Chief Executive Weirder Evan Jarvicks counts down his favorite local singles of 2019
A message from the Make Oklahoma Weirder team: this article was originally written by Evan Jarvicks in 2019 and is being released as part of MOW’s “VVeirder VVinter Vault” of 2023.
9. "Aerial" by Frij
Frij is one of those artists that makes digging into the outskirts of local music worth the effort. His take on electronic production is vibrant, lush, and never afraid to try out a new style. Since splashing onto 2018’s Big 50 with one of the best Oklahoma instrumental EPs of the year, Frij has continued to be one to watch despite remaining in relative obscurity in his own town. Genre fans on Soundcloud have taken notice, however, with streaming numbers often reaching five figures per track.
2019 saw a handful of new standalone singles from the Tulsa area artist, and “Aerial” is the juiciest of the bunch. Opening in a delicious 7/4 time signature, it jets into chill waters with nimble synth runs, relaxed keyboard chords, and jazzy hi-hats. The track doesn’t rest here for long, though, using a series of surprising switch-ups to steer the slick arrangements in “Aerial” towards an epic beat drop, a moment which climaxes in sky-opening 4/4. Again, it doesn’t stick around for long before trailing off in a particularly jazz-influenced cool-down that tip-toes time signature lines yet again.
All of the instrumental tones in “Aerial” are full-bodied and luxurious. Haters of electronic compression might take issue with some of the punchier bits, but this is a style of music that was meant for a different kind of audiophile. The mixing here is on-point, pushing its dynamics through the roof without being weighted down by studio bloat. The title of the track is rather appropriate.
“Aerial” is the sort of track that rewards multiple listens because its adventurous composition ensures no part strikes the same musical taste bud twice, even as it remains impeccably cohesive in style. The only way to reexperience a feeling is to listen through the track again, since skipping to certain phrases won’t convey their reveal the way hearing them in full context will.
Frij’s synth-voicing prowess, sticky improv-styled licks, and fine-tuned arrangements are so good that the single inclusion of Run-DMC’s overused “ah yeah” vocal sample is more than forgiven. If that’s the worst sin one can commit in an over four-minute time span, there’s definitely some good mojo at work. “Aerial” is a dazzling work that hits big and bright with all of the jazz-happy feels of which good moods are made. While Frij’s repertoire is too diverse to be represented wholly by it, it’s a definite highlight, not just of his abilities, but of Oklahoma music in 2019.
8. "Mexico" by Husbands
Husbands has long been a favorite of Oklahoma City tastemakers, bringing a sunny, carefree approach to indie pop/rock. Since its days as an online collaboration between two like-minded creators to its current stature as a major local live band, the core duo has charmed many with its soft melodies and bright instrumentation.
The band’s catalog is full of loveable, approachable tunes, but they’ve often been somewhat buried in their rough-around-the-edges presentation. Of course, those with a taste for the more garage-leaning side of alternative music may see this as a positive, and for fair reason. It’s always been a self-aware part of the unique Husbands formula. However, new efforts like “Mexico” show just how much of a difference can be made through clearer mixing and doing away with the mild punk influences altogether.
As the big lead single to Husbands’ new album, After the Gold Rush Party, “Mexico” hits a new stride for the band. Atmospheric indie pop flourishes support the performances rather than veil them, and there is barely a shred of distortion in the cut. This leads to a more cohesive, if less challenging, recording that trims all the fuzzy edges in favor of clarity.
The bliss of a getaway beach house stay permeates “Mexico”. The guitar tones here are some of the cleanest that Husbands has ever laid down, and the delicate synth work pairs perfectly with them. Meanwhile, the precise, understated bass rhythms propel the track forward. This smartly underlines the song’s lyrics, which do not take place in paradise but eagerly anticipate arriving there. The jittery excitement is felt in turn through tambourines and handclaps, which stay just spaced out enough that they don’t disrupt the song’s laid-back appeal.
“Mexico” is a single that thrives on its execution. It hits all the right notes at all the right levels. Comparisons to The Beach Boys have accompanied press coverage of the song, probably because its falsetto chorus is similar to “I Get Around”. It’s a dead-on compliment, though, that speaks of an aesthetic to which Husbands gets closer and closer every year. It’s no coincidence that “Mexico” is one of the band’s best cuts yet. With sweet, golden-hued tones and light, catchy melodies, it’s a lovely way to escape to the coast.
