10. "Joke's On You" by The Big News
Oklahoma’s hot new ska punk band The Big News played nonstop in 2016, and countless newcomers became acquainted with its budding repertoire of lighthearted slacker anthems. As of yet, the band hasn’t explored beyond the bounds of its chosen genre, but it must be hitting the walls by this point. Its album, Have You Heard?, shows a proficiency of ska, seeing both its strengths and limitations as a standalone style and playing accordingly.
“Joke’s on You” is a change-up in the album’s tracklist that also holds its own as a single. As this blog’s review said back in July, it “plays as scorned glee, perhaps even vengeful in its own incarnation. Biting words fill out much of the rest of the lyrics between a collectively shouted chorus of ‘The joke is on you a-ay.’ Upbeat swing time gives the track an extra layer of sarcasm. Its moderate tempo also gives the band a chance to explore other arrangements less feasible in faster tunes. The trombone, saxophone, and trumpet parts, for instance, break out of unison at times to pass melodic focus around, and the pleasant opening guitar riff stretches comfortably across the first half minute of the song.”
Even within the limits of ska punk, The Big News hits the right notes with “Joke’s on You” to pump fresh blood into the genre with creative arrangements, fun ideas, and endlessly singable lines.
9. "Open Water" by Scott AF
With slick, pop-modern appeal in production and performance alike, “Open Water” is one soundtrack or commercial feature away from the charts. Scott AF rides the trend of lead male pop vocal ear candy as well as any, but with this standalone single, the hook and arrangement step up to the plate with a glossy, moody earworm that puts him in his best light–or shadow.
Layered in ribbons of sensual reverb, the electronic R&B instrumentation soaks a sonic space that is expansive yet intimate. A jittery beat accompanies to heighten the sensation of Scott AF’s smooth, bold vocals, which play lead, harmony, and backing parts in a myriad of sequenced overdubs. Lyrically, it’s the appropriate bedroom fare, riding the edge of intimacy with a thin veil.
What it aims to be it absolutely nails (no pun intended), and folks have taken notice. While Scott AF may be a relative unknown in tight local music circles, his Spotify count boasts monthly listeners in the tens of thousands, and the vast majority of them are out of state. Many are out of country. It’s true that popularity doesn’t automatically denote quality, but in this case, the correlation is legitimate.
8. "Heartbreaker" by Matt Stansberry & the Romance
One of the catchiest opening riffs of late propels this funk and rock infused jam from Matt Stansberry & the Romance. As riffs go, it’s really quite simple, but the nimble strut of the guitar and keyboard carries it along the track’s length with a suave infectiousness. There are plenty of bells and whistles traded between the band’s 10 members, efficiently arranged around the song’s key elements for maximum effect. That riff, however, proves that even a recording as busy as this can still benefit from the less-is-more mantra.
The song lyrically warns of an unnamed guy (and, later, gal) who is, well, a heartbreaker. It’s not a new idea, but what makes it work is the way it entwines with the music. The fun-loving arrangement, complete with a tight horn section, soulful backing vocals, and thumping bass, are as full of temptation as the subject of the song. After a couple of choruses, there’s a big instrumental break and subsequent bridge that repeats “Oh, no / I fell for the heartbreak.” Stansberry then signs off in the musical aftermath with the pitch-perfect line, “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” which is as devious as that riff reveals itself to be.
7. "Halfway to Heaven feat. Free Dru" by Jay Nino
Taken from Cellar Door’s Singles Grab Bag series:
With the gravitas of a church organ sample and the uplifting glisten of a crystalliferous synth line, rapper Jay Nino finds the perfect balance to convey the heart-heavy sincerity in “Halfway to Heaven”. In the wake of a loved one’s death, Nino expresses his hardship in coping while finding strength in others and himself. The lyrics contain poignant moments that don’t bask in their inherent sadness, instead choosing to reflect and carry on in tribute. Take, for example, the line “I guess God was in a rush to hurry up and take his angels back home,” which shows neither disdain nor acceptance.
The title comes from the featured vocalist, who sings “I’m halfway to heaven, I know,” effectively establishing the track’s hook. It’s a profound one, to be sure. It doesn’t just spell out that a life half-lived is a life half closer to death. It refers to the close bond of a loved one, a bond so strong that it doesn’t break when that loved one is taken. Instead, a part of one’s whole self is taken with that bond, a bond which now becomes an unshakable link to the celestial.
6. "Another Land" by Lincka
Lincka’s first release since her oft-buzzed No Shoes EP is a big, timely single that boasts funky electropop beats alongside vibrant, soulful vocals. With bilingual lyrics, Lincka Elizondo holds her Mexican-American heritage high against a volatile political climate, relating the cultural importance of family and home. The central refrain of “Take me to another land” could be taken as advocacy for immigration, but it seems to really say that this other land could in fact be a changed landscape of the present one. “Another Land” could refer to any country where corruption and injustice are rooted.
While Lincka’s charismatic performance is the focal point of the song, the colorful arrangement and production by Rat Fink and company steal the show. Manipulated samples, wonky synthwork, and disco-styled guitars blend together in a festive, danceable series of inventive stretches. That such exciting pop music is blooming from the wellspring of ACM@UCO’s music program is cause for celebration, and “Another Land” brings the streamers and confetti in abundance.
