Artist: Geographer Album: New Jersey EP Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: This 7-track EP may only feature 4 full-length songs, with the rest being intros and outros that help glue everything together, but those 4 songs are phenomenal. This was the perfect gateway for me to get into Mike Deni’s “sort of a band, sort of a solo project” blend of indie rock and synthpop, and it leaves me incredibly eager to hear what’s next on his upcoming full-length release due out this December.
In Brief: The electronic rock/trip-hop duo’s fourth album is a bit of a potpourri, to the point where it doesn’t quite radiate the strong sense of musical identity heard on previous albums Voices and Three. There’s always been more to Phantogram than big, booty-shaking hooks, of course – and we still get a few choice bangers here. But Ceremony seems more concerned with the quirkier, trippier, and dreamier side of the Phantogram sound. I’m on board for most of it, even if there are stretches where my attention wanders.
Artist: Holden Days Album: Sylvan Lands, Vol. II Year: 2020 Grade: B+
In Brief: This even mellower nighttime companion to the lush and tragically romantic Vol. I may take even longer to get into, but its precious pearls are worth diving for. If the first set of songs was perfect for a day spent out in nature, then the second is perfect for an evening spent journaling, curling up with a good book, or slowly drifting off to sleep. Though there aren’t as many big guitar moments or obvious melodic hooks as the previous record boasted, there are still rich rewards awaiting those who choose to listen with patience and intent.
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: 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.
Artist: Tool Album: Fear Inoculum Year: 2019 Grade: C+
In Brief: I hate to be so ho-hum about a band’s first album back after a 13-year hiatus, but Tool is far more simmer than boil on this one. The band’s jammy, exploratory side has taken over, but their ability to be hard-hitting and thought-provoking has mostly taken a back seat to their insatiable need to drag every track out to 10+ minutes. It’s exhausting, and not in the immersive and fascinating way that Lateralus once was.
Artist: Joy Williams Album: Front Porch Year: 2019 Grade: B-
In Brief: This is pleasant enough, as purist folk records go. But it feels a bit lacking in the personality department. Williams attempting this style on her own invites unfavorable comparisons to her stint in The Civil Wars, and I had been hoping after Venus that she was trying to move away from that sound as a solo artist.
Artist: Billie Eilish Album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Year: 2019 Grade: B+
In Brief: Billie’s full-length debut rather boldly defies my expectations of what a pop album, whether indie or mainstream, should sound like in 2019. She also busts some of my stereotypes about teenage singer/songwriters in general, and how they can communicate both lyrically and sonically in a way that comes across as authentic while still drawing in a huge and diverse audience. I didn’t expect to like this album nearly as much as I did, and now I can’t stop listening to it.
If you’ve never heard of Gungor at all, and your first question upon hearing a song of theirs is, “Is this a Christian band?”, then my answer is: Yes. No. Kinda.
Normally in this monthly column, I’m going to be writing about bands that are defunct, or at the very least have stopped recording and touring for the foreseeable future. Gungor is a curious exception, because there are literally days to go in the band’s farewell tour. A week or so from when I publish this, Gungor as a distinct musical entity will be considered a thing of the past. Its two members, Michael and Lisa Gungor, certainly have plans to continue making music, just not under that name. I’m intrigued to see what these two might cook up with all past constraints and preconceived notions completely gone. I feel like they’ve already done a bang-up job of challenging our assumptions, not just about the kind of music they make but about the parameters that define the Christian faith ourselves, over the years. It seems like now’s as good a time as any to honor the end of an era, and take a (shorter than my usual) walk down memory lane to revisit my favorite songs that the duo have put out in the eight years I’ve considered myself a fan.
You know you’re a huge fan of a band when a friend asks you how many times you’ve seen them live, and you realize you’ve lost count. It’s funny, because I haven’t really considered myself a massive Switchfoot fan for quite a while, probably since the mid-2000s when The Beautiful Letdown hit it big, and was admirably followed up by Nothing Is Sound and Oh! Gravity. Paradoxically, that’s my favorite era of Switchfoot’s discography, and yet I got to the point where I became downright sick of the most well-known songs from those albums being must-plays in their setlists. It’s probably because I saw them live several times that decade, and when I see a band live multiple times, I prefer to hear them play stuff from their newer albums, or if they’re gonna play old stuff, I’d like to hear a few I’ve never heard live before. The Beautiful Letdown is my favorite Switchfoot album (an area where I’d guess I’m agreement with the majority of their fans), but I’d be perfectly fine never hearing that album’s heavy-hitters “Dare You to Move”, “This Is Your Life”, or “Meant to Live”, from them ever again. I love those songs. A ton of other people do too, and I guess I can’t fault someone who shows up, never having seen the band before, for wanting the trip down memory lane. It was because of this (and a string of less than impressive albums in the late 2000s/early 2010s) that I cooled off on seeing them live for a while after witnessing a just-OK live set on their tour for Vice Verses in 2011. (Even then, there were a couple of Fiction Family shows in between, and the Jon Foreman solo show I went to this time last year, because he is simply one of my favorite people in the entire universe.) This year’s Native Tongue isn’t really one of my favorite albums of theirs, either, but 2016’s When the Light Shines Through was a pleasant surprise that seemed a bit underrated among the fanbase, and I kicked myself for missing out on their tour with Relient K that year (who themselves had just put out the startlingly excellent Air For Free). When they announced a tour with Colony House slated for this spring, I knew I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.