10. Into the Clouds by Sativa Prophets
There ain’t no party like a Sativa Prophets party.
After years of solo projects and guest spots, Oklahoma City’s foremost crossover hip-hop collective finally puts out a full-length debut album together, and it’s worth the wait. Now a quartet of three emcees and a DJ, Sativa Prophets are practically a supergroup with Huckwheat, Rod Malone, Mars Deli, and Igloo Panda, a core lineup that took a few years to officially lock in. The chemistry at this point is undeniable.
Every member has a distinct personality, and together, they play off each other wonderfully, trading lead and supporting roles in smooth rotation. Producer Igloo Panda even gets a bit of the spotlight on intermission instrumental cut “Inter-Clude”.
In terms of lyrical content, the Prophets rely a lot on its cannabis namesake to offer any sort of distinct angle. Fun track concepts like “Bob Ross” offer plenty of winks and nods to the culture thereof. Outside of that angle, most other lyrics don’t bring much new to the table, crossing off the usual brags about having money, being the best, and getting all the “bitches”, which come off fairly generic on their own merits. What makes all of it work, though, is the on-point execution.
Fun, quality rhymes and stylish delivery come together with catchy beats in such a way that even the album’s dated Harambe reference sounds cool. Furthermore, overlying track concepts on cuts like the cleverly produced “X-Files” help save the material when it hits the rare slight misfire. Each track also clocks in under the four minute mark, ensuring that the momentum of the album stays high throughout. Into the Clouds flies by and leaves no opportunity for a moment to grow stale.
The full-throttle energy of the collective’s much hyped live shows comes across on the album, but the studio also offers a curated, composed take that really helps every member shine. Together as one, Sativa Prophets are an almighty force of rap music, bringing out the best in each other to elevate the whole crew Into the Clouds.
Recommended tracks: “Hank Moody” / “Cloud Dancer”
9. Violent Sun by Haniwa
Full of overcast indie rock arrangements and heartfelt melodies, Haniwa’s Violent Sun is a remarkable concept album with some of the most dramatic songwriting one is bound to find.
The memorable instrumental performances, dual lead vocals, and catchy songwriting are enough to reward repeat listens, but it’s the underpinning substance to the typically reverbed, atmospheric music that ultimately enables it to hold up over time. Haniwa describes the album title as a representation of love as a deconstructed paradox. The sun, see, is a great, glowing energy that provides light and warmth to the world, something that is necessary for life to exist. However, the closer one draws in space to the sun, or the longer one stays out in its UV rays on Earth, the more it becomes something volatile and destructive. Like the sun, love is a beautiful, burning flame, but it burns all the same.
The album title is explicitly mentioned in opener “You Brute”, which says, “You grab my cheeks and force me to the sunrise / That violent sun you say is all for me.” Beyond that, though, lie repeated references to day and night as well as all of the celestial bodies and weather conditions that populate them. There are multiple poetic mentions of moonlight being a reflection of sunlight, for instance. Furthermore, many of the lyrics echo the album’s central paradox. Take the gorgeously empathetic “Tremble and Pulse”, which toward the end says, “Violent storm and thunder / Fall on lily white lovers / I’d offer them cover / As a termite in the beams / My love.”
The performances on Violent Sun are charged with this tension, full of passion and angst, all balled into one. Electric guitars and keyboards are angelic at times, caught in a bittersweet, introspective lull. At others, though, performances are, while not distorted, as heavy and loud as a heated argument between two lovers refusing to give up on one another.
This blog had the pleasure of debuting “Absolutely”, the album’s first lead single, earlier this year and said the following: “Haniwa has dealt with big, emotional ideas before, but on ‘Absolutely’, the music more than matches this, especially in its grand third verse. The overlapping male/female lead vocals counterpoint each other for a vibrant, imagery-filled moment before finding harmony in one another, building to a powerfully delivered closing line, ‘You and I absolutely.’ It’s a beautiful arrangement that is fittingly bittersweet, at once clamoring for an emotional truth while knowing its ultimate fragility.”
