Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2018’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I go through the most underrated movies and albums of the year. I couldn’t find enough movies I’ve seen that fit my criteria (on less than 3 top ten lists), so I’ll just do an albums post this year. Less work for me, less reading for you, everybody wins.

I tried to avoid albums that ended up in my Tentative Top Tens post, but I couldn’t help putting one of them here, since I was pretty surprised at the lack of recognition it’s been receiving from Christian music publications.

01

Colter Wall, Songs of the PlainsFor someone who gets compared to Johnny Cash a lot, Colter Wall sounds very little like Johnny Cash. Those comparisons are well-meant, I’m sure, but just because an artist has a spare, low sound doesn’t make Cash the best point of reference. A better point of reference is Wall’s fellow Canadian, Gordon Lightfoot. They both have a penchant for simple melodies and casual details in their story songs. Plains is transporting, the only album from 2018 that’s likely to make you forget where you’re listening to it.

02

Mark Lee Townsend, 1919: The Ballad of RexfordYou may not have heard of Townsend, but if you grew up in church in the ’90s, you have definitely heard something with his fingerprints on it. He was the guitarist for dc Talk and produced a lot of Relient K’s 2000s output. He’s also had a couple of bands that he recorded with throughout his career, but 1919 is his first solo record, a tribute to his late father’s life and faith. The album plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical, and it jumps from genre to genre pretty seamlessly. If you like Relient K’s “Deathbed,” this is basically that song spread out over an album without losing any of its power.

03

Natalie Prass, The Future and the PastThis was a really well-reviewed record when it was released in June, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle here at the end of the year. Prass’s first record, a self-titled one from 2015, leaned more into folk stylings and was more content to rest in a softer register. The Future and the Past is a big step forward for Prass’s sound, adopting a funkier style and addressing the world’s ills head-on in her lyrics. I think Future is just as bold a record as Mitski’s Nobody, an album that appears to have broad consensus as one of the best albums of the year, though I found it underwhelming. For me, Future was one of the most impressive and unexpected albums of the year.

04

Rae Sremmurd, SR3MM: I get why SR3MM didn’t feature on a lot of top ten lists. It’s far from cohesive, sprawling out over three distinct albums, a solo album for each of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi with one from the duo. There’s nothing on here with the immediacy of “Black Beatles,” and the run length (almost 2 hours!) doesn’t help. But this is Rae Sremmurd at the top of their game, crafting hook after solid hook. Even if there aren’t any hits, SR3MM is ultimately rap’s best duo doing their thing for over 90 minutes, which is hard to beat.

05

Sandra McCracken, Songs from the ValleyThere’s not really a good place to go for Christian music coverage. Christianity Today used to be the best, before they dissolved that department, but it left a void that no place has filled with anything resembling quality writing. So I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that McCracken’s Songs from the Valley had trouble competing with the likes of Lauren Daigle or TobyMac in a segment of the industry where you don’t get any attention if you don’t get played on the radio. But very few albums weighed as heavily on my heart as this one. McCracken’s always been an ace songwriter, for herself and for others, but she’s topped herself with her most intimate songwriting yet on Valley.

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Merry Christmas 2018

Every year I write a post about the Christmas music I loved from this year and from years past. I changed the format last year, because I hadn’t listened to as many new Christmas albums as I would have liked. This year I’m back to the usual format (three new albums, two old albums), because I’ve had a constant IV of new Christmas music pumping into my veins. If you’re wondering why I look more red and green than white lately, this is why.

New Favorites

01

116, The Gift: A Christmas CompilationFor those unfamiliar, the 116 Clique is a loose collective of rap and R&B artists associated with Reach Records, the home of Lecrae and Trip Lee. There are no traditional Christmas songs here; rather, the tracklist is made up of songs that take a phrase or a line from classic Christmas hymns and carols and then interpolate that into a fresh hip-hop version with an R&B hook. I tend to gravitate to soul versions of Christmas carols anyway, so this was easy listening for me. Of course, bits of truth about Advent and Jesus’s coming are sprinkled throughout, more than your average Christmas album, so it ends up being an all-around edifying listen.

Favorite song: “Silent Night” by Crystal Nicole or “O’ Come” by CASS, nobigdyl. & Tedashii, I can’t decide

02

JD McPherson, SOCKSLike The GiftSOCKS is an album full of originals rather than the usual suspects. McPherson, an Oklahoma artist specializing in rockabilly, is uniquely positioned to write original Christmas songs, since his style of music sounds classic anyway. You can tell from the artwork that this is going to be a cheeky album, and McPherson doesn’t disappoint. The title song captures the inevitable disappointment of a Christmas morning filled with practical gifts, and “Hey Skinny Santa!” implores Mr. Kringle to start eating so he can be fat by Christmas. There’s not much earnest Christmas spirit on SOCKS, but it’s never anything less than a rollicking good time.

Favorite song: “Claus vs. Claus (feat. Lucie Silva)”

03

John Legend, A Legendary ChristmasLegend is criminally underappreciated by critics. His last big hit album, Love in the Future, was pretty middle-of-the-road, but the album after that, Darkness and Light, was a better album that adventured more into funk than its predecessor. Musically, A Legendary Christmas is between those two albums. The standards are all pretty straightforward, which is fine on a Christmas album, but his covers of “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Purple Snowflakes” don’t bring anything new to the table. However, the originals are lively and funky, and his mash-up of “Merry Christmas Baby / Give Love on Christmas Day” is as good as it gets. That’s the John Legend I want, and there’s a sizable helping of him on this record.

Favorite song: “Wrap Me Up in Your Love”

An Old Favorite

04

Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas from Frank SinatraBesides Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, there is no more classic Christmas album. Sinatra, the premier interpreter of standards in all of pop music history, makes every song clean and clear, bringing the right amount of gravitas and levity in the right places. Some of the songs are their best versions, including “Mistletoe & Holly,” “The Christmas Waltz,” and, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I may write a post just about that last song someday, that’s how deeply I love it.

A New Old Favorite

05

The Ventures, The Ventures’ Christmas AlbumIf you know anything about the Ventures, then you probably know exactly what a Christmas album by them would sound like. They’re best known as the performers of the original Hawaii Five-O theme song. All of their songs are instrumentals, but they were a big influence on rock music, pioneering the use of several different kinds of guitars in the genre. Their Christmas album feels like what Ethan Hunt or James Bond would listen to if they were psyching themselves up for a Yuletide mission. They make fun use of some sound effects, but it’s by and large a purely guitar album, which at Christmastime is just fine by me.

