Graham Hunt‘s name should be a familiar one to anyone in the upper Midwest who pays attention to the region’s scrappy basement pop scene. Midnight Reruns, Midwives, and Sundial Mottos all benefited from Hunt’s involvement and the totality of that output, in addition to a smattering of solo material, helped the songwriter secure a spot in Mike Krol‘s most recent touring band. Every year seems to bring a handful of releases with Hunt’s name on them and whether they’ve been standalone singles or full records, the results have been uniformly exceptional.
“Change Their Mind”, Hunt’s most recent track, stands in select company as one of the finest. Utilizing a strong production team (including Hunt’s old Midwives bandmate Sahan Jayisuriya, whose beat-making project Cold Lunch is well worth a look) and an arsenal of decisive hooks, Hunt embraces the thoughtfulness that’s characterized much of the songwriter’s past material and the slacker vibes of ’90s alt-pop. Imagine something of a cross between the composition nuance LEN’s infectious “Steal My Sunshine”, the oddly immediate, laissez faire outlook of Beck’s “Loser”, and the type of well-worn melodies that dominated Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha, and that should offer an inkling of what kind of terrain Hunt’s occupying here.
Surprisingly grounded for having so much of a wild streak, “Change Their Mind” isn’t just one of the best offerings of Hunt’s career, it’s one of the more engaging tracks to be released over the past seven months. A decidedly minor-key triumph, “Change Their Mind” belongs on as many mix tapes as possible. Immediate and immediately thrilling, the song’s a freeing reminder of how much the slacker pop genre still has to offer.
Listen to “Change Their Mind” below and download it for a price of your choosing here.
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
In the weeks that followed this site’s recap of the great records to be released in the first quarter of 2017, a handful more found release. Many of these selections received a heavy amount of deserved acclaim throughout the course of their introductions and a few slipped by, largely unnoticed. All of them are outstanding. All of them are worth multiple listens. All of them can (and should) be accessed below. Enjoy!
Anyone keeping regular tabs on this site will be fully aware that only a few days ago a list of around 500 great songs from the first quarter was just published, which means the songs featured in this list* are genuinely extraordinary. Ranging from highlights of records that are already receiving glowing reviews (Pile, Midnight Reruns) to the lead-off single of what’s undoubtedly the Heartbreaking Bravery pick for the year’s most anticipated record (Charly Bliss), these 15 tracks constitute the very best of the early best. Old favorites and new faces are both featured and everything’s more than worth a whole slew of listens, so jump in and start swimming.
*Any of the songs that were previously featured in the Quarter 1 Best Of roundups for music videos and records were deemed ineligible for this list, in an effort to spread the attention as much as possible.
Charly Bliss – Glitter
Anyone who has paid even an iota of attention to this site and its coverage selection over the past several years should be aware of Charly Bliss. Following what stands so far as the best EP of the current decade, an introductory full-length should seem like a daunting challenge. “Glitter” decimates any of the doubt that none of us should have ever harbored in the first place. A pitch-perfect burst of spiked bubblegum punk, it’s a characteristically enthralling look at what’s bound to be one of the year’s best records.
Chemtrails – Deranged
A relatively fresh band to this site’s featured selections, Chemtrails‘ “Deranged” is the exact type of song that seems determined to force a change in that regard. Swooping down from the heavens, “Deranged” is an exhilarating run through snotty, synth-driven basement pop that comes teeming with an energy that’s unmistakably, ferociously punk. An effortless, summery anthem, “Deranged” sticks with the listener thanks to its deceptive intelligence and unavoidable hooks.
The Spirit of the Beehive – Ricky (Caught Me Tryin’)
Was there any hook in 2017’s first quarter as ridiculously addictive and inescapable as the one at the center of “Ricky (Caught Me Tryin’)”? The amount of times the melody accompanying the title of this song personally floated through my head over the first few months of this year is nothing short of staggering. Fortunately, the rest of the song is as brilliant as that central hook, ably demonstrating the considerable allure that nearly every song to come out of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s discography boasts.
