Independent artists and acts are the backbone of the music industry. There is no denying this truth. Today’s independent artist/group/act could be the next big name, given the right support. Keeping that in mind, it is only fitting that the independent acts out there get just as much attention at year’s end as their more well-known counterparts. That is why Phil’s Picks makes sure to present a list of the year’s top new independent albums each year, including this year.
This year has seen so many wonderful new independent albums, too. Up-and-coming rock act Mason Hill, for instance, is on the verge of breaking out thanks to its new album, Against The Wall. On another note, an act, such as The Grease Traps makes it a presentation that could make it one of the next big names in the realm of neo-soul/funk/R&B with Solid Ground. It is another record that made this critic’s year-ender list, along with Steadfast’s Transmitters. Between these records and so many others, this year saw so many notable new independent albums. They are all compiled in the list featured here.
As with every other list that Phil’s Picks presents annually, the list features the year’s Top 10 new albums and five additional honorable mention titles for a total of 15 titles. Those honorable mention titles are included because they each offer something enjoyable in their own right and are no less worth hearing than any of the others featured in the list. That should be fully understood now. Without any further ado, here for your consideration is Phil’s Picks’ 2021 Top 10 New Independent Albums.
PHIL’S PICKS’ 2021 TOP 10 NEW INDEPENDENT ALBUMS
Mason Hill – Against The Wall
Ryan Hamilton – 1221
Marc Ribler – The Whole World Awaits You
Kris Rodgers & The Dirty Gems – Still Dirty
The Grease Traps – Solid Ground
Walking Papers – The Light Below
Grand Royale – Carry On
The Straddlerz – The Straddlerz
Willamena – Broken Songs: A Compilation
Drones – Our Hell Is Right Here
Steadfast – Transmitters
Liar Thief Bandit – Deadlights
The Swaggerlies – The Last of the One and Onlys
Skarlett Riot – Invicta
The Fifth – The Fifth
That is all for this list. It is just a snapshot of the mass of notable new independent albums released this year, too. It collectively serves as another reminder of the importance and place of independent music.
More than four years after the release of its then latest studio recording, Strong Enough To Last, indie-rock band Willamena officially returned this summer with its follow-up, Broken Songs: A Compilation. The 13-song presentation is a strong return for the band, too. That is proven from the album’s beginning to end musically and lyrically. While front man Lukas Ross’ vocals make comparisons to Matchbox 20 unavoidable throughout the 51-minute presentation (the sound of his vocals sounds so closely similar to that of Matchbox 20 front man Rob Thomas), the songs still present varied sounds and styles as well as lyrical themes. The album’s opener, ‘I Know Nothing’ is just one of the examples of how the album’s collective content makes the record such a strong return from the band. It will be discussed shortly. ‘Why Does Everything,’ an early entry in the record’s nearly hour-long run, is another way in which the album’s collective content makes the record worth hearing. It will be discussed a little later. Much the same can be said of ‘Black Waltz,’ one of the album’s late entries. It will be discussed later, too. Each song noted does its own part to show why Broken Songs: A Compilation a positive new presentation from Willamena. When these songs are considered along with the rest of the album’s offerings, the whole makes the album a continuation of Willamena’s more than two decades of success.
Willamena’s recently released album, Broken Songs: A Compilation is a welcome return from the indie-rock band, having come more than four years after the release of its then most recent record. The album’s success, as noted, comes through its musical and lyrical content. The album’s opener, ‘I Know Nothing’ is a prime example of how that content comes together to make the record work as well as it does. In the case of this song, its musical arrangement, complete with Ross’ vocals in mind, make the noted comparisons to Matchbox 20 unavoidable. That is because the song has that same sort of pop/adult contemporary sensibility as so much of Matchbox 20’s content. That is most evident in the catchy guitar riff. That line, alongside the bass and subtle bass line join with Ross’ vocals to make the song’s musical side so strong. The manner in which the musical arrangement was produced and mixed adds even more to the appeal here. The production and mixing balances the instrumentation professionally while also giving each line its own unique richness that has to be heard in order to be appreciated. Everything taken into account makes the arrangement here in whole a strong way to start the album. Of course the song’s musical side is just one part of what makes it stand out. The thoughtful lyrical content that accompanies the song’s musical arrangement adds to its appeal.
