10. Tiger Waves - "Weekends"
It’s really staggering how well this song holds up after repeated listens. It’s like Animal Collective covering the Beach Boys, with washes of vocal harmonies welcoming you almost from the start (Beach Boys) and continuing as the song teeters along on a jagged percussion line (Animal Collective). The lyrics are incredibly sweet (“I want to be your favorite love / Touch the skin on your neck and make you shiver / On and on and on”), but illustrate how love is an abstract concept that must operate in the very real realm of human error (“And you made a mess of the situation / ‘Cause you always make a mess of every situation”). It becomes clear that the singer and the subject are equally to be blame, and the song is then a beautiful celebration of just how tenuous the beautiful things in life really are.
9. Bobby Jealousy - "Rainbow"
This song sounds exactly like a song entitled “Rainbow” should sound. Starting off with an acapella harmony of the title word that stretches it out into ten syllables, “Rainbow” illustrates everything amazing about Bobby Jealousy. This is a band that somehow uses the phrase “everybody’s dying inside” as the peppy lead-in to a joyful chorus, and makes it sound perfectly normal. There’s really no way to describe the intense optimism and positivity embedded throughout this track, and in a time when such unabashedly happy sounds tend to be eschewed “Rainbow” is like a breath of fresh air.
8. Shearwater - "Animal Life"
From the opening notes of this stellar track, you know you’re about to experience something beautiful. It’s not quite heart-breaking beauty or breathtaking beauty, but rather the kind of simple beauty for experiencing something elegant, impeccable and epic. Stately squalls of noise meet crystal clear piano notes in an incremental orgy of sound. At the center of it all is Jonathan Meiburg’s inimitable voice, unnatural in its pristine perfection. He delivers his impressionistic lyrics (“I held your name inside my mouth through all the days of wandering”) with the kind of passion you might bring to a romantic plea, and which he uses to paint a potent aural picture.
7. Mobley - "Torch"
It’s hard to articulate just how right “Torch” gets it. It’s danceable from the start and carries an infectious energy from start to finish. But it’s the little things that really elevate this song, like how at the 38-second mark they bring in an extra layer of percussion and a distorted guitar lead that give the song an unexpected edge. There’s the weird, fluid keyboard effects in the second verse, making it much different from the first. Singer Anthony Watkins II plays with words remarkably well, matching the phrase “tongue tied taken” with “shell shocked shaken” across different verses, for example. There are not a lot of bands anywhere, let alone in Austin, combining dance and rock this well.
6. Shivery Shakes - "Stay Young"
First and foremost, this is a love song. However, it is disguised as a sloppy garage rock song celebrating the joys of youth. There are thousands of those kinds of songs being made right now, but the fact that Shivery Shakes are able to incorporate such frank romantic sentiments helps them stand out. Throughout the song, William Glosup worries about how age and time will inevitably corrupt the purity of the bond he feels with the song’s subject. At times despondent, Glosup eventually declares “I don’t want to know a world without you” in a naked display of sentiment amongst his insecurities. “If we can stay this way, maybe we can stay together,” Glosup sings, and we’re left with that uncertainty casting a pall over the sunny musical backbone.
5. Marmalakes - "Canvases of Lakes"
The Poet Laureate of Hyde Park strikes again. Chase Weinacht, singer/guitarist/songwriter for Marmalakes, continues to reach new levels of sophistication with his songwriting. “Canvases of Lakes” is full of rich imagery as Weinacht frequently conflates painting nature with nature itself. What’s lost just by focusing on the lyrics, though, is the movement of the music. “Canvases” lacks any sort of hook; instead, it delivers masterful musical moments, kicking off with Simon & Garfunkel-inspired arpeggios and ending with a breathtaking sequence that abandons any structured sense of rhythm. In between, Marmalakes use their group harmonies and remarkable instrumental control to construct an infinitely delicate piece that rewards repeated close listens with its structural experimentation. It’s scary to think about what Weinacht and company will be able to accomplish as they continue.