Deep State – No Idea Pt. II
An explosion of basement punk given only the slightest powerpop sheen, Deep State’s “No Idea Pt. II” recklessly kicks and careens with abandon. Pure energy congeals with concise, tightly-wound songwriting for a display of formidable power that’s hard to forget. Short, scrappy, and overflowing with conviction, “No Idea Pt. II” is more than enough reason to get incredibly excited for whatever Deep State’s future holds in store.
Petite League – Pulling Teeth
Last year, Petite League were kind enough to gift this site with “Magic Johnson” for the A Step Forward compilation and that track’s been on near-constant repeat ever since that moment. “Magic Johnson was an affirmation of something that’d already grown apparent: every new Petite League release is worth your attention. “Pulling Teeth”, their latest, serves as both reaffirmation and as statement. This is a band that’s hell-bent on improving with each consecutive release and they have the tenacity and the intelligence to make sure that goal’s accomplished.
Froth – Passing Thing
Most of Froth‘s most gripping efforts in the past have been hazy affairs imbued with gentle atmospheric aesthetics so the opening moments of “Passing Thing” don’t come as much of a surprise. What follows is a different story. After erupting into a cavalcade of noise that paradoxically both invites and discards a sense of tension “Passing Thing” leans in hard on the band’s shoegaze influences for an unexpectedly urgent reminder of the kind of forcefulness that’s always been evident just below Froth’s typically relaxed surface.
The New Year – Recent History
“Recent History”, the first music to be released from The New Year in nearly a decade, sounds more masterfully composed than most locked-in bands who are hitting their stride can manage. It helps, of course, that the members can be rightfully considered pioneers thanks to their astounding contributions to music both pre- and post-Bedhead. Still, “Recent History” is as quietly invigorating as slowly unwinding post-punk numbers come and The New Year infuse it with a hard-fought career’s worth of feeling.
Hand Habits – Sun Beholds Me
Hand Habits have made a name for themselves crafting sweeping, elegiac folk-tinged numbers over the years. The band has a uniformly strong discography but it’s hard to remember a track over that time as pure and lovely as the six-minute “Sun Beholds Me”. Haunting atmospherics and a pensive vocal melody find the perfect marriage to achieve a near-spiritual transcendence and leave Hand Habits with a striking career high that’s as gentle as it is memorable. An absolute triumph in every way.
Modern Baseball – This Song’s Gonna Buy Brendan Lukens A New Pair of Socks
Few bands can offer up a career re-positioning as fascinating as the one Modern Baseball have accomplished over the past few years. Originally heralded as the potential saviors of both emo and pop-punk, the band’s steadily shifted towards something that tips far closer to Guided By Voices and Built to Spill than The Promise Ring. “This Song’s Gonna Buy Brendan Lukens A New Pair of Socks” is the most recent example and includes scintillating guitar work while retaining some of the tongue-in-cheek snark and humility that endeared the band to its early fans. Impressive is an understatement.
Grim Streaker – Guts
Another furiously-paced burst of aggressive basement punk with a few basement pop trappings, Grim Streaker’s “Guts” is the kind of song that makes people sit up and take notice. For a little under two and a half minutes, Grim Streaker just throws one haymaker after the other, from the frantic synth work to the energetic, deeply-felt vocals. “Guts” is, unquestionably, a knockout punch. Should Grim Streaker keep this kind of pace up, we’ll all be hearing their name more frequently in the coming years.
Dream Wife – Somebody
Many times when musicians opt for the overtly political route — whether it be protest songs or self-congratulatory statements — it comes off as trite and frequently overbearing. Which is why when these topics are treated with nuance instead of being reduced to a bland bottom line, the effect tends to be greater. Case in point: Dream Wife’s “Somebody”, which features both the simplistic (but deeply meaningful) rallying cry of “I am not my body/I am somebody” and verses that articulate that point in clever ways. Dream Wife understand the effects of prose better than most and, as a result, they’ve wound up with what will likely be one of the strongest sociopolitical tracks of 2017.
