9 Bands: Songs That Have Made Our Year…So Far

It’s been an interesting year so far for music. The national scene has seen the surprising emergence of Adele as a superstar, the reaffirmation of Lady Gaga, and the inevitable ascendence of Nicki Minaj. The indie scene has witnessed a great first album from James Blake, a great second album from Cut Copy, and great fiftieth albums from the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie. Fortunately, I think the local Austin scene has been even more vibrant, with great albums from the likes of the Great Nostalgic and the Midgetmen, and fantastic EPs from stalwarts like the Boxing Lesson and No Mas Bodas. There’s even been room for up-and-comers like James and the Douchebags and La Snacks. We’ve tried to chronicle it all here at OVRLD, and at this midway point in the year, we are taking a moment to reflect on all of the glory of our local musicians.

For those of you who missed our first installment in the 9 Bands series, you should look here for an explanation of why we have chosen that as a designation. And once you’ve appreciated our cleverness, look below for the semi-annual awards for Songs That Have Made Our Year So Far. The big caveat here is, of course, that we have not heard everything. If you know of a song that we have overlooked, please send it to us or include it in the comments. This, however, is a reflection of OVRLD’s year so far:

Best Use of a Horn Section:
“She’s So Scandolous” by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
There are several songs off of BJL’s 2011 album, Scandalous, that deserve some sort of mention, but the de facto title track takes the cake. The song’s steady build from drums to funky guitar to slithering bass to the slow reveal of the horn section effectively builds the danceable tension. But the song reaches another level when the verse’s horn part – an intricate clipped staccato – transforms into the soaring legato of the chorus at the 1:06 mark. The delineation of these two sections, aided by Lewis’ urgent vocal delivery, lifts this song from mere funk bliss to full-on pop masterpiece.

Black Joe Lewis - She's So Scandalous

Best Invocation of the 70s Rock Vibe:
“Downtown Girl” by Not in the Face
I’m aware that this song first appeared last year, even winning Republic of Austin’s Single of the Year in 2010. However, it remains the centerpiece of NitF’s 2011 full-length, and many people are only now getting exposed to it. Plus, it is a kick-ass song. Singer Jonathan Terrell channels Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, the punks, the glams and the new wavers into a perfect amalgamation of the isolation, melancholy and despair that each of these songwriters conveyed in all of their best tracks. He effectively uses the second-person perspective in his lyrics to impart the emotions onto the listener, and couches it all in a catchy and original melody. If only all rock carried this much raw emotion…

Not in the Face - Downtown Girl

Best 80s Flashback:
“Inside Out” by Sad Accordions
Feeding off a mix of The Cure, The Replacements, and every jangle-pop garage band with a dream and a fuzz pedal, Sad Accordions channel the best of 80s guitar rock. The song’s dynamics rise and fall with the fickleness of a heart in the early stages of a promising relationship as Seth Woods declares, “I’m burning from the inside out.” It has the potential to sound like just another trite pop-song declaration, but the band’s passion infuses the song with an honesty that translates into an undeniably catchy anthem.

Sad Accordions - Inside Out

Best 90s Revival:
“Imagine Hearts” by Ringo Deathstarr
The 80s vibe has been mined for years now, but the 90s are only now returning to the forefront of the indie scene, and no song better embodies that then “Imagine Hearts.” In fact, there are three or four songs off of RD’s excellent 2011 album, Colour Trip, that could vie for a spot on this list, but this one has most taken me. It might be the My Bloody Valentine-esque dreamy female lead vocals, or the metronomic early-90s funk of the drum track, or the general assault of the winding guitar parts, but something about this lead-off track just nails the vibe of non-Nirvana early-90s rock music. The entire Colour Trip album is worth checking out, but “Imagine Hearts” is the thesis statement that the rest of the album ties back to.

Ringo Deathstarr - Imagine Hearts

Best Two-Chord Epic:
“Chandeliers” by the Dark Water Hymnal
It may seem odd to classify a 4-and-a-half-minute song as an epic, but “Chandeliers” is so much bigger than it’s running time. From the opening lines, “Masquerade is over / Glitter scattered across the floor,” you know that you’re in for a treatise on Aftermath. The song ends up exploring the depths of the Morning After in all of its glory and regret. The two-chord structure allows for an aching melody and a burning arrangement that could soundtrack every life-changing hangover you’ve ever had.

Dark Water Hymnal - Chandeliers

Best Piece of Pure Pop:
“Air Balloon” by The Shears
This might be a bit of a disingenuous category, but the Shears make the kind of rock music that should still be getting played on the radio – if top 40 even played rock anymore. It’s upbeat, centered around some killer synthesizers, features a charismatic female lead singer, and is ultimately catchy as hell. On countless mornings when I didn’t want to yet face the day but knew I needed to rise, this was the song I turned to in order to motivate myself to greet the day. Though the lyrics indicate that it’s a bitter kiss-off to a pompous ex-lover, “Air Balloon” is the kind of pop joy that is impossible to ignore. This earworm will be stuck in your head for days, and is a much more welcome addition to your cerebral jukebox than anything that Katy Perry has to offer.

The Shears - Air Balloon

Best Vocal Performance:
“Raincloud” by Suzanna Choffel
This category is also a bit misleading. In fact, Choffel’s vocal take is enhanced by her expert backing band and the quality of the arrangement (done by Danny Reisch and Choffel herself). The horns here get down and dirty, each seemingly going off on its own tangent to raise the emotional stakes – a la “Life in a Glass House” from Radiohead – while riding a funky handclap beat reminiscent of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree.” What ultimately sells the track, though, is Choffel’s own performance. Her voice alternates between sultry and desperate, playing off the beat in varied and fascinating ways. When she hits the chorus around the 1:25 mark, her voice matches the intensity of the horns in ways that only the most seasoned of vocalists often achieve. That she is still so new on the scene bodes well for Choffel’s future output.

Suzanna Choffel - Raincloud

Best Lyrics:
“Mermaid” by Okkervil River
I know this is a pretty bold category to include, but all you have to do is take one listen to this Okkervil River B-side to appreciate its genius. Certainly the musicians and overall arrangement deserve credit for such an emotionally stirring song, but Will Sheff’s description of his captive prize – “She’s pretty I think / With her hair dark as ink / And her belly bone-white / And her lips of a slight seashell pink,” among other gems – lift this into the realm of the sublime. When the song swells into its inevitable climax, Sheff masterfully evokes sympathy for his despicable narrator as well as the titular victim of this fantastical tale. It’s a masterclass in poetic songwriting that wasn’t even included on the very good I Am Very Far that Okkervil River put out this year. I haven’t heard the full album, but I can’t imagine one song more worthy, let alone eleven.

Okkervil River - Mermaid

Best Dance Floor Jam:
“Hot New Jam from ’73” by Fresh Millions
Fresh Millions are blatant in their cultural pilfering, but they have produced one of the hottest songs I’ve heard anywhere this year. As good as FM’s debut album was last year, this single represented a gigantic leap forward for the group. It’s a perfect integration of the Chromeo-esque talkbox vocals with the synthesized funk that this trio of musicians excels at producing. The veracity of their claim that this song comes straight from a time machine trip to the 70s is certainly debatable – I don’t think anything this fresh was coming out in 1973 (though Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Al Green’s Call Me come close). Instead this is an entirely 21st century joyride that draws from the 70s for inspiration, producing a wholly original party jam.

Fresh Millions - Hot New Jam from '73