4. Hundred Visions - "Where Do I Sign?"
We were at first inclined to select “Last Cab From Tunis” for this list, but refrained because it was technically released on Hundred Visions’ EP last year before its inclusion on this year’s Permanent Basement. Thank God we did, because it led us to this unbelievable gem of a rock song. From nearly the opening seconds of the track straight through to the end, Hundred Visions never let their foot off the gas. It’s pure, unadulterated rock from the root notes in the bass to Ben Maddox’s voice losing control right before each chorus. The frantic energy is almost too much to handle for the listener, but the band remains completely in control throughout. And it isn’t really important what a line like, “Sharp as an egg white” means, because a song like this is about as good as rock n’ roll gets.
3. Gary Clark Jr. - "When My Train Pulls In"
On Blak and Blu, Clark explored a wide range of styles to varying degrees of success. He’s clearly much more than a pure bluesman, but, for the moment, the blues is what he does best. “When My Train Pulls In,” like last year’s “Bright Lights,” creates an unmistakable atmosphere of dread around a traditional blues structure without ever falling into cliche. He never tries to recreate train sounds, for example, as so many guitarists would be tempted to do in a song with “train” in the title. Clark instead knows that the song is really about mortality and uses his guitar solos to wrestle with the competing emotions of fear and acceptance that can surround such a sensitive subject. As the song progresses, Clark’s solo gets more unhinged, ricocheting through registers and tempos, attacking expectations for what you’d expect from a “blues” song, and ultimately suggesting that when his voice declares, “I’ll be ready when my train pulls in,” he isn’t actually so certain.
2. The Eastern Sea - "The Match"
There are so many songs from Plague that could be considered one of the ten best songs of the year, but “The Match” – the album’s centerpiece – perfectly illustrates the impeccable power of which The Eastern Sea are capable. There is power in the way the song starts quietly with just one repeated note (a pedal tone that will remain through the entire first three verses) and Matt Hines’ fragile voice describing a fleeting remembered moment (“On the front porch in our coats / Catching colds through cigarettes”). And there is an entirely different kind of power in the time-shifting percussive outro that is just Hines’ voice and an array of drums and bells. “Is it us or is it them?” Hines asks, undercutting the physical power of the percussion with the inherent emotional power of doubt and insecurity. “Is it you or is it me?” “The Match” is effectively a master class on songwriting, as its multiple shades of ambiguity consistently reward.
1. Dana Falconberry - "Petoskey Stone"
All of Falconberry’s Leelanau album is a masterpiece, but “Petoskey Stone” is in an entirely different league. It’s like a thesis statement for the young singer-songwriter in so many ways. Musically, she illustrates her true command of her craft, as she employs the use of a harp, string quartet, guitar, multiple forms of auxiliary percussion, flutes, and countless other slight accoutrements, all building and winding around each other in gorgeously complementary counterpoints. Alternately she can focus on any one of these instruments to deliver the main musical melody – or none of them at all. In a bracing middle section, she abandons everything that has built up in the first two and a half minutes in favor of a more free-flowing structure. Patiently she reconstructs a new version of the track in a shimmering bridge that makes the return to the previous instrumentation two minutes later a welcome release.
Lyrically, Falconberry proves masterful as well. As we wrote in our original review of Leelanau: “On its surface the song is about taking a walk along a northern Michigan beach, featuring hills, beaches, eagles and many other natural markers. The chorus, though, brings the song from the specific to the universal. It suggests that there are places or situations that intrinsically ground us, to which we can turn when we somehow veer off course. “And in my left hand / a Petoskey stone,” sings Falconberry. It may seem like nothing until you realize that a Petoskey stone is secretly a fossil. It seems like any other rock, but carries within it the remains of natural elements no longer at home in the Michigan areas where it exists. In the song’s specific meaning it grounds Falconberry to the landscape of her childhood, and in the universal meaning the stone represents all of the hidden layers of ourselves, long buried, that nevertheless persist as beautiful reminders of our history. As the song closes, Falconberry envisions a version of her own epitaph, wondering about her own small place in such a large world. The stone then illustrates that even the smallest creatures can live on far past anything they might have imagined.”
“Petoskey Stone” remains the single most striking five minutes set to tape this year in Austin, and is a powerful and moving display of skill from one of the most promising young artists in town.