5. "Wicked One" by Labrys
Taken from Cellar Door’s Singles Grab Bag series:
The latest effort from Penny Pitchlynn, currently known to many as the bass player in indie garage act BRONCHO, marks the start of a new chapter in her career. Setting aside the Penny Hill solo moniker she has worn for years and moving past her involvement in Low Litas, she gets especially fierce on her debut single “Wicked One” as Labrys. The new name refers to Greek symbolism, specifically a double-sided axe that is frequently invoked as a sign of lesbian solidarity and/or female empowerment. Accordingly, Labrys wields her sharp musical axe with brooding ferocity, and it makes for a dastardly good listen.
“Wicked One” is built on a coarse, syncopated bass line that stomps heavily as sustained, distant voices give an apparitional quality to the recording. Together, they blend into a thick, psychadelic fog that borrows more from stoner rock than it does the punk influences of BRONCHO. Distorted guitars explore beyond the initial bass riff as the song continues. The drum rhythm builds into a busier beat at the second verse, which drops the line “I’m not the kind of kid to give a s**t about bringing you down.” With lyrics like this, it could be misconstrued that Labrys is in full attack mode, but the tone is just as much from a place of self-defense. As the song’s titular line states clearly, she’s “not the wicked one.”
4. "Blue Fox Drive" by The So Help Me's
Showcasing the band’s now trademark double lead vocals and structurally inventive take on indie rock, “Blue Fox Drive” is a musical roller coaster crammed into less than five minutes. Dealing with the aftermath of a relationship, it runs the gamot of retrospective moods from pondering wistfulness to self-confident forward momentum to anxious realization and back again.
As recounted in this blog’s review of The Relativity EP, the arrangement “doesn’t show its cards up front. Rather, it sinks into a bright, familiar alternative rock haze for a solid minute before jumping into one of its multiple progressions. To detail every shift in structure would be to spoil the song for first-time listeners, but the final refrain is worth highlighting. Most trailing refrains in contemporary songs are satisfied to simply repeat over and over, but ‘Blue Fox Drive’ reinvents aspects of the tempo, tone, rhythm, and counterpointed vocals with each cycle. That it does so in a straight-faced flurry of only 40 seconds is commendable.”
This isn’t the only single from that EP, and neither is it the one with the broadest appeal. It is, however, the most unique and invigorating, and it shows The So Help Me’s at a creative height not often met by artists of the same league.
3. "Bobo" by Dorian Small
Marrying contagious elements of funk and rock, Dorian Small concocts a delicious groove with “Bobo”, a meticulously mixed piece of pop art. What starts as an electronics-heavy space beat evolves through iterations of guitar riffs and resonant embellishments until it reaches its final form. By the third and final leg of “Bobo”, acoustic and pedal steel guitar are in the mix with hazy organ in the distance, and the fat synth bass line has been replaced with a funky bass guitar. All electronic aspects turn to physical ones, and the transition is stylishly smooth.
This arc may have something to do with the lyrics, wherein Small points out that the uncertainty of the future creates a level playing field for everyone. He chimes that “I’ve got more than I’ll ever need / But I’ve got no way to know which way the ship is going” as the first round of vocal curve balls volley into the arrangement. In a sense, too, the “ship” is played by the drummer, who carries the listener throughout the audio voyage.
“Bobo” doesn’t get as weird and wacky as it clearly could, so the level of restraint is notable. Small shows off a level of sophistication with his strange choices, and it makes for a smart, addictive listen.
2. "Elephant Knot (demo)" by Jarrod Beck
On “Elephant Knot”, Jarrod Beck embodies the historic spirit of politically conscious folk music and carries it into a modern landscape in more ways than one. He writes from both the old sensibility of simple sing-song refrains and the newer wave of articulate concepts. He also records it as a blurry demo take with his iPhone, which is the modern equivalent of old, scratchy audio tapes.
Employing a worn guitar and an unconventional, unmistakable voice, he channels the great prophets of folk music who always wrote for the people. With “Elephant Knot”, Beck weaves the simple, child-like idea of counting between thunderclaps into the greater picture of an impending storm in America.
Released on January 8, the demo finds him narrating 2016 before it became the infamous year that it was. He even unknowingly touches on his role as forecaster in the song, saying, “It’s more like prophecy / When the winner’s on the home team.”
While his primary focus here is on race, he wraps it in the bigger view of inequality at large with the song’s namesake chorus, which states, “We are not a melting pot / We are a tug-of-war rope with an elephant knot.” The final twist is at the end of the song, where Beck cuts this chorus short and clips the recording. The ensuing silence then lingers hauntingly, searching for a resolution that doesn’t come.
1. "Tender" by Softaware
The very title of “Tender” is a double meaning that represents the paradox it addresses. It refers to the tenderness of lovers while being a homophone for the popular Tinder dating app. One is warm and intimate, while another is comparatively cold and distant.
In a twist of genius, Softaware (itself also a double meaning) expresses this conceptual duality with its own music. The band structures itself in rock but makes extensive use of electronics to convey the unavoidable grip of technology, and nowhere is that perspective put to better use than on “Tender”.
With choice instrumentation, Softaware starts with a flutter of kick drum as a lyrical flurry of quick-swipe emotions pepper a slow burn. The song gains momentum, building into an arc of innate human need that grows and grows until it explodes into a bittersweet orgasm of sound. The way the two lead vocalists are enveloped in electronic flourishes further melds this idea of pervasive technology in the human experience, and the moment feels exactly like the temporary release that it represents.
Intellectual, emotional, danceable, and equally worthy of introspection through repeat listens, “Tender” is a magnificent effort bottled into a deceptively simple package that unwraps what it means to love in 2016.