The lyrical theme featured in ‘I Know Nothing’ adds to the song’s appeal because as simple as it is, it touches on a topic that is rarely handled in most pop music. That theme is seemingly the general appreciation of life and the world. This is inferred as Ross sings in the song’s lead verse, “I know nothing ever stays the same/I know nothing ever keeps/From turning into something else/I see the past/And I see the future/And I’ve seen mistakes made again and again/We’ve been down this road a thousand times before/I see the waves/And I hear the ocean/I see the land being kissed by the sea/But the ocean’s wave keeps tearing up the shore.” The seeming theme continues in the song’s second verse, which finds Ross singing, “I see a man/And I see his family/I see the hours that he spends alone/He’s been working for something better/A thousand miles from home/I see a girl/No, I see a woman/I see a boy/Now I see a man/And they’ll keep dreaming of something better/Again and again and again.” This all really comes across as a sort of declaration of accepting the changes that happen in the world and appreciating those changes in the bigger picture of life. This is all just this critic’s own interpretation. Considering the positive nature of the song’s musical arrangement, that seeming theme gains more traction, though. It combines with the song’s lyrical theme to give the whole a really rich, celebratory nature. Considering all of this, the whole becomes a clear example of what makes Willamena’s new album appealing. It is just one of the songs that shows the album’s strength. ‘Why Does Everything’ is another example of what makes the album such a strong return for the band.
The musical arrangement featured in ‘Why Does Everything’ takes a completely different turn from that of the album’s opener. In this case, the song blends some modern, indie-rock influence a la Fleet Foxes with a distinct 1950s style leaning to make the song another unique presentation. From the basic 4/4 time signature (with the beat on the two and four) in the drums to the oldies style guitar riff, to even the vocals, this song has such a clear influence from that era. That presentation alongside Ross’ mournful, once again Rob Thomas-esque sound, makes this song’s musical arrangement stand out completely opposite that of ‘I Know Nothing’ and the rest of the album’s entries. The song’s arrangement stands out even more considering the nature of the song’s lyrical theme, which comes across clearly as someone who is going through an all too familiar “oh woe is me” moment. That contrast makes the song even more unique.
The lyrical theme that is featured in ‘Why Does Everything’ is, as noted, a statement of someone who is just feeling sorry for himself/herself. That is evident right from the song’s outset in which the subject asks, “Why does everything seem so hard/Why does every road lead to my breaking heart/Am I the only one who knows the pain/Won’t we take it on a…train/Why does everything/Why does everything/Why does everything seem so hard/Why does everything/Why does everything/Lead to my breaking heart?” So at the heart of this “oh woe is me” declaration is a broken heart. To that extent, the theme becomes more accessible. That is because so many audiences have been in the position of the song’s subject. The declaration continues in the song’s second verse, “Why does everybody else/Get to fly like a bird/I could scream at the top of my lungs/And still never be heard…” The line that follows is slightly difficult to decipher without lyrics to reference, but the mention of the broken heart is there once again. To that end, it is still clear that the song’s theme essentially is that of someone dealing with a broken relationship. It continues in the song’s third verse in similar fashion, too, leaving little need to go through that section. All things considered, this familiar mindset and the manner in which it is illustrated here will connect with any listener. What is so interesting here is the contrast of that mindset with the mood established in the song’s musical arrangement. The arrangement could have so easily gone a much more mournful route, but did not go that road. There is some pained emotion, given, but at the same time, it is not at the level that Ross and company could have taken it. Keeping that in mind, that contrast in moods between the song’s musical and lyrical content makes the song stand out that much more here. It is collectively, just one more example of what makes Broken Songs: A Compilation a strong return from Willamena. ‘Black Waltz’ is another important example of the album’s appeal.
