The Innocence Mission – My Room in the Trees: Rain or shine, this street of mine is golden.

Artist: The Innocence Mission
Album: My Room in the Trees
Year: 2020
Grade: B+

In Brief: A quiet gem of an album – easily one of the best in The Innocence Mission’s discography – that I’m sad to have overlooked for nearly a decade. The gorgeous opening track alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s a lot more where that came from to help sustain the mood. Listening to this record is like discovering a few rays of sunshine that have just broken through the clouds on a grey, rainy afternoon.

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Holden Days – Sylvan Lands, Vol. I: A single day can bring me north again.

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.

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Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams: Oh, I've been listenin' to books never written, I'm gonna read to the end.

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.

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Tall Tall Trees – A Wave of Golden Things: Together’s so much better than apart.

Artist: Tall Tall Trees
Album: A Wave of Golden Things
Year: 2020
Grade: B+

In Brief: Don’t judge this album by its meager eight-song tracklisting. These songs are jam-packed with delicious folk and indie rock instrumentation, mostly centered around the banjo, but clearly benefiting from Mike Savino’s talent on various instruments and his tendency to stack up a lot of layers in the studio. He’s trimmed the fat in a way that allows him to put his best foot forward with most of these songs, and the result is a delightful record that I’m likely to remember for being a welcome source of joy during a grim time in human history.

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Darlingside – Extralife: A Future Ringing in My Ear

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.

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Global Genius – New Folk: Don’t play anything… play everything.

Artist: Global Genius
Album: New Folk
Year: 2019
Grade: B-

In Brief: This is really more of a singer/songwriter side project by a pair of guys mostly known for playing instruments and/or singing BGVs on other people’s records and in commercial jingles. That may seem like an oddly commercial pedigree for this under-the-radar independent release, but there are some genuinely smart lyrics and soothing melodies on this modest little album, if you’re willing to overlook a few of the cornier selections.

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Bon Iver – i,i: I’d throw another “i” in there, and an exclamation point for good measure.

Artist: Bon Iver
Album: i,i
Year: 2019
Grade: C+

In Brief: Bon Iver’s fourth album isn’t the radical sonic leap forward that albums #2 and #3 were. At times, Justin Vernon seems hell-bent on sabotaging the melodies and structures of his songs with harsh noise, or bridges and outros that lazily drift off into nothingness. One could argue that this was a bold experiment on 22, A Million, but the highlights were much stronger on that record. Here, even the strongest tracks don’t compel me to stick around long enough to puzzle over what it could all mean, and this is the first time I’ve honestly felt that way about a Bon Iver record.

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Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes – Wind Up Bird: Twee(t) Pop

Artist: Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes
Album: Wind Up Bird
Year: 2018
Grade: B-

In Brief: It’s actually not that far of a stylistic leap from some of the mellower material on Relient K’s latest album to their lead singer’s first solo album. While I enjoy the clever indie/baroque pop arrangements and witty wordplay, I have to admit that only a handful of Thiessen’s songs on this album continue to stand out in my mind, beyond the initial novelty of hearing him do an acoustic record.

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DeVotchKa – This Night Falls Forever: Somewhere back in your memory, there’s a younger, prettier version of me.

Artist: DeVotchKa
Album: This Night Falls Forever
Year: 2018
Grade: A-

In Brief: Ten songs after a seven-year absence might seem like a meager offering from most bands, but DeVotchKa ensures that their long-awaited return is an engrossing and intoxicating listen. The Latin rock influences may not be as pronounced this time around, but the strings, whistling, and other exotic bits of instrumentation all help to give this record an adventurous, otherworldly aura that isn’t easily forgotten. This Night Falls Forever can be a bit of an emotionally intense listen at first, but it’s definitely worth your time.

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The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square: Some lost things I will hope to find

Artist: The Innocence Mission
Album: Sun on the Square
Year: 2018
Grade: B

In Brief: Though it took a few listens to get over the initial “every song sounds the same” impression I had of this album, there’s more diversity in the color, tone, and instrumental textures to be found on the group’s tenth album than I can remember there being on those old Innocence Mission albums I listened to well over a decade ago. Now that the modest little vignettes in a number of these hopeful, innocent little folk songs have begun to sink into my subconscious, they seem to offer sublime glimpses of eternity despite their almost ephemeral nature.

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