Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 5 albums that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten lists. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the album doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If it’s a Christian album, I just search the usual way (read: Google) through some of the main Christian music publications. If I missed a list, it’s okay; no one’s life is over.

The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: There have been several artists in Christian music history that have bucked (or set) the industry’s trends, but there are few today outside of hip-hop. The Brilliance have some of the kitchen-sink creativity that most recently blessed Gungor before that band veered into emergent-church territory. This makes sense, since one of The Brilliance’s primary members is David Gungor, the brother of Gungor’s Michael. But where Michael’s band has taken a decidedly meditative tack, David’s has set his rudder directly toward celebration. Beautifully synthesizing several genres, The Brilliance overcome worship music tropes, celebrating a God for everybody with music for everybody.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses: I understand Margo Price receiving all of 2017’s allotted attention for female off-the-beaten-path Nashvillians, because Price is brilliant. But now that 2017 is over, please turn your attention to its forgotten folk artist, Caroline Spence. Her 2015 album Somehow won me over with its plain-spoken heartbreak spiked with hard liquor. Spades & Roses is like Somehow, but with more liquor. This is best exemplified on standout track, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” in which beds and all their accoutrement become a metaphor not for love, but for the hope that this one will make you forget the rest.

David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: I wrote about this album not 6 weeks ago, and I’m still on a high for the response it got. Ramirez himself retweeted the post and said it was “one of [his] favorite reviews for the new album,” and I could have cried. You write about an album you love and you hope someone reads it. You never expect the artist to read it and, much less, appreciate it. Ultimately, I just want this album to get attention, because it’s a devastatingly good folk album from one of Austin’s best resident musicians.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: You’ll be forgiven if you’re not into Americana and haven’t heard of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Carolina-based outfit from the prolific M.C. Taylor. You’ll also be forgiven if you are into Americana and can’t remember which album of his is which. But holding this against him is like complaining that Cary Grant plays the same character in every movie- he does what he’s good at, and he’s the best at it. Taylor has a tried and true sound, a mélange of soul and backwoods blues befitting his scruffy look and family life. What makes Hallelujah Anyhow special in light of the rest of his discography is an unabashed celebration of life in the face of life’s mundanity.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Another Americana artist on this list, yes, but Shelley is quite unlike any other Americana artist we are familiar with. That’s partly because she doesn’t even consider herself an Americana musician, but mostly because she’s a singular artist. Her first few albums trafficked in Appalachian folk music, but Joan Shelley is a slight change in direction for the Kentucky artist. Her transfixing voice is still the focal point here, but she’s less reliant on her usual guitarists to give her voice its home. Instead, she travels outside her comfort zone to songs with barely any production at all, and more of a reliance on plinking keys rather than plucking strings, and her music has broadened with her world.

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Merry Christmas 2017

In honor  of the fact that we can say “Merry Christmas” again without facing atrocious persecution, I named this post “Merry Christmas 2017,” because I have definitely never written any posts with “Merry Christmas” in the title before.

Anyway, this post is an opportunity to feature some of my favorite Christmas albums so that you can listen to them before we run out of time to listen to the eargold that is Christmas music. This year I didn’t listen to as many new albums as I wanted, but I’ve got one new favorite, an old favorite, and a new old favorite.

A New Favorite

Weston Skaggs, Stories for Christmas! EP (2017): I’m generally a classicist when it comes to the music I listen to at Christmas, which means that I prefer the standards to artists’ often lame attempts at writing original Christmas music. Christmastime is built so much on nostalgia that new songs often fail to capture the feel of the season. Instead, they feel cheap and artificial, which is not the kind of Christmas I prefer. Weston Skaggs, however, has made an EP entirely out of originals, and it’s perfect. Skaggs is a worship leader out of Cleveland, so most of the songs deal directly with the Christmas story (the sobering “Wise Men Still Seek Him”, the galvanizing “Prepare Him Room (feat. Anthony & Chris Hoisington)”), though there are a couple that deal more with the season in general (the earnest “Dickens Song”, the lilting “Winter Song”). I wasn’t familiar with Skaggs’s music before this, but his style is not what you expect when you hear the term “worship leader.” His delivery is more akin to a call-and-response folk singer, and his instrumentation is appropriately spare. For a classicist like me, his songs will fit right in with the old stuff.