‘Black Waltz’ stands out in part because of its musical arrangement. The subdued, contemplative composition is unlike the other arrangements examined here and the rest of the record’s songs. Its subtle bluesy touch as Ross sings and the addition of the equally subtle use of the harmonica adds to the arrangement’s impact, too, as the brushes lightly work on the snare drum. Again, Ross’ vocals make the Matchbox 40 comparison unavoidable. That aside, the overall instrumentation still makes the song its own unique presentation. One could go as far as to argue that the arrangement has a bit of country western leaning in that bluesy mix. That would make sense, considering the lyrical theme.
The lyrical theme that is featured in ‘Black Waltz’ is its own unique, contemplative message. In this case, the theme really does come across as a sort of old school cowboy theme. This is inferred as Hendrickson sings, “Will I see the sun rise again/Will I feel her touch again/Will I greet another summer/God only knows/Black waltz is calling me/Black waltz is calling/Sayin’ come on back home/Come on back home.” That message continues in the song’s second verse as Ross sings, “Will I feel the heat rise again/See the fog hide the morning/Hear the frogs sing their symphony/God only knows/Black waltz is calling me/Black waltz is calling/Sayin’ come on back home/Sayin’ come on back home/I used to think I was lucky/Never used to love love songs/I used to walk/But now I run/Running back home.” Again, between this and the song’s musical arrangement, audiences immediately get the image of a cowboy sitting by the fire as the sun sets, singing these words. The song’s third verse adds even more to that sense as Ross sings, “I used to feel like a dead man/Now I dream like a young man/Watch the colors as they fade away/I’m coming home.” It’s like this is someone who is mournful but accepting of the situation at hand. It is another unique lyrical message presented in the record that when paired with the song’s subtle, simple arrangement, becomes even more engaging and entertaining. The whole shows yet again why the album in whole is so successful. When the song is considered along with the unique presentations in the other songs examined here and the rest of the album’s entries, the whole makes the album overall a presentation that Willamena’s fans will agree is a welcome return from the band.
Willamena’s recently released album, Broken Songs: A Compilation is a positive new offering from the band. Technically only the band’s second album and fourth overall studio recording (along with two EPs), the 13-song record offers much for audiences to appreciate through its musical and lyrical content. The songs examined here serve well to support the noted statements. When they are considered along with the rest of the album’s songs, the whole becomes a work that continues the ongoing two decades-plus of success that Willamena has enjoyed.
Broken Songs: A Compilation is available now. More information on Broken Songs: A Compilation is available online now along with all of the band’s latest news and more at:
Time is officially ticking away to the end of the year, so as the countdown moves closer to the year’s final moments, those annual year-ender lists are starting to show up. Keeping that in mind, Phil’s Picks has its own year-enders. As is the case in year’s past, this year’s series of lists starts with the smallest releases, the year’s top new EPs. Topping this year’s list of new EPs is none other than Nine Inch Nails’ new EP, Add Violence. This five-song record takes all the best elements of Trent Reznor’s work from With Teeth all the way up to his most recent Nine Inch Nails record, Hesitation Marks both musically and lyrically.
Also included in this year’s list of the year’s top new EPs are independent releases from Paul Johnson & The About Last Nights, Chapel, Light The Way and others. The list, as in years past, includes the year’s Top 10 new EPs as well as five additional honorable mention titles, for a total of 15 records. With all of that having been noted, the following is Phil’s Picks 2017 Top 10 New EPs.
