10. "Karaoke" by Leotie
“Karaoke” sounds like the second act montage of an arthouse romance film. It’s understated, plainspoken and authentic. In this theoretical film, this song would be the part where the two star-crossed leads are forced to go their separate ways, and instead of getting back together in the third act, they will probably find some sort of closure within themselves.
This is the debut single from Leotie, a new band from OKC that was not really in band mode at the time of this recording. “Karaoke” is a singer-songwriter release through and through, so it makes sense that it would be as simple and straightforward as it is. With little more than vocals and acoustic guitar, it contemplates relationship dynamics in a way that admittedly many songs do. It addresses a situation that isn’t working and may never work, but the singer can’t quite bear to let it run its course.
It’s thoughtfully written not just in its lyricism, but in its musical phrasing as well. It’s especially worth noting that the chorus doesn’t amplify like most choruses do. Rather, Leotie goes even quieter than the verses with a softer performance and a lower range as he admits, “I need you more.” It isn’t a proclamation of love so much as it is a confession.
The vocals are a little quirky in their articulation, too, which amps up the single’s indie appeal. It’s the kind of performance one would expect more from the Norman DIY scene than the polished ACM@UCO scene from which Leotie hails.
There is some of that ACM@UCO touch in the recording’s subtle production, though. In addition to the dreamy mixing job, there are bits of instrumentation and voice that enhance moments in the song. A guitar bends notes late into the first verse, for example, to provoke a sense of unease right before the chorus. The single also ends with the guitar dropping out entirely, leaving the bare vocals accompanied by only plushy, dissonant rumbles and tickly metallic chimes.
“Karaoke” is a prime example of how just a few key artistic choices can provide the best context for a song to be experienced. When elevated in such a way, the familiar can sound fresh again, and that’s what “Karaoke” does for the mixed emotions of breakup songs.
9. "Rollin' (feat. Split Personality)" by Deezy
Car subwoofers were made for songs like “Rollin'”, or to be more accurate, “Rollin'” was made for car subwoofers. Either way, it’s a match made in heaven.
Deezy’s breakthrough OKC hip-hop hit of 2018 is designed from the ground up to be taken to the streets, as everything from its production style to its lyricism is as form-fitted to a night on the town as a custom interior. The stylish single manages to beef up everything it touches, whether it be someone’s ride, style, or ego. It also bolsters the single’s underlying concept, which is essentially a badass celebration of success and camaraderie among one’s clique.
Fiery performances from both Deezy and duo Split Personality carry the track by providing an undeniable, all-cylinders energy. Conjuring and capturing such performances in a studio setting is easier said than done when away from the adrenaline of the stage, so the effort has clearly been put in here. Not only are their turns at the mic full of swagger and technique, but they also support each other in hype man roles that serve to fan the flame. Given the theme of the single, the prevalent “skrrt” exclamations are especially fitting here.
The focal point of the single is a flashy and repetitive hook, delivered with stylish brevity: “Whole team rollin’ / I done got the whole team rollin’.” Strong bars aren’t really the point of such a track, which arguably falls in pop rap territory. It’s nice, then, when they make an appearance anyway.
Sure, there are some cliches here, like the ever popular notion that “talk is cheap” as if saying so isn’t itself talk, but there are highlights, too. This is particularly so in the third verse, which boasts commendable rhymes like “It’s impressive the impression i’m pressin’, n****, I’m Gutenberg / N****s be stressin’ ’cause my blessings turned into truth be heard.”
While “Rollin'” doesn’t necessarily carve out new territory, it fights to claim existing turf with robust fisticuffs of personality and production. In the process, Deezy and company have put out the ultimate car jam, the kind that can make anyone feel like their own damn boss.
8. "Cursed" by Fester
Leave it to death metal to capture the treachery of the human condition. Where some metal bands find more interest in the barbarian extremities of war or fantasy, Tulsa’s Fester seems to be of the mind that existentialism might be the greatest infliction of all.
“Cursed” is a furious four-and-a-half minutes of power, with blast beats, dual electric guitar, and monstrous vocals all pounding at the door of mortality. The performances here are tight and technical across the board. The drums are rapid and precise, the bass rumbles with immense gravity, and the guitars are a sheer pleasure to hear in stereo, especially when they riff in harmony with each other. The intense vocals take center stage, with a growl mode and a shriek mode altering in dynamic shifts that are always welcome in music like this. That isn’t even to mention the unexpected record scratch sounds, presumably made by the guitars, that spices up Fester’s genre conventions in the track’s final leg.
