Top 20 EPs of 2017: 20-11 (Jarvix’s Big 50)

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

20. Bridges & Borderlines by Joel T. Mosman & Oklahoma Uprising

Over a brisk course of five tracks, Joel T. Mosman & Oklahoma Uprising traverse an array of country/Americana styles and prove to be authorities on them all with Bridges & Borderlines.

Each cut has its own distinct flavor. Opener “Ain’t Living” is a dark number that deftly arranges banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and some gritty electric guitar to convey its murder balladry. By contrast, “Call Me Crazy” is a sweet, waltz-like song about pursuing dreams of life and love in the face of naysayers. Here, the music calls for organ, piano, and acoustic guitar. Different still is the outright fiddles-and-harmonica hoedown that is “Little Bit of Love”.

Rather than zero in on one sound or theme, Mosman and company choose to showcase their versatility. While being a musical jack of all trades can result in being a master of none, the band does a good job giving each individual track the work and attention it deserves. Additionally, the group injects enough of itself to give the EP an identity so that it isn’t completely all over the map. In particular, the electric guitar and Mosman’s clean-cut lead vocals offer a unifying center, though the latter is better suited to some styles than others.

What really helps Bridges & Borderlines shine are its songs. There is simply some solid songwriting here with memorable themes and likeable melodies. In terms of craft, “Ain’t Living” is probably the best cut, but all five songs boast replay value.

For a band as multifaceted as Joel T. Mosman & Oklahoma Uprising, an EP like this is a good move out of the gate. It will be nice to see future releases narrow in on a more cohesive sound, even if just for one record, but Bridges & Borderlines is still a great listen, thanks in no small part to great performances and studio work. For fans of southern rock and folk music alike, there is much to enjoy here.

Recommended track: “Ain’t Living”

19. The Transition EP by Rousey

Rousey is a fizzy bottle of feel-good throwback rock ‘n roll that one can pour at a bachelor party but still take home to Mom.

Probably known more for its fun, crowd-pleasing live performances, the recently formed band proves to be just as lively in the studio with The Transition EP, its five-track debut. With its signature lineup of electric ukulele, guitar, bass, drums, and perhaps most recognizably, saxophone, the fellas thrive in originals that serve to turn frowns upside down, even on its slow numbers.

The album art is fitting in many ways. In addition to simply cheering up its subjects, the two faces appear to come from the black and white days of the 40s and 50s. Much of the music on The Transition EP is fueled by hits from that era. Furthermore, the autumn leaves under the band’s name are themselves going through changes, their inclusion of which is almost to say that everything is seasonal, that hardships are temporary, and that summer will come again. Rousey, in a way, provides some of that summer, reassuring from the very start that “It’ll be alright” on opener “Alright”.

Tracks “Cadence” and “Transition” wear its classic influences obviously, but others find an interesting blend of classic and modern rock. “Shore”, for instance, has a chorus peppered with hand claps and background sha-la-la’s, but its lead melody is more reminiscent of 90s pop-alternative hits. This may have less to do with composition than the lead performer’s vocal style, though, as he tends to sing with a shaggy vibrato not unlike frontmen of the time. With the exception of “Alone”, which veers too close to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” at times for comfort, The Transition EP serves as a joyous and nicely blended homage to its influences.

Rousey’s new EP is plenty of fun, and the saxophone parts alone will keep listeners coming back for more.

Recommended track: “Alright”

18. Carly Gwin and the Sin by Carly Gwin and the Sin

The solo debut from music scene regular Carly Gwin is a fine collection of singer-songwriter exercises given the full band treatment. As Carly Gwin and the Sin, the group rambles through rock, blues, and country influences centered on a strong, heartfelt lead vocal.

Gwin crosses off a number of tropes with the EP, not the least of which is the drinking song. On lead single “The Bottle”, she laments, “What did the bottle ever do for you? / I guarantee it don’t love you like I do,” as pedal steel guitar pines in the distance. A flurried electric guitar solo then rumbles in frustration over an instrumental break.

Every track on the EP is shadowcast with an edgy, moody aura. Even “Homecoming”, a song about leaving for California, is given the treatment. This at first seems to be at odds with the lyrics, which themselves seem to fantasize about the prospect of escaping to the coast. Wouldn’t this be an upbeat song? It could just be the album’s aesthetic, or maybe it’s part of an unspoken subtext. The chorus indicates how uncertain this whole idea is, saying, “And I know I’ll have a place to stay / All I gotta do is find a way / Maybe, maybe I’m coming home.” This would indicate that the place she’s leaving is not home and that perhaps home is something she’s always sought but never found, and suddenly the dreary chord progression makes sense.

