Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. These were supposed to be blockbuster albums, one more in a succession of successes. reputation was supposed to solidify Taylor Swift’s status as a full-on pop music superstar after 1989 . Man of the Woods was supposed to be another bid for Justin Timberlake to have shed his boy-band image after 20/20 Experience laid the foundation for a grown-up, mature JT. This should have been easy.

It would be hard to claim that neither reputation nor Man of the Woods has been successful. Swift’s new album is already 3 times platinum, and it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Timberlake’s debuted at No. 1, and it’s no shame that the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack unseated it, given the fact that Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. If sales or streams are your measuring stick, then you can pack up and go home, because these two albums are slam dunks, home runs, etc.

But if you care about quality, narrative, and legacy, the verdict is a little murkier. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad albums, but in the pop culture world we live in now, “not bad” isn’t really good enough. Before these albums were released, Swift and Timberlake were among the unquestioned elite in pop music, on equal footing reputation-wise with Beyoncé, Adele, or Kanye. Is that still the case now?

You could argue both are still in that upper echelon. After all, the quality, narrative, and legacy of a record are critics’ concerns, not a general audience’s. That’s largely true. Today, in the here and now, the, well, reputations of reputation and of Man of the Woods do not depend on a media consensus. But how a record is remembered is a matter of history, and the writers of history are writers. The fact that these albums are generally disliked by music writers matters. Will Swift’s and Timberlake’s places in the pop music elite survive long-term despite their album’s poor reception?

taylorswift02Critics didn’t actually hate reputation. Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME all gave the album positive reviews, after all. But most critics were mixed if not ambivalent about reputation, and some prominent outlets were outright negative, like Pitchfork, AllMusic, and Consequence of Sound. The preponderance of reviews were simply underwhelmed.

A lot of this can be chalked up to expectations. The four albums preceding reputation (Fearless, Speak Now, Red, and 1989) found themselves all over critics’ year-end lists. Her songwriting was endlessly praised, as well as her ability to master multiple genres and sounds as she transitioned away from country music and toward pop. If people grew tired of her tendency to depend on her dating life for lyrical material, she made up for it with hooks impeccably crafted to paint themselves onto your psyche. After 1989 made her biggest shift into pop music yet, it was reasonable for people to expect Swift to continue her run of greatness.

The first few singles tempered expectations a little. The first, “Look What You Made Me Do,” while boasting some of Swift’s most pointed satire, has a nearly atonal chorus that almost begs you not to like it. (Who is she talking to, anyway? What did I make her do?) This was a huge left-turn for the Taylor Swift that had leaned hard into sweeping synth melodies on 1989. “Ready for It?” was a more typical Swift hook, but not quite up to her standards. As in, it didn’t take over the world like any of the singles from 1989 did.

And there was bad press leading up to reputation’s release as well. A segment of the alt-right movement began to use her lyrics as a rallying cry while claiming that she is a closeted neo-Nazi. To be clear, these are claims with no basis in any sort of evidence whatsoever. But Swift never adequately addressed these claims, and so a blogger at PopFront claimed there were white supremacist dog-whistles in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, while condemning her “political silence” during the volatile 2016 presidential election. Instead of simply denying these claims, Swift threatened the writer with a cease and desist letter.

The blog post is a pretty poorly reasoned argument. A simpler and more generous reading of Swift’s “political silence” (Swift did eventually endorse Clinton) would come to the conclusion that when she’s not supporting an album with a tour and interviews, she values her privacy over the attention that advocacy of any kind brings. This fits with what we know about Swift: her life is meticulously controlled, outsiders not allowed in without invitation, rumors leaked by her camp when she chooses.

But Swift could have solved all of this by simply condemning the alt-right movement. By remaining silent, she left the door open for enough people to question her motives that she lost control over her career’s narrative, control she held so preciously before.

And honestly, the themes of reputation don’t help her case much. A lot of the songs (“Look What You Made Me Do,” “End Game,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) deal with Swift embracing her dark side. A lot of the “bad girl” stuff on reputation is on the nose and overdone; I mean, there’s a song called “I Did Something Bad,” for goodness’ sake. It also comes across as cynical, which is the wrong tone to strike after accusations of bullying and associations with racism.

