The Unconventional Genius of Bubba Sparxxx

Hint: It’s not “Ms. New Booty”

I’ll start with this: I’ve spent my entire life in suburban Wisconsin. I grew up listening to punk rock and metalcore. I spent much of my time on creative endeavors rather than physical ones. All this to say, I might be one of the last people you’d expect to talk about Bubba Sparxxx.

Indeed, there probably is not much that Bub and I have in common by any stretch, what with his primary focus on Southern and rural culture. Thematically, it’s completely foreign to me. But the powerful thing about art is it’s able to transcend some of these barriers.

You may know Bubba Sparxxx for his hit, “Ms. New Booty”. The track dropped in 2005, and it took off pretty well. Perhaps the inclusion of the Ying Yang Twins on the song had something to do with this.

However, that’s probably where most people’s knowledge of Bubba Sparxxx ends. To the uninitiated, he dropped a song about hitting the club, looking at butts, and “rockin’ everywhere”. And that alone fails to impress the critic in me. It’s a base effort with a fairly commercial slant to it. The music video attempts to impress some added meaning about body positivity, but let’s be honest: it’s at a best a party track, and at worst, a song for thirsty dudes to bump-n-grind to. To distill Sparxxx’s identity to the content of the track is remiss.

Here are a few quick facts. Sparxxx’s real name is Warren Anderson Mathis. He was born in the late 70s in LaGrange, GA (about an hour southwest of Atlanta). LaGrange’s population is in the mid 20,000s, so it’s not completely rural, those it certainly has a plurality of staple Southern restaurants like Chick-Fil-A (bless up). It is unlikely that Sparxxx has access to “playa’s clubs” in LaGrange.

But one thing he did have access to was hip-hop. His start was mostly with west coast acts. And let’s not overlook the fact that there was already hip-hop in the South; Outkast was from nearby Atlanta. This ended up being foundational for his later life.

Sparxxx moved several times throughout the South and eventually found success in Athens. This may seemed drawn-out or regurgitation of a Wikipedia article (which, let’s be honest, it kind of is) but there is a point to all of this. Sparxxx’s Southern roots are undeniably authentic, his interest in hip-hop had deep roots back before trap-type beats even existed, but it’s hard to discern just how rural his actual experience was. We’ll dive into why this is important shortly.

Sparxxx’s career was largely contingent on Timbaland’s production, and even his earliest releases don’t feel entirely estranged from the larger hip-hop scene. Sure, his lyrics have been referential to his Southern surroundings at times, but these were woven authentically into albums that were, frankly, just rap. It wasn’t until the 2010s where his music started to deviate a bit, incorporating banjo and other country and bluegrass instrumentation fully. This is also around the time where new country-rap artists where on the rise, and Sparxxx was no enemy of collaboration.

Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert released “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2008, but it wasn’t until Jason Aldean’s version surfaced in 2010 that it really found success in the mainstream. And this is perhaps the most pivotal point of this entire conversation – bro-country has been scorned for being generic, disingenuous, inhumane. This is only augmented by a dude in a cowboy hat and tight jeans attempting to rap about the most cliché Southern things. It’s catchy to the point that most listeners won’t even process the absurdity of what’s happening here. But, as mainstream country loves to do, appropriating yet another genre isn’t surprising – there are plenty of great small and independent country acts out in the world, but most of what you’ll hear on the radio is just “pop with twang”.

Now, the original song is perhaps less egregious to some degree since Colt Ford is known for his country-rap elements. But at this point, Bubba Sparxx has almost a decade of rap cred cemented in several albums of material. The country-rap premise had arguably been tried and tested for years now, and it did fine with what it had. It’s akin to the popification of worship music; the substance was inherent but it needed to be repurposed for commercial means.

Most genres seem to come in waves, and the early 2010s was a second wave of country-rap; arguably, this is when it shifted to what many know as hick-hop. And that name alone should tell us something.

While Sparxxx’s music has not always taken itself too seriously, these following waves read more like parody. It’s founded on self-deprecation. It feels like a Mad Libs sheet filled in with country clichés stolen from Luke Bryan songs. Ultimately, it’s no longer rap with country elements. It’s country songs in rap form.