Tentative Top Tens for 2018

These lists will inevitably change by the time I release the official Bummys next September (fingers crossed!). But many of these movies and albums will remain near the tops of my lists. Here are my initial impressions of what the best movies and albums of this year were, along with a couple extras at the bottom:

01

Movies

1. Paddington 2: I get the sense that people scoff at my love for this movie, just because we have a dog named Paddington, but I promise you this movie transcends its children’s movie status and achieves the sort of transcendence I crave in films.
2. Annihilation:
 This is as good as science fiction gets, putting masterful special effects in the service of a beautiful story with rich themes, and taking a bold risk in the last few scenes that risked alienating its audiences.
3. First Reformed:
 This one hit me deeply, getting at the challenge of maintaining faith in your Creator while the world falls apart around you.
4. Black Panther:
 This is the one action movie of the year that got to a higher level of significance while still putting on a cracking good show.
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout:
 I thought this would be higher, because it truly is a masterpiece of an action movie, but it turns out to have just missed a certain bar for me that the four above it cleared.
6. Sorry to Bother You:
 Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I’m not sure I can say much more if I don’t want to ruin it for you.
7. Hereditary:
 This is a horror movie, but it also turns all of your expectations of what a horror movie should be on their heads.
8. BlacKkKlansman:
 As visionary as Spike Lee movies come, in the guise of a comedy.
9. Avengers: Infinity War
This could be higher on level of difficulty alone, but the kind of movie it is eschews depth of any kind- which is fine! Just means there’s a cap on how high it can get on a list like this.
10. A Star Is Born:
What an achievement, instead of what could have been just a melodrama, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga deliver a great melodrama.

02

Albums

1. Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You: I’d be worried about Carlile’s recent Album of the Year nomination making this album uncool, but it was already about as uncool as you get. Earnest, simple, melodramatic folk music abounds on this album, and it’s everything I could want.
2. The Carters, EVERYTHING IS LOVE:
 It’s just effortless for Beyoncé and JAY-Z now. Everything they touch turns to gold.
3. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer:
 No album gave me more fun than this one from Monáe, who has found her sweet spot of Prince-style eccentricity and funk.
4. Robyn, Honey:
 The Swedish songstress had leaned darker as her career progressed, but she’s perfected melancholy pop you can dance to on her comeback album.
5. Sandra McCracken, Songs from the Valley:
 She’s long been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, but Songs from the Valley was McCracken dealing with the grief and suffering following her divorce, and it’s cathartic.
6. Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain:
 I can’t get enough of the alt-country ballads from this former Jimmy Eat World stalwart. Her voice is unparalleled in Americana.
7. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Far be it from me to expect the Grammys to get anything right, but it is outrageous that Ariana Grande’s best album yet, which really is a perfect pop album, didn’t get nominated for Album of the Year, considering its quality and the fact that it’s one of the biggest hits of the year.
8. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy:
 I didn’t think I’d like Cardi’s album, chalking “Bodak Yellow” up to catching lightning in a bottle, but she proves to be a singular talent on every song. No one-hit wonder here.
9. The Gray Havens, She Waits:
 I liked the Gray Havens, a husband-and-wife folk duo from Illinois, after their first two albums, but they’ve reached a new level on their most recent album, pushing them into the upper echelon of Christian artists working today.
10. Various Artists, Black Panther: The Album:
I’m glad no one told Kendrick Lamar that these sorts of movie marketing gimmick albums are supposed to be terrible, because he curated a real winner from front to back.

03

Best Book I Read

The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz: The modern American church culture emphasizes non-fiction more than fiction, which needs remedying. A good place to start: this novel following three pastors in three different time periods in the same little Swedish parish. The nature of showing the same parish spanning different periods of time means the book has a lot to say about faith and congregations sustaining through tragedy and the grinding away of time.

04

Best Comic I Read

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott: The Silver Surfer is a hard character to take seriously, and not just because he rides a surfboard through space (the ’60s were crazy, y’all). But somehow Slott (who also wrote the Spider-Verse storyline that’s been adapted into the new Spider-Man animated movie that is apparently a big hit) makes it work. He gives the Surfer a human love interest to travel through space with and takes full advantage of serial comics’ episodic nature by telling literally any story he wants about the different planets they visit. The diversity of aliens and civilizations they encounter and the free reign Marvel gave Slott to do whatever the hell he wanted result in one of the most poignant comic books I’ve read so far.

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Top Ten

01

10. Lorde, Melodrama: There used to be a tendency among critics not to take pop music seriously, dismissing it as frivolous and trivial. The norm now is to equate pop music with the seriousness of any other genre, though sometimes publications go a little too far, anointing any catchy song as a pop “gem,” or any high-profile pop album as “good.” Lorde’s Melodrama deserves its own special designation. Written and recorded at the end of Lorde’s teen years, this is an album for adults, danceable but daring, dramatic but universally so. If it’s a “gem,” it’s a hard-edged one; if it’s “good,” it’s because it sets the bar for pop music.

02

9. Joan Shelley, Joan ShelleyShelley’s brand of folk music has always been minimalist. She herself said of this self-titled album that it was “an exercise in understatement,” which feels like an understatement. If that sounds boring, let me assure you that Shelley has an ear for the kinds of melodies that seep into the crevasses of your brain and remain their forever. She enlisted the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for this album, but he keeps things spare- just the way Shelley likes it. Indeed, the only thing to distinguish this album from the rest of her sterling catalog is that literally every song feels essential.

03

8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Consistency can be a boring thing to write about, and there’s no one who has been so consistent over the course of his career as Jason Isbell. From his elevation of an already great band in the Drive-By Truckers to his solo career starting in 2013 after he found sobriety, everything Isbell has touched has turned to gold. The Nashville Sound finds him rejoining his post-DBT band for a more robust record. Southeastern and Something More Than Free were intimate, personal. The Nashville Sound gives its full-bodied sound more panoramic subject matter, tackling racism, tribalism, and mental health.

08

7. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: At first glance, The War on Drugs may appear to have the same consistency as Isbell. They certainly have been consistently good, but A Deeper Understanding is something profoundly different for them. 2014’s Lost in the Dream was anthemic, engineered to give you catharsis or release at each song’s climax. It was one of my favorite albums of the year, and in that respect, A Deeper Understanding is no different. But its effect on me has been unique, sweeping me up in its epic scope and its measured introspection, which is a wholly different experience, but no less great.

04

6. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: The album that came after 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was bound to be disappointing, because that record was one of a kind, a generational masterpiece of its genre, or any genre for that matter. And while I liked DAMN when I first heard it, I couldn’t quite give it the same devotion I gave TPAB, but time has told a different story about Kendrick’s deeply intimate diary of dread, dreams, and desire. If I first listened to it in TPAB‘s shadow, DAMN casts its own shadow now, firmly establishing Kendrick in his own damn tier as a musician. Don’t let the fact that there are five albums ahead of his on this list; the margins are small, and it’s only personal preference. Kendrick is king, top ten lists be damned.

05

5. Father John Misty, Pure ComedyAt one point during 2017, I would have Pure Comedy at the top of this list, and it wouldn’t have been close. Josh Tillman sings the way that I think, which is definitely not pretentious on my part and may in fact be an insult to Tillman. Indeed, Tillman is pretentious, cynical, and self-righteous, but also intuitive, empathetic, and insightful, which describes me on my worst days and my best days to a T. I associated with this album to such a high degree that I think it eventually wore me down to where I appreciated its artfulness less. I still think it’s a masterpiece (I put it at No. 5 for a reason!), but it’s not my favorite masterpiece on the list anymore.

If there’s one quality I don’t share with Tillman, it’s hopefulness, and this is not a hopeful record. That said, it is a truthful one, especially on album standouts “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which dissect worldviews until there’s nothing left. Pure Comedy is intense, so steel yourself before you give it a listen.

311

4. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The NavigatorI was a theater kid through middle school and high school, appearing in plays as varied as Fiddler on the Roof and Grease at school and in a junior company in Dallas. I loved acting and performing, and I still miss it. The Navigator moved the theater kid in me.

While Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous album, Small Town Heroes, was a folk album that leaned hard into Creole and swamp influences, The Navigator plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical. Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, split the album into two acts, making it into a loose concept album. In the first act, the Puerto Rican main character survives on the streets (“Living in the City”) and discovers a toughness within herself (“Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”). In the second act, she awakens to find everything stripped away from her people (“Rican Beach”) and calls them to action in response to oppression (“Pa’lante”), completing a work of art that empowers the downtrodden, the used- indeed, the riff raff.

09

3. Propaganda, CrookedNo artist has made music that challenges my perspective as deeply as Propaganda. His first solo album with his current label, Humble Beast, included a song called “Precious Puritans,” which called out evangelicals who deify American Calvinist forefathers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, without ever confronting the fact that they owned slaves. I had to wrestle with this, and that was good for my soul.

Prop has always been unafraid to address social ills in his music, and Crooked takes this to a new level. There are songs called “Gentrify” and “Darkie,” and they’re as unabashed as they sound. For most of its recent popularity, Christian rap has largely kept its lyrical content to biblical truths that are easy to swallow for most evangelicals regardless of race. That’s beginning to change, thanks to Prop and other artists like Sho Baraka, and Crooked is the most recent record that serves as an example for rebuke, and the best.

13

2. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom HighwayOver the last few years, purely by coincidence, I’ve read a lot of books that deal directly with the wounds left on the African-American psyche by America’s history of slavery and racism. It started with Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was still in college, but then more recently I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. In all of these stories, slavery is presented in its unvarnished brutality, forcing a reckoning in my soul on the soil American is rooted in.

Freedom Highway feels like a continuation of the story those books tell of America’s scars and their wicked origins. Giddens, who has long been a leader in the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, released her first solo album in 2015 with producer T Bone Burnett. They were well matched to fill out the album, which was mostly covers, with a rootsy vibe. Freedom Highway is more attuned to Giddens’s personal perspective; nine of the twelve songs are co-written by her, and they traverse the history of Southern America. Opener “At the Purchaser’s Option” contemplates that the singer, a slave, has no autonomy over her children, her sexuality, or her work. This helplessness is translated into a quiet anger on “Julie,” in which a slave confronts her owner, who claims to love her, for selling her children to another owner. And the heaviest and most hopeful song, “Birmingham Sunday,” a Joan Baez cover, details the 1963 bombing of a black church by the Ku Klux Klan and its aftermath.

Growing up white and privileged, my understanding of America’s foundation was unknowingly colored by my color. America’s principles of liberty, independence, and unity seemed natural and sewn into the fabric of our culture, when the reality is that they’re fragile and tenuous and far from pure. On Freedom Highway, Giddens joins a long history of uncovering this truth and inspiring hope for a better future.

06

1. Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness: There are more important things than relevance in pop art, but it undeniably matters. If an album moves me, but no one else I know has ever even heard of it, how much import can that album really hold? Does a movie matter if no one saw it but one person who loved it?

Gang of Youths forces me to ask this question, because there was no place I could put their second album on this list other than the very top. This album is the one that has stayed on repeat more than any other, the one that shot up to the top of my to-buy list as soon as I heard it, the one that I found myself thinking about long after I had turned it off to head to bed. If Father John Misty sings the way I think, Gang of Youths sings the way I feel. It’s bombastic, dramatic, and emotional from front to back; frontman Dave Le’aupepe doesn’t take breaks.

But the intensity isn’t for its own sake; Le’aupepe and his band, whom he met at Hillsong Church in Sydney, are processing real questions of mortality and purpose. Opener “Fear and Trembling” advocates for celebration and worship in the face of aging and death. The ballad “Persevere” is about the death of his best friend’s baby. Le’aupepe sings, quoting his friend, “‘But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast / There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan / Not some vindictive motherfucker, not is he shitty at his job;” it’s a powerful examination of faith in light of grief. And my personal favorite, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows,” contemplates what it takes to “bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being.”

If this sounds melodramatic, that’s because Le’aupepe gets it: life is a melodrama, and you have to embrace it.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetical)

Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
HAIM, Something to Tell You
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
JAY-Z, 4:44
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Margo Price, All American Made
The Porter’s Gate, Work Songs: The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, Vol. 1
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
Taylor Swift, reputation

Past Top Tens

2016

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Beyoncé, Lemonade
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Sho Baraka, The Narrative
Bon Iver, 22, a Million
Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.

2015

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

2014

John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord

2013

Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2012

Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae, Gravity
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Every year is a good year for music, because there is so much of it being released all the time. There are people decrying streaming and how it is flattening the playing field and making everything sound the same. These people haven’t listened to the novelty band filler in the Top 40 in the ’60s and ’70s; most music is bad, and a flattened playing field is just this generation’s thorn in its side.

But there’s so much good music out there too, music that begs to be bought and owned rather than just streamed. People haven’t forgotten how to make art, even as the masses forget how to work for it. Capitalism has never really been able to quench the youth culture. So onward, rebellious youths!

Anyway, there’s a lot of women on my list this year. I had some friends tell me recently that they prefer male artists to female artists, which I don’t understand. There’s probably no discernible reason why anyone prefers one voice to another, and I can’t discern one for why those preferences would break along gender lines among reasonable people. I can discern that I don’t suffer from that malady; women and men move me in generally equal numbers.

Anyway, here are the contenders and winners for best songs of the year:

Top Twenty

01

20. Kesha, “Woman (feat. The Dap-King Horns)”: There are probably a lot of conventional reasons why this song shouldn’t be in my Top Twenty. But being conventional is boring. Empowerment has never been this fun or, as Kesha says, “loosey as a goosey.”

02

19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Last of My Kind”Isbell has been on a tear since 2013’s Southeastern, and The Nashville Sound is the first time Isbell’s peak songwriting powers have been applied to the full band sound of the 400 Unit. But “Last of My Kind,” the album’s opener, eschews that sound for a more acoustic atmosphere. As light as a single guitar sounds, the song weighs heavy on your heart as Isbell considers a small-town boy’s disappearing world in the big city.

03

18. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”: It’s impossible to remove the visuals from the music video from mind when listening to this song, but that doesn’t diminish its effect in the slightest. If there was any song from DAMN. that hit as hard as anything from To Pimp a Butterfly, it was “HUMBLE.” You can speculate about if he’s talking to himself or not, but regardless, this is a brutal takedown that should make other rappers give up diss tracks altogether (paging Drake and Push).

04

17. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: Most of reputation is filled with great hooks, some of it feels like posturing, and a select few songs feel transcendent. For better or worse, we’ve watched Taylor Swift grow up in public. “Delicate,” which takes a welcome turn into dream-pop, is Taylor Swift exploring what it means not to be growing up anymore.

05

16. St. Vincent, “New York”: I learned today that St. Vincent began her career with the Polyphonic Spree. Her brand of avant-garde pop-rock was already as far from that band’s twee-ness as music can get. And yet, if it’s possible, “New York” gets even farther, with its earnest lament over a lost relationship.

06

15. Gang of Youths, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”: I wasn’t sure any Gang of Youths songs would make it onto this list, since they all tend to push the same buttons in my heart when I hear them. But “The Deepest Sighs” is perhaps the golden mean of Gang of Youths songs.  It has the most earnest lyrics and the most soaring melody, and it’s the most mostest by far on an album of most.