Despite the bad narrative surrounding the lead-up to the album, I love reputation. I’m turned off by a lot of the cynicism inherent in Swift’s attempts at a bad-girl image, but I think that’s less present in the music itself than in how she chose to promote it. Much of this album is Swift grappling with what romance looks like as a 28-year-old, and much of it is actually the opposite of cynical. “Dress,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” and “Call It What You Want” are celebrations of committed love. Even “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is a Kanye kiss-off, is overflowing with good humor and the joy of finally getting to speak her mind.

reputation is also chock full of Swift’s trademark vulnerability. She made her name on appealing to the insecurities she shared with all young people, and this continues on reputation. “Delicate” is a pitch-perfect examination of turning to short-term romance to fill the holes in your soul. And “New Year’s Day,” the album’s best song and closer, details the fleeting nature of your efforts to make memories in any relationship.

I enjoy reputation, even though it’s unfocused and messy, jumping from theme to theme without the level of cohesion I’m used to from a Taylor Swift album. It seems to be a reflection of Swift’s own current messiness, adding to a discography that perfectly mirrors the trajectory of a white, middle-class girl growing up. I don’t expect many other people to share that opinion, given all the bad faith surrounding the album’s release narrative, some of it contrived and some of it legitimate. Maybe ten years from now, there will be a flurry of blog posts that revisit reputation and call it an underrated classic, but I doubt it. It’s not as good from front to back as 1989, and I’m sure it will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

justintimberlake01Speaking of bad taste: Man of the Woods. Even though Justin Timberlake has had an invincible career up to this point, and even though he had the lay-up opportunity that is the Super Bowl halftime show, no one took Man of the Woods seriously from the start. The album’s trailer could be an SNL digital short, with its misplaced attempts at sincerity paired with unnecessary amounts of flannel. The cognitive dissonance of watching Timberlake run around a pasture with horses while the R&B single “Supplies” plays in the background? That’s the whole album in a nutshell. Timberlake wanted to make music that reflected the place he’s from, and he ended up making…the same kind of music he’s always made.

Like reputation, bad narratives preceded Man of the Woods. To be fair to Timberlake, it was pretty poor timing for #MeToo to explode right before his album cycle began. While JT has never had a sexual harassment scandal, his career trajectory is inextricably linked to the career bombing of two former pop superstars who happened to be female.

Other people have pointed this out in more detail in recent weeks. In fact, as Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show drew closer, a lot of outlets began publishing reconsiderations of Timberlake’s success, given his (literal) hand in setting back Janet Jackson’s career during his last Super Bowl appearance. He’s always felt more like an unwitting product of a dick culture rather than an actual dick(in-the-box) himself. But even if he wasn’t directly responsible for ruining the careers of the women around him, he never was able to fully articulate a properly repentant or apologetic defense, and that’s been enough to cloud the hype of this album release.

Being reminded of his (surely unintentional) participation in the downfall of both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson did nothing to help my opinion of Man of the Woods. But neither did the album. If Timberlake wants to get serious about his love for his wife, his son, and his home, that’s great. I’d even go as far as to say that’s what his fans expect. After all, he did that really well on The 20/20 Experience, which has held up well in the last 5 years thanks to “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” and an awesome concert tour, which I was lucky enough to see with my wife.

Man of the Woods takes its concept too seriously, shoehorning it in as often as possible, as evidenced by songs titled “Supplies,” “Flannel,” and “Livin’ off the Land,” all of which would be far better songs without being tied to a faux-rugged existence that is so clearly not Timberlake’s reality. In “Flannel,” Timberlake literally utters the words, “Here’s my flannel / The character’s in the way you wear it / It takes your shape while you keep it on,” which is something no one who actually wears flannel has ever thought. In “Supplies,” which is about how the apocalypse is sexy(?), Timberlake somehow thought it was a good idea to make the chorus “I got supplie-ie-ies,” and…yep, that’s it. That’s the whole chorus.

I might have been okay with the ridiculous lyrics and thematic gambles. I mean, this guy made an album called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it worked. But the music isn’t really up to his standards. Having come off the biggest hit of his career, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is one of the earworms of the decade, Timberlake thought it made sense to release “Filthy,” which barely has a repeatable melody.