I’m not arguing that Bubba Sparxxx is one of the greatest modern rappers, but he certainly was a forerunner in his own right. His music is certainly not perfect and it’s not without its own clichés, but it’s also the kind of music he loved. It’s not on par with the bastardization that is Zac Brown Band’s The Owl, a terrifying frankenstein of country and the indescribable ingredients of a hotdog. Rather, Sparxxx crafted songs that, while quirky at times, are arguably no stranger than what we’ve seen from some of rap’s most popular icons. They just happened to have Southern influence. And while Sparxxx may have done a bit of pandering in the recent years as well, in his most unobserved stage of his career, things never felt gimmicky.

So, the genius of Bubba Sparxxx really isn’t built on some secret ingredient. He managed to stand out in the scene because of his background, connections, and authenticity. Hip-hop is a genre with a lot of history and ethnic roots and it’s counter-cultural for white, Southern men (the unfortunate stereotype of racism and prejudice) to participate in this verbal ceremony. There’s a tradition to be respected, an art to be honored. And seeing country musicians shameless twist this into music that is often antithetical to the cultures which created propagated hip-hop to begin with is uncomfortable.

Bubba Sparxxx ultimately managed to help bring forth a whole wave of Southern artists who were eager to put their own take on hip-hop, and it probably wasn’t even intentional. Whether or not you actually like Sparxxx’s music, his approach is noteworthy. It’s certainly more organic than what has come to pass in recent years.

Review: Start A Fire That Sings You A Song by Social Caterpillar

FFO: folk punk, chamber pop, post-rock

“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.

Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.

The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.

As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.

Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.

“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.

“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.

“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.

The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.

With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.

The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole

So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.

However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.

Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.

Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.

Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand-Out)

Everything Matthew Milia Won't Talk About

Frontier Ruckus is known for some deeply personal lyrical motifs, but even they still leave some points unaddressed.

Frontier Ruckus is a band that thrives as much on its lyrics as it does on its instrumental arrangements. Frontman Matthew Milia’s lyrics oscillate with ease better utter specificity (typically involving references to his home state of Michigan) and broad, speculative poetry. Even so, there are some things Milia just won’t talk about – and he has kindly laid these out for us in his lyrics. So, without further ado, here is a list of (mostly) everything Matthew Milia won’t tell us.

  1. Who killed who in a Top 40s country song
  2. All the sins he’s committed with a straight face
  3. How he abandoned his only companion
  4. What he farmed in his nightmares
  5. How he could be loved with all the phantoms in his mind
  6. The things rotting in the back of Kohl’s
  7. What they got from Little Caesars for the birthday party
  8. When Jacqueline is coming home
  9. What the glass in his friend’s eye implies
  10. If “it” is worth
  11. If he can bear the typos on the menu
  12. The secrets about Rebecca’s sister
  13. What it means to “go it alone”
  14. If his friend’s dad falls asleep holding the remote
  15. What he found in the woods behind the Taco Bell
  16. If the microphone is malfunctioning or broken
  17. If sad modernity has had its turn with his companion
  18. The joke that woke him up
  19. What made his special day dim
  20. If the “Queen of the downgrade” got paid for “making beds”
  21. If he got reimbursed for $27
  22. What the $27 is for
  23. If his friend’s dad found work on Craigslist
  24. If his friend made it back to the night of bluish black

And that’s about sums it up. Will we ever get answers or another Frontier Ruckus record? Only time will tell.

Review: Vampire Empire by Glowbug

Glowbug has been consistently crafting experimental electronic music for the past decade, and it has been quite a journey. But rather than shift directions entirely, it seems that each album manages to supplement a strong core sound with new elements that makes Glowbug hard to classify. There are elements of chillwave, hip-hop, alt-rock, post-hardcore, chiptune, and so much more at play. Put simply, Glowbug makes synth-pop that packs a punch and will probably appeal to fans of rock more than those of dance music.