An Old Favorite

Bing Crosby, White Christmas (1955): This album hardly needs my endorsement given that “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time. The album itself is nearly as popular, having undergone many different releases over the years to the point that the most recent edition of the album has a completely different tracklist than the original with different recordings of several songs. Crosby will always be synonymous with Christmas. Part of it is that his singing style is the standard that so many artists held for what Christmas music should sound like, so now listeners think this is what Christmas sounds like. But White Christmas isn’t just popular because it’s popular. Crosby sings these songs with such tenderness and ease, eschewing any kitsch that’s naturally present in the secular carols and overcoming any stiltedness that comes with the hymns. Nat King Cole did a similar thing 6 years later with The Magic of Christmas (which we know now as the reissued The Christmas Song), and now both albums are bona fide classics. It’s not a formula everyone could follow to craft a brilliant Christmas album, but trying a little tenderness is always worth it.

A New Old Favorite

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow (2014): Like Skaggs, Over the Rhine, made up of married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, hails from Ohio, though from Cincinnati. Unlike Skaggs, I’m very familiar with their music; I’ve listened to every one of their albums, and they’re one of my favorite bands. So it’s not like I had never heard Blood Oranges before (I listened to it when it came out), but I really love Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album, Snow Angels (2007), and Blood Oranges isn’t really like that one. Like Skaggs’s Stories, both albums are made up of originals, but Snow Angels is downright cheeky, and it seems to come from a place of optimism and celebration (even if the first song is “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue”), like the nog was spiked in the studio. Blood Oranges is a little more sober, and also somber. Two of the songs are titled “My Father’s Body” and “If We Make It Through December,” not to mention their play on “Auld Lang Syne” which is about staying home instead of enjoying old acquaintances. I don’t mean to suggest these songs are negative, but they seem written for a Christmas after a hard year full of beatings, to bring joy to the world rather than celebrating the joy in the world. I’ve had a good year, but the Christmas music of the broken-down and weary speaks to me more and more.

This David Ramirez Album Is Not About What You Think It Is About

This David Ramirez Album Is Not About What You Think It Is About

Everything is being framed in reference to Trump. We can’t get away from him. Music, movies, TV, books- writers cannot seem to find another angle from which to view pop culture right now. I understand that his election and presidency are convenient cultural touchstones, but we live in a big world. There’s no need to make his head big enough to fill it.

Even a relatively unknown folk singer like David Ramirez gets viewed through the Trump lens. According to The Independent, his new album We’re Not Going Anywhere “sees him pitch a message of defiance against Donald Trump’s America.” Outlets from Billboard to the Waco Tribune highlight Ramirez’s Mexican heritage, as if this means he would naturally address the orange elephant in the room.

One of the songs on We’re Not Going Anywhere, “Stone Age,” does function as a protest song in response to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the alt-right (read: white supremacist) movement. And opener “Twins” considers how our country has changed since 9/11, wondering if we’ve come any distance at all. But the vast majority of the album confronts feelings of loneliness and isolation that feel very personal to Ramirez. I wish I knew the context, but no one thought to ask, because they got hung up on the “relevance” of a couple songs.

The irony is that Ramirez has always had a knack for the protest song, though he was most often protesting the music business or the culture surrounding Americana music. 2013’s “The Forgiven” rails against the hypocrisy of valuing authenticity while shunning any mention of religion. 2014’s “Stone” lashes out at the music business for prioritizing fame over substance. But Ramirez’s albums are full of songs that are about what most songs are about: love, loss, and longing.

We’re Not Going Anywhere could be viewed as a protest album, in the sense that Ramirez has decided to fill his production with more synths than usual, evoking an ‘80s nostalgia that spits in the face of traditional Americana. That’s not to say this is no longer folk music. It just embraces Tunnel of Love more than Nebraska. This is to the album’s credit. Ramirez, who has always been a strong lyricist, has expanded the palette he’s using to present them.

David Ramirez doesn’t have the machinery to market him like a Sturgill Simpson, and he’s not brand-savvy the way Chris Stapleton has been since his rise to stardom. No, Ramirez is, as he puts it, a “career musician.” And whether he meant it this way or not, this phrase implies that he is most at home on the touring circuit, playing shows at intimate venues in the states surrounding his home in Austin, Texas. His music feels most at home here too, his songs too intimate for an arena, his lyrics too honest to survive long outside of a bar.