Even the best songs on the album are dependent on contributions from other artists. “Morning Light” features Alicia Keys in one of the few times on the album where a song sounds effortlessly sexy. “Say Something,” if you can get past its vague message, benefits from the presence of Chris Stapleton, who makes the case with his harmonies that maybe Timberlake should have given the whole record to him. And “Breeze off the Pond” is the only instance where the back-to-his-roots idea works for JT, because it leans heavily on a killer guitar riff from Pharrell, and Timberlake keeps the heavy-handed metaphors to a minimum.

In case my snark isn’t coming through enough, I just want to go on the record: I really don’t like Man of the Woods. But Justin Timberlake still means a lot to me. “Mirrors” came out a few months before my wife and I tied the knot, and it shaped my hopes for our future together. I listened and danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” as an effort to bond with one of my patients, and it ended up being the main way we connected. “Cry Me a River” and “My Love” are still two of my favorite songs from my adolescence.

However, when it comes to deciding who will maintain the goodwill that comes with being a superstar, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taylor and not Justin. More people like reputation, and Swift has built up enough goodwill over the course of her career as a champion of the bullied (“Mean,” “Fifteen”), that I believe she’s poised to survive her recent bad press. Also, she’s done a good job of cultivating the image of a songwriter over any other label. Swift’s success will always be perceived to be hers, rather than attributable to anyone else.

Every week I sit down with one of my patients and watch old Taylor Swift videos. This patient only likes older Taylor Swift, not the new stuff. We watch “Mean” and “Our Song” and “You Belong with Me,” and the patient lights up. It’s been hard to find anything else she likes as much as old-school Taylor Swift. But every time she asks for it on her eye-gaze device, and I pull “Love Story” up on an iPad, she begins smiling and laughing, without fail.

There’s enough on reputation that makes me light up for me to still hold Swift in high esteem. There are precious few moments on Man of the Woods that have a similar effect. They’ll both probably bounce back just fine, but it’s a little more plausible to imagine Swift coming out of this on top while Timberlake transitions into other roles, such as producing, or maybe just perpetually making funny videos with Jimmy Fallon. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Jimmy Fallon is pretty funny.

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If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

I do this every year, and the amount of time I spend on it far outweighs the amount I care about the real Grammys. But damned if I’m not back here again, discovering that the Grammys think Metallica is still making award-worthy music in 2018.

It does feel like this year’s nominees in the main categories line up a bit more with mine than usual, which means, of course, that they’re closer to being right.

A few ground rules for this largely pointless exercise:

1) I’ll give the real nominees with my prediction for the winner in bold. Then I’ll give you who I would have nominated, with my choice for the best in that group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2016-September 30th, 2017 qualifying dates are stupid, but we’re going to keep them in the interest of chaos. I can’t fix everything about the Grammys. So no Taylor Swift, but Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings (from 2016, but released in November) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Father John Misty and Propaganda made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they’re too niche to be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Alicia Keys and SZA also released albums I loved, and they’re plausible options for the big one. But when it comes to the genre awards, anything goes- hence, artists like Joan Shelley, Sho Baraka, and Sheer Mag getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories.

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- London Grammar’s and Lana Del Rey’s albums could really fit into pop or alternative, Phoebe Bridgers and Hurray for the Riff Raff could easily be considered Americana instead of alternative, John Legend might be more of a pop artist than urban contemporary, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Spoon belongs in the alternative or rock category, sorry.

5) Forget the 5-nominee limit! Sometimes the Grammys do this; a genre will have enough contenders that they’ll fit 6 nominees into one category because of a tie. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories up a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve to be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have a little anarchy! Except in the 4 main categories, which will continue to have the rigid 5-nominee rule, because too much anarchy is a bad thing.

Album of the Year:

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
SZA, Ctrl

Is this the year when a black nominee finally wins Album of the Year? Seems likely that it will finally be a person of color for the first time in 10 years. But it also would not be surprising for Lorde to win, given how great her album is. On one hand, the Grammys don’t matter, so Lorde winning would be insignificant. On the other hand, award shows like this are touchstones within every year that we use to get a feel for the story our culture is telling. Over the last 10 years, the story has felt like a rejection of the amazing work that people of color have built. Lorde deserves to win, but so does Kendrick, and I can’t help but feel like the Academy will finally choose to reward him. And Kendrick would be my personal pick too, with a slight edge over Lorde. He should have won for TPAB, but DAMN. seems like the kind of record that is going to seem weirdly underrated in comparison to its titanic predecessor.

