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.

Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. and Tr…oh no, this is going to be about Trump, isn’t it?

Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. and Tr…oh no, this is going to be about Trump, isn’t it?

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. WORRY. will simply be 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”.

I’ve already written a post attempting to deconstruct that phrase and to redeem it, but my review of 2002’s 25th Hour must not have made much of a dent in the larger culture. Not sure why. But there are still respectable outlets posting “Trump’s America” pieces. The most recent (and most egregious) was an article on Indiewire (an otherwise fantastic website) about how the ice cream scene from Zootopia “anticipated Trump’s America”. The post itself is fine, an exploration of how the producers and animators worked on the nuances of the scene. But that headline…yeesh.

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Making everything about Trump has dumbed down every conversation worth having. Zootopia is a great movie, and I want to talk about all the ways in which it is great- the subtleties, the humor, the relationships. Zootopia isn’t great because it somehow predicted the way Trump affected our society. Zootopia is great because it reflected some truths about the world we already live in, regardless of Trump’s existence. The “Trump’s America” headlines remind me of the post-election Saturday Night Live sketch with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock: the two black men sit in a room full of white people on election night, and the white people are freaking out. Chappelle and Rock, however, know that shit was already shitty- white people were just holding their noses. And now we’re convincing ourselves that Trump is the root of our problems rather than the fruit.

Ugh, why am I writing about Trump? All I want to do is talk about Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. and how great of a record it is. But then while I was doing research on Rosenstock, I came across several articles that inevitably linked his album to Trump. And I was inevitably frustrated. Granted, Rosenstock is explicit on WORRY. about current issues like police brutality (“To Be a Ghost…”) and gentrification (“I Did Something Weird Last Night”). But these were issues before Trump reared his ugly head, and they will likely continue to be issues after his retreat back to reality TV someday.

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Some of these articles were great, like a Noisey feature about Rosenstock taking his band across the border to play a record release party in a Mexican club. But the best were the pieces that eschewed any mention of Trump, like this Uproxx interview, which gets at why WORRY. will be remembered as a great album years down the road: it joins other punk records like Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, Japandroids Celebration Rock, and Beach Slang’s The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us as a sincere expression of the anxiety and ennui of your 20s and 30s.

I understand that everything Trump does and says is massive news, but I can read about that on Politico. Just because something is important, that doesn’t mean it is the only important thing. I know it’s only natural to view art and culture through the lens of the dominant story of the time. But there are other things to talk about too. The next time someone starts a conversation with me about “Trump’s America”, I’m either going to scream or I’m going to say, “Have you heard Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY.? It’s the seminal punk album of our time,” and walk away.

If I Ran the 2017 Grammys

If I Ran the 2017 Grammys

I’ll always be the first to complain about the Grammy Awards, but the nominees for this year’s show…aren’t that bad? They do have Views up for Album of the Year, so they still suck.

A few ground rules:

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 Alicia Keys, but Adele’s 25 (from 2015, but released after October 1st, 2015) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Drive-By Truckers and Terrace Martin made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they would never be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Chance the Rapper and Justin Bieber also released albums I loved, and they’re plausible options for Album of the Year. But when it comes to the genre awards, anything goes- hence, artists like Parker Millsap, Tedashii, and PUP getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories.

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- Relient K’s album could really fit into pop or rock, Angel Olsen and Mitski could easily be considered rock instead of alternative, NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot are unabashedly Christian bands that make rock music, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Justin Bieber belongs in the pop or R&B 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 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.

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Album of the Year

Real nominees: 25, Adele
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Views, Drake
Purpose, Justin Bieber
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

My nominees: Lemonade, Beyoncé
Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
Purpose, Justin Bieber
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

grammys03Last year I had 3 albums in common with the Recording Academy. This year I have 4, which is either encouraging or disheartening, I haven’t decided which. Personally, I’d give the award to Chance; Coloring Book is the most fun I’ve had with music for as long as I can remember. But after Beyoncé lost to Beck 2 years ago, and considering she’s never won this award (and the last artist of color to win it was 9 years ago and it was Herbie freaking Hancock), it’s hard to imagine this going to anyone but her. Adele is the other frontrunner, and though she has been an unstoppable force in the industry this decade, 25 wasn’t quite the runaway hit that 21 was. Sturgill Simpson could be the dark horse. He seems to be the old guard’s representative here, which I’m sure he would find ludicrous.

