Artist: Liam Singer Album: Finish Him Year: 2019 Grade: A
In Brief: Singer’s expressive, percussive, and incredibly intricate style of piano-based indie pop music, with occasional choral and electronic accents, is truly a magnificent thing to behold. Equal parts playful and confident, uncertain and exploratory, this hour-long album makes me feel a level of excitement over discovering a brilliant new artist that I experience maybe two or three times a decade. (And this is his fifth album, which means I’ve been missing out for quite some time now.)
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.
Artist: Cool Hand Luke Album: Cora Year: 2017 Grade: B+
In Brief: An unexpected return from an artist I assumed had hung it up for good back in 2011. The new sound is a little more groove-based, but doesn’t abandon the piano-heavy indie rock sound CHL had established in their mid-career. This is a strong effort, easily on par with The Sleeping House.
Artist: Regina Spektor Album: Remember Us to Life Year: 2016 Grade: B
In Brief: Song-for-song, this is a more consistently well-written album than her last one, with more of a unified feel from track to track, but leaving room for a few fun surprises as well. Regina hasn’t totally reinvented her sometimes-cutesy, sometimes-creepy piano pop style, but she’s certainly honed her craft a bit since we last heard from her.
Artist: Relient K Album: Air For Free Year: 2016 Grade: A
In Brief: Relient K dodges the expectations created by both their pop/punk heyday and their abysmal attempt at pop crossover on Collapsible Lung, and comes up with their best album yet in the process. It’s less guitar-oriented and more piano and arrangement-heavy than classic RK, at times feeling like a spiritual successor to Forget and Not Slow Down. But the hints that RK had an album like this inside them somewhere have really been there since the beginning.
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”.