Oct 012018

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

A Box of Stars – Cornfields

Never before have I Googled a mixing engineer’s name, but Josh Druckman’s work feels as vital to building such a pristine, delicate beauty of a record as the actual musicians (who, for the record, are Macaulay Lerman on guitar and vocals; Claire Londagin on vocals; Jens Hybertson on violin; Eben Schumacher on bass, piano, and guitar; and Tim Halteman on drums). Take “Cornfields.” Enigmatic lyrics swirl around minimalist instrumentation, subtle percussion delicately balancing with windy violin. It’s not flashy music, and folky slowcore of this sort often lands in the background-music category. But the band’s just-so playing, presented perfectly, demands attention.

Bad Rat? – Horrible Death

What, you thought “Horrible Death” would be a cheery song? It’s as dark as you’d expect, and more mysterious, the minimalist lyrics never totally revealing their hand beyond some Stephen King-esq hints about frogs who tear bodies apart. Barely-sung lyrics built tension with slow-build rhythms, a touch of Joy Division mixed with the slowest track on a Nine Inch Nail album.

Ben Dunham feat. Sara Grace – Why We Build the Wall

Ben Dunham titled his new album Collaboration, and he offers two sorts of collaborations on this track. Sara Grace steals the show with a bravado vocal performance, yes, but another Vermont artist lurks in the background: Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote this song for her 2010 album Hadestown (now a Broadway musical). Dunham and Grace make it their own on a powerful and viral performance that draws from gospel as much as it does the folk tradition.

Ben Patton – Maybe I Live to Make You Happy

Few make music with as much ambition as Ben Patton. His new album blends dozens of genres – often all within the same song. See if you can count how many genres he draws from in the one minute, eleven seconds of “Maybe I Live to Make You Happy” alone. I hear doo-wop, 1950s rock and roll, and Broadway musical. Then, in the next song on new album Meaning What, he veers away to Ben Folds-style power-pop. The schizophrenia would grate from a less talented genre juggler, but in Patton’s hands you just let him lead you on his weird and joyous journey.

Bow Thayer – A Better Version of the Truth

I already wrote about the tragic backstory to folk-blues vet Bow Thayer’s new song and album, but the song can be felt just as deeply knowing none of that. Justin Guip’s organ leavens Thayer’s slide guitar on this heavy Delta-blues rocker.

Cole Davidson – Hold Me Down

Cole Davidson has been posting beautiful solo videos for the better part of a year, and now has a more intricately produced musical project to his name: debut EP Fable. His songs hold up in both formats. Take “Hold Me Down,” a tender slow-burn that gets complicated by yearning backing vocals on the EP. That’s the version I’ve embedded here, but his solo performance on YouTube (here) is equally moving.

Henry Jamison – Gloria

Henry told The Fader: “I realized that I was writing a parallel story about the ways in which boys in our culture are “recruited” into a toxic fraternity, by each other, by their fathers, by video games etc. I try to sing myself and others out of a simple resistance to the nefarious male ego and into a sense of inviolate self-worth… The song serves both as a kind of title track and as a loose thesis statement. The record itself often seeks to bring nuanced understanding to the current state of (white, American) men, but Gloria’ is it as its most unapologetically aspirational.”

Levi Barrett – Mann Gulch Fire

“Mann Gulch Fire” sounds like a Gordon Lightfoot number, retelling the story of a tragedy from yesteryear. The style of music, once popularized by stars like Johnny Cash and Joan Baez, has fallen far out of fashion. But throughout his terrific debut EP, Barrett’s baritone and spare guitar playing save his songs from feeling like artifacts of ye olde ballad cannon.

The Matter Men – Enigma

Last fall, a New York Times Magazine article about – a love letter to, really – The Necks made me obsessed with the improvisational jazz trio from Australia. Turns out, we have our own Necks much closer to home: The Matter Men. Like The Necks, this Vermont trio improvises their pieces from scratch, then cherrypicks the best bits. On “Enigma,” they add some prog-rock flourishes with some effects that sound like they’re emanating from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s wall of keyboards.

Miss Guided Angels – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Drawing on the long history of I’m-leaving-you-for-the-road country weepers, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” teases Americana quartet Miss Guided Angels’ The One That Got Away, out October 25. The vocal blend of George Nostrand’s low drawl and Lisa Gardner’s high harmonies makes this one worthy of a cry in your beer at the Ryman.

PREECE – Girl In My Bed

Sean Preece cites Social Distortion, The Descendents, and Bad Religion, and I hear every one of them in his band’s music (the latter especially). But, at times, it reminds me equally of a band I followed before I had ever heard of those punk pioneers: Blink-182. I hope PREECE don’t take that comparison as a dig, because it’s not. Lyrically, sure, PREECE has far more to offer than grandfather’s-dick jokes, but musically they prove equally adept at distilling decades of punk mayhem into immediately accessible holler-along hooks. PREECE launches just a couple months too late to ever play the Warped Tour (RIP), but once upon an era they might have been one of those sidestage bands drawing the post-Hot-Topic crowds for a smarter take on pop-punk.

Willow Ash – VVitches ov the Great North VVoods

I love Alvvays as much as anyone, but I’m getting sick of the “vv” naming trend. Prince’s catalog changed music in thousands of positive ways, but spelling things funny was not among them. I’ll forgive Willow Ash the titling eccentricity, though. The heavy-as-led, slow-as-molasses stomping of “VVitches ov the Great North VVoods” more than earns them their doom metal label. Or, as Prince might spell it, D00^^.