It’s fun to see Bieber’s album honored with this nomination, since I felt like I enjoyed this album more than a lot of people did, but maybe the Recording Academy is recognizing his year-long domination of the charts. The inclusion of Views here is probably a similar recognition of all the hit singles on the album, even though everything on that record that’s not a single is pretty much drivel. I’d prefer to recognize the best rock record of the year, Car Seat Headrest’s breakout Teens of Denial, which is both emblematic of where rock is right now as well as its deconstruction.

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Record of the Year

Real nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Formation”, Beyoncé
“7 Years”, Lukas Graham
“Work (feat. Drake)”, Rihanna
“Stressed Out”, Twenty One Pilots

My nominees: “Formation”, Beyoncé
“No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”, Chance the Rapper (nominated for Best Rap Song)
“Ultralight Beam (feat. Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin & The-Dream)”, Kanye West (nominated for Best Rap Song)
“Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”, Rae Sremmurd
“Work (feat. Drake)”, Rihanna

Kanye West Yeezy Season 3 - RunwayI’ve got no problem with “Hello” in this category, I just thought its songwriting was its best asset, so I put it in the Song of the Year category. “Formation” and “Work” were world-beaters this year, so they totally belong. The inclusion of Lukas Graham and Twenty One Pilots is laughable and shows just why the Grammys are out of touch. They think Graham and Twenty One Pilots belong in the same category as Adele and Beyoncé, as if history won’t remember Twenty One Pilots as a less talented Maroon 5 and Graham as a less talented Shawn Mendes.

How did “Black Beatles” not make it on this list? It was the sleeper hit of the year, both virally and on the charts. And the fact that nothing from Coloring Book was singled out is preposterous, though maybe the Academy isn’t ready to embrace a mixtape. So I picked the mixtape’s best single, the joyous “No Problem”. But no song’s production or performance was as perfect as “Ultralight Beam”, which was an open door into hip-hop’s gospel nirvana.

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Song of the Year

Real nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Formation”, Beyoncé
“Love Yourself”, Justin Bieber
“7 Years”, Lukas Graham
“I Took a Pill in Ibiza”, Mike Posner

My nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Fill in the Blank”, Car Seat Headrest
“Love Yourself”, Justin Bieber
“Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, Justin Timberlake (nominated for Best Song Written for Visual Media)
“Vice”, Miranda Lambert (nominated for Best Country Song)

grammys07Lukas Graham is back in this category, and I’m still not sure why. Mike Posner makes his first appearance, and I’m not sure why. “Formation” is a great song, and deserving of all kinds of attention, but I think the steak-eaters of the Academy are probably going to stick with “Hello” for this one too. It would have been nice for a rock song or an Americana song to get a nod here, so why not “Fill in the Blank” or “Vice”? And how did the earworm of the year, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, get no recognition aside from a nomination related to its video? However, I’ve got a soft spot for Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, a mean, mean song that’s impossible to forget.

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Best New Artist

Real nominees: Anderson .Paak
The Chainsmokers
Chance the Rapper
Kelsea Ballerini
Maren Morris

My nominees: Anderson .Paak
Car Seat Headrest
LUH
Maren Morris
Margo Price

grammys09How nice to see Anderson .Paak and Maren Morris get some Academy love. They’re two artists that released two of the best albums in their respective genres. And they’re actually new! That’s nice in this category. Speaking of which, Chance the Rapper is not new. But he’ll probably win on star power alone. Clearly the Academy isn’t on the Car Seat Headrest train, but if they had been, they’d belong here for sure. God forbid the Chainsmokers win this, even if “Closer” was one of the top-charting songs of the year. We don’t need to encourage all the bad DJ duos in this world. A better option would have been LUH, a boyfriend-girlfriend duo that defy categorization. Not sure who Kelsea Ballerini is, but good for her. I would’ve thrown some love Margo Price’s way, since she was Americana’s other breakout artist.

