This series of three posts (Part 2 and Part 3) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, as we move into the new year this is an effort to round up 30 excellent releases from last year that deserve attention but due to time constraints we just couldn't get around to penning full-fledged reviews for. Enjoy, and happy new year everybody.
Timbre // Sun & Moon
When Nashville harpist and composer Timbre Cierpke set out to make a record inspired by the George MacDonald fairy tale The Day Boy and the Night Girl, she took the Peter Jackson approach, turning the slim 60-page volume into a huge, sprawling double album. But unlike Jackson's recent Hobbit films, Sun & Moon is a rousing success, one that's enjoyed best when you have a spare two hours to fully appreciate the record's epic sweep and singular synthesis of "harp rock" and classical. Female harpists working in pop music have a tough row to hoe thanks to their default label of "Not-Joanna Newsom", but Sun and Moon's ambition is so huge and its execution so sound that it can't be described as anything but "Timbre".
Half-handed Cloud // Foiled N°2 EP
John Ringhofer aka Half-handed Cloud has over the last decade been quietly amassing a parallel discography. His self-released Homemade series of EPs is scrappier than the full-lengths released by Asthmatic Kitty, and they play like pages from an audio sketchbook. Each track on Foiled N°2 (and its sister, Foiled N°1) is a brief sound-collage, and the ramshackle instrumentation, knit together with John's sing-song recitation of Pauline epistles by squealing tape transitions, is a whimsical treat.
Josh Garrels // Home
Portland's Josh Garrels has always had more of a soul inflection to his voice than many of his white-guy-plus-guitar songwriter contemporaries, but where that sound used to bleed in at the edges of previous records like Love & War & the Sea In Between, for 2015's Home he let it soak for a good long time. Home has the sound of a confident musician stretching himself and enjoying the hell out of it, like on "The Arrow", where the singer lets loose with some seriously funky yowls that reach way up into the upper register. Another highlight is the silky "Heaven's Knife", where Garrels reenacts the divine surgery in Genesis 2, proving again that he's a true romantic with the knack for a killer love song.
Ivan & Alyosha // It's All Just Pretend
Seattle's Ivan & Alyosha curry enough favor already with their Brothers K-derived band name, but their latest LP It's All Just Pretend is loaded with enough hooky indie pop to make anyone a convert. These guys are worthy tunesmiths, but their songwriting is enjoyably self-effacing, too - on the amusing "Bury Me Deep", lead singer Tim Wilson eschews blaming the usual culprits (society, money, God) owning up to his depravity. The same goes for the album's infectious title track, which features this refreshingly humble admonition: "If you find yourself between the dark and belief/Remember to think on your knees".
Geology // North
mewithoutYou's bassist Greg Jehanian had a busy year what with the release of Pale Horses, but he still found time to remix and add a couple tracks to his side/solo project Geology's North EP, bumping it up to full-length status. North is resolutely lo-fi rock with a folk bent, and Jehanian's textured guitar work and spiritually wonderstruck (as well as Flannery O'Connor-referencing) lyrics keep things interesting. One of the highlights is "G-Minor", which repurposes the opening track's energetic chorus as a broken-down slowcore jam. That track and the many other affecting moments like it are more than enough reason to hope Jehanian keeps up his geological endeavors in the future.
Torres // Sprinter
Torres' Sprinter is a drastic shift in tonal course and an excellent sophomore effort, but beneath that is a conflicted negotiation with her Baptist upbringing. Here, the Brooklyn musician doubles down on the intensity that defined her self-titled debut while merging her Van Etten-y sound with a malevolent garage-rock aesthetic that fits like a glove. It's no wonder a member of Portishead played a role in conjuring the inky grime this record is submerged in. On Sprinter, the songs are packed with biblical references, and Torres holds onto her faith ("If I don't believe then no one will," she intones on opener "Strange Hellos"). But she takes trenchant aim at hypocrisy in the Church, in the form of self-righteous, porn-addled preachers and conscious ignorance cloaked in belief: "If you've never known the darkness/Then you're the one who fears the most".
Lowland Hum // Lowland Hum
There may be no musical niche more difficult to gain distinction in than that of the husband-and-wife folk duo, but North Carolina's Lowland Hum are doing just fine with their self-titled debut LP. There are no attention-grabbing gambits on Lowland Hum - even its album art could hardly be more understated. Instead, Daniel and Lauren Goans rely on their easygoing musical charm and the intriguing, often oblique narratives of their songs. No wonder they sometimes dole out handmade lyric booklets at their live shows. But there's no mistaking the repeated refrain on the album's devastating closer "Under the Rub", where Lowland Hum put their finger on the plainest symptom of our universal spiritual sickness: "I can't stop looking at my cellphone/Can't stop looking at my cellphone".
JGivens // Fly Exam
Las Vegas rapper JGivens' Fly Exam is tough to separate from the flurry of memorable music videos Humble Beast released in the lead-up to the album, but the solid final product suggests he's found a fitting new home at the label. Givens' previous record, El v. Envy featured an overload of hyped-up samples clipped from everything up-to-and-including Disney scores, but Fly Exam dials that flashy approach back, keeping the focus on the MC's intricate bars that he packs in between the beats like sardines. Givens' lyrical complexity rewards repeat listens, and the Icarus-like tale he spins is memorable, arcing from prideful swagger to eventual comeuppance at gravity's hands. As Givens would say, thank God for jetpacks.
Sara Groves // Floodplain
There is something superheroic about Sara Groves - she's somehow been standing tall for almost a decade and a half, creating album after elegant, uncompromised album in the CCM wasteland even as that particular industry came down around her ears. Now, at 43, Groves is nothing short of a master songwriter, and on Floodplain she exudes musical confidence, knowing exactly when to let a folky instrumental linger or to clip a chorus short for maximum effect. Each track is loaded with a life's worth of wisdom, worry, and joy, but Groves carries them off with such a deft touch they seem featherweight. And the insights she laces her songs with seem less like a clever songwriting than implicit, divine truths we didn't realize we were privy to until she pointed them out.
Bill Fay // Who is the Sender?
Bill Fay's story has some striking similarities to another Christian folk musician from the 70s, Linda Perhacs, whose commercial failure of a sole album accrued cult status over the ensuing four decades and paved the way for a wonderful late-life effort in the 2010s. After a 41-year interval, the English Fay released his third album, Life Is People, in 2012. Even more than that record, Who Is the Sender? is anchored by his ecstatically sad piano lines that fluidly loop and twist through the tracks, each one full of Fay's spiritual and social ruminations which are alternately despondent and brimming with transcendent hope. That hope is at its most fragile and brilliant on "Something Else Ahead", where Fay likens our cosmic myopia to fishes in a bowl, without an inkling of the wide world around them - it's a treasure of a song, and one of the year's very best.