On top of all of this, Haniwa has done an impressive job streamlining its tracklist such that every song flows into the next seamlessly. The thought and care that went into this project is not always obvious from a distance, which could see the LP as just another overly dramatic indie pop/rock outing. On closer observation, though, Violent Sun reveals itself to be one of the most passionate, exquisitely crafted, and ambitious records of the year.
Recommended tracks: “Feels” / “Absolutely”
8. Sophisticated Slabs by L.T.Z.
L.T.Z. is easily one of the most original voices in Oklahoma hip-hop. His lyrics recount down-to-earth life experiences that border on suburban, and his funny, confident personality can’t possibly be mistaken for anything other than authentic. In a music scene with hundreds of rappers gunning for the same prize of breakthrough fame, it’s nice to see a guy who doesn’t fit the mold legitimately creating his own lane and catching recognition that few even consider an option.
The new album from L.T.Z., Sophisticated Slabs, sees the rapper truly giving it everything he’s got. Its conceptual framework–his thoughts and stories told through the cars he has owned over the years–is inspired and useful. His continued collaboration with laid back producers Chips and WoRm deliver sample-based beats that are homages to the classics, not copies of current trends. His features and collaborators are high-minded picks that pay off in unexpected but gratifying turns. His hooks are inescapable, his quips are memorable, and his verses are the best he’s ever written.
Earlier this year, this blog put out a lengthy, highly critical review of L.T.Z.’s new album, Sophisticated Slabs, at the artist’s request. It nitpicked a number of details but ultimately found that its biggest flaw was its unnecessarily long runtime, which is nearly an hour and a half. In retrospect, though, this is not out of line with of a growing trend in music. In hip-hop alone, 2017 saw releases like the triple album Saturation trilogy from Brockhampton and the two-and-a-half-hour behemoth that is Chris Brown’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon. If anything, L.T.Z. is simply on the pulse of what’s big in music right now, which is apparently to drop huge, impossible-to-miss recordings.
If one can step back from Sophisticated Slabs in all its 20-track glory, it starts to look and sound like a double album, with a more energetic first half and a more laid-back last half. In this context, the new hip-hop album actually works quite well. The aforementioned blog review suggests that the last half is less essential and somewhat beefed up with filler, and that criticism stands, but as a half unto itself that can be enjoyed separately from the first, much of the fatigue evaporates.
L.T.Z. has an established brand and an enthusiastic following, but he’s still often seen as the estranged kid brother of OKC hip-hop. That’s honestly fine. That’s part of his appeal. He doesn’t really freestyle or rattle off a hardcore flow. He raps about girl problems and Green Apple Gatorade. He’s not out to prove anything that he isn’t. What really makes this noteworthy is that this is a time when rap is saturating the pop charts like never before, and audiences who may not be hip-hop heads are tuning in at an unprecedented level. The crossover potential of an outsider artist like L.T.Z. is huge right now.
He has carved out his own niche, trusting himself but still allowing for criticism and room for improvement. In doing so, L.T.Z. has put together his best album yet and possibly one of the more distinguished Oklahoma hip-hop records of the decade. There simply isn’t anything like it, and it’s worth the time to experience.
Recommended tracks: “Warm It Up (feat. Beetyman and Frank Black)” / “Used Up Depresseuren (feat. Cid & Shraz)”
7. Names by Judith
Beautifully perfected folk harmonies are the lure, but truly inspired songs are the hook. Judith’s debut album is a revelation of empowering anthems and meditative insights. Though its themes are often heavy, Names is exceptionally approachable thanks to its warm, loving presentation.
With only a guitar, a fiddle or two, and the occasional hand drum or tambourine, the folk/Americana trio brings its intimate stage show to the studio. It might have been fun to hear the group expand its palette on more energetic cuts like “Bound To,” but in truth, none of the recordings need elaborating. Each song is thoughtfully and efficiently arranged to provide more dimension than many full band experiences, and it’s all in subtle service of Judith’s sun-kissed vocal work.