The little reporting that followed this record near its debut often highlighted that Ramirez recorded the album in an 18th-century farmhouse in Maine, as if the age of the studio space lends it wisdom or something. But maybe the remove of the location matters. Maybe it’s partly responsible for the clear-eyed way Ramirez views both our world and his own. I’d rather read too much into that farmhouse than just assume the album is about Trump.

Covering the music business is hard, and I am glad it is not my job. There are so many records and so many artists and so many platforms; where do you even start? But artists like David Ramirez deserve to be presented accurately. Ramirez is a great musician, and he has a distinct perspective that is worthy to be praised. Shoehorning him into a narrative does no one any favors- except maybe Donald Trump.

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Top Ten Albums

10. Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.: Someday, we are going to look back on 2016 and remember Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. as a great album for all its virtues and not for how it spoke to current events. We will listen to its frenetic rhythms and sweeping melodies, and we will relate to its expression of anxiety, free of any context as a great rock record, a paragon of pop punk. Its biting sarcasm, its contagious choruses, its backdoor hipsterdom- these will be its talking points, and not about how it speaks to “Trump’s America”.

9. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life: Writing about music has become increasingly uniform, to where a handful of artists dominate the media conversation in any given week. I enjoy a lot of these artists that are “relevant”, but an artist like Courtney Marie Andrews gives me a singular kind of pleasure reserved only for artists that feel like discoveries. Andrews, who combines Laurel Canyon vibes with her beautiful, Appalachian-folksy voice, deserves recognition as the best folk artist of the year, though I’m likely the only one that will give it to her.

8. Bon Iver, 22, a Million: Every Bon Iver album is different, yet they are all the same. Each release further deconstructs the reserved folk sound with which frontman Justin Vernon achieved fame, yet each release feels as comfortable as the best examples of the folk genre. 22, a Million is his most fractious work so far, yet Vernon is still crafting melodies that soothe the anxiety buried within his production.

7. Sho Baraka, The Narrative: Christian rap was ahead of mainstream rap with its forays into social consciousness by about a year, with some of its main stars releasing songs about police brutality in response to Ferguson well before any of their mainstream counterparts. The Narrative may be Christian rap’s social justice manifesto, putting into lyrics and beats a working theology of African-American history and emotion. Baraka has always been one of the most creative individuals in the genre (secular or no), and The Narrative finds him firing on all cylinders.

6. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings: Miranda Lambert never ceases to amaze me. After divorcing Blake Shelton following rumors of his infidelity, you might expect a fiery artist like Lambert to unleash the breakup album to utterly end all breakup albums, full of vitriol that would make “Before He Cheats” poop its pants. Instead, she releases her most subdued album yet, stretching it out over 17 songs, and finding as-yet-unreached depths that are far more cathartic than any stereotypical, crazy-ex-girlfriend songs could have been.

5. Solange, A Seat at the Table: This record was not made for me; this is a record made by a black woman for black women. In her thoroughly considered lyrics and her alternately light and forceful voice, Solange tells a story of the duality of a black woman in 2016. Empowerment is the goal, yes, but also affirmation, that it is okay to be angry or frustrated. There are historical touchstones Solange is drawing on here that are beyond my scope of understanding, but the album feels like a historical document, reaching across time to combine styles and ideologies. This was not a record made for me, but there is so much here for me to learn.

4. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: I don’t know what music historians are going to do with the rock music of today. Rock is far from dead, though people like to claim so again and again. The truth is though that people just are not talking about the genre as much as they used to. Whatever the story they will tell, it is clear that a chapter must be reserved for Car Seat Headrest. Whether or not it fit into the national conversation, Teens of Denial embodied indie sensibilities and it embodied a rock ethos, and if indie rock is anything anymore, this is it.

3. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Simpson got a lot of mileage last year as an alternative to the country establishment, so much so that his album was somehow nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, a welcome but unexpected honor. The artist himself plays down his alternative status, probably because he knows that good is good, bad is bad, and alternative is neither. But Sailor’s is truly something different than your usual alt-country. He channels funk, grunge, and R&B at different points, creating a melting pot of styles and vibes. It’s all in the earnest service of celebrating his newborn son and creating art that his son can later experience to learn something about beauty and love.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade: It’s impossible to think about Lemonade the album apart from Lemonade the movie, which was such a titanic statement of black womanhood that it threatens to bury Lemonade the album in history’s back pages. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen (because history will undoubtedly look to Coulda Been a Contender for all legacy issues); listening to Lemonade was one of the great, joyful experiences of 2016. We spend so much time talking about who Beyoncé is apart from her music; she became a cultural icon before she even made her best art, which has continually gotten better since. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is nothing like the five that came before, but it is also the perfect culmination of her life’s work- including her music, her brand, her motherhood, and, yes, her role as the scorned woman. Hell hath no fury like Lemonade.

1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Not only was Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of 2016, it was also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscious, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that his God is about joy.

There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through Coloring Book, after several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two glorious minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And only then does Chance rap, expounding on the idea that true freedom comes from loving God more than the world, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.

Chance is a phenomenon at this point. He may go on to rap about many other subjects that have little to do with his faith. But Coloring Book, in all its gospel-tinged glory, will stand as a new template for how a mainstream rapper fits his music into his faith, rather than the other way around.

Another Fifteen

Alicia Keys, Here
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
NAO, For All We Know
NEEDTOBREATHE, H A R D L O V E
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rihanna, ANTI
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Various Artists, Southern Family
Whitney, Light upon the Lake

Past Top Tens

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

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

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Top Twenty: 20-11

20. Lizzo, “Good as Hell”: If you looked only to the radio in 2016 for empowering anthems, you missed out on one of the best. This banger (which featured on the soundtrack of the most recent Barbershop soundtrack) from the talented Minneapolis artist had one of the most ingeniously infectious choruses I can remember: “Do your hair toss / check my nails / baby how you feelin / feeling good as hell!”

19. The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”: Decadent Weeknd has his charms (see: all of his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness), but I think I prefer in-love Weeknd. Daft Punk knows how to bring the best out of great singers, and Abel Tesfaye is at his lightest and happiest here.

18. Chance the Rapper, “Blessings”: There are great songs on Coloring Book before “Blessings”- all of them, really. But everything on this 5th track- from Jamila Woods’ irresistible hook to Chance yelping “Good God!”, from Nico’s proud trumpet solo to that final question asking if you’re ready for the blessing- fits perfectly into its title’s promise.

17. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”: Alternative music took a backseat in the music media to pop and R&B last year, but there were still plenty of gems worth celebrating. Olsen’s insistent chorus burns itself into your mind, as powerful a statement of sexual desire as indie punk has to offer.

16. Young Thug, “Kanye West (feat. Wyclef Jean)”: I first heard this one when it was called “Elton John”, which seemed appropriate given the plaintive piano that features so prominently. Not sure why he renamed it to “Kanye West” other than that the chorus of “wet wet” sounds kind like “West West”, but it does feature Kanye-level inventiveness in every bar.

15. Beyoncé, “Daddy Lessons”: Over the last four years, Beyoncé has embraced her music being seen as culturally significant, rather than just pop music. “Formation” was the clear statement, but Beyoncé performing the defiant “Daddy Lessons” on the CMAs with noted rebels Dixie Chicks was her most successful act of protest on the year.

14. Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs”: I was initially more taken with the upbeat songs on Coloring Book, but the melancholy “Same Drugs” grew on me over time. Chance has said it isn’t even about drugs, which feels right; it’s really about the loss that comes with time as you move out of youth.

13. Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”: I didn’t take “Bad and Boujee” seriously until Donald Glover dubbed it the “best song ever” at the Golden Globes. I still don’t take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to stop listening to it.

12. Bon Iver, “22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bob Moose Extended Cab Version”: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a song combine anxiety with hope so beautifully. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been public about his struggles with anxiety, and I like to think creating this song was a balm for him.

11. Chance the Rapper, “All We Got (feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)”: This celebration song isn’t just a joyous ode to the gift of music. It also has 2016’s best lyric: “I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie.”

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10. Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”: I wonder if I’m supposed to grow out of songs like this. I’ve been worried lately that I’m becoming a cynical person. But the way my heart soars during this song’s chorus gives me hope that my soul has not been calcified by the world just yet.

9. Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”: It is easy to be skeptical of famous people claiming to be victims of their fame, but “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)” is something different. Lecrae, who is the most successful “Christian rapper” in the genre’s short history, raps about his depression following not only the police killings of black Americans but also the widespread evangelical dismissal of those killings. A lot of introspective rap feels forced and full of self-help platitudes, but Lecrae’s best song since “Church Clothes” in 2012 finds him at his most natural and humble.

8. Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”: If “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” gives me life-affirming hope, “Fill in the Blank” affirms the hope in my cynicism. Frontman Will Toledo yelps about a world telling him he has to be okay, that because of his privilege, he has to be happy. But this is a song that exists in the real world, and it’s okay not to be okay.

7. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”: The track’s co-producer, Raphael Saadiq, turns everything he touches into golden funk. But let’s give credit where credit is due here; this is a vocal performance that few could pull off. Even as Solange plunders her own psyche to try to understand why she feels left behind and pushed aside, her voice is unbearably light until it isn’t, until she hits the word “cranes” with just enough strength to make you wonder where it all comes from.

6. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”: Critics can be forgiven for overrating art after its creator has passed away. That is not what happened with Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”. Cohen’s voice is hardly singing on this song, but it is hypnotizing, and the accusations he lays before God here are chillingly real.

5. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”: “No Problem” ultimately may be about the threat of record executives telling Chance what he can and can’t do. But it came to stand for something far more interesting than that. When Chance burst into a stuffy boardroom with 2 Chainz and Weezy on Ellen, their energy was so infectious that the video became a sensation, even by Chance’s standards. On his tour, fans dance and sing along to every song, but “No Problem” becomes a verifiable dance party. In a year where the country desperately needed joy, Chance’s music promised a club where joy was possible. “No Problem” was the bouncer.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”: There’s some question surrounding works of art involving white people wrestling with problems involving race. I’m not here to tell any person of color what they should or should not feel about white people entering black spaces. All I can report is how I feel, and I feel that “What It Means” is one of the most affecting songs I heard last year. Patterson Hood has always been an incisive songwriter. “What It Means” finds him grappling with the terrible truth that he doesn’t have answers for why his (and my) race keeps treating other races like shit.

3. Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”: Rihanna has always played along the edges of dancehall, and on “Work” she dives right in. There are lighter songs, bouncier ones with catchier hooks in her discography. But “Work” drills into your mind, finding its purpose in its repetition. Of all Rihanna’s singles, it’s maybe the most effortless, the truest to who Rihanna has been all along. There’s no forced techno beats, no pop hooks manufactured in a studio lab, no pretense of any sort- just the beat and Rihanna’s insistence that all that matters is her voice.

2. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”: Probably most famous for its backing of the ubiquitous mannequin challenge meme that thankfully is no more, “Black Beatles” is bigger than a stupid video sports teams did to look hip. On Rae Sremmurd’s 2015 debut, SremmLife, they tapped into the trap aesthetic for a potent slice of party music. SremmLife 2, and “Black Beatles” in particular, had different aims. There were still party songs, but overall, Rae Sremmurd were out to deconstruct the scene, rather than celebrate it. “Black Beatles” drips with malaise, even as it wallows in rock star hyperbole; the tension between the two is what separates the song from anything else with the “Mike WiLL Made-It” signature.

1. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”: This song still sounds incomplete to me. I don’t mean that as a negative. I mean that Kanye and his multiple collaborators appear to have tapped into a musical reservoir, and this song’s 5 minutes do not feel like they’ve plumbed its depths in the slightest. Kanye is always ahead of the curve. Whatever style he invokes on his albums, that seems to be the direction hip-hop writ large takes for the foreseeable future. “Ultralight Beam” ushered in rap’s newfound appreciation for gospel music. That’s not to say that gospel had no place in hip-hop’s history before this; that would be asinine. But “Ultralight Beam” is pure gospel with a little bit of rap. Kanye is barely even on this record; “Ultralight Beam” only technically qualifies as a rap song because Chance the Rapper drops a fire verse midway through. No, “Ultralight Beam” isn’t a rap song; it’s a prayer.

