Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
The selections below span sounds and genres, from folk to metal, noir-rap to African traditional, dashed rock prefixes from post- to punk-. They also span approaches, from ornate productions to DIY bedroom records that sound tossed off (but probably took a lot of work to get there). I’ve done enough of these sorts of lists to know you’re supposed to seek some grand unifying theory in the intro, but I’m pretty sure that’s a fool’s errand. These fifteen records come from the same state, but share little else in common. Oh, except greatness.
Disclaimer: EPs is a pretty outdated term in the digital era. Most of these artists just referred to these as albums, and who am I to say different? But it felt I should somehow separate three-track releases from thirteen-track releases, and “The Best Short/Long Albums of 2019” is terrible for SEO. So until someone comes up with a better term, “EPs” it is (defined as six tracks or less and under 30 minutes).
Bear’s Tapestry – Wind and Water
In their impressively assured debut, Americana quartet Bear’s Tapestry channel Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers (or sometimes just one Avett Brother, in case of leader Bear Borges’s solo finale “Death’s Bird”).
Clover Koval – Spatial Awareness
Clover Koval excels at slice-of-life lyrics that echo Courtney Barnett over music that sounds like a lo-fi Best Coast. “Ugly Shoes” is about exactly that, and “Yoga Mat (Don’t Know Where I’m At)” might be one of the best song titles of the year.
Cole Davidson – Sleep Talking
Cole Davidson’s fingerpicked guitar work is so impressive it’s easy to miss the songwriting it supports. A funky folk music – a rare combo indeed – he writes inventive melodies that twist in unexpected ways. Good luck trying to diagram these songs into standard verse-chorus structures, but in his performance he makes complicated music sound easy.
Damascus Kafumbe – Nsomesa Okwagala (Teach Me to Love)
Damascus Kafumbe plays every instrument on his new EP, and I bet you’ll only recognize one of them: adungu, mbuutu, mpuunyi, nsaasi, claves, and lead vocals. This Middlebury ethnomusicology professor knows his stuff; his speciality is the music of East Africa and last year he published a book on the music of the Kingdom of Buganda, in Uganda. He describes this EP as “a song cycle to remind listeners that we live in a beautiful world…in an era of metastatic geopolitical fear and xenophobic loathing.”
Danny & The Parts – It Came from the Box
After sticking in the country lane for their previous EP, this alt-country band swerves to the “alt” side of the hyphenate for a song that channels the Replacements via Wilco’s Being There. The band’s rough and tumble delivery of these six songs never hides the tightness of their construction.
Dino Bravo – Blind By Midnight
From the first verse of the first song on their first album, the Vermont rock quartet wears their favorite bands on their sleeves. My Morning Jacket gets a couple explicit nods, as well as just genuinely influencing the music of superfan frontman Matthew Stephen Perry (the band’s Twitter features a lot of MMJ talk). Thin Lizzy and Wilco get shout-outs too. But the band makes their influences their own, with a fresh take on the sort of ’70s-inspired classic rock where no song is complete without a shredding guitar solo.
Glorious Leader – My Kingdom
Sufjan Stevens and Kishi Bashi and other associated precious, ornate song-constructors come to mind on Kyle Woolard’s new EP under the name Glorious Leader. But the delicate performance touches – a jump to falsetto here, a horn line just so there – simply add a bit of filigree to the seriously sturdy songs that lie underneath. [Note: The release date was pushed back, so pre-order it for one of the best EPs of 2020]
Learic and SkySplitterInk – The Theoriest
Few rap albums this year came as ambitious as rapper Learic and producer SkySplitterInk’s hip-hop-noir collaboration. In barely 20 minutes, The Theorist traces a plot like an old Robert Mitchum movie, with a private eye, a mystery, and a femme fatale. Learic raps most the characters himself, his inimitable flow even more impressive when run through different voices.
Meg Rice – Now or Then
Meg Rice, late of the recently departed indie-rock band Julia Caesar, emerges as a clear star on her folkier solo debut. Her writing is smart and funny, with a clever nod to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” worked into the title track. Best line: “I’ve been on the loose, doing what I pleases / Staying up all night, eating drugs and grilled cheeses”
Out with the Old – Nothing of Relevance
When I first wrote about this band in April, I admitted I had no idea who they were. Eight month later, I’m no closer to cracking the case. No bio on their Bandcamp page, and no anything elsewhere. The five short songs on this mystery EP stop and start abruptly, as rough as the super-grainy album cover. Maybe they’re demoes for all I know. But they enrapture just the same, like acoustic emo with grittier voices and better harmonies.
Plastique Mammals – Northern Sound
When I last wrote about instrumental duo Plastique Mammals, I focused on their inventive song titles. Their latest EP doesn’t disappoint there. “She Found She Had Grown Antlers” sounds like some lost fairytale, and “Tiger Woulds” is a pun just dumb enough to work. Yet despite the puns and cutesy titles, the music is no joke. Mixing post-rock bass with synthy drones, each composition invites you into the band’s mediative world.
Sabouyouma – Sabouy
Seven-piece band Sabouyouma features your usual musical gear: guitar, bass, percussion. But floating above it all is an instrument much rarer: the balafon. Rare in America, I should say; this melodic percussion instrument (cousin to the xylophone) has been around Africa since at least the 12th century. Here it’s played by the Guinean-born Ousmane Camara, who builds a world of sound with it. The sound integrates naturally with the other six players on raucous Afro-funk jams like “Konkobah.”
Wild Leek River – The Bacon EP
Surprisingly, Wild Leek River sounds like George Jones. Why surprisingly? The last time I wrote about the guys in this band, the headline was “Four New Doom Metal EPs to Get You Through the Winter.” That band was Acid Roach (which continues on, loud as ever), but turns out these metalheads can ably rip off some classic honky-tonk. Just like when the A Mighty Wind folk singers opened for Spinal Tap, Acid Roach should bring Wild Leek River on tour.
Willow Ash – Creeping Winter
October 30 was the perfect release date for this EP. For one, it’s called Creeping Winter, and the season always creeps in quickly in the band’s Vermont homebase. Plus, the Halloween season suits their sound, as if the creepy skull cover and song called “Witchgasm” didn’t make it obvious. It works for any season though, stoner psych-rock that mixes Sabbath and Sleep.
Yestrogen – SHE ⚡️ EP
A lo-fi garage rock take on girl group music has been in vogue for a few years, from Shannon and the Clams to Hunx and His Punx. Yestrogen (great name) enter the arena strong on their debut She EP. With much glossier production, these could be Marvelettes songs in the 1960s.