I’d like to start by (quickly, don’t worry) going over my reviewing criteria. Every judge does it differently, so I figured I’d let you guys know where I’m coming from on this. I have some musical training (I can read and write it) but in terms of music theory I mostly trust my ear. If I’m writing a song and it sounds or feels the way that I imagined it would when I had the initial idea, then I think that song is on the way to being successful. I’ll be judging things in a similar way. I don’t know where your ideas started (unless you wrote a song bio, in which case thanks!) but a good chunk of how I’ll be judging will include listening for the threads of the various ideas you guys thought of and deciding if they feel fully realized or not.
Also, like other judges before me, “catchiness” will be part of how successful I feel your song is. It’s a wide net to cast, I know, but catchiness to me doesn’t mean a specific sound. These songs should ideally be memorable and linger on after I’ve listened to them, whether that be lyrically, melodically or otherwise. If your song has that quality, chances are I’ll be into it.
Finally, even though this is a songwriting contest and not a singing or recording contest, I’ll still be taking quality of performance into account. A performer may not always have the best equipment, but if they’re talented that talent will hopefully shine through. That means that I may give a higher score to someone who recorded something in an airport bathroom if the performance of vocals and instrumentation is on point, and a lower score to someone with an awesome set up but who may have played a little sloppily.
All right, let’s get to it! I ranked these in order of who I liked the most to who I liked the least:
1. Chris Cogott – Alone
Wow. That’s the first note I have on this one. You just drench this thing in guitars, man; great instrumentation from the get go and great dynamics in both the vocals and the instruments. I loved the shifts from major to minor in the chord progression, and that solo! I wrote “shreds” down at that point. The subject matter of the song is something that a couple of people tackle in this round, but you found a way to make it your own with vivid imagery and passionate vocal delivery; particularly the “My fingers clutch the air” stanza. The harmonies are out of this world, really superb. I feel that some songs in competitions like these have what I call a “chorus problem” in which you spend time during the verses waiting for the hook so you can really get into things. This song doesn’t have that problem, the writing and melody are just as strong in the verses as they are in the chorus. Great job.
2. Rebecca Angel – Monster’s Lullaby
I had a tough time between this one and Chris’s in terms of who I should put at #1. This one is a little simpler in terms of instrumentation but it’s no less powerful for it. The piano in this song is fantastic! You also have a beautiful voice Rebecca, and you know how to use it. The concept it just as good as the execution here, too. A mother monster singing to her baby? Aces. And the things she says to him to help him feel safe and sleep range from typical scary imagery to some pretty absurd stuff. Also, the rise and swell of the dynamics in this really build up to some good scares in the last third or so of the song. I feel like this could be a nice lullaby for certain (very awesome) human kids who think regular lullabies are lame. Nice work.
3. Felix Frost – Rust People
This is one of the few songs that actually FEELS like a nightmare when you listen to it. I read your song bio on this, and hoooo boy. That’s a lot to happen in one nights sleep! You managed to capture the feeling of how disorienting things can be when your dream changes scenery on you in the blink of an eye with the different movements of your song as well. This was helped tremendously by your very awesome keyboard and synth skills. I was hooked by the intro immediately and that massive synth line lead me down the rabbit hole. Your vocals were very good as well, and while your skills on the keys deserve much praise the mixing at the end had the main synthesizer part a bit too loud for my taste which kind of took me out of the song. Minor quibbles aside, this was a strong entry. Good work.
4. Robert Borden – Funny Guy
You have a very unique voice, my friend, and a good range to boot. The vocals on this were so crisp and well done, the melody was sooooo catchy, and the chorus is one of the best this round. Even though you were backed by just a guitar the hook of the song and your skill at playing was enough to buoy this tune along quite nicely. I’d love to see you play around with adding some more instrumentation to your song next time since you clearly know your way around chords and a melody. The lyrics on this were pretty dense as well in terms of the sheer volume of words, but that never got in the way of the story you were trying to tell.
5. Gold Lion – Lady In Blue
I know you’re one of the youngest competitors in the competition, but you also have one of the best voices; really haunting and versatile. The harmonies were beautiful and the guitar work was really well done. There’s a nice propulsive rhythm to the guitar that really works in providing texture as well as breaking up the verses and choruses nicely in terms of tempo. The only thing I think was missing was more instrumentation. A bass guitar or some percussion would really fill this song out nicely, so I’d maybe try to work that in next time.
6. Ross Durand – Why Can’t I?
What a sad song this is. The nightmare on display here is one of not being able to be with someone you care deeply for, and an excellent take on the theme of being alone that many people in this competition used as the basis for their particular nightmare. The guitar work and the spare but perfectly fitting percussion really set an ominous mood while finding a way to be touching at the same time. The vocals are great, as usual, but the harmonies on display here are some of the best I’ve heard from you, Ross. They elevate the song to some beautiful heights in the choruses. This is also probably the manliest song about a nightmare I’ve ever heard… so there’s that.
7. Jess Scherer – Taken
Man, there are a lot of good pianists competing this time around! What a great chord progression you’ve got going here, Jess. Catchy as all get out. The melody on display here is also very compelling and well founded, but I thought your vocals could use some more confidence in their delivery. The piano is so rich that sometimes the vocals seem unable to quite keep up. It could be because there are some great dynamic shifts in the piano part, but the vocals don’t seem to shift too much dynamically, which holds the song back a little, I think. Otherwise a simple and very effective song.
8. Hazen Nester – An Indelible Mark
There have been a few songs this round that opened with lullaby-like instrumentals, but this may be one of my favorites. Something about the way the chords are structured just hits me the right way. Your voice has some pretty cool qualities to it, some of which remind me of The Mountain Goats ( I like them, so, a compliment ) The lyrical storytelling was nice, too, and I liked the way the chords became more and more minor to fit with said lyrics.
9. Edric Haleen
Oh, Edric. I should have known that you’d pull out some sort of nightmarish barbershop for this challenge. Those harmonies are pretty incredible, and difficult to sing, so props on that as well as a typically well-done and clean lead vocal at the start. I also appreciate the way the chords you’re singing become more and more sinister, building up to that scream at the end. My only gripe is that I would have liked a little more lyrical contribution from you on this than just the first verse. Musically, though, this thing is a beast. In a good way.
10. Trader Jack – Big Brown Bear
Why aren’t more people afraid of bears? I mean, really, they can seriously take you down. An original topic like this combined with quite a singular voice edged this one into the top 10 for me. What held it back from being higher up was some awkward and abrupt transitioning from verse to chorus which were made more prevalent by the simple instrumentation. I’d like to hear more from you in terms of percussion next time to help fill out your already well-developed sound.
11. Kevin Savino-Riker – Thunder
I really dig your voice, sir. Your vocal tone combined with some of the chords you’ve chosen is reminiscent of Coheed and Cambria, which is certainly not a bad thing. The song starts out strong but there’s a lack of variation between verse and chorus that gets pretty repetitive by the end of the song. The way the verses are structured it feels as if the song is building to something, but the chorus is a little too samey so the build up kind of peters out from there. A very good song all the same with some good lyrical imagery. I’d love to hear more.
12. Jon Eric – Image Without Light
You clearly spent a lot of time on these lyrics, and your skill in writing shows. The verses work well to build a mystery and contribute to a feeling of unreality as the words wash over you. They’re sung very well, too with just the right amount of vulnerability. The chorus I’m less of a fan of, however. I think the harmonies are really nice and the percussive guitar works well as a transition back to the verse but something about your vocals – the growl maybe? – seems kind of like a put-on having heard the way you sang the verses. I know it adds some cool dynamics to the mix, but not everyone can growl convincingly. You’re voice is good enough on it’s own, you don’t need extra theatrics for it to be effective.
13. FauX – Sleep
The synth and piano work on this track are SICK. I’m a sucker for a good synth line, and this really hit a sweet spot for me. The drumming on this is great too, and you use rhythm effectively to build some great tension in combination with the lyrics. I would have rated this higher but there were some pretty substantial pitch issues with the vocals, in addition to them staying at pretty much one dynamic level the whole time. More dynamics in the vocals would have really made this a home run.
14. Governing Dynamics
Very few Spintuners do moody and murky better than you, man. It figures you’d really kill it in that regard, the lead guitar is choice. This is also some of the best singing I think I’ve heard from you, although some of those high notes do tend to get away from you a bit. As I said earlier, I loved the guitar work but I feel that more variation could have been worked in, especially in the chorus. Less instrumentation, or MORE instrumentation (which sounds weird I know) would have made the chorus pop a bit more from the verses which I think would make this a stronger song. I wish you had added the vocal harmonies you did more often as well, as they provided some much needed texture when they did occur.
15. Noah McLaughlin – Always Someone’s Monster
The song bio from this was really insightful in clearing up some of the things I was curious about when reading the lyrics, so thanks for writing that. Autobiographical songs are tricky in that you want them to be personal and relatable to a wide range of people all at once. The guitar part is really well written for this and plays nicely with the percussion you’ve got going, but I feel that the vocals sometimes overpower all the instrumentation and wreck the mood of the song. Also, the verse which has some call and response echo leans on that a little too much, it seemed like overkill to have it throughout the whole verse. Also, some of the lower notes at the end of phrase seemed to be a little out of your range which took away from my enjoyment of the song a little bit.
16. David LeDuc – Nightmare
Hand claps! Oh, how I love me some handclaps. That being said, I’d like to hear them more. They were a little low and muddy in the mix which made them feel sloppy at times. The melody and instrumentation were simple and effective, and the few vocal harmonies there were did a lot to emphasize key phrases. I’d love to hear more of that from you. I’d also like to see you broaden you sonic palette a bit with some bass or something next time. I think it would add a richness that’s missing from this song.
17. Brian Gray – Just A Dream
This one took me a little while to get into, I’ll be honest. The lyrics about working in a cubicle seemed like something I’d heard before in others songs, which I wasn’t excited about, but then the chorus happened. The various “Dream Jobs” you listed were so awesomely specific that I was usually grinning constantly through ever chorus, having wished I could do many of those things for a living myself. I feel like the mix on this could have used a little more bass since the drum part seemed a little unbalanced to me, but the guitar (particularly the solo) was really pretty and the vocal harmonies were pretty dern excellent.
18. Caleb Hines – Footprints
The piano on this was very interesting. It had a thoughtful quality to it as thought the person wasn’t necessarily terrified by this particular nightmare but curious more than anything. That combined with the repetition of questions on your lyrics makes for a nice theme of discovery about oneself not found in most of the other entries. I feel as though your vocals could due with some backing harmonies, particularly in the chorus, and the echoing vocals on verse 2 overstay their welcome a bit. If you beefed up the chorus a bit with some more instrumentation or vocal harmonies I think it would stand out from the verse more, too, as opposed to getting a bit lost like it does now.
19. Jim Holmquist – Old Dan Next Door
This is a pretty clever little vocal melody you’ve got here, and the use of different octaves was a nice touch as well, but I wasn’t too crazy about the growly low vocals you would throw in from time to time. For some reason it didn’t seem to fit the rest of the song. The simplicity of the instrumentation on the verses worked, but I could have used more going on musically during the bridge towards the end of the song, since it’s so dramatic and the imagery is so strong. And although I liked the harmonies some of them seemed to get a little off rhythm with the lead vocals which was a little distracting.
20. Dex01 – Let Me Out
This song has a nice rhythm to the guitar part and some pretty cool harmonies, but the parts that are specifically “rubato” parts mess that up a little bit and feel like they’re off time to the music. The drum part could have used some more oomf to it as well, I didn’t really pick up much bass drum in the mix, and some bass guitar would help this song stand up a little more since the guitar part and vocals while good can sound a little threadbare at times.
21. Jacob Haller – The Maze
This song is CRAZY bluesy and has a strong vibe right from the get-go, but it features a buildup through most of its’ run-time that goes to an accordion solo which is a bit of a letdown. The accordion solo overpowers the other instruments which diminishes the songs’ overall effectiveness which is too bad because lyrically this song is very strong. I get a strong feeling for the kinds of twisting corridors that mazes are made of from the lyrics, and the ending is really a great reveal, but the instrumentation surrounding it lacks the punch to really sell it.
22. Steve Durand – It Isn’t Cool
This song is really, really funny and well written lyrically and deals with a classic bad dream scenario: being naked somewhere, in this case at Catholic school. It’s too bad that the first verse is sung kind of all over the place pitch-wise which distracts from the hilarious lyrics. I appreciate the brass in this, and the organ, but the banjo kind of feels as if it’s trying to catch up with the rest of the song and never quite keeping tempo. I also enjoyed the reference (hopefully intentional) to Yakktiy Sax. We could all use a little more Yakktiy Sax in our lives.
23. David Ritter – Beaster Bunny
All right, you win. Not the contest, but Best Song Title (Round 1 Edition). A fictional award I just came up with because you specifically deserve it. The idea is funny, too. An Edward Hyde to the regular Easter Bunny’s Henry Jekyll comes to your house if you’ve been bad and “breaks all your shit”, but in execution the song really only has the one joke. The verses get pretty repetitive and lyrically follow suit (you say “break all your shit” at least a couple of times) and the song ends pretty abruptly as well. You sing and play pretty well, though, and that title was funny enough to earn you some extra points.
24. Rosalind – Where’s the Buzzing?
This is a pretty unique idea in addition to being a very basic fear everyone has: being stung by many, many bees. You’ve got a cool voice, and the choice to make this into a smoky, loungy track was an interesting one but one that doesn’t always work. Sometimes when things get really syncopated in the instrumentation the vocals can’t quite keep up and seem to be either rushing or slowing down to get back in line with the music which is too bad because you’re voice is quite pretty. The ending of the song is strong, however, since this menace isn’t imaginary like so many others, which helps the song quite a bit.
25. The Orion Sound – Nazi Nightmare
This song didn’t have me very intrigued at the start, since the rather conspicuous fade in seems like it’s trying to hide something? A mistake? Not sure. Either way it doesn’t add anything to the song. I like the vocals mostly, except that the hops between true voice and falsetto seemed a little strange. I think that if there had been some more dynamic shifts, louder for the falsetto parts for example, it would have seemed more organic and less jarring. That said, I liked the piano quite a bit and I would have liked it even more if it had a few more meat in the bass clef parts to round it out. This song also featured some nice use of silence as negative space in some key places which really worked well.
26. The Boffo Yux Dudes – Dancin’ To The Night Light
The opening verse to the song features some of the weakest vocals of the whole shebang, which is pity because subsequent sections are vocally very strong. All the “Party” sections are particularly good but the transition between that and the quieter sections don’t feel very cohesive so the song drags a bit in the middle. It could also use a but more instrumental variety in the keyboard department, but I liked the ending a lot. Very cute.
27. Chris Tallman – Fear The Reaper
There are some pitch issues with the vocals that get things off to a rocky start and aren’t doing the repetitive song structure any favors. The singing is good after that, but I think backing vocals would help the lead shine more. The lyrics seem like they’re trying to tell a story, but they don’t have any narrative momentum so the song just kind of sits there saying a couple of things here and there about death and The Grim Reaper that other songs have said better. The guitar chords work nicely together, but the song needs more variation to really be successful.
