and my friend Justin. I was fortunate enough to capture that moment in full and revisit it frequently.
For individual shows, there were a number of great outings that were peppered with heartening moments lingering around the peripheries of the main event. Walking into the High Noon Saloon to be greeted with an onslaught of hugs from my friends in Yowler, Eskimeaux, and Frankie Cosmos, only to be whisked away for a coffee reprieve in a nearby shop by Gabby, Greta, and A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor Athylia Paremski, before circling back to a powerhouse show. Charly Bliss and PUP combining for what was, bar none, the most intense show I’ve ever experienced (at one point I was nearly choked out by a girl clutching the neckline of my shirt to keep herself upright in the swirling sea of chaos behind me).
As meaningful as both of those shows were, though, it would have been impossible for anyone to top an event that occurred early on in December: the official reunion of Good Grief, a band that meant an extraordinary amount to me that was nearly gone forever, taking place in Guu’s, the tavern that’s acted as a refuge for me during my various stints in my home town. People from the shows that dominated my fondest Stevens Point memories from that run all flooded in from various parts of the upper Midwest to see this take place and everyone lost their voices screaming along. Making things even sweeter: an opening set from Heavy Looks, led in part by my friend Rosalind Greiert, watching her hit a stride as both a writer and performer, and feeling an irrepressible rush of a million good feelings as I watched her come into her own in real time.
To see something like that happening (both the Heavy Looks set and the Good Grief set), surrounded by friends so close they’re considered family, engaging in something meaningful is an exhilarating feeling and a lot of people who were present are likely still feeling some of those feelings reverberations. Good Grief weren’t exactly a household name before their dissolution but they were — and remain — one of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Get caught up by watching the videos from that reunion set right here:
In 2016, I had the good fortune of playing the most shows in any given year that I probably ever have in my life. In addition to finishing writing a (forthcoming) solo record, I was able to play in three different bands with people I respect, admire, and care for deeply.
The band I played with the least was the band that I’d played with the most in 2015, A Blue Harbor. Geographic complications have essentially forced us into a hiatus by the middle of the year but we were still able to play a few shows in support of the full-length we’d recorded in Minneapolis in 2015, including a local show for a pop-up art gallery for an arts collective that made me feel a surge of hope for our small town. As unlikely as it seems at this point, something tells me the things this band has to offer have been far from exhausted (and our guitarist/vocalist, Matty, has been releasing a continuous string of excellent material on her own).
I accepted an invitation to join a new band called Doorstopper and have taken up residency behind the kit. Jarad Olson, the bassist for both Good Grief and Heavy Looks as well as an incredible songwriter in his own right, had teamed up with our friend Melissa Haack to allow her poetry a musical platform in an odd experiment that’s been paying the type of dividends that I’m legitimately not sure any of us had expected. It’s become a band whose mantra has remained — and with good reason — “let’s get weird.” It’s a band that has been given the tag “premenstrual post-punk” and it’s the type of band that takes a suggestion for a “doom-wop” song seriously. And it’s a band that hasn’t stopped getting better and more interesting with each successive practice.
While Doorstopper has been occupying itself in the shadows, building something interesting, I also found myself being re-integrated into a resurgent Holly & the Nice Lions, who played all over the state of Wisconsin in 2016, with a host of fascinating bands. Some of those bands (Bad Wig, Midnight Reruns) were made up of the people we’ve been close friends with for years. Some of those bands (Young Jesus, POPE, Mo Troper) constitute the best emerging bands America has to offer.
One of those bands (Bully) has earned international acclaim. One of those bands (The Muffs) continues to be rightfully revered as not only icons but living legends. Through all of those shows, the weird parties surrounding them, and everything else that the minutiae of being in band carries, we’ve grown closer as a unit and I’m proud to consider both of the other members as family. Whether we were being towed to a house show after blowing a tire or playing hard enough to generate our own blood, we’ve found ways to continuously elevate each other, keep each other in check, and look out for each other. Show after show, song after song, the band kept getting better and we — impossibly — kept enjoying each other’s company more. It’s hard to imagine a better situation.
For all of the memorable things I was able to do in both film and music throughout 2016, by the year’s end none of it felt as meaningful as it would have if I didn’t get to share it with my partner, Simone. Throughout the last quarter of the year, we went from being good friends to being inseparable, willfully colliding at nearly every turn. I learned to rediscover the depths of my love for discovering new music by viewing it through her eyes. I rediscovered the importance of engaging in active good. I made up my mind to constantly strive to better myself in productive ways.
