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

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

20. Eastside Delicacy by Grand National

Grand National’s love letter to Oklahoma City’s Eastside is every bit as smooth and delicious as the dessert on its cover. Leo’s Famous Strawberry-Banana Cake hails from the legendary Leo’s BBQ restaurant, located east of I-235, and it is a blissful experience of flavor, melting into the senses for a momentary slice of levity. So, too, is Eastside Delicacy.

Grand National pairs smooth, saxophone-accentuated beats with smart rhymes to celebrate the highlights of his neighborhood (“Leo’s Cake”) while acknowledging its shortcomings (“Black Star”).

In the couple of years since his debut, Grand Prix, the local hip-hop staple has improved substantially in the studio. On Eastside Delicacy, his output is less influenced by rap trends and more focused on a sound, a concept, and a narrative bigger than self-promotion.

Features range from up-and-coming R&B singer-songwriter Ellesse to a Jabee and Chris “The God MC” Cain heavyweight double header. Additionally, however, tracks are interspersed with on-location audio clips of everyday conversations had in the Eastside. Altogether, these help embody the album’s communal angle.

On many of the cuts, he makes reference to living the high life while keeping it grounded in the context of the album (“Khufu”, “World See Us”). He uses such references to celebrate the people and places of his predominantly black community and essentially asks them to join in his self-confidence in Eastside residency. With exports like Eastside Delicacy, there is much of which to be proud.

Recommended tracks: “Leo’s Cake” / “Black Star (feat. Ellesse & Kemp)”

19. Pieces of Schema by Seph(ra)

Pop folk artist Seph(ra) experiments with a DIY spirit that finds creative, exotic uses for common musical tools. Perhaps the most common of these is the human voice, and Seph(ra) uses it abundantly on Pieces of Schema.

Described as an antithesis to a concept album, the 12-track collection hops from song to song, writing from different perspectives and trying on different sonic environments. Many of the tracks eschew traditional drums in favor of found objects or a lack of percussion altogether. Guitar is also refreshingly not relied on. Though other instruments like piano, synthesizer, and ukulele have their moments, the common thread is actually Seph(ra)’s voice.

Putting years of acapella experience to good work, she weaves sweet and well-considered harmonies into lead melodies and background tapestries alike. Even more overt vocal parts like the backing “oh” lines on “Zero” and “Lie” would be played by physical instruments in the hands of most arrangers.

The songwriting is far from cliche as well. Cuts like “Drip Drop” and “Zero” have interesting abstract ideas that many wouldn’t think of as song material, while devastatingly intimate moments like “Come Over” hit with hard words and soft, graceful music.

Others subvert pop cliches. The hand-holding lovebird tune “Paris” says “We both agree it’s not forever / When all our hearts will one day sever.” “Love Isn’t” has all the makings of a bubbly ukulele love song, but all of the sweet, cute thoughts that are listed off are said to not really have anything to do with love at all.

On closer “Free”, Seph(ra) confesses, “I could never write like that girl who writes love songs for you,” and that line quite captures the album’s charm well. Pieces of Schema is anything but a standard quote/unquote quirky indie pop affair. It’s genuinely offbeat, and it wears it with pride.

Recommended tracks: “Zero” / “Love Isn’t”

18. Trials and Truths by Horse Thief

In the days before Horse Thief was a signed act touring the nations of Europe, it was a local Oklahoma City band. At the time, the group’s identity felt more like a cobbling together of its indie rock influences and the trending folk music revival of the time. Since then, it feels like the band has been on a constant mission to hew its own indie folk rock perspective out of those influences into a truly signature breed.

Arguably, 2014’s Fear in Bliss accomplished that, crafting an atmospheric, neo-rustic sound and producing memorable singles like “Devil” and “Dead Drum”. Still, though, the band’s artistic identity seemed to be a work in progress.

On Trials and Truths, Horse Thief continues its musical journey, choosing to explore much the same berry patch of sound but with a more discerning pair of landscaping shears. Some of the more overgrown synth keyboard sounds that crept into Fear in Bliss, for instance, are clipped away, and vocals are kept to a more stable mid range.