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Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: 22, a Million, Bon Iver
Blackstar, David Bowie
The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey
Post Pop Depression, Iggy Pop
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead

My nominees: My Woman, Angel Olsen
22, a Million, Bon Iver
Blackstar, David Bowie
Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing, LUH
Puberty 2, Mitski
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
Light upon the Lake, Whitney

grammys11I think everyone knows Bowie is winning this category for his final album, if only because everyone is so sad that he’s gone. Blackstar is a great album, but Radiohead’s and Bon Iver’s albums are more impressive. PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop are probably in this race on reputation alone, since you’d hardly place their albums among their best. I can’t understand why the Grammys don’t use this category to celebrate up-and-coming artists like Angel Olsen or Mitski, instead of legacy acts not in need of the attention. LUH and Whitney are a couple of new acts that also deserve attention, though their nominations would have been a pipe dream.

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Best Americana/Country Album

Real nominees: Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
Ripcord, Keith Urban
Full Circle, Loretta Lynn
HERO, Maren Morris
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

My nominees: Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
American Band, Drive-By Truckers
HERO, Maren Morris
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Margo Price
The Very Last Day, Parker Millsap,
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

grammys13The Academy has gotten better and better about recognizing the best in country music. The fact that Sturgill Simpson is nominated for Album of the Year is not only awesome, but a sure sign that he will win this category. Maren Morris and Brandy Clark are deserving nominees. Loretta Lynn is a legend, but Full Circle is a covers album of songs she release years ago, so maybe the Academy could have spread the love a little bit? Drive-By Truckers have  never been nominated, AND they’re a legacy act- wake up, Grammys! Margo Price and Parker Millsap are newcomers worthy of some love for their strong efforts.

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Best Christian Album

Real nominees: Poets & Saints, All Sons & Daughters
American Prodigal, Crowder
Love Remains, Hillary Scott & the Scott Family
Youth Revival [Live], Hillsong Young & Free
Be One, Natalie Grant

My nominees: The Burning Edge of Dawn, Andrew Peterson
American Prodigal, Crowder
Floodplain, Sara Groves

grammys15Yeesh. This wasn’t as bad a year for Christian music as my low number of nominees makes it seem. You could easily make the argument that NEEDTOBREATHE’s, Relient K’s, and Switchfoot’s albums belong here, but I’d argue those albums are less overtly Christian and fit more easily into other genres. Andrew Peterson has been a favorite for a while, and Crowder’s second solo album is just as satisfying as his first. But Sara Groves, who has somehow never even been nominated for a Grammy, released the strongest album in this group in both theme and quality. As far as the actual award? I have no faith that the Academy will actually listen to any of these albums, so let’s assume they give it to Hillary Scott by virtue of her membership in Lady Antebellum, which is a Grammy favorite for some reason.

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Best Pop Album

Real nominees: 25, Adele
Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
Confident, Demi Lovato
Purpose, Justin Bieber
This Is Acting, Sia

My nominees: I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, The 1975
25, Adele
Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
Purpose, Justin Bieber
Made in the A.M., One Direction
Air for Free, Relient K

grammys17Not a lot of discrepancies between my nominees and the Academy’s. Can’t argue with the inclusion of Adele, Ariana Grande, or Justin Bieber, though I prefer Bieber’s album of faux-mature soul to Adele’s album of legitimately mature torch songs. Sia and Demi Lovato are fine, but where’s the love for One Direction, who keep churning out great big albums of unabashed boy band music? I wouldn’t expect the Academy to recognize Relient K in this category, though Air for Free is a return to pop-punk form for the classic pop punks. And I love the adolescent ambition of The 1975’s I like it…, which is long and naïve and wonderful.

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Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Album

Real nominees: Malibu, Anderson .Paak
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Ology, Gallant
We Are King, KING
ANTI, Rihanna

My nominees: Malibu, Anderson .Paak
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Freetown Sound, Blood Orange
The Glory Album, Christon Gray
Blonde, Frank Ocean
Unbreakable, Janet Jackson
Love & Hate, Michael Kiwanuka
ANTI, Rihanna
A Seat at the Table, Solange
Velvet Portraits, Terrace Martin (nominated for Best R&B Album)

grammys19Last year’s most stacked category was Americana/Country, but R&B/Urban Contemporary is the clear frontrunner here. Auntie Yoncé will no doubt win here, and she should, but Rihanna and Anderson .Paak may have won in slightly lesser years. KING and Gallant are fine, but Solange deserved recognition here with an album that may be even better than her sister’s. Terrace Martin is nominated in a different category, which was a pleasant surprise, since his Velvet Portraits was one of the most underrated albums of the year. Strangely, Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable (which holds up to her peak) went largely unnoticed. Michael Kiwanuka and Blood Orange would have been more left-field choices, but both of their albums were protest masterpieces. And I’d like to give Christon Gray some love. A lot of Christian R&B is formal or confined to a gospel style, but Gray makes beautiful soul music that would fit in with much of trap soul, catching Christian R&B up to modern times.