All of these pieces fit nicely together in the exceptional mix, which keeps “Cursed” from getting too muddy or distorted. This keeps the recording sharp throughout. The production doesn’t end there, as the opening to the track is an indecipherable electric warble that clearly isn’t a live performance. There are also some tasteful echo effects that add to the doomed atmosphere of the single without sacrificing the clarity of the band’s performances.
This is still a death metal track, though, which means that for all of its finely tuned audio engineering, the words are bound to be difficult to interpret. Fortunately, Fester has provided its lyrics online.
There’s a sisyphean slant to “Cursed”, something that’s implied by it’s sparse but prominent use of overhanging references to “the gods.” In this take on existentialism, Fester is at odds with the futility of humanity, a race that seems cursed to repeat the same mistakes until the end of recorded time. It’s a bleak prospect, but buried in “Cursed” are some philosophical solutions that might just make it all bearable.
The metal, slam, and hardcore circles of Oklahoma have put out some spectacular work this year, and Fester is no exception. “Cursed” is a hard-hitting, jam-packed barrage of death metal gold that will put a dent in any playlist.
7. "Let Me Believe" by The Normandys
Does everyone have an inner nihilist? No, but it doesn’t take a Rick & Morty diehard to see that nihilism does seem to be a growing slice of the zeitgeist. For a concept of such cold hopelessness, nihilism is celebrated an awful lot. Sure, a meaningless life can be a depressing prospect, but at the same time, the idea that nothing matters can be freeing in a twisted sort of way. There’s a duality to the notion.
Of course, punk culture was ahead of the curve on this, and The Normandys provide a timely reminder of it with the anthemic, endlessly singable “Let Me Believe”. Fast energy and rowdy performances take a simple song structure for the ride of its life as the Tulsa punk band barrels out of the gate, guitars chomping at the bit. With snarling, throaty lead vocals at the reins, the song proceeds to delve into the nature of disbelief, remarking that “it makes me sick inside / to know that nothing’s true.”
The chorus, however, is a big sing-along number. A horde of voices shout “Let me believe” as the lead singer tags back with phrases like “I haven’t wasted all my time” and “I haven’t lost my fucking mind.” Though it’s presented in a rough and tumble way, the song is pretty brilliant in the way it never swallows its own blue pill even though it clearly has some rash desire and ability to do so.
“Let Me Believe” plays a lot like a drinking song for punks where the all-too-relatable hardships stem from a shared cynical worldview rather than alcoholism. The song even echoes the self-aware denial often found in the songwriting trope.
If one were to doubt the position that The Normandys takes on this topic, one need not look further than the tongue-in-cheek cover art. The grainy U.F.O. abduction is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and its presence underneath the single’s title confirms that even the song’s spurts of sincere longing for escapism are ultimately something to be ridiculed.
The dual personality of nihilism is perhaps best expressed through a loose interpretation of Thomas Hobbes’ classic philosophy that life without some sort of governing principles is “nasty, brutish, and short.” The same description could be applied to “Let Me Believe”, and it would not only fit, but could easily be taken as a compliment. It’s simply a matter of one’s perspective.
This is one of the most fun singles to come out of the Oklahoma punk scene in quite some time. One could argue that this is due to the levity that nihilism can provide, but all lyrical analysis aside, it’s just a great punk tune. It’s memorable, energetic, and wonderfully unpretentious. From its call-and-answer chorus to its quickie guitar solo, it hits all the right notes, and that’s something to celebrate.
6. "Eskooyoo Gatta" by Bad Jokes
There is a scene in the 2010 film The Last Exorcism where a gimmicky preacher makes a bet on just how easily he can sneak nonsense into his sermons without the congregation catching on. He then proceeds to substantiate his claim by dropping his grandmother’s banana nut bread recipe in the middle of an energetic sermon, and folks are none the wiser. He then lets out a brief, open-mouthed grin to the camera, practically making an Internet trollface.