Caddywhompus – Waiting Room
While Decent and Splinter were among some of the stronger tracks of the past several months, it was “Waiting Room” that stood out as Caddywhompus‘ finest effort. All three are sterling tracks, undoubtedly, but the inventiveness present in each of the many movements populating “Waiting Room” give it the slightest of edges, a fact that bodes very well for the band’s forthcoming Odd Hours. As dynamic and fascinating as ever, Caddywhompus seems poised to unveil not only a career high but one of the year’s finest records.
Pile – Dogs
Leaning On A Wheel and Texas showed that Pile, one of the most singular acts in today’s visible musical landscape, hadn’t lost an ounce of whatever unholy magic they’d poured into their earlier releases. “Dogs”, on the other hand, hinted towards something even larger. To be sure, A Hairshirt of Purposedid not disappoint. Still, “Dogs” remained an unquestionable highlight; sprawling, orchestral, and fearless, it’s another perfect example of the type of craft, conviction, and fearlessness that have transformed Pile into the unlikeliest of icons.
Tica Douglas – The Same Thing
One of the emerging solo acts that’s earned a handful of feature spots on this site over the past few years is Tica Douglas, whose restlessness continuously informs their music. “The Same Thing”, Douglas’ latest, somehow feels like a different animal entirely. A sweeping anthem that comes chock-full of the doubt, introspection, and exacting, unsparing self-analysis that have permeated throughout Douglas’ earlier works but “The Same Thing” somehow feels even more resolved and at peace than those earlier numbers. From quiet open to the wildly explosive burst to set off the track’s final 90 seconds, wire-to-wire, this is Douglas’ best work to date.
Midnight Reruns – Warm Days
Both Hold Up the Mirror and Scorpion were strong indicators that Midnight Reruns‘ Spectator Sportswould inevitably wind up being another great record from a band with a near-spotless track record. While, unsurprisingly, that’s been fully revealed to be the case, it’s the record’s final track — not one of the advance singles — that makes the strongest impression. “Warm Days” is one of Midnight Reruns’ most representative tracks to date, from the dueling twin leads to the perfectly placed harmonies to the intensive understanding of their songwriting strengths, the song’s as much of a declaration of power as it is a victory lap. Listen to it below and watch a video of them playing the song live last year in Green Bay, WI.
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.
After a whirlwind catch-up session saw around 80 new posts go up in the past month, this site’s falling back into old habits. Namely, the preservation of implementing some sort of mixtape for every at every 50-post interval. With summer officially kicking off next week, it felt appropriate to create a mix in anticipation of the increasingly warm weather. Somehow, Heartbreaking Bravery’s now also 900 posts into its existence and some sort of commentary felt fitting as well. To that end, the 25 songs selected below are mostly tracks that have been featured — in some way or another — on this site throughout the course of those 900 posts (including Audacity’s “Hole in the Sky”, which was the the focal point of Heartbreaking Bravery’s first post).
A lot of the songs in Staring Down the Sun are songs that have carried me through previous summers, propelling me forward or comforting me with warmth and familiarity. It’s those two traits, warmth and familiarity, that are underlined most emphatically on this mix as they’re two of the season’s most consistently definitive draws. As such, Staring Down the Sun is a mix that’s heavily populated by friends, old and new, to sustain the kind of camaraderie that’s so often reinvigorated by sense of contentment and desire for exploration that frequently accompanies the season.
Open the windows, call up some friends, start a band, stoke the embers of the fire in the backyard, enjoy the scenery, travel to a new city, go swimming, or do whatever it takes to enjoy the shifting weather. Whatever the option, there’s now a soundtrack to accompany those moments available for the taking. Grab it and go.
Staring Down the Sun‘s tracklist can be found below the embed. Underneath the tracklist are hyperlinks to the preceding 100 posts. Enjoy.