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Best Rap Album

Real nominees: Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
And the Anonymous Nobody, De La Soul
Major Key, DJ Khaled
Views, Drake
The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
Blank Face LP, ScHoolboy Q

My nominees: Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
A Good Night in the Ghetto, Kamaiyah
The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
This Time Around, Tedashii
Jeffery, Young Thug

grammys21Somehow the Academy thinks Drake’s Views is worthy of recognition over Coloring Book, since they gave Drake the Album of the Year nod, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll win Best Rap Album. Any of my nominees are twice the album Views is. Tedashii’s EP, This Time Around, is a fourth of Views’s runtime, and is still twice the album Views is. Young Thug’s best release to date, Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape, and West’s mishmash of a record are all more worthy of recognition than Views. But the most worthy of them all, the sign o’ the times, the songs in the key of life, the thriller of the year, was Chance’s Coloring Book.

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Best Rock Album

Real nominees: California, Blink-182
Tell Me I’m Pretty, Cage the Elephant
Magma, Gojira
Death of a Bachelor, Panic! at the Disco
Weezer, Weezer

My nominees: The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, Beach Slang
Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
H A R D L O V E, NEEDTOBREATHE
Cardinal, Pinegrove
The Dream Is Over, PUP
Where the Light Shines Through, Switchfoot

grammys23No wonder people think rock is dead. You could do worse in 2017 than a lineup of nominees that includes Blink-182, Cage the Elephant, Panic! at the Disco, and Weezer, but you could also not nominate a lineup that sounds like it’s from 10 years ago. And the inclusion of French heavy metal band Gojira is baffling, but at least it’s interesting. Let’s assume Weezer wins the actual award, since the album was a return to what Weezer does best: power pop hooks.

You can tell the Academy doesn’t listen to current rock music, because the year’s best rock band, Car Seat Headrest, didn’t make the cut. People who actually listen to rock music were talking about them all year, as well as breakout bands like Beach Slang, Pinegrove, and PUP. I included 2 of Christian rock’s stalwarts, NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot, because they continue to defy the odds and release great music years into their careers.

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

Albums this rich with meaning should not be this easy to listen to. Buena Vista Social Club, a genre-defying record from Cuba released 20 years ago, is old-fashioned and beautiful. It is also, for many, the only picture they have of Cuban music and culture, which many saw as problematic. Buena Vista presented an image of free-wheeling, roaring-twenties, cha-cha clubs, with big-band, mambo jazz groups leading their parishioners in dances celebrating their culture. The album (and the corresponding Wim Wenders documentary) basically ignored 40 years of history.

But the album’s presentation at the time should not detract from the transcendent joy underneath the surface of every song. And while the way foreigners may have distorted Cuban history with how the album was marketed, this was the first time many of these musicians were heard outside of the Cuba. For much of Cuba’s tortured history, artists were oppressed and suppressed like the rest of the country’s people. Buena Vista took older, classic Cuban musicians (like Ibrahim Ferrer and Omar Portuondo) and combined them with the talents of younger, hustling artists. The result is an image, frozen in amber, of Cuba breaking free.

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I try to collect the five best albums that didn’t end up on any critics’ top ten lists. If you find one of these albums on a critic’s top ten list, please don’t sue me.

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Alicia Keys, Here: This seemed somewhat lost in the critical shuffle of 2016’s double Knowles whammy of Lemonade and A Seat at the Table, even though the only thing Here has in common with those two records is that the woman who made it is black. Here definitely takes a more conventional approach, but is just as vital and immediate. This is the best, most personal work Keys has ever released.