At large, the Glowbug discography is patchy. I certainly consider myself a fan, but I’ve always been drawn to a couple songs here and there. Strangely enough, it was 2018’s Weezing, a tropical take on some Weezer classics, that really stood out to me. It was a style that doesn’t have a lot of direct competition, and the use of timpani and brass really gave it a refined edge.

It’s this sound that also serves as the primary base for Vampire Empire. Glowbug augments these elements with everything from Latin piano grooves, sultry falsetto, AWOLNATION-esque screams, and frenetic choruses and the end result is an album that seem more balanced than its predecessors. It’s not without highlight songs (“Love”, “Phantoms”, “Death Wish”, and “Time Bandits” are all exemplary) but the other tracks certainly aren’t far behind.

“Phantoms” feels like the best entry point for the album – while it wasn’t released as a single, it has all the right elements of one. A bassy synth intro bleeds into upbeat horns, cementing a warm feeling that embraces the whole album. The chorus is crazy in all the best ways, mixing one of the most rhythmically-compelling vocal parts of the album with some of the aforementioned screams. It’s also worth noting these screams are very brief and hidden under vocal processing, so you probably wouldn’t find people moshing here.

Lourdes Hernandez of Russian Red once again makes an appearance (“Lucky Me”, “Anatomy Art”) and is strong as always. She’s been featured on several previous Glowbug releases and has become a staple guest. “Anatomy Art” in particular is a groovy beast of a track and Hernandez definitely helps round it out.

Vampire Empire hardly feels like an appropriate title; there’s nothing bleak or foreboding here. Instead, start-to-finish, you’ll find 40 minutes of beachside bangers, shimmering with synths, brass, and Caribbean percussion. It’s the kind of music that perhaps feels out of place for this time of year, given the widespread cold we’re experiencing. But just maybe this is the cure to seasonal depression we’re been looking for.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Folklore by Suitor

An eerie canopy of distorted guitar and static vocals contorts in a titanic intro on Suitor’s debut release. The group, somehow more amorphous than its music, has no discernible social media or even a Bandcamp page, so it’s a mystery how I first caught wind of this release. Nonetheless, there’s something special about the mystery here – I’m reminded of Triple Crown’s Holy Fawn, with their foreboding shoegaze-meets-metal sound to some degree.

Suitor doesn’t share too much common blood with this sound, largely opting for a more standard indie/post-hardcore sound – but the opening combo of “Folklore” and “Deep Sleep” would have you convinced otherwise. It’s distorted, dissonant, and heavy. And while the vocals are much clearer than Holy Fawn’s reverby howls, there’s still an intensity here in the form of background shouts.

But “Simple Math” moves in another direction completely, opting for 80s-esque guitar lines and more of an arena rock vibe. “Deep Sleep” could easily be classified as punk, but “Simple Math” doesn’t venture much further than “rock”. It’s solo-heavy and anthemic but it’s also a very odd change of pace.

“Hands Off” retains the melodic force of “Simple Math” but drifts in yet another direction. It rests comfortable under the umbrella of emo-rock. It’s more refined than “Simple Math” and more melodic than “Deep Sleep”, putting it right in the middle of Suitor’s dynamic spectrum. However, that’s not a bad thing – “Hands Off” is a very palatable track.

The EP closes on “Creature”, which sits in a very similar spot with “Hands Off”. It’s another instrumental highlight.

Folklore would be a divisive EP on its own if we were to consider its subtle over-promising but the lyrics don’t help all that much to compensate. They seem to read like slightly more thought out relational clichés, and while Suitor plays in a style where lyrics tend to be second nature, this still works against them. Don’t get me wrong, there are much worse lyrics out there. But when an EP already feels somewhat disjointed, I’d love for some point of redemption to excuse some of the other elements.

All in all, Folklore is a decent EP. It feels well-produced and the band is talented – their stylistic inconsistencies actually reinforce this point. The biggest loss to Folklore is certainly the lack of cohesion, but the group certainly show promise as they delve into disparate sounds like punk and melodic indie – I’d just like to see some more continuity with any of these styles. It really did feel like a bait-and-switch scenario after the first two tracks and I would have enjoyed if the whole EP had stuck with that vibe. But for a first release, it’s definitely a good start and a few tweaks would really put Suitor in the running for a very solid next release.

