One of the best parts about my time living in a DIY punk house was being able to see a ton of bands before they “make it big.” Over the course of the four years I’ve been involved in the space, I have seen some incredible bands come through my former basement, and every once in a while I am completely blown away by a performer. To that end, my friends like to poke fun of the face I make when I am impressed by a band, and I can’t really blame them: The face they’re talking about is usually just a big fat grin that you can spot from a mile away.
As a teenager, I played in a DIY punk band, so I am able to bring to the table a unique understanding of the difficulties of playing in an independent band in a digital market flooded with bands on Bandcamp and Soundcloud. That’s the reason I spend quite a bit of my time working with some of the bands that blew me away in that basement, helping them bring their music into the world and putting the songs into the hands of people that I know will dig it.
As such, I am very excited to have collected a few records and EPs that might have flown under the radar of the collective indie rock hivemind, presented for your listening pleasure below.
10. Daymoon, Strange Ranger
It’s hard to pin down the sound of Strange Ranger in one succinct “genre.” Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, each of Daymoon‘s fifteen tracks somehow sounds completely different, ranging from lo-fi pop to alternative, indie rock. The result is a record that is uniquely compelling, at the same time sounding familiar and entirely original. Strange Ranger have accumulated a great following over the last year since the release of their debut Rot Forever, in part thanks to consistent touring, but mostly because of the ever-evolving sonic landscapes they bring to the table.
The interlude “Doggies,” for example, features a sparse, but dramatic piano line intercut with sounds of dogs barking. Sure, this is a concept that sounds ridiculous, but it is somehow executed in a way that perfectly evokes the perfect setting for consumption of this record: A suburban bedroom surrounded by deafening silence interrupted by, well, normal sounds. This is not to say that Daymoon is comprised entirely of animal noises; a track like “Sophie,” on the other hand, is a perfectly crafted lo-fi pop song, while “Subaru” is one of the heaviest (and shortest) songs on the record. Stream Daymoon here.
9. Burst & Decay (An Acoustic EP), The Wonder Years
For most bands, an acoustic EP would just mean replacing electric guitars with acoustics. The Wonder Years, on the other hand, took the time to revisit the song’s arrangements as a whole for the Burst & Decay EP, allowing them to translate their hard-hitting punk sound to something a little less chaotic, focusing on melodies instead of catharsis. It’s with this project that the band has allowed themselves to step further outside the boundaries set by their classification as a pop-punk band, and once again craft a release that appropriately reflects the changes in their lives as they begin to settle into the arms of full-fledged “adult life.”
Burst & Decay takes its name from a line in the EP’s closing track, a reimagined version of No Closer To Heaven‘s “You In January,” the first true love song that the band has penned. It’s an experimental way to end an experimental project, and it pays off wonderfully. Placed in context at the tail-end of tracks plucked from the band’s string of three near-perfect LPs rooted in themes of existential dread and manic depression, “You In January” shines as a glimmer of hope, a sign that things truly can get better. Stream Burst & Decay (An Acoustic EP) here.
8. I Love My F**king Pets EP, COMPs
Short but sweet, COMPs’ four-song EP was crafted in a Michigan bedroom. However, despite the limitations of solo bedroom production, Geoffrey Webb was able to piece together some incredible hooks and beautiful guitar-driven pop songs. It’s a collection of very basic tracks revolving around programmed drums, but is nonetheless exceptionally captivating and serves as a testament to the power of the bedroom recording.
From the first seconds of “Lil 1,” each song on this quick EP is instantly lovable. The lo-fi nature feels very intentional, and Webb’s ability to harmonize with himself makes this release a special one. The highlight of I Love My F**king Pets comes with the closing “Fast Hands,” a wonderfully-constructed folky pop track that sees Webb narrativizing his internal monologues when meeting new people, unable to move past the warmth of their handshake. “Remember be kind,” Webb tells himself in the first post-chorus refrain. “It’s easy to miss out on all the good times.” Stream I Love My F**king Pets here.
7. Cowgirl Blues, Katie Ellen
From the ashes of acclaimed punk act Chumped, Anika Pyle birthed a new band called Katie Ellen, delivering a debut album of epic proportions in Cowgirl Blues. It’s a record that sees Pyle telling a story of conquering a hardship and discovering the confidence that comes with it. Throughout, she recounts interactions and thoughts that filled her head as she navigated everyday life, the tracks anchored by her beautiful and bubbly voice.
The songwriting is simple and straightforward, lines like “I am miserable with you, miserable without you” from the fourth track “TV Dreams” all but summing up the narrative through-line of Cowgirl Blues. Right smack in the middle of the record is its standout track, “Sad Girls Club,” with a chorus that expresses Pyle’s reservations about marriage, citing her resounding belief that “sad girls don’t make good wives.” It’s all incredibly simple, but the personal nature of the lyrics casts Pyle in a vulnerable light, and makes each track increasingly more relatable — the ideal balance for a punk song. All told, the performances throughout the record are exceptionally tight, and Pyle makes a name for herself outside the project that put her on the map. Stream Cowgirl Blues here.
6. Spark Thrush EP, Monster Bad
Spark Thrush starts off slow, opening track “Xeno” building a wall of electronic sounds, frontperson Chris Graci’s impassioned Robert Smith-esque wails letting the listener know right off the bat that this EP is going to be something special. It’s only five tracks, but Spark Thrush covers a lot of ground sonically and thematically, documenting the sometimes debilitating realization that being in a relationship means being part of a greater whole that you can’t entirely dictate. In the words of Marty McFly, “Whoa doc, that’s heavy.”