PHIL’S PICKS 2017 TOP 10 NEW EPs
Nine Inch Nails — Add Violence
Paul Johnson & The About Last Nights — Give Up The Ghost
Chapel — Sunday Brunch
The Offering — The Offering
Light The Way — Grace
Sleep Signals — At The End Of The World
Lane Change — Rise
Red Reign — Red Reign
Willamena — Strong Enough To Last
The Major Minor — Different Light
Constructs — Shapes
Denzel Curry — 13
New Kingston — Kingston Fiyah
Vault 1 — Kid
Pig — Prey & Obey
Next up on the calendar for Phil’s Picks is the year’s top new independent albums. That list will be posted some time tomorrow afternoon, so stay tuned. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.
For a little more than two decades, Kalamazoo, MI-based indie rock act Willamena has made quite a name for itself in the music industry, releasing five studio recordings in that time, doing it all on its own no less. That diy approach, coupled with songs that are just as marketable as those from more well-known acts to whom its works can be compared, has helped the band’s fan base continue to grow. The release this past June of the band’s sixth studio recording, its aptly titled six-song EP Strong Enough to Last has undoubtedly served to build the band’s fan base and reputation even more. The songs featured in this 24-minute record will appeal to a wide range of fans, including fans of Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20, Counting Crows and other similar acts. This applies both musically and lyrically. All things considered, this latest effort from what is – in this critic’s ears – one of the music industry’s best kept secrets is more proof that the indie music industry has just as much to offer audiences if not more.
Veteran indie rock outfit Willamena’s new EP Strong Enough to Last is an aptly titled record that clearly proves the underground music community has just as much to offer audiences today if not more. That statement is supported right from the record’s outset in the form of ‘As Long As I Can.’ Musically speaking, the song bears a clear Goo Goo Dolls influence. Intentional or not, that similarity is undeniable, and is not necessarily a good thing considering Goo Goo Dolls’ status in the mainstream. Lyrically speaking, it offers just as much to like. Guitarist and principal songwriter Chad Hendrickson writes in this song, “I grew up running/Away from the shadows//Darkness was always close to me/I saw tomorrow as the reason I was trying/I’d rather run to the day/Than hide from the night/Everyone gets tired/And I know that I’m no Superman/And I’m gonna run/As long as I can/As long as I can.” He goes on to write in the song’s second verse, “Maybe I’m desperate/Maybe I’m just a fool/My happiness never seems real to me/But I could always dream/And that’s enough, you see/Cause I’d rather reach for my dreams/Than feel empty inside/And I know that I’m no Superman/And I’m gonna run/As long as I can.” These two verses make up the song’s main lyrical body, and also make up quite a positive message in the process. In the simplest terms possible, Hendrickson is writing about having a certain drive and determination no matter what. It goes without saying that such a message is wholly welcome and needed nowadays for so many people. When it is coupled with the song’s equally upbeat musical arrangement, the end result becomes a solid first impression for the band on this EP and even more proof of why this record in whole is another solid effort from Willamena. It is not the only song to support those statements, either. ‘Darkest Before The Dawn,’ which comes later in the EP’s run, supports those statements just as much as the record’s opener.