Our Rating: 6.5 (Solid)

Playlist: 60 Highlight Tracks of 2019

Admittedly, I a large fan of albums – especially large, cohesive ones. But the modern music landscape is in a constant flux. The rise of streaming has resulted in a rising popularity in singles; other artists have opted for EPs as a way to release music more regularly and offset some of the recording cost. Ultimately, it’s a semi-hedonistic influence centered around instant gratification to some extent. In other respects, it’s a competitive pressure that pushes artists to be more strategic about their work from multiple angles rather than allow them to feel entitled to a listener base.

In the true spirit of this trend, I’ve created a playlist of 60 songs I feel encapsulate the best of 2019. You can listen to it right here. The songs are in no particular order and span a variety of genres – as such, putting it on shuffle is advised.

Even so, it’s worth taking a look at what makes each of the tracks so special. So, again in no particular order, here’s a breakdown of the best songs of 2019.

  1. Anhedonia – Overslept

Overslept first sold me with their debut, I’ve Been Keeping to Myself. They’re certainly no victims to sophomore slump, releasing one of the highlight albums of the last few years. “Anhedonia” is perfect blend of technical indie rock and pop appeal, full of moments that are bound to get caught in your head.

2. Mother & Father Dearest – Former Wrestlers

Former Wrestlers is, in essence, a solo project – but you’d never tell just by listening. “Mother & Father Dearest” is a full, pop-punkish track with a strong groove, massive chorus, and plenty of other nuances. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it one incredibly fun song to sing along to.

3. Black Moon – Instant Empire

Instant Empire is the kind of band that revels in nostalgia. “Black Moon” is a hazy, new wave-driven electropop track that is comfortably vulnerable and longingly-retrospective.

4. Loser Baby – La Bouquet

It’s a sure mystery how an acoustic guitar line full of harmonics would serve as the backbone to a synthpop track, but such is the case for “Loser Baby”. It’s a catchy track with an unconventional level of technicality that makes it truly stand out.

5. Companion – Tie Goes to the Runner

I’m a sucker for cinematic songs with dense layers, and Tie Goes to the Runner hits all the right notes with “Companion”. It’s sort of what you’d expect if Jimmy Eat World had continued with the sound of their earlier albums – somewhat emo indie rock that packs a punch.

6. Price – password:password

“Price” caught my attention with its lyrics about the cost of living, but it’s also a solid work as a whole. It’s a synth-laden track with ethereal vocals and plenty of dynamics. password:password should definitely be on your radar if you enjoy energetic electronic indie with female vocals.

7. Make Us Famous – Ernest

“Show me that check, let’s get rich.” Mark Daly of Madaila has emerged with the payday anthem of the year. Enough said.

8. Space by Your Side – Stolen Jars

I wasn’t a huge fan of Stolen Jars’ latest album as a whole, but “Space by Your Side” definitely shows the best of what the band has to offer. It’s a percussive track with tight drumming and layered vocals. It has a lot of the energy the band is known for, paired with some powerful lyrics as well.

9. Spark, Set Fire – The Western Den

I discovered The Western Den via Audiotree and this was the first track that caught my attention. It’s a relaxed, folk/singer-songwriter track but it’s still enchanting in its own right. It’s proof that sometimes less truly is more.

10. The Comedown – Bravely

Bravely is a side-project of Matthew Smith of Hodera, and his songwriting follows a similar vein on “The Comedown”. It may be a bit subdued in some respects compared to Hodera, but the emotional core, lyrical focus, and tight instrumentation is remains intact.

11. Demons – MOIRA

MOIRA has returned from several quiet years with a pair of new tracks. “Demons” is cinematic and haunting. Even though the drums are fairly sparse, layered synth and guitar manage to provide a huge wave of aggression on their own. Ultimately, it’s an experimental track that reminds me a bit of something you might find from Polyenso.

