Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

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

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

Anyway, here are my contenders:

Top Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Future Top Tens

2010

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

2011

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

2012

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

2013

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

2014

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

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Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

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

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

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

Top Twenty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Thirty (alphabetically)

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Future Top Tens

2010

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

2011

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

2012

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

2013

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

2014

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

Sandra McCracken and the Valley

Sandra McCracken and the Valley

“Life is suffering, and then you die.” I was convinced this was a real quote that I had heard somewhere before, but after some research, I think it’s an amalgam of a lot of different variations I’ve heard over the years: “life is hard, and then you die;” “life sucks, and then you die;” “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” My personal favorite, from Cary Elwes as Wesley in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

This seems a pessimistic a view of the world, but it’s also hard to argue with. You could point to the many joys that life brings, but life also seems designed to take those joys away from you at some point, whether in a traumatic fashion or just in the slow, incessant passage of time. Even with all of our trappings of luxury here in America, we haven’t been able to keep suffering at bay. Everyone suffers, whether rich or poor.

I haven’t suffered, not really, not yet. But I know it’s coming someday. I seek comfort out constantly; much of my daily routine is built to avoid even the smallest amount of discomfort. But we live in a world of sin, so suffering is inevitable at some point, whether by my own hand or the world’s. Knowing this to be true, I’ve sought out several resources for how to process suffering. There are some good ones out there, but, by and large, the American church does a poor job not only of providing good teaching on suffering but also even acknowledging its existence.

Enter Sandra McCracken and her new album, Songs from the Valley. My first encounter with her music was in my last semester of grad school before I graduated and got married that June. She had just released Desire Like Dynamite, and it was one of those moments where you discover an artist that sounds like exactly what you had been looking for. Her pure voice combined with the simple images in her songwriting communicated something to me about walking in faith that I hadn’t found yet. I familiarized myself with the rest of her discography, from her solo work to her collaborations with the Indelible Grace collective, and she quickly became one of my favorite artists.

I knew of her as a person before I knew her music, because she was married to another Christian artist I liked, Derek Webb. He’s known as a kind of provocateur in Christian media, though I’ve found there’s a lot of hyperbole in Christian media when it comes to Webb. The truth is, most Christian artists are pretty staid and reserved when it comes to sharing details about their faith with the media, and Webb is very open about doubt. Also, he used the words “bastard” and “whore” in a song once, and people lost their shit- either in a bad way because those words were too worldly for them, or in a good way because they were starved for Christian artists who bucked the norms.

Webb collaborated with one of the Christian bands that influenced me the most, Caedmon’s Call. Their album, 40 Acres, gave me a language to express my faith during perhaps the one time in my life where I felt truly lost and in desperate need of my Savior. The same year that McCracken released Desire Like Dynamite, Webb released I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. By the time that record came out, I was married. I felt at the time that the title song was a poignant picture of reconciliation within the covenant of marriage, and I strove to learn how to say those words to my wife.

The next year, McCracken and Webb announced their divorce. In any world but the world of Christian media, two celebrities separating was obvious news. But a Christian ethic makes reporting on a divorce feel like gossip, so publications like Christianity Today and Relevant stayed away from the story. The best reporting I found on it came from the Washington Post’s religion blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey. McCracken and Webb are, of course, entitled to their privacy, and Webb did later confess to an affair. But in a sub-culture where the two of them function as celebrities, the lack of information at the time was strange.

Since then, McCracken has released several albums, but none that directly addressed her experience of the divorce. And the album she released this February, Songs from the Valley, continues that trend, though these songs are clearly and unapologetically written from a place of suffering. The reviews I’ve seen of the album eschew any mention of her divorce, which I suppose is an attempt to be respectful. Interviews are the same, void of any questions about the experience, and maybe that’s what she wanted. Or maybe it’s the result of policies from the various outlets that published those pieces.

But this is just a blog, and I’m nobody, so I want to say the obvious thing about this record: Sandra McCracken got divorced in 2014, this is her best music since then, and those two facts are linked.

This isn’t a breakup album, the way it’s traditionally understood. These songs are not about breaking up, but they are about the process of navigating through the pain therein. McCracken recorded these seven songs over the last three years, while most of her recent official releases have focused on corporate worship, from 2015’s collection, Psalms, through 2016’s more proper album, God’s Highway, to last year’s live album, Steadfast Live. These were the most vertically oriented albums of her career, adopting praise and worship of the living God as her focus rather than her usual introspective writing.

Those albums are all worthwhile in their own rights, but they definitely feel different from her output from 2014 and before. Songs from the Valley feels like a return to the personal for McCracken, a step just as necessary as the three worship albums that preceded it. After all, part of worshiping God is knowing yourself and your position as a beloved child before God. Introspection by itself can be debilitating; introspection with the aim of worship is life-giving.

It is up for debate whether or not McCracken is addressing her divorce directly on Songs from the Valley, but it would be a short debate. Album opener, “Fool’s Gold,” begins with the line, “Nobody needs another love song,” declares that her kids have “a life more complicated,” and described her heart as “worth more than dropping in the breaks.” The next song, “Reciprocate,” features an accusing chorus of “You could not reciprocate.” In the final song, “Letting Go,” she describes herself as “trampled by a tempest,” and laments that she has “been holding up the last of my defenses.”

But this album speaks to more than just McCracken’s experience of broken love. There is also stunning imagery surrounding the process of learning to keep living while suffering. “Oh Gracious Light” finds her “walking so long in darkness,” but her experience of God’s “refining holy fire” draws her into the light.  On “Lover of My Soul,” she describes forgiveness as “a pathway with a thousand bolted doors.” And on “Parrot in Portugal,” McCracken finds solace in God’s fastidious care for the birds in the trees mirroring his love for us.

I suppose this would still be a great album even without understanding McCracken’s personal history. But within the context of Christian music history, having an album so directly and intimately address divorce is huge. Sandi Patty and Amy Grant both faced a lot of ugly scrutiny in the 1990s after their divorces. The church often does a poor job of loving people going through divorce, choosing judgment rather than discipleship, and this has historically extended to its celebrities. Listening to Songs in the Valley provides a clear, nuanced picture of choosing divorce yet still running toward God.

More importantly though, McCracken confronts her suffering head-on in these songs. Christian music so rarely deals with suffering at such an intimate level. The mainstream of Christian music is concerned mostly with inspiration and encouragement: worship music that wants you to feel good, rather than help you to deal with feeling bad. Of course there are examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. And an album that deals with loving God while suffering from front to back is almost unheard of.

It makes sense in retrospect that Sandra McCracken spent the three albums following 2014 diving into worship songs. I can only imagine it helped maintain a sense of perspective in a dark place. The truth is, life isn’t suffering. Sandra McCracken is remarried now, and good for her. For most people, life is a collection of seasons both joyful and painful, and a whole lot of mundane in between. I’m thankful for Songs from the Valley for the reminder that God enters into all of those seasons with the same love and power. He is the God of the valley too.

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.

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.