Words by Tommy Johnson
When not writing as a Cincinnati Bengals and Reds apologist, Tommy Johnson has contributed features and reviews on music for Off Shelf, Ghettoblaster, and local Dayton print and web publications. His writing style is to try and capture the stories behind the music for those who want to share which will be expanded over the next year as he embarks on a book writing venture. Here are his top ten albums in no order.
I want to say that I have tailored my TikTok ‘For You’ feed to mostly show me the most ridiculous videos centering from being absolutely lousy at sports gambling to the daily struggles of being a mildly decent dad. Coming out of Long Island, Star Funeral emerged onto my feed not too long ago and I couldn’t be happier about it. Swirling elements of shoegaze and emo within each song, singer/multi-instrumentalist Nikki Esposito wears her heart on her sleeve with crushing lyrics centering on anxiety, relationships fading away, and body dysmorphia. Esposito will undoubtedly create a stir within the music scene in the near future…and on TikTok.
Describing himself as “Death Cab for Country,” Stephen Wilson, Jr. has all the makings of the old school classic country artists for today’s listener. Channeling all sides of the singer/songwriter, søn of dad is a 22-song tribute to Wilson’s late father, who passed away exactly five years to the day of release date. Singles like “patches” and “Father’s Son” are bold in every sense of the word; each are emotionally charged with booming drums and vintage guitar chords that also accompany Wilson’s wavering vocals to perfection. I won’t hide the fact that I broke down a few times listening to søn of dad. I recalled some of the moments that nearly broke us apart while also recounting the moment that he held my son for the first time. Wilson, Jr. is one of the best modern day storytellers and his latest album is proof of such.
I’m here to declare that Ratboys need to be given their flowers more than they do. Having discovered their music a few years ago with tracks such as “Alien With A Sleep Mask On” and “Elvis is in the Freezer” I couldn’t help but be giddy when I was notified that the Chicago-based ensemble was dropping The Window earlier this year. The band packed up their equipment and headed West to work with Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie. The Window breathes new life into the band’s library, with a heavy dose of experimentation within their sound. Rototoms, fiddles, and talkboxes were incorporated into the recording process while allowing influences from Brainiac to Sloan to also have a spot within the proceedings. The Window feels as if we are hearing Ratboys being the most vulnerable that they have ever been.
Go ahead and write this down: I will be forever throwing albums from The National within my top albums of the year. It’s not hard to understand why; the collective of artists that created this stellar project collectively push the boundaries of making some of the most compelling music to ever be made. The narrative approach that Matt Berninger presents within his lyrics is awe-inspiring and resonates within you so deeply. In my opinion, First Two Pages of Frankenstein is undoubtedly the band’s magnum opus and a refreshing restart for a band that seemingly has locked in their place within the history books. Maintaining their signature brooding backdrop comes outside voices that spreads the wealth equally. “Tropical Morning News” will be forever a single that I will press repeat again and again. The relationship with Phoebe Bridgers and The National feels like a match made of heaven.
Ladies and gentlemen… allow me to introduce to the album of the year. Rat Saw God taps into those pre-adolescent days back in the 90s where you threw zero fucks up in the air and allowed the murkiness to settle in. Rat Saw God’s opener “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” sets the tone earlier with a frenetic energy of crashing guitars, wailing vocals, and pounding drums. Then comes “Bull Believer,” a classic Breeders-influenced banger that is eight-plus minutes of pure anarchy. Lyrically, Karly Hartzman presents impeccable characters of people that we have all come across in our lives. Fuck… I wish I could go back and experience the feelings that presented themselves when I first listened to this album. Rat Saw God will go down as easily one of the all-time favorites.
Swooping in with components of shoegaze, jangly pop, and 90s college rock, Philadelphia rock outfit Golden Apples’ newest effort features the band being on the top of their game. I couldn’t help but fall within the comfortable embrace of the instrumentals and the sugary vocal presence. Lyrically, the album is imbued with a sense of positivity that feels as unabashed as it is uncynical. Overall, Golden Apples have curated a full-fledged indie rock album that is all parts open-hearted and intimate.
Gal Pal – This and Other Getures (self-released)
At the peak of being in my twenties, I was at best going about life with such recklessness and void of thinking about what was to come later in the future. Maturity was nowhere close to coming around. For the group Gal Pal a concoction of life-altering experiences along with trying to find balance within themselves came to the forefront when writing This and Other Gestures. The maturity and growth of each member shines brightly throughout the new material. Sprawling synths, sharpened guitar riffs, and shadowy vocals signify a turning point for Gal Pal. My biggest takeaway from This and Other Gestures is the coolness that each of the tracks present while still feeling pretentious. Adulthood looks good on Gal Pal.
Nick & June – Beach Baby, Baby (self-released)
I dare you to not fall madly in love with the overwhelming charismatic Nick & June. Together, this duo has masterfully released an album that taps into a beautifully orchestrated blend of songs that left me utterly breathless. The chemistry between the duo is truly what stands out. The textured synths, trembling organ, and rhythmic drums are dazzling and multi-layered. Nick & June hypnotized me with enchanting covers of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “Starman,” along with the wistful vibes of “Anything But Time.” My favorite offering comes in the way of “Hugh Grant & His Consequences,” a track that should find itself within the ending of a flawless dramatic film.
Cutting their teeth within the DIY community throughout South Carolina, Whitehall has skillfully mastered the release of an album that was one of the most delightful listens all year. The ensemble managed to string me along with producing a sound that lugged me back to the glory days of discovering Pavement with heavy distorted guitars, striking drums, and hazy vocals. At times I felt that there was a pinch of slacker rock to the proceedings but then you get waves of lush instrumentals in songs like “My Head Is New York” and “Always Here.” Maizy is arguably one of the most underrated albums to drop this year.
Babygirl – Be Still My Heart (Sandlot)
Surrounded by fuzzy guitar riffs and deeply introspective lyrics, Toronto-based Babygirl’s latest EP deeply moved me to my core. It teleported me back to the days of growing up and facing all the complex emotions and uncertainties centering all around love. I couldn’t help but fall into pieces when hearing one of the strongest tracks of the EP “Me, You & My Car.” The part of the song featuring the following lyric “Don’t know where we are and that’s my favourite part/Open up the roof and stare at the stars/After dark it’s just/Me you and my car” is an absolute dagger to my heart. Babygirl have been slowly making a name for themselves and rightfully so.