12. Just Sign the Papers – Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties

It turns out that songs about divorce can be upbeat and catchy. The brass section on the chorus is impeccable, the tempo is fast, the energy is high. It’s one of the more mainstream releases that managed to leave a lasting impact with me.

13. Rewire – Holden Laurence

Holden Laurence is an enigmatic figure that I’ve admittedly never followed all-too-closely. Nonetheless, his songs always seem to come my way eventually. “Rewire” is a natural evolution from his first album – Laurence’s baritone voice paired with retro-styled instrumentation is a formula that continues to just work.

14. Stann Creek – Street Names

The local Wisconsin emo scene has grown over the past few years, and Street Names is a welcome addition to the expanding roster. With their latest EP, they find themselves alongside bands like Stalgic and Bottom of the Lake with a strong mix of alt-rock catchiness and some of the edge of post-hardcore.

15. Reap What You Sow – Better Off

Better Off is a recent discovery, but “Reap What You Sow” is the kind of track that leaves an immediate impact. It’s undeniably modern, but it seems to borrow from early 00s mainstream rock. It’s packed with energy and strong vocal hooks.

16. Moon – The Y Axes

The Y Axes is certainly an interesting band, tending to dabble with sci-fi-themed songs and Doctor Who references. “Moon” is a synth-immersed rock track with immaculate production that serves as a perfect entry point to the band’s discography.

17. No Age – Rich People

Rich People has always been a band known for explosive songs. They’ve taken things up a notch with “No Age”, a noticeably poppier track than their previous track. That’s definitely not to a fault as it quickly made its way to one of my most-played tracks of the year.

18. Ruby – Origami Angel

There are only so many songs based off Pokémon games. This one just happens to be pretty mathy. “Ruby” is under 90 seconds, but it manages to cover a ton of ground all the same.

19. Resistance – Old Sea Brigade

Old Sea Brigade released one of the earliest albums of the year that stuck with me. While it’s a mixed bag, “Resistance” stood out as an immediate favorite. There’s a bit of Caribbean flavor in some of the synths and even the reverb on the drums is compelling. It’s not an easy track to label, but it’s definitely worth a listen.

20. Safety – Birthday Wish

Birthday Wish has a unique blend of post-punk nostalgia paired with plenty of modern influence. “Safety” is a standout track from their latest EP, but this is certainly a band that deserves a bit of a deeper dive.

21. Quiet Light – The National

While The National is probably an outlier to most bands on this list compared to popularity, I Am Easy to Find is a stand-out album with its immense orchestration and guest appearances. “Quiet Light” thrives off its tight drumming paired with somewhat-minimalist vibe. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that never feels too abrasive.

22. It Hurts – Graveyard Club

Graveyard Club really nailed this track – it’s fast, hazy, and catchy. It’s one of the best songs the group has penned to date.

23. Black Light – My Epic

My Epic have changed course a bit on Violence, but it’s a direction many fans have been longing for. “Black Light” sees the group return to the sound of their earlier releases, and it roars with post-hardcore tenacity.

24. Try Hard – Kevin Schlereth

Kevin Schlereth and Jay Costlow have arguably topped their previous work on this single track. “Try Hard” starts strong and never loses steam, adding more layers as it goes on. Tight drumming, vocal layers, and some other production nuances give this song a lot to love.

25. Mattress on the Floor – Have Mercy

Have Mercy is another signed band that made my list. “Mattress on the Floor” has a strong instrumental hook that carries the song. Pair that with some subtle lyrical motifs and strong drumming and you’ll find a sentimental, groovy track.

26. Thirteen O’Clock – Pleasures of the Flesh

Pleasures of the Flesh is a band that is very hard to place. They borrow elements from hardcore and post-punk and mesh them together for songs that sound somewhat like what you might expect from Fugazi if they decided to use a copious amount of chorus. No matter what you call it, it’s a unique sound that doesn’t seem to have a lot of company.

27. John Hughes Movie Soundtrack -EXNATIONS

Picking a single EXNATIONS song to feature isn’t easy, but “John Hughes Movie Soundtrack” is a stand-out song with excellent drumming, catchy guitar hooks, glossy synths, and powerful narrative lyrics.