1. Used Kids – Midwest Midsummer 2. PUP – DVP 3. Audacity – Hole in the Sky 4. Patsy’s Rats – Rock N’ Roll Friend 5. Goodnight Loving – Dead Fish On the Banks 6. PURPLE 7 – Wise Up 7. The Marked Men – Fix My Brain 8. Screaming Females – Wishing Well 9. Good Grief – Cold Compress 10. Jay Som – I Think You’re Alright 11. Icarus Himself – Digging Holes 12. Bent Shapes – New Starts In Old Dominion 13. Jawbreaker Reunion – Friends Theme Song 14. Midnight Reruns – King of Pop 15. Dogs On Acid – Make It Easy 16. Sleeping in the Aviary – Love Song 17. Swearin’ – Hundreds and Thousands 18. Sweet John Bloom – Aging In Place 19. Meat Wave – Cosmic Zoo 20. Mo Troper – Princess 21. Mike Krol – Left Out (Attn: SoCal Garage Rockers) 22. Royal Headache – High 23. Weaves – One More 24. Tenement – Near You 25. Swim Team – Teenage Brain
Ever since Seratones‘ run at last year’s CMJ, the band’s been slowly escalating nearly every facet of their already-formidable presentation. Boasting one of the most awe-inspiring vocalists currently on the circuit, the band delivers a commanding performance here for Audiotree. Grabbing onto something won’t save you from being flattened.
2. Car Seat Headrest – Fill In The Blank + Vincent (WXPN)
Teens of Denial still confidently stands as one of 2016’s finest records, a fact that will inevitably be reflected by several sources come December, and thanks to the band’s live show it’s still gaining traction. The band tore through “Fill In The Blank” and “Vincent”, the record’s opening two tracks, for WXPN. It’s a masterful run that shows Car Seat Headrest have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.
3. Courtney Barnett (Strombo Sessions)
Courtney Barnett may very well hold the record for the most Watch This series appearances at this point. An endlessly gifted — and obscenely likable — performer, Barnett’s hyper-intelligent songwriting is allowed to thrive in the live setting. All of those qualities can become even more pronounced in her endearing solo performances, which is squarely the case with this beautiful set that comes courtesy of Strombo Sessions.
4. Midnight Reruns – Richie the Hammer (Set List)
Last year, Midnight Reruns‘ brilliant Force of Nurture made a very strong showing in this site’s year-end rankings and a large reason for that placement was guitarist/vocalist (and principal songwriter) Graham Hunt’s growth as a lyricist. The record’s most surprising moment may very well have been the emotional devastation contained in “Richie the Hammer”, which the band recently performed for WPR’s excellent Set List series.
5. Weaves (NPR)
After several years of stellar performances and continuous evolution, Weaves have managed to create quite a few converts. “Shithole“, a fiery moment of reinvention, kicked off a run of songs that currently comprise the most formidable stretch of the band’s still-blossoming career. The band takes on a trio of those selections for one of the most galvanizing Tiny Desk sessions in recent memory. It’s downright electric.
Two Watch This posts will run tonight, bringing the series back up to the current release cycle. After more than 100 entries and several long-form packages, Watch Thishas only managed to expand in both scope and range. The underlying principle remains steadfast: this is a project to celebrate the very best in live performance video, one of the most under-recognized and under-appreciated multimedia art forms in the music and film world. An intense amount of craft is required to make a live video memorable (or, failing that craft, a formidable level of personality) and some of the people who are brave enough to make entries turn in unforgettable work.
Below are 25 great performances from 25 artists who are worth exploring. Whether it’s PUP tearing through the strongest opening 1-2 punch any record’s boasted this year, Courtney Barnett putting her heart into a gentle solo rendition of “Depreston“, Midnight Reruns unveiling a new song, or Small Houses putting a warm spin on a Weakerthans classic, there are a lot of moments to appreciate embedded into this compilation. Old favorites and emerging acts found themselves posited as the centerpiece(s) of artful documentation and this installment of Watch This is a presentation of those documents. So, as always, turn up the volume, calm down, lean in, and Watch This.