‘Darkest Before The Dawn,’ musically will appeal to Matchbox 20 fans thanks to its gentle, flowing, instantly radio ready pop rock arrangement, which is highlighted by the pairing of its guitars and vocalist Lukas Ross’ delivery. That moving arrangement, is only one part of what makes this song stand out. Its lyrical content is just as important to note. Ross presents another positive message here as he sings, “I hope what I heard is true/It’s darkest before the dawn/Cause I don’t know how much longer I can just sit back/And hold on/Well I’ve been down before/But never quite like this/Life seems to have just slipped away/And this midnight feels endless/It’s tough out here/It’s cold when you’re alone/It’s tough out here/I know it’s darkest before the dawn/It’s darkest/Darkest before the dawn/Here comes the sun and the rain’s moving on/It’s darkest before the dawn.” That verse alone supports the interpretation of the song’s positive message, especially in its final lines in which Ross sings “Here comes the sun and the rain’s moving in.” That is another way – seemingly – of saying life will not always be negative. The song’s second verse hints at that positive message just as much, as Ross sings, “If the early bird gets the worm/Then I’d have been full by now/I keep trying despite the odds that have been holding me down/But I’m gonna climb that wall/I ain’t gonna stop/I’m gonna feel the light on my face when I make it to the top/It’s tough out here/It’s cold when you’re alone/It’s tough out here/I know it’s darkest before the dawn/It’s darkest/Darkest before the dawn/Here comes the sun and the pain’s moving on/It’s darkest before the dawn/I remember when I dreamed of the sun as it shined on a perfect day/Now there’s a darkness to the edge of the night that takes my breath away/Now I pray for the light/I pray for the light/I pray for the light/To shine on me.” There is no doubt that this is a message of hope and determination. Again, any time a band, act, etc. can present such a positive, uplifting message to its listeners, it is a good thing. When that positive message is coupled with an equally radio friendly musical arrangement, the whole of the song proves why the song is such an important addition to its record. It shows even more, along with the record’s opener, why the EP is so enjoyable, and is still not the last of the songs that prove the EPs strength. ‘Close Your Eyes,’ the EP’s second (and third – the EP actually includes two takes of the song) work is one more example of what makes Strong Enough to Last such a strong new effort from Willamena.
‘Close Your Eyes’ stands out musically thanks to a guitar line in its verses that bears a striking similarity to that of U2’s classic hit ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and a chorus that is more akin to so many radio friendly 90s mainstream rock hits. The choruses are infectious and will stick easily in listeners’ minds long after the song ends. Lyrically, it is just as interesting thanks to yet another positive message presented in its verses. Ross sings in the song’s lead verse, “Night/Follows the setting sun/And the stars come out/When the day is done/Dreams/Only come when your eyes are closed/When you can shut out the world/Shut out that cold/I’m drowning from the weight of my dreams/Spent too much time running away from too many things/Cause I dream/As much as I can/When you close your eyes/You can see everything/You can close your eyes/Close your eyes and dream/When you close your eyes/You can do anything/When you close your eyes/Close your eyes and dream/Cause you can dream about anything/When you close your eyes.” Ross goes on to sing in the song’s second verse, “The wind/blows through her hair/But to me/She was already there/The day/Chases the stars/Now when I walk around I know/They’re not very far away/I’m drowning from the weight of my dreams/Spent too much time running away from too many things/Cause I dream/As much as I can.” These two verses come across seemingly about the power of actual dreams during sleep to be motivators for metaphorical dreams; those desires that one wants in real life. That is inferred as Ross sings, “You can dream about anything when you close your eyes.” The suggestion that the song’s subject “spent too much time running away from everything” would seem to hint at that inference about the power of dreams both literal and metaphorical, and their importance. Whether that is truly the message or not, it goes without saying that the song is meant to be positive. That positive message, coupled with the song’s catchy musical arrangement makes this song stand out just as much as its counterparts and in turn show once more what makes Willamena’s new EP so strong. When it is set alongside the record’s other noted songs, and the two Tom Petty-esque pieces that round out the EP (its fifth and sixth songs), the whole of the record’s songs shows without doubt just how strong this record is. They show collectively why Willamena, despite being just under that mainstream radar for more than 20 years, is itself in fact strong enough to last.
Willamena’s latest studio recording is not the band’s first effort. The band’s sixth studio recording, it is another offering that proves why this band is still strong enough to last in itself. That is due to six separate radio ready musical arrangements that are certain to entertain audiences. The songs’ lyrical content is just as certain to entertain and engage audiences. All things considered, Strong Enough to Last proves that even after a little more than 20 years Willamena is itself still strong enough to last and that the record itself is easily one of this year’s top new EPs. It is available now. More information on Strong Enough to Last is available online now along with all of the band’s latest news and more at: