Heartbreaking Bravery

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The Best Songs of October (2019)

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.

The Best Songs of Q3 (2019)

Between June and August, an avalanche of great songs came crashing down into the world. From genuine song of the year contenders (Big Thief‘s “Not” chief among them) to bands striking gold multiple times (Lauran Hibberd, Pom Pom Squad, Kal Marks) there was a lot to consume. Here’s a playlist of the best of best, presented with no extra fanfare. All of these selections are bold enough to stand on their own.

Campfires – I’ll Go Home (Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

For the past few years, Fire Talk has been building a reputation as one of the most consistently excellent labels in post-punk and beyond, headlined by artists like Deeper, Patio, and Dehd. On occasion, the label will branch out to more Americana-leaning territory and grab up an artist that fits their vision. Campfires was one of those acquisitions and the project more than proves their worth with the jangly, rollicking “I’ll Go Home”. Mid-fi production and a lot of treble bite shine through on the track, which recalls Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever at their scrappiest. Finding extra life in a hungover bonfire haze, “I’ll Go Home” is a relatively quiet but pointed delight, signaling great things to come from Campfires. Keep an eye on this one.

Listen to “I’ll Go Home” below and pre-order Fare Trax from Fire Talk here.

Cool Original – I Never Said I Didn’t Care (Album Review, Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

Nathan Tucker’s Cool Original project, through all its permutations, has earned quite a bit of love from this site. Nothing the project’s accomplished so far matches the scope of what’s achieved on I Never Said I Didn’t Care, a towering testament to personal and artistic growth. A little sludge, a lot of pop, and a fair share of basement punk coalesce into something that’s gripping from the outset and progressively more engaging as the record’s values become clear.

Towering in a peculiarly unassuming way, I Never Said I Didn’t Care finds Tucker and company cranking up the volume and confronting some harsh truths head on with a clear-eyed resolve (the “we don’t want the same things” realization in “Offended” is equal parts heartbreaking and emboldening). While the thematic through-line doesn’t shy away from complication, the composition that sustains I Never Said I Didn’t Care is some of the project’s most fierce and direct.

As the record progresses, Cool Original embrace a ramshackle existence and then blow it to smithereens in favor of something more subtle and rewarding: self-acceptance. In this case, that self is one keenly aware of hangups and has a penchant for larger-than-life distortion-heavy anthems that pay tribute to resilience. Inspired and inspiring, I Never Said I Didn’t Care makes its title abundantly clear in just about every way: this is a record that cares, deeply, about everything- and the record’s all the better for indulging in that trait. A high water mark for one of today’s most consistently excellent projects. Don’t let the year end without grabbing a copy.

Listen to I Never Said I Didn’t Care below and pick it up here.

Shutups – Every Day I’m Less Zen (Album Review, Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

Shutups have consistently impressed over the years, slowly expanding their audience from one show to the next. Even with some strong efforts to their name, it’d be hard to predict the extent of the artistic jump the band takes for their most recent full-length, Every Day I’m Less Zen. Everything on this record clicks, working in tandem with even the most minuscule detail to produce an incredibly inspired end result. From the crackling, gloriousy blown-out production to the thematic consistency to the pacing, this is a complete — and completely realized — work.

“that’s a long time to be on fire” starts things off at a blind sprint and the band never really looks back from that point, barreling forward with a reckless disregard for whatever’s in their path. As energized as it is energizing, this is basement punk of the highest order. Whenever the band does scale back a little, their pop sensibilities shine through and give Every Day I’m Less Zen an addictive gleam that ensures repeat listens. Surprisingly thoughtful in its ruminations on a very specific sliver of young adulthood and its various drawbacks and rewards, this is a borderline definitive record for a certain type of person.

While Every Day I’m Less Zen makes its bones on no-holds-barred aggression, Shutups manage to sprinkle in a few surprises that keep the affair from being an exercise in exhaustion. Whether it’s the glitch-pop of the intro to “Telephone” or the synth-laden haze of “Holiday Punch”, Shutups keep thriving by adding new, wrinkled layers to an enticing core. By the time the mind-scrambling closer “I Wanna Crash Cars” rolls around, Shutups have provided an entire world to get lost inside, to revisit, to fall in love with, and to leave behind. An extraordinary work from a duo worth knowing, Every Day I’m Less Zen stands firmly as one of the stronger basement punk records not just the year but the present decade. Take a deep breath, make the click-play plunge, and get swept up in its nuanced chaos.

Listen to Every Day I’m Less Zen below.

