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.
As a former New York City resident, I can think of few neighborhoods I’d rather live in than the Upper West Side. Old money and overpriced, overprecious grocery stores every block – no thanks. But the Smittens’ gloriously catchy indiepop song almost makes the UWS appealing.
There’s a trick I love in a lot of pop songs. Somewhere in the back half of the song, most instruments drop out. The chorus repeats once, a cappella or close to it. An instrument or two return as the chorus repeats, then a few more more the next time around. Eventually they all joyously crash back in. It’s the pop version of a dubstep drop, and equally effective.
Bullfighting seems an odd metaphor for love, but Alexandria Hall makes it stick in her mesmerizing dream-electropop song “Matador.” Take the opening lines: “It’s not the red. I can’t see it. All I see is you.” Right off the bat, the bullfighting comparison works better than expect – plus you learn some zoology (did you know bulls are colorblind to red? The cape hue is purely for the spectators).
Ali T – Electric Haze
Alison Turner is an artist out of time. She’s a singer-songwriter, but not with the folky connotations the phrase often takes on. Rather, something like “Electric Haze” sounds made for radio. Late-’90s radio, that is, when artist like Jewel and Meredith Brooks were racking up top-ten hits. It wouldn’t have a chance today, but “Electric Haze” ably walks to tricky line of engaging with nostalgia while creating something new.
Abby Sherman – Hand with the Devil
If the only Satan-themed violin song you’ve heard is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Abby Sherman’s “Hand with the Devil” might throw you for a loop. Rather than rollickin’ fiddlin’, Abby Sherman and violinist Katie Trautz create something truly spooky, like the sort of Gillian Welch track you don’t play in the dark.
Charlie Hill’s band Bison was one of the best new post-punk band of recent years. But since their untimely demise last year, he’s moved onto other genres. His solo project Chazzy Lake looks forward – while looking much further back.
Adam Rabin – The Other Room
You’re going to want to sing along to “The Other Room” after a listen or two – but I wouldn’t. The sketches of plot offered sound like a sci-fi family dystopia, a Black Mirror episode for children.
The Cheyenne Brando – Samsonite
So thoroughly does Endtime Hymns evoke certain bands that one begins looking for echoes everywhere. Is the title “My Jean Sebring” a nod to David Bowie’s “Jean Genie”? Does “Poisonhead” reference ABC’s “Poison Arrow”? Was “Privacy of Lucy” inspired by The Cure’s “Pictures of You”? Each connection a greater stretch than the last, and likely none intentional. Christian Hahn does explicitly cite the heyday of post-punk and new-wave in his bio though, and, sonically, the comparisons are everywhere. His next song might as well be titled “Bizarre Love Triangle Will Tear Us Apart.”
“Baby” is not a song title that implies much backstory. For instance, here’s how Justin Bieber explained what inspired his hit of the same name: “I’m basically saying I really like this girl and would do anything to make her my girlfriend.”
A lot of thought and a lot of living went into Vermont singer-songwriter Francesca Blanchard’s new song “Baby” though. The simple name masks some complicated feelings. She says she wrote it after returning from five months in Ecuador hiking and teaching guitar. A relationship that started shortly before she left had fizzled in the meantime, and her return precipitated a “quarter-life crisis.”
In addition to County Tracks, I oversee another site all about cover songs. Vermont band The Smittens made our year-end list in 2016 with a cover of a short-lived band I’d never heard of called Go Sailor.
On their new covers collection Stay Gold, The Smittens cover a number of artists like Go Sailor: pioneers and peers in their chosen genre, which sometimes is termed “twee-pop” (not everyone loves the “twee” moniker, but The Smittens include it right there on their website). They also twee-ify a few songs from very different genres, including The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” and, in an old studio recording getting its first ever release here, the Oasis classic “Live Forever.”