What this ultimately means is that Trials and Truths is less adventurous than its predecessor. In exchange, it offers a more focused, detail oriented presentation. Take the very delicate “Falling For You”, which has a barely audible electronic bass line and peppers its fluid guitar and organ sustains with a sparing piano trickle. Its choices in arrangement tend to be subtle, hoping to affect the listener more in a subconscious way than an obvious one.

The title of Trials and Truths is said to be a reference to the band simply working hard together to overcome bad fortune and industry tensions to continue functioning as a band. It’s well-documented that Horse Thief has faced both illness and robbery while on demanding touring schedules. In a similar way, the album seems to be caught up in the gears of its process somewhat, such that the creative light bulb of inspiration flickers rather than flashes.

That said, Horse Thief still delivers a number of great moments on the record, most notably with “Drowsy”, “Evil’s Rising”, and “Another Youth”. The songwriting and performances still capture the band’s laid-back feel to major ideas and troublesome situations, relying on poignant lyrics to bring out the weariness of its musical arrangements. Some critics have accused the band of being too pleasant, but it’s actually the pleasantry that most causes Horse Thief’s music to hit the bittersweet nerve that is the very essence of the band’s material to date.

Trials and Truths is a reliable installment in the growing Horse Thief repertoire that narrows its focus while still managing to deliver modest melodies and nuanced performances. If the band can just catch a break in the coming album cycle, the level of dedication and finesse shown here could serve a stroke of inspiration very well and give LP number three all the support it needs to truly ignite.

Recommended tracks: “Drowsy” / “Falling for You”

17. Redneck Nosferatu by Redneck Nosferatu

A furious flurry of murderous ragers await those who enter the horror punk of Redneck Nosferatu. On its self-titled full-length, the band tackles the dark underbelly of human civilization with song titles as gruesome as “Dead Girls” and “Papa Kills Babies”.

Don’t judge it too harshly by that, though. Redneck Nosferatu is pretty mild compared to the shock value acts that dot the outer recesses of the music scene. Additionally, the album is less gimmicky than the band’s name might suggest. The fatal stories seem to represent backwoods killers and victims alike, sometimes with a vengeance and often with an acceptance of hell’s condemnation.

Redneck Nosferatu offers plenty to satisfy a punk rock or metal hunger pang with its high-speed assault of drums and harsh three-chord progressions. What really sets the band apart, however, is its vocals. The lead female vocalist snarls and sneers with a scratchy throat and loud projection that absolutely steals the spotlight. She is joined occasionally by a supporting male vocal that matches her punky, devilish delivery beat for beat, and the two work together remarkably well as music flies by in a high-octane race to the finish.

At nine tracks, the LP barely clocks over 20 minutes of material, which isn’t atypical of punk music. What’s impressive is that the album could have easily gotten away with just drilling home the same sound from track to track, but it still takes the opportunity to explore a couple of different ideas in its tracklist while attention spans are full. “Dead Girls” actually starts with an acoustic guitar and develops into something that often resembles southern rock or outlaw country in some ways. “Stalker” also takes some chances with a more traditional rock style and a fairly sickening back-and-forth narrative between a girl and her stalker.

The mixing is a little rough around the edges, and the vocals tend to be a little too buried. Furthermore, there’s a little tidying up to do with the actual distribution of the album. An earlier version has a chilling opening track that is missing on the wider release, and there seem to be two album covers floating around–the one not used here pictures a black feline. If anything, though, this adds to the band’s independent, underground integrity.

Redneck Nosferatu is a lightning rod of a punk band that rocks as hard and fast as the best of them. For fans of gnarly, energetic rock music that hits hard without being excessively abrasive, this album is an absolute can’t-miss.

Recommended tracks: “Love and a .45” / “Dead Girls”

16. Big Wheel by Taddy Porter

Taddy Porter are back with 12 new tracks of pure rock ‘n roll fire. The band’s third LP, Big Wheel, cuts the fat and keeps the frills strictly to showboating guitar solos, a move that seems calculated in response to some fan backlash against 2013’s Stay Golden.