1. Summer Cannibals – Go Home (KEXP) 2. Sunflower Bean – Easier Said (The Current) 3. Meat Wave – Delusion Moon (Ratio Beerworks) 4. Small Houses – Watermark (Onder Ivloed) 5. PUP – If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will + DVP (Stiegl) 6. Bird Laww – In My Sleep (Public Radio /\) 7. The Black Angels – Better Off Alone (Jam in the Van) 8. Mise En Scene – Show Me You’re Real (BreakThruRadio) 9. Wolf Solent – Countless Minds (Sea Records) 10. Courtney Barnett – Depreston (The Current) 11. The Coathangers – Make It Right (Paste) 12. Midnight Reruns – Warm Days (Set List) 13. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw + Doroth (The Daily Indie) 14. Katie Von Schleicher (Jenn Harrington) 15. Emily Yacina – Soft Stuff (This Has Got To Stop) 16. Bob Mould – Voices In My Head (Sound Opinions) 17. Palehound – Healthier Folk (Radio K) 18. Hemming – All I Want (Weathervane) 19. Odio Paris – En Junio (BalconyTV) 20. Mike Krol – Neighborhood Watch (Radio K) 21. Journalism – Watching & Waiting (BreakThruRadio) 22. David Bazan – Oblivion (Little Elephant) 23. Murder By Death – Shiola (Paste) 24. Lucy Dacus – Green Eyes, Red Face (BreakThruRadio) 25. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Clean Slate (3RRR)
Before diving into the particulars of the forthcoming lists, it’s worth addressing the distinction made in the headline. Each of the categories that received a list in 2015 (music videos, songs, EP’s, albums, odds and ends) will be expanded upon in this post. However, there are still two forthcoming film lists but each of those will include the honorable mentions along with the featured rankings. An obscene amount of great material came out over the 12 months that comprised the past year so any attempts to cover everything would be futile. If anyone’s exhausted the below lists, a more comprehensive version can be found by exploring the following tags: stream, full stream, EP stream, and music video. Explore some of the top tier picks that didn’t make it onto the year-end lists via the tags below.
2015, close to unanimously, was concerned to be one of the highest points for new music in recent memory. To that end, putting together this list was even more of a nightmarish task than narrowing the 2015 songs down to their 15 slots. There was even a brief moment where expanding this list to 50 slots seemed like a viable action. Ultimately, after literally hundreds of substitutions in the various positions (and countless exclusions and extractions), the formula remained intact. While it was painful to leave an extremely large handful of extraordinary records lingering just outside the perimeter, the 15 records below have earned their spots. Every single one of these has remained in near-constant rotation since the time of their release and will likely resonant well into 2016 and beyond. Dive on in below and reflect on the overwhelming strength of the past 12 months.
15. Meat Wave – Delusion Moon
One of a select few bands to play an instrumental part in the formative stages of this site’s focus (and one of the acts to play the first Heartbreaking Bravery showcase), Meat Wave came through in a big way in 2015. The trio released one of the year’s best oddities, signed to SideOneDummy, and unleashed a behemoth of an album in Delusion Moon. Billed as their first proper full-length (their vicious self-titled, limited-run cassette straddled the line between EP and full-length), Delusion Moon saw the band exploring their darker tendencies to great success. More fully exploring influences like Mission of Burma and Drive Like Jehu, the band acted as a nice counterpoint to the usual brand of ’90s revival and got some kicks in along the way.
14. PWR BTTM – Ugly Cherries
No band’s live show was documented more exhaustively here over 2015 than PWR BTTM, who perfected a simplistic approach with enormous- and enormously successful- ideas. The duo (who is occasionally a trio) set their sights on exploring gender and personal identity and followed through with a startlingly brazen tenacity. Close to every song on Ugly Cherries, their extraordinary full-length debut, play out like the kind of anthems that 2015 desperately needed. For a record that’s quick to be gleefully tongue-in-cheek, Ugly Cherries also offers up some devastating personal moments, lending the band an emotional depth that makes their outsize spirit even more powerful.
13. Midnight Reruns – Force of Nurture
Force of Nurture, Midnight Reruns‘ astonishing sophomore effort, has one of the best A-sides I’ve ever heard. Not to discredit an extremely strong B-side, either, but the run the band puts together from “There’s An Animal Upstairs” to “Sky Blue Water” is just about flawless. All six of those songs were considered for this year’s list of the best songs of 2015 along with the record’s sprawling closer, “Great Southern Rail”, which boasts one of the year’s more jaw-dropping choruses. Bolstered by the involvement of one of the band’s earliest and most vocal supporters- The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, who produced the record- Midnight Reruns turned in their finest collection of songs to date.