A series of shared trips to the various corners of the state of Wisconsin led to some genuinely unforgettable moments, whether it was carving out new, unbeaten paths in gorgeous parks on beautiful days or getting swept up in the (typically far too humid) intensity of shows in basements, dive bars, or anywhere else we might find people playing instruments (or picking up instruments of our own to play each other Bishop Allensongs). I’ll steal her glasses, she’ll steal my camera. We’ll laugh, we’ll listen, we’ll watch, and we’ll keep moving forward.
The survival of Heartbreaking Bravery can, in many ways, be directly attributed to her involvement in my life. All of the frustrating, terrifying events that have happened over the course of the year’s last stretch seemed easier to weather with her at my side and she’s constantly given me at least one major reason to celebrate the future. I’m thankful, grateful, and unbelievably lucky.
A STEP FORWARD
By the end of 2016, Heartbreaking Bravery had gained additional purpose. In the face of one of the most anti-arts (and anti-press) administrations in America’s history, the need to fight back by any means necessary increased. Even before the election, the fact that the current president’s campaign had carried him so far was troublesome. With a milestone rapidly approaching for the site, that happening at the forefront of the nation’s political landscape (and, more directly, America’s landscape), and an unending desire to be productive and actively contribute to good causes, I chose to resolve all of my feelings into one massive project: A Step Forward.
At first, I only expected a handful of people to be interested in contributing to the project. More than half of the artists I reached out to responded immediately and gifted the compilation, designed to serve as Heartbreaking Bravery’s 1000th post, incredible material. In a matter of weeks, I had more than 50 songs kicking around in my inbox. A few months later, my finger was lingering above the publish button, set to release 100 songs from 100 artists that had, in some way or another, been involved with this site’s history. By that point, I’d enlisted the help of Jes Skolnik to locate worthy causes and had struck up a correspondence with the Chicag0-based Rape Victim Advocates. All of the money made from the pay-your-own pricetag of A Step Forward would be going towards that organization.
Looking through all of the songs, whether they were demos, early mixes, new songs, remixes, or old favorites, and all of the artists who had chosen to give me a part of their lives because they believed in the things I was doing and the causes I was supporting was an overwhelming feeling. A lot of people that have had near-death experiences have described the sensation of seeing their life flash before their eyes and, in that moment with my finger hovering over the button to release this compilation, it was hard not to take stock of everything that had happened in my life over the course of this site’s existence. It was a jarring feeling but one that filled me with hope and with love for the people who have supported this place, stuck by my side, and lent their voice to any of the various projects to have run on Heartbreaking Bravery.
I was on the verge of tears when I woke up to the flood of responses the compilation had elicited and how much it had generated for people who put the funds to good use. I’d stayed up for nearly 50 straight hours getting the preparations for the project in place. Cody Dyb, one of my closest friends, was kind enough to let me use his internet to upload the materials (the internet at my house is obscenely slow) and I’d collapsed into a deep sleep shortly after returning home. Phil McAndrew, one of my favorite artists working today (and a regular contributor to this series), contributed an original piece to the project that has become one of my most-treasured renderings.
In the weeks leading up to A Step Forward‘s released, I’d done an ink sketch of what would become Heartbreaking Bravery’s logo. Petite League’s Lorenzo Cook — another Syracuse-based artist whose band contributed an incredible song to the compilation — meticulously tightened and superimposed the logo onto the image for the album art and the banner that can be seen at the top of this segment. I’m unbelievably grateful for both of their contributions and am lucky to count them both as friends. I also have to give special mention, once more, to Fred Thomas.
For more than a few years, I’ve considered Thomas to be one of the best lyricists in music (2017’s Changer finds him attaining stratospheric highs). When I reached out to him about the project and he suggested a song tackling the weird inter-scene dynamics that occur around someone being outed as a sexual predator, I wasn’t just flattered, I was flattened. That the ensuing work would be one of his strangest — partially inspired by S U R V I V E’s outstanding Stranger Things score work and a nice (if unintentional) nod to that particular act’s name — felt appropriate. “What Happens When the Costumes Come Off” is a song that perfectly embodied the tumultuous events that led to the formation of A Step Forward in my mind and has resonated with me ever since my first, oddly disorienting listen. There’s fear present in that song, there’s an incessant questioning, there’s a feeling of damage, but — most importantly — there is a feeling of resilience.