7. "Slammer Song" by Count Tutu
Tulsa music has long been a hotbed for musically diverse jam collectives, but another unique trend has been cropping up of late. While Oklahoma’s music history has always had a slice of social conscience, it’s a different reality to hear voices as bold and varied as those of today’s Tulsans taking the air. With recent albums like Steph Simon‘s Born on Black Wall Street and Henna Roso‘s Feed the Hungry carrying torches for the underrepresented, it’s become clear that a new crop of Tulsa musicians is out to change the world.
In this, Count Tutu may carry the biggest megaphone yet. After years of making a reputation in live music, the nine-piece funk/world ensemble released its 2019 debut single, “Slammer Song”. If there were any doubts that the band had any political leanings in its music, “Slammer Song” sets the record straight from the start.
Set to a brass-heavy street jam that includes a crowd chorus and the occasional celebratory whistle, the song at first sounds carefree. The lyrics quickly assert that this is not so, however, by tackling the titanic hot-button issue of economic disparity through the lens of the prison-industrial complex. The call-and-response song structure might even come across as bitterly sarcastic on paper were the music not there to keep spirits up.
The band presents a societal cross-section of everyday circumstances that can send people to prison. Whether the problems are poverty, addiction, mental illness, refugee status, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the short-minded solution is often to “Throw them in the slammer.” Paying bail, then, becomes the economic factor determining whether some people actually face jail time or not. Criminal justice, in practice, is ultimately skewed by the power that wealth buys.
The confetti-speckled horns and drums can be read as a representation of society’s tendency to sweep uncomfortable truths under the rug in its all-American pursuit of happiness, sometimes at any cost. Though the more likely explanation is that Count Tutu is simply a band that can’t help but beam positivity at every turn, the result is a striking juxtaposition that holds up a bothersome mirror. “Slammer Song” is so catchy, and yet it almost feels criminal to dance along.
If anything, Count Tutu knows how to make a statement. Its proclamations are as concise as its title fonts, which are decidedly sans-serif. Its music is big and bountiful with culture and vivacity. It also puts its money where its mouth is, evidenced by the band’s ongoing campaign with The Bail Project. Groups like Count Tutu don’t come along every day, and neither do tracks like “Slammer Song”. Imagine if more dance singles were created with this level of intent.
6. "Lately" by Original Flow
Sometimes the biggest smiles harbor the quietest struggles. No one can be a wellspring of positivity all the time, but when a person becomes a community leader, someone to be relied upon for guidance and hope, there can be pressure to live up to such impossible standards. Self-care has gained significant social acceptance in recent years, fortunately, but it also has a long way to go.
This is especially evident in competitive male cultures. There’s no crying in baseball, coffee’s for closers only, and real g’s move in silence like lasagna. Indeed, hip-hop is hyped more for its cold brags and sick burns than its emotional bloodletting. What, then, is a guy to do when hard times hit and he carries both a community and a rap career on his back?
If you’re Original Flow, you take a step back and write “Lately”.
Backed with a noirish piano sample and trap-inspired rhythms, one of the most charismatic figures in Oklahoma City hip-hop gets moody and pointed in possibly his most cathartic release to date. While confiding that pressures are at an all-time high and pushing him into a deep depression, Flow in the same breath orders concerned parties to give him space. A chorus advises, “Don’t hit me up / Don’t call my phone / Leave me alone / Leave me alone.” It’s a bit startling at first to hear this from one of the friendliest faces in the rap scene, but that’s the nature of honesty. It calls it like it is.
“Lately” is genuine with its feelings, diving into tsunami waves of stress, frustration, melancholy, confusion, and burnout. Where some artists prefer to wait until the storm passes so that they can pride themselves on what they’ve overcome, Original Flow spits from the eye of it. “Lately” captures a true state of vulnerability.
When a person has a heart as full as Flow’s, it breaks as big as it loves. With a year of more personal losses than most would wish on their worst enemy, he finds himself at a profound loss as well. The only direction he knows to turn is within himself.
By going public with “Lately”, Flow is not just sharing his story. He’s also breaking down the walls of mental health stigma. Black households, he says, can tend to sweep difficult emotions under the rug. Original Flow isn’t just speaking out on his issues. He’s also setting an example and helping to pave the way for others to find healthy closure.
