The 2017 LEO Playlist: Our favorite local songs of the year

Once again, it was tough to whittle this list down to 20 songs, but what we ended up with is a pretty solid reflection of the vast spectrum of the Louisville music scene, from conceptual hip-hop to melancholy folk to unhinged punk and everything in between. There are familiar staples such as Joan Shelley, 1200 and White Reaper, as well as new faces that have emerged, such as GRLwood and DUD, plus a ton of other names you’ll recognize and quality new listens. So below, in no particular order, is the 2017 LEO Playlist.

Joan Shelley — “Wild Indifference”
“Wild Indifference” finds Joan Shelley short on words, but in an emotionally-devastating, impactful way. There’s a certain weariness that is woven through this beautifully-crafted narrative on unrequited love. And much of the sting is delivered by Shelley’s own inflection. In terms of the instrumentation, which is sparse, Shelley captures the character and atmosphere of a lonely place that is haunted by the narrator’s feelings about the self-centeredness of the person to whom the song is addressed. Created with a little help from a few tried-and-true collaborators (including Nathan Salsburg and James Elkington), this subtle, yet potent tune also benefits from the tasteful knob-turning of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy who produced it at the fabled The Loft studio in Chicago. Somewhere, Jean Ritchie is smiling, or perhaps crying. —Kevin M. Wilson

1200 — “Resurrection”
Seance / Spirit, the double album from 1200 (Jecorey Arthur) about the duality between the good and evil floating around inside all of us, and how that bleeds into the world at large, is an ambitious product of creative prowess, melding his hip-hop skills on the mic with his wealth of knowledge about classical music. Add in velvet-voiced guest singers, sharp, up-and-coming rappers, as well as first-class beats, melodies and ideas, and you have a winding road of a concept record. “Resurrection” shows off the creative patience that dominates Seance / Spirit, with plenty of space for atmospheric background vocals, a shimmering melody and methodical drumming. But, what sets “Resurrection” apart is the versatile, intelligent, straightforward and intense vocal work that deconstructs and inspires, creating a feeling and mood that moves the needle from good to great. —Scott Recker

GRLwood — “Hold Ya”
If GRLwood has a superpower, it’s restraint. The duo  of Rej Forester (guitar, vocals) and Karen Ledford (drums) are a mesmerizing sight live, providing Louisville with some vital musical experiences this year in the wake of a self-titled EP released in July. The longest track off that EP, “Hold Ya,” amplifies that aforementioned superpower. In the same way the Melvins build up to a heavy riff, GRLwood kicks off “Hold Ya” with slow, spaced-out guitar strums, steady drumming and soft croons, before the two-minute mark starts marching toward a louder destination, eventually exploding into Forester’s reliant, raspy scream. That range is pivotal to their sound, a dynamic roller coaster ride that acts as a sharp parallel to Forester speaking to the internal longing of the listener: “If it’s not what you want / Why do you keep coming closer?” Just like its sugary, harsh guitar tones, “Hold Ya” resonates long after the song has finished. —Lara Kinne

Kaleidico — “The Dev•il’s Itch”
Not since Slint released Spiderland has there been a collection of songs from Louisville quite so haunting as the music found on Afro•brain, the third full-length release by Kaleidico. Synths squelch and surge, a static drone of noise buzzing ominously in the distance. In “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch uses the presence of electricity as a perversion of the natural world, a conduit to evil. That sense of palpable terror is present on “The Dev•il’s Itch,” the fourth track on the album, which digs deep into unconscious shame. This is dark music bucking against an ever-dimming light to ascribe meaning to madness, made perhaps more notable by clean pop hooks and solid songwriting, rendering the otherwise alien familiar. —Syd Bishop

Jordan Jetson — “Crown”
Jordan Jetson’s Critical Mass packs a double album’s worth of ideas into a 21-minute EP, creating an incredibly lean and dynamic record that you can listen to over and over, both because it’s catchy as hell, and because it’s so thick with production and lyrics that there’s a lot to dissect. Some songs on Critical Mass fall into melancholy soul, but that’s not the category that “Crown” falls into — instead it’s a quick-moving hip-hop gem that’s packed with the sort of pure style that’s reminiscent of the genre’s golden era. Jetson works in hyper-speed, bobbing and weaving through rounds of stories about growing up, family, his children and moving through bad times. “Crown” is the centerpiece to an album about figuring out who you are at a turning point in your life, and Jetson took something difficult and confusing and made it art. —Scott Recker

Second Story Man — “Sunday I-65” 
The story of Second Story Man is, at its core, three friends in an unbreakable bond over the course of 20 years. Despite the always tumultuous deliverance into adulthood, faded rock star dreams, changing careers and personal priorities, the core group of Evan Bailey, Jeremy Irvin and Carrie Neumayer has remained. After two full-length albums, a slew of singles and EPs, as well as an impressive 20-song retrospective collection, spanning their first decade as a band, there was a moment when the disbandment of the group was on the table. Instead SSM decided on a total transformation, swapping member duties and instruments, and adding drummer Drew Osborn. The result was the band’s most deliberate and finely-produced recording to date. The first single on the self-titled album, “Sunday I-65,” serves as the most complete representation of the band’s journey. An aggressive, reverb-and-distortion-driven pop jewel about the constant inner dialog we all experience about the crossroads between the overwhelming urge to escape our seemingly trapped lives, and the feeling that our identities are intrinsically linked to the people and places that surround us. Luckily for us, SSM have decided to stick around for a little while longer. —John King