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LUH, Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing: WU LYF burned bright while it lasted, but that band’s frontman, Ellery James Roberts, started a new chapter last year with his girlfriend, Ebony Hoorn, in their new band LUH (Lost Under Heaven). Roberts still has his irresistible rasp, but this time the synths filling out his songs have heart. Someone get a teen movie for this band to soundtrack.

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Mutual Benefit, Skip a Sinking Stone: Where LUH does bombast with aplomb, Mutual Benefit owns subtlety. Carefully filled exactly to the rim with soul, Jordan Lee’s second full album as Mutual Benefit is more assured than his first. Beauty doesn’t have to be delicate, but Skip’s appeal is rooted in Lee’s precise quietude.

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Tedashii, This Time Around EP: T-Dot has been around long enough for us to know what to expect from him. But This Time Around finds a new home for Tedashii with some of the most fun music he’s released yet. “Jumped Out the Whip” and “I’m Good” are not only bangers, but they’re also Tedashii at his most relaxed, which is a mode I hope he uses more of on his next full-length.

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Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits: I don’t know a lot about jazz, but I know I really like this neo-jazz trend that Kendrick Lamar launched into the mainstream with To Pimp a Butterfly. One of Lamar’s collaborators on that record, Terrace Martin, released a beautiful collection of jazz funk this year that was mostly passed over. Pop music critics probably didn’t really know what to do with this mix of instrumentals and soul-inflected grooves, but I do: play it over and over again.

The Classics: OK Computer by Radiohead

The Classics: OK Computer by Radiohead

Beginning a series on the classic albums from 1997 with a record that could realistically fit into the conversation about the best album ever released may seem a little obvious, or a little too easy. Radiohead have received enough plaudits. They were, for a time, the biggest band in the world. They may be the last rock group to transcend their industry. The music business isn’t dead yet, but mainstream rock bands most certainly are, and Radiohead were the best of the last of them. Or maybe the last of the best of them. Or just the last of them.

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And that’s a fine narrative, especially as Radiohead released one of the few rock records of the last few years that was able to capture even a hint of the zeitgeist. May’s A Moon Shaped Pool was an album that everyone had to comment on, which is a testament to the value that Thom Yorke and his band still hold among the tastemakers. But that necessitates the belief that there was ever a monoculture to begin with. It’s easy in hindsight to assume there was one before the Internet was omnipresent, but there were always pockets of counterculture that weren’t covered by the mainstream trades.

Radiohead, who sounded like a fairly conventional alt-rock band when they broke out with The Bends in 1995, are the best argument against the existence of a monoculture both then and now. The Bends was an easy record to like, because it sounded of a piece with a dominant genre at the time. Their follow-up in 1997, OK Computer, was a harder sell, because at that time the album sounded like nothing else.

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That’s an easy fact to forget now, after everyone from Coldplay to Kanye has mimicked their sound. Indeed, the minor-key, anti-catharsis melodies on OK Computer were a new kind of rock music. They were creating new guitar landscapes on otherworldly songs like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and reinventing old ones on songs like “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from an alternate dimension.

It’s tempting to pigeonhole their brand of abstract introspection as depressed, white-boy music. But this isn’t the math-rock of Muse or the empty pop rock of Keane. The syncopation on “Electioneering” begs retrospective comparisons to a Run the Jewels beat. And the crunch of the guitars and the disruption of the drumbeat are the same kind of subversive as anything from Yeezus. Indeed, while it’s a softer, even warmer, record, OK Computer’s rebellious themes fit easily alongside any of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘90s albums.

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It’s strange now to look back and think of the ‘90s as a prosperous time, yet a time that birthed music known for its angst. OK Computer is no different in this respect. The quarter-life crisis is in full swing on OK Computer, and it reveals a certain amount of privilege on the part of Radiohead’s songwriters. The band would go on to make politically conscious music (Hail to the Thief) and even to address their own vaulted economic status (Amnesiac’s “Dollars & Cents”). But OK Computer is frozen in a self-centered youth. And that may make it all the more relatable.

Radiohead defied conventions that were in place before OK Computer and, in retrospect, upend the norms that have fallen into place since. Kid A is seen as their revolutionary, experimental record, and it deserves that reputation as a genreless monolith. But OK Computer played in rock’s own backyard, and still managed to break down the fences and become something totally different.