Another Thirty

The 1975, “If I Believe You”
Aaron Lewis, “That Ain’t Country”
Alicia Keys, “Blended Family (What You Do for Love) (feat. A$AP Rocky)”
ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
BJ Barham, “Unfortunate Kind”
Bon Iver, “00000 Million”
Brandy Clark, “Big Day in a Small Town”
Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Chance the Rapper, “How Great Thou Art (feat. Jay Electronica & my cousin Nicole)”
Charles Bradley, “Changes”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Christon Gray, “Follow You”
Courtney Marie Andrews, “Irene”
David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Drake, “Fake Love”
DRAM, “Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty)”
John Legend, “Penthouse Floor (feat. Chance the Rapper)”
Justin Timberlake, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!”
Maren Morris, “My Church”
Margo Price, “Hands of Time”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Black Man in a White World”
Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
NEEDTOBREATHE, “HARD LOVE”
Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
Rihanna, “Love on the Brain”
Sho Baraka, “30 & Up, 1986 (feat. Courtney Orlando)”
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Whitney, “Golden Days”

Past Top Tens

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”

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”

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Negativity feels like it is at an all-time high right now. One has to assume that things may have been worse when, say, Europe faced the Black Plague or, you know, maybe, possibly, perhaps, in the pre-Civil War South. But everywhere we look, it seems like people think this is the worst it’s been.

I’m not immune to this; one look at Twitter, and I’m convinced everything is headed in the wrong direction. You could assume this is my own fault for following mostly liberal outlets, but the inability to see the forest for the trees is a bipartisan failing. Pessimism is for everyone, the great unifier.

Father John Misty’s Josh Tillman has a reputation in some circles for feeding off that negativity. When he broke out in 2012 with Fear Fun, he was riding a wave of goodwill from his four years as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He garnered acclaim, but he also created skeptics. Tillman had adopted a cynical perspective toward pop culture and toward the world in general, limiting his fan base to the hipster world where counterculture is the culture. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear rectified this to a certain extent, with its honest exploration of committed love, but Tillman still maintained a persona steeped in cultural ennui, continuing to alienate folk purists.

His new album, Pure Comedy, forces you to consider that maybe it’s not a persona and he really means it. That is, maybe the cynicism of Father John Misty is healthy rather than a façade, a means to satisfaction rather than the end of it.

I didn’t want to like Father John Misty. Cynicism is something I struggle with; I perpetually want to believe the best about people and the world despite the fact that I don’t. Listening to Father John Misty is like being forced to hear the thoughts that I try not to think.

But as my beliefs have strengthened in their conviction, listening to Tillman’s music is more rewarding if not less challenging. He’s always been funny and clever, but now I appreciate that rather than resent it. On “Total Entertainment Forever”, when he riffs on “bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”, I hear it as the self-aware joke it is rather than a caustic remark. When he goes on to say, “No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confuse us,” I’m confronting the fact that I too believe this is where we are headed as a society. Before, I would have refused to acknowledge it.

This growing appreciation for Tillman’s mind comes even at the expense of my own. I’m a Christian, so there’s definitely some cognitive dissonance at work when I listen to two of my favorite songs on the album. On the title track, Tillman lets loose his most passionate vocal delivery lamenting and laughing about the selfishness of man, but he also declares,

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits

And on “When the God of Love There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, Tillman sings about the absurdity of a loving deity creating a world of suffering:

Oh, it’s just human, human nature
We’ve got these appetites to serve
You must not know the first thing about human beings
We’re the earth’s most soulful predators
Try something less ambitious next time you get bored

Maybe the real reason I’m so willing to embrace Father John Misty is because he’s created a style of music that I would want to make if I were at all musically talented. Tillman’s lyrical wit is what makes him such a singular artist, but there are definite touchstones for his music, somewhere back in the 1970s. There’s a little bit of Billy Joel’s voice when Tillman allows himself to really howl about a subject, but the closest analog might be Randy Newman. Newman knew his way around a chorus, but he’s also always had a penchant for wordy verses that somehow still manage to roll off the tongue.

The music is not my main draw to Pure Comedy though. Tillman’s philosophical perspective is so different from where mine is and yet so like the road I took to arrive at mine. I’m attracted to the experience of finding myself completely empathizing with Tillman’s cynicism but then having to remind myself, “Wait. I don’t believe that.”

