Words by Art Jipson
For the past 15 years, Art Jipson has championed new local and national music through Your Tuesday Afternoon Alternative on the University of Dayton’s WUDR Flyer Radio 98.1FM. As a contributor to Off Shelf, Every month he brings you Singles Club, featuring five of the best singles of the month along with an extended playlist. The following list is not completely exhaustive of all of the amazing records that came out this year but a person has to start somewhere with a list such as this in no particular order.
AMBER HARGETT – Paper Trail (self-released)
Singer songwriter Amber Hargett released a terrific record with Paper Trail. With a voice so damn powerful, it knocks you over. I would pay good money to hear her sing anywhere, any time. Hargett displays a rare wit and wisdom without being preachy or judgmental on her excellent debut recorded at Reel Love Studios. Arrangements by Hargett and wizard record producer Patrick Himes demonstrates that Dayton, Ohio is about a lot more than guitar driven indie music. Well-constructed songs serve to highlight Hargett’s impressive vocal range and prowess. This album includes songs written from multiple narrative viewpoints that naturally flow into one another without sounding convoluted or confusing. This record is statement of what a good songwriter can accomplish. I look forward to her next record. You miss this record at your peril.
Taking and owning the pain from a tumultuous year, Ryan Allen and the Extra Arms serve up a damn catchy pop punk record that does not shy away from asking the tough questions even if we don’t want to hear the answer. With guitar hooks for day, hell for weeks… this record explores love, loss, pain and more without sound trite or contrived. Calling it as he sees it, Allen demonstrates that sometimes when something is fucked up, you have to speak the truth and say, that indeed it is fucked up. It takes real courage to write songs like that in an authentic voice. The music propels the ideas with energy and verve that is far more than the rock machine approach. This record speaks volumes.
Ok, a word of warning. I am a huge Husker Du fan. Yup, got all their records. Consider Mould’s first few solo records and the albums he made with Sugar damn near perfection. With that revealed, we have to ask a question: What does a happy almost contented Bob Mould sound like? Well on this record released in February of this year, Mould comes out happy but still swinging. Just because life may be going well does not mean that there is no source material for some excellent rocking songs. As a gifted storyteller of the dark part of the soul, what can Bob Mould offer the listener about the lighter side of life? Turns out quite a lot. Mould’s voice has never sounded as strong, the choruses are as punchy as ever and the guitars are still loud! Does this sound like hyperbole to you? Perhaps. However, with songs about a range of life issues including childhood and summer camp, this listener is along for more rides into Mould’s experiences whether they be light or dark.
Chuck Cleaver has been making evocative music for years. Most recently with Wussy (since 2001) and in The Ass Ponys (formed in 1988) yet he has never had his own solo record until this year; and that is a shame! This strong collection of lo-fi grungy songs from Cleaver’s usual dark and honest disposition display his strength as a songwriter while refusing to tone down his sardonic and always on the mark criticism of social life. The themes in the song are expansive as Cleaver sings about joy, sorrow, regret and everything in between. The instruments sound like a natural extensions of his previous work with Wussy sort of neo-Midwestern grunge meets indie. Even if Cleaver is a “terrible friend” as he sings on one of the album’s songs, he is a friend we need. Here’s hoping that Cleaver does not wait nearly so long before he records another solo record.
This indie rock super group of previous members of Velocity Girl, High Back Chairs, Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and Bad Religion do something unique with their first record, they sound fresh, current and potent. With guitar hooks that make it impossible to do something else besides listen, the band makes those excellent hooks serve the songs. Do not worry that lyrics take a backstage. With Foxhall Stacks we get discussions of worry – “Got me worried about the weather, I am worried about the government, I am worried about the pills I took, I am worried about the verse, I am worried about the chorus, and I am worried about bridge and the hook” (worried) as well as change (The Reckoning). From the one-two punch of The Reckoning and Turntable Exiles that start the record, it is clear that this record delivers great arrangements and clever lyrics.