Strange Ranger – Message To You (Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

One of the many privileges of being a music listener is latching onto a band that never stops improving as they evolve. Thus far, Strange Ranger fits that bill to a tee. “Message to You”, the band’s latest track, is a smoky, bruised ballad teeming with urgency and regret. Flickering away under a proto-industrial backbeat, “Message to You” floats along, driven by some understated synth work and a melancholic piano figure. A gorgeous bass line that turns menacing in the song’s latter half ensure “Message to You” is a legitimate standout, not just for the band but for 2019. Easily Strange Ranger’s most fascinating composition to date, the song also heralds their arrival as an act that’s made the jump from being a promising band to being a capital-A Artist. An astonishing work.

Listen to “Message To You” below and pre-order Remembering The Rocket from Tiny Engines here.

Richard Spitzer – Russia Collusion (Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

Richard Spitzer’s “Synthesizer” was an utterly winsome track that’s held serve as one of 2019’s finest bits of folk-leaning music. The songwriter’s returned with the blackly comic “Russia Collusion” that takes the comparisons Spitzer earned to worthy contemporary songwriters and delves further, reaching back to shared influences like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and anyone else who wasn’t afraid to add left-field comic surrealism to their satire.

At first, Spitzer plays it straight, ostensibly falling into the trap that turns so much protest music so unbearably kitschy so quickly. Trump gets name-checked, “Russia Collusion” is used as a constant hook, and the tone seems sincere. The charade wavers in the first verse as Spitzer contrasts the mundanity of everyday existence to the constant distraction offered by political commentary and today’s clusterfuck of a landscape. The second verse finds Spitzer getting a little more serious and the straight-man schtick gains a little bit of life, while a bouncy melody keeps things from falling into an undying trope.

…And then the side-splitting final verse hits. I fully lost it at the song’s final reveal, which features spoken-word declarations of “Racism!”, “Wealth Inequality”, and “poverty” to play against the repeated insistence of “Russia Collusion”, which all leads up to a final societal tragedy that had me in literal tears, which I will not spoil here. In all, Spitzer’s proving to be a singular talent whose arriving at a time when things this brash, thoughtful, and unexpectedly lovely are both necessary and deeply appreciated. Don’t miss out on this one and keep an eye on Spitzer, who’s now responsible for two of the year’s strongest and most unassuming folk-adjacent oddities.

Listen to “Russia Collusion” below and keep an eye on this site for further updates on Spitzer’s upcoming self-titled record, which is due out July 19.

 

Lofi Legs – Lifesucker (Stream)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of several that were scheduled to go live several months ago but never went through. Rather than let these posts die an undignified death, they appear today in their original, unaltered forms. 

“Lifesucker” starts off in a way that mirrors countless indie pop songs that have come before it and undoubtedly will continue to start after the song’s release. There’s nothing wrong or overly consequential with adhering to a loved formula but, in this case, the familiarity acts as a rug- and that rug gets pulled before too long. A clever guitar riff and an interlocking bass line dance with each other, while a shuffling snare pushes the song’s momentum forward. Some bells add a splash of color and before long, the indie pop sensibility gets morphed into post-punk. And then the chorus hits.

A gloriously unexpected, woozy, towering, psych-inflected burst of kaleidoscopic melody all but consumes “Lifesucker”, breathing further strength into both its verse sections and the song as a whole. Surprisingly thrilling, that screwball section takes a strong track and turns it into something that’s not just great but something that’s memorable. Perfect for summer and fully equipped to hold up on many, many repeat visits “Lifesucker” is a miraculous track that’ll hopefully carve out some more recognition for Lofi Legs, who are flexing the kind of ambition that leads to longevity.

Listen to “Lifesucker” below and download it here.

Young Guv – Roll With Me + Every Flower I See (Stream)

For years, Young Guv has been experiencing a steady uptick in public recognition. Like so many other artists that get covered here it’s not necessarily due to something like touring harder or being more prolific in terms of releases (in addition to that music both competing and benefiting from existing in the shadow of a wide umbrella), it’s more a matter of an audience catching up to the quality of an artist’s music All that said, the Ben Cook — who also plays guitar in Fucked Up — project’s also quietly improved over its run, an aspect that’s readily apparent on Young Guv’s most recent offerings: “Roll With Me” and “Every Flower I See”.

One feels like a spiritual brother to Rolling Blackouts C.F, the other, Mike Krol. Both come stamped with Cook’s signature vocal tic, which manages the difficult trick of sounding simultaneously weary and completely energized. Both tracks are easy to fall in love with, exuding the kind of charm that characterized acts like Archers of Loaf and Superchunk in their early breakout moments. Every second, no matter which way the genre influences lean, proves winsome, and Cook further solidifies his place among today’s emerging songwriters. “Roll With Me” and “Every Flower I See” both offer up an early look at Cook’s forthcoming Guv I, which could be mentioned on this site come December if the rest of its anywhere close to this good. Don’t miss this one.

Listen to “Roll With Me” and “Every Flower I See” below and pre-order Guv I from Run For Cover here.

Graham Hunt – Change Their Mind (Stream)

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.