Top 20 EPs of 2017: 10-1 (Jarvix’s Big 50)

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

10. Jose Hernandez and the Black Magic Waters by Jose Hernandez and the Black Magic Waters

Jose Hernandez is one of the rawest performers around town, especially when he powers over a room with nothing but his booming, earthy voice and trusty guitar. His songs are profoundly personal and direct, excavating poetry from pain with a plainspoken demeanor and an introspective weight. This was what made his debut demo tape, Glory, so magnetic in spite of its obvious lo-fi sound quality.

On his proper self-titled studio EP, though, his music takes a turn. Jose Hernandez and The Black Magic Waters sees the singer-songwriter working with a full band to breathe a more atmospheric life to his material. The downside is that the grizzly, diamond-in-the-rough quality of his prior recording is mostly polished away, but in its place is a more clean-shaven Hernandez with a voice as bold as ever and a special spark of musical identity that has been missing until now.

The full band treatment offers pleasing vocal harmonies and an organic collection of guitars, keys, and drums to embellish Hernandez’s meat-and-potatoes acoustic guitar strumming. “Kids”, for instance, offers simmering organ, emotional guitar solos, and splashes of cymbals to represent the turmoil of its pleading chorus, which rhetorically asks “Aren’t we just kids trying to make our way in this world?”

The new EP includes some of Hernandez’s best songwriting, especially with cuts like the upbeat but subtly tragic opener, “Good Times”. “Searching and Waiting” may hold some of his most beautiful melodies to date. Still missing, though, is a live show staple that has yet to get a recording called “You Say You Want Me”. It’s arguably his best and most signature of songs in his repertoire, and its continued omission indicates that Hernandez will have to have more studio material in the future so fans can finally take the song home with them.

Until then, though, Jose Hernandez and The Black Magic Waters is a stellar effort that captures strong performances and shines a new light on Hernandez’s songwriting.

Recommended track: “Hey Man”

9. Fugue State by Limp Wizurdz

Norman garage punk rock band Limp Wizurdz have been together for over half a decade, and in punk years, that’s practically a marriage past its honeymoon stage. The high-energy musicians have gotten pretty goofy on past releases, but their new release has them putting out their most mature material to date. That isn’t to say the band doesn’t still have fun with it, however.

Fugue State uses the band’s aesthetic, which is naturally rough around the edges, to channel a dysphoric, often existential tone. Opening tracks “Cough!” and “Bike Messenger” drop lines like “Some things you can’t change,” “I’m pent up with bad intentions,” and “The days drag, the years pass.” Little pockets in the recording keep a fringe of levity to these proceedings, though. A one-second ukulele solo sits in the first track, a literal fart caps off the last one, and amusing personal audio snippets sneak in here and there throughout.

The ill feelings of Fugue State are triggered by topics that range from crappy office jobs (“Staple Gun”) to daddy issues (“Cankicker”). So much of the album is relatable that even its instrumental number, “Nervous Tick”, has a lot to say. In this context, the kitschy sci-fi artwork takes on a new light, where impending doom, childhood, and future remnants of today’s past all tug at the thread of mortality.

Musically, this is some of the band’s best studio work. The bustling energy of its guitars, bass, and drums carry the band’s angular, throttling live sound remarkably well, especially when amped up to 11 on the stereo. That’s good news for a band that likes to tour as much as Limp Wizurdz do. The lead vocals are rough and dirty, concerned more with conveying raw power than refined pitch while still remaining decipherable for the recordings. Together, the band members lock into a great chemistry, and that’s no surprise given their time together.

Fugue State keeps its riffs and melodies interesting, so when the album wraps after seven tracks, it’s easy to hit play again. Considering the introspective depth to these lyrics, that makes for an especially welcome attribute. From garage rock heads to Millennials going through a quarter-life crisis, a variety of listeners can take something away from Fugue State. Limp Wizurdz have done something pretty remarkable with an album that still keeps its party-punk cred, and that’s what makes it the best Oklahoma punk release of the year.

Recommended track: “Staple Gun”

album art for Clandestine Labs by Sparkpluig

8. Clandestine Labs by Sparkpluig

Dazzling with experimentation, Clandestine Labs seems an unlikely place to find some of the best pop tunage of the year, and yet.