A visit to that album’s Amazon item page reveals a littering of one-star reviews (as well as a show of how fickle and close-minded some rock audiences can be) that accuse the rock band of going soft. Whether that’s a valid criticism or not is debatable, but Taddy Porter correct the ship with Big Wheel, arguably its best album to date.

Big, hearty rock vocals are backed by seriously groovy rhythms and large-and-in-charge guitar riffs. Really nice hooks show up on most of the songs, including the brazen “Tame the Wolf” and the rebellious “Wild Ones”, the latter of which has some interesting guitar work that shakes things up in the record’s back half.

From cover to cover, the album is a non-stop rock ‘n roll party. It only takes a slight break on “California Bound”, which briefly indulges in some of the band’s maligned indie rock exploration. This, of course, makes it one of the most interesting cuts, but no matter. Within the context of the full record, it serves as more of a dynamic lull, a segue rather than a destination. Even without it, though, the LP wouldn’t get old. Taddy Porter has a nice way of keeping the rock energy flowing across different styles without falling into rote monotony.

Much like its name, Taddy Porter’s new album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sticks to what works and does it exceptionally well. Big Wheel is a fantastic time.

Recommended tracks: “Stone Won’t Roll” / “Tame the Wolf”

15. To Have You Around by Zach Winters

The modern indie-acoustic folk sounds of Zach Winters are as soothing as they are welcoming. On his latest effort, To Have You Around, his soft, alluring voice is accompanied by organic blends of acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and drums played not by drumstick but by brush. Like an artisanal pot of tea for a houseguest, it is warm, stimulating, and hospitable.

Full of lyrics that reference the natural world, the LP is as rich with poetic phrasing as with gorgeous musical arrangements. The second track, for instance, includes the chorus, “And the wind plays across the tall grass in the fields / And the fruit of the orchard how it tugs / And the trees they all know how to dance one together / But as for me, I’m knock-kneed and lead-lunged.” Some lyrics are less cryptic than others but are no less poetic on To Have You Around.

Winters’ hypnotic and meditative musical wellspring fuels the album, but some cuts find it overflowing into new places. Particularly, the tracks “If the Sun is Shining” and “Love My Woman” are bright, groovy numbers that shake up the tracklist nicely in a surprise turn for the musician.

Many years into his career now–this is his fifth album–Winters has developed a loyal following, largely within the church. His reputation as a Christian artist has certainly served him well, but To Have You Around stands completely on its own merits. In fact, it doesn’t come across as a Christian album at all.

Much like the works of presumed influence Sufjan Stevens, any spirituality is implied and can only really be seen under a microscope. His topics on To Have You Around tend to involve love and companionship and are framed in a way to indicate that he’s talking about a mortal friend or spouse rather than God. To staunchly religious listeners, this could seem watered down compared to more overtly Christian songwriting of years past, but such would be a narrow view of what inspirational art can be. Additionally, work like this is far less likely to turn off nonbelievers.

All listeners are welcome to have a comforting taste of To Have You Around, which boasts some of the most beautiful soundscaping of any album this year. Winters, who plays no less than 16 instruments on the album yet still collaborates with other musicians, knows his way around an inspired chamber folk swell. By the end of breathtaking closer “Ocean Sunset Motorcycle”, it’s hard not to feel refreshed.

Recommended tracks: “Everything a Part of Me (Sweet Companion)” / “If the Sun is Shining

14. Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table by The Big News

Oklahoma’s uncontested ska kings of the year knock another record out of the park with Welcome to the Weird Kids’ Table, The Big News’s sophomore follow-up to last year’s Have You Heard?.

Not only is the new album a fun time, but it is also proof that the band has not painted itself into a corner creatively. Where the band’s debut was a light-hearted affair with tracks about walking off the job and goofy urban legends, Welcome to the Weird Kids’ Table proves that ska has the depth to handle topics as downtrodden as the sting of rejection, the dearth of political decency, and even depression itself. It’s counterintuitive to the upbeat genre known for its corny dances and checkerboard fashions, but remarkably, The Big News pulls it off.