28. Whatever Makes You Mine – John Van Duesen

Sometimes, a track is needlessly-catchy and that’s all that matters. “Whatever Makes You Mine” has an incredible chorus and that alone cements it as a great song.

29. Time Well Spent – Silver & Gold

Silver & Gold have kept a decent pace for releasing new music, and each release has plenty to love. “Time Well Spent” showcases the band’s growth as they continue to perfect their songwriting.

30. Congratulations Honey – Matthew Milia

Frontier Ruckus cemented themselves as my most-listened band this past year. Frontman Matthew Milia is a master wordsmith, and his solo work carries this same linguistic reverence.

31. The Pushover – Idiot Pilot

I wasn’t too familiar with Idiot Pilot in their first run, but their unexpected return wasn’t a shabby time to acquaint myself. “The Pushover” is an alt-rock track that is obfuscated by synths and vocal effects. The result is a track that feels largely like a studio collaboration rather than a band – but it’s certainly no stereotypical blend of electronic rock.

32. Queen of the Rodeo – Orville Peck

Orville Peck’s unique costume ended up being a powerful marketing tool. I was curious to find out who this masked figure was, and I was greeted with Elvis-esque vocals paired with a unique remix on the country genre.

33. Shadow Matter – Will Johnson

Will Johnson is no rookie, and his songwriting is proof. There’s a humble maturity to his music, the kind that seems to say, “I know what I’m doing but I don’t need to prove it to anyone.” “Shadow Matter” is a timeless song that feels expansive and rural – the sort of song that would be perfect for a road trip.

34. The Body – Fallow Land

On “The Body”, Fallow Land provides listeners with a TTNG-esque romp through mathy indie rock. If there were a sleeper hit album for 2019, it’d be their debut, Slow Down, Rockstar.

35. Baby Teeth – Glass Age

Abandon Kansas’ rebrand to Glass Age is accompanied by three captivating tracks. “Baby Teeth” is my favorite of the three, pairing a certain ambient luster with introspective lyrics. Ultimately, in my opinion, the rebrand is a huge success.

36. Potassitorium – Ghost Soul Trio

Ghost Soul Trio is, well, a trio act but unlike their name suggests, their music and members are both full of life. “Potassitorium” is a cocktail of funk, indie, jazz, and experimental electronic – or, party music for intellectuals. Add in the band’s quirky music videos and it’s obvious Ghost Soul Trio is one act that isn’t afraid to take risks.

37. Soft Spot – Tiny Moving Parts

While Tiny Moving Parts’ latest album seems like a seamless continuation of 2018’s Swell, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Soft Spot” may not be the band’s most technical track, but there’s something about the opening guitar line rhythm that’s infectious.

38. Better – Caracara

There’s a lot to say about Caracara. I knew “Better” was a hit when I first heard it, but it took me a bit to give the rest of the band’s discography proper attention. Needless to say, it’s all good but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better track in their catalog. The lyrics are poetic, the instrumentation somewhat minimalist in nature. Of course, Caracara understands dynamically intimately and the end is explosive in all the best ways.

39. Windsor Knots and Ruffles – Say Hi

Say Hi has been making music for a very long time, and each album has a distinct flavor. The upcoming album, due February, has a bigger focused on synthesizers. This track does rely on a bed of synths, but they largely sound organic – like a piano or strings. Add in retrospective lyrics and the result is a track that feels kind of like a ballad.

40. Better – Vinnie Caruana

Yes, there are two great songs this year named “Better”. Vinnie Caruana’s take on the title is stripped-down punk. What the track lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure passion. It’s a heartfelt track that gets by with little more than a four-chord guitar part and some drums. However, the vocals and lyrics are the true heroes here and make this track one of the best of the year.

41. Test Everything, Hold Onto What’s Good – Broken Field Runner

This track is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s an album closer so it’s fitting. At over eight minutes long, it’s interesting to see how well Broken Field Runner is able to maintain momentum as a single lyrical segment is repeated for much of the track.

