It feels like this year brought along a massive hodgepodge of acoustic remake EPs (and some full LPs), remix projects, live albums, etc. from artists whose studio work I tend to enjoy. A lot of it felt hastily rushed out the door in order to generate more streaming revenue, to be honest. But these few holdouts containing all original material (or covers of a single artist, in one case) were of such strong quality that I found myself wishing each one could be expanded into an album in its own right. (Or in one instance, wishing it could have actually been part of the album it was released as a prelude to.) Here are the EPs that I enjoyed the most in 2018, as well as a pair of actual full-length albums from 2017 that I didn’t get around to in time.
WAIT, THAT’S NOT AN ALBUM!
Sucré – In Pieces EP
It may only be three new songs totaling about ten minutes of runtime, but boy, did I enjoy these new songs. Sucré really stepped up their game by bringing frenetic drum-and-bass rhythms into the mix on two of these three tracks, which push Darren King‘s personality even more to the forefront of this project largely driven by Stacey Dupree-King‘s heavenly vocals and producer Jeremy Larson‘s gooey string arrangements. The group occasionally hints at a long-gestating second LP that they’re deliberately taking their sweet time to perfect, and with Darren no longer a member of MuteMath, I have to say that a lot is riding on them getting it exactly right in 2019 or whenever it finally shows up.
Audio: “More Than You Bargained For”
Andrew Peterson – Resurrection Letters: Prologue
The creative process behind Resurrection Letters, Volume 1, a concept album about Easter Sunday and the immediate effect of Christ’s resurrection on the disciples, was apparently so fruitful that Peterson decided it would be worth breaking off the songs about Christ’s death on the cross into a contemplative EP that actually turned out to be a more compelling listen than the album that followed it. While this a very mellow affair featuring four ballads and one brief instrumental track, the opening two tracks in particular are some of the most inventive Peterson has ever come up with in terms of their tone and structure, with “Last Words (Tenebrae)” building a compelling narrative out of nothing more than isolated statements from the crucifixion story sung in a round, and “Well Done, Good and Faithful” pulling off an incredibly executed slow burn, transforming from a stark piano ballad into a thing of quiet grandeur. And “Always Good” is classic Peterson, a tear-jerker with rich acoustic instrumentation and a compelling moral to its otherwise sad story.
Audio: “Last Words (Tenebrae)”
Marc Martel – Thunderbolt and Lightning
The former co-frontman of downhere has made quite a second career for himself after his talents as a Freddie Mercury doppelganger made him a viral YouTube sensation. Timed incredibly well with the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic (which he didn’t appear in, but did contribute some of his vocals to), this EP features nothing but Queen covers, most of them being well-known but also featuring a few dark horse picks that are apparently personal favorites for Martel. it’s all quite well-executed, even if the production at times leans a bit more toward studio sterility than fans of the original material would prefer. As someone with only marginal knowledge of Queen’s biggest hits, this was a useful primer, causing me to notice aspects of songs I thought I’d known for decades that I hadn’t fully appreciated, such as the compositional complexity of “We Are the Champions” or just how damn much scatting there was in “Under Pressure” (which still ends up being my favorite track due to Kevin Max playing the David Bowie role). I’d love a full album of this, though I’d also love another LP full of original compositions from Martel, because he’s an inventive songwriter in his own right, and we haven’t really seen that talent on display since 2015’s The Impersonator.
Audio: “Under Pressure” (feat. Kevin Max)
Flint Eastwood – This Is a Coping Mechanism for a Broken Heart
Flint Eastwood’s lone permanent member Jax Anderson has had a turbulent year. Mere months after the lively coming out statement in her feel-good, summery pop song “Real Love”, a bad breakup apparently led her to compose this set of six songs that plays as a mini-album due to how well executed the segues are between each track. The style leans much more toward gritty, synth and bass-heavy R&B here, with a few rap features tacked on and some downright menacing production in places, as she sifts through the ashes of a relationship that ended abruptly due to an apparent lack of trust and open communication. It hurts to listen to at times, but it’s also quite compelling to hear how she pulls off the narrative arc, going from anger to defiance to finally contemplation and remorse on the pair of closing ballads “Summer Wine” and “Many Mistakes”, keeping the instrumentation diverse and innovative, and even finding time for an up-tempo banger on the EP’s standout fourth chapter, “Sober”. Flint Eastwood has been turning out compelling singles since 2015, but this is the first time I’ve heard compelling evidence that Anderson could pull together a full-length LP with a grand plan beyond just “Here are some catchy electro-pop songs, please put them on your hip indie playlist.”
Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming… of Days Long Past
This was the one “acoustic remake” album this year that I felt lived up to the quality of its full-band equivalent. The original I’m Only Dreaming was only a year old when this version came out, and while its description led me to expect pretty straightforward renditions of its eleven songs on piano and/or acoustic guitar, there’s still careful enough attention to the details, the layering, and occasionally the instrumentation that I think it has the potential to draw attention to tracks that weren’t as memorable the first time around. Take “Rabbit Hole”, for instance, which was all acoustic in its original version – here it’s arguably less so, reimagined with vintage keyboards and hazy electric guitar in the distance, but it’s arguably a more compelling arrangement. Clever moments like that are a real testament to the skills of multi-instrumentalist Garron Dupree, who has been proving his value as more than just “our cousin who we hired to play bass when it didn’t work out with the other guy” for over a decade now, but who lead singer Sherri Dupree credits as the impetus behind this album’s very existence. For the most part, it’s the rockier, more up-tempo, and/or darker tracks that get the most radical reinvention due to this light and softer approach, and normally I hate to hear upbeat songs slowed down just to make them all acoustic and sensitive, but in Eisley’s case, the delicate arrangements help a lot of the childlike wonder inherent in these songs to shine through more clearly. Holy smokes, just listen to the new version of “A Song for the Birds”. It may have lost its bouncy pop/rock beat and its duet vocal with Sherri’s husband, but the new piano-based arrangement is exquisite. Normally with these sorts of things I can manage one, maybe two listens at best, then I figure “why mess with success” and go back to the studio version, never again to return. But I could actually see myself coming back to this one almost as frequently as its parent album.
Audio: “A Song for the Birds (acoustic)”
LAST YEAR’S LEFTOVERS:
Paramore – After Laughter
It may be unfair for me to praise Paramore for their shift toward a glossier, poppier, and more danceable sound without appreciating (or really even knowing much about) the sound they shifted away from. But in an era where it seems like a lot of rock bands are going this route, some quite disappointingly so, Paramore managed to get my attention for the first time not just by being catchy, but by using catchiness as a vehicle for songs that often communicate anger, deep depression, and eventual reconciliation, defiantly making the case that aggressively upbeat music doesn’t always have to come from a place of happiness or superficiality. There’s some real strength and maturity found in the lyrics here, which makes After Laughter a whole lot deeper than the “bored rock band does karaoke with a bunch of other band’s sounds” project it could have turned out to be. This one would have been Top 10 material last year, easily.
Audio: “Idle Worship”
Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Spoon is another one of those seminal alternative bands whose work had eluded me up until this year. Again, I can’t really speak to what came before, but the band does some pretty fascinating (and occasionally trippy) things with their thick stew of engaging percussion sounds, zippy guitars, moody keyboards, and Britt Daniel’s raspy and excitable vocals tying it all together. Somewhere between addictive indie pop and exploratory psychedelic rock is where the band lives for most of this album, and even at a short ten tracks, it feels like there’s a kaleidoscope of new colors to be unveiled with each listen.
Live Audio: “Can I Sit Next to You”