I could take or leave the rest of the Academy’s choices. I like JAY-Z’s album, but it’s a little overrated for its pop cultural significance. 24K Magic has great singles, but that’s about it. I’ve never gotten into Childish Gambino, but “Redbone” is the shit. I would have rather seen the underrated Here get some love for an artist that really embraced a less pop-driven sound to make a statement record. Lambert’s most recent record, a 2-disc opus, also deserves to be considered. And SZA, the breakout star of the moment, made an album that should not be relegated to the genre awards but seen as belonging among the best of the best.

Record of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”

I understand the difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year, but I’m not sure the Academy does. Record of the Year is supposed to focus on the performance and the production, while Song of the Year is supposed to focus on the songwriting. If they actually vote based on the award’s definition, I don’t see how any song but Kendrick’s wins. But if they don’t, “Despacito” could sweep both song awards.

I wouldn’t be too mad about that; “Despacito” is a banger, for sure. I’m surprised 2 of the obvious songs of the year aren’t nominated though: “Bodak Yellow” and “Bad and Boujee,” both of which dominated the culture during their respective seasons. But my personal favorite belongs to Selena Gomez, who altered her singing style and leaned on Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter to craft the most interesting pop song of the year.

Song of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Julia Michaels, “Issues”
Logic, “1-800-273-8255 (feat. Alessia Cara & Khalid)”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Kesha, “Praying”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”

Hard to imagine anything but “Despacito” winning, but if the Academy is going to pick a category to screw up, I can see it being this one. The fact that “Issues” and “1-800-273-8255” are in here suggests the voters did not know what to make of their options. I’m surprised the Weeknd or Harry Styles didn’t get a look from them. I suppose it’s not surprising that Kesha didn’t get a nod, seeing as there are probably enough voters in the Academy who still feel enough of a kinship with Dr. Luke to see Kesha as too controversial. But her “Praying” is the best pop song of the year by far, eliciting tears from me nearly every time I hear it.

I can’t believe I typed that sentence, but here we are.

Best New Artist

Real nominees: Alessia Cara
Khalid
Lil Uzi Vert
Julia Michaels
SZA

My nominees: Cardi B
Harry Styles
Julien Baker
Lil Uzi Vert
SZA

Not sure why Alessia Cara is here, since she broke out during the previous qualifying year, but I’m happy she’s getting some love. SZA seems like the favorite here, but it’s not by a lot. Anyone could win in this category, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I would have liked to have seen Harry Styles get honored with a nomination here, though I supposed the Academy may not consider him new, since he was in One Direction and all, but seeing as he released his first solo album this year, I say he qualifies. I don’t understand the Julia Michaels love; her songs have been better interpreted by other artists. Julien Baker, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who took the online indie community by storm with her single, “Appointments,” is who I would replace Michaels with.

Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: Arcade Fire, Everything Now
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Gorillaz, Humanz
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
The National, Sleep Well Beast

My nominees: Big Thief, Capacity
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Hundred Waters, Communicating
Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger in the Alps
Spoon, Hot Thoughts

The Academy loves Arcade Fire, but LCD Soundsystem could be the dark horse for orchestrating a successful comeback, as silly as it may have been. As far as indie electronic music goes, though, I preferred Hundred Waters. Father John Misty made my favorite album of 2017, so he of course gets my bid here, though Hurray for the Riff Raff was hot on his heels. Gorillaz and the National were fine legacy act picks from the Academy to go with LCD, but the best indie legacy act of the year was Spoon, and it wasn’t close. Rounding things out are 2 female-powered acts who bare all through their words, Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief.

Best Americana/Country Album

Real nominees (Best Country Album): Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
Kenny Chesney, Cosmic Hallelujah
Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
Little Big Town, The Breaker
Thomas Rhett, Life Changes

My nominees: Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

There’s a world where Lady Antebellum wins, given their undue past recognition from the Academy, but I think Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is still fresh in voters’ minds, and he’ll take it the night of. That album and Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings rank up there with any other album of this year for me, but Joan Shelley’s self-titled takes the title for me by a hair. Jason Isbell has received plenty of accolades for his newest album, and he’s nominated in the Americana category. I like things a little simpler than the Academy, so I’d lump the 2 categories together and highlight some more obscure acts, like Texas’s David Ramirez and Paul Cauthen, as well as North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger and Rhiannon Giddens.