The band continues to incorporate elements of punk and garage rock into its sound and keeps arrangements from falling into the cookie cutter traps of routine ska. Furthermore, it blends minor keys into many of the songs without turning them sad or sour, something that can largely be attributed to the enthusiastic performances. The lead vocalist in particular nails the tone of his delivery on tracks like “I Don’t Care” and “Something Else”, both of which deal with feeling in a rut. The vocals strike a balance between embodying that angst while still being carefree enough about it that the uptempo guitars and horns still make sense with the songs.

“Fell in Love with a Stranger” probably does the best job of pushing the ska genre well beyond its boundaries without losing its roots. On that cut, the singer grapples with the loss of a potential romance but seeks a resolute understanding of the situation, even hammering in a refrain towards the end to remind himself that “A volatile situation can end in a violent conclusion.” Again, this isn’t the mature songwriting one often expects from fun-loving rascals in a ska band.

There is no shortage of moody contemplations on Welcome to the Weird Kids’ Table, but the band insists it wasn’t intentional. Like many great artists, The Big News uses music as an extension of itself, collaboratively writing about life as it happens and working to frame it until it feels right.

More than anything, the band just wants to have fun and spread joy through its music, and that comes across in the new album. When faced with adversity, The Big News essentially looks trouble in the face and beats it down with the c’est la vie positivity of music. For listeners looking for some solid ska therapy or even just a good old fashioned rock ‘n roll time, Welcome to the Weird Kids’ Table is the huge gift in a small, weird, checkered package that keeps on giving.

Recommended tracks: “She Said No!” / “Fell in Love with a Stranger”

13. Backyard Carnival by The Dirty Little Betty's

Adventurous, laid back, and often whimsical, Backyard Carnival more than lives up to its name. The debut album from recent upstart The Dirty Little Betty’s [sic] is a lively collection of songs that find a comfort zone in bluegrass jams but explore beyond to include a myriad of styles. Forays into psychedelic, roots, and even noirish swing music are par for the course within the band’s smorgasbord of flavors.

Led by a versatile vocalist and supported by a sure-handed banjo picker, The Dirty Little Betty’s cover a lot of territory in only 11 songs. Premises include: blurry recollections from a topsy-turvy bar outing (“Hilo”); absurd framing devices used to celebrate maternal beverage making (“Sweet Tea”); and perhaps most surprisingly of all, straightforward thoughts on the dynamics of life (“Please Come Home”). From a songwriting vantage, multiple approaches to the craft manifest, telling tales with one breath and musing philosophy with another.

Though this is a debut album, it’s clear from the level of musicianship and album intuition here that The Dirty Little Betty’s are comprised of seasoned artists. Silly cuts like “Backyard Carnival” and “Sweet Tea” might set a precedent to not take the album too seriously, but it stands up incredibly well under scrutiny.

Take “Parachute”, a seemingly inconspicuous track that kicks off with a playful banjo lick. As the song carries on, however, it opens up into a reflective passage that makes one question what the titular parachute might represent. The arrangement also carries a couple of musical turns that smartly capture the song’s transformation of perspective, then closes with a third-act instrumental that literally recalls the opening banjo line as the lyrics state “Get back to the place where this all began.” Backyard Carnival is full of mid-song progressions like this.

Leave it to The Dirty Little Betty’s to make an album that–no lie–makes use of the musical saw on multiple tracks without coming anywhere near the trappings of novelty. From its unforgettable details to its thoughtful musical choices, Backyard Carnival is easily one of the more adventurous album experiences of the year.

Recommended tracks: “Backyard Carnival” / “Sweet Tea”

12. Mama's Boy by The Lunar Laugh

Repurposed from this blog’s full review earlier this year:

From the opening moments of Mama’s Boy, which kicks off with its title track, The Lunar Laugh invokes a softie image of sunny melodies and sing-song harmonies. The first lines, however, reveal the album’s added dimension when it says, “Mama’s boy comin’ at you with both arms swingin’ / He’s gettin’ tired of turning the other cheek”. Not only does this clue the listener into the darker roots of many of the album’s songs, but it also surprises with a self-aware, almost comedic take on itself. The Lunar Laugh knows that it makes straight-laced suburban music that draws inspiration from old-fashioned places, and the band embraces this identity, even going so far as to entrust the entirety of its front cover to a disinterested house cat.

