This is part 2 of my 3-part year in review series. (Part 1 was a gratitude blog, and part 3 will be an actual annual review of my music career.) I know January is almost over, but it’s not over yet, so these blogs are still valid!
This ended up being a cross between a music blog and a personal journal explaining why I like each artist/album and how I discovered them. Keep scrolling down for that, but first, here’s my larger Spotify playlist, which I personally think came out awesome. It includes my favorite music of the year as well as some music made by friends and peers. If you like indie, folk, acoustic, and alternative music it should keep you entertained for a good few hours!
(Note: list is roughly in order from smallest to largest artist, not qualitatively ranked)
1. Sammy Kay (Civil/War)
I’ve been hearing about Sammy Kay for ages since he’s been very active in the New Jersey music scene, but this month is literally the first time I listened to his music and I regret that because it’s the kind of great Americana music that I’d listen to when I need to get centered. I expect to get more into him now.
2. Dive Dive (The Waves Behind)
To be fair I wouldn’t know of Dive Dive if they hadn’t been “3/4 kidnapped by Frank Turner” (as it used to say in their Twitter bio) to be his band, the Sleeping Souls. (I have a particular appreciation for Nigel since he’s always going out of his way to be kind and supportive, for example, by learning my song after I simply asked!) BUT you will notice I put three songs from this album on the playlist because I couldn’t choose two. This was a musical judgment, not a personal one. It was their first album in 8 years and it’s cool, mellow, often catchy indie rock; check it out.
3. Trapper Schoepp (Primetime Illusion)
I learned about Trapper Schoepp when he got signed to my favorite record label, Xtra Mile (just like probably half of the artists on this list, but I mean really, if someone is curating music that perfectly suits your own tastes, you may as well roll with it). His songs are catchy folk rock/pop with well-written lyrics, and having seen him live a few times, I’ve also found that he’s also a solid performer. One interesting tidbit: the song “On, Wisconsin” started as an abandoned Bob Dylan lyric from 1961, and Trapper decided to finish it and ended up getting to release it and co-publish it with Dylan. I thought that was pretty cool.
4. Billy Liar (Some Legacy)
I only recently discovered Billy Liar from Frank Turner’s playlist of what he listens to. I rarely fall in love with something I found on a playlist because I tend to listen to them as background music, but I felt compelled to check out the whole album and I loved it. I like his punky Scottish voice, and I like the combination of high-energy songs that get my heart pumping with more stripped down, intimate songs that often have a poignant effect. Those are my two favorite kinds of songs!
5. Seán McGowan (Curate Calm, Create Chaos)
I met Seán McGowan once in 2018 and got a kick out of his humility. He has at least 10x more followers than I have and is decidedly on much firmer footing, but the first thing he said to me when I introduced myself was that he recognized me from my YouTube video singing for Frank Turner on the Flogging Molly Cruise and that he’d been jealous of it. Anyway, in my opinion his music is undeniable. His accent and his expressive voice lend authenticity to his passionate acoustic music, and his lyrics flow brilliantly. I think this is the only EP that made my list because I just couldn’t leave it out.
6. Micah Schnabel (The Teenage Years of the 21st Century)
This is quite possibly my favorite album of the year. It’s timely, relevant, and unapologetically honest and personal, and I love the emotional expressiveness and inflections of Micah’s voice. Musically, it’s an understated folk rock that’s driven by lyrics, emotions, storytelling and acoustic guitar. It’s self-released and not a huge production, which allows the message to shine through unfiltered. I’ve felt deeply inspired by this album because musically and conceptually it’s very similar to the kind of music I want (and try) to make.
7. Skinny Lister (The Story Is…)
I ADORE Skinny Lister’s “shanty punk”; they are probably my second favorite band, which happened immediately after I saw them open for Frank Turner in 2015, never having heard of them before. Their contagious energy and carefully crafted singalongs had the entire crowd enrapt and I never wanted their set to end, not even for Frank to come on. I’ve made excuses to travel to London for their big headline shows at least twice and wouldn’t be surprised if I did it again. Their latest album didn’t disappoint. There are so many catchy hooks to sing along to, and the way the energy flows through the album holds my attention despite my surprisingly short attention span.
8. Tim Barry (The Roads to Richmond)
I’ve been following this acoustic punker (seemingly getting more country over time, but that’s okay by me) for a long time, probably for more than 10 years. I first got into Tim Barry by seeing him open for the Bouncing Souls a bunch of times. In my opinion, his recordings don’t do his live performances justice. He’s a passionate, emotionally expressive performer; seems to put everything he has into it, and that’s really what hooks people onto him. It’s what inspires me and makes me want to be like him. However, I’m still happy to listen to all of his albums (how else would I learn the words to sing along at shows?) and they are always enjoyable. This one is no exception — it might not be as good as hearing it live, but it’s certainly good enough to make my list.
