Geographer – New Jersey: Go so far to make it home again.

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.

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The Decemberists – The King Is Dead: You must bear your neighbor’s burdens within reason.

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The King Is Dead
Year: 2011
Grade: A-

In Brief: The Decemberists took a hard turn toward twangy Americana at the start of the last decade. I can’t imagine the move toward more conventional and accessible song structures, and away from high concept albums, sitting well with fans of the increasingly complex and long-winded magnum opuses they made toward the end of the 2000s. But for me, this is the record that manages to hit the sweet spot. The crisp production puts the rustic instrumentation upfront, making the record evocative of the wide open American West, and it songs work together thematically while also being enjoyable individually, without the surrounding context being required listening. This might be a dark horse pick, but it’s easily my favorite Decemberists album thus far.

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San Fermin – The Cormorant: I would sing for my life, if I knew the words.

Artist: San Fermin
Album: The Cormorant I & II
Year: 2020
Grade: B+

In Brief: Is it a rock band? A chamber pop ensemble? A composer using whatever instrumentalists and vocalists he has on hand to execute his creative vision? Whatever you want to call San Fermin, they’re quite generous with the orchestral adornments, the natural and mythical imagery, and the diversity of vocal perspectives throughout the 16 tracks on this 2-part record. While much of The Cormorant is a down-tempo exercise in pastoral beauty, there are several moments that will genuinely surprise you.

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Tennis – Swimmer: Where the time goes, who really knows?

Artist: Tennis
Album: Swimmer
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: I’ve come to expect Tennis albums to be short and sweet, but this is the first time they’ve come up short even by that standard. What should be a tender and affecting meditation on a couple growing old together and being each other’s support system through various hardships, instead mostly drifts by without making much of an impact. Alaina Moore’s vocals are still quite lovely, and the duo still knows how to sustain a dreamy indie pop atmosphere… but the style feels a bit slight, given the substance that the songs are trying to convey.

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Holden Days – Sylvan Lands, Vol. II: Move Like a Dream

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.

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Tennis – Cape Dory: We’ve been gone for so very long that we’ve forgotten where we are from.

Artist: Tennis
Album: Cape Dory
Year: 2011
Grade: B+

In Brief: A charming debut that still stands out as some of Tennis’s best work almost a decade later. Though these ten surf rock songs with a bit of an indie/lo-fi aesthetic go wafting by like a gentle sea breeze in barely half an hour, this album is memorable for how it documents a sailing voyage that the married duo embarked upon. Even with the nostalgia filter decidedly on and the vocals at their most sweetly romantic, the sailing wasn’t always smooth, and I think that says something about how they both grew as individuals and as a couple.

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Wolf Parade – Thin Mind: Our only crime was living past our prime.

Artist: Wolf Parade
Album: Thin Mind
Year: 2020
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s retro. It’s catchy. It’s got its fair share of synths – but don’t you dare call it synthpop, because it’s got way too much live band energy for that. Wolf Parade punches through this ten-song set with enough energy and vitality that, just for a moment, you might actually believe they were successful at holding back the inevitable flow of time.

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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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Miike Snow: These are NOT songs for no one.

Artist: Miike Snow
Album: Miike Snow
Year: 2009
Grade: A-

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.

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The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Brake Lights: Where we’re going, we don’t need Rhodes.

Artist: The New Pornographers
Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
Year: 2019
Grade: B-

In Brief: This album brings back some of the sonic diversity that Whiteout Conditions lacked, especially with violinist Simi Stone upgraded to full membership. But song-for-song, it just doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and I think part of the problem is that despite all the singers in this band, we’re really only hearing the artistic voice of Carl Newman. No longer having Dan Bejar around kind of exposes his limitations as full-time band leader.

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