Best Christian Album

Real nominees (Best Contemporary Christian Music Album): Danny Gokey, Rise
Matt Maher, Echoes [Deluxe Edition]
MercyMe, Lifer
Tauren Wells, Hills and Valleys
Zach Williams, Chain Breaker

My nominees: The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost
CeCe Winans, Let Them Fall in Love
Ellie Holcomb, Red Sea Road
John Mark McMillan, Mercury & Lightning
Stu Garrard, Beatitudes

I find popular Christian music less and less interesting with every passing year. So I haven’t listened to any of the nominated albums, though I’ve heard a few Tauren Wells songs in passing. Wells feels more of the moment than the rest of these acts. The good Christian music struggles to be heard. John Mark McMillan is perennially underrated, and though Stu Garrard was part of one of the most popular Christian acts of all time (Delirious?), he himself is not a Christian household name. Neither is Ellie Holcomb, even though she’s one of the best worship songwriters in recent memory. CeCe Winans is probably the best-known name on this list, and her most recent album is near perfect. But my favorite is the album from The Brilliance, who leave no stone unturned on their quest to properly worship the father in all manners of music-making.

Best Pop Album

Real nominees (Best Pop Vocal Album): Coldplay, Kaleidoscope EP
Ed Sheeran, ÷
Imagine Dragons, Evolve
Kesha, Rainbow
Lady Gaga, Joanne
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

My nominees: HAIM, Something to Tell You
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
London Grammar, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing
Lorde, Melodrama

This isn’t a particularly inspiring category, even if half of it seems kind of laughable that it’s included with the other half. Both HAIM and London Grammar could wipe the floor with that Coldplay EP (which is secretly pretty good), Ed Sheeran, and Imagine Dragons. I think the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement will inspire voters to given Kesha the vote. But the best pop album of the qualifying year should have been Lorde’s to lose. She was inexplicably not nominated in any of the genre awards.

Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Album

Real nominees (Best Urban Contemporary Album): 6LACK, Free 6LACK
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
Khalid, American Teen
SZA, Ctrl
The Weeknd, Starboy

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
John Legend, DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Lizzo, Coconut Oil
Sampha, Process
SZA, Ctrl

There’s so much good R&B right now, it’s surprising the best the Academy could come up with to accompany likely winner Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, and SZA, was 6LACK and Khalid. Any of Sampha, Lizzo, or Kehlani would have been worthier. Both Alicia Keys and John Legend went unnoticed at the end of 2016, even though their albums were the best of their respective careers. I’m okay with Childish Gambino winning, but SZA winning would be the best.

Best Rap Album

Real nominees: JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Migos, Culture
Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

My nominees: Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Propaganda, Crooked
Sho Baraka, The Narrative

It’s possible that JAY-Z will take this, since there seems to be a lot of support for his shot at redemption. It’s definitely his best album in 10 or so years, but it’s not anywhere close to as deep and interesting as Kendrick’s. It’s fun seeing Migos, Rapsody, and Tyler get some mainstream Grammy love. It’s not like Drake and Future needed any more attention, even though their albums were great steps forward for both artists. I doubt Christian rap will ever get proper love in this category, but my 2 favorite rap albums of the qualifying year were from 2 bold Christian hip-hop artists, Sho Baraka and Propaganda.

Best Rock Album

Real nominees: Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct
Nothing More, The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

My nominees: Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
White Reaper, The World’s Best American Band

I have absolutely no feel for what the Grammys value in rock music. Two rock bands could not be more different than Metallica and The War on Drugs, and I don’t know what a Nothing More is. I’m guessing they’ve never heard of my pick, Jeff Rosenstock, or Sheer Mag or White Reaper, even though the Internet has been gushing about them for the last two years. Surely they’ve heard of Japandroids if they know who The War on Drugs is? Unfortunately, there’s no way Gang of Youths would have been nominated, since the Australia band has yet to cross over here in America, even their album is the best rock album I heard in 2017. I guess Queens of the Stone Age will win? I have no idea.

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.

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”