This sequence used to repel me, which is only human: nobody has any perspective but their own, and it is hard work to try to understand anybody else’s, let alone accept it as valid. It helps that Tillman seems to be less above the rest of the human race on Pure Comedy than on past albums; his ire now appears to include himself and is all the sharper for it. And Pure Comedy isn’t pure cynicism. The perspective on which Tillman ends is that the only thing that makes this world worth it is each other. Surely he will forgive me some cynicism of my own, but that sounds like pure comedy.

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Had Alynda Segarra released a perfectly innocuous album of folk music this year, critics still might have foisted the protest label on her. Segarra, who has been making music as Hurray for the Riff Raff since 2008, is of Puerto Rican descent. Any record she put out might have been mistaken for a referendum on the current climate for immigrants, even though Segarra is from the Bronx (and even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States…) and has made folk music firmly rooted in the New Orleans scene for her band’s entire existence. The color of her skin is now of political interest, whether or not she makes direct protest music.

With this year’s The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff made something better than a protest album, something richer and deeper. We will always need songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Redemption Song”, albums like What’s Goin’ On and To Pimp a Butterfly, that address head-on the issues of the time. Directness is a virtue, but it has its limits. I’ve always been more partial to albums that tell a story and address issues through characters. Give me a Born in the U.S.A. or a “Fast Car”, works of pop art that paint pictures of the forgotten and beaten-down. These vivid lyrical images move me more than a lyrical jeremiad might.

The Navigator is a concept album about a Puerto Rican girl named Navita who seeks to escape her childhood hometown by enlisting the help of a witch. The witch’s influence eventually wears off, and Navita returns to her city and mourns the loss of her family’s culture. The album comes with liner notes mimicking a Playbill, and musical theatre’s influence can be felt all over the contours of The Navigator’s music. But as performative as this album is and as theatrical as the production sounds, it is hard to digest The Navigator as anything other than a reflection of Segarra’s real life.

On the first half of the album, in which Navita is attempting to escape her past, Segarra sounds like her old self, committed to the folk vibe she’s made her bones on until now. This could have been Act II of Hurray’s last album, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Shades of Caribbean and Latin influences feel their way into the music, foreshadowing the album’s midway shift, but she’s largely focusing on the same Americana beats she’s trod over the last 9 years of her band’s existence, only with a new focus.

Segarra’s always had an eye on female empowerment (hear: “The Body Electric” off Small Town Heroes), and that’s no different here, though this time she’s exploring the theme through the power of story. “Living in the City” finds Navita shaking off chauvinism and the confines of growing up in a place a lot like New York. “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” explores Navita’s commitment to herself over the prospect of romance, knowing that one or the other will shape her life. They are powerful songs in and of themselves, but the through line of Segarra’s narrative imbues them with a shared catharsis, an empathy that a lot of girl power anthems sacrifice for a catchy hook.

The story turns around track 7, “Halfway There”, when Navita realizes the idea of escaping your past is a lie. By the next song, the fiery “Rican Beach”, Navita has returned home, and Segarra sings of the victims of white colonialism and the thievery therewith. It is a historical fact that every race has lost something to white people, and Navita is coming to terms with what her response to that should be. The song ends with a repeating mantra, “I’ll keep fighting to the end.”

The whole album is great, but the final five songs really clarify the album’s purpose for Segarra. “Fourteen Floors” has Navita return to where her childhood tenement used to be, and she finds a connection between the removal of her old home and what the system has taken away from her people. Segarra has been vocal about the folk music community’s failure to live up to their genre’s role as activists, remaining largely silent in the face of rising xenophobia. The first half of Navigator suggests Segarra feels complicit; the second half promises: no more.

The album’s climax, both narratively and musically, is the penultimate track, “Pa’lante”. That song title is important to the history of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland. It translates to “onward, forward.” It is a call to arms, a battle cry, but, one distinct to her culture. So much of the recent protests have been to call outside attention to long-standing injustices; “Pa’lante” is an encouragement to her people, a plea to “be something”, a prophecy meant to unite. As her will crescendos with the music, she cries, “From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, pa’lante!”

It would be a struggle not to feel of one mind with Segarra on this song and, by association, on this album. The Navigator tells a story that equates life’s value with moving onward and forward, and not with how much anyone or anything is holding you back. There’s a temptation on the right side of the aisle (especially the alt-right side) to find complaints of victimhood in any mention of oppression or injustice. The Navigator is a fine argument that one of the greatest forms of strength is admitting victimhood and still choosing hope over despair.