Names is an ironic album title, as none of the ladies in Judith are actually named Judith. What this could mean, though, is that knowing a name is not the same as knowing the person or thing that wears that name. Similarly, Names encourages the listener to dwell thoughtfully with its poignantly delivered wisdom on life and love. Some musings are more clever than they at first appear, and others pack a gut punch that takes a minute to sink in.
Judith is a band that has a stronger backbone than plenty of “tough” rock bands out there, and a lot of that comes from a willingness to be vulnerable. Like the tree that bends so as not to break, Judith is accommodating to multiple perspectives but at the end of the day stays rooted in its own.
Few records hit the way Names does. It’s empowering but delicate, brutally truthful at times but still endearing. There simply isn’t another band that deals in the complicated, sometimes harsh realities of people and situations with such gracefulness as Judith, and that makes the trio’s debut one of the most rewarding (and character-building) listens of the year.
Recommended tracks: “Same Boat” / “I Will Love”
6. If There Were Water by Endless Forms
In the two years since releasing its excellent debut, Lazarus, Tulsan ambient rock act Endless Forms has evolved. Presuming the musical project’s name comes from the Charles Darwin quote, that’s not merely fitting. It’s prophetic.
Compared to its first album, which was conceived as a solo endeavor, If There Were Water is a profound expansion, bringing in new artistic voices as well as a greater breadth of scope. Now a three-piece band with lead vocal duties traded between two members, Endless Forms reaches into the farthest unknowns and deepest recesses of the universe to meditate with the human condition.
If There Were Water is probably the most philosophical record to come out of Oklahoma all year. From the very start, opener “No Genesis” muses, “To live is to learn how to die / To forgive is to grieve,” and it only gets headier from there. Thoughts range from disembodied observations of nature to very specific personal conflicts reflected against a sort of primordial mirror. The boundless, poetic lyrics are more than mere fortune cookie wisdom, though some listeners will probably disagree and discount the band as pretentious. That would imply a level of ego that doesn’t quite come across on If There Were Water, though.
Musically, the band allows itself an open-ended sense of time and space, working on deeply considered instincts to craft its ebbs and flows of rich, atmospheric rock music. The tone of the album alone is arresting on its own merits, not unlike great new age and ambient monoliths of the past. In working with a rock band setup and loose song structures, though, the band offers more grounding, more direction to its soft guitar swirls and resonant room effects. Drums, when they do appear, are the most obvious example of this.
Where tracks like “Papering Over an Abyss” are purely instrumental with only a vague chord progression to hold its center, others like “Every Temple Curtain” adhere to a traditional songwriting structure, albeit a softspoken one that floats at the will of the sea of music surrounding it. Focal points like these keep the album from completely drifting beyond its gravitational pull, but they also ensure that nothing on If There Were Water finds easy resolution. As the final line in the aforementioned “Every Temple Curtain” states, “There’s freedom out of Egypt, but it’s straight into wilderness.”
For casual listeners, Endless Forms has provided a brilliant rock album that will make for incredible background workspace music. For those looking for something deeper and more meaningful, though, If There Were Water also offers plenty of food for thought. It’s not a work that is necessarily happy or sad, but rather one that rests in a plane of neutrality, seeking to draw all variables back into a point of origin, a point of clarity.
Recommended tracks; “The Next Age” / “Take Me Home”
5. You Had Me at Goodbye by Samantha Crain
Without a doubt, You Had Me at Goodbye is the bravest album of the year. That may seem a weird notion for a record that taps into a somewhat familiar indie pop sound for a significant part of its runtime, but think about it. The unknown is the singular greatest cause for fear, and besting it requires risk. Samantha Crain took chances like nobody else in 2017 by exiting the safe zone of her wheelhouse and catching a boxcar for the musical wild west with just the clothes on her back.
Known for her acclaimed folk songwriting and vocal gravitas, her work has typically been guitar strumming, brushed drumming, banjo picking affairs. However, on her last album, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, Crain showed some interest in changing the formula by writing stories from new perspectives and playing with background soundscaping.
