Artist: Darlingside Album: Extralife Year: 2018 Grade: B
In Brief: I’m pretty fascinated by Darlingside’s ability to bring together old-timey vocal harmonies, modest folk instrumentation, a willingness to experiment with instruments and effects uncommon to the genre, and a touch of sci-fi and speculative fiction that helps to set their lyrics apart from the norm. At times it’s like hearing what people from decades past might have anticipated folk music would sound like in in a future existence parallel to our own.
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.
Artist: Andrew Bird Album: My Finest Work Yet Year: 2019 Grade: B
In Brief: While the songwriting on this album certainly features some of Bird’s finest words yet, on a musical level it seems to be mostly in the same comfort zone he’s established on his last several albums. That’s not a bad thing, particularly when Bird gets more playful with his rhythms, or leaves space for a bit of his trademark whistling and noodling on the violin. But as always, there’s the issue of certain songs being too low-key to fully deliver on the virtuoso instrumental talent we all know Bird possesses. This has the side effect of helping us to focus more on the lyrics, perhaps… but I’d really love to see an album where Bird really goes for broke on both fronts.
In Brief: Owel’s third album proves that their delicious blend of indie rock with classical/chamber pop sensibilities is both reliable and malleable. While many of the songs take a while to sink in, as they have on previous albums, I’m tempted to think that they’re stronger for it, as a lot of these songs have euphoric crescendos that make the payoff worth the wait. But it’s also good that they’ve learned how to not overdo that approach to the point where it gets too predictable, and thus a few of their best songs that might be considered “poppy” can be found here as well.
If I could write songs like anyone in the world, I’d want to write like Vienna Teng does.
I’m sure I’ve echoed this sentiment many times in all of the reviews I’ve written of Vienna’s music over the years. And while there quite a lot of songwriters I’ve admired enough to consider them influential over the years, she seems to be the one I come back to the most consistently and remain in awe of, somehow still finding interesting little nuances I hadn’t considered before in songs of hers that I’ve loved for nearly two decades now. I knew pretty early on that I had stumbled across something special when I first heard her music – all it took was two songs performed on solo piano at an intimate live show way back in the spring of 2003 for me to first feel that tug deep within me, telling me I wanted to write something that communicated such powerful imagery wrapped in curious metaphor, and yet she was so intimidatingly good at it that I was pretty sure I’d never be able to come anywhere near it. But perhaps that’s the point. Vienna is such a restlessly creative individual who constantly challenges her own status quo. So maybe the best way to be inspired by her is to not try to mimic her at all. And therein lies the paradox.
In Brief: Björk’s longest album to date is one of her happiest and most peaceful. It’s also one of her most baffling and exhausting. Longtime fans will find echoes of some of her classic works here, and will also probably appreciate the more ambient/avant-garde new direction as well. But song-for-song, this may be her most difficult album to appreciate as a whole since Medúlla.
Artist: Timbre Album: Sun & Moon Year: 2015 Grade: B
In Brief: A double album with intricate, harp-driven baroque pop compositions on one side and several lengthy classical pieces on the other certainly asks a lot of the listener, but Timbre has a foot firmly planted in both worlds and she clearly had no shortage of inspiration when exploring the relationship between the two. I may never fully understand this album, but I really appreciate the inherent beauty and interconnectedness of it all.
Artist: The last Bison Album: VA Year: 2014 Grade: B+
In Brief: The Last Bison stick to their strengths on their second full-length, reining in a few of the tendencies that may have made Inheritance an acquired taste, but still churning out beautifully orchestrated and energetic “chamber folk” music with thoughtful lyrics and just enough of a rough edge to remind you that it was recorded in a cabin in the marshlands of Virginia.
Artist: Jars of Clay Album: 20 Year: 2014 Grade: A-
In Brief: It’s an absolute treat to hear a favorite band revisit their entire discography, leaving almost no stone unturned as they celebrate a milestone anniversary. These mostly acoustic remakes of fan favorite songs are a delightful walk down memory lane, and hopefully they will demonstrate the diversity of the Jars catalogue to new listeners, as well as old fans who never really kept up with them past the first few albums.
Artist: Vienna Teng Album: Aims Year: 2013 Grade: A-
In Brief:Aims will come as a surprise, if not a complete shock, to folks expecting tender piano ballads and an overall mellow mood. But those who have enjoyed Teng for her increasingly experimental tendencies over the years will find a lot of “thinking outside the box” to delight in here, as long as you’re not inclined to view electronic sounds and heavily layered production as somehow “inauthentic”.