The final track, “Goodbye, So Long”, is the icing on the cake. It perfectly, knowingly caps off the EP with a delicate and bitter love ballad that is smartly the only cut on the album given the explicit content warning. It’s a direct hit that also drops the band for a truly solo outing. Its first listen hinges on the element of surprise to nab listeners, but further listens hold up to make the song more than just a profane novelty for drunken audience members to request at gigs.

Carly Gwin and the Sin hits the right buttons but doesn’t overtly cater to audiences (that’s what Gwin’s other project is for). Even so, the band delivers a solid EP that’s sure to please many in the Oklahoma music scene and finally fully showcases one of its underseen talents in a smashing way.

Recommended track: “Melted”

17. Paradise EP by DBOYD

Few music styles are as giddy as chiptune, and DBOYD delivers much of that feeling and more on Paradise EP.

For those unfamiliar, chiptune is an electronic genre of music that is confined to a retro, 8-bit sound palette. Directly inspired by composers from the earliest days of video games, the style is akin to old NES soundtracks with perhaps just a bit more allowance for denser arrangements using the limited sounds.

It might seem odd to use a big, organic flower from the natural world as the album’s cover art, but that would discount chiptune as cheap and shallow. DBOYD (an acronym of “don’t blink or you’ll die”) offers vibrant compositions that aren’t satisfied to just invoke nostalgia. He believes the medium can offer something bigger and more beautiful than that, hence the cover.

“We Will Carve Our Names Into the Cosmic Abyss” is rather cinematic, juxtaposing a sweet, minimal melodic phrase with a smattering of rhythmic sound effects. It toggles back and forth between the two, slowly integrating the differing energies until what starts as an innocent theme develops into a seasoned one full of determination and hope.

Some tracks on Paradise EP are more straightforward, like excellent opener “Lazy Dayze” and following cut “Red Horizon”. Others, like “Brightsided”, play with the formula by changing up beat styles and making reference to video game tropes. No matter the structure, though, all tracks hit the mark with a resounding 8-bit flair that is as immediate as it is carefully crafted. For those with a taste for the experimental, the minimal, and/or the retro, DBOYD is definitely one to keep tabs on.

Recommended track: “Lazy Dayze”

16. Eternal Sunshine by Slyrex

It’s barely been a year since this blog last checked in with Slyrex (for his 2016 release This Fragile Life), and the young rapper has already put out a slew of mixtapes, music videos, and singles. He has done an exceptional job building his own momentum, one that is finally catching notice of prominent local hip-hop circles.

While flashes of brilliance show up on recent releases like Mural and Sly Savage, the latter of which co-stars major up-and-comer Chris Savage, it’s Eternal Sunshine that best captures Slyrex’s sonic diversity and crossover appeal. Any number of songs from Eternal Sunshine could join the ranks of current radio singles, as the hip-hop artist seems to be especially clued in to the modern landscape of mainstream music. He collaborates with choice producers, and his songs include both lifestyle bangers (“In My Bag”, “Mula feat. universe barry”) and downtempo R&B ballads (“Racing”, “Tonight”).

Admittedly, there are a great many artists rocking the sound that Slyrex presents on this EP. He’s pushing into heavily saturated territory, and he doesn’t offer a unique enough personality to seriously set him apart from many of his contemporaries as a rap star. What he does have in abundance are great tracks, solid lyrics, and range, though, and this ultimately makes Eternal Sunshine one of the most relistenable hip-hop releases of the year. Nothing on this release sounds like filler, and a few tracks have bonafide hit potential. A large contributor to this is Slyrex’s natural sensibility for melody. He makes catchy music that doesn’t rely much on guest features, though the few he has on the project do add a nice flair.

Eternal Sunshine lacks some coherence, especially as it jumps indiscriminately from one sound to the next, but by the closer, one can’t help sense there’s still an artistic concept to the project. When closing number “Paradise (feat. Arïes)” enters with its soft acoustic guitar sample and pretty piano part, the choice feels measured. The central vocal duet recounts hopes and plans of a relationship that fell through, and it recalls some of the emotional baggage that made This Fragile Life such a vulnerable work.