If 2015 saw the artist dipping her toes in creative experimentation, 2017 sees her taking the big leap. You Had Me at Goodbye takes so many chances that its own chances are even subverted with chances.
The album opens with highlight “Antiseptic Greeting”, which includes little touches like castanets and something resembling a bicycle bell to clue the listener into its air of levity. It’s a soft, upbeat number that expresses a self-deprecating insecurity with the dating world and its shallow pool of misunderstandings. Her delivery of the chorus, which says, “You say I can do better, but I don’t think I can,” laughs along with the subject matter and brings out a tongue-in-cheek element in the pop music arrangement that one simply can’t get from traditional folk music.
Other cuts that explore some pop, even electronic sounds, include “Smile When” and lead single “Oh, Dear Louis”, the latter of which notably includes violin playing, not fiddles. None of these fit a pop music mold, though. Between Crain’s singing style and her unusual choice of rich woodwind instrumentation, even a sing-song outing like “Wise One” gets strange and hard to acclimate to for myopic listeners.
Those woodwinds appear frequently on the album and most strikingly on the latter half of “When the Roses Bloom Again”. This stark, drumless track tells a story of young romantic love cut short by the death of wartime, and the woodwind arrangement that comes in completely overtakes what little piano there was in brambles of dissonant notes. It’s reminiscent of avant-garde modern classical compositions and experimental beat poetry, and that’s something one doesn’t expect to say of a Samantha Crain recording. That’s not to mention that she doesn’t even play her trademark acoustic guitar here, and this track isn’t the only case.
On the national scene that Crain has cracked into a few times, only “Red Sky, Blue Mountain” is getting any sort of acclaim. It’s a more traditional, organic folk number with the twist of being sung in a Native Choctaw tongue, and it’s the one everyone is clamoring to because it is, interestingly enough, the most familiar song on the entire record. Not only does this indicate how different her new album is, but it also shows how hard it can be to make a drastic creative change. Crain took a big risk knowing that the folk community would probably give lukewarm reception to You Had Me at Goodbye, but she did it anyway in pursuit of a richer personal creative fulfillment.
Critically, it has to be said that all of this experimentation results in a somewhat messy album. It doesn’t decide to pursue any one direction, so it goes all over the map. The artwork seems to indicate that this is the point, though, and for everything Crain seems to have set out to do, she accomplishes with flying, enthusiastic colors.
You Had Me at Goodbye is a brave, staggering piece of work that, while not for everybody, pushes the boundaries and promises exciting new art in the future from one of Oklahoma’s most exciting and now innovative voices, Samantha Crain.
Recommended tracks: “Antiseptic Greeting” / “Loneliest Handsome Man”
4. The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider by doubleVee
Easily the most topsy-turvy release of the year, The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider reaches into an eclectic bag of musical tricks to concoct strange and delightful songs. Led by alternative pop/rock whims, the album assembles a laundry list of inspired moments that adhere more to a specific creative energy than an outright concept.
Each track has its own oddly curated collection of instruments. “What You Deserve” boasts sweet string sections, whimsical whistling, ukulele, and lighthearted trombone. “Dangerous World” combines sci-fi synthesizers, basic rock drums, funky bass, and tambourine. “Bumper Car Parade” includes upright bass, haunting string voices, smoky trumpet, and minimal honkytonk upright piano. While its array of sounds are remarkably diverse, doubleVee does tend to like its rhythmic acoustic and electric guitars as well as its wacky synths, even though they are frequently in supporting roles.
In spite of the album’s unpredictable arrangements, though, the duo’s shared lead vocals always sit in the spotlight. They offer performances that are in turn quirky, deadpan, and understatedly melodic, and they rarely cohere to a familiar continuous song structure. Much like the music’s potpourri nature, the songwriting can sometimes be fragmented and repurposed at odd angles.
If any of this is reminiscent of an acclaimed indie band called Starlight Mints, that’s because they share a creative soul. That former band made waves in the 2000s and garnered descriptions like “immaculately crafted” and “mutant pop”, and those also fit doubleVee, which is comprised of Mints lead Allan Vest and his now wife Barb Vest. Allan’s Starlight fingerprints are all over The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider, though his more recent forays as an outright composer also help shape doubleVee’s one-of-a-kind identity.