Cereal Glyphs — “Passion’s Not Enough”
With that barely-restrained feeling, and waves of crunchy, layered punk that stick to your brain, “Passion’s Not Enough” has the feel of that jangly, rebellious, straight-from-the-garage sound that’s been coming out of Georgia, from bands such as The Black Lips and The Coathangers. Cereal Glyphs play with atmosphere and space heavier than a traditional less-is-more kind of band, but what they achieved on this record, and what is exemplified by “Passion’s Not Enough,” is an ability to embrace that midnight on a Saturday, Exile On Main Street sort of unhinged feeling, that tends to snap the listener into the present. Evocative music that brings you back to a time and place is a powerful thing, but so is music that makes you want to get stuck in the moment.—Scott Recker

Rmllw2llz — “Evolution”
When Rmllw2llz raps, “You be ballin’, I’ll be reffin’ in the game, cousin,” he speaks to his assumed (and well-earned) position as elder statesman in the scene. With “Evolution,” Rmllw2llz captures that hustle, that love, required to keep your head above water. For Romell, that’s about finding a balance between getting his art into the world, and spending time with his wife, which says a lot about the nature of making it as an artist. Culturally speaking, making a living at music is no small feat, and one that often requires a tremendous sacrifice to succeed. How do you strike up that balance between following your dreams and living your life? That’s the struggle for Romell, and one that’s easy to relate to, packaged here with the remarkable ear candy of producer extraordinaire Yons. —Syd Bishop

IHaveAKnife — “Pumpkin Head”
IHaveAKnife songs normally start off like a boot to your chest, but where “Pumpkin Head” differs is in its nervously casual intro, with playful studio banter between singer Sean Garrison and drummer Evan Wallace. That turns into what one could almost pretend is a laid-back groove, before patience runs its course and the band comes tearing in with a screaming guitar to set the pace. Garrison sings of a looming civil war that, fictional or not, sounds like it will be pretty violent and bloody. A distorted rhythm section grinds out a swing beat underneath the message, carrying the song to the chorus where we learn the most important information of all: “The children know… all the little children know.” —Nik Vechery

White Reaper — “The Stack”
While White Reaper’s golden hooks hit like a counterpunch to bubble-gum radio pop and their general ability to make you want to drop all of your responsibilities and commit some sort of pointless misdemeanor are both likable, it’s really their self-awareness and restlessness that secured their evolution. The blistering garage rock on their debut EP morphed into something more calculated and meticulous on their first full-length. And on this year’s The World’s Best American Band, that smoothed-out sound jumps into a DeLorean and reaches into the big, unapologetic riffs of the ‘80s. They were frustrated by being pigeonholed as fuzz-punk and showed they could make a lateral move, tweaking their sound, but keeping the core of what has worked. That’s the case on “The Stack,” a song with blasting guitars, swaggering keys, a thunderous rhythm section and lyrics that kick with foggy, but relatable nostalgia. —Scott Recker

Pleasure Boys — “Waking Up”
After the tragic loss of Pleasure Boys cofounder Greg Bryant, the band took an understandable pause to mourn and rethink. Returning with “Waking Up (From Someone Else’s Dream),” the band sounds less like The Doors-influenced garage rock of their previous efforts and more like the psychedelic mania of early-Pink Floyd, an atmospheric freak-out jam with hook-heavy gang vocals and raging guitar work. This is a reawakening, a band finding a new voice, while remaining respectful to what came before. The line, “Sit beside me if you can, I’ll go to sleep, I’ll wake up in your head,” seems Lynch-ian in nature, but whether intentional or not, it speaks to the subliminal aspect of the song — this will get stuck in your mind. —Syd Bishop

Wax Fang — “Serenity Now”
There’s no envelope-pushing on “Serenity Now,” no one-of-a-kind je ne sais quoi, just a serious gem of a pop-song — a surfeit of head-bouncing, fist-pumping hooks. The song’s buoyancy belies a more serious and universal message of reflection and self-doubt, the worries of being young and not fully knowing who you are, or if you ever will. And while Scott Carney’s unique crooning begs for an answer when he admits “I don’t know why / I don’t know why / I don’t know why,” you probably won’t have time to come up with an answer. You’ll be too busy singing along. —Tyrel Kessinger

Tycoons of Teen — “I’ve Already Won Your Heart”
Like The New York Dolls and The Runaways, Tycoons Of Teen create music that’s one part tough-as-nails, no-frills punk that growls with danger, and one part fun-loving, wild-eyed pop sensibility. Yoko Molotov’s vocals soar on “I’ve Already Won Your Heart,” while menacing guitars and a whirlwind of drums match the mood of the lyrics, which are a straight-forward and confident announcement, although with an undercurrent of frustration. “I’ve Already Won Your Heart” is one of those songs that can tell an entire story in very few words, because it narrows in on a very specific feeling, that almost indescribable one associated with a developing relationship. —Scott Recker