5. "The Message" by Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards
While the general public of Oklahoma continues to sleep on just how big of a deal Johnny Manchild is becoming in the music world, the OKC singer-songwriter and bandleader keeps grinding away, undeterred. Success tends to boil down to a tipping point of opportunity, but it’s often an intense test of endurance to get there. Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards has what it takes to be a national sensation, but in a music industry that continues to pay pennies for streams and exploit artists for 360 deals, even making it to that level of acclaim is rarely as glamorous as it seems.
Even so, there are few musical horses in Oklahoma music that are as worthy of doubling down on as Manchild and his crew, and 2019’s string of single releases is yet another good example of why. Each month, the band put out a new song recording to online platforms, each with a different shade of the group’s sound.
Singles like the upbeat “All in My Mind” and the dynamic “You Want a Song” are classic Manchild in their piano leads, horn blasts, and intensely self-conscious subject matter. Others take the opportunity to experiment, as in the dramatic, thick-smoke arrangements of “Fortified” and the uncharacteristic vocoder layering in “Alright”. All twelve tracks were wrapped neatly into a compilation at the end of the year called One Big Beautiful Sound.
Choosing just one from the bunch for this list was taxing and involved many repeated listens. In the end, though, a Fantano-sized summer release was too noteworthy to not give the spotlight. Yes, “The Message” by Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards was enthusiastically reviewed in 2019 by forward-thinking music critic Anthony Fantano of YouTube’s The Needle Drop, a platform with over 2 million subscribers at the time of this writing.
That sort of media attention doesn’t happen on its own, and it speaks to Manchild’s workaholism that he was able to get his music in front of the culturally relevant reviewer in the first place. Fittingly, “The Message” is all about the hustle of being an independent artist in today’s media climate. Attention spans are shorter than ever, and staying at the forefront of new music year after year requires immense dedication and sacrifice.
Is it unhealthy? Perhaps. Will it pay off? Who knows? The ever self-deprecating Manchild plays the odds on the chorus, singing, “How long before we crash and burn?” The question is rhetorical, though, as if he doesn’t want to know if it has an answer. His stress is captured in punchy, distorted guitar and dissonant piano chords. However, the lead melody remains just hopeful enough to soar over it all, echoing the spirit within artists that keep them pushing forward in the face of doubt. “The Message” is also an air-tight rock song with the focus and momentum of a band that knows its way around a strong hook and a precise arrangement. For some projects, this would be a calling card, but for Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards, it’s simply another bullet point on a growing resume of excellence.
4. "Echo" by Qinn
Hit singles are just as likely to be made by Top 40 marketing execs than a song’s innate ability to latch onto one’s ear. The music industry has gamed the system so that even the most reviled music releases can overcome initial disapproval through omnipresent play. What a treat it is, then, to come across new pop music that sticks from the outset, music that doesn’t have to force its way into one’s ears but rather beckons subsequent listens on the virtue of its appreciable qualities alone.
“Echo” is such a song. The debut single from new artist Qinn is a catchy, radio-ready number that is every bit as good as what the major studios put out. Crisp production, precise arrangements, and an outstanding vocal performance give “Echo” a top-quality sound, but it’s the song itself that helps set it apart. Specific narrative details curtail it from growing too cliche, and its musical qualities echo the song’s theme (no pun intended).
Qinn expresses an inescapable, love-at-first-sight infatuation through the metaphor of an enduring echo. Not only does the chorus itself repeat the word “echo” in triplicate, but it also replays pieces of the recorded vocal itself subsequently in more distant, effects-processed stereo pans. Such repetition in a pop song rarely serves a legitimate purpose beyond style and/or imprinting, but here it represents more, characterizing the regenerative permeation of a weak-kneed crush. Other artistic interpretations are subtler, such as the glittery synths that briefly swirl when Qinn refers to this person as someone out of her dreams.
“Echo” kicks off with a lone guitar line and an electronic snap, a pairing that foreshadows the song’s balance of physical and virtual instrumentation. Ultimately, it’s the latter that leaves the bigger impression, especially the beautifully blooming synth tone in the final chorus. This single would hardly bop as well as it does, though, without its sharp drum work and juicy bass. Then there is the vocal arrangements, which make a point to be so densely arranged at the pre-choruses that everything else feels light and bubbly by comparison. “Echo” is a spectacularly crafted track.