9. Beans on Toast (The Inevitable Train Wreck)
Like a lot of these artists, the first time I heard of Beans on Toast was when I saw him live, opening for Frank Turner in 2013. He uses standard chords and melodies, which should be boring, but I (like many people) found it impossible not to get hooked into his widely varying stories — ranging from the political to the personal and everything in between — told through his raspy folk songs. I look forward to his new album every year (he always releases them on his birthday, December 1) to hear what new stories and insights on life he has to share. I find his open-hearted, unflinching storytelling inspiring. Unlike me, he seems to just write the songs he wants to write without worrying whether anyone will think he’s silly or disagree with him, and I like that.
10. Dave Hause (Kick)
Dave Hause is another artist I discovered through Bouncing Souls shows years ago, as he has opened for them many times both solo and previously with The Loved Ones. He has a great live energy and passion, his lyrics contain lots of lines you’ll want to shout out loud with him, and I often find his recordings to be the perfect kind of upbeat rock songs to put on my motivational playlists.
11. Jeffrey Lewis (Bad Wiring)
My discovery story here is that when my friend Billie was visiting New York from England, she insisted on checking out the Sidewalk Cafe (RIP by the way) open mic because she loved Jeffrey Lewis, he had started out there and she’d heard that he would occasionally show up randomly. Alas, he didn’t show up that night, but I did end up checking out his music later and liking it. The music is anti-folk (with its characteristic vocal and lyrical style) with rock instrumentation, which of course appeals to me.
12. The Menzingers (Hello Exile)
I think I must have discovered the Menzingers opening for the Bouncing Souls years ago as well. For some reason I don’t particularly seek them out, but frequently end up at their shows anyway (even in London) and I always have a good time. Their mellow rock sound is my absolute favorite kind of music to have on in the background. Whether it’s in my bedroom while I’m journaling, or at a show where I’m seeking respite from my worries, it just always puts me in a calm, reflective mood.
13. The Mountain Goats (In League with Dragons)
Apparently this album was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, which I don’t know or care about, so I can tell you that won’t impede your enjoyment of it. It’s a lovely, chilled out, somewhat quirky indie folk album with a sort of musical and lyrical fantasy feel to it. I’m only just getting into the Mountain Goats, but I like them so far.
14. Frank Turner (No Man’s Land)
As everyone who knows me will already know, Frank Turner is my favorite songwriter. (I can’t get into all of that now or I’ll never shut up, but here, have a blog about my experiences with him.) So I might be slightly biased, although I don’t like everything he does. But I do like this. It’s a concept album about interesting, often forgotten women in history. A lot of people had a problem with a man writing stories about women and attempting to take on a female perspective, but personally I find that kind of empathy to be a positive effort. I liked the stories, I liked the mainly simple acoustic folk style he revisited for it, and I liked that he went out of his way to trade in his usual all-male backing band for a full crew of female musicians and producer for this album. For me, it’s worth listening to, and of course worth looking deeper into the featured women. (The associated podcast he did is a good start.)
15. Shovels & Rope (By Blood)
I stumbled on this album and only happened to know their name because they did a tour with Frank Turner (which I did not attend, but did see promo for!). This album was my first introduction to their music, and I wasn’t disappointed. Before I listened, I actually didn’t even know what genre they were but just went for it. They are in fact a male/female indie folk duo who seem to pull inspiration from a wide variety of genres including blues, country, rock, and even a little bit of pop — great for holding interest all the way through.
16. Jenny Lewis (On the Line)
I’ve been listening to Jenny Lewis casually for a while, and I quite liked this album. It’s another one that I find pleasant to have on in the background when I want to feel calm and centered. Solid, mellow indie pop/rock.
17. Damien Jurado (In the Shape of a Storm)
It’s not how I usually discover music, but I discovered Damien Jurado this year in a playlist and enjoyed this album. It’s just really good acoustic indie folk. Apparently most of his music has not been all acoustic, but this is all I’ve listened to so far. He’s definitely on my list to check out more.
18. Tegan and Sara (Hey, I’m Just Like You)
So I guess Tegan and Sara is probably the poppiest sounding artist on this list, though still a decidedly indie/alternative sound. I don’t care, it’s fantastic indie pop that hooks me right in. I remember the first time I heard of them was six years ago when I was looking to start a band, and some guitarist reached out and said he wanted to make music that sounded like Tegan and Sara. I never did even jam with that guy, but I do listen to Tegan and Sara now, so I guess that interaction had some positive impact on me.
19. Bruce Springsteen (Western Stars)
For someone from New Jersey who loves most 21st century musicians who have been inspired by Springsteen, it took me way too long even to listen to his music, much less to get into it, but at some point I did. To be honest I’m not sure if it’s hip to listen to his new albums, or only to his early ones (I haven’t asked anyone or googled it), but I don’t care if it is or not. I have to say for myself that his songwriting is still solid as ever, and consistently inspires me to get better at it as well as he does with performing, storytelling, and entertaining. (I mean, that Springsteen on Broadway? I only got to watch it on Netflix, but he was amazing!)