On that note, it is occasionally apparent to discerning ears that the orchestral elements aren’t all from actual instruments, though Allan’s equipment does a fabulous job mimicking them. Given how pop-centric much of Jack the Rider is, any artificial shades that may possibly slip through actually fit in perfectly with the otherworldliness of doubleVee’s music.
There is simply nothing happening anywhere in the world of music right now that is at the creative level of doubleVee, and it’s debut album is not only essential listening to local ears in Oklahoma, but to anyone who considers themselves a steward of experimental pop music.
Recommended tracks: “Jack the Rider” / “Dangerous World”
3. Undivided Heart & Soul by JD McPherson
When JD McPherson splashed onto the scene with 2010’s acclaimed debut, Signs and Signifiers, it was obvious that the Broken Arrow artist knew how to faithfully replicate a roots rock, rockabilly record of a bygone era. It was an incredible effort that somehow managed to studiously capture that sound while not sounding stuffy. For all of its brilliance, though, it posed the danger of McPherson being boxed in the past or typecast as a purely retro act.
While 2015’s Let the Good Times Roll made some progress evolving from that record, it’s McPherson’s third LP that really establishes him as an artist with his own sound and perspective. Undivided Heart & Soul branches out into all sorts of new territory while still staying true to its roots.
McPherson’s influences get broader, for starters. While tracks like opener “Desperate Love” and “Bloodhound Rock” are sure to wear his established style in full, others like “Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young” and the title track draw from later decades.
“Lucky Penny” is probably the biggest banger of the bunch with its inventive, buzzy guitar riff supported by swing hand claps, and bouncy bass. For dynamic’s sake, the tracklist also includes slower but just as catchy doo-wop styled numbers in “Hunting for Sugar” and “Jubilee”.
What’s probably the biggest indicator of McPherson’s willingness to explore new territory is the striking “On the Lips”, which features a surprisingly laid-back singing style. On most of this album and his repertoire in full, he rocks a distorted vocal emblazoned with rock and roll flash, but this track sees him more delicate and endearing, proving that McPherson could be a great pop singer if he were so inclined. As if the album weren’t versatile enough, its nooks and crannies indicate plenty of further untapped potential.
While Signs and Signifiers was quite possibly a perfect record in its meticulous craft, Undivided Heart & Soul is very nearly a perfect one in a different sense. With abundant grooves, incredible performances, a tight tracklist, and fresh melodies, JD McPherson and company strike a flawless balance of new and old that is both artistically progressive and infectiously, endlessly listenable.
Recommended tracks: “Lucky Penny” / “Under the Spell of City Lights”
2. Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts by Sun Riah
Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is the sophomore release to Sun Riah’s 2015 opus, Firefly Night Light. On that record, the experimental singer-songwriter purged deeply vulnerable emotions into uncompromising, beautifully fractured art. In a sense, it was a purge that made an album like Sitting with Sounds possible.
The new album shares the same methodology, but free of Firefly Night Light‘s baggage, it turns to a gentler, more universal subject that is more directly relatable without being any less profound.
Over the summer, this blog had the honor of premiering lead single “Grandma’s Room and Trains in the Distance” and said the following: Sun Riah “is known for her dark, mesmerizing harp arrangements, but on ‘Grandma’s Room’, she lets some light in. The song threads in a soft major key, something she uses sparingly in her work. Spacious, golden reverb fills out the slow-paced, minimal harp arrangement, and it perfectly captures the song’s premise.
“With a beautifully sad melody, she reflects lovingly from inside her deceased grandmother’s room, combing through leftover items and warm memories. She finds inspiration in these things, but she is also troubled by lost moments and strives to reconnect with a spirit of the past.
“Intimacy is a defining trait of Sun Riah’s music, from its meditative creation to its vocal performances, the latter of which draw so close and bare that the listener can make out every breath, click, and pop between words. It makes sense that the woman behind the project, M. Bailey Stephenson, would choose to tackle the big ideas she revealed last year through such a sincere and private lens.”