28. Emperor Gum – Posted
The intro is really cool, instantly establishing the setting of dreams and nightmares but the rubato causes some problems early on in synching up your vocals to your instruments. Some of the notes in your melody seem a bit out of your natural range, but you make up for it with some nice lyrical imagery (I like the whole “seen your grave 1,000 times” stanza). The instrumentation is strong throughout, though, and I like to imagine that the whole song takes place in a giant music box that gets wound faster and faster as the song builds in intensity at the end. If the rest of the song were as strong as the ending, you’d really be cooking.
29. Menage A Tune – A Haunting House
This is another case of the song bio making a big difference in my interpretation of the song. What a great story! If y’all haven’t, check out the song bio for this entry, it’s pretty fascinating. This is some strong singing from you, JoAnn, and a pretty catchy melody too. I think that this song could benefit from MORE vocals, however. If there were some harmonies over the chorus, or some oohs and ahhs it would really fill out the song which can get pretty spare at times when it’s just voice and piano. I noticed a couple of percussion hits at the end, too, and it made me wish there had been an actual drumbeat throughout the whole song. The idea is there, but the execution could be pushed farther, I think.
30. Common Lisp – Falling: A Nightmare In Three Acts
I like vocal doubling when it’s done well, but this isn’t it. The pitch is pretty inconsistent between the two vocal tracks and it gets a little distracting. The first 2/3 of the song get pretty repetitive as well and once rubato enters the picture the rhythm of the vocals in relation to the guitar gets all out of whack. The last 1/3 of the song has a really good melody, however, and the best lyrics of the piece. It gets bogged down a bit by more tempo changes that don’t quite work out, but it’s a stronger finish than I expected when the song started.
31. Wait What (The Band) – Toilet Demons
The drum n’ bass start things off nicely and build a solid groove and the lyrical puns go a long way toward making this song more endearing than it has any right to be. I particularly like the “skidmark of the beast” line. That said, some of the sound effects are a bit too high in the mix and are kind of jarring to listen to. The vocals are pretty consistent throughout but have some pitch issues here and there, and the verse and chorus don’t quite seem to go together. Almost parts of different songs, really. I think if you tightened up the connective tissue between the various parts of this song it would work much better.
32. Drei VierTei Drei – Lollipop Lady
This is such a strange topic for a song, but then again, some old people are very weird and creepy. Especially to kids. The spoken word portions of the song worked better for me than any parts involving singing since the voice on display here is not terribly strong, and the spoken word fit the strange vibe of the song better. This piece is at its’ best when discussing its’ title character, The Lollipop Lady, and the music shows that, picking up the tempo and throwing in some really cool instrumentation. I thought the use of piano to be particularly effective, and was that strings I heard in there (real or synthesized)? The sections that really went for it musically were the much more successful than, say, sections like the opening bit that kind drag along until The Lollipop Lady comes into the picture.
33. Marlon Barnes – Teeth
This is a personal fear of mine, so I was excited to hear how someone would tackle it, but the results weren’t exactly stellar. The lyrics are quite clever and well written, but you need to have them in front of you to understand them because the song sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom stall. The vocals are pretty timid as well, barely heard over the guitar. I thought the chorus was catchy, though, and if recorded better could have been really strong. The last 1/3 of the song felt a bit out of place, though, and seemed tacked on just to meet the challenge and use rubato in some way. There’s potential here, but there’s also a lot holding this one back.
34. Luke Brekke, Esquire – Alone
This song is pretty quiet and difficult to hear, even on headphones, and that goes for the vocals as well as the piano. The verse and chorus don’t flow into one another, well, either, making it tougher to follow the story of the song, which is pretty serious and sad. The recording quality becomes even more of an issue at the end when the last verse becomes even quieter than what came before, making Jason’s father’s final fate difficult to determine unless you’ve got the lyrics in front of you. Losing a parent is something most of us fear, especially if we didn’t treat them well in life and didn’t get to patch things up with them before they were gone. But the emotion of this song is pretty strongly undercut by the issues mentioned above, which take away a lot of the power it could have had.