In a strange, satisfying way, Bad Jokes does the same thing but in reverse with “Eskooyoo Gatta”. The casual, playful single reads like a fun nonsense song, with the title not having any real world definition. One might think it nothing more than an inside joke within the band. The banana nut bread, however, lies in the lowkey bits of surreal and supernatural imagery that sneak into the lyrics. It mostly flies under the radar on first listen in part due to the bright, unconcerned vocal delivery. The trollface equivalent, then, is the falsetto “666” that ends most of the lyrical stanzas, with the instruments all dropping out to punctuate the gag. There’s some definite voodoo at play here.
Even without the wicked joys of “melting bones” and such, though, “Eskooyoo Gatta” would stand on the virtues of its catchy melodies and impish full band arrangements. The down to earth production lends a certain grain to the recording as well, which emphasizes the lazy day garage aesthetic of Bad Jokes. Even though its members are tight players, the performances are just loose enough to not dress up the vibe.
The song brims with singalong moments, too. Anyone can join in on the titular refrain and the nonverbal parts, and even more satisfying is getting all the dynamic ins and outs of the song structure memorized and knowing all the parts that will catch first timers off guard. When combined with the lyrical nature of the song, this makes an especially fun time out of WTF lines like “Well I was dreaming / You picked animals right off of your own skin / And I woke up and it was really, really happening.”
The carefree freakishness of “Eskooyoo Gatta” is so specific that when the band ramps up just a touch to relay its brief but trepidatious “Sarah, Sarah!” third act, one might swear there’s a reality to all of it. Maybe “eskooyoo gatta” is more than just absurd non-words, maybe that recurring 87,000 is more than a randomly chosen figure, and maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the banana nut bread.
5. "Cadillac" by Sports
It’s been a treat watching the band Sports evolve from its chillwave roots into a full-fledged indie pop sensation. Every album to date has marked a change in sound and stature, and the latest is full of atmospheric grooves that bring even more tangible ingredients from funk and disco into the mix.
Everyone’s Invited shows the band in full creative mode, willing to try weird ideas in pursuit of the next thing. While the LP as a whole is a bit of a conceptual mess, it holds the best sounding and most inspired studio work Sports has ever put out. It’s fine-tuned to channel the specific, contagious sensation of being part of the calm and collected life of the party.
The album closer, “Cadillac”, was released as one of the album’s lead singles, and it’s arguably the catchiest of the bunch. Built on one of the tightest synth grooves of the year and a simple but unshakable hook, it dances its way from moment to melodic moment. For a track that clocks in over five minutes, it’s impressive how the band maintains engagement without a single verse. A lot of that is owed to the way that instrumental passages are dropped in and swapped out with fresh splashes of color every so often, with peripheral guitars, chimes, and hand claps brushed into the heavily electronic palette.
The song’s lyrics literally only consist of an eight bar chorus that breathily quips, “I know I’m no Cadillac / But I can keep you movin’, I know / Beep beep, I’m no Badillac / But I can see you groovin’, I know.” While there is apparently a significant personal meaning to these words within the band, suffice it to say that its lyrics are not really what makes “Cadillac” one of the top singles to come out of Oklahoma in 2018.
On the contrary, it’s exactly a song like this that highlights what Sports does so well. The lyrics could be utter nonsense, and the urge to hit the dance floor would be no less omnipresent. The synthesizer tones are colorful, rubbery, and abundant. The instrumental and vocal performances are smooth and confident. The bass, harmonic, and melodic voices entertwine for maximum effect when the song goes minimal on its choruses, then stretch apart far from each other in the explorative instrumental passages. There is also some great sampling, particularly with the crowd sounds that are used to subtle but stirring effect. All of this occurs within the simple framework of a 4/4 drum beat.
If some of that sounds akin to characteristics of dance music, that’s because Sports have more or less made a dance hit disguised as indie pop with “Cadillac”. Part of that disguise is the occasional oddball artistic choice, like the midsection that bridges with a faux flute and booming wizard’s voiceover. Stuff like that is maybe too weird for the standard electronica fan.
No matter what label one may try to tack onto the group, though, it will likely wear off by the next album. This is a project that is hungry for experimentation, and while it’s great to hear the band really get a handle on how to use reverb most effectively, to name just one area of consistent improvement, it’s really the curve balls in its music that keeps it fresh. Sports remains a band not to be missed.