Mama’s Boy is the sophomore LP from The Lunar Laugh, following 2015’s acclaimed Apollo. Where that album found the lead singer-songwriter often delving into world-minded topics, this one finds him in a more personal, vulnerable place. The music plays into this progression as well, with Mama’s Boy less of an exercise in vintage sounds and more tuned to a personal eclectic blend.

The Lunar Laugh’s lineup is bigger this time as well. The group is now a trio instead of a duo, and there are many guest musicians in the recordings (one of whom is, in a brilliant move, actor/comedian Lucas Ross on banjo). The core trio is now able to organically hit three-part harmonies, which lends an extra flavor of sweetness to the savory pop/rock affair.

The songs are catchy and upbeat, often with non-verbal melodies a prominent presence. “She Needs More Love” has fun with arranging and layering multiple vocal parts everywhere amidst finger snaps and bouncy drums. “Take A Little Time”, by comparison, is a more laid-back listen but is just as bright and busy in its moderate tempo. In addition to non-verbal backing vocals (which run the gamut of ahs, ohs, and doos), this track weaves in quaint mandolin and beautifully fluttering strings. The latter gets a full-fledged solo.

The Lunar Laugh also dips into its more melancholy lyricism on cuts like “Work in Progress” and “A Better Fool”. The latter’s chorus sings “Is something wrong with me? / Is something wrong with you?”, and the forlorn pessimism of its verses include the lines, “You’re leavin’ me forsaken / This vow was made for breakin'”. This is one of the sulkiest songs on the record, yet it remains a breezy listen and is picked up by happier tunes in no time.

Mama’s Boy abounds with catchy melodies, moreso even than The Lunar Laugh’s last project. The trio traverses many flavors of sound while adhering to a core foundation in the classics of 60’s/70’s pop and 90’s/00’s alternative rock. Even with its many influences, though, the band offers a signature sound that is as personal as the stories it tells. Add to that a thoughtful spread of vocal harmonies, and one has a stellar pop record with plenty of replay value.

Recommended tracks: “Work in Progress” / “Nighthawks & Mona Lisa”

11. Wild Change by Kalo

Bat-or Kalo is probably the best blues rocker in Oklahoma playing today, and that’s no small feat. With a smoky, large-as-life voice and a natural proclivity for down and dirty guitar riffs, her swagger is undeniable. As a straightforward rock trio (guitar/bass/drums), Kalo is a full band that showcases the best of these attributes, but no record has ever done the group’s live performances justice until this year.

Wild Change is Kalo’s best and purest work, truly channeling the energy and skill of its players into a sensational collection of rock and roll numbers. Some hit all the sweet spots with groovy bass lines and feel-good/feel-bad guitar inflections. Others switch up the formula, though, as in the case of the delightful “One Mississippi”, which includes hand claps to help it reach crossover single territory. Furthermore “Upside Down” and “Pay to Play” bring in a horn section to lend a classic funk/soul vibe, and “Free” could easily play to the modern country crowd with a bit less distortion and a bit more twang.

For all of its remarkable musicianship, Wild Change never devolves into indulgent jams. Instrumental bridges are common, but they merely tease the trove of fluent solos at the band’s disposal. It’s the pent up energy in choices like this that keeps the LP charging along, never once losing steam in its efficiently assembled 11 tracks.

Lyrically, the album is often written around an ambivalence towards love, turning its sentiments into big bar-ready choruses on cuts like “Fix” and “Bad Girl”. By album’s end, however, Kalo takes an intimate turn on stripped closer “Calling All Dreamers”, which at last reveals the ounce of hope that implicitly brings such an engaging dynamic to the album’s more raucous material.

With electrifying performances and some of the band’s best material to date, Wild Change is simply a great rock record and easily one of the best of the year.

Recommended tracks: “One Mississippi” / “Upside Down”

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aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.

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