It’s that final feeling, resilience, that I’ve chosen to carry into 2017. With what America’s currently facing, resilience will be necessary. I’ve already been inspired by my friends’ resilience and generosity and I’ve vowed to carry on that spirit as best as possible. I’ve vowed to both make more room for and to elevate the voices of the groups who have been unfairly othered due to location, socioeconomic standing, or — infuriatingly — appearance, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Historically, the people that have followed this site have shared a similar mindset and I’m constantly humbled by their company. We’re all in this fight together and it’s important to listen to the fears, concerns, and desires of the people that have been denied a platform for the worst reasons all too frequently.
The shows and festivals made 2016, in turns, fascinating, frustrating, and genuinely exciting. The people I was fortunate enough to be playing some of those shows provided 2016 a level of comfort. My partner not only served as a constant source of inspiration but continuously reminded me of the good in the world and all of the reasons that hope should never be abandoned. A Step Forward taught me that I’ll never be alone in my belief that empathy, camaraderie, and compassion will always find a way to thrive and that now, more than ever, it’s important to carry on the work, the ideology, and the spirit of Heartbreaking Bravery. I will do my best to personally embody whatever legacy it may have at every single turn and I will always be honored by the company it’s allowed me to share. 2017 may seem bleak from the outset but I have every reason to find heart in the fight to ensure it’s better than what we expect.
Following suit with the two previous examples, the best songs of 2016 list will abandon the traditional numerical format in favor of a more open approach that concentrates on the best material of the year without offering too many individual designations. The majority of the songs featured on this list were under-represented on lists by far more visible publications (and a few that were fairly represented are listed below the main list as honorable mentions) and fall under the genres normally covered by this site. Of course, this list — just like any other — can’t claim to be truly representative but it does offer a decent encapsulation of 2016 releases that deserved to be celebrated.
An additional note: most of the embeds come from bandcamp, so songs will auto-play after the initial listen. This was intentional to ease the access to the records that can claim these songs and to more directly benefit the artists that brought them into the world.
Enjoy the list.
Mo Troper – Happy Birthday
One of the strongest debut records of last year was Mo Troper‘s Beloved, an entirely unexpected but wholly welcome powerpop masterpiece. While just about every song on Beloved was considered for this list, it seemed appropriate to go with “Happy Birthday” which set the tone for a fearsome record that deserved far more recognition.
Doe – Sincere
Some Things Last Longer Than Youwas a blistering statement from Doe, a band that had been steadily gaining momentum for years. It was a perfectly structured record that allowed its songs an equal amount of weight but “Sincere” still managed to emerge as a standout single. Fiery and full of conviction, it was one of 2016’s best moments.
– Told Slant – Low Hymnal
“Low Hymnal” was a song that I was fortunate enough to hear forming in its earliest stages but the finished product still managed to wind up as a transcendental experience. There’s genuine pain at the root of Told Slant‘s “Low Hymnal” that lends to the overwhelming weight of the song’s unforgettable final stanza. A gorgeous and moving masterwork.
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
In the title track for their career best, Human Performance, Parquet Courts hit an exhilarating new high point. “Human Performance” is a tightly-coiled and deeply felt examination of the human condition that finds the band stretching in new directions with a fearlessness that makes the song as gripping as it is immediate.
Yucky Duster – Gofer
A pitch-perfect pop song, Yucky Duster‘s “Gofer” became one of 2016’s most unexpected summer anthems. It’s a pure delight at every perfectly-navigated hairpin turn, serving up some of the most meticulously constructed guitar pop in recent memory. A perfect blend of style and substance, “Gofer” is a triumph from a band worth watching.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)
While Pretty Years saw Cymbals Eat Guitars continue to evolve their sound, no moment of the record was more jaw-dropping than the towering “Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)“. An eye-opening display of formidable strength and untapped ferocity, the song saw the band perfecting just about every facet of their already-impressive songwriting.