4. "Fell Through" by Combsy
Tulsa is such a hotbed of musicianship that projects are picking up, setting down, and evolving all the time. Anyone who’s anyone seems to have some attachment to at least half a dozen ongoing projects, whether it’s through studio collaboration, backing band support, or solo endeavors. In such an environment, creative juices are always flowing, and sometimes they nurture the most surprising of developments.
In Combsy’s case, that surprise comes in the form of a lyrical song, its first. That might not seem surprising at face value, but when one considers the context, it’s a remarkable moment. Without delving into the unwieldy histories of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Chris Combs, suffice it to say that Combsy as most people know it today is the instrumental jazz-leaning band assembled by Combs in recent years to perform his solo work.
Enter “Fell Through”, a standalone track that singlehandedly takes Combsy’s music out of the jazz world and drops it into popular music. By adhering to a lyrical song structure, albiet one that still allows for brief indulgences, the experimental genre mashing that characterizes Combsy’s work is channeled into tighter plot points. There is no jam band feel to be found here. Instead, every played note and every rhythmic shift serves a greater purpose, even as it serves itself. In short, “Fell Through” is art pop at its greatest.
Sharp, shapeshifting drums (and sometimes drum machines) power delicious grooves that are further driven by occasional runs of quickstep bass eighths. Meanwhile, space age synthesizers and lush strings tango together in respective vibrato while guitars spread an additional layer of otherworldly atmosphere. Along all of this is a soft-spoken lead female vocal that brings out the krautrock and lounge flavors that are spun into Combsy’s music.
Though everything about “Fell Through” is premeditated, one can’t help thinking that this is less of a solo project than Combsy’s 2017 self-titled debut LP. Where that was more a case of finding the right band to fulfill the artistic vision, this seems like a case of finding the right vision to fulfill the band.
Will this be a sign of things to come? Will it just be a one-off experiment in the Combsy catalogue? Who knows? What’s for certain, though, is that “Fell Through” is one of the most adventurous and surprising singles of the year, and it speaks volumes not just of the multifaceted nature of the Combsy project, but of Tulsa musicianship as a whole.
3. "Vodka Soda" by Audio Book Club
There’s a refrain in the last part of “Vodka Soda” that bemoans, “Heard it all before, man, you should say something else.” In the song’s context, which is essentially an account of running into an annoying bar patron, it’s just one complaint in a pile of pet peeves. In a meta sense, however, it’s fitting that Audio Book Club should choose such a song for its world debut. The line could just as easily be about rock music cliches.
While that’s probably not anywhere close to an intended meaning, it holds up. The brand new Oklahoma City rock quartet shows some dazzling creative instincts on “Vodka Soda” that, while familiar, are certainly not something that’s all been heard before. The wild lead vocals, squealing guitars, and hand claps all come together to form a contagious mojo that sounds like it’s from an alternate timeline.
If indie rock sold more on the basis of its weirdness than its familiarity, it might not be in the state it is today, which is heavily trending towards dreamy electronics and hi-fi pop production. Hearing a decidedly ungroomed song like “Vodka Soda” is refreshing, especially given how extremely catchy it is.
Part of that is owed to the song’s rhythmic underside, which flirts with syncopation but never commits. The songwriting is a bit up in the air as well. The song’s subject, the intrusive stranger at the bar, is described through a fragmented series of observations, and it’s hard to tell which lyrics come out in speech bubbles and which ones remain as internal monologue. Then there are the frequent drum breaks, which are only sort of like drum breaks in that there’s still a perky bass line running through them. These breaks include cowbell, the punchline of instrumental tackiness, and its offbeats are played with only half a sense of irony.
“Vodka Soda” borrows the best from both worlds all the way down to its compositional approach, which pairs spontaneous phrasing with thoughtful editing to create signature moments. That the single starts with immediate, startling vocals on the first beat is also no accident. It sets the tone for the rest of the song’s surprising nature. Similarly, “Vodka Soda” as a whole gives a sense of Audio Book Club right out of the gate, setting the bar high and promising tons of fun in seasons to come.
2. "Hadrosaurus" by Tom Boil
This review comes with a trigger warning.