12. Hop Along – Painted Shut
A statement that bears repeating: one of the most heartening aspects of 2015 was watching the deserved ascension of Hop Along, who have been cranking out exquisite material on an exceptionally high platform for several years. Driven by the distinctive, arresting voice of guitarist/vocalist Frances Quinlan and their own unique sensibilities, Hop Along crafted the strongest record of their discography. With new partner Saddle Creek firmly in their corner, the band came to vibrant life and stayed on form, delivering a set of knockout tracks that included “Waitress”, one of this year’s finest. A welcome breath of fresh air, Painted Shut marked the beginning of an exciting new era for one of today’s best bands.
11. Royal Headache – High
Even as all the news of High being Royal Headache’s finest record (thankfully) receded, the power of their finest offering to date didn’t diminish. Following a brilliant debut, the band may have actually surpassed that record’s promise with their sophomore effort. Highlighted by songs like the towering, defiant title track and the surging “Another World“, High is a genre masterclass of the highest order. Buoyed by an infectious energy that’s constantly verging on manic, there’s never a moment during the record that doesn’t feel like it’s nearing a state of euphoria. When High is firing on all cylinders, as is the case for the vast majority of the record, the band’s as close to being virtually untouchable as is possibly imaginable.
10. Young Jesus – Grow/Decompose
Home, Young Jesus‘ breakout record and a candidate for album of the decade, set extraordinarily high expectations for whatever the band chose as its following release. Crafting a worthy follow-up seemed even more unlikely after the band moved out of Chicago and over to Los Angeles, reassembling their lineup in the process. By that token, Grow/Decomposeisn’t just a deeply impressive record, it’s a miraculous one. Guitarist/vocalist John Rossiter sharpens his singular songwriting voice and leads his new outfit with a fiery determination. An immensely satisfying collection of songs, Grow/Decompose feels like a genuine album; structured and paced to near perfection, Grow/Decompose is a reinvigorating- and reinvigorated- frenzy.
9. Dogs On Acid – Dogs On Acid
Dogs On Acid, a band formed out of the ashes of much beloved acts Snowing and Algernon Cadwallader, expanded on one of the best 7″ releases of 2014 with one of the strongest full-length debuts in recent memory. Laced with knockout hooks at just about every turn, Dogs On Acid is a staggering show of power from a band that finds surprising ways to exceed its predecessors. Maximizing their pop sensibilities to astonishing effect, Dogs On Acid inject their first major effort with an insistent, propulsive energy that catapults each of its 10 tracks to unthinkable heights, keeping their punk roots in place along the way. Every song on Dogs On Acid is a genuine highlight, yet the whole affair still manages to come across as so much more than a collection of singles. Bold and brash, this is the kind of record that may never fall out of regular rotation.
8. Tenement – Predatory Headlights
For close to 10 years, I’ve provided near-incessant documentation of Tenement, chronicling their forward motion with increasing intensity as the years progressed. When Heartbreaking Bravery was initially designed, it was constructed with the intention of highlighting bands that weren’t being granted the press that they deserved. In 2015, the world at large finally started catching on to a band that’s meant more to the development of my personal interests in music than any other (I didn’t include their Bruised Musiccompilation in the oddities list because I contributed a lengthy piece to the record’s insert that expands on that fact). Predatory Headlights, the trio’s latest opus, was a definitive collection of the band’s current era, unafraid of demolishing genre barriers and bold experimentation. Over its intimidating 28 tracks, the album steadily emerges as a genuine- and singular- masterpiece.
7. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
For Julien Baker‘s breathtaking breakout record, the young songwriter (previously best known as one of the driving forces behind Forrister) dived fearlessly into a despairing examination of her own psyche. A preoccupation with mortality that was heavily informed by the laws of religion dominates nearly every song on this surprisingly brave collection. From the description of the car wreck in the opener’s first verse all the way through to the passage in “Go On”- Sprained Ankle‘s mesmerizing closing track and one of 2015’s finest songs– about consuming bleach, there’s barely a moment of reprieve. Built almost exclusively around Baker’s voice and acoustic guitar, Sprained Ankle feels progressively more personal as it goes along, each song functioning as a plea, a warning, and a sustained moment of clarity. Tragic and beautiful, Baker’s conjured up a collection of deeply personal songs that feel genuinely sacred.