As such, “I Luv Yr Aggression!!,” feels like the perfect soundtrack for a reckless teen movie party scene (although the lyrics might say otherwise). Musically, the verses building toward a chorus that would see the party jumping around, drinks in hand, most likely in slow motion. Regardless of whether this track is actually played at a party, when Monster Bad plays it live, it’s sure to encourage a similar scene. If this EP is any indication, Monster Bad has a hell of a lot to offer when their next LP arrives. Stream Spark Thrush here.
5. With Your Belly, Bonzo
I was at Bonzo’s first show, and have watched the band grow across their four LPs, spreading their wings from an emo trio to a genre-defying quartet. Their latest effort With Your Belly is multi-layered, showing the band gaining their footing and maximizing their sound potential. Songs like “Belly” see Bonzo working to deconstruct their massive sound, with the track slowing down to almost half speed in its second half to allow room for incredibly impressive drum fills between chords. The following track “Team,” on the other hand, has the quartet flexing their evolving understanding of the loud-soft dynamic, going from heavy and fast to dissonant and slow.
Strategically placed at the center of With Your Belly is “Godstopper,” the album’s strangest — and most intricately impressive — track. In the middle of the song is a break from the reverb-drenched offering, replaced by a frantic repeating guitar and drum line that is bound to confuse and enrapture, before leading into one of the album’s heaviest moments to round out a track that truly goes the distance. Stream With Your Belly here.
4. Spin, Tigers Jaw
Hailing from the punk scene of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Tigers Jaw’s last couple of efforts fell a little bit flat for me. However, Spin was a true return to form for the band, showcasing some of their best work since their self-titled 2010 debut. Combining ballads (“Escape Plan”) with faster tracks that are sure to rouse a mosh pit during a live show (“Guardian”), the record is meticulously crafted with the help of Will Yip and sees the band focusing in on melody and composition.
The record opens with a bang with “Follows,” Ben Walsh taking lead on the verses with Brianna Collins joining in on harmonies for the chorus. Many of the next eleven tracks follow a similar pattern, with the notable exception of “June.” For the album’s third track, Collins takes the mic and delivers one of the best songs Tigers Jaw have ever written, featuring a chorus melody so strong that it will be stuck in your head for days on end. Stream Spin here.
3. Comfort EP, Petal
Across the three tracks that comprise Petal’s Comfort EP, there is not a single drum hit. Instead, Kiley Lotz plays a solo electric guitar and a piano, using her incredible vocal range to fill in the gaps of instrumentation. Lotz has never sounded better than she does on these tracks, and the sheer beauty of her voice manages to bring tears to my eyes upon every listen. Seriously!
The EP was meant to placate fans while Lots worked on the follow-up to 2015’s amazing debut Shame, with two original tracks and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs.” Put in context with the other two tracks, however, the cover doesn’t seem quite out of place, fitting in perfectly within the narrative created by the original songs Lotz penned that tell stories of heartbreak and the ensuing grief. Although it is only three tracks, Comfort is a triumph of epic proportions. Stream it here.
2. Whatever Works, Oliver Houston
A band rooted in the Michigan DIY scene, Oliver Houston’s debut full-length effort sees them move away from the “emo” sounds that anchored their first EP and move more into the direction of surf-rock, for fear of being pigeonholed by the label of the e-word. Whatever Works still holds some emo strains, but is largely a step into new territory for Oliver Houston. Throughout, this record continues to showcase the band’s proficiency on their instruments, cuts like the title track, “Milk Door,” and “Reprise” featuring incredibly intricate, and oft intersecting, guitar and drum lines.
More than anything else, Whatever Works is an incredibly fun record, with subtle jokes strewn throughout like Kyle Luck’s inexplicable “Hello Wisconsin!” in the final seconds of “Peanut Boy.” With this record, Oliver Houston have made a name for themselves outside of the emo scene by staying true to the DIY virtues they learned within it, crafting an incredibly impressive onslaught of sonically diverse tracks that are sure to please any fan of guitar-driven rock music. Stream Whatever Works here.
1. Still, I Try EP, Fire Is Motion
With their first “proper” release, Fire Is Motion have crafted a collection of five songs that reinforce the aesthetic of “indie rock” that seems to have faded in the last few years. The first string of harmonized “ah’s” in opening track “Yesterday’s Coffee” are instantly evocative of Funeral-era Arcade Fire, something that instantly invoked within me that feeling of, “This band is important.” The remainder of the EP only further enforces this feeling, tracks like “Ringside” and “Smile” showing the incredible amount of thought that went into each and every song. After all, frontman Adrian Amador spent upwards of three years picking apart every piece of this EP to make sure it was absolutely perfect.
Still, I Try is bookended by “Yesterday’s Coffee” and “How Long To Get Home?,” with both tracks revolving around the line “it’s in my head.” These are the first words uttered in the former; they are all but screamed in the latter, as the band’s volume reaches its peak and the EP comes to a close. After the sounds fade into the ether, you’re left with nothing to do but sit back and reflect upon what you just heard, then say “f**k it” and just start it all over again.
Every time you listen to the EP, there is something new to hear, another piece to the puzzle. It’s for this reason that Still, I Try is one of the most impressive pieces of music to be released this year, an incredible first taste of everything that is to come from the New Jersey collective. Stream Still, I Try here.
— Yunahon Mixtape, Oso Oso
— Weller, Weller
— As You Please, Citizen
— Cyclical, Small Circle
— If Blue Could Be Happiness, Florist
— III, Makthaverskan
— Then Is A Song EP, En Route
— Smidley, Smidley
— Vision, Pet Symmetry
— Outside, Outside
— Survival Pop, Worriers
— Nothing Special, Harmony Woods
— Bonglord, Bonglord