Now that the nation is finally having something close to a real conversation about sexual abuse, long silenced voices are being heard in a new light. Even so, opinions on the topic remain scattershot, which is what one might expect to happen when injustice is swept under the rug for so long that many people have a false sense of normality. What’s still consistently missing from most conversations on the topic, however, is a true realization or even acknowledgement of just how scarring abuse can be. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece wades into the technicalities of consent with the steady hand of a seasoned debate club student. Where is the outrage? It’s more often than not relegated to the Twitter feeds and Facebook comment sections, where it always is, and where it can be dismissed as just another case of Internet sensationalism.
Everything is Fine, and That’s the Problem is the debut EP (demo tape notwithstanding) from Tom Boil, and that title says it all. The Tulsa band blasts a noisy evolution of post-hardcore rock most characterized by its throat-shredding female vocals, and yes, it’s important to note gender here. Her hyper-charged screaming is the embodiment of the pain, trauma, and rage of sexual abuse victims, brought out of the shadows and into the front-and-center of every Tom Boil show and recording.
The five tracks on Everything is Fine, and That’s the Problem are each named after a species of dinosaur, insinuating that humankind is not nearly as evolved as it would like to think. The most discomforting of these is “Hadrosaurus,” so it only makes sense that this should be the lead single from the EP.
“Hadrosaurus” starts like a shoegaze dirge, slowly gathering intensity as the vocalist lyrically picks up the rubble of abuse. It’s in this track that the album’s title is found, and as a line within the song, it’s the pivotal moment between defense mode and attack mode. As “Hadrosaurus” breaks into its fifth minute, the performances then go haywire, ensuring no listener leaves unaffected.
Is Tom Boil heavy-handed? Yes, absolutely. That’s the whole point. These are songs of protest, and they wouldn’t be doing their job otherwise. In particular, “Hadrosaurus” is unforgettable. It proceeds in such a way that it doesn’t get lost in white noise, something that arguably happens at times on other tracks. It has a tonal arc that adds gravity to its fury, and that’s what makes it stick.
To quote the song, “I’m a mad woman, not a madwoman.” To be infuriated with the American status quo is more than reasonable. It is necessary.
1. "Falling" by Cavern Company
Cavern Company really hit its stride this year. After the growing pains that led to 2017’s Tension EP, the three-piece pop/indie rock band produced a steady stream of new singles that made 2018 an immediate fulfillment of that album’s promise. The OKC trio sounds as tight and polished as ever, and the resulting music is as upbeat as its social media presence would lead one to believe.
Arguably, “Falling” is the gem here, with its glistening production, slick arrangements, and some seriously infectious musical phrasing. It’s not an earworm per se–the most recognizable bit is the one-two punch guitar riff, not the chorus–but it offers all the catchiness of a buggy hook with none of the annoyance.
There are plenty of fun bits to brag about with “Falling”. There’s the winking castanets, which always seem to appear and disappear at just the right moment. There’s also the increased yet softened atmospheric reverb that the guitar and cymbals skinny dip into during and only during the song’s titular line. The crowdlike backing chorus is notable as well for its curated appearances, as is the bouncing tom drums that accompany them.
There are a lot of bands making music in this specific style right now, not least of all because it’s one of the few places in rock where fans are trending in 2018. It’s more or less pop music, given its typical demand for tight, clean-cut performances, familiar composition, and designer-grade presentation. Some would argue that this strips music of its organic personality, but that’s a debate for another day.
If it’s perfection that the people want, Cavern Company delivers it here, right down to the details one wouldn’t think about. It’s not just the perfect length for a pop-rock single at three-and-a-half minutes. It’s even the perfect tempo. Nothing expresses the heightened sensation of falling helplessly in love like 120 bpm, a tempo that feels a touch fast, but just a touch. The right touch.
When one really digs into the makeup of “Falling”, one finds that an exceptional amount of editing has gone into it. It’s been meticulously crafted to create a feeling, and it works. It may not play to those too built up in cynicism to appreciate the natural wonder of sudden romance, but for all the dreamers out there, Cavern Company provides an instant mood brightener that only improves on subsequent listens. For Oklahoma pop music, “Falling” is an unabashed, blissful, breezy, and utterly delightful home run, and, in the opinion of this list, the best single of the year.