6. All Dogs – Kicking Every Day
Ever since their earliest releases, All Dogs have been steadily crafting great material and building momentum. Kicking Every Day, the band’s startlingly defiant full-length debut, continues that pattern with an astounding amount of grace. Even with their lineup at full strength following the addition of guitarist Nick Harris (which is paying massive dividends), guitarist/vocalist Maryn Jones’ songs feel more naked than ever, imbuing Kicking Every Day with a voyeuristic look at its principal songwriter’s inner turmoil and unflinching resolve. After the anticipation levels for this record came close to hitting a fever pitch with the release of “That Kind of Girl” (which ranked highly on the songs of the year list), the prospect of a record as extravagantly strong as Kicking Every Day didn’t seem so distant. The record ultimately surpassed those expectations thanks to both the instant acclaim it so richly deserved and its ability to strike all the right chords.
5. Sweet John Bloom – Weird Prayer
Losing Four Eyes, a band that put out one of the best 7″ records of this decade, was a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately, that band found a natural successor in Sweet John Bloom. Continuing to revel in the same brand of endearingly scrappy basement pop and pulling members from a few other outstanding bands, Sweet John Bloom managed to make a mark. Weird Prayer, their first fully fledged full-length, reveals impressive new depths to the band. Employing a rotating cast of songwriters, the record gives ample space to flesh out each one’s distinct personality. From lovely slow-burning tracks like “Bury Ruby” to incendiary highlights like “Tell Me”, Weird Prayer is an enviable showcase that, bizarrely, seems like a victory lap for its various members. There’s a memorable moment or three on each of these 15 tracks, most of which find intriguing dichotomies to exploit over the course of their brief running times. Littered with surprising moments at close to every corner, it’s one of 2015’s most exhilarating releases.
4. Dilly Dally – Sore
Back in 2014, Dilly Dally unleashed a pair of 7″ records that nearly walked away with the top spot in this site’s rankings. In 2015 they followed up their flawless early run with a brilliant standalone single and a bruising full-length teeming with vicious grunge-informed, punk-leaning basement pop numbers. Grimly determined and scuzzy as hell, Sore lands with the force of an atomic bomb. There was a reason that no band earned as many feature pieces on this site over the course of 2014 than Dilly Dally and, even stripped of the brilliant singles that earned those spots, Sore would have registered as a knockout. While the record’s many searing highlights (“Desire“, “Purple Rage“, “The Touch“, etc.) gave the record its fangs, its elegiac closer provided it with both an unexpected emotional depth and a staggering moment of finality (both of which went a long way in securing its ranking as one of 2015’s finest tracks). While Dilly Dally just about stoleCMJ and released a small army of outstanding music videos, Sore was their definitive 2015 moment. It’s the kind of record that inspires kids to go out and start bands of their own, making it one of the most powerful releases in recent memory.
3. Mike Krol – Turkey
The sudden resurgence of the (unfortunately) still-deceased Sleeping in the Aviary was an extremely unexpected and welcome development. While they did release an extraordinary demos and rarities collection, the band’s best moment came when the majority of its lineup wound up backing Mike Krol for his latest venture. No record in 2015 felt even close to as unhinged as Turkey, Krol’s first effort for Merge and most deranged outing to date. With a runtime that doesn’t even scratch 19 minutes, Krol and the band he’s assembled run through nine songs at a pace so frantic it’s practically delirious. Every single moment of Turkey is informed by a surging level of energy that it seems like the record might derail itself at any given moment, toppling over because of its own excessive velocity. Miraculously, it manages to sustain that momentum through nine songs of rabid basement pop that draws inspiration from a variety of genres from the past handful of decades, zeroing in on things like ’50s pop and classic soul. Everything on Turkey also benefits from being shot through with Krol’s deadpan comedic sensibility, tongue planted firmly in cheek. By the time the record’s penultimate track hits- the absolutely massive “Less Than Together“- the record’s momentum is white hot. “Piano Shit” winds things down at the very end and allows the listener to review the demolished left in Turkey‘s wake as it coasts to the finish.
