10. Lavenderlux – Nest Inertia
A remote collaboration between Vermont singer Amelia Wilcox and Washington musician Joseph Human, Lavenderlux arrives fully formed on their debut EP Nest Inertia. “Itching” touches on depression and boredom with phase-shifting guitars and Wilcox’s buttery vocals, while “Hold Out” features chiming instrumentation and a catchy slow-burn melody.
9. Guthrie Galileo – Balladeer
Typically, one might point out moments when a soaring singer Guthrie Galileo leaps into falsetto. But on Balladeer, it might be quicker to note the moments when he’s not singing in falsetto. He’s a sultry R&B crooner par excellence, singing catchy pop melodies over production full of layered background vocals and unexpected electronic flourishes. Francis and the Lights strikes me as a good comparison point, but the fact that Galileo moonlights as an Usher covers singer will come as no surprise either.
8. Days on End – Decade
The title Decade sounds like a greatest hits record (perhaps because, for someone else, it was a greatest hits record). But for pop-punk trio Days on End, it’s a new EP, and an extremely catchy one at that. For fans of so-called “emo revival” bands like Modern Baseball who want something new to make your voice hoarse screaming along to, Days on End will fit right in.
7. Go Outside – Modal
The person behind Go Outside helpfully includes two descriptions of his new EP Modal. The first is for the electronic-music gearheads: “This is a collection of songs based around a single sound source. The synthesizer that provides every sound you’re hearing is the Arturia Microfreak. There is a particular oscillator called the modal oscillator that provides the plucky, nasal sound that you hear throughout the album.” The second is for the rest of us: “This album is about connecting with the rhythm of life. It’s hard to describe or even point to, but you can feel it when you’re in the groove.”
6. Ben Watson – Ulterior Motive
As the Bandcamp description puts it, “Some acoustic guitar I recorded in the past few months. I hope it makes you feel something.” It does! You have to be deeper in the American Primitive world than I to pinpoint the differences among the many John Fahey acolytes, but if you’re looking for some pleasant finger-picked instrumental music that never gets new-agey or boring, Ben Watson’s new EP is a good bet. Good luck picking out favorite tracks though; they’re all named after numbers (area codes?), except for final track “Noise Machine,” which isn’t any noisier than what came before.
5. Sarah King – The Hour
Sarah King’s murder ballad “Nightstand” topped our year-end songs list in 2020, and it anchors her 2021 EP The Hour. The other songs earn their place next to that classic. “Poison” explores a similar theme of bloodthirsty revenge against a dirty-no-good lout (though, unlike the very literal gun in the nightstand, the titular elixir is a metaphor, ), while “Not Worth the Whisky” brings a gothic True Detective energy. An eerie acoustic cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” fits right in to the dark-Americana vibes.
4. Freddie Losambe – Pray
Freddie Losambe’s EP Pray sounds like Kanye West’s Donda at – quick napkin math – 1/20th of the run time. Like Kanye, Freddie draws from hip-hop, gospel, and a wide array of unexpected influences (“Mercy” starts off like the Beach Boys). But he’s a keener editor, delivering a wealth of ideas in barely five minutes. “We know this pressure make diamonds,” he repeats on the title track. It certainly seems to have here.
3. Isabel Pless – Too Big for the Playground, Too Small for the Big Leagues
Isabel Pless has a sense of humor. Her EP title is Too Big for the Playground, Too Small for the Big Leagues. The cover features sitting on a child’s swingset. Her Bandcamp bio is “Former gifted kid, current broke college student.” And her lyrics embody that same energy. For instance, the chorus of “Burn Out” goes, “And I smoke out the window / When my parents are home / Leave a light on at night / If I’m sleeping alone / And my mailbox is full / But no one calls my phone / Anyway.” The music, though, is unequivocally mature, beautiful and catchy and hard to get out of your head.
2. Glorious Leader – Glorious Leader & The Analog Cabin Mystery
If the title and cover of Glorious Leader’s new EP looks like the cover of a book, that’s no coincidence. It literally is, a small hardbound book packaged like an old Hardy Boys mystery which expands on the plot of the album and offers some bonus guitar tabs to boot. It’s more a travelogue than mystery though, exploring Kyle Woodard’s actual home of rural Vermont and musical home of Iceland. Whimsical and hooky with strings, banjo, and French horn, it’s an indie-pop symphony in miniature. Sufjan Stevens doesn’t need to make his Vermont album; Glorious Leader’s done it for him.
1. Couchsleepers – Monsters
In a transparent effort to dominate our Best of the Month lists, Couchsleepers released every track on this EP individually over an extended period of time. Sadly, try as I might, I was helpless to resist Harrison Hsiang and co’s craven attempts to game the system. Every track on this thing is undeniable. From the explosion of distortion that kicks off opener “All the Worst Things” to the jazzy closing ballad “After All,” Hsiang packs in more hooks into six songs than most artists manage in an entire discography.
Note: Best Albums is here and Best Songs is here. In an effort to broaden the lists and avoid redundant blurb-writing, every list this year will have a totally unique group of artists.
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