LVL UP – Spirit Was
“Pain” and “Hidden Driver” got a fair amount of attention from year-end lists but the most representative moment of LVL UP‘s Return To Love was the bittersweet “Spirit Was“, which also ranks as one of the band’s best. Vocalist/bassist Nick Corbo provided Return To Love its beating heart and “Spirit Was” marked the moment it completely opened.
Big Thief – Real Love
It takes a certain type of boldness to title a record Masterpiece but when that record features songs like “Real Love“, that title just seems apt. In some moments “Real Love” is breezy and open, while others finds Big Thief baring their fangs. Throw in one of the most effective guitar solos of the past few years and “Real Love” quietly emerges as a new classic.
Jawbreaker Reunion – Cosmos
Before hanging up their cables, Jawbreaker Reunion were kind enough to deliver one last album in haha and then what 😉, which lived up to the bands sterling track record. The best moment of a great record came via “Cosmos“, a gorgeous ballad examining serious topics that quickly transforms into a forceful reckoning. In short: it’s perfect.
Car Seat Headrest – The Ballad of the Costa Concordia
Likely the most celebrated record appearing on this list, Car Seat Headrest‘s Teens of Denial‘s most breathtaking moment was largely ignored by other outlets. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is a sprawling meditation on hopelessness that somehow finds a way to seamlessly work in a brief, heartrending cover of Dido’s “White Flag”. A genuine achievement.
Fred Thomas – Brickwall
Fred Thomas is making and releasing music at a relatively relentless rate, which is a trait that typically produces a lot of filler material. Thomas somehow keeps getting better, something that’s clearly evident in “Brickwall“, a characteristically acerbic slice-of-life send-up that highlights Changer, which will go down as one of 2017’s finest.
Cloud Nothings – Modern Act
Rarely does a band come across as progressive while revisiting their earlier sounds, yet “Modern Act” finds a way to fuse progression with refinement in its revisitations. A brilliant hybrid of virtually every stage of the band’s career “Modern Act” is both a victory lap and an engrossing look at Cloud Nothings‘ increasingly promising future.
Slothrust – Horseshoe Crab
“Crockpot” was the kind of unforgettable song that could make a band’s career, that Slothrust has surpassed those dazzling heights so quickly is a staggering accomplishment. “Horseshoe Crab” is the kind of track that can stop people in their tracks. It’s a spellbinding song from a band unafraid to rip the bleeding heart out of their own chest.
Catbus – Fracas
A standalone release — and lone track — from a band that features Phyllis Ophelia and members of Patio, Catbus‘ “Fracas” is a riveting hybrid of post-punk and basement pop. The verses ensnare the listeners attention before the chorus blooms and casts an unbreakable spell. Exceedingly lovely and perfectly crafted, “Fracas” is an absolute gem.
John K. Samson – Virtute At Rest
No song in 2016 carried more emotional resonance than John K. Samson‘s devastating final chapter to the Virtute trilogy. Plaintive, painfully intimate, and tinged with a deeply damaged sense of hope, the song finds Virtute’s owner resurrecting the neglected cat to beg for forgiveness. Harrowing and unforgettable, “Virtute At Rest” was a knockout blow.
SONG OF THE YEAR
Jay Som – I Think You’re Alright
There’s a grace and elegance that’s identifiable even through the light damage that Jay Som applies to “I Think You’re Alright” that brings Sparklehorse to mind. Now, direct comparisons on this site are few and far between — especially in the case of such notable luminaries — but it’s next to impossible not to hear the ghost of Mark Linkous lovingly haunting every last second of “I Think You’re Alright”.
Melina Duterte, the mastermind behind the Jay Som project, has listed Sparklehorse as a major influence and the two share a kindred, empathetic spirit- something that shows in the delicate tenderness of “I Think You’re Alright” and maintains its convictions throughout the rest of Jay Som’s discography. While that discography is an enviable one, “I Think You’re Alright” remains its crown jewel, thanks to not only the song’s sublime instrumentation but a narrative that plays perfectly into the song’s soft lyricism.
All at once, uplifting and resigned, “I Think You’re Alright” occupies a fascinating space. There’s a lot going on in “I Think You’re Alright”, from the subdued atmosphere to the way that instrumentation interacts in its final quarter. When it’s playing, though, none of that’s taken into account as “I Think You’re Alright” has the ability to envelop the listener in a very specific feeling, rendering it a unique (and uniquely moving) listen. Not just one of the finest of this year but of the past decade.