2. Nicole Dollanganger – Natural Born Losers
One of the happier coincidences this site got to experience in 2015 was the realization that the glowing review of Nicole Dollanganger‘s breathtaking Natural Born Loserswas its 666th post. An appropriate fact, given the record’s deep obsession with angels, devils, and the spiritual realm. In its opening lines (“I shot an angel with my father’s rifle”), Natural Born Losers flaunts its aim with a threatening gracefulness, ready to turn on a dime at any moment. Dollanganger’s narratives throughout the course of the record are startling exercises in hyper-violence and dueling desires. Whether it’s a BDSM-informed romp as lensed through an experience with an abusive police officer or an extremely disarming sample taken from the animated 1993 cult classic The Halloween Tree, Dollanganger’s either making fresh incisions or pulling gaping wounds even further apart. However, for being so deeply unsettling in its prose, the music that accompanies all of Dollanganger’s nightmarish imagery is as elegant and haunting as her vocals. A lot of Natural Born Losers hinges on exploring some of the weightiest dichotomies in existence and the degree of success to which it achieves in striking fascinating middle grounds in those battles is revelatory. Even more impressive is the fashion in which Dollanganger binds this collection of songs together, especially considering how effectively the record’s haunting line defines (or redefines) everything that’s happened since its steely-eyed opening moment. Put simply: Natural Born Losers is a modern masterpiece.
1. Eskimeaux – O.K.
Eskimeaux‘s O.K.managed to impress on first listen but it wasn’t until seeing the band live that all of its pieces fell more fully into place. That show inspired a return visit to this collection which, in turn, brought about a subsequent revisit (and then that pattern fell into a routine that still hasn’t ceased). On each successive listen, more of O.K. sprang to life. Gabrielle Smith’s project has been making material that’s been more than worthwhile for a large handful of years now but O.K., the project’s most fully-realized outing, saw Smith step across a threshold and into something sublime. A meticulously crafted record, every last one of its countless gears clicks in ways that surprise and delight in equal measure, rewarding heavy investment with a casual ease and providing O.K. with one of its cleverest tricks. In maintaining their casual sensibilities, the record becomes an enjoyable cursory listen but that casualness is surprisingly deceptive.
O.K.‘s a very complex record when it’s dissected into its formative pieces, whether they’re the gorgeous vocal layers that comprise one of the record’s most gorgeous moments on “A Hug Too Long” or Felix Walworth’s explosively idiosyncratic snare work on “Folly“, each finding a way to stand out as an impressive moment in both the small schemes of the songs and the grand sweep of the album. From a lyrical standpoint, Smith packs this record full with bittersweet realizations, internal frustrations, and slivers of a defiant sense of hope that’s steadfast in its refusal to bow to a harsher reality. Even the record’s darkest moment- the brooding “Pocket Full of Posies”, which nearly unseated “A Hug Too Long” in the songs list- subtly acknowledges the inherent innocence of things that are frequently viewed as evil. Even then, O.K.‘s worldview is far from simply being optimistic, it’s far too weary to assume that the best mode of operation is to look for the best in everything; its earned its sophisticated wariness.
What makes O.K. truly stand out, though, is its overwhelming amount of empathy for everything that’s fortunate enough to have worked its way into the record. Easily one of the most readily apparent humanist statements that music yielded this year (which is especially easy to see when the record’s put under a microscope), O.K. draws its strength from its sense of value. It’s a view that resonates throughout the record’s 11 brilliantly crafted songs, providing them with a deeper sense of purpose than most bands can manage. Additionally, all of the inspired decisions that comprise O.K. are augmented by some of the most extraordinary production work of the past several years, stealthily enhancing the cumulative effect of the songs. An awe-inspiring breakthrough for one of today’s most promising acts, O.K. is the kind of record that’s worth preserving for future generations. Find someone deserving to share this with and give in to its inescapable beauty.