Slyrex is on a trajectory that, with more experience and focus, could produce a truly great record, one that would hopefully influence rather than be influenced. Still, for a release that’s somewhat caught in the zeitgeist, 2017’s Eternal Sunshine offers plenty for fans of where hip-hop is trending right now. Even for those that would write off such trends as shallow, this EP might do some good, as there’s more depth here than might at first meet the eye.

Recommended track: “Racing”

15. Oklahoma Crossover EP by Foxhound

Though shortlived, Foxhound managed to blip on enough radars to gain a following for its intense breed of hardcore metal. Before signing off for the last time, however, the band did its fans a solid and put together this furious joy of a five-track EP.

Clocking in at just 12 minutes, it easily sidesteps the monotony that sometimes plagues the genre by traversing a myriad of niche metal inflections. Precise, no-nonsense instrumental performances combine with creative screams, growls, and shrieks to blast angry saliva at backstabbers and abusers. There’s even a Chokehole Stab feature, as if the vocal stylings couldn’t get interesting enough.

The lyrics tend to not be as profane or imaginative as they could be–they border at times on emo music with just a few more F bombs–but sometimes it’s not necessary to always go for lyrical wretchedness. Closer “Pain Life”, for example, wraps the album’s themes of imprisonment and survival on a poignant note using the lines, “I was born to fight this world / There is only one way out / Knuckles up.” That isn’t to say the band doesn’t get its full share of mother******s in, though. In fact, the arrangements typically ensure the listener doesn’t miss any of them.

Perhaps the most striking point of the whole EP is “Derision”, which opens with an audio clip of a Native American interview filmed on location at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It sets a unique stage for a track that otherwise might come across as another vague, angry protest of the establishment. It clues the listener into lines like “I wear the war paint of my ancestors” that might otherwise flash by.

Though the band doesn’t present itself as a Native act, it’s made clear by the lyrics that Native blood runs in the band, and it’s refreshing to hear some Native pride coming out of a full-throttle metal performance like this. After all, isn’t the bloodied history of America’s indigenous people one of the greatest anti-corporate, anti-government tales of all time?

Altogether, Oklahoma Crossover EP is a quick, solid rager that flares up and flares out as quickly and brightly as the band did. Though Foxhound is no more, its stamp will at least remain a part of the scene through this tight, well mixed, and highly recommended release.

Recommended track: “Dog (Ft. Jerry Lynn of Chokehole Stab)”

Album art for Depth/s by Saint Loretto, released 2017

14. DEPTH / S by Saint Loretto

With an unabashed pop aesthetic, DEPTH / S delivers the cool and catchy vibes that have become synonymous with the Saint Loretto name.

Earworm singles like the youthful, anthemic “We Own the Night” and the bustling “Manchester 1984” make for great feel-good playlist inclusions. The latter does not include a yesteryear by chance, either, as Saint Loretto is, like many of the band’s contemporaries, influenced by iconic works of the 1980’s.

DEPTH / S is far from dated, however. Slick, modern production and choice synth sounds give a fresh gloss to the dreamy, danceable arrangements. Guitars occasionally lend an alternative rock edge to the album, but more often than not, they echo the colorful dazzle of the synth lines. The vocals are big enough to carry the pop sound but are not so over-the-top that it detracts from the laid back feel of the EP. In certain spots, they even get a little breathy, which adds a fashionably relaxed edge.

Catchy melodies, richly layered compositions, and lively performances all come together to deliver an excellent pop record on DEPTH / S. It doesn’t elevate beyond its chosen genre, but within it, Saint Loretto provides an experience sure to delight many listeners, especially those who gravitate to synthpop. Few releases this year come even close to being so kinetic and yet so chill.

Recommended track: “We Own the Night”

13. So Far, So Long by Stephen Salewon

Just a year after his exquisite EP, Give It All, which made this list last year, adult contemporary singer-songwriter Stephen Salewon is back for more. His unique, skilled vocal work is as entrancing as ever on his follow-up, So Far, So Long, but make no mistake. The new six-track release is anything but a retread.

Where Give It All was mostly an acoustic solo affair with pleasant embellishments added to give each song character, So Far, So Long takes an entirely different approach. Salewon brings his backing players on the record to offer a fully electric experience more akin to his full band live shows. This gives his material an entirely different energy. When it grooves on tracks like “Don’t Let Go” and “Falling”, the EP captures a special chemistry that could only come from musical collaboration.