Wool See – Thorium

Bandcamp description of the month: “Wool See isn’t back because they never left. The elusive rap band has just been creepily lurking in the shadows and auditioning new members on the dark web where the only question that gets asked is ‘you got that fire?’ (the answers are almost always terrible).”

If you missed it, here’s our Best Vermont Songs of 2017 post.

Sep 012018

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs august

Abby Sherman – Wanting to Run

Great little details abound in the final song off Abby Sherman’s debut album: “The callused fingers fumble over the strings. / Do you only find me beautiful when I sing? / In a dark bar where the lights are kept low. / Nothing better to do and no where better to go.”

Baby Brush – Dinos

I feel I wasted a good Frank Zappa comparison in last month’s list. Vermont expats Baby Brush – Christopher Davis, Peter Housekeeper, Theodore Housekeeper, and Ryan Kochalka (James‘ nephew) – sounds far closer to Zappa than anything I’ve encountered so far, twisting and warping just about every genre in popular music on their debut album. Opening track “A Tribute to Foot” turns doo-wop on its head, with the only lyrics being “foot foot.” Then “Dinos” alternates wild guitar with wonked-out synthesizers over lyrics about nipple tassels, sounding like five song ideas crammed into one. Like Zappa himself, it’s a delicate balance that occasionally falls off the edge of insanity – but succeeds far more often than it should. Continue reading »

Jul 312018

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best songs july 2018

The Aztext ft. Xenia Dunford – Everyday Sun

Last month I wrote about Xenia Dunford’s dual comeback EPs. They split along genre lines: the first singer-songwriter Americana, the second a little jazzier. Now she’s dabbling in a third genre: hip-hop. On rap duo The Aztext’s new single “Everyday Sun,” Dunford proves herself a perfect hook singer. The blend producer Rico James creates with her voice and an infectious horn line sounds like a ’70s Stevie Wonder jam. Continue reading »

Jul 202018

ballroom sofa

“Maybe I don’t want to be famous,” goes the opening line of Ballroom Sofa’s song “Famous.” That’s an understatement!

I first stumbled upon Ballroom Sofa’s Bandcamp page in March. The four songs posted there immediately hooked me. They blended Britpop and dream-pop, earworm hooks with clever lyrics. This didn’t sound like some DIY bedroom demo either; the production was immaculate. This band had it all – everything except an identity. Continue reading »

Jul 162018

Julia Caesar

For the past year, the most talked-about new band in Vermont has been Julia Caesar. They built their reputation solely on fiery local shows, without a single song out there for the wider world to hear. (When I finally dug up a live video to post in May, I couldn’t even uncover the song titles.) In January, the music editor of alt-weekly Seven Days named his top hope for 2018 as getting any proper recording from the band.

Well, would that all of our new-year’s goals were wrapped up by mid-July! Julia Caesar drops their long-awaited debut EP today. Hopefully it will begin transmitting the deafening noise surrounding them in Vermont to a national audience. Continue reading »

Jul 022018

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best songs june

The Big Sip – Two Hips / One Night

When an album features the credit “Tenor Sax (Track 5),” you know I’m starting with Track 5. And the sax doesn’t disappoint when it finally arrives on this arty-jam-funk journey, but there is so much going on beforehand you forget it’s coming. Crazy keyboard sound effects, off-kilter Phish rhythms, and some insistent melodies that push through the chaos. It’s off the band’s debut EP Sip Responsibly. Continue reading »

May 312018

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs may

Addy Sechler – Make Home to Me

One of the best albums of 2017 was Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. It was also one of the toughest to actually listen to, being a songwriter frankly grappling with his wife’s sudden death. When you want that same quiet, hushed vibe, but don’t have the emotional bandwidth to sink into that weighty subject matter, Addy Sechler’s new album will suit just fine. Continue reading »

May 142018

bison arkansas

The Vermont trio Bison’s first release Get Out was my favorite EP of last year. Now they’re back with their second. That’s the good news. The bad: It’s also their last. Two of the three band members are moving away, and Bison will soon be no more. Judging from the first single “Arkansas,” at least they’re going out on top. Continue reading »

Apr 232018

Certain connotations arrive with the phrase “bedroom recording.” Such albums are typical lo-fi affairs, sparse and simple and stripped-down, a voice and a laptop plus one instrument (if that) and maybe some reverb.

The Giant Peach’s debut album Pulling Teeth is technically a bedroom recording – frontman Harrison Wood Hsiang recorded every song but one in his college dorm room. But it is anything but stripped-down. What other bedroom recording features trumpet, sax, violin, and slide guitar? There are three credited drummers here, and eight vocalists. It’s a long way from Bruce Springsteen hollering Nebraska into a four-track or Justin Vernon holed up alone in a remote cabin crooning “Skinny Love.” Continue reading »

Mar 302018

best songs march

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

Aviation – Invisible Boy

In 1980, Queen delivered one of the great superhero themes of all time with “Flash.” If the Invisible Boy were a real superhero, Aviation gave him an equally bombastic theme song, a six-minute epic complete with piano crescendoes, scorching guitar solos, and canned applause. He’s not real, though. In fact, as you discover over the course of the song, he’s not exactly a superhero after all, just a lonely kid who sits by himself at lunch. Well, now he’s a lonely kid with an epic piano-prog theme song. Continue reading »