42. The Distance – Fever Dolls

“The Distance” isn’t exactly a new track – it had previously been released under the Iron Eyes Cody moniker – but this rendition is all grown up and there are lots of extra layers this time around that give it plenty of extra energy. This should definitely be considered the canon version of the track.

43. Gemini – Nova Charisma

Nova Charisma sounds and looks like the culmination of At The Drive In and Coheed and Cambria. “Gemini” is your standard progressive post-hardcore juggernaut track with a careful blend of soaring choruses and technical song structures.

44. Geneva – Lakes

There’s not enough glockenspiel-based rock in the world, but Lakes is doing their part to fix this.

45. Collecting Teeth (Acoustic) – Wolves & Machines

It has been far too long since Wolves & Machines put out new music, and this acoustic track is certainly a welcome teaser for their new album. Even in its barest form, it still holds its own and it’ll be interesting to hear the full version down the road.

46. A Social Renaissance – Cloud Caverns

Brandon Peterson is one very busy guy, having released two albums in 2016 and one in 2018. Now, he has begun to release a string of singles and “A Social Renaissance” is certainly Cloud Caverns at its best. This is partially the doing of AJ Estrada of Hotel of the Laughing Tree lending some additional talents on the track. Now we just need a proper Hotel album and we can call it a day.

47. On the Left – Beket

I’m convinced there’s one, and only one, good post-hardcore album a year. That award happens to go to Beket this time around.

48. Fall (Despite What You Do) – The Wilderness

“Fall” is a radio-friendly track that still manages to have a bit of grit to it. The track’s somewhat-standard indiepop veneer starts to collapse toward the end, as lyrics are belted and saxophones blare. Don’t get me wrong – this is still a single and it’s marketed as such, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

49. Luxton – Nonfiction

“Luxton” thrives off the interplay between its straight-forward verses and gang-chant chorus. It’s not a revolutionary track, but it manages to pull off the emo formula pretty well for an enjoyable listening experience.

50. How Did We End Up Here? – StateBirds

StateBirds is a band I’ve been following for several years now, and it’s exciting to see some new music from them. On this song, there’s a bit of a lounge vibe – chill, jazzy type chords and a beautiful clean guitar tone. This bluesy version of StateBirds should be a welcome addition to many playlists.

51. Being Human is Weird – OWEL

OWEL describes bar romance over a mix atmospheric indie rock instrumentals on “Being Human is Weird”. It’s a track that acknowledges the emptiness in modern hedonism and pairs these themes with cinematic guitar and string parts to really solidify the emotion footprint of the song.

52. Star-Faced – Wildermiss

“Star-Faced” is a fun track that blends groovy guitar, “hey, hey” vocal chants, and major-key melodies for a track that’s danceable and fun.

53. Clandestine Magic – Madaila

Madaila called it quits a while back, but they’re temporarily resurfaced with two tracks. As usual, their indomitable retro-styled funky indie sound is at play, complete with plenty of falsetto.

54. Broken Magic – Wildlife

“Broken Magic” is a booming arena-rock style track that thrives off negative space. The verses are somewhat sparse, but the whole band is at their best during the chorus – this ultimately makes it a very dynamic track that serves as proof of Wildlife’s strategic compositions.

55. Maybe – Andrés

It’s a shame this track is so far down this list. Andrés has become somewhat of a household name in the post-hardcore scene over the past few years, even though his exact genre is hard to define. On “Maybe”, there’s a strong Latin piano groove, but there are some technical guitar parts and even a bit of a breakdown at the end. Whatever you call it, it’s very, very good.

56. Job Interview – Trash Boy

Spoiler alert: lyrics explain the real reason people want jobs.

57. Vanitas Waltz – Yes We Mystic

I wrote about Ten Seated Figures earlier in the year, but if I had to pick one track to feature, it would be “Vanitas Waltz”. It’s hard to say exact why. Maybe it’s the triumphant sound that thrives off melodic motifs. Maybe it’s the string arrangements. Maybe it’s the chorus where the lines are echoed back. Whatever the case, it’s a song that has that special something that makes it stand out.