As a big fan of Kim Ware’s The Good Graces, I have to check myself and ask – is this record as good as I think that it is for me? And the answer is that, in fact, it is better. Few southern musicians so cleverly shift lyrics about real life with melodies and rhythms that make the listener want to learn more. There is no pretense here. Nothing to disguise where the narrator is from or pretending to be rich, successful and well whatever the drama is this week in popular music. Nothing here but great songs sung with passion that was not created on a computer or by a Swedish producer or a songwriting workshop but rather by a real person speaking her truth.
GOODNIGHT GOODNIGHT – I Love you Fiercely (self-released)
As a radio DJ in Dayton, Ohio, it can be no secret that any Best Of list created by me is going to lean heavily toward local music. Sometimes the music is so good that such a bias – if we can really call it that in an era of Spotify and Apple Music where we all create playlists and Best Ofs – should be acknowledged. However, with that out of the way Dayton’s Goodnight Goodnight have taken life, love and pain and composed beautiful electronic music. This trio that works more like a family than a band have made a really sold record that avoids the traps and tricks that are meant to cover over a lack of music composition. Gary Thornton’s guitar on this record shines, shimmers and adds such evocative dimension that I would be happy just listening to him play by himself. Amanda’s vocal is the strongest that I have heard on any of their records. Multi-instrumentalist Todd Herbert’s contributions give the songs a sweep and expanse that extends each song into a sonic world that you have not visited before but it feels so familiar. Be on the lookout for the final song — That last track will have you humming long after the music has stopped.
GRETCHEN’S WHEEL – Moth to a Lamplight: A Tribute to Nada Surf (self-released)
Lindsay Murray’s Gretchen’s Wheel has shared a beautiful and loving tribute to the indie powerhouse Nada Surf. Highly recommend last year’s Black Box Theory. Lindsay’s interpretation of several of the excellent songs from Matthew Caws impressive catalog of super-catchy indie pop songs. If you only know of Nada Surf from their early MTV hit (well, back when that channel played music videos) Popular, you are missing an impressive body of work. This record presents unique versions of standouts Killian’s Red, Always Love, See These Bones and Believe Your Mine. And, for the record, the version of Rushing is as good as the original. When Murray’s more stripped down version of that song plays, you want to sing along. Or as in this writer’s case, you tear up even though you are not quite sure why. Murray adds an urgency that serves this song quite well. In fact, her attention to detail, passion for the songs and respect for the original songwriting only makes this collection more haunting and elevated.
This Swedish indie dream pop/shoe gaze/rock band is the swirling mix of guitar, bass, drums and vocals that we all need. Part jangle pop and part powerpop, the album Everest is actually a return from a more than a decade break. You will notice no rust on this record; the band is as powerful as they were with 2001’s At 4000 Meters. Expect layered harmonies, jangly guitars with the punch of a lead guitar fill and a solid percussion line to hold everything down. The first single, Five Times a Day illustrates the band’s ability to draw from musical inspirations of the 1960s and 1990s. For me, the standout track is the fourth song on the record – Don’t Need, Don’t Care – which has an almost R.E.M. meets The Posies through The Cardigans feel. You will smile when the handclaps come on and want to clap yourself. A perfect record.
As one of the original alt-country musicians, Jay Farrar has not run out of any creative musical, social and cultural contributions to make. While an unflinching political record, Union is full of the rock, alt-country, folk and soulful songs that Son Volt has become famous for delivering. In fact, age has only added layers of texture and meaning to Farrar’s vocal. The album covers a wide path of topics, accurate criticisms and questions that we all should be considering currently. At the same time, Son Volt avoids falling into any traps or pitfalls of only focusing on the politics and having the music sound like an afterthought. Nothing could be further from the case here – the songs are excellent, the arrangements stand out and the playing is passionate. Union is by far my favorite country or alt-country record of the year.
John Dubuc’s Guilty Pleasures – Where Have I Been Your Whole Life
Me & Mountains – Dream Sequence, Vol. 1
Sadbox – The Magic Nothing
Seth Canan and the Carriers – Strange Forces
Shrug – Easy is the New Hard
True Lies – Hoarse
A Voice of Your Own – Satellites
More of Art Jipson’s contributions