Though not as intimate and unique as his last release, So Far, So Long does a better job at bolstering Salewon’s beautiful melodies and approachable songwriting. The backing drums, bass, and occasional keyboard work often stay out of the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean they don’t offer their own flavor. In particular, subtle jazz and funk elements crop up in the arrangements often. For an example of the latter, look no further than “Holding Me Down”.

None of this would be so noteworthy, of course, if Stephen Salewon were not up to snuff as a lead performer. So Far, So Long does so much to beef up his delicate songwriting that a similarly delicate performance might easily get overpowered. Unsurprisingly, though, he proves to be more than up to the task, nailing every line, every dynamic shift, every falsetto part with the power of a turbine and the smoothness of butter.

With So Far, So Long, Salewon continues to prove that he’s a unique talent with plenty of career ahead of him. Between the two EPs of the last couple of years, he has documented his range and versatility as a pop vocalist, songwriter, and live performer, and it goes without saying at this point that nobody does Stephen Salewon like Stephen Salewon.

Recommended track: “Holding Me Down”

12. Dead Skin by Dewey Binns

Dead Skin is the first proper album release from Dewey Binns since 2012’s High Character. On that record, one could sense that the rapper was out to prove himself (and succeeding), but on his new six-track EP, he seems less concerned with the spotlight. The confidence he displays here is more like that of a kingpin in the shadows who takes visitors rather than make visits.

The low-key “Spirit Snobs” starts out the record on a somewhat reserved note before launching into more energetic cuts. With engaging production and smart lyrical bars, it’s a solid track that rambles through a handful of various thoughts and opinions. There’s so much skill on display, that it shines even as the delivery sounds like less of a performance and more of a conversation.

The following tracks get more blood pumping but retain some of the opening vibe, keeping with moderate tempos and smooth samples that neither relax or get entirely worked up. Instead, Dead Skin simmers and broods, a tone that works remarkably well with cuts like the Mexican-themed “Jorge Campos”.

Most tracks have good hooks and memorable concepts that help Dead Skin stand out for more than Blev‘s smoky beats and Dewey Binns’ reel of wordplay. The latter continues to be the selling point, however, as the best moments on the EP tend to be lyrical ones. “RVR PHX”, for instance, drops the fun line, “I lay low like sea level cemetaries / I stay home like fat folks with Ben & Jerry’s.” A later part of the track manages to rhyme “stroke of genius,” “ode to Jesus,” “broken English,” and “motorboat some cleavage,” and that’s not even the half of it.

Dead Skin is not the type of EP to force its way onto a listener with spectacle (save maybe for one flashy but airtight feature by K.A.A.N.). Instead, it trusts that the crowd it seeks will perk up and take notice of its fundamental appeal. For a quality dip of hip-hop smolder, Dewey Binns makes for a great spin.

Recommended track: “Temptation”

11. Shift by Gabrielle B.

Fresh off of a striking EP that made this list last year, Gabrielle B. is already back with a brand new batch of songs and an updated sound.

Shift is a sensual, luxurious R&B experience that amps the production up to the same level as Gabrielle B.’s stellar voice, which is still arguably the biggest draw with her music. There’s much to be said of these arrangements, though, which not only bring the expected bass lines and crisp rhythms but also reach into swirls of smooth guitars and jazz-minded saxophone.

For an example of how subtle some of the music is on Shift, consider a small motif on closer “Free Again”. Over the sparse chorus, there is an upward trickle of notes on the recurring first downbeat. A close listen reveals this instrument to actually be two instruments, a piano and an acoustic guitar, trading off this tiny, graceful moment with careful elegance.

In ways like this, Shift trades out some of the sugary sweetness on Gabrielle B.’s last release for a more contemplative, sophisticated feel. This is the right choice for the new material, which is less caught up in the bubbly origins of love.

Opening tracks “Angels” and “No One Else (But You)” are smitten songs essentially about finding a soulmate, but later tracks explore beyond to consider the complexities beyond attraction. “TBH (Interlude)” includes a quote about how real love is difficult to maintain, but that the efforts to keep it alive prove its authenticity. “Find You” is about being distant in a relationship. “I Am” and “Free Again” are perhaps the most thoughtful and mature, balancing past baggage with present mindsets in pursuit of a sustainable romantic future.

All of this is delivered through the smooth and soulful voice of Gabrielle B., whose confidence as a performer does well to embody the strong independence she portrays in her lyrics. Independence doesn’t discount love, though. Far from it. If anything, Shift advocates that the way to truly loving someone else is by first loving oneself.

Recommended track: “No One Else (But You)”

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