Zack Stefanski — “This Fear”
If anything, “This Fear” is envy inducing to the musician in me, an onion that reveals new and richer details with each listen. This is densely-layered music that, superficially speaking, makes for an incredibly driving and dynamic listen. It’s catchy, but not at the expense of mood, an urgent message into the void packed with so many colorful moments, from the divine bass work (these fills are amazing), to some of the finest drumming I’ve heard in awhile. The guitar work is understated, with a Johnny Greenwood degree of quality, more often than not textural than riff based. The groove in this song is undeniable, and Stefanski uses his voice as another instrument, drifting in and out of frame, otherworldly and ghostly. —Syd Bishop

James Lindsey — “Rainbows”
With a bouncy, unpredictable beat, matched with introspective, layered lyrics, and a slick, controlled flow, James Lindsey’s “Rainbows” is a smart and impactful look into sociopolitical issues, through experiences that have surrounded him. His cousin spent a decade in jail, and, in Louisville and beyond, there is no shortage of equality and cultural issues that have been swept under the rug over the past several decades. There’s a sharp frustration about those things on “Rainbows,” but there’s also glimmers of hope, of unity, of a better, more advanced America. —Scott Recker

Jaye Jayle — “About Time You Came To Me”
The engine driver of the hell train that is the band Young Widows, with one hand on his trademark cowboy hat and the other easing on the brake, Evan Patterson’s alter ego, Jaye Jayle, is a dark combustion and unstoppable force. After four full-length albums and more than a half dozen singles, the Young Widows guitarist began a solo project under the name Jaye Jayle. A slower ride than Young Widows’ post-Birthday Party art-doom growl, Jaye Jayle boils the same dark, sometimes terrifying and always-intriguing feel into a concentrated tonic. “About Time You Came To Me,” is a slow collision between an American Gothic dystopia and a futuristic, Southwestern showdown. Between the desolate soundscape and bleeps and bloops, a menacing country western sound is summoned through the darkness that one music critic at Tiny Mix Tapes music magazine described as “creepy Kentucky rock.” “About Time You Came To Me” is a call to a would-be lover without expectation of happiness or ever afters, but as an inevitable union preordained by mystic forces that creep along the shadows between our world and the intriguing, slightly dangerous, underworld that Jaye Jayle navigates so effortlessly. —John King

Frederick The Younger — “Leaves Are Gone”
A twisting and turning psych-pop tale of feeling out of place, “Leaves Are Gone” is both blatant and stacked with metaphors. Jenni Cochran’s voice sells the sadness in both the subtle, controlled verses, and the captivating, booming chorus that’s central to the song. Frederick The Younger excels in walking the line between creating repetitive earworm elements, and never staying complacent, creating songs with complexity and nuance, and “Leaves Are Gone” is one of the best examples of them finding that middle ground. —Scott Recker

Voodoo Economics — “Pigs”
A slugging bass line creates a slick environment for vocalist Shane O’Bryan to lay down a stream-of-consciousness take about police violence in America. His cadence stays clear and sharp as the syllables and concepts get heavier and heavier until the song ends with a damning, “I ain’t gonna lie / I’m just another white kid / but lately these pigs got me ashamed of my skin.” I thought this was a cover song the few times I saw it live and after scouring the internet, it turns out it is not. Bravo. Watch out for these guys. —Nik Vechery

40RTY — “Swan Song (Life is Such a Joke)”
40RTY is a banjo-wielding solo musician who sings about everyday struggles and joys. We’re all 40RTY in some way. We’ve all been at the lows and highs that he describes, and “Swan Song (Life is Such a Joke)” is our anthem. With a strum that could excite anybody with a stripe of Appalachian blood, 40RTY shares the ironies of his life: “I paid to fix myself, but find that I’m too broke / While I’m rollin’ cigarettes, I know I’ll never smoke.” That resounding chorus underlines an ingenuity in his music. The song is a standout on his first album, Happy Murder, which was released in February from the self-started Man with a Gun label. The song accepts our own insignificance, reminding us not to take life so seriously and that tragedy is just part of the punchline. — Lara Kinne

DUD — “Linear Disorder”
Scuzz Master guitar player Danny O’Connell’s solo project, DUD maintains the sort of slick and addicting hook-heavy riffs that you’d expect, but cranks the distortion, adding a little Jesus & Mary Chain fuzz, and creating distant and cool lo-fi punk with a clever pop lean. “Linear Disorder” opens with a series of big throwback chords, before settling into to a hazy rush with chilly vocals, and finally circling back to the fist-pumping intro, all in 1:39. There’s no wasted time on “Linear Disorder” and nothing is overcomplicated. It’s a song that gets in and out, doing what it has to do before pumping the brakes, yet in its short amount of time, it’s a fully realized song, with twists and turns. It’s condensed and quick, but you don’t feel cheated. —Scott Recker