Artist: Holden Days Album: Sylvan Lands, Vol. I Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: “Dream-folk” is a dead-on descriptor for the exquisitely crafted music of Holden Days. Listening to the first half of this recently completed two-part project evokes the same sort of feelings one would feel while taking in a long summer sunset during a hike through flowery meadows or a leisurely canoe trip on a secluded lake. And just when you’re tempted to think it’s all pastoral bliss, a song will change its structure midway through, progressive rock style, to reveal a compelling new refrain or perhaps a striking electric guitar solo. I’ve belatedly discovered one of my favorite albums of 2019 – a year which I mistakenly wrote off as lacking in immersive and high-quality recordings such as this one.
Artist: SHEL Album: Wild Child EP Year: 2020 Grade: A
In Brief: These four sisters show impressive range on their latest EP, from their mellower folk, bluegrass and classical roots to a few unashamedly big and bright-colored pop tunes. Massive vocal hooks, a sense of playfulness, and an underlying sweet sincerity help to tie it all together, making this set of six songs one of the most beautiful and endearing things I’ve heard thus far in 2020.
Artist: Lord Huron Album: Lonesome Dreams Year: 2012 Grade: A-
In Brief: An astounding debut that immediately transports me back to the days when the indie folk revival was still going strong. Lord Huron’s unique habit of weaving together pieces of a story in anachronic order, told from the perspective of a not-so-reliable narrator, as well as their occasional use of electronic and worldbeat elements, helps to set their songwriting style apart from influences like Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket that they quite obviously wore on their sleeves at this point. The band has evolved a bit in the years since, but nothing they’ve done since then has hit me nearly as hard.
In Brief: With a sharp mix of club beats, idiosyncratic synths, and live drums and piano, Miike Snow had an intoxicating blend of sounds on their remarkably consistent debut record. I’m bummed that it took until this album was a decade old for me to fully realize that.
We’ve arrived at the final round, folks. The true heavy-hitters. The absolute classics that I’m pretty sure I’ll keep going back to over and over when they’re ten years, twenty years – heck, maybe even fifty years old if I’m fortunate enough to still be around then!
The realization that I had a pretty interesting cross-section of artists ranging from household names to the downright obscure on this list piqued my curiosity about whether there was some reasonable way to measure exactly how popular each of them were. It’s honestly not something I’ve ever paid super close attention to – I can usually get a sense of when someone whose music I happen to like has achieved A-list celebrity status around the world, because I’ll hear their music pretty much everywhere when I’m out and about in public, and their concerts will usually be prohibitively expensive. On the other end of the scale, when an artist is so-small time that only a small cluster of people seem to know about them, merely acquiring their music or finding out more about them for the sake of writing a review can be challenging. Word of mouth, and recommendations from other artists I enjoy, are often my primary means of getting into an artist, so for pretty much everyone between those two extremes, I often don’t know how many like-minded fans there are, or what demographic is most into them, until I catch a live show and start people-watching.
Welcome to the penultimate section of the Top 100 list! We’re looking at nothing but A-grade material from here on out, folks. Before we dig into the next 20 albums I’ve chosen to highlight, let’s talk about what genres are represented on this list.
Admittedly the concept of “genre” is a tricky thing to define, and I’ve played fast and loose with it as I’ve reviewed albums over the years, sometimes not applying genre tags consistently to the same artist making more or less the same style from one album to the next. or they’ve undergone a radical change in their sound, and yet I still consider them part of the old genre in my mind because they’re still associated with that scene. It’s more of an art than a science, and often the records that excite me most will dabble in a wide array of genre influences, making an accurate descriptor for their sound as a whole rather difficult to nail down.
We’re at the midpoint of the list now… this is where the absolute best of the B-plus range starts to blend into the A-minus range. But first, some more fun facts (or at least, facts that a nerdy analytical guy like me considers fun), this time related to geography. Where in the world are all of these artists from?