The rest of the album follows a similar path, though some tracks are much more painful than others. Together, these songs seamlessly fade into one another as they explore a home full of memories, space by space. There are remnants of loved ones that linger through the physical spaces to which they tended, but it is the memories that bring those remnants back to life as ghosts of the past, still affecting the present through those who have not forgotten them.
The album’s closing track, “Listening for Changes”, is a capstone to the project. After all of the lessons and slices of life recounted throughout the album, Sun Riah comes to a stark, inevitable crossroads of having to accept loss. There is a sense of frustrated rebellion laced into the song, a refusal to let go. A repeated line utters that she is “learning to say goodbye”, which is one way of saying that she seeks peace in the aftermath, but that it is a long process.
In many ways, Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is that process. It finds a way to memorialize those held dear so that they are still a part of this world, whether it be through a piece of art or through a way of living that proudly wears their fingerprints. Not all goodbyes have to be disappearances.
Recommended tracks: “Grandma’s Room and Trains in the Distance” / “The Cellar”
1. Big Bad Luv by John Moreland
2017 has been a tense year, and for many, it’s been a breaking point of endurance, trust, and hope. Thank God for Big Bad Luv.
There’s a subtle nod on the cover art of John Moreland’s latest Americana album that prepares for the experience, which isn’t quite like any before. The car faces left. In design, right-facing objects tend to be used for a sense of forward momentum and progression. Why, then, would this vehicle face left, causing a subtle dissonance in its viewer? Simply put, it represents change, even a U-turn to some extent, in the perspective of Moreland’s new material.
On Big Bad Luv, Moreland hits with the same sky-high bar of emotional songwriting that listeners have come to expect from the Tulsa marvel, but this time around, he’s putting some demons behind him and finding a way to trust love. Arguably, his claim to fame has been a penchant for devastatingly downbeat numbers like ““Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore” from 2013’s In the Throes and “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” from 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat to name just a couple. That makes it a big deal when one of music’s biggest and heaviest hearts finds some solace at long last.
On much of Big Bad Luv, Moreland relates to his struggles in the past tense, relating to an old self that no longer quite identifies with or believes in hopelessness. With a warm spark of renewed heart and soul, he grows out of his shadows (“No Glory In Regret”, “Slow Down Easy”), but keeps them in memory to best appreciate his newfound sunlight (“Sallisaw Blue”, “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)”).
The love he finds with the new record is notably rugged in its authenticity, as Moreland’s specific poetic choices brilliantly convey. Just one of many such moments comes on “Old Wounds”, which has the chorus, “Don’t forget to love me in damnation / For the living I have earned on love gone wrong / And we’ll open up old wounds in celebration / If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.”
Musically, it’s much the same story as with other releases. There are full band tracks that fluff out Moreland’s songs with modest, familiar arrangements, and there are stripped solo tracks that may occasionally have an instrument or two added for accentuation. Where many albums use stripped tracks to add dynamic range and help highlight the big, full band numbers, Moreland’s albums do the opposite. The highlights are always his most intimate performances because those are the ones where his songs hit most directly.
The closing track, “Latchkey Kid”, is one of these, with only piano and distant organ in the periphery of Moreland’s second-nature guitar picking and emotive voice. It ends on a beautiful note that says, “When I look into the mirror, now I see / A man I never knew that I could be,” While quaint and almost trite out of context, when one considers this simple image as a moment that entire albums of distress and doubt have been leading toward for years, its pitch-perfect simplicity hits like a ton of bricks. It’s one thing to tug the heartstrings with sad songs, but it’s quite another to do the same with happy ones.
Big Bad Luv is full of quotable lines and masterful phrasing, but it’s all ultimately in service of a personal truth. Right now, for John Moreland, in 2017, that truth resides in the life-changing power of love, for where there is still love, there is always hope.
Recommended tracks: “Love Is Not an Answer” / “No Glory in Regret”