58. Fame – The Early November

Many bands seem to worsen as their careers exceed three or four albums. Thankfully, The Early November is still putting out solid songs and “Fame” is a great example of a catchy, melodic indie track. Add in some trumpet, a little falsetto, and some layered background vocals and you’ve got a well-produced, fun track.

59. Louise – Del Barber

“Louise” may be the closest thing to traditional country on this list, but don’t let that deter you. Del Barber’s style is far more classic than what you’d find on modern country radio, and it’s a nice return to storytelling elements country was once known for.

60. In Finem – Sherwood Forest

“In Finem” is an ethereal, synthy track that feels straight out of a Tron scene. The first half of the track feels a bit gothic with its arpeggios and deep vocals, but the latter half is more guitar-driven, conjuring images of power metal bands. Ultimately, the band’s imagery isn’t anything out of the ordinary but their music definitely feels otherworldly.

Review: Soft Witness by Birthday Wish

For fans of: Mew, The Rise of Science, From Indian Lakes, TTNG

There’s some interesting about packaging. I was at a small Asian grocer once and had a bit of a conversation with the owner. She stressed how a lot of the natural, healthy foods she had were raw and the labeling was pretty simple. There were shelves of the amorphous grains and plants which could only be discerned upon individual inspection. Not far off, there were some of the same ingredients with a level of Western advertising employed. The packaging was modern and bold. Even though the product was the same, it was presented in a way that seemed to affirm its essence. It’s sort of like how plating food a certain way can make it seem more exquisite.

All this said, while album art does not make an album successful on its own, it is supplementary to the story and mood of the work (the same goes for liner notes, videos, and behind-the-scenes elements). But just as important, it’s often the first entry point people have for a band and as such, gives the first impression of a band.

Enter Birthday Wish‘s latest release, Soft Witness. The cover seems like a false memory, an inverted trope. It’s an image not unlike what you’d find at a dentist’s office or hotel hallway – a family at a pool with palm trees in the background. It’s an instant nod to the band’s Miami roots, but to most listeners it exists instead as an aloof paradise where snow doesn’t fall on Halloween and leisure is more available (ignore my Midwest rant).

Of course, there’s the distortion as well, the sort of aesthetic you might find with vaporwave art. The sky’s hue is skewed magenta, the mood eerie. At the same time, it’s not overly contrasted or dark. It’s daytime, but the sun just happens to be a black light. There are two people alongside the pool, one with something in the water. She’s dressed like an animal control agent or maybe a police officer.

Maybe that’s an unnecessary dissection of Soft Witness‘s cover, but it’s worth noting it leaves an impression. It’s mysterious, nostalgic, unsettling, and detailed all the same. It sets the tone for the band’s ethereal surf punk sound that spans the release’s seven tracks. The exact ratio of endearingly-nostalgic and unsettlingly-dissonant does shift frequently, but end result a tight set of tracks shrouded in an unusual mix of emotions.

While other recent releases have played more heavily into the nostalgia factor, this tends to be via extensive synth use in pursuit of a new wave sound. Birthday Wish is nostalgic in another sense, though it’s hard to articulate the exact reason. Gossamer vocals paired with angular guitars is reminiscent of early emo, post-hardcore, and even sadcore. Synths do make an appearance, but they’re far from central. Soft Witness is undeniably a rock album, though an exact genre label is hard to find.

Jubilant moments juxtapose more intense segments. Groove-heavy tracks coexist with more laid-back counterparts. Soft Witness covers a lot of ground in its 16-minute run time. “Safety” is anthemic and upbeat; “Other Minds” is somber and night-timey; “Hubris” is cinematic and reminiscent of The Rise of Science’s older work; “Liturgy” is bass-heavy and falsetto-laden.

Ultimately, Soft Witness‘s music is not unlike its cover, dropping listeners in a world where emo developed from beach rock instead of punk. It’s a sound that seems like a distant cousin of post-punk and new wave all the same, replacing synths and gimmicky guitar lines with intricate, cosmic compositions. Birthday Wish have found the intersection of oft-disparate genres, and the end result is a release that hits home for fans of 90s and early 2000s indie rock.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)