It’s hard to judge an artist’s style on the strength of one single alone, especially in this case since Qinn’s social media has so far been playing coy. In hit radio terms, though, Qinn’s music seems to stand somewhere between Lorde-like indie crossover successes and big pop vocal records from the likes of Camilla Cabello and Selena Gomez. Those are promising guideposts for a new artist. However, Qinn seems likely to continue forging a voice of her own in subsequent releases, which, if they’re anywhere as nice as “Echo”, will be a welcome treat.
3. "Harder Dreams" by John Moreland
Living legend John Moreland revealed in 2019 that LP #5 was on the way and offered fans a brand new track called “East October”. It presented everything for which the Tulsa artist is known. A steady, trusty band of players backs Moreland in moderate 4/4 time as he winds through poetic midwest imagery with soul-weary vocals. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser, but it sneaks in a hint of change. Attention to the instrumentation reveals a rolling drum mixed behind the traditional kit, echoing restlessly across the track in contemporary reverb. It’s the sort of artistic choice that doesn’t arise from a typical Fellowship Hall session, which was Moreland’s approach to 2017’s Big Bad Luv.
The second lead single, “Harder Dreams”, confirms that the forthcoming album will indeed have subtle differences woven into the John Moreland sound. The singer-songwriter’s acoustic fingerpicking style still centers the music. This time, though, it is embellished with atmospheric touches that softly push the boundaries of his arrangements in ways the full band treatment doesn’t.
“Harder Dreams” begins with a low, humming pulse that doesn’t conform to the beat but serves to set a restful hypnosis for the track. Gradually, as Moreland moves into the opening verse, splashes of muted electric guitar and a thoughtfully restrained snare breathe further life into the song. A hovering flutter of electronic tones drops in for a moment. Soon, keys and flute arrive, helping the song build to its third-act instrumental passage, a beautiful crest highlighted by a wistful harmonica solo. The latter is mixed in a dreamlike way that gazes skyward, beaming precious metal from a patch of red dirt below.
If John Moreland weren’t already such an accomplished lyricist, the opening line to “Harder Dreams” would probably be quintessential. “All the gods are watching wars on television,” he muses, before questioning religion and even truth itself. It recalls the notion that answers to questions often spawn more questions. Similarly, reaching the precipice of one’s understanding may not satisfy but simply lead to “harder dreams” that lack a known pathway or finish line. At least, that’s one interpretation.
Moreland here is at once plainspoken and enigmatic. There’s a great line in “Harder Dreams” about being tasked with selling ads as a modern artist, but exactly how it relates to silver screens and blood-stained skies isn’t made explicit. That’s where the imaginative musical treatment comes in to fill the tangible gaps with tonal expressions of the soul, encouraging reflection in the listener. “Harder Dreams” is a soft, gorgeous few minutes that swells with deep thought and cosmic consciousness while never giving away Moreland’s humble, knuckle-tattooed artisanship. Not that there was any doubt, but album number five seems sure to be a good one.
2. "Stubborn Season" by Sensible Shoes
The debut single from OKC alternative folk rock outfit Sensible Shoes boasts a couple of depressingly great lines out of the gate: “She was gone before the song you wrote for her was done / Now you look like an idiot.” It’s an attention-grabbing start to which any listener who can relate will knowingly nod. However, Sensible Shoes is not a band to coast on its emotional triggers, and this is not a breakup song. It’s much more.
“Stubborn Season” encompasses thoughts of loss, regret, inadequacy, and growth in the frame of a derelict personal slump. It starts with lo-fi soundtracking, setting the tone with a phone alarm, groaned sheet shuffling, and microwave beeps. These are the sounds of someone begrudgingly making it through the day with a minimum of self-care. The song doesn’t wallow here, though. It progresses into reflective, verbose lyrics about youth, apathy, and narcissism. The slump isn’t the cause of these thoughts but the symptom of them, and confronting them is the uncomfortable first step on the road to a better state of being.
