This year, Boston produced some great albums by established artists: Speedy Ortiz, Marissa Nadler, Michael Christmas. But those weren’t the ones that stuck with me. I found myself drawn mainly to newcomers, and artists who thrive on the margins. (Vundabar being the exception.) Ranging from quiet indie rock to alt-soul to experimental hip-hop, these musicians each had something particular to say, and said it well.
Tuft, 'Whoever Gets You In The End'
The music of Tuft, which is the solo project of a Boston-based musician named Jessica Hesse, is as gentle as its name suggests. On her gorgeous debut EP, “Whoever Gets You in the End,” Hesse sings in a clear falsetto, often accompanied by little more than the low jangle of a single guitar. She writes with equal clarity, adept at lyrics that swivel wrenchingly in unexpected directions. “That old jacket wraps you up,” she croons, leisurely, on “Boogerwall,” before twisting the knife. “Like a noose/ Bet she thinks it looks so good on you.” “Whoever Gets You in the End” is only five tracks long, and they pass far too quickly, casting a hushed, lingering spell.
Aubrey Haddard, 'Blue Part'
There’s no denying that Aubrey Haddard’s power resides in her voice, which is polished and robust. As the singer’s debut album proves, she is an adept songwriter, too. “Blue Part” abounds with arresting melodies and sharp turns-of-phrase. “I almost forgot this feeling/ To be on the ground, kneeling/ Right after my head hit the ceiling,” Haddard sings, wryly capturing the dissonant passions of infatuation. In her quieter moments she sounds a little like the British indie-soul singer Lianne La Havas, intimate and yearning. But “Blue Part” is equally and unmistakably a Boston product; it brings to mind the witty, jazz-inflected repertoire of the New England Conservatory-born alt-pop group Lake Street Dive and in certain moments even evokes the crashy distortions of the Allston basement scene. More crucially, Haddard, who attended Berklee College of Music, sidesteps the biggest hazard of her training — the temptation to indiscriminately flex the multitude of one’s skills. The sure-footed Haddard is, by contrast, quite singular.
Anjimile wrote and recorded the entirety of “Colors” during a three-month artist residency at Industry Lab in Cambridge. The end result is a little more off-the-cuff than the musician's 2015 studio debut, "Good Boy." Each of the seven songs on "Colors" exists within its own sonic world, possessed of its own particular charms, from the cheeky bossa nova of “Ipswich” to the reverby warmth of “Dysphoria.” Anjimile, who is trans and uses gender-neutral pronouns, recorded “Colors” shortly after beginning testosterone treatments, and there is an endearing tenderness to the singer’s presence on this album as they acclimate to their changing voice and all that it signifies. Most importantly, Anjimile’s inventiveness and keen sense of melody are as sturdy and appealing as ever.
Vundabar, 'Smell Smoke'
Vundabar has always demonstrated a preternatural knack for hooks, even when its members were still high school students in the South Shore town of Scituate. The band’s third full-length effort, “Smell Smoke,” retains that early playfulness, even as it turns to more serious subjects. Frontman Brandon Hagen reportedly wrote much of the album about his experience caring for an ailing family member, and his songs prickle with lurid poetry. “There’s nothing that’s poetic about a bedsore,” Hagen drawls in “Harvest.” “I cleaned the bowl of fruit I brought/ It sat ‘til it turned to food for flies.” But his melodies are almost maniacally catchy, swelling triumphantly through sludgy distortion. It’s not an offer of solace so much as acknowledgment of what it means to feel.
Pink Navel, 'Born On The Stairs'
Pink Navel’s music has always had the feel of some half-forgotten dream, fragmented and surreal. “Born on the Stairs” is characteristically eccentric, and delightfully so. The rapper and producer from Pembroke is fond of chirpy electronic sounds that recall vintage video game soundtracks, and raps in a halting, syncopated style over disjointed beats. The effect is enjoyably vertiginous, as though things could fly off the rails at any minute. Pink Navel’s lyrics chart a similarly zigzagging course. “Recluse/ I am a hermit/ Making beats pretty early/ When the sun sets it hurts me,” the musician raps on “garnet.dev.” “I could never die if the file where my phantom goes in/ Lives.” There’s an urgency to Pink Navel’s musings, though they never land anywhere solid, circling as they do past fleeting thoughts and partial insights in an uncanny imitation of the mind.
Something Merry, 'EMO-TION'
Spearheaded by the Boston “bummer pop” band Future Teens, the Something Merry coalition has been releasing holiday music compilations on Bandcamp since 2016, with the proceeds of each going to a different charity. This year they covered the entirety of Carly Rae Jepsen’s popular 2015 album “E-MO-TION” to benefit Immigration Equality, a national LGBTQ immigrant rights organization. I've made my love for Carly Rae Jepsen known, so it’s really no surprise that this tribute went immediately to the top of my playlist. Apart from replacing synths with guitars, most of the tracks on “EMO-TION” hew close to the originals, which is fine, because the originals are flawless. One of my favorite exceptions is THE AUX’s cover of “Let’s Get Lost,” which replaces Jepsen’s fizzy synth-pop with an unlikely combination of roaring distortion, auto-tune and screaming guitar riffs. More than anything, “EMO-TION” reveals how perfectly suited the emo ethos is to Jepsen’s earnest, yet joyously unserious, music.