There’s something vibrant and otherworldly about this music, which hails from a one-man project called Sparkpluig out of the Tulsa area. Warped out synths and hand-style percussion abound to such an extent that when guitars make their entrance and indulge in some sense of normalcy, it’s a little jarring. Not to worry, though, as one can expect these brief moments will be shortly eaten over by more weird sounds and enthusiastic hand claps.

The tempos on most of the EPs six tracks are just a tad faster than usual, which in itself lends to a frenetic energy out of the gate. While it catches its breath by the time closer “Goodnight Soundpony” rolls through, it takes an exhilarating detour to get there.

From the start, “Number Yourself (208 & 209)” sets a rambunctious tone with fluorescent synth tones, DIY percussion, and rich layers of nonverbal vocals, some of which are pitch-shifted into other musical dimensions. With the exception of this track and “Crimes Solved”, though, Clandestine Labs goes over and above to include lyrics. There is already so much going on that a release such as this would be noteworthy for its backing music alone. Heck, even its tasteful and frequent use of cowbell is noteworthy.

With catchy numbers like “This Song Is Sung” and “Coming Around Again”, Sparkpluig bridges his weird worlds into a more accessible context, using fairly simple songwriting to engage listeners. A refrain of “That’s what we’re gonna say / That’s what we’re gonna do” closes out the latter of those two songs, for instance.

Sparkpluig shows his cards a bit too much on “The Faintest Glow”, which immediately outs the artist as a fan of Animal Collective. Once that influence is revealed, Clandestine Labs suddenly gets a hair more derivative than it might otherwise seem. Still, though, that is high praise. If Animal Collective were so easily copied, the indie music landscape of today would be drastically different. And to be sure, there are a number of other comparisons that can theoretically be made to Clandestine Labs. “Coming Around Again” recalls Paul Simon, for example.

Even with its eclectic influences, Clandestine Labs is a bright, infectious ball of energy that can’t help but make Sparkpluig out to be a true original, a crusader on the path of experimental pop music. So far, his efforts are impeccable. If music could be a confetti cannon that doesn’t need to be cleaned up between each use, it would be Clandestine Labs.

Recommended track: “This Song Is Sung”

7. The Ron Jeremy Tape by Knoble Savage

On a technical level, Knoble Savage (stylized “KNOble”) is one of the best rap lyricists around. His rhymes are clever, constant, and creative. He pairs them with unapologetic, oft profane hot takes that range from hyperbole to outright troublemaking. Furthermore, he knows how to dodge cliches and draws from unexpected influences, as in the case of two singles he released this year that reference rock experimentalist Frank Zappa and pro wrestler Ric Flair respectively.

From the very start, The Ron Jeremy Tape lets you know it keeps a self-aware sense of humor in spite of its occasional brashness. The two tracks that credit Ron Jeremy do actually feature the legendary porn star, but they are rough audio clips of him awkwardly endorsing Knoble Savage, clearly with no real knowledge of the hip-hop artist. The clips are cut awkwardly, too, ensuring that everybody is in on the gag.

While the mixtape does like to play games, it has plenty to offer beyond the Ron Jeremy gimmick, though not necessarily for sensitive listeners. On blast from start to finish, Savage indulges in verbal boasts and attacks on cuts like “Luger” and “Unfinished, 42” that show no mercy to his rivals. The latter ends on a dark line that says, “I hope your mama dies so you can write a dope verse,” for instance.

He also brings in a few choice feature verses from ZuneAfish, Clark Rooseveltte, and Sativa Prophets’ Huckwheat, all of whom prove to be exceptional writers and performers in their own right. Savage could have probably used a singer or two, though, as his own vocals are merely serviceable on the few moments where he chooses to sing. This approach worked better on his 2014 release, Carcosa, when the subject matter was more personal and vulnerable, whereas here it feels a bit like wasted potential.

Any discussion of The Ron Jeremy Tape would be remiss to not mention the beat-making. Producer Sardashhh delivers exceptional work that elevates the project to new heights. From the stylishly gritty “Flawless Victory” to the talkbox sample of “Faberge” to the soulful and breezy “Life, Money”, he flexes a range beyond the already diverse electronic musings of his solo albums.

The Ron Jeremy Tape fires on all cylinders and stays relentless from start to finish. Perhaps most importantly, though, Ron Jeremy says you should listen to it, so what are you waiting for?

Recommended track: “Flawless Victory”

6. The Shelter People EP by The Shelter People

Psychedelic rock is one of many umbrella genre terms, but at its core is a 60s and 70s mentality of acid tripping through music. Since then, the label has been slapped even on music that barely has any rock in it. This is where The Shelter People come in.

Arguably, the band makes psychedelic rock at its purest form by bringing the genre back to its roots. Though the trio behind The Shelter People don’t specifically identify with the label itself, it’s hard not to apply the term. The band’s love of vintage sounds and styles are congruous with the movement, and the music is full of distorted vocals, trippy guitar solos, and great rhythm section grooves. One could be forgiven for assuming the EP is a relic from decades ago getting a remastered vinyl reissue, but no, this is new music from the year 2017.

The four-track release is a staggering tent-pole for Tulsa rock ‘n roll. The band’s mission to bring back rock is not unlike many waves and attempts before, but The Shelter People EP makes a fine rallying cry. The youthful fire that ignites every cut of the new EP is invigorating. If that weren’t enough to inspire hope in Oklahoma’s new generation of music makers, perhaps the band’s name can do the trick. The Shelter People is a Leon Russell reference, from the late Okie legend’s second solo album. Word is that he personally gave the band his blessing to use the name before his death.

From the slide guitar that sneaks into the tail of “Too Many Days Have Gone By” to the opening solo of “Going Back Home”, the EP also proves to have some blues cred. The latter of these examples is the closing track, and it carries that blues element into an epic rock ‘n roll arrangement that goes for nearly eight minutes. Between vocal interjections and a series of solos, the track stays interesting and justifies its runtime, especially when viewed through a psychedelic lens.

With its debut, though not wholly original, The Shelter People have proven to be well-learned pupils of rock music’s storied history, and Oklahoma would do well to take note of the movement they’re trying to spark.

Recommended track: “What It Means to Love”

5. Vernacular Songs by Brad Fielder

The roots of folk music are collared blue, and few seem to retain that notion as well as Brad Fielder. In a present day where folk is an umbrella term for every twentysomething singer-songwriter with a beard, it’s refreshing to still see a guy like Fielder rambling about town wearing a cap that presumably did not cost $45 at a hipster boutique for its fashionable fade and tear.

On the aptly titled Vernacular Songs, he yodels through six new socially conscious tunes that speak for the weary and the oppressed. In keeping with his lo-fi approach to recording, the EP is strictly a voice and guitar affair, but the steam rising off of Fielder’s songwriting grabs more attention than a full band sound would. These are the most outspoken, thinly-veiled writings in his repertoire.

Like the folk legends before him, Fielder recognizes that when the common people are pitted against one another, the powers that be retain control, and he squares his lyrical sights on the latter. On “Theocratic States of America”, he remarks that “While the war machine just rambles, education is in shambles / They make expensive gambles with our luck.”

Some songs are subtler about their political stances. “The Brick and the Broom” is a stellar opener, invoking waves of symbolism to recount the many controversial conflicts of today. Though his phrasing tends to give away his personal stance, he seeks unity from both sides that can only be found when a serious, open-minded dialogue is had.

Every song is a highlight, from procedural everyman tale “This is the Hand” to the Trump affected “New Landlord of Hooverville” to “Talkin’ Eyeballs on the Ceiling”, which closes the album with the lost art of talking blues.

Vernacular Songs displays timeless song structures and smart lyricism that handles protest songwriting with more class and humility than many hamfisted attempts in popular music over the past few years. Brad Fielder’s affable presence in the record is key to this, and none of it is for show. Like many in the great tradition of folk music, he’s the genuine article.

Recommended track: “The Brick and the Broom”

4. Mike Dee & Stone Trio by Mike Dee & Stone Trio

New live hip-hop bands seem to be sprouting up everywhere of late, and that’s a welcome development. While they can’t capture the essence of a highly produced hip-hop beat cooked up in a music program, they offer something else. The spontaneity and in-the-moment energy of a live performance is a perfect match for a full-throttle emcee, and that’s what Stone Trio provides for Mike Dee.