Although the ideas here can be heady, Sensible Shoes manages to pull one hell of a catchy song out of them. “Stubborn Season” does follow a pretty traditional verse/chorus structure and chord progression, but, as with its lyricism, it does not coast on it. The performances are solid, and the melodies are fabulous. When the band kicks into the chorus, it reminds why hooks are called hooks. Even as a leading line that would be generic in the wrong hands, “It comes and it goes” is a lyrical moment that hits every time it comes around, clearing the air for one of the year’s most singable refrains.
The distinct instrumentation has a lot to do with this. It peppers in electric guitars and tom-heavy drums to spice up the grain of the band’s Americana flavor with the grit of rock music. Meanwhile, a collection of acoustic guitar overdubs, fiddle harmonies, and delightful mandolin phrases help complete the song’s impressive blend of styles. The cherry on top is the vocal delivery, which hits all the delicious notes of the singer’s range and turns a recurring falsetto swoop into a signature trait. That it is mixed dry makes the recording all the more sublime.
As singles go, “Stubborn Season” is maybe a bit too wordy for mass appeal. It is, however, the kind of song one might hear on high rotation in college radio. It’s remarkably palatable, comfortably inventive, and full of relevant self-reflection. Being all of those at once is no easy feat. Sensible Shoes put its best foot forward in 2019, and “Stubborn Season” is a testament to that by being one of the year’s best Oklahoma songs. Here’s hoping for more in 2020.
1. "Lawton View" by Jacobi Ryan
How does one even begin to tackle the epic run Jacobi Ryan had in 2019? Releasing a new single every week alongside music videos and podcasts is an accomplishment in itself. Doing that on top of making a multitude of live appearances, mentoring the community, and launching a business, not to mention playing a big role in The Space Program, is beyond audacious. It’s damn near masochistic. At least, that’s what most would think. For Jacobi Ryan, it’s simply the necessary route to reach the tomorrow he sees.
It would be easy for the Lawton hip-hop artist to stuff his #52in365 campaign with filler, but true to form, every cut is a gem of thought and flow. Highlights abound in the project, which clocks in well over two hours in total. “24 Hours” documents a time when Ryan had one day to make rent, spinning the experience into motivation to fight even harder for his dreams. “Up Front” uses one of his best beats and hooks to warn a potential love interest (and perhaps himself) of the complications his inner demons can cause. “Heavy Wings” pauses in the wake of a funeral to question the fundamental understanding of everything. There are plenty of great moments to choose from, but ultimately, this spot has to go to “Lawton View”.
To quote Ryan’s podcast, “Lawton View” is “a subconscious ode to where I’m from.” The title is named after a district in his hometown of Lawton, OK, that is known for being a low-income area. The track boasts a chorus that advocates for better education and infrastructure while mentally cruising those neighborhood streets. This is one for the community back home, but that isn’t all.
“Lawton View” also holds a second meaning. It’s an expression of Ryan’s unique perspective as formed by experiencing life as a Lawtonite. Similarly, when he refers to the track as “a subconscious ode to where I’m from,” he’s also talking in terms of culture, spirituality, ethics, and philosophy. Jacobi Ryan verses are typically filled with smart observations, but “Lawton View” takes it to another level, packing in quotable after quotable. It is probably the best song available to encapsulate the why behind his grind. One can listen to it and get a strong idea of what matters most to Ryan.
To further the meta wordplay, “Lawton View” is produced by Dr. View, founder of The Space Program and collaborator behind Ryan’s latest EP, Viewer’s Discretion. Here, View’s beat work has a smooth, old-school tint that represents Ryan’s roots with sampling and a plinky piano line. Meanwhile, the drum machine rhythms add a modern touch that brings the production to the present day, not unlike the way Ryan uses his past experiences to inform his moves going forward.
If Ryan’s frequent live performances of “Lawton View” weren’t indication enough, his podcast goes on record to say that this is one of his favorite tracks to ever lay down. It shows, too. This is arguably the cut of #52in365 that resonated most with the community (though the nice music video may have also had something to do with that). Regardless, it’s a momentous single that persisted to stand out amongst its brethren despite being released in early March. This was an incredible year for Jacobi Ryan, yet it seems this was only meant to be a foundation. With a streak like this, one can imagine how towering Ryan’s legacy has the potential to be, especially since the artist shows no sign of slowing down. After all, to reference one of his major influences, the marathon continues.
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.