07

14. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”: And I thought this song would make it much higher on the list, given how completely it took over my brain last summer. Before she released her album this spring, I was worried that Cardi’s appeal existed only because she enunciates more than other rappers, much like Eminem is only still popular because he’s louder than other rappers. That turned out not to be the case- Cardi is a boss, not a worker bitch- but “Bodak Yellow” is the best-enunciated rap song since Eminem was last good, so 16 years ago.

08

13. The War on Drugs, “In Chains”: The War on Drugs are another band like Gang of Youths whose entire catalogs could make a Top Songs list for me. But “In Chains” in particular stood out to me from A Deeper Understanding last year. Whereas frontman Adam Granduciel usually revels in the abstract nature of his lyrics, “In Chains” boasts some of the most direct exclamations we’ve gotten from him yet, leading to the band’s most purpose-filled song.

04

12. Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”: If reputation felt like a misstep at the time, it became one of my most-listened-to albums of the year because of songs like this one. Even while Swift overreached for bad-girl credibility, she didn’t lose her ability to write lyrics with eminent relatability. In “New Year’s Day,” about loving through celebrations and let-downs alike, “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” is such a lyric.

09

11. Propaganda, “Darkie”: Propaganda is the most interesting Christian artist working today. He isn’t the only one to attempt to reckon with social truths (look to Lecrae and Sho Baraka too, and if you’re starting to see a theme, I’d also point you to Gungor and The Brilliance), but he’s been the most consistent at elevating the conversation with excellent production and presentation of his themes. Here, he wrestles with the concept of black beauty being refracted through the lens of a white-dominated culture.

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10. Julien Baker, “Appointments”: I’m an emotional wreck when I listen to this song. Baker, who is queer and Christian and unafraid of the expectations associated with either of those identifications, reveals some truths that we are usually afraid to talk about, like “Maybe it’s all going to turn out all right / And I know that’s it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.” Faith means holding both hope and fatalism in the same hand with an eternal perspective, and “Appointments” captures that dichotomy perfectly.

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9. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”: I’ve gotten lost in this song more than once over the last year and a half. 11-minute songs are a hard sell, but The War on Drugs are so good at what they do right now that it almost seems like it was the logical next step in their careers to make an epic on this level. As I said above, Granduciel almost wallows in abstraction, but there’s specificity in these lyrics that doesn’t sacrifice relatability.

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8. Propaganda, “Gentrify”: One of the top ten songs of 2017 was about- *checks notes*- housing policy? Maybe this song is boring to other people, but I hear those horns and Prop yelling “Whole Foooods!” and I get excited. There are probably myriad academic papers on the subject of gentrification, but I find it hard to believe anyone has summed up the issue better than Prop in this searing indictment of white paternalism.

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7. Lorde, “Green Light”: Remember that time the Grammys didn’t ask Lorde to perform at the ceremony even though she was nominated for Album of the Year? Man, good times in the patriarchy. Anyway, I’d like to think that appearing on this list is a nice consolation prize for Lorde, given that “Green Light” is one of the best pop songs of the last five years, and probably the only one to reference The Great Gatsby so directly without feeling like a high school book report.

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6. Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday”: Giddens, most famous for her role in the bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a stellar songwriter in her own right; for reference, look up “At the Purchaser’s Option” from last year’s Freedom Highway, or listen to the whole album while you’re at it. But her take on this Joan Baez classic blows the original out of the water. Originally written by folk songwriter Richard Fariña about the four little girls who died in a bombing at a Birmingham church in 1963, Giddens’s version captures the tragedy in the story, but she also better harnesses the hope in the line, “And the choirs keep singing of freedom.”

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5. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”: When Trump was elected, there were weirdos whose reaction was to look forward to the good art that would result from an administration that was likely to enact oppressive policies. In the two years since, maybe music by white artists has been inordinately influenced by the election, but by and large, artists of color were already diving into music that tells the stories of the voiceless rather than the privileged, including Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, who is an American of Puerto Rican heritage. In this epic song, she expertly hoists the Puerto Rican battle cry of “Pa’lante!” to rally those considered sub-human to move onward and forward in the face of ignorant oppression.

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4. Kesha, “Praying”: Speaking of oppression, it’s hard to imagine someone following Kesha’s story over the the last few years and not being moved by “Praying.” I know some critics dismissed it as overly sentimental, or maybe allegations of rape that don’t result in felony rape convictions don’t move you to anger of any kind (which means you believe women 0.7% of the time, I suppose), but I can’t separate what I know Kesha has accused Dr. Luke of and how desperate she sounds in this song. This song is inextricably linked to the story of how Dr. Luke allegedly raped Kesha in 2008, and Kesha sued to escape her contract with his record label six years later in 2014. We will never know exactly what happened between Dr. Luke and Kesha, so we have to choose who to believe. Kesha’s accusations are neither surprising nor incredible, so I believe Kesha.

Their terrible saga began well before #MeToo reached its height and before I even knew what “blaming the victim” meant, but “Praying” dropped in July of 2017, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and it became an anthem of the movement, culminating in an emotional performance of the song at the Grammys. What’s amazing about “Praying” is that it’s not vindictive but redemptive, combining the need to be heard with a desire for Dr. Luke to see the truth of what he did and to beg God for forgiveness on his knees. I can’t imagine the strength it took to write it, and I’m endlessly glad that I’ve heard it.

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3. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”: This was my favorite song of 2017 for the majority of 2017 and 2018, until the top song on this list overtook it and I realized the second song on this list came out in 2017 and not 2018. It was stuck in my head for most of the last year, finding its way into my whistling or humming more than any other song. This song is infectious, contagious, an epidemic strain of perfect pop melody and earworm magic.

I’m not special for liking this song, but I like to think a lot of myself when a pop song rises to the top of one of my lists, as if liking a pop song is revolutionary. No, critics ate this song up, a first in Gomez’s career. I’m contrarian, so that made me look for reasons not to like it. But the truth is, “Bad Liar” displays a confidence and effortlessness that Gomez hadn’t shown us yet, and that confidence is inescapable once you’re exposed to it.

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2. Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”: I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible in these end-of-the-year superlatives. Well, here’s me trying to avoid hyperbole as much as possible: Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” might be the greatest folk song of the last 40 years. Oh man, I stepped right into hyperbole, didn’t I? Not by much though, I promise.

It’s not complicated; “The Joke” is about the marginalized, the underrepresented, and the least of these. One of my coworkers and friends said the other day to explain a decision she made, “I have a bleeding heart.” I had forgotten this phrase, but I suppose it’s the phrase you would use to describe me, because I often tear up during “The Joke.” But I guess we need a phrase like “bleeding heart” to describe people who care about other people?

I find “The Joke” not only moving but galvanizing. The verses are directed at boys and girls who are beaten down by people in power. In interviews, Carlile has specified that she’s singing to people in the queer community, undocumented immigrants, and disempowered women. Carlile shows in the verses that she sees those people and their pain. And then in the chorus, as her voice reaches its full power (and her voice has power), she gives them hope. “Let ’em laugh while they can, / Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind. / I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, / And the joke’s on them.” Carlile knows how this ends; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

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1. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not think of the movie in which it appears, Call Me by Your Name. Stay tuned for more on the movie when I post the Best Movies of 2017. It’s up there.

While we were watching the Oscars this year at our friend’s annual Oscar party, one of my friends (who is also my pastor) asked the room why, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, was Hollywood so okay with a movie in which a man in his 20s has a relationship with a 17-year-old. Now, he hadn’t seen the movie, but he wasn’t pretending he had. I also have to add, before anyone assumes anything about my friend because of his vocation, that he is a good, thoughtful pastor who engages with culture on its terms, but with a critical eye. This was not a question about the culture wars (nor a veiled attempt to discredit the movie’s focus on a relationship between two men), but an honest attempt to understand.

It’s a fair question. Anyone who has not seen the movie should be skeptical of the power dynamic involved. But I told him, and I’m telling you, that there is no such power dynamic in Call Me by Your Name. You never feel as if the older man (or the younger, for that matter) is taking advantage of the other young man or that he has any social or official authority over him in any way. There is a mutual attraction that they act upon, and it’s almost as simple as that.

But I think Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” gets underneath the idea of attraction at something deeper involved. It’s not just that they’re attracted to one another; they’re connected in some way, and there’s no way to explain it. In the movie, they don’t even try to explain it, only to process how their lives will be different now that it’s there.

Call Me by Your Name does a very good job of telling a very specific story, while “Mystery of Love” universalizes it. The wonder and misery at play in Sufjan Stevens’s lyrics are an expression of the complexity of love. Any time someone tries to give a simple explanation for what love is, it’s never enough. Sufjan combines the antithetical sentiments of “woe is me” and “will wonders ever cease” into the chorus. He sings “to see without my eyes” and “drowned in living waters,” leaning into the paradoxical nature of an unexplainable phenomenon.

Call Me by Your Name never even says the words “homosexual” or “gay,” maybe because such labels limit the nature of the love involved, constricting the experience to science or sociology. It’s our choices that are binary and categorical, not love. What “Mystery of Love” does is revel in the unknowable truth of it all, the wonder and the woe alike. Love would make a terrible god, but there’s a divine mystery there nevertheless.

Another Thirty Contenders (alphabetical)

Big Thief, “Mythological Beauty”
Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
The Brilliance, “Turning Over Tables”
Calvin Harris, “Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)”
Charli XCX, “3AM (Pull Up) (feat. MØ)”
Charli XCX, “Boys”
Chris Stapleton, “Either Way”
Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Father John Misty, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
HAIM, “Little of Your Love”
HAIM, “Want You Back”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Living in the City”
J Balvin & Willy William, “Mi Gente (feat. Beyoncé)”
Japandroids, “In a Body Like a Grave”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “White Man’s World”
Johnnyswim, “Say Goodnight Instead”
Kehlani, “Hold Me by the Heart”
Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito [Remix] (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Margo Price, “All American Made”
Migos, “Stir Fry”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Smoke Signals”
The Porter’s Gate, “Establish the Work of Our Hands (feat. Aaron Keys & Urban Doxology)”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Highway”
Sam Outlaw, “All My Life”
Syd, “Insecurities”
Taylor Swift, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

Past Top Tens

2016

Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”
Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”
Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”
Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”
Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”
Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”
Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

2015

Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Looking back over my picks for the best albums of 2008, I’m struck by the lack of wild-card picks. If you look back over my top tens after 2008, there’s usually one or two albums from artists that most people aren’t paying attention to (i.e. The Olive Tree in 2012 or Liz Vice in 2014). But in 2008, these albums line up pretty well with either the best-selling albums or the most critically acclaimed. I’m not sure what the root of that is- whether it’s because those albums are usually the ones that grow in stature over the years or if it’s just a coincidence or if I was brainwashed as a 19-year-old to like what everyone else liked. Who knows?

There are several high-profile albums that I didn’t make the list though. I’ve never enjoyed I Am…Sasha Fierce that much. There are a bunch of great singles on that album that don’t coalesce into much when collected together, a problem that Beyoncé has not had since. 808s & Heartbreak is a sleeper favorite for Kanye fans, but it’s always left me cold, save a few songs. And I’ve never really understood trip-hop, so Portishead’s Third has never made much of an impression on me.

Anyway, here are my contenders:

Top Ten

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10. Coldplay, Viva la Vida: In 2008, I was becoming acutely aware of the areas in which my taste was lacking, due to not paying attention to music for almost all of my childhood. Coldplay was one of the first bands that I liked when I first downloaded Limewire and was pure of heart. Then I started to read more about music and saw that Coldplay was respected by critics, but only to a certain extent. So I was skeptical that year of Viva la Vida‘s quality, especially the lyrics, though I really enjoyed the album. I don’t care so much now; this album remains one of my favorite listens, respectability be damned.

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9. The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound: If ever there were a band engineered to fit my tastes exactly, The Gaslight Anthem is it. They play nostalgia and that Springsteen shout-singing to a perfect pitch, with a little punk-rock flavor thrown in. Over the years, they’ve leaned more heavily on pop hooks and a studio-produced sound. But on this breakthrough album, they still sound like the Platonic ideal of a bar band struggling to make it. And while I’m glad they’re successful now and have made a ton of money, I’ll always go back to the simplicity of “Great Expectations,” or the older-than-their-years yearning of “The Backseat.”

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8. Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight: It’s impossible to know what Frightened Rabbit’s legacy would be if front man Scott Hutchison hadn’t committed suicide this May. It’s barely important, of course, but this band meant a great deal to me in 2008. Back then, I was struggling with self-image a great deal, and the mangled vision of self on The Midnight Organ Fight was comforting. A line like “And vital parts fall from his system / And dissolve in the Scottish rain / But vitally, he doesn’t miss them / He’s too fucked up to care” told me it wasn’t just me that wasn’t okay. The legacy of an album could never match up to the value of a man’s life, but this album matters to me.

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7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: I remember being repulsed by this album in 2008, and lines like “I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed” or the ever-present misogyny confirm my 19-year-old instincts. But in the decade since, my threshold for repulsion has raised considerably. Whether that’s for good or ill (not sick), you’re free to judge, though I think it’s allowed me to recognize artistry even when my values aren’t in line with the content of the art. Regardless, this album is one sick piece of shit, with little care for anything but our basest desires- but it’s the most well-sculpted piece of shit of the last decade. Nothing has challenged my capacity to handle the ratio of artistry to baseness like Tha Carter III, but it’s on this list, so it clearly passed the test.

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6. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: I had already listened to much of DBT’s catalog by the time they released this magnum opus, and I was fully in love with them. Jason Isbell had already been kicked out of the band, and Shonna Tucker had yet to leave. The band would go on to miss Isbell’s songwriting, but Brighter didn’t show any signs of their songwriting declining just yet. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley contributed some of their best work, and Tucker made her first songwriting contributions to any of the band’s albums, and the three of them, with visiting keyboardist Spooner Oldham, crafted their most stripped-down album to date. There’s a purity in the backwoods country on Brighter that DBT has yet to match, but at least we got 19 songs and 75 minutes of it.

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5. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago: I’ve already extolled the virtues of “Skinny Love” on this blog, so I’ll try to rehash what I wrote about that song. Nothing else on For Emma really compares to the searing power of “Skinny Love,” but as a debut album, it’s incredible how fully formed Bon Iver’s sound was from the start. Justin Vernon’s recording story is almost more legendary than the album at this point. His band had just broken up, so he retreated to a cabin, and For Emma was the album that resulted. Of course, the next record sounded very little like this one, a habit that Vernon has continued indulging with each album since, but we’ll always have this perfect slice of melancholy.

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4. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend2008 was a simpler time, and look no further than Vampire Weekend for your proof. If their debut had been released in 2018, cries of cultural appropriation and colonialism would have been far louder, and they may have drowned out the beautiful simplicity of this record. Please don’t hear me dismissing those cries as illegitimate- they are not, and Vampire Weekend should be held accountable for their often cavalier approach to naming and sharing their influences. But while their messaging has often been poor, their borrowing from Congolese soukous resulted in music both elegant and joyous. They leaned less on Afro-pop on their last two albums, but their celebration of the style on their debut remains one of the best preservations of its delights to make it big in America.

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3. TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Now here is a band with a white producer (Dave Sitek) that used Afrobeat stylings to great effect without controversy, perhaps because a white-dominated music media didn’t know what to do with African-American front men named Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The members of TV on the Radio are still mysteries, having eschewed the spotlight for artistic independence, even as their star has faded since 2008. But few stars were brighter that year; Dear Science had TV on the Radio’s best hooks and most accessible themes, confronting hope and the possibilities of freedom head-on in less of a minor-key fashion than their previous albums. To date, it is their most critically acclaimed album, and at the time was their highest-charting album by far. This was TV on the Radio’s peak, and since they were the most forward-looking band of the 2000s, maybe it was our peak as well.

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2. Taylor Swift, FearlessThere was a stretch of time in which I couldn’t listen to anything from this album. I associated it with a girlfriend, and when we broke up in 2010, it hurt too much to hear these songs. I remember getting depressed while friends were listening to it in a park in Italy while we were studying abroad for a few weeks that summer- I mean, you really shouldn’t get depressed in a park in Italy. (I understand this is pretty pathetic, but it’s also true, and I’m into sharing true things.) I tried listening to Speak Now and Red when they came out and just couldn’t do it. That break-up soured me on Taylor Swift for a long time, well after I had moved on and met my future wife.

I listen to songs from this album all the time now. I have a patient at my job who lights up when I pull up the “You Belong with Me” or “Fifteen” videos on an iPad, so I’m listening to pre-1989 T-Swift quite a bit. It’s impossible for me to see this patient smile or to think of how much these songs affected me eight years ago without deep appreciation and respect for Swift’s ability to evoke those feelings. This is why I can’t fully buy into any backlash against her: she articulates something so true about youthful dreams and desires and pain. I can understand other people being turned off by who she has become and the career she has made for herself, but I can’t shake how Fearless made me feel.

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1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: When I first heard Fleet Foxes ten years ago, I was home for the summer following my first year at college. That’s obviously a formative time of any person’s life, so it’s only natural that the music I liked felt important to who I was becoming. But hearing Fleet Foxes’ debut album was a unique experience for me, like hearing a sound I had always wanted to hear without knowing what it was before. This has happened to me two other times: once, in high school, when I heard the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for the first time, and most recently a few years ago when I heard Leon Bridges’s “Lisa Sawyer.”

The folk pop explosion that came after has reduced what Fleet Foxes was doing in 2008 to nothing more than part of a trend, even though none of the Americana or indie folk acts of the time sounded anything like them. Fleet Foxes used the tools of Americana, but not the twang, which is just a reminder that the idea of what defines “Americana” is tenuous. And indie folk bands that followed Fleet Foxes (or their contemporaries, like Band of Horses) lacked their earnest commitment to abstraction. A Fleet Foxes song doesn’t fit into a genre, nor does it make more logical sense the longer you listen to it, but it sure sticks with you.

So much of this album is tied up in my experience of 2008, which was a year in which I fell in love with a girl and found my footing at my university, but was also a year in which I felt like I was going to fall apart at any second. I hesitate to say that I was suffering from depression or anxiety, because I want to take those struggles seriously, but what do you call it when you’re constantly feeling like shit about yourself without reason?

Whatever was wrong with me, Fleet Foxes was both a comfort and a hope. Songs like “Oliver James” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” comforted me with familial love, and songs like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” gave me hope in their darkness. The darkness was hopeful for me, because, in a twisted way, I was beginning to understand that darkness was okay. Fleet Foxes was an affirmation of my need for it to be okay that I wasn’t okay. It was among the first in a large collection of art that has helped me process this world, and it may have been the most crucial.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

2008albums11Ben Rector, Songs That Duke Wrote: Rector seems like he’s getting big, so I can truly say I loved him with this album before he was popular.

 

2008albums12Blitzen Trapper, Furr: Blitzen Trapper were an enigma to me in 2008, mixing genres from track to track on a captivating album.

 

2008albums13Downhere, Ending Is Beginning: This Canadian four-piece took the best elements from CCM (Christian contemporary music, for the majority that didn’t grow up on the genre) to tackle the tension between doubt and conviction on album after album, and Ending Is Beginning may be their best.

 

2008albums14Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War): I listened to this in 2008 and didn’t enjoy it much, but with new ears, it sounds like the present and the future meeting, and I’m about it now.

 

2008albums15Girl Talk, Feed the Animals: Absolutely ridiculous mash-up album, and I love every second of it.

 

2008albums16The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Less epic than 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, but it has plenty of hooks and riffs to please your inner hoodrat.

 

2008albums17Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song: Before Chris Stapleton, there was Jamey Johnson, except without the CMAs or Justin Timberlake and with a knack for story songs, especially on That Lonesome Song, which sounds more and more timeless as time goes on.

 

2008albums18Jimmy Needham, Not Without Love: Needham was still finding his voice at this point, and he leaned more into extra production on this album than on his 2006 debut, Speak, but the level of the songwriting from front to back is still astounding.

 

2008albums19John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom: The “Jack and Diane” guy still sounds good after all these years, mastering the truth-telling of folk music the same way he mastered hooks in his ’80s heyday.

 

2008albums20Jon Foreman, Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer: Fronting Switchfoot for a decade could make one cynical, but this collection of EPs reveals a man who knows what’s important in life and only needs spare production to tell us about it.

 

2008albums21Josh Garrels, Jacaranda: Not sure what I was expecting when I went back to listen to Jacaranda, having only listened to everything since his 2011 breakout, Love & War & the Sea In Between, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a sound so fully formed and confident, or an album even more beautiful than his breakout.

 

2008albums22M83, Saturdays = YouthThis is what I wish every My Bloody Valentine album sounded like, with a firm grasp on hooks without sacrificing any of the dream-pop atmosphere.

 

2008albums23MGMT, Oracular Spectacular: Technically, this album came out in 2007, but its singles give it its entire weight, and those didn’t explode till 2008, so I’m putting it here, sue me.

 

2008albums24The Michael Gungor Band, Ancient Skies: Before Gungor was Gungor, they relied more heavily on worship songs, but they’re some of the best-written worship songs you’ll hear.

 

2008albums25Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: Famous for being the lead singer in Tony! Toni! Toné! and for being a prolific R&B producer (D’Angelo, TLC, Mary J. Blige), The Way I See It was the album where he made us sit up and pay attention to his skill as a solo act.

Future Top Tens

2010

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt

2011

Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele, 21
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé, 4
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything

2012

Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae, Gravity
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city

2013

Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2014

John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

2008 was a strange year for music in retrospect. There was no defining aesthetic, no consensus style represented in a majority of what was popular. We were introduced to Adele, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver, but their albums and songs look very different in hindsight. Coldplay and Beyoncé were artists at the height of their popularity to that point, but they were also artists in transition.

Strangely, the only artists who were known quantities that year were Taylor Swift and Lil Wayne. Both put out effortlessly great albums and dominated radioplay with their singles. Both stood atop and apart from their genres, powerful in their popular appeal but imprecise avatars of rap and country. No one else was doing what they were at the time, and no one else has really been able to replicate either one- including themselves.

I loved most of these songs in 2008, so many of them left an impression that lasted. The two songs at the top stand out to me, so I wrote more about them. All of these songs are beloved, but those two were formative.

Top Twenty

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20. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”: For a band that fancied themselves U2 disciples, they rarely achieved the right amount of bombast or scope to properly sound like them. “Viva la Vida” feels like the ideal achievement of this goal, probably because it’s the only Coldplay song that truly rocks.

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19. The Veronicas, “Untouched”: There are about twenty hooks in “Untouched,” and all of them are pop gold. But the first one is the best: a synthesized string riff that casts a spell.

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18. Estelle, “American Boy (feat. Kanye West)”: The world was nearing Peak Kanye in 2008, and he’s charming as hell here. But Estelle outshines him with her easy delivery and casual empowerment.

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17. My Morning Jacket, “I’m Amazed”: I’ve still never listened to a My Morning Jacket album all the way through. Instead, I play this song over and over again and pretend it’s what all the songs sound like, because that seems ideal.

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16. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”: There’s no telling what meaning this song is supposed to convey, with its surreal images of heads falling in the snow and strawberry-red blood. But sometimes the lyrics aren’t the ultimate message of a song, but, along with the pastoral instrumentation, they act as a vessel to carry you to the message, which in this case is…well, there’s no telling.

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15. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: I do “give a f*ck about an Oxford comma,” so this is a conflicted choice for me. But as the New York-based indie rockers confront academic pretentiousness without mercy, I bop my head right along with them, as if punctuation were meaningless.

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14. Frightened Rabbit, “The Modern Leper”: In 2008, I found “The Modern Leper” the perfect anthem for my late-teen angst, even if most my angst was self-made. Ten years later, I don’t relate to it quite as much, but it’s still a lyrical masterpiece that captures self-consciousness.

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13. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”: 19 was Adele not fully formed, and producers Jim Abbiss and Eg White filled out the space around Adele’s voice with the tinniest instrumentation. But “Chasing Pavements” is the exception, a mature showcase for the best of what Adele’s voice has to offer.

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12. Fleet Foxes, “Mykonos”: Their self-titled debut is a classic, but the best song they released in 2008 is off of the Sun Giant EP. Where the group would come to be known for near-perfect harmonies and a placid playing style (that they’ve subverted in recent years), “Mykonos” features uneven harmonies that somehow hold more of an allure than the perfect ones, and the hooks lean into danger more than on Fleet Foxes, foreshadowing their new jam band tendencies.

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11. Taylor Swift, “Love Story”: This is still country Taylor Swift, but she’s leaning more into her pop-rock influences. “Love Story” is emo with a happy ending, and, as always, Swift is fully in control, showing you the archetypes that are important to her while engrossing you in the details.

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10. Lil Wayne, “A Milli”: I couldn’t dig this when it came out. I was too hung up on Weezy’s vulgarity, unable to separate my self-righteousness from my discernment. In the decade since, this is the one song from Tha Carter III that seeped into my consciousness, and it became my gateway into Lil Wayne appreciation. The song’s not even about anything. But I guess a song doesn’t need to be about anything when a Phife Dawg sample is the very rhythm of the beat, or when Wayne is featuring his most savage wordplay of his career.

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9. Jimmy Needham, “Hurricane”: There were more influential artists within the Christian music industry at the time, and more innovative. But Needham is a special artist, and “Hurricane” provides a great example of why. At other points on Not Without Love and during his career, Needham has leaned into a funk sound. Not so on “Hurricane,” which fits comfortably into both the worship genre, which forms the bulk of the industry, and the singer-songwriter genre, which forms its grassroots foundation. “Hurricane” is straightforward, unambiguous, but rich with purpose. Needham is special, because, like on “Hurricane,” his lyrics find the right images to cut straight to the heart of what we need from God’s grace.

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8. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”: If it looks like pop, smells like pop, and feels like pop, then it must not be country anymore. There are still banjos and electric guitars modulated to sound like steel guitars, but if you’re looking for the precursor to the T-Swift we know today, this is it. On “You Belong with Me,” Swift straddles the line between country and pop like no one since Shania Twain. The video is famous for a lot of reasons, of course, not the least of which is that it’s the inspiration for “Imma let you finish,” but the song actually works better without the video. The visual sets the song firmly in high school, while the song itself features Swift sounding more empowered than ever.

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7. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”: Speaking of “Imma let you finish…” It’s a damn shame this song will always be associated with Kanye’s pain-in-the-assitude, but it’s found a life of its own regardless. The song reached near ubiquity in the last decade, finding a place at every wedding during the bouquet toss, which doesn’t really do it justice. This should be a song played exclusively on the dance floor, so people can put the iconic video’s moves to good use. We take this song for granted now, but it features some of the weirdest production on any Bey song, and it’s the force of her star power that’s made it into more than just the flavor of that summer.

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6. The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer”: As the opener to the band’s fourth record, “Constructive Summer” wastes no time before being awesome. With a propulsive guitar riff played opposite a killer piano riff, you know you’re in for a rock song with ambition. Then Craig Finn’s voice kicks in and begins what may be the Hold Steady’s best conceit yet: a song about the ennui of childhood summers that turns the ennui on its head. We were always so excited for summer, and then we barely did anything constructive. The Hold Steady bottle that youthful phenomenon and unleash it in a mad dash that demands to be repeated when it’s finished.

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5. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”: If this song came out now, it may not resonate with me with quite the same force. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great song, or that it’s beholden to the era in which it came out. On the contrary, “Furr” is an impeccable folk ballad, and its lyrics are timeless. No, 2008 was just the perfect time for me to hear this song and allow it to shape my feelings about identity and purpose. Blitzen Trapper have never quite captured the spirit of this hymn since, but it’s not their fault they can’t recreate a perfect song.

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4. TV on the Radio, “Golden Age”: Ah, 2008- it was a time of optimism and hope for progressives. No song better encapsulates the very real expectations for the Obama era, no matter how misplaced hope in any politician is. At the time, I just enjoyed the funky beat and that TV on the Radio had released a song that sounded so…happy! There’s always been a dark undertone even in TV on the Radio’s most major-key songs, but there’s no such double entendre here. This is pure joy, through and through.