On the group’s self-titled EP, Mike Dee & Stone Trio opts to record live, and it’s a smart choice. Dee gives an extremely passionate performance from start to finish, hurling fiery verses over the mic with technical know-how and a fuel reserve of emotion. Accompanying are a collection of bass, guitar, drums, and saxophone. In particular, the sax and bass conspire to build a smoky, jazzy atmosphere that brings out a dusky noir quality in Dee’s hip-hop material.

The album makes no qualms about its subject matter, which tends to be politically conscious. The first track, “Try Not to Fail”, begins with an audio clip about Trayvon Martin that essentially says Black Lives Matter. Then Dee leaps into a lamentation about police brutality, pleading “Give them a chance to be more.” The recording goes on to climax in a verbal gunshot as the audio clip returns to credit fear as the crux of the issue.

When it isn’t specifically railing against race relations, the EP tackles a number of topics ranging from music scene drama to unrealistic beauty standards. They all tend to come back to a common thread of oppression, though. “Ain’t Shit” interjects some defensive hip-hop braggadocio, but even it finds its way to the lines, “Supposed to be all for one and one for all / Rather than rise together, they want to see us fall.” Moments like the list of marginalized labels in “Hand It Ova” further emphasize that the struggle is more shared than it’s often portrayed to be.

The musical dynamics do wonders to drive these points home. Stone Trio delivers some seriously intoxicating grooves that organically build and dissipate with Mike Dee’s words, even having the restraint to drop out entirely for some powerful spoken word at the end of “Ain’t Shit”.

Mike Dee & Stone Trio is a stellar, powerful outing that boasts a unique chemistry of hip-hop, funk, and jazz. For even the most casual fans of those genres, this EP is a must listen.

Recommended track: “Try Not to Fail”

3. Valencia by Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards

Precisely one lead piano and two trumpets away from a traditional rock lineup, Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards create a kind of rock music that crosses over into a number of styles. It is hard to outright label, and yet it sounds so distinct, so preconceived, that a specific genre tag seems necessary.

That’s not to say that the band is out of left field, as many of its traits can be traced. The vocal/lyrical swagger are reminiscent of the emo-alternative phase of the 2000s, while its piano and trumpet flair are similar to many soloists working the contemporary vocal pop circuit. Meanwhile, the rock core of the band is not unlike many indie rock bands of today, and the occasional inclusion of orchestral instruments even has a chamber pop ring to it.

What Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards do so well is blend all of these elements into a particular, signature sound that is wholly accessible. With the right melodic hook and the right opportunities, it could go mainstream.

At least, that’s the story with Valencia, the band’s debut EP. The Bastards are still a young act that could take many turns from here, but the confidence and sophistication on display here already show much promise. Johnny Manchild and company know what they’re doing. All of the choices on Valencia, be it the seamless track segues or the choice use of guitar, sound carefully composed.

The lead vocals do a lot to push the band in the rock direction it ultimately feels most at home in. This blog covered lead single “Annie” earlier this year and said of Manchild, “His notes are clean and precise, but his inflections channel a fiery angst that comes straight from his passionate gut. When combined with his dynamic piano playing, it’s hard not to get roped into his state of lament as he painfully wails ‘Forgive me’ over the closing fanfare of ‘Annie’.”

Valencia sounds like a young band not only looking to take on the world, but ready to do it. The skills, the talent, the image, and the branding are all there, waiting for the right talent scout to find. Johnny Manchild is said to already be writing for a full-length album, so there’s that to look forward to. Until then, though, Valencia is not one to be looked over.

Recommended track: “Annie”

2. EP by Labrys

Simply titled EP, the new EP from Labrys is a seven-track trip down a nocturnal indie rock rabbit hole. Like its occult-like cover art, the album comes from a place hidden, mysterious, and maybe a little dangerous. For those interested in visiting this secluded place, EP is a near perfect experience, at once haunting, barbed, and beautiful. It won’t show anyone the way back out of the woods, though, as its home lies within them.

Full of stark atmospherics, distorted guitars, and moody vocals, the moderately tempoed album tosses and turns in a deep, personal sphere of introspection. The songs deal with the messiness and mistakes of interpersonal relations, but rather than look down from some moral standpoint, Labrys seeks to understand them eye to eye. She avoids going straight for the blames and apologies, allowing herself and others the grace to be imperfect, though moreso the former, as this album is largely a self-reflection.

Practically, too, it’s more efficient for Labrys to simply know how to move forward and avoid such messes in the future. At multiple points in the album, Labrys makes reference to how human drama just takes time and energy from more productive endeavors. Thoughts like these may seem cold to some, and it’s precisely why her music comes with edges and brambles meant to turn away the closeminded. Again, the artwork is relevant here.

Two of the tracks, “Wicked One” and “Went Sour”, were released on a cassette last year, but they are given new recordings on EP. “Went Sour” in particular is much more engaging, replacing some of last year’s sulking with a catchy angst that makes it one of the best cuts on the new record. All other tracks are brand new, including excellent lead single “Bitch in a Band”, the lyrics of which preempt the volatility of romantic sparks by cutting them at the quick. Labrys’s delivery here–and on every recording–is appropriately downbeat, like a cynic that maybe secretly wishes love weren’t a cruel illusion, but alas.

None of this takes into account just how much EP rocks when it wants to. When Labrys gets fired up on “Bitch in a Band” and especially on “Wicked One”, the EP makes for some of the best local rock of the year. Most of the time, though, it swims in its moody arrangements, which are composed and mixed with excellence.

When the album wraps on “Cold Water”, it’s apparent that the EP is not just a work of fierce independence, but also one of vulnerability, however cryptic it may sometimes be. Labrys is uncompromising and unapologetic in her art, yet when one is tuned into the perspective of EP, it becomes one of the most emotional and utterly human records of the year.

Recommended track: “Bitch in a Band”

1. Para Ti by Lincka

Though it’s tempting to call the innovate latin pop of Lincka a melting pot, it’s more accurate to consider it a cultural collage. Its influences are far and wide, blending everything from electronic to rock to worldbeat styles of music. Instead of cooking it down to a homogeneous broth, though, the band creates an eargasmic stew with different flavors in each sound bite. Such music is greater than the sum of its ingredients, and it’s no mistake that the same can be said of diversity itself.

Para Ti is the follow up to Lincka’s 2015 debut, No Shoes EP, and it displays the band in a more vibrant light than ever before. Combining bright, breezy electric guitar parts and colorful sampling, the new EP’s arrangements integrate live performance with DJ-style chopping and remixing to create an energetic hybrid texture. Producer and band member Rat Fink further blurs these lines when he tinkers with the band’s instrumental and vocal recorded parts in post-production. He warps, clips, duplicates, and adjusts moments at will to help craft Lincka’s unique sound palette.

The fresh and exhilarating flavors of Para Ti have been steadily gaining enthusiastic notice in English-speaking circles, and that’s a big deal given the EP’s bilingual lyrics. Lincka Elizondo, the lead singer, songwriter, and namesake of Lincka, embroiders messages into her songs that celebrate Latino culture while taking to task those who seek to smear it. Her unique voice and position as a bilingual pop singer helps bridge the cultural gap through music.

The first and best cut of the three-track EP is “Gardenias”, which brings the very dynamic of Lincka’s songwriting front and center. Sung mostly in Spanish, the lyrics take occasional breaks to drop English lines like “Can you hear me alright?” and “I’ll let you Google translate it”. By teasing the primary lyrics of the song, Lincka encourages English-speaking listeners to actively partake in crossing the language barrier to better understand the culture she represents. It’s a clever and functional use of music that’s rarely pursued or achieved.

Para Ti is a remarkable work that accomplishes more in its brief 11 minutes than many full albums by adhering to a unique sound and stuffing it to the brim with bells and whistles that can take additional listens to catch. It’s perfect for dancing and relaxation alike, and its artistic perspective is undeniably original, not to mention purposeful. In the Oklahoma music scene, Lincka’s output is absolutely unparalleled, and it holds promise not only for the band, but for the cultural future as a whole.

Recommended track: “Gardenias”

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