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3. MGMT, “Time to Pretend”: Oracular Spectacular was technically released in 2007, but it didn’t explode until the next year, and especially not this song, which was released as a single in 2008. MGMT’s whole aesthetic has grown a little wearisome in the past decade as they’ve struggled with their identity as a band: are they a psych-pop outfit that pumps out hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel? Or are they a less savvy Animal Collective? As an anthem around which you build your brand, “Time to Pretend” is a tough act to follow. But as a manifesto for an entire generation of white hipster privilege? This is the shit.

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2. Drive-By Truckers, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”: Back in 2008 I was dating a woman whose family was…less than fond of me. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. Anyway, her father was a good man, and he had two daughters and a beautiful wife, so I always associated this song with him. The contentment at the core of the song is rooted in the protagonist’s relationship with his family, and my girlfriend’s father always put his family first. That was admirable to me, and I aspired to that someday.

The song holds a different meaning to me now. That man is someone I still aspire to be someday, but I’m married now. We don’t have kids yet, but we talk about what life will look like with them all the time. Also, while I have yet to experience loss directly, people around me are dealing with death more and more often. This song explores what it means to live and what it means to die, and it implies that life and death all come back to the memories you have of the people you love.

I think there’s more to life than that (and more to death, for that matter), but the sentiment isn’t untrue. Every time I hear this song, I’m reminded of my dreams for my life, and that any wanderlust I feel or regrets I have for things I haven’t accomplished, they fade. Death comes for everyone. I’ve loved well, and that’s what I’ll remember when it comes for me.

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1. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”: I never remember the words to “Skinny Love.” This is ironic, because as Bon Iver’s career has progressed, their lyrics have gotten more and more obtuse. “Skinny Love” arguably has the most direct lyrics of any of his songs, and I still place words in the wrong spot or say “summer love” instead of “I tell my love,” because that’s how I used to mishear it. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, looked up the words almost as often as I’ve heard it, and still say “kind” when it’s supposed to be “fine.”

Part of that is just on me: I’m not that great with lyrics. But Justin Vernon discovered something early on with Bon Iver that has helped the band’s music to evolve into different forms while still retaining its power. He discovered that he could convey a message of emotion and weight through the timbre of his voice and the production of the song just as effectively as other artists do through words. Few other bands that use words can create worlds in their music with clear rules and values without spelling them out in every bar.

“Skinny Love” uses its lyrics well, and it doesn’t have to. This is Bon Iver’s opening statement, but also their most accessible song. They only got more abstract from here. “Skinny Love” is the song that most draws from traditional folk norms, and it fits into a long tradition of distilling its grief and anger into spare instrumentation. Even if you mess up the words, you’ll still feel the loss.

Another Thirty (alphabetically)

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Adele, “Make You Feel My Love”: Better than the Bob Dylan version!

 

 

2008songs22Al Green, “Lay It Down (feat. Anthony Hamilton)”: The title track and best song from an album of smooth, classic soul.

 

 

2008songs23Andrew Peterson, “Don’t Give Up on Me”: This was very close to making the Top Twenty, because Peterson packs so much meaning into every line.

 

 

2008songs24Beyoncé, “Halo”: A subpar song that the sheer force of Beyoncé’s delivery makes into a banger.

 

 

2008songs25Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby [Alternate Version]”Dylan’s bootleg series has given us a lot of gems, but this may be my favorite.

 

 

2008songs26Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing”: Brian Eno’s best work on Viva la Vida.

 

 

2008songs27Counting Crows, “Le Ballet d’Or”: It doesn’t have a hook to match with their ’90s singles, but it does have a scope and breadth that their hits can’t meet.

 

 

2008songs28Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”: A beautiful way to close their self-titled debut.

 

 

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The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound”: There are a lot of Springsteen knock-offs out there, but one listen to “The ’59 Sound” and its understanding of nostalgia should convince you The Gaslight Anthem are something more.

 

 

2008songs30Girl Talk, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2)”: Girl Talk’s best work, a masterful mix of OutKast and Journey in the end.

 

 

2008songs31Hercules & Love Affair, “Blind”: A great indie dance break.

 

 

2008songs32Jamey Johnson, “In Color”Jamey Johnson knows how to tell a story, and here he tells three great ones in one.

 

 

2008songs33Jars of Clay, “Closer”: The EP version of this song isn’t as majestic as the one they released on The Long Fall Back to Earth the next year, but the chorus is just as full of longing.

 

 

2008songs34Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows”: If the world were fair, this song would have made Sullivan a star.

 

 

2008songs35Jimmy Needham, “Unfailing Love (Kelly’s Song)”: I sang this to Vicky at our wedding, so it holds a special place in my heart, but it’s a great singer-songwriter love song regardless.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “A Brand New Song”: Some of the best moments on Life Death Love and Freedom are darker and focused on death, but song that’s made the most lasting impression on me is this track, full of hope and light.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “If I Die Sudden”: …but the ones focused on death are great too.

 

 

2008songs37Jon Foreman, “Your Love Is Strong”: The best of all the great songs on the Switchfoot front man’s solo collection of season-themed EPs.

 

 

2008songs38Kanye West, “Heartless”: 808s & Heartbreak is my least favorite Kanye album (besides ye, which would force me to crumple up the list and stomp on it if I included it), but the hook on this one is up there with his best.

 

 

2008songs39Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”Ditto for “Love Lockdown,” which, in a catalog full of confessional songs, still manages to be among his most personal.

 

 

2008songs40Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”: A ridiculous song from a band that takes ridiculousness very seriously.

 

 

2008songs41Raphael Saadiq, “Never Give You Up (feat. Stevie Wonder & CJ)”: Surprisingly, even though this song doesn’t use Wonder’s best asset (his angelic voice), the result is still reminiscent of his best soul classics.

 

 

2008songs42Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music”: Released in 2007 on Good Girl Gone Bad, “Don’t Stop the Music” didn’t shoot up the charts till 2008, which is hard to believe, since it feels like this song could jump start your car.

 

 

2008songs43Robyn, “Cobrastyle”: Robyn has never achieved the crossover success she probably deserves, but this single (along with “With Every Heartbeat”) marked her comeback to the dance charts where she has been a mainstay ever since.

 

 

2008songs44Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”: I get why people don’t like the noise surrounding Taylor Swift, but this song is a perfect example of how well she was able to reach inside teenage minds and place the contents into hit songs.

 

 

2008songs45TV on the Radio, “Red Dress”: Dear Science is TVOTR’s party record, and this is their signature party song, tinged with a little darkness.

 

 

2008songs46Usher, “Love in This Club, Pt. II (feat. Beyoncé)”: The original was great, but Beyoncé’s presence on the sequel lends some gravitas to a wonderfully stupid premise.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Mfumu”: “Warm Heart of Africa” got all the attention, but I prefer my Very Best at its purest, with Esau Mwamwaya’s Malawian voice soaring above electropop bliss.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig)”: But Ezra Koenig’s okay too.

 

 

2008songs48The Welcome Wagon, “Jesus”: This pastor-and-wife duo’s entire debut album is great, but who (besides producer Sufjan Stevens) would’ve thought that the best song would be a Velvet Underground cover?

 

Future Top Tens

2010

Andrew Peterson, “Dancing in the Minefields”
Hot Chip, “Take It In”
Ben Rector, “Dance with Me Baby”
Kanye West, “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)”
Broken Social Scene, “World Sick”
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Gungor, “The Earth Is Yours”
Kanye